In spite of the importance of the four gospels in the Christian faith, most Christians do not know how about the canonization process: How did New Testament Canon develop? Can we really trust it?
There is much talk in these days about the authenticity of the New Testament, in particular the four gospels. Consequently, there is a lot of false information out there regarding the New Testament canon, and that is why it is imperative that we know and understand the truth. Were these books really accepted as “canon” by the early church? Who wrote the gospels anyway?
In order to find the truth we must look back to the first few centuries of the New Testament era. We must look at church history. And what better source than the “early church fathers” themselves!
One of the most well known, and well respected of the early “church fathers” is Iranaeus. But who is Iranaeus? And why should we believe him?
Iranaeus is a disciple of Polycarp, who was a personal disciple of John, the Apostle. Dare we say that Iranaeus would know more about the gospels than modern-day scholars?
Yes, Iranaeus had direct, and close ties not only to New Testament times, but also to New Testament characters.
Let’s see what Iranaeus says about the gospels:
The Gospels could not possibly be either more or less in number than they are. Since there are four zones of the world in which we live, and four principal winds, while the Church is spread over all the earth, and the pillar and foundation of the Church is the gospel, and the Spirit of life, it fittingly has four pillars, everywhere breathing out incorruption and revivifying men. From this it is clear that the Word, the artificer of all things, being manifested to men gave us the gospel, fourfold in form but held together by one Spirit. As David said, when asking for his coming, ‘O sitter upon the cherubim, show yourself ‘. For the cherubim have four faces, and their faces are images of the activity of the Son of God. For the first living creature, it says, was like a lion, signifying his active and princely and royal character; the second was like an ox, showing his sacrificial and priestly order; the third had the face of a man, indicating very clearly his coming in human guise; and the fourth was like a flying eagle, making plain the giving of the Spirit who broods over the Church. Now the Gospels, in which Christ is enthroned, are like these. (3.11.8)
It is obvious that Iranaeus is stands firmly in that the gospels are “these four, and no more”!
The Muratorian Fragment is a Latin manuscript containing features suggesting that it is a translation of a Greek original dating as far back as 170 A.D.
The Muratorian Fragment was discovered by Church Historian Ludovico Antonio Muratori in the 17th Century. Thus named after him.
The Muratorian Fragment contains a list of books considered New Testament canon. Among the list of books are the gospels.
Q: How many gospels does it list as “accepted”?
Yes, and it lists all four by name: Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John.
The Muratorian Fragment is yet another interesting piece of evidence that “these four and no more” were accepted as canon as early as the second century.
Church history. One of the somewhat confusing and perplexing facts about Christianity is that there are so many churches with so many “canons”. The Orthodox church has a different “bible”. The Roman Catholic church has their own set of canonized books. The Protestant church also has there own set of canonized books. The Ethiopian Tawahedo church, (45 million strong) also has their own set of canonized books.
But in the midst of such enormous diversity, all Christian churches, regardless of their historical roots, have uniformly canonized the four gospels, and only the four gospels. Plainly said, in spite of their vast diversity, and division, they remain unified in this point.
The idea that Christians in the early centuries had an “open” canon, some accepting gospels such as “The Gospel of Thomas”, or “The Gospel on Barnabas” is simply not true.
History tells us that the Four Gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John) have always been accepted as authentic, and have always been read and accepted in the Church at large.
Rest assured, Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, have a long, time-tested, and strong history in the Church – whereas the other “gospels” came along much later, with contents that prove to be contrary to the true, and historic teachings of Christ, and the Word of God.