Words, as some of you know, are my obsession. To put them eloquently in beautifully composed poetry brings strength to the bone. The color and flavor words bring into a story can be as integral as the plot itself. When someone uses choice words in a personal letter, you are in a sense learning more about that author, and his affections toward you (how much does he care for you, is he sympathetic, or instructional), his intentions for the relationship (to end a friendship, or encourage them in a hard time), etc. So the Bible, the greatest letter on earth, a letter written from God to man, carries on its words the very sentiments, the intentions, the will of God himself. The incredible thing about this letter, is that he so trusted his followers (those prophets or followers of Christ who listened to the Spirit and wrote what was impressed on them), that he gave finite and mortal human beings the privilege to hear and write down what God wanted to say to humanity (more on spiritual inspiration at the bottom).
For the last month or so, I’ve been going through the book “Who wrote the Gospels?” by Dr. Hill. It is a book that seeks to combat mis-conceptions about early Christianity, it seeks to bring light to the process by which we have the Gospels, and seeks to further encourage our believers by empowering us with the knowledge of the history of this great book.
In this article, I want to address probably the most prevalent mis-conception of the Bible we have today. People may ask, Why just the four gospels? Why was the church so exclusive? It is a very legitimate question, to which there is a very interesting answer.
True, there were other gospels circulating at the time, but the four Gospels, Matthew, Mark, Luke and John were the most prevalent, to the extent at which we can say the church at large did NOT consider the other non-canonical gospels to be inspired by the Spirit of God. There were some who branched off, and we have testimonies of church leaders who call them heretics, those who believe the canon of scripture was more than four gospels. One very simple argument is that the number of Greek manuscripts found to this day, by far eclipse in number those manuscripts of non-canonical types (i.e. Gospel of Thomas, Gospel of Mary, those not found in the Christian bible today). (At this point it may seem that I’m trying to say, the group with the big numbers win….that simply is not true. That is not logical from a spiritual perspective and historical perspective….you must understand, I’m showing you one piece of the pie in supporting the fact that the Gospels were inspired by God, and the non-canonical gospels were not)
The gold rush of Alaska and the rushes that occured in California, serve as a good analogy for me today. When miners sought to find gold, they were forced to learn by various ways to determine the difference between fools-gold (fake gold, a look-a-like) and the real thing. The thing is, you will invest much in something you think you will benefit much from. Same thing goes with the Bible, and Bible study. You study the Bible because you know its true, and you want to benefit from it more, by studying it. If you were to chose between a book that had eyewitnesses to testify to the events of that book one generation ago, and a book that had clearly inaccurate sayings (sometimes the non-canonical gospels are quite blatantly contradicting gospel testimonies of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John).
Three study tools came onto the scene around 180 AD, showing to which books they invested the science of study.
1) Harmonies – scribes went through the Bible and compiled all four gospels to make a read-through version of the Gospels. This is called A Harmony of the Gospels. For example, when a story is told, lets say about the birth of Christ, it compiles all accounts of that narrative to make a single voice. This is helpful if you wanted to get a very detailed feel for how all the narratives combined would be.
An example: “The mother of the sons of Zebedee (Matt 27:56) and Salome (Mark 15:40) and the wives of those who had followed him from Gallilee to see the crucified (Luke 23:4-9), And the day was Preparation: The Sabbath was dawning (Luke 23:54)……etc.
2) Synopses – This was a tool similar to that of the Harmonies, except it laid out each Gospels narrative in four separate columns, instead re-written as a novel-like story with Gospel references interwoven in the text.
3) Use of codices – We quickly learn in “papyrology” (the study of texts written on papyrus…gotta be smaaart!) that the church quickly evolved from using scrolls to document the gospels (few scrolls in existence) to using a slight variation of book form, similar to what we use today called codices. This was because using scrolls in early church services were not as useful, and could not contain four gospels worth of scroll in one set. Because the Gospels were bigger they were forced to use a larger convention, the codices. This caught on as the staple way to make ANYTHING gospel related. Scribes would even make pocket-sized books of the Bible for people to study with. The larger ones were used in church services, as they would make the fonts bigger, more organized into columns, and had read-aids to assist the reader when he would read in front of the community.
Here’s the thing! If the early church considered the “other” gospels to be God inspired, you would think they might consider them valuable….valuable enough like gold to invest to learn what they’re about. The thing is, NONE of the study tools EVER mentioned or included ANY of the other heretical non-canonical gospels.
To give those lonely outsider gospels a little love, scholars do say they were used by Pastors and teachers. Iraneaus, one of our early church fathers had some things to say about learning the heresies of the day. He even blamed one communities falling back into pagan ways because their eyes weren’t really open as to what the heretics were teaching, and so they were lulled back into old ways. So many pastors in that day had “heretical” gospels in their libraries so they were up-to-date on their heresies, BUT they were never in the book form, which was how scribes wrote holy books, like the four gospels. The heretical gospels were usually written on single sheets of papyrus or in scrolls, almost automatically putting them in the category of unholy.
So from the beginning, the church has practically considered all the non-canonical gospels as NOT God inspired. Now as to how they discovered and established principles of inspiration, that is entirely a different can of worms, and we’ll get there. Stay tuned!
What I’m writing about is something that you can go to a museum and touch. There are old fragments you can see. We can be scientific about all of this. The area where this gets spiritual is the gap between God’s mind and the writers pen, as they wrote the Bible. The doctrine that deals with this issue is called “Inspiration”. Wayne Grudem in his “Systematic Theology” gives great light on this matter if you want to study this further. For now I leave with you this amazing verse in 2 Peter, which shows yet another way in which God considers man trustworthy and honors us with the reception of his divine message! Incredible he would chose us!!!
“…no prophecy of Scripture comes from someones own interpretation. For no prophecy was ever produced by the will of man, but men spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit.”
– 2 Peter 1:20-21
Wow! What do you think about all of this?