If the Gospels are true accounts, then the account of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection would be incredibly difficult to discredit. If the Gospels are right in claiming that a man could appear to perform the kinds of miracles that Jesus performed, be publicly killed, then somehow inspire his followers to spread the story of His resurrection after He had been publicly killed, then there is little reason to doubt the persuasiveness of the Gospels. Pastors rarely miss this point and frequently appeal to the testimony of the early Christians as evidence for the resurrection of Jesus. However, it is much more rare and tedious to discuss the reasons why we should believe the Gospels in the first place. The Gospels say that the Disciples and many early Christians were convinced of the resurrection of Christ, and that is strong evidence if it is true. But why should we believe the Gospels when they say such things in the first place?
This article is the third in a series in which the author attempts to give the reader reasons to believe the Gospels when they make such extraordinary claims. So far we have seen that the Gospels were quoted by early sources which shows that they were written soon after the events which they tell of. Next we saw that the Gospels were quoted with respect which demonstrates belief from early sources who were very close in time to the events of the Gospels. This article will show that the Gospels as we know them today were compiled by the early church into a coherent narrative.
This is important for a few reasons:
The early collection of the Gospels and the rest of the NT further evidences early publishing and acceptance of the accounts of Christianity (to further see this significance, look at my last two articles)
This shows that early Christianity had the same Scriptures and therefore similar doctrine to what we hold today (at least in the main tenets of Christianity). This excludes the possibility that our miraculous accounts of Jesus developed as a result of several centuries of myths being told about Jesus.
The early collection of the Gospels excludes the possibility that books have been added to or taken away from Christianity’s set of Scripture.
Our first evidence that Christian gospels had been compiled into a single accepted Canon is that a few of the early Church fathers, who wrote before the first century through the second century, referred to the New Testament in two parts, the “Gospel” and the “Apostles” (much like we do today). The term “gospel” is singular however the context of it suggests that it is referring to a collection of books which are distinguished from the rest of the books (the “apostles”). The first of our references of this kind comes from Ignatius who was the Bishop of Antioch who wrote about 40 years after the Ascension of Jesus. He writes that early Christians were “fleeing to the gospel as the flesh of Jesus, and to the apostles as the presbytery of the church;” Lardner, Cred. part ii. vol. i. p. 180.) The same use of the term “gospel” comes in another reference of Ignatius in which he says, “Ye ought to hearken to the Prophets, but especially to the gospel, in which, the passion has been manifested to us, and the resurrection perfected.” (Lardner, Cred. part ii. vol. ii. p. 182.) The significance of this passage is that it places “gospel” in a parallel with “Prophets” thereby suggesting that both are groups of multiple books.
Two similar references are made in the account of Polycarp’s martyrdom which comes around the time of Ignatius’ writings. This account states, “All things that went before, were done, that the Lord might show us a martyrdom according to the Gospel, for he expected to be delivered up as the Lord also did.“ (Ignat. Ep. c.i.) and “We do not commend those who offer themselves, forasmuch as the Gospel, teaches us no such thing.” (Ignat. Ep. c. iv.) This use of “Gospel” does not suggest that it is referring to a single piece of prose, but rather an established historical tradition. The author does not reference any writing in particular, but instead makes a broader appeal which suggests that “Gospel” refers to a collection of accounts.
This reading is further supported by Clement of Alexandria who writes, “There is a consent and harmony between the Law and the Prophets, the Apostles and the Gospel.” (Lardner, Cred. vol. ii. p. 516.) “Gospel” is mentioned alongside several other groups of books which suggests almost undeniably that “Gospel” is a reference to an early composition of Christian writings which were distinguished from the writings of the “Apostles.”
The preceding references strongly suggest that by the time of those accounts there was a collection of gospels which made the “Gospel.” A reference by Eusebius stating that Quadratus and other early Christians who came immediately after the apostles, “Then traveling abroad, they performed the work of evangelists, being ambitious to preach Christ and deliver the Scripture of the divine Gospels.” (Lardner, Cred. part ii. vol. i. p. 236.) shows undeniably that by that time there were several Gospels which had become accepted Christian literature. At this time, Eusebius had the writings of Quadratus which have been, unfortunately, lost to history which is why he was able to make such claims about Quadratus and other early Christians.
Another quotation of Eusebius shows that these Gospels were the same Gospels that had been compiled into the “Gospel” that Ignatius and Clement referred to. Eusebius states that “the ancients” were right to make John, “The fourth in order, and after the other three.” (Lardner, Cred. vol. viii. p. 90.) in the New Testament. This demonstrates explicitly that by the time of the fourth century in which Eusebius was writing, people who were considered ancient at that time had already carefully chosen and ordered four books which were considered Christian literature, and John was one of these books. We saw in the last couple of articles that the other three gospels were the same ones that we use today. This excludes any possibility that there was at one point a conspiracy in which books were added to or taken away from the original Christian literature.
We have seen that the early church had an established Gospel which was a coherent narrative containing the same three books that we have today. There is no possibility that these books were written and compiled after centuries of myths. The accounts within the early gospel must have been written by the attributed authors otherwise such early sources would not have lended any credibility to them. So today, on Easter Sunday, and every other day of the year, you have reason to believe that the extraordinary accounts which you read today are the same accounts which were written, believed, compiled, and preserved with great sacrifice about two thousand years ago.
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