CanonWhy There Are Just Four Gospels in the Bible Despite tales of conspiracy, there are good historical and theological reasons why the Church recognized four—and only four—Gospels. C. E. HillPortraits of the four evangelists from GA 773 (10th c.)November 7, 2021 ShareFacebookTwitterLinkedInPrint Level In 2006, the world was presented with a newly-discovered, ancient Gospel – one that was excluded from the Christian Bible and thought to have been lost. The excitement in many quarters was palpable. “This changes the history of early Christianity,” one scholar announced. “This is big,” exclaimed another, who went on to predict, “A lot of people are going to be upset.” One and a half decades later, the tidal wave of media hype has died down to a faint and distant ripple. The Gospel of Judas has not changed the history of early Christianity, and perhaps the only people who are upset are those who are upset precisely because the Gospel of Judas did not change the history of early Christianity. Still, the republication of this long-lost Gospel reminds us that there were once more Gospels than just our familiar four. How is it that these four and only these four made it into our Bibles? The Most Direct Path to an Answer There are multiple paths we might take towards an answer to this question, and a very great deal has been written about it. But perhaps the best and most direct path to an understanding of why the Church has these four and only these four Gospels is simply to read them, and then read every known alternative, and let the books have their say. I suspect that most people will find what the church as a whole has confessed for a very long time, namely, that it is the portrait of Jesus that these four Gospels present, it is the life-giving message they bear, that sets these four apart from all the others. The most direct path to understanding why the Church has these four Gospels is to let the books have their say. Admittedly, this method may not sound the most scholarly, the most “objective,” or historically-grounded. Most peoples’ ideas of Jesus, one could argue, have already been formed at least to some degree by the familiar four Gospels, and so, comparing the contents of alternative Gospels could turn out to be simply an exercise in bias confirmation. Many, then, would insist we focus on the historical attestation. Their Historical Attestation If we do so, we shall find that while other Gospels were known, and very occasionally cited, in the early period (let’s say, up to the end of the second century), no other Gospel approaches any of the four in terms of its early appearance, its breadth of early geographical distribution, or in the consensus of voices recognizing its truth or Scriptural status. And no, it is not even close. This is not to say that no other Gospels besides these four were ever read. Some Gospels seem to have had a regional popularity, or a popularity with only certain groups. The Gospel of Peter is known in the east, but Irenaeus in the west, who made a collection of “alternative” books, shows no awareness of it. Irenaeus, on the other hand, knows the Gospel of Judas (probably a version of the one that was republished in 2006), but no other early, surviving source even mentions it. What’s more, most if not all of the other Gospels appear to be dependent upon one or more of the four. Some, like the Gospel of Thomas, advertised themselves as proffering “secret words” of Jesus, thus tacitly acknowledging that there were more “public words” already widely known to Christians. Nor is it simply that, by counting the raw numbers of Gospel citations or allusions in the second century, we can identify a clear “top four.” Why not take the top two, or the top five? The reason is much more telling. From at least sometime around the middle of that century, if not before, four Gospels—Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John—are viewed as forming a natural unit, to be read and interpreted together as a group, all ultimately coming from God. This is the notion of a “fourfold Gospel.” The author of the late second-century composition now known as the Muratorian Fragment, for instance, is not bothered by differences among the four, “since by the one sovereign Spirit all things have been declared in all [the Gospels]” (lines 19–20). This conviction of a four-Gospel canon even produced at least three “customized,” material innovations: Gospel Harmonies, Gospel Synopses, and Four-Gospel Codices. First, around 170–175, a man named Tatian created what was, as far as we know, the earliest “Gospel Harmony,” known as the Diatessaron, which attempted to combine the contents of all four into a single narrative. Some scholars assume that Tatian intended to replace the fourfold Gospel with his synthetic composition. If so, his effort still assumes the existence of a fourfold Gospel. But that this was Tatian’s intention is far from certain. Some Christians used Tatian’s tome as an aid to studying the life of Jesus, alongside and without prejudice to the four separate Gospels. Second, we know of an attempt in the third century to create a Gospel synopsis based on these same four Gospels. Ammonius of Alexandria constructed a book with four columns, the first with the continuous text of Matthew, the other three with the parallel passages from the other Gospels. In the fourth century, Eusebius of Caesarea used this tool to create a set of tables listing the Gospel parallels, accompanied by the first set of “cross-references” placed in the margins of the Gospel texts. Eusebius’s ingenious cross-referencing system for the Gospels depended upon the widespread adoption of a third specialized, information-technology innovation that had taken place much earlier: the four-Gospel codex. The advancing technology of the codex eventually made it possible to bind all four together in a single volume. Interestingly, never do we find any of the four bound together with any other Gospel. Get new articles and updates in your inbox. Leave this field empty if you're human: We cannot say precisely when the fourfold Gospel canon idea took hold. But before the end of the second century, the Muratorian Fragment (probably from Italy), Irenaeus in Gaul, Clement in Alexandria, and Tertullian in Carthage all know a fourfold Gospel collection, with the same four Gospels. This argues for a reception much earlier in the second century. But why, we may ask, did these four seem to form a natural cohort? Why did Christians receive them as a unit, a “canon?” Part of the answer has to do with their unique origins. Their Unique Origins For more on this question, see Dr. Hill’s book Who Chose the Gospels? Jesus, of course, never predicted that there would be four and only four authoritative Gospels. But he did, you might say, set a natural limit on the number of authoritative Gospels that could be written. He did this by calling and commissioning a limited number of people to be his authorized witnesses, his apostles, to speak in his name. The four Gospels now in our Bibles were received by the church as the direct fruit of the apostolic mission—written either by apostles themselves or by their personal assistants. And this is tantamount to saying that they were received as the ones Jesus had authorized, even as the ones the Old Testament prophets had pre-authorized! The Old Testament Scriptures, of course, promised a messianic deliverer for Israel and the world. These same Scriptures also predicted that a message of deliverance would result from his appearance. “In the latter days,” good news would travel from Jerusalem to the ends of the earth. “For out of Zion shall go forth the law, and the word of the Lord from Jerusalem…” (Isa. 2:2–3; Mic. 4:1–2; cf. also Isa. 52:7). This very passage, among others, may have been in Jesus’ mind when on the day of his resurrection he said the Scriptures predicted that “repentance for the forgiveness of sins should be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem” (Luke 24:47; see also Acts 1:8). How would this prophesied, good-news mission come about? It began in earnest when Jesus told his apostles on that same day, “you are witnesses of these things” (Luke 24:48), and then weeks later appointed them to “receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth” (Acts 1:8). In other words, the prophesied new “law and the word of the Lord” flowed from Jerusalem to the world as the result of Jesus authorizing a small band of apostles to speak in his name (Luke 10:16), to hold the keys of the kingdom of heaven (Matt. 16:19; 18:18), and to lay the foundation (Rom. 15:20; 1 Cor. 3:10–12), and even to become the foundation on which he would build his church (spoken first to Peter in Matt. 16:18; but extending to all the apostles in Eph. 2:20; Rev. 21:14). The unique and unrepeatable role of the apostles, to receive the true gospel from Jesus and then to deliver it in oral and written form to the church—to lay the foundation for the church—was widely recognized in the early church (see, e.g., 1 Clement 42.1–2; Polycarp, To the Philippians 6.3; Irenaeus, Against Heresies 3.11.9). The apostles all died, but their authoritative witness still endures, in the writings they left to the church. The apostles all died, but their authoritative witness still endures, in the writings they left to the church. To remain faithful to that original apostolic mission, the church must carry out its ministry by constantly conforming itself to that written deposit. The Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John were received as constituent elements of the permanent, apostolic legacy from very early on. The unique origins of these Gospels and their continual use in the church from the time they were published explain why their early attestation far surpasses that of any others. Their Self-Authenticating Power But there is one final aspect of the explanation for a “fourfold Gospel,” and it is the one I suggested could give us the “most direct path” to the answer: the self-authenticating power of these Gospels themselves. In the 160s, Justin testified that Jesus’ words (which he knew from these Gospels) “possess a certain awe in themselves, and are able to put to shame those who turn aside from the straight path; while the sweetest rest is afforded those who diligently practice them” (Dial. 8.2). Over and over again, the confession of Peter as recorded in the Gospel of John has been echoed by individuals and churches as they encounter the Jesus of the four Gospels: “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life, and we have believed, and have come to know, that you are the Holy One of God” (John 6:68–69). In these four Gospels the church has heard the voice of its Shepherd, as he said they would (John 10:27). C. E. Hill Charles E. Hill (PhD, University of Cambridge) is Professor Emeritus at Reformed Theological Seminary in Orlando where he served as John R. Richardson Professor of New Testament and Early Christianity until his retirement in 2021. He is the author of numerous books, including Who Chose the Gospels? Probing the Great Gospel Conspiracy and The Early Text of the New Testament.