Why should we be confident that our four canonical Gospels – Matthew, Mark, Luke and John – are the very Gospels that our Lord would want us to have? Skepticism about this was given new life in 1946 when the Gnostic Gospels (GG) were uncovered at an Egyptian site – Nag Hamadi. Although we had already known about these “gospels” from the writings of the Church Fathers, who excoriated them, in many cases, this was the first time that scholars actually had them in hand.
Since then, some extreme voices have declared that these “gospels” are just as valid as the Biblical ones. Dan Brown’s fictional work, The DaVinci Code, even expounded the position that the church had used all of these “gospels” until the Council of Nicea in 315 when they were finally banned. However, there are many compelling reasons to retain our confidence in the four Canonical Gospels (CG):
- The GGs reflect a theology alien to the Bible and more in line with Greek and Eastern thought. For instance, they maintain that the creation is evil, created by an evil sub-god. This directly contradicts the Biblical creation account which holds that God had regarded the creation as “very good” (Genesis 1:31). In contrast, the CGs do not contradict the Hebrew Scriptures in any way – exactly what we’d expect to find if God is the author of all.
- The GGs are all pseudonymous – falsely attributed to an Apostle. This was clearly a device used in hope of gaining acceptance within the church. In contrast, the CGs are all unnamed. Seemingly, they had nothing to prove and were concerned more about truth than in gaining acceptance.
- The GGs are consistently dated late into the 2nd century and therefore could never have been regarded as Apostolic or as eyewitness accounts. In contrast, the CGs are all dated within the 1st century, even by the skeptics. One liberal scholar, J.A.T. Robinson had dated the CGs 40-65 AD. The Church Fathers all contend that the Gospels were Apostolic. Consistent with this, they claim that Mark’s Gospel recorded Peter’s eyewitness accounts, while Luke’s Gospel reflects Paul’s sermons.
- The CGs were universally accepted by the church. There was never any indication that the church had ever questioned any of the four. In contrast, the GGs were accepted by none! No ancient Bible manuscripts contain them alongside of other NT writings. The only times that a Church Father quoted them was when he wanted to criticize them. Even the Gnostic philosophers never cited them as canonical. Nor did they write commentaries on them. Meanwhile, they did write commentaries on a couple of the CGs!
- The Gnostic philosophers site the NT CGs as authoritative. One Gnostic philosopher, Marcion 160 AD, identified his “bible” as containing simply the Gospel of Luke and ten of Paul’s Epistles. None of the Gnostics ever cited GGs as part of their bible.
- While all of the ancient canonical lists contain the four CGs, they never contain any of the GG.
- The Gnostics either claimed that they had been privileged to have received secret knowledge from the Apostles or from within. However, they were never able to produce any evidence of such a transmission of material. Nor is there any evidence that the GGs were ever part of anyone’s church. In fact, the Church Father Irenaeus (180) attempted to check out their claims by interviewing a number of church elders who would have knowledge of any secret transmission of teachings. However, he reports that they were all unaware of any such teachings.
- The CGs are all God-centered. As such, even the Apostles are portrayed in a disparaging light. Clearly, the CGs are not self-promoting, but instead, seem committed to presenting a factual picture of the life of Jesus. In contrast, the GGs are very self-promoting. It is only the superior who are capable of understanding their secret message and of being saved.
- The GGs disappeared, while the CGs remained. The Bible declares that the Word of God endure forever (Isaiah 40:8). This certainly could not be said about the GGs!
Our Lord has promised that He would protect His Word. We therefore can assume that we have the books that He has ordained.