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295 pages, Hardcover
First published September 30, 2010
"Who, then, first chose the Gospels, if it wasn't anybody in the fourth century? It wasn't Origen, Tertullian, or Hippolytus in the first half of the third century, or Clement of Alexandria or Serapion at the end of the second. It wasn't even Irenaeus or anyone writing in the last quarter of the second century. All these had inherited the same four Gospels from previous generations.
"It wasn't Tatian in Rome or Syria or Theophilus in Antioch. . . . It wasn't Justin Martyr, who by the early 150s in Rome was using the same four Gospels, and treating evidently only these four as 'Memoirs of the Apostles,' composed by the apostles and their followers . . .
"The evidence brings us, then, to an earlier time. But how much earlier? While the date prior to 150 are not quite so clear, the four Gospels are known as authoritative sources in the Epistle of the Apostles and the Apocryphon of James in the 140s. Papias, probably in the 120s, knows all four; Aristides, at about the same time, knows 'the Gospel' in multiple individual written expression, including Luke and John, and a decade earlier Ignatius knows at least Matthew and John. And sometime around the year 100 Papias' elder discusses the origins of Matthew and Mark, and, if the argument summarized in chapter 10 is near the mark, Luke and John as well.
"How is it that these four Gospels came to be known so widely from such an early time? There was certainly no great council of Christian churches before 150 which laid down the law on which Gospels to use. No single bishop, not even the bishop of Rome, should he ever have made such a proclamation (and there is no reason to think he did), had the clout to make it stick. If there was any authoritative figure who endorsed the four Gospels, the most viable option would have to be, as a tradition known to Origen and possibly Papias' elder said, the aged apostle John. Such a story is a long, long way from historical verification, though that fact in itself does not make it impossible.
"But if we set aside that story as likely to be legendary, our search appears to have reached a dead-end. We cannot find who chose the Gospels. It looks like nobody did. They almost seem to have chosen themselves through some sort of 'natural selection.' And this at least concurs with the conclusion of Bruce Metzger, one of the last generation's premier scholars of the New Testament canon, who wrote, 'neither individuals nor councils created the canon; instead they came to recognize and acknowledge the self0authenticating quality of these writings which imposed themselves as canonical upon the church" (227-29).