The New Testament (NT) contains four gospels: the Gospel of Matthew, the Gospel of Mark, the Gospel of Luke, and the Gospel of John. These are not, however, the only gospels in existence. We also have a Gospel of Thomas, a Gospel of Peter, and a Gospel of Mary, just to name a few. Why were these gospels not included in the NT?
In The God Delusion, biologist Richard Dawkins claims that the four canonical gospels were chosen “more or less arbitrarily.” In his bestselling novel, The Da Vinci Code, Dan Brown claims that the four gospels were selected by Emperor Constantine for political purposes. Most recently, Joaquin Phoenix, who portrays Jesus in the 2018 film Mary Magdalene, suggested that the exclusion of the Gospel of Mary was “blatant sexism.”
However, there are actually a number of excellent reasons why the canonical gospels should be preferred, not only by Christians, but also by anyone interested in the critical study of the historical Jesus.
The Date of the Gospels
A large majority of scholars (both Christian and non-Christian) date the Gospel of Mark to around 70 CE. Jesus died around 30 CE, so Mark was certainly written within living memory of Jesus. The remaining three canonical gospels are typically dated from around 70 to 100 CE.
The noncanonical gospels come from a later era. Consider, for example, the Gospel of Thomas. Of all the noncanonical gospels, this gospel is the one which has been taken most seriously by modern scholars as a possible source of authentic Jesus traditions. Nevertheless, even this gospel is dated to the early second century, roughly one hundred years after Jesus died.
The Content of the Canonical Gospels
There are a number of factors which suggest that much of the material in the canonical gospels is rooted in eyewitness testimony. In his book, Jesus and the Eyewitnesses, Richard Bauckham discusses this evidence in great detail. Here is one example: “And they [i.e. the Roman soldiers] compelled a passer-by, Simon of Cyrene, who was coming in from the country, the father of Alexander and Rufus, to carry his [i.e. Jesus’] cross” (Mark 15:21). Why does the text name the two sons of Simon? The most plausible explanation is that these men were known to the community for whom the Gospel of Mark was written.
Moreover, the canonical gospels betray an intimate knowledge of the geography, religion, and customs of first-century Palestine. Craig Keener’s book, The Historical Jesus of the Gospels, provides an excellent summary of the data. Here are just a few examples Keener discusses:
Matt 11:21; Luke 10:13: Chorazin is an obscure village which is mentioned nowhere else in the Bible and is, in Keener's words, “barely known apart from modern excavations there.”
Matt 21:9; Mark 11:9; Luke 19:38; John 12:13: The exclamation, “Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord,” is a quotation from Psalm 118:26. The Hallel Psalms (Psalms 113-118) were sung at Passover time, so these words would indeed have been on the hearts and tongues of the pilgrims entering Jerusalem.
Matt 23:24-26; Luke 11:39-41: These sayings betray knowledge of obscure debates current in first-century Judaism. Rabbis discussed the maximum size of an organism that would contaminate a vessel. Likewise, rabbis debated whether one should clean the outside or the inside of the cup first.
Matt 23:27; Luke 11:44: Tombs in Palestine were painted white to warn pilgrims, who would become ritually unclean for the Passover feast if they came into contact with the dead.
The Content of the Noncanonical Gospels
When we turn to the noncanonical gospels, the picture is much different. Consider, for example, geography. In sharp contrast to the abundant detail of the canonical gospels, the noncanonical gospels contain hardly any data for us to even attempt to verify. Here one must understand that despite sharing the title “Gospel,” most of the noncanonical gospels in our possession represent a very different type of literature. While the canonical gospels are lengthy accounts of the life and death of Jesus, works such as the Gospel of Thomas and the Gospel of Mary are collections of esoteric wisdom with little or no narrative structure.
Moreover, the Jesus of the noncanonical gospels does not fit into the world of first-century Palestinian Judaism. Consider this saying from the Gospel of Thomas:
His disciples said to him: Twenty-four prophets spoke in Israel, and they all spoke of you. He said to them: You have abandoned the living one before your eyes, and spoken about the dead. (52; Blatz)
It is hardly plausible that a Jewish rabbi in first-century Palestine would have been so dismissive of the Hebrew Bible. The designation “twenty-four prophets” is also telling. The Hebrew Bible was divided into 24 books. (This division differs from our modern English Bibles; the minor prophets, for example, were grouped into one book.) However, Jesus does not say “twenty-four books”; he says “twenty-four prophets.” This is not the way a first-century Jew would have referred to the Scriptures. As Simon Gathercole observes in his commentary on the Gospel of Thomas, “It is unlikely that one intimately acquainted with Judaism would collapse the distinction between prophets and books, since it was a commonplace that, for example, Moses wrote the Pentateuch [i.e. the first five books].”
Furthermore, in addition to conflicting with what we know of first-century Judaism, the Jesus presented in the Gospel of Thomas also clashes with what we know of earliest Christianity. The earliest extant Christian documents are the letters of Paul, written in the middle of the first century. The NT contains 13 letters that are attributed to Paul, but scholars debate the authenticity of six of these letters (Colossians, Ephesians, 2 Thessalonians, 1 & 2 Timothy, Titus). Virtually all scholars, however, accept the authenticity of the remaining seven letters. Scholars also agree that the earliest of these letters (probably 1 Thessalonians) was written around 50 CE, a mere 20 years after the crucifixion of Jesus. These letters thus give us a remarkable window into the beliefs and practices of the earliest Christians.
When we examine the letters of Paul, we find a community who obviously holds the Hebrew Bible in highest regard. The negative assessment of the Hebrew Bible found in the Gospel of Thomas is typical of the later view that emerged in some second-century Christian sects (Gnostics and Marcionites).
Consider also this saying from the Gospel of Thomas:
His disciples said to him: Is circumcision useful or not? He said to them: If it were useful, their father would beget them from their mother (already) circumcised. But the true circumcision in the Spirit has proved useful in every way. (53)
Once again, it is highly implausible that a Jewish rabbi in first-century Palestine would have argued against circumcision, one of the central markers of Jewish identity. Note also that the phrase, “circumcision of the Spirit,” seems to be derived from the letters of Paul (cf. Rom 2:28-29; Phil 3:3). Obviously the historical Jesus could not have quoted Paul!
Furthermore, observe once again that this saying conflicts not only with what we know of first-century Judaism, but also with what we know of earliest Christianity. The letters of Paul reveal a sharp debate among first-generation Christians concerning whether or not circumcision was required for Gentile converts (cf. Galatians). At this early stage, however, no one took the extreme position articulated by Jesus in the Gospel of Thomas. The complete rejection of circumcision is a later phenomenon that emerges in second-century Christian writings (cf. Epistle of Barnabas 9:4-8).
Far from being arbitrary, political, or sexist, the early rejection of the noncanonical gospels reflects sound historical judgement.
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