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Why did the Early Church Accept Only the Four NT Gospels as Authoritative?

By Ron Jones, D.D. © The Titus Institute, 2010


 

The historical literary evidence demonstrates that the early church, the early followers of Jesus, accepted the four NT gospels because they were written by apostles or associates of apostles and were in agreement with apostolic teaching. The apostles were the only authoritative eyewitnesses of Jesus. Only the four gospels, Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John fit these criteria.

 

1. Matthew, Mark, and Luke record in their gospels that Jesus appointed twelve apostles and gave them authority as his witnesses to proclaim his true identity and mission to the world.

a) Jesus appointed them and gave them authority and power to perform miracles.

Mk.3:13-19
“And he went up to a mountain and called to him whom he wanted and they came to him. And he appointed twelve (whom he named apostles) that they should be with him, that he might send them out to preach, and have authority to cast out demons. And he appointed the twelve: Simon (whom he surnamed Peter), James the son of Zebedee and John the brother of James (whom he surnamed “Boanerges” which is “the sons of thunder”), Andrew, Philip, Bartholomew, Matthew, Thomas, James the son of Alphaeus, Thaddaeus, Simon the Canaanite, and Judas Iscariot, who also betrayed him.”

Matt.10:1-8
“And when he had called to him his twelve disciples, he gave them power over unclean spirits, to cast them out, and to heal every sickness and every disease. Now the names of the twelve apostles are these: The first, Simon, who is called Peter, and Andrew his brother, James the son of Zebedee and John his brother, Philip and Bartholomew, Thomas and Matthew the tax collector, James the son of Alphaeus and Thaddaeus, Simon the Canaanite and Judas Iscariot, who also betrayed him. These twelve Jesus sent forth and commanded them saying, ‘Do not go into the way of the Gentiles, and do not enter into any city of the Samaritans, but go rather to the lost sheep of the house of Israel. And as you go, preach, saying, ‘The kingdom of heaven is at hand.’ Heal the sick, cleanse the lepers, raise the dead, cast out demons, freely you have received, freely give.’”

Lu.6:12-16
“And it came to pass in those days, that he went out into a mountain to pray and continued all night in prayer to God. And when it was day, he called to him his disciples and from them he chose twelve, whom he also named apostles: Simon, (whom he also named Peter,) and Andrew his brother, James and John, Philip and Bartholomew, Matthew and Thomas, James the son of Alphaeus, and Simon called the Zealot, and Judas the brother of James, and Judas Iscariot, who was also the traitor.”

b) Jesus made them eyewitnesses of his resurrection.

Lu.24:36-43
“And as they were saying these things, Jesus himself stood in their midst and said to them, ‘Peace be with you.’ But they were terrified and frightened and supposed that they were seeing a spirit. And he said to them, ‘Why are you troubled? And why do doubts arise in your hearts? Behold my hands and my feet, that it is I myself. Touch me and see, for a spirit does not have flesh and bones, as you see I have.’ And when he had thus spoken, he showed them his hands and his feet. And while they did not yet believe it because of joy and wondering, he said to them, ‘Have you any food here?’ And they gave him a piece of a broiled fish. And he took it and ate it before them.”

Jn.20:19-29
Then the same day at evening, being the first day of the week, when the doors were shut where the disciples were assembled because of fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood in their midst and said to them, ‘Peace be with you.’ And when he had said this, he showed them his hands and his side. Then the disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord. Then Jesus said to them again, ‘Peace be with you. As my Father has sent me I also send you. And when he had said this, he breathed on them and said, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive anyone’s sins, they have been forgiven and if you retain anyone’s sins, they have been retained.

But Thomas, one of the twelve, called Didymus, was not with them when Jesus came. The other disciples therefore said to him, ‘We have seen the Lord.’ But he said to them, ‘Unless I see in his hands the print of the nails and put my finger into the print of the nails, and thrust my hand into his side, I will not believe.’

And after eight days again his disciples were inside and Thomas with them. Though the doors were shut, Jesus came and stood in their midst and said, ‘Peace be with you.’ Then he said to Thomas, ‘Reach here your finger and see my hands and reach here your hand and thrust it into my side. Do not be unbelieving, but believing.’ And Thomas answered and said to him, ‘My Lord and my God.’ Jesus said to him, ‘Thomas, because you have seen me, you have believed. Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.’”

Acts 1:1-3
The first account I made, Oh Theophilus, of all that Jesus began both to do and teach, until the day in which he was taken up, after he had through the Holy Spirit given commandments to the apostles whom he had chosen. To these he also showed himself alive after his passion by many infallible proofs, being seen by them over forty days, and speaking of the things concerning the kingdom of God.

c) Jesus promised them the power of the Holy Spirit so that they might know and understand and preach the truth accurately.

This is Jesus’ promise given the night before he was to die. And by the way, it is a promise only for the apostles.

Jn.16:12-15 (Jesus is speaking to his apostles)
“I still have many things to tell you, but you cannot bear them now. But when he, the Spirit of truth, comes, he will guide you into all truth, for he will not speak on his own, but whatever he will hear, he will speak and he will tell you things to come. He shall glorify me, for he will take of mine and will announce it to you. All things that the Father has are mine. Therefore I said that he will take of mine and will announce it to you.”

John 14:26 (Jesus is speaking to his apostles)
“But the Comforter, the Holy Ghost, whom the Father will send in my name, he will teach you all things, and remind you of all things that told you.”

Jesus promised his apostles that the Holy Spirit would give them knowledge of his truth and would empower them to remember all that Jesus had told them during his ministry.

The apostles of Jesus wrote down what they saw and heard and learned from Jesus by the power of the Holy Spirit promised to them by Jesus.

People might say, “Well there’s no way that the apostles could have remembered everything. And there is no way that they could have written it all down without making any mistakes. Come on. That’s ridiculous”

Answer: “Yes, it is ridiculous if it was only by human ability.”

The reason we know that the apostles were telling the truth is that Jesus promised them supernatural power to do it. The Holy Spirit, the third person of the Trinity was going to guide them. Their teaching and subsequent writing would be by the power of the Holy Spirit and without error.

Human beings can’t on their own teach and write without error. They make mistakes all the time. However, the Holy Spirit supernaturally guiding human beings can enable them to do so.

Christians acknowledge that it would be impossible to remember accurately everything that Jesus said and did. There is no question that in the Jewish culture of the 1st century memory development was far greater than our own culture. But that still cannot account for the truth and accuracy of the New Testament. There must be a divine power at work.

Both of these statements of Jesus are central promises that the divine power of the Holy Spirit was at work in the apostles after Jesus died.

Lu.24:44-49 (Jesus speaks these words during his resurrection appearance in Lu.24:36-43 above)
“And he said to them, ‘These are the words which I spoke to you, while I was still with you, that all things must be fulfilled, which were written in the law of Moses, and in the Prophets, and in the Psalms concerning me.’ Then he opened their minds so that they might understand the Scriptures and said to them, ‘Thus it is written that the Christ must suffer and rise from the dead on the third day and that repentance and forgiveness of sins should be preached in his name among all nations beginning at Jerusalem. You are witnesses of these things. Behold, I am sending the promise of my Father upon you. But stay in the city of Jerusalem, until you are clothed with power from on high.”

Here, Jesus gave them supernatural understanding of the Old Testament Scriptures and its predictions of his suffering, death, resurrection and salvation preaching in him.

Later, Luke records that the apostles spoke by the power of the Holy Spirit.

Acts 4:5-8
“And it came to pass on the next day that the rulers, elders, and scribes and Annas the high priest, and Caiaphas, and John, and Alexander, and as many as were of the family of the high priest were gathered together at Jerusalem. And when they had set them in the midst, they asked, ‘By what power or by what name have you done this?’ Then Peter, filled with the Holy Spirit, said to them, You rulers of the people and elders of Israel…’”

d) Jesus also appointed Paul on the Damascus Road to be the thirteenth apostle and made him an eyewitness of his resurrection.

Acts 26:13-20 (Paul tells Agrippa how the risen Jesus appeared to him)

“At midday, O king, I saw on the way a light from heaven, brighter than the sun, shining around me and those who were journeying with me. And when we had all fallen to the earth, I heard a voice speaking to me in the Hebrew language, ‘Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me? It is hard for you to kick against the goads.’

And I said, ‘Who are you, Lord?’ And he said, ‘I am Jesus whom you are persecuting. But raise and stand on your feet, for I have appeared to you for this purpose to make you a minister and a witness both of these things which you have seen and of those things which I will appear to you, delivering you from your own people and from the Gentiles, to whom I am now sending you to open their eyes and to turn them from darkness to light and from the power of Satan to God that they may receive forgiveness of sins and an inheritance among those who are sanctified by faith in me.’

So then, King Agrippa, I was not disobedient to the heavenly vision, but kept declaring first to those of Damascus and at Jerusalem and throughout all the coasts of Judaea and then to the Gentiles that they should repent and turn to God, doing works worthy of repentance.”

In his letter to the Galatians, Paul gives his credentials as an apostle of Jesus Christ. Paul was an apostle appointed directly by Jesus Christ and Paul was preaching revelation he had received directly from Jesus Christ.

Gal.1:1
“Paul, an apostle, (sent not from men, nor by man, but by Jesus Christ and God the Father, who raised him from the dead)…”

Gal. 1:11-12
“But I want you to know, brethren, that the gospel which was preached by me is not according to man. For I neither received it from man, neither was I taught it, but I received it by the revelation from Jesus Christ.”

Paul also says that he was accepted by the other apostles in Jerusalem as the apostle to the Gentiles.

Gal. 2:7-9
“But on the contrary, when they saw that the gospel to the Gentiles was committed to me as the gospel to the Jews was to Peter (For he that worked effectively in Peter in his apostleship to the Jews worked effectively in me toward the Gentiles) and when James, Cephas, and John, who seemed to be pillars perceived the grace that was given to me, they gave to me and Barnabas the right hands of fellowship that we should go to the Gentiles and they to the Jews.”

e) The apostles’ doctrine was the foundational teaching of the followers of Jesus and was the test of truth for all who claimed to speak for Jesus or God.

Acts 2:42 (This is the commitment of the first church in Jerusalem.)
And they continued steadfastly in the apostles' doctrine and fellowship and in breaking of bread and in prayers.

Paul warns the Galatian Christians not to follow any other teaching than the one Paul and the other apostles gave them.

Gal.1:6-9
“I am amazed that you are so quickly deserting him who called you into the grace of Christ for different gospel which is really not another gospel. Only there are some that are troubling you and are trying to pervert the gospel of Christ. But though we, or an angel from heaven, preach any other gospel to you other than that which we have preached to you, let him be accursed. As we said before, so I now say again, if any man preach any other gospel to you other than that you have received, let him be accursed.”

 

2. The early church from the beginning was committed to the apostles as the only ones who had authority to speak and write for Jesus.

Clement c.95
“The apostles have preached the gospel to us from the Lord Jesus Christ: Jesus Christ has done so from God. Christ therefore was sent forth by God, and the apostles by Christ.” (1 Clement 42)

Ignatius c.105
“Study, therefore, to be established in the doctrines of the Lord and the apostles.” (Magnesians 13)

Polycarp c. 117
“Let us then serve Him in fear, and with all reverence, even as He Himself has commanded us, and as the apostles who preached the Gospel to us, and the prophets who proclaimed beforehand the coming of the Lord.”
(Phillipians 6)

Irenaeus c.180
“For the Lord of all gave to his apostles the power of the gospel through whom also we have known the truth, that is, the doctrine of the Son of God.” (Against Heresies 3 Preface)

Irenaeus c.180
“The apostles, likewise being disciples of the truth, are above all falsehood." (Against Heresies 5.1)

 

3. The early church was committed to the one united doctrine of the apostles, which was their standard of truth and orthodoxy.

Irenaeus c.180
“In this order, and by this succession, the ecclesiastical tradition from the apostles, and the preaching of the truth, have come down to us. And this is most abundant proof that there is one and the same life-giving faith, which has been preserved in the Church from the apostles until now, and handed down in truth.”
(Against Heresies 3.3)

Tertullian c.207
“Since the Lord Jesus Christ sent the apostles to preach, (our rule is) that no others ought to be received as preachers than those whom Christ appointed, for ‘no man knows the Father except the Son, and he to whomever the Son will reveal Him." Nor does the Son seem to have revealed Him to any other than the apostles, whom He sent forth to preach…” (Prescription Against Heresies 21)

Tertullian c.197
The apostles were ignorant of nothing, and did not preach any (doctrines) which contradicted one another.
(Prescription Against Heresies 25)

 

4. The four NT Gospels were the only gospels written in the first century by apostles or close associates of apostles.

Two apostles, Matthew and John, and two close associates of apostles, Mark and Luke, wrote the Four NT Gospels.

1) Matthew and John were apostles of Jesus Christ.

Mk.3:13-19
Matt.10:1-8
Lu.6:12-16

2) Mark was a close associate of Peter and Paul.

Mark was ministering with the apostles in Jerusalem from the beginning of their post-resurrection ministry.

Acts 12:12
“And when he [Peter] had considered the thing, he came to the house of Mary the mother of John, whose surname was Mark where many were gathered together praying.”

Mark accompanied Paul and Barnabas on their first missionary journey.

Acts 12:25
“And Barnabas and Saul returned from Jerusalem, when they had fulfilled their ministry, and took with them John, whose surname was Mark.”

He was a cousin of Barnabas.
Col.4:10
“Aristarchus my fellow-prisoner greets you, and Mark, the cousin of Barnabas (about whom you received instructions, if he come to you, welcome him)”

Mark ministered with Peter and may have come to Christ through Peter (hence, the designation “my son” meaning “my spiritual son”).

1 Pet.5:13
“The church that is at Babylon, chosen together with you, greets you; and so does Mark my son.”

3) Luke a close associate of Paul the apostle.

Col.4:14
“Luke, the beloved physician, and Demas, greet you.”

4) Luke and Mark ministered together with the apostle Paul.

2 Tim.4:11
“Only Luke is with me. Take Mark, and bring him with you, for he is profitable to me for the ministry.”

Philemon 1:24
“Mark, Aristarchus, Demas, Luke, my fellow-laborers.”

Col.4:10, 14
“Aristarchus my fellow-prisoner greets you, and Mark, the cousin of Barnabas (about whom you received instructions, if he come to you, welcome him)…Luke, the beloved physician, and Demas, greet you.”

 

5. The early church leaders from the first century to the end of the second century formed a succession of those who handed down the truth and the gospels from the apostles.

See: Timeline of the Apostles and Early Church Fathers in the first and second Centuries

John the Apostle (d. 95AD) ------ Polycarp (69-155AD) ------ Irenaeus (130-200AD)

Irenaeus was a disciple of Polycarp who was a disciple of John the apostle. These three men and many others confirmed that what was being handed down in terms of the written word was in fact, from the apostles.

Irenaeus clearly writes that Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John wrote the four gospels. His testimony is based upon what he heard from Polycarp and what Polycarp heard from John the apostle himself.

That is powerful historical testimony.

See authorship of the NT Gospels for what the early church fathers wrote about Matthew, mark. Luke, and John authoring the four gospels.

Irenaeus about Polycarp c. 180
“But Polycarp also was not only instructed by apostles, and conversed with many who had seen Christ, but was also, by apostles in Asia, appointed bishop of the Church in Smyrna. I also saw him in my early youth, for he lived [on earth] a very long time, and, when a very old man departed this life by gloriously and most nobly suffering martyrdom. He always taught the things which he had learned from the apostles, and which the Church has handed down, and which alone are true.” (Against Heresies 3.3.4)

Irenaeus about Polycarp c. 180
“…he would speak of his familiar intercourse with John and with the rest of those who had seen the Lord and how he would call their words to remembrance. Whatever things he had heard from them concerning the Lord, both with regard to His miracles and His teaching, Polycarp having thus received it from the eye-witnesses of the Word of life, would recount them all in harmony with the Scriptures.” (Florinus 2)

 

6. The early church leaders collected and accepted only the four gospels that are in the New Testament because only these gospels were written by apostles or close associates of apostles.

See Historical Literary Evidence for the Authorship of the NT Gospels for further information about the testimony of the early church about the authorship of the gospels

Origen c.245
“Concerning the four Gospels which alone are uncontroverted in the Church of God under heaven, I have learned by tradition that the Gospel according to Matthew, who was at one time a tax collector and afterwards an Apostle of Jesus Christ, was written first and that he composed it in the Hebrew tongue and published it for the converts from Judaism. The second written was that according to Mark, who wrote it according to the instruction of Peter, who, in his General Epistle, acknowledged him as a son, saying, "The church that is in Babylon, chosen together with you, greets you and so does Mark my son." And third, was that according to Luke, the Gospel commended by Paul, which he composed for the converts from the Gentiles. Last of all, that according to John.” (Commentary on Matthew 1)

Tertullian c.207
“The same authority of the apostolic churches will afford evidence to the other Gospels also, which we possess equally through their means, and according to their usage. I mean the Gospels of John and Matthew while that which Mark published may be affirmed to be Peter's whose interpreter Mark was. For even Luke's form of the Gospel men usually ascribe to Paul. And it may well seem that the works which disciples publish belong to their masters.”
(Against Marcion 4.5)

Tertullian c.207
“We lay it down as our first position, that the evangelical Testament has apostles for its authors, to whom was assigned by the Lord Himself this office of publishing the gospel... Of the apostles, therefore, John and Matthew first instill faith into us; while of apostolic men, Luke and Mark renew it afterwards. These all start with the same principles of the faith, so far as relates to the one only God the Creator and His Christ, how that He was born of the Virgin, and came to fulfill the law and the prophets.”
(Against Marcion 4.2)

Irenaeus c.180
“Matthew also issued a written Gospel among the Hebrews in their own dialect, while Peter and Paul were preaching at Rome, and laying the foundations of the Church. After their departure, Mark, the disciple and interpreter of Peter, did also hand down to us in writing what had been preached by Peter. Luke also, the companion of Paul, recorded in a book the Gospel preached by him. Afterwards, John, the disciple of the Lord, who also had leaned upon His breast, did himself publish a Gospel during his residence at Ephesus in Asia.”
(Against Heresies 3.1.1)

 

7. The early church rejected any gospels written later (after the 1st century AD) and thus not by apostles or their close associates.

The early church rejected the addition of any other Gospel to the four NT gospels.

See the Unreliability of the Gnostic Gospels for more information on why the early church rejected the Gnostic Gospels.

Irenaeus c.180
“But those who are from Valentinus, being, on the other hand, altogether reckless, while they put forth their own compositions, boast that they possess more Gospels than there really are. Indeed, they have arrived at such a pitch of audacity, as to entitle their comparatively recent writing "the Gospel of Truth," though it agrees in nothing with the Gospels of the Apostles, so that they have really no Gospel which is not full of blasphemy.”
(Against Heresies 3.11.9)

Irenaeus c.180 (writing about the four NT gospels)
“But that these Gospels alone are true and reliable, and admit neither an increase nor diminution of the aforesaid number, I have proved by so many and such [arguments].” (Against Heresies 3.11.9)

Irenaeus c.180
“In this order, and by this succession, the ecclesiastical tradition from the apostles, and the preaching of the truth, have come down to us. And this is most abundant proof that there is one and the same life-giving faith, which has been preserved in the Church from the apostles until now, and handed down in truth.”
(Against Heresies 3.3)

Origen c.254
“Many have taken in hand to compose a narrative of the events which are quite definitely familiar among us.’ The Church possesses four Gospels, heresy a great many, of which one is entitled 'The Gospel according to the Egyptians,' and another 'The Gospel according to the Twelve Apostles.' Basilides also has presumed to write a gospel, and to call it by his own name… but only four Gospels are recognized. From these the doctrines concerning the person of our Lord and Savior are to be derived.
(Origen, Homilies on Luke: Fragments on Luke (Fathers of the Church), trans. by Joseph T. Lienhard, Washington: Catholic University of America Press, 1996, Luke 1:1)

Origen c.254
I know a certain gospel which is called 'The Gospel according to Thomas' and a 'Gospel according to Matthias,' and many others have we read - lest we should in any way be considered ignorant because of those who imagine that they posses some knowledge if they are acquainted with these. Nevertheless, among all these we have approved solely what the Church has recognized, which is that only the four Gospels should be accepted.”
(Origen, Homilies on Luke: Fragments on Luke (Fathers of the Church), trans. by Joseph T. Lienhard, Washington: Catholic University of America Press, 1996, Luke 1:1)