The origins of the Gospels

The church has long affirmed that the New Testament consists of a canon (that is, a “rule” or “standard”) of 27 books. That raises several important questions, such as: Why 27 books? Why only 27? Why four Gospels? Who made the choices regarding inclusion and exclusion, and on what basis? 

From a divine perspective, Scripture attests that God was active in inspiring the authors to write (see 2 Tim 3:16; 2 Peter 1:20-21). It follows that God was also active in the formation of the canon. Yet the Bible does not prescribe which books should be in the collection, nor does it provide reasons for inclusion or exclusion.

From a human perspective, the early church wrote and selected the books of the New Testament, and edited and transmitted these books throughout the known world. The contemporary church continues to translate, disseminate and interpret them. All 27 books were probably composed between the late 40s and the end of the first century CE (Jesus died in the early 30s CE). The canon was fixed in its present form by the fourth century.

Matthew, Mark and Luke were probably written between the late 40s and the fall of Jerusalem in 70 CE; John’s Gospel probably in the 90s. The titles were probably added toward the end of the first century, the chapter and verse divisions much later.

There are no original copies (autographs) of the New Testament documents. The autographs would have been written on papyrus, with the large ones (such as the four Gospels) written on scrolls, which were difficult to manage and store. Paul Wenger says:

The loss of the autographs is not surprising given their materials and constant usage. Wide distribution of texts required copies to be made continually. In the twentieth century the discovery of many papyrus fragments has furnished us with better insight into the earliest stages of the New Testament text. Wenger, 205.

The early church had no great libraries or sanctuaries to store its sacred books, and was frequently persecuted. In 303, for example, the Emperor Diocletian ordered all sacred Scriptures of the Christians to be confiscated and burned. From a human perspective, it is astonishing that so many partial manuscripts and fragments of early copies survived.

The four Gospels were among the 27 books selected to form the Christian Bible. They were written to clarify the beliefs and strengthen the faith of local communities of Christians, but also with an eye to wider distribution. According to New Testament scholar J. D. G. Dunn, “It was the authority which [the oral pre-Gospel traditions] already possessed which ensured that it was written down.” Dunn, 127; Strauss, 35.

That authority endures today, for Christians, in the New Testament documents (as is also the case, incidentally, in relation to the 39 Old Testament writings), which so clearly and profoundly reveal the life and teachings of Jesus Christ to the world.

Rod Benson is an ordained Baptist minister presently working as Research Support Officer at Moore Theological College, Sydney. He enjoys preaching, cooking, snorkeling, and reading a good book. These notes were written by Rod Benson for a small group study on the Gospel of Luke, March 2021. Comments welcome.

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