Were the Gospel authors aware of their own authority?

four gospels

In the previous blog post I pointed out the claim that the pre-4th century church did not recognize the authority of the four Gospels is self-refuting when you consider exactly who the early church was. Their very existence, identification, and organization composed a robust quality control system of the Gospel narrative, consistent with the four Gospel accounts of their origin. In contrast, the Nag Hammadi documents, upon which alternative histories are imagined, represent no identifiable group of people. Therefore, to claim that the early church did not recognize the four Gospels as authoritative, and that the “lost Gospels” were true, is self-defeating. The only authoritative body in existence to make such determination was the very one who produced the four Gospels. If the lost writings were accurate, there would be no Christian church to ask this question of. So again, we see that revisionist history is make-believe.

Gnosticism in the 1st century was not a people, recognizing authoritative documents; rather, it was an amorphous mixture of Greek philosophy and sketchy Christian theology with differing schools of thought that evolved with scarcely recognizable cohesion well into the 2nd century.  In the decades immediately following Jesus, there was no formal Gnostic church with a competitively viable alternative historical record. In the 1st century, the only Christian assemblies were those of apostolic origin.  These churches were committed to what we know as the traditional, historic message of Jesus.

NagHamadi-mapFurthermore, the early church openly opposed those incipient false teachings, and in some cases, the very documents unearthed in Nag Hammadi. In this post, I will take a look at another significant, related aspect of the Da Vinci Code Perspective claim of the church’s recognition of the Gospels’ authority. Borrowing from Michael Kruger’s book, The Question of Canon, he asks in chapter four, “Were the New Testament authors unaware of their own authority?” And in chapter five, “Were the New Testament books first regarded as scripture at the end of the second century?” I think these are great questions to pursue that help us understand why I champion the traditional church record and not the re-constructed historical record. If the Gospel authors understood they were writing authoritatively in the context of a close-knit, organized, message-driven group—which they were—then the claim that the four Gospels were not authoritative until the 4th century is obliterated. Kruger’s book is rather technical, it has to be to pass muster, but I’ll try to hit the highlights. After all, claims have to be supported.

Chapter four argues along similar lines of my previous post, the authority structure of the church. The twelve apostles (Judas Iscariot replaced by Matthias) plus the one “untimely born,” Paul, were the highest office bearers in the first Christian church. These were the men hand-picked by Jesus. When determining who would replace Judas Iscariot, Peter set fort the criteria “Therefore it is necessary that of the men who have accompanied us all the time that the Lord Jesus went in and out among us—beginning with the baptism of John until the day that He was taken up from us—one of these must become a witness with us of His resurrection.” Acts 1:21-22.  With the risen Christ ascended, His select men were given authority, demonstrated in the signs and wonders (miracles) that mimicked Jesus’s. Apostolic authority was so highly valued that the copy-cat Gospels, as well as later fringe churches, manufactured apostolic connections to gain a hearing.

Paul’s epistles provide the most straightforward expression of the significance of apostolic authority. As the 12th hand-picked apostle, some two years after Jesus’s resurrection, his authority was the most questioned. Therefore, he defends his credentials in several places. The point here is that the church did not blindly follow anyone or any teaching, apostolic authority was required. Was that authority recognizable within the four Gospels?  is Kruger’s topic. He states, “Our thesis is a simple one: New Testament authors, generally speaking, demonstrate awareness that their writings passed down authentic apostolic tradition and therefore bore supreme authority in the life of the church” (pg. 121). New Testament scholarship has concluded that the Gospel of Mark is a record of the witness of Peter. The Gospel is replete with evidence for this. Kruger adds, “Aside from the fact that Mark’s connection to Peter was well known among the early church fathers and it is attested by other parts of the New Testament.” (pg. 133-34).

Likewise, the historical attestation and internal evidence of the Gospel of John links it to apostolic authority. Whether you hold to its self-proclaimed authorship (John) as the apostle or the later “elder” John, the connection between John 15:27 and 21:24 is clear: In 15:27 Jesus prophesied, “You will also bear witness because you have been with me from the beginning” and in 21:24, “This is the disciple who is bearing witness about these things, and who has written these things.” (Kruger pg. 137). Now, let’s briefly consider each of the four Gospels.

Luke’s expressed purpose for writing was to pass along the apostolic, authoritative traditions: “Inasmuch as many have undertaken to compile an account of the things accomplished among us, just as they were handed down to us by those who from the beginning were eyewitnesses and servants of the word, it seemed fitting for me as well, having investigated everything carefully from the beginning, to write it out for you in consecutive order, most excellent Theophilus; 4 so that you may know the exact truth about the things you have been taught.”

The evidence in Matthew is less straightforward but still present. Stylistically, it follows Luke in how it mimics Old Testament scripture. These patterns are deliberate and communicate a connection of continued, divine truth. You will have to read the book to get the nitty-gritty details.

irenaeus

Kruger’s chapter 5 takes the next step from the Bible’s self-attestation of apostolic authority to the recognition of such by the 2nd and 3rd century church fathers. As Kruger notes negatively, “If these books [New Testament] were not written to be Scripture, then we should not expect to see them used as Scripture until a much later time in the life of the church.” (pg. 156.) The historical evidence is positive. We do see the next generations using them as Scripture (as divinely authoritative). Kruger points out that current New Testament scholarship places the date of the church’s acceptance of the books as Scripture in the end of the second century. That is largely based on the writing of Irenaeus, Bishop of Lyons. “Most notable is his affirmation that the four Gospels were so certain that their existence is entrenched in the very structure of creation….”

I will leave the support for my argument there. Considering that even non-Christian scholars recognize the church’s use of the Gospels in the 2nd century,  the Da Vinci Code Perspective of a 4th century date is dealt another death-blow.

My final, upcoming, post not only summarizes and provides some helpful resources for further study, but it also takes on a reflective nature and asks the skeptic to consider his skepticism in light of these very clear historical facts.

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Who exactly was “the early church?”

 

As I thought through the claim that the pre-4th century church did not regard the four New Testament Gospels as authoritative, it occurred to me to ask, “Have you considered exactly who these ancient people are?” This is a ginormous question for skeptics claiming we must re-write the history books about the church’s own authoritative documents. It is most certainly one of several elephants in the room.

The Da Vinci Code Perspective (see blog post 1 and blog post 2) pits the Nag Hammadi documents, the Gnostic Gospels, against the four New Testament Gospels as the proper source behind the “real” Jesus of Nazareth. Like Gnosticism itself, it asserts special, almost mystical insight into supposedly murky and mysterious things that are otherwise unknowable. However, the reality is that we can lay the historical data out in the open, side-by-side with the four Gospels, and compare them with a great deal of clarity. No special glasses are needed.

urrim and thumin

Back to the elephant…WHO supposedly did not recognize the four Gospels as authoritative? The answer of course is the Christian church. The Da Vinci Code Perspective overlooks the fact that the 1st century church owes its very existence to the historical events surrounding the traditional Gospel message—Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the living God, who lived and died and was resurrected to atone for sin. It was their impetus. It was their very identity. The 1st century church and its message of the Good News is rooted in the historical narrative. The four Gospels and Acts (Luke Volume 2) chronicle the history. If the lost Gospels were accurate and the Jesus of the revised history were true, there would be no Christian church in the 4th century or the 21st century to even look back upon the 1st. It would be utterly different. Such a Jesus and such a church is a phantom. Let’s follow the historical bread crumbs back to the beginning of the trail.

 eyewitnesses

First, there was a pre-4th century church who witnessed the events, proclaimed them, and wrote prolifically about Jesus and the Christian faith. So, we do not have to wonder and speculate about what these people believed about Jesus. The revisionists justify their need to re-construct Jesus by introducing doubt about the gap between the events of Jesus’s life and when the Gospels were penned. Certainly, there was a gap in time, but it is not cloaked in mystery. This is the fog-machine needed to peddle their special anti-fog glasses. Richard Bauckham’s book, Jesus and the Eyewitnesses: The Gospels As Eyewitness Testimony, makes a very strong case that “The Gospel texts are much closer to the form in which the eyewitnesses told their stories or passed on their traditions than is commonly envisaged in current scholarship.” (pg. 6). The take-away here is, evidence shows the early church was comprised of eyewitnesses to the events; and the four Gospels, not the lost Gospels, are reliable hard copies of their orally transmitted testimonies.

The strength of the traditional history is that it is traceable to the eyewitnesses, opposed to Nag Hammadi which is traceable to a detached group of people some one to three hundred years removed.  Michael Licona, in The Resurrection of Jesus: A New Historiographical Approach, points out, “It is often proper for those Christians who side with orthodoxy to say that the Gnostics got things wrong when referring to the teachings of the historical Jesus and his disciples. The Gnostic literature is later than the New Testament literature, usually quite a bit later. Moreover, that the Gnostic literature contains authentic apostolic tradition is dubious, with the possible exception of the Gospel of Thomas. But there is even uncertainty regarding Thomas.” (pg. 37).

quality-control

Second, concerning who the early church was, their name is important. We could perhaps call them “the meet-ers.” We use the term “church” with no obvious significance for us today. It is an anglicized, Germanic transliteration of the Greek word meaning “of the Lord.” It relates more to the place of worship than the people who are worshipping. As in our day, we see a building with a steeple and think “church.”

However, the early Christians did not have such structures. They met in private homes. The key is, they met. Their very name, “ekklesia,” in Greek, was an ordinary word for any assembly. They were known for what was most obvious about them…they gathered together often and regularly. Why is that important to this discussion? From the very beginning, they were a distinguishable, identifiable group of people with clearly recognized leadership. Jesus had twelve men in his inner circle. Eleven of them went on to lead this assembly of converts (most of whom were eyewitnesses, even participants in Jesus’s crucifixion).  Luke, the historian, quotes from Peter’s first sermon, “Therefore let all the house of Israel know for certain that God has made Him both Lord and Christ—this Jesus whom you crucified.” Luke explains, “when they heard this, they were pierced to the heart.” (Acts 2:36-37). After that sermon, the membership exploded. “But many of those who had heard the message believed; and the number of the men came to be about five thousand.” (Acts 4:4). Such growth required more leadership. The church appointed deacons (servant-leaders) to handle the practical needs of the group while the apostles were responsible for teaching and preaching. As the church expanded and moved beyond Jerusalem, local pastors, also called elders and bishops, were appointed to oversee the new “ekklesias” (congregations.)

Let us try to grasp the significance of these things. Christianity emerged onto the world stage with a message of faith around the historical events of Jesus of Nazareth. The message, the Gospel, was everything. It was their identity. It was the reason for which they gathered. It was the reason for which Jews and non-Jews abandoned their families, their way of life, overnight, and joined the church at great personal expense—even martyrdom. Built into the psyche of the assembly was preserving that message. The early church had an extraordinarily robust quality control system in place. As Timothy Paul Jones notes: “Early Christians rejected these [other] writings because they were looking for trustworthy testimony about Jesus, and that’s not what they found when the [sic] read the “lost Scriptures.” (pg. 88).

By contrast, the Gnostics had no structure or identifiable group. There was no creed, no gnosticbody of doctrine, and no cohesive leadership. Gnosticism was a philosophy, not a church, in an incipient form during and after the time of Christ. Nag Hammadi shows that a hundred or so years later it had gained some consistency of topics with disconnected leader like Carpocrates, Saturninus, Basilides, and Valentinus (See the Missing Gospels, by Darrel Bock, pg. 10).

Therefore, when the claim is made that the four New Testament Gospels were not authoritative among the early church, we must point out the elephants in the room. The church was vitally linked to the message, the events, and the people of the Gospels. The church produced them. There was no alternative, authoritative body or documents. The Da Vinci Code Perspective is self-refuting.

In the next post, I’ll discuss if the Gospel writers were even aware that they were writing scripture!