Friday, October 29, 2010

Matthew, Mark, Luke and John

C.E. Hill, in Who Chose the Gospels?: Probing the Great Gospel Conspiracy, responds to those who argue that what we think of as orthodox Christianity simply reflects the views of the winners in an early theological power struggle. From his essay, "The Conspiracy Theory Of The Gospels":
.... Here is the basic story line.

Gospels about Jesus once flourished. As one scholar has recently put it, they were "breeding like rabbits." Each of the varied Christian sects pushed its own version(s) and competition was lively. This "free market" for Jesus literature meant that, for many years and in many places, some now-forgotten Gospels were at least as popular as the ones that now headline the Christian New Testament. Gradually, however, one of the competing sects was able to gain the upper hand over its rivals. And when it finally declared victory in the fourth century, fully 300 years after Jesus walked the earth, it decreed that its four Gospels were, and had always been, the standard for the church Jesus founded. The "winners," supported by the powerful emperor Constantine the Great, then got to write the histories — and make the Bibles. ....

Yet before there were the many Gospels, there were only the four. Not that the four were necessarily the very first writings about Jesus ever scribed, but they are the earliest which we now have. And they are the earliest whose existence we are actually sure of. Yes, the Gospel writers may have used sources, like Q. They may have written earlier editions ("Proto-Matthew," "Proto-Luke," and the like, as they are named). Possibly there were even other Gospels from the first century which we don't know about. But if such things ever existed, we have no good evidence that they ever circulated, or were intended to circulate, among groups of churches as authoritative accounts of the life of Jesus. ....

The problem for the conspiracy theory is a man named Irenaeus. Irenaeus was crystal clear in his claim that the church, from the time of the apostles, had received just four authoritative Gospels — Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John — and that all the others were bogus. This is just what we would expect from a fourth-century re-writer of history. The problem is that Irenaeus wrote in the second century, long before the conspiratorial rewriting of history is supposed to have taken place.

Does, then, the conspiracy approach to early Christian history, in either its popular or its academic forms, have it right? Should it bother anyone that those who stress so loudly that the winners wrote the histories are the ones now writing the histories? Let the reader judge ... but also be aware of conspiracies. [more]
Thanks to Justin Taylor for the reference.

Charles E. Hill: The Conspiracy Theory Of The Gospels