Sunday, May 17, 2015

Book Review: Who Chose the Gospels? Probing the Great Gospel Conspiracy.

The following partially satisfies the requirements for Dr. Grant Taylor's New Testament Survey class at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary.

Who Chose the Gospels? Probing the Great Gospel Conspiracy.
Oxford: Oxford University Press. 2010. 295 pp. Reviewed by Jayson L. Rowe.

Dr. Charles E. Hill received his Ph.D. from Cambridge University and is currently Professor of New Testament at Reformed Theological Seminary in Orlando, Florida. Dr. Hill has extensive research interests in the Johannine Corpus, and has written extensively on several issues relating to the early church fathers, early Christian views on the end times, the canon of the New Testament, and the traditions of New Testament manuscripts. In addition to the work being reviewed here, he is the author of several books on the New Testament and Early Church including Regnum Caelorum: Patterns of Future Hope in Early Christianity, The Johannine Corpus in the Early Church and most recently The Early Text of the New Testament published in 2012 and co-edited with fellow RTS professor Michael J. Kruger.

In this work Hill presents his perspective on how and when the four-Gospel collection in the New Testament canon was formed. He writes in response to those who say the fourfold Gospel that became the canonical standard was only accepted as such at a later date. Moreover, these same scholars claim that the four canonical Gospels were simply four out of many Gospel accounts that were circulating during the time of the early church. Hill critically examines the scholarship that has been used to support and promote the popular narrative of how the church ended up with only four Gospels and also looks at the evidence more liberal scholars use to make their cases. Hill tests the major arguments from these scholars against the physical and historical evidence and also examines the writings of Irenaus, Clement of Rome, Papias and other historical figures to see how the Gospels were viewed in their day. Ultimately, Hill will be seeking the answer to the question: ‘Who chose the Gospels?’

In the introduction, Hill begins by quoting William Petersen, who claims that there was a “sea of multiple Gospels,” and also said that these “gospels were breeding like rabbits” (Hill, Who Chose the Gospels, p. 2). At the beginning of Chapter 1, Hill shows that Petersen was exaggerating a bit when he portrayed the number of Gospels, by showing that Petersen’s own research shows that the list of Gospels includes just nine other Gospels which might have sought to compete with the four (Hill, p. 7).

Next, Hill gives a detailed explanation of the papyrus discoveries and explains that the statistics of these discoveries are impartial. He points out how writers of the period could be accused of skewing numbers in favor of the four canonical Gospels, but shows that by looking at the random and impartial numbers of the papyri discoveries, it is clear that the canonical Gospels still outnumbered the non-canonical ones by about three to one (Hill, p. 21). Hill also explains that many of these discoveries are in Alexandria, in Egypt, which at the time was an area where many heretical forms of Christianity dominated. If there were any place where one would expect to find a high concentration of heterodox or non-canonical texts it would be Egypt. Remarkably, this is not the case and Hill shows that the non-canonical Gospels were still around a third as popular as the four canonical Gospels (Hill, pp. 24-25).

Hill then explains how Christians adopted the much less common codex for sacred writings very early on, and explains that all of the earliest known copies of the four canonical Gospels are found in codex form (Hill, p. 26). In addition, Hill demonstrates that out of the non-canonical Gospels found in codex form, they are all smaller, more compact codices while “most of the early papyrus copies of the canonical Gospels are from codices which were suitable for the purpose of public reading in churches, none of our surviving copies of the Gospel of Peter or the Gospel of Mary was” (Hill, p. 31).

Chapters 2 and 3 are devoted to defending Irenaeus. Hill’s argument is that, “by the time Irenaeus wrote around 180 AD, the fourfold Gospel was very well established” (Hill, p. 37). Hill contends that Irenaeus was not a pioneer of Gospel selection, but was simply following a tradition that had already been established since other writers of the second and third centuries, such as Hippolytus, Dionysius, Tertullian and others, also viewed only the four canonical Gospels as authoritative Scripture. Hill points out that a popular view with modern scholars is that “like an axe-happy frontiersman of bygone days, blind to ecological realities, Irenaeus destroyed a perfectly good stand of gospel trees in order to create his four-Gospel canon” (Hill, p. 42). In response to allegations that Irenaeus instructed Christians to destroy copies of the other Gospels, Hill asserts that neither Irenaeus’s church in Lyons nor the church in Rome “had anything resembling the kind of imperial power…to search out private copies of a detested book, seize them and destroy them” (Hill, p. 62).

Chapter 4 begins by stating, “if a four-Gospel canon was Irenaeus’s idea…it was an idea which caught on quickly” (Hill, p. 69). The use of the canonical Gospels is compared to the non-canonical Gospels in the writings of Clement of Alexandria. Hill reports that of the canonical Gospels, Clement refers to Matthew 757 times, Luke 402 times, John 331 times and Mark 182 times. The most referenced non-canonical Gospel is the Gospel of the Egyptians, which is only referenced 8 times. Referenced 3 times each are the Gospel to the Hebrews and the Traditions of Matthias. Furthermore, in the writings of Clement, there are no references to the Gospel of Thomas, the Gospel of Peter, the Egerton Gospel, the Gospel of Judas, or the Gospel of Mary. Also, in the early to mid 190s, Clement refers to Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John as ‘the four Gospels that have been handed down to us’ in his treatise entitled Stromateis. The point made here is that by referring to only these four Gospels as being ‘handed down’ Clement sounds very much like Irenaeus who also spoke of the Gospels as being handed down from the apostles (Hill, pp. 72-73).

Next is a discussion of the writings of Serapion, the bishop of Antioch who had to deal with an issue regarding the Gospel of Peter. The congregation in Rhossus requested permission to read this Gospel in the church. At first, Serapion granted permission, but changed his mind after reading the work himself and seeing the heretical content it contained. Hill draws four conclusions from Serapion’s reaction to this work. First, Serapion knew of a category of books that were “received by tradition”, and the Gospel of Peter was not among them. Second, Serapion knew there had been books falsely attributed to the apostles of Jesus. Third, Serapion placed a high value on apostolic authority, and fourth, Serapion believes that apostolic authority belongs to certain books, which either the apostles wrote or had apostolic approval to be passed down (Hill, p.89).

Chapter 5 looks at three different ways of packaging the Gospels: harmonies, synopses and codices, explaining that works such as these would have shared the same aim of aiding Christian teachers who needed easier access to the Scriptures. These were not intended to be a single replacement of the four-Gospel canon, but were written to aid Christian teachers and are actually an indication of the authority of the four as Scripture.

Chapter 6 deals with the work of Justin Martyr and examines Justin’s references to the ‘Memoirs of the Apostles’, which are books that Justin knows as ‘Gospels’. It is pointed out, however, that many have observed that in Justin’s quotations of Jesus that they often are not reflective of a single one of the fourfold Gospels but rather look more like a harmonized version. Hill writes, “while it is evident that Justin…sometimes blended together or harmonized Jesus’s words, his ultimate authoritative source was what lay at the back of them” (Hill, p. 131). Hill also notes that in one place, Justin says ‘For the apostles, in the memoirs which have come about by their agency, which are called Gospels, have thus delivered unto us’ and in another place Justin writes that the Gospels were composed by ‘Jesus’s apostles and their followers.’ Both of these statements lead to the conclusion that the Gospels which Justin is referring to, contain “at least two written by apostles and at least two by followers of apostles” (Hill, p.132). Hill resolves from the hints left behind by Justin in his work that the evidence likely proves that Justin had knowledge of the fourfold set of canonical Gospels, and that he regarded only these for as Scripture.

Chapter 7 looks at how early opponents of a proto-orthodox Christianity viewed the gospels. Hill looks at sources from Trypho, The Emperor and Senate, Crescens, and Celcus who according to Hill, Justin recruited “from the ranks of unbelievers” (Hill, p. 152). It is shown how Celcus, for example “was responding directly to the challenges posed in the writings of Justin” in his treatise against Christianity, True Logos, which was written sometime between 160 and 180 (Hill, p. 155). Hill writes that although it is not known for sure if Celsus “knew a definite fourfold Gospel collection…his use of the four Gospels in his broadside against Christianity is apparent” (Hill, p. 156-157). Therefore, even Celsus, an outsider to Christianity, regarded the fourfold Gospel as authentic Christian writings.
Chapter 8 examines other early sources such as The Apocryphon of James, The Epistle of the Apostles, The Infancy Gospel of Thomas, and the writings of Marcion and Aristides. Hill argues that these early texts indicate the influence of the four-Gospel collection from both within and outside of the church (Hill, p. 182). In Chapter 9, Hill deals with the Epistle to Dognetus, the so-called Letter of Barnabas, writings of Polycarp and Ignatius, The Didache, and writings of Clement of Rome. In each of these cases, Hill notes that each one “knew of at least one of the four Gospels” (Hill, p. 203) Hill states that ultimately, the last word on the matter “is found…in the collective, public teaching of Jesus’ authorized apostles, who received this authority from Jesus to pass on to the church” (Hill, p. 206)

Chapter 10 focuses on Papias, the bishop of Hierapolis around A.D. 120. Hill shows that Papias “knew all four of our Gospels, for there are sound reasons for acknowledging his use of them in the fragments of his writings that have survived. This would make Papias the earliest first-hand source for a recognition of all for Gospels” (Hill, p. 222). Hill argues that Papias followed an earlier tradition and concludes that one cannot be sure how early this tradition goes, “but a reasonable assumption is that the information he derived from ‘the elder’ was learned sometime around the year 100 and in any case not many years thereafter” (Hill, pp.222-223).

The final chapter finally tackles the question posed in the title of the book: Who chose the Gospels? Hill writes, “In short, we have no evidence that the church ever sat down collectively or as individual churches and composed criteria for judging which Gospels (or other literature) it thought best suited its needs” (Hill, p. 231). Thus, the Scriptures proved themselves authoritative simply by being handed down from apostolic sources and by their unity in content and the message they delivered.
Hill did an excellent job of laying a solid foundation to help the reader understand various aspects of textual criticism. The information given about the papyrus discoveries, as well as the numbering system used to identify various papyri was helpful. It was also beneficial to see how the papyri discoveries do not support the claims that are being made by some scholars. The section that explains how Alexandria, which was an area where Gnostic Christianity was quite widespread, still had a higher ratio of discoveries supporting the popularity of the canonical fourfold Gospel collection was very supportive of his argument.

In Chapter 5, Hill builds on the information learned in the first chapter by explaining how the codex possibly became more popular than the scroll because of the ability to bind all four Gospels together. In this section it is explained how at some point in the second century, multiple Gospels started being bound together in a single codex. Hill states that while there have been several discoveries which show the four canonical Gospels bound together, there has yet to be a discovery where a non-canonical Gospel was bound together with one of the four Gospels (Hill, p. 116-117). While he does not say that only scriptural writings are bound in codex form, he does say that only the four canonical Gospels are found only in codex form, while some of the other Gospels were also found in scroll form. The explanation that the owners of these scrolls would not have viewed them as Scripture is helpful for his argument (Hill, pp. 27-28). The explanation of how writings considered authoritative as Scripture were mostly only found in the larger codices, which would have been suitable for public reading, as well as numbers cited from the writings of Clement were also helpful in establishing his case.

Throughout the book, church history and textual criticism are woven together in a captivating fashion. Hill does an exceptional job in attempting to defend Irenaus, who is not always easy to defend, and is not popular with many modern scholars. The manner in which Hill used the works of Irenaus’s contemporaries was most helpful in answering his thesis. Although the evidence presented in the first part of the book is very convincing and clear, in the second half, Hill’s arguments seem to become more abstract and speculative. One example of this is the section dealing with the work of Justin Martyr. Justin complicated matters by not specifically naming the Gospels to which he is referring as he writes, making Hill’s task more difficult and makes his arguments seem less cut and dry (Hill, p. 126). Although there is not as much evidence to work with, Hill does an admirable job in presenting his arguments and it was helpful for the reader to see how several historical figures from both inside and outside of the church viewed the Gospel collection.


Throughout the book, Hill tackles some very technical details. Although he is covering a vast array of historical details, he writes in such a way that the reader does not get bogged down. Hill’s style is engaging and easy to follow. Although the subject is academic in nature, this book could be easily accessible to a more popular audience with an interest in learning about how the New Testament canon came to be formed. The book is an excellent resource, and is worthwhile to recommend to anyone with a desire to dig deeper into the history of the church, the establishment of the canon or learn more about textual criticism in general.

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