It is perhaps because in the West in our time “diversity” is a “must have” for intellectuals and politicians that even in Biblical studies we can see its effects. This is most noticeable in the subject which we have been examining recently, the Biblical Canon. Put briefly, there is a new orthodoxy to the effect that the Canon dates from the fourth century AD. and is the result of one type of Christianity triumphing and crushing others. At its most extreme it appears in allegations that the Emperor Constantine “chose” the Canon, but its influence is evident in more reasonable quarters, and two of its most prominent proponents are Bart Ehrman and Elaine Pagels, who have popularised the idea that there was a huge diversity of “choice” in terms of “Gospels” in the early days of the Church. This was gradually closed down by, well take your choice from Patriarchy/Imperialism/Bigotry (or even put the three together, according to taste).
This abuts onto our purpose here because, if true, it raises the question of how can we really know which books are and are not Scripture?
It is at this point necessary to qualify, or at least clarify, what is meant by saying that the “Church” tells us what is and is not Canonical.
There are those who will point to the three African Synods, at Hippo Regius in 393, and Carthage in 397 and 419, which affirmed that the Canon was 27 books, a decision enshrined in St Jerome’s Vulgate which became the normative Bible in the West. In response, others will ask “what about the Lost Gospels”? It is here that the charge that the self-styled “orthodox” suppressed “diversity” comes into play.
Two questions arise, which wil be considered in turn. What are these “Lost Gospels” and how was it they were not included in the Canon?
Most modern accounts list up to nine other “Gospels” which date from the second century: the Ebionites; the Egyptians; the Hebrews; the Nazoreans; Thomas, Peter; unknown (P. Egerton 2, in the jargon); Judas; and the Infancy Gospel of James. Dating is difficult given the fragmentary sources, but most authorities put these books in the early second century, which dates them later than the four Gospels we receive. These “Gospels” were not unknown to the early Church, and long before the African Synods, none of them were included in the listings we have from the Fathers. This was not because someone somewhere suppressed them, it was because they were not “received.” what does that mean?
The “diversity” orthodoxy is partisan in that in dissenting from orthodoxy, it does what dissent often does, which is to overstate the nature of orthodoxy. Proceeding as it does from the underlying assumption that “diversity” is good and “orthodoxy” bad, it goes on to assume that the proponents of orthodoxy were as committed to propagating their unified view as they, in our time, are. But that is a category error. It is perfectly possible for a group of scholars to share a common view and to stick to their own orthodoxy; the idea that an early Church scattered across the Mediterranean and what we call the Middle East could do the same thing across a few centuries requires more evidence if we are to believe it. If one takes, as some of the modern scholars seem to, the view that those who won what they clearly see as an early Christian version of the “culture wars”, then one can provide a way of adjusting the past to fit your theory; the problem is, as ever, that the pasrt, like the early church, is too messy to be tidied up in this way. That has never stopped scholars from making the attempt, but absent the need to trumpet the importance of “diversity”, most scholars assumed that orthodoxy preceded heterodoxy, not the other way around.
Let us first tackle the idea of “orthodoxy”. The critics, who see it as a rigid, book-burning exercise in triumphal bigotry, overestimate what it meant. It is as though, emphasising as they do that early Christianity was more “diverse” than they had been led to believe, they swing too far in the opposite direction when describing orthodoxy. There is a good reason for this. If you are going to go on to argue that the “orthodox” ruthlessly tidied up the past to explain why your “Lost Gospels” were “lost”, then it follows that they were “rigid.” If that is how you see something called “the Church,” and it is how many in the West see what they might call the “Roman Catholic Church”, then confirmation bias sets in. It is not, after all, as though that Church is free of what is, by contemporary standards, an intolerant attitude toward heterodoxy. But whether it is wise to extrapolate from Pius IX to the first or second century church might be a question to ask before unconsciously so doing?
We can see “diversity” in the early church without going so far as including “Gospels” all our early witnesses exclude. Of course, if one wishes to categorise every early witness as biased because they were “orthodox’, then that gives rise to the question of what early witnesses exist for the advocates of “diversity’? Here, the problem tends to be that those witnesses are known only because of the “Fathers” whose works cite them, which in turn, raises the question of why, once “orthodoxy” had won, all such references were not ruthlessly expunged? Surely the argument cannot be broad enough to comprehend an “orthodoxy” ruthless enough to destroy and suppress heretical texts, but clueless enough to allow references to them to exist in the “Church Fathers”?
The “Church Fathers” who are uniform in identifying four Gospels begin with the pupil of a pupil of St John, namely Irenaeus. Born in Smryna around 115 AD., he studied with St Polycarp who had been a disciple of St John. As Bishop of Lyons, he was concerned by “Gnostic” teachings which claimed to be “secret” sayings of Jesus. Seeing this as that “other Gospel” mentioned by Paul, he wrote a treatise, Adversus Haereses to refute this teaching, in the process of which he cited the four Gospels we know and every book we receive as Canon save, Philemon, 2 Peter, 3 John, and Jude. His account of what the “Gnostics” believed was taken by some in previous generations of scholars to somewhat over-state the case, but the discovery and translation of the Nag Hammadi fragments has shown that he accurately recorded their teachings. For Irenaeus the error of the Gnostics was that they were departing from what had been received.
No one has argued that by the time Irenaeus wrote, probably around 180, there had been any Council or Synod pronouncing on the Canon, and no one who has read him has ever argued that there was anything radical or novel about Irenaeus. He is stating what he had received from Polycarp and the Church is Smyrna, Rome and Lyons We find the same in the writings of Hippolytus in the early second century, who cites only four Gospels, the ones received by Irenaeus.
We see the same pattern in the works of Clement of Alexandria, where the emphasis on the fourfold nature of the Gospels is even more impressive because he does cite the Gospel of the Egyptians and the Gospel of the Hebrews, as well as other Christian works such as the Shepherd of Hermas. This may well reflect the very different cultures of Lyons, a frontier city on the edge of the Roman Empire, and Alexandria, the intellectual powerhouse of the ancient world. But if we examine Clement’s texts, he quotes from the Gospel of the Egyptians eight times, and from the Gospel of the Hebrews thrice. He cites Matthew 757 times, Luke 402 times, John 33 times and Mark 182 times. The other “lost gospels” get a grand total of no citations. In his Stromateis (3.13.93), when pointing out erroneous teaching he writes: “In the first place we have not got the saying in the four Gospels that have been handed down to us, but in the Gospel according to the Egyptians”, which tells us what he thought of it as a source.
The first of the great Christian historians, Eusebius of Caesarea, who wrote in the early fourth century, has access to a text by Clement which has since disappeared (another example, no doubt iof the inefficiency of the ruthless “orthodox”?) called the Hypotyposeis in which Clement repeats a tradition about the four Gospels which he had received from the “elders” to the effect that Matthew and Luke were the first to be written, that Mark was written for those in Rome who had heard Peter preaching and wanted a record of it, and that John, “last of all” had written a “spiritual Gospel.” This was not a tradition derived from Irenaeus, but was from the same source – the tradition handed down from the “elders.”
These examples could be multiplied, and those who want more should go to Charles Hill’s excellent “Who chose the Gospels?” But the point is made. There were other “gospels” but they were not received because they were not attested to by tradition. This leads to the final part of this short series, which is whether it makes sense even to talk about “orthodoxy” in the early Church?