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FIRST-PERSON (part 5): Why were the four N.T. Gospels selected and not others?

EDITOR’S NOTE: With books such as “Misquoting Jesus” and “Jesus, Interrupted,” New Testament scholar Bart Ehrman has taken his questioning of the authenticity of Scripture straight to the New York Times bestseller list. Ehrman’s background as an evangelical “believer” turned chief skeptic has also made him a favorite of the media. This is the fifth and final part in a five-part series on Ehrman.

ALPHARETTA, Ga. (BP)–Why were the four Gospels included in the New Testament selected and not the other so-called gospels floating around in antiquity? The answer to this question is far more involved than can be fairly discussed here.

One important criterion for the early church was that the book or letter had either been written by an apostle or a close colleague to an apostle. While other Gospels claimed to have been written by Thomas, Peter, Phillip, Mary, Judas and others, scholars are virtually unanimous in concluding that these Gospels were written some time in the second and third centuries — the lone exception being Thomas, which some scholars believe was written in the latter part of the first century, although the evidence now suggests the end of the second century may be more likely. Few scholars hold that these “other gospels” contain eyewitness testimony from the original disciples of Jesus.

In “Jesus, Interrupted,” Bart Ehrman states that he would not mind seeing 1 Timothy excluded from the New Testament and a few others added to it, such as the Gospel of Peter where a “giant Jesus and a walking-talking cross” appears at his resurrection and an infancy gospel where a mischievous five-year-old Jesus performs a few miracles. Of course, Ehrman doesn’t believe any of these stories actually occurred. But we must keep in mind that he likewise doesn’t believe a lot of what is reported in the New Testament Gospels.

For Ehrman, the 27 books and letters in our present New Testament are there because at the end of the debates, the winners got to write the past, or at least determine which accounts of the past would be preserved. Of course, sometimes the winners deserve to win. Ehrman would do well to listen to a prominent scholar on the subject of these “other gospels” who writes, “[T]hese other accounts are interesting in the extreme and well worth reading. But they do not, as a rule, provide us with reliable historical information. They are all later than the Gospels of the New Testament and are filled with legendary, though intriguing, stories of the Son of God…. [I]f we want to know about the life of the historical Jesus, we are more or less restricted to using the four Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John.” The scholar who wrote this statement is … Bart Ehrman (Jesus, Interrupted, 2009, page 151).

When we look at the decisions pertaining to which Gospels to include in the New Testament, we observe that the ancient church got it right. This particular attack by Ehrman differs little from the others we have observed this week. They grab our attention on very important topics. However, in the end we learn that his ultimate conclusions consist mainly of smoke and mirrors rather than the profound findings of scholars. Ehrman’s shock statements and excellent writing skills sell a lot of books. In a struggling economy, this is good for Ehrman and good for his publishers. It’s unfortunate, however, that many sincere people have been and will be misled by them.

On a bright side, Ehrman’s books create opportunities for Christians to discuss the credibility of our faith, a faith that is grounded in solid historical evidence. The evidence is there. Are Christians going to be willing to make good use of it? With the spread of Islam, militant atheism, and the popularity of more sober-minded skeptical scholars like Bart Ehrman, the need for Christian apologetics has never been greater.
Mike Licona is a New Testament historian and apologetics coordinator for the North American Mission Board.. For a better understanding of today’s world religions and for resources that will help you defend your faith, visit NAMB’s apologetics website at www.4truth.net. A four-part video series featuring an interview with Mike Licona about Bart Ehrman accompanies this series. To view the videos, go to http://bit.ly/1oPRbA.
A four-part video series featuring an interview with Mike Licona about Bart Ehrman accompanies this series. To view the videos, go to http://bit.ly/1oPRbA.

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  • Mike Licona