One of the best parts of studying for our upcoming Forum on how the New Testament was put together has been the things I’ve been able to find about the actual artifacts we have from the first couple of centuries after Jesus lived. While we don’t have, say, a note from Peter saying, “These are the books of the New Testament,” there are actual pieces of evidence that we can study–things like manuscripts and quotes from people who lived at the time. And this is all so contrary to popular perception. It does take some digging and research to find it, but it’s worth it (and, pretty exciting, actually).
For instance, there’s this article I read by Charles Hill, called The Four Gospel Canon in the Second Century. (Click on that title to download the pdf of the full article.) In it he discusses the evidence for the fact that, in the first hundred years or so after Christ, the mainstream of Christianity recognized, as scripture, the same four Gospels which we read today. Yes, there is evidence of other documents which made some claim to represent a different tradition about Jesus (like, The Gospel of Thomas), but we have ways of seeing that the first generations of Christians weren’t in the dark about whether these other writings were faithful witnesses to the Apostolic message, or not.
At the end of his article, Hill has a paragraph where he summarizes some of this historical evidence that needs to be explained if someone wants to claim there was ever wide-spread doubt about which gospels were authentic:
words and ideas found in these Gospels [Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John] keep appearing in literary sources from very early on
these four in particular were used as a basis of other, harmonizing Gospels
they appear in conflational citations and in harmonizing variants in Gospel manuscripts
some wrote hostile “Gospels” against them and why Marcion based his textual “salvaging” efforts on one of them
congregations in Justin’s circles in Rome read and expounded them in liturgical settings
Theophilus and Tatian harmonized just these four Gospels
scribes began to bind these four together in codices, even apparently in standard sizes, with reader’s aids all in the second century.
He then goes on:
As we have seen, there tend to be significant differences between the physical features of the earliest canonical Gospel manuscripts and the earliest non-canonical ones. Again I would stress that the existence of these differences should not be interpreted to mean that nobody ever considered Gospels other than the four to be authoritative, “inspired”, or even Scriptural. But it does suggest that Christians who might have regarded them in these ways probably stood apart from what appears to be the mainstream. And this, after all, is just what Irenaeus said was the case.
It now appears that writings such as the Gospel of Thomas, the Gospel of Mary, and the Gospel of Peter either tended to be regarded differently from the four, even by those who copied them, or else those who copied them tended to belong to different scribal networks from those who copied the canonical Gospels. Either conclusion seems significant.