A letter from a reader about More on the canonical gospels
William Barker ’56’s Feb. 14 letter states that the canonicity of the four New Testament gospels is based on their apostolicity (viz., that they are traceable to the earliest followers of Jesus), and that this evidence is abundant for the New Testament gospels, whereas it is not for the gnostic gospels.
To be sure, the gnostic gospels (or Christian gospels, as Professor Elaine Pagels has termed them), were largely written after the canonical gospels – except for the Gospel of Thomas, which may have predated Matthew and Luke – and are not primary accounts of Jesus’ life. Mr. Barker cites, inter alia, the work of Clement of Rome as his earliest attestation to support New Testament gospel apostolicity. However, Jesus died c. A.D. 29, Mark (the earliest New Testament gospel) dates from c. 65, and Clement wrote c. 96; so where is the primary evidence of apostolicity? Even the Pauline letters (c. A.D. 50), which predated Mark and far predated Clement, are unfortunately not primary sources, as Paul (Saul of Tarsus) stated that he himself never met Jesus, but knew some who did.
I agree with Mr. Barker that the earlier the document,
that is, the closer it is chronologically to Jesus’ life, the more
that document can be termed apostolic and therefore canonical. However,
neither canonical nor gnostic gospels were primary accounts. My discussion
has not been to discredit the canonical gospels, which are splendid and
remarkable masterpieces of faith, central to the Christian ethos. My thesis is
simply that we should read the gospels for spiritual nourishment, not necessarily
for historicity. Perhaps some day the evidence will allow us to merge faith and
fact. Until then, the New Testament gospels remain the
most magnificent examples of early Christian literature.
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