Whatever one thinks of the alleged discrepancies within the four gospels, it is clear from these discrepancies that agreement was not a condition of acceptance when deciding which books should be part of the New Testament. Ample evidence of this is provided by the very existence of what scholars often refer to as “the synoptic problem.” This term refers to the fact that certain parallel passages within the three synoptic gospels (Matthew, Mark, and Luke), and sometimes in the fourth gospel (John) as well which report the same events sometimes describe them differently. Often the differences are insignificant but sometimes they are not. In certain cases, it has led some scholars to argue that there are serious discrepancies, maybe even outright contradictions, between the gospels.
Having said that, many New Testament scholars maintain that plausible harmonizations can be found for all alleged discrepancies among the four gospels.[i] However, that is precisely the point. Alleged discrepancies do exist, and scholars have found it necessary to work at ways of finding harmonizations with some finding them more plausible than others. Clearly, if simple agreement had been the deciding condition, we would more likely have one gospel, and not four, thus nipping the problem of alleged discrepancies in the bud. In other words, in spite of these differences, however great they are, these gospel records were all included by the earliest Christians as authoritative documents because they were early eye-witness accounts of Jesus’ life and teachings. Agreement was not the criteria; apostolic connection was.
In fact, the more one looks into the process, the more evident this fact becomes. Other documents were considered for acceptance even when some of them contained some very different, even odd-sounding, teaching. One such document, called The Acts of Paul, showed up around A.D. 200 and was appealed to by some Christians because of its assumed authorship by Paul. Among other things, this document advocated total abstinence from sexual relations even for married people, and included the rather bizarre story of Paul baptizing an eighteen-foot tall lion. In the end, it was rejected and the early church leader, Tertullian of Carthage, tells why. Its origins were examined and it was discovered that the author was neither the apostle Paul, nor anyone acquainted with the original disciples. The actual author was a church elder forty years or more after St. Paul was martyred. In the end this particular document was rejected because it became clear that it was not written by Paul, nor by any other apostle.[ii]
What, then, were the criteria used by early Christians in determining which documents were authoritative and should be included in the New Testament? American New Testament scholar, Timothy Paul Jones echoes the conclusions of many others when he asserts that the early Christians based their decisions on two basic criteria. First, earlier is better, and second, eyewitness accounts had priority. As eye-witnesses, the original disciples’ (later called apostles, or ones sent out) writings were highly valued by the earliest Christians.[iii]
The basic idea of these criteria, taken together, is that the teaching and writings of people who actually saw and spent time with Jesus, especially the original disciples, carried special weight. This was the attitude of Christians from the very earliest days. When Judas, the disciple who betrayed Jesus, needed to be replaced, the condition for approval was clearly spelled out. Whoever replaced Judas must be a person who had been with the other disciples the whole time Jesus was living among them.[iv]
Writing a short time later, in approximately A.D. 110, Papias, the bishop of Hierapolis, who had been a disciple of John, reiterated his own close adherence to these two criteria in the way he questioned those who showed up claiming to have a word from God. “I ask,” he said, “what Andrew or Peter said, or. . .Philip or Thomas or James or John or Matthew or any other of the Lord’s followers.”[v]
We might wonder what is so important about being an eye-witness to Jesus. The logic is really rather straightforward. As Timothy Paul Jones puts it, “the people most likely to know the truth about Jesus were either eyewitnesses who had encountered Jesus personally or close associates of these eyewitnesses.”[vi] So while the Christian community wrestled for the first few centuries of its existence with the question of which writings were authoritative, their goal was simple, to establish which documents could be connected to eyewitnesses of Jesus and, thus, were early.
When we read the New Testament, we should be extremely grateful that we have not one, but four eye-witness accounts of the teachings, actions, responses, and even private conversations of Jesus of Nazareth. What we possess is a remarkable multi-tradition going back to eyewitness of Jesus.
[i] For further discussions on the issue of synoptic harmonizations, see New Testament scholar Craig Blomberg’s The Historical Reliability of the Gospels 2nd ed (Downers Grove: Intervarsity press, ____),____.
[ii] To learn more about Tertullian’s report, see A. Hilhorst, “Tertullian on The Acts of Paul,” in The Apocryphal Acts of Paul and Thecla, ed. Jan N. Bremmer (Kampen: Kok Pharos, 1996), 56-60, 157-161. See also Jones, Timothy Paul. Misquoting Truth: A Guide to the Fallacies of Bart Ehrmann’s ‘Misquoting Jesus’. (Downers Grove: Intervarsity Press, 2007), 131-132.
[iii] Jones, Timothy Paul. Misquoting Truth, 81.
[iv] Acts 1:21
[v] This is quoted by Eusebius in his Ecclesiastical History 3.39.
[vi] Jones, 126-127.