You’ve probably seen the headlines: Jesus had a wife! (spoiler, the text was a fake), “Judas was framed,” or “Mary wasn’t a virgin.” The canonical gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John where not the only gospel texts written by the early Christians. They were but four among many others. This discovery of other gospel texts in the last century has re-opened the question of canon, of which texts should be read by Christians for personal edification and in corporate Sunday worship. The stakes are high. What if the Church got it wrong and built its house on sand? Perhaps there should be five gospels, or one?

For some, this discovery of non-canonical gospels is an existential threat and a source of embarrassment, evoking a defensive response designed to maintain the uniqueness of the New Testament. For others, the recent discovery of non-canonical gospels is an opportunity to rewrite Christian history, severing the link between Jesus and the canonical gospels. The study of the non-canonical gospels is taken as a battle for the soul of Christianity, between the “orthodox” four and the “heretical” usurpers. In this apocalyptic struggle between good and evil, academic decisions about composition date, authorship, independence, and provenance become weaponized for apologetics and our modern culture wars. In place of older (dated) arguments over apostolic authorship of the gospels, scholars have sought independent, neutral criteria by which the many gospels can be tested for authenticity, vindicating the four canonical texts or others.

The criterion mostly commonly employed by scholars across the board is that of historical priority. The earliest texts about Jesus are the most historically reliable, and therefore worthy of study. Second century gospel texts, like the Gospel of Mary, are usually dismissed out of hand, to say nothing of the 3rd century Gospel of Philip. This criterion accounts for the vigorous debate over the exact wording of the hypothetical Q source (the possible document shared by Matthew and Luke) as well as the composition date of the Gospel of Thomas. Some scholars believe Thomas was composed around 30-50 CE, while others date it closer to 135-150 CE. Elaine Pagels believes that the Gospel of John was actually written to combat Thomas. The Gospel of Peter is believed by some to have been composed in the 1st century, alongside the canonical gospels. By contrast, Richard Bauckham has contended that the canonical gospels derive from eye witnesses and are demonstrably “early.”

Whether or not one agrees with an early dating of non-canonical material, when the standard of “early” is consistently applied it does not justify the selection and use of the four canonical gospels. If “the earlier the better” is the standard, then Q or Mark are the only ones with a passable grade. Matthew and Luke are questionable; John is toast.

It is often said that the dividing line between canonical and non-canonical gospels is the difference between orthodoxy and heresy. Heretical texts didn’t make the cut; the orthodox four did. The trouble with this criterion is not every non-canonical text is heretical. The “Protevangelium of James” is an infancy gospel that has enjoyed a wide readership with no suspicion of heresy. The “Epistula Apostolorum,” the “Egerton Gospel,” “Tatian’s Gospel,” and the “Gospel of Peter” may have some unconventional moments, but they’re not explicitly unorthodox. The “gnostic” texts discovered at Nag Hammadi, Egypt, such as “The Gospel of Truth,” “The Gospel of Philip,” and “The Gospel of Thomas” may qualify as heretical, but they were likely copied and read by the impeccably orthodox monks nearby. The standard of orthodoxy as defined by Nicene Christianity does enable some of the gospels to be excluded, but it does not account for all texts, nor does it address the possibility that a single text should replace the coequal status of four canonical gospels.

The problem of multiple gospels beyond the four was ingeniously addressed by the 3rd century theologian Origen of Alexandria. He likens the choice of the four to “experienced money changers” who distinguished true and false prophets, those who wrote with the divine gift of the Holy Spirit and those who did not (Homilies on Luke, 1). While real and counterfeit money may look or feel the same, only the experienced money changer knows which coins are valuable and which ones aren’t. Gospel texts may look similar, saying things that Jesus would say or recording stories of Jesus which seem correct, but only a select few are actually currency that can provide what they appear to promise. Fake quarters can’t clean your laundry just as non-canonical gospels cannot give life.

The criterion employed by Origen is not something neutral, or independently verifiable, like historical reliability or apostolic origin, but self-involving. It is a measure of whether the text about Jesus is genuinely “good news” to the reader/hearer. It is the Gospel that authenticates the gospels, not vice versa. They are inspired precisely because these four pillars of the church are “breathing out immortality on every side, and vivifying humanity afresh” (Irenaeus, Adv. Haer. III.11.8). The selection of the four was not a neat, or even straightforward process, but hard won over many decades of testing. Christians had an insatiable desire to know more about Jesus by whatever means possible. For a time, the texts of Philip and Thomas were read by the Egyptian monks alongside Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. Each gospel text promised to be “good news” to its readers, but only the four reliably delivered the goods. The selection of the four was not directed by bishops, but the countless communities that read them. It was not a matter of authoritarian exclusion, but of experience, of receiving grace from God through the four gospels. Or, in the words of the late theologian John Webster, “Affirming the canon is a matter of the church ‘obediently embracing’ what comes from God” (The Dogmatic Location of the Canon, p. 120). It took time to measure and discern which gospels were life-giving and which ones were not. The texts which became non-canonical gospels were sifted over time by their readers. Because they fell out of favor, they were not copied or disseminated.

There are many gospel texts, but only one Gospel. It is likely that we will eventually find more gospel texts, as the sands of Egypt shift, but they are not a threat to Christianity. Newer gospels may get all the best headlines and they may even have some claims to historical truth, but they do not give life to weak and weary pilgrims. Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John show themselves to be the inspired word of God because they have preached life-giving “good news” to us and to countless generations before us. The Jesus the four gospels present us is the only Jesus who can save us from our sin.