Why did the Early Church Accept the Four NT Gospels and Reject the Gnostic Gospels?

By Rev. Ron Jones, DD © The Titus Institute, 2006

Summary statement:
The early church accepted the four NT gospels because they were written by apostles or associates of apostles and were in agreement with apostolic teaching. The apostles were the only authoritative eyewitnesses of Jesus. No other so-called gospels fit these criteria.

1. Jesus gave his apostles, the twelve and Paul, the authority as his witnesses to proclaim his true identity and mission to the world.

Jesus made them eyewitnesses of his resurrection.
Acts 1:1-3

Jesus gave them understanding of his claims and teachings and promised them the power of the Holy Spirit so that they might preach only the truth.

Jesus appointed Paul on the Damascus Road to be the thirteenth apostle and made him an eyewitness of his resurrection.
Acts 26:13-18
1 Cor.15:1-8
Gal. 1:11-12

The apostles’ doctrine was the test of truth for all who claimed to speak for Jesus or God.

Acts 2:42
1 Jn.2:20-23

2. The early church was committed to the apostles as the only ones who had authority to speak and write for Jesus.

Clement c.95
“The apostles have preached the gospel to us from the Lord Jesus Christ: Jesus Christ has done so from God. Christ therefore was sent forth by God, and the apostles by Christ.” (1 Clement 42.1)

Ignatius c.105
Study, therefore, to be established in the doctrines of the Lord and the apostles. (Magnesians, 13)

Polycarp c. 117
“Let us therefore so serve Him (God) with fear and all reverence as He Himself gave commandment and the apostles who preached the gospel to us and the prophets who proclaimed beforehand the coming of our Lord." (Philippians 6)

Irenaeus c.180
“For the Lord of all gave to his apostles the power of the gospel through whom also we have known the truth, that is, the doctrine of the Son of God (Against Heresies 3.5)...The apostles, likewise being disciples of the truth, are above all falsehood " (Against Heresies 3 Preface)

3. The early church was committed to the one united doctrine of the apostles, which was their standard of truth and orthodoxy.

Irenaeus c.180
In this order, and by this succession, the ecclesiastical tradition from the apostles, and the preaching of the truth, have come down to us. And this is most abundant proof that there is one and the same life-giving faith, which has been preserved in the church from the apostles until now, and handed down in truth. (Against Heresies 3.3)

Tertullian c.197
The apostles were ignorant of nothing and they preached nothing that contradicted one another. (Against Heretics 25)

4. The four NT Gospels were written in the first century and then collected by the early church as the only authoritative gospels from the apostles and their associates.

Two apostles, Matthew and John, and two close associates of apostles, Mark and Luke, wrote the Four NT Gospels.

1) Luke was a close associate of Paul the apostle.

2) Mark was a close associate of Peter.
1 Pet.5:13

See Timeline of the Historical Evidence for the NT Gospels

5. The early church leaders from the first century to the end of the second century formed a succession of those who handed down the truth and the gospels from the apostles.

See: Timeline of the Apostles and Early Church Fathers in the first and second Centuries

John the Apostle (d. 95AD) ------ Polycarp (69-155AD) ------ Irenaeus (130-200AD)

Polycarp c. 117
“Let us therefore so serve Him (God) with fear and all reverence as He Himself gave commandment and the apostles who preached the gospel to us and the prophets who proclaimed beforehand the coming of our Lord." (Philippians 6)

Irenaeus about Polycarp c. 180
Polycarp also was instructed by apostles, and he spoke with many who had seen Christ. Not only that, but by apostles, in Asia he was appointed bishop of the church in Smyrna. I also saw him in my early youth, for he lived a very long time. When he was a very old man, he gloriously and most nobly suffered martyrdom and departed this life. He had always taught the things which he had learned from the apostles, and which the church has handed down, and which alone are true(Against Heresies 3.3.4)…he would speak of his familiar relations with John, and with the rest of those who had seen the Lord. He would call their words to remembrance. So Polycarp received it in this manner from the eyewitnesses of the Word of life. Whatever things he had heard from them respecting the Lord (concerning both His miracles and His teaching), he would recount—all in harmony with the Scriptures.(Florinus 2)

6. The early church rejected the Gnostics because they contradicted the teaching of the apostles.

Ignatius c. 105
How much more will this be the case with anyone who by wicked doctrine corrupts the faith of God, for which Jesus Christ was crucified! Such a one becomes defiled. He will go away into everlasting fire, and so will everyone that listens to him (Ephesians 16)…But if, as some that are without God, that is, the unbelieving, say, He became man in appearance [only], that He did not in reality take unto Him a body, that He died in appearance [merely], and did not in very deed suffer, then for what reason am I now in bonds, and long to be exposed to the wild beasts? In such a case, I die in vain, and am guilty of falsehood against the cross of the Lord. (Trallians 10)

Irenaeus c.180
How the Valentinians pervert the Scriptures to support their own pious opinions…This, then, is their system, which neither the prophets announced, nor the Lord taught, nor the apostles delivered. However, they boast that they have a perfect knowledge, beyond all others. They gather their views from other sources than the Scriptures. (Against Heresies 1.8)

7. The early church stated that the four NT gospels refute the Gnostics.

Irenaeus c.180
The Ebionites, who use only Matthew’s Gospel, are refuted out of this very same work, making false suppositions with regard to the Lord. But Marcion, mutilating the Gospel according to Luke, is still proved to be a blasphemer of the only existing God, from those passages which he still retains. Those, again, who separate Jesus from Christ, alleging that Christ remained impassible, but that it was Jesus who suffered, prefer the Gospel by Mark. However, if they read it with a love of truth, they would have their errors rectified. Those persons, moreover, who follow Valentinus, make copious use of the Gospel according to John to illustrate their conjunctions. However, they, too, will be proved to be totally in error. (Against Heresies 3.7)

8. The early church rejected the Gnostic gospels because they were not written by an apostle or a close associate of an apostle and did not agree with apostolic teaching.

The early church rejected the addition of any other Gospel to the four NT gospels.

Irenaeus c.180
These things being so, all who destroy the form of the Gospel are vain, unlearned, and also audacious; those, [I mean, ] who represent the aspects of the Gospel as being either more in number than as aforesaid, or, on the other hand, fewer. The former class [do so], that they may seem to have discovered more than is of the truth; the latter, that they may set the dispensations of God aside. (Against Heresies 3.9)

Irenaeus c.180
On the other hand, those who are from Valentinus are altogether reckless. They create their own Scriptures, boasting that they possess more Gospels than there really are. Indeed, they have gone to such a degree of audacity, as to entitle their comparatively recent writing the Gospel of Truth though it agrees in nothing with the Gospels of the Apostles so that they have really no gospel which is not full of blasphemy. (Against Heresies 3.9)

Irenaeus c.180
“Others again declare that Cain derived his being from the Power above, and acknowledge that Esau, Korah, the Sodomites, and all such persons, are related to themselves. On this account, they add, they have been assailed by the Creator, yet no one of them has suffered injury. For Sophia was in the habit of carrying off that which belonged to her from them to herself. They declare that Judas the traitor was thoroughly acquainted with these things, and that he alone, knowing the truth as no others did, accomplished the mystery of the betrayal; by him all things, both earthly and heavenly, were thus thrown into confusion. They produce a fictitious history of this kind, which they style the Gospel of Judas.” (Against Heresies 1.31)

Origen c.254
“I know a certain gospel which is called “The Gospel according to Thomas” and a “Gospel according to Matthias” and many others have we read - lest we should in any way be considered ignorant of those who imagine they possess some knowledge if they are acquainted with these. Nevertheless, among all these we have approved solely what the church has recognized, which is that only four gospels should be accepted.” (Homily on Luke 1:1)

9. The Gnostic Gospels were written more than 125 years after Jesus’ death when all the eyewitnesses were gone. The four Gospels were written within 50 years of Jesus’ death by eyewitnesses or their close associates while other eyewitnesses were still living.

Which gospels are historically more reliable, the ones written by eyewitnesses or those close to eyewitnesses or those written by those who lived over a hundred years later?

Ben Witherington, Professor of New Testament at Asbury Theological Seminary
“Before we turn to these documents, it is important to state a crucial principle of historical study: It is always more likely that those sources that come from eyewitnesses or those who were in contact with eyewitnesses will provide us with the best data about an ancient person than documents that were composed several centuries later, as were the Gnostic Gospels. There would need to be clear and compelling evidence corroborated by several later sources for us to take the word of later documents that Jesus was married. There is no such evidence, even in the Gnostic Gospels.” (The Gospel Code, p.32)

“The essential question is, ‘What were the earliest documents (and what do they say)?’ The answer is the New Testament itself. We have no documents earlier than these, and as any good historian knows, the documents closest to the source of a movement are likely to be most revealing about its origins. The documents written by eyewitnesses or those in contact with eyewitnesses are our primary sources, and these documents happen to be in the New Testament, plus a few other likely first-century documents, such as the Didache and 1 Clement.” (The Gospel Code, p.118)