From today’s inbox:
Why do we only accept the four canonical Gospels? Why are Luke and John special, but Gospels attributed to Thomas or Barnabas don’t make the cut? How credible is the Gospels’ authorship anyway?
Remember that the four Gospels were the latest New Testament texts to be written. Thirty to sixty years had elapsed between Christ’s resurrection and the writing of the fourth Gospel.
During that time, generations of Christians had flourished in communities all over the Mediterranean and the Near East. When Paul’s letters arrived, they were received by the children and grandchildren of people who had been converted by the apostles – that is, folks who already had an established tradition of Christian worship and teaching. These communities judged the letters (and, later, the Gospels) that they received, and they kept and copied only the ones that conformed to the tradition their communities had received from the apostles.
In the four recognized Gospels, we have texts that were judged and approved by Christian communities everywhere; they copied and shared them.
The authorship is of course also a matter of tradition: We first read the names of the four Evangelists as Matthew, Mark, Luke and John in the second-century writings of Bishop Irenaeus of Lyons. It’s not as if the authors of the four Gospels signed their names :-)
When we set the four Gospels apart to be read in our worship, we are expressing our faith in the mind of the Church which selected and preserved these four books.