By Joshua Chestnut
C. E. Hill, Who Chose the Gospels? Probing the Great Gospel Conspiracy New York: Oxford University Press, 2010. xi + 295 pp
There is no shortage of books about how the early Christian church came to agree upon the four accounts of Jesus’ life (i.e. the canonical gospels) that are included within the New Testament. In many of these works, from popular level fiction to credentialed academic treatises, it has become commonplace to present a narrative in which the four canonical Gospels arose to prominence only after a long and bloody battle within early Christianity that was finally won in the fourth century after the establishment and enforcement of Christian Orthodoxy by the Roman Emperor Constantine. In his Who Chose the Gospels? New Testament professor Charles E. Hill effectively, and often entertainingly, turns this narrative on its head.
Hill does a commendable job at making scholarly work not only accessible but often interesting, and occasionally even funny. Hill displays an impressive command of the pertinent material as he sifts through a massive amount of scholarly information regarding the nature and number of ancient Christian papyri and codices. The two chapters in which he exonerates Irenaeus of Lyon, a 2nd century bishop who, in recent years, has been in the cross-hairs of many critical scholars who see him as an angry, oppressive and intolerant front runner to Emperor Constantine, are both compelling and convincing. From there Hill devotes a large amount of space working back from Irenaeus to show how even though there were ‘other Gospels’ in existence throughout these years, yet there was a strong consensus on the authority of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John among many church leaders across the Roman Empire prior to Ireaneus.
In the final chapter of the book Hill attempts to answer the title question of his book: who chose the gospels? Following F.F. Bruce and Bruce Metzger before him, he concludes that no one person or single group of people did in fact choose the gospels; in a very real sense the four gospels imposed themselves uniquely on the early church through their apostolic connections, their large acceptance throughout the church and their spiritual dynamism. Hill writes, “The question ‘why did you choose these Gospels?’ would not have made sense to many Christians in the second century, for the question assumes that the church, or someone in it, had the authority to make the choice. To many, it would be like the question, ‘why did you choose your parents?” (p. 231).
Whose Chose the Gospels? is a highly readable and informed introduction to a difficult and often complicated subject matter. If you, or perhaps family, friends or colleagues have read the work of such scholars as Bart Ehrman Helmut Koester or Elaine Pagels, Hill offers a compelling, competent and up to date alternative.