Lately in the circuitous meanderings of my mind I have been considering the importance of the number four. When we think of numbers with spiritual or biblical significance, we usually think of the number seven, of course, and then perhaps of the number three. But four? Yes. Four. It calls to mind the four faces of the cherubim of Ezekiel’s vision, the four living creatures that John saw in the Revelation, and certainly the four gospels. It is also a number representing the earth: the four points of the compass, the four winds, and that sort of thing.
Indeed, it is the significance of the number four in nature that the 2nd century church Father Irenaeus used as a rationale for the appropriateness for there being just four gospels… four and no more. This is not a trivial point. For we live in a day when these same four gospels are coming increasingly under attack. Witness the Gospel of Judas.
Remember just a few years back, a lot of hubbub—over nothing, really. Yet, many acted like the release of the transcription and the translation of this ancient heretical text was a revelation from Mt. Sinai. You can still read the translation on the internet, if you have a mind to. All you have to do is go to the website for the National Geographic Society. But I would advise you not to waste your time. It is a bunch of Gnostic gobbledy-gook that gives no new insight into either Christianity or Christ, nor into Gnostics or Gnosticism. Same old heresies. (Indeed, the Gospel of Judas was read, discussed, and dismissed in the second century by that same church Father mentioned a moment ago—Irenaeus.)
What I find interesting, though, was all the PR going on about the Gospel of Judas. It was the same thing as what happened with the Gospel of Thomas a few years earlier… and the same ideas as were put forward for other apocryphal nonsense. Could these be true “lost” Gospels? Do they belong in the Canon of Scripture? Were they purposefully “excluded” from the Bible by church authorities? This is certainly the contention of many writers today. Elaine Pagels, Bart Ehrman, and Dan Brown and his The Da Vinci Code not the least known among them.
I don’t have time in this missive to deal with the entire issue of canonicity, i.e., what books should be accepted as the Word of God, and which are unacceptable. Suffice it to say that the early church knew what they were doing in accepting the four Gospels we have, and only these four. However, I will make one brief observation about this matter. Often when you read the writings of skeptics who doubt the authority and authenticity of the Gospel record, they will say things like this: “Why do you Christians accept the writings of the Gospel writers… when these accounts were written an entire generation after the facts? It was decades after the death of Jesus before the Gospels were written! Doesn’t that call into question their accuracy and authenticity?” How can we answer such questions? I will tell you. We answer quite simply.
First of all, for any book to be penned a generation after the events it records is not a denial of it accuracy or authenticity. Are we to reject the memories and the memoirs of every President, general, politician or statesman who waited to the end of his life to record what happened during his youth? A generation in historical terms is nothing! Indeed, much of the history we have about ancient events and ancient persons was recorded MANY generations after the events or persons themselves. For several records of the teachings of Christ to be written down within a generation is actually pretty amazing… and speaks well as to their credibility as historical documents.
Secondly, it is incredible to me that the same people who are so enthusiastic about rejecting the validity of the four New Testament Gospels are so often the very same people who assert we should think again about the Canon—with a view to accepting books such as the gospels of Judas and Thomas. That is, they reject the New Testament Gospels, but they want us to accept these other “gospels” as being genuine. Really? Does this make sense? Well, consider this… virtually no scholar today, no matter how liberal his bent, will date the four canonical Gospels as being anything other than first century documents. Even the most anti-Christian, anti-biblical critics accept that all the evidence points to the fact that Matthew, Mark, Luke and John were recorded well within the lifetime of the original Apostles. And yet… when were these other “gospels” written? Well, the Gospel of Judas was probably penned sometime within A.D. 130-180. And the Gospel of Thomas? Well, maybe a few years earlier… maybe even at the end of the first century. (Although this is really up for grabs.) So, these are somewhat early documents, true, but still later than the canonical Gospels. And all the other apocryphal gospels were written even later, some as late as the fourth and fifth centuries. Instead of being within a generation of the death and resurrection of the Lord, these other “gospels” were written 3, 4 or 5 generations later. Now, who do you think is more accurate? Who would you believe—the writings of men who knew Jesus personally, or the writings of men who lived a hundred years or more later?
Another point. There is strong and early evidence for the legitimacy of the four Gospels we have in the New Testament. They were quoted as authoritative very early—for example, by Clement of Rome (c. A.D. 90) and Ignatius (A.D. 110). Then there is Eusebius, writing in the 4th century, who quotes the very early second century church leader Papias as noting the universal acceptance of these same four Gospels by the church. Furthermore, Papias made of point of stating that he personally had talked with men who actually had known and worked with the Twelve Apostle themselves. Or consider this, in the mid-second century a man named Tatian used the Four Gospels to produce a harmony of the life of Christ. This work, called the Diatessaron (meaning “through the four”) only used and recognized the four Gospels we now have. And then there is Irenaeus, whom we mentioned earlier. Facing Gnostic heresies, he boldly and forthrightly declared that there are four, and only four, true Gospels. And he should know. For he was a disciple of the famed Polycarp—and Polycarp was himself a disciple of none other the John the Beloved, the writer of the fourth Gospel. (That gives Irenaeus a pretty impressive pedigree for his teaching, I think.)
There are other sound reasons for accepting these FOUR and no more… but time prevents further discussion. Let’s just leave it at this… we have four solid, true, reliable Gospels. So let’s hear a round of applause for the wonderful number four! Four winds blow upon the earth. We travel in four directions. We live in a universe of four dimensions. We enjoy four seasons of the year (at least here in Virginia). There are four-faced celestial creatures. There are four Gospels which give four independent testimonies to the history of Jesus Christ. There are four evidentiary pillars under-girding and supporting the claims of the Christian faith: historical, rational, empirical and supernatural. Yep, four is a mighty important number.