1.Canonical Gospels earlier
First, from the perspective of the time factor alone, the four canonical Gospels are much earlier than their Gnostic counterparts. While the earliest Gnostic Gospels are perhaps dated from about AD 140–200 (see the comments below on the Gospel of Thomas), the canonical Gospels may be dated from AD 65–100, a difference of 75–100 years earlier on the average. Even though these Gnostic texts possibly include earlier material, the Gospels certainly include traditions that predate their writing.
So while Pagels and others would have us suppose that these various Gospels simply circulated together, inviting believers to espouse radically different beliefs,^16 the facts indicate that these two groups of texts were not on an equal footing. The very fact that the canonical Gospels were written decades earlier is at least a preliminary indication that they could possibly also be more authoritative.
One scholar who agrees with this assessment is O.C. Edwards. Speaking in particular of Pagels’ thesis, he asserts: It is precisely as history that I find her work most unsatisfactory. Nowhere, for instance, does she give the impression that the basic picture of Jesus given in the New Testament gospels did not arise contemporaneously with the Gnostic portrait, but antedated it by at least half a century. As historical reconstructions there is no way that the two can claim equal credentials.^17
16 Pagels, Gnostic Gospels, p. xxiii.
17 O.C. Edwards, “A Surprising View of Gnosticism,” New Review of Books and Religion, May, 1980, p. 27.
New Testament scholar Joseph A. Fitzmyer responds similarly: “Time and again, she is blind to the fact that she is ignoring a good century of Christian existence in which those ‘Gnostic Christians’ were simply not around.”^18
2.Canonical Gospels more authoritative
Second, beyond the matter of age alone, the canonical Gospels are both historically reliable and simply much closer to the authority of Jesus Himself. An issue here that some would say is as crucial as any other is the authorship of the Gospels. While we cannot pursue here a discussion of this question, the traditional authorship of each Gospel is still defended by outstanding scholars.^19
But some intellectuals point out that authorship is not the main issue at all. If the Gospels are judged according to the standards of ancient historiography in terms of date and reliability on issues that can be compared to other known data, they measure well and ought to be accepted as good sources for historical information about Jesus.^20
Perhaps it would be helpful to summarize the conclusion of New Testament critical scholar A. M. Hunter, who pointed out that there are several reasons why the Gospels are trustworthy sources.
(1) The earliest Christians were meticulous in preserving the tradition of Jesus’ words and life.
(2) The Gospel writers were close to the eyewitnesses and pursued the facts about Jesus. (3) There are indications that these authors were honest reporters.
(4) The overall composite of Jesus as presented in the four Gospels is essentially the same.^21