Far from not being able to distinguish which teachings concerning Jesus are historical, the data strongly favors the New Testament Gospels.
3.NT canon decided early
Third, another major problem with the Gnostic thesis is the contention that the New Testament canon was in a state of flux until the late second century, allowing a variety of Gospels to circulate without any indication as to which ones were more authoritative. Pagels’ brief and undifferentiated treatment is quite simplistic in that
18 Joseph A. Fitzmyer, “The Gnostic Gospels According to Pagels,” America, February 16, 1980, p. 123.
19 Cf. Drane, Introducing the NT, chapter 11. Guthrie presents detailed overviews of the present critical discussions (pp. 43–53 [Matthew], pp. 81–84 [Mark], pp. 113–125 [Luke], pp. 252–283 [John]). See Habermas, Ancient Evidence for the Life of Jesus, p. 63 (and endnotes) for a lengthy list of some contemporary scholars who accept the traditional authors.
20 Besides historians Michael Grant and A.N. Sherwin-White, whose views on the historical value of the Gospels we have studied in chapter 3, see R.T. France, The Evidence for Jesus(Downers Grove: InterVarsity, 1986), chapter 3, especially pp. 121–125; Blomberg, Historical Reliability, p. 161; Drane, Introducing the NT, chapter 12.
21 A.M. Hunter, Bible and Gospels, pp. 32–37.
gives virtually no indication of earlier developments.^22 Accordingly, critiques of her thesis have abounded.^23
Koester’s approach is both typical and more sophisticated. While holding that the New Testament canon was “essentially created” at the end of the second century (by Irenaeus), he also informs his readers of the earlier recognition of important groupings of canonical texts. Yet, he still implies that certain apocryphal writings (including Gnostic documents) were also in general circulation, almost as alternative explanations to the early Christian tradition.^24
Assessments such as Pagels’ are misleading, at best, while Koester needs to heed some of the important ramifications of the data. Within the pages of the New Testament itself, the seeds of canonicity were already beginning to grow. Later, by the very early second century, there were several crucial indications that two blocks of books, in particular, were being recognized as authoritative. All of this occurred well before the written Gnostic tradition was established.
Testimony of NT Itself
In 1Timothy 5:18 two statements are termed “Scripture.” The first is found in Deuteronomy 25:4, one of the Jews’ most sacred Old Testament books. The second teaching is found in Luke 10:7 (compare Matt. 10:10), and recites the words of Jesus. By placing a text in Deuteronomy alongside a statement by Jesus, and referring to both of them as Scripture, we have an indication of the early realization
22 Pagels, Gnostic Gospels, p. xxiii.
23 Pheme Perkins, herself an “insider” in these studies who appreciates some of Pagels’ work, still asserts that: Pagels either knows or cares too little about the theological diversity and development of “orthodox” Christian theology in the first three centuries to be fair to its defenders in their debates with the gnostics. She is frequently taken in by the stock rhetorical polemics of both sides, mistaking rhetoric for fact. (See Pheme Perkins, “Popularizing the Past,” Commonweal, 9 November, 1979, pp. 634–635.) Other problems include Pagels’ popularizing methodology, her constant imposition of political, sociological, and modern psychological factors upon ancient philosophical and theological questions, and the lack of her desired support for woman’s rights in the Gnostic sources. (For details, see Edwards, p. 7; Fitzmyer, p. 122; Perkins, p. 635; Raymond E. Brown, “The Christians Who Lost Out,” The New York Times Book Review, January 20, 1980, p. 3; Kathleen McVey, “Gnosticism, Feminism, and Elaine Pagels,” Theology Today, vol. 37, January, 1981, pp. 498, 501.) Lastly, Edwards charges that Pagels’ volume is plagued by a reductionism for which no evidence is provided, but only her own word (p. 7). Perkins summarizes her critique this way: But the whole is so flawed by hasty generalization, over-interpretation of texts to fit a pre-determined scheme, and lack of sympathetic balance that this reviewer found herself constantly wishing that the whole could have been redone with more care (p. 635). Koester in Robinson, Nag Hammadi, vol. II, pp. 1–15.