This morning at breakfast we were talking about the discovery of the Gnostic Gospel of Judas, as well as new books appearing like The Jesus Papers, etc. Someone asked, "So how did the Church decide which gospels were real and which weren't?"
It's a great question and one that's very topical. By the end of the first century, there were many gospels circulating, perhaps even hundreds. The Church had to sift through them and discern which ones were truly inspired by God.
In doing that, the Church used three criteria:
1. Apostolic origin The writings that were accepted were associated with an apostle. For example, Matthew and John were believed to have been written by those apostles; Mark was connected with Peter, and Luke with Paul. Even if they weren't actually written by those persons, somehow being associated with an apostle made a writing more accepted.
2. The local Churches to which the writings were addressed.
The various local churches preserved the writings they received, and those that became more important naturally had more of their writings preserved, and they were given greater authority. For example, the church at Rome probably preserved the Gospel of Mark, the letter to the Romans and the letter to the Hebrews.
3. The rule of faith
The writings that were accepted had to accurately teach the rule of faith that the Church taught, which had been handed down by oral tradition. So the various gospels written by Gnostics were excluded, because they taught errors. The Gospel of Judas falls into that category.