Updated: Dec 21, 2018
“’Who chose which gospels to include?’ Sophie asked. ‘Aha!’ Teabing burst in with enthusiasm. ‘The fundamental irony of Christianity! The Bible, as we know it today, was collated by the pagan Roman emperor Constantine the Great.’” (Dan Brown, The Da Vinci Code)
Dan Brown’s fiction made even more popular the misconception that the Gospels were chosen by Constantine in early 4th century. This isn’t even remotely true. The common story in the secular academy is that whoever had the largest army picked the Scriptures. But the history just does not support this theory.
There were lists of the received books of the New Testament that began circulating in the church in late 3rdand early 4th centuries. There was a general accepted consensus of what we would understand as a canon by the early 2nd century. The lists don’t always mesh perfected, but it is close. The Muratorian Fragment contains a list that is roughly the same as the Table of Contents in your Bible. Some scholars say it should be dated to the 4th century because this list fits with other 4th century lists. But that is a circular argument. Everything else about the list points to an early 2nd century dating. These lists point to a settled canon that was received by the Church well before Constantine. When asked the question, “Who chose the Gospels?” Dr. Charles Hill summarized, “second-century Christian leaders would have said that neither individuals nor churches had the authority to ‘choose’ which of the many Gospels they liked, but to receive the ones given by God and handed down by Christ through is apostles.” No one ‘chose’ the Gospels, rather these were the books that had always been received as the Word of God for the Church.
As far as the earliest dates for the writing of New Testament books, Mark is among the earliest. Mark was likely written between 55 and 65AD. This would be the earliest of the Gospel accounts. And like the Gospel according to Matthew, Mark is technically anonymous. But very early tradition attributes it to John Mark. Mark wrote as one who was recording the testimony of the apostle Peter.
Mark was a companion of Paul and Barnabas early in their missionary journeys. But there was a falling out between Paul and Mark in Acts 15. Apparently Mark had abandoned Paul at some point. Mark would continue on with Barnabas, while Paul took Silas on as a traveling companion. Later on we learn from 2 Timothy 4 that Paul and Mark are reconciled, and Paul even mentions that Mark is “very valuable to me.” A final reference to Mark appears in 1 Peter 5:13 where we learn that Mark is in Rome with Peter. This is where Mark would have compiled and written his Gospel.
During this period of time in Rome there was a growing Christian Church. It was composed of both Jewish believers and also Gentile converts. During this time there was the rise of Nero as emperor. His reign was marked by an increasingly erratic and despotic style of governance. Christians were largely ignored until Nero needed a new scapegoat. The Gospel of Mark was likely written during these (or similar) hardships. Mark is writing to strengthen and encourage the Church in their suffering and potential martyrdom. Nothing in their experience was foreign to the experience of Jesus. He suffered. He was betrayed. He was crucified. He tasted death. And yet he rose victorious.
Mark’s Gospel does not assume a deep knowledge of Judaism or Hebrew terms. Often these are translated for the reader (this is a difference with Matthew). Mark also begins with John the Baptist and goes straight into Jesus’ ministry. Unlike Luke and Matthew, Mark skips over the Nativity. And from this starting point, Mark outlines the two key points of his Gospel, “The beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God” (Mark 1:1). The title of Christ is built up to the crescendo of Peter’s response to Jesus’ question, “’But who do you say that I am?’ Peter answered him, ‘You are the Christ’” (Mark 8:29). And then the response of the Centurion witnessing the crucifixion of Jesus, “Truly, this man was the Son of God” (Mark 15:39). The Jewish disciple, Peter, and the Roman Centurion declare the reality of Jesus. He is the Christ, the Son of God.
 Hill, Who Chose the Gospels?, 246.