THE WITNESS OF CHURCH TRADITION
The testimony of church tradition is strong and unanimous for the three synoptic Gospel accounts – Matthew, Mark, and Luke are the only names attached to them in any of the writings we have from the early church fathers. There is no evidence of any author in the first centuries of the church ever attributing any of these Gospels to anyone other than Matthew, Mark and Luke. Only Gaius (just after 200 AD) gives us any different name for any of the gospels and that is only for the Gospel of John when disputing its authenticity. (6)
However, the church fathers who alluded to, or quoted passages from, the Gospels during the first century after their composition did so without attributing an author’s name to the texts they were citing. The focus of the primitive church was not on the identity of the authors of the Gospels but on the truth of Jesus whom they had written about. Would we expect anything less than such from them?
Ignatius, overseer of Antioch in Syria, (50-107 AD) wrote influential letters and in them quoted from 8 books in our NT, including the Gospels of Matthew and Luke, but did not refer to any of these texts by their given title. The Didache (50-120 AD) quotes the Lord’s Prayer from Matthew, attributing these verses to “His (Jesus’) Gospel”, again without mentioning the author. The Epistle of Barnabas (80-120 AD) also quotes from the Gospel of Matthew as a written document but does not attach Matthew’s name to it. Polycarp, Greek overseer of Smyrna (70-155 AD) in his writings quoted from 17 books in our NT, including the Gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke, but likewise did not refer to any of these texts by their given title. It has thus been suggested that the four Gospels were likely each originally referred to under the title το ευαγγελιον Ιησου Χριστου (“The Gospel of Jesus Christ”), with the construction κατα (“according to”) added later to distinguish individual gospels by their designated names.
Justin Martyr (100-165 AD) was an early Christian apologist, most of whose works have been lost to the passage of time but three remain and in these he quotes from each of the four Gospels but without naming their specific authors. Instead Justin uses the terms “memoirs of the apostles” 15 times and “gospel” 3 times. In the single passage where he uses both terms (1 Apol. 66:3) Justin states: “The apostles in the memoirs which have come from them, which are called gospels, have transmitted that the Lord had commanded…”
The four Gospels were clearly acknowledged as faithfully conveying the testimony of the 12 apostles appointed to bear witness to Jesus’ life from the time of John’s baptism (Acts 1:21-22). Justin’s description of how the Gospels are used in the early second century church has them given the same standing as the writings of the OT prophets:
On the day called Sunday, all who live in cities or in the country gather together to one place, and memoirs of the apostles or the writings of the prophets are read as long as time permits; then, when the reader has ceased the president verbally instructs, and exhorts to the imitation of these good things.
The names of the individual four authors of these Gospels were not as important in the early days as the descriptions of them as being “memoirs of the apostles”. The faithful witness these four Gospels carried was considered so important that they had been painstakingly copied and circulated in the 1st and 2nd century church as it kept growing and spreading around the world, and used as an essential part of the service in sharing the truth about Jesus’ life, ministry, death and resurrection.
The earliest reference we have that appears to name the authors of any of the Gospels is from Papias, overseer of Hieropolis, in Asia Minor (60-130 AD). Towards the end of his life Papias wrote a work in five books, Logion Kyriakon Exegesis (Explanation of the Sayings of the Lord) of which all but some excerpts found in later writings have been lost to the passage of time. The two authors who quoted Papias were Irenaeus, overseer of Lyon (130-202 AD), and early church historian Eusebius of Caesarea (260-340 AD).
Irenaeus recorded Papias as having written this preface to his works:
I used to inquire about what Andrew or Peter had said, or Philip or Thomas or James or John or Matthew, or any other of the Lord’s disciples, and what Aristion and John the Elder, disciples of the Lord, were saying. For books to read are not as useful to me as the living voice sounding out clearly up to the present day in the persons of their authors.
Since early times there has been dispute over whether ‘John the Elder’ mentioned here was the apostle John or some other John in the early church as he is cited separately from ‘John’ in the list of members of the twelve apostles. This ‘Elder’ is frequently referenced in what has been preserved of Papias’ writings.
Irenaeus is recorded as having been a disciple of Polycarp who was a disciple of the apostle John, and he described Papias as “an ancient man, who was a hearer of John, and a friend of Polycarp”. (7) (8) (9) (10)
It is in Eusebius’ (260-340 AD) writings that we have the records of what Papias wrote concerning Mark and Matthew’s texts (11):
The Elder also said this, “Mark, being the interpreter of Peter, whatsoever he remembered he wrote accurately, but not however in the order that these things were spoken or done by our Lord. For he neither heard the Lord, nor followed him, but afterwards, as I said, he was with Peter, who did not make a complete [or ordered] account of the Lord’s logia, but constructed his teachings according to chreiai [concise self-contained teachings]. So Mark did nothing wrong in writing down single matters as he remembered them, for he gave special attention to one thing, of not passing by anything he heard, and not falsifying anything in these matters.” Eusebius, Ecclesiastical History, 3.39.15
Concerning Matthew these other things were said, “Therefore, Matthew set in order the logia (“divine oracles”) in a Hebrew dialect, and each interpreted them, as he was able.” Eusebius, Ecclesiastical History, 3.39.15-16.
These writings appear to express what were well established church traditions by the early second century, particularly regarding Mark authoring a gospel from the teachings of the apostle Peter.
The ‘Muratorian Fragment’, the oldest known list of New Testament books, includes the phrase: “very recently, in our times, in the city of Rome, while overseer Pius… was occupying the chair of the church of the city of Rome”, which would place it just after Pius led the church in Rome (142 – 157 AD). The first part of the document is missing, hence the term ‘Fragment’, but what we have provides a lot of detail of the early church tradition for the authorship of Luke and John:
. . . at which nevertheless he was present, and so he placed [them in his narrative]. The third book of the Gospel is that according to Luke. Luke, the well-known physician, after the ascension of Christ, when Paul had taken with him as one zealous for the law, composed it in his own name, according to [the general] belief. Yet he himself had not seen the Lord in the flesh; and therefore, as he was able to ascertain events, so indeed he begins to tell the story from the birth of John. The fourth of the Gospels is that of John, [one] of the disciples. To his fellow disciples and bishops, who had been urging him [to write], he said, ‘Fast with me from today to three days, and what will be revealed to each one let us tell it to one another.’ In the same night it was revealed to Andrew, [one] of the apostles, that John should write down all things in his own name while all of them should review it. And so, though various elements may be taught in the individual books of the Gospels, nevertheless this makes no difference to the faith of believers, since by the one sovereign Spirit all things have been declared in all [the Gospels]: concerning the nativity, concerning the passion, concerning the resurrection, concerning life with his disciples, and concerning his twofold coming; the first in lowliness when he was despised, which has taken place, the second glorious in royal power, which is still in the future. What marvel is it then, if John so consistently mentions these particular points also in his Epistles, saying about himself, ‘What we have seen with our eyes and heard with our ears and our hands have handled, these things we have written to you? For in this way he professes [himself] to be not only an eye-witness and hearer, but also a writer of all the marvelous deeds of the Lord, in their order… (12) (13)
By the late second century, 180 AD, we have Irenaeus of France, in his Against Heresies (3.1.1), articulating the church tradition for the authorship of all four Gospels:
Matthew also issued a written Gospel among the Hebrews in their own dialect, while Peter and Paul were preaching at Rome, and laying the foundation of the Church. After their departure, Mark, the disciple and interpreter of Peter, did also hand down to us in writing what had been preached by Peter. Luke also, the companion of Paul, recorded in a book the Gospel preached by him. Afterwards, John, the disciple of the Lord, who also leaned upon His breast, did himself publish a Gospel during his residence at Ephesus in Asia.
From the title of this work we can see why Irenaeus felt a need to identify the authors of the four Gospel accounts that from earliest times had been accepted as accurately conveying the eye-witness testimony of the apostles. Many other “gospels” were now being written, often in the names of apostles or those who had been close to Jesus – eg the “gospel of Judas” written around 130-170 AD and the “gospel of Thomas” written around 140 AD – these were being used to spread heresies (untruths about who Jesus is and what He did and taught) and contained both historical and geographical errors. Christianity, like Judaism, is a historical religion – founded upon events that had taken place and therefor very particular about keeping accurate records of those events and rejecting false accounts.
Tertullian, a Christian lawyer and church leader in Carthage, in his work Against Marcion (4.2 & 4.5), 200 AD, affirmed this church tradition:
We lay it down as our first position, that the evangelical Testament has apostles for its authors, to whom was assigned by the Lord Himself this office of publishing the gospel… Of the apostles, therefore, John and Matthew first instil faith into us; while the apostolic men, Luke and Mark renew it afterwards. These all start with the same principles of faith, so far as relates to the one only God and creator and His Christ, how that He was born of the Virgin, and came to fulfil the law and the prophets…The same authority of the apostolic churches will afford evidence to the other Gospels also, which we possess equally through their means, and according to their usage. I mean the Gospels of John and Matthew while that which Mark published may be affirmed to be Peter’s whose interpreter Mark was. For even Luke’s form of the Gospel men usually ascribe to Paul. And it may well seem that the works which disciples publish belong to their masters.”
There is however, according to several scholars, one dissident voice preserved, the early 3rd century Roman presbyter Gaius has been interpreted as having attributed both the Gospel of John and Revelation to the authorship of the gnostic Cerinthus (Epiphanius Panarion 51.3.1-2). (14) (15) (16) Not all accept this analysis of Gaius’ writings. (17)
In 245 AD the Christian scholar Origen again confirmed the established church tradition:
Concerning the four Gospels which alone are uncontroverted in the Church of God under heaven, I have by tradition that the Gospel according to Matthew, who was at one time a tax collector and afterwards an Apostle of Jesus Christ, was written first and that he composed it in the Hebrew tongue and published it for the converts from Judaism. The second written was that according to Mark, who wrote it according to the instruction of Peter, who, in his General Epistle, acknowledged him as a son, saying, “The church that is in Babylon, elect together with you, salutes you and so does Mark my son.” And third, was that according to Luke, the Gospel commended by Paul, which he composed for the converts from the Gentiles. Last of all, is that according to John.” (18)
6. Stewart, Don. Who Wrote the Four Gospels? Blue Letter Bible. [Online] [Cited: 31st Aug 2019.] https://www.blueletterbible.org/faq/don_stewart/don_stewart_187.cfm.
7. Chapman, John. Papias. Early Christian Writings. [Online] [Cited: 31st Aug 2019.] http://www.earlychristianwritings.com/info/papias-cathen.html.
8. Got Questions Ministries. Who was Papias of Hierapolis? God Questions Ministries. [Online] [Cited: 31st Aug 2019.] https://www.gotquestions.org/Papias-of-Hierapolis.html.
9. American Bible Society. Papias of Hierapolis. Bible Resources. [Online] [Cited: 31st Aug 2019.] http://bibleresources.americanbible.org/resource/papias-of-hierapolis.
10. Wingren, Gustaf. Saint Irenaeus bishop of Lyon. Encyclopedia Britannica. [Online] [Cited: 31st Aug 2019.] https://www.britannica.com/biography/Saint-Irenaeus.
11. Lovell, Graham. Papias on Mark and Matthew. New Testament – A Historian’s Perspective. [Online] 25th May 2012. [Cited: 31st Aug 2019.] http://newtestamenthistory.blogspot.com/2012/05/papias-on-mark-and-matthew.html.
12. Metzger, Bruce. The Cannon of the New Testament. Oxford : Clarendon Press, 1987.
13. Marlowe, Michael D. The Muratorian Fragment. Bible Research. [Online] 2012. [Cited: 9th Sept 2019.] http://www.bible-researcher.com/muratorian.html.
14. Manor, T. Scott. Exonerating Gaius of Rome. BRILL. [Online] 2016. [Cited: 4th Sept 2019.] https://brill.com/view/book/9789004309395/B9789004309395_005.xml?crawler=true.
15. Biblical Training Library. Gaius. Biblical Training. [Online] [Cited: 4th Sept 2019.] https://www.biblicaltraining.org/library/gaius.
16. Hall, Stuart George. Doctrine and Practice in the Early Church. s.l. : Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing, 1992.
17. Hill, Charles E. Gaius of Rome and the Johanine Controversy. Oxford Scholarship. [Online] January 2005. [Cited: 4th Sept 2019.] https://www.oxfordscholarship.com/view/10.1093/0199264589.001.0001/acprof-9780199264582-chapter-5.
18. Jones, Ron. Early Church Fathers on the Authorship of NT Gospels. Academia. [Online] [Cited: 2nd Sept 2019.] https://www.academia.edu/9269890/Early_Church_Fathers_on_the_Authorship_of_the_NT_Gospels.