How do we know the Gospels are by Matthew, Mark, Luke and John?

Book of Kells, Folio 32V. Portrait of St. Mark or St. Luke
Book of Kells, Folio 32V. Portrait of St. Mark or St. Luke

All four of the Gospels in the New Testament are anonymous, but Christian tradition has always associated them with the names of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. But where does that tradition come from?

In this post we evaluate three of the earliest witnesses to the tradition that the Gospels were written by Matthew, Mark, Luke and John.

(1.) Papias, bishop of Hierapolis (A.D. 70—155)

Papias, bishop of Hierapolis in Phrygia (part of what is now Turkey) is one of the intriguing figures of primitive Christianity. He is said to have known the apostle John himself and to have been a companion of the bishop and martyr Polycarp.[1]

“Mark having become the interpreter of Peter, wrote down accurately whatsoever he remembered. It was not, however, in exact order that he related the sayings or deeds of Christ. For he neither heard the Lord nor accompanied him.”

Papias of Hierapolis

Papias went around collecting oral traditions about the Lord Jesus from those who had known the apostles. He collected these oral traditions into a five-volume work, the Exposition of the Oracles of the Lord,[2] which is sadly now lost.

Today we only have the merest fragments of the writings of Papias, preserved for us in brief excerpts in later writers. One of these fragments gives us what I believe to be our earliest tradition linking the Gospels to the names Matthew, Mark, Luke and John — or at least to two of them.

… But now, to the extracts already made, we shall add, as being a matter of primary importance, a tradition regarding Mark who wrote the Gospel, which he [Papias] has given in the following words:
“And the presbyter said this. Mark having become the interpreter of Peter, wrote down accurately whatsoever he remembered. It was not, however, in exact order that he related the sayings or deeds of Christ. For he neither heard the Lord nor accompanied him. But afterwards, as I said, he accompanied Peter, who accommodated his instructions to the necessities [of his hearers], but with no intention of giving a regular narrative of the Lord’s sayings. For this reason, Mark made no mistake in thus writing some things as he remembered them. For of one thing he took particular care, not to omit anything he had heard, and not to put anything fictitious into the statements.”
[This is what is related by Papias regarding Mark; but with regard to Matthew he has made the following statements]:
“Matthew put together the oracles [of the Lord] in the Hebrew language, and each one interpreted them as best he could.”
Papias, Fragment I (quoted in Eusebius’ Ecclesiastical History, 3.39.14-16)[3]

So we have an early tradition naming Matthew and Mark as two of the Gospel-writers, as well as the interesting information that Mark’s Gospel was written essentially from the mouth of the Apostle Peter.

“The statement that Matthew’s Gospel was originally written in Hebrew (meaning Aramaic, the language spoken in Palestine in the 1st century A.D.) is tantalizing. Matthew’s Gospel is clearly written by a Jewish believer.”

The statement that Matthew’s Gospel was originally written in Hebrew (meaning Aramaic, the language spoken in Palestine in the 1st century A.D.) is tantalizing. Matthew’s Gospel is clearly written by a Jewish believer — it abounds in references to the Old Testament, and frequently shows the fulfilment of Old Testament prophecy using phrases such as, “to fulfil what the Lord had spoken by the prophet.” In general, it has a very ‘Jewish’ feel.

However, if it were originally written in Aramaic then it must have been translated very, very quickly into Greek: like the other three Gospels, Matthew’s Gospel comes down to us in Greek, and no ancient Aramaic version is known to survive.

One might therefore be tempted to think that it was supposed Matthew’s Gospel had originally been written in Aramaic because of its evident Jewishness, and this is possible.

For me, the idea that this Gospel was originally written in Aramaic is an intriguing possibility, but nevertheless remains an open question.

(2.) Irenaeus, bishop of Lyons (c. 180 A.D.)

Our next tradition comes from Irenaeus, who was bishop of Lyons in Gaul (now France) towards the end of the second century.

“Matthew also issued a written Gospel among the Hebrews in their own dialect, while Peter and Paul were preaching at Rome, and laying the foundations of the Church. After their departure, Mark, the disciple and interpreter of Peter, also handed down to us in writing what had been preached by Peter.”

Irenaeus, Against Heresies 3.1.1

In his five-volume work Against Heresies — which has survived intact — Irenaeus enumerates the four Gospel writers by name, in the following passage:

For, after our Lord rose from the dead, [the apostles] were invested with power from on high when the Holy Spirit came down [upon them], were filled from all [his gifts], and had perfect knowledge: they departed to the ends of the earth, preaching the glad tidings of the good things [sent] from God to us, and proclaiming the peace of heaven to men, who indeed do all equally and individually possess the Gospel of God. Matthew also issued a written Gospel among the Hebrews in their own dialect, while Peter and Paul were preaching at Rome, and laying the foundations of the Church. After their departure, Mark, the disciple and interpreter of Peter, also handed 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 had leaned upon his breast, did himself publish a Gospel during his residence at Ephesus in Asia.
Irenaeus, Against Heresies 3.1.1[4]

This, as far as I know, is our earliest surviving enumeration of the names of all four Gospel-writers.

“It is noteworthy that Irenaeus identifies the disciple ‘who had leaned upon Jesus’ breast’ with the Apostle John.”

It is noteworthy that Irenaeus repeats the statements of Papias, that the Gospel of Matthew was originally written in the language of the Hebrews, i.e., Aramaic; and that Mark wrote down his Gospel from the preaching of Peter. Whether Irenaeus is dependent on Papias for this information — for Papias’ Exposition of the Oracles of the Lord would certainly have been available to Irenaeus[5] — or he has it on independent authority, is now impossible to say with any certainty.

It is also noteworthy that Irenaeus identifies the disciple “who had leaned upon [Jesus’] breast” (cf. John 13:23) with the Apostle John.

Not only do we have this passage, but Irenaeus frequently refers to the Gospels by name when he quotes from them. For example, in other passages of his Against Heresies, we have such named references as these:—

Then again Matthew, when speaking of the angel, says, “The angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in sleep.” Of what Lord he does himself interpret: “That it may be fulfilled which was spoken of the Lord by the prophet, ‘Out of Egypt have I called my son.’” “‘Behold, a virgin shall conceive, and shall bring forth a son, and they shall call his name Emmanuel;’ which is, being interpreted, God with us.”
Against Heresies 3.9.2 (quoting Matthew 1:20; 2:15; 1:23)[6]

“Mark, the interpreter and follower of Peter, does thus commence his Gospel narrative: ‘The beginning of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God’” [Mark 1:1].

Irenaeus, Against Heresies 3.10.5

Wherefore also Mark, the interpreter and follower of Peter, does thus commence his Gospel narrative: “The beginning of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God; as it is written in the prophets, ‘Behold, I send my messenger before your face, who shall prepare your way. The voice of one crying in the wilderness, “Prepare the way of the Lord, make the paths straight before our God.”’” Plainly does the commencement of the Gospel quote the words of the holy prophets, and point him out at once, whom they confessed as God and Lord — the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ…
Against Heresies 3.10.5 (quoting Mark 1:1-3)[7]

Luke also, the follower and disciple of the apostles, referring to Zacharias and Elisabeth, from whom, according to promise, John was born, says: “And they were both righteous before God, walking in all the commandments and ordinances of the Lord blameless.” And again, speaking of Zacharias: “And it came to pass, that while he executed the priest’s office before God in the order of his course, according to the custom of the priest’s office, his lot was to burn incense;” and he came to sacrifice, “entering into the temple of the Lord.”
Against Heresies 3.10.1 (quoting Luke 1:6,8-9)[8]

John, the disciple of the Lord, preaches this faith, and seeks, by the proclamation of the Gospel, to remove that error which by Cerinthus had been disseminated among men, and a long time previously by those termed Nicolaitans, who are an offset of that “knowledge” falsely so called…
John, however, does himself put this matter beyond all controversy on our part, when he says, “He was in this world, and the world was made by him, and the world knew him not. He came to his own [things], and his own [people] received him not.”
Against Heresies 3.11.1,2 (quoting John 1:10-11)[9]

These quotations show us clearly that by the time of Irenaeus (c. 180 A.D.) the names of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John were already well established as the names of the authors of these Gospels.

(3.) The Muratorian Canon (c. 170 A.D.)

The Muratorian Canon, discovered by Fr. Ludovico Antonio Muratori and published by him in 1740, is perhaps our oldest list of accepted New Testament books.

“The Muratorian Canon is perhaps our oldest list of accepted New Testament books.”

The New Testament canon of 27 books wasn’t defined until Athanasius of Alexandria’s Easter Letter of A.D. 367 and the North African Councils of Hippo in A.D. 393, and of Carthage in A.D. 397 and A.D. 419.[10]

However, long before this period there was a general recognition of those books accepted as carrying divine authority. Various lists of canonical books were put forward, with some not mentioning (or not including) some books later accepted into the New Testament, and others including some books (such as the Revelation of Peter) which were eventually excluded from the New Testament.

Whilst some of the books towards the back of our New Testament — Hebrews, 1—3 John, Jude, Revelation — were sometimes in and sometimes out of such lists, about the four Gospels and the collected Letters of Paul there was seldom ever any doubt.[11] The consensus about these core New Testament writings, from the second century onwards, is overwhelming.

The text of the Muratorian Canon does not survive entire. From the beginning of where our copy of it survives it reads:—

“The third book of the Gospel is that according to Luke. Luke, the physician, after the ascension of Christ, when Paul had taken him with him as a companion of his travelling, and after he had made an investigation, wrote in his own name. […] The fourth book of the Gospels is that of John one of the disciples.”

Muratorian Canon, lines 2-6,10

… But he was present among them, and so he put [the facts down in his Gospel.]
The third book of the Gospel [is that] according to Luke. Luke, the physician, after the ascension of Christ, when Paul had taken him with him as a companion of his travelling, [and after he had made] an investigation, wrote in his own name — but neither did he see the Lord in the flesh — and thus, as he was able to investigate, so he also begins to tell the story [starting] from the nativity of John.
The fourth [book] of the Gospels is that of John [one] of the disciples. When his fellow-disciples and bishops urged [him], he said: “Fast together with me today for three days and, what shall be revealed to each, let us tell [it] to each other.” On that same night it was revealed to Andrew, [one] of the Apostles, that, with all of them reviewing [it], John should describe all things in his own name.
Muratorian Canon, lines 1-14[12]

The text then goes on to list a number of other accepted writings — Acts of the Apostles; thirteen Letters of Paul; James; 1 & 2 John; Jude; Revelation; the (non-canonical) Revelation of Peter; and the Wisdom of Solomon, from the Apocrypha.

“We even have the order Matthew, Mark, Luke, John emerging by the middle of the second century. Because of our bound and printed New Testaments it is easy to think that the Gospels naturally come in that order, but of course they began life as separate documents.”

Although the Muratorian Canon, as we have it, only mentions by name the Gospels according to Luke and according to John, it describes these, respectively, as “the third book of the Gospel” and “the fourth of the Gospels.” From this it is clear that two have been mentioned already in the lost beginning of the text, and — in view of the other authorities already mentioned — it is reasonable to infer that these would have been Matthew and Mark.

We thus even have the order Matthew, Mark, Luke, John emerging by the middle of the second century. Because of our bound and printed New Testaments it is easy to think that the Gospels naturally come in that order, but of course they began life as separate documents and only came to have an ‘order’ by usage and custom. The Muratorian Canon shows that that order was at least fairly well established by c. 170 A.D. when it was written.

Conclusion

Although the Gospels are in themselves anonymous documents, Christian tradition has from an extremely early period associated them with the names of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. We have seen this in three witnesses all dating from the early to late second century.

“Although the Gospels are in themselves anonymous documents, Christian tradition has from an extremely early period associated them with the names of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. We have seen this in three witnesses all dating from the early to late second century.”

One of the facts about these early testimonials to the authorship of the Gospels which is important — albeit easily overlooked — is how consistently they attach the names of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John to the four Gospels. There is no real variation among the witnesses, nor any real doubt expressed about these names: it is accepted everywhere that these are the names of the four Gospel writers.

What this consistency among the witnesses shows us, is that the names of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John must have been associated with these Gospels from an extremely early period — almost from the time they were written.

It therefore seems highly likely that the tradition associating the names of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John with the Gospels is an authentic one, and that in it we have the genuine names of the Gospel writers.

Why is this important?

Although the Gospels themselves do not name their authors, the names which have come down to us as their authors are all people mentioned in the New Testament.

Thus Matthew is one of the twelve disciples, those most closely associated with Jesus in his earthly ministry — as is John.

Mark is mentioned in numerous contexts as a gospel worker and companion, at differing times, of Barnabas, Paul and Peter. Luke was a fellow-worker with Paul.

“If the tradition associating the names of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John with the Gospels is correct, then it means there is a good case for the historicity of the Gospel accounts.”

Thus, if the tradition associating the names of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John with the Gospels is correct, then it means there is a good case for the historicity of the Gospel accounts. Two of the Gospel writers were among the twelve disciples, one was a close associate of the Apostle Peter; the fourth was a close associate of Paul and would have had ample opportunity to gather eyewitness material for his account.

It is not for no reason that, down the centuries, millions of people have read the Gospels and found them convincing accounts. The Gospels claim to be historical accounts of the life, death and resurrection of Jesus, and — as we have seen — there are good reasons for taking them as such.

If you’ve never read the Gospels for yourself, why not pick up a New Testament and begin reading one of them today? You, too, may just find yourself convinced that the Gospel-writers’ accounts are historical and true.

 

 

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Scripture quotations are from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version® (ESV®), © 2001 by Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

 


[1] In Irenaeus of Lyons, Against Heresies, 5.33.4 (c. 180 A.D.). This can be found in Ante-Nicene Fathers Vol. I. T&T Clark, Edinburgh; Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, Grand Rapids, MI, reprinted 1996. Henceforth referred to as ANF. Irenaeus Against Heresies 5.33.4: p.563. You can also read this passage online at http://www.ccel.org/ccel/schaff/anf01.ix.vii.xxxiv.html.

[2] See ANF Vol. I: Fragments of Papias, Frag. I: p.153. http://www.ccel.org/ccel/schaff/anf01.vii.ii.i.html

[3] Ibid. Note, in this and subsequent quotations from the Ante-Nicene Fathers, I have slightly adapted the language to make it easier for the modern reader. For the corresponding passage in Eusebius, see Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers Series II, Vol. I: Eusebius, Ecclesiastical History 3.39.14-16. Henceforth referred to as NPNF2. Online this passage can be read at http://www.ccel.org/ccel/schaff/npnf201.iii.viii.xxxix.html.

[4] ANF Vol. I, p.414. http://www.ccel.org/ccel/schaff/anf01.ix.iv.ii.html

[5] Cf. Papias, Frag. IV, in ANF Vol. I: Fragments of Papias, pp.153-4. http://www.ccel.org/ccel/schaff/anf01.vii.ii.iv.html

[6] ANF Vol. I, p.422. http://www.ccel.org/ccel/schaff/anf01.ix.iv.x.html

[7] Ibid., pp.425-6. http://www.ccel.org/ccel/schaff/anf01.ix.iv.xi.html

[8] Ibid., p.423. http://www.ccel.org/ccel/schaff/anf01.ix.iv.xi.html

[9] Ibid., p.426. http://www.ccel.org/ccel/schaff/anf01.ix.iv.xii.html

[10] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Development_of_the_New_Testament_canon#Augustine_and_the_North_African_councils

[11] The Lion Handbook: The History of Christianity (©1977, 1990 Lion Publishing, Oxford), 1996 paperback edition, pp.108-9,134-5.

[12] http://www.earlychristianwritings.com/text/muratorian-latin.html. I have very slightly adapted the text to British spelling and by removing one instance of unnecessary punctuation.

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