On the apostolicity of the canonical Gospels

Al-Finlandi

The apostles, in the memoirs composed by them, which are called Gospels, have thus delivered unto us what was enjoined upon them…

Saint Justin Martyr, 1 Apology 66

 He who hears you hears Me, he who rejects you rejects Me, and he who rejects Me rejects Him who sent Me.

Luke 10:16

This post is a semi-follow-up to my previous post, where I discussed the usage of third-person narrative style within Greco-Roman historiographical (I use the term broadly here although biography and historiography within studies in classicism are strictly speaking distinct genres) works and how the Gospels parallel this usage. This post discusses the acceptance of the four canonical Gospels within the Church as apostolic works. As we will see, this is something the Church tacitly assumed right from the beginning, alongside their apostolic origin. Some of the evidence is indirect and inferential, but it should give us an understanding of the overall trend within the wider church. I owe much of the following to references within Charles E. Hill’s monograph on the topic. My intention is to also show that the testimony to the apostolicity of the canonical Gospels was also assumed by heterodox groups, ie. Gnostics, and early critics of Christianity.

Prolegomenon: Apostolic preaching and kerygma

Before we discuss particular examples, it may be helpful to understand the reason as to why we don’t just see an explosion of data all saying that the Church possesses four Gospels ascribed to their canonical authors. I think the simple reason for this is that the kerygma – the technical term for the apostolic preaching regarding Jesus – was mainly oral in the earliest proclamation. Oral tradition itself was valued even into second century, as we learn from Saint Papias:

If, then, any one who had attended on the elders came, I asked minutely after their sayings — what Andrew or Peter said, or what was said by Philip, or by Thomas, or by James, or by John, or by Matthew, or by any other of the Lord’s disciples: which things Aristion and the presbyter John, the disciples of the Lord, say. For I imagined that what was to be got from books was not so profitable to me as what came from the living and abiding voice.

Saint Papias, Introduction on the Exposition of Oracles of the Lord

And from Saint Irenaeus:

Polycarp also was not only instructed by apostles, and conversed with many who had seen Christ, but was also, by apostles in Asia, appointed bishop of the Church in Smyrna, whom I also saw in my early youth, for he tarried [on earth] a very long time, and, when a very old man, gloriously and most nobly suffering martyrdom, departed this life, having always taught the things which he had learned from the apostles, and which the Church has handed down, and which alone are true. 

Against Heresies 3.3.3

Examples could naturally be multiplied, including from the New Testament – see for example this post by Craig Truglia – but these two are sufficient for now. Basically, a lot of the early Christian preaching was oral, but to say it was merely oral would be too extreme. In fact we have good evidence that it was not exclusively oral – the mere fact that we have written NT documents tells us this.

The point I’m making here is that this explains why the explicit references to the four Gospels are somewhat later, the early Church had other methods of proclaiming the Gospel of Jesus Christ, but this is not to say the Gospels were not read liturgically for example (cf. St Justin Martyr below). In the mind of the Church the proclamation of the Apostles, a continuation of the preaching started by the Lord Himself, was both oral and written, and this also continued later on, ie. St Basil the Great, On the Holy Spirit, 27. This kerygma was at the core of the apostolic preaching, some of which was also written down in the Gospels. This shows that there was a strong association with the concept of apostolic preaching within early Christianity, the Gospel was communicated to the later generations by the Apostles of the Lord directly, and we already see the association of Jesus authorizing the Apostles to authoritatively explain His message and words in Luke 10:16.

Examples of specific references to Gospel traditions and/or written Gospels

Probably one of the earliest post-NT documents, the Didache (c. AD 100) refers to “the Gospel” especially in chapter 8:

Neither pray as the hypocrites; but as the Lord commanded in His Gospel, thus pray: “Our Father who art in heaven, hallowed be Your name. Your kingdom come. Your will be done, as in heaven, so on earth. Give us today our daily bread, and forgive us our debt as we also forgive our debtors. And bring us not into temptation, but deliver us from the evil one ; for Yours is the power and the glory forever.”

This is almost certainly a reference to the Lord’s Prayer as recorded in the Gospel of Matthew (chapter 6). The precise relation between the Gospel of Matthew and the Didache is debated in scholarship, but the point is the community of the Didache recognized that there was authoritative tradition from Jesus Himself regarding prayer.

Another example would be the Epistle of Barnabas (chapter 4), which specifically cites a written saying of Jesus (only found in Matthew 22:14) as Scripture:

The Lord will judge the world without respect of persons. Each will receive as he has done: if he is righteous, his righteousness will precede him; if he is wicked, the reward of wickedness is before him. Take heed, lest resting at our ease, as those who are the called [of God], we should fall asleep in our sins, and the wicked prince, acquiring power over us, should thrust us away from the kingdom of the Lord. And all the more attend to this, my brethren, when you reflect and behold, that after so great signs and wonders were wrought in Israel, they were thus [at length] abandoned. Let us beware lest we be found [fulfilling that saying], as it is written “Many are called, but few are chosen.

This citation occurs within a wider context of OT Scriptural citations, so it shows the community the Epistle was addressed held the traditions of Jesus in equal honor to the OT writings. The epistle (chapter 5 and 8) also specifically refers to the Twelve as being the preachers of the “Gospel” of the Lord:

But when He chose His own apostles who were to preach His Gospel, [He did so from among those] who were sinners above all sin, that He might show He came “not to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance.“…to these He gave authority to preach the Gospel, being twelve in number, corresponding to the twelve tribes of Israel.

Here is another reference to Gospel tradition (cf. Matthew 9:13, Mark 2:17, Luke 5:32).

In 1 Clement 42 (c. AD 65-95) , Saint Clement of Rome refers to the apostolic preaching:

The apostles have preached the gospel to us from the Lord Jesus Christ; Jesus Christ [has done so] from God. Christ therefore was sent forth by God, and the apostles by Christ. Both these appointments, then, were made in an orderly way, according to the will of God. Having therefore received their orders, and being fully assured by the resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ, and established in the word of God, with full assurance of the Holy Spirit, they went forth proclaiming that the kingdom of God was at hand. And thus preaching through countries and cities, they appointed the first fruits [of their labours], having first proved them by the Spirit, to be bishops and deacons of those who should afterwards believe. Nor was this any new thing, since indeed many ages before it was written concerning bishops and deacons. For thus says the Scripture in a certain place, “I will appoint their bishops in righteousness, and their deacons in faith.” [cf. Isaiah 60:17 LXX]

We also find numerous references to Gospel traditions and apostolic preaching within Saint Ignatius of Antioch (d. c. AD 108):

As therefore the Lord did nothing without the Father, being united to Him, neither by Himself nor by the apostles, so neither do anything without the bishop and presbyters. Neither endeavour that anything appear reasonable and proper to yourselves apart; but being come together into the same place, let there be one prayer, one supplication, one mind, one hope, in love and in joy undefiled. There is one Jesus Christ, than whom nothing is more excellent. Therefore run together as into one temple of God, as to one altar, as to one Jesus Christ, who came forth from one Father, and is with and has gone to one.

Epistle to Magnesians, 7

I know that after His resurrection also He was still possessed of flesh, and I believe that He is so now. When, for instance, He came to those who were with Peter, He said to them, “Lay hold, handle Me, and see that I am not an incorporeal spirit.” And immediately they touched Him, and believed, being convinced both by His flesh and spirit. For this cause also they despised death, and were found its conquerors. And after his resurrection He ate and drank with them, as being possessed of flesh, although spiritually He was united to the Father.

Epistle to Smyrnaeans, 3

The reference to Jesus’ appearance to the Eleven is only narrated in Luke 24, yet Saint Ignatius narrates it to the church of Smyrna very much in passing. He also refers to the star of Bethlehem (Epistle to Ephesians 19) and the baptism of the Lord (Ephesians 18).

We find another reference to “the Gospel”, a written record, in the Apology of Saint Aristides (c. AD 120):

The Christians, then, trace the beginning of their religion from Jesus the Messiah; and he is named the Son of God Most High. And it is said that God came down from heaven, and from a Hebrew virgin assumed and clothed himself with flesh; and the Son of God lived in a daughter of man. This is taught in the gospel, as it is called, which a short time ago was preached among them; and you also if you will read therein, may perceive the power which belongs to it. (Syriac)

And if you would read, O King, you may judge the glory of His presence from the holy gospel writing, as it is called among themselves. (Greek)

Although it’s clear the Syriac text is basically a paraphrase of the Greek, both exhort the ruler (Roman Emperor Hadrian) to read the Gospel. This presupposes an authoritative written record of Jesus’ ministry among Christians.

We could also multiply examples. ie. Saint Polycarp ( “Let us then serve the Lord in fear, and with all reverence, even as He Himself has commanded us, and as the apostles who preached the Gospel unto us, and the prophets who proclaimed beforehand the coming of the Lord [have alike taught us]“, Epistle to the Philippians 7)

Specific references to the canonical Gospels among early Church Fathers

Moving onto particular examples using the Church Fathers, the data is significantly more meager, but it all presupposes a settled usage of referencing the Gospels and/or using them in liturgical (ie. public) worship.

Probably the most famous example is Saint Irenaeus of Lyons, writing c. 180:

It is not possible that the Gospels can be either more or fewer in number than they are. For, since there are four zones of the world in which we live, and four principal winds, while the Church is scattered throughout all the world, and the pillar and ground of the Church is the Gospel and the spirit of life; it is fitting that she should have four pillars, breathing out immortality on every side, and vivifying men afresh. From which fact, it is evident that the Word, the Artificer of all, He that sits upon the cherubim, and contains all things, He who was manifested to men, has given us the Gospel under four aspects, but bound together by one Spirit. As also David says, when entreating His manifestation, You that sits between the cherubim, shine forth. For the cherubim, too, were four-faced, and their faces were images of the dispensation of the Son of God. For, [as the Scripture] says, “The first living creature was like a lion,” symbolizing His effectual working, His leadership, and royal power; the second [living creature] was like a calf, signifying [His] sacrificial and sacerdotal order; but the third had, as it were, the face as of a man,— an evident description of His advent as a human being; the fourth was like a flying eagle, pointing out the gift of the Spirit hovering with His wings over the Church. And therefore the Gospels are in accord with these things, among which Christ Jesus is seated. For that according to John relates His original, effectual, and glorious generation from the Father, thus declaring, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” Also, “all things were made by Him, and without Him was nothing made.” For this reason, too, is that Gospel full of all confidence, for such is His person. But that according to Luke, taking up [His] priestly character, commenced with Zacharias the priest offering sacrifice to God. For now was made ready the fatted calf, about to be immolated for the finding again of the younger son. Matthew, again, relates His generation as a man, saying, “The book of the generation of Jesus Christ, the son of David, the son of Abraham; and also, “The birth of Jesus Christ was on this wise”. This, then, is the Gospel of His humanity; for which reason it is, too, that [the character of] a humble and meek man is kept up through the whole Gospel. Mark, on the other hand, commences with [a reference to] the prophetical spirit coming down from on high to men, saying, “The beginning of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, as it is written in Isaiah the prophet,“— pointing to the winged aspect of the Gospel; and on this account he made a compendious and cursory narrative, for such is the prophetical character. And the Word of God Himself used to converse with the ante-Mosaic patriarchs, in accordance with His divinity and glory; but for those under the law He instituted a sacerdotal and liturgical service. Afterwards, being made man for us, He sent the gift of the celestial Spirit over all the earth, protecting us with His wings. Such, then, as was the course followed by the Son of God, so was also the form of the living creatures; and such as was the form of the living creatures, so was also the character of the Gospel. For the living creatures are quadriform, and the Gospel is quadriform, as is also the course followed by the Lord. For this reason were four principal covenants given to the human race: one, prior to the deluge, under Adam; the second, that after the deluge, under Noah; the third, the giving of the law, under Moses; the fourth, that which renovates man, and sums up all things in itself by means of the Gospel, raising and bearing men upon its wings into the heavenly kingdom.

Against Heresies, 3.11.8

Skeptics often argue Irenaeus is the first author to “codify” the four Gospels and that somehow their idea of authoritativeness goes back to him. There are many problems with this (Hill’s monograph discusses this idea and its various issues in depth), for one as we’ve seen there are definite references to authoritative Gospel tradition before Irenaeus, but a second problem is we also have references contemporaneous to Irenaeus. Here is Theophilus of Antioch (c. 180):

Concerning the righteousness which the law enjoined, confirmatory utterances are found both with the prophets and in the Gospels, because they all spoke inspired by one Spirit of God….The holy Scriptures teach us, and all the spirit-bearing [inspired] men, one of whom, John, says, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God,” showing that at first God was alone, and the Word in Him.

To Autolycus, 2.12. 22

We also see similar language in Clement of Alexandria (from his Stromata, written c. 195-200):

John prophesied till the baptism of salvation; and after the birth of Christ, Anna and Simeon. For Zacharias, John’s father, is said in the Gospels to have prophesied before his son……it is written in the Gospel by Luke as follows: “And in the fifteenth year, in the reign of Tiberius Caesar, the word of the Lord came to John, the son of Zacharias.“And again in the same book: “And Jesus was coming to His baptism, being about thirty years old,” and so on…And in the Gospel according to Matthew, the genealogy which begins with Abraham is continued down to Mary the mother of the Lord.

To say that Irenaeus – a single bishop in France – could influence two authors (and as we will see, there are more), living in two different places across the Christian world (Alexandria and Antioch) to adopt his novelty of “named” Gospels contemporaneously to himself seems so absurd as to border on a conspiracy. If the idea that the four Gospels were not known before Irenaeus was true, would we not see confusion regarding their naming or canonical authority?

What’s more interesting, Irenaeus himself refers to how he plans to refute the gnostic Marcion from the canonical writings Marcion accepted:

Since this man is the only one who has dared openly to mutilate the Scriptures, and unblushingly above all others to inveigh against God, I purpose specially to refute him, convicting him out of his own writings; and, with the help of God, I shall overthrow him out of those discourses of the Lord and the apostles, which are of authority with him, and of which he makes use.

Against Heresies 1.27.4

We will return to this point below, but for now it suffices to say that a major part of Irenaeus’ argument against the Gnostics was that they were indebted to canonical NT writings which disproves their doctrine.

Writing c. 170, Saint Hegesippus wrote:

Domitian son of Vespasian displayed many evils against those in office in Rome, and overtaking Nero in cruelty he was the second to institute a persecution against Christians. At that time he imprisoned John, apostle and evangelist, on Patmos…

Cited by Gathercole in “Alleged Anonymity of the Canonical Gospels”, from C.E. Hill, The Johannine Corpus in the Early Church (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004) (p. 20)

Gathercole also cites numerous other 2nd-century examples, but one other suffices here:

There are, then, those who out of ignorance stir up disputes about these things, even if what they do is pardonable. For ignorance does not deserve condemnation but needs instruction. And they say that on the fourteenth day the Lord ate the lamb with the disciples, and he himself suffered on the great day of the feast of unleavened bread. They explain that Matthew says this, or so they think. Therefore it is the case both that their opinion disagrees with the Law, and that the Gospels seem to contradict them.

Apolonnaris of Pentapolis “On Passover”, as cited by Gathercole in “Alleged Anonymity” (p. 21)

It is worth also citing the fragment of the Muratorian Canon (mid-late 2nd century) here:

 …those things at which he was present he placed thus.23 The third book of the Gospel, that according to Luke, the well-known physician Luke wrote in his own name24 in order after the ascension of Christ, and when Paul had associated him with himself25 as one studious of right.26 Nor did he himself see the Lord in the flesh; and he, according as he was able to accomplish it, began27 his narrative with the nativity of John. The fourth Gospel is that of John, one of the disciples. When his fellow-disciples and bishops entreated him, he said, “Fast ye now with me for the space of three days, and let us recount to each other whatever may be revealed to each of us.” On the same night it was revealed to Andrew, one of the apostles, that John should narrate all things in his own name as they called them to mind.28 And hence, although different points29 are taught us in the several books of the Gospels, there is no difference as regards the faith of believers, inasmuch as in all of them all things are related under one imperial Spirit,30 which concern the Lord’s nativity, His passion, His resurrection, His conversation with His disciples, and His twofold advent,-the first in the humiliation of rejection, which is now past, and the second in the glory of royal power, which is yet in the future. What marvel is it, then, that John brings forward these several things31 so constantly in his epistles also, saying in his own person, “What we have seen with our eyes, and heard with our ears, and our hands have handled, that have we written.”32 For thus he professes himself to be not only the eye-witness, but also the hearer; and besides that, the historian of all the wondrous facts concerning the Lord in their order.

Here we see a clear reference to two of the four canonical Gospels, and I’m not aware of any dissent from the idea that the preceding books described are Matthew and Mark.

Decades before Irenaeus, Justin Martyr (c. 165) in Rome has multiple references to the Gospels as being the “memoirs of the Apostles”

This devil, when [Jesus] went up from the river Jordan, at the time when the voice spoke to Him, ‘You are my Son: this day have I begotten You,’ is recorded in the memoirs of the apostles to have come to Him and tempted Him, even so far as to say to Him, ‘Worship me;’ and Christ answered him, ‘Get behind Me, Satan: you shall worship the Lord your God, and Him only shall you serve.’…in the memoirs which I say were drawn up by His apostles and those who followed them, [it is recorded] that His sweat fell down like drops of blood while He was praying, and saying, ‘If it be possible, let this cup pass:’ 

Dialogue with Trypho, 103

Along with Abraham we shall inherit the holy land, when we shall receive the inheritance for an endless eternity, being children of Abraham through the like faith. For as he believed the voice of God, and it was imputed to him for righteousness, in like manner we having believed God’s voice spoken by the apostles of Christ, and promulgated to us by the prophets, have renounced even to death all the things of the world. Accordingly, He promises to him a nation of similar faith, God-fearing, righteous, and delighting the Father; but it is not you, ‘in whom is no faith.’

Dialogue with Trypho, 119

Justin also has an early exposition of liturgical worship of Christians in Rome, where the Gospels were read:

The wealthy among us help the needy; and we always keep together; and for all things wherewith we are supplied, we bless the Maker of all through His Son Jesus Christ, and through the Holy Spirit. And on the day called Sunday, all who live in cities or in the country gather together to one place, and the 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. Then we all rise together and pray, and, as we before said, when our prayer is ended, bread and wine and water are brought, and the president in like manner offers prayers and thanksgivings, according to his ability, and the people assent, saying Amen; and there is a distribution to each, and a participation of that over which thanks have been given, and to those who are absent a portion is sent by the deacons. And they who are well to do, and willing, give what each thinks fit; and what is collected is deposited with the president, who succours the orphans and widows and those who, through sickness or any other cause, are in want, and those who are in bonds and the strangers sojourning among us, and in a word takes care of all who are in need. But Sunday is the day on which we all hold our common assembly, because it is the first day on which God, having wrought a change in the darkness and matter, made the world; and Jesus Christ our Saviour on the same day rose from the dead. For He was crucified on the day before that of Saturn (Saturday); and on the day after that of Saturn, which is the day of the Sun, having appeared to His apostles and disciples, He taught them these things, which we have submitted to you also for your consideration.

First Apology, 67

As stated by Graham Stanton (Jesus and Gospel, p. 95)

Justin emphasizes that Christians teach (or hand over) what they have been taught by Christ, whom they ‘worship and adore’ along with ‘the most true God’ (1 Apol. 6.1)…Justin is adamant that traditions of the sayings and actions of Jesus have been transmitted carefully in the written memoirs by the apostles, and are handed on and carried out by his fellow-Christians. Their ultimate source is Jesus Christ himself. Their authoritative status could hardly be underlined more firmly, even though they are not referred to as ‘Scripture’.

What about Papias?

I’ve decided to deal with Saint Papias of Hierapolis (d. ~110) separately, as his witness is probably the most-discussed. Critics raise two main objections against Papias’ testimony for the apostolicity of the Gospels of Matthew and Mark, namely that a) Papias does not claim to get his knowledge from the disciples of Jesus directly but from those who knew them and b) Papias speaks in isolation. As we’ve seen, the latter claim is by this point, absurd. We have seen multiple witnesses, none of whom cite Papias testify to the same things as Papias. A lot of the discussion hinges on Papias’ identification of “John the Elder” as some other John rather than the Evangelist. Nevertheless, Papias clearly says both John and Aristion were disciples of Jesus. Before we go further, it’s worth citing the entire statement of Papias in full.

But I shall not be unwilling to put down, along with my interpretations, whatsoever instructions I received with care at any time from the elders, and stored up with care in my memory, assuring you at the same time of their truth. For I did not, like the multitude, take pleasure in those who spoke much, but in those who taught the truth; nor in those who related strange commandments, but in those who rehearsed the commandments given by the Lord to faith, and proceeding from truth itself. If, then, anyone who had attended on the elders came, I asked minutely after their sayings,–what Andrew or Peter said, or what was said by Philip, or by Thomas, or by James, or by John, or by Matthew, or by any other of the Lord’s disciples: which things Aristion and the presbyter John, the disciples of the Lord, say. For I imagined that what was to be got from books was not so profitable to me as what came from the living and abiding voice.

One thing the critics overlook is that it’s clear Papias was clearly connected to the apostolic “well” of knowledge, so even if his knowledge was second-hand, it’s not a problem. There is also the question of who are the “elders” mentioned by Papias? I think it’s clear contextually that the “elders” are the Apostles themselves, so it’s possible Papias also received first-hand knowledge (“whatsoever instructions I received with care at any time from the elders“…). When Papias says he listened to those who had heard the “elders” he connects it with the sayings of the Apostles (” anyone who had attended on the elders came, I asked minutely after their [ie. the elders] sayings,–what Andrew or Peter said, or what was said by Philip, or by Thomas, or by James, or by John, or by Matthew, or by any other of the Lord’s disciples“)

Papias says the following regarding the Gospels of Mark and Matthew:

And the Elder 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. Wherefore Mark made no mistake in thus writing some things as he remembered them. For of one thing he took especial care, not to omit anything he had heard, and not to put anything fictitious into the statements..and..Matthew put together the oracles [of the Lord] in the Hebrew language/style, and each one interpreted them as best he could.

Assuming “the Elder” is John the Evangelist himself – the most well-argued case for this position I’ve encountered is Monte Shanks’ Papias and the New Testament – this information is first-hand (also see Irenaeus, reference to Papias as “hearer of John” below), but even if this is someone else, the knowledge comes directly from those who heard the Apostles of Jesus (and as mentioned above it’s very possible Papias claimed first-hand knowledge from the Apostles themselves alongside second-hand knowledge). In any case, this information is clearly older than when Papias wrote it down in early second century, so here we have an account regarding the Gospels of Mark and Matthew within decades of their composition.

One other objection regarding Papias is that he is the origin of the idea of the apostolicity of the canonical Gospels, but this suggestion suffers from two problems, namely that Papias was a relatively obscure figure in second-century Christianity (I’m only aware of one mention of him in Irenaeus (AH 5:33.4: “And these things are borne witness to in writing by Papias, the hearer of John, and a companion of Polycarp, in his fourth book; for there were five books compiled him.”) and that none of the second and third-century authors who refer to the Gospels, never cite Papias in connection to them. They merely state that the Gospels were received by the entire Church. Hence this is unduly skeptical and lacks evidence. And, as stated above with regards to Irenaeus, it seems naïve to assume a single individual would be so influential so as to inject a certain narrative which was bought by everybody after him and not attributed to him!

In summary, by all accounts, Papias was in an excellent position to receive knowledge from those who had known Jesus and/or had known His Apostles. In any case, it’s clear that in the Preface to his (now lost) work Papias is speaking of an earlier period of his life, ie. late first century, when he was collecting traditions from “the elders”.

The Gospels as public documents

There is one final point I wish to stress, namely that the opponents of Christianity conceded the canonical Gospels were authoritative and – albeit less commonly – apostolic, I’ll cite some examples, for a fuller treatment, see Hill, Who Chose the Gospels? pp. 151-178.

In the Gnostic Apocryphon of James, we find the following curious statement:

… the twelve disciples were all sitting together and recalling what the Savior had said to each one of them, whether in secret or openly, and putting it in books – But I was writing that which was in my book – lo, the Savior appeared, after departing from us while we gazed after him.

And later in a speech of Jesus:

Since I have already been glorified in this fashion, why do you hold me back in my eagerness to go? For after the labor, you have compelled me to stay with you another eighteen days for the sake of the parables. It was enough for some <to listen> to the teaching and understand ‘The Shepherds’ and ‘The Seed’ and ‘The Building’ and ‘The Lamps of the Virgins’ and ‘The Wage of the Workmen’ and the ‘Didrachmae’ and ‘The Woman.'”

The parables cited here are found in the Synoptic Gospels, more specifically in Matthew and Luke (ie. Luke 15:4-6. Matthew 25:1-12 etc)

Hill comments on the significance of these two passages (pp. 167-169):

This is most interesting for its tacit admission that Jesus’ disciples wrote books which contained his
teaching
. And the mention of the disciples ‘recalling what the Saviour had said’ and putting these recollections or remembrances
in books reflects the same understanding which lies behind Justin’s favourite characterization of the Gospels as ‘apostolic memoirs’…The author’s intent is clear: it was enough for some people to understand these well-known parables from the well-known Gospels, but not for others. For these others there is now the Apocryphon of James. The hope of the author is to persuade the reader that the new revelations in this book offer something spiritually superior to what is contained in the apostolic Gospels already available. Still, in so doing, the authority of the well-known Gospels had to be invoked…it assumes the previous acceptance of probably all four of these Gospels and does not contest the tradition that they go ultimately back to Jesus’ original disciples. It simply treats those Gospels as inadequate.

In a sort of counter-polemic the so-called Epistle of the Apostles (c. 120-140, presented as an Epistle written by all Twelve Apostles) gives a counter-narrative to that of the Apocryphon of James or a work similar to it (chapter 1):

This is written that you may be not flinch nor be troubled, and not depart from the word of the Gospel which you have heard….As we have heard (it), kept (it), and have written (it) for the whole world, so we entrust (it) to you, our sons and daughters’

Hill comments (pp. 171-172):

Despite their diametrically opposed approaches, EpApost shares with ApocJas a common assumption of the existence of well-known Gospels believed to go back to the apostles….Many have simply assumed that the writing mentioned here is the Epistle of the Apostles itself. But it seems instead that this refers to apostolic responsibility for the writing of the Gospels. The idea is repeated in chapter 31, where the EpApost has Jesus referring to ‘every word which I have spoken to you and which you [the apostles] have written concerning me, that I am the word of the Father and the Father is in me … ‘…The author cannot be referring here to the EpApost itself, for, as Jesus is at that moment in the narrative still speaking, the EpApost has not yet been written!

We also see similar situations in Justin Martyr’s Dialogue with Trypho (chapters 10 and 18) where Trypho admits to having read ‘the Gospel’, and later on in Celsus’ response of Christianity where he refers to the “fourfold Gospel” (Against Celsus 2.27) and according to Origen, Celsus was planning to refute Christians from “their own books” (cf. Against Celsus 2.34). Moreover, Against Celsus 2.16 has Celsus seemingly admit that the Gospels were written by Jesus’ disciples (Origen quotes Celsus: “the disciples of Jesus wrote such accounts regarding him, by way of extenuating the charges that told against him”)

Finally, to return briefly to Irenaeus, he argues extensively against Gnostic indebtedness to the apostolic tradition and the canonical Scriptures, eg. the Gospels. Irenaeus notes that the heterodox claimed to represent a specific strand of Christianity distinct from the Orthodox Church, yet they used one (or more) of the canonical NT writings. Irenaeus writes in Against Heresies 3.12.12:

Marcion and his followers have betaken themselves to mutilating the Scriptures, not acknowledging some books at all; and, curtailing the Gospel according to Luke and the Epistles of Paul, they assert that these are alone authentic, which they have themselves thus shortened. In another work, however, I shall, God granting [me strength], refute them out of these which they still retain.

It is also worth noting some of the sources we’ve looked at, eg. Epistle of the Apostles and Saint Aristides precede Marcion and other groups which tried to mutilate the accepted canonical sources (or misinterpret them as Valentinus did, cf. Tertullian, Prescription Against the Heretics, 38), and even these groups were using the same books as the Church which is an extremely strong proof for their authority.

Conclusion

This post has been a mere summary of the available evidence, for example I did not touch on early manuscript evidence (which bear titles of the evangelists), the Diatessaron of Tatian (a student of Justin Martyr c. 160) – a gospel synopsis combining all four gospels into one – or various other sources which discuss the four canonical Gospels and their authoritative and apostolic nature, for details on this see Gathercole’s article cited above. I have collected only some of the most interesting evidence here. We have seen that the simplistic approach of using Irenaeus or Papias as some sort of originator of tradition is very simplistic. The Church always had a “consciousness” regarding the writings she had received.

To quote Simon Gathercole:

there is never any sense among second-century authors that the Gospels are anonymous. Mention by second-century authors of ‘the Gospel’ tout simple does not imply anonymity or lack of knowledge of author…Talk of ‘the Gospel’ goes side by
side with references to evangelists widely in second-century Christianity..[there is] absence of any other attributions of authorship assigned to the Gospels…If the titles simply emerged very late, say in the mid- to late-second century, we would expect to find diversity among the names, but we do not…

Alleged Anonymity pp. 27-28

And it’s worth citing Charles Hill’s conclusion to his book at length:

We cannot find who chose the Gospels. It looks like nobody did. They almost seem to have chosen themselves through some sort of ‘natural selection’. And this at least concurs with the conclusion of Bruce Metzger, one of the last generation’s premier scholars of the New Testament canon, who wrote, ‘neither individuals nor councils created the canon; instead they came to recognize and acknowledge the self- authenticating quality of these writings, which imposed themselves as canonical upon the church’….some of the most striking testimony on behalf of the four Gospels, and other parts of the New Testament, comes from outside of apostolic Christianity. Most, if not all, of the known rival Gospels, and other pseudepigraphal works as well, actually presuppose to one extent or another the witness of the canonical Gospels. Pagan critics of Christianity like Celsus, when they took the time to read the Christian sources, went to the same canonical Gospels, which Celsus, at least, accepted as written by Jesus’ disciples….The persistent appeal to secret teachings of Jesus given to one or another of the apostles is a tacit admission that not very much support could be gained from his acknowledged public teachings…In one sense, of course, the answer to the question: ‘Who chose the Gospels?’ is, everybody who has known something of that indemonstrable power and majesty and, like Aristides, Justin, Irenaeus, Clement, and countless others, has chosen to live by their telling of the story of Jesus. But 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 his apostles.

Who Chose the Gospels? pp. 229, 246

Glory to Jesus Christ!

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On the apostolicity of the canonical Gospels

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