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The Origin of the Four NT Gospels
By Ron Jones, D.D. © The Titus Institute, 2010
The historical literary evidence demonstrates that when the four NT gospels were published, the authors, Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John were well-known to the churches and their authorship was never disputed.
“The NT Gospels Were Not Published Anonymously.”
Tertullian,1 in his apologetic work, Against Marcion (4.5), makes a clear statement that the authors of the gospels were known from the beginning. Marcion was a Gnostic teacher that had rejected the Old Testament and anything Jewish. He accepted Luke’s gospel (minus the Jewish references) only and rejected the other three gospels as too Jewish. Tertullian argues that the churches founded by the apostles will bear witness to the authorship and thus authority of all four gospels. They can’t be eliminated by Marcion or anyone else.
“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--whilst 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. Well, then, Marcion ought to be called to a strict account concerning these (other Gospels) also, for having omitted them, and insisted in preference on Luke; as if they, too, had not had free course in the churches, as well as Luke's Gospel, from the beginning. Nay, it is even more credible that they existed from the very beginning; for, being the work of apostles, they were prior, and contemporary in origin with the churches themselves.”2
Earlier in the work, Tertullian had attacked Marcion’s gospel (his edited version of Luke) because it had an anonymous author. In this passage below from Against Marcion (4.2) he says that no gospel should be accepted if it is anonymous.
“Marcion, on the other hand, you must know, ascribes no author to his Gospel, as if it could not be allowed him to affix a title to that from which it was no crime (in his eyes) to subvert the very body. And here I might now make a stand, and contend that a work ought not to be recognised, which holds not its head erect, which exhibits no consistency, which gives no promise of credibility from the fulness of its title and the just profession of its author.”
Tertullian is a powerful witness to the non-anonymity of the four NT gospels. He rejects all anonymous gospels and gives a clear statement that the four NT gospels’ authors were not anonymous and known from the beginning.
Tertullian also makes a significant statement in 4.5 above about the role of the apostolic churches in handing down the gospels to Christians. The apostolic churches were the churches founded or established in apostolic teaching by apostles. These were Corinth, Rome, Ephesus, and Antioch, to name a few.
He says that Christians possess the four gospels by their (the apostolic churches) means and usage. That is, they were the channels through which the four gospels were spread throughout the world. This implies that they had them from the beginning.
This is significant because they were the witnesses to the publishing of the gospels and their authors. They had them from the beginning. The gospels were published and distributed through them.
Also, these churches were not organized as one unit who could have gotten together and changed the gospels. They were independent churches and thus formed a check and balance on each other for the truthfulness of the gospels. They were multiple independent witnesses to the authorship of the gospels.
Tertullian is an important testimony to the authorship of the gospels. C. Clifton Black writes about the significance
of Tertullian’s testimony,
“Except for Augustine, whom we shall meet momentarily, Tertullian (ca. 160-225) was probably the most original thinker and influential author in Latin Christianity. Revealing his superb education in philosophy, literature, rhetoric, and law, Tertullian's literary output was largely polemical, defending the church's faith while savaging its heretics.”3
Later, Black explains Tertullian’s defense of the four gospels against Marcion’ rejection of anything Jewish in the OT
and Gospels. Tertullian’s argument emphasizes the authorship of the four gospels,
“His opponent, Marcion, has had the gall to shrink the Gospel canon to a bowdlerized Luke. Hence Tertullian's reprisal: exclusive seizure of Luke is utterly indefensible, since, as "apostolic men," Luke and Mark renewed the faith that had been introduced by the apostles John and Matthew. How dare Marcion abridge or impugn any of the Gospels? They concur with one another in faith's essentials; all of them flout Marcion's bastard confession; all were promulgated at the Lord's behest and carry the inviolable warrant of Christ and the apostolic churches.”4
Again, Tertullian states that the four NT gospels circulated freely among the churches founded by the apostles from the very beginning of their existence. They were known and they were used by them. The gospels were not published anonymously.
“First Century Papyrus Rolls Did Not Usually Have the Author’s Name in the Text Itself.”
The historical archaeological and literary evidence also demonstrates that in the first century A.D. books were written and published with the title and name of the author placed at the end of the papyrus roll (also sometimes in the front) on which they were written or copied and on a tag attached to the outside of the papyrus roll called in Greek, a sillybos and in Latin a titulus. They were not usually placed in the text itself.
This was the normal custom of identifying the author of a book in the Roman world in the first century. The author did not normally identify himself in the text itself, but like today’s title page, his name was placed along with a title in a location on the document but outside the text. Several rolled up papyrus rolls would be stored in a round canister called a capsa with their tags placed at their tops so each roll could be easily identified.
There is no historical archaeological or literary evidence that the four NT gospels did not follow this normal custom of having the names of the authors of the gospels identified in this way when they first published and distributed their original gospels and their copies. All subsequent copies of papyrus rolls would also follow this practice.
In fact, as we have demonstrated in our article entitled “Authorship of the NT Gospels” the authors of the four NT gospels, Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John were well-known as the authors and their authorship was never disputed by the early church.
For a more detailed study of the origin of each of the four gospels, see the following:
This is what is to be expected when a book was published at that time. The readers knew who wrote the book. It is similar to the practice of book publishing today. The author’s name is not placed in the text, but is placed on the title page at the beginning of the book and on the cover.
Because we have only fragments of the papyrus rolls of the gospels and none of them come from the first century, the last page of the documents with Matthew, Mark, Luke, or John’s name did not survive nor did the tags, the sillyboi or tituli. This is typical of ancient documents. Most of the time they did not survive and ancient books appear “anonymous,” but in reality were not.
Again, this would be similar to today. If in a thousand years, a book was found, without its title page and its cover, the name of the author would not be present. But no one who knew the publishing methods of the 20th and 21st century would say that the book was published anonymously.
The common misstatement that the gospels were published anonymously is a result of not understanding the publishing practices of the 1st century where the author’s name was not placed in the text itself.
Kathryn J. Gutzwiller writes about these authorial identifiers on ancient papyrus rolls and the problem that occurs when they
are lost as she discusses the papyrus fragments of the epigrams of a poet named Posiddipus.
“A tag with author’s name and the title, called a syllybos, was glued to the back of the rolled papyrus, for ease of finding a text in storage bins or on shelves. This information was also written at the end of the text, the most interior and protected position on the bookroll, and sometimes also at the beginning on the front or back of the first papyrus sheet. The beginning of the roll was the place where damage was most likely to occur, so that information about author and title was often lost, as has happened in the new papyrus collection of epigrams attributed to Posiddipus.”5
Frank Grainger, who wrote a book on Vitruvius, a Roman architect of the 1st century B.C., explains this issue in the manuscript
tradition of Vitruvius,
“His works probably first took shape in ten papyrus rolls kept together in a canister with a slip of parchment attached (titulus or title) giving the name of the author and the title. Hence, in many cases where the author’s name is not mentioned in the text and the tituli have disappeared, the author’s name disappears too.”6
Simon Swains also encountered this in his study on Apuleius, an early second century A.D. writer, and weighs in on this subject,
“It is perfectly normal for literary works to begin without a reference to their author. The author’s name should already be known to the reader or hearer from the usual devices (title and opening, roll-label, catalogue entry, etc.) However, despite the best of intentions, text and author’s name can easily become parted…Most ancient anonymi are due to a simple loss of paratextual guides.”7
So we should not be surprised that the gospels also lost their authorial identifiers along with any 1st century manuscripts and
appear anonymous, but never were.
For more details regarding this evidence, see the Article “Evidence For First Century Publishing Practices”
“The Early Church Knew About the Origins of the NT Gospels.”br>
The early church fathers wrote about the circumstances surrounding the publishing of the four NT gospels. They never indicate that there was any anonymity or mystery surrounding the publishing of the gospels. They indicate their confident knowledge about who wrote the gospels, why they were written, and the general time period they were written.
The historical literary evidence from the early church fathers concerning each of the gospels and their publishing is summarized here by looking at the testimony of Irenaeus.
For more in-depth information on the early church father’s statement on each gospel see “The Origin of each NT Gospel.”
Irenaeus’ testimony is extremely important because Irenaeus was a disciple of Polycarp who was a disciple of the apostle John himself.
D. Edmund Hiebert writes of the significance of Irenaeus’ testimony given in his work Against Heresies,
“Irenaeus wrote his work against the heretics while he was Bishop of Lyons in Gaul. As a youth he had lived in Asia Minor, where, according to his own testimony, he knew Polycarp, Bishop of Smyrna, who had been a personal disciple of the apostle John. In a letter to Florinus, a boyhood friend, Irenaeus reminded him of their early mutual acquaintance with Polycarp and of Polycarp's reminiscences of his conversations with John and others who had seen the Lord.
Irenaeus insisted that he could recall the teachings of Polycarp, which he had heard as a youth, more clearly than events of recent years. In his letter to Florinus, who was about to break with the church and turn to Gnosticism, Irenaeus simply assumed that his friend accepted as factual the events which he recounted…Polycarp was martyred in A.D. 155, when he had been a Christian for eighty-six years. Only a generation separated Irenaeus and the apostolic age…The history and position of Irenaeus give his testimony great weight…Confidence in Irenaeus' testimony is strengthened by the impressive supporting testimony of contemporary and subsequent writers.”8
Irenaeus gives us a general statement of the authors and the circumstances when the gospels were written in his Against Heresies
“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, 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 had leaned upon His breast, did himself publish a Gospel during his residence at Ephesus in Asia.”
Irenaeus shares that Matthew was written first. Irenaeus says that he issued his gospel first in the Hebrew (Hebrew-Aramaic) dialect. We know from other statements by Irenaeus, Origen, and Eusebius that Matthew also wrote the Greek version of his gospel. For more information on the two versions Matthew wrote go to our website www.hebrewgospel.com.
Then Mark published his gospel after Matthew’s. In our article “The Origin of Mark’s Gospel”, we give evidence for Mark publishing first a private edition for Christians at Rome who had requested it while Peter was away from Rome. When Peter returned he gave his approval for a public edition of the gospel for the churches at large which was published after Peter and Paul subsequently left Rome or had been martyred.
Irenaeus, then states that Luke wrote his Gospel. Irenaeus does not give a time designation such as “then” regarding the publishing of Luke’s gospel. He does not indicate that Luke’s gospel was published after Mark’s. This is in agreement with other early evidence that Luke was published after the private edition of Mark’s Gospel, but before the public edition.
Irenaeus then says John published his gospel. He does not tell us exactly when John’s gospel was published, but he does tell us that it was published when John was a resident in Ephesus.
This general statement by Irenaeus gives the general knowledge of the early church fathers and is substantiated by all the other statements by them.
The historical literary evidence demonstrates that from the very beginning of the publishing of the four NT gospels, the authors, Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John were well-known to the churches and their authorship was never disputed.
The four NT gospels were not published anonymously and their authorship has been known from the beginning as was the
normal custom of publishing books both at that time and in our time.
1. For a list of the early church fathers, who they were and when they lived, mentioned in this article, click here.
2. Unless otherwise noted, all quotations are from The Early Church Fathers, ed. Philip Schaff, William B. Eerdman’s Publishing, Reprint 2001 at CCEL Internet Library
3. Black, C. Clifton, Mark Images of an Apostolic Interpreter, Fortress Press, 2001, 125
4. Black, C. Clifton, Mark Images of an Apostolic Interpreter, Fortress Press, 2001, 126
5. Kathryn J. Gutzwiller, A Guide to Hellenistic literature, Wiley-Blackwell, 2007, p.44
6. Granger, Frank, Vitruvius on Architecture, Bakhsh Press, 2008, p.xxv
7. Swain Simon, article in A Companion to the Prologue of Apuleius' Metamorphoses
Edited by Ahuvia Kahane, Dr. Andrew Laird, Oxford University Press, 2001, chapter 6 “The Hiding Author: Context and Implication,” p.55
8. Hiebert, D. Edmond, An Introduction to the New Testament, Vol.1, Moody Press, Chicago, 1975, 193-194