THE EARLY HISTORICAL EVIDENC
It would be very surprising if all the scrolls, produced by the earliest Christian writers, had survived intact for 2000 years. However, we do have long extracts from their works as reproduced by early reliable historians such as Eusebius and others.
a). PAPIAS (c. 60-139) was the bishop of Hieropolis. Eusebius reports that Papias wrote five books and mentions his commentaries on the Gospels of Matthew and John. Ancient Armenian literature records Papias writing commentaries on Luke and John ((RO 171)). Papias had carefully studied at least three of the Gospels. Hieropolis was close to the Christian centres at Colossae and Laodicea, and about one hundred and fifty kilometres (93 miles) from Ephesus along a good surfaced road. So contact with John the Apostle would have been easy. No doubt John took a great interest in Papias as he trained to be a bishop, and afterwards gave him good advice. His life span overlapped that of John by 30-40 years and Papias speaks of ‘The Presbyter’, who traditionally has been identified as John the Apostle. An extract from the fourth book by Papias as preserved by Eusebius reads:
‘And this the Presbyter used to say: "Mark, being the recorder of Peter, wrote accurately but not in order whatever he [Peter] remembered of the things either said or done by the Lord; for he [Mark] had neither heard the Lord nor followed him, but later, as I said, Peter, who used to make teachings according to the cheias, [a special kind of anecdote] but not making as it were a systematic composition of the Lords sayings; so that Mark did not err at all when he wrote certain things just as he had recalled [them]. For he had but one intention, not to leave out anything he had heard, nor to falsify anything in them". This is what was related by Papias about Mark. But about Matthew’s this was said: ‘For Matthew composed the logia [sayings] in Hebrew style; but each recorded them as he was able’. ((EH 3: 39, 8 and RO 166r)).
Here we have Papias quoting John the Apostle’s words in defence of the style of the Gospel of Mark. So the ‘poor Greek’ of Mark was not first noticed in the 19th century.
The extract, ‘... the Presbyter used to say’; being in the plural, shows that aspects of Mark’s gospel had had to be repeatedly defended by John the Apostle against criticism.
b). JUSTIN THE MARTYR (c. 100-165) was born in Palestine and following his study of philosophic systems, became a Christian about 130 AD. About eight years later, Justin moved to Rome and set up as a teacher of Christian philosophy. He became a public leader in the defence of Christian beliefs against Paganism, the Jews and the heretical teachings of Marcion. So he had to be careful to use soundly based arguments. Amongst his writings we possess twelve direct quotations from the Gospels. Justin then moved to Ephesus where he died. The elderly members of the Ephesus community would remember the Apostles who had lived in or visited the town.
In his ‘Dialogue with Trypho’, published between 161-165, Justin quotes from Matthew and Luke, referring to them as: ‘the teachers who have recorded all that concerns our Saviour Jesus Christ’. He writes of: ‘the memoirs composed by the apostles which are called Gospels’. He specifically attributes the Apocalypse to John the Apostle.
He knew the Septuagint well, and used the same version as had been used by Matthew. Justin in his ‘Dialogue with Trypho’, frequently uses the phrase ‘the memoirs of his apostles [note: plural] and others who followed him’, as the source of his quotations ((JMD ch. 98-107 and RO 122)). So Justin accepted that apostles had written at least two of the Gospels. Also, in his ‘Dialogue with Trypho’, he refers to Mark 3:16-17 as being in Peter’s memoirs.
‘And when it is said that he [Jesus] changed the name of one of the apostles to Peter, and when it is written in his [Peter’s] memoirs that this happened, as well as that he surnamed two other brothers, who were sons of Zebedee, with the name of Boanerges, which means Sons of Thunder, this was a signification of the fact that it was He [JHWH] by whom Jacob was called Israel…’ ((JMD 106. 9-10 and RO 125)).
‘… I can even describe the place where the blessed Polycarp used to sit and discourse - his going out, too, and his coming in - his general mode of life and personal appearance, together with the discourses which he delivered to the people, also how he would speak of his familiar intercourse with John, and with the rest of those who had seen the Lord, and how he would call their words to remembrance. Whatsoever thing he had learned from them respecting the Lord, both with regard to His miracles and his teaching, Polycarp having thus received [information] from the eyewitnesses of the Word of Life, would recount them all in harmony with the Scriptures ...’ ((See newadvent.org web site: Fathers: Irenaeus: Fragments from lost writings of Irenaeus, item II and IJK 540)).
In the first chapter of his third book in the series known as ‘Adversus Haereses’, Irenaeus records that the Apostles of Christ preached the Gospel verbally. He then continues:
‘So Matthew also brought out a written Gospel among the Jews in their own tongue, when Peter and Paul were preaching the Gospel at Rome and founding the Church. But after their demise, Mark himself the disciple and recorder of Peter, has also handed on to us in writing what had been proclaimed by Peter. And Luke too, the follower of Paul, put down in a book the Gospel which was being preached by him. Later on too, John, the disciple of the Lord, who had even reclined on his bosom, he too brought out a Gospel while he was dwelling in Ephesus of Asia’ ((RO128-9: IAH 3. 1, 1;& EH 5: 8, 2)).
This quotation is from the Latin translation of his work. But we also possess the same passage in the original Greek as quoted by Eusebius. This confirms the Latin translation is accurate. The Latin version may imply that Irenaeus was thinking that Mark and Luke wrote after the death of Peter. However, the perfect tense used in the Greek version makes it clear, according to Orchard, that this is not so. Irenaeus was merely saying that the gospels of Mark and Luke have handed on the traditions taught by Peter and Paul when they were still alive ((RO 163)). ‘Tongue’ may also be rendered as ‘language’ or ‘dialect’. The word for ‘demise’ was also used by the Greeks to denote ‘departure’. The words: ‘Matthew also’ may also be rendered as: ‘So Matthew’.
Irenaeus is saying that the Gospel of Matthew was composed by one of Christ’s Apostles who had already proclaimed the Gospel verbally. As Peter fled to Rome about 41 AD and Paul was martyred in 67 AD, Matthew would have written between these dates.
When, in his third and fourth books, Ireneaus builds his case against three heresies, he
quotes the Gospels in the order of Matthew-Luke-Mark-John. As follows:
In the second controversy, Irenaeus says the Ebionites only use Matthew; Marcion
mutilates Luke; Docetists adapt Mark and the Valentinus misuses John (3:11, 7).
d). THE MURATORIAN FRAGMENT, or Canon, was discovered in 1740. Its authorship is unknown but is thought to have been written by Hippolytus ((MFGR)). It is in barbarous Latin and not always correct. It mentions Pope Pius I who reigned from 141-158, and three heretics as contemporaries, so is normally dated as about 150 ((RO 138)). The surviving extract of the opening indicates that Mark was present at a specific event.
‘… at which, nevertheless, he was present and thus related. In third place [we have] the book
of the Gospel according to Luke. This Luke, a physician, after the Ascension of Christ,
when Paul had taken him, as one studious of Right, [to be his follower] at his own request [in his own name],
wrote from report, since he himself notwithstanding had not seen the Lord in the flesh. Yet, as far
as he could ascertain, so indeed he began to relate, beginning at the birth of John
The same night it was revealed to Andrew, one of the Apostles, that whatever should come to the minds of them all, John in his own name should write it all down …
… What therefore [is there] to wonder at if John so constantly utters statements indeed
in his Epistles saying from his own experience: What I have seen with our eyes
and heard with our ears and our hands have touched, these thing we have written to you? For, thus he declares
that he is not only an eyewitness and a hearer, but also the writer of all the wonders of the Lord in order.
f). POLYCRATES, bishop of Ephesus, in 189 defended the authenticity of the four Gospels by appealing to the authority of the Apostles Philip and John. He also called on the witness of seven kinsmen, who had been bishops in Asia before himself, that: ‘He who was reclining on the breast of our Lord wrote John’s Gospel’. ((CCHS776b)).
g). CLEMENT OF ALEXANDRIA (c 150-215) was a pupil of Pantoris, the first great Christian teacher at Alexandria in Egypt. Clement records that he himself had travelled widely, meeting and listening to: ‘truly notable men’ from all over the Roman Empire ((EH 5, 11)). While Rome was the administrative heart of the Church, her intellectual centre was at Alexandria. The town had long possessed a famous Pagan university. The earlier presence of Philo had also made it the centre of Jewish studies, and it was here the Septuagint translation of the Old Testament had been made.
In his ‘Adumbrationes in Epistolas Canonicas’, Clement commented on 1 Peter 5, 13. As Eusebius did not copy the full quotation, we are using here the Latin translation by Cassiodorus:
‘Mark, the follower of Peter, while Peter was publicly preaching the Gospel at Rome before some of Caesar’s knights and producing many testimonies about Christ, being begged by them that they should be able to record what was said, wrote the Gospel which is called the Gospel of Mark, from the things said by Peter - just as Luke is recognized as the pen that wrote the Acts of the Apostles and as the translator of the Letter of Paul to the Hebrews’. ((RDCA, RO 166r)).
The words: Caesar’s knights brings to mind one of Paul’s letters:
‘… it has become known throughout the whole praetoriam and to all the rest that my imprisonment is for Christ’. And, ‘All the saints greet you, especially those of Caesar’s household’ (Phil.1: 13 and 4:22).
We possess very important quotations by Eusebius from Clement’s book: The Outlines:
‘To such [a degree] did the flame of true piety illuminate the minds of Peter’s hearers that not being satisfied adequately with having just one hearing – [that is] not [satisfied] with the unwritten teaching of the divine proclamation, but with every sort of entreaty they begged Mark – whose Gospel it is reputed to be, being the follower of Peter – to bequeath to them also in writing the record of the teaching handed to them by word [of mouth], Nor did they let up before convincing the man; and by this means they became the cause of the Gospel writing that is said to be ‘according to Mark’.
‘And they say that when the Apostle, learnt what had happened, through the revelation of the Spirit being pleased with the enthusiasm of the men, he authorised the writing for reading in the churches’.
‘Clement in the Sixth book of The Outlines relates the story and the bishop of Hierapolis, Papias by name, bears joint witness to this [him], for Peter mentions Mark in [his] first letter; which he also says was composed in Rome itself, and that he indicates this speaking figuratively of the city as Babylon by these words: ‘The Elect [Lady] in Babylon greets you, and my son Mark’. They also say that this Mark was the first to journey to Egypt to preach the Gospel which he himself had written down, and the first to set up churches in Alexandria itself’. ((EH 2. 15, 1-2, 16, 1 and RO 166r)).
‘And again in the same books, Clement states a tradition of the earliest presbyters about the order of the gospels; and it has this form. He used to say that the earlier-written of the gospels were those having the genealogies. But that according to Mark has had this formation. Peter having preach the Word publicly in Rome and proclaimed the Gospel by the Spirit, the many who had been present begged Mark, as one who had followed him for a long time and recollected what had been said, to record what he had spoken’; and he did so, handing over the Gospel to those who had asked for it. And when Peter got to know about it, he exerted no pressure either to forbid it or to promote it’. ((EH 6:14, 5-7 and RO 166r)).
Clement is clearly stating that Matthew and Luke wrote first. He was the only early historian to specify the sequence in which two of the Gospels were written. He said he was quoting the very earliest presbyters [note in the plural]. As a professional teacher, employed by the diocese founded by Mark, he had access to its records and traditions.
h). TERTULLIAN (c. 155-220) lived mainly in Africa and was a contemporary of Clement of Alexandria. For a time he practiced as an Advocate at Rome, so as a lawyer he would have been very experienced when sifting evidence. Between 207 and 212, he wrote `Adversus Marcionem` [Treatise against Marcion]. Being one of disputation, it would have been compiled with great care to ensure it was not open to challenge.
"... I lay it down to begin with that the documents of the gospels have the Apostles for their authors, and that this task of promulgating the gospel was imposed upon them by the Lord himself. If they have also for their authors apostolic men, yet these stand not alone but as companions of the apostles, because the preaching of disciples might be made suspect of the desire of vainglory, unless there stood by it the authority of their teachers, or rather the authority of Christ, which made the Apostles teachers. In short, from among the Apostles, John and Matthew implant in us the Faith, while from among apostolic men Luke and Mark reaffirm it …”. ((TE Book 4: 2, 1-2 and RO 133-4)).
So Tertullian has placed the name of Luke before that of Mark.
He later wrote:
"That same authority of the apostolic churches will stand as a witness also for other gospels, which no less [than Luke’s] we possess by their agency and according to their text -I mean John’s and Matthew’s though that which Mark produced is stated to be Peter’s, whose interpreter Mark was. Luke’s narrative also they usually attribute to Paul". ((TE Book 4: 5, 3 and RO 135)).
i). ORIGEN (c. 185-253) was the successor of Clement of Alexandria as the principal teacher in Alexandria. Eusebius quotes Origen as asserting that by tradition:
"The first written was that according to the one time tax collector but later apostle of Jesus Christ, Matthew, who published it for the believers from Judaism, composed in Hebrew characters. And second, that according to Mark, composed as Peter guided, … And third, that according to Luke, the gospel praised by Paul, composed for those from the Gentiles and finally, that according to John". ((EH 6: 25, and RO 169)).
At face value this seems to support the Jerome tradition. It is very unlikely Origen intended to dispute the clear and specific statement made by his predecessor, Clement of Alexandria. Origen’s words could possibly be explained by noting that he says he is quoting: ‘the tradition’. Oregon says Matthew wrote first and in Hebrew characters. So for Markans, Oregon is a very unreliable source. Logically they have no basis upon which to use his writings to support their theory.
j). THE ANTI-MARCIONITE PROLOGUES
‘…Mark who was also called Stubfinger, because he had shorter fingers with regard to the other dimensions of his body. He had been the disciple and recorder of Peter, whom he followed, just as he had heard him relating. Having been asked by the brethren in Rome he wrote this short Gospel in the regions of Italy; when Peter heard about it, he approved and authorized it to be read to the church with [his own] authority’. ((AMM and RO 148)).
Concerning John we read:
‘John the Apostle, whom the Lord Jesus loved exceedingly, last of all wrote this Gospel at the request of the bishops of Asia against Cerinthus and other heretics and especially the teachings of the Ebionites then arising, …
But they also say that there was another reason for this Gospel being written, because after reading the volumes of Matthew, Mark and Luke on the gospel, he of course approved the text of their accounts and confirmed the truth of what they had said, but [perceived] that they had provided the account of one year only in which he suffered after the imprisonment of John.
Omitting therefore the year whose happenings were recorded by the three, he related the events that had occurred
at an earlier period before John was shut up in prison, as will be able to be clear to those
who have carefully read the books of the four Gospels.
k). EUSEBIUS OF PAMPHILIUS (260-340) emerged as a great scholar of the Church as She was emerging into cultural and political freedom. As bishop of Caesaria, he had a library with 30 000 scrolls and codices ((CTJ 74)). This library included the most complete collection of Christian documents ever assembled.
He was the literary heir of Pamphilius, who had inherited the library of Origen, as well as the correspondence
of Dionysius of Alexandria who had died in 264. As a theologian and biblical critic he played a part in the 325
Council of Nicea. Between 303 and 325 he wrote his ten-volume history of the church, which summed up the accumulated
historical knowledge of the early Christian world. Eusebius possessed books and quoted from them which have since
He treats Papias as being a separate confirmatory source. For example, if we reread the words of Clement in g) above, we see that Eusebius, when quoting information from Clement of Alexandria, regarded him as an independent source. Regarding Peter and Mark, Eusebius says Papias: "also bears witness to it". ((EH 2:15, 2 ,RO 166)).
Eusebius explained that at first the apostles did not write of their experiences, but relied on the proofs of
the Spirit. But Matthew and John eventually wrote: ‘perforce’. Matthew wrote because he
was on the point of leaving Palestine, so left something to partially make
up for his absence. Luke was faced with the circulation of unorthodox accounts ((Luke 1: 14)),
John wrote because the existing Gospels limited themselves to only one year of the preaching of Christ. So
John added the events of the other years. ((EH 3: 24, 1-15))
Many people presume the gospels, as printed in our bibles today, are in the order in which they were always
listed, but this is not correct. At the end of the 4th century, Pope Damasus became concerned that faulty translations
and copying errors were creeping into the Latin texts widely use in Western Europe. He commissioned Jerome
to prepare a fresh accurate Latin translation from the original Greek. It was known as ‘The Vulgate’ and became
standard use in the West.
When Jerome wrote his Prologus Quattuor Evangeliorum [Prologue to the Four Gospels] he did not specify whether the order he had adopted was based on the order of their composure of their publication.
In his letter to Hebidiam, Jerome wrote:
"…Peter also had Mark, who’s Gospel was composed with Peter narrating and him writing."
During the same years, Jerome compiled: ‘De Viris Illustribus’ [On Illustrious Men]. He does so in the Clementine order of Matthew (chapter 3), Luke (7), Mark (8) and John (9). In his eighth chapter he says that the Jewish philosopher, Philo, wrote that Mark was ‘learned’. We may observe that a ‘learned’ man is unlikely to have written in, ‘poor Greek’, and not to correct his errors. ((WRFN 26 and DVI)).
m). AMBROSIASTER is the name given to an anonymous author of the late fourth century. A passage in his writings implies that his copy of the New Testament was arranged in the Matthew-Luke-Mark-John order. He wrote:
‘The gospel is arranged according to the order [of their contents] rather than in chronological order. Therefore, Matthew is put in the first place because he begins from the promise, that is, from Abraham to whom was made the promise of the incarnation of our Lord Jesus Christ. Next comes Luke, because he relates how this incarnation took place. Third comes Mark, who witnesses that the gospel preached by Christ has been promised in the Law. Fourthly, John …’ ((AS and RO 201-2)).
n). ST. AUGUSTINE OF HIPPO (354 - 430).
In Jerome’s lifetime, Augustine wrote: ‘De Consensu Evangelistarum’. In his first volume he wrote that the received order was Matthew-Mark-Luke-John, but the order of dignity was: Matthew-John-Mark-Luke. ((AH 1 Book 1:1-3)).
Because he mentioned Matthew-Mark-Luke, this is often referred to as: ‘The Augustinian Tradition’. But this is a misnomer because in his fourth volume Augustine holds that Mark developed his theological thoughts from both Matthew and Luke
‘Mark … either appears rather as one who goes with Matthew because, together they with him, he relates a great number of things respecting the kingly figure … or, more probably, he goes in step with both. For although he agrees with Matthew in many things, yet in some things he agrees with Luke, so by this very fact he may be shown to share the symbolism of the Lion and the Bull (for Christ is a Man), which symbolism of Mark possesses as he shares both aspects’. ((AH 4 Book 4:10. 11 and RO 211-214)).
David Peabody has examined this quotation in detail. ((WRFN 37-64)).
o). THE MONARCHIAN PROLOGUE TO MARK`S GOSPEL
Probably written by Priscillian, who died in 386. He wrote that Mark had seen Luke’s Gospel. His Prologue reads:
‘For setting out on the perfect work of the Gospel, and starting to preach God from the Lord's baptism, he did not bother with the nativity story which he had seen related in the former’. ((208-209 and WRFN 22 and 23)).
p). THE OLD LATIN VERSIONS
Early Latin translations, from the Greek, continued to circulate after the publication of Jerome’s Vulgate. Many copies, or part - copies, have survived. Most have the Gospels in the order of Matthew- John- Luke- Mark. ((BMM and RO 126)). It is likely this order was adopted so as to honour the two Apostles by placing them first. However, it is worth noticing that if John’s name is returned to the end, we have the Clementine sequence.
q). THE EASTERN TRADITION
Greek and Russian Orthodox Church liturgies have not changed as much as in the Latin West. Apart from a few feast days, Matthew is read every Sunday from Pentecost. Luke follows and Mark begins during Lent. John is read following the Easter period. The Melkite Church, which traces herself back to Antioch, uses a similar order, as do the Byzantine Churches. This shows early liturgical familiarity with the use of Luke prior to Mark [For fuller details see CHAPTER 7].
SUMMARY: The early historians are united in reporting that Matthew, one of the eye witnessing Apostles, wrote the first Gospel, and John, another Apostle, wrote the last Gospel. They agree that Luke and Mark wrote the other two. One clear tradition is that Luke wrote prior to Mark.
Version: 12th February 2013