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The Synoptic Problem

Vol. I: The Priority of St. Matthew's Gospel

Daniel J. Castellano

(2013-14)[1]

General Introduction
Introduction to the First Volume
Part I: Historical Evidence
   1.1 St. Clement of Rome
   1.2 St. Ignatius of Antioch
   1.3 St. Polycarp of Smyrna
   1.4 The Didache
   1.5 Bl. Papias of Hierapolis
   1.6 St. Irenaeus of Lyons
   1.7 St. Justin Martyr
   1.8 Muratorian Canon
   1.9 Clement of Alexandria
   1.10 Tertullian
   1.11 Origen
   Conclusion to Part I
   Footnotes to Part I
Part II: Manuscript Evidence
Part III: Ancient Use of Oral and Written Sources

General Introduction

Since the nineteenth century, Biblical scholars have sought to explain the striking similarities of order and content among the canonical Gospels of St. Matthew, St. Mark, and St. Luke, called "synoptic" Gospels since they may be "viewed together" for textual comparison. Scholarly theories usually suppose some direct literary influence, where an evangelist copied from the written text of another canonical Gospel in his possession, sometimes interpolating his own material. By the early twentieth century, a majority of German and English Protestant scholars had gravitated toward the "two-source hypothesis," which posited that the authors of Matthew and Luke had used the Gospel of Mark as a written source, and also another unknown source designated 'Q' (German: quelle = "source"), to account for the non-Marcan sayings and parables found in Matthew and Luke.

The two-source hypothesis requires St. Mark's Gospel to be written first, contrary to all historical evidence and ecclesiastical tradition. Further, by making the Gospel of Matthew strongly dependent on that of Mark, it would seem implausible that the former was really written by St. Matthew the Apostle, again contradicting a unanimous and early tradition. Consequently, any Matthaean interpolations not found in Mark might be regarded as later traditions or editorial glosses, of lesser authenticity than the more primitive Marcan tradition.

Given the serious implications of this literary hypothesis toward the data of revelation and ecclesiastical tradition, the Pontifical Biblical Commission (in 1911-12) issued a series of responsa to questions about the authorship and order of the synoptic Gospels, confirming historical and ecclesiastical traditions. Nonetheless, after the Second Vatican Council, the "two-source hypothesis" has found wide acceptance even among Catholic scholars, who tend to dismiss the Commission's decrees (which have never been abrogated) as expressing a "fundamentalist" viewpoint. To those of us familiar with Catholic scholarship of the time, notably that of Fr. Hugh Pope (1869-1946), this is a remarkably lazy and ill-informed assessment. The central methodological question is not that of strict biblical literalism, but on the relative value of historical and literary evidence.

If literary criticism is to overturn the verdict of historical testimony, it ought to produce evidence as least as unequivocal as that of history. Synoptic source criticism has not met this standard, as is proved by the able defenses of alternative source hypotheses by modern critics (e.g., W.F. Farmer and E.P. Sanders). Practically all such theories, whether conventional or alternative, presuppose some direct literary relationship among the Gospels. The only question among them is the direction of such dependence.

This presupposition ought to be challenged more vigorously, given what scholars have recently learned about oral modes of tradition and the oral use of texts. As Albert Lord observed a half century ago, much of the verbatim similarity among the synoptics is sufficiently fragmentary and disordered to be much more suggestive of oral recollection than copying from a source text. In 1978, John Rist provided numerous examples showing how the supposition that Matthew knew Mark or Mark knew Matthew breaks down repeatedly. More recently, Terence Mournet has shown that much of the "Q" tradition has features better explained by common oral tradition than by recourse to a common text.

The implications of these observations should not be exaggerated, for there is still much in the synoptic double and triple traditions that can only be explained by common source texts. Still, the unequivocally "textual" common tradition is much less extensive than is generally supposed by a superficial comparison of the Gospels. Similarity in order and general content need not always be explained by a common source text. When we adopt more rigorous standards for admitting a similarity to be textual in origin, we will find that only a few discrete blocks of the synoptic Gospels were copied from common source texts. These similarities can be better explained by all three evangelists having access to some similar written traditions than by one having access to another's Gospel, though we cannot exclude the possibility that Luke knew Mark.

To validate these theses, we will have recourse to past scholarship and also present some original research on the degrees and kinds of verbatim similarity in various pericopes. This work will be presented in two volumes: the first treating the relationship between Matthew and Mark, and the second examining the composition of Luke's Gospel, with emphasis on the Matthew-Luke double tradition. These questions cannot be completely isolated from each other, so there will be some discussion of Luke in the first volume and of Mark in the second. Still, our focus will be on the so-called Marcan material in Volume I, and on the so-called Q material in Volume II.

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Introduction to the First Volume

Any attempt to solve the “synoptic problem” must face the question of the relative priority of the Gospels of St. Matthew and St. Mark. Currently, the hypothesis of Marcan priority is presented as an undisputed scholarly fact in most Biblical commentaries, notwithstanding its serious weaknesses, such as its strict reliance on internal, literary data that are susceptible to double-edged interpretations, while external, historical evidence strongly contradicts the idea that St. Mark wrote first. It is my contention that internal evidence of “form criticism” and linguistic criticism is insufficient to determine which Gospel is anterior to the other, while the historical evidence decides the question in favor of the priority of St. Matthew's Gospel. Further, we will find that much internal evidence suggests that the two Gospels are not in any relationship of direct literary dependence. Instead, they made use of common oral and written traditions, much of which already had an established order or sequence.

To justify these assertions, we will systematically examine the relevant external and internal evidence. First, we will examine the historical and manuscript evidence (Parts I and II) regarding the authorship and composition of the Gospels of Matthew and Mark. Next, we will survey recent scholarship regarding the modes of transmitting oral and written histories (Part III) likely used in the formation of the early Gospel tradition. Then we will examine the data of the Gospel texts themselves, to see which parts exhibit characteristics of common oral or written tradition (Part IV) on the basis of order and verbatim similarities. We will also look at linguistic evidence of Marcan and Matthaean vocabulary and style (Part V), and finally give an exhaustive comparison of Marcan and Matthaean content (Part VI), showing that the supposed Matthaean "additions" to Mark might have as much claim to primitivity and authenticity as the triple tradition material.

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Part I: Historical Evidence

By the early second century, the four Gospels, including Matthew and Mark, were esteemed as canonical and apostolic in origin by the entire Church from Gaul to Egypt. At this time, there was still an active oral Gospel tradition against which the authenticity of any written Gospel might be compared. We find direct and indirect evidence of this oral tradition in the Apostolic Fathers, those who had direct contact with some of the apostolic generation. Some of these same early witnesses also explicitly attest that the first written Gospel was made by the Apostle Matthew in a Hebraic language, and that the second was written by Mark, the companion and interpreter of St. Peter. This order of priority is confirmed by the most ancient manuscript traditions. If we were to judge the matter solely on external evidence, there would be no question that the Gospel of St. Matthew is prior to that of St. Mark, or at any rate is independent of the latter.

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1.1. St. Clement of Rome

St. Clement of Rome was a contemporary of St. Peter, having been ordained by the Apostle, and he eventually became the fourth bishop of Rome, succeeding St. Linus and St. Anacletus. Judging from early lists of the popes, he reigned c. AD 88-97. The fact that he was not buried in Rome suggests there is some truth to the legends that he was exiled or martyred under Trajan (AD 98-117).

The only authentic Clementine epistle still extant is the letter to the Corinthians. This is generally a letter of exhortation and instruction to the Church at Corinth, similar in genre to the epistles of St. Paul and of the sub-apostolic generation of bishops. These letters give evidence that bishops, from the beginning of the Church, had a collegial regard for the welfare of other churches and unity in faith with them.

St. Clement mentions the martyrdoms of Ss. Peter and Paul (Ep. to Corinthians, I, 5), and he briefly recounts how the Gospel was proclaimed and spread:

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 Ghost, 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. (Ibid., I, 42)

Here St. Clement articulates a top-down authority principle for the proclamation of the Gospel. Christ preached only what the Father willed, and the Apostles were commissioned by Christ to proclaim the Gospel throughout the world. Thus apostolic preaching sowed the seeds of faith in the Christian world outside of Palestine. It is no accident, then, that every known early local church had at least one apostle preach to it.

Naturally, the Apostles could not be everywhere at all times, so even in their own lifetimes they appointed "overseers" (episkopoi, now called "bishops") to shepherd the churches in their absence. In larger communities, these episkopoi had "assistants" (diakonoi, or "deacons"), and according to St. Clement, even the diakonoi of the first generation were appointed by the Apostles.

St. Clement's citation of "the Scripture" above is not found in our canonical Old Testament. Here, as elsewhere throughout the letter, he shows knowledge of written and oral traditions outside of canonical Scripture. In this, he is in perfect continuity with the Jewish rabbis and the authors of the New Testament, who cited the teachings of the oral Torah and written apocrypha.

The letter of Clement also shows some familiarity with much of the New Testament, especially the letters of St. Paul, though there are no definite direct quotations. The apostolic teachings are cited either from memory of written tradition or from oral tradition. A sola scriptura hermeneutic was far from the minds of first-century Jews and Christians. This can be seen further in the total absence of citations from the written Gospels, though these certainly existed in St. Clement's time. Whenever St. Clement speaks of a "gospel," it is something preached, not written.

The Church's authentic teaching tradition is safeguarded not in a set of apostolic texts, but in the office of the episcopate.

Our apostles also knew, through our Lord Jesus Christ, that there would be strife on account of the office of the episcopate. For this reason, therefore, inasmuch as they had obtained a perfect foreknowledge of this, they appointed those already mentioned, and afterwards gave instructions, that when these should fall asleep, other approved men should succeed them in their ministry.

We are of opinion, therefore, that those appointed by them, or afterwards by other eminent men, with the consent of the whole church, and who have blamelessly served the flock of Christ, in a humble, peaceable, and disinterested spirit, and have for a long time possessed the good opinion of all, cannot be justly dismissed from the ministry. For our sin will not be small, if we eject from the episcopate those who have blamelessly and holily fulfilled its duties. (Ibid., I, 44)

The Apostles themselves envisioned the need for a series of successors in their ministry, and provided for this when establishing the episcopate. St. Clement emphasizes that the episcopate is of apostolic authority, and so no Christian community has the right to depose a bishop who fulfills his duties righteously. A congregationalist or democratic ecclesiology is explicitly rejected as contrary to the will of the Apostles, who were acting in Christ when establishing the episcopate. This point should be remembered when examining any source criticism of the Gospels that assumes a Protestant ecclesiology for the early Church.

St. Clement continues:

Blessed are those presbyters who, having finished their course before now, have obtained a fruitful and perfect departure; for they have no fear lest any one deprive them of the place now appointed them. But we see that you have removed some men of excellent behaviour from the ministry, which they fulfilled blamelessly and with honour. (Loc. cit.)

The term presbyteroi ("elders") is used more or less equivalently with episkopoi, suggesting that these were at least overlapping categories. Even in modern Catholic reckoning, the episcopate is but a perfection of the presbyterate. When the churches were small, it is likely that most "elders" also served as "overseers," so the terms were used equivalently. Note that there seems to be a plurality of "presbyters" for a given church. As we will see, they often acted as a sort of diocesan synod.

While St. Clement gives us no direct evidence about the composition of the written Gospels, his epistle does show signs that there was still a significant role for oral transmission of apostolic teaching. This can be seen not only in his indirect manner of citing the Old Testament and the Pauline epistles, but also in his description of how the Gospel tradition was proclaimed and retained in the churches. An ecclesiology centered on the authority of the Apostles and their appointed successors is essential to understanding the likely modes of transmitting Christian traditions outside of Palestine.

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1.2 St. Ignatius of Antioch

St. Ignatius of Antioch, also known as Theophoros or "God-bearer," was the third bishop of Antioch, following St. Peter and Evodius, consecrated around AD 67. He was later brought to Rome and martyred under Trajan (AD 98-117). There is no early direct evidence that he met any of the Apostles, though it is likely that he, like his friend St. Polycarp, had been a "hearer" of the Apostle John. Seven of his letters are extant, and their authenticity has not been challenged on solid critical grounds, but only by those hostile to the doctrines to which they give early witness.

In all his letters, St. Ignatius repeatedly emphasizes the importance of unity with one's bishop as essential to Christian life. He does not presume to give orders to the other churches, but exhorts them to obey their bishop. He takes for granted that each church he addresses is already organized under a bishop and an assembly of presbyters or elders.

In his exhortation to the Ephesians, St. Ignatius notes that, "bishops, settled everywhere to the utmost bounds, are so by the will of Jesus Christ." (Ep. ad Eph., 3) Accordingly, they should continue to live in accord with the will of their bishop, whom they should receive as the Lord who sent him. Unity under a bishop is essential to Christian communion: "if any one be not within the altar, he is deprived of the bread of God. For if the prayer of one or two possesses such power, how much more that of the bishop and the whole Church!" (Loc. cit.) This mention of the "prayer of one or two" seems to be a variant of the "two or three" mentioned in Matthew 18:19. This is one of several places where St. Ignatius seems to know distinctively Matthaean material, or the oral tradition behind it.

Later in the letter, St. Ignatius mentions how the virginity of Mary, her offspring, and the death of the Lord were all "hidden from the prince of this world." Yet they were still made manifest through this sign:

A star shone forth in heaven above all the other stars, the light of which was inexpressible, while its novelty struck men with astonishment. And all the rest of the stars, with the sun and moon, formed a chorus to this star, and its light was exceedingly great above them all. (Ep. ad Eph., 19)

Again we find similarity to Matthaean tradition, but with details suggesting oral or written variants.

In another epistle, St. Ignatius urges the Magnesians to honor their bishop even if he is young, as even "holy presbyters" submit to him. Here is a clear indication that an episkopos (bishop) need not be a presbyteros in the proper sense of "elder". Those who are not merely called Christians, but are so in reality, will act in accord with their bishop.

The "bishop presides in the place of God, and your presbyters in the place of the assembly of the apostles..." All should "be united with your bishop, and those that preside over you.." ( Ep. ad Magnes., 6) Here we see that the presbyters act as a sort of council in cooperation with the bishop, which accounts for why they are sometimes called episkopoi ("overseers") by first-century writers. Christians should not "do anything without the bishop and presbyters." (Ibid., 7)

This appeal to authority and ecclesial unity is intended to guard Christians from false teachers who, on their own authority, introduce foreign doctrines into the Church. His main concerns are Judaizing Gentiles and those who deny that Christ was truly in the flesh and died. Contrary to modern scholars who have tried to make the Resurrection a later doctrine, projecting their own unbelief onto the ancients, the earliest heretics denied not the Resurrection, but the passion and death of Christ, as they held that he took only the appearance of flesh.

It is precisely by the mystery of Christ's death, observed on the Lord's Day, that "we have obtained faith, and therefore endure..." (Ep. ad Magnes., 9) Accordingly, Christians must live in union with Christ and his vicars, for:

...how shall we be able to live apart from Him, whose disciples the prophets themselves in the Spirit did wait for Him as their Teacher? And therefore He whom they rightly waited for, having come, raised them from the dead. (Loc. cit.)

Here we have an allusion to the resurrection of the first saints mentioned in Matthew 27:52-53.

Already, Christianity is regarded as a distinct religion from Judaism: "It is absurd to profess Christ Jesus, and to Judaize. For Christianity did not embrace Judaism, but Judaism Christianity, that so every tongue which believes might be gathered together to God." (Ibid., 10) St. Ignatius does not reject the Old Testament, which he cites repeatedly. Rather, he sees Judaism as subordinate to Christianity. The central revelation of Christ, that we are freed from sin by his passion and death, necessarily circumscribes any supposed obligation to keep the Old Law.

Partial acceptance of Jewish traditions is shown in St. Ignatius' letter to the Trallians, where he says:

...let all reverence the deacons as an appointment of Jesus Christ, and the bishop as Jesus Christ, who is the Son of the Father, and the presbyters as the sanhedrim of God, and assembly of the apostles. Apart from these, there is no Church. Concerning all this, I am persuaded that you are of the same opinion.(Ep. ad Trall., 3)

St. Ignatius is not introducing any novel notion of authority, but describing an existing state of affairs, to be protected against the pretensions of heretics. The notion of heresy was not invented by St. Irenaeus, as some scholars have claimed, as we find it already well described by St. Ignatius. They are those who introduce foreign doctrines from other belief systems or of their own invention into the Church. Many of them, inspired by a Gnostic antipathy toward the flesh, deny the real humanity of Christ.

Stop your ears, therefore, when any one speaks to you at variance with Jesus Christ, who was descended from David, and was also of Mary; who was truly born, and ate and drank. He was truly persecuted under Pontius Pilate; He was truly crucified, and died, in the sight of beings in heaven, and on earth, and under the earth. He was also truly raised from the dead, His Father quickening Him, even as after the same manner His Father will so raise up us who believe in Him by Christ Jesus, apart from whom we do not possess the true life. (Ep. ad Trall., 9)

While opposing the errors of the Docetae, who held that Christ was man only in "semblance" or appearance, St. Ignatius gives a recapitulation of the life of Christ. Here we find the basic elements found in the Apostles' Creed, including the harrowing of hell. Additionally, we find explicit mention of Christ's descent from David, in agreement with Matthew's Gospel. Carnally, Christ is only "of Mary," not of Joseph, since St. Ignatius believes in the virgin birth.

In St. Ignatius' letter to the Romans, he cites the Gospel saying, "For what shall a man be profited, if he gain the whole world, but lose his own soul?" (Ep. ad Rom., 6) This is found in all three synoptic Gospels. (Mt 16:26; Mk 8:36; Lk 9:25) St. Ignatius' wording is in agreement with Matthew and Mark, but not Luke.

Addressing the churches, he urges them not to prevent his martyrdom. "I do not, as Peter and Paul, issue commandments unto you. They were apostles; I am but a condemned man: they were free, while I am, even until now, a servant." (Ep. ad Rom., 4) A distinction is made between the authority of the Apostles and their successors. The original Apostles ("sent ones") were commissioned to issue new commandments, but Ignatius as a bishop is but a servant to the apostolic tradition and to those he shepherds.

He asks the Romans to pray for "the Church in Syria, which now has God for its shepherd, instead of me. Jesus Christ alone will oversee it..." (Ibid., 9) There is, properly speaking, only one overseer (episkopos) for a given church. In the absence of a vicar, Christ oversees it directly.

St. Ignatius declares his unworthiness to be counted a shepherd among his predecessors of the apostolic generation (St. Peter and his gentile convert Evodius). "I am ashamed to be counted one of them; for indeed I am not worthy, as being the very last of them, and one born out of due time." (Loc. cit.) These last words are a clear allusion to those of St. Paul (1 Cor. 15:8-9), showing some knowledge of the New Testament epistles.

In another letter, St. Ignatius exhorts the Philadelphians to be united with their bishop and to have one Eucharist. "For there is one flesh of our Lord Jesus Christ, and one cup to [show forth] the unity of His blood; one altar; as there is one bishop, along with the presbytery and deacons, my fellow-servants..." (Ep. ad Phila., 4)

St. Ignatius' warnings against Judaizing were not motivated by any antipathy toward the Jews, for in fact Judaizers were generally gentiles: "But if any one preach the Jewish law unto you, listen not to him. For it is better to hearken to Christian doctrine from a man who has been circumcised, than to Judaism from one uncircumcised." (Ibid., 6) The Gospel is the central Christian message, more so even than the Old Testament:

When I heard some saying, If I do not find it in the ancient Scriptures, I will not believe the Gospel; on my saying to them, It is written, they answered me, That remains to be proved. But to me Jesus Christ is in the place of all that is ancient: His cross, and death, and resurrection, and the faith which is by Him, are undefiled monuments of antiquity; by which I desire, through your prayers, to be justified. (Ibid., 8)

Again, St. Ignatius speaks of the Gospel as something contrasted with the Scriptures. It is the message of the life, death, and resurrection of Christ. St. Ignatius conceives it as an object of faith rather than a set of texts.

Early in his letter to the Smyrnaeans, St. Ignatius writes that Christ was truly of the seed of David, born of a virgin, and "baptized by John in order that all righteousness should be fulfilled". (Ep. ad Smyrn., 1)This last phrase is found only in the Matthaean account of Christ's baptism. (Mt. 3:15)

Again addressing the Docetist error that Christ did not possess a real body, St. Ignatius cites a resurrection account akin to that found in the Gospel of St. Luke (Lk. 24:39):

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. (Ep. ad Smyrn., 3)

Later in the letter, speaking of the necessity of believing in the blood of Christ, St. Ignatius cites the Gospel saying, "He that is able to receive it, let him receive it." (Mt. 19:12) This uniquely Matthaean expression is taken out of its original context, which was an exhortation to continence.

Those who deny the Incarnation also abstain from the Eucharist, "because they confess not the Eucharist to be the flesh of our Saviour Jesus Christ, which suffered for our sins, and which the Father, of His goodness, raised up again." (Ibid., 7) Christians should stay away from those who speak against the Eucharist, and "give heed to the prophets, and above all, to the Gospel, in which the passion has been revealed to us, and the resurrection has been fully proved. But avoid all divisions, as the beginning of evils." (Loc. cit.) It is not clear if "the Gospel" here is a written Gospel.

The Eucharist, the sign of Christian communion, is only to be administered by the bishop or his delegates.

Let that be deemed a proper Eucharist, which is either by the bishop, or by one to whom he has entrusted it. Wherever the bishop shall appear, there let the multitude also be; even as, wherever Jesus Christ is, there is the Catholic Church. It is not lawful without the bishop either to baptize or to celebrate a love-feast; but whatsoever he shall approve of, that is also pleasing to God, so that everything that is done may be secure and valid. (Ep. ad Smyrn., 8)

The bishop alone can act or delegate others to act on behalf of his church. Only with the bishop can one admit a person into the church or celebrate the rite of communion. (The Eucharist could be administered in an agape or love-feast, similar to Greco-Roman funereal feasts, which could be held in private homes. Agapae were distinct from more formal public liturgies, and were gradually discontinued in the fourth to seventh centuries.)

In his letter to St. Polycarp, St. Ignatius cites the exhortation to be "wise as a serpent, and harmless as a dove," which is unique to St. Matthew's Gospel. (Mt 10:16) He also provides an early witness to sacramental marriage: "But it becomes both men and women who marry, to form their union with the approval of the bishop, that their marriage may be according to God, and not after their own lust." (Ep. ad Poly., 5)

In summary, St. Ignatius provides an important witness to the early constitution of churches under bishops and presbyters, and the establishment of this order by the Apostles. This top-down ecclesiology provides context for the likely modes of transmission of Church tradition. St. Ignatius certainly had knowledge of much of the content of the synoptic Gospels, especially material unique to Matthew. His citations are rarely verbatim, however, and his discussion of the Gospel leads us to believe that this was still primarily an oral message, not something limited to a definite written form.

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1.3 St. Polycarp of Smyrna

St. Polycarp was an early bishop of Smyrna, likely succeeding the "Ariston" named in the Apostolic Constitutions. (Apost. Const., VII, 4, xlvi) Judging from the data in the account of his martyrdom, he died in AD 155 at the age of eighty-six, so he was born in AD 69. According to St. Irenaeus, who studied under St. Polycarp in his youth, the latter had known the disciple John and other eyewitnesses of the Lord.

I remember the events of that time more clearly than those of recent years. For what boys learn, growing with their mind, becomes joined with it; so that I am able to describe the very place in which the blessed Polycarp sat as he discoursed, and his goings out and his comings in, and the manner of his life, and his physical appearance, and his discourses to the people, and the accounts which he gave of his intercourse with John and with the others who had seen the Lord. And as he remembered their words, and what he heard from them concerning the Lord, and concerning his miracles and his teaching, having received them from eyewitnesses of the 'Word of life,' Polycarp related all things in harmony with the Scriptures.

These things being told me by the mercy of God, I listened to them attentively, noting them down, not on paper, but in my heart. And continually, through God's grace, I recall them faithfully. (St. Irenaeus, quoted in Eusebius, Eccl. Hist., V, xx, 6-7)

St. Irenaeus' preference for memorization over written notes, and for the testimony of a living voice, was not a personal idiosyncrasy, but a common characteristic of men of that time, Christian and non-Christian. He emphasizes that St. Polycarp taught in harmony with both oral and written tradition, i.e., the eyewitnesses of the Lord and the Scriptures. This is to contrast with the Valentinian doctrines that his co-pupil Florinus had adopted. Valentinus (c. 100-160) had incorporated the Gnostic doctrine of the thirty Aeons to give a supposedly deeper understanding of Christian revelation. St. Irenaeus reminds Florinus that "These doctrines, the presbyters who were before us, and who were companions of the apostles, did not deliver to you." (Ibid., V, xx, 4) If their teacher "that blessed and apostolic presbyter" Polycarp had heard these doctrines, "he would have cried out, and stopped his ears, and as was his custom, would have exclaimed, O good God, unto what times have you spared me that I should endure these things? ... And this can be shown plainly from the letters which he sent, either to the neighboring churches for their confirmation, or to some of the brethren, admonishing and exhorting them." (Ibid., V, xx, 7-8)

In this characterization of St. Polycarp's attitude toward strange doctrines, St. Irenaeus appeals to a hermeneutic altogether dissimilar to that favored by the Gnostic heretics. Instead of trusting in one's own cleverness in constructing doctrines, the true Christian should humbly receive what is taught by the church elders, which in turn comes from the Apostles and other eyewitnesses of the Lord.

The only authentic extant writing of St. Polycarp himself is his epistle to the Philippians. This letter has repeated direct citations from the first epistle of St. Peter, which seems to be a favored text, though there are also numerous citations from the Pauline epistles. As an apparent Gospel citation, we find:

"Judge not, that you be not judged; forgive, and it shall be forgiven unto you; be merciful, that you may obtain mercy; with what measure you mete, it shall be measured to you again;" and once more, "Blessed are the poor, and those that are persecuted for righteousness' sake, for theirs is the kingdom of God." (St. Polycarp, Ep. ad Philipp., 2)

These are not verbatim quotations of any written Gospel, but are an amalgam of material found in Matthew and Luke. It is possible that the canonical Gospels are cited from memory, or else from the oral or written tradition behind the Matthaean-Lukan "sayings" material.

This letter was written after the martyrdom of St. Ignatius, which it mentions. (Ep. ad Philipp., 9) At the request of the Philippians, St. Polycarp subjoins to his own letter those that had been written to him by St. Ignatius. This accounts for how they were preserved, and also gives us a sense of how the canonical New Testament writings were likely distributed to the various churches.

St. Polycarp exhorts, but does not command, the sister church at Philippi. He speaks on behalf of himself and the presbyters with him. He urges the faithful to be "subject to the presbyters and deacons, as unto God and Christ", and prescribes norms of conduct for presbyters.

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1.4 The Didache

The Didache or Teaching of the Twelve Apostles is a Greek catechism dating to c. AD 100. The document's full title, "The Lord's Teaching Through the Twelve Apostles to the Nations," suggests that it was intended for gentile Christians. Strangely, its Gospel citations most frequently resemble sayings found in Matthew's Gospel, which was directed to a Jewish Christian audience. The citations, however, are not so exact as to require knowledge of Matthew, if we accept that these sayings may have still been preserved in oral tradition.

The Gospel material in the Didache consists entirely of Christ's teachings (including the synoptic apocalypse) in the Matthaean-Lukan double tradition, or in uniquely Matthaean content. The catechism, being concerned with prescriptive moral teaching, does not give any narrative about the life, death or resurrection of Christ. Yet the author(s) of the document certainly had knowledge of these narratives, as proved by its citation of Mt. 28:19 and its expectation that the Lord will return from heaven at the resurrection of the dead.

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1.5 Bl. Papias of Hierapolis

Blessed Papias (c. AD 60-140) was an early bishop of Hierapolis in Phrygia.[2] According to St. Irenaeus (Adv. haereses, V, 33), Papias was "a hearer of John, and a companion of Polycarp, a man of old time". Aside from his being a contemporary of St. Polycarp, we have no definite knowledge of the chronology of Papias' life.

Late in life, Papias wrote a work in five books called logion kyriakon exegesis, that is, An Exposition of the Oracles of the Lord. This is preserved only in fragmentary citations found in the writings of Eusebius, St. Irenaeus, Apollinaris of Laodicea, and Andrew of Caesarea. These citations provide the earliest direct testimony regarding the authorship and composition of the canonical Gospels.

In the introduction to his work, Papias explains that his interpretations are based in part on what he learned from elders of the apostolic generation:

I will not hesitate to add also for you to my interpretations what I formerly learned with care from the Presbyters and have carefully stored in memory, giving assurance of its truth. For I did not take pleasure as the many do in those who speak much, but in those who teach what is true, nor in those who relate foreign precepts, but in those who relate the precepts which were given by the Lord to the faith and came down from the Truth itself.

And also if any follower of the Presbyters happened to come, I would inquire for the sayings of the Presbyters, what Andrew said, or what Peter said, or what Philip or what Thomas or James or what John or Matthew or any other of the Lord's disciples, and for the things which other of the Lord's disciples, and for the things which Aristion and the Presbyter John, the disciples of the Lord, were saying. For I considered that I should not get so much advantage from matter in books as from the voice which yet lives and remains. (Eccl. hist., III, xxix)

This preference for "a living and abiding voice" (zoses phones kai menouses) over books is not motivated by any peculiar obscurantism, but was a common attitude of the time. Various Greco-Roman authors, including Tacitus, attested to the superiority of learning from a living voice (vox viva) over private reading of texts without guidance. [See: Loveday Alexander, "The Living Voice: Scepticism Towards the Written Word in Early Christian and in Greco-Roman Texts", in: The Bible in Three Dimensions, ed. D.J.A.Clines, S.E.Fowl, S.E.Porter (Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press 1990), pp.221-47.]

Papias uses the term 'presbyter' in the primary sense of "elder." Thus he refers to the Apostles Andrew, Peter, Philip, Thomas, James and John as "presbyters," men of the elder generation. Whenever he met a follower of the Apostles, he would ask him about their sayings or teachings. He also asked about the sayings of those disciples of the Lord still living, including Aristion and the Presbyter John.

Many scholars, following Eusebius, consider that this "Presbyter John" was distinct from St. John the Apostle, owing to this double mention in Papias, and to account for critical theories that the Apocalypse of John was written by someone other than the Apostle. Yet this theory of two Johns finds no historical corroboration. St. Irenaeus, who personally knew St. Polycarp, describes the latter as a contemporary of "John, the disciple of the Lord," who was in Ephesus, and that "the Church in Ephesus, founded by Paul, and having John remaining among them permanently until the times of Trajan, is a true witness of the tradition of the apostles." (Adv. haereses, III, iii, 4) St. Irenaeus knows only one disciple of the Lord named John, and this is the Apostle who lived at Ephesus until the time of Trajan (AD 98-117). Once it is admitted that the Apostle lived this long (having been only a youth in the time of Christ), and that St. Polycarp was his contemporary, as is widely accepted, there is no obstacle to admitting that Papias, of the same generation as St. Polycarp, also knew the Apostle John, in nearby Ephesus. The supposition of two Johns is therefore gratuitous. In any case, it is clear from Papias' testimony that this "Presbyter John" was a "disciple of the Lord" and therefore a valuable eyewitness.

Given that Papias personally knew at least two eyewitnesses of the Lord, John and Aristion (the latter likely being the bishop of Smyrna before Polycarp), as well as various elders who had personally known the Apostles, his testimony about the authorship and composition of the canonical Gospels deserves special weight.

And the presbyter would say this: Mark, who had indeed been Peter's interpreter (hermeneutes), accurately wrote as much as he remembered, yet not in order, about that which was either said or did by the Lord. For he neither heard the Lord nor followed him, but later, as I said, Peter, who would make the teachings anecdotally but not exactly an arrangement of the Lord's reports (logia), so that Mark did not fail by writing certain things as he recalled. For he had one purpose, not to omit what he heard or falsify them. (Eccl. hist., III, xxxix, 15)

"The presbyter" is likely John, according to the context provided by Eusebius. At any rate, it is someone considerably older than Papias, and therefore a contemporary of the Apostles. The apologetic tone suggests that the order of events given in the Gospel of Mark was considered to be incorrect chronologically, though the evangelist is not to be imputed with error on that account. His intent was only to record what he had heard, not to relate things in chronological order, and indeed St. Peter himself did not preach in such order. St. Mark's role as the "interpreter" of St. Peter may imply that the Apostle could not speak Latin or perhaps could not write in Greek, though it is practically certain from cultural circumstances that he would have spoken Greek, albeit imperfectly.

The content of St. Mark's Gospel is identified at least in part with the preaching of St. Peter. The fact that St. Mark wrote much of his Gospel from memory may imply that St. Peter was not present, which would date the work after the Apostle's imprisonment in AD 64.

Regarding St. Matthew's Gospel, Papias says only:

Matthew composed (synetaxato) the reports (ta logia) in a Hebrew manner of speech (Hebraidi dialektoi), but each interpreted (hermeneusen) them as he could. (Eccl. hist., III, xxxix, 16)

It is unclear whether St. Matthew composed or compiled his Gospel; the verb synetaxato can admit either meaning. Many modern scholars have interpreted logia to refer to a collection of sayings, exclusive of any narrative of the life of Jesus. They find apparent support of this view in their construction of the "Q" sayings source behind the Matthaean-Lukan double tradition, as well as in the discovery of the Gnostic Gospel of Thomas, which consists entirely of sayings. Yet in his discussion of Mark, Papias uses the term logia to refer to reports of what Christ said and did. In fact, Papias' work, titled Exposition of the Logia of the Lord, discusses much more than sayings, as it includes stories of miracles and martyrdoms, as recorded in other fragments. Thus it is likely that the logia written by St. Matthew related sayings and deeds.

The phrase Hebraidi dialektoi is found in the New Testament (Acts 21:40; 22:2, 26:14) and other writings to refer to a dialect or manner of speech used by the Hebrews, namely what we now call Aramaic. This emphasis on the original language of the Gospel suggests that hermeneusen here means "translated". Here Papias contrasts the original language of the Gospel with that in which it is generally received, perhaps to account for apparent discrepancies in wording or order.

We are not told if these improvisational translations of St. Matthew's Gospel are to be identified with canonical Matthew. The notion that canonical Matthew is a direct translation from a Hebrew or Aramaic text is extremely problematic, as many of its phrases have no evident Hebraic equivalent. Such difficulty might be avoided if we regard Greek Matthew as a paraphrastic or free translation. Even then, we would have to reckon with the probable fact that the synoptic Gospels, including Matthew, rely in part on common written sources in Greek.

Nonetheless, the tradition of a Hebrew origin for Matthew's Gospel is supported by several other important early witnesses. Indeed, the content of that Gospel suggests that it was intended for a Jewish Christian audience.

We are not told the source of Papias' claims about Matthew, however, and this venerable bishop is not always reliable in what he relates. Eusebius correctly notes that Papias sometimes mixes fabulous tales with credible narratives.[3] Still, his judgment that Papias was of weak intelligence seems an unfair exaggeration, grounded mainly in the latter's belief in a literal thousand-year reign of Christ on earth. Yet Papias was not alone in this belief, and was only following the plain literal sense of St. John's Apocalypse. Even Sir Isaac Newton struggled to decipher the dense symbolism of that work, and surely not on account of deficient intellect. As Papias is corroborated by other witnesses in his account of the Gospels of Matthew and Mark, we should regard him as basically credible on this subject.

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1.6 St. Irenaeus of Lyons

St. Irenaeus was a second-century bishop of Lyons who had been a hearer of St. Polycarp at Smyrna in his youth. As such, he is an important early witness to St. Polycarp's familiarity with St. John the Apostle, and can corroborate some of the testimony of Papias.

Several of St. Irenaeus' written works are preserved only in fragmentary citations. Two of these fragments are relevant to our inquiry. First, when remarking how the diversity of Christian customs regarding fasting goes back to apostolic times, St. Irenaeus says: "...thus Anicetus followed the presbyters who preceded him, while Polycarp followed John the disciple of the Lord and other apostles with whom he [Polycarp] had been conversant". (St. Irenaeus, Fragment 3) Here we see unequivocally that "John the disciple of the Lord" was an Apostle. We also see (on the more probable reading) that Polycarp had conversed with other Apostles on some occasion.

Pope St. Anicetus continued to follow the customs taught to him by Roman presbyters even after learning of different customs taught to St. Polycarp by some apostles, showing that he regarded Roman customs to be no less apostolic in origin. This shows that the Apostles did not always act as a monolithic teaching authority, and that the presbyters were responsible for passing on apostolic traditions locally.

In another fragment, St. Irenaeus says that the Gospel of St. Matthew was written to the Jews (without specifying the language), and that the Apostle needed to prove that Christ is the seed of David. (St. Irenaeus, Fragment 29)

St. Irenaeus' treatise against heretics, Adversus haereses, which has been preserved in its entirety, offers numerous pieces of evidence of interest to us. The most direct evidence is in the beginning of the third book:

We have learned from none others the plan of our salvation, than from those through whom the Gospel has come down to us, which they did at one time proclaim in public, and, at a later period, by the will of God, handed down to us in the Scriptures, to be the ground and pillar of our faith. ...

For, after our Lord rose from the dead, they were invested with power from on high when the Holy Spirit came down... and had perfect knowledge: they departed to the ends of the earth, preaching the glad tidings of the good things 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, 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. [Adv. haereses, III, i, 1]

Here we see two different uses of the term 'Gospel' (evangelion). In the primary sense, the Gospel is the good news or message of Jesus Christ for the salvation of men. There is only one such Gospel, which was at first proclaimed in public, and only later written down in Scriptures. The preachers of the oral Gospel were the Apostles, who were filled with perfect knowledge of the plan of salvation, admitting of no improvement. St. Irenaeus contrasts the apostolic teaching, preserved by presbyters in the churches, with the attitude of the heretics ("choosers"), who think they can improve upon or selectively disregard the apostolic tradition. The basis of ecclesiastical authority is not in one's personal ability, but in fidelity to the Gospel received from the Apostles, first in preaching, and later in writing. This single Gospel or good tidings belongs to all who receive it in its integrity.

In addition to the one Gospel of word and spirit, which was sown by the Apostles throughout the world, there were written documents called Gospels which recorded much of the Gospel message. These Gospels were apparently written after the Apostles had left to spread the good news throughout the world. Consistent with other witnesses, St. Irenaeus depicts the written Gospels as posterior to apostolic preaching and drawing upon the latter for their content. The Gospel is primarily the good news preached by the Apostles. The documents we call Gospels are authoritative on account of their identity with that preaching. This is not a sola Scriptura heuristic, as it makes apostolic tradition the font and foundation of the written New Testament.

St. Irenaeus describes the origin of the four Gospels in their canonical order: Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. St. Matthew wrote first and St. John wrote last, while the Gospels of Mark and Luke seem to have been written around the same time. Again we find the assertion that St. Matthew wrote for the Hebrews in their dialect. There is no evidence that St. Irenaeus relied on Papias for this datum, nor does this seem necessary, since he was himself a hearer of St. Polycarp. Naturally, it is possible that he relies on a common tradition.

The timing of the synoptic Gospels given by St. Irenaeus indicates that they were intended to preserve a record of apostolic preaching:

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. [Adv. haereses, III, i, 1]

All three Gospels were written after the departure of Ss. Peter and Paul, first from Palestine, and then from this life. St. Matthew wrote for the Jewish Christians in Palestine while Ss. Peter and Paul were at Rome (i.e., sometime after AD 42 for St. Peter; c. AD 59 for St. Paul). Since the other apostles were no longer present, it was left to St. Matthew to write down the authentic apostolic tradition. He need not have composed the entire Gospel freely, but may have made use of oral and written traditions of the preaching of the other apostles.

The "departure" of Ss. Peter and Paul likely refers to their death (AD 67) or one of their imprisonments (AD 60-66). The evangelists Mark and Luke therefore wrote their Gospels in the mid- to late 60s. These two Gospels, according to St. Irenaeus, contained the preaching of Ss. Peter and Paul, respectively. We must recall, however, this saint's apologetic purpose in proving the apostolic authority of the canonical gospels, which may motivate an oversimplified description of their content as apostolic. Nonetheless, we have seen in Papias corroboration of the belief that Mark's Gospel was at least based on the preaching of St. Peter.

Heretics, finding themselves contradicted by the Scriptures, dare to impugn their authority, and assert "that the truth was not delivered by means of written documents, but viva voce". (Adv. haer., III, ii, 1) Thus they are able to claim that the authentic tradition is to be found in Valentinus, Marcion, Cerinthes, or Basilides, depending on whom they follow. This line of argument shows (1) that viva voce was still considered by many to be a preferable mode of teaching and learning, and (2) that Christian oral tradition from the apostolic age was still believed to be active into the first half of the second century.

St. Irenaeus does not deny the value of oral tradition, but he counters that the authentic oral tradition from the apostles is preserved "by means of the succession of presbyters in the Churches". (Ibid., III, ii, 2) The heretics, by contrast, claim to be wiser than the presbyters, and even the apostles, having discovered the unadulterated truth which was unknown to these authorities. Heretics are distinct from the orthodox because they presume to teach by their own authority, rather than humbly accept the Gospel received from the Apostles through their successors. The presbyters safeguard oral tradition no less than the written, distinguishing the authentic from the inauthentic.

This notion of ecclesiastical teaching authority is no invention of St. Irenaeus. St. Ignatius of Antioch also wrote of "heretics" and the need to obey one's bishop and the assembly of presbyters. St. John the Apostle refused to commune with Cerinthus. The New Testament epistles and Acts of the Apostles repeatedly warn against following false teachers who proclaim their own doctrines rather than Christ's. Authority to teach comes not from one's personal wisdom, but from being "one who is sent" (apostolos) by Jesus Christ. The primacy in authority of the one apostolic Gospel over any person is such that even an Apostle or an angel of heaven shall be anathema if he preaches a gospel "besides that which you have received". (Gal. 1:8) Following personal authorities denies the unity of Christ's body, which is His Church. Thus St. Paul rebukes those who say, "I indeed am of Paul, and I am of Apollo, and I am of Cephas, and I of Christ," (1 Cor. 1:12) as if these were just so many wisdom teachers.

If modern sympathies frequently lean more toward the heretics than to the orthodox, it is because consumerism has the same heuristic of choosing that which pleases us, rather than humbly accepting what we have received. If our concern is our pleasure rather than receiving the authentic truth imparted by Jesus Christ, the epistemology of heretics will be more appealing. The falsity of heresy is proved as heretical groups repeatedly divide among themselves, while the orthodox retain the unity which is a mark of the Church, giving witness to an undivided Christ.

To show that the authentic oral and written tradition of the Apostles resides in the Churches, St. Irenaeus gives examples of the apostolic succession of bishops. First, he discusses the Church of Rome, founded by the Apostles Peter and Paul: "For it is a matter of necessity that every Church should agree with this Church, on account of its preeminent authority". (Adv. haer., III, iii, 2) Here we find an early witness to the primacy of authority of the Roman Church, requiring that all others should agree with it. St. Irenaeus clearly restricts this agreement to matters of doctrine, as he elsewhere admitted that differences in liturgy and devotional custom were accepted among the apostolic churches.

He gives the succession of Linus, Anacletus, and Clement as bishops of Rome. Of St. Clement, he says:

This man, as he had seen the blessed apostles, and had been conversant with them, might be said to have the preaching of the apostles still echoing [in his ears], and their traditions before his eyes. Nor was he alone [in this], for there were many still remaining who had received instructions from the apostles. (Adv. haer., III, iii, 3)

Here we see that St. Clement and many others in the late first century could appeal directly to the oral teaching of the Apostles, which they had retained in memory or in writing. Accordingly, St. Clement wrote a powerful letter to the Corinthians, "exhorting them to peace, renewing their faith, and declaring the tradition which it [the Church in Rome] had lately received from the apostles". (Loc. cit.) This teaching included the identity of the God of the Old Testament with the Father of Jesus Christ, contrary to the doctrine of heretics.

St. Irenaeus gives the rest of the apostolic succession of Roman bishops down to his own day, to Eleutherius.

In this order, and by this succession, the ecclesiastical tradition from the apostles, and the preaching of the truth, have come down to us. And this is most abundant proof that there is one and the same vivifying faith, which has been preserved in the Church from the apostles until now, and handed down in truth. (Loc. cit.)

Contrary to the false ecclesiologies invented by some modern source critics, St. Irenaeus shows a continuity and unity in faith of the Church, safeguarded by a formal teaching authority.

He likewise points to the apostolic pedigree of the Church in Ephesus: "Then, again, the Church in Ephesus, founded by Paul, and having John remaining among them permanently until the times of Trajan, is a true witness of the tradition of the apostles." (Ibid., III, iii, 4) Here again is a clear indication that St. John the Apostle resided at Ephesus until the end of the first century.

Refusal to commune with heretics is no novel invention of St. Irenaeus, for St. Polycarp rejected Marcion as the "firstborn of Satan." Here he followed the teaching of St. Paul, who says that heretics should be rejected after two admonitions. (Titus 3:10)

[Polycarp] it was who, coming to Rome in the time of Anicetus caused many to turn away from the aforesaid heretics to the Church of God, proclaiming that he had received this one and sole truth from the apostles—that, namely, which is handed down by the Church.

There are also those who heard from him that John, the disciple of the Lord, going to bathe at Ephesus, and perceiving Cerinthus within, rushed out of the bath-house without bathing, exclaiming, "Let us fly, lest even the bath-house fall down, because Cerinthus, the enemy of the truth, is within." (Adv. haer., III, iii, 4)

Cerinthus the Egyptian was a Gnostic-Ebionite heretic, against whom St. John is said to have written his Gospel. His sect later fused with the Nazarenes and Ebionites. Regardless of the accuracy of these particulars, it seems clear that the early authorities of the Church would not commune with anyone who rejected the apostolic faith. As eyewitnesses of Christ and the Apostles, they were manifestly competent to make such a determination.

In contrast with the apostolic origin of the orthodox faith of the Church, heresies are of relatively recent vintage. They date back to Valentinus or to Marcion, not to the Apostles. Valentinus and Cerdon (Marcion's predecessor), taught in the time of St. Hyginus (138-142), the ninth bishop of Rome. The Gnostics, somewhat more ancient, follow Menander, the disciple of Simon Magus.[4]

Later in his work, St. Irenaeus gives a series of mystical reasons why there are only four Gospels, for “there are four zones of the world in which we live, and four principal winds...” etc. (Adv. haer., III, xi, 8) This numerological argument may strike modern readers as absurd, yet this choice of discourse proves that St. Irenaeus was not asserting something new, but explaining a doctrine he had already received. If he had been taught there were three Gospels, he would have sought and found many examples of the number three occurring in nature and in Scripture. Similarly, one might ascribe mystical reasons for why there are thirteen Pauline epistles only after one has accepted that there are thirteen. We certainly wouldn't use such reasons to argue for or against the Pauline authorship of a disputed epistle.

Thus St. Irenaeus' testimony may be considered positive evidence that the present canon of four Gospels was already widely accepted a generation before his writing, which would take us to the beginning of the second century. This leaves less than an eighty-year window from the time of Christ to the widespread acceptance of the four canonical Gospels. Such success could hardly have occurred in a mere two generations if the documents were not at least consistent with the oral traditions propagated by hundreds of eyewitnesses from the first Christian generation.

None of the churches with apostolic successions are known to have ever recognized another Gospel as canonical, nor is any known to have rejected one of the four. This accounts for why all other early written Gospels are either Gnostic or Ebionite; which is to say, they were written by those not in communion with the apostolic churches, bearing only the name but not the doctrine of Christians. This does not mean that there can be no authentic traditions in the apocryphal gospels, but only that Christian teachings are mixed with foreign doctrines, so we can have no guarantee of the authenticity of a particular text. The canonical Gospels, by contrast, have their authenticity safeguarded by the presbyters and bishops in continuous succession from the Apostles, as is confirmed by the disciples of the Apostles and those of the third generation, such as St. Irenaeus and St. Justin Martyr.

So firm is the ground upon which these Gospels rest, that the very heretics themselves bear witness to them, and, starting from these, each one of them endeavours to establish his own peculiar doctrine. For the Ebionites, who use Matthew's Gospel only, are confuted out of this very same, making false suppositions with regard to the Lord.

But Marcion, mutilating that according to Luke, is proved to be a blasphemer of the only existing God, from those [passages] which he still retains. Those, again, who separate Jesus from Christ, alleging that Christ remained impassible, but that it was Jesus who suffered, preferring the Gospel by Mark, if they read it with a love of truth, may have their errors rectified.

Those, moreover, who follow Valentinus, making copious use of that according to John, to illustrate their conjunctions, shall be proved to be totally in error by means of this very Gospel, as I have shown in the first book. Since, then, our opponents do bear testimony to us, and make use of these [documents], our proof derived from them is firm and true. (Adv. haer., III, xi, 7)

True to their name, the heretics pick and choose which parts of the canonical Gospels they will accept, yet even by their mutilations they show their dependence on the writings preserved by the Churches.

In passing, we note that St. Irenaeus takes the Ebionites' Gospel to be that of St. Matthew. The Ebionites were a heretical Jewish Christian sect who denied the Divinity and virgin birth of Christ, and insisted that observance of the Jewish Law was still mandatory. Their Gospel was almost certainly in Hebrew or Aramaic, so we have here another reference to a Hebraic Gospel of Matthew.

The Montanists, like other heretics, omit those parts of canonical Scripture that do not fit their doctrines, such as St. John's mention of sending the Paraclete. The followers of Valentinus put forth their own writings, "more authentic" gospels, including one called the "Gospel of Truth,"[5] which is totally dissimilar from the canonical gospels. As St. Irenaeus says, if theirs is true, it follows that what was handed from the apostles cannot be the truth. (Adv. haer., III, xi, 9) Here lies the crux of the epistemological problem of Christian heresy, as it undermines the only credible basis of received knowledge about Christ.

The mutilation or rejection of canonical Scriptures by the heretics is motivated by their doctrines, not by legitimate concerns about the authenticity of these documents. This is in sharp contrast with the attitude of the Churches, who humbly receive what was given to them, even if they do not understand all that is said therein, and even if they cannot easily harmonize the fourfold Gospel. The intellectual tries to dictate to reality what it should be like, while the Christian humbly accepts what he has received from trustworthy authority, whether he fully understands it or not.

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1.7 St. Justin Martyr

St. Justin Martyr (AD 100-160) was an important early Christian apologist, who provides us with much testimony about second-century Christian life. His witness regarding the written Gospels, unfortunately, is rather sparse.

In his writings, St. Justin shows knowledge of all three synoptic Gospels. In the extant fragments of his treatise on the Resurrection, he cites Mark 12:25, Luke 20:34-35 and 24:32. In his First Apology (written 153-155), he quotes all three synoptics, including the uniquely Matthaean verse 9:13, albeit with alternative text. (First Apol., 15) He frequently gives paraphrastic variants and juxtapositions of Gospel sayings, likely indicating that he is quoting from memory.

Later in the First Apology, when writing on the Eucharist—which "is the flesh and blood of that Jesus who was made flesh"— St. Justin cites the written Gospels (e.g., Lk. 22:19) as an authority for this rite. "For the apostles, in memoirs called Gospels, have thus delivered to us what was enjoined upon them..." (First Apol., 66) Here the written Gospels are described as containing the personal recollections of the Apostles. Already in St. Justin's day, access to the apostolic teaching came primarily through written tradition, as the sub-apostolic generation was dying out.

In his Dialogue with Trypho the Jew (AD 140), St. Justin notes some ambivalence about communion with Jewish Christians who keep the Old Law. In his opinion, Jewish Christians may voluntarily keep the Old Law as conducive to virtue and not as necessary to salvation, as long as they do not compel Gentiles to do so, and he is willing to commune with such Christians. However, he notes that other Christians are not willing to associate with any Jewish Christians who keep the Old Law. (Dial. Trypho, xlvii)

This distinction made by St. Justin suggests that there were both orthodox and heterodox sects of Jewish Christians in his time. The refusal by other Gentile Christians to acknowledge this distinction may have caused the isolation and eventual disappearance of orthodox Jewish Christianity.

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1.8 Muratorian Canon (c. 180-200)

The oldest known list of canonical Christian Scriptures is the fragment discovered by Ludovico Muratori in 1740. This eighth-century Latin manuscript, full of barbarous misspellings by an ignorant scribe, is a transcription of a much older text, parts of which are also found in ancient codices. Judging from internal evidence, the original text (possibly in Greek) was composed at Rome in the late third century.

The Muratorian canon is not a mere list of books, but includes a brief discussion of the origin of each book, and the reason for its inclusion in the canon. The first part of the canon is missing, not due to any deficiency in the eighth-century manuscript, which seamlessly includes other copied texts, but on account of its source, which presumably was missing one or more leaves, leaving a break in mid-sentence. We therefore only have the New Testament canon from the second Gospel onward, and have no way of knowing if the Old Testament was also included.

The canon mentions, in this order: the four Gospels, the first epistle of John, the Acts of the Apostles, the epistles of Paul to seven churches (Corinthians, Ephesians, Philippians, Colossians, Galatians, Thessalonians, Romans), the second epistles of Paul to the Corinthians and Thessalonians, his epistles to Philemon and Titus, his two epistles to Timothy, all of which are to be used throughout the universal Church.

Next are mentioned two forged letters of Paul to the Laodiceans and the Alexandrians, which are used by the Marcionites. These and many others unnamed are not received by the Church. The epistle of Jude and the last two epistles of John are also accepted by the Catholic Church, along with the Wisdom of Solomon. This juxtaposition with the Old Testament book suggests that these latter epistles were likewise considered to be of questionable authenticity, though ultimately accepted.

The canon accepts only the Apocalypses of John and Peter, though some do not want the latter to be read in church. Hermas the Shepherd, though written recently during the time of Pope Pius, should be read, but not published for people in the Church. It is "neither among the prophets, their number being complete, nor among the apostles, for it is after their time." The Shepherd is a Christian moral treatise in the form of a series of visions and parables laden with symbolism. It was widely commended throughout the Church, being full of salutary teaching, though it was not considered an apostolic writing. It did not add to the deposit of faith, but taught only what was consonant with existing oral and written tradition.

Judging from what is excluded from the canon or regarded ambivalently, we may see that the apostolic authority of the four Gospels was unquestioned. There were no other written gospels significant enough to mention, even to reject them. This is unsurprising, considering that most heretics used mutilated versions of the canonical Gospels, while the Gnostics kept their apocryphal "secret knowledge" to themselves.

Regarding the second Gospel, the only text preserved in the Muratorian canon is: quibus tamen interfuit et ita posuit, "but he was among them, and so he put [the facts down]." This makes much more sense if we are speaking of the Gospel of Mark rather than that of Matthew. The writer is defending the authority of St. Mark, who, though he was not himself an apostle, was present among them, and thus was able to record their teaching. No such qualification would be necessary for St. Matthew. We may take it as likely, then, that Matthew's Gospel was considered the first, as St. Mark's is the second.

"The third book of the Gospel is according to Luke," the canon continues.

Lucas iste medicus post ascensum xri. cum eo paulus quasi ut iuris studiosum secundum adsumsisset numeni suo ex opinione concripset. [sic]

Lucas iste medicus post ascensum Christi, cum eum Paulus quasi [itineris sui socium, secundum] adsumpsisset nomine suo ex opinione conscripsit. [restored; bracketed uncertain]

Luke, that physician, after the ascension of Christ, Paul with him [as his partner in travels, afterward] would have adopted in his name what he wrote from belief.

The text is very uncertain in places, but the general sense is to associate Luke's Gospel with the authority of St. Paul. The term 'opinione' may also mean "report"; if it is translated from the Greek doxa, the original meaning could be "glory". 'Conscribere' means to compose in writing, not merely to write (scribere), so Luke truly composed the Gospel. Still, the fact that he "assumed" this work in his name suggests that its content was at least partly derived from St. Paul.

The author emphasizes the Pauline connection because he recognizes that St. Luke did not "see the Lord in the flesh".

...et idem prout assequi potuit: ita et a nativitate Iohannis incepit dicere.

...and likewise insofar as he was able to attain; even so it begins to speak from the birth of John.

Despite not being a contemporary of Jesus, St. Luke wrote whatever he was able to ascertain, starting with the birth of John the Baptist.

Regarding "the fourth of the Gospels, of John [one] of the disciples," the canon gives an interesting origin story found nowhere else.

His fellow disciples and bishops (condiscipulis et episcopis suis) urging [him], John said, "Fast together with me today for three days, and, what shall be revealed to each, let us tell to each other." That same night it was revealed to Andrew, [one] of the apostles, that with all of them reviewing (recognoscentibus cunctis), John should describe everything in his name.

The sense seems to be that the content of John's Gospel was a collaborative effort, based on revelatory dreams. This would account for the theologically discursive nature of this Gospel, which, unlike the synoptics, seems more like a meditation on the life of Christ than a plain historical narration. It is not clear if the "fellow disciples" were apostles, or other eyewitnesses of Christ.

The presence of the Apostle Andrew is not too surprising, considering that he and John had known each other since they followed the Baptist. Still, given that John lived at Ephesus, we are hard pressed to locate Andrew there in the late first century. Fourth-century writers place him in Greece (St. Jerome, St. Gregory Nazianzus) and Scythia (Eusebius), though much later Nicephorus (9th cent.) recounts traditions that St. Andrew first preached in Asia Minor (Cappadocia, Galatia, Bithynia), before moving on to Scythia and Greece. If accurate, this story would date the Gospel of John well before the end of the first century.

Regardless of its accuracy in historical detail, this story is evidently quite ancient, as indicated by its reference to a plurality of bishops in John's locality, following the older, more flexible use of the term episkopos. There are numerous places where it appears to be translated from Greek. Most strikingly, it does not consider authorship by St. John the disciple of the Lord to be sufficient basis for the Gospel's authenticity. It requires corroboration by St. Andrew and other disciples and bishops. The Apostles were not the sole guardians of the Gospel, but other eyewitnesses and ministers were also responsible for preserving its content. This is consistent with what is known about Middle East oral traditions. Still, an apostolic presence or delegation is a necessary condition, since only the apostles were "sent" or commissioned by Christ to spread the good news. This is why the Muratorian Canon takes care to show how an apostle is linked to each of the Gospels.

And so, although different principles (principia) might be taught in the separate books of the Gospels, nevertheless it makes no difference to the faith of believers, since all things in all [of them] are declared by the one sovereign Spirit, concerning the nativity, passion, resurrection, interaction (conversatione) with his disciples, and his double advent...

The various principia in the Gospels may be the different rules or maxims recorded in each, if principia translates the Greek arche. Alternatively, it may mean the various elements of the Gospel message that are contained in each of the four books. The fundamental aspects of the message follow the life of Christ, from his nativity until the second coming. Here we see that the Gospel as religious teaching and as biography of Christ cannot be neatly distinguished, for the teaching is structured in the life of Christ.

In contrast with the Gospel, which is in four books, "The Acts of the Apostles, however, were written in one volume." Luke is said to have described "particulars that happened in his presence, as he also evidently declares the remote passion of Peter (sicut et semote passionem Petri evidenter declarat), and also the departure of Paul from the city as he was proceeding to Spain."

This last part is likely a result of defective transcription and translation from Greek, as the Acts of the Apostles excludes the notable events mentioned. The author's intent is to explain this exclusion by the fact that Luke only related what occurred in his presence. It is possible that the text should read sicut est semote..., as the copyist ordinarily renders 'et' with an ampersand. The sense, though still butchered grammatically (likely due to translation from Greek), is that Luke's restriction to things he witnessed is made evident by his exclusion of the passion of Peter and the departure of Paul from Rome.

Note that this explanation of these exclusions from Acts allows for a later dating of Acts and the preceding Gospel of Luke. It is possible that Luke wrote after the martyrdoms of Ss. Peter and Paul, but excluded these only because he was not an eyewitness.

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1.9 Clement of Alexandria

Clement of Alexandria (c. 140-215)[6] was a Christian theological teacher and writer from the late second century, who became head of the Alexandrian catechetical school in AD 190, succeeding Pantaenus (d. 200), who had studied under hearers of the Apostles. Thus Clement, who was himself an old man by the end of the century, belonged to the third generation after the Apostles. His testimony is valuable not only for its antiquity, but because he had learned Christian tradition from teachers of diverse origins, ranging from his homeland of Greece through Anatolia, Syria, Assyria, Palestine and Egypt.

Clement, following Pantaenus, was one of the first Christians to use philosophy as an aid to theology. In his extant work called the Stromata, we find a fascinating eclecticism that makes use of pagan myth, history and philosophy to buttress his defense of Christianity, all the while embracing whatever truth is to be found in non-Christian sources. This was written after the death of Commodus, but likely before his own departure from Alexandria, so between 193 and 203.

The Stromata opens, interestingly enough, with a defense of why written compositions are useful. This shows that even in Clement's day, there were many, including Christians, who saw oral tradition as sufficient. He records his memories "against old age, as a remedy against forgetfulness, truly an image and outline of those vigorous and animated discourses which I was privileged to hear, and of blessed and truly remarkable men." (Stromata, I, 1)

One of his sources was a Greek born in Assyria; another was "a Hebrew in Palestine," who "was first in power" among his sources, and whom Clement found hiding in Egypt. (Eusebius thinks this must have been Panaetus.) They are described as "preserving the tradition of the blessed doctrine derived directly from the holy apostles, Peter, James, John and Paul, the sons receiving it from the father (but few were like the fathers)..." (Loc. cit.)

Clement cites the Gospel of John repeatedly, saying "it is written," showing that the written Gospel already had an authority akin to the Hebrew Scriptures. He also favors citations of Matthew and Luke. This may seem strange, given that Alexandria was the final resting place of St. Mark. If any place should exalt St. Mark's Gospel as first in importance or origin, it should be here. Yet the head of the Alexandrian school makes relatively little use of this Gospel.

Clement is also aware of a source called "The Preaching of Peter," which he quotes in several places, apparently taking it to be authentic. (Strom., I, 29; V, 39; VI, 5-6, 15) The content of this source is mostly a religious discourse, not a life of Christ, but it has at least one saying attributed to Christ (addressing the Apostles): "If any one of Israel then, wishes to repent, and by my name to believe in God, his sins shall be forgiven him, after twelve years. Go forth into the world, that no one may say, We have not heard." (Ibid., VI, 5) It is interesting that Clement accepts this apocryphal work, while at the same time believing that Mark's Gospel was based on St. Peter's preaching. Origen, Clement's most famous student, would also mention this "Preaching of Peter", explicitly calling it a "book" (and mentioning the same quotation found in Stromata, VI, 5), though expressing doubt as to its authenticity. (On John, XIII, 17)

Clement also has an extra-canonical quotation of St. Paul: "Take also the Hellenic books, read the Sibyl, how it is shown that God is one, and how the future is indicated. And taking Hystaspes, read, and you will find much more luminously and distinctly the Son of God described..." (Strom. VI, 5) This use of apocrypha is consistent with Clement's eclecticism as a philosophical theologian. He nowhere claims that these sources are to be read in churches, but nonetheless finds them helpful to theology.

It should not be thought that Clement was unconcerned with authenticity of authorship. In fact, Books V and VI of the Stromata contain an extended discourse against pagan authors, accusing them of plagiarism from each other and from the Hebrew Scriptures. He explicitly regards plagiarism as a type of theft, proving that Christians of the second century did not all have the elastic notion of authorship that is sometimes imputed to the ancients.

Clement does not regard Christianity as another philosophy, nor does the Gospel spread in the manner of human doctrines:

But the word of our Teacher remained not in Judea alone, as philosophy did in Greece; but was diffused over the whole world... bringing already over to the truth whole houses, and each individual of those who heard it by him himself, and not a few of the philosophers themselves.

And if any one ruler whatever prohibit the Greek philosophy, it vanishes immediately. But our doctrine on its very first proclamation was prohibited by kings and tyrants... and in addition by innumerable men, warring against us, and endeavouring as far as they could to exterminate it. But it flourishes the more. For it dies not, as human doctrine dies, nor fades as a fragile gift. For no gift of God is fragile. But it remains unchecked, though prophesied as destined to be persecuted to the end. (Stromata, VI, 18)

Naturalistic explanations of the dissemination and endurance of Christianity will always ring hollow to those who perceive how powerfully contrary the Gospel is to what the world and human nature teach.

In Who is the rich man who will be saved?, Clement discusses a strenuously anti-worldly teaching of Christ. Here he quotes the Gospel of Mark at length [Mk. 10:17-31](Who is the rich man..., iv); noting "although perchance the expressions vary slightly in each, yet all show identical agreement in meaning." (Ibid., v) This assessment of the variations among the synoptic Gospels was typical of early Christians, who were not concerned with exact wording. This is what we might expect of a predominantly oral culture, which generally did not value verbatim exactitude, but allowed each teller to use his own words. It does not occur to Clement that one evangelist copied another's text, or at least he does not mention this possibility. Like most early witnesses, he is more concerned with explaining differences than similarities.

In the same work, Clement speaks of Matthew having "added" something to a saying:

In the same way spiritual poverty is blessed. Wherefore also Matthew added, Blessed are the poor. [Mt. 5:3] How? In spirit. And again, Blessed are they that hunger and thirst after the righteousness of God. [Mt. 5:6] (Ibid., vii)

Clement seems to take for granted that the words "in spirit" and "after the righteousness of God" are explanatory glosses by Matthew. This does not diminish Clement's esteem for the Gospel, which he generally prefers in his citations. If anything, these additions enhance Matthew's Gospel, as they make the saying's meaning more clear. Once again, conveying meaning is much more important than verbatim transcription. Clement's belief that Matthew "added" these words does not imply that Matthew had a written source, for they may just as well have been added to sayings that were recounted orally.

Clement's most direct testimony about the origins of the Gospels is in his Hypotyposeis, which is no longer extant. This work fell into disfavor after Photius (9th cent.) condemned its theology, yet much of this criticism unfairly demanded terminological precision from one who lived well before the Nicene and Chalcedonian definitions of doctrine. Fortunately, relevant fragments of this work are preserved in Eusebius' history.

According to Eusebius, Clement wrote down "a tradition which he had received from the presbyters before him, in regard to the order of the Gospels". (Eccl. hist., VI, 14, 6) The Gospels containing the genealogies, i.e., Matthew and Luke, were written first, then Mark, and then John. It is telling that these presbyters, presumably of mid-second century Alexandria, know nothing of Marcan priority, and in fact regard their patron's Gospel as third in order. Clement, as far as we know, does not say that Matthew and Luke were written first because they contain genealogies. The placement of Luke before Mark is not too surprising, since other witnesses have represented these two Gospels as more or less simultaneous, around the time of the martyrdoms of Ss. Peter and Paul.

Following this, Eusebius gives an apparent direct quote from Clement:

As Peter had preached the Word publicly at Rome, and declared the Gospel by the Spirit, many who were present requested that Mark, who had followed him for a long time and remembered the sayings (memnemenon ton lechthenton), should write them out. And having composed the Gospel he gave it to those who had requested it. When Peter learned of this, he neither directly forbade nor encouraged it.

But, last of all, John, perceiving that the external facts had been made plain in the Gospel, being urged by his friends, and inspired by the Spirit, composed a spiritual Gospel. This is the account of Clement. (Eusebius, Eccl. hist., VI, 14, 6)

Here the Gospel of Mark is plainly said to have been written while St. Peter was alive, though not in the Apostle's presence. This Gospel is primarily a recollection of St. Peter's preaching. Interestingly, the Apostle did not encourage the use of this written aid to memory, perhaps because he shared that ancient preference for teaching by a living voice. In all the ancient accounts of the writing of the four Gospels, the evangelists are presented as responding to persistent requests, rather than writing on their own initiative. There appears to have been some initial reluctance to commit the oral Gospel to writing.

Clement does not seem to know anything about the circumstances in which the Gospels of Matthew and Luke were written, at least not in any detail. He does, however, give another account of Mark's Gospel, also recorded by Eusebius. Here it is less clear if this is a direct quotation or a paraphrase.

So, then [during the reign of Claudius], through the visit of the divine word to them, the power of Simon [Magus] was extinguished, and immediately was destroyed along with the man himself. And such a ray of godliness shone forth on the minds of Peter's hearers, that they were not satisfied with the once hearing or with the unwritten teaching of the divine proclamation, but with all manner of entreaties importuned Mark, to whom the Gospel is ascribed, he being the companion of Peter, that he would leave in writing a record of the teaching which had been delivered to them verbally; and did not let the man alone till they prevailed upon him; and so to them we owe the Scripture called the Gospel by Mark. On learning what had been done, through the revelation of the Spirit, it is said that the apostle was delighted with the enthusiasm of the men, and sanctioned the composition for reading in the Churches. Clement gives the narrative in the eighth [sixth?] book of the Hypotyposes. [Eusebius, Eccl. II, 15]

This version is mostly consistent with the other given by Clement, though it goes into more detail about how and why the hearers of St. Peter begged St. Mark to write down his preaching. Here, however, it seems that St. Peter actively encouraged the use of this Gospel, contrary to the other version. We should note that Eusebius may not be quoting Clement directly this time, and that St. Peter may have merely permitted this Gospel to be read in churches, without promoting it.

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1.10 Tertullian

Tertullian (c. 155-220), a contemporary of Clement of Alexandria, gives witness to the Western Christian tradition regarding the origin of the Gospels, having spent much of his life in Rome and Carthage. He discusses this topic in his Treatise against Marcion (c. 207-211).[7]

As context, the Marcionites believed that the God of the Old Testament was different from the God revealed by Christ. This duality reflected that of spirit and matter: the good God revealed by Christ created invisible things, and Christ only had the appearance of flesh, while the Old Testament God was a harshly just, warlike demiurge who created visible or material things. (As with the Gnostics, we find that the earliest Christian heresies did not deny Christ's divinity, but his humanity.)

In the fourth book, Tertullian argues against Marcion's Antitheses, which pit Old and New Testament sayings against each other. Tertullian mockingly calls this "the Gospel according the Antitheses"—or the Gospel "of Pontus" (Marcion's homeland), as contrasted with the true Gospel "of Jewry".

Marcion promoted a mutilated version of Luke's Gospel and his Antitheses on his own authority. This would make the promulgation of the Gospel begin with Luke. Against this, Tertullian says that the Gospels were written by apostles (apostolos) and "post-apostles" or "apostolic men" (post apostolos; apostolicos). The latter would have no authority were they not confirmed by the Apostles their masters, who in turn were commissioned by Christ himself to promulgate the Gospel.

Of the apostles, therefore, John and Matthew first instil faith into us; while of apostolic men, Luke and Mark renew it afterwards. (Adv. Marcionem, IV, 2)

This should not be taken as a statement of the chronological order in which the Gospels were written, but of their relative authority in Tertullian's view, and their canonical order in some African churches. We immediately accept the Gospels of John and Matthew on account of their apostolic authority, while we are to accept Luke and Mark only because they were companions of the Apostles, and their message was confirmed by the latter.

This close association of Luke and Mark with the Apostles is no innovation of Tertullian, as we have already seen such tradition related by other witnesses. Tertullian mentions this tradition, noting that the canonical Gospels are used in all the churches of apostolic antiquity, while the Marcionite scriptures are used only in the churches they established a century later.

The same authority of the apostolic churches will afford evidence to the other Gospels [besides Luke] also, which we possess equally through their means, and according to their usage— I mean the Gospels of John and Matthew— while that which Mark published may be affirmed to be Peter's whose interpreter Mark was. For even Luke's form of the Gospel men usually ascribe to Paul. (Adv. Marcionem, I, 5)

Again, Mark's Gospel is associated with St. Peter and Luke's is associated with St. Paul. We must be wary, however, of Tertullian's polemical context, which may cause him to exaggerate the degree of apostolic involvement in these written Gospels.

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1.11 Origen

Origen (c. 185-254), Clement's most illustrious student at Alexandria, founder of the famous theological school of Caesarea, and most prolific exegete of the early Christian era, is a valuable witness despite his relative lateness. Having access to great centers of Christian learning in Egypt and Palestine, as well as the ability to examine texts critically—he was among the first to challenge the Pauline authorship of the Epistle to the Hebrews—Origen possessed both the means and the ability to give a credible answer to the question of the Gospels' origin.

A fragment from the first book of Origen's Commentary on Matthew is quoted by Eusebius:

Among the four Gospels, which are the only indisputable ones in the Church of God under heaven, I have learned by tradition that the first was written by Matthew, who was once a publican, but afterwards an apostle of Jesus Christ, and it was prepared for the converts from Judaism, and published in the Hebrew language.

The second is by Mark, who composed it according to the instructions of Peter, who in his Catholic epistle acknowledges him as a son, saying, "The church that is at Babylon elected together with you, salutes you, and so does Marcus, my son." [1 Peter 5:13]

And the third by Luke, the Gospel commended by Paul, and composed for Gentile converts. Last of all that by John. (Eusebius, Eccl. hist., VI, 25)

Again, we find that there are only four undisputed Gospels, as proved by their use in the apostolic churches. Origen describes them in their canonical order, and seems to imply that this was also the order in which they were written. Once more, we find that Matthew's Gospel was written for Jewish Christians, and that it was published in a Hebrew tongue (likely Aramaic), though Origen does not explicitly say if it was composed in Hebrew.

St. Mark is said to have composed his Gospel following Peter's instructions, not necessarily implying that St. Peter supervised the writing, but that his instruction or teaching forms the Gospel's content. Still, Origen seems to lean toward a close apostolic association with the second and third Gospels, as he makes Luke's Gospel "commended by Paul". It is composed for Gentile converts, in apparent analogy with Matthew's Gospel for Jewish converts.

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Conclusion to Part I

If we were to evaluate the question of Gospel priority on historical evidence alone, we would find no basis whatsoever for the thesis of Marcan priority, while there is abundant evidence for Matthaean priority. Indeed, we cannot find any explicit statement by an author before AD 250 that some other Gospel was written before Matthew's. The belief in Matthaean priority cannot be attributed to its apostolic authorship, for St. John's Gospel was widely regarded as having been written last.

The historical evidence in favor of Matthaean priority is sufficiently strong that we should demand a high standard of literary evidence to overturn this verdict. Only if Matthaean priority were truly as unworkable as some form critics claim might one be rationally justified in reconsidering its truth.

The belief that Matthew's Gospel was written in Hebrew during the Apostle's lifetime is also early and widespread. There are no witnesses who explicitly say it was first composed in Greek. Still, the evidence that it was actually composed in Hebrew rather than translated is ambiguous in most cases. If there is sufficient literary evidence to contradict the idea that canonical Matthew is translated from Hebrew, we might be well justified in reconsidering this.

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Continue to Part II


Footnotes to Part I

[1] Parts I, II and VI based in part on draft text written in 2001.

[2] While some modern lists of Catholic saints include "St. Papias", the old Roman martyrologies only call him "blessed Papias," and this is traditional Catholic usage. He has never been formally canonized, and cannot be said to have been made a saint by earlier acclamation, as he was not recognized as such by the Catholic or Orthodox Churches.

[3] According to Eusebius: "The same person, moreover, has set down other things as coming to him from unwritten tradition, among these some strange parables and instructions of the Saviour, and some other things of a more fabulous nature." We are not told what these fabulous tales are, but another fragment attributes to Papias a grotesque account of Judas, too obese for a chariot to pass easily, being crushed to death. (Papias Fragment 3) We are not told Papias' source. When his source is a presbyter or the Apostle John, his accounts are more sober or at least pertinent to the Gospel. Most curiously, he says that St. John the disciple of the Lord recalled Christ teaching that "The days will come in which vines shall grow, having each ten thousand branches, and in each branch ten thousand twigs... and every grape when pressed will give twenty-five metretes of wine..." (Fragment 4) There is nothing in this teaching inharmonious with the canonical Scriptures, if we interpret it as referring to the time after the Last Judgment, when all creation is restored to harmony and transfigured into superabundance. Papias misconstrued this and other teachings about the kingdom of heaven as referring to a literal reign of Christ on earth before the Last Judgment, but this does not vitiate his accuracy as a witness.

[4] Simon, the magician mentioned in the eighth chapter of Acts, was among the Samaritans baptized by Philip in AD 37. He offered a gift of money to the Apostles for the power of giving the Holy Ghost. For this he was sternly rebuked by St. Peter and ordered to do penance. Although he then professed remorse, Simon later resumed his activities. According to St. Justin Martyr, Simon worked magic and was venerated as a god during the reign of Claudius (AD 41-54). Nearly all Samaritans in St. Justin's day were followers of this Simon. (First Apology, Ch. 26) His strange doctrine, which made himself a divine being, generating a series of ideas that pass from body to body, already bears some resemblance to Gnosticism, and is discussed by St. Irenaeus. (Adv. Haereses, I, xxiii, 2)

Menander, the successor of Simon, was also a Samaritan who practiced magic that supposedly imparted knowledge. This knowledge enabled one to overpower the angels that created the world. He claimed to be himself the savior of men, and those who are baptized into him would never die, but remain in immortal youth. Such was still believed by his adherents in the second century.

Neither Simon nor Menander made any pretext of preserving the authentic apostolic faith, but instead presented entirely new doctrines, granting themselves divine powers that Christ's own apostles never claimed.

[5] This "Gospel of Truth", written by Valentinus or his followers in AD 140-180, was discovered among the Nag Hammadi library of Gnostic codices in 1945. The content of the text (Coptic translated from Greek) is an extended homily or theological discourse, not a recounting of the acts and teachings of Christ. As such, it is not of much use for source criticism of the canonical Gospels.

[6] Although some sources call Clement a saint, he never had a public cult prior to the institution of formal canonizations, and was never formally canonized in the Catholic Church, though his name was long included in the Roman Martyrology. He was removed from the Clementine revision on the advice of Baronius, for the reasons given as well as because of his questionable trinitarian orthodoxy. The Eastern Orthodox likewise do not recognize Clement, whose theology had been strongly criticized by Photius. Still, he is regarded as a saint by some non-Chalcedonian Eastern Christians, as well as some Catholics of the Eastern Rites, though the legitimacy of such canonization is at least doubtful, as it lacks the authority of the universal Church.

[7] Tertullian taunts that Marcion's "created substance" has not been discovered "up to the fifteenth of the Emperor Severus" (AD 207). (Adv. Marcionem I, 15) This is rhetorically contrasted with the "fifteenth year of Tiberius Caesar", in which Christ appeared, so it is possible that it was actually later in Severus' reign, which ended in 211.

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