The origins of the gospels.

The patristic evidence.


At issue in this textual excavation is the origin of each of our canonical gospels: Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. I am in the process of laying out the ancient texts relevant to the following three questions, each of which ought to be asked about each gospel in turn:

  • Who wrote it?
  • Where was it written?
  • When was it written?

As these questions are addressed, two other important questions about each gospel may also come to the fore:

  • How was it written?
  • Why was it written?

This page provides patristic texts that refer to the provenance (author, date, or both) of the four canonical gospels. It also provides links to other pages on this site that provide even more detailed patristic citations or allusions to the gospels.

Refer to my collection of texts on ancient book composition and publication for classical parallels to the terminology of many of these patristic quotations.

Luke and John.

Middle to late century I or early century II.

In Luke 1.1-4 (refer also to Acts 1.1-3) Luke states that many have taken in hand to write up an account, or narrative, of the origins of Christianity. Does he have Mark in mind? Or Matthew? Or both? Or is he referring to other writings altogether?

In John 21.25 (refer also to 20.30-31) John states that Jesus did so many things that they could not all be written down. Is he obliquely referring to writings that preceded his, declaring that even with his foray into written evangelism there is yet much ground to cover?

The elder.

Middle of or late century I.

The elder referred to by Papias is surely the elder John that he mentions in the preface to his five books, called Exegesis of the Oracles of the Lord, according to Eusebius, History of the Church 3.39.15-16. The remarks that Eusebius quotes from Papias, quoting the elder, explicitly mention the gospels of Matthew and Mark.

Papias.

Early or middle of century II.

The five books of Papias are lost to us. Quite a few of the church fathers quote him, but it is Eusebius that cites him most substantially.

Papias mentions the gospels of Matthew and Mark by name. He also appears to parallel the gospel of John in some respects. Contact with the gospel of Luke is minimal at best.

Justin Martyr.

Middle of century II.

Justin Martyr gives a number of gospel traditions, most of which seem to reflect the gospels of Matthew and Luke. However, he also seems to refer briefly to the gospels of Mark and John. He may also use apocryphal traditions. He nowhere names the authors of the canonical gospels, though he appears to associate the gospel of Mark with Peter.

Anti-Marcionite prologues.

Late century II.

These Latin prologues, also called the Old Latin prologues, precede each of the gospels in some copies of the Latin Bible. Scholars disagree as to their exact date, but many place them in the late second century. A Matthean prologue is not extant.

Irenaeus.

Late century II.

In his monumental heresiological work Against Heresies, Irenaeus refers explicitly to the four gospels.

Polycrates of Ephesus.

Late century II.

Polycrates does not directly attest to any gospel by name in our extant fragments of his epistle to Victor of Rome, but he indirectly attests that the name of the beloved disciple in the fourth canonical gospel is John.

The Muratorian canon.

Late century II.

Lines 1-39a of this canonical list discovered by Muratori deal with the canonical gospels; however, both the beginning and the ending of the overall list are lost, and the respective notices for the gospels of Matthew and Mark are thus missing. Nevertheless, the wording of the notices for the gospels of Luke and John makes it clear that two gospels preceded these, undoubtedly those of Matthew and Mark, thus accounting for all four canonical gospels.

Theophilus of Antioch.

Late century II.

Jerome writes in epistle 121 that Theophilus compiled the sayings of the four evangelists into one work, and he refers in general to inspired gospels (in the plural).

Theophilus also specifically quotes from or alludes to the gospels of Matthew and John (by name), and possibly also that of Luke.

Clement of Alexandria.

Late century II.

Clement of Alexandria attests directly to the gospel of Mark, but also attests more indirectly to the gospels of Matthew and Luke, calling them the gospels with genealogies.

Origen.

Early century III.

Origen knows all four canonical gospels by name.

Victorinus of Pettau.

Late century III.

Victorinus knows all four canonical gospels by name.

Eusebius.

Early century IV.

Eusebius compiles a canonical list that includes all four canonical gospels.

It is to Eusebius that we owe our quotations from Papias concerning Mark and Matthew in History of the Church 3.39.1-17.

Ephraem.

Middle of century IV.

Ephraem accepts all four canonical gospels, and lists them in the order Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John.

Epiphanius.

Late century IV.

Epiphanius accepts all four canonical gospels, and asserts that each evangelist except the first wrote in response to an error concerning the previous gospel. The order he gives is Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John.

Epiphanius writes these things in his treatment of the sect of the so-called Alogi.

In Ancoratus 13.1 Epiphanius lays out the structure of his treatment of the heretical sects that we find in the Panarion:

Πασαι ουν αι προ της εναρκου του Χριστου παρουσιας απο Αδαμ αρξαμεναι και μεχρις αυτης εικοσιν εισι. μετα δε την ενσαρκον του Χριστου παρουσιαν εως βασιλειας Ουαλεντινιανου και Ουαλεντος και Γρατιανου πασαι αι αιρεσεις αι ψευδως επιφημισασαι το του Χριστου ονομα εαυταις εξηκοντα εισιν, ουτως αριθμουμεναι.

All [the heresies], therefore, which begin from Adam and [run] up to before the advent of the incarnated Christ are twenty. But after the incarnated advent of Christ until the kingdom of Valentinian and Valens and Gratian all the heresies which falsely dedicate themselves to the name of Christ are sixty, thus numbered.

Thus he treats eighty sects in all, twenty before and sixty after the advent of Christ.

Jerome.

Late century IV or early century V.

Jerome writes about Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John in their capacities as authors of the gospels in his work On Famous Men, chapters 3, 8, 7, and 9, respectively; he also gives us a prologue the four canonical gospels as a sacred set.

The Monarchian prologues.

Century IV or V.

These Latin prologues precede the gospels in some manuscripts of the Latin Bible. A prologue for each of the four canonical gospels is extant.