Evidence For The Early Existence of Gospel Titles Independent of Irenaeus

Skeptics highlight that the Gospels are formally anonymous; they don’t mention their authors. Irenaeus, around 185 AD, was the first to name the traditional authors, but doubts arise because he might have relied on Papias, considered unreliable for spreading false stories about Jesus and Judas. This reliance, his bias and a supposed lack of early proof lead to questioning the true Gospel authors. However, other sources and texts support the traditional authors, challenging these doubts. Although I value Papias and Irenaeus as supporting traditional authorship, their witness isn’t essential to our case. Let’s explore the evidence. In what follows, I’m mostly relying on Simon Gathercole’s paper “The Alleged Anonymity of the Canonical Gospels.”

First, let’s briefly touch on the earliest manuscript evidence. Fragment P66, dating from the late second to the early third century, confirms the title of John’s Gospel as “εὐαγγέλιον κατὰ [Ἰ]ωάννην,” which translates to “Gospel according to John.” Additionally, among the P4 fragments, a flyleaf potentially originating from the late second century or the third bears the inscription “εὐαγγέλιον κατὰ Μαθθαῖον,” which translates to “Gospel according to Matthew.”

Tertullian of Carthage (207), Combating the heresy of Marcionism, Tertullian wrote: “Of the apostles, therefore, John and Matthew first instill faith into us; while of apostolic men, Luke and Mark renew it afterwards. These all start with the same principles of the faith…. Marcion, on the other hand, you must know, ascribes no author to his Gospel, as if it could not be allowed him to affix a title to that from which it was no crime (in his eyes) to subvert the very body. And here I might now make a stand, and contend that a work ought not to be recognized, which holds not its head erect, which exhibits no consistency, which gives no promise of credibility from the fullness of its title and the just profession of its author.” (Against Marcion, 4.2)

Instead of implying a disregard for authorship, Tertullian strongly indicates that the early church likely wouldn’t have initially embraced anonymous Gospels. Some might argue that Tertullian drew his traditions from Irenaeus since he had read his works. However, this assumes that Tertullian’s knowledge of Gospel authors stemmed from Irenaeus, which presupposes the conclusion.

Early Christians didn’t randomly pick certain texts and then claim they were written by important figures, like apostles, just to make them special. Instead, they highly valued specific Gospels because they believed these texts came from direct connections to Jesus’ closest companions—the apostles or those very close to them. So, it wasn’t a case of making these texts sacred first and then saying, “They must be from the apostles.” They believed they were from the apostles, and that’s why these texts became so significant to them.

Fairly securely dated to the end of the second century (and in one instance, extending into the third) are Clement of Alexandria’s declarations regarding the Gospel writers. The earliest references to the authors of the Gospels are as follows:

  • Matthew mentioned in Stromata I (around 198 AD)
  • Mark referenced in Quis dives salvetur (around 203)
  • Luke identified in Paedagogus (around 197)
  • John acknowledged in Protrepticus (around 195)

I believe Clement wrote independently of Irenaeus.

In the Nag Hammadi Acts of Peter (second half/end of the second century), a scene depicts Jesus instructing the apostles to heal the sick. John, situated next to Jesus, is signaled by Peter to inquire about this instruction. The scene echoes John 13.22-25, where the disciples are perplexed by Jesus’ words, and Peter, instead of asking directly, signals to the beloved disciple, John, to question Jesus. This portrayal in the Acts of Peter aligns John as the one ‘beside Jesus,’ confirming him as the beloved disciple and consequently, the author of the Gospel. John is identified as the beloved disciple who reclined at Jesus’ side (Jn 13.25; 21.10), establishing him as the author of the Gospel (21.24).

In the Quartodeciman controversy, Polycrates of Ephesus penned a letter (190s) to Victor of Rome, advocating for the paschal feast to be consistently celebrated on the 14th day. He mentions several local luminaries in Asia who adhered to this practice. Among those mentioned is John, identified as the beloved disciple who reclined at the Lord’s side, and thus recognized as the author of the fourth Gospel: “ἔτι δὲ καὶ Ἰωάννης ὁ ἐπὶ τὸ στῆθος τοῦ κυρίου ἀναπεσών· ὃς ἐγενήθη ἱερεὺς τὸ πέταλον πεφορεκὼς, καὶ μάρτυς καὶ διδάσκαλος· οὗτος ἐν Ἐφέσῳ κεκοίμηται.” (Eusebius, EH 3.31.3; 5.24.3-4)
Translation: “In addition, there was also John, who reclined on the Lord’s chest, who became a priest wearing the petalon, a martyr, and a teacher; he is buried in Ephesus.”

Dating to the end of the second century, the Muratorian Fragment mentions Luke and John by name, acknowledging them as the third and fourth evangelists. It reads: “The third book of the Gospel is that according to Luke. Luke, the well-known physician, after the ascension of Christ, when Paul had taken with him as one zealous for the law, composed it in his own name, according to [the general] belief. Yet he himself had not seen the Lord in the flesh; and therefore, as he was able to ascertain events, so indeed he begins to tell the story from the birth of John. The fourth of the Gospels is that of John, [one] of the disciples.“ While Matthew and Mark are not explicitly named in the surviving portion, it is highly probable that they were mentioned in the lost section preceding the existing fragment.

Theophilus of Antioch’s work Ad Autolycum (around 180 CE) contains an unequivocal affirmation supporting John’s authorship of the fourth Gospel. The statement reads: “Therefore the Holy Scriptures teach us, as do all those inspired by the Spirit, one of whom, John, says, ‘In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God.’” (Autolyc. 2.22)

Around 190 AD, Serapion of Antioch, as documented by Eusebius, discussed the “Gospel according to Peter.” (Eusebius, Church History 6.12.3–6) He divided writings within the church into two groups: those passed down through tradition, similar to cherished family heirlooms, and those falsely ascribed to apostles. Serapion emphasized that the “Gospel of Peter” didn’t belong to the revered tradition but was deemed false. He rejected writings misattributed to apostles because they lacked trustworthiness. Serapion upheld the authority of the apostles, akin to Christ’s, suggesting certain books carried this apostolic authority, despite the apostles’ absence.

Serapion’s predecessor was Theophilus. Besides his explicit mention of John, judging from the quotes in Theophilus’s works, it’s likely that the New Testament canon in the Antioch church by the late second century included at least the Synoptic Gospels, Acts, Paul’s epistles, and Revelation.

Hegesippus (circa 175-180) provides relevant information by explicitly naming John as an apostle and evangelist in the context of being a Gospel writer. The passage states: “Domitian, son of Vespasian, displayed many evils against those in office in Rome, and surpassing Nero in cruelty, he became the second to institute a persecution against Christians. At that time, he imprisoned John, the apostle and evangelist, on Patmos…”

In the Preface to the Chronicon Paschale, Claudius Apollinaris of Hierapolis (around 175) is referenced. He opposes a particular view, seemingly derived from the Synoptic chronology, particularly in Matthew (26.17-19), which asserts that Jesus partook in the Passover meal with his disciples on the 14th day of Nisan. Apollinaris holds a contrary perspective, maintaining that Jesus died on this date. He addresses the discrepancy between this view and the interpretation drawn from the Gospels, indicating a conflict between their opinion and the Gospels’ narratives.

Writing approximately between 155-157, Justin Martyr refers to the “memoirs composed by [the apostles], which are called Gospels” (First Apology 66, c.f. 67). He also mentions “the memoirs drawn up by [Jesus’] apostles and those who followed them” (Dialogue with Trypho 103). His attribution of the Gospels to “apostles and those who followed them” strongly aligns with Matthew and John (as apostles) and Mark and Luke (as followers). Notably, Justin Martyr’s student Tatian created a harmony of the four Gospels known as the Diatessaron, specifically combining Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. This strongly suggests that Justin Martyr was likely referring to our four canonical gospels. Justin also refers to “the memoirs of [Peter],” mentioning incidents like Jesus changing the name of one apostle to Peter and renaming the sons of Zebedee as Boanerges, found only in Mark. This suggests his referencing of the Gospel of Mark, as these specific incidents are absent in the extant fragment of the so-called gospel of Peter.

Dating back to around 150-200, the Acts of John, similar to Polycrates and the Acts of Peter and the Twelve, exhibits familiarity with the tradition identifying the beloved disciple as John (Ac. Jn 89), specifically as the son of Zebedee (Ac. Jn 88).

Heracleon (around 150-175) comments on John 1:18, attributing the statement “not by the Baptist but by the disciple” to this verse (Comm. John, fr. 3). While not explicitly attributed by Gunther to Heracleon as claiming the Gospel to be authored by “John, the disciple of the Lord,” there’s a likelihood that Heracleon avoids naming either the Baptist or the evangelist as ‘John’ to prevent confusion. This is particularly notable because Heracleon generally refers to the Baptist as ‘John.’

According to Irenaeus, the Valentinian theologian Ptolemy (around 150-175) expounded on John 1, explaining how the Father emanated all things. Irenaeus directly quotes Ptolemy, noting that John, the disciple of the Lord, sought to illustrate the genesis of all things, particularly how the Father emanated everything. Ptolemy describes a first-begotten Being by God, referred to as the only-begotten Son and God, through whom the Father emanated all things spermatically. The reference to the teachings about the only-begotten Son and God strongly suggests an association with John’s Gospel. This connection is reinforced by specific citations of John 1:1-4 and 14 within Ptolemy’s teachings, indicating a clear reference to John’s Gospel content when discussing the first Ogdoad, the mother of the aeons.

In the Gospel of Thomas (around 140-180), there is a probable allusion to Matthew the evangelist: “Jesus said to his disciples, ‘Compare me and tell me whom I resemble.’ Simon Peter said to him, ‘You are like a righteous angel.’ Matthew said to him, ‘You are like a wise philosopher.’ Thomas said to him, ‘Master, my mouth is completely unable to say whom you are like.’” (Gos. Thom. 13.1-4) Scholarly support exists for interpreting this as a reference to Matthew the evangelist. The passage portrays Matthew as an authoritative figure, alongside Peter, whose statement needs to be countered within the Gospel of Thomas. Additionally, this reference to Matthew occurs within a logion heavily influenced by Matthew’s Gospel. Some scholars suspect that Matthew’s description of Jesus as a ‘wise philosopher’ might reflect a particular perspective on Christology within the Gospel of Matthew. As Matthew is primarily known as an evangelist in early Christianity, the likelihood is high that this dialogue in the Gospel of Thomas presupposes not only a Gospel attributed to Matthew but one that holds a certain level of authority.

Textual EvidenceGospel MentionedDate
Fragment P66JohnLate 2nd to early 3rd century
Fragment P4MatthewLate 2nd century or early 3rd
TertullianJohn, Matthew, Luke, MarkAround 200
Clement of AlexandriaMatthew, Mark, Luke, JohnLate 2nd to early 3rd century
Acts of PeterJohnSecond half/end of 2nd century
Polycrates of EphesusJohn190s
The Muratorian FragmentLuke, JohnEnd of 2nd century
Serapion/Theophilus of AntiochJohn explicitly, Matthew, Mark, Luke impliedAround 190/Around 180
HegesippusJohnAround 175-180
Claudius ApollinarisMatthewAround 175
Justin Martyr/TatianMatthew, John, Mark, LukeAround 155-157/170
Acts of JohnJohnAround 150-200
HeracleonJohnAround 150-175
PtolemyJohnAround 150-175
Gospel of ThomasMatthewAround 140-180

The proof from different places and times backs up the traditional Gospel authors. These details from various sources across different areas make it tough to agree with doubters. They show that these authors were trusted widely in many regions, challenging the idea that their names came from unreliable sources.

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