The Earliest Christian Traditions


by Jared L. Olar

According to ancient tradition, the four canonical Gospels were written by the Apostle Levi Matthew, the evangelist John Mark, the physician Luke, and the Apostle John. However, the authors of the four Gospels never explicitly identify themselves. For that and other reasons, in the field of biblical scholarship and textual criticism the traditions regarding the authorship of the Gospels are now usually held to be merely fables and legends. 1 In their place, modern scholars have substituted a range of wild and conflicting speculations about how and why the Gospels came to be written. In the context of this cacophony of opinion, it may be edifying to become familiar with the earliest known traditions of the authorship of the four Gospels. These traditions were recorded by such early Church Fathers as Papias of Hierapolis (c.80-c.160 A.D.), Irenaeus of Lyons (c.140-c.200 A.D.), and Eusebius Pamphilii (c.260-339 A.D.). Toward the end of the first century, Papias collected many important oral traditions about Jesus, the Twelve Apostles, and the disciples of the Apostles, and published them circa 100 A.D. in a book entitled An Exposition of the Oracles of the Lord. Sadly, this book is now lost, except for a few fascinating and indispensable fragments, most of them preserved in the writings of Irenaeus and Eusebius. Among these precious fragments are facts concerning the authorship and composition of the four canonical Gospels. Papias' testimony is of the greatest weight and the highest authority, because he received his information from men and women who had known Jesus personally, or else had known those who knew Jesus. As Papias wrote (quoted by Eusebius),


``. . . But I shall not hesitate to furnish you, along with my explanations, with all that in days gone by I carefully learned from the Presbyters and have carefully recalled, for I can guarantee its truth. Unlike most people, I felt at home not with those who appeal to commandments from other sources, but with those who appeal to commandments given by the Lord unto faith, and coming to us from Truth itself. Whenever anyone came who had been a follower of the Presbyters, I inquired into the words of the Presbyters: what Andrew or Peter said, or Philip or Thomas or James or John or Matthew, or any other disciple of the Lord; and what Aristion and the Presbyter John, disciples of the Lord, say. For I did not imagine that things out of books would help me as much as the utterances of a living and abiding voice.''


Eusebius was the first to insist that Papias was referring to two separate Johns, both Jewish disciples of Jesus Christ, one an Apostle and the other merely a Presbyter. However, except for the name ``Aristion,'' Papias here classifies every one of the names that he lists-and the first seven names are obviously those of Apostles-as Presbyters. Also, the author of the three epistles attributed to John the Apostle (and there can be little doubt that the same individual who wrote the epistles of John also wrote the Gospel of John) identifies himself as ``the Presbyter.'' There is simply no clear and undisputed evidence that Presbyter John, as a distinct individual from the Apostle John, ever existed. The most likely interpretation of Papias' words is that of Irenaeus, who referred to Papias as someone


``. . . who had listened to John and was later a companion of Polycarp, . . . .''


Polycarp of Smyrna was himself said by Irenaeus and other early Christian writers to have been a disciple of the Apostle John, and only with great difficulty can these statements be explained away or reinterpreted. Considering all the available evidence, there can be no reasonable doubt that Papias and Polycarp both spoke face-to-face with the Apostle John. In fact, Papias' language can be interpreted to mean that the Apostle John was still alive at the time that Papias wrote his volume. At any rate John was certainly alive when Papias began to collect his fascinating oral traditions. (And as for Papias' other living witness, Aristion, a rare Armenian manuscript of the Gospels copied in the year 986 A.D. attributes the Longer Ending of the Gospel of Mark, chapter 16, verses 9-20, to ``Presbyter Aristion.'' That could well mean that the information found in those verses of Mark had been collected by Papias, who said that he interviewed Aristion, a man who was taught by Jesus Himself.)

The weight of the evidence indicates that the traditions regarding the authorship and composition of the four Gospels are traceable right back to the very eyewitnesses of Jesus and the Apostles. Consequently, these traditions are the necessary starting point for the development of hypotheses regarding the composition of the four canonical Gospels. Whenever the fields of biblical scholarship and textual criticism slight these traditions, they also forsake sound, balanced historical principles.

With these things in mind, here are the earliest avaliable traditions about the authorship of the four canonical Gospels:

MATTHEW: Probably relying on Papias, Irenaeus writes: ``Matthew published a written Gospel for the Hebrews in their own language, while Peter and Paul were preaching the Gospel in Rome and laying the foundations of the Church.'' Eusebius quotes Papias as writing that ``Matthew compiled the Oracles [of Jesus] in the Hebrew language, and everyone translated them as well as he could.'' In addition to this quotation from Papias, Eusebius also wrote the following about Matthew (probably depending upon Papias as his main source): ``Matthew had begun by preaching to the Hebrews; and when he made up his mind to go to others too, he committed his own Gospel to writing in his native tongue, so that for those with whom he was no longer present the gap left by his departure was filled by what he wrote.''

MARK: Again, Irenaeus writes: ``After their passing [presumably the deaths of Peter, Paul, and Matthew], Mark also, the disciple and interpreter of Peter, transmitted to us in writing the things preached by Peter.'' 2 Eusebius quotes Papias as writing, ``This, too, the Presbyter [John] says: `Mark, who had been Peter's interpreter, wrote down carefully, but not in order, all that he remembered of the Lord's sayings and doings. For he had not heard the Lord or been one of his followers, but later, as I said, one of Peter's. Peter would adapt his teachings to the occasion, without making a systematic arrangement of the Lord's sayings, so Mark was quite justified in writing down some things just as he remembered them. For he had one purpose only-to leave out nothing that he had heard, and to make no misstatement about it.''' Eusebius also writes (admittedly depending in part upon Papias), ``So brightly shone the light of true religion on the minds of Peter's hearers that, not satisfied with a single hearing or with the oral teaching of the divine message, they resorted to appeals of every kind to induce Mark (whose Gospel we have), as he was a follower of Peter, to leave them in writing a summary of the instruction they had received by word of mouth, nor did they let him go til they had persuaded him, and thus became responsible for the writing of what is known as the Gospel according to Mark. It is said that, on learning by revelation of the Spirit what had happened, the Apostle [Peter] was delighted at their enthusiasm and authorised the reading of the book in the churches. Clement quoted this story in Outlines Book VI, and his statement is confirmed by Bishop Papias of Hierapolis, who also points out that Mark is mentioned by Peter in his first epistle, which he is said to have composed in Rome itself, as he himself indicates when he speaks of the city figuratively as Babylon (I Peter 5:13).''

LUKE: Irenaeus, who may well have been relying in part on Papias, writes: ``Luke, the follower of Paul, set down in a book the Gospel preached by him [i.e., Paul].'' In the Canon Muratorianus, circa 170 A.D., we find the following (possibly derived from Papias): ``The third book of the Gospel, that according to Luke: the physician Luke after Christ's arising, since Paul had taken him with him as an expert in the Way, composed it in his own name according to [Paul's] thinking. Yet neither did he himself see the Lord in the flesh; and therefore, as he was able to determine it, so he begins to tell the story from the birth of John.''

JOHN: Irenaeus writes: ``Lastly John, the disciple of the Lord, who had leaned back on His breast, once more set forth the Gospel, while residing at Ephesus in Asia.'' Eusebius writes: ``When Mark and Luke had published their Gospels, John, we are told, who hitherto had relied entirely on the spoken word, finally took to writing for the following reason. The three Gospels already written were in general circulation and copies had come into John's hands. He welcomed them, we are told, and confirmed their accuracy, but remarked that the narrative only lacked the story of what Christ had done first of all at the beginning of His mission.'' To that we may compare the story in the Canon Muratorianus, circa 170 A.D. (possibly taken from Papias): ``The fourth of the Gospels, that of John, one of the disciples: When his fellow-disciples and bishops urged him, he said, `Fast with me from today for three days, and what will be revealed to each one let us relate to one another. In the same night [i.e., after the fast] it was revealed to Andrew, one of the apostles, that, while all were to go over it, John in his own name should write everything down. . . .'' (cf. John 14:26)




1.  Eusebius-The History of the Church From Christ to Constantine , translated by G.A. Williamson, revised and edited by Andrew Louth, Penguin Books, 1965, 1989.

2.  The History of Primitive Christianity, Hans Conzelmann, 1973.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Jared Olar lives in Pekin, Illinois, with his wife Christina and their son Alexander. The Olars are parishioners of St. Joseph's Catholic Church in Pekin. Jared enjoys the study of ancient, biblical, ecclesiastical, and medieval history, and appreciates the opportunity this article affords him of sharing with the readers of Grace and Knowledge some of the gleanings of his studies.


1 A convenient example of this attitude-casually denying the traditional authorship of the four Gospels-may be encountered in the introductory essays and editorial footnotes of the New American Bible (Catholic Edition). The statements found there display a remarkable contradiction, because published in the very same edition of the Bible is the complete text of the ``Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation,'' the decree Dei Verbum (``The Word of God'') from the Second Vatican Council (18 Nov. 1965). Included in that decree, and representing official and irreformable Catholic doctrine, is this significant passage: ``The Church has always and everywhere maintained, and continues to maintain, the apostolic origin of the four Gospels. The apostles preached, as Christ had charged them to do, and then, under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, they and others of the apostolic age handed on to us in writing the same message they had preached, the foundation of our faith: the fourfold Gospel, according to Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John.'' And in support of this statement, a crucial passage from the writings of Irenaeus of Lyons is cited. This passage from Irenaeus is excerpted in the present article. It would appear that the (Catholic) editors responsible for the introductory essays and footnotes of the NAB were not aware of, or were possibly unconcerned by, the doctrinal position expressed in the ``Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation.''

2 Papias and Irenaeus agree that the Gospel of Matthew was written prior to the Gospel of Mark, but it is an article of faith in modern scholarly circles that Mark is the earliest Gospel. In light of the aboveshown facts, any hypothesis that posits Mark as the earliest Gospel is historically untenable. Of course it is always possible that the Greek text of Mark antedates the Greek text of Matthew, since Papias and Irenaeus both mention that Levi Matthew's original Gospel was written in Hebrew. (Again, modern scholarship generally assumes that what Papias and Irenaeus meant by `Hebrew' was `Aramaic' or `Syriac,' but there is little to support that assumption.) Indeed, it is likely that the Hebrew text of Matthew is actually the suppositious `Q' of modern Gospel hypotheses.


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11 Feb 2001, 17:39.