When were our Gospels Written? An Argument by Constantine Tischendorf (excerpts)

When were our Gospels Written? An Argument by Constantine Tischendorf (excerpts)

(a defense of the early gospels of John, Matthew, Mark, and Luke)



“All the world knows that our gospels are nothing else than biographies of Christ.”


On the credibility of the four Gospels, the whole of Christianity rests as a building on its foundations. 

The Rationalists… would have us believe, on grounds of pure subjective criticism, that the deity of our Lord was a development of the second and third centuries, after that the earlier Ebionite view of Jesus of Nazareth had been mixed up with the Alexandrian doctrine of the Logos: and that, as an amalgam of these two elements, the one Jewish and the other Greek, there resulted the Athanasian formula of the fourth century.

I resolved, in 1839, to devote myself to the textual study of the New Testament, and attempted, by making use of all the acquisitions of the last three centuries, to reconstruct, if possible, the exact text as it came from the pen of the sacred writers. My first critical edition of the New Testament appeared in the autumn of 1840. But after giving this edition a final revision, I came to the conviction that to make use even of our existing materials would call for a more attentive study than they had hitherto received, and I resolved to give my leisure and abilities to a fresh examination of the original documents.

I return to that edition of the New Testament of which I have spoken above. Soon after the Apostles had composed their writings, they began to be copied, and the incessant multiplication of copy upon copy went on down to the sixteenth century, when printing happily came to replace the labor of the copyist. One can easily see how many errors must inevitably have crept into writings which were so often reproduced; but it is more difficult still to understand how writers could allow themselves to bring in here and there changes not verbal only, but such as materially affect the meaning, and, what is worse still, did not shrink from cutting out a passage or inserting one.

The first editions of the Greek text, which appeared in the sixteenth century, were based upon manuscripts which happened to be the first to come to hand. For a long time men were satisfied to reproduce and reprint these early editions. In this way there arose a disposition to claim for this text, so often reprinted, a peculiar value, without ever caring to ask whether it was an exact reproduction or not of the actual text as it came from the Apostles. But in the course of time manuscripts were discovered in the public libraries of Europe, which were a thousand years old, and on comparing them with the printed text, critics could not help seeing how widely the received text departed in many places from the text of the manuscripts. We should also here add that from the very earliest age of the Christian era the Greek text had been translated into different languages—into Latin, Syriac, Egyptian, etc. Ancient manuscripts of these versions were also brought to light, and it was impossible not to see what variation of readings there had been in the sacred text. The quotations made by the Fathers from as early as the second century, also confirmed in another way the fact of these variations. In this way it has been placed beyond doubt that the original text of the Apostles’ writings, copied, recopied, and multipled during fifteen centuries, whether in Greek or Latin or in other languages, had in many passages undergone such serious modifications of meaning as to leave us in painful uncertainty as to what the Apostles had actually written.

Learned men have again and again attempted to clear the sacred text from these extraneous elements. But we have at last hit upon a better plan even than this, which is to set aside this textus receptus altogether, and to construct a fresh text, derived immediately from the most ancient and authoritative sources. This is undoubtedly the right course to take, for in this way only can we secure a text approximating as closely as possible to that which came from the Apostles.

Now to obtain this we must first make sure of our ground by thoroughly studying the documents which we possess. Well, in completing my first critical edition of the New Testament, in 1840, I became convinced that the task, so far from completed, was little more than begun, although so many and such celebrated names are found on the list of critical editors; to mention only a few out of many: Erasmus, Robert Stephens, Beza, Mill, Wetstein, Bengel, Griesbach, Matthæi, and Scholz. This conviction led me to begin my travels. I formed the design of revising and examining with the utmost possible care, the most ancient manuscripts of the New Testament which were to be found in the libraries of Europe; and nothing seemed to me more suitable, with this end in view, than to publish separately with the greatest exactness the most important of these documents. I should thus. secure the documents as the common property of Christendom, and insure their safe keeping by men of learning should the originals themselves ever happen to perish.

I extended, for this reason, my investigations to the most ancient Latin manuscripts, on account of their great importance, without passing by the Greek text of the Old Testament, which was referred to by the Apostles in preference to the original Hebrew, and which, notwithstanding its high authority, had during the lapse of two thousand years become more corrupt than that of the New Testament. I extended my researches also to the Apocryphal books of the New Testament, as the present treatise will readily show. These works bear upon the canonical books in more respects than one, and throw considerable light on Christian antiquity. The greater number of them were buried in our great libraries, and it is doubtful if any one of them has received the attention which it deserved. In the next place, I proposed to collect together all the Greek manuscripts which we possess, which are of a thousand years’ antiquity, including in the list even those which do not bear on the Bible, so as to exhibit in a way never done before, when and how the different manuscripts had been written. In this way we should be better able to understand why one manuscript is to be referred to the fourth century, another to the fifth, and a third to the eighth, although they had no dates attached to determine when they were written.

Such, then, have been the various objects which I hoped to accomplish by my travels.

1842, fired me with a strong desire to visit the East. I had just completed at the time a work which had been very favorably received in Europe, and for which I had received marks of approval from several learned bodies, and even from crowned heads.

The work I advert to was this. There lay in one of the libraries of Paris one of the most important manuscripts then known of the Greek text. This parchment manuscript, the writing of which, of the date of the fifth century, had been retouched and renewed in the seventh, and again in the ninth century, had, in the twelfth century, been submitted to a twofold process. It had been washed and pumiced, to write on it the treatises of an old father of the church of the name of Ephrem. Five centuries later, a Swiss theologian of the name of Wetstein had attempted to decipher a few traces of the original manuscript; and, later still, another theologian, Griesbach of Jena, came to try his skill on it, although the librarian assured him that it was impossible for mortal eye to rediscover a trace of a writing which had perished for six centuries. In spite of these unsuccessful attempts, the French government had recourse to powerful chemical reagents, to bring out the effaced characters. But a Leipzig theologian, who was then at Paris, was so unsuccessful in this new attempt, that he asserted that it was impossible to produce an edition of this text, as the manuscript was quite illegible. It was after all these attempts that I began, in 1841-42, to try my skill at the manuscript, and had the good fortune to decipher it completely, and even to distinguish between the dates of the different writers who had been engaged on the manuscript.

I come to the result of my journey to the East. It was in April, 1844, that I embarked at Leghorn for Egypt. The desire which I felt to discover some precious remains of any manuscripts, more especially Biblical, of a date which would carry us back to the early times of Christianity, was realized beyond my expectations. It was at the foot of Mount Sinai, in the convent of St. Catherine, that I discovered the pearl of all my researches. In visiting the library of the monastery, in the month of May, 1844, I perceived in the middle of the great hall a large and wide basket full of old parchments; and the librarian, who was a man of information, told me that two heaps of papers like this, mouldered by time, had been already committed to the flames. What was my surprise to find amid this heap of papers a considerable number of sheets of a copy of the Old Testament in Greek, which seemed to me to be one of the most ancient that I had ever seen. The authorities of the convent allowed me to possess myself of a third of these parchments, or about forty-five sheets, all the more readily as they were destined for the fire. But I could not get them to yield up possession of the remainder. The too lively satisfaction which I had displayed, had aroused their suspicions as to the value of this manuscript. I transcribed a page of the text of Isaiah and Jeremiah, and enjoined on the monks to take religious care of all such remains which might fall in their way.

On my return to Saxony there were men of learning who at once appreciated the value of the treasure which I brought back with me. I did not divulge the name of the place where I had found it, in the hopes of returning and recovering the rest of the manuscript. I handed up to the Saxon government my rich collection of oriental manuscripts in return for the payment of all my travelling expenses. I deposited in the library of the university of Leipzig, in the shape of a collection which bears my name, fifty manuscripts, some of which are very rare and interesting. I did the same with the Sinaitic fragments, to which I gave the name of Codex Frederick Augustus, in acknowledgment of the patronage given to me by the king of Saxony; and I published them in Saxony in a sumptuous edition, in which each letter and stroke was exactly reproduced by the aid of lithography.

But these home labors upon the manuscripts which I had already safely garnered, 30did not allow me to forget the distant treasure which I had discovered. I made use of an influential friend, who then resided at the court of the viceroy of Egypt, to carry on negotiations for procuring the rest of the manuscript. But his attempts were, unfortunately, not successful. “The monks of the convent,” he wrote to me to say, “have, since your departure, learned the value of these sheets of parchment, and will not part with them at any price.”
I resolved, therefore, to return to the East to copy this priceless manuscript. Having set out from, Leipzig in January, 1853, I embarked at Trieste for Egypt, and in the month of February I stood, for the second time, in the convent of Sinai. This second journey was more successful even than the first, from the discoveries that I made of rare Biblical manuscripts; but I was not able to discover any further traces of the treasure of 1844. I forget: I found in a roll of papers a little fragment which, written over on both sides, contained eleven short lines of the first book of Moses, which convinced me that the manuscript originally contained the entire Old Testament, but that the greater part had been long since destroyed.

On my return I reproduced in the first volume of a collection of ancient Christian documents the page of the Sinaitic manuscript which I had transcribed in 1844, without divulging the secret of where I had found it. I confined myself to the statement that I claimed the distinction of having discovered other documents—no matter whether published in Berlin or Oxford—as I assumed that some learned travellers who had visited the convent after me had managed to carry them off.

The question now arose how to turn to use these discoveries. Not to mention a second journey which I made to Paris in 1849, I went through Germany, Switzerland, and England, devoting several years of unceasing labor to a seventh edition of my New Testament. But I felt myself more and more urged to recommence my researches in the East. Several motives, and more especially the deep reverence of all Eastern monasteries for the emperor of Russia, led me, in the autumn of 1856, to submit to the Russian government a plan of a journey for making systematic researches in the East. This proposal only aroused a jealous and fanatical opposition in St. Petersburg. People were astonished that a foreigner and a Protestant should presume to ask the support of the emperor of the Greek and orthodox church for a mission to the East. But the good cause triumphed. The interest which my proposal excited, even within the imperial circle, inclined the emperor in my favor. It obtained his approval in the month of September, 1858, and the funds which I asked for were placed at my disposal. Three months subsequently my seventh edition of the New Testament, which had cost me three years of incessant labor, appeared, and in the commencement of January, 1859, I again set sail for the East.

I cannot here refrain from mentioning the peculiar satisfaction I had experienced a little before this. A learned Englishman, one of my friends, had been sent into the East by his government to discover and purchase old Greek manuscripts, and spared no cost in obtaining them. I had cause to fear, especially for my pearl of the convent of St. Catherine; but I heard that he had not succeeded in acquiring any thing, and had not even gone as far as Sinai; “for,” as he said in his official report, “after the visit of such an antiquarian and critic as Dr. Tischendorf, I could not expect any success.” I saw by this how well advised I had been to reveal to no one my secret of 1844.

By the end of the month of January I had reached the convent of Mount Sinai. The mission with which I was intrusted entitled me to expect every consideration and attention. The prior, on saluting me, expressed a wish that I might succeed in discovering fresh supports for the truth. His kind expression of good will was verified even beyond his expectations.

After having devoted a few days in turning over the manuscripts of the convent, not without alighting here and there on some precious parchment or other, I told my Bedouins, on the 4th of February, to hold themselves in readiness to set out with their dromedaries for Cairo on the 7th, when an entirely unexpected circumstance carried me at once to the goal of all my desires.

On the afternoon of this day, I was taking a walk with the steward of the convent in the neighborhood, and as we returned towards sunset, he begged me to take some refreshment with him in his cell. Scarcely had he entered the room when, resuming our former subject of conversation, he said, “And I too have read a Septuagint, i. e., a copy of the Greek translation made by the Seventy;” and so saying, he took down from the corner of the room a bulky kind of volume wrapped up in a red cloth, and laid it before me. I unrolled the cover, and discovered, to my great surprise, not only those very fragments which, fifteen years before, I had taken out of the basket, but also other parts of the Old Testament, the New Testament complete, and in addition, the Epistle of Barnabas and a part of the Pastor of Hermas.

Full of joy, which this time I had the self-command to conceal from the steward and the rest of the community, I asked, as if in a careless way, for permission to take the manuscript into my sleeping-chamber, to look over it more at leisure. There by myself, I could give way to the transport of joy which I felt. I knew that I held in my hand the most precious Biblical treasure in existence—a document whose age and importance exceeded that of all the manuscripts which I had ever examined during twenty years’ study of the subject. I cannot now, I confess, recall all the emotions which I felt in that exciting moment, with such a diamond in my possession. Though my lamp was dim and the night cold, I sat down at once to transcribe the Epistle of Barnabas.

For two centuries search has been made in vain for the original Greek of the first part of this epistle, which has been only known through a very faulty Latin translation. And yet this letter, from the end of the second down to the beginning of the fourth century, had an extensive authority, since many Christians assigned to it and to the Pastor of Hermas a place side by side with the inspired writings of the New Testament. This was the very reason why these two writings were both thus bound up with the Sinaitic Bible, the transcription of which is to be referred to the first half of the fourth century, and about the time of the first Christian emperor.




And now what shall we say respecting the life of Jesus? What do we certainly know on this subject?

This question has been much discussed in our days. It is well known that several learned men have, quite recently, written works on the life of Jesus, purporting to prove that he whom Christianity claims as our Saviour did not really live the life that the gospels record of him. These works, which have been very freely circulated, have found a large number of readers. It may be that there are some points not yet fully understood, but this at least is undeniable, that the tendency of the works referred to is to rob the Saviour of his divine character.

But perhaps it will be said that the Deity of Christ is not an essential element of Christianity. Does there not remain to us its sublime system of morals, even though Christ were not the Son of God? To reason in this way seems to us to imply either that we have no idea at all of what Christianity is, or, which comes to the same thing, that we have an essentially wrong idea.

Christianity does not, strictly speaking, rest on the moral teaching of Jesus, however sublime that is, but it rests on his person only. It is on the person of Christ that the church is founded; this is its cornerstone; it is on this the doctrines which Jesus and his apostles taught, rest as the foundation truth of all. And if we are in error in believing in the person of Christ as taught us in the gospels, then the church herself is in error, and must be given up as a deception.

All the world knows that our gospels are nothing else than biographies of Christ. We must also frankly admit that we have no other source of information with respect to the life of Jesus than the sacred writings. In fact, whatever the early ages of the church report to us concerning the person of Christ from any independent source is either derived from the gospels, or is made up of a few insignificant details of no value in themselves, and sometimes drawn from hostile sources. These are the only sources from which opponents of the life of Christ, of his miraculous ministry and his divine character, draw their attacks on the credibility of the four gospels.

But it will then be said, How has it been possible to impugn the credibility of the gospels—of these books which St. Matthew and St. John, the immediate disciples and apostles of the Lord, and St. Mark and St. Luke, the friends and companions of the apostles, have written?

It is in this way: by denying that the gospels were written by the authors whose names they bear. And if you ask me, in the next place, why it is that so much stress is laid on this point, I will answer, that the testimony of direct eye-witnesses, like John and Matthew, or of men intimately connected with these eye-witnesses, like Mark. and Luke, are entitled for this very reason, to be believed, and their writings to be received as trustworthy.

The credibility of a writer clearly depends on the interval of time which lies between him and the events which he describes. The farther the narrator is removed from the facts which he lays before us, the more his claims to credibility are reduced in value. When a considerable space of time intervenes, the writer can only report to us what he has heard from intermediary witnesses, or read of in writers who are perhaps undeserving of credit. Now the opponents of our gospels endeavor to assign them to writers of this class who were not in a position to give a really credible testimony; to writers who only composed their narratives long after the time when Christ lived, by putting together all the loose reports which circulated about his person and work. It is in this way that they undermine the credit of the gospels, by detaching them completely from the evangelists whose names they bear.
This would certainly be a most effectual way of overturning the dignity and authority of the gospels.

At Lyons, where the first Christian church in Gaul was founded, the bishop Irenæus wrote, at the end of the second century, a great work on those early gnostic heresies, which arbitrarily attempted to overturn the doctrine of the church; and in combating these errors, he made a general use of the gospels. The number of the passages which he refers to is about four hundred; and the direct quotations from St. John alone exceed eighty.

We may say as much for the energetic and learned Tertullian, who lived at Carthage about the end of the second century. His numerous writings contain several hundred passages taken from the gospels; two hundred of these, at least, taken from St. John. It is the same with Clement, the celebrated teacher of the catechetical school of Alexandria, in Egypt, who also lived about the end of the second century.

Add to these three testimonies a catalogue which bears the name of Muratori, its discoverer, and which enumerates the books of the New Testament which from the first were considered canonical and sacred. This catalogue was written a little after the age of Pius II.—A. D. 142-157—about A. D. 170, and probably in Rome itself; and at the head of the list it places our four gospels. It is true that the first lines of this fragment, which refer to Matthew and Mark, have perished, but immediately after the blank the name of Luke appears as the third, and that of John as the fourth; so that, even in this remote age, we find even the order in which our evangelists follow each other thus early attested to—Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John.

Let us quote two other witnesses, one of whom carries us back to an antiquity even more remote. We here refer to the two most ancient versions made of the New Testament. One of these translations is into Syriac, and is called the Peschito; the other, in Latin, is known by the name of the Italic; and both assign the first place to the four evangelists. The canonical authority of these four gospel narratives must have been completely recognized and established in the mother church before they would have been translated into 56the dialect of the daughter churches, Syriac and Latin.

When are we to say that this took place? The Syriac version, which carries us as far east as to the banks of the Euphrates, is generally assigned to the end of the second century, and not without good reasons, though we have not any positive proof to offer. The Latin version had acquired, even before this period, a certain public authority. Thus the Latin translator of the great work of Irenæus, written in Greek, which we assign to the end of the second century—Tertullian, in fact, copies this translator in the quotations which he makes from Irenæus—and Tertullian also, at the end of the same century, follow the Italic version.

The estimation in which the Latin version of the gospel was then held necessarily supposes that this translation must have been made some ten or twenty years at least before this. It is then a well-established fact that already, between A. D. 150 and 200, not only were the gospels translated into Latin and Syriac, but also that their number was defined to be four only, neither more nor less; and this remarkable fact is well calculated to throw light on the question of their true age and origin. We shall return to this farther on.

“the three gospels already extensively known were laid before St. John by his friends. He bore witness to their truth, but said that they had passed over what Jesus had done at the beginning of his public ministry. His friends then expressed a desire that he should give an account of this period which had been passed over.”

Let us pause here to consider again these two great church teachers, Irenæus and Tertullian. Their testimony is decisive; and no one, even among those who deny the authenticity of St. John, is able to question it. We have here only to inquire whether their testimony is to be limited to the time only when they wrote; that is to say, whether it proves nothing more than the high consideration in which the evangelists were held at the time when they wrote.

In his refutation of these false teachers, Irenæus not only refers to the four gospels with perfect confidence and with the most literal exactness, but he even remarks that there are necessarily four, neither more nor less; and in proof of this he adduces comparisons from the four quarters of the world, the four principal winds, and the four figures of the cherubim. He says that the four evangelists are the four columns of the church, which is extended over the whole world, and sees in this number four a peculiar appointment of the Creator of the world.

I ask then, is such a statement consistent with the assertion that the four gospels first became of authority about the time of Irenæus, and that Christians then set up a fourth and later gospel, that of St. John, besides the other three older gospels? Are we not indeed constrained to admit that their authority was already then ancient and established, and that their number four was a. matter already so undisputed that the bishop Irenæus could justify and explain it in his own peculiar way, as we have just now seen?

Irenæus died in the second year of the third century; but in his youth he had sat at the feet of the aged Polycarp; and Polycarp, in his turn, had been a disciple of the evangelist St. John, and had conversed with other eyewitnesses of the gospel narrative. Irenæus, in speaking of his own personal recollections, gives us Polycarp’s own account of that which he had heard from the lips of St. John and other disciples of our Lord, and expressly adds that all these words agree with Scripture. But let us hear his own words, as contained in a letter to Florinus:

“When I was yet a child, I saw thee at Smyrna in Asia Minor, at Polycarp’s house, where thou wert distinguished at court, and obtained the regard of the bishop. I can more distinctly recollect things which happened then than others more recent; for events which happened in infancy seem to grow with the mind, and to become part of ourselves; so that I can recall the very place where Polycarp used to sit and teach, his manner of speech, his mode of life, his appearance, the style of his address to the people, his frequent references to St. John and to others who had seen our Lord; how he used to repeat from memory their discourses, which he had heard from them concerning our Lord, his miracles and mode of teaching, and how, being instructed himself by those who were eye-witnesses of the word, there was in all that he said a strict agreement with the Scriptures.”

This is the account which Irenæus himself gives of his connection with Polycarp, and of the truths which he had learned from him. Who will now venture to question whether this father had ever heard a word from Polycarp about the gospel of St. John? The time when Irenæus, then a young man, was known to Polycarp, who died a martyr at Smyrna about A. D. 165, could not have been later than A. D. 150; yet they would have us believe that Irenæus had not then heard a word from his master Polycarp about the gospel of St. John, when he so often recalls the discourses of this apostle. Any testimony of Polycarp in favor of the gospel refers us back to the evangelist himself; for Polycarp, in speaking to Irenæus of this gospel as a work of his master St. John, must have learned from the lips of the apostle himself whether he was its author or not.

There is nothing more damaging to these doubters of the authenticity of St. John’s gospel than this testimony of Polycarp; and there is no getting rid of this difficulty, unless by setting aside the genuineness of the testimony itself. This fact also becomes more striking if we consider it under another aspect.

What I mean is this: those who deny the authenticity of St. John’s gospel say that this gospel only appeared about A. D. 150, and that Polycarp never mentioned the gospel as such to Irenæus. But in this case, can we suppose that Irenæus would have believed in the authenticity of this gospel; a work that professed to be the most precious legacy of St. John to the Christian church, as the narrative of an eye-witness and an intimate friend of the Redeemer, and a gospel whose independent character, as regards the other three, seemed to take away something from their authority?

The very fact that such a work of St. John had never once been mentioned to him by Polycarp would have at once convinced Irenæus that it was an audacious imposture. And are we to believe that Irenæus would produce such a forgery as this with which to reply to these false teachers, who themselves falsified Scripture, and appealed to apocryphal writings as if they were genuine and inspired? And are we further to suppose that he would have linked such a writing up with the other three gospels, to combine what he calls a quadruple or four-sided gospel? What a tissue of contradictions; or rather, to use the right word, of absurdities.

These arguments, as we have just stated them, are not new; they are at least found in Irenæus. They have been stated before, but they have scarcely ever received the consideration which they deserve. For our part, we think serious and reflecting men quite right in attaching more weight to these historic proofs of Irenæus, derived from Polycarp in favor of the authenticity of St. John’s gospel than to those scruples and negations of learned men of our day, who are smitten with a strange passion for doubt.

We say as much for Tertullian and his testimony. This man, who from an advocate of paganism became a powerful defender of the Christian truth, takes such a scrupulous view of the origin and worth of the four evangelists that he will allow to Mark and Luke, as apostolic men, that is, as companions and assistants of the apostles, a certain subordinate place, while he upholds the full authority of John and of Matthew, on account of their character of real apostles, chosen by the Lord himself. In his work against Marcion, (book 4, chap. 5,) Tertullian lays down the principle by which we should decide on the truth of the articles of the Christian faith, and especially of that most important one of all, the authenticity of the apostolic writings.

For this, he makes the value of a testimony to depend on its antiquity, and decides that we are to hold that to be true for us which was held to be true in former ages. This appeal to antiquity leads us back to the apostles’ day, and in deciding what is the authenticity of any writing which claims to be apostolic, we must refer to those churches which were planted by the apostles. I ask, then, is it creditable in any degree that this man, so sagacious, could have acted hastily and uncritically in accepting the credibility and authenticity of the four evangelists?

The passages I have referred to are taken from his celebrated reply to Marcion, who, on his own authority, and in conformity with his own heretical tastes, had attacked the sacred text. Of the four gospels, Marcion had completely rejected three; and the fourth, that of St. Luke, he had modified and mutilated according to his own caprice. Tertullian, in his reply, formally appeals to the testimony of the apostolic churches in favor of the four gospels. Is such a challenge as this, in the mouth of such a man as Tertullian, to be passed by as of no weight. When he wrote his reply to Marcion, the apostle St. John had been dead only about a century. The church of Ephesus, among whom the apostle St. John had so long lived, and in which city he died, had surely time to decide the question, once for all, whether the gospel of St. John was authentic or not. It was not difficult to find out what was the judgment of the apostolic church on this question.

Moreover, we must not forget that in Tertullian we have not merely a man of erudition, occupied in laying down learned theses; but a man of serious mind, to whom a question like this was one on which his faith, and with it the salvation of his soul, depended. Is it, then, likely that such a man would have given easy credence to writings like these, which concern the fundamental doctrines of Christianity—writings which distinctly claimed to be apostolic, and at which the wisdom of the world in which he had been educated professed to be offended?

Now, as Tertullian asserts in express terms, that in defending the apostolic origin of the four evangelists he rests his case upon the testimony of the apostolic churches, we must be incorrigible skeptics to suspect any longer that he had not thoroughly examined for himself into the origin of these gospels.
We maintain, then, that the attestations of Irenæus and Tertullian have a weight and a worth beyond the mere range of their own age. These attestations carry us up to the first four witnesses, and the evidence which they depose is in favor of these primitive times. This is the conclusion which we think we are warranted in drawing; and it is best established, not only by those more ancient witnesses above referred to and given by the writer of the list of books in the New Testament known as the Muratori catalogue, as well as the author of the Italic version, but also by the consent of the church and the uncontradicted records of the earliest times prior to those of Irenæus and Tertullian.

We here pass by other testimonies, in order to say a few words on the letters of Ignatius and Polycarp, the disciples of the apostle, which carry us up to an age as early as the beginning of the second century. When the holy Ignatius, whom his master, St. John, had consecrated bishop of Ephesus, was led as a martyr to Rome, between A. D. 107 and 115, he wrote several letters while on his journey to Rome, of which we have two versions, one shorter and the other longer. We shall here refer only to the shorter, which is enough for our purpose, since its genuineness is now generally admitted. These letters contain several passages drawn more or less directly from St. Matthew and St. John. Ignatius thus writes in his letter to the Romans:

“I desire the bread of God, the bread of heaven, the bread of life, which is the flesh of Jesus Christ, the Son of God. And I desire the drink of God, the blood of Jesus Christ, who is undying love and eternal life.” These words recall the sixth chapter of St. John, where it is said, “I am the bread which came down from heaven. I am the bread of life. I am the living bread. The bread that I shall give is my flesh. He that eateth my flesh and drinketh my blood hath eternal life.” Verses 41, 48, 54.

In the same letter, Ignatius writes, “What would a man be profited if he should gain the whole world and lose his own soul?”—words literally found in Matt. 16:26.

Let us quote another passage of his letter to the church of Smyrna, where it is said of Jesus that he was baptized by John, in order that he might fulfil all righteousness, and which exactly recalls Matt. 3:15.

The short letter of Polycarp, written a little after the death of Ignatius, about A. D. 115, bears reference, in the same way, to certain passages of St. Matthew. So when we read,

“We desire to pray to God, who sees all, that he may not lead us into temptation, for the Lord has said that the spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak.” See Matt. 6:13 and 26:41.

Though we do not wish to give to these references a decisive value, and though they do not exclude all doubt as to their applicability to our gospels, and more particularly to that of St. John, they nevertheless undoubtedly bear traces of such a reference; and we have thus an additional proof to offer, that our gospels were in use at the commencement of the second century.

It is certainly a fact well deserving of attention, that we find in the epistle of Polycarp a certain trace of the use of the first epistle of St. John. Polycarp writes thus: “Whosoever confesses not that Jesus Christ is come in the flesh is antichrist.” Now we read these words in the first epistle of St. John 4:3: “Every spirit that confesses not that Jesus Christ is come in the flesh, is not of God; and this is that spirit of antichrist.”

One of the most intelligent and able of these early heretics was Valentinus, who came from Egypt to Rome some time in the early part of the second century, and lived there about twenty years. He undertook to write a complete history of all the celestial evolutions which, in the mysterious region of those celestial forces and heavenly intelligences—which he called The Pleroma—prepared the way for the coming of the only-begotten Son, and pretended to determine in this way the nature and power of that only-begotten Son.

Valentinian view, human beings consist of three components. Each person has a material body, an animating soul, and a spirit. Similarly, the cosmos itself is viewed as having a tripartite structure. It too is said to consist of spirit (pneuma), soul (psyche) and matter (hyle).

Valentinians trace this tripartite structure back to the origin of the cosmos. According to their creation myth, the cosmos has its origins from the fall and redemption of the divine emanation (Aeon) Sophia or “Wisdom”. Sophia attempted to know the Father through thinking alone and as a result she was excluded from the divine Fullness (pleroma) and fell into ignorance and suffering. She repented of her actions and began to plead for assistance. The Father had mercy on her and sent Christ to her and she attained knowledge (gnosis) of the Father. Sophia’s fall, repentance and redemption are said by Valentinian writers to give rise to the three constituents of the universe.

Matter (hyle) is said to originate from her suffering,

Soul (psyche) from her repentance, and

Spirit (pneuma) from her gnosis

(Against Heresies 1:2:3, 1:4:1-5, 1:5:4 cf. also Refutation of Heresies 6:25-27, Excerpts of Theodotus 43:2-46:1, etc.).

Spirit is destined to attain salvation and reenter the presence of God along with Christ and Sophia.

Matter or the “left” has no share in salvation and is dissolved by gnosis.

Soul or the “right” is intermediate between matter and spirit and is characterized by free will and is capable of partial salvation (Excerpts of Theodotus 56:3).

In this extravagant attempt, he did not hesitate to borrow a number of expressions and ideas, such as the Word, the Only-begotten, Life, Light, Fulness, Truth, Grace, the Redeemer, the Comforter, from the gospel of St. John, and to use them for his own purposes.

As early as the time of Justin (born 100 a.d.), the expression, “the evangel,” (good news) was applied to the four gospels, so that the name of each of the four writers dropped into the background; and in the second half of the second century we find the number of the evangelists restricted to four, and the matter treated as a subject which was beyond dispute. What follows from this? It follows that no one of these gospels could have been elevated by itself to a place of authority in the canon of Scripture. The church only ventured to place them in the canon when they had been already received as the four gospels, and as such had been long prized as genuine apostolical writings.

When we further ask ourselves when this took place, we are forced to the conclusion that it must have occurred about the end of the first century. This was the time when, after the death of the aged John, those holy men who had known the Lord in the flesh; including the great apostle of the Gentiles and the early church, had thus lost a definite centre of authority.

It was at this time, when the church dispersed over the world was persecuted without and distracted by error within, that she began to venerate and regard as sacred the writings which the apostles had left behind them as precious depositories of truth, as unerring records of the life of the Saviour, and as an authoritative rule of faith and practice. The right time had therefore come for enrolling their writings among the Canonical Scriptures.

The separation between the church and the synagogue was now complete. Since the destruction of Jerusalem and the temple service, A. D. 70, the church had been thrown more entirely on her own resources, and stood now independent. It was a marked proof of her independence when she ventured to rank her sacred writings on a level with those of the Old Testament, which the Christian church herself prized so highly.

We conclude, then, that it was towards the end of the first century, and about the time of John’s decease at Ephesus, that the church began to place the four gospels in the Canon. The reasons which lead us to assign this as the right date for the commencement of the Canon are of themselves sufficient; but we would not so confidently maintain this opinion if the history and literature of the entire second century, as far as we have been able to look into the subject, did not support our view of the case.

We have only one authority more to produce in our review of the earliest Christian literature. It is the testimony of Papias*, who more than any other has been misrepresented by modern opponents of the gospel. The uncertainty which rests over Papias himself and his testimony does not allow us to class him in the same rank with the other testimonies we have already adduced. But such as it is, we here produce it.

We learn from Eusebius, 3, 39, that Papias wrote a work in five books, which he called a “Collection of the Sayings of the Lord.”

*Papias was a Greek Apostolic Father, Bishop of Hierapolis (modern Pamukkale, Turkey), and author who lived c. 60 – c. 130 AD. He wrote the Exposition of the Sayings of the Lord in five books. This work, which is lost apart from brief excerpts in the works of Irenaeus of Lyons (c. 180) and Eusebius of Caesarea (c. 320), is an important early source on Christian oral tradition and especially on the origins of the canonical Gospels.

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