Originally appeared in The Theosophical Review 28 (May 1901):
by G. R. S. Mead
Turning next to the external evidence with regard to the authorship and
authority of our four Gospels, the subject may be most conveniently
treated under the two headings of statements and quotations or alleged
Neither in the genuine Pauline Letters, our earliest historic
documents, nor in any other Epistle of the N.T., nor in the earliest
extra-canonical documents attributed to Clemens Romanus and Barnabas, nor
in the Didache, are written Gospels mentioned or implied. From the
dedication of the Third Gospel, however, we learn, as we have already
seen, that there were at that time "many" written Gospels current. Lk.
further implies that their diversity "was calculated to obscure 'the
certainty concerning the things wherein' the Christian catechumen was
instructed"; he further implies that the apostles "delivered" these
things, that is, presumably taught them orally, as distinguished from the
"many" who wrote and were not apostles. That this was the actual state of
affairs is strikingly confirmed by what we have said of the Marcionite
movement, which arose about 140-150 A.D. There was at this time no
historical certainty in the matter.
We now come to the statements of Papias, a bishop of Phrygian
Hierapolis, in the first half of the second century, who wrote in Greek
five books called "Exposition(s) of the Lord's Logia." As the statements
of Papias are the earliest external evidence as to authorship, and as they
are not by any means so confirmatory of later Church tradition as might be
expected, they have been subjected to the most searching criticism; every
single phrase has been microscopically dissected and the keywords
interpreted in very various and contradictory fashions, according to the
commentator's point of view.
With regard to the title of the treatise, "exegesis" may mean simply a
"setting forth," though it may also include the idea of "interpretation."
By "Logia" may be meant simply "Words of the Lord," or they may also
include Acts of the Lord; and by "of the Lord," some contend, may be meant
O.T. prophetical utterances only, and not the Words of Jesus.
With regard to these statements of Papias, it should be noted that they
are quotations made by Eusebius (c. 325 A.D.), and that the acceptance of
their accuracy depends upon our estimate of this Church Father's
trustworthiness. This has been called into question on innumerable points
by hosts of critics; Dr. Abbott, however, considers him "a most careful
and conscientious writer." Papias's work itself has disappeared.
The passages which are supposed by Eusebius to refer to our Mk. and Mt.
are as follows (in the translation of the Rev. V. H. Stanton, D.D., Ely
Professor of Divinity in the University of Cambridge, the writer of the
article "Gospels" in the new Dictionary of the Bible, for Dr.
Abbott only gives the Greek text, with some critical remarks on its
"Mark having become the interpreter of Peter, wrote down
accurately—not, however, in order—as many as he remembered of the things
either spoken or done by Christ. For he neither heard the Lord nor
attended on Him, but afterwards, as I said, (attended on) Peter, who used
to give his instructions according to what was required, but not as giving
an orderly exposition of the Lord's Words. So that Mark made no mistake in
writing down some things as he recalled them. For he paid heed to one
point, namely, not to leave out any of the things he had heard, or to say
anything false in regard to them."
The statement as to Matthew which Eusebius says was made by Papias,
"Matthew, however, wrote the Logia in the Hebrew tongue, and every man
interpreted them as he was able."
In the former passage, the translation "Mark made no mistake" is
rightly rejected by Dr. Abbott; it can only mean "committed no fault
"—that is to say "Papias is defending Mark against the very natural
objection that he did not do the apostle justice in writing down oral and
casual teaching" in a permanent form.
Now as Eusebius promises to record all that ecclesiastical
writers have said about the canonical Scriptures, Papias in all
probability said nothing about Lk. and Jn. Did Papias, however, know of
these Gospels? This must ever remain a mere question of opinion; and not
only so, but the assumption by Eusebius that Papias refers to our Mk. and
Mt. is equally a mere question of opinion, for it is denied by many, for
many reasons, and especially on the ground that our Mk. does set things
down "in order," though perhaps not in chronological order, and that Mt.
is not a translation but a compilation and partly based on the "embedded"
document in Mk.
Dr. Abbott, however, merely comes to the moderate conclusion that " Lk.
and Jn. were not recognised by Papias as on a level with Mk. and Mt."
In any case the question of the date of Papias becomes one of prime
importance. Now the only important evidence bearing on this subject is a
quotation from Eusebius, who, in rejecting the opinion of Irenaeus (at the
end of the second century) that Papias was a "hearer of John" the apostle,
quotes from the preface of Papias.
Dr. Abbott gives the text only, but Professor Schmiedel, in his article
on "John," gives the following translation (omitting certain intercalated
words of a debatable nature):
"But as many things also as I once well learned from the mouths of the
elders, and well committed to memory, I shall not hesitate to set down [or
commit to writing] for thee, together with the interpretations
[appropriate to them], guaranteeing their truth. For I took pleasure not,
as the many do, in those who speak much, but in those that teach the
things that are true; nor in those who bring to remembrance the foreign
commandments, but in those who bring to remembrance the commandments that
were given by the Lord to faith, and have come to us from the truth
itself. But if anywhere anyone also should come who had companied with the
elders I ascertained the sayings [or words] of the elders [as to
this]—what Andrew or what Peter had said, or what Philip or what Thomas or
James or what John or Matthew or any other of the disciples of the Lord
[had said], and what Aristion and John the elder, the disciples of the
Lord, say. For I supposed that the things [to be derived] from books were
not of such profit to me as the things [derived] from the living and
According to his own account, Papias is not only not proved to have
been a "hearer" of John the apostle, but not even of Aristion or John the
elder. The greatest puzzle is that contemporaries of Papias, Aristion and
John the elder, are called "disciples of the Lord." This, as Lightfoot
says, "involves a chronological difficulty," a difficulty so great that
the only solution Dr. Abbott can suggest is to expunge the words as an
interpolation. This is indeed a cutting of the Gordian knot, and will
certainly never be accepted by those who see in these words a precious
scrap of evidence as to the extended meaning of the term "disciples of the
Lord," a term applied not only to those who personally knew Jesus in the
flesh, but also to those who stood in some special relation to the Master
after his death. And if this was the historical fact, as we hold, it
follows not only that Aristion and John the elder were not contemporaries
of Jesus, but also that the other "disciples" were also not all
The curious selection of the names of the disciples by Papias is
explained by Dr. Abbott on the hypothesis that there were already in
existence writings attributed to these names, writings which Papias did
not believe to be really theirs.
This quotation from Papias, however, gives us little evidence as to his
date, unless we assume the generally received view as to the meaning of
"disciples of the Lord." On the contrary, we are told by Eusebius that
Papias flourished in the time of Polycarp (died about 165). The general
consensus of opinion, then, given by Dr. Stanton, assigns the probable
date of Papias's work to about A.D. 140; but Dr. Abbott would make it
about 115-130 A.D., while Professor Harnack gives it as 145-160 A.D. It
is, however, important to notice that the whole enquiry has so far been
based on the assumption that "disciples of the Lord" must mean nothing
else than those who had known Jesus in the flesh, whereas we find in the
Gnostic so-called Pistis Sophia treatise the "disciples" speaking
to Jesus of "Paul our brother," who avowedly only knew the Master after
the death of His body.
We next come to the writings of Justin Martyr (cir. 145-149).
Justin constantly appeals to certain documents which he calls "Memoirs of
the Apostles." On the word Memoirs Dr. Abbott writes: "There is a
considerable probability that the word was in regular use to denote the
Memoirs or Anecdotes about the apostles; first 'repeated' by their
immediate interpreters or pupils; then committed to writing by some of
them in the form of gospels; and lastly accepted by Justin as Memoirs
written by the apostles about Christ."
As we have a number of quotations cited by Justin from these Memoirs,
there has been a fierce war of criticism on the subject, the one side
trying to prove Justin's acquaintance with our Gospels, the other denying
it. Here, however, we are concerned with statements about these Gospels
rather than with quotations, and it must be confessed that in spite of all
his industry Dr. Abbott can deduce no satisfactorily clear statement. As
to the miraculous conception and other such matters, however, Justin's
view is "that Christ after his resurrection 'appeared to his apostles and
disciples and taught them' everything relating to himself." This reminds
us of the exceedingly important statement of Clemens Alexandrinus: "To
James the Just and John and Peter was the Gnosis delivered by the Lord
after the Resurrection. These delivered it to the rest of the apostles,
and the rest to the Seventy"—thus preserving the tradition of the gradual
development of the inner school from the original ordering into three,
into one of twelve and subsequently into one of seventy, or, as we
believe, by stages represented by 3, 7, 12 and 72.
We pass next to the famous Muratorian Fragment, a barbarous Latin
translation of some earlier Greek text; its date is purely conjectural but
it is generally assigned to about 170 A.D. This fragment presumably
mentioned all four Gospels, for after a few concluding words relating to
another book, it begins by speaking of "the third book of the Gospel—(the
book) according to Luke."
Luke is here called a physician, is supposed to have been a follower of
Paul, and is said to have written in his own name, and according to his
own private judgment (ex opinione). As criticism (we shall see
further on) has to reject this ascription of our third Gospel to Luke, the
subordinate question which here arises is whether or not this statement
was not born of conflict with the Marcionite claims, for Marcion asserted
that his Gospel was based on the Gospel of Paul, while later Church
Fathers asserted that it was a "mutilation" of our Lk. Marcion's Gospel
apparently treated of the ministry only, beginning: "He went down to
The Muratorian account of the genesis of the Fourth Gospel is, however,
far more explicit. This is said to have been written down by a certain
John, who was "of the disciples." His "fellow-disciples and his bishops"
had apparently urged him to write a Gospel, but John hesitated to accept
the responsibility, and proposed that they should all fast together for
three days, and tell one another if anything were revealed to them. On the
same night it is revealed to Andrew, who is "of the apostles," that while
all revised John should write down all things in his own name.
But our Jn. does not write in his own name. Setting this point,
however, aside we are introduced to a circle of people who seek authority
in visions! We have disciples, bishops, and an apostle gathered in
conclave; and we may even conclude that John, so far from being the
highest in rank (or surely he would be also honoured with the title of
apostle), is doubtful of his own powers or of his authority to attempt so
important an undertaking, and can only be persuaded to do so when the
apostle of the company receives a direct revelation on the matter. We
shall see the importance of this tradition in the sequel.
Passing next to Irenaeus (about 185 A.D.) we come to the first
formulation of the generally received tradition as to the Four. Irenaeus
would have it that John was the personal disciple of Jesus, and wrote his
Gospel at Ephesus. Matthew published his Gospel in Hebrew "while Peter and
Paul in Rome were preaching and founding the Church." Mark handed down in
writing what Peter used to preach; Luke "set down in a book what Paul was
in the habit of preaching." It is hardly necessary to add that it is just
the statements of Irenaeus which modern scientific research calls into
question; with regard to Mt. and Mk. Irenaeus evidently based himself on
There is little that will help us in Clement of Alexandria (cir.
195 A.D.) except the statement that the genealogies were written first,
that is, before our Mt. and Lk.
He, however, hands on a version of the tradition as to John which
removes the "stumbling-block" of the fuller and more naïve Muratorian
account. For he says: "John, last of all, reflecting that the earthly
aspect [lit., the bodily things] had been set forth in the Gospels, at the
instigation of his pupils [or it may be his associates], by a special
impulse of the spirit, composed a spiritual Gospel."
Clement carries on the Papias-tradition of the dependence of Mk. on the
Petrine teaching, and so also does Origen.
And here our investigation of external statements as to origin can
cease, for, as Dr. Abbott says: "Later writers have no further evidence,
and can but exemplify the tendency of tradition, even among honest and
able men, to exaggerate or to minimise, in the supposed interests of a
We next come to the important question of quotations which are supposed
to prove the existence of our present four Gospels. First, with regard to
quotations from books which were written prior to Justin (150 A.D.).
Paul in his Letters, the earliest historical documents of Christendom,
quotes nothing that is found in our Gospels. One saying alone is found in
Mt. and Lk., but this saying (as well as other sayings quoted by Paul but
not found in our Gospels) is also found in an ancient document called the
Didache. This absolutely astonishing fact has never received any
satisfactory explanation. The hypothesis that Paul and the Didache
probably used an antecedent tradition, does not help us to understand why
the later Synoptists base themselves on a totally different collection or
collections of the Logia.
Similarly, the Epistle of James, which is of an early, though uncertain
date, "though permeated with doctrine similar to the Sermon on the Mount,"
contains "more and closer parallels" to the Didache and Barnabas.
There is nothing to show any knowledge of our actual Gospels.
That, however, there may have been in circulation various collections
of the public Sayings, differing considerably from one another, is quite
credible. Dr. Abbott thinks the new-found Logia of Behnesa (Oxyrhynchus
fragment) an example of such an early "manual"; after bringing forward
some strong points in favour of their antiquity, he concludes that "these
and many other considerations indicate that these Logia are genuine
sayings of Jesus, ignored or suppressed because of the 'dangerous'
tendency of some of them, and the obscurity of others."
Now, of the six decipherable Sayings which this scrap of the most
ancient MS. of any Christian document known to us contains, only one is
familiar to us from the Canonical Gospels, two contain new matter and
important variants, and three are entirely new. The leaf we possess bears
the number 18. So that if we reckon 8 Sayings to a leaf (two of the
Sayings in our leaf being undecipherable), the collection must have
contained at least 144 Sayings; and if the percentage of "new"
Sayings to canonically known or partially known Sayings was as high as in
the solitary leaf which has reached us, at least half of the
Sayings-materials has been lost to us, and may have contained doctrines
which would necessitate an entire revision of the general view of original
So again with regard to the Letter of Clement of Rome (about 95 A.D.,
though some place the date later, it being purely conjectural), the
passage cited to prove acquaintance with our Mt. and Lk., when compared
with Polycarp and Clement of Alexandria, "shows pretty conclusively that
these writers had in mind some other tradition than that of the Synoptists."
The Didache, or Teaching of the Twelve Apostles, is a composite
document of widely disputed date. It is generally assumed, however, that
80-110 are the termini. It consists of two parts, the "Two Ways,"
in which precepts of the Lord are inculcated, but no appeal is made to any
"Words" or "Gospel." This part is considered by many to be taken from the
Jewish teaching of the same name. The latter part appeals to both
"Sayings" and a "Gospel." On this point Dr. Abbott flatly contradicts
himself. First he says: "The 'Gospel' meant is probably Mt." But "so far
as this little book is concerned, the 'Gospel' might consist of a version
of the Sermon on the Mount and the Precepts to the Twelve. On the Second
Advent, the writer mentions 'the Signs of Truth' with such apparent
independence of Mt. as to make it doubtful whether, in the context, the
resemblances to Mt. indicate quotations from Mt."
The Epistle of Barnabas, assigned by the very conservative Lightfoot to
70-79 A.D., but placed by others later, shows no acquaintance with the
Canonical Gospels. The interesting point about this ancient Letter is that
Barnabas, or whoever was the writer, "anticipates" Jn.
The fragment of The Great Apophasis, or Announcement, attributed
to "Simon Magus," an early Gnostic document, and assigned by Lightfoot to
the close of the first century, contains certain phrases which "make it
probable that Jn. had Simon in view when he composed his Gospel." But this
is the purest conjecture.
Ignatius, whose date is given as before 110 A.D., quotes a few short
sentences found in our Mt. and once a phrase peculiar to Mk., but there is
nothing to show that he quotes directly from our Mt. or Mk.; it is more
probable that he is drawing from one or more of their "sources." Dr.
Abbott, however, in this uncertainty, takes the conservative position.
The short Letter of Polycarp (which is given by Dr. Abbott the date 110
A.D., but which should certainly be dated far later) can hardly afford us
any grounds of definite conjecture; but in so far as any conclusion can be
drawn from it, Dr. Abbott is of opinion that Polycarp knew "the 'Gospel'
of Mk. and Mt.," following the same tendency he has already manifested in
the question of Ignatius.
With regard to the fragments of Papias the only quotation which can be
adduced as bearing on the question, "leads to the inference that Papias is
not quoting and misinterpreting Jn." as is claimed by conservative
criticism, "but quoting and interpreting, in accordance with tradition, a
Logion of which Jn. gives a different version." The Logion was
probably originally derived from the Book of Enoch.
The fragments of the Gnostic doctor, Basilides (117-138 A.D.) afford us
no evidence of his recognition of our Gospels as authoritative.
Marcion, about 140, as we have seen, rejected all other Gospels and
adopted a Gospel-account in many things resembling our Lk. Dr. Abbott,
supporting the later Tertullian's charge that Marcion falsified Lk. in
favour of his anti-Jewish views, points out, as it has often been pointed
out before, "that the omissions and alterations which he (Marcion) would
have had to make in Jn. are trifling as compared with those he was forced
to introduce into Lk." From this hypothesis Dr. Abbott concludes that "in
125-135 A.D.," the date he assigns to Marcion's Gospel, though this seems
to us somewhat too early, "Lk. had come into prominence as a recognised
Gospel in Marcion's region, but that Jn. was not yet equally prominent."
It is, however, very evident that we are here in the full ocean of
hypothesis and conjecture, and can set our feet on no rock of proved
From the few acknowledged fragments of Valentinus, the successor of
Basilides, we have nothing to show that he recognised our Gospels. This
brings us to the middle of the second century, and presumably all but the
absolutely irreconcilables will acknowledge the existence of our Gospels
after that date.
We have seen above the leanings of Dr. Abbott in one or two particulars
to the conservative position; it is, therefore, somewhat surprising to
find him summing up the quotation evidence before Justin in the following
manner: "Thus up to the middle of the second century, though there are
traces of Johannine thought and tradition, and immature approximations to
the Johannine Logos-Doctrine, yet in some writers (e.g., Barnabas and
Simon), we find rather what Jn. develops, or what Jn. attacks, than
anything which imitates Jn., and in others (e.g., Polycarp, Ignatius, and
Papias) mere war cries of the time, or phrases of a Logos-doctrine still
in flux, or apocalyptic traditions of which Jn. gives a more spiritual and
perhaps a truer version. There is nothing to prove, or even suggest, that
Jn. was recognised as a gospel. Many of these writers, however, are known
to us by extracts so short and slight that inference from them is very
But in all this summary no reference to Mk., Mt., or Lk.! Why this
omission, when it is just the date of the Synoptic writings which are
generally considered of the greater importance in this enquiry?
Passing to Justin Martyr; the evidence as to quotations found in his
writings (145-149 A.D.) is especially valuable owing to its greater
richness. Dr. Abbott concludes that Justin knew the Synoptic writings but
not Jn. But the knowledge by Justin of the Synoptics has been hotly
contested both because of the great freedom with which Justin treats the
alleged quotations, and also because of several statements he makes on
important points which prove conclusively that Justin used other accounts
of the nativity and baptism than those in Mt. and Lk. The wide variation
also of Justin's quotations from the present text of the Synoptics shows
either quotations from memory, or that the original text of the first
three Gospels differed very greatly from our present text.
It is, however, difficult to believe that Justin did not know our
gospels, for his pupil Tatian (150-180 A.D.) not only knew all of them,
but composed a Harmony of the Four, placing Jn. on the same level with the
rest. It may be that Justin would have nothing to do with Jn. because of
its mystical nature, for Justin was a great literalist.
Reviewing then the evidence adduced from quotations or alleged
quotations, we may conclude with very great safety that all our four
Gospels were in circulation after 150. Prior to that date, however, we
find nothing to prove the acceptance of Jn., and with regard to the date
of the Synoptists we see that the question is very debatable, and that up
to at least 110 A.D., there is absolutely nothing to prove their
existence. The apparently inferior authority of Lk. also rests on such
slender evidence that to our mind it is not made out, and therefore its
later date than our Mt. and Mk. not established.
The non-recognition of Jn., however, seems to be governed by doctrinal
considerations rather than by lateness of composition. And the conflicting
views of critics as to the dates of the Synoptics based on the testimony
of quotations are chiefly owing to the want of accurate distinction
between what would prove the existence of our actual compilations, and
what simply points to the existence of one or more of their "sources."
We will next review the present position of the Synoptical problem as
set forth by Professor Schmiedel.