In an earlier blog post, I explored the evidence that the four New Testament Gospels were linked with the names Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John from the time they first began to circulate in the churches. In this post, I want to dig a bit deeper into specific first- and second-century testimonies about the authorship of the Gospels.
Papias of Hierapolis and the Authorship of the New Testament Gospels
The first testimony comes from Papias, a pastor in the southwestern portion of the area known today as Turkey. Papias was probably born in the middle of the first century, around the time of Paul’s second missionary journey. In the late first or early second century, Papias became the leading pastor of a church in the city of Hierapolis. Philip, a deacon from the Jerusalem church (Acts 6:5; 8:4-8), spent the last years of his life in Hierapolis. It was apparently from Philip’s daughters—the ones mentioned in Acts 21:8-9—and from associates of the apostolic eyewitnesses[i] that Papias received his information:[ii]
I won’t hesitate to arrange alongside my interpretations whatever things I learned and remembered well from the elders, confirming the truth on their behalf. … The elder said this: Mark, who became Peter’s interpreter, wrote accurately as much as he remembered—though not in ordered form—of the Lord’s sayings and doings. For [Mark] neither heard the Lord nor followed after him, but later (as I said) he followed after Peter, who was giving his teachings in short anecdotes and thus did not bring forth an ordered arrangement of the Lord’s sayings; so, Mark did not miss the point when he wrote in this way, as he remembered. For he had one purpose: To omit nothing of what he had heard and to present no false testimony in these matters. … And Matthew, in the Hebrew dialect, placed the sayings in orderly arrangement.[iii]
Although Papias recorded these traditions in the early second century,[iv] he received them well before the end of the first century.[v] If Papias of Hierapolis was familiar with Matthew’s and Mark’s Gospels before the end of the first century, both Gospels must have been completed in the first century, while eyewitnesses of the events were still alive. It’s probable that Papias also recorded traditions about Luke’s and John’s Gospels, but—since the writings of Papias have survived only in fragmentary form—those testimonies have been lost.
Polycarp of Smyrna and the Authorship of the New Testament Gospels
If Papias alone had made these claims, perhaps we could pass over them as the product of one man’s imagination. But Papias doesn’t stand alone in this testimony. Another pastor—a man named Polycarp, born around the year 70—received the same information about the Gospels, separate from Papias.
As a young man, Polycarp was a student of John, the follower of Jesus. As an adult, Polycarp became pastor of a church in the village of Smyrna. Here’s what Polycarp learned from the eyewitnesses and passed on to one of his pupils:
Matthew composed his Gospel among the Hebrews in their language, while Peter and Paul were preaching the Gospel in Rome and building up the church there. After their deaths, Mark—Peter’s follower and interpreter—handed down to us Peter’s proclamation in written form. Luke, the companion of Paul, wrote in a book the Gospel proclaimed by Paul. Finally, John—the Lord’s own follower, the one who leaned against his very chest—composed the Gospel while living in Ephesus, in Asia.[vi]
So it wasn’t only Papias who knew the New Testament Gospels in the late first or early second century. Polycarp was familiar with them too—and not only Matthew’s and Mark’s Gospels but also the Gospels According to Luke and John.
Taken together, the testimonies of Papias and Polycarp clearly suggest that—from the first century forward—Christians knew that the testimonies in the four Gospels could be traced to first-century apostolic eyewitnesses or close associates of the apostles.[vii]
The Muratorian Fragment and the Authorship of the New Testament Gospels
This testimony doesn’t even end with the words of Papias and Polycarp! A seventh-century copy of a second-century document survives that summarizes similar origins for the New Testament Gospels, apparently independent of Papias or Polycarp. The first few lines of the Muratorian Fragment are missing, but here’s what survives related to the Gospels:
…at which nevertheless he was present, and so he arranged them. The third book of the Gospel is the one according to Luke. Luke, the well-known physician—after the ascension of Christ, Paul took him as one zealous for the law—composed it in his own name, according to widespread knowledge. Yet he himself had not seen the Lord in the flesh; 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.
What Does This Mean for You?
Many so-called “Gospels” claimed to come from apostles in later times—but only the four New Testament Gospels are traced to apostolic eyewitnesses and their close associates by multiple sources from the first and second centuries. The New Testament Gospels were not late-written legends; they were texts based on eyewitness testimonies, written while the eyewitnesses were still alive.
[i] Irenaeus seems to suggest that Papias knew the apostle John. See Irenaeus of Lyons, Sancti Irenæi espiscopi Lugdunensis et martyris Detectionis et eversionis falso cognominatæ agnitionis, seu, Contra hæreses libri quinque in Patrologiae cursus completes, ed. J.-P. Migne (Paris, France: Lutetiae Parisiorum, 1857) 5:33:4.
[ii] For a thorough examination of the place of Papias and of the general authenticity of his claims, see R. Bauckham’s Jesus and the Eyewitnesses (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Eerdmans, 2006) 12-38, 202-239.
[iii] Eusebius of Caesarea, Ecclesiastical History, Books I—V, ed. Kirsopp Lake, Loeb Classical Library (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1926), 3:39.
[iv] Eusebius places Papias—with Clement of Rome—in Trajan’s reign, before the martyrdom of Ignatius in A.D. 107 (Eusebius, 3:36). See R. Gundry, Matthew: A Commentary on His Handbook for a Mixed Church Under Persecution (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Eerdmans, 1994) 610-611; R. Gundry, Mark: A Commentary on His Apology for the Cross (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Eerdmans, 1993, 2000) 1027-1029.
[v] Bauckham, 17-18.
[vi]Irenaeus of Lyons, Contra Haereses, 3:1:1-2. Some have questioned the authenticity of Irenaeus’s recollections from his years with Polycarp. However, Irenaeus’s entire letter to Florinus—a friend who had joined a movement that denied the authentic humanity of Jesus Christ—testifies to his time with Polycarp: “O Florinus, … when I was a boy, I watched you in lower Asia with Polycarp, moving in splendor in the royal court, and trying to gain his approval. I remember the events of that time even more clearly than those of recent years. Whatever it is that boys learn, as they grow in their minds, merges permanently with their minds. That’s why I can still describe the very spot in which blessed Polycarp sat as he taught; I can still describe how he exited and entered, his habits of life, his expressions, his teachings among the people, and the accounts he gave of his interaction with John and with others who had seen the Lord. As he remembered their words—what he heard from them about the Lord and about his miracles and teachings, having received them from the eyewitnesses of the ‘Word of Life’—Polycarp related all of it in harmony with the Scriptures. … Continually, by God’s grace, I still recall them in faith. I testify before God that, if the blessed and apostolic elder heard any such thing [as the beliefs that Florinus had recently embraced], he would have cried out, placed his fingers in his ears—as was his habit—and exclaimed, ‘Good God! To what sort of time have you spared my life that should have to endure such things as this?’” (Eusebius, 5:20:4-8). The tone and content of this letter strongly corroborates Irenaeus’s connection to Polycarp. If Irenaeus was not in fact a disciple of Polycarp, such a letter as this one would have proved meaningless to Florinus and would have provided fodder for the arguments of Irenaeus’s opponents.
[vii] The influential work of J.D. Crossan merits special mention at this point. Crossan places the following idiosyncratic dates on the New Testament Gospels: Secret Gospel of Mark and Mark’s Gospel as it has survived to us, he places between A.D. 60 and 80, even though Secret Gospel of Mark is almost certainly a twentieth-century hoax. Matthew’s and Luke’s Gospels are dated in the 90s, as well as a first edition of John’s Gospel. The surviving edition of John’s Gospel—according to Crossan—does not emerge until the early-to-mid-second century. Simultaneously, Crossan places the “lost Gospels” far earlier than most biblical scholars. See J.D. Crossan, The Historical Jesus (New York: HarperSanFrancisco, 1991) 427-434. Even such scholars as Bart Ehrman—far from an evangelical in his view of the Gospels—dates Mark’s Gospel in the 60s, Matthew’s and Luke’s Gospels in the 70s or 80s if not earlier, and John’s Gospel no later than the 90s (B. Ehrman, Lost Christianities [New York: Oxford University Press, 2003] 19-20).