Where Did the Names of the Gospels Come From?

Have you ever wondered why we speak of the Gospel according to Matthew, Mark, Luke, or John? If you have paid attention, you will have noticed that they are all anonymous works; the first three never identify an author, while the fourth only hints at the author as “the disciple whom Jesus loved” (see John 21:17). How then did these names come to be attached to them? And why do we have four Gospels anyways? Hopefully this post will provide some enlightenment if you have ever had such ruminations.

One of the earliest testimonies regarding the names of the Gospel writers is found in Papias of Hierapolis, some of whose writings were preserved by Eusebius (c. 260 – c. 340) in his Ecclesiastical History. Papias was described as “a hearer of John,”[1] which, while not necessarily implying that he was a disciple of Johns, would at least indicate that he heard firsthand from him. Other than this, we know very little of him. Writing perhaps around the year 100, Papias has this to say on our subject:

“This also the presbyter said: Mark, having become the interpreter of Peter, wrote down accurately, though not in order, whatsoever he remembered of the things said or done by Christ. For he neither heard the Lord nor followed him, but afterward, as I said, he followed Peter, who adapted his teaching to the needs of his hearers, but with no intention of giving a connected account of the Lord’s discourses, so that Mark committed no error while he thus wrote some things as he remembered them. For he was careful of one thing, not to omit any of the things which he had heard, and not to state any of them falsely.” These things are related by Papias concerning Mark. But concerning Matthew he writes as follows: “So then Matthew wrote the oracles in the Hebrew language, and every one interpreted them as he was able.”[2]

I won’t dwell on the subject, but some have interpreted this to indicate that Matthew perhaps wrote his Gospel first in Hebrew, then later translated it into Greek. As we have no extant copies of any Hebrew Gospel according to Matthew (at least that is not a translation of the Greek) and the Greek of Matthew does not bear the marks of a translation, the existence of an original Hebrew Matthew would be purely speculation since Papias could also be interpreted as indicating he wrote his Gospel for the Hebrews. If Matthew did indeed write a Hebrew edition of his Gospel first, it has not survived to this day. 

Eusebius preserves the testimony of another named Clement of Alexandria (c. 150 – c. 215), who passes on a testimony similar to Papias, but which may also be descended from him:

And so greatly did the splendor of piety illumine the minds of Peter’s hearers that they were not satisfied with hearing once only, and were not content with the unwritten teaching of the divine Gospel, but with all sorts of entreaties they besought Mark, a follower of Peter, and the one whose Gospel is extant, that he would leave them a written monument of the doctrine which had been orally communicated to them. Nor did they cease until they had prevailed with the man, and had thus become the occasion of the written Gospel which bears the name of Mark. And they say that Peter when he had learned, through a revelation of the Spirit, of that which had been done, was pleased with the zeal of the men, and that the work obtained the sanction of his authority for the purpose of being used in the churches. Clement in the eighth book of his Hypotyposes gives this account, and with him agrees the bishop of Hierapolis named Papias. And Peter makes mention of Mark in his first epistle which they say that he wrote in Rome itself, as is indicated by him, when he calls the city, by a figure, Babylon, as he does in the following words: “The church that is at Babylon, elected together with you, saluteth you; and so doth Marcus my son.”[3]

Whereas the previous two citations only addressed Matthew and Mark, the earliest extant writer to name the authors of all four Gospels was Irenaeus of Lyons (c. 130 – c. 202). In his c. 180 work Adversus Haereses (or translated, Against Heresies), a polemic against the Gnostics of the day, Irenaeus provides this account regarding the authors of all four Gospels:

Matthew also issued a written Gospel among the Hebrews in their own dialect, while Peter and Paul were preaching at Rome, and laying the foundations of the Church. After their departure, Mark, the disciple and interpreter of Peter, did also hand down to us in writing what had been preached by Peter. Luke also, the companion of Paul, recorded in a book the Gospel preached by him. Afterwards, John, the disciple of the Lord, who also had leaned upon His breast, did himself publish a Gospel during his residence at Ephesus in Asia.[4]

Something worth considering with Irenaeus is his link to the apostle John. Irenaeus was himself a disciple of Polycarp (c. 69 – c. 155), who was in turn a disciple of John. Though Irenaeus wrote much later than John, he is not far removed from him due to his close connection with Polycarp. It would seem not unreasonable to conclude that Irenaeus is here potentially passing on what he had heard from Polycarp.

Now the names do not rely solely on patristic testimony; they are also found in the manuscript tradition. Several of our earliest manuscripts, fragmentary as they are, also include titles. In P4, dated to the late 2nd or early 3rd century, we find ευαγγελιον κατα μαθ᾽θαιον (euangelion kata Math’thaion), that is, the title “the Gospel according to Matthew.” Looking at P66, a nearly complete codex dated from as early as the 2nd to as late as the 4th century (there is some debate over how to best date it), it has the title ευαγγελιον κατα ιωαννην (euangelion kata Ioannen): the Gospel according to John. Lastly, we have P75, which is a 3rd century two Gospel codex containing both the Gospels of Luke and John. An interesting fact about this manuscript is that when the Gospel of Luke ends, the Gospel of John picks up on the same page, where we again find the title ευαγγελιον κατα ιωαννην, giving us the title of the Gospel according to John once again. It would not be without reason to conclude that the Gospel of Luke would have also included the title in P75 had the page survived to the present day. When we come to the earliest extant complete New Testaments in the great 4th century codices Codex Sinaiticus and Codex Vaticanus, the titles of all four Gospels are firmly in place. 

Noteworthy as regards the manuscript tradition is that we do not find any cases of the Gospels bearing other names. Remember that they are anonymous works; this would seem to suggest that the names of the authors were attached at a relatively early date. In light of the testimony from Papias and Irenaeus, these names were perhaps attached to written copies of the Gospels by the late 1st or early 2nd century, though that would be pure speculation since few manuscripts survive from the 2nd century and none from the 1st. Be that as it may, the practice of bundling multiple or all of the Gospels together into a single codex would seem to presuppose that titles would have been attached to them. In addition to P75, we see this bundling in P45, a 3rd or 4th century manuscript that contains all four Gospels, and likely in P53, a very fragmentary 3rd century manuscript that contains bits of both Matthew and Acts, but also probably contained all four Gospels.

Now the fact that the Gospels have names attached to them is significant, particularly the form the title takes. Today, we commonly say “the Gospel of John” or the “Gospel of Mark,” but this is not the form the titles took in the manuscripts. As above, the titles took the form of “the Gospel according to Matthew” or “according to Mark,” and so forth. It’s not that there was a different Gospel; there was only one Gospel, but in one case it was according to Luke, while in the next it was according to John. This naming convention suggests very early knowledge of what we might call the “fourfold Gospel,” That is to say, that the Gospel was presented in four forms by four authors. Irenaeus gives us our earliest extant clear statement in this regard:

It is not possible that the Gospels can be either more or fewer in number than they are. For, since there are four zones of the world in which we live, and four principal winds, while the Church is scattered throughout all the world, and the “pillar and ground” of the Church is the Gospel and the spirit of life; it is fitting that she should have four pillars, breathing out immortality on every side, and vivifying men afresh. From which fact, it is evident that the Word, the Artificer of all, He that sitteth upon the cherubim, and contains all things, He who was manifested to men, has given us the Gospel under four aspects, but bound together by one Spirit. As also David says, when entreating His manifestation, “Thou that sittest between the cherubim, shine forth.” For the cherubim, too, were four-faced, and their faces were images of the dispensation of the Son of God.[5]

Whatever one thinks of the reasoning he uses, it is quite clear that he is aware of all four Gospels and affirms that there are none that are authoritative besides these. The manner in which he appeals to the four Gospels also seems to presuppose that they would be an authority that was well known by the time of his writing. 

We may also look a little earlier than Irenaeus to Justin Martyr (c. 100 – c. 165), one of the first Christian apologists. While less explicit than Irenaeus, we may also deduce from Justin that he probably also knew of this fourfold Gospel. In his First Apology (apology here meaning “defense”), written c. 150-155, Justin makes this remark in regards to the Lord’s Supper:

For the apostles, in the memoirs composed by them, which are called Gospels, have thus delivered unto us what was enjoined upon them. that Jesus took bread, and when He had given thanks, said, “This do ye in remembrance of Me,this is My body;” and that, after the same manner, having taken the cup and given thanks, He said, “This is My blood;” and gave it to them alone.[6]

Note that Justin refers to the memoirs of the Apostles, which he says are called Gospels. The citation that he provides immediately following this statement is from Luke 22:19, Luke not himself being an apostle. This would then suggest that apostolic authority was attached even to those two Gospels that were not personally written by apostles. Throughout his writings, Justin also makes frequent use of Matthew and knows of Mark, while also potentially showing knowledge of John.[7] That he knew of John would appear more likely in light of his statement in his Dialogue with Trypho that the memoirs “were drawn up by His apostles and those who followed them.”[8] Since Matthew and John are the only direct apostles that wrote, then it would not seem amiss to conclude that Justin was aware of all four Gospels. 

All this would lead us to conclude that the four Gospels were probably all generally known and circulating in the 2nd century. As we saw above, if there are multiple Gospels according to different authors, then it seems entirely reasonable to conclude that the titles and names of the authors would have been attached by this point in time as well. 

As a final note as regards the names, that we have the correct names attached to the Gospels would seem more likely simply by virtue of the fact of which names are attached to them. Of the four Gospels, John’s name is the only one that would be an obvious choice. Matthew was a rather minor apostle. Mark is a rather obscure figure who is presented rather unfavorably in Acts. Luke is a largely unknown doctor that accompanied Paul. If one were attempting to choose a name to give it greater authority, there would be better options to choose from, such as Peter or Paul. Since the names with the exception of John would seem to be unlikely choices, this would serve to strengthen the conclusion that these are indeed the authors of our four Gospels.

With that brief historical survey, hopefully this has adequately given a snapshot of how the four Gospels came to have their names. This is merely an introduction into the fourfold Gospel though; at a later date, I hope to examine more closely the four Gospels in light of other supposed “competing” Gospels that were in existence. 

[1] Hist. Eccl. 3.36.1.

[2] Hist. Eccl. 3.36.15-16.

[3] Hist. Eccl. 2.15.1-2.

[4] Haer. 3.1.1.

[5] Haer. 3.11.8.

[6] 1 Apol. 66.

[7] Justin makes a statement in 1 Apol. 61 that looks to be a direct quotation from John 3:5, in addition to making use of the term logos, a term unique to John in the Gospels.

[8] Dial. 103.

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