The Four Gospels: A Blogtome by Request

It was recently requested that I post something here regarding the early development of the canon, specifically a truncated version of a paper I wrote as an undergraduate on the canonization of the Gospels. Impossible as it may be to believe, what follows is just such an abbreviation. I have taken the knife to the paper, in a way not unlike Marcion did with Luke, in an effort to make it e-managable. I apologize for the extent to which I failed in that effort.

The discussion surrounding the origin and closure of the Christian canon is in a perpetual state of flux. Dates for the final formation of the Christian canon have ranged from the end of the first century to well into the fourth. Opinions change as new evidence surfaces and old evidence is reinterpreted until the picture becomes nearly too convoluted to understand. What’s more, the discussion of the development of a complete canon has given way to theories about the development of the sub-canonical groups yielding separate dates for the completion of the Pauline canon, the canon of Catholic epistles, and the four-Gospel canon. It is the last of these which will be treated here.

The four-Gospel canon constitutes the greatest canonical development in Christianity. It was unique in its time: four separate and distinct accounts of a single man which were bound into a solitary, authoritative chronicle of his life. It has enthralled and vexed the minds of the pious laity and academics alike for the better part of two millennia. The question remains: when did the four Gospels become the fourfold Gospel—the inviolable, normative, authoritative account of Christ’s life? It will be the contention of this study that the second century saw the practical completion of the four-Gospel canon, that at the close of the century the Gospels had been compiled into a single sub-canonical unit that was both unalterable and widespread in “orthodox” churches.


The argument put forth nearly a century ago by Harnack and more recently advanced by Campenhausen and others that the period of the second century was ripe for the development of canon holds no less true today. The controversies that the church faced in the second century are so intrinsically linked to canon that to posit that the church would not have at the very least been initiating the process of canonizing its sacred literature requires significantly more justification than the more natural assumption that it had. This is all the more true for the Gospel literature which formed the core of the Christian canon. However, when discussing external factors which caused a rise in the canon, the mistake is often made of overestimating the value of any one source of stimulus. Rather than proposing that Marcion or the Montanists were directly responsible for either the creation of the canon or the acceleration of that process, it is better to look instead at a general second century milieu which predisposed Christianity to accept the four-Gospel canon. No one group ought to be afforded overwhelming significance over any other, but rather each should be viewed as contributing to a religious culture which created a more urgent need for the development of canon, including more specifically the four-Gospel canon.

One of the principle figures in any discussion of second century canon is Marcion, whose compilation of a single gospel and truncated collection of Pauline letters into a normative collection was for whatever reason notable even in his own day. The traditional view is that Marcion’s collection of documents constituted the first canon of Christian literature, possibly even created the idea of canon. More recent scholarship tends to reject this interpretation. John Barton, for example, attempts to reframe what Marcion did by suggesting that Marcion was not creating a canon but a “critical reconstruction,” not compiling authoritative documents but excluding heretical documents. He suggests that if Marcion had indeed instigated the creation of an “orthodox” canon of scripture, there would be a marked increase in the citation of those scriptures. This assumes, however, that a transition from non-canonical to canonical status is necessarily accompanied by an increased frequency of citation. The reverse is process is just as plausible, if not more so: that documents which were already in frequent and widespread use, such as the four Gospels, would then make the transition into a canonical status.

Much like Barton, L. M. McDonald and Stanley Porter reject the idea that Marcion had significant import for canon development. In a passage rife with concessions and equivocation, they, like Barton, suggest that Marcion’s canon was in fact merely a loose list of “untainted” Christian literature to which his followers felt free to add to because it was never created with the intention of being a fixed canon. Completely apart from the validity of this claim, it is clear, even in their own work, that the motives of Marcion may or may not have had any relevance with regard to the reaction of the early church. The admissions that Marcion’s “canon,” whatever the nature of the collection was, may have “been an important catalyst” in the church’s process of becoming selective with its scriptures and that he “may have had the effect” of causing the church to evaluate the place of Jewish literature in the canon seem to negate any discussion of Marcion’s motives. Whether he meant to or not is essentially irrelevant to the question of whether or not Marcion and his canon began or significantly sped the development of the canon.

Amidst their discussion, however, McDonald and Porter make a statement which approaches a better understanding, a middle way so to speak between the traditional view of Marcion as a lone innovator (at least with regard to a peculiarly Christian canon) and the emerging view of Marcion as essentially irrelevant: “Marcion may have been an important catalyst in causing the church to come to grips with the question of which literature best conveyed its true identity and possibly which literature could be called Scripture.” Though the development of the four-Gospel canon was already in progress prior to or at least contemporary with and apart from Marcion, the controversy surrounding Marcion should be seen as injecting a sense of urgency into the process.

It is important to note in response to this that when Irenaeus first treats Marcion (Against Heresies, I.27.4) he makes explicit that his primary crime is the mutilation of the Scriptures. The Scripture in reference here is most certainly at least the Gospel of Luke if not the whole canon of Marcion since Irenaeus levels the same accusation of “mutilation” later in connection with Marcion, naming Luke’s Gospel specifically as the violated text. Tertullian as well, in the course of his lengthy treatment of Marcion (Against Heretics, 38), specifically charges Marcion with editing the Scriptures to suit his theological ends. For these reasons, Everett Ferguson’s claim is certainly viable: ‘“At any rate, the four-gospel canon, for whatever difficulties it may give theologians, was seen as a defense against heresy.”

Marcionites were not by any stretch the only heretical group in the second century whose particular view of Christianity likely had an influence on the development of the four-Gospel canon. Just before his famous theological defense of the four canonical Gospels (Against Heresies, III.11.7), Irenaeus indicated that Marcion was not alone in his tendency to cling to a single gospel. The Ebionites, he wrote, used Matthew’s Gospel exclusively; the Docetists used Mark; the Valentinian Gnostics employed John. This importantly demonstrates that Marcion rather than practicing something unique was something of an exemplar among heterodox groups who exalted the one Gospel which best suited their theological tendencies. To a lesser degree, what was true of Marcion’s influence on the development of the four-Gospel canon, is true also of the general trend toward this behavior by other heterodox groups of the second century.

An opposite trend, though no less important, is apparent among the Montanists to whom Campenhausen attributes a critical importance in the development of the canon. The Montanist tendency toward the proliferation of prophecy, recorded in books, which had unassailable authority created a no less vital problem for the church. Rather than showing a limiting of the authoritative literature, it demonstrated an unnerving willingness to expand the basis of normative Scriptures. For this reason, Metzger estimates that the Montanist controversy was primarily important in that it cast a shadow of skepticism over the production of new “sacred” Scripture, while Campenhausen claims that Montanism is the “crisis” which called “a halt to the uncontrolled growth of the New Testament.” This is probably an overstatement, but certainly Montanism should be seen as having a limiting effect in general on what was perceived as authoritative Scripture. Ferguson probably phrases it best: “The Montanist controversy brought to the surface a consciousness that the time of the revelation had ended and that there was a qualitative difference between the era of church’s origins and the present.”

Contrary to claims that the very concept of canon is anachronistic to the second century and that the issue of creating a normative collection of Scripture would not have been on the mind of the early church, the second century does seem to be a fitting time for the church to begin the necessary process of consolidating its normative texts, the core of which were always the words and deeds of Jesus. The rise of the four-Gospel canon in the second century should be seen in part as a balance between the tendency of some heretical groups to conservatively restrict their use to a single gospel and the tendency of others to produce or accept an overwhelming multiplicity of authoritative gospel literature. For Irenaeus, the single Gospel devotions of the Ebionites, Marcionites, Docetists, and Valentinians was both a proof of a distinctly canonical authority of the four Gospels and an inherent insufficiency in the heretics’ system, due to the ability of a single text to be manipulated for a group’s own ends. At the same time, the almost wanton inclination of Montanists and certain Gnostic groups to produce and accept a variety of scriptural literature necessitated a reevaluation of the church’s theology of authoritative prophecy and the place of contemporary literature.

The problem with the above understanding of the nature of canon controversy in the second century is that it is largely open to interpretation. There are as many distinct understandings as there are minds to try to understand the problem. Moreover, rather than simply subtle nuances on basic consensus, the freedom of interpretation has allowed for a growing sense that the second century may not even be the crucial period in canon development. Thankfully, with regard to the Gospels, the above understanding of the second century need not be entirely speculative. There are objective clues which tend toward a second century understanding of the development of the four-Gospel canon. Textual studies have illuminated the issue, particularly recently with a crucial new study of the Gospels undertaken by T. C. Skeat and picked up by Graham Stanton.

An early indication that the Gospels are considered Scriptural literature and thereby authoritative is the utilization by scribes of nomina sacra. The nomen sacrum—the system of abbreviations for sacred words—is a distinctive Christian device which appear in the earliest Gospel manuscripts and, if not fully developed then, is standardized very early. While several theories have been advanced for the peculiar Christian usage of these abbreviations, including connection to the Jewish reference for the divine name and foundation in a mystical “theology of the name,” a more convincing suggestion has been made. Harry Gamble proposes that the nomina sacra are actually indicative of a practical aspect of the documents in question, that is that they were transcribed by Christians for use by Christians in small community settings. The practical use in question can be more specifically narrowed to the reading of the manuscripts in worship. This understanding of the nomina sacra as indicative of liturgical use would seem to indicate an early view of the Gospel literature (which is among some of the earliest preserved) as normative scripture in the church appropriate for public reading in corporate worship.

More critical still are the studies undertaken by Skeat and Stanton with regard to the rise of the codex in early Christianity. Much like nomina sacra, the codex was largely a Christian phenomenon in the second century, and, again like the nomina sacra, no one has conclusively proven why this is. The key to the entire question is to better understand what uniquely Christian task the codex can perform that the scroll, which was preferred by the secular world, could not. Gamble suggests that this task was the collection of the letters of Paul into a single manuscript. Skeat, on the other hand, holds the view that the codex is best suited for containing a four-Gospel canon, the fact which caused its very early rise to prominence in the church. Since all Gospel manuscripts, in fact very nearly all biblical manuscripts, have been found to be from codices, this would make the date for the origin of the use of a four-Gospel canon necessarily concurrent with or antecedent to the rise of the codex, thereby pushing the date back to the turn of the second century. There is still, however, the small hurdle of having any evidence of early four-Gospel codices, a hurdle which Skeat would seem to overcome.

Until recently, it has been assumed that P45 represents the earliest evidence, probably from the first half of third century, for the compilation of the four Gospels into a single codex. Particularly in light of the proposed potential of P53 to be a four-Gospel codex, the textual evidence would seem to keep the date of the birth of four-Gospel codices in the third century. Skeat, however, finds a predecessor to these in P75, a single-quire codex containing Luke and John. He suggests that this is in fact the second half of a four-Gospel codex. A double-quire codex, that is a single quire codex of Matthew and Mark attached to a single-quire codex of Luke and John, would have been the necessary format for a four-Gospel codex of the period, since a single-quire codex of all four would have been extremely awkward to handle, if not impossible. If it is accepted then that P75 was originally a four-Gospel codex—and there is no reasonable explanation for why John and Luke would be circulating together in the absence of Matthew and Mark—then the earliest witness to the four Gospels circulating together could theoretically be as early as 200.

Yet Skeat proposes in a later, more comprehensive study, even earlier textual evidence for the circulation of the four Gospels together in a codex. His examination of P4, P64, and P 67 revealed that the three were actually one: “There can in my opinion be no doubt that all these fragments come from the same codex which was re-used as packing for the binding of the late third century codex of Philo.” P4 is a fragment from the early part of Luke and P64 and P 67 are a collection of small fragments from Matthew, thus making the original manuscript theoretically a Matthew/Luke text. Skeat demonstrates through an examination and explanation of the steady, deliberate reduction of script size throughout the fragments, that these manuscripts likely formed a single-quire codex. From a recognition that this is a single codex like P75, the argument proceeds in much the same manner as it had with P75 concluding with the strong assertion that there is now proof that the four-Gospel codex has ancestors which reach well back into the second century. This fact is further strengthened by the observations of Stanton about the high quality of the P4,64,67 manuscript. He argues that the arrangement of the text, evident planning, and meticulous execution “indicate a most handsome edition of the four gospels which…does not look at all like an experiment by a scribe working out ways to include four gospels in one codex: it certainly had predecessors much earlier in the second century.”

Having shown that the second century most certainly lends itself to the development of a four-Gospel canon and that textual evidence gives strong indication that four-Gospel codices were circulated in the early church for liturgical purposes, it is important now to turn to the evidence presented in the patristic literature. The four-Gospel canon finds stronger evidence in the second century fathers than does any other sub-canonical group. This should be seen in large part as a result of the largely gospel oriented controversies already noted.

The earliest clear evidence of a plurality of gospels being used is in Justin Martyr around the middle of the second century. The precise nature of Justin’s gospel material is often disputed. There have been a multitude of suggestions: that he used a variety of canonical and non-canonical gospel material, that he was in fact utilizing a single harmony, or that he used some smaller selection of canonical literature. It is certain that Justin did know and use other gospel material other than what he calls the “memoirs of the apostles,” however, the use of other such material should not be seen as proof that Justin did not have or had a low view of the canonical Gospels. Quite the contrary, Justin is the first record we have of the Gospels being used liturgically on the same level with, and possibly in place of, the Old Testament Scriptures. Furthermore, he gives us fairly clear indication that he knows all four Gospels. It is broadly accepted that Justin knew at least Matthew and Luke. Justin gives indication that he knows a memoir of Peter, which from the context, is likely Mark (Dialogue, 106). The debate about whether or not Justin knew the fourth Gospel is much more difficult, but Ferguson convincingly argues that the particular terminology used (namely the Word and only-begotten designations) is compelling. Additionally, Brooke Foss Westcott proposed that some of the readings that appear to be taken from other sources are actually variant readings of John synthesized with the period baptismal formula.

Probably the most important statement from Justin comes in his anti-Gnostic exposition of Psalm 22. Here he made what is an important statement, which is often overshadowed in the discussion of the four-Gospel canon by Irenaeus. “For in the memoirs which I say were drawn up by His apostles and those who followed them…” (Dialogue, 103). Stanton and others have noted here something that should be fairly obvious, namely that this two group formula assumes a bare minimum of four distinct written gospels, two of which must be written by apostles and two of which must be written by so-called apostolic men. That this so perfectly fits the four-Gospel canon admittedly may be coincidental, but is not for this any less thought-provoking. This passage, coupled with the indication that Justin knew all four canonical Gospels, that they were used as Scripture in the church, and that four-Gospel codices were likely to have been in circulation at this time, lead Stanton to believe, not unreasonably, that Justin likely had a four-Gospel codex at his catechetical school around 150.

Certainly one of the most important, if not the most important, patristic text with regard to the development of a four-Gospel canon is Irenaeus’ theological defense of canon in Against Heresies III.11. Here, Irenaeus draws a comparison between the four winds, the four zones of the earth, the four creatures from Ezekiel and the Apocalypse of John, four pillars of support for the church, and the fourfold Gospel. This is important because, as Campenhausen points out, Irenaeus “appeals to the New Testament documents authority by name, defends their authenticity, and asserts that they are normative.” It is more recently and widely suggested that the very fact that Irenaeus makes a defense of the four-Gospel canon is proof positive that it was not yet established. This view, for whatever reason, seems to presuppose that Irenaeus is directing this argument against other members of “orthodox” churches who are rejecting the four-Gospel canon. Quite the opposite, Irenaeus’ statements are a reiteration of what is already established as a defense against current and rising heresies. The very purpose of his work was, after all, to be a criticism of second century heresies and a defense of the “orthodox” faith against such heresies. He had a consistent and vested interest in presenting only those views which were uniform in the church, something he was uniquely positioned to do having experienced Christianity in Asian Minor, Rome, and Gaul over the course of his life.

While Irenaeus constitutes the most important second century witness, his testimony would be significantly less useful if it stood alone. Luckily, others flourishing soon after him, both in the West and the East, also seem to testify to the strength of the four-Gospel canon at the end of the second century. Tertullian, in his treatise against Marcion’s heresy, gives us an important indication for the strength of the four-Gospel canon in North Africa, particularly that they are apostolic in contrast to all others. “We lay it down as our first position, that the evangelical Testament has apostles for its authors, to whom was assigned by the Lord Himself this office of publishing the gospel” (Against Marcion, IV.2). He then proceeds to name the four by name: “Of the apostles, therefore, John and Matthew first instill faith into us; whilst of apostolic men, Luke and Mark renew it afterwards” an affirmation which will be repeated three chapters later.

While Tertullian testifies for the West, Clement and Serapion of Antioch witness to the canon in the East. Serapion of Antioch, who flourished at the turn of the third century, is recorded by Eusebius to have dealt with a controversy arising over the reading of a “so-called Gospel of Peter” (Church History, VI.12.1). Serapion declared this new gospel to be false because it lacked the antiquity and consistency of doctrine that the four canonical Gospels, against which he judged the new gospel. Clement too, accepts the four-Gospel canon and, while making use of extra-canonical literature, does not consider other gospels to be authoritative or in any way on par with the canonical Gospels.

When viewed together, the picture which is painted by the evidence seems clear. The second century was a time of immense turmoil for the church. The rise of various heterodox groups—each making use of its own Gospel or making use of a multiplicity of Gospels indiscriminately—created a milieu fertile for the development of a four-Gospel canon. Evidence of such authoritative four-Gospel collections comes to us textually in the form of four-Gospel codices intended for liturgical use which may reasonably be assumed to have existed as early as the middle of the second century. In addition to this, the church fathers of the late second century seem to give a uniform testimony as to what gospel literature the church accepted as canonical and which it rejected. Beginning some time prior to the middle of the second century, since the process was already underway by the time of Justin, the four canonical Gospels had begun to make the transition from a fluid group of individually authoritative texts to an inviolable collection understood to be a single work, the fourfold Gospel, a point which they had reached by the close of the second century.
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