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§ 3. Why does the New Testament contain Four Gospels and not One only?

The original title of the Gospels in the Canon had the following form:

The Gospel { according to Matthew
according to Mark.
according to Luke.
according to John.

So run the most ancient authorities (the word Gospel is not repeated). Casual reflection tells us that titles so completely similar and at the same time so imperfect cannot proceed from the authors themselves. We must conclude that these titles, like the title Πράξεις τῶν ἀποστόλων, have been added at a later date. Thus the original titles have been lost or rather have been deleted; for these works must have borne titles.


Yet we can trace these titles back to the middle of the second century. This fact and the similarity of their form make it certain that they proceed from the person who first brought together these four books and bound them in one. Consequently this did not happen (as in the case of the Acts) when the twofold New Testament took form, but at an earlier date.8989If it had happened shortly before the year A.D. 200 we may well conjecture that care would have been taken that in the titles St Mark should appear as the Gospel of Peter, St Luke as the Gospel of Paul.

In the Manuscripts the common title for all four Gospels is “The Gospel.” The compiler did not unintentionally not repeat the word “Gospel” in the title to each individual Gospel. They were intended in combination to present “The Gospel”; none of them had the right by itself to be called “The Gospel.” Still less might one speak of the Gospel “of Matthew,” etc; for the word Evangelium had its own self-evident genitive, “Jesu Christi.”

Nor, on the other hand, may we take these titles “according to Matthew,” etc., as if by them the compiler would imply that these books were not composed by Matthew, etc., but were only indirectly dependent upon these men. No one in antiquity understood the titles in this way. The matter becomes quite clear when we consider the titles of the apocryphal Gospels: The Gospel of Peter professes to be written by St 70Peter, for St Peter speaks in the first person, and yet this Gospel bears the title: “The Gospel according to Peter.” The titles Κατὰ Ματθαῖον, etc., mean “The Gospel according to Matthew’s own description,” etc., not “The Gospel according to Matthew’s tradition,” etc.9090There were also gospels called καθ᾽ Ἑβραίους and κατ᾽ Ἀιγυπτίους. Here κατά can only mean “according to the use of” or something similar. We do not know the origin of these terms. But it seems that they are connected with one another—that in Egypt the gospel used by Jewish Christians had the one name and the gospel used by Gentile Christians had the other.

The character and the similarity of the titles shows that the four books were intended to be regarded as one work in fourfold presentation. Irenæus so conceives it when he speaks of the “four-formed” Gospel,9191iii. 11. 8. and the view finds especially clear expression in the Muratorian Fragment, the author of which with circumstantiality, but most significantly, writes: “The third book of the Gospel according to Luke,” “The fourth book of the Gospel according to John.” The compiler of these four books thus judged them not as works important in the first place (or even at all) because of their authors, nor even as works each of which by itself fulfilled the object which each had in view—for then he would not have given us four of them—nor even as “Gospels” (as if there could have been several Gospels), but as books which together presented the Gospel. In them was contained all that 71could be known and was to be known about the Gospel.

This condition of things can be traced back for Asia Minor to the time of Irenæus’ earliest youth, i.e. to just before the middle of the second century. Irenæus has no conception that the written Gospel ever existed otherwise than in this form; indeed he ascribes its fourfold form to a Divine dispensation which answered to the dispensation of Nature, and which was already foreshadowed in the Old Testament.9292iii. 11. 8; iii. 1.

Nor is it by pure accident that through the testimony of Irenæus we are able to say that in Asia Minor this condition of things existed before the middle of the second century; for as I have shown in my Chronologie, i. S. 589 ff., 681-701, it is most probable that the compilation of our four Gospels took place in Asia Minor, and that from thence the εὐαγγέλιον τετράμορφον9393(Fourfold Gospel.) started on its victorious course in connection with the anti-Gnostic controversies, and in some few decades established itself in most of the provincial Churches.

We know that long before the middle of the second century, in fact, already at the time of John the Presbyter, there was much discussion concerning the Four Gospels, which were confronted and compared with one another, and that in these discussions John himself played an authoritative part. 72These discussions turned, in the first place, upon questions of completeness and the correct order of events in the respective Gospels, and also upon questions as to whether the authors were eye-witnesses, and whether in their works they had given a duly lofty expression to the nature of Christ.9494The evidence—all pointing to Asia Minor—is found in Papias, Clement of Alexandria, the Muratorian Fragment, Hippolytus—Epiphanius (Alogi), and Euseb., H.E., iii. 24. As usually happens in such controversies, some took up an exclusive standpoint and accepted only the Johannine Gospel or, on the other hand, only the Synoptic Gospels (or even only one of these?), alleging that the other Gospels had no authority, and even attempting to convict them of heresy. The result of these discussions and controversies was that neither the Synoptics nor “John” were dispensed with, but that they were all set together in one compilation in the way that has been above mentioned.9595This meant, whether it was intended or not, that chief prestige was assigned to the fourth Gospel; for this Gospel could, indeed, be rejected, but once accepted its superiority was therewith silently admitted. With this Gospel—and here I agree with Overbeck in the work quoted above—it was a case of “Thou shalt have none other gods but me.” We may at the same time allow that its author—like the Presbyter in regard to Mark—could respect the other Gospels as right worthy performances, and could even champion them from this point of view; but he certainly did not wish to see them at his aide. (Jülicher Einl.5, S. 465, says that St John did not mean to replace St Matthew and St Luke. Certainly, he had quite different aims in writing his book; but did he intend that his book should be placed side by side with those Gospels? And may it not be that the purpose to supplant them is not obvious in his work because it was assumed as a matter of course?). Again the third Gospel also was intended to be the Gospel, and Eusebius (who certainly knew Greek!) is surely right when he understands from the prologue that St Luke was not satisfied with his predecessors, and so not even with St Mark, and regarded their works as rather presumptuous (H.E., iii. 24, 15). Further, the formal style of the introduction to St Mark shows that the author meant this work to be the story, not one among many stories. Finally, both these Gospels, in spite of the high claims they make for themselves, do not anywhere show that they were intended for public reading; while St Matthew evidently was from the first so intended. I have no doubt that the two other Synoptic Gospels obtained the rank and dignity of works to be read in the Church, just because they were associated with St Matthew (vide my Neue Unters. zur Apostelgeschichte, 1911, S. 94). The compilation was thus evidently 73a compromise, not between Jewish and Gentile Christians—this controversy did not even come into consideration—but between usages and conflicting traditions in the chief Churches of Asia Minor, especially Ephesus, concerning Gospels to be read at public worship, traditions that originated in perhaps Achaia (St Luke), in Palestine (St Matthew), in Rome (St Mark), and in Asia Minor itself (St John).9696Just as we must in this connection completely disregard the earlier controversy between Jewish and Gentile Christians, so also we must reject the hypothesis that any one, except Marcion, ever noticed theological differences between the Synoptic Gospels. A controversy, however, certainly existed in Asia Minor between these and the Johannine Gospel as to whether they depended upon eye-witnesses, and concerning the correctness and theological content of their records. I would just remark that owing to the meeting together of several Gospels in one neighbourhood the Churches for a time were led to exercise a kind of historical criticism upon them (concerning such points as the completeness, the correctness of the 74order of events, the conception of the Person of Christ); and that, accordingly, for a few decades, the Church in Asia Minor adopted an attitude towards the Gospels which she never allowed herself to adopt in the following centuries.

The compromise took place under the sign of the Johannine Gospel. Those who would have this late book read in the Churches of Asia Minor carried their point against the “Alogi”; but as they were not able to abolish the earlier tradition in regard to public lection there arose the difficulty of a plurality of Gospels. If it had been a question of only two Gospels the difficulty would have been great enough, it could scarcely have been increased when it was a question of three or four. Indeed, we may conjecture that the situation created by the success of the fourth Gospel made it possible for all three Synoptics to remain as Gospel books of the Church side by side with the Johannine Gospel, instead of, perhaps, St Matthew only, or only St Mark and St Luke; and for existing usages, apart from that of the Johannine Gospel, to be tolerated rather than repressed.

But at the time that this fourfold work was compiled, did its author really mean it to be the last word, or was it to be regarded as only provisional? In my Reden und Aufsätzen (ii. S. 239 ff.) I have given some reasons for regarding the latter alternative as very probable. Jülicher (loc. 75cit.) is of contrary opinion, and asserts that “there was no more need that one should object to four Gospels than to thirteen Pauline Epistles, or to parallel accounts of incidents in Old Testament history. The differences were not felt, one only rejoiced at the confirmation which each new evangelist afforded to the other, and in the last resort one had recourse to the obvious theory that the later evangelist completed the record of the earlier. Naturally every small sect had its one Gospel; just as naturally in the Catholic Church spread over three continents different books for a time divided this prestige, and then settled down peacefully together.”

In my opinion these remarks of Jülicher do not reflect the feelings and circumstances of that period. Is it really true that at that period four Gospels must have been just as unobjectionable as thirteen Pauline Epistles?—to say nothing of the fact that, as is proved by the Muratorian Fragment, even the thirteen Pauline Epistles were not felt to be absolutely unobjectionable. It is surely of the essence of an authoritative history that it should be one and that its prestige should be felt to be in peril if other accounts are set side by side with it.9797The comparison with double accounts in the Old Testament does not hold good; for we do not know what difficulties they caused during the process of canonisation in the Synagogue. The Church here had no choice; she simply had to accept the Canon with its difficulties. Still more if this history was 76meant to be read regularly at public worship, alternative readings from other accounts must have led to serious misunderstandings. Jülicher’s comparison with “Epistles” is surely out of place. It was only the special address of the epistles that caused certain difficulties; apart from this there could have been as many epistles as there were psalms without causing any trouble. Neither is it true that no one took offence at the plurality of Gospels or felt the differences in their accounts. Did not the very author of the Muratorian Fragment write: “Licet varia singulis evangeliorum libris principia doceantur, nihil tamen differt credentium fidei, cum uno ac principali spiritu declarata sint in omnibus omnia de nativitate, de passione, de resurrectione, etc.”? This is said in opposition to objections which were founded on the plurality of Gospels in itself and on the differences in their accounts, among which differences one is emphasised as an especially important example! And is not the whole discussion of the question by Irenæus (iii. 11. 9) an apology for four Gospels in face of the natural demand for only one? He also is compelled to make play with the ἑνὶ τνεύματι συνεχόμενον9898(Held together by one Spirit.) against the τετράμορφον9999(Fourfold.) (a term which in itself only smooths over the actual difficulty)—an argument which could have given little real satisfaction; and following upon him and the 77author of the Muratorian Fragment constant attempts were made in the Church to force the troublesome plurality into an artificial unity. “The differences were not felt,” says Jülicher. Surely it is just the contrary: from the two different genealogies of Jesus to the accounts of His appearances after His Resurrection the differences in the Gospels were most acutely felt, and all kinds of attempts were made to harmonise them—think only of Julius Africanus for one! Nor can I find scarcely anywhere evidence that “one rejoiced at the confirmation that the new evangelist afforded to the other.” What “confirmation” was needed by an evangelist who had the name Matthew or Mark? Moreover, “the obvious theory that the later evangelist completed the account of the earlier,” described by Jülicher as a “last resort,” not only contradicted the very idea of a Canonical Gospel, but first made its appearance at a comparatively late date, and certainly did not give pure joy. Finally, I must dissent from the suggestion that “if every small sect had its one Gospel just as naturally in the Catholic Church spread over three continents, different books for a time divided this prestige and then settled down peacefully together.” Here the contrast between “small sect” and “Catholic Church” seems to be incorrectly drawn: on this point the needs of the Catholic Church could not have been other than 78those of the smallest sect. Moreover, all separated Christian communities (not only small sects) of which we have knowledge, except those that separated themselves from the Catholic Church after the creation of the Canon of four Gospels, had only one Gospel: for instance, the Jewish Christians in Palestine and Egypt, the early Gentile Christians of Egypt, the Marcionite Church throughout the world, the Gnostic Jewish Christians, and those Christians of Asia Minor that rejected the Synoptic Gospels. The plurality of the Gospels was a peculiarity unique in character of which, to judge from the earliest Christian writings that quote “the Gospel” or Gospel material (1 Clement, Didache, etc.), no one then had the slightest conception.

We are therefore quite justified in our inquiry whether the concession that four Gospels were suitable for public lection, made in Asia Minor after stress and controversy, was intended as a final solution of the problem. The Marcan Gospel and the collection of sayings (Q), the author of which was probably the Apostle St Matthew, were followed by our St Luke and St Matthew, which were really “harmonies.” In these two Gospels the two sources are worked up into single books without any regard to the dignity of their authors. Why should not the process have been continued to a further stage of unification, and the concession 79of four distinct Gospels have been regarded as only provisional? Even if we had no further information the question would not be superfluous; for it is suggested by the previous course of Gospel construction. But we are not without further information. It is true that the supposition, suggested by a series of indications, that so early a writer as Justin had recourse to a Gospel harmony in addition to the separate Gospels, cannot be regarded as sufficiently probable in spite of laborious attempts to prove it; but we know as a fact that Tatian composed a harmony of the four Gospels, and that in the East this work very soon obtained the widest circulation as “The Gospel.” Evidently Tatian composed this work not for private purposes but, as the result shows, in order to replace “the Gospels of the separated.” In these last days, von Soden, senior, and others with him, have asserted that this work must also have played an important rôle in the very early history of the Greco-Latin Churches, seeing that it has had an extraordinary influence upon the text of the Gospels in these Churches; but one can only say that this hypothesis still lacks confirmation. Still so much must be allowed—this book was not intended to be confined only to the Syrian Churches, it was meant to serve the Church as a whole, and in this intention it was not altogether unsuccessful. Again, we hear from St Jerome that Theophilus, 80Bishop of Antioch, also composed a Gospel Harmony (about A.D. 180).100100Ep. ad Algasiam (i. pp. 860 f. Valtarsi): “Theophilus, Antiochenæ ecolesiæ septimus post Petrum apostolum episcopus, qui quattuor evangelistarum in unum corpus dicta compingens ingenii sui nobis monumenta dimisit, etc.” Unfortunately we have no knowledge of its details; still we may conclude that Theophilus, like Tatian, felt that the arrangement of four Gospels was something that was only provisional.

What, then, hindered the process of combining the four Gospels into one, not only in Asia Minor, but also in the Greco-Latin Churches; so that in spite of all the disadvantages of plurality they still remained distinct? The answer does not seem difficult. Here also the interest was at work that asserted itself so powerfully everywhere in the Church soon after the beginning of the second century—the interest in testimony (vide supra, pp. 54 ff.). This interest—the interest in the Apostolic, in sure and certain tradition—surpassed all other interests and triumphed over all objections. To possess records given by such persons as Matthew and John must have been more important to the Churches in conflict with Gnosticism than any other consideration.101101In this sense one also spoke of the Διδαχὴ τοῦ κυρίου διὰ τῶν ιβ´ ἀποστόλων and of τῶν ἀποστόλων ὐμῶν ἐντολὴ τοῦ κυρίου καὶ οωτῆρος (2 Pet. iii. 2). We already see this in the case of Justin who, when he composed his apology, had already written at length against heretics. 81Naturally the Gospels are to him important in the first place because they tell of the Lord; yet they are to him almost as important, because they are “Memorabilia of the Apostles,” and we have every reason to suppose that Papias, a somewhat earlier contemporary of Justin, was of the same opinion; that with him, too, the apostolic names borne by the Gospels, declaring their apostolic origin, formed an instance of highest authority in the controversy with heretics concerning trustworthy knowledge of the person of Christ and of the evangelic history. Interest in testimony to tradition could not now allow the four Gospels to be combined into one; for then the names would have been lost, or at least left uncertain. Hence all efforts in the direction of a Diatessaron had no longer any chance of success; the Church was compelled to abide by the “four” and to see their unity, such as it was, in the spiritus principalis: The Gospel remained “tetramorphon” in the sense of “the separated.”102102Lietzmann agrees in this view (Wie wurden die B.B. der N.T. heilige Schrift? 1907, S. 67). In principle the same interest as that which led to the formation of the second part of the New Testament (the Apostolus), also perpetuated the collection of four Gospels, so that it never arrived at literary unity. In the name “Apostoli,” which the author of the Muratorian Fragment uses for the whole Canon, this interest finds sharp expression. 82Not only in the second division of the New Testament, but also in the fact that the Gospel is given in four books, we possess a lasting memorial of the Apostolic tradition that set itself on a level with the word and history of the Lord. This memorial was purchased at great cost, at the cost, indeed, of real sacrifice, for into the bargain came all the difficulties that four separate records must have created for public lection, for the instruction of catechumens, and for exegesis—difficulties which certainly at first must have appeared almost insurmountable.

The question set in the title of this paragraph is then to be answered as follows: The New Testament contains four Gospels and not only one, because at the beginning of the second century these four Gospels met together in Asia Minor (probably in Ephesus), and after controversy and conflict peaceably settled down together. From Asia Minor this arrangement passed to the other Churches.103103As an indication that St Matthew was as yet little known, or altogether unknown in Rome at the beginning of the second century, we have also a piece of external evidence, though it is not certainly altogether clear, vide the note of Eusebius (pseudo-Eusebius) preserved in Syriac concerning the star of the Magi (Nestle, “Marginalien u. Materialien,” S. 72; cf. my Chronologie, ii. S. 126): “In the second year of the coming of our Lord, under the consulate of Cæsar and Capito, in the month Kanun II., these Magi came from the East and worshipped our Lord. And in the year 430 (1st Oct. 118/9), in the reign of Hadrian, under the consulate of Severus and Fulgus [Fulvius] (A.D. 120), during the episcopate of Xystus, bishop of the city of Rome, this question arose among people who were acquainted with Holy Scripture, and through the efforts of great men in different places this story was sought for and found and written in the language of those who cared for it.” In the background lay the purpose to 83find some single form in which the Church might present what was contained in the four; but this purpose was very soon crossed by the perception that the four books as works of Matthew and John, of Mark and Luke, acquired in conflict with the false tradition of the Gnostics an importance immeasurable and irreplaceable. Therefore these apostolic works were allowed to remain separate in spite of all the difficulties which were there-by involved; and attempts like that of Tatian to bring the four into one—attempts which were in the line of previous development—found no acceptance in the Church.

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