A Historical Introduction to the Study of the Books of the New Testament

By George Salmon

Chapter 8




We have now traced back, as far as we had any materials, the history of the reception of the Gospels in the Church; and have found no sign that the existing tradition concerning their authorship has ever varied.1

One remark I must make as to what that tradition exactly was. Renan observes (p. xvi) that the formulae according to Matthew, according to Mark, &c., indicate that the earliest opinion was, not that these stories were written from one end to the other by Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, but only that they contain traditions emanating from these respective sources and guaranteed by their authority.2 But assuredly if that had been what was intended by the phrase according to, the second and third Gospels would have been known as the Gospel according to Peter, and the Gospel according to Paul. The account of Papias, that Mark did nothing but record narrations of Peter concerning our Lord, was received with general belief by the early Church.3 And it was just as generally believed that the third Gospel rested on the authority of St. Paul. Irenaeus, for instance, says (III. i.) Paul's follower, Luke, put in a book the Gospel preached by him. Some ancient interpreters even understand the phrase according to my Gospel, which occurs in the Pauline Epistles4 to refer to the Gospel according to St. Luke (Euseb., H. E. iii. 4). Clearly, then, if the phrase according to* had been understood to imply anything less than actual author ship, the Church would never have been content to designate these Gospels by the names of those who transmitted the tradition at second-hand, but would have named them more honourably after the great Apostles on whose authority they were believed to rest. It is plain, then, that the phrase the Gospel according to indicates only the Church's sense of the unity of the fourfold narrative, the same good tidings being contained in all, only presented differently by different hands.

Thus, though Justin Martyr uses the word Gospel in the plural number, speaking of the Memoirs that are called Gospels (see p. 65), and Irenaeus also speaks of four Gospels, and tries to prove that there could neither be more nor fewer, yet the use is quite as early of the word Gospel in the singular number to denote the entire record of the Saviour's life. Thus we find in Justin Martyr, the precepts in what is called the Gospel (Trypho, c. 10), it is written in the Gospel (c. 100). In the passage of Irenaeus to which I have just referred, though he does occasionally use the plural number, yet the singular prevails, and it would be more accurate to state his thesis as The Gospel is essentially four fold, rather than as There can be only four Gospels. And he habitually uses the form of citation as it is written in the Gospel,5 and so do other early writers. Clement of Alexandria speaks of the Law, the Prophets, and the Gospel (Strom, iii. 70; iv. 2, 91). Accordingly the earliest MSS. represent the Gospels not as four separate works, but as one work bearing the title Gospel, divided into four sections, according to Matthew, according to Mark, &c. These were, in short, but the forms in which four different Evangelists had committed the Gospel to writing.6 And so St. Augustine speaks of the four Gospels, or rather the four books of the one Gospel.7

The titles of the Gospels regarded in another point of view prove their own historic character. If they had been arbitrarily chosen, we may be sure that persons of greater distinction in the history of the Church would have been selected. Matthew is one of the least prominent of the Apostles, and the dignity of Apostleship is not even claimed for Mark and Luke. It would have been so easy to claim a more distinguished authorship for the Gospels, that we have the less right to refuse credence to what is actually claimed, namely, that the two Evangelists just named, though not Apostles, and possibly not even eyewitnesses themselves, were in immediate contact with Apostles and eyewitnesses.

It remains, then, to test this tradition by internal evidence. When we examine the Gospels with a critical eye, do we find reason to think that they cannot be so early as the date claimed for them, viz. the first age of the Church the age when Apostles and other eyewitnesses of our Saviour's ministry were still alive and accessible to the writers of these narratives? If we reflect for a moment we shall be convinced that in that early age there must have been Gospels: if not the Gospels we know, at least some other Gospels. Two things may be regarded as certain in the history of our religion: first, that it spread with extraordinary rapidity that within twenty or thirty years of our Lord's death the Gospel had travelled far outside the borders of Palestine, so that there were Christians in widely separated cities; and, secondly, that the main subject of the preaching of every missionary of the Church was Jesus Christ. Numerous pas sages will rise to your minds in which the work of these first missionaries is described as preaching Christ. St. Luke says of the Apostles at Jerusalem, Daily in the temple and in every house they ceased not to teach and preach Jesus Christ (Acts v. 42). When persecution scattered away the disciples from Jerusalem, St. Luke tells us of those who came to Antioch and spoke to the Grecians, preaching the Lord Jesus (Acts xi. 20). We preach not ourselves, says St. Paul (2 Cor. iv. 5), but Christ Jesus the Lord. What ever were the dissensions in the early Church, of which we now hear so much, they did not affect this point. Some, says St. Paul (Phil. i. 15), preach Christ even of envy and strife, and some also of goodwill; but every way, whether in pretence or in truth, Christ is preached. The zeal of the first disciples made every Christian a missionary into what ever town he went; and the work of the missionary was, as we have seen, to preach a person. Consequently the preacher must have been prepared to answer the questions, Who was this Jesus whom you preach? What did he do? What did he teach? And since the preachers could rarely answer these questions from their personal knowledge, it was a necessity for their work that they should be furnished with authentic answers resting on a higher authority than their own. We cannot doubt, then, that the first age of the Church must have had its Gospels, and the question is whether we are bound to reject the claim of these books of ours to have been, at least, among the number.

When I discussed the external evidences to the Gospels, I considered all four together; for my judgment is that, with respect to external evidence, there is no appreciable difference between them. But the internal characteristics of the fourth Gospel are so different from those of the other three, and the special objections made against it so numerous, that it will be necessary to consider this Gospel separately. I shall, there fore, now speak only of the first three, commonly called the Synoptic Gospels a title which is so well established that it is now too late to discuss its propriety.8

There is one class of passages in these Gospels on which the stamp of antiquity is impressed so deeply as to leave no room for dispute: I mean those which record discourses of our Lord. That the report of these discourses is substantially accurate no unprejudiced critic can doubt. Renan speaks of the naturalness, the ineffable truth, the matchless charm of the Synoptic discourses; their profoundly Hebrew turn; the analogies they present to the sayings of Jewish doctors of the same time; their perfect harmony with the scenery of Galilee (p. xxx). Elsewhere (p. xxxvii) he says, A kind of brilliancy at once mild and terrible, a divine force, underlines these words, if I may say so, detaches them from the context, and enables the critic easily to recognize them. The true words of Jesus, so to say, reveal themselves. When they are touched in this chaos of traditions of unequal authenticity we feel them vibrate. They come, we may say, spontaneously to take their places in our story, where they stand out in striking relief.

Indeed, I need hardly quote the testimony of Renan or of anybody else; for we have sufficient evidence of the substantial truthfulness of the Gospel report of our Lord's discourses in the fact that in all Christian literature there is nothing like them. If, instead of simply reporting these discourses, the first disciples had invented them, they could have invented something else of the same kind. Actually, it is a little surprising that the men who were so deeply impressed by our Lord's teaching, and who so fully imbibed the spirit of it, should never have attempted to imitate its form. In point of style, we travel into a new country when we pass from the Synoptic Gospels to the Apostolic Epistles. Those who heard our Lord's parables, and who could not fail to have been struck by their beauty, and by the force with which they brought to the mind the lessons they were meant to convey, never, as far as we know, used the same method of impressing any lessons of their own. Among early uninspired Christian writers there were several imitators of the Apostolic Epistles, but only one, Hermas, who attempted to imitate the parables, and that with such poor success that we need the less wonder that others did not try the experiment.

Thus we see, that if tradition had been silent, criticism would have told us the story that tradition now tells: There are things here which must either have been written down by men who heard Jesus of Nazareth speak, or else by men who faithfully transmitted the account given to them by the actual hearers. And we have every reason also to think that no great time could have elapsed before the recollections of our Lord's teaching were reduced to a permanent form. Certainly those who exclude miracle, and who look upon our Lord merely as an eminent teacher, cannot otherwise account for the substantial faithfulness of the evangelistic record of His discourses. A few detached aphorisms of a great teacher may be carried by the memory for some time, and be passed on from one to another; but discourses of the length we find in the Gospels would, in the ordinary course of things, have perished, if they had not been from the first either committed to writing, or, if committed to memory, kept alive by constant repetition. It is surprising how little of spoken words ordi nary memories are able to retain. I believe that anyone who has been much in the company of a distinguished man will, on his death, be astonished to find how extremely little in the way of reminiscences of his conversation he will be able to recall. If Boswell has been able to give a vivid representation of Dr. Johnson's Table-Talk, it is because he used to stand behind the chair of the object of his veneration, with note-book in hand. And it was in the same way that Luther's Table-Talk was preserved. It is quite true that some memories are exceptionally retentive, and true also that the words of Jesus were of surpassing interest. All however that follows from this is, that it is not necessary to conclude that our Lord's discourses were written down in His own lifetime: but it seems to me not rational to suppose that, if any long time had passed after the day of Pentecost before his discourses were reduced to a permanent form, they could have been preserved to us with so much faithfulness and so much purity.

Nor do I think that the case is altered when we look at the matter from a Christian point of view. We believe that the Apostles were aided by the Holy Spirit, who brought to their memories the things that Jesus had said. But we have no reason to think that this assistance was bestowed on such terms as to relieve them from the duty of taking ordinary precautions for the preservation of what was thus recalled to! their minds.

I hold it, then, to be certain that the existing Gospels contain elements which are, in the highest sense of the word, Apostolic; and the present question is, Are we to confine this character to that part of them which records our Lord's discourses? Are we to suppose that the Apostles carefully remembered and accurately reported what Jesus said, and that they neglected the easier task of recording what he did? or was this a point on which their hearers would not be curious for information? No one can answer this or any other historical question rightly who projects his own feelings into the minds of men who lived centuries ago. A nineteenth-century critic may be deeply impressed by the excellence and beauty of the moral teaching ascribed to Jesus of Nazareth. He very willingly grants that it would be in conceivable that four illiterate Jews should each independently arrive at a degree of wisdom far surpassing that obtained by any other of their nation; and so he may readily accept their own account of the matter, namely, that all had obtained their wisdom from one common source. But the modern critic does not care to hear of miracles; and he would, if possible, prefer to believe that one in other respects so admirable as Jesus had made no pretensions to supernatural power. But it is absurd to imagine that this was the frame of mind of the first disciples. Who can conceive of them as men only solicitous to hear what had been the words of Jesus, and indifferent to the report of His works? I have said that the first Christian missionaries summarized their work as preaching Christ. And if we look at the specimens of their teaching, whether as presented in the book of the Acts or in the unquestioned Apostolic Epistles, we see that this meant far less preaching what Christ had said than what He had done. The character in which He is presented is not that of a wise moral teacher, but of one anointed with the Holy Ghost and with power, who went about doing good, and healing all that were oppressed with the devil. Look at any of the places in the Epistles where the word Gospel is used, and you will see that preaching the Gospel meant telling the story of the life and death and resurrection of our Lord. It follows then (without taking into account the fact that many of our Lord's sayings would not have been intelligible without an explanation of the circumstances under which they were spoken) that we cannot reasonably believe that those who preserved a record of our Lord's words did not also relate something of His acts. In point of fact, our three Synoptic Gospels contain a common element, which includes deeds as well as words of Christ; and the only satisfactory account of this common element is, that it represents an apostolic tradition used by all three.

Later on I shall have to say a little as to the theories that have been framed to explain the mutual relations of the Synoptic Gospels: theories which propose to account as well for their substantial agreement as for their variations in detail. At present I am concerned with the coincidences between the three narratives which are altogether too numerous to be referred to chance. They agree in the main in their selection of facts all travelling over nearly the same ground; though independent narrators would be sure to have differed a good deal In their choice of subjects for narration out of a public life of three years. In point of fact we do find exactly such a difference between the life of our Lord as related by St. John and by the Synoptics. These last agree in the main in the order of their narrative; and in many cases they tell the story in almost identical words. If these coincidences of language only occurred in the report of our Lord's discourses, they would not afford much ground for remark; though even in that case, before we could assert the perfect independence of the reporters, we should have to inquire in what language our Lord spoke. If He spoke in Aramaic, different independent translators of His words into Greek would not be likely to coincide not only in words9 but in grammatical constructions. If we were to consider nothing more than the fact that in Aramaic there are but two tenses, and in Greek a great many, we see that the translator into Greek of an Aramaic sentence, even if he were left no choice as to the words he was to employ, would still have great liberty of choice as to the grammatical structure of his sentence. But although the greater number of coincidences naturally occur in the report of our Lord's discourses, which every narrator would be anxious to repeat in the very words in which they had been delivered to him; yet there are, besides, so many cases where, in the relation of incidents, the same words are employed by different Evangelists, that it would be a defiance of all probability to ascribe these coincidences to chance.10 Yet, with all these agreements, there is so much diversity, as to suggest the idea to orthodox and sceptical critics alike, that we have here recastings by three later hands of one original Gospel. The difference is just this, that while the orthodox critic makes the original Gospel proceed from apostolic lips or pen, and ascribes the recastings, if we may call them so, to men who were in immediate contact with the Apostles; sceptical critics place their original Gospel at about the same date that we assign to the present form of the Gospel; while to the latter they assign, with one consent, a date later than Papias; and many of them, owing to a blunder, of which I have already told you, place the death of Papias as late as A.D. 165.

I have already argued that the external tradition as to the authorship of a book, if well confirmed, is entitled to much respect, and is not liable to be displaced unless confuted by internal evidence. Now, the mere fact that criticism can discover in the Gospels traces of a still older original is no proof whatever that they are not of the antiquity that has been claimed for them. Give them that date, and there still remains room for an earlier original; while I hope to show you that there is not room for any later recasting. But I must first remark that the concessions which the later school of sceptical critics has been forced to make have evacuated the whole field in which critical science has a right to assert itself against tradition. We can well believe that there would be considerable differences between a document written in A.D. 60 and in 160; and, therefore, if the question were between two such dates, one who judged only by internal evidence might be justified in maintaining his opinion in opposition to external evidence. But now that all sober criticism has abandoned the extravagantly late dates which at one time were assigned to the Gospels, the difference between the contending parties becomes so small, that mere criticism cannot without affectation pretend to be competent to give a decision. Take, for example, the difference between an orthodox critic, who is willing to believe that the fourth Gospel was written by the Apostle John in extreme old age, towards the end of the first century, and a sceptical critic of the moderate school, who is willing to allow it to have been written early in the second century. It seems to me that this difference is smaller than criticism can reasonably pronounce upon. For I count it unreasonable to say that it is credible a book should have been written eighty years after our Lord's death, and incredible it should have been written only sixty; when we have scarcely any documentary evidence as to the history of the Church, or the progress of Christian thought during the interval. So I think that the gradual approaches which Baur's successors have been making to the traditional theory indicate that criticism will in the end find itself forced to acquiesce in the account of the origin of the Gospels which the Church has always received.

Let us examine, then, the Church account of the origin of the Gospels, and see whether there is anything in it which what we know of the history of the period gives us a right to pronounce improbable. Although there is no evidence that the existing Gospels have suffered material change since their first composition, or that our present Matthew and Mark differ from the original Matthew and Mark, of whom German writers speak so much; yet it is not asserted that these Gospels of ours had no predecessors. St. Luke tells us that he was not the first to write a Gospel; nay, that many before him had taken in hand to set forth in order a declara tion of the things most certainly believed among Christians. What, then, has become of these predecessors of our Gos pels? How is it that they have so utterly vanished out of existence?

That there are extant apocryphal Gospels you have doubt less heard. In another lecture I hope to give some account of them. Suffice it now to say, that none of them is imagined by critics of any school to be earlier than our four, because the shortest inspection of them shows that they presuppose and acknowledge the Canonical. Accordingly, when Tischendorf maintained that the present apocryphal Gospel of St. James was known to Justin Martyr, and that the Gospel of Nicodemus represents the Acts of Pilate, probably current in the second century, such a theory was loudly protested against by sceptical critics, because these documents presuppose respectively the Gospels of Matthew and John, which, therefore, must have been much earlier. The choice of subjects in the apocryphal Gospels is enough to show that they did not proceed from independent tradition. It is a conceivable thing that since our Lord, after He had become famous, had crowds of hearers about Him, others besides the Apostles might commit to writing their recollections of His words and deeds: so that if the apocryphal Gospels had purported to give an account of our Lord's public ministry, it might at least deserve an examination whether they do not perchance contain some genuine traditions. But that they proceeded from invention, not from tradition, is shown by the fact that they are silent on those parts of our Lord's life about which traditions might be expected to exist. They rather under take to fill up the gaps of the Gospel history, to tell us the history of Joseph and Mary previous to their marriage, or the events of the Saviour's infancy or childhood. No doubt, Christians would naturally be curious for information about these topics, and, finding the Gospels silent, might be pre pared to welcome some answer to their questions from anyone who professed to be able to give it. But nothing is more intrinsically improbable than that anyone should possess trustworthy information on such points as these who could add nothing to the Gospel history of the deeds and words of our Saviour after He became a public teacher.

Acknowledging, then, that no Gospel earlier than the Canonical is now extant, we have to ask, Did the Church formally select our four from the mass of evangelical tradition; and was it in consequence of the pre-eminence given to these by the force of authority that the others then disappeared? Not so: it is a remarkable fact that we have no early interference of Church authority in the making of a Canon; no Council discussed this subject; no formal decisions were made. The Canon seems to have shaped itself; and if, when we come further on, you are disposed to com plain of this because of the vagueness of the testimony of antiquity to one or two disputed books, let us remember that this non-interference of authority is a valuable topic of evidence to the genuineness of our Gospels; for it thus appears that it was owing to no adventitious authority, but by their own weight, that they crushed all rivals out of existence. Whence could they have had this weight except from its being known that the framers of these Gospels were men of superior authority to the others, or with access to fuller information?

Accept Luke's account of the matter as given in the pre face to his Gospel and in the Acts, and all is plain. He tells us at the beginning of the Acts that the qualification necessary in one to be added to the apostolic body was, that he should have companied with the Apostles all the time that our Lord went in and out among them, beginning from the baptism of John until the day that He was taken up. And although it is stated that the specific object of this was in order that the person chosen might give witness of the Resurrection; yet the qualification itself implies that it was the special function of an Apostle to bear witness to the whole public life of our Lord, from His baptism to His ascension. Even if it had not been the official duty of an Apostle to bear this testimony, who can suppose that the eager curiosity of Christians for authentic information concerning the early life of Him, on whom their whole faith was built, could leave unquestioned the men who had been His intimate companions; men, moreover, who had the promise of His Spirit to bring to their recollection the things that Jesus had said to them? It could not be, therefore, but that each Apostle would be frequently called on to repeat the story of the things which Jesus had said or done. Nothing would be more probable than that, on repetition he should tell the story nearly in the same way. Yet we cannot well suppose that the Apostle would at first give one continuous narrative, intended to embrace all that Jesus had said or done. He would be more likely, as Papias tells in the case of St. Peter, to give the ac counts of separate incidents, as the wants of his hearers made it expedient that this or that history should be related. Now, nothing would be more probable also, than that those who heard these sacred narratives, and desired, as every Christian would, to preserve the memory of them, should write down what they had heard; and the next step would be to frame such detached accounts into an orderly narrative. This is what I understand from Luke's Preface, that before him many had taken in hand to do; not to write from their own resources a life of Christ, but merely to arrange into an orderly story (ἀνατάξασθαι διήγησιν) the things which had been orally delivered to them by those who were from the beginning eyewitnesses and ministers of the Word. And this, which they had undertaken to do, Luke, who claims to be possessor of more complete and accurate knowledge, also undertakes to do (γράψαι καθεξῆς), that so Theophilus might have certain knowledge of the things in which he had been instructed.

It is easy to conceive that when Luke had performed his task, his work was recognized as so much more full, and so much more trustworthy than most previous arrangements of the apostolic traditions, that no one tried to preserve these abortive attempts. Similarly, if Matthew's Gospel and Mark's were written by the persons to whom we ascribe them, we can understand how they at once superseded attempts to supply the same want made by men of less estimation in the Church. But all the facts lead us to the conclusion that these Gospels, which have absorbed all other attempts to commit our Lord's teaching to writing, must have been of so early a date, that no previous Gospel had had time to gain an established reputation, and that they must have been written by men holding in the Church some position of distinction.

We may draw what I think is a strong proof of the antiquity of our Gospels from the absence of all authentic tradition as to the manner of their first publication. Such tradition would be very welcome if it could be had, and might help us to a solution of several difficulties. For instance, there are verses wanting from some early manuscripts of the Gospels which internal evidence strongly disposes us to pronounce genuine, and yet which we find it hard to conceive that any transcriber would leave out, who found them in the text he had to copy. So the idea suggests itself, Is it not possible that the Evangelist may have published more than one edition of his Gospel, so that each of the types of manuscript represents a genuine text; the shorter representing the first edition of the Gospel, the fuller representing the text as subsequently completed by genuine additions made by the Evangelist him self? But no tradition is early enough to throw any light on such a hypothesis, either in the way of confirmation or refutation. At the latter part of the second century, which is the first date from which Christian writings in any abundance have been preserved to us, it is evident no more was known on the subject than is known now. The publication of the Gospels dated from a time of then immemorial antiquity. There sprang up a belief that Matthew had published his Gospel in Palestine, Mark in Italy, Luke in Greece; and at a later period, John in Asia-Minor, by way of supplement to the previous histories. It is by no means incredible that the fact that we have three versions of our Lord's life, with so much in common, may have arisen from independent publication at different places at nearly the same time; but any tradition on the subject is too late for us to build much on it. If any traditions deserve respect they are those of Papias, who made it his business to collect them, and who was comparatively early in date; but even Papias is too late to give us much help in solving the difficulties which the question of the origin of the Gospels presents.

In the absence, then, of any contemporary testimony as to the manner of publication of the Gospels, or as to the existence of any form of them different from what we have now, we have tried to examine whether there is anything opposed to probability in what tradition does assert, namely, that the books were written either by Apostles or companions of the Apostles. We have seen that the admission of this author ship still leaves an interval between the first publication of the Gospel story and the existing record, quite long enough to afford room for explaining the phenomena which the actual texts present. The question with which we have now to deal is, Can we reasonably go later? How long could the Christian world manage to do without authoritative Gospels? I answer, Not long after the first outburst of missionary zeal, and the consequent foundation of Churches distant from Jerusalem. Remember what I said just now, that there was a time before the word Gospel denoted the name of a book: the Gospel then signified the subject of the preaching of every Christian missionary, and that was in two words Jesus Christ. It was because it told the story of Jesus Christ that the Book of Matthew, or John, or Mark, or Luke, came to be called the Gospel. We know from the first detailed account of the Christian weekly meetings for worship that given by Justin Martyr that the reading of the story of Jesus Christ was part of the stated business of these meetings. How early are we to date the origin of this practice? We have only our sense of historical probability to guide us. But take these five documents, which Baur does not question four Epistles of St. Paul, and the Apocalypse and gather from them what the early Church thought of Jesus Christ, and I feel you will be persuaded that to tell of Him must, from the first, have been the business of every Christian preacher. If a Church were presided over by Apostles or others who had first-hand knowledge of the facts, such presidents would be able to tell all that was necessary from their personal recollections, unassisted by any written record. But what would happen when the apostolic preachers who had founded a new Church went away? The first expedient, no doubt, would be to leave in charge of it a disciple who had been thoroughly trained and catechized, and so might be trusted to give the people the lessons of which they had need. But with the multiplication of Churches it would become more and more difficult to find persons possessing that long familiarity with the facts which would qualify them for this task.

It is indeed a point in which modern missions contrast with apostolic missions, that in our day the formation of a native ministry is of slow growth, and in most places where congregations have been gathered from the heathen, the majority of the teachers are furnished by the Church which sent forth the first missionaries. But in the apostolic days, soon after the first burst of missionary effort, and the preaching of the Gospel in foreign cities, we read of the Apostles ordaining Elders in every city How were these new Elders to be supplied with the knowledge their office required? The obvious remedy would be, that men who knew the story well should commit it to writing for the benefit of a new generation of teachers. Have we any cause to pronounce it unlikely that such a remedy should be adopted? We are not speaking of a pre-historic age like that of the composition of the Homeric poems, in the case of which it maybe deemed more probable that ballads should pass on from mouth to mouth, than that they should be preserved by the then unknown or unfamiliar art of writing. We have to do with a literary age. If we want to know what amount of literary culture was possessed by the first Christian Churches, we have, in Paul's unquestioned Epistles, specimens of the communications that passed between a Christian missionary and his converts. Can anyone read these letters and doubt that the first Christian teachers included men quite competent to commit their message to writing, and that the communities which they founded included men capable of appreciating and being grateful for such a service? If Matthew, Mark, and Luke wrote their Gospels at the time tradition says they did, they! only met a demand which must have been then pressing, and which, if they had not then satisfied it, somebody else must have attempted to supply.

Well, if we find reason to hold that Gospels were written by Apostles or their companions, is it consistent with probability to believe that they were subsequently changed from their original form? I have told you of Kenan's explanation of the original of the Gospels in the little books in which different simple Christians wrote down such stories as they had come across concerning the Saviour's life and teaching. To me it is the most amazing thing in the world that a man should write seven volumes about the Origins of Christianity, and not have become cognizant of the existence of the Christian Church. One of the most patent facts in the history of our religion is its organization: wherever there were Christians they formed a community; wherever a Church was founded it was provided with duly commissioned teachers. It was not the business of the individual Christian to compile a Gospel for himself; he was duly instructed in it by the recognized heads of the Christian community to which he belonged. I do not pretend that there was any decision of the universal Church on the subject. I well believe that the adoption of a definite form of evangelic instruction was regulated for each Church by its bishop, if you will permit me to call him so; or if any difficulty is raised as to the use of this word, I will say, by its presiding authority. But, on any view of this authority, its extension renders it incredible that the Gospels originated in the haphazard way which Renan describes.

When the choice of which I speak was once made, was it liable to be easily changed? I have spoken already of the blunder in historical inquiries of projecting our own feelings into the minds of men of former generations. This is what we are accused of doing here. We have been brought up from childhood to believe in the inspiration of these sacred narratives; wilfully to change a word of them seems to us sacrilege. But, it is said, we have no right to attribute any such feeling to the first disciples, whose sole anxiety was to know as much as possible of what Jesus had said or done, and to whom it would be a matter of comparative indifference whether or not they had the exact form in which Mark or Luke had recorded it. But people would at least be solicitous about the historic certainty of the things to which they were to give their faith. St. Luke tells his disciple his object in writing was ἵνα ἐπιγνὧς περὶ ὧν κατηχήθης λόγων τὴν ἀσφάλειαν. Without such ἀσφάλεια the Christian people could not be satisfied. Theophilus of Antioch, writing about A.D. 180, says: Writers ought either to have been eyewitnesses them selves of the things they assert, or at least have accurately learned them from those who had seen them. For those who write uncertain things do nothing but beat the air. The feeling here expressed is so natural that I cannot believe that those who were in possession of narratives, supposed to have been written by men of such rank in the Church as Matthew, Mark, and Luke, could allow them to be altered by inferior authority. Little do those who suppose such an alteration possible know of the conservatism of Christian hearers. St. Augustine, in a well-known story, tells us that, when a bishop, reading the chapter about Jonah's gourd, ventured to substitute St. Jerome's hedera for the established cucurbita, such a tumult was raised, that if the bishop had persevered he would have been left without a congregation.11 The feeling that resents such change is due to no later growth of Christian opinion. Try the experiment on any child of your acquaintance. Tell him a story that interests him; and when you next meet him tell him the story again, making variations in your recital, and see whether he will not detect the change, and be indignant at it. I do not believe, in short, that any Church would permit a change to be made in the form of evangelic instruction in which its members had been catechetically trained unless those who made the change were men of authority equal to their first instructors. Take the age in which the Apostles and apostolic men were going about as teachers; and with regard to that age I can believe in recastings and divers versions of the evangelic narrative, all commended to the Christian world by equal authority. But if a bishop of the age of Papias had presumed to innovate on the Gospel as it had been delivered by those which from the beginning were eyewitnesses and ministers of the Word, I venture to say that, like the bishop of whom Augustine tells, he would have been left without a congregation.  


1) The student who desires to see the evidence of the early use of the Gospels in fuller detail will find valuable assistance in Anger's Synopsis. It is an arrangement of the Evangelic text in the form of a harmony, and aims at giving in connexion with each passage any illustrative parallel to be found in writers earlier than Irenaeus.

2) I observe that Renan has struck this sentence out of his later editions, which, I suppose, is to be regarded as a confession that the argument it contained cannot be relied on.

3) See note, p. 93. Clement states (l. c.) that the tradition which had reached him was, that the Gospels containing the genealogies had been written first, and that Mark afterwards wrote his Gospel at Rome at the request of Peter's hearers, who desired to have a permanent record of the Gospel orally preached by that Apostle; Peter himself not interfering either to forbid or encourage the design.

4) Rom. ii. 16; xvi. 25; 2 Tim. ii. 8; see also 2 Thess. ii. 14.

5) For example: II. xxvi. 2; III. xxiii. 3; IV. xx. 6.

6) I take this to be what is intended in the account of Irenaeus (III. i.) Λουκᾶς τὸ ὑπ̓ ἐκείνου κηρυσσόμενον εὐαγγέλιον ἐν βιβλίῳ κατέθετοּ֗ ͘ἔπειτα Ἰωάννης καὶ αὐτὸς ἐξέδωκε τὸ εὐαγγέλιον ἐν Ἐφέσῳ διατρίβων.

7) Tract in Joan,, xxxvi. vol. ill. 543.

8) The idea is that these Gospels agree in giving one synopsis or general view of the same series of events.

9) As an example how likely independent translators are to differ in their choice of words, compare the following two translations given in the Authorized Version for the same Greek words: The scribes which love to go in long clothing, and love salutations in the market places and the chief seats in the Synagogues, and the uppermost rooms at feasts, which for a pretence make long prayers. St. Mark xii. 38. The scribes which desire to walk in long robes, and love greetings in the markets, and the highest seats in the Synagogues, and the chief rooms at feasts: which for a shew make long prayers. St. Luke xx. 46.

10) Here are two examples: His hand was restored, ̓ἀπεκατεστάθη ἡ χεὶρ αὐτοῦ (Mark iii. 5; Luke vi. 10: Matt. xii. 13); Let it out to husbandmen and went into a far country. ἐξέδοτο αὐτὸν γεωργοῖς καὶ ἀπεδήμησεν (Matt. xxi. 33; Mark xii. I; Luke xx. 9).

11) Augustine, Ep. 71, vol. ii., pp. 161, 179.