The Outer Evidence as to
the Authorship and Authority of the Gospels

Originally appeared in The Theosophical Review 28 (May 1901): 237-248.
by G. R. S. Mead

Turning next to the external evidence with regard to the authorship and authority of our four Gospels, the subject may be most conveniently treated under the two headings of statements and quotations or alleged quotations.

Neither in the genuine Pauline Letters, our earliest historic documents, nor in any other Epistle of the N.T., nor in the earliest extra-canonical documents attributed to Clemens Romanus and Barnabas, nor in the Didache, are written Gospels mentioned or implied. From the dedication of the Third Gospel, however, we learn, as we have already seen, that there were at that time "many" written Gospels current. Lk. further implies that their diversity "was calculated to obscure 'the certainty concerning the things wherein' the Christian catechumen was instructed"; he further implies that the apostles "delivered" these things, that is, presumably taught them orally, as distinguished from the "many" who wrote and were not apostles. That this was the actual state of affairs is strikingly confirmed by what we have said of the Marcionite movement, which arose about 140-150 A.D. There was at this time no historical certainty in the matter.

We now come to the statements of Papias, a bishop of Phrygian Hierapolis, in the first half of the second century, who wrote in Greek five books called "Exposition(s) of the Lord's Logia." As the statements of Papias are the earliest external evidence as to authorship, and as they are not by any means so confirmatory of later Church tradition as might be expected, they have been subjected to the most searching criticism; every single phrase has been microscopically dissected and the keywords interpreted in very various and contradictory fashions, according to the commentator's point of view.

With regard to the title of the treatise, "exegesis" may mean simply a "setting forth," though it may also include the idea of "interpretation." By "Logia" may be meant simply "Words of the Lord," or they may also include Acts of the Lord; and by "of the Lord," some contend, may be meant O.T. prophetical utterances only, and not the Words of Jesus.

With regard to these statements of Papias, it should be noted that they are quotations made by Eusebius (c. 325 A.D.), and that the acceptance of their accuracy depends upon our estimate of this Church Father's trustworthiness. This has been called into question on innumerable points by hosts of critics; Dr. Abbott, however, considers him "a most careful and conscientious writer." Papias's work itself has disappeared.

The passages which are supposed by Eusebius to refer to our Mk. and Mt. are as follows (in the translation of the Rev. V. H. Stanton, D.D., Ely Professor of Divinity in the University of Cambridge, the writer of the article "Gospels" in the new Dictionary of the Bible, for Dr. Abbott only gives the Greek text, with some critical remarks on its interpretation):

"Mark having become the interpreter of Peter, wrote down accurately—not, however, in order—as many as he remembered of the things either spoken or done by Christ. For he neither heard the Lord nor attended on Him, but afterwards, as I said, (attended on) Peter, who used to give his instructions according to what was required, but not as giving an orderly exposition of the Lord's Words. So that Mark made no mistake in writing down some things as he recalled them. For he paid heed to one point, namely, not to leave out any of the things he had heard, or to say anything false in regard to them."

The statement as to Matthew which Eusebius says was made by Papias, runs:

"Matthew, however, wrote the Logia in the Hebrew tongue, and every man interpreted them as he was able."

In the former passage, the translation "Mark made no mistake" is rightly rejected by Dr. Abbott; it can only mean "committed no fault "—that is to say "Papias is defending Mark against the very natural objection that he did not do the apostle justice in writing down oral and casual teaching" in a permanent form.

Now as Eusebius promises to record all that ecclesiastical writers have said about the canonical Scriptures, Papias in all probability said nothing about Lk. and Jn. Did Papias, however, know of these Gospels? This must ever remain a mere question of opinion; and not only so, but the assumption by Eusebius that Papias refers to our Mk. and Mt. is equally a mere question of opinion, for it is denied by many, for many reasons, and especially on the ground that our Mk. does set things down "in order," though perhaps not in chronological order, and that Mt. is not a translation but a compilation and partly based on the "embedded" document in Mk.

Dr. Abbott, however, merely comes to the moderate conclusion that " Lk. and Jn. were not recognised by Papias as on a level with Mk. and Mt."

In any case the question of the date of Papias becomes one of prime importance. Now the only important evidence bearing on this subject is a quotation from Eusebius, who, in rejecting the opinion of Irenaeus (at the end of the second century) that Papias was a "hearer of John" the apostle, quotes from the preface of Papias.

Dr. Abbott gives the text only, but Professor Schmiedel, in his article on "John," gives the following translation (omitting certain intercalated words of a debatable nature):

"But as many things also as I once well learned from the mouths of the elders, and well committed to memory, I shall not hesitate to set down [or commit to writing] for thee, together with the interpretations [appropriate to them], guaranteeing their truth. For I took pleasure not, as the many do, in those who speak much, but in those that teach the things that are true; nor in those who bring to remembrance the foreign commandments, but in those who bring to remembrance the commandments that were given by the Lord to faith, and have come to us from the truth itself. But if anywhere anyone also should come who had companied with the elders I ascertained the sayings [or words] of the elders [as to this]—what Andrew or what Peter had said, or what Philip or what Thomas or James or what John or Matthew or any other of the disciples of the Lord [had said], and what Aristion and John the elder, the disciples of the Lord, say. For I supposed that the things [to be derived] from books were not of such profit to me as the things [derived] from the living and abiding utterance."

According to his own account, Papias is not only not proved to have been a "hearer" of John the apostle, but not even of Aristion or John the elder. The greatest puzzle is that contemporaries of Papias, Aristion and John the elder, are called "disciples of the Lord." This, as Lightfoot says, "involves a chronological difficulty," a difficulty so great that the only solution Dr. Abbott can suggest is to expunge the words as an interpolation. This is indeed a cutting of the Gordian knot, and will certainly never be accepted by those who see in these words a precious scrap of evidence as to the extended meaning of the term "disciples of the Lord," a term applied not only to those who personally knew Jesus in the flesh, but also to those who stood in some special relation to the Master after his death. And if this was the historical fact, as we hold, it follows not only that Aristion and John the elder were not contemporaries of Jesus, but also that the other "disciples" were also not all necessarily contemporaries.

The curious selection of the names of the disciples by Papias is explained by Dr. Abbott on the hypothesis that there were already in existence writings attributed to these names, writings which Papias did not believe to be really theirs.

This quotation from Papias, however, gives us little evidence as to his date, unless we assume the generally received view as to the meaning of "disciples of the Lord." On the contrary, we are told by Eusebius that Papias flourished in the time of Polycarp (died about 165). The general consensus of opinion, then, given by Dr. Stanton, assigns the probable date of Papias's work to about A.D. 140; but Dr. Abbott would make it about 115-130 A.D., while Professor Harnack gives it as 145-160 A.D. It is, however, important to notice that the whole enquiry has so far been based on the assumption that "disciples of the Lord" must mean nothing else than those who had known Jesus in the flesh, whereas we find in the Gnostic so-called Pistis Sophia treatise the "disciples" speaking to Jesus of "Paul our brother," who avowedly only knew the Master after the death of His body.

We next come to the writings of Justin Martyr (cir. 145-149). Justin constantly appeals to certain documents which he calls "Memoirs of the Apostles." On the word Memoirs Dr. Abbott writes: "There is a considerable probability that the word was in regular use to denote the Memoirs or Anecdotes about the apostles; first 'repeated' by their immediate interpreters or pupils; then committed to writing by some of them in the form of gospels; and lastly accepted by Justin as Memoirs written by the apostles about Christ."

As we have a number of quotations cited by Justin from these Memoirs, there has been a fierce war of criticism on the subject, the one side trying to prove Justin's acquaintance with our Gospels, the other denying it. Here, however, we are concerned with statements about these Gospels rather than with quotations, and it must be confessed that in spite of all his industry Dr. Abbott can deduce no satisfactorily clear statement. As to the miraculous conception and other such matters, however, Justin's view is "that Christ after his resurrection 'appeared to his apostles and disciples and taught them' everything relating to himself." This reminds us of the exceedingly important statement of Clemens Alexandrinus: "To James the Just and John and Peter was the Gnosis delivered by the Lord after the Resurrection. These delivered it to the rest of the apostles, and the rest to the Seventy"—thus preserving the tradition of the gradual development of the inner school from the original ordering into three, into one of twelve and subsequently into one of seventy, or, as we believe, by stages represented by 3, 7, 12 and 72.

We pass next to the famous Muratorian Fragment, a barbarous Latin translation of some earlier Greek text; its date is purely conjectural but it is generally assigned to about 170 A.D. This fragment presumably mentioned all four Gospels, for after a few concluding words relating to another book, it begins by speaking of "the third book of the Gospel—(the book) according to Luke."

Luke is here called a physician, is supposed to have been a follower of Paul, and is said to have written in his own name, and according to his own private judgment (ex opinione). As criticism (we shall see further on) has to reject this ascription of our third Gospel to Luke, the subordinate question which here arises is whether or not this statement was not born of conflict with the Marcionite claims, for Marcion asserted that his Gospel was based on the Gospel of Paul, while later Church Fathers asserted that it was a "mutilation" of our Lk. Marcion's Gospel apparently treated of the ministry only, beginning: "He went down to Capernaum."

The Muratorian account of the genesis of the Fourth Gospel is, however, far more explicit. This is said to have been written down by a certain John, who was "of the disciples." His "fellow-disciples and his bishops" had apparently urged him to write a Gospel, but John hesitated to accept the responsibility, and proposed that they should all fast together for three days, and tell one another if anything were revealed to them. On the same night it is revealed to Andrew, who is "of the apostles," that while all revised John should write down all things in his own name.

But our Jn. does not write in his own name. Setting this point, however, aside we are introduced to a circle of people who seek authority in visions! We have disciples, bishops, and an apostle gathered in conclave; and we may even conclude that John, so far from being the highest in rank (or surely he would be also honoured with the title of apostle), is doubtful of his own powers or of his authority to attempt so important an undertaking, and can only be persuaded to do so when the apostle of the company receives a direct revelation on the matter. We shall see the importance of this tradition in the sequel.

Passing next to Irenaeus (about 185 A.D.) we come to the first formulation of the generally received tradition as to the Four. Irenaeus would have it that John was the personal disciple of Jesus, and wrote his Gospel at Ephesus. Matthew published his Gospel in Hebrew "while Peter and Paul in Rome were preaching and founding the Church." Mark handed down in writing what Peter used to preach; Luke "set down in a book what Paul was in the habit of preaching." It is hardly necessary to add that it is just the statements of Irenaeus which modern scientific research calls into question; with regard to Mt. and Mk. Irenaeus evidently based himself on Papias.

There is little that will help us in Clement of Alexandria (cir. 195 A.D.) except the statement that the genealogies were written first, that is, before our Mt. and Lk.

He, however, hands on a version of the tradition as to John which removes the "stumbling-block" of the fuller and more naïve Muratorian account. For he says: "John, last of all, reflecting that the earthly aspect [lit., the bodily things] had been set forth in the Gospels, at the instigation of his pupils [or it may be his associates], by a special impulse of the spirit, composed a spiritual Gospel."

Clement carries on the Papias-tradition of the dependence of Mk. on the Petrine teaching, and so also does Origen.

And here our investigation of external statements as to origin can cease, for, as Dr. Abbott says: "Later writers have no further evidence, and can but exemplify the tendency of tradition, even among honest and able men, to exaggerate or to minimise, in the supposed interests of a good cause."

We next come to the important question of quotations which are supposed to prove the existence of our present four Gospels. First, with regard to quotations from books which were written prior to Justin (150 A.D.).

Paul in his Letters, the earliest historical documents of Christendom, quotes nothing that is found in our Gospels. One saying alone is found in Mt. and Lk., but this saying (as well as other sayings quoted by Paul but not found in our Gospels) is also found in an ancient document called the Didache. This absolutely astonishing fact has never received any satisfactory explanation. The hypothesis that Paul and the Didache probably used an antecedent tradition, does not help us to understand why the later Synoptists base themselves on a totally different collection or collections of the Logia.

Similarly, the Epistle of James, which is of an early, though uncertain date, "though permeated with doctrine similar to the Sermon on the Mount," contains "more and closer parallels" to the Didache and Barnabas. There is nothing to show any knowledge of our actual Gospels.

That, however, there may have been in circulation various collections of the public Sayings, differing considerably from one another, is quite credible. Dr. Abbott thinks the new-found Logia of Behnesa (Oxyrhynchus fragment) an example of such an early "manual"; after bringing forward some strong points in favour of their antiquity, he concludes that "these and many other considerations indicate that these Logia are genuine sayings of Jesus, ignored or suppressed because of the 'dangerous' tendency of some of them, and the obscurity of others."

Now, of the six decipherable Sayings which this scrap of the most ancient MS. of any Christian document known to us contains, only one is familiar to us from the Canonical Gospels, two contain new matter and important variants, and three are entirely new. The leaf we possess bears the number 18. So that if we reckon 8 Sayings to a leaf (two of the Sayings in our leaf being undecipherable), the collection must have contained at least 144 Sayings; and if the percentage of "new" Sayings to canonically known or partially known Sayings was as high as in the solitary leaf which has reached us, at least half of the Sayings-materials has been lost to us, and may have contained doctrines which would necessitate an entire revision of the general view of original Christian doctrine.

So again with regard to the Letter of Clement of Rome (about 95 A.D., though some place the date later, it being purely conjectural), the passage cited to prove acquaintance with our Mt. and Lk., when compared with Polycarp and Clement of Alexandria, "shows pretty conclusively that these writers had in mind some other tradition than that of the Synoptists."

The Didache, or Teaching of the Twelve Apostles, is a composite document of widely disputed date. It is generally assumed, however, that 80-110 are the termini. It consists of two parts, the "Two Ways," in which precepts of the Lord are inculcated, but no appeal is made to any "Words" or "Gospel." This part is considered by many to be taken from the Jewish teaching of the same name. The latter part appeals to both "Sayings" and a "Gospel." On this point Dr. Abbott flatly contradicts himself. First he says: "The 'Gospel' meant is probably Mt." But "so far as this little book is concerned, the 'Gospel' might consist of a version of the Sermon on the Mount and the Precepts to the Twelve. On the Second Advent, the writer mentions 'the Signs of Truth' with such apparent independence of Mt. as to make it doubtful whether, in the context, the resemblances to Mt. indicate quotations from Mt."

The Epistle of Barnabas, assigned by the very conservative Lightfoot to 70-79 A.D., but placed by others later, shows no acquaintance with the Canonical Gospels. The interesting point about this ancient Letter is that Barnabas, or whoever was the writer, "anticipates" Jn.

The fragment of The Great Apophasis, or Announcement, attributed to "Simon Magus," an early Gnostic document, and assigned by Lightfoot to the close of the first century, contains certain phrases which "make it probable that Jn. had Simon in view when he composed his Gospel." But this is the purest conjecture.

Ignatius, whose date is given as before 110 A.D., quotes a few short sentences found in our Mt. and once a phrase peculiar to Mk., but there is nothing to show that he quotes directly from our Mt. or Mk.; it is more probable that he is drawing from one or more of their "sources." Dr. Abbott, however, in this uncertainty, takes the conservative position.

The short Letter of Polycarp (which is given by Dr. Abbott the date 110 A.D., but which should certainly be dated far later) can hardly afford us any grounds of definite conjecture; but in so far as any conclusion can be drawn from it, Dr. Abbott is of opinion that Polycarp knew "the 'Gospel' of Mk. and Mt.," following the same tendency he has already manifested in the question of Ignatius.

With regard to the fragments of Papias the only quotation which can be adduced as bearing on the question, "leads to the inference that Papias is not quoting and misinterpreting Jn." as is claimed by conservative criticism, "but quoting and interpreting, in accordance with tradition, a Logion of which Jn. gives a different version." The Logion was probably originally derived from the Book of Enoch.

The fragments of the Gnostic doctor, Basilides (117-138 A.D.) afford us no evidence of his recognition of our Gospels as authoritative.

Marcion, about 140, as we have seen, rejected all other Gospels and adopted a Gospel-account in many things resembling our Lk. Dr. Abbott, supporting the later Tertullian's charge that Marcion falsified Lk. in favour of his anti-Jewish views, points out, as it has often been pointed out before, "that the omissions and alterations which he (Marcion) would have had to make in Jn. are trifling as compared with those he was forced to introduce into Lk." From this hypothesis Dr. Abbott concludes that "in 125-135 A.D.," the date he assigns to Marcion's Gospel, though this seems to us somewhat too early, "Lk. had come into prominence as a recognised Gospel in Marcion's region, but that Jn. was not yet equally prominent." It is, however, very evident that we are here in the full ocean of hypothesis and conjecture, and can set our feet on no rock of proved historical fact.

From the few acknowledged fragments of Valentinus, the successor of Basilides, we have nothing to show that he recognised our Gospels. This brings us to the middle of the second century, and presumably all but the absolutely irreconcilables will acknowledge the existence of our Gospels after that date.

We have seen above the leanings of Dr. Abbott in one or two particulars to the conservative position; it is, therefore, somewhat surprising to find him summing up the quotation evidence before Justin in the following manner: "Thus up to the middle of the second century, though there are traces of Johannine thought and tradition, and immature approximations to the Johannine Logos-Doctrine, yet in some writers (e.g., Barnabas and Simon), we find rather what Jn. develops, or what Jn. attacks, than anything which imitates Jn., and in others (e.g., Polycarp, Ignatius, and Papias) mere war cries of the time, or phrases of a Logos-doctrine still in flux, or apocalyptic traditions of which Jn. gives a more spiritual and perhaps a truer version. There is nothing to prove, or even suggest, that Jn. was recognised as a gospel. Many of these writers, however, are known to us by extracts so short and slight that inference from them is very unsafe."

But in all this summary no reference to Mk., Mt., or Lk.! Why this omission, when it is just the date of the Synoptic writings which are generally considered of the greater importance in this enquiry?

Passing to Justin Martyr; the evidence as to quotations found in his writings (145-149 A.D.) is especially valuable owing to its greater richness. Dr. Abbott concludes that Justin knew the Synoptic writings but not Jn. But the knowledge by Justin of the Synoptics has been hotly contested both because of the great freedom with which Justin treats the alleged quotations, and also because of several statements he makes on important points which prove conclusively that Justin used other accounts of the nativity and baptism than those in Mt. and Lk. The wide variation also of Justin's quotations from the present text of the Synoptics shows either quotations from memory, or that the original text of the first three Gospels differed very greatly from our present text.

It is, however, difficult to believe that Justin did not know our gospels, for his pupil Tatian (150-180 A.D.) not only knew all of them, but composed a Harmony of the Four, placing Jn. on the same level with the rest. It may be that Justin would have nothing to do with Jn. because of its mystical nature, for Justin was a great literalist.

Reviewing then the evidence adduced from quotations or alleged quotations, we may conclude with very great safety that all our four Gospels were in circulation after 150. Prior to that date, however, we find nothing to prove the acceptance of Jn., and with regard to the date of the Synoptists we see that the question is very debatable, and that up to at least 110 A.D., there is absolutely nothing to prove their existence. The apparently inferior authority of Lk. also rests on such slender evidence that to our mind it is not made out, and therefore its later date than our Mt. and Mk. not established.

The non-recognition of Jn., however, seems to be governed by doctrinal considerations rather than by lateness of composition. And the conflicting views of critics as to the dates of the Synoptics based on the testimony of quotations are chiefly owing to the want of accurate distinction between what would prove the existence of our actual compilations, and what simply points to the existence of one or more of their "sources."

We will next review the present position of the Synoptical problem as set forth by Professor Schmiedel.