The Four Gospels

Christian tradition has long connected the authors of the four canonical Gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke, John) with the four “living creatures” that surround God’s throne, as described in Rev 4:7, in the following pairs:

Matthew = Human/Angel Mark = Lion Luke = Ox John = Eagle


New Testament (Bible Reading Marathon, Day 525


New Testament

Testament come from testamentum , the word by which the Latin ecclesiastical writers translated the Greek diatheke
. With the profane authors this latter term means always, one passage of Aristophanes perhaps excepted, the legal disposition a man makes of his goods for after his death. However, at an early date, the Alexandrian translators of
the Scripture, known as the Septuagint, employed the word as the equivalent of the Hebrew berith , which means a pact, an alliance, more especially the alliance of Yahweh with Israel. In St. Paul ( 1 Corinthians 11:25 ) Jesus Christ uses the words “new testament” as meaning the alliance established by Himself between God and the world, and this is called “new” as opposed to that of which Moses was the mediator. Later on, the name of testament was given to the collection of sacred texts containing the history and the doctrine of the two alliances; here again and for the same reason we meet the distinction between the Old and New Testaments. In this meaning the expression Old
Testament ( he palaia diatheke ) is found for the first time in Melito of Sardis, towards the year 170. There are reasons for thinking that at this date the corresponding word “testamentum” was already in use amongst the Latins.
In any case it was common in the time of Tertullian.

The New Testament, as usually received in the Christian Churches, is made up of twenty-seven different books attributed to eight different authors, six of whom are numbered among the Apostles (Matthew, John, Paul, James,
Peter, Jude) and two among their immediate disciples (Mark, Luke). If we consider only the contents and the literary form of these writings they may be divided into historical books (Gospels and Acts ), didactic books (Epistles), a prophetical book (Apocalypse). Before the name of the New Testament had come into use the writers of the latter
half of the second century used to say “Gospel and Apostolic writings” or simply “the Gospel and the Apostle “,
meaning the Apostle St. Paul. The Gospels are subdivided into two groups, those which are commonly called synoptic (Matthew, Mark, Luke), because their narratives are parallel, and the fourth Gospel (that of St. John), which to a certain extent completes the first three. They relate to the life and personal teaching of Jesus Christ. The Acts of
the Apostles , as is sufficiently indicated by the title, relates the preaching and the labours of the Apostles. It narrates the foundation of the Churches of Palestine and Syria only; in it mention is made of Peter, John, James, Paul, and Barnabas; afterwards, the author devotes sixteen chapters out of the twenty-eight to the missions of St. Paul to the
Greco-Romans. There are thirteen Epistles of St. Paul , and perhaps fourteen, if, with the Council of Trent, we consider him the author of the Epistle to the Hebrews . They are, with the exception of this last-mentioned, addressed to particular Churches (Rom.; I, II Cor.; Gal.; Ephes.; Philip.; Colos.; I, II Thess.) or to individuals (I, II Tim.;
Tit.; Philem.). The seven Epistles that follow (James; I, II Peter; I, II, III John; Jude) are called “Catholic”, because most of them are addressed to the faithful in general. The Apocalypse addressed to the seven Churches of Asia Minor
(Ephesus, Smyrna, Pergamus, Thyatira, Sardis, Philadelphia, Laodicea ) resembles in some ways a collective letter. It contains a vision which St. John had at Patmos concerning the interior state of the above-mentioned communities, the struggle of the Church with pagan Rome, and the final destiny of the New Jerusalem.

The New Testament was not written all at once. The books that compose it appeared one after another in the space of fifty years, i.e. in the second half of the first century. Written in different and distant countries and addressed to
particular Churches, they took some time to spread throughout the whole of Christendom, and a much longer time to become accepted. The unification of the canon was not accomplished without much controversy (see CANON
OF THE HOLY SCRIPTURES). Still it can be said that from the third century, or perhaps earlier, the existence of all the books that today form our New Testament was everywhere known, although they were not all universally admitted, at least as certainly canonical. However, uniformity existed in the West from the fourth century. The East had to await the seventh century to see an end to all doubts on the subject. In early times the questions of canonicity and authenticity were not discussed separately and independently of each other, the latter being readily brought forward as a reason for the former; but in the fourth century, the canonicity was held, especially by St. Jerome, on account of ecclesiastical prescription and, by the fact, the authenticity of the contested books became of minor importance. We have to come down to the sixteenth century to hear the question repeated, whether the Epistle to the Hebrews was written by St. Paul, or the Epistles called Catholic were in reality composed by the Apostles whose names they bear. Some Humanists, as Erasmus and Cardinal Cajetan, revived the objections mentioned by St. Jerome, and which are based on the style of these writings. To this Luther added the inadmissibility of the doctrine, as regards the Epistle of St. James. However, it was practically the Lutherans alone who sought to diminish the traditional Canon, which the Council of Trent was to define in 1546.

It was reserved to modern times, especially to our own days, to dispute and deny the truth of the opinion received from the ancients concerning the origin of the books of the New Testament. This doubt and the negation regarding the authors had their primary cause in the religious incredulity of the eighteenth century. These witnesses to the truth
of a religion no longer believed were inconvenient, if it was true that they had seen and heard what they related. Little time was needed to find, in analyzing them, indications of a later origin. The conclusions of the Tübingen school, which brought down to the second century, the compositions of all the New Testament except four Epistles of St. Paul (Rom.; Gal.; I, II Cor.), was very common thirty or forty years ago, in so-called critical circles (see Dict. apolog. de la foi catholique, I, 771-6). When the crisis of militant incredulity had passed, the problem of the New Testament began to be examined more calmly, and especially more methodically. From the critical studies of the past half century we may draw the following conclusion, which is now in its general outlines admitted by all: It was a mistake to have attributed the origin of Christian literature to a later date ; these texts, on the whole, date back to the second half of the first century; consequently they are the work of a generation that counted a good number of direct witnesses of the life of Jesus Christ. From stage to stage, from Strauss to Renan, from Renan to Reuss, Weizsäcker, Holtzmann, J¨licher, Weiss, and from these to Zahn, Harnack, criticism has just retraced its steps over the distance it had so inconsiderately covered under the guidance of Christian Baur. To-day it is admitted that the first Gospels were written about the year 70. The Acts can hardly be said to be later; Harnack even thinks they were composed nearer to the year 60 than to the year 70. The Epistles of St. Paul remain beyond all dispute, except those to the Ephesians and to the Hebrews, and the pastoral Epistles, about which doubts still exist. In like manner there are many who contest the Catholic Epistles ; but even if the Second Epistle of Peter is delayed till towards the year 120 or 130, the Epistle of St. James is put by several at the very beginning of Christian literature, between the years 40 and 50, the earliest Epistles of St. Paul about 52 till 58.

At present the brunt of the battle rages around the writings called Johannine (the fourth Gospel , the three Epistles of John , and the Apocalypse ). Were these texts written by the Apostle John, son of Zebedee, or by John the presbyter of Ephesus whom Papias mentions? There is nothing to oblige us to endorse the conclusions of radical criticisms on this subject. On the contrary, the strong testimony of tradition attributes these writings to the Apostle St. John, nor is it weakened at all by internal criteria, provided we do not lose sight of the character of the fourth Gospel
–called by Clement of Alexandria “a spiritual gospel “, as compared with the three others, which he styled “corporal”. Theologically, we must take into consideration some modern ecclesiastical documents ( Decree,
“Lamentabili”, prop. 17, 18, and the answer of the Roman Commission for Biblical Questions, 29 May, 1907).
These decisions uphold the Johannine and Apostolic origin of the fourth Gospel . Whatever may be the issue of these controversies, a Catholic will be, and that in virtue of his principles, in exceptionally favourable circumstances for accepting the just exigencies of criticism. If it be ever established that II Peter belongs to a kind of literature then common, namely the pseudepigraph, its canonicity will not on that account be compromised. Inspiration and authenticity are distinct and even separable, when no dogmatic question is involved in their union.

The question of the origin of the New Testament includes yet another literary problem, concerning the Gospels especially. Are these writings independent of one another? If one of the Evangelists did utilize the work of his predecessors how are we to suppose it happened? Was it Matthew who used Mark or vice versa? After thirty years of constant study, the question has been answered only by conjectures. Amongst these must be included the documentary theory itself, even in the form in which it is now commonly admitted, that of the “two sources”. The starting-point of this theory, namely the priority of Mark and the use made of him by Matthew and Luke, although it
has become a dogma in criticism for many, cannot be said to be more than a hypothesis. However disconcerting this may be, it is none the less true. None of the proposed solutions has been approved of by all scholars who are
really competent in the matter, because all these solutions, while answering some of the difficulties, leave almost as many unanswered. If then we must be content with hypothesis, we ought at least to prefer the most satisfactory. The analysis of the text seems to agree fairly well with the hypothesis of two sources–Mark and Q. (i.e. Quelle, the non- Marcan document); but a conservative critic will adopt it only in so far as it is not incompatible with such data of tradition concerning the origin of the Gospels as are certain or worthy of respect.

These data may be resumed a follows.

The Gospels are really the work of those to whom they have been always attributed, although this attribution may perhaps be explained by a more or less mediate authorship. Thus, the Apostle St. Matthew, having written in Aramaic, did not himself put into Greek the canonical Gospel which has come down to us under his name.
However, the fact of his being considered the author of this Gospel necessarily supposes that between the original Aramaic and the Greek text there is, at least, a substantial conformity. The original text of St. Matthew is certainly prior
to the ruin of Jerusalem, there are even reasons for dating it earlier than the Epistles of St. Paul and consequently about the year 50. We know nothing definite of the date of its being rendered into Greek.
Everything seems to indicate the date of the composition of St. Mark as about the time of St. Peter’s death, consequently between 60 and 70.
St. Luke tells us expressly that before him “many took in hand to set forth in order” the Gospel. What then was the date of his own work? About the year 70. It is to be remembered that we must not expect from the ancients the
precision of our modern chronology.
The Johannine writings belong to the end of the first century, from the year 90 to 100 (approximately); except
perhaps the Apocalypse, which some modern critics date from about the end of the reign of Nero, A.D. 68 (see