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The Gospels are Finally Named! Irenaeus of Lyons.

In the previous post we saw that the Gospels almost certainly circulated anonymously at first, just as they were composed anonymously.  It is an interesting question why the authors all chose to remain anonymous instead of indicating who they were.  I have a theory about that, and I may post on it eventually when I get through a bit more of this thread on why the Gospels ended up with the names they did.  At this stage, what we can say with certainty is that the Gospels are quoted in the early and mid-second centuries by proto-orthodox Christian authors, who never identify them as Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John.

That is especially significant when we come to Justin around 150-60 CE, who explicitly quotes these books as “Memoirs of the Apostles,” but does not tell us which apostles they are to be associated with.   This is in Rome, the capital of the Empire, and the seat of what was probably the largest, and certainly the most influential, church at the time.

Some thirty years after Justin, another proto-orthodox church father, Irenaeus, does identify the Gospels by name.   He is the first to do so.  And he too is associated with Rome.

Irenaeus is best known as a leading heresiologist.  His five-volume work, “Against the Heresies,” written around 185 CE, still survives, and you can get it today in a handy English translation.   The title that Irenaeus gave his work is “Refutation and Overthrow of Gnosis, Falsely So-Called.”   In other words, it is an attack on Gnosticism; and for centuries, until the 20th century, it was one of our principal sources of information about Gnostic religion.  (That changed with the discovery of Gnostic writings themselves, especially the Gnostic “library” of writings discovered near Nag Hammadi Egypt in 1945.)

There were many things indeed that disturbed Irenaeus …


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The Four Gospels in the Muratorian Fragment
When Did the Gospels Get Their Names?



  1. Avatar
    Tom  November 18, 2014

    This series on naming the gospels is extremely interesting to me.

    Thanks for doing it, Dr. E.

  2. Avatar
    Mark  November 18, 2014

    “But for Irenaeus, all four Gospels must be read, and read together. Otherwise one gets a skewed understanding of who Christ really was.”

    For me this raises the question of HOW did Irenaeus think they should be read together? Did he harmonize them like a modern literalist, creating, as you would say, as fifth gospel? Did he get worked up over historicity? Perhaps another way to ask would be did he have a “high” or “low” view of their status as divinely inspired works?

    • Bart
      Bart  November 20, 2014

      I think the idea is that the views of one Gospel are placed in harmony with those of another, so that the rough edges of both are worn off (though, of course, Irenaeus would not admit there are rough edges, just interpretations that create rough edges.)

  3. Avatar
    toejam  November 18, 2014

    Are there any hints in Justin Martyr’s writing to suggest he included other gospels outside of (what we now know of as) the canonicals as authoritative? E.g. Does he quote the Gospel of Peter or Thomas?

    • Bart
      Bart  November 20, 2014

      He appears at one point to refer to the Gospel of Peter, but it is a heavily debated passage. I may post on it eventually.

  4. Avatar
    Jrgebert  November 18, 2014

    How do we know the four gospels mentioned by Irenaeus are some versions of our four gospels (I.e is his Mark our Mark)?

    • Bart
      Bart  November 20, 2014

      Because of his quotations of the Gospels, which match up with passages in our Gosepls.

  5. Avatar
    gabilaranjeira  November 19, 2014

    Great series!
    I was thinking: if someone just made up the names of the Gospels, why go for Mark and Luke instead of going for the disciples themselves? I understand that Mark and Luke were associated with Peter and Paul, but still… Is it possible that there was an oral tradition among the Christian communities that indicated who told those stories before the anonymous authors wrote them?


    • Bart
      Bart  November 20, 2014

      Yup, key questions! (The one on Peter is what got this thread started). I hope to get to deal with them later in this thread.

    • Avatar
      Steefen  November 22, 2014


  6. Avatar
    dragonfly  November 19, 2014

    How many gospels do you think there would have been by the end of the first century? Just going by Luke’s introduction you would have to say quite a few more than four.

  7. Avatar
    jhm  November 19, 2014

    How aware were prospective converts (and actual adherents) of the time the events described in the gospels occurred? What I mean is would a typical convert fifty or a hundred years after the crucifixion, for example, be aware of how long ago these events had happened? would the adherents doing the converting?

    • Bart
      Bart  November 20, 2014

      My guess is that they had a rough idea. That’s why, for example, Luke provides the tenmporal designations he does in 3:1; and by naming known figures — Pilate, Herod, etc. — the writers are giving their readers the necessary clues.

  8. Avatar
    gavriel  November 19, 2014

    Is there a scholarly consensus (or near consensus) on the idea that Ignatius, Polycarp and Didache is really quoting the canonical Gospels, and not just traditions that happened be recorded in those Gospels as well?

    • Bart
      Bart  November 20, 2014

      No, it’s debated! But my sense is that most scholars think they are quoting written texts.

  9. Avatar
    daveagain  November 19, 2014

    This is a thriller story. Great job!

  10. Avatar
    Steven  November 19, 2014

    Exceptional series on the Gnostic Gospels! I pulled my notes from earlier studies via Eileen Pagels, after the mention of Basilides. I always thought of him presenting a brazen docetic version, one that passed as authentic when the Qur’an was written by various and disparate authors (Obviously, neither Allah nor Mohammad were the authors). A scholarly textual analysis of the Qur’an will lead one to realize that Islam’s holiest scripture is actually nothing more than a compilation of variant traditions; myths and traditions that were floating around at the time of the book’s writing. Basilides’ type of Gnostic Docetism is often found resident.

    According to Islamic tradition, interpreting the Qur’an at Chapter 4, Verse 157, would maintain that another was substituted for Jesus, son of Mary, on the cross; although without identifying the person substituted, and also without the key, Gnostic, element of Christ laughing at the successful divine stratagem.

    Qur’an Sura 4 Verse 157: “And because of their saying: We slew the Messiah, Jesus son of Mary, Allah’s messenger — they slew him not nor crucified him, but it appeared so unto them; and lo! those who disagree concerning it are in doubt thereof; they have no knowledge thereof save pursuit of a conjecture; they slew him not for certain.”

  11. Avatar
    RonaldTaska  November 19, 2014

    So, the Gospels were attributed to the apostles to make them more effective in refuting heresies. Keep going.

  12. Avatar
    nichael  November 19, 2014

    This has nothing to do with the current topic…

    …but concerning your upcoming book which you’ve previously discussed (i.e. the “popular” book on the background sources for the gospels –does the book have a working title yet?):

    Have you been reading Werner Kelber’s “The Oral and the Written Gospel”?
    (I’ve just started this and I’m interested in your opinion of the book if you have a moment.)

    • Bart
      Bart  November 20, 2014

      So far I’m calling it (to myself): “Jesus Before the Gospels: How Eyewitness Testimony, Faulty Memories, and Widespread Rumors Affected the Early Christian Traditions.” And yes, Kelber is very important.

      • Avatar
        Rosekeister  November 20, 2014

        Do any of your working titles survive the publishers or do you just have to trust their judgement that a snappier title will sell better? “Jesus Before the Gospels” is a title I would buy. You seem to be satisfied somewhat with what the publishers suggest. I especially liked your publisher’s argument that if you named your textbook, “The Bible” then you could tell your grandchildren you wrote the Bible.

        • Bart
          Bart  November 21, 2014

          Yes, most of my Oxford books, and my last two Harper books, have been my titles.

      • Avatar
        Jana  November 29, 2014

        Now that’s a best selling title and thank you for putting into words the source(s) of my befuddlement. You’ve written “Affected” … how do we not know “Created” the Gospels? It seems to me that Irenaeus must have been an extremely powerful guy to have had such influence and power based on what?

        • Bart
          Bart  November 29, 2014

          I don’t think it was just him — as I try to explain in the next post or two.

  13. Avatar
    Steve  November 21, 2014

    I agree with Tom—very interesting stuff, and extremely important as well. This issue of gospel authorship was the first “chink in the armor” for me personally with my perceptions and beliefs about Christianity. The idea that we have no first-hand eyewitness testimony of Jesus’ life is literally shocking, and (should have) enormous implications for fair-minded believers. But in most pulpits today, aren’t ministers still all teaching matter-of-factly that the Gospels are eyewitness testaments? Dr. Ehrman, are there any scholars at all who disagree with your assertion of the anonymous authorship of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John? Is this case closed? Thanks

  14. Avatar
    rbrtbaumgardner  November 22, 2014

    Besides Justin’s general reference “Memoirs of the Apostles” I can’t help but wonder how Christians referred to the individual Gospels. Very interesting! Also, a questions occurs: if Justin referred to the Gospels as “Memories of the Apostles” does that suggest some or all of the Gospels were already associated as one body of work?– or perhaps I’m misunderstanding or reading too much into that.

    • Bart
      Bart  November 23, 2014

      Interesting question. I think Justin imagined each of the Gospels to be a Memoir.

  15. Avatar
    Steefen  November 22, 2014

    The gospels aren’t written between 33 and, say, 40. There was no reason to write down the great sayings and wonderful accounts until 66 – 95? The Hellenists moved the Jesus movement out of Jerusalem 1) when they went back home after the Passover week when Jesus was crucified, 2) when they went back home after Pentecost, and 3) when they fled persecution when Stephen (king) was stoned. This community wrote nothing for their gatherings, let alone their memory? That’s hard to accept.

    For three of the four gospels, these written accounts are not titled until 161-184? What would be interesting is how they were identified in the libraries of Rome, Syria, Alexandria, Edessa.

    You say the one gospel that seemed to have had a name was Mark because it opens: “The beginning of the gospel about Jesus Christ, the Son of God. [NIV translation]” The original title of [i]The Gospel According to Mark[/i] likely was “The Gospel about Jesus Christ, the Son of God.”

    Somewhere I read that gospel has usage roots in the Roman military (good news about a military win). This would also connect the gospels to the military contexts, first with the Great Revolt, then the subsequent revolts.

    Writing and copying the gospels 66 – 95 was not an inexpensive, unsponsored undertaking. I’m sure the four collections of the sayings and accounts of Jesus had some sort of title that distinguished them from one another.

    I’m thinking it’s not that “The Gospels Are Finally Named!” It’s more of “The Sayings and Accounts of Jesus are Finally Renamed.”

  16. Avatar
    gabilaranjeira  December 2, 2014

    Hi Bart,

    There’s something I don’t understand. If the Gospels were named in order to confer the authority that proto-orthodox Christians needed to combat heretic denominations, how does that work when the heretics that Irenaeus mentions use the same Gospels? I understand that there were several other heresies that used other Gospels and in this case, it makes sense. Could there have been old traditions about the authorship of our canonical Gospels that were well known by the small Christian communities and someone decided to finally name them just because Christianity grew?

    This series are one of the most interesting I’ve ever read on the blog. I’m reading them again and trying to keep up with the recent ones I haven’t read yet!


    • Bart
      Bart  December 4, 2014

      Yes, it’s a confusing situation. Some heretical groups use one or the other of the books that became canonical — but when Irenaeus says they do, he does not indicate that they know them by the names that he himself calls them by. And other groups use yet other Gospels. It’s *possible* that the familiar names were more widely known before Irenaeus, but what is most striking is that the earlier authors who quote the books never give them these names (or any others).

  17. Christopher
    Christopher  December 7, 2014

    You mentioned that there were 10 different proto-othodox writers in consideration before around 150-160. How many of these authors mention the gospels? Are there other names that they call the gospels besides what Justin calls them?

    • Bart
      Bart  December 8, 2014

      The 10 authors I was talking about are the Apostolic Fathers. The first was 1 Clement, which was written (allegedly by Clement of Rome, but probably not) around 95 CE; the last was either the book of 2 Clement (named after the same person, but actually written by a different author than 1 Clement) or the Letter to Diognetus (which like 1 and 2 Clement is anonymous), both of which were probably written in the second half of the second century. (The Martyrdom of Polycarp is probably even later, but it’s hard to date. Then again, these others are as well) Several of the Apostolic Fathers — e.g., Ignatius, the Didache, Polycarp, the Martyrdom of Polycarp — show knowledge of the Gospels that were later incorporated into the NT, but none of them gives them any names. They simply quote words of Jesus as taken from these books.

  18. TWood
    TWood  August 10, 2016

    1. The gospel of Peter has the giant Jesus and the talking cross… but I can’t find the one that says Judas exploded across a few blocks or something like that… which one is that? (or did I imagine that after taking an Ambien?)

    2. The gospel of Thomas… does it have fantastic accounts like this? I know I should read it… I plan on it… but the overviews of it seem to suggest it’s less fantastic than the other gnostics… more similar to the canonicals… is that right?

    • TWood
      TWood  August 10, 2016

      Actually I think I found the answer to question one… I mistakenly thought it was in a gnostic gospel because it sounds as crazy as a giant Jesus and a talking cross… but it turns out it was Mr. proto-orthodox Papias who said it (with maybe Apollinarius adding to it?)… I guess it makes sense considering Papias’ fantastic millennarian statements…

      I’m still wondering about question 2 though…

    • Bart
      Bart  August 11, 2016

      1. Papias talks of him bursting 2. No, the Gospel of Thomas is all sayings of Jesus.

      • TWood
        TWood  August 11, 2016

        So is Q something like the gospel of Thomas?

        • Bart
          Bart  August 12, 2016

          They both appear to have been collectoinns of Jesus’ sayings without (much) narrative; Q does have a few narrative stories, and it’s hard to know how many it originally had — including whether it had a passion narrative or not.

  19. TWood
    TWood  August 25, 2016

    In AH 1:19:2 Irenaeus says some gnostics used the 12th chapter of Daniel (the “knowledge is sealed until the end” passage) to justify their secret understanding (they were the “secret understanders” of “the unsealed end”).

    It appears that most early Christians believed all of the 70 weeks (ch. 9) were fulfilled in the first century (with Irenaeus, Hippolytus, and a few others as exceptions). But even they seemed to see Daniel as unsealed by the second century. It seems to me that all early Christians (proto-orth and heretics) believed “the unsealed end” happened with the appearance of Jesus as the Messiah in the first century (cf. Revelation 22:10, Hebrews 1:2, etc.)

    My question is, what’s your sense on how the early Christians understood Daniel’s “unsealed end times understanders”?

    P.s. The reason I ask is because I hear the same gnostic argument being used by 21st century fundies who believe they are in the last days (so they’re the “understanders” in the “end times” because God “unsealed” Daniel to them). They use the fig tree/1948 nonsense, as well as many other things, but they justify their weird ideas by appealing to Daniel 12 just like the gnostics did. I don’t really have a question here, but if you have any thoughts on this I’d be very interested to hear them.

  20. Avatar
    Marko071291  March 21, 2019

    Hi Bart,
    I’ve read recently something that could be an argument from silance but I would like to hear yout thoughts. As you are well aware, near the end of the 2nd century Tatian composed his Diatessaron (harmonization of the four gospels). He was a student of Justin. Isn’t it possible that Justin knew these four gospels by name since we see that his student is trying to put these four gospels into one? Thank’s for the response!

    • Bart
      Bart  March 22, 2019

      Tatian doesn’t call them by name! Justin himself knows the four, but the striking think is he never names any of them, except in one place where he refers to a Gospel by Peter.

      • Avatar
        Marko071291  March 22, 2019

        If I may take one step further. I’ve read the article by P. Pilhofer with my (for now limited knowledge of Greek). Also I spoke with my professor about it and he is really an expert in Greek. He told me that there is (strictly from a philological position) a possibility that greek pronoun autou is refering to Jesus not Peter. You also know about this theory since you talked about it in your book on Forgery. I was wondering would you agree with his assessment. In other words, are the other evidence (the way Justin in other instances uses phrase memoirs of the apostles; hapax lagomenon that Pilhofer found between Justin and Gospel of Peter etc) tthose that “pushes things over” to the side arguing that Justin is really talking about Gospel of Peter? Or is that clear enough just looking at that problematic sentence from a pihilological point of view?
        I hope I’m not being to boring with this kind of question that probably is interested to me, you and couple of other people in the universe haha!
        Thank’s for the help.
        Kind regards!

        • Bart
          Bart  March 24, 2019

          Pilhofer actually argues that it refers to Peter, against other scholars have assumed that it must refer to Jesus. It *could* refer to either, but since the closest antecedent is Peter, there have to be very compelling reasons for thinking it refers to Jesus, and apart from the fact that most scholars refuse to think that Justin can have the Gospel of Peter in mind (despite the verbatim agreement), in my opinion Pilhofer is right.

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