Friday, August 14, 2020

Evidence For The Early Prominence Of The Gospels

I want to discuss some patristic evidence that corroborates and expands upon what I wrote earlier this week about the nature of the gospels and their role in early evangelism, missions, the planting of churches, etc. I'll start with a couple of passages in Justin Martyr that have some significance that's often overlooked.

In his Dialogue With Trypho, Justin is told by his Jewish opponent, "I am aware that your precepts in the so-called Gospel are so wonderful and so great, that I suspect no one can keep them; for I have carefully read them." (10) At that point in history, it was common for two or more gospels collectively to be referred to as "the gospel" (which is an indication of the earliness of Justin's Dialogue and the exchange with some Jewish opponents he recounts there). Trypho makes no such comment about other Christian sources, like the letters of Paul. And his comment above came after some remarks Justin made about Christianity in general, not the gospels or any other Christian writings in particular. It's significant that Trypho not only knew of the gospels and read them, but even took the initiative to mention them and didn't cite other early Christian literature in a comparable or greater way.

In his First Apology, Justin writes of Christian church services, "And on the day called Sunday, all who live in cities or in the country gather together to one place, and the memoirs of the apostles [the gospels] or the writings of the prophets are read, as long as time permits; then, when the reader has ceased, the president verbally instructs, and exhorts to the imitation of these good things." (67) Again, notice that the gospels are singled out. And they're mentioned before the books of the Old Testament.

Similarly, Celsus and his Jewish source(s) interact with Christianity based largely on the gospels, much more than Paul's letters and other sources. As Robert Wilken wrote, "Pagan critics realized that the claims of the new movement [Christianity] rested upon a credible historical portrait of Jesus. Christian theologians in the early church, in contrast to medieval thinkers who began their investigations on the basis of what they received from authoritative tradition, were forced to defend the historical claims they made about the person of Jesus. What was said about Jesus could not be based solely on the memory of the Christian community or its own self-understanding." (The Christians As The Romans Saw Them [New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1984], 203) Notice how much, in these examples I'm citing and elsewhere, this Christian focus on the life of Jesus involved the gospels, not just claims about him or oral tradition, for example.

The order of the New Testament, starting with the gospels, is another illustration. That ordering of the books isn't a recent development. Discussions of the New Testament canon often give a lot of attention to the Muratorian Canon as the earliest canonical list we have, from the second century. It starts with the gospels.


  1. So, I've been going down memory lane recently. I've accrued a hundred or so bookmarks that I had planned to read eventually, some dating to 2007, and I opened them all a couple months ago. I've noticed how many of the ones I shelved are yours (hey, some are long). Is everything you've learned from personal reading, or did you attend seminary?