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The Synoptic Gospels

The four gospels in the New testament are called the gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. These names are given based on the traditional belief that these were the authors of the gospel. These were men who knew Jesus either directly or through the original apostles. Matthew and John were the apostles of Jesus. Mark was Peter's interpreter and Luke was Paul's travelling companion. If this traditional attribution of authorship is true, especially for Matthew, Mark and John, it would certainly add weight to the argument for the general trustworthiness of these works.

Anyone who has read the four gospels will note that Matthew, Mark and Luke [a] report many common incidents and sayings of Jesus and that they all share a common narrative framework. This was noted along time ago and around 1774 the German scholar, Johann Griesbach introduced the term "synoptics" for these three gospels, from the Greek word for "seen together". John's gospel, on the other hand, has a different framework and describes different events, devoting much space to long speeches of Jesus which are very unlike those reported in the synpotics. No attempt at harmonization has ever worked. [1]

The earliest tradition regarding the synoptics came from:

Papias on Mark and Matthew

Given below is a statement by Papias made towards the end of his life (c 130 CE), regarding the gospels of Matthew and Mark, the authority of which was based on a certain John The Presbyter:

And the presbyter said this: Mark the interpreter of Peter, wrote down exactly, but not in order, what he remembered of the acts and sayings of the Lord, for he neither heard the Lord himself nor accompanied him, but, as I said, Peter later on. Peter adapted his teachings to the needs [of his hearers], but made no attempt to provide a connected narrative of things related to our Lord. So Mark made no mistake in setting down some things as he remembered them, for he took care not to omit anything he heard nor to include anything false. As for Matthew, he made a collection in Hebrew of the sayings and each translated them as best they could. [2]

The above is the earliest tradition regarding the composition of Mark and Matthew. According to Papias, Mark got his information from Peter himself, while Matthew, one of Jesus original disciples made a collection of the sayings of Jesus in Hebrew. While it is very probable that the gospel of Mark Papias referred to is the very same gospel we are familiar with, his statement regarding the gospel of Matthew leaves room for doubt. For he mentioned that Matthew collected the sayings of Jesus. The present gospel of Matthew is a narrative of Jesus' life and not simple a collection of his sayings. Furthermore linguistic evidence shows that the original language of Matthew's gospel was Greek not Hebrew or Aramaic. More importantly we do not know who John the Presbyter was or how he got to know about the authorship of Mark and Matthew. As such we have no guarantee as to the authenticity of this tradition. [3]

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Irenaeus on the Four Gospels

Irenaeus, around the year 180 gave the first historically documented list of the four gospels and their authors:

Matthew published his gospel among the Hebrews in their own tongue, when Peter and Paul were preaching the gospel in Rome and founding the church there. After their departure, mark, the disciple and interpreter of Peter, himself handed down to us in writing the substance of Peter's preaching. Luke, the follower of Paul, set down in a book the gospel preached by his teacher. Then John, the disciple of the Lord, who leaned on his breast [John 13:25;21:20], himself produced his gospel, when he was living in Ephesus in Asia. [4]

The above passage by Ireneaus was also the first to give a chronological sequence of the writing of the four gospels: Matthew wrote first, followed by Mark, Luke and, finally, John. Like Papias, Ireneaus placed Matthew as the earliest gospel. This tradition of Matthew's primacy was repeated throughout Christian history.

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Later Tradition

The church father, Clement of Alexandria (c150-c215), said that the earliest gospels were those with Jesus' family tree. We find Jesus' genealogies in Matthew and Luke but not in Mark. Another church father, Origen (c185-254), said that the first gospel was written in Hebrew by Matthew. Augustine (354-430), one of the most important theologians of early Christianity, stated that Mark copied and abbreviated Matthew.

It is because of this tremendous weight of tradition that it became established as a "fact" that Matthew was the earliest gospel and that its author was the apostle of Jesus himself. [5] There is a small snag to this "fact" of Matthean priority, it is simply untrue.

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a.In general I will italicise the names when I am talking about the gospels not the authors but when I am discussing the historical figure, say the author, Mark, ther name will not be italicise.


1.Wilson, Jesus: The Evidence: p31
2.Guignebert, Jesus: p39
Schonfield, The Passover Plot: p230-231
3.Guignebert, Jesus: p39-40
4.McDowell, More Than a Carpenter: p64
5.Bentley, Secrets of Mount Sinai: p140-142
Wilson, Jesus: The Evidence: p33

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