What is the evidence that Matthew, Mark, Luke and John really wrote the four gospels? I have searched and found that the oldest man (whose writings are available now) who said that the four gospels were written by these four men was Irenaeus.  Irenaeus said that about 180 AD about a century after the writing of four gospels… I have searched more and found that Papias (about whom Irenaeus said that he was disciple of John) talked about the gospel of Matthew and the gospel of Mark (and I read that a manuscript discovered said that he wrote in his five books that John wrote the fourth gospel), and this was written around 130 AD.   However we have no evidence that he talked about Luke. I read some articles written by Christians to prove the authenticity of the Bible. They said that the four gospels were quoted before Papias by Ignatius, Clement of Rome, the Didache and Polycarp. However, some critics said; Why can’t we say that the writers of the four gospels quoted from Ignatius or Clement rather than them quoting the gospels?  Why are we sure that Polycarp, Ignatius, and Clement wrote after the writers of the four gospels? Please, answer this question; How can we know who quoted from whom?   In addition, I wonder… Why didn’t Polycarp say “There are four gospels”?    Why didn’t Ignatius say “There are four gospels”?    Why didn’t Clement of Rome say “There are four gospels”?    Why??? Why??? Why???   Why did our Lord allow the Bible to be criticized?    Why didn’t our God order any of the men mentioned to write about the gospels?    Why didn’t we know the name of any disciple of Matthew nor Luke?   We know the name of 2 disciples of John the apostle (Polycarp, Papias). Why don’t we know the name of disciples of the other apostles???   Please, answer my questions.


Wow! You have a lot of questions.  I am glad you asked.  First of all, it is obviously impossible to “prove” who wrote the four gospels.  The best we can do is ask what is the most reasonable conclusion, given the evidence.  If you want proof, you are desiring something which is literally impossible to achieve.  We should look at the written sources, ask who is saying what and why and reach our best conclusion, based on the evidence.  

As you mention, Irenaeus did specifically say that there were four gospels.  However, he was not the first we have recorded who talked about who wrote the canonical gospels.  Probably the first we have record of to speak on this was Papias, a bishop from Heirapolis.  Papias was a companion of Polycarp.  We know of him principally because Eusebius, the church historian, quoted from him directly.  He is described as “an ancient man who was a hearer of John and a companion of Polycarp” by Polycarp’s disciple Irenaeus (c. 180).  Eusebius adds that Papias was Bishop of Hierapolis around the time of Ignatius of Antioch.  Papias tells us that the apostle John was a bishop in Ephesus and that he wrote the gospel of John.  This was written by Papias somewhere around AD 100 to 120 (not AD 130 as you say).  Writing in the first quarter of the second century, Papias said of Mark that, “John the Elder used to say: Mark, in his capacity as Peter’s interpreter, wrote down accurately as many things as he recalled from memory—though not in an ordered form—of the things either said or done by the Lord.”  This “John the Elder” may be the apostle John.  There are debates about that, but we can say that this Christian knew many of the apostles.  Also, Justin, in about AD 150, mentions the four “memoirs of the apostles.”  Also, Clement of Rome quotes from at least two of the gospels in AD 95.  Ignatius quotes from Matthew, Luke and John in AD 108.  Polycarp quoted from Matthew, Mark and Luke in AD 120.  

Here is the bottom line.  That there were exactly four accepted gospels in the first quarter of the second century is clearly demonstrated, both by the quotes of disciples like Papias and by the use of their gospels by the early church fathers.  You ask, “how do we not know that the gospels quoted from Clement or Ignatius rather than vice versa?  This is an easy question. If you read Clement of Rome, he quotes very extensively from the Old Testament.  He also quotes, not quite so much, but also quite a bit from ten of the New Testament books.  He quotes from the Old and the New Testament with equal authority.   He is quoting them as scripture.  The idea that someone used Clement of Rome to write Mark of Matthew is completely untenable, as Clement is clearly quoting and not vice versa.  Obviously the Old Testament was not written using Clement.  Clearly the same applies to the gospels.  Besides, unless Papias is lying, John, Mark and Matthew were written long before Clement of Rome or Ignatius or Papias, for that matter, wrote.  As for Clement, all you have to do is read his letter.   Some say that Clement “only” quoted from ten of the New Testament books.  Well, in the average letter you or I write, how many New Testament books do we quote from?   You ask why Polycarp did not say that there were four gospels?  I would imagine that he said this dozens if not hundreds of times.  However, we have just a few dozen pages of his writing, and he quotes from three of the gospels.  Why would he have reason to mention the number of gospels?  I would imagine that in my day-to-day conversations I mention that there are exactly four gospels once in a month or two.  To expect that every writer mentions every time they write that there were four gospels is extremely far-fetched.  Again, I am sure that Ignatius mentioned many dozens of times that there were exactly four gospels, but we have a miniscule fraction of what he said and wrote and in our tiny portion it just so happens that he did not mention this detail.  However, he quoted from three of the four and he certainly did not quote from some other “gospel.”   Were all four gospels written and used as scripture by the first quarter of the second century.  The slam dunk answer is yes! 

You ask why God allows the Bible to be criticized.  This is simply because God gives us free will.  He allows us to commit many kinds of sins.  He does not hit us with a bolt of lightning when we lie or when we commit adultery or when critics say untrue things about the Bible.  Would you like God to strike down people whenever they criticize the Bible?   You ask why God did not “order” any of the men to mention that there were four gospels?  God generally does not order any of us to write anything!!!  Besides, we have only the tiniest fraction of what was written in the early centuries.  The fact is that all four gospels are quoted in the very small number of letters we have from the late first and early second centuries and these quotes, along with Papias’ statements and Justin Martyr’s statements prove beyond any reasonable doubt that there were four gospels written in the first century and that these gospels were VERY likely written by Luke, Mark, Matthew and John.  We cannot absolutely prove the authorship, but we can prove beyond a reasonable doubt that all four existed in the first century and that all four from the earliest times were considered to be the only canonical gospels.

Why don’t we know the name of any of the “disciples” of Matthew?  There is an infinite number of things we do not know. Why should we know everything?  We do not know any of the disciples of Thaddeus.  So what?  Why should we know everything from ancient times.  We are lucky to know what we know.  We are lucky to have the few ancient sources we have.  What happened to Phillip? We do not know. Why should we? Who were the disciples of Pontius Pilate? We do not know.  Where was Matthew born?  We do not know. Why should we?  Clearly we know more about Paul, Peter and John than the other apostles and this is because these three were the most influential in the early church.  That is the reason.

Rather than fretting over the unlimited number of things we do not know and things we do not have record of particular people saying, I suggest you ask what we do know and what we can be reasonably confident of.  We know that from the late first century there were exactly four accepted accounts of Jesus’ life—the four gospels.  This is virtually certain.  We can be reasonably confident that the four were written by Luke, John, Matthew and Mark, but, to be honest, we are only reasonably confident but not absolutely certain of the authorship.  Sorry, but you will have to get by with reasonably confident and settle for the fact that those in the early church, some of whom actually knew the apostles, said that this was the case (at least with Mark, Matthew and John in the case of Papias).  Faith may have to fill some gaps.  Faith involves things which are not seen (Hebrews 11:1) and that will include “proof” that Matthew wrote Matthew.  I hope you are OK with this.

John Oakes

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