Today, I want to discuss where these titles might have come from. First of all, it is important for scholars to admit when they don't know something, and in this case, it is impossible to scholars to know if or when these titles were attached to the four canonical gospels. It is possible that the titles were there from the very beginning. But, discovering what is possible is not the task of scholarship. Scholarship, especially of the historical variety, is not about discovering what is possible, but rather, what is probable. Given the evidence we have, what is the most probable state of affairs. Discovering what is most probable involves collecting all the available evidence and arguing for the most probable situation which gave rise to that evidence.
The first positive evidence we have of the names of our four canonical authors (Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John) comes from two second century authors: Papias* and Irenaeus.** Let's first look at what Papias has to say concerning Mark:
"And the presbyter said this. Mark having become the interpreter of Peter, wrote down accurately whatsoever he remembered. It was not, however, in exact order that he related the sayings or deeds of Christ. For he neither heard the Lord nor accompanied Him. But afterwards, as I said, he accompanied Peter, who accommodated his instructions to the necessities [of his hearers], but with no intention of giving a regular narrative of the Lord's sayings. Wherefore Mark made no mistake in thus writing some things as he remembered them. For of one thing he took especial care, not to omit anything he had heard, and not to put anything fictitious into the statements." (Eusebius, Hist. Eccl. iii. 39).According to Papias, Mark was Peter's interpreter. Mark was not an eyewitness or disciple of Jesus, but rather was passing on second hand information.
And Papias on Matthew:
"Matthew put together the oracles [of the Lord] in the Hebrew language, and each one interpreted them as best he could." (Eusebius, Hist. Eccl. iii. 39).A couple of things to note here. First, Matthew is not explicitly identified as the disciple. Second, and more curious is the phrase "Hebrew language." The gospel that we know as Matthew was written in Greek and shows no signs of ever having a Hebrew original.
Also of note for Papias on both Matthew and Mark is that he does not explicitly use the word gospel. But, for the sake of argument at this point, lets say that Papias is referring to the gospels we now know as Matthew and Mark.
On to the testimony of Irenaeus. Irenaeus mentions all four canonical gospels.
"Matthew also issued a written Gospel among the Hebrews in their own dialect while Peter and Paul were preaching at Rome and laying the foundations of the church." (Adv. Haer. 3.1.1).Irenaeus says substantively what Papias had said, including the Hebrew dialect, while adding the word "gospel" and the information about Peter and Paul.
"After their departure [of Peter and Paul from earth], Mark, the disciple and interpreter of Peter, did also hand down to us in writing what had been preached by Peter.“ (Adv. Haer. 3.1.1).Irenaeus adds nothing of import to the Papias writing regarding Mark.
"Luke also, the companion of Paul, recorded in a book the Gospel preached by him." (Adv. Haer. 3.1.1).Here we get our first mention of a Gospel by Luke. Luke is identified as a companion of Paul, and therefore not an eyewitness of Jesus.
“Afterwards, John, the disciple of the Lord, who also had leaned upon His breast, did himself publish a Gospel during his residence at Ephesus in Asia.” (Adv. Haer. 3.1.1).Here is our first mention of John's gospel. Interestingly, this is the most concrete reference to any of our gospels. The mention of the one "who also had leaned upon His breast," is a clear reference to the beloved disciple from John's gospel, but is the first time that anyone has equated the beloved disciple with John (son of Zebedee?).
So there you have it. This is the second century evidence for gospel authorship. With regard to Matthew and Mark, the evidence is early second century, with Luke and John it is late second century. Also, with regard to the evidence itself, only with John does what is said about his gospel clearly identify it as the gospel we know as John. But, even though the evidence is not as strong as scholars might like, nevertheless, let us grant for the moment, that by the time of Irenaeus (circa 180 C.E.), the names Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John were firmly attached to the gospels that bear those names today. What does this tell us? Only that by the end of the second century, the titles were attached to the gospels. And this predates our manuscript evidence, so it is not surprising that our manuscripts of the New Testament from the third century and beyond, all consistently bear the traditional gospel titles. But, the second century evidence does not positively tell us when these titles came to be attached to the four canonical gospels. To answer that question, the scholar will have to engage in much more rigorous research and interpretation. And, the scholar will have to admit that with this paucity of positive evidence, there is no way to know for sure when these titles became associated with the four canonical gospels.
But that is a question for another post. Come back next time.
* Papias was a second century Bishop of city of Hierapolis located in modern-day Turkey. His writings are usually dated circa 125 C.E., but his writings are only preserved in the fourth century church historian Eusebius of Caesarea.
** Irenaeus was Bishop of Lyons, France, and his writings are usually dated circa 180 C.E.