The four Gospels: What sets them apart from the rest?

13-GospelsFrom time to time we will hear about other “gospels” that circulated in the early Church. They are sometimes called “the Lost Gospels,” but the fact of the matter is that these writings never were lost; they just never were accepted.

Dozens of so-called “gospels” circulated in the early Church, many of them with authoritative-sounding titles such as the “Gospel of Peter,” the “Acts of Paul,” and even a “Gospel of Judas.” These so-called “gospels” are nothing new. They’ve been known for centuries as “apocryphal gospels” — works of fiction that were not considered Scripture.

At best, some of the early apocryphal works are pious stories that may contain a grain of truth, such as the Protoevangelium of James. At worst, others were attempts to wrap a sect’s strange, esoteric, and heretical doctrine inside the cloak of apostolic approval.

Able to tell the difference, the early Church wasn’t fooled, for the simple reason that the apocryphal gospels lack the necessary pedigree to be considered Scripture. Most, with rare exceptions, came too late — sometimes centuries after apostolic times — to ever be considered authentic. Moreover, they never were universally accepted throughout the Church; many of them circulated only in a particular region or among the members of a particular sect.

The four authentic Gospels were different. All of them were written well within the first century. Since none of them mention the fulfillment of Christ’s prophecy about the destruction of the temple (which occurred in A.D. 70), scholars have suggested that all four Gospels may have been written prior to that event.

Moreover, the earliest Christians, whose lives and well-being were tied to the truthfulness of the Gospel, received only four Gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke and John), no more and no less. Several early Christian writers recognized this: For example, St. Irenaeus of Lyon (who was a disciple of St. Polycarp, who was a disciple of John the Apostle) wrote this around A.D. 180:

“There are four gospels and only four, neither more nor less: four like the points of the compass, four like the chief directions of the wind. The Church, spread all over the world, has in the gospels four pillars and four winds blowing wherever people live” (Against Heresies, 3, 11, 8).

Gary Michuta

Gary Michuta

Roughly a decade earlier, a Christian writer named Tatian composed a work called the Diatessaron. In it, Tatian attempted to harmonize the Gospels into a single narrative — using only the four Gospels we recognize as authentic today.

Twenty years earlier, around A.D. 150, St. Justin attests to the apostolic roots of the Gospels when he mentions them as the “memoirs” of the Apostles:

“For the apostles, in the memoirs composed by them, which are called Gospels, have thus delivered unto us what was enjoined upon them; that Jesus took bread, and when He had given thanks, said, ‘This do ye in remembrance of Me…’” (First Apology, 66).

Although Justin does not mention how many Gospels there were, we do know that Tatian (mentioned above) was St. Justin’s disciple and his Diatessaron harmonized four (and only four) Gospels, so we can safely assume Justin believed the same.

You might be familiar with the idea of the four Gospel-writing evangelists being symbolized by the face of a lion, an ox, a man and an eagle — this very fact is a testament to there being four Gospels, and only four. St. Irenaeus noted that the four Gospels put forward four different aspects of Christ that match the faces of cherubs in Ezekiel 1:10. According to Irenaeus, John’s Gospel begins with Christ’s kingly Sonship as “the Word” (giving him the kingly symbol of a lion). Luke begins with Zechariah’s offering sacrifice (giving him the sacrificial symbol of an ox). Matthew begins with Christ’s human genealogy (giving him the face of a man), and Mark begins with the calling on the prophetic Spirit from on high (represented by the eagle).

[Editor’s note: Other Church Fathers, including St. Augustine and St. Jerome, ascribed the symbols differently to the four evangelists; St. Jerome’s interpretation of Matthew as the man, Mark as the lion, Luke as the ox and John as the eagle has been predominant in recent centuries.]

The next time you run across a picture of an evangelist with a lion, ox, man, or eagle in the background, you’ll know why.


Gary Michuta is an author, speaker and apologist and a member of St. Michael the Archangel Parish in Livonia. Visit his website at www.handsonapologetics.com.