The Gospel of the Early Church – 2 – The Gospel is a Historical Narrative

xEarly ChurchToday we will continue looking at what the early church believed about the gospel. I will be quoting from the early church fathers (c.e. 60-400) drawing upon some important points of what they believed.

In yesterdays post we discovered the early church believed the gospel the apostles preached was written down. What they wrote became what we know as the gospels according to Matthew, Mark, Luke and John.

They believed the gospel is a narrative.

They believed the gospel is a narrative about Jesus. Even more, a historical narrative that follows the story of Israel.

Words and Deeds of Jesus

Ignatius (c.e. 45-105)

“All these things tend towards the unity of the one and only true God. But the GOSPEL possesses something transcendent [above the former dispensation], viz., the appearing of our Saviour Jesus Christ, His passion, and the resurrection itself. For those things which the prophets announced, saying,

“Until He come for whom it is reserved, and He shall be the expectation of the Gentiles,”

have been fulfilled in the GOSPEL, [our Lord saying,]

“Go ye and teach all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost.” (Mt 28.19-20)

All then are good together, the law, the prophets, the apostles, the whole company [of others] that have believed through them: only if we love one another.”

(Ignatius of Antioch. (1885). The Epistle of Ignatius to the Philadelphians. In A. Roberts, J. Donaldson, & A. C. Coxe (Eds.), The Apostolic Fathers with Justin Martyr and Irenaeus (Vol. 1, pp. 84–85). Buffalo, NY: Christian Literature Company.)

Ignatius says the prophecy has been fulfilled in what Jesus says in the Gospel. (That is the gospel according to Matthew.) Then he quotes what Jesus says in Mt 28.19-20.

Papias (c.e. 100)

“(1.) Mary the mother of the Lord; (2.) Mary the wife of Cleophas or Alphæus, who was the mother of James the bishop and apostle, and of Simon and Thaddeus, and of one Joseph; (3.) Mary Salome, wife of Zebedee, mother of John the evangelist and James; (4.) Mary Magdalene. These four are found in the GOSPEL.

James and Judas and Joseph were sons of an aunt (2) of the Lord’s. James also and John were sons of another aunt (3) of the Lord’s. Mary (2), mother of James the Less and Joseph, wife of Alphæus was the sister of Mary the mother of the Lord, whom John names of Cleophas, either from her father or from the family of the clan, or for some other reason. Mary Salome (3) is called Salome either from her husband or her village. Some affirm that she is the same as Mary of Cleophas, because she had two husbands.”

(Papias. (1885). Fragments of Papias. In A. Roberts, J. Donaldson, & A. C. Coxe (Eds.), The Apostolic Fathers with Justin Martyr and Irenaeus (Vol. 1, p. 155). Buffalo, NY: Christian Literature Company.)

Papias lists a series of names and then says they are found in the gospel. He is alluding of course to the whole gospel narrative and the people described in it.

Justin Martyr (c.e. 100-165)

“For I have showed already that Christ is called both Jacob and Israel; and I have proved that it is not in the blessing of Joseph and Judah alone that what relates to Him was proclaimed mysteriously, but also in the GOSPEL it is written that He said:

‘All things are delivered unto me by My Father;’ (Mt 11.27a)


‘No man knoweth the Father but the Son; nor the Son but the Father, and they to whom the Son will reveal Him.’ (Mt 11.27b)

Accordingly He revealed to us all that we have perceived by His grace out of the Scriptures, so that we know Him to be the first-begotten of God, and to be before all creatures; likewise to be the Son of the patriarchs, since He assumed flesh by the Virgin of their family, and submitted to become a man without comeliness, dishonoured, and subject to suffering.”

(Justin Martyr. (1885). Dialogue of Justin with Trypho, a Jew. In A. Roberts, J. Donaldson, & A. C. Coxe (Eds.), The Apostolic Fathers with Justin Martyr and Irenaeus (Vol. 1, pp. 248–249). Buffalo, NY: Christian Literature Company.)

Justin is quoting what Jesus says in the gospel according to Matthew. Note he refers to the gospel in the singular.

Augustine of Hippo (c.e. 354-430)

The following quote is an excerpt from a dialogue Augustine is having with a heretic named Faustus. Faustus does not believe Jesus was born. Some of the early heresies denied Jesus was fully human.

Augustine replied: Well, in answer to your own questions, you tell us first that you believe the GOSPEL, and next, that you do not believe in the birth of Christ; and your reason is, that the birth of Christ is not in the GOSPEL. What, then, will you answer the apostle when he says,

“Remember that Christ Jesus rose from the dead, of the seed of David, according to my GOSPEL”? (2 Tim 2.8)

You surely are ignorant, or pretend to be ignorant, what the GOSPEL is. You use the word, not as the apostle teaches, but as suits your own errors. What the apostles call the GOSPEL you depart from; for you do not believe that Christ was of the seed of David.

This was Paul’s GOSPEL; and it was also the GOSPEL of the other apostles, and of all faithful stewards of so great a mystery. For Paul says elsewhere,

“Whether, therefore, I or they, so we preach, and so ye believed.” (1 Cor 15.11)

They did not all write the GOSPEL, but they all preached it.

The name evangelist is properly given to the narrators of the birth, the actions, the words, the sufferings of our Lord Jesus Christ. The word gospel means good news, and might be used of any good news, but is properly applied to the narrative of the Saviour.

If, then, you teach something different, you must have departed from the GOSPEL. Assuredly those babes whom you despise as semi-Christians will oppose you, when they hear their mother Charity declaring by the mouth of the apostle,

“If any one preach another GOSPEL than that which we have preached to you, let him be accursed.” (Gal 1.8-9)

Since, then, Paul, according to his GOSPEL, preached that Christ was of the seed of David, and you deny this and preach something else, may you be accursed!

(Ch 2, Book 2, Against Faustus)

Augustine is fairly clear on what he believes the gospel is here. He is arguing from the understanding that the gospel is ‘properly applied to the narrative of the saviour’. Note from the dates I have attached to each. The early church consistently believed for hundreds of years that the gospel was the historical narrative of the sayings and deeds of Jesus. His birth, life, death and resurrection.

A Period in History

Tertullian (c.e. 160-225)

In the quote Tertullian is arguing against the practice of Magic and Astrology. What is interesting for our purposes is that Tertullian describes the time periods up ‘until’ and ‘after’ the gospel.

“There is the same penalty of exclusion for disciples and masters.

“But Magi and astrologers came from the east.” (Mt 2)

We know the mutual alliance of magic and astrology. The interpreters of the stars, then, were the first to announce Christ’s birth the first to present Him “gifts.” By this bond, [must] I imagine, they put Christ under obligation to themselves?

What then? Shall therefore the religion of those Magi act as patron now also to astrologers? Astrology now-a-days, forsooth, treats of Christ—is the science of the stars of Christ; not of Saturn, or Mars, and whomsoever else out of the same class of the dead it pays observance to and preaches? But, however, that science has been allowed until the GOSPEL, in order that after Christ’s birth no one should thenceforward interpret any one’s nativity by the heaven.

And so the precept was rather, that thenceforward they should walk otherwise. So, too, that other species of magic which operates by miracles, emulous even in opposition to Moses, tried God’s patience until the GOSPEL. For thenceforward Simon Magus, just turned believer, (since he was still thinking somewhat of his juggling sect; to wit, that among the miracles of his profession he might buy even the gift of the Holy Spirit through imposition of hands) was cursed by the apostles, and ejected from the faith. Both he and that other magician, who was with Sergius Paulus, (since he began opposing himself to the same apostles) was mulcted with loss of eyes. The same fate, I believe, would astrologers, too, have met, if any had fallen in the way of the apostles. But yet, when magic is punished, of which astrology is a species, of course the species is condemned in the genus. After the GOSPEL, you will nowhere find either sophists, Chaldeans, enchanters, diviners, or magicians, except as clearly punished. “Where is the wise, where the grammarian, where the disputer of this age? Hath not God made foolish the wisdom of this age?” You know nothing, astrologer, if you know not that you should be a Christian.”

(Tertullian. (1885). On Idolatry. In A. Roberts, J. Donaldson, & A. C. Coxe (Eds.), S. Thelwall (Trans.), Latin Christianity: Its Founder, Tertullian (Vol. 3, pp. 65–66). Buffalo, NY: Christian Literature Company.)

To describe to gospel in these terms indicates they thought of it as a historical time period. You may have noticed from another post of mine explaining the gospel how I fit it into the overall history of Israel leading up to Jesus.

X Overall Timeline-Labels

Origen (c.e. 185-254)

Origen in this quote relates the Gospel to Moses and the Prophets. They are connected.

“Now, certainly the introduction to Christianity is through the Mosaic worship and the prophetic writings; and after the introduction, it is in the interpretation and explanation of these that progress takes place, while those who are introduced prosecute their investigations into

“the mystery according to revelation, which was kept secret since the world began, but now is made manifest in the Scriptures of the prophets,” (Rom 16.25-26)

and by the appearance of our Lord Jesus Christ. But they who advance in the knowledge of Christianity do not, as ye allege, treat the things written in the law with disrespect. On the contrary, they bestow upon them greater honour, showing what a depth of wise and mysterious reasons is contained in these writings, which are not fully comprehended by the Jews, who treat them superficially, and as if they were in some degree even fabulous.

And what absurdity should there be in our system—that is, the GOSPEL—having the law for its foundation, when even the LORD Jesus Himself said to those who would not believe upon Him:

“If ye had believed Moses, ye would have believed Me, for he wrote of Me. But if ye do not believe his writings, how shall ye believe My words?” (Jn 5.46-47)

Nay, even one of the evangelists—Mark—says:

“The beginning of the GOSPEL of Jesus Christ, as it is written in the prophet Isaiah, Behold, I send My messenger before Thy face, who shall prepare Thy way before Thee,” (Mk 1.1-2)

which shows that the beginning of the GOSPEL is connected with the Jewish writings.”

(Origen. (1885). Origen against Celsus. In A. Roberts, J. Donaldson, & A. C. Coxe (Eds.), F. Crombie (Trans.), Fathers of the Third Century: Tertullian, Part Fourth; Minucius Felix; Commodian; Origen, Parts First and Second (Vol. 4, p. 431). Buffalo, NY: Christian Literature Company.)

Augustine of Hippo (c.e. 354-430)

“But for the world, truly, it suffices to have the promises of God, and to see fulfilled in itself what prophets predicted so long ago, and to recognise the Church by means of the same Scriptures by which Christ her King is recognised. For as in them are foretold concerning Christ the things which we read in GOSPEL history to have been fulfilled in Him, so also in them have been foretold concerning the Church the things which we now behold fulfilled in the world.”

(Augustine of Hippo. (1886). Letters of St. Augustin. In P. Schaff (Ed.), J. G. Cunningham (Trans.), The Confessions and Letters of St. Augustin with a Sketch of His Life and Work (Vol. 1, p. 375). Buffalo, NY: Christian Literature Company.)

Like many before him, Augustine believes the gospel is history.

This ends todays post. There are many people I can quote to say similar things. Hopefully these are suffice to indicate the early church fathers believed the gospel to be a historical narrative of Jesus’ words and deeds. In my next post I will give a brief description of the gospel of the early church.

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