This series of posts discusses what the early church believed the gospel was and how they used this understanding in what they said and did. I will be quoting from the early church fathers (c.e. 60-400) and then summarise some of what they believed. They speak about the gospel all the time. Here is a big list of quotes I worked from. This series however will show a much smaller set of representative quotes to highlight what they believe.
I’m sure many of you have never been exposed to the writings of the early church. I find them fascinating and very insightful. Im sure you will find their knowledge and command of scripture impressive. Since they are so close to the apostles and the first Christians themselves I’ve started to look to them more and more when I interpret the New Testament.
Here is a list of all the posts in the series;
- The Gospel the Apostles Preached (current)
- The Gospel is a Historical Narrative
- Brief description of the Gospel
- Applications of the Gospel
- The Gospel and the Law of Moses
- Some Concluding Observations
This first post addresses what the early church believed the apostles preached as the gospel.
Papias (c.e. 60-130)
Papias is the first early church father I would like to quote about. The quote comes from Eusebius another early church father (Hist. Eccl., iii. 39).
“A matter of primary importance, a tradition regarding Mark who wrote the GOSPEL, which he [Papias] has given in the following words]: 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. [This is what is related by Papias regarding Mark]”
(Papias. (1885). Fragments of Papias. In A. Roberts, J. Donaldson, & A. C. Coxe (Eds.), The Apostolic Fathers with Justin Martyr and Irenaeus (Vol. 1, pp. 154–155). Buffalo, NY: Christian Literature Company.)
Notably this same quote is also alluded to by John Dickson in his The Best Kept Secret of Christian Mission making the point that Mark wrote down what Peter preached as the gospel. This became recognised as the Gospel according to Mark.
Its interesting to note, Papias claims Mark’s gospel does not relate what Jesus said in chronological order. Rather he accurately recorded what Peter related and this depended on the needs of his audiences. Perhaps we can say from this Peter did not always repeat the whole story of Jesus (every word and deed). Rather he selected a small section of the story – something Jesus said or did – to share with his audience.
Papias then records;
“[But with regard to Matthew he has made the following statements]: Matthew put together the oracles [of the Lord] in the Hebrew language, and each one interpreted them as best he could. [The same person uses proofs from the First Epistle of John, and from the Epistle of Peter in like manner. And he also gives another story of a woman who was accused of many sins before the Lord, which is to be found in the Gospel according to the Hebrews.]” (ibid)
I will discuss this statement below.
Ireneaus (c.e. 130-202)
The next quote is from an early church father named Ireneaus (c. 130-202)
“For, after our Lord rose from the dead, [the apostles] were invested with power from on high when the Holy Spirit came down [upon them], were filled from all [His gifts], and had perfect knowledge: they departed to the ends of the earth, preaching the glad tidings of the good things [sent] from God to us, and proclaiming the peace of heaven to men, who indeed do all equally and individually possess the Gospel of God.
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.
After their departure, Mark, the disciple and interpreter of Peter, did also hand down to us in writing what had been preached by Peter.
Luke also, the companion of Paul, recorded in a book the GOSPEL preached by him.
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.”
(Ch 1, Ireneaus, Against Heresies, Book III, Ante-Nicene Fathers Volume 1 – Enhanced Version (Early Church Fathers)
Ireneaus makes the same sort of point as Papias did. The gospel the apostles preached was written down in four versions. They became the four Gospels Matthew, Mark, Luke and John.
The gospels are called the gospel by the early church because they believed they are the gospel.
Note the dates of these quotes. They are made during the lifetimes of the apostles (Papias) and soon after they apostles died (Ireneaus). This is what people were saying about their ministry and about the gospel.
Today we distinguish between the ‘Gospels’ (Plural) and the ‘gospel’ (Singular). We normally refer to the Gospels with a capital ‘G’ to refer to Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. Otherwise we believe the ‘gospel’, this time lower case ‘g’ to refer to the message the apostles preached and used to save people.
The early church believed they were one and the same.
The ‘Gospel’ = The ‘Gospels’ = ‘the gospel according to’ = the ‘gospel’. Sometimes they might refer to the Gospels – meaning the four variations Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. At other times they refer to the Gospel – meaning the whole story of Jesus which probably is a combination of all.
In the next post we will consider this a little further.
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