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The Problem of the Fourth Gospel



With a change of outlook for the Early Church1 and a growing consciousness of new needs2 a demand sprang up for records of the earthly life of Jesus, and hence the birth of a distinctively Christian literature3. In other words, men started on the composition of 'books'; and these in course of time were designated by a term which, passing from its original meaning4, was used in the first instance of the oral message and then of the document wherein the 'glad tidings' was contained: the 'One Gospel' — as set forth by the several pen-men; 'the Gospels,' their respective works. And there is abundant proof of much industrious activity, at a very early period, in the new field. The allusion Lk, i, 1 ff. is significant; and, although the word 'many' does not necessarily imply an extensive library, it would scarcely have teen used by the Evangelist had but some two or three sources only have been at his command. Other evidence is available; and it consists, not in 'Christian romances' which belong to a somewhat later day, but in fragments of writings approximately near in date to the Canonical Gospels, together with possible allusions to one not otherwise known. It may accordingly be said of the Canonical Gospels that they are really specimens of a type or class of literature which, highly popular, spread far and wide.

A time came when the four Bible Gospels—the 'holy quaternion'

1 A realization that the 'Coming of the Lord' might be delayed, cf. 2 Pet. iii, 8 ff. Here and in some following paragraphs I have ventured to draw on a paper (on the Synoptic Problem) contributed by me to CBE.

2 By reason of (i) the dying off of men who had seen and known Jesus, and (ii) the spread of the new religion.

3 As distinguished from correspondence; the occasional writings known as 'Epistles.'

4 ευαγγελιον, the reward given to the bearer of good tidings. See Julicher, Einl. p. 252.


Eusebius—were fenced off as it were from other writings of the same family, 'canonized.' To mark off separate stages in the process is impossible; no express information is forthcoming, and it is a right view which suggests that the 'canonization' of all the New Testament writings was the issue of an unconscious growth. That no special sanctity attached at the outset to the Gospels is clear both from the attitude of Evangelist to Evangelist1, and also from the fact that when Tatian substituted his Diatessaron for them in all good faith exception was not taken to his action or to the 'harmony' which of course witnessed to an importance they already possessed. How precisely it came about that four Gospels were singled out from the rest, placed side by side, accounted authoritative and sacred, is not fully known; what can be said is that, as time went on, 'the caskets which enshrined the jewel of traditions concerning Jesus were identified with the jewel itself; and, if the completion of the New Testament Canon as a whole cannot be dated earlier than the close of the Fourth century (in the case of Eastern churches somewhat later), it is certain that the Gospels had long before attained a position of supremacy in by far the larger part of the Christendom of the age. For Irenaeus they are 'Holy Scripture,' and he gives fanciful reasons as to why they are precisely four in number2.

Or to put it thus: the 'many' Gospels in circulation had been subjected to such tests as the critical acumen and spiritual insight of the day could apply; by degrees the superiority of some and the inferiority of others was determined; in the event four and four only were deemed worthy to survive, and they, the Canonical Gospels, remained masters of the field3.

They did not invariably stand in the to us accustomed order. No fewer than seven different arrangements have been reckoned up, of which two only however appear to have been at all widespread; the sequence Matthew, John, Luke, Mark4, and the more generally favoured sequence of the ordinary Bible5. These two

1 To wit, the free handling of our Second Gospel by the First and Third Evangelists.

2 Euseb. HE, v. 8.

3 Ecclesia quatuor habet evangelia, haereses plurima (Origen).

4 So in the Monarchian Prologues.

5 The order which obtains in the Muratorian Canon.


arrangements, it is suggested, are alike significant; in the former case of values placed on the respective Gospels—those attributed to Apostles ranking above those attributed to disciples of the Apostles; the more familiar sequence being based on chronological principle, John regarded as last and Matthew first in order of composition1. As for the titles of the Gospels; in the earliest MSS. one general title, ΕΥΑΓΓΕΛΙΟΝ, covers the four, the separate books being simply headed ΚΑΤΑ ΜΑΘΘΑΙΟΝ and so forth. These titles are not to be assigned to the authors themselves; they were prefixed by others, and probably date from the period when the four Gospels were so collected together as to form one whole. And it is a safe assumption that those who prefixed them regarded, and meant to indicate, Matthew, Mark, Luke and John as authors of the Gospels so named2. Whether the verdict thus pronounced was well founded is quite another matter, and it is the business of students of Christian history to apply modern and approved tests.

To turn from such preliminary considerations to our Gospel. While the first three Gospels are 'sister-works,' it stands, as all admit, in a distinct category, by itself apart, and not only because of its position in the Canon but for other reasons3 it is more frequently termed the 'Fourth Gospel' in the diction of Biblical research. And the subject to be approached and provisionally determined in this chapter is one which hinges on the question of its approximate date.

There are two extreme limits beyond which there is no need to travel in our search.

First; in the eyes of Irenaeus all four Gospels are Holy Scripture. Judging from the manner of his allusions, the rank thus acquired by them, however gradually, had ceased to be a novelty in the period marked by his literary activities4; and the inference

1 So Julicher.

2 The word κατα might mean 'as used by,' or 'as taught by,' or imply direct authorship. The latter meaning is the one to be adopted. See Volkmar (Die Evangelien, p. ix f.), who has made some caustic remarks on the subject.

3 To avoid committals in respect to authorship, etc.

4 Irenaeus, a native of Asia Minor, was born ca. A.D. 135-142. He may have paid several visits to Rome, but the scene of his chief activities lay in Gaul; a presbyter of the Church of Lyons he became its bishop ca. A.D. 178: his death took place some ten or fifteen years later. One of his works (Adv. Haer.) is dated ca. A.D. 180-190.


is safe that they had so ranked for some little time. 'John' was one of those Gospels. Whether it be the case or not that its attachment to the Synoptic group had been attended with hesitation, it could have been no very recent work when Irenaeus said his say. Nor is this all. Some years earlier, as it would appear, it had been already commented upon by Heracleon1.

Hence the terminus ad quem can by no possibility be referred to a date later than the last decade but two of the second century.

In the second place. There is a strong consensus of opinion, at all events it is now widely allowed, that the Synoptic Gospels were known to, or known of by, the Fourth Evangelist2. The conclusion naturally follows that the terminus a quo for the composition of his own Gospel is the date assignable to the latest of the 'sister-works'; and accordingly, by reason of the admitted priority of Mark, the choice rests between the Matthaean and the Lucan Gospels.

What of their respective dates? 'The great authorities differ'; as for the First Gospel, there is no certainty whether as to authorship, locality or date; it may point to the close of the first century, or it may present features quite compatible with an earlier period; a cautious verdict finds much which, forbidding a date earlier than ca. A.D. 80, does 'not require one later than 1003'; between the

1 Probably the first to write a commentary on the Fourth Gospel. A native of Alexandria, he was a disciple Of Valentinus, and flourished ca, A.D. 145-180. Bleek (Beitrage zur Evangelien-Kritik, p. 215) remarks; 'Die Erklarungen des Heracleon zeigen aufs deutlichste dass er das Evlgm, als eine in anerkanntem Ansehen stehende Schrift vorgefunden hat.' Cf. Stanton, GHD, i, p. 258; Loisy, op. cit. p. 17.

2 EB, ii, col. 2540; Forbes, The Johan. Literature, p. 154; Loisy, op. cit. p. 60. Moffatt (op. cit. p. 534) writes: 'the only Gospel about which there need by any hesitation is that of Lk,' but (see p. 581) his hesitation is evidently slight, as well it may be. Schleiermacher (Einl. ins N.T. p. 317) found reasons why 'John' could not have known the Syn. Gospels. Calmes (L'Evan. selon Saint-Jean, p. 8) is doubtful in regard to literary dependence. See also Wendt, Die Schichten im vierten Evglm. p. 107. According to Cludius (Uransichten des Christenthums, pp. 61 f.) the Fourth Evangelist could not possibly have known Matthew. It is noteworthy that the Fourth Gospel was held by Semler (see Lange, Das Evglm. Joh. p 26) to be the earliest of all the Gospels. See also Schleiermacher, Einl. p. 331.

3 McNeile, St Matthew, p. xxviii.


years '70 and 100' is about all that can be said1. In like manner with the Gospel which bears the name of Luke; it is held by not a few that 'the decade from A.D. 70 to A.D. 80 is the probable date2,' or that there are grounds for preferring 'the intermediate date of A.D. 75-803.' Allowance must be made for some developement of Gospel literature, while, if the Third Evangelist had actually read Josephus4, the first century would be nearing its end when he wrote.

The situation is precarious. It would appear that refuge must be taken in an 'either — or.' If the terminus a quo does not lie within the decade A.D. 70-80, it cannot well be pushed back earlier than A.D. 95; and indeed ca. A.D. 95-100 might be nearer the mark.

Let us now cast about for such evidence as may go near, if not all the way, to suggest a date later than to which the composition of the Fourth Gospel cannot be referred.

An appeal, it may be, lies to the second Petrine Epistle; which, not by St Peter, is, according to a recent conjecture, a composite work wherein are embedded genuine Apostolic fragments5. Here attention is arrested by the statement 2 Pet. i, 14, it being, in any case, strongly reminiscent of Jn xxi, 18 ff.6; but the question may, of course, be of mere coincidence or of independent allusion to accomplished fact. Yet a possibility remains that an author who wrote ca. A.D. 160-1757 was leaning on the Fourth Gospel.

The region for search now lies outside the Canon of the Testament.

1 J. Weiss, SNT, i, p. 230.

2 Adeney, St Luke (CB), p. 32.

3 Plummer, St Luke, p. xxxi.

4 Burkitt, Gosp. Hist. pp. 105 ff.; Forbes, op. cit. p. 164.

5 E. Iliff Robson, Studies in 2nd Ep. of St Peter.

6 De Wette, Lehrbuch der histor.-krit. Einl. in die kanon. Bucher des N.T. p. 225. But see Schenkel, Das Charakterbild Jesu, p. 250. Remarking on 1 Pet. i, 19; Jn i, 29, P. Ewald (Das Hauptproblem der Evangelienfrage, p. 70) discovers 'Johanneische Materialien im ersten Petrusbriefe.'

7 So Harnack. With others the date ranges between A.D. 100 and A.D. 175. According to Hollman (SNT, ii, p. 574) 2nd Pet. is the latest of all the N.T. writings.


Passing reference may be made to the little sect nick-named by Epiphanius the Alogi. They will be heard of again; the point here is that ca. A.D. 175 — 'or possibly ten years or so earlier' — they testify to the existence of the Fourth Gospel, if in such a way as to show that its authority 'was as yet not firmly established1.' The fact that they could assign its authorship to Cerinthus is perhaps significant of a work of by no means recent composition.

Are hints forthcoming from the so-called Second Epistle of Clement — 'no letter but a homily' — which, originating possibly at Rome or Corinth, is assigned to the period A.D. 120-140 or 1502? There is similarity of idea as to the Incarnation, with phraseology held to be at least suggestive of the Prologue (Jn i, 1 fi.) of the Fourth Gospel3. Yet dependence is not proved; and perhaps the facts of the case are fairly satisfied by the hypothesis that the 'pseudo-Clement had resort to a source fusing the forms found in Luke and Matthew' 'with such additions as made it correspond more completely to the notion of Christ's Gospel4.'

To turn to the Shepherd of Hermas. The work of a single author who, it may be, spent five years and upwards in its composition, it seems to have made its appearance somewhere in the decade A.D. 130-140; turns and phrases are met with in it to which at first sight there appear to be definite parallels in the Johannine Gospel. A Johannine colouring may be admitted; but whether occasional coincidence or similarity of figure or expression be conclusive for direct literary connexion is doubtful; and, albeit four Gospels are perhaps symbolized by the 'bench with four feet' (Vis. iii, 13) and 'four ranks in the foundatioa of the tower' (Sim. ix, 4) of which Hermas tells, it does not follow that he is a witness to the Fourth Gospel itself.

The case is scarcely otherwise with, the remarkable work which, discovered

1 Stanton, op. cit. i, p. 210. The whole section dealing with the Alogi should be read. See also Loisy, op. cit. pp. 18 ff.

2 RGG, i, col. 553.

3 See Loisy, op. cit. p. 3.

4 NTAF (Oxf. Soc. of Hist. Theology) p. 125. The reader is advised to consult this work; it is laid under contribution in regard to the writings now under consideration.


was published in 1883; the Didache, The Teaching of The Twelve Apostles. There is however, wide diversity of opinion in respect of date; and if it be a relatively late work1, it ceases to be of value in the present search. Nor does the evidence forthcoming from it go for much; the figure of the vine (Did. ix, 2) is but slightly reminiscent of Jn xv, 1; 'the point of closest resemblance is that the Didache, like the Fourth Gospel, does not connect the spiritual food with the specific ideas of the institution' of the Eucharist.

Neither is there any sure guidance in the Epistle which, probably originating in Egypt, bears the name of Barnabas; for, whether of relatively early date or not—A.D. 100-140, or A.D. 70-1002—the connecting links are few, and at most such as to suggest a phraseology not so much borrowed as already current coin.

Johannine resemblances are certainly met with in the Epistle addressed to the Corinthians by Clement of Rome, but they hardly prove dependence, and a probability must be reckoned with that, when Clement wrote, ca. A.D. 95 or 96, the Fourth Gospel had not yet come into existence3.

We now question Justin Martyr4. In the crucial passage express mention is made by him of 'memoirs* compiled by Christ's Apostles and those who companioned with them5; and, although the hypothesis has been advanced6 that, not without knowledge of the Canonical Gospels, Justin really used a single work, the reference is best accounted for by the supposition that the 'memoirs' were none other than the works which bear the names of the Apostles

1 Harnack places it bewteen A.D. 130 and A.D. 160; Knopf (RGG, i, col. 553) extends the limits from A.D. 90 to A.D. 150.

2 RGG, i, col. 552.

3 Calmes (op. cit. pp 49 ff.) argues for the dependence of Clem. Rom. on the Fourth Gospel.

4 His birthplace Sychem and of Greek parentage, Justin (refusing to discard his philosopher's cloak) became a convert at the age of thirty, and gained rnown for his vigourous defense of Christianity against the pagans. He was beheaded at Rome about the year A.D. 165. His extant writings consist of two Apologies and a Dialogue with Trypho the Jew.

5 Dial. 103:

6 E.g. by Credner. See Stanton, op. cit. pp. 76 ff., on the whole question. Also Ezra Abbott, Fourth Gospel, pp. 16 ff.


Matthew and John and of the disciples of Apostles viz. Mark and Luke1. Justin's Christology is essentially Johannine; it is true that he nowhere expressly names the Fourth Gospel, but there is, in the eyes of many, amply sufficient evidence that it was not only known to him but actually used2. The assumption accordingly is that, by the year A.D. 1613 at the very latest, our Gospel was already well known, while perhaps not as yet ranked with the Synoptics.

It may be that Justin both knew and used the docetic Gospel which, bearing the name of Peter4, enjoyed popularity (ca. A.D. 200) at Rhossus in Cilicia and justly excited the suspicions of Serapion5. In it there appear to be points of contact6 which suggest that the Fourth Gospel was known to, and very freely handled by, the docetist writer whose work, if really used by Justin, cannot be later than ca. A.D. 150, while it may stretch as far back as A.D. 1307. If such be really the case the heretical work would become a relatively early witness to the existence of our Gospel.

Whether our Gospel was actually known to Papias8 is a moot point, and as his name will come up in another connexion, no appeal shall be made now to the Bishop of Hierapolis. Nor will it serve the immediate purpose to instance Polyearp9; he too will be referred to later on, and here it shall suffice to say that no conclusive proof of dependence is discovered in the Epistle addressed by him to the Philippians. Opinion differs in regard to Ignatius10;

1 EB, i, col. 677. According to Lutzelberger (Die Kirchl. Tradition uber den Apos. Joh. p. 250) Justin's four Gospels were Mt., Mk, Lk. and Peter = Hebr.

2 Loisy, op. cit. pp. 14 f.; Heitmuller, SNT, ii, p. 709. Otherwise Schwegler, Der Montanismus und die christl. Kirche, p. 184.

3 So Stanton, and see Calmes, op. cit. p. 15 f.

4 See Rendel Harris, Newly-recovered Gospel of Peter.

5 Euseb. HE, vi, 12.

6 Loisy, op. cit. p. 15 f.

7 RGG, i, col. 547.

8 Flourished ca. A.D. 70 (80)-140. W. Bauer (HBNT, II, ii, p. 5) regards it as probable that he knew our Gospel. Larfeld (Die beiden Johannes von Ephesus, p. 185) refuses to admit of any doubt. Heitmuller (SNT, ii, p. 709) wisely contents himself with a 'perhaps.' Schleiermacher (op. cit. p. 243) advanced grounds which made it clear to him that Papias did not know 'John.'

9 Bishop of Smyrna. The date of his martyrdom is placed by Eusebius (HE, iv. 15) ca. A.D. 166.

10 Bishop of Antioch, martyred at Rome during the reign of Trajan. His genuine Epistles (Shorter Greek recension) are dated within the years A.D. 109-116. Harnack (Chron. i, p. 719) writes: '110-117; perhaps, but improbably, a few years later.'


on the one hand it is urged that, in his Christology, he is dependent on 'John1,' on the other hand flat negations come as a matter of course from quarters where the Gospel is relegated to a long subsequent date. More cautiously is it said that its use by the martyr, if highly probable, falls some way short of certainty, and prudence might be content to note features which are highly suggestive of 'the Johannine world of thought and phrase2.'

But that the beautiful Epistle to Diognetus3 is an unsolved riddle in respect of writer and addressee, of locality and date, it might be summoned as an earlier witness inasmuch as Johannine notes ring out in it, and, were we to take its accomplished author at his word ('a disciple of the Apostles'), the conclusion might follow that it was composed in the reign of Trajan. The possibility is, however, that it originated in a considerably later period4.

The name of Heracleon, already instanced, now points us, if only for a moment, to his predecessors in those great movements of thought which, more or less tinged with Christian ideas, culminated in the 'boldest and grandest Syncretism the world had beheld5'; but, as the question of Gnosticism will be later, it may suffice to remark here that adequate ground is discovered for the belief that ca. A.D. 135 'John's' Gospel was highly esteemed by Basilides6 and was well known to the Valentinians7, if doubt arises in the case of the master himself8.

1 Loisy, op. cit. p. 6. To the same effect Lightfoot, Zahn and others.

2 Wendt, op. cit. pp. 176 f. Indications of the use of Ignatius do not seem to Stanton (op. cit. i, p. 19) 'to be altogether wanting, although they are not so full and clear as might have been expected.' Bardsley (JTS, xiv, pp. 207 f.) writes with greater confidence. On the other hand Schwegler (op. cit. p. 159) writes: 'die Verfasser der ignatian. Briefe tragen jene Lehre (sc. die Logoslehre) ohne, wie es scheint, das Johan. Evglm. zu kennen, bereits in ziemlich asgebildeter Gestalt vor.'

3 First printed by H. Stephens in 1592, the one then extant MS. perished at Strasburg in the Franco-German war. A transcript (made by Stephens) is preserved at Leyden.

4 Bardenhewer prefers to think of the third century.

5 Kurtz, Ch. Hist. i, p. 99.

6 Basilides flourished ca. A.D. 117-138. About all that is known of him is that he taught at Alexandria, perhaps also at Antioch and in Persia. His teaching survives mainly in allusions by his opponents, e.g. Clem. Alex.; of his Exegetica but fragments are extant.

7 See on the whole question Scott-Moncrieff, St John Apos. Evang. and Prophet, pp. 240 ff.; also Stanton, op. cit. i, pp. 64 ff. (Basilides), pp. 69, 205 (Valentinus).

8 'Ob der Meister der Schule es gekannt hat ist fraglich,' W. Bauer, HBNT, II, ii, p. 5.


At this point we will pause in our search; and content ourselves, for the time being, with setting down such provisional conclusions as appear to be suggested by an inquiry which has not stepped outside the field of external evidence.

First in respect of a terminus ad quem. The question is not altogether easy to decide; for, in the case of certain Apostolic fathers, coincidence of idea and phrase is not in itself proof of actual acquaintance with the Fourth Gospel, while documents otherwise temptingly suggestive must be ruled out by reason of their obscure origination. This, at all events, appears certain; the extreme limit which points to the days of Irenaeus may be pushed back by several decades. The question then is: how much further back? An answer comes with the recognition that, albeit 'the first reliable traces of the existence of the Fourth Gospel are found in the Apology of Justin Martyr1,' there is warrant for the assumption of its use 'in the circles of Valentinian Gnosis2.'

The provisional terminus ad quem, accordingly, lies somewhere about the year A.D. 135.

Secondly. The question of the terminus a quo is encompassed with difficulty, in that it is contingent on the dating of the First and Third Gospels. It may, on the one hand, be discovered in the years ca. A.D. 75-80; on the other hand it may not be earlier than the close of the first century. At this stage no further word is possible.

In due course the Fourth Gospel will be itself questioned, and its approximate date more nearly determined from internal evidence presented by it, the tone and tenor of its contents. But it must be our first business to go into the question of its authorship in venerable tradition.

1 Heitmuller, SNT, ii, p. 709.

2 Moffatt, op. cit. p. 581.

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