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   On the Number, Order, Agreement and Discrepancies of the Gospels
Preface - Chapter II

Very many in the olden time wrote gospels, especially heretics, and attributed them to Apostles, giving them the names of Apostles, that they might in this manner gain a sanction for their heresies. “Thus,” says S. Jerome, “these were the authoritative books of various heresies, published by various authors, such as the gospel according to the Egyptians, the gospel of Thomas, of Matthias, of Bartholomew, of The twelve Apostles, of Basilides, of Apelles, and others which it would be tedious to enumerate. For now it is necessary to say only this: that certain men rose up, who without the Spirit and grace of God attempted rather to weave a tale than to compile historical truth. To these men may justly be applied the words of the prophet, Woe unto them that prophesy out of their own heart, and follow their own spirit, who say, The Lord saith, whereas the Lord hath not sent them (Ezechial 13). Of such the Savior also speaks in the gospel of S. John, All others, as many as have come [before Me] were thieves and robbers.... From all these things combined, it may be clearly seen that four gospels only ought to be received, and that we should beware of all the follies of the Apocryphal gospels, which are the utterances of dead heretics, rather than of Church fathers.”

There are then only four canonical gospels, and the Church has proved them to be so by the teaching and tradition of the Apostles. For S. Peter gave his sanction to the gospel of S. Mark, S. Paul to that of S. Luke, the Apostles unitedly to that of S. Matthew, for when they were about to go away to their several provinces, they carried it with them. All the bishops of Asia, and the rest of the faithful are witnesses to the gospel of S. John. Occasionally Origen and S. Jerome quote the “gospel according to the Hebrews” as the work of S. Matthew; although it seems to have been the same with his gospel, it has been depraved by additions from various sources, so that it is of doubtful and uncertain authority. S. Jerome, nevertheless, translated it out of Hebrew into Latin. This is what he says about it in his catalogue of illustrious men, speaking of James, the Lord’s brother: “The gospel which is called according to the Hebrews, I have lately translated into Greek and Latin.
Origen frequently quotes it. It makes the following mention of James after the Savior’s resurrection. ‘When the Lord had given a linen cloth to the priest’s servant, He went and appeared unto James. For James had sworn that he would not eat bread from the hour in which he had drank of the Lord’s chalice, until he beheld Him risen from the dead.’ And again, ‘Bring forth,’ saith the Lord, ‘bread and a table,’ adding immediately, ‘He took bread, and blessed it, and brake, and gave it unto James the Just, and saith unto him, My Brother, eat thy bread, for the Son of Man hath arisen from among them that slept.’” Thus far Jerome, who in the same work, speaking of Ignatius, says, “Ignatius wrote an epistle to the Smyrnaeans, in which he quotes a passage from the gospel which has been recently translated by me, giving testimony about the Person of Christ, saying, ‘I indeed, even after His resurrection, have seen Him in the flesh, and I believe that He is. And when He came unto Peter, and unto them which were with Peter, He saith unto them, Behold Me, and touch Me, for I am not an incorporeal spirit. And immediately they touched Him, and believed.’” Origen, moreover (tom. 2 in Joan.), cites from the same gospel, “Christ hath said, ‘Presently My Mother, the Holy Ghost, received Me, and carried Me by one of My hairs to Mount Tabor.’” This sentence, unless it be construed favorably, seems to contain the Gnostic heresy of the Valentinians, who asserted that the Holy Ghost was the Mother of Christ.

Origen, however, defends it thus, that the Holy Ghost is not called the Mother of Christ by generation, but by imitation, forasmuch as He imitated His Father, and conformed Himself to His will. This seems to be a poor defense. Bede also praises [quotes] this gospel, and asserts that it was approved by the ancients. But however this may be, it is certain that it is not canonical, and has not the authority of sacred scripture. This gospel according to the Hebrews was also called the gospel of the Nazarenes, because the Nazarenes made use of it. Hear S. Jerome (in cap. 12 Matth. v. 13) where he is speaking of Christ healing the withered hand: “In the gospel used by the Nazarenes and the Ebionites (which I have recently translated out of the Hebrew language into Greek, and which is considered by many an authentic work of Matthew), the man who had the withered hand is said to have been a mason. These are the words in which he cried for help. “‘There was a certain mason who gained his living by the use of his hands, who cried out unto Him and said, I pray Thee, Jesus, that Thou wouldst restore me to soundness, that I may not disgracefully beg my bread.’”

The Nazarenes were Jews who were converted to Christ, who, because they kept the law of Moses together with the gospel, were cast out of the Church. The Hebrew Gospel of S. Matthew, which they kept at first genuine and intact, they seem to have subsequently corrupted by certain additions, in the same way that the Ebionites and Carpocratians did.

You may ask why there are precisely four Evangelists and four gospels, neither more nor less. Various authors give various reasons. 1. S. Augustine (lib. 1 de Consensu Evang. cap. 2) answers, because there are four quarters of the world in which the gospel must be preached. “Because there are four quarters of the world, and the gospels proclaimed from the start, as it were, by their very number that Christ’s Church was to be extended through the whole world.”

2. These four are, so to speak, “the four pillars of the Church, on which as on a squared stone, the sacred structure of the Faith is built.” So says S. Gregory (lib. 1, epist. 24). For buildings are made in the form of a square, so that they may be firm. Hence the heavenly Jerusalem, too, is said to be built on a square (Apoc. 21:16).

3. Because the number four is solid and square, therefore it denotes the solidity and perfection of the gospels. Whence Philo (lib. de mundi opificio) says: “The number four first shows the nature of a solid: for a point is reckoned in unity, a line by duality; when breadth is added, a surface pertains to the number three; for a surface to become a solid body it lacks one thing, namely height; when this is added, we have the number four.” Augustine likewise says (lib. 83 quaestionum, q. 57), “The progression from a point to a length, from a length to a width, from a width to a height makes the solidity of a body, which in turn contains the number four.” Furthermore, it should not be overlooked (says Philo) that the number four is the first rectangular number, two times two, the measure of equity and justice, and hence of all virtue. Hence Aristotle (lib. 1 Rhetor. cap. 12) compares a perfect man with a square. For this number is the first product of a number by itself, and thus is the measure of a just and equitable man. It contains the three-fold dimension of a solid body plus a point. Finally, the number four contains the number ten, which is the most perfect of all, their cause, basis, and source. For if all the numbers from one to four are added, they make ten. Add 1, 2, 3, and 4, and you have ten.

4. Others assign as the reason, that there are just so many letters in the Hebrew Name of God, which is called the Tetragrammaton הוהי, representing the four primary attributes of God, which are unfolded in the gospels. Others say, because there were four rivers in Paradise.Thus say S. Augustine (13 Civit. cap. 21) and S. Jerome (in Prol. S. Matth.). But these are all mystical and symbolical reasons. Our Joannes de la Haye lists as many as twenty such reasons, or rather, symbolical analogies
(in apparatu Evangelico, cap. 29).

5. The literal and real reason is because, just as there are four cherubim in the court of heaven, as it were the princes and wise ones of God, so too in the Church on earth it is fitting that there should be four Evangelists, as it were, princes and cherubim of Christ. This is plain from the first chapter of Ezechiel, where he depicts these four cherubim with four faces [“stemmata”, “crowns”], as representing the four attributes of God. Add that two of the Evangelists, in the beginning of their gospels, speak of the two natures of Christ—Matthew of His human, John of His divine nature. The other two speak of the two-fold dignity of Christ—Mark of His royal, Luke of His sacerdotal dignity. So says Ruperti (cap. 7), on the first chapter of Ezechiel. “For Christ was a man by being born, a calf by dying, a lion by rising again, an eagle by ascending,” says S. Jerome (Praefat. in Marcum—or whoever is the author, for the style indicates that it is not S. Jerome). That cherubic cart, then, is the gospel chariot, drawn, as it were, by four horses, that is to say, the four Evangelists, making the circuit of the world. Hence the application of the four cherubim, which Ezechiel saw (ch. 1) and S. John mentions (Apocal. 4), to signify the four Evangelists, is given by S. Jerome, S. Athanasius, S. Augustine, S. Irenaeus, S. Gregory, S. Ambrose, Bede, and the rest of the fathers and commentators, by a unanimous consensus.

Listen to S. Jerome (epist. 103, ad Paulinum), “Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John are the Lord’s chariot, the true cherubim, which means “the multitude of knowledge”, whose bodies are all full of eyes, who give forth sparks, run to and fro like lightnings, have straight feet, and who are borne aloft; who have their backs covered with wings, and who fly in all directions. They each take hold of one another, they are mutually intertwined, they revolve as a wheel within a wheel, and they proceed whithersoever the breathing of the Holy Spirit leadeth them.”

Now, the cherubim of Ezechiel had four faces and four forms, namely, of a Lion, a Man, a Calf, and an Eagle. Hence S. John, in the Apocalypse (ch. 4), calls them four living creatures. The first living creature, he says, was like a lion, and the second living creature like a calf, and the third living creature, having the face, as it were, of a man, and the fourth living creature was like an eagle flying.

The Lion denotes S. Mark, whose face, i.e., the beginning of his gospel, is the cry and the roar of S. John the Baptist in the wilderness, Repent ye, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand. The Calf denotes S. Luke, who commences his gospel with the ancient priesthood (whose victim was a calf) and with Zacharias, who was the father of the Baptist. The Man denotes S. Matthew, who begins with the human genealogy of Christ. The Eagle denotes S. John, who, soaring aloft from earth to heaven, balances himself like an eagle, and thunders forth, as it were, that divine exordium, In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. Deservedly does S. Dionysius [Denis] the Areopagite, in his epistle to the same John, call him “the Sun of the gospel,” and his gospel itself the memory and the renewal of that theology which he drew from the Lord as he reclined upon His breast and left to be beheld in his gospel by those who came after, like a ray of the sun.

Listen to S. Jerome in his Preface to S. Matthew: “Therefore these four gospels were foretold long in advance, as the Book of Ezechiel proves, in which the first vision is related as follows: And in the midst thereof the likeness of four living creatures... And as for the likeness of their faces, there was the face of a man, and the face of a lion... and the face of an ox... and the face of an eagle. The first face, of a man, signifies Matthew, who began to write as though about a man: The book of the generation of Jesus Christ, the son of David, the son of Abraham. The second signifies Mark, in which the voice of the lion roaring in the desert is heard: Prepare the way of the Lord, make straight His paths. The third face, of the Calf, prefigures the Evangelist, Luke, who begins his narrative with Zacharias the priest. The fourth face symbolizes John the Evangelist, who, having taken the wings of an eagle, hurries on to the heights and expounds upon the word of God.”

Moreover, these four living creatures signify the four primary attributes of Christ, His crowns, so to speak. Indeed the lion signifies regal power, which He displayed most fully in His resurrection from the dead and the tomb. For just as the lion is the king of beasts, so too Christ is the king of the faithful, that is, of all men and angels. The calf denotes His priesthood, which He, offering Himself on the cross to God the Father as a holocaust and victim for sin, exercised and consummated. The man represents His humanity, taken from the Virgin, and His words and deeds. The eagle symbolizes His Divinity and ascension into heaven. Each one of these living creatures had four faces, because each of the four gospels contains the beginnings of the other three Evangelists, and thus the whole gospel account, as Primasius has noted correctly. (See commentary at Ezechiel 1:28 and Apocalypse 4.) S. Augustine explains these four somewhat differently (lib. 1 de Consensu Evang. cap. 3; lib. 4, cap. 10), as do S. Jerome
(lib. 1 contra Jovin.) and Rupertus. Matthew, they say, especially sets forth the royal dignity in Christ’s humanity; Mark, the prophetic dignity, Luke, the priestly power, and John the divine nature. For Christ was King, Prophet, Priest and God.

Now, as for their order in time: S. Matthew wrote the first gospel, S. Mark the second, S. Luke the third, and S. John the fourth. Listen to S. Jerome (Prooemio in S. Matth.): “First of all is Matthew the publican, surnamed Levi, who published a gospel in Judea in the Hebrew language, chiefly for the sake of those from among the Jews who had believed in Jesus, but who still observed the shadow of the old law, after the truth of the gospel had come in its place. The second is Mark, the interpreter of the Apostle Peter, and first bishop of the Church of Alexandria, who had not indeed himself seen the Lord, the Savior; but related the things which he had heard his master preach, rather according to the truth of what was done, than the order. The third is Luke the physician, a Syrian by nationality, an Antiochene, whose praise is in the gospel. He, a disciple of the Apostle Paul, composed his work in the parts of Achaia and Baeotia. He aimed somewhat loftily; and as he himself confesses in his preface, narrated what he had heard rather than what he had seen. The last is John, the Apostle and Evangelist, who loved Jesus very greatly, and who, reclining upon the Lord’s bosom, drank of the very purest streams of doctrine, and who alone was privileged to hear from the Cross, Behold thy Mother.

Hear S. Augustine (lib. 1 de Consensu Evang. cap. 2): “First Matthew, then Mark, thirdly Luke, lastly John. Hence, too, [it would appear that] these had one order determined among them with regard to the matters of their personal knowledge and their preaching [of the gospel], but a different order in reference to the task of giving the written narrative. As far, indeed, as concerns the acquisition of their own knowledge and the charge of preaching, those unquestionably came first in order who were actually followers of the Lord when He was present in the flesh, and who heard Him speak and saw Him act; and [with a commission received] from His lips they were dispatched to preach the gospel. But as respects the task of composing that record of the gospel which is to be accepted as ordained by divine authority, there were (only) two, belonging to the number of those whom the Lord chose before His passion, that obtained places, namely, the first place and the last. For the first place in order was held by Matthew, and the last by John. And thus the remaining two, who did not belong to the number referred to, but who at the same time had become followers of the Christ who spoke in these others, were supported on either side by the same, like sons who were to be embraced, and who in this way were set in the midst between these twain. Of these four, it is true, only Matthew is reckoned to have written in the Hebrew language; the others in Greek.”

These four so appropriately wrote the words and deeds of Christ, that they seem to make a kind of musical harmony of four chords; for what each one writes is different in style from the others, but agrees with them in meaning and in facts. What one is silent about, another supplies: what one gives concisely, another relates more at large: what one obscurely hints at, another gives at length. As S. Augustine says, “Although each seems to have preserved his own order in writing, yet it does not seem that any one chose to write in ignorance of a predecessor’s work, or to omit things unknown to him which are found written elsewhere; but as each was inspired, he added the not superfluous cooperation of his own labor.”

I shall make more observations of this sort in the canons (listed below), where I will show how disparate is their agreement, and how harmonious their discrepancies, and at the same time I will demonstrate how sweet this discordant quality of their harmony makes the melody and ensemble of their history.

Lastly, this counterpoint [diaphonia] of the Evangelists is the greatest possible testimony to their truthfulness, says S. Chrysostom (praefat. in Matth.). “If altogether and in every respect they exactly corresponded, and with the utmost precision were in perfect agreement with respect to all times and places mentioned and even to the use of the same vocabulary, there is not one of our enemies but would believe, that they were engaged in a common design to deceive, and that they had framed the gospels by human understanding, for they would not judge that such overwrought agreement was a sign of simplicity.” And again, he says, “If any one whatsoever had related everything, the others would have been superfluous: or if again, on the other hand, each had written nothing which was found in the others, but only new material, there could have been no proof of their agreement. Wherefore they have written many things in common, and yet each hath related something specially and peculiarly his own. And thus they have escaped the charge of writing superfluously and impertinently, without adding anything new, as well as the opposite danger of bringing discredit upon everything, by each saying entirely different things.”