Ten Basic Facts about the NT Canon that Every Christian Should Memorize: #5: “The Four Gospels are Well Established by the End of the Second Century”


Note: This is the fifth installment of a blog series announced here.

When it comes to basic facts about the NT canon that Christians should memorize, one of the most critical is the statement by Irenaeus, bishop of Lyons, around A.D. 180: “It is not possible that the gospels can be either more or fewer than the number they are.  For, since there are four zones of the world in which we live and four principle winds… [and] the cherubim, too, were four-faced.”[1]

Here Irenaeus not only affirms the canonicity the four gospels, but is keen to point out that only these four gospels are recognized by the church.   Indeed, Irenaeus is so certain that the canon of the gospels is closed that he can argue that it is entrenched in the very structure of creation—four zones of the world, four principle winds, etc.

In an effort to minimize the implications of Irenaeus’ statement, some scholars have suggested that only Irenaeus held this view.  He is thus portrayed as lonely, isolated, innovator who is trying to break into new and uncharted territory.  This whole idea of a fourfold gospel, we are told, was invented by Irenaeus.

But, does this Irenaeus-as-innovator approach fit the facts?  Not really.  There are several considerations that raise doubts about it:

1. Irenaeus’ own writings.  When Irenaeus talks about the fourfold gospel in his writings, he gives no indication that he is presenting a new idea, or that he is asking the reader to consider a new concept.  On the contrary, he speaks in a manner that assumes the reader knows and follows these same gospels.  He speaks of them naturally and unapologetically.  In short, Irenaeus does not write like a person advocating the scriptural status of these books for the first time.

2. Irenaeus’ contemporaries.  The idea that Irenaeus was alone runs into a serious challenge, namely that there were other writers at the end of the second century that affirmed these same four gospels as exclusive.  The Muratorian fragment, Clement of Alexandria, and Theophilus of Antioch are examples.   Apparently, Irenaeus was not the only one under the impression that the church had four gospels.

In addition, one should consider Tatian’s Diatesseron—a harmony of the four gospels written c.170.  The Diatesseron not only tells us that these four gospels were known and used, but it tells us that they were seen as authoritative enough to warrant harmonization.  After all, why would one bother harmonizing books that were not authoritative? If they weren’t authoritative, then it wouldn’t matter if they contradicted each other.

3. Irenaeus’ Predecessors. Although the evidence prior to Irenaeus is less clear, we can still see a commitment to the fourfold gospel.  For instance, Justin Martyr, writing c.150, refers to plural “gospels”[2] and at one point provides an indication of how many he has in mind when he describes these gospels as “drawn up by His apostles and those who followed them.”[3] Since such language indicates (at least) two gospels written by apostles, and (at least) two written by apostolic companions, it is most naturally understood as reference to our four canonical gospels.[4]

 This is confirmed by the fact that Justin cites from all three Synoptic Gospels,[5] and even seems to cite the gospel of John directly, “For Christ also said, ‘Except ye be born again, ye shall not enter into the kingdom of heaven’” (cf. John 3:3).[6]   The fact that Justin was the mentor for Tatian (who produced a harmony of the four gospels) provides yet another reason to think that he had a fourfold gospel.

In the end, there are ample reasons to reject the idea that Irenaeus was the inventor of the fourfold gospel canon.  Not only did his contemporaries have this same view, but this view was even shared by those before him.  Thus, we must consider the possibility that Irenaeus was actually telling the truth when he says that the fourfold gospel was something that was “handed down”[7] to him.

[1] Haer. 3.11.8.

[2] 1 Apol. 66.3.

[3] Dial. 103.

[4] G. Stanton, “The Fourfold Gospel,” NTS 43 (1997): 317–346.

[5] E.g., Dial 100.1; 103.8; 106.3-4.  Koester, Ancient Christian Gospels, 38, declares that the citations in Justin “derive from written gospels, usually from Matthew and Luke, in one instance from Mark.”

[6] 1 Apol. 61.4.

[7] Haer 3.1.1.


Ten Basic Facts about the NT Canon that Every Christian Should Memorize: #5: “The Four Gospels are Well Established by the End of the Second Century” — 5 Comments

  1. Hello Dr Kruger,

    I found you by way of the Gospel Coalition website.

    I am wondering if there is a way to purchase your book The Early Text… from somewhere where it does not cost $100+ ? I know that you have no control over the publishers pricing unfortunately, but I just wanted to ask because its a fascinating subject to me that was a huge intellectual stumbling block prior to my conversion. Now Im still fascinated and find that this topic is a very common objection/stronghold as I do street evangelism on our local University campus, so your work would really edify me and equip to do the work of the ministry as herald and defend our Lord’s Gospel. Maybe I could pick up a copy from you at the Gospel Coalition Conference? Any assistance would be greatly appreciated. And thank you for your service on our Lord’s behalf – may the Lamb continue to receive the rewards of His sufferings!

    Chris LeDuc

    • Thanks, Chris. I recommend you check out the book at a local university library near you. It is a very technical book, and is a compilation of 20 essays from scholars all around the world. Once you get a look at it, you might decide whether it is worth your money. If you are perhaps looking for a more succinct intro to these issues, I suggest you read the last two chapters in my book “The Heresy of Orthodoxy.”

      • I picked this up (The Heresy…) at the TGC13 bookstore. I happened to find a single copy out of place on a random table in front of me, almost as if by providence…

  2. Great series! I’m wondering whether you have addressed the Epistle to the Laodiceans anywhere. For me, it was a hard pill to swallow that many NT manuscripts, for about a thousand years, had this forgery included among the epistles of St. Paul. Any thoughts?