RPM, Volume 16, Number 51, December 14 to December 20, 2014

Introduction to the New Testament

By Louis Berkhof

Table of Contents:

The Gospels in General
The Gospel of Matthew
The Gospel of Mark
The Gospel of Luke
The Gospel of John
The Acts of the Apostles
The Epistles in General
The Epistles of Paul
The Epistle to the Romans
The First Epistle to the Corinthians
The Second Epistle to the Corinthians
The Epistle to the Galatians
The Epistle to the Ephesians
The Epistle to the Philippians
The Epistle to the Colossians
The First Epistle to the Thessalonians
The Second Epistle to the Thessalonians
The Pastoral Epistles
The First Epistle to Timothy
The Second Epistle to Timothy
The Epistle to Titus
The Epistle to Philemon
The Epistle to the Hebrews
The General Epistle of James
The First General Epistle of Peter
The Second General Epistle of Peter
The First General Epistle of John
The Second and Third General Epistles of John
The General Epistle of Jude
The Revelation of John

The Gospels in General

The Title Of The Gospels

The shortest form of the title is kata Matthaion, kata Marchon, etc. The Textus Receptus and some of the Mnn. have to kata Matthaion euanngelion; but the greater part of the Mjj. read euanngelion kata Matthaion, etc.

The word euanngelion passed through three stages in the history of its use. In the older Greek authors it signified a reward for bringing good tidings; also, a thankoffering for good tidings brought. Next in later Greek it indicated the good news itself. And finally it was employed to denote the books in which the gospel of Jesus Christ is presented historic form. It is used very extensively in the New Testament, and always in the second sense, signifying the good news of God, the message of salvation. This meaning is also retained in the title of the gospels. The first trace of the word as indicating a written gospel is found in the didache, the Teaching of the Twelve Apostles, discovered in 1873 and in all probability composed between the years 90 and 100 A. D. This contains the following exhortation in 15: 3: "And reprove one another not in wrath but in peace, as ye have it in the Gospel. Here the word euanngelion evidently refers to a written record. It is very explicitly and repeatedly applied to a written account of the life of Christ about the middle of the second century. The plural euanggelia, signifying the four Gospels, is first found in Justin Martyr, about 152 A. D.

The expression kata Matthaion, kata Marchon, etc., has often been misinterpreted. Some maintained that kata simply indicated a genitive relation so that we should read: the Gospel of Matthew, the Gospel of Mark, etc. But if this is the idea intended, why was not the simple genitive used, just as it is employed by Paul, when he expresses a similar idea, to euanngelion mou, Rom. 2:16; 16:25? Moreover, it cannot be maintained that the preposition kata is equivalent to the Hebrew Lamedh of possession, for the Septuagint never renders this by kata. Others inferred from the use of this expression that the Gospels were not written by the person named but were shaped after the Gospel as they preached it. But on this interpretation it seems very peculiar that the second and third Gospels were not called kata Petron and kata Paulon, seeing that they were fashioned after their type of preaching. The expression must be explained from the Church's consciousness that there is but one Gospel of Jesus Christ, and indicates that in these writings we have that Gospel, as it was shaped (i. e. in writing) by the persons whose names they bear.

That the early Church caught the idea of the unity of the Gospel is quite evident. It is true, the plural of euanngelion is sometimes employed, but the singular prevails. Justin Martyr speaks of the Memoirs that are called Gospels, but he also expresses himself thus: "the precepts in what is called the Gospel," "it is written in the Gospel." Irenaeus in one of his writings states his theme as: "The Gospel is essentially fourfold." Clement of Alexandria speaks of "the Law, the Prophets and the Gospel," and Augustine, of "the four Gospels, or rather, the four books of the one Gospel."

The English word Gospel is derived from the Anglo-Saxon godspell, composed of god=God and spel=story, thus indicating the story of the life of God in human flesh. It is not improbable, however, that the original form of the Anglo-Saxon word was godspell, from god=good and spel=story, this being a literal translation of the Greek euanngelion. It denotes the good tidings of salvation in Christ for a perishing world.


In view of the fact that the first Christian century produced many Gospels besides those which are included in our canon, and that many at the present day deny the authority of some or all of our Gospels, it is important to know, how many the early Church received as canonic. The apostolic fathers, though often quoting the Gospels do not mention their authors, nor do they enumerate them. They testify to the substance and canonicity of the Gospels therefore, but not, except indirectly, to their authenticity and number. In all probability the earliest evidence that the Church of the first ages accepted the four Gospels that we now possess as canonic, is furnished by the Peshito, which most likely dates from the first half of the second century. And being a translation, it points to the fact that even before its origin our four Gospels were received into the canon, while all others were left out. Another early witness is found in the Muratorian Fragment, a mutilated work of which the real character cannot now be determined, and that was probably written about 170 A. D. It commences with the last words of a sentence that seemingly belongs to a description of Marks Gospel, and then tells us that "Luke's Gospel stands third in order, having been written by Luke, the physician, the companion of Paul." After making this statement it proceeds to assign the fourth place to "the Gospel of John, a disciple of the Lord." The conclusion seems perfectly warranted that the first two Gospels, of which the description is lost, are those of Matthew and Mark. An important witness, really the first one to a fourfold Gospel, i. e. to a Gospel that is four and yet is one, is Tatian, the Assyrian. His Diatessaron was the first harmony of the Gospels. The exact date of its composition is not known; the meaning of its name is obviously [the Gospel] by the Four. This, no doubt, points to the fact that it was based on four Gospels, and also implies that these four were our canonical Gospels, since they constituted the only collection in existence that needed no other description than "the Four." The testimony of Eusebius is in harmony with this when he says "Tatian, the former leader of the Encratites, having put together in some strange fashion a combination and collection of the Gospels, gave it the name of the Diatessaron, and the work is still partially current." Church History, IV, 29. Very important testimony to our four Gospels is found in the writings of Irenaeus (c. 120-200) and of Tertullian (c. 150-130). The former was a disciple of Polycarp, who in turn had enjoyed the personal instruction of the apostle John. He preached the Gospel to the Gauls and in 178 succeeded Pothinus as bishop of Lyons. In one of his books he has a long chapter entitled: "Proofs that there can be neither more nor fewer than four Evangelists."

Looking at the Gospels as a unit, he called them "the Gospel with four Faces." And he searched to find mystic reasons for this quadruple form, thus showing how strongly he and his age were persuaded that there were but four canonical Gospels. He compares the quadriform Gospel (tetramorphon) to the four regions of the earth, to the four universal spirits, to the cherubim with four faces, etc. The testimony of Tertullian is equally explicit. This famous church father received a liberal education at Rome, lived on in heathen darkness until about his thirtieth or fortieth year, when he was converted and entered the ministry. Embittered by the treatment he received at the hands of the Church, he went into the fold of the Montanists about the beginning of the third century. He wrote numerous works in defense of the Christian religion. In his work against Marcion he says, after stating that the Gospel of Luke had been maintained from its first publication: "The same authority of the apostolic churches will uphold the other Gospels which we have in due succession through them and according to their usage, I mean those of [the apostles] Matthew and John; although that which was published by Mark may also be maintained to be Peter's, whose interpreter Mark was: for the narrative of Luke also is generally ascribed to Paul: since it is allowable that that which scholars publish should be regarded as their masters work." Just as those that went before him Tertullian appealed to the testimony of antiquity as proving the canonicity of our four Gospels and the other Scriptural books; and his appeal was never gainsaid. Another significant testimony is that of Origin, the great teacher of Alexandria of whom Eusebius records that in the first book of his commentaries on the Gospel of Matthew he asserts that he knows of only four Gospels, as follows: "I have learnt by tradition concerning the four Gospels, which alone are uncontroverted in the Church of God spread under heaven, that according to Matthew, who was once a publican but afterwards an apostle of Jesus Christ, was written first;… that according to Mark second;… that according to Luke third;… that according to John last of all." Church History VI, 25. Eusebius himself, who was the first historian of the Christian Church, in giving a catalogue of the New Testament writings, says: "First then we must place the holy quaternion of the Gospels."

From the testimony which we have now reviewed the conclusion seems perfectly warranted that the Church from the earliest times knew four and only four canonical Gospels; and that these four are the same that she has recognized ever since. It is true that the heretic Marcion acknowledged only the Gospel of Luke, and this in mutilated form, but his attitude toward the Gospels finds a ready explanation in his dogmatic bias.

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