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Justin Martyr and the Gospels

September 1, 2017

At a conference earlier this week in Málaga, one of the main sessions was on Justin Martyr, and the lecturer was asked about Justin’s knowledge and use of NT writings.  The lecturer responded by rather firmly urging that there is scant evidence that Justin knew the NT Gospels, emphasizing that Justin’s numerous references to the “memoirs [ἀπομνημονεύματα] of the apostles” might very well have designated other kinds of texts instead.  I’ll make several observations that lead me to differ.

First, in one crucial statement in Justin’s Apology (66:3), he refers explicitly to “the memoirs [same word] which are called gospels.”  So, this suggests that Justin’s “memoirs” are what he and fellow Christians of his time knew as “gospels,” not some other kind of text.  That is, this statement suggests that “memoirs of the apostles” was simply a particular term that Justin used to refer to what he and fellow believers called “gospels.”

Second, if we examine Justin’s references to these “memoirs of the apostles,” he often quotes from them, and what he quotes is recognizable, most often from the Gospel of Matthew, but also sometimes from Luke and (less obviously) the other familiar Gospels.  Indeed, these references include narrative material, including references to the narratives of Jesus’ trial, crucifixion and resurrection (e.g., Dialogue with Trypho 101:3; 102:3; 103:6; 104:1; 105:1, 5-6; 106:1, 3, 4; 107:1).  So, we’re not dealing with something like a sayings-collection, but narratives of Jesus’ birth, ministry, passion and resurrection.  Looks like Gospels to me!

Third, Justin refers to these writings as read in churches along with the “writings of the prophets,” which is his reference to the OT (which Justin viewed as primarily prophetic of Jesus).  So, again, these “memoirs” aren’t some sort of rough collection of this and that, or an informal crib sheet, but texts suitable to be read as part of corporate worship and on a par with the OT writings, which he unquestionably regarded as scripture.

Fourth, studies of Justin’s citations of these “memoirs” confirm that he knew and used at least the Synoptic Gospels, and quite likely the Gospel of John as well.[1]

Moreover, a number of recent scholars have found converging evidence that a “fourfold” Gospel comprised of the four familiar NT Gospels was operative by/in the early decades of the  second century, decades earlier than Justin’s major writings.[2]

So, why did Justin refer to these writings as “memoirs of the apostles”?  Well, the key term in question, apomnemoneumata, had a long usage, especially in philosophical circles of his time, to designate memories of the sayings and deeds of great teachers or leaders.  Given that the texts in which Justin uses the term were written to communicate with non-Christians (or were written to present Justin doing so), it’s understandable that he chose this term over the “in house” term “gospel” (which wasn’t used as a designation for a genre of writing in the ancient context).  In using the term, “memoirs,” Justin was also making a claim that the writings in question deserved to be treated seriously as evidence about Jesus.

All in all, thus, the most reasonable conclusion is that Justin did, indeed, know and use the familiar NT Gospels, Matthew with particular frequency.

[1] Oskar Skarsaune, “Justin and His Bible,” in Justin Martyr and His Worlds, ed. Sara Parvis and Paul Foster (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2007), 53-76; and arguing for Justin’s use of GJohn in particular, C. E. Hill’s essay in the same volume, “Was John’s Gospel Among Justin’s Apostolic Memoirs?” (88-94); and C. E. Hill, Who Chose the Gospels:  Probing the Great Gospel Conspiracy (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010), 132-43.

[2] Martin Hengel, “The Four Gospels and the One Gospel of Jesus Christ,” in The Earliest Gospels, ed. Charles Horton (London: T&T Clark International, 2004); Charles E. Hill, “A Four-Gospel Canon in the Second Century?  Artifact and Arti-Fiction,” Early Christianity 4 (2013): 310-33; G. N. Stanton, “The Fourfold Gospel,” New Testament Studies 43 (1997): 317-46; James A. Kelhoffer, , Miracle and Mission:  The Authentication of Missionaries and Their Message in the Longer Ending of Mark, WUNT 2/112 (Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2000).


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  1. Slightly off-topic except for footnote number 2. Do you know of current plans to translate Martin Hengel’s “Jesus und das Judentum” into English? The sooner, the better of course. Thanks.

  2. Davit Magaldadze permalink

    Professor Hurtado, what “other texts” was the lecturer referring to Justin Martyr might have quoted from?

    If I may ask second related question. Do you think we have good indirect evidence of the first century gospels outside the NT? Luke, for example, mentions some sources he had come across with; one which we know was Mark.

    • The lecturer wasn’t specific. The author of Luke refers to witnesses and earlier sources, and the author of GJohn (21:20ff) refers to his as one of many books that could be written about Jesus. But that’s about all we know. We also know, however, that all evidence suggests that the four familiar Gospels were unrivalled in distribution and influence and usage in the first two centuries.

  3. Henry Carmichael permalink

    I read some years ago in F.F. Bruce’s “The Books and the Parchments” the following: “Toward the end of the first century … not long after the writing of the fourth Gospel, the four gospels appear to have been brought together in one collection. Thus, whereas previously Rome had Mark’s Gospel, and Syria had Matthew’s … now each church had all four in a corpus which was called ‘The Gospel’ (each of the components being distinguished by the additional words, ‘According to Matthew’, ‘According to Mark’, and so on).” (p. 107)

    If that was the case, Justin Martyr may have been familiar with such a collection, and call it “memoirs”.

    • Yes, as I indicated in my posting, a number of scholars over the past few decades have mounted strong cases for a “fourfold” gospel collection by early decades of the 2nd century.

  4. Alan Paul permalink

    Yes, but…

    When Justin uses the phrase ἀπομνημονεύματα τῶν ἀποστόλων (memoirs of the apostles) what exactly is he referring to? Are these exclusively the four canonical gospels, or other apocryphal gospels and/or a body of material which may include traditional sources known and used by the four gospel writers?

    If Justin was quoting specifically from the four gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke & John, why did he not once refer to these authors by name? (By contrast, his quotations from the OT are attributed to the relevant OT author by name, literally hundreds of times.)

    Some of the quotations from “memoirs of the apostles” are “recognizable” because they resemble, more or less, passages found in one or other of the NT gospels. But if they were taken from the “inspired” gospels, why does Justin not show respect and take the trouble to quote these passages verbatim?

    Others quotations from these “apostolic memoirs” do not have recognizable counterparts in the NT gospels, and must have derived from other sources.

    All in all, therefore, the evidence does not seem to point entirely convincingly in the direction you have suggested. I would also respectfully disagree with James Snapp Jr that Justin’s knowledge of the Synoptics (as we know them) should be “granted without question”.

    • Alan: You make a number of inaccurate and baseless claims. This isn’t the way scholarship proceeds. For example, Justin quotes specifically from the writings he calls “memoirs of the apostles” and what he quotes is readily recognizable as passages from our known NT Gospels. As to him not naming them, why should he? How would that matter to the non-Christians he purports to address in the Dialogue and Apology? He ascribes them to apostles and to followers of the apostles (NB: more than one of each category, which would fit with our known two ascribed to apostles and our known two ascribed to “successors”).
      The Gospels themselves are actually anonymous–the authors didn’t add their names. As I’ve noted in an essay from over a decade ago, it appears that across the 2nd century names were added to works and works were more often given authors’ names. Justin doesn’t say these memoirs were “inspired” (that’s your term). He says they’re the “memoirs of the apostles”–a term that connotes sacred authority (like the “memoirs” of the pagan deities).
      As to him not quoting “verbatim” (actually, he often does), quotation practice in the Roman era preferred a looser quotation, unless the text was being argued over.
      All in all, thus, the judgment that Justin (1) knew the NT Gospels, and (2) treated them as special texts that were read in church, seems pretty sound. You should loosen up a bit and not be so frightened of the facts!

      • Alan Paul permalink

        It’s not facts which frighten me, it’s their paucity! Let me try to provide a few for your consideration.

        (1) What Justin quotes is recognizable because it resembles, more or less closely, passages from the canonical gospels. But there are so many variations, additions or omissions. Here is one well known example: in Dialogue with Trypho (78) his quoted passage contains the fact that Jesus was born in a cave. Justin uses this fact, derived from “a memoir of the apostles” to prove the fulfillment of prophesy in Isaiah 33:15-16 which he also quotes (“this one will live in the high cave of a strong rock”). The fact that Jesus was born in a cave is not found in the corresponding canonical gospel, Luke, or in any other of the canonical gospels. Would you therefore agree that here in Trypho 78, Justin appears to be using a non-canonical source, such as an apocryphal gospel?

        (2) Such inconsistencies cannot be dismissed as a contemporary preference for “a looser quotation” since the text in question contains an additional fact that is crucial to demonstrate the fulfillment of OT prophesy. Taking this, and the many other examples that could be adduced, it would seem right to conclude that Justin’s term “memoirs of the apostles” may inter alia refer to writings which are not canonical.

        (3) It is indeed the case that the canonical gospels were originally anonymous, and – to use your words – “names were added to works and works were … given authors’ names”. I think you would not disagree that the same process also applied to the apocryphal writings, some of which – according to Eusebius and others – were also read in churches, along with OT scripture. It seems to me that, once a “memoir” achieves the status of being read in churches, it would certainly have a name attached to it, in order to distinguish it from other “memoirs”. Thus, the four NT gospels would not be anonymous by the time Justin is writing. However, since Justin does not name any of his sources, perhaps for the reason you suggest, we are unable to know as a matter of fact which sources he is using. We can only infer this, with a greater or lesser degree of confidence, from the texts of Justin’s extant writings

        (4) The speculative, but widely held, notion that Justin used a Synoptics-Harmony (which he wrote or borrowed) goes some way to providing an explanation of his practice of “loose quoting.” But this would not explain the presence of material not found in the Synoptics as we know them, leaving us to conclude that he must have made use of another source or sources, which he appears to have regarded as having comparable status and utility.

        (5) Of course Justin does not say that these “memoirs” are “inspired” and he does not use the term γραφή (scripture) to describe them, as he would in referring to OT writings. So I would agree with you (if this is what you are saying) that he coins the term “memoirs of the apostles” to confer authority on them, commensurate with their role as evidence of the fulfillment of OT prophesies (which – unlike the “memoirs” – he would surely have regarded as the inspired Word of God).

      • Alan:
        The points that you lay down (though not necessarily your preferred inferences) are all well known, and have been analysed for decades now. Yes, there are a few places where Justin’s references to texts appear to be noticeably different from our “received” texts of the Gospels. (That, by the way, means surely that Justin didn’t have an influence on the subsequent transmission of the Gospel texts.) But in the overwhelming number of cases Justin’s quotations are readily those of the texts we know. So, the more “economical” conclusion is that the texts that we know are what he was quoting (at least in those cases). So, further, even if he occasionally cites some additional text now not known to us, he surely (and most often) quotes the very texts that we do know: the NT Gospels.
        That he likely used a Synoptic harmony is not “speculative” but a reasonable inference. You may not like it, but it’s actually quite plausible, esp. since Tatian (Justin’s once-pupil) developed one for liturgical usage.
        The studies of Justin’s quotations are several and extensive, and have reached a similar conclusion: That the gospels that he says were read in churches are what he cites, and that the recognizable ones are our NT Gospels.

      • Alan Paul permalink

        This has evolved into one of those discussions where we actually agree on much more, and disagree on much less, than might at first have appeared to be the case. You accept that Justin quotes sources other than the canonical gospels; and I accept that his sources include texts which are close to, if not the same as, the synoptic gospels (not sure about the fourth gospel, though). The differences are therefore matters of degree and nuance, and there’s probably no need, or much value, in delving further into them. Moreover, I recognize the merits of the idea that Justin used a harmonized gospel (for me “speculative” is not a pejorative term, although I know it is for you).

  5. GPG permalink

    If Justin Martyr thought of the gospels, at least in part, as Greek memoirs, could his view have influenced later editors of the Bible?

    • I’m not clear what it is you’re asking.

      • GPG permalink

        It is often suggested that the Bible, the canons, changed, were edited somewhat over time. So for example, Christians added an entire New Testamennt to older Jewish writings, and the Old Testament. Later, Protestants removed many intertestimental books.

        So could the opinions of Justin Martyr – say, his seeing the gospels at times, as Greek biographies, memoirs – have effected the Bible, the way the gospels were finally put down?

      • I’ve pared down your prolix comment to preserve your essential question. Justin refers to the reading of these gospels regularly in churches. The texts had become “community property”, which would have made it more difficult for him or others to make radical changes in their contents.

      • GPG permalink

        If “radical,” precipitous changes seem impossible – like say 1) the historical addition of an entire New Testament to sacred Jewish writings – then 2) what about subtle, incremental changes, editorializations? Especially in the early days, when oral rumors, even sermons, dogmas, might not have yet had time to become systematized. When subtle variations especially might not have been clearly noted by everyday churchgoers.

      • You’re posing purely speculative notions and based on a highly ill informed grasp of the early situation. There is evidence of minor editorial variation in our early manuscripts, but, despite the significant differences in beliefs of various Christian groups, the texts of those writings treated early as scripture are remarkably stable, in contrast to the major differences we can see in texts that did not function as scripture. There’s been a LOT of work done on the matter, and I don’t comment off the top of my head but based on this vast body of work.

  6. The word Gospel was a word used to convey a victory in battle.

    • But “evangelion” was adapted in early Christian usage, initially as a designation of the message and the activity of promulgating it (the uses in Paul), and then (2nd century?) also as a label for the narratives of Jesus’ ministry, which are used by Justin.

  7. That Justin knew the Synoptics should be granted without question. However, it seems very likely that he used (having either made, or adopted someone else’s work) a Synoptics-Harmony, blending the contents of Matthew-Mark-Luke into one non-repeating narrative. Tatian’s Diatessaron expanded on the same sort of thing, blending the Synoptics and John. What the speaker you described has interpreted as signs of a lack of familiarity with the Gospels may be instead the symptoms of very close familiarity with their contents but in a non-canonical form.

    • Yes, James. Good points. It is indeed widely thought that Justin made use of an early “harmony” of the Synoptics. Tatian’s moves, then, were to incorporate also GJohn, and then to promote this harmonized text for liturgical usage (whereas Justin reports multiple gospels being used in churches).

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