In his new book Did Jesus Exist? (23), referring to my discussion in The Christ Conspiracy of the second-century dating of the New Testament gospels, Bart Ehrman summarizes a contention in my work about whether or not the early Church father Justin Martyr (fl. 150 AD/CE) mentioned or quoted the gospels, thus providing proof that they existed in his time. After presenting the contention, Ehrman then comments (in brackets):

The second-century church father Justin never quotes or mentions any of the Gospels (25). [This simply isn’t true: he mentions the gospels on numerous occasions; typically he calls them “Memoirs of the Apostles” and quotes from them, especially from Matthew, Mark and Luke.]

Firstly, it should be noted that what Ehrman has “cited” here is not a quote from my book and nothing that I personally state on p. 25 therein. As I have observed elsewhere, it appears again as if Ehrman was working from “Cliff Notes” of my book, provided to him by his assistants, because the sentence he cites, “The second-century church father Justin never quotes or mentions any of the Gospels,” is a summary of quotes I provided in The Christ Conspiracy (“Christ Con” or “CC“) by John E. Remsburg and Charles Waite. In these quotes, the authors follow their assessment with sound commentary, a fact that Ehrman has evidently chosen to ignore—if he even read these paragraphs in the first place.

Secondly, if Ehrman had followed up on my work or even on my citations in Christ Con, he would have discovered that his claim concerning Justin Martyr, while shared by many, ranks as false and inaccurate. A closer look at Justin’s writings reveals not what scholars and Christian believers want to find but what is really there: No verbatim quotes or unambiguous citations from the canonical gospels as we have them appear anywhere in Justin’s extant works. Nor does Justin Martyr name any of the evangelists in any known text, an erroneous impression given by Ehrman’s wording here. In other words, Matthew, Mark and Luke are never named by Justin; nor is John.

“No verbatim quotes or unambiguous citations from the canonical gospels as we have them appear anywhere in Justin’s extant works.”

In addition to providing some evidence in Christ Con (25, etc.), in my books Suns of God (“SOG“) and Who Was Jesus? I have written extensively about the issue of when the canonical gospels as we have them appear in the historical record, including whether or not Justin knew of them. As I demonstrate in CC and SOG (419ff), Justin is careful in his citations from the Old Testament; yet, he does not quote any gospel verbatim or cite any evangelist by name.

In this regard, in his book The Christ: A Critical Review and Analysis of the Evidence of His Existence – in a quote I provided in Christ Con on the very page cited by Ehrman – Remsburg remarks:

The Four Gospels were unknown to the early Church Fathers. Justin Martyr, the most eminent of the early Fathers, wrote about the middle of the second century. His writings in proof of the divinity of Christ demanded the use of these Gospels, had they existed in his time. He makes more than 300 quotations from the books of the Old Testament, and nearly one hundred from the Apocryphal books of the New Testament; but none from the four Gospels. Rev. Giles says: “The very names of the Evangelists, Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, are never mentioned by him (Justin)—do not occur once in all his writings.”

As we can see, there is more to this story than meets the eye.

The Gospels and the Gospel

In all of Justin’s extant writings, the word “gospels” appears only once, in his First Apology, while the word “gospel” is used twice in his book Dialogue with Trypho the Jew. Concerning the references to “the Gospel” in Trypho, which some have taken for knowledge of the canonical gospels, the Church father evidently is referring to another text altogether.

An excellent study on the subject of when verbatim quotes from various Christian texts begin to appear in the historical record may be found in the thick tome by Walter Richard Cassels called Supernatural Religion (1905), which includes an 85-page, detailed study of Justin’s work vis-à-vis the canonical gospels, with the original Greek and Latin, along with copious notes and citations. Concerning the appearance of the world “gospels” (εὐαγγέλια or evangelia), as applicable to the text Justin quotes called the “Memoirs of the Apostles,” Cassels (186) states:

The title, Memoirs of the Apostles, by no means indicates a plurality of Gospels. A single passage has been pointed out in which the Memoirs are said to have been called εὐαγγέλια in the plural: “For the Apostles in the Memoirs composed by them, which are called Gospels,” etc. The last expression, ἁ καλειται εὐαγγέλια [“which are called Gospels”], as many scholars have declared, is probably an interpolation. It is, in all likelihood, a gloss on the margin of some old MS. [manuscript] which copyists afterwards inserted in the text. If Justin really stated that the Memoirs were called Gospels, it seems incomprehensible that he should never [elsewhere] call them so himself. In no other place in his writings does he apply the plural to them, but, on the contrary, we find Trypho [in Justin’s Dialogue with Trypho] referring to the “so-called Gospel,” which he states that he has carefully read, and which, of course, can only be Justin’s “Memoirs”; and, again, in another part of the same dialogue, Justin quotes passages which are written “in the Gospel” (εν τω ευαγγελίω γέγραπται). The term “Gospel” is nowhere else used by Justin in reference to a written record. In no case, however, considering the numerous Gospels then in circulation, and the fact that many of these, different from the canonical Gospels, are known to have been exclusively used by distinguished contemporaries of Justin, and by various communities of Christians in that day, could such an expression be taken as a special indication of the canonical Gospels.

“The one instance of ‘gospels’ in Justin appears to be a scribal marginal gloss and explanatory note that was interpolated into the text.”

As we can see, the one instance of “gospels” in Justin appears to be a scribal marginal gloss and explanatory note that was interpolated into the text. Otherwise, it would be impossible to explain why Justin only uses this word once in all of his writings. Hence, the term’s appearance in his book is not an identification by Justin himself of the Memoirs with the gospels. The other “gospel” usages in Justin concern a single text commonly understood in his circle as “the Gospel,” possibly the text Justin calls the Memoirs of the Apostles.

The Memoirs of the Apostles

In his First Apology and Dialogue with Trypho, Justin discusses several times what is called the “Memoirs of the Apostles” or “Memorabilia of the Apostles” (Grk: ἀπομνημονεύματα τῶν ἀποστόλων), from which he provides a number of quotes. These “Memoirs” are widely taken to be the canonical gospels, and it is therefore commonly asserted that Justin quotes from the synoptic gospels, Matthew, Mark and Luke. In Who Was Jesus? (68), I write that, upon close inspection, the material from Justin Martyr does not correspond well enough to that found in the canonical gospels and is likely from another common source text or texts. Indeed, renowned biblical scholar Tischendorf only managed to find two pertinent quotations in Justin Martyr’s works that could possibly come from the gospel of Matthew, for example. Again, these miniscule passages could very well come from a shared source text.

As I state also in Suns of God (419), upon examination, the quotes Justin uses from the Memoirs “differ more or less widely” from parallel scriptures in the synoptics, Matthew, Mark and Luke. As confirmed by Tischendorf, only a couple of short exceptions are sufficiently similar to warrant comparison with the synoptic gospels. The various passages cited by Justin to be from the Memoirs are repeated often enough that it is clear he is quoting them verbatim, rather than paraphrasing; yet, they are not identical to gospel scriptures, differing enough that they could not have come from those books. Also, several of the Memoirs sayings do not appear in any form in the canonical gospels. Moreover, Justin’s version of the gospel tale and the Church history is different and contradictory in its details than that found in the New Testament.

“Upon examination, the quotes Justin uses from the Memoirs ‘differ more or less widely’ from parallel scriptures in the synoptics, Matthew, Mark and Luke.”

In SOG (420), regarding the work of Edwin Johnson in Antiqua Mater: A Study of Christian Origins, I write that, concerning the “Memoirs of the Apostles,” Johnson remarks that the “Memorabilia do not coincide on their contents as a whole with any work that has come down to us; nor are ‘the Apostles’ identifiable with any known historical person.” He then explains that the term “apostle” is Jewish and pre-Christian, referring to wandering Jews of the Diaspora (Jewish dispersion throughout the empire), and that the Memorabilia may simply be their “moral sayings.” In addition to these pre-existing Apostles are Messianic Saints (Hagioi), the Elect and the Congregation/Church (ecclesia)—terms and concepts all found within pre-Christian texts such as the Wisdom of Solomon, the Wisdom of Jesus (Ecclesiasticus), the Book of Tobit and the Book of Enoch, as well as the Didache, Epistle of Barnabas and Shepherd of Hermas, which Johnson has shown to be pre-Christian texts later Christianized. Concluding that Justin “knows no authoritative writings except the Old Testament,” Johnson adds that “he had neither our Gospels’ nor our Pauline writings.”

Was Justin Martyr sloppy?

If Justin actually had the canonical gospels before him when writing his texts, he could only be considered sloppy in his citations, which is the accusation made to explain why his “Memoirs” differs so much from the gospels. The reality is that the Church father is surprisingly consistent and conscientious in his quotation elsewhere. For example, as I state in SOG, Martyr quotes from the Old Testament 314 instances, 197 of which he names the particular book or author, equaling an impressive two-thirds of the total amount. Several of the other 117 instances may not have needed citation, “considering the nature of the passage.” Despite his remarkably fastidious record, when Justin is supposedly quoting the New Testament, he mentions none of the four gospels. Instead, he distinctly states that the quotes are from the “Memoirs.” Since he is careful in his quotation of the Old Testament, it is reasonable to assume that he is accurately citing the “Memoirs” and that such a book is not the same as any of the texts found in the New Testament. There could be no reason why Martyr would not cite the gospel books by name, unless he was not using them. Since he never mentions the four gospels, it is logical to assert that he had never heard of them. Thus, the Memoirs text is not the same as the canonical gospels, and the mention of and quotation from this book does not serve as evidence of the existence of the gospels.

“The Memoirs text is not the same as the canonical gospels, and the mention of and quotation from this book does not serve as evidence of the existence of the gospels.”

In his exhaustive analysis of Justin’s writings (182-267), Cassels remarks (240):

…The hypothesis that they are quotations from our Gospels involves the accusation against Justin of an amount of carelessness and negligence which is quite unparalleled in literature. Justin’s character and training, however, by no means warrant any such aspersion, and there are no grounds for it. Indeed, but for the attempt arbitrarily to establish the identity of the Memoirs of the Apostles with our Gospels, such a charge would never have been thought of….

As Cassels further says, in his section about the non-canonical text of the second century called the “Gospel according to the Hebrews” (266):

…We have already seen that Justin speaks of “The Gospel,” and seems to refer to the Memoirs of Peter, both distinguishing appellations of this Gospel [according to the Hebrews]; but there is another of the names borne by the “Gospel according to the Hebrews,” which singularly recalls the Memoirs of the Apostles, by which Justin prefers to call his evangelical work. It was called the Gospel according to the Apostles…, and, in short, comparing Justin’s Memoirs to this Gospel, we find at once similarity of contents and even of name.

Thus, we may surmise that Justin’s “Memoirs” text was the same as the “Gospel according to the Hebrews,” also called the “Gospel according to the Apostles.”

“We may surmise that Justin’s ‘Memoirs’ text was the same as the ‘Gospel according to the Hebrews,’ also called the ‘Gospel according to the Apostles.'”

In SOG (422-423), I conclude that the Memoirs of the Apostles reveals not the canonical gospels and their purported apostolic authors or scribes; rather, it is a text reflecting the efforts of religious Jews of the Diaspora who had established a pre-Christian “Church of God” with branches in various places, including the brotherhood sites addressed by “Paul.” These anonymous Jews were eventually morphed into the New Testament apostles. Concerning this ecclesiastical organization revealed in Justin’s works, Johnson concludes that here was a “class of Sectarians or Haeretics equally to be distinguished from orthodox Jews, as from the orthodox Christians.” These could have been “Ebionites ” or “Gnostics,” but their distinctive features included “the attitude in which they stood towards the ancestral traditions of the Fathers, Circumcision, the Sabbath, the fast-days, the Temple and the sacrificial rites.” Renouncing these traditions, “they dream of a universal Jewish Church, into which the strangers shall have gathered, as the new branch is grafted into the noble stock of the ancient Vine.” Johnson next avers that “Philo may well be called the first Father of such a Church.”

After spending dozens of pages examining in minute detail every aspect of Justin’s writings vis-à-vis the canonical gospels – again, including providing the original Greek where necessary – Cassels (266) summarizes :

…We have shown that there is no evidence that [Justin] made use of any of our Gospels, and he cannot, therefore, be cited even to prove their existence, and much less to attest the authenticity and character of records whose authors he does not once name. On the other hand, it has been made evident that there were other Gospels, now lost, but which then enjoyed the highest consideration, from which his quotations might have been, and probably were, taken. We have seen that Justin’s Memoirs of the Apostles contained facts of Gospel history unknown to our Gospels, which were contained in apocryphal works, and notably in the Gospel according to the Hebrews; that they further contained matter contradictory to our Gospels, and sayings of Jesus not contained in them; and that his quoations, although so numerous, systematically vary from similar passages in our Gospels. No theory of quotation from memory can satisfactorily account for these phenomena, and the reasonable conclusion is that Justin did not make use of our Gospels, but quoted from another source….

The facts are that the terms “gospels” and “gospel” in Justin do not indicate his knowledge of our canonical gospels; that the quotes from the Memoirs of the Apostles are not the same as those in the canonical gospels; and that the term “Memoirs” appears to refer to a single text, like “Acts of the Apostles,” rather than serving as a reference to the gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, whom Justin does not mention or even seem to know. In the final analysis, it is evident that Justin Martyr does not quote the canonical gospels and that, despite the wishful thinking, these texts do not emerge clearly in the historical record until the end of the second century.

Further Reading

Does Josephus prove a historical Jesus?
The Jesus Forgery: Josephus Untangled
The Son-Sun pun strawman
Bart Ehrman: ‘Mythicist’s arguments are fairly plausible’
The phallic ‘Savior of the World’ hidden in the Vatican
Did Jesus Exist? forum thread
The Late Dating of the Gospels

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