Justin Martyr’s Knowledge of Matthew and Luke

Justin Martyr’s Knowledge of Matthew and Luke September 30, 2017


There has been much recent chatter among some scholars that various Synoptic Gospels might be from the second century A.D., even the late second century and even reflect a knowledge of Marcion, who, it will be remembered only favored Luke’s Gospel and some of Paul’s letters. Against such ideas is the evidence that Luke’s Gospel is well known in the churches Justin Martyr participated in. Here is a helpful recent post by my friend Larry Hurtado, dealing with the relevant evidence. See what you think…

Justin Martyr and the Gospels
by larryhurtado
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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