Why I’m writing this: It’s 2:30AM and I can’t sleep.

Will this help you: I don’t know. For those who are in the same journey of faith as me you may be. I thought this is interesting but of course, I’m not a scholar so this is obviously a layman interpretation of data. One of which I have recently discovered and have not yet reconciled with other documents and claims that I have yet to read. Anyway, moving on.

I have recently been reading Irenaeus’ Against Heresies.  At the point of writing I have stopped at Book 3 where the church father lays out chapters of arguments in favor of Orthodox Christian faith. One especially interesting segment in Book 3 is when the saint provides an overview of how the four Gospels were written.

Against Heresies (Book III, Chapter 1)

The apostles did not commence to preach the Gospel, or to place anything on record until they were endowed with the gifts and power of the Holy Spirit. They preached one God alone, Maker of heaven and earth.

1. We have learned from none others the plan of our salvation, than from those through whom the Gospelhas come down to us, which they did at one time proclaim in public, and, at a later period, by the will ofGod, handed down to us in the Scriptures, to be the ground and pillar of our faith. For it is unlawful to assert that they preached before they possessed perfect knowledge, as some do even venture to say, boasting themselves as improvers of the apostles. For, after our Lord rose from the dead, [the apostles] were invested with power from on high when the Holy Spirit came down [upon them], were filled from all [His gifts], and had perfect knowledge: they departed to the ends of the earth, preaching the glad tidings of the good things [sent] from God to us, and proclaiming the peace of heaven to men, who indeed do all equally and individually possess the Gospel of God. Matthew also issued a written Gospel among the Hebrews in their own dialect, while Peter and Paul were preaching at Rome, and laying the foundations of the Church. After their departure, Mark, the disciple and interpreter of Peter, did also hand down to us in writing what had been preached by Peter. Luke also, the companion of Paul, recorded in a book theGospel preached by him. Afterwards, John, the disciple of the Lord, who also had leaned upon His breast, did himself publish a Gospel during his residence at Ephesus in Asia.

2. These have all declared to us that there is one God, Creator of heaven and earth, announced by the lawand the prophets; and one Christ the Son of God. If any one do not agree to these truths, he despises the companions of the Lord; nay more, he despises Christ Himself the Lord; yea, he despises the Father also, and stands self-condemned, resisting and opposing his own salvation, as is the case with all heretics.

Source: http://www.newadvent.org/fathers/0103301.htm

The Matthean Priority According to Irenaeus

Consider in 3.1.1 (Book 3, chapter 1, paragraph 1), Irenaeus identified Matthew to be the first author of the Gospel at a time when Peter and Paul were preaching in Rome. This should put the dating of Matthew earlier than 66 AD. Perhaps as early as 60 AD. Another interesting thing to point out is that Irenaeus thought that Matthew wrote the Gospel in the dialect of the Hebrews at that time. This raises a couple of interesting discussions in the scholarly world. Three hypothetical Gospels, (Gospel of the Ebionites, Gospel of the Nazarenes, and Gospel of the Hebrews) were said to be, to a certain extent, a mutilated version of this Matthean Gospel. The primacy of these theories has not been established however. In any case, if it were true that the Gospel of Matthew was initially in Hebrew before it was translated to Greek, it would be an interesting find. As of now however, most acknowledge Matthew to be written in Greek, which is the language used by Jews living under the Romans at that time.

This is rather interesting in the sense that Muslim apologists would sometimes claim that while Jesus speak Aramaic, the New Testament were written in Greek. This shows a lack of understanding of the Jewish context at the time of Jesus. At the time of Jesus, the Jews were generally bilingual. They speak Greek and Aramaic. This is certainly not a surprise. In many parts of the world, many people are bilingual to bridge the gap between language barriers. Thus, Irenaeus’ claim that Matthew wrote his Gospel in the dialect of the Jews can be seen (though of course cannot be established with absolute certainty) that it is using the same language as the manuscripts we have today.

Also with regards to his order of placement of Mark, Luke, and John, it can be observed that John is obviously written last while Mark and Luke can be interchanged. My personal understanding of Irenaeus’ belief is that Mark was written first based on his choice of words.

Why Trust Irenaeus

Irenaeus made a very interesting point when he was dealing with the Gnostics in the earlier books of Against Heresies. He first explained that the Gnostics were claiming to possess knowledge about Jesus which was not shared to all. This is very much identical to how cults develops. Consider Muhammad who claims to have revelations from an angel in a cave. Consider Joseph Smith who claims to have seen an Angel bringing to him some new revelation otherwise not known to those who came before him. Or what about a popular cult in the Philippines where its founder claims to be the embodiment of Christ’s second coming in the flesh.

Now the saint makes a scathing case against them. He draws out a line of succession from Peter, to Linus, eventually to Clement, and so forth. Afterwards, he wrote, in modern english paraphrase, “Okay, if it is true that the Gnostics have certain knowledge from Jesus which Christians in my time do not, then tell me why (1) the apostles never passed these information to their successors and (2) we have no evidence whatsoever from any Orthodox Christian groups that such knowledge exists?” In other words, if the information the gnostics possess have a high level of importance, why didn’t the apostles consider these information as among those worthy to be passed on? Truth is, what the gnostics have are information stemming from their own inventions. As Irenaeus would put it, there is no Valentinian heresy until Valentinus pop into the scene. There is no Marcionite heresy until Marcion came to the center stage. In other words, until these guys came into the scene, the Christians have absolutely no idea whatsoever of the heresy they’re teaching.

Irenaeus, from his writings then, seems to enjoy a high degree of confidence that he is orthodox. This is the same Irenaeus that Polycarp met. Polycarp was a disciple of John, who is a disciple of Jesus. In other words, the chain of succession is strong. This can be further bolstered by the fact that in Islamic studies, Hadith transmission is found to be reliable if the chain can be traced back to reliable narrators. In comparison to Islamic system thus, the words of Irenaeus is at least hasan (good) if not sahih (absolutely reliable).

Impact on Scholarly Interpretation

Most scholars, to my knowledge, holds the Markan priority. That is, that Mark was written first, then Matthew and Luke, and then finally John. It can be argued that scholars who hold this view have some interesting arguments to present. For instance, the brevity of Mark’s Gospel makes it likely to be the one written first. A rule of the thumb in information dissemination is that usually the shortest reading is the earlier reading. People are more likely to add information than to remove them.

Scholars also think that there is a hypothetical source called Q which is where the similar stories of Matthew and Luke are likely to have been sourced from, apart from Mark.

In any case, holding on to a Markan priority has its weakness, albeit a rather silly one when one gives more thought.

Muslim Apologist Shabir Ally holds the view that since many scholars believe in the Markan priority, he therefore suggests that Matthew and Luke made improvements from the Gospel of Mark to make Jesus more than what he really is. Remember that in Islamic traditions, Jesus does not possess the qualities of a deity. He is a mere prophet in Islam. Therefore, as a Muslim apologist, one has to come up with some form of explanation as to how the Christians imputed godhood into Jesus.

This of course can be addressed by Markan priority scholars. What is interesting to note though is that once the Matthean Priotity is put on the table, Shabir Ally’s argument breaks down completely. A Matthean priority will show that the Gospel writers did not develop from a ‘man’ Jesus to a ‘God Jesus’

This of course is startling as even if one takes the Markan priority, the first verse of Mark states that Jesus is the Son of God. This is of course heretical in Islamic view. Some would suggest that the words Son of God is not observed in all the manuscripts we have of Mark’s Gospel. However, it is interesting to note that when Irenaeus actually quoted Mark 1:1, he included the words Son of God as a reference to Jesus. This shows that, among other evidences, that Mark 1:1 is likely to include the words Son of God as a reference to Jesus. This will further show that a consistent Muslim scholar will have to completely reject the four Gospels for Islam to hold its ground. This however, is also a dangerous view to hold as the Qur’an assumes from Sura 5:43-48 that the Gospels which the Christians possess in the time of Muhammad is a revelation from God. There are however, no other Gospels orthodox Christians claim to be authentic except the four we have today.

Well there we go. Now that I’ve wrote this down, I can probably fall back to sleep.




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