Gospels were Called Memoirs in the Second Century

Many Christians today rely on the Gospels and Epistles as the only authority for faith and practice of the New Covenant. Some justify this by saying that the books of the New Testament were always accepted as the Word of God. We have already looked at how Papias in the late first century did not appear to have this attitude. (See The New Testament Books Were Not Received as the Word of God Initially, at Least Not by Papias The next references I want to look at are by Justin Martyr in the mid to late 2nd century. Justin wrote:

For the apostles, in the memoirs composed by them, which are called Gospels, have thus delivered unto us what was enjoined upon them;i

And on the day called Sunday, all who live in cities or in the country gather together to one place, and the memoirs of the apostles or the writings of the prophets are read, as long as time permits; then, when the reader has ceased, the president verbally instructs, and exhorts to the imitation of these good things. Then we all rise together and pray, and, as we before said, when our prayer is ended, bread and wine and water are brought, and the president in like manner offers prayers and thanksgivings, according to his ability, and the people assent, saying Amen; and there is a distribution to each, and a participation of that over which thanks have been given, and to those who are absent a portion is sent by the deacons. And they who are well to do, and willing, give what each thinks fit; and what is collected is deposited with the president, who succours the orphans and widows and those who, through sickness or any other cause, are in want, and those who are in bonds and the strangers sojourning among us, and in a word takes care of all who are in need. But Sunday is the day on which we all hold our common assembly, because it is the first day on which God, having wrought a change in the darkness and matter, made the world; and Jesus Christ our Saviour on the same day rose from the dead. For He was crucified on the day before that of Saturn (Saturday); and on the day after that of Saturn, which is the day of the Sun, having appeared to His apostles and disciples, He taught them these things, which we have submitted to you also for your consideration.ii

In the above references, the word “memoirs” is boldened and italicized to show how the writings were spoken about at that time. Reading the whole reference establishes the context of how the “memoirs” were treated and were part of the worship practices of the time. While it is certainly true that the gospels appear to have had an elevated status because they were read as were the prophets the mere fact that they are defined as “memoirs” shows a different perspective than the modern term “gospel.” Justin is actually stating here that the gospels are “memoirs”. Memoirs are historical accounts written by people about their lives or significant events in their lives.

The evidence as to the acceptance of the inspiration of the New Testament writings is relatively scant. This article and the one on Papias’ comments discuss the few references to this point as to the status of the gospels. But what is significant is that, however scant this evidence is, it reinforces the argument that the “Word of God” status was not initially attributed to these documents, but rather New Testament documents achieved “Word of God” status probably centuries after original Christianity.

It is an important distinction to make that the “memoirs”, even if they were not received as the inspired word of God, were still the documents that contained the Apostles’ witness of what the Lord did and taught. The difference is that if the documents are human memoirs, then it is understandable that there might be minor discrepancies in the order and details of the events of Christ’s life. On the other hand, if the Gospels are the result of God’s authorship there is a problem when the order and details in the Gospels don’t match with the perfect logical precision something authored by God would demand. Remember, the only “biblical” reference to the authorship of the gospels appears at the beginning of Luke:

Forasmuch as many have taken in hand to draw up a narrative concerning those matters which have been fulfilled among us,
even as they delivered them unto us, who from the beginning were eyewitnesses and ministers of the word,
it seemed good to me also, having traced the course of all things accurately from the first, to write unto thee in order, most excellent Theophilus;
that thou mightest know the certainty concerning the things wherein thou wast instructed. Luke 1:1-4

This opening section of Luke here makes significant points:

  • There were numerous accounts of Jesus’ life and ministry being written which we know to be true.
  • These other accounts were written by disciples and eyewitnesses.
  • The author said “it seemed good to me … to write to thee in order ” indicating his will and decision to write the document. In other words, the document was written by the will of the author. That is what it says. It does not say that the holy spirit told Luke the words, that God commanded the document to be written, rather, it declares the memoir was the author’s choice.
  • “Having traced the course of all things” indicates that the events have been thought through and analyzed in the mind of the author. It was not God’s giving of words to man, it was the thought-out words of the author. The author is talking about the accuracy of the writing. Though written by a man, it is an accurate, truthful account. If this was the prophetic Word of God, why would the author give the argument as to the validity of the writing that he had “traced the course”?
  • The purpose was to reinforce to believers the things that they had been taught orally to this point.

The perspective of Original Christianity was that the gospels were memoirs, historical accounts written by the Apostles or their assistants to clearly show the life, teaching, death, and resurrection of the Lord Jesus Christ. What little evidence there is establishes human authorship. There is no evidence that says they were divinely authored. That belief started later and became the tradition that many believe to this day. Nevertheless, the “memoirs” were highly valued and read weekly as part of the weekly worship service along with the writing of the Prophets. While being humanly authored they still taught the truth. This was the perspective in the time when there was great power and witness of the spirit of God. This was the perspective at the beginning of the church, the gospels were historical narratives written by some of the first and closest witnesses of the Lord’s life and ministry.

i. Ante-Nicene Fathers Volume 1, The First Apology of Justin, Chap. LXVI.  Of the Eucharist
ii. Ante-Nicene Fathers Volume 1, The First Apology of Justin, Chap. LXVII. Weekly Worship of the Christians

© copyright 2009-2023 Mark W Smith, All rights reserved Revised 8/16/23

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