The Basis for Luke Primacy
Justin Martyr Favored Luke over John

Justin Martyr Favored Luke over John

Evidence Justin Martyr Favored Luke and Disfavored John and that Papias was not a ‘hearer of John’

Excerpts from Encyclopaedia Biblica, Vol II, “Gospels” Edwin Abbott, 1901, Columns 1809-1837

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Statement of Luke

i. The Third Gospel. — Lk. 1:1-4 implies (a) that ’many’ Gospels were current, and perhaps (b) that their diversity was calculated to obscure ‘the certainty concerning the things wherein’ the Christian catechumen was instructed ; (c) that whereas the apostles ’ delivered these — i.e. , taught them orally — ’many’ ’drew up a narrative’ — i.e., wrote. This points to a time when the apostles had passed away, leaving the ground open to historians. Luke’s qualification was, not that he had consulted an apostle, but that he had ‘traced the course of all things accurately from the first.’ The particular defects implied in existing ’ narratives ’ are, that they were not ’accurate’ and not in ’ chronological order.’ 

Papias not a hearer of John

Papias (120-30 A.D. ) is probably recorded by Irenaeus (v. 36:12) to have preserved tradition of a saying of the Lord, ‘In the region of my Father there are many abiding-places’ Cp. John 14:2 ‘In my Father’s house are many abiding-places.’ The context indicates that Papias had one meaning and John another. Papias (taking the word as used by Pausanias x. 31:7 ‘encampment,’ ‘halting-place’) means there are many stages on the journey upwards ’ — viz. the New Jerusalem, Paradise, and Heaven. This explains why Papias has ‘in the region,’ while John has ‘in the house.’ [The Greek word is used that] means ‘stages’  in the Petrine Apocalypse and in Clem. Alex. (pp. 1000, 1003, 579 f.,645, 794), who also (p. 797) speaks of the three hinted at by the three numbers in the Gospel.’ The ‘three numbers ’are explained by Papias as the ‘thirty,’ ‘sixty,’ and ‘hundred ’ of the Parable of the Sower.
The conclusion is that Papias is not quoting and misinterpreting John, but quoting, and interpreting in accordance with tradition, a Logion (illustrating the Synoptic Parable of the Sower) of which John gives a different version. And this leads to the inference that, if Papias had John in his mind, he did not recognize it as an apostolic gospel.

Was Papias ‘a hearer of John’? of John — Was Eusebius right in denying, or Irenaeus in asserting, that Papias was ’ a hearer of John’? Here, and in what follows, we must distinguish the statements of Eusebius from his inferences. The former are almost always accurate; the latter are sometimes erroneous (though by giving us the grounds for them, he enables us to avoid error). Even the inferences of Eusebius are probably more trustworthy here than the statements of Irenaeus. (This could be proved by a collection of Irenaeus’s mistakes. And a comparison of the eulogistic remarks made by Eusebius about other ecclesiastical writers with his general silence when quoting Irenaeus would indicate that, although he would by no means call the latter (as he calls Papias) ’ a man of very little understanding,’ he nevertheless thinks less highly of his power of weighing evidence than of his orthodoxy and high standard of carefulness in copying MSS.)

Now Eusebius rejects the definite statement of the latter that Papias was a ‘ hearer of John,’ on the ground that Papias himself makes no such claim in his preface, where he naturally, and almost inevitably, would have made it, if he could. He gives us the preface to speak for itself. He adds facts and extracts from the work of Papias, the whole of which was apparently before him. These convey no indication that Papias ’heard’ John. That Irenaeus — influenced by the natural tendency of early Christian controversialists to exaggerate the continuity of Christian tradition, and by the fact that Papias lived in Polycarp’s time and reported what John said — hastily declared Papias to be ‘a hearer of John,’ is more probable than that Eusebius, subsequently reviewing all the evidence, was mistaken in denying it. The probable conclusion is that Papias was not a hearer of John.

Justin Martyr

Justin Martyr (145-149 A.D.). whilst quoting the Gospels under various titles, makes some incidental but very important statements about their composition.

In a few instances Justin appeals, as it were, beyond the Memoirs, to those who composed them; or else he introduces a personal quasi-protest of authenticity, ‘ I assert, ‘ I have learned,’ etc. All these passages reveal Justin as quoting with a special emphasis Luke — or a later version of Luke., including interpolated passages — as though protesting that Luke is on a level with the Memoirs:

  1. 1 Apol. 33, ‘ As those who recorded all things about our Saviour Jesus Christ have taught,’ introduces Luke’s Annunciation to the Virgin (with a clause taken from Mt.);
  2. 1 Apol. 66, ‘For the apostles, in the Memoirs made by them, which are called Gospels, delivered that Jesus had thus ordained to them,’ introduces, in a condensed form, Luke’s version of the Institution of the Eucharist, including the words, ‘ Do this in remembrance of me,’ not found in Mk. or Mt.
  3. Tryph. 88, ‘Both fire was kindled  in the Jordan . . ., and . . . that the Holy Spirit as a dove hovered on him has been written by his apostles (the apostles I mean), of this our Christ,’ if the text were correct, would exhibit Justin stating a non-canonical event (the ‘fire’) as a fact on his own authority, and the canonical event as on the authority of the ‘ apostles ‘ ; 
  4. Tryph. 103, ‘ For in the Memoirs which  assert to have been composed  by his apostles and by those who followed them,’ introduces ‘it is written that sweat, as it were drops, streamed down from him while praying ‘ — a passage found in some MSS of Lk. 2244  (and found in no other Gospel) ;
  5. Tryph. 105, ‘ As we have learned through the Memoirs,’ accompanies the words, ‘ becoming a man through the Virgin ‘ (from Lk., combined with Mt.), and is followed by 
  6. Tryph. 105, ‘as also from the Memoirs we have learned this, too,’ introducing an utterance of Christ on the Cross peculiar to Luke. 23:46.

Justin’s view is that Christ (1 Apol. 67 and cp Acts 1:3), after his resurrection, ‘appeared to his apostles and disciples and taught them’ everything relating to himself (Acts 1:3 to ‘the Kingdom of God’).  This ‘ teaching’ would, therefore, apply (1 Apol. 33) to the Nativity and other mysteries, as well as to moral precepts, and Luke, as being ‘a pupil of all the apostles,’ would receive it. As regards the form of transmission, Justin begins with an ambiguous expression (1 Apol. 33), which may mean (1) ‘remembered,’ or (2) ‘repeated from memory. ’ Adopting the latter meaning, he uses it, not (as Papias did) of the successors of the apostles, but of the apostles themselves. Then he gradually inclines, and finally commits himself, to the theory that this ‘ repetition ’ was not oral merely, but also in writing. Hence he allows himself to say ‘ the apostles wrote.’ Having these views about the apostolic consensus of the Memoirs, and having a preference for Luke’s record of the Nativity and the Passion, Justin may naturally have recoiled from John , as being a new work, breaking this consensus both in style and thought, and especially unfavorable to the authority of Luke…

Justin Martyr (150 A.D. ), regarding the Synoptic Gospels as Memoirs written by the apostles from the teaching of Christ, and showing a preference for Luke. (in an interpolated form), affords no trace of a recognition of a Gospel like John outside the stream of the Memoirs.’

Barnabas and John

Anticipations of Jn. in Barnabas . — The special points of interest in this epistle are that (1) it was written ‘before the Fourth Gospel ; (2) the latter resembles it in many points: —

  • (a) (Barn. 11:11 12:5) the juxtaposition of ‘ baptism ‘ and the ’ brazen serpent,’ and the parallel between the serpent and Christ ;
  • (b) Barn .6:6 the application of Ps. 22:18 to the casting lots over Christ’s vesture;
  • (c) Barn. 7:9, the ‘piercing’ of Christ;
  • (d) Barn. 11:1, the connection between the Cross and Water, followed by a connection between the Cross and Blood;
  • (e) Barn. 11:11, “Whosoever shall eat of these shall live for ever.”  This means, “Whosoever,”  saith he, “shall hear these things when they are spoken and shall believe, shall live for ever” ’

It will be seen below  that many of the so-called ‘imitations of John by Justin’ might be called, less inaccurately, ‘imitations of Barnabas.’


The conclusion is that, in 125-135 A.D., Luke had come into prominence as a recognized gospel in Marcion’s region, but that John was not yet equally prominent.

Summary of the Evidence Before Justin

Thus, up to the middle of the second century, though there are traces of Johannine thought and tradition, and immature approximations to the Johannine Logos-doctrine, yet in some writers (e.g . , Barnabas and Simon) we find rather what John develops, or what John attacks, than anything that imitates John, and in others (e.g., Polycarp, Ignatius, and Papias) mere war-cries of the time, or phrases of a Logos- doctrine still in flux, or apocalyptic traditions of which John gives a more spiritual and perhaps a truer version. There is nothing to prove, or even suggest, that John. was recognized as a gospel.’ Many of these writers, however, are known to us by extracts so short and slight that inference from them is very unsafe ; it is otherwise with the writer, next to be considered. Justin Martyr (145-9 A.D.) has been found above (1) quoting freely from Mt. and Lk. ; (2) sometimes appearing to use a harmony of the two ; (3) adopting Luke by preference as to the Miraculous Conception and the Passion ; (4) quoting (apparent) interpolations in Luke ; and (5) showing a disposition to maintain the claims of Luke as a new but authoritative version of the Memoirs of the apostles. The instances given to prove these conclusions will suffice to show Justin’s attitude toward the Synoptics. It remains to consider his attitude toward John as deducible from alleged quotations, or types, borrowed from it; abstentions from quotation; agreements, or disagreements, with John ’s doctrine or statement.

(1) Minor apparent Johannine quotations

(a) Tryph. 123, ‘We are called and arc the true children of God,’ is alleged to be from John 1:12, and 1 John 3:1 f. ‘that we should be called the children of God, and (so) we are’ Both Justin and John are alluding, partly (1) to Jewish tradition about God’s ‘calling’ Isaac to birth and thereby causing him to ‘be’ (Gen. 21:12 ‘In Isaac shall thy seed be called,’ Rom. 4:17 ‘ calleth the things that are not as though they were ’) partly (2) to the tradition that Isaac was called ’ from the dead (Heb. 2:19 ‘that God was able to raise [him] from the dead,’ to be compared with Josephus’s comment on the sacrifice of Isaac [Ant. i.13:2] ‘that God was able to bring men into abundance of the things that are not, and to take away the things that are’): partly (3) to Philonian traditions about God’s creative ‘call’ (Philo 2:367 ‘He calleth the things that are not so that they are ’ : cp Philo 2:176); and partly (4) to a Stoic phrase ‘ I am and I am called’ (Philo 1:337), Epict. Ench. is ‘they both were and were called divine’ (cp id. ii. Pi 44 ‘ Heracles was believed to be the son of Zeus and he was [so]’). So, here, Justin first shows that God was to (Jer. 31:27 and Is. 19:24) ‘raise up a seed’ to Israel ; then asserts that he ‘ called’ this people Israel and declared it his inheritance; lastly, in answer to Trypho’s ‘ Are you  Israel?’ he replies, ‘We both are called and are the children of God.’

(b) Apol. 6 ‘ reason and truth’ is an allusion not to John 4:24, ‘spirit and truth,’ but to what Justin has just said about the temper of Socrates ‘in true reason , i.e., reasonableness,’ and is a play on the word Logos.

(c) Tryph. 17, ‘the only spotless and righteous [one], sent [as] light from God to man, implies a recognition of Christ as (Is. 42:6 49:6 Lk. 2:32; Enoch 48:4) a ‘light to lighten,’ not only ‘the Gentiles,’ but the world; and an allusion to Jewish traditions  based on Ps. 43:3 ‘ Send out thy light and thy truth.’

(d) 1 Apol. 60 (‘If ye . . . believe , ye shall be saved’), treating of the brazen serpent, differs so much from Num. 21:7-9 (‘that every one that is bitten, when he seeth it, shall live’) that it is urged that the writer had in his mind Jn. 3:14 (‘that whosoever believeth may in him have eternal life ’). But Barn. (12:7 ‘let him hope and believe . . . and immediately he shall be saved’) differs even more from Num. Justin is closer to Barnabas than to John, and appears to he condensing the former or some kindred tradition. 

(e) Justin accuses the Jews of cancelling (Tryph. 73) ‘He shall reign from the tree ’ in Ps. 96:10; and some might infer that he borrowed this thought from John, who regards the Cross as a throne on which Jesus is ‘lifted up’ or ‘exalted.’ But see Barn. 85:1 the reign of Jesus on the tree.’

The close and numerous resemblances between Barnabas and Justin in respect of prophecies and types prove that Justin followed either Barnabas or some tradition used by Barnabas, and go some way towards proving that, if he knew John, he preferred Barnabas.

(2) ’ Except ye be begotten again

1 Apol. 61, ‘For in the name of God, the Father and Lord of the Universe, and of our Saviour Jesus Christ, they then receive the washing with water. For indeed Christ said, Except ye be begotten again ye shall not enter into the kingdom of the heavens. Now that it is absolutely impossible for those once born to reenter the wombs of those that bare them is evident to all.’ Cp Jn. 3:3 f  ‘Except a man be begotten from above? he cannot see the kingdom of God. Nicodemus saith unto him, How can a man be begotten when he is old? Can he enter the second time into his mother’s womb and be begotten? Jesus answered, Except a man be begotten of water and (the) Spirit, he cannot enter into the kingdom of God

Justin is here meeting heathen misrepresentations of the two sacraments, by showing that they are based on Christ’s command and on reason and that the heathen themselves have imitated them. As to the Eucharist, he gives (1) Christ’s Words of Institution ; (2) the Pagan imitation. As to baptism, since he gives the Pagan imitation later (62:64), he is (presumably) giving here what he regards as the words of Institution (for he gives no others). Justin nowhere quotes Mt. for the facts of Christ’s Resurrection, but only Luke. And Luke omits the command to baptize.

That they are derived from John is improbable for many reasons. (1) Justin’s tradition is thrown into the form of an indirect precept (‘thou shall be baptized or thou shalt not enter’); John’s is a statement of a law. (2) Justin omits the two elements mentioned in the full form of the Johannine utterance — viz., ‘water’ and ‘spirit.’ (3) Justin, though familiar with the use of the word meaning ‘from above,’ and though he once actually uses it, in this case he doesn’t (4) That Justin agrees with John in connecting the doctrine of regeneration with words about the impossibility of reentering the womb, is not indeed an accidental coincidence, any more than the somewhat similar connection in an utterance of Simon Magus (Hippol. 6:14), ‘How, then, and in what manner, doth God shape men (in the new birth)?’ to which Simon replies, ‘ Admit that Paradise is the womb, and that this is true the Scripture will teach thee,’ afterwards entering into minute materialistic details about ‘the womb.’ It is a connection so natural in controversy that it is easy to understand that it became commonplace in Christian doctrine.

(3) Other alleged quotations

(a) Tryph. 105, ‘ That this [man] was [the] only-begotten of the Father of the Universe, having become from him in a special way Word and Power, and afterwards becoming man through the Virgin  as we have learned from the Memoirs, I have shown above.’ Lightfoot (BE 88), omitting the italicized words, refers that Justin refers to John as a part of the Memoirs for the proof of the ‘special’ antemundane birth. But the words he omits indicate that Justin refers to Tryph. 100, where he ‘ showsthis from the Memoirs, as an inference from Peter’s confession. This resort to the Memoirs to prove what they cannot prove, but John could prove, indicates that Justin did not regard John as authoritative ; (b) Justin, against Marcion, is said to have written (Iren. 4:62), ‘I should not have believed . . . but the only-begotten Son came to us. . . ’ This, Lightfoot (BE 89) asserts to be based on John. 1:18. But besides the objection that many authorities, read in Jn. 1:18 ‘God ’ for ‘Son,’ this assertion assumes that John must have invented this application of ‘only-begotten,’ whereas in fact it followed naturally from the Logos-passage in Wisd. 7:22 describing the Wisdom of God as containing a Spirit ‘only-begotten, ’and might he suggested by Ps. 22:20, ‘ Deliver my soul from the sword, mine only-begotten from the power of the dog. ’ Now in the Apologies and Dialogue Justin never uses the word ‘only-begotten’ except in Tryph. 105, referred to above (a), where he supported it by Ps. 22, and professed to have ‘previously shown’ it, the ‘ showing ’ being really a futile inference from the Memoirs. All this, so far from indicating a borrowing from John, proves that, if Justin knew John, he refused to base any statement on it;

Tryph. 88 has simply the Synoptic tradition of the Baptist, developed as in Acts 13:25 (with a tradition of Justin’s own,  twice ‘ repeated in connection with the Baptist elsewhere; and Tryph. 57, as to the Manna, 1 instead of alluding to Jn. 6:31, is a quotation from Ps. 78:25 with an allusion to Ps. 78:19 (cp 1 Cor. 10:3 and also Wisd. 16:20). representing a stage of tradition earlier than John;

Tryph. 69, ‘those who were from birth and according to the flesh defective [in vision ]? ’ is alleged by some to refer to the healing of the man ‘blind from, birth,’ mentioned only by John 9:1-34. But Justin speaks of these people in the plural, John 9:32 states that the healing was ‘unique, unheard of from the beginning of the world.’ Justin was probably quoting from some tradition earlier than John; but in any case this instance tends to show that, if he knew John, he did not regard it as authoritative.

Other alleged quotations, if examined, might be shown, even more conspicuously than those treated above, to fail to prove that Justin recognized John as an authoritative gospel.

Abstentions from Quotation

 It is generally recognized that the Synoptics do not teach, whereas John and Justin do teach, Christ’s pre-existence, the feeding on Christ’s ‘ flesh and blood ’ (as expressed in those precise words), the application of the term’ only-begotten’ to Christ, and the Logos-doctrine. When, therefore, we find Justin either not appealing to any authority in behalf of these doctrines, or appealing to pointless passages in the Synoptics instead of pointed passages in John, it is a legitimate inference that Justin did not recognize John as on a level with the Synoptics. 

Summary of the Evidence About Justin

It appears, then, that (1) when Justin seems to be alluding to John, he is really alluding to the Old Testament, or Barnabas, or some Christian tradition different from John, and often earlier than John; (2) when Justin teaches what is practically the doctrine of the Fourth Gospel, he supports it, not by what can easily be found in the Fourth, but by what can hardly, with any show of reason, be found in the Three; (3) as regards Logos-doctrine, his views are alien from John. These three distinct lines of evidence converge to the conclusion that Justin either did not know John, or, as is more probable, knew it, but regarded it with suspicion, partly because it contradicted Luke his favorite Gospel, partly because it was beginning to be freely used by his enemies the Valentinians. (4) It may also be fairly added that literary evidence may have weighed with him. He seldom or never quotes (as many early Christian writers do) from apocryphal works. The title he gives to the Gospels (‘Memoirs of the Apostles’) shows the value he set on what seemed to him the very words of Christ noted down by the apostles. Accepting the Apocalypse as the work of (Trypho 81) the Apostle John he may naturally have rejected the claim of the Gospel to proceed from the same author. This may account for a good many otherwise strange phenomena in Justin’s writings. He could not help accepting much of the Johannine doctrine, but he expressed it, as far as possible, in non-Johannine language; and, where he could, he went back to earlier tradition for it, such as he found, for example, in the Epistle of Barnabas.