A Brief History of the Gospels

Papyrus“Nevertheless, our earliest actual fragments of New Testament writing is a small papyrus, dated ca. 125-150, containing John 18:31-33, 37-38.  

Papias (fl. ca. 125-150), an early bishop of Hierapolis, mentions Mark and Matthew in what the church historian Eusebius (ca. 325 CE) says is a reference to the Gospels (Hist. eccl. 3.39.15-16). But Papias also says that he regards the authority of the words of Jesus as transmitted by the elders from the apostles themselves to be greater than that of any information from books (Hist. eccl. 3.39.4).[…]

The earliest direct evidence for a collection of the Gospels comes from Justin Martyr (also the first to mention the Revelation of John, see Dial. 81.15), ca. 160, who makes direct reference to Matthew, Mark, Luke, and possibly John, and says that he permits the reading of ‘memoirs of the apostles or apostolic men’ (1 Apol. 66-67) in worship, one sign that the Gospels too might now be considered Christian scripture. If Justin did in fact have John, this is also the first indication of a collection of the four Gospels.[…]

The first Christian to argue for limiting the number of Gospels to four was Irenaeus of Lyons (ca. 180). Irenaeus argues further that certain other accounts may not be read because they are heretical. His implied ‘New Testament’ (a term that he uses, but not clearly referring to texts) includes the four Gospels, Acts of the Apostles (the first evidence of its use), the thirteen epistles attributed to Paul, 1 Peter, 1 and 2 John, the Revelation of John, and also the Shepherd of Hermas, a work no longer part of the New Testament canon (see. e.g., Adv. Haer. 3.21.3-4).

By the beginning of the third century, the contours of a ‘New Testament’ as we know it begin to emerge. Clement of Alexandria and Tertullian in Carthage treat as authoritative a collection of Christian documents similar to that of Irenaeus. Both approve of Hebrews (Eusebius says that Irenaeus also used Hebrews, but that cannot be demonstrated from his surviving work) and both use the epistle of Jude. Tertullian treats as scripture both the Shepherd of Hermas and the Epistle of Baranbas, another work no longer part of the New Testament. He is, furthermore, the first to use the term ‘New Testament’ in a clear reference to a collection of texts (Prax. 15).[…]  Origin (ca. 185-254), whose words are preserved by Eusebius, started that there are ‘four Gospels, which alone are unquestionable’ (Hist. eccl. 6.25.4): Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John.[…]

By the fourth century, the accepted list of books that were treated as the New Testament had not changed much, as we can see from Eusebius’s Ecclesiastical History. Eusebius lists those book that everyone recognizes as scripture (homologoumena): four Gospels, Acts of the Apostles, fourteen epistles of Paul (the thirteen ascribed to him as well as Hebrews), 1 John, 1 Peter, and Revelation.[…]  The emperor Constantine asked Eusebius to produce fifty copies of the Christian Bible. Unfortunately, none of these copies have survived, but Eusebius must have made a decision as to which texts to include. Two biblical codices (singular ‘codex’) from the fourth century have survived. One of these, called Sinaiticus because it was discovered in St. Catherine’s Monastery on Mount Sinai, is the oldest complete Old (Greek only) and New Testament. Its New Testament contains all the books of the modern New Testament plus the Shepherd of Hermas and the Epistle of Barnabas.[…]

After Eusebius, canon lists, some using the term ‘canon’ are drawn up in various places by various bishops or church synods. These list the books of the New Testament for the express purpose of saying ‘these books and no others.’ One of these, the Thirty-ninth Festal Letter of Bishop Athanasius of Alexandria, presents in 367, for the first time, a list of the twenty-seven books that are included in the modern New Testament.[…]Yet through this entire period, the church never adopted a set of criteria by which to determine canonicity. Although unstated, the most significant criterion for inclusion was usage and dissemination.[…]  Also important was the criterion of apostolicity, that is, whether the document emanated from an apostle or was connected to an apostolic authority (e.g. Luke and Acts was associated with Paul, Mark with Peter). On the other hand, many of the now noncanonical documents were written in the names of apostles and yet were not cited as scripture by any church father: usage (or lack of it) thus took priority over ascription to an apostle. A third criterion was conformity to the proper understanding of Christianity (the regula fidea or ‘rule of faith’) as the majority church (and certainly the majority of those in power in the church) saw it.[…]  ’Divine inspiration’ was not a criterion for acknowledging a document as scripture.” (The Jewish Annotated New Testament, pp 557-559)

Orthodoxy and the Salvation of the World

“We have to say that if Jesus was not the redeemer of all human beings, then he redeemed no one. The gospel is for all human beings. It is sometimes said that Orthodox Christians do not proselytize, and if that means that we do not apply coercive pressure on people to join us – that is true – or it should be. But it is our duty as Christians to let others know what we believe to be a matter of life or death and leave them free to respond. Here we must take some personal responsibility: it is one thing to preach the gospel and another to live it. When our lives contradict what we preach, we should not be surprised that those to whom we preach are not impressed by what we say. We do not know, or claim to know, God’s will for those who do not accept the gospel, except to say that God is a merciful and loving God who draws all people toward eternal life, and we can leave it to God to do that, in God’s own way. But we are obliged to bear witness to the gospel by living it and by preaching it.” (John Garvey, Seeds of the Word: Orthodox Thinking on Other Religions, p 19)

Gradually Spend the Day Pleasing God

The desert fathers left us a treasury of apothegms and aphorisms which were distilled from their own spiritual experiences.  They are precisely sayings which convey wisdom and warn against excessive zealotry.   They follow the teachings of our Lord Jesus Christ who also was a giver of wisdom rather than law, who in fact is wisdom incarnate.  Wisdom is not law which tells us exactly what to do for it also encompasses how often, how much, to what degree, with whom, under what circumstances as well as when and where we are to carry out a particular behavior.

When we set off to form a prayer rule or any kind of spiritual discipline, we may want to keep in mind the words of St. John of Gaza (ca. 530) who said:

“Do not bind yourself with strict rules, but do whatever the Lord gives you the strength to do.  And do not neglect your reading and prayer; little by little, you will gradually spend the day pleasing God.  For our perfect fathers were not limited by any particular rule. Indeed, their daily rule included singing Psalms a little, repeating by heart a little, examining their thoughts a little, working for a living a little, and all this with fear of God.  For it is said: ‘Whatever you do, do everything for the glory of God.'”  (Georgi Parpulov in THE OLD TESTAMENT IN BYZANTIUM, p 78)

Moderation in all things is a good rule, as well as varying one’s discipline so that “little by little” you “gradually spend the day pleasing God.”   It isn’t done on the first day you try, nor all at once nor by trying to be the spiritual giant on day one.  We grow in the faith. We do as much as God has given us strength to do, not according to what strength He may have given others for them to do His will.   This is why one rule cannot serve all Christians – such a rule doesn’t serve us but becomes our master.   We gradually become with perseverance, patience and persistence the Christian we believe we are called to be.  We work out our salvation during the course of our life, not just in one day, even though each and every day is significant to our spiritual development.  The spiritual life is not a sprint but a marathon lasting a lifetime.  [Another bit of wisdom is God promises to forgive us on the day we repent, but He doesn’t promise us a tomorrow on which to repent!]

We also find in the advice of the monastics wisdom concerning how to handle various temptations and problems by turning to the Psalms.  This is wisdom that goes beyond just sticking to a regime of saying fixed Psalms at set times.   A 10th Century manuscript offers the following advice as to which Psalms to say for special needs:

“The Psalms said as prayers are the following:

Against despondent thoughts – Psalm 54, 53.

Against lewd thoughts – Psalm 34, 37.

Against rancorous thoughts – Psalm 30.

Against captive thoughts – Psalm 12, 16.

Against thoughts of forsakenness – Psalm 70, 72.

Against multitudinous thoughts – Psalm 68, 142.

Against thoughts of despair – Psalm 26.

Against blasphemous thoughts – Psalm 139.

Say the same Psalm also against any torment and difficulty.

In want of prayer – Psalm 24, 25.”  (Georgi Parpulov in THE OLD TESTAMENT IN BYZANTIUM, p 85, 88)

A Perception of the Creator

For from the greatness and beauty of created things
comes a corresponding perception of their Creator. 

(Wisdom of Solomon 13:5)

Some prognosticators have been predicting a beautiful autumn in our area.  Weather conditions were apparently just right this past spring and summer for an awesome display of autumn colors.

I took my camera out for a couple of walks in my neck of the woods and indeed the autumn display was an amazing array of colors.  Didn’t need to go very far at all to witness the beauty in creation.

I like to imagine God as artist enjoying adding all the color to the landscape.

In 1 Chronicles 16:33-36 we read these words:

Then shall the trees of the forest sing for joy
before the LORD, for he comes to judge the earth.
O give thanks to the LORD, for he is good;
for his steadfast love endures forever.

Say also:
“Save us, O God of our salvation,
and gather and rescue us from among the nations,
that we may give thanks to your holy name,
and glory in your praise.
Blessed be the LORD, the God of Israel,
from everlasting to everlasting.”

Isaiah the Prophet writes in 55:11-12:

So shall my word be that goes out from my mouth;
it shall not return to me empty,
but it shall accomplish that which I purpose,
and succeed in the thing for which I sent it.

For you shall go out in joy,
and be led back in peace;
the mountains and the hills before you
shall burst into song,
and all the trees of the field shall clap their hands. 

The only sad part is that the peak color lasts such a very short time.  The winds and rains soon wash out and wash away the colors leaving us with a winter landscape.

You can find all my photos of this year’s  awesome autumn at Fr. Ted’s Photo Albums.

You can find links to other photoblogs I’ve posted at Fr. Ted’s Photoblogs.

Seeing Christ: The Transfiguration of the Eye

“The following passages taken from the writings of Symeon the New Theologian  … illustrate the insufficient nature of the natural eye. The texts … offer an extremely rare example of Symeon discussing an actual use of an icon in his spiritual life. The topic of the Discourse is thanksgiving for the gift of illumination. In the tenth section Symeon prepares his listeners for the encounter with an icon by first offering thanks to God for a vision of him:

‘When a blind man gradually recovers his sight and notices the features of a man and bit by bit ascertains what he is, it is not the features that are transformed or altered into the visible. Rather, as the vision of that man’s eyes becomes clearer, it sees the features as they are. It is as though they wholly imprint themselves on his vision and penetrate through it, impressing and engraving themselves, as on a tablet, on the mind and the memory of the soul. You Yourself became visible in the same manner when You had completely cleaned my mind by the clear light of the Holy Ghost. Thence seeing more clearly and distinctly, You seemed to come forth and shine more brightly, and allowed me to see the features of Your shapeless shape.’

Here Symeon proposes that human eyes require divine intervention in order to see more fully. It is they, rather than the object of their vision, that require alteration. Having set up this transformational model, Symeon then introduces an encounter with an icon of the Theotokos:

‘Having said these things You became silent and little by little, 0 sweet and good Lord, You were hidden from my eyes; whether I became distant from You or You departed from me, I know not. I returned once more wholly into myself and entered into my former dwelling, whence I had thought to have left. When I recalled the beauty of Your glory and of Your words, as I walked about, sat down, ate, drank, and prayed, I wept and lived in an indescribable joy, having known You, the Maker of all things. How could I have failed to rejoice?

But I again fell into sorrow and so desiring to see You again, I went off to embrace the spotless icon of the one who bore You and having bowed down before it, You became visible to me within my wretched heart before I could stand up, as if You had transformed it into light, and then I knew that I knowingly have You within me. Therefore from then onwards I loved You, not by recollection of You and that which surrounds You, nor for the memory of such things, but I in very truth believed that I had You, Substantial Love, within me. For You, 0 God, are love indeed.’ (Catecheses, 350-52; Discourses, 375-76)

It is striking that Symeon plays with a very visual sense of the absence or presence of the divine. In seeking to recover the presence of the divine, he addresses worship to an icon, but, notably, it is not the subject of the icon, the Theotokos, who becomes present to him. Rather, it is Christ who appears in his heart. This presents us with a distinction between sight, vision, and object and a seeming disregard for the icon itself. It is an account that underlines that Symeon was seeking to surpass the human in order to receive a vision that was impressed within his body rather than that passed through his eyes.”   (Derek Krueger, Byzantine Christianity: People’s History of Christianity, Kindle Location 1890-1910)

Called a Christian? or Called to Be a Christian?

“Accordingly, if we make St. Paul our leader in these two undertakings, we shall have the safest guide to the plain truth of what we are seeking. For he, most of all, knew what Christ is, and he indicated by what he did the kind of person named for Him, imitating Him so brilliantly that he revealed his own Master in himself, his own soul being transformed through his accurate imitation of his prototype, so that Paul no longer seemed to be living and speaking, but Christ Himself seemed to be living in him. As this astute perceiver of particular goods says: ‘Do you seek a proof of the Christ who speaks in me?’ and: ‘It is now no longer I that live but Christ lives in me.’ This man knew the significance of the name of Christ for us, saying that

Christ is

‘the power of God and the wisdom of God.’

And he called Him ‘peace’ and ‘light inaccessible’ in whom God dwells,

and ‘sanctification and redemption’,

and ‘great high priest’, and ‘passover’, and ‘a propitiation of souls’,

‘the brightness of glory and the image of substance’,

and ‘maker of the world’,

and ‘spiritual food’ and ‘spiritual drink and spiritual rock’,

and ‘image of the invisible God’,

and ‘great God’,

and ‘head of the body of the Church’.

and ‘the firstborn of every creature’,

and ‘first fruits of those who have fallen asleep’, ‘

firstborn from the dead’, ‘firstborn among many brethren’,

and ‘mediator between God and men’,

and ‘only-begotten Son’,

and ‘crowned with glory and honor’,

and ‘lord of glory’,

and ‘beginning’ of being,

speaking thus of Him who is the beginning,

‘king of justice and king of peace’,

and ‘ineffable king of all, having the power of the kingdom’,

and many other such things that are not easily enumerated.

[…]  Therefore, since, thanks to our good Master, we are sharers of the greatest and the most divine and the first of name, those honored by the name of Christ being called Christians, it is necessary that there be seen in us also all of the connotations of this name, so that the title be not a misnomer in our case, but that our life be a testimony of it. Being something does not result from being called something. The underlying nature, whatever it happens to be, is discovered through the meaning attached to the name. What do I mean? If someone calls man a tree or a rock, will he, on this account be a plant or a stone? Of course not. It is necessary for him, first of all, to be a man, and, then, to be addressed thus in keeping with his nature. For titles based on similarities have no validity, as if one could say that a man is a statue of an imitation horse. If anything is named validly and not falsely, his nature completely reveals the form of address as a true one. Wood disguised in any way at all is still called wood, bronze is called bronze, stone is called stone, or any other such substance upon which art, shaping it contrary to expectation, imposes a form. It is necessary, then, for those calling themselves after Christ, first of all, to become what the name implies, and, then, to adapt themselves to the title.” (St. Gregory of Nyssa, Ascetical Works, pp 96-98)

Who Remembers a Beggar’s Name?

The Gospel Lesson according to St. Luke 16:19-31 –

The the Lord Jesus told this parable:

There was a certain rich man who was clothed in purple and fine linen and fared sumptuously every day.

But there was a certain beggar named Lazarus, full of sores, who was laid at his gate, desiring to be fed with the crumbs which fell from the rich man’s table.

Moreover the dogs came and licked his sores. So it was that the beggar died, and was carried by the angels to Abraham’s bosom.

Lazarus in Abraham’s bosom

The rich man also died and was buried. And being in torments in Hades, he lifted up his eyes and saw Abraham afar off, and Lazarus in his bosom. Then he cried and said, ‘Father Abraham, have mercy on me, and send Lazarus that he may dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue; for I am tormented in this flame.’ But Abraham said, ‘Son, remember that in your lifetime you received your good things, and likewise Lazarus evil things; but now he is comforted and you are tormented. ’And besides all this, between us and you there is a great gulf fixed, so that those who want to pass from here to you cannot, nor can those from there pass to us.’

Then he said, ‘I beg you therefore, father, that you would send him to my father’s house, ’for I have five brothers, that he may testify to them, lest they also come to this place of torment.’ Abraham said to him, ‘They have Moses and the prophets; let them hear them.’ And he said, ‘No, father Abraham; but if one goes to them from the dead, they will repent.’ But he said to him, ‘If they do not hear Moses and the prophets, neither will they be persuaded though one rise from the dead.’ 

St. Nikolai Velimirovic comments:

 “The rich man’s soul was as full of sores as Lazarus’ […]

What sort of funeral did Lazarus the poor man have? It was like the burial of a dog that is found dead on the road. There must have been some civil authority to deal with dead beggars on the road, to give them burial for various reasons, and especially for two: the danger that dogs might tear his body to pieces and carry the pieces all over the city, and the fear that it would begin to stink, and thus spread infection in the city. In any case, the body must be got out of the city as quickly as possible and buried, because this  dead body – twisted, covered with sores and tattered bits of clothing – offended the eyes of passers-by. None of these reasons were concerned with Lazarus, but all were directed towards the well-being of the city’s inhabitants. He, poor man, was a nuisance to others both during his lifetime and after his death.

The authorities could only wrinkle their noses at these unpleasant tidings, find men to carry out the disagreeable task and see how to pay for it. Word passed from tongue to tongue: Some beggar’s died; who’ll bury him? At whose cost? Who was he? So some curious child might ask. A foolish question; who would know and remember a beggar’s name?” (Homilies, pp 225 & 227)

Beatitudes of St. Ephrem

In Matthew 5, our Lord Jesus teaches as part of His sermon on the mount, the Beatitudes which are so central to Christian spirituality.  Through history a number of Church Fathers penned their own list of Beatitudes, imitating the style of Christ.  One such list is the  55 Beatitudes of St. Ephrem.   Though these are attributed to St. Ephrem of Syria, many scholars believe they were actually written later by a Greek Orthodox who wrote under St. Ephrem’s name.  I recently came across these and reproduce just a few of Ephrem’s Beatitudes.

1. Blessed the one who has become wholly free in the Lord from all the earthly things of this vain life and loved God alone, the good and compassionate.
2. Blessed the one who has become a good ploughman of the virtues and raised a harvest of fruits of life in the Lord, like a ploughed field bearing wheat.

3. Blessed the one who has become a good husbandman of the virtues and planted a spiritual vine, plucked the grapes and filled his presses with fruits of life in the Lord.

4. Blessed the one who has made his fellow servants glad with spiritual gladness from the fruit of the virtues, which he planted by toiling to give back the fruit of life in the Lord.

15. Blessed the one who is always full of spiritual joy and has not grown slack in bearing the Lord’s good yoke, for he will be crowned with glory.

17. Blessed the one who draws near with fear and trembling and dread to the spotless Mysteries of the Saviour and has realised that he has received in himself eternal life.

21. Blessed the one who sits in his cell with all devotion, as Mary sat at the Lord’s feet, and hastens, like Martha, to receive him, the Lord and Saviour.

46. Blessed the one who, like one unwise, does not judge his neighbour, but as understanding and spiritual has struggled to throw the plank out of his own eye.
47. Blessed the one who heart has blossomed like a palm tree by rightness of faith and has not been thrust out, as by thorns, by the heresy of the faithless and impious.

51. Blessed the one who observes with spiritual understanding the choirs of stars shining with glory and the beauty of the heavens and longs to contemplate the Maker of all things.


55. Blessed are those who watch according to God continually, for they will be overshadowed by God in the day of judgement, becoming sons of the bridal chamber, in joy and gladness they will see the Bridegroom. But I and my like, idle and pleasure-loving, will weep and lament as we watch our brothers in everlasting glory, while we are in torments.


Sometimes we come to a crossroads in life where we have to make a decision as to which way to go.  It may not always be clear to us which is the “correct” path because more than one path may seem good to us.  We might decide we don’t want the responsibility for making the “wrong” decision and therefore seek counsel from a spiritual father.  In doing so we might imagine that the responsibility for the decision can then fall upon our spiritual father and all we have to do is obey what advice is given.   But sometimes, the wise spiritual adviser knows it is better not to make the choice for the disciple but rather only to present possibilities and put the responsibility for the choice on the disciple.

A brother questioned Abba Poemen saying, “An inheritance has been bequeathed to me; what shall I do with it?”  Abba Poemen said to him, “Go, and after three days come to me, and I will give you counsel.”  And the brother came, and Abba Poemen said to him, “What counsel shall I give you, O brother? If I tell you to give it to the church, they will make feasts with it; and again, if I tell you to give it to your kinsmen, you will have no reward; but if I tell you to give it to the poor, you will have no further care. Therefore go and do with your inheritance what you please, for I am not able to advise you rightly.” (adapted from The Paradise or Garden of the Holy Fathers (Volume 2),  Loc. 661-65)

Abba Poemen advises,  yet leaves the choice to the disciple who then bears responsibility for the decision.  Poemen, even though asked by the disciple to advise,  is careful to leave the choice to the disciple and also the responsibility for the decision.

This thinking we also see in our Lord Jesus who teaches using parables.  We have to think about the parables and what they mean and how to apply them to our lives in 21st Century America.  Teaching moral living through parables calls the disciple to exercise their God-given gift of free will and to make real choices in life.  Parishioners aren’t meant to be kept as children all their lives who must be told what to do by the clergy.  They are fully responsible disciples who need to learn the Gospel lessons in order to apply them to every situation and every moment of their lives.  God gave us free will and rational thinking – we are to put them to good use.   If God wanted us to be automatons, He would have created robots, not humans.

Matthew 20

If we constantly speak on contemporary issues and tell parishioners how they must think about everything, we fail to teach as Jesus taught.  We are to teach and proclaim the Gospel in order to empower the parishioners to apply those lessons to their lives, to their decision making, to their life choices.  They need to learn what is essential from the Gospel in order to learn how to apply the lessons to their own lives.   When the preachers decide that contemporary issues are the proclamation, they set aside the Gospel.   As one aphorism has it, “When I preached repentance, nothing happened.  When I preached joy, nothing happened.  But when I preached the Gospel, some repented and some rejoiced.”