If the gospels were known at all anytime in the first century through to the middle of the second century why did no-one seem to write about them or mention the story in them? Why did they even write about Jesus’ life on earth in ways that directly contradict what we read in the Gospels?
Is the table by Glenn Davis a useful guide to get an overview of who quoted what from the Gospels in the early centuries of Christianity?
Here is one example of where a well-known “Church Father” writing in the middle of the second century drops a detail about the life of Jesus that just does not make a lot of sense to anyone who knows about the Gospels:
Everyone knows that the Gospels narrate how the disciples all deserted Jesus when he was betrayed by Judas and arrested in the Garden of Gethsemane (though not all Gospels specify Gethsemane as the scene). Many of us are familiar with the way the Gospels also explain that this was in fulfilment of an Old Testament prophecy: “Strike the shepherd and the sheep shall be scattered” (Zechariah 13:7). But when we read two different works by the prominent church father of the mid-second century, Justin Martyr, we find that he says that the disciples deserted Jesus after he was crucified! And Justin makes perfect sense of this because he also quotes the same prophecy in Zechariah but more aptly applies the striking of the shepherd to the crucifixion of Jesus, not his preliminary arrest.
How is it possible for anyone familiar with the Gospel narrative of Jesus that we know from the Gospels get confused on this pivotal dramatic detail? The desertion at the moment of the betrayal of Jesus is one of the iconic moments in the narrative across all four Gospels. Betrayal by Judas and desertion by the other eleven all happen at the same point of time to mark the moment of the collective failure, leaving Jesus from that moment to face his ordeal of unjust trials, beatings and crucifixion alone.
We have reasonable grounds for believing that Justin Martyr wrote around the middle years of the second century. Here is what he wrote — twice — about the moment the disciples deserted Jesus:
Accordingly, after He was crucified, even all His acquaintances forsook Him, having denied Him; and afterwards, when He had risen from the dead and appeared to them, and had taught them to read the prophecies in which all these things were foretold as coming to pass, and when they had seen Him ascending into heaven, and had believed, and had received power sent thence by Him upon them, and went to every race of men, they taught these things, and were called apostles. (First Apology ch. 50)
Moreover, the prophet Zechariah foretold that this same Christ would be smitten, and His disciples scattered: which also took place. For after His crucifixion, the disciples that accompanied Him were dispersed, until He rose from the dead, and persuaded them that so it had been prophesied concerning Him, that He would suffer; and being thus persuaded, they went into all the world, and taught these truths. (Dialogue with Trypho, ch. 53)
(In that first passage one might even be inclined to wonder if Justin understood not only Peter, but all the disciples denied Jesus in some way.)
There is much more I could add, with many more examples of where Justin seems to either not know about the Gospel narrative with which we are familiar, or rejected and ignored it.
Or is there something odd about the translation I am using that would settle the matter even more simply?
I am aware of the places where Justin appears to know about sayings of Jesus that seem to have some overlap with what we find in the Gospels. I am also aware that in a few particular sections of his writings he speaks of the “Memoirs of the Apostles”, and in those sections we do read a few close points of contact with our canonical Gospels. Those are, I believe, other questions that require more detailed discussion: much has been published on those questions. The example of a clash with the Gospel narrative that I have raised above is, I think, an indicator that our canonical narrative is unknown — or thought of little worth — to Justin.
Is it a satisfactory enough explanation that Justin must have known about, and preferred, some other gospel narrative, now lost to us, that related this non-canonical version of events?
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