According to the "Institut für neutestamentliche Textforschung" eleven manuscripts of NT are from within the second century alone, which include: P52 (100-150), P90, 104 (2nd century), P66 (c. AD 175-225), P46, 64+67 (c. AD 200), P77, P103, 0189 (2nd or 3rd century), P98 (2nd century).

It means that P52 was not only written, but had spread to a provincial town in Egypt by the middle of the second century, confirming the its date of composition, in the last years of the first century. It is presumed that books of the New Testament were written between the years 50 and 100 after Christ. If we assume a later date, than it only shortens the period that elapsed between the composition of the books and the date at which the earliest manuscripts now extant were written.

P52 gives us a physical testimony for existence of the fourth Gospel of NT, at the start of second century.

Prior to say around 80 AD, are there any other references to these “four Gospels as books” in any of these sources?

  1. Non Christians and Christians literatures
  2. From any early Christian Fathers
  3. Any historians or
  4. Non Christian authors.
  • I think this should go to Biblical Hermeneutics
    – Mawia
    Feb 6, 2013 at 10:30
  • 4
    Isn't hermeneutics concerned with interpretation of text? This seems to be more of an apologetics question, which would fit better here. Hermeneutics would apply more to the interpretation of the texts, rather than their existence or dating, particularly when tt comes to finding evidence for reliability, if I'm not mistaken. Feb 6, 2013 at 12:53
  • @DavidStratton: Textual Critisism (which is what those things you list are) do fall under the umbrella of hermeneutics. I'm tempted to migrate this except that it also a question about the Canon, which is an inherently doctrinal issue and possibly better suited here. Thoughts community?
    – Caleb
    Feb 6, 2013 at 14:53
  • There wasn't a canon in the first century, nor were there only four gospels.
    – Wad Cheber
    Sep 5, 2015 at 6:16

2 Answers 2


I am not sure I'm understanding the question. I see two possible things you might be asking...

I don't know about evidences of others calling them the four Gospels (not sure that's exactly what your last sentence is asking), but there is first century manuscript evidence for at least some of the Gospels.

There is potentially evidence for the book of Matthew in a few fragments, but the dating of it is a matter of debate. The original, cursory examination gave them a date of the forth century, but a later examination gave them a date of A.D. 66.

From http://www.equip.org/articles/eyewitness-to-jesus-amazing-new-manuscript-evidence-about-the-origin-of-the-gospels/

The Matthew fragments redated by Thiede are at Magdalen College (Oxford). They are called The Magdalen Papyrus (listed as Greek 17 and p64). There are three fragments written on both sides, together representing 24 lines from Matthew 26:7-33. Two of the three fragments are a little larger than 4 x 1 cm.; the other is smaller, 1.6 x 1.6 cm. Another two fragments, located in Spain, are called the Barcelona Papyrus (P. Barc. inv. 1/p67) and contain portions of Matthew 3:9, 15; 5:20-22, 25-28.

Also, while less specific, faithfacts says...

Early fragments: John Ryland manuscript 130 A.D. in Egypt; Bodmer manuscript containing most of John's gospel 150-200 A.D.; Magdalen fragment from Mat. 26 believed by some to be within a few years of Jesus' death; Gospel fragments found among the Dead Sea Scrolls dated as early as 50 A.D.

Several other sites list the Dead Sea scrolls dating to the first century A.D.

DTS lists another fragment dating to the first century.

Dr. Wallace: Earliest Manuscript of the New Testament Discovered? by Daniel B. Wallace on February 9, 2012 in Articles

Note: Several websites (NT Blog, Gospel Coalition, Andreas Köstenberger, Evangelical Textual Criticism, Hypotyposeis, etc.) have been writing about Dan Wallace's comments to Bart Erhman about the discovery of several New Testament papyri. Dr. Wallace has already written a summary of the debate, and below he clarifies what these papyri might mean.

On 1 February 2012, I debated Bart Ehrman at UNC Chapel Hill on whether we have the wording of the original New Testament today. This was our third such debate, and it was before a crowd of more than 1000 people. I mentioned that seven New Testament papyri had recently been discovered—six of them probably from the second century and one of them probably from the first. These fragments will be published in about a year.

These fragments now increase our holdings as follows: we have as many as eighteen New Testament manuscripts from the second century and one from the first. Altogether, more than 43% of all New Testament verses are found in these manuscripts. But the most interesting thing is the first-century fragment.

It was dated by one of the world’s leading paleographers. He said he was ‘certain’ that it was from the first century. If this is true, it would be the oldest fragment of the New Testament known to exist. Up until now, no one has discovered any first-century manuscripts of the New Testament. The oldest manuscript of the New Testament has been P52, a small fragment from John’s Gospel, dated to the first half of the second century. It was discovered in 1934.

Not only this, but the first-century fragment is from Mark’s Gospel. Before the discovery of this fragment, the oldest manuscript that had Mark in it was P45, from the early third century (c. AD 200–250). This new fragment would predate that by 100 to 150 years.

Getting back to the distinction I mentioned in the first few sentences of this answer...

If you're not asking whether we have manuscript evidence from the first century, but rather writings establishing Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John as the only canonical gospels....

I don't know that we should necessarily expect the early Church to refer to the four "canonical gospels" in that way. The way canon was established was at least partially on establishing what the established, trusted writings were. The best we could hope for is to establish whether the first century Church accepted these writings, and whether they interpreted this to mean that these four, and only these four are acceptable as canonical (thereby excluding others. For that, we have no evidence, but that is more likely because it wasn't until later that they became concerned with formally establishing canon.

From http://www.churchhistory101.com/new-testament-canon.php

A Natural Delivery

  • The NT was NOT dropped from heaven.
  • The NT was NOT delivered by an angel.
  • The NT was NOT dug up in a farmer's field as golden plates like the Book of Mormon.
  • The NT was NOT suddenly "discovered" in a clay jar with 27 "books" intact like the Dead - Sea Scrolls or the Nag Hammadi texts.

The NT canon developed, or evolved, over the course of the first 250-300 years of Christian history. If the NT had been delivered by an angel, or unearthed as a complete unit it would not be as believable. Part of the historical validity of the NT comes from the fact that we can trace its development, albeit not as precisely as we might like.

  • The NT was NOT dropped from heaven. Good one.
    – Mawia
    Feb 6, 2013 at 13:32
  • @David Stratton That was a wealth of info you provided. Thanks. In fact I was asking for an indirect reference for Gospels in first century, thinking that there were no actual physical manuscript dated in that period. But the first century evidence of 66AD for P64(Gospel of Mathew) that you provided would be pretty close to original writing of Gospel of Mathew. It will be of great interest to know prescisely which fragments of Gospel were found in dead sea scroll which were dated around 50AD. Feb 6, 2013 at 15:56
  • 1
    @DavidStratton Isn't the Magdalene Papyrus also given a more accepted date of around 200 AD based on the style of writing that wasn't in use in the first century? The dates of both the first century and the fourth are not generally accepted.
    – user1160
    Feb 6, 2013 at 16:23
  • @David Stratton As I have stated earlier, the answer was very informative. Only one point that I could not agree with is that the Dead Sea scroll as I understand, do not have any NT manuscript fragments and I could not find anything other wise to invalidate it, except the link which you provided. Feb 8, 2013 at 4:15

In 144, Marcion was expelled from the orthodox Christian Church and so started his own church, becoming the first to clearly establish a canon, which consisted of ten of the Epistles attributed to Paul and only one Gospel, which Tertullian decades later identified as the Gospel of Luke, though stripped of "unacceptable features" such as the nativity, Old Testament references and so on. Prior to Marcion, there was no Christian concept of a canon of authorised scriptures.

Critical scholars believe that by the year 80, only three 'gospels' had been written: the Gospel of Thomas, the Gospel of Mark and the hypothetical 'Q' document. Of these, GThomas and Q were sayings gospels and Mark was the first narrative gospel to be written. Although they were never included in the New Testament canon, we know that GThomas and (probably) Q were treated as scripture by early Christians.

Scholars generally date the Gospel of Matthew to the 80s, but Raymond E. Brown says in An Introduction to the New Testament, page 217, that although AD 80-90 is the most plausible dating for Matthew, at least a decade in either direction must be allowed. So, it is at least possible that Matthew was already written by 80 CE. However, as stated earlier, the number of canonical gospels was not yet fixed and, in any case, Luke and John were not yet written. There could have been no reference to “four Gospels as books” prior to say around 80 AD, or even by 100 AD.


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