How the Four Evangelists became Gospel Writers and Acquired their Symbols

Numerous accounts of Christ’s life were written in the centuries following his death, yet only four became accepted as canonical, or authentic, by the institution of the Christian Church. 1 These Gospels were identified first by the second century Gallic Bishop Irenaeus.2

Nature confirmed that the number four was appropriate because, as Irenaeus observed, the Earth had four zones where people lived and there were also four winds. Irenaeus thus identified the Evangelists, Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, as the four pillars of the Church, the four authors of the true Gospels.

Fig. 1 Evangelists Symbols Page, f. 27v, Book of Kells, MS 58, © The Board of Trinity College Dublin, the University of Dublin. 2015.

Irenaeus went on to compare the Evangelists with the mystical creatures who appeared at the beginning of John’s vision of the apocalypse.  The book of Revelation (4.7) records that surrounding Christ’s throne in heaven were beings that resembled a man, a lion, a calf, and an eagle (fig. 1).  John’s ‘living creatures’ were in turn a reference to the four cherubim holding aloft the throne of God in the vision of the Old Testament prophet Ezekiel (1.4-11). The beings in Ezekiel’s vision had the features of all four creatures and four wings each as well.

[Book of Mulling, MS 60, Book of Durrow, MS 57 © The Board of Trinity College Dublin, the University of Dublin. 2015.]

The primacy of the Gospel texts by Matthew, Mark, Luke and John was solidified in the next few centuries after Irenaeus at various synods where their authenticity was agreed.  When Jerome made his significant translation of the Bible into Latin in the late fourth century, the Vulgate firmly established the texts of the four Evangelists as canonical.  It was also Jerome who gave the order in which the texts should appear.  In his Commentary on the Gospel of Matthew, Jerome associated each Evangelist with one of the living creatures: Matthew is the Man; Mark is the Lion; Luke is the Calf and John is the Eagle.

[Lindisfarne Gospels, Cotton MS Nero D IV, British Library. Source.]

Insular Gospel manuscripts introduce each account with representations of their authors.  This may be a portrait of the Evangelist, as we see in the Book of Mulling (fig. 2a), the mystical symbol of the Evangelist, as used in the Book of Durrow (fig.2b), or a combination of author and symbol as found in the Lindisfarne Gospels (figs.2c-d).

Fig. 4. John’s Evangelist Symbol, the Eagle in the Book of Dimma, late 8th century (TCD, MS 59, f. 104v) © The Library of Trinity College Dublin.

Pocket Gospels like our Book of Mulling and Book of Dimma were more likely to use an author portrait than an Evangelist symbol.  A notable exception is the image of an eagle in the preface to John’s Gospel in the Book of Dimma (fig. 3).  A more subtle reference to an Evangelist symbol may be found in the Garland of Howth on the folio with the opening words to Mark’s Gospel.  The heads of two lions, Mark’s symbol, are embedded in the ornament of the page (figs. 4a-b).

Footnotes

  1. Apocryphal Christian scripture or those texts that were not eventually included in the New Testament include those known as the Gnostic Gospels. For more see Elaine Pagels, The Gnostic Gospels (1989).
  2. Irenaeus, Against Heresies, 3.11.8; A. Roberts and W. Rambaut, trans., Ante-Nicene Fathers, I (Buffalo, NY, 1885).  Revised translation available here.