Brief History of the Analogy of the Four Evangelists to the Four Living Creatures

While on Prince Edward Island last week, I visited St. Dunstan’s Basilica (rebuilt 1916) in Charlottetown. On the front, it had the ancient symbols (drawn from the vision in Ezekiel 1) for the faces of the four evangelists carved in stone: Matthew = man, Luke = ox, Mark = lion, and John = eagle (the order from left to right on the building’s face).

The order of the four evangelists here is unusual to my knowledge, but the symbolism for each evangelist is ancient. Here is the well-known page from the Book of Kells (fol. 27v; ca. 800): Matthew = man, Mark = lion, John = eagle, and Luke = calf (from top left clockwise).


This symbolism can be traced as far back as Jerome’s preface to his Matthew Commentary:

The book of Ezekiel also proves that these four Gospels had been predicted much earlier. Its first vision is described as follows: “And in the midst there was a likeness of four animals. Their countenances were the face of a man and the face of a lion and the face of a calf and the face of an eagle.” The first face of a man signifies Matthew, who began his narrative as though about a man: “The book of the generation of Jesus Christ the son of David, the son of Abraham.” The second [face signifies] Mark in whom the voice of a lion roaring in the wilderness is heard: “A voice of one shouting in the desert: Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.” The third [is the face] of the calf which prefigures that the evangelist Luke began with Zachariah the priest. The fourth [face signifies] John the evangelist who, having taken up eagle’s wings and hastening toward higher matters, discusses the Word of God (Thomas P. Scheck. Commentary on Matthew (The Fathers of the Church, Volume 117). Catholic University of America Press, 2008.).

But the symbolism in this period was far from fixed. Augustine had the following correspondences (Harmony of the Four Gospels 1.9): Matthew = lion, Luke = calf, Mark = man, and John = eagle.

The earliest Christian to draw the analogy between the Evangelists and the four living creatures in Ezekiel 1 was Irenaeus (Haer. 3.11.8; ca. 180), who had the following: John = lion, Luke = calf, Matthew = man, and Mark = eagle.

Why the symbolism? Jerome and others interpreted the faces of the four living creatures in Ezekiel 1 as a prophecy about these Four Gospels. Only these Four Gospels are compared to the four living creatures. There could and would only be these four despite the presence of other gospels in this period. By drawing the analogy to Ezekiel’s faces of the four living creatures, early Christians were claiming that only these four were authentic.

These arguments for these four gospels do not convince modern scholars, but all scholars are intrigued by them, for it is not altogether clear how Irenaeus appeals to the analogy. Is Irenaeus establishing a novel viewpoint by appealing to the analogy or is there precedent in the Christian tradition for only these four gospels that he defends by the use of the analogy? We can’t answer that question here, and much of it depends on how one reads the sources before Irenaeus.


Talk on Canon at Clearview Church

In addition to the podcast, while I was at Clearview Church, I spoke for their “Digging Deep” series on the topic of “Why Does our (Protestant) Bible have the Books it Does?” Here, I begin with the table of contents of our modern Protestant and Roman Catholic Bibles and briefly trace the histories of these canons through the 16th century to the patristic period and to the earlier period of the late second temple period, talking in less certain categories about a canon in this earliest phase and more about sanctity and popularity of individual books.

The whole talk is about an hour and fifteen minutes and it includes the slides I used for the presentation. If you are interested in how Protestants and Roman Catholics came to have their respective bibles, then have a look.

Blog Reviews of The Biblical Canon Lists and Amazon’s Ridiculous Discount

Cover Art-RevisedWe are in the third month since the release of The Biblical Canon Lists from Early Christianity: Texts and Analysis, and there are now two blog reviews and an amazing discount to report.

First, the discount. Amazon is currently giving the book away at a 39% discount or for $27. One will not find that ridiculous price, even at SBL.

Second, the reviews. (1) Dr. Jim West has reviewed the book here. He takes issue with the small font size of the Greek, Syriac, and Latin texts, which is a completely fair criticism, and we have noted it. He ends with this paragraph:

I think the volume is completely worth the reader’s time.  Just not all at once.  The reading of lists can be a tiresome task and of the making of book lists there is no end.  Fortunately, here, readers find all the essential lists in one location and don’t have to waste a lot of time trying to track them down in various places and volumes.  For that alone our authors are to be thanked.

(2) Dr. Larry Hurtado provides a short review here. He thinks our bibliography is up to date and our footnotes are copious:

The major benefit of this book is that, for each list included, the authors give a brief introduction, and the actual text in the original language and with an English translation, plus copious notes.  In one handy volume, you have pretty much all the key evidence, which makes this volume a unique contribution.

In the comments to Hurtado’s post, Lee Martin McDonald, author of The Formation of the Biblical Canon, chimed in. I’ll give him the last word:

Thanks for the good review of this book Larry. It is a superb volume and both young scholars are planning on extending their focus well into the Medieval period and eventually well into the modern era. I have profited from their research in my recent volumes. I know both men well and Ed was kind enough to add clarity in some of the lists in my work. While we do not agree on some of the details, they are most kind to those with whom they disagree and I applaud their sensitivity toward fellow scholars and their gentle spirits. I think their work here will be the standard on canon lists for years to come. Thanks also for mentioning The Canon Debate volume! —Lee Martin McDonald

Book Giveaway of The Biblical Canon Lists

Cover Art-RevisedOver on the ETC Blog, Peter Gurry has set up a raffle for a chance to win a free copy of my and Ed Gallagher’s The Biblical Canon Lists from Early Christianity: Texts and Analysis. Click through to enter to win the book.

For more on the book, see the following links:

The ETC Blog: New Book: The Biblical Canon Lists from Early Christianity

Ed Gallagher’s Blog: New Book: Biblical Canon Lists from Early Christianity

The OUPblog: The Origins of the Reformation Bible

The Origins of the Reformation Bible

460px-Antonio_da_Fabriano_II_-_Saint_Jerome_in_His_Study_-_Walters_37439-446x744Yesterday, for any who missed it, over on the Oxford University Press Blog, Ed Gallagher and I posted The Origins of the Reformation Bible. As you may well guess, the origins and debates over the contents of the Bible during the Reformation period were long anticipated in the Patristic period. Of course, both sides of the divide appealed to canon lists from early Christianity. Follow the link to read a significant part of the story that is not often told.

OUP Sale on The Biblical Canon Lists from Early Christianity

Oxford University Press is currently running its Celebrate Friends & Family Sale with 40% off and Free Shipping on most of its online bookstore. Now, you can preorder The Biblical Canon Lists from Early Christianity at the amazing low price of $27.00 (retail $45.00), if you act fast. While you are at it, you may want to join OUP’s mailing list so you can hear about these kinds of offers throughout the year. Cheers.

Book Update: The Biblical Canon Lists from Early Christianity


We are about one week away from the UK release (Nov. 2) of The Biblical Canon Lists from Early Christianity: Texts and Analysis written by me and Ed Gallagher and published by Oxford. You can preview the book on Google Books. You can also pre-order the book on Amazon UK (£35.00) or Amazon USA ($45.00). It will also be available on Oxford’s tables at the SBL Annual Meeting next month. The book is scheduled to release in the USA on Jan. 2, 2018.

Ed has already provided a good overview of our book on his blog. I have a post scheduled to appear on the ETC blog next week that situates our book within canon studies generally and shows its significance to the field.

The reason we believe most will want to own the book is the four chapters devoted to all of the Jewish and Christian canon lists in Hebrew, Greek, Latin, and Syriac with parallel English translations and notes up to around 400 CE. But there is more to this book than simply presenting canon lists and commenting on them.

These chapters are book ended by an Introduction, which defines what a canon list is and describes its significance to canon studies, and a major Appendix treating the important Antilegomena and Apocrypha. Chapter 1 is a substantial chapter on the Development of the Christian Biblical Canon. This chapter surveys the early periods of both the Hebrew Bible/Old Testament and the New Testament, and therefore, provides necessary context for interpreting the value and significance of the canon lists. The sixth and final chapter surveys select early manuscript contents in Greek, Latin, Syriac, and Hebrew up to around 1000 CE, again with the intention of providing more context for understanding the contents of canon lists. With these book ends, the reader should be in a good position to appreciate the canon lists in the middle of the book.

We think that scholars and students will want to refer to this book frequently when treating the biblical canon.

The New Testament Canon and Manuscripts

Kruger-CanonRevisitedOver on the ETC blog, I wrote on some key ideas in chapter 7, “Manuscripts and Christian Book Production,” in Michael Kruger’s Canon Revisited. In this chapter, Kruger attempts to show what we can learn about New Testament canon formation from our earliest manuscripts. In the post, I interact with the following ideas: (1) What is the value of a relative large quantity of MSS for determining canon? (2) What is the significance of the codex for NT canon formation? Kruger believes both aspects are potentially significant, while I register a caution or two about these particular ideas.