This is one of those very interesting topics that worth sharing. Our early church fathers had quite a bit to say about our four gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John). Of the four Gospels alone, there are 19,368 citations by the church fathers from the late first century on. The following are quotes from those early church fathers on the gospels themselves:
Papias lived from 70AD to 163AD, was a disciple of the Apostle John, and was a Bishop of Hierapolis (which is located in modern Turkey). Here’s what he wrote down (as quoted by Eusebius in his book Ecclesiastical History (340AD)):
Mark, having become the interpreter of Peter, wrote down accurately everything that he remembered, without however recording in order what was said or done by Christ. For neither did he hear the Lord, nor did he follow him; but afterwards, as I said, (attended) Peter, who adapted his instructions to the needs (of his hearers) but had no design of giving a connected account of the Lord’s oracles. So then Mark made no mistake, while he thus wrote down some things as he remembered them; for he made it his one care not to omit anything that he heard, or to set down any false statement therein.
Ireneaus lived from 130AD to 202AD. He was a disciple of Polycarp, who was a disciple of the Apostle John. And he became a Bishop in Gaul (modern France). In the 3rd book of his 5 volume set, Against Heresies, he writes this:
“Matthew also issued a written Gospel among the Hebrews in their own dialect, while Peter and Paul were preaching at Rome, and laying the foundations of the church. After their departure, Mark, the disciple and interpreter of Peter, did also hand down to us in writing what had been preached by Peter. Luke also, the companion of Paul, recorded in a book the Gospel preached by him. Afterwards, John, the disciple of the Lord, who had leaned upon his breast, did himself publish a Gospel during his residence at Ephesus in Asia.”
Later in the same book, he talks about the comparison of the cherubim angels that had four faces, and compares them to the 4 gospels, and then further compares them to the 4 covenants that God has given man (Noah, Abrahamm, Moses, Christ). He says “It is not possible that the Gospels can be either more or fewer in number than they are.” And then he starts section 9 of chapter 11 with “These things being so, all who destroy the form of the Gospel are vain, unlearned, and also audacious; those, [I mean, ] who represent the aspects of the Gospel as being either more in number than as aforesaid, or, on the other hand, fewer.” Here is the quote in full context:
It is not possible that the Gospels can be either more or fewer in number than they are. For, since there are four zones of the world in which we live, and four principal winds, while the Church is scattered throughout all the world, and the “pillar and ground” of the Church is the Gospel and the spirit of life; it is fitting that she should have four pillars, breathing out immortality on every side, and vivifying men afresh. From which fact, it is evident that the Word, the Artificer of all, He that sitteth upon the cherubim, and contains all things, He who was manifested to men, has given us the Gospel under four aspects, but bound together by one Spirit. As also David says, when entreating His manifestation, “Thou that sittest between the cherubim, shine forth.” For the cherubim, too, were four-faced, and their faces were images of the dispensation of the Son of God. For, [as the Scripture] says, “The first living creature was like a lion,” symbolizing His effectual working, His leadership, and royal power; the second [living creature] was like a calf, signifying [His] sacrificial and sacerdotal order; but “the third had, as it were, the face as of a man,”-an evident description of His advent as a human being; “the fourth was like a flying eagle,” pointing out the gift of the Spirit hovering with His wings over the Church. And therefore the Gospels are in accord with these things, among which Christ Jesus is seated. For that according to John relates His original, effectual, and glorious generation from the Father, thus declaring, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” Also, “all things were made by Him, and without Him was nothing made.” For this reason, too, is that Gospel full of all confidence, for such is His person. But that according to Luke, taking up [His] priestly character, commenced with Zacharias the priest offering sacrifice to God. For now was made ready the fatted calf, about to be immolated for the finding again of the younger son. Matthew, again, relates His generation as a man, saying, “The book of the generation of Jesus Christ, the son of David, the son of Abraham; ” and also, “The birth of Jesus Christ was on this wise.” This, then, is the Gospel of His humanity; for which reason it is, too, that [the character of] a humble and meek man is kept up through the whole Gospel. Mark, on the other hand, commences with [a reference to] the prophetical spirit coming down from on high to men, saying, “The beginning of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, as it is written in Esaias the prophet,”-pointing to the winged aspect of the Gospel; and on this account he made a compendious and cursory narrative, for such is the prophetical character. And the Word of God Himself used to converse with the ante-Mosaic patriarchs, in accordance with His divinity and glory; but for those under the law he instituted a sacerdotal and liturgical service. Afterwards, being made man for us, He sent the gift of the celestial Spirit over all the earth, protecting us with His wings. Such, then, as was the course followed by the Son of God, so was also the form of the living creatures; and such as was the form of the living creatures, so was also the character of the Gospel. For the living creatures are quadriform, and the Gospel is quadriform, as is also the course followed by the Lord. For this reason were four principal covenants given to the human race: one, prior to the deluge, under Adam; the second, that after the deluge, under Noah; the third, the giving of the law, under Moses; the fourth, that which renovates man, and sums up all things in itself by means of the Gospel, raising and bearing men upon its wings into heavenly kingdom.
Clement of Alexandria
Clement of Alexandria lived from 150AD to 215AD, and was a disciple of Justus, who was a disciple of Mark, who was a disciple of Peter. Here is what he wrote about the gospels (as quoted by Eusebius in his book Ecclesiastical History (340AD)):
As Peter had preached the Word publicly at Rome, and declared the Gospel by the Spirit, many who were present requested that Mark, who had followed him for a long time and remembered his sayings, should write them out. And having composed the Gospel he gave it to those who had requested it. When Peter learned of this, he neither directly forbade nor encouraged it. But, last of all, John, perceiving that the external facts had been made plain in the Gospel, being urged by his friends, and inspired by the Spirit, composed a spiritual Gospel.
Also interesting is that around the year 180, Tertullian mentioned that several of the original documents were still around in his time. Corinth, Philippi, Thessalonica, Ephesus, and Rome. And in the early 4th century, Peter, Bishop of Alexandria, speaks of the original document of the Gospel of John still existing in his day.