Tuesday, 31 January 2012

Who Wrote the Gospels?

One often hears the claim, made frequently by skeptical scholars and laypeople alike, that we have no grounds on which to think the four canonical gospels were actually written by the people to whom they are ascribed. The original documents, we are told, were written in anonymity, the attributions being added by scribes at a later date. This claim is made frequently by the notorious textual critic Bart Ehrman. Is Ehrman's assessment correct here, however? Do we have any evidence which might indicate the authorship of the four gospels?

Ehrman is actually mistaken in his assertion that we know the original documents did not bear the name of their author. As Ehrman knows full well (he's constantly reminding us), we don’t have the original documents in our possession (as is the case for all sources of that time period) and so we couldn’t possibly know for sure one way or the other. But I think there is positive indication that the gospels were written by the persons to whom they were attributed by the early church (Matthew, Mark, Luke and John).

One example would be the fact that two of the gospels are ascribed to such minor characters as Mark and Luke -- neither of whom, by any accounts, were themselves eyewitnesses. Had a forger wanted to acquire credibility for his writing he would undoubtedly have attributed it to someone like Peter, Thomas or James (as the later second and third century Gnostic gospels did).

Actually, there is some compelling evidence (both external and internal) that Mark penned the eyewitness accounts of Peter. For example, Justin Martyr, writing around A.D. 150, spoke of Mark's Gospel as "the memoirs of Peter." He suggested that Mark wrote down his material when he was in Italy (which concurs with other early tradition which indicates that the gospel of Mark was penned in Rome for the benefit of the Christians there. Iraeneus (writing approx. A.D. 185) referred to Mark as "the disciple and interpreter of Peter." Most famously, Papias, the bishop of Hieropolis (writing approx. A.D. 140) wrote,
"And the presbyter [the Apostle John] said this: Mark, having become the interpreter of Peter, wrote down accurately whatsoever he remembered. It was not, however, in exact order that he related the sayings or deeds of Christ. For he neither heard the Lord nor accompanied Him. But afterwards, as I said, he accompanied Peter, who accommodated his instructions to the necessities [of his hearers], but with no intention of giving a regular narrative of the Lord's sayings. Wherfore Mark made no mistake in thus writing some sayings as he remembered them. For one thing he took especial care, not to omit anything he had heard, and not to put anything fictitious into the statements."
It is curious, then, that Mark's gospel did not become “the gospel according to Peter” but, rather, “the gospel according to Mark”.

I also think that the gospel traditionally attributed to John claims that authorship. It refers throughout to the certain “disciple whom Jesus loved”, a disciple who is clearly John but who is never mentioned by name. Given that John is a very prominant disciple in the three other gospels (the synoptics name the Apostle John approximately 20 times), this is very curious indeed, and suggests that the author assumed his readers would know who the author was. In the final chapter of John’s gospel, he writes, “This is the disciple who testifies to these things and who wrote them down.” In addition, there is some strong external corroboration for the Johanine authorship of John's gospel. Irenaeus (A.D. 130-200), who was a student of Polycarp (A.D. 70-160), who in turn was student of the apostle John, testifies to the Johanine authorship of John and asserts that it was written when John was in Ephesus and when he was well on in years.
There is also some supportive evidence, I think, for the traditional authorship of Luke. Apart from being another fairly minor character (and not one of the twelve disciples), we also know that Acts of the Apostles is written by the same individual as Luke’s gospel. From Acts 16 onwards, the narrator routinely employs the pronouns “we” and “us”, which suggests that the narrator is in close contact with Paul and his companions. Moreover, much of the information relayed in Acts is unlikely to be known by an individual who had not completed that trip -- or, at the very least, been in contact with someone who had. Indeed, Paul, in his letters, refers to his companion Luke three times (Colossians 4:14; 2 Timothy 4:11; Philemon 1:24).

The evidence for the authorship of Matthew's gospel is weaker than for the other three. Matthew's gospel would certainly have to have been written by someone who was familiar with the time and place (e.g. see Peter William's lecture here). The Gospel's authorship, as is the case for all four gospels, goes unchallenged in the early church. In his Ecclesiastical History, the church historian Eusebius (A.D. 265-339) quotes Origen (A.D. 185-254), stating,
"Among the four Gospels, which are the only indisputable ones in the Church of God under heaven, I have learned by tradition that the first was written by Matthew, who was once a publician, but afterwards an apostle of Jesus Christ, and it was prepared for the converts from Judaism."
To conclude, there is no good reason to doubt the traditional authorship of the four gospels, and there are various internal and external indicators to suggest that the traditional authorship is correct. I could continue in the same vein, listing such evidences, for some time. For a fuller discussion of the topic, I refer readers to Richard Bauckham’s book Jesus and the Eyewitnesses: The Gospels as Eyewitness Testimony.


  1. Yes many people do have different views about who really wrote the New Testament and it is good to investigate it. I simply love the fact that there is enough evidence of eyewitness accounts for us to do so. Good Blog :)

  2. Actually Matthew's account has the strongest evidence of authorship, its just you dont want to accept it was first known as the gospel of the Hebrews and was written in that language. Papias thru Jerome testify to this. Its the only account quoted by Justin. Mark would be the next because from Papias onward is that Mark recorded Peter's sermon to gentiles in Rome becaused he was asked to by some of the gentiles who wanted this sermon in writting. Peter was just preaching the Life,death,buriel and resurrection and probably used both Matthew and what we call Luke plus his own memory as the resource. As for John's account we have no evidence it even existed till mid 2nd century and no one at that time knew which John it was suppossed to have wrote it. Probably was writen very late in life by Justin or a contempary of his. I believe it was wrote to refute Marcionism and the gospel of Luke was rewrote from the Gospel of the Lord and Matthew was translated and rewrote to assert the God of NT was the same as the OT because of marcionism

  3. Two of the biggest assumptions that many Christians make regarding the truth claims of Christianity is that, one, eyewitnesses wrote the four gospels. The problem is, however, that the majority of scholars today do not believe this is true. The second big assumption many Christians make is that it would have been impossible for whoever wrote these four books to have invented details in their books, especially in regards to the Empty Tomb and the Resurrection appearances, due to the fact that eyewitnesses to these events would have still been alive when the gospels were written and distributed.

    But consider this, dear Reader: Most scholars date the writing of the first gospel, Mark, as circa 70 AD. Who of the eyewitnesses to the death of Jesus and the alleged events after his death were still alive in 70 AD? That is four decades after Jesus' death. During that time period, tens of thousands of people living in Palestine were killed in the Jewish-Roman wars of the mid and late 60's, culminating in the destruction of Jerusalem.

    How do we know that any eyewitness to the death of Jesus in circa 30 AD was still alive when the first gospel was written and distributed in circa 70 AD? How do we know that any eyewitness to the death of Jesus ever had the opportunity to read the Gospel of Mark and proof read it for accuracy?

    I challenge Christians to list in the comment section below, the name of even ONE eyewitness to the death of Jesus who was still alive in 70 AD along with the evidence to support your claim.

    If you can't list any names, dear Christian, how can you be sure that details such as the Empty Tomb, the detailed resurrection appearances, and the Ascension ever really occurred? How can you be sure that these details were not simply theological hyperbole...or...the exaggerations and embellishments of superstitious, first century, mostly uneducated people, who had retold these stories thousands of times, between thousands of people, from one language to another, from one country to another, over a period of many decades?


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