How Do We Know Who Wrote The Gospels?

gospelsBy Timothy Paul Jones – (original source here)

Open your Bible to the table of contents and take a look at the list of books in the New Testament. There, you’ll find the Gospels according to Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John leading the list. But did this quartet of early Christians actually have any connection with the books that bear their names? Were Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John really the ones who wrote the Gospels? If so, how do we know?

Your first reply might be, Because their names are on the books!—and you would be correct. These four names have appeared on the manuscripts of these four Gospels for well over a thousand years.

But these names may not have been present on the original manuscripts of the Gospels.

In fact, when it comes to who wrote the Gospels, some scholars are quite convinced that Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John couldn’t possibly have been the authors of these four books. According to one such scholar,

[The New Testament Gospels] were written thirty-five to sixty-five years after Jesus’ death, … not by people who were eyewitnesses, but by people living later. …

Where did these people get their information from? … After the days of Jesus, people started telling stories about him in order to convert others to the faith. … When … Christians recognized the need for apostolic authorities, they attributed these books to apostles (Matthew and John) and close companions of apostles (Mark, the secretary of Peter; and Luke the traveling companion of Paul). …

Because our surviving Greek manuscripts provide such a wide variety of (different) titles for the Gospels, textual scholars have long realized that their familiar names (e.g., “The Gospel According to Matthew”) do not go back to a single “original” title, but were added later by scribes.

B. Ehrman, Jesus, Apocalyptic Prophet of a New Millennium (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999), 248-249; B. Ehrman, Lost Christianities (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005), 235; B. Ehrman and W. Craig, “Is There Historical Evidence for the Resurrection of Jesus?: A Debate between William Lane Craig and Bart Ehrman” (March 28, 2006).

If these claims are correct, early Christians did not link the four New Testament Gospels to Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John because these individuals actually wrote the Gospels. The Gospels were, according to Bart Ehrman and many others, originally anonymous. According to this reconstruction, early Christians forged apostolic links in the second century in order to make these documents seem more authoritative. Ehrman’s proof for this supposition is the “wide variety” of different titles found among the Gospel manuscripts.

But does this reconstruction of who wrote the Gospels actually make the best sense of the historical evidence?

With this question in mind, let’s take a careful and critical look at the likelihood that the four New Testament Gospels actually originated with Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. Consider with me the crucial question of who wrote the Gospels.

Those Mysterious Missing Anonymous Manuscripts
The earliest Gospel manuscripts in which the titles have survived seem to have been copied in the late second and early third centuries (P66 and perhaps P4 and P75); that’s a century or more after the Gospels were originally written. And that’s part of the reason that some scholars make the claim that the New Testament Gospels were originally anonymous.

But does this absence of titles provide evidence that the Gospels circulated anonymously?

I’m not convinced that it does.

In the first place, many of the earliest Gospel manuscripts have not survived sufficiently intact for us to know whether or not the manuscripts originally included titles. The portions of the manuscripts that would have preserved the titles have crumbled into dust or become separated from the rest of the manuscripts over the centuries. Titles of ancient manuscripts were frequently inscribed on flyleaves at the beginning or end of a manuscript. In other cases, titles were written on tags—known as a sillyboi—and sewn to the closing edges of documents. It’s quite likely that these tags and flyleaves deteriorated or that they were simply lost over the centuries. As such, the absence of titles on the surviving portions of manuscripts does not mean that no names were originally present on these manuscripts. Continue reading

Nameless Gospels

The Problem of the Nameless Gospels by Michael Patton (original source – https://credohouse.org/blog/nameless-gospels)

In the New Testament, there are four canonical “Gospels.” These are basically four different people writing about the life, death, and resurrection of Christ from differing perspectives and for their own purposes. We call these books “Matthew,” “Mark,” “Luke,” and “John.”

The Problem

You may not know this, but none of the Gospel writers give their name in their writing. They are left, from this perspective, anonymous. The reason we title them the way we do is because early second-century Christians said that these four wrote them. And it became part of Christian tradition.

Some Christians become disturbed that the Gospels, in the originals, are nameless. Liberals, in Christian scholarship rarely, if ever, believe that the traditional titles represent the true authors. When reconstructing the historical Jesus, they believe that the Gospels (especially John), for the most part, are unreliable sources, coming from later communities who made Jesus into what they needed him to be, not how he actually was. Again, many people see this as a problem.

But let me give you two reasons why I believe that they are more trustworthy accounts of the historical Jesus precisely because they are nameless:

1. Anonymity Can Be a Sign of Authenticity

At the time when these works were written, it was common practice to compose a work and say that someone of more stature than you wrote it. It is the reverse of plagiarism. Instead of stealing someone else’s words and claiming them as your own, you would steal someone else’s name and claim your work as theirs. These writings are called pseudopigrapha, meaning “false writings.” It would be like if I wrote a work and claimed in the writing that it came from the pen of Billy Graham. Today, this would be difficult to pull off, and I would surely get caught. But back then, people did it all the time. We have the Apocalypse of Peter, the Gospel of Mary Magdalene, the Gospel of Thomas, and many others.

Richard Bauckham puts it this way:

One thing is clear: by the later second century there were lots of Gospels around and most of them claimed to be apostolic, bearing the names not only of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, but also of Thomas, Philip, James, Mary and others. (Source)

These other Gospels were written too late to have a chance of being written by their namesake. However, they did try to use the name of someone closely associated with Jesus so that their story (fabricated as it may be) might have a better chance of being accepted and integrated into their community.

If the Gospel authors were fabricating, lying, just making it all up, why remain nameless?

This is what is incredible about the four Gospels in the Bible. They were written in the mid/late first-century (both liberal and conservatives agree) and remained nameless. If the Gospel authors were fabricating, lying, just making it all up, why remain nameless? It is actually a mark of embarrassment (and, maybe, humility) that they didn’t come out and tell us who was writing. If these were fabrications, why not claim the name of someone close to Christ to give these more credibility? From a historians perspective, this very well could give the four canonical (accepted) Gospels more credibility, not less.

2. Why Use Mark and Luke?

Of the four Gospels, only two have the possibility of being written by one of the Twelve Apostles. Matthew and John were both Apostles of Christ, so their testimony would have immediate credibility due to the fact that they would have been eye-witnesses to most of the events they record. So it might be understandable for the early Church, if it were fabricating, to use the names of these two (although, again, they never explicitly used their names in these works, just as the title, which makes a fabrication suspect). However, Luke and Mark were not Apostles. More than that, they don’t have enough notoriety to have their names stolen.

In the case of Luke, prima facie, it is hard to know who he is. He is probably a Greek convert that Paul picked up in somewhere in Acts 15 and mentioned in some of his letters (Col. 4:14, 2 Tim. 4:11, Phm 1:24). Either way, he is hardly someone of stature or authority.

Mark is also an obscure figure. Not only is he not an Apostle but he is probably the deserter that caused such a rift between Barnabas and Paul (Acts 15:37-38). Paul did forgive him later (2 Tim 4:11), but there is no reason to think that the early Church would have believed to be a good candidate for telling the Gospel story. He was the subject of the first church split in history!

So, why these two guys with little to no notoriety? If you were going to make this story up, at least tag a heavy hitter to it!

All four would have been accepted organically. It would have been a sort-of “grass roots”…

However, if the Gospels present true history, this is just what we might expect. Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John knew the people to whom they were writing. If this is the case (and I believe it is), it is not problem that they remained nameless. All four would have been accepted organically. It would have been a sort-of “grass roots” acceptance of the Gospels. And this is just what we see in the early second-century as these became part of the Good News that overturned the world. For this reason, there is much warrant for these Gospels to testify to the historical Jesus.

Who Wrote the Gospels?

four-gospels2 Part Post…

Timothy Paul Jones writes:

So who really wrote the Gospels? How do we know that Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John dictated the books that bear their names? According to skeptics, these four first-century personalities had little or nothing to do with the four New Testament Gospels. One scholar of the more skeptical sort has described the process in this way:

[The New Testament Gospels] were written thirty-five to sixty-five years after Jesus’ death, … not by people who were eyewitnesses, but by people living later. … Where did these people get their information from? … After the days of Jesus, people started telling stories about him in order to convert others to the faith.[i] … When … Christians recognized the need for apostolic authorities, they attributed these books to apostles (Matthew and John) and close companions of apostles (Mark, the secretary of Peter; and Luke the traveling companion of Paul).[ii]

In other words, Christians didn’t connect the Gospels to Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John because these individuals actually wrote the Gospels. Early believers fabricated these connections to make the documents seem more authoritative.

Now, it is indeed quite likely that the earliest Gospel manuscripts didn’t include titles in the manuscripts themselves (though the possibility titles on tabs hanging from manuscripts or inscribed at the end of each book should not be ruled out). But there’s a serious problem with the skeptics’ reconstruction.[iii] By the late first and early second century, the Gospels had spread throughout the Roman Empire.[iv]

If second-century Christians had simply added names to each Gospel to make that Gospel seem authoritative, what would have happened? (Remember, there was no centrally-recognized authority to force congregations to connect a certain name to each Gospel—no executive director, no denominational board, no international convention of Christians.[v] And it wasn’t as if one pastor could stop by an office and email fellow-pastors about how to name a certain Gospel!)

Here’s what would likely have occurred: One church might have dubbed a Gospel with the name of Andrew, for example, while another congregation ascribed the same Gospel to Peter or Thaddeus or Bartholomew. As a result, each Gospel might have a half-dozen—or more!—different names, depending on where your ship happened to land.

But that’s not even close to what we find when we look at the ancient manuscripts. Continue reading