The Christian church teaches that the four canonical gospels—the New Testament accounts of Jesus’ birth, teachings, death, and resurrection—were written by eyewitnesses to the events they describe, or by persons with access to eyewitness testimony. Church history tells us that the gospels of John and Matthew, for example, were written by two of Jesus’ original twelve disciples. The Gospel According to Mark was written, we are told, by a follower of Peter, another disciple. Finally, The Gospel According to Luke was apparently written by a companion of Paul who interviewed disciples and other eyewitnesses. As a result, the church argues that these documents reflect direct, eyewitness testimony, and are reliable historical documents.
The Critics “Know” A Lot
However, many people reject the idea that the gospels are eyewitness accounts. They argue that the gospels were written anonymously by non-eyewitnesses many decades after the events they describe. As a result, they contain significant amounts of legendary material and are not reliable as historical documents.
These skeptics cite several reasons to support their argument. They tell us that none of the authors’ names appear in the manuscripts themselves. In addition, the names Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John were not even associated with the gospels until the 2nd century A.D., most likely after the church assigned those names to them in order to bolster their credibility. Some have argued that the similarity in format of the titles themselves (The Gospel According to Matthew, The Gospel According to Luke, etc.) is evidence that those titles were created by a central authority—the Church—and assigned to the documents.
The idea that the gospels were anonymous has been held by skeptical New Testament scholars for many decades, though more recent scholarship is changing that. As scholar Richard Bauckham explains:
The assumption that Jesus traditions circulated anonymously in the early church and that therefore the Gospels in which they were gathered and recorded were also originally anonymous was very widespread in twentieth-century Gospels scholarship. It was propagated by the form critics as a corollary of their use of the model of folklore, which is passed down anonymously by communities…This use of the model of folklore has been discredited…But it is remarkable how tenacious has been the idea that not only the traditions but the Gospels themselves were originally anonymous.1
Bauckham then goes on to describe his reasons for rejecting the notion that the Jesus traditions and the gospels were anonymous. Nevertheless, many skeptical scholars still cling to the anonymous view, from well-known figures like Bart Ehrman to lesser-known bloggers like Matthew Ferguson.
These atheist and agnostic critics argue that they have adopted their positions because they were simply objective and dispassionately followed the evidence where it led them. The truth is, there is nothing dispassionate about such critics, as they routinely ignore evidence that contradicts their beliefs, and often argue their misguided points with the passion of zealots.
Much of What the Critics “Know” is Wrong
The available evidence actually shows that people like Ehrman and Ferguson are wrong, demonstrate a poor understanding of first century publishing practices, lack proper knowledge of church history (or intentionally ignore it), and present biased arguments. If one actually follows the evidence where it leads, one would have to conclude that
- The gospels were most likely written by eyewitnesses and by people with access to eyewitnesses
- The gospels were not written anonymously, and the authors’ names were likely associated with them from the beginning
- The church knew the pedigree of the four canonical gospels and was likely correct in its belief that Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John were the gospel authors
In one short essay, we don’t have the space to thoroughly cover all arguments in support of the traditional authorship. However, we can do a good flyover.
Publishing in the First Century
To understand how the Church knew who the gospel authors were, we must first understand how documents were published in the first century. Publishing then was very different from publishing today. Manuscripts were written on scrolls, as the codex (the bound book, similar to how we know it today) would not exist for some time yet.
Scrolls did not have title sheets like books do today. The author’s name did not generally appear in the text of the manuscript itself. Rather, the author’s name was usually written at the start and/or the end of the scroll.2
All documents were hand-written by the author or by a scribe working with the author. During this time, writing was a specialized skill, and more people could read than could actually write. The use of scribes, also called secretaries or amanuenses, was relatively common. Sometimes secretaries simply took dictation from the author. In other cases, the secretary was given more editorial control, and had responsibility for composing the document.3
Even in cases where the secretary had significant editorial input, it’s important to remember that the finished work had to be approved by the stated author, who took full responsibility for its contents.4 Therefore, the secretary was not usually considered an author, he was most often a service provider to the author.
This is why many skeptical scholars are on shaky ground when they assert that a document could not have been written by a certain author because that document’s “style” is different from other works written by that same author. Such assertions fail to account for the use of different secretaries from one document to the next who were allowed different levels of editorial input and control. This point is explained by Professor E. Randolph Richards in his book, Paul and First-Century Letter Writing. The point is made in the context of letter writing rather than longer works, but the basic concept holds:
Because Paul used coauthors and a secretary, his writing style was “diluted”…so statistical measures of style are not effective in determining authenticity. Using a secretary affected a letter in more ways than just style.5
Authors usually wrote documents because they wanted to publish them for their own purposes, or because they had been commissioned to write the document for someone else. The Gospel of Luke, for example, indicates that it was written by Luke because someone named Theophilus had commissioned him to do so.
At any rate, once the document was completed, the author would often have handwritten copies made and distributed to friends or others. When a copy was completed, the scroll would be rolled up and tagged. The tag would tell what the document was and identify the author.6 The tag acted much like a book’s spine does today. When you see a book on a shelf, you know what the book is because the title and author is listed on the spine. For scrolls that would sit on a shelf, the tag would serve the same purpose.
Once copies were made, tagged, and distributed, the work was considered “published.” Recipients of the scrolls could then choose to pay for more copies to be made and likewise distributed to their friends and associates. This is how books spread across great distances in ancient times. It’s important to note that the author did not receive any royalties or payment when this type of distribution took place. The only payment an author might receive would be from his initial customer, if the work had been commissioned.
Publication of the Gospels and Distribution to the Churches
When each of the four canonical gospels were originally created, they would have been written on scrolls, rolled and tagged. An initial copy or number of copies would have been created and delivered to the patron who commissioned it (as in the case of Luke) and possibly to others, as well. Some were written for specific churches and distributed to them. Over a relatively short period of time, copies of these gospels were distributed to all of the early apostolic churches (those churches throughout the Roman Empire that had been established by Jesus’ original apostles).
The gospel authors had a ready-made audience and publisher in the apostolic churches. These critically important churches had established a “communications network” between them years before, as they distributed the Apostle Paul’s letters among themselves.7 As Ron Jones, D.D., puts it:
There is no reason to believe that Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John did not follow the customary publishing practices of the first century. They would have made copies of their original gospels, given them to one or more apostolic churches, and then the churches would have distributed them to other churches. All the available evidence points to this simple and well-known process.8
When the churches received these gospels, it is critical to understand that they did not consider them to be anonymous documents. They believed their pedigrees to be well-established and utterly beyond dispute. The documents had been circulating, their pedigree was known, and there were still disciples (and their immediate followers) who could vouch for the accuracy of their contents.
We know this for a couple of reasons. First, there is was zero controversy regarding the origins of the four gospels. The early churches were known to have ignored documents and teachings that had no apostolic authority. The church also did not like anonymous documents precisely because they carried no apostolic authority. The church also despised pseudepigraphical documents (documents that were falsely attributed to an author). For example, Tertullian writes of a clergy person being removed from office for creating a pseudepigraphical document.9 In addition, church historian, Eusebius preserves Serapion’s writings about how only documents with known pedigrees are to be used.10 If there was doubt regarding the pedigree of the canonical gospels, the churches would have argued it out. There was no argument, period.
In addition, there is absolutely no competing tradition regarding the authorship of the gospels. If there had been a controversy about it, then at least one competing tradition would have been recorded.
The fact remains that the early churches were unanimous in their belief that the four gospels were written by Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. To them, there was no question about it. This is meaningful, because we know that the apostolic churches were not afraid to argue about the origin of a document when questions arose.
Addressing the Other Arguments
But what about the other arguments against the traditional authorship? Isn’t it true, as Ferguson and others have argued, that the names Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John were not even associated with the four gospels until the second century? Well, no.
No one can say that the first century texts did not have the authors’ names on them because no one has seen a first century text! None have survived. Our earliest gospel copy dates to about 125 A.D. and it is just a fragment. We don’t actually have any first century texts, Christian, Jew, pagan or otherwise. All of our history from this time comes from copied documents.
The historical evidence, however, is clear. The gospel documents were being used in the apostolic churches long before 125 A.D., and most were in use during the first century. The evidence also shows that the early churches knew who the authors were because the gospel pedigrees were well-established and the authors’ names were on the scrolls themselves (and tagged) as per normal practice.
In addition, the immediate followers of the original apostles were still around to vouch for the documents during the first century and early in the second. It wasn’t until later in the second and third centuries that other, pseudepigraphical documents began to turn up, such as the Gospels of Peter, Thomas, and Judas. The early churches knew those documents were fake, which is why they are not in the Bible we have today.
Some critics would respond that the titles themselves are too consistent: The Gospel According to Mark, The Gospel According to Matthew, The Gospel According to John, etc. Such consistency must be a strong indication that a central authority—the Church—simply assigned the titles to anonymous gospels. It sounds like a compelling argument, but it’s misguided.
Ron Jones thoroughly addresses this issue in his book, Who Wrote the Gospels?: The Historical Evidence for Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, providing a concise survey of scholarly work on the title question. To sum up, the evidence indicates that the earliest copies likely said the Greek work “kata” and the author’s name. “Kata” basically means “According to.” Jones writes that:
“Kata” followed by the author’s name was most likely used by the evangelists to identify themselves as recorders (not originators) of the…gospel of Jesus Christ…”Kata”…was used to express that the gospel that had been preached for over twenty years by the apostles was being recorded (not originated) in writing by Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John.11
The word “gospel” (or “euaggelion” in Greek) was added later, when the four documents were brought together in a single collection in codex (or book) form.12 So, people like Mr. Ferguson can stop hyperventilating about the fact that the gospels we have today are consistently titled. Of course they are. They were given consistent titles when the separate gospels (which had originated as scrolls) were first collected as a single unit into book form. That doesn’t change the fact that the authors’ names had been associated with them from the beginning.
While no one can say for certain how the original manuscripts were titled, the available evidence runs counter to critics like Ehrman. Dr. Jones sums it up nicely:
From the early second century as the four NT Gospels circulated together in one codex, most bore the same title “the gospel according to Matthew, Mark, Luke, or John. Additional words were added to these titles, but these titles remained intact. A few still circulated with the original kata followed by the Matthew, Mark, Luke, or John as seen in Codex Sinaiticus and Codex Vaticanus, but none circulated without the names of these men and none circulated with anyone else’s name on it.13
The Church did not attach the authors’ names to the gospels. They had been associated with the documents since the beginning.
The External Testimony
The earliest church leaders, some of whom had interacted with the apostles and/or their immediate followers, also provided strong testimony regarding the traditional authorship. We have covered this external testimony in other articles, so we won’t repeat it here. For now, it’s important to note that various early church leaders attested to the traditional authorship. These include Papias in Hieropolis (in modern-day Turkey), Irenaeus in Lyon (in modern-day France), Clement in Alexandria (in Egypt), and Tertullian in Carthage (in North Africa). As Dr. Timothy McGrew puts it, this testimony is significant, early, and geographically diverse.14 It’s hard to overstate the significance of this fact, and it’s powerful evidence in support of the traditional authorship.
So, the bottom line is this: Critics like Ehrman and Ferguson are blinded by their biases. The evidence actually leads to conclusions very different from theirs. Most likely:
- The gospels were not written anonymously.
- The authors’ names were associated with the gospels from the start, as per known first century publishing practices.
- The gospels’ pedigrees were well known by the apostolic churches.
- There was never any doubt or controversy regarding authorship within the churches, nor any competing authorship traditions.
- Acceptance of the documents’ apostolic authority was unanimous.
- The traditionally accepted authors are the correct ones, and the four canonical gospels reflect eyewitness testimony.
Critics like Ehrman and Ferguson need to open their minds, check their biases, and consider the evidence.
- Bauckham, Richard, Jesus and the Eyewitnesses, Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., Cambridge, U.K., 2006, p. 300
- Jones, Ron (2014), Who Wrote the Gospels?: The Historical Evidence for Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, Kindle E-Book, ECF Books, Lakewood, CA, 417-425
- Richards, E. Randoplh, Paul and First-Century Letter Writing, InterVarsity Press, Downers Grove, IL, 2004, p. 64
- Richards, p. 77
- Richards, p. 165
- Witherington, Ben, (Amos Professor of New Testament for Doctoral Studies at Asbury Theological Seminary, Faculty at St. Andrews University, Scotland), Bart Interrupted, Part Four (Review of Bart Ehrman’s Jesus, Interrupted), 2009, accessed 8/24/15 at http://benwitherington.blogspot.com/2009/04/bart-interrupted-part-four.html
- Jones, 329-335
- Jones, 345-351
- Jones, 821-826
- Jones, 815-821
- Jones, 564-576
- Jones, 586-592
- Jones, 620-632
- McGrew, Timothy (Professor and Director of Graduate Teaching, Western Michigan University), Who Wrote the Gospels?, Presentation to St. Michael Lutheran Church, MI, 11 January 2012, slides 19-20, accessed 8/24/15 at http://www.apologetics315.com/2012/02/who-wrote-gospels-audio-and-video-by.html