Welcome back to our series on the authorship of the Bible. In this post we will explore evidence that points to Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John as the writers of the four canonical gospels.
Setting aside for now discussions about canonicity, inerrancy, and textual criticism, how much confidence can we have that the four gospels were written by their traditionally-accepted authors?
Because none of the gospel writers identified themselves by name as the author of the text, these foundational books of the Christian faith remain technically anonymous. It is no surprise therefore that skeptics seek to discredit the claims of Christianity by questioning the traditional authorship of the gospels. Likewise it is no surprise that well-meaning proponents of the faith get in over their heads when it comes to defending the traditional authorship. As you can see from spirited discussions like this one (be sure to read the comments), the facts can easily become blurred by the voices entangled in debate. Our position on Veracity is that we’re all about the truth and that readers can decide for themselves without being told what to think. Personally, I think scholars give themselves too much credit for what they ‘know’−on both sides of the debate. Worldviews influence interpretation. Got it.
Dr. Matt Aernie took on this topic in the Spring 2012 edition of the Areopagus Journal. As with previous posts in this series, I will attempt to redact that text (respectfully), because the Areopagus Journal did a good job summarizing and condensing what can be difficult academic material. Dr. Aernie structured the debate along classical lines of internal and external evidence for each of the gospels, so let’s follow that approach.
The Gospel of Matthew
There is persuasive external evidence to support the argument that Matthew wrote the gospel attributed to him. Many of the earliest and most reliable ancient manuscripts directly ascribe Matthew as the author (ℵ, B, D, L, W, f1, f13, Byz). Several early church fathers such as Papias of Hierapolis (cited by Eusebius) and Origen consistently attest that Matthew was the author.
But there is debate about Papias’ testimony. According to Eusebius, Papias wrote, “Matthew compiled the reports in the Hebrew manner of speech, but each translated them as he could.” This is problematic for several reasons. Most scholars believe that Matthew was written after Mark, and that due to the high degree of verbal agreement between these two gospels, Matthew must have borrowed from Mark’s original Greek. It also seems unlikely that Matthew’s gospel was written in Hebrew (or Aramaic) based on the linguistic evidence. If Matthew originally wrote his gospel in Greek, was Papias wrong? As much as skeptics would like to discredit all of Papias’ testimony based on this potential error, there is no logical reason to assume that he was incorrect about Matthean authorship. There are several possible explanations that could support Papias’ conclusion about the Hebrew original, but for the sake of brevity we won’t list them here. Suffice it to say the academic majority believe that the original gospel of Matthew was written in Greek.
As we dig into the external evidence for traditional authorship of all four canonical gospels, Papias clearly becomes a key figure in the historical record. Papias’ writings about the authorship of the gospels have been documented on this web site. A careful reading of these text fragments will reveal how much integrity Papias had in listing his sources, and how he tested those elders (presbyters) who came along to make sure they were consistent with the teaching of the apostles.
Matthew, as a tax collector, would have been a meticulous record keeper, and would have been despised throughout occupied Palestine. To attribute this gospel to such a hated person seems highly unlikely given the primarily Jewish audience for which it was intended—unless of course he was indeed the author.
Finally, it’s important to note that there is unanimous attestation from early church fathers that Matthew the apostle was the author of the canonical gospel that bears his name. There is no claim by an early church father that anyone other than Matthew was the author.
Mark and Luke both refer to Jesus calling Levi from the tax booth to be His disciple (Mark 2:14; Luke 5:27). The same account is also found in Matthew 9:9 where, in that context, the apostle known as Levi was also called Matthew. Many persons throughout the New Testament have multiple names, often depending on whether the name was being used in an Aramaic or Hebrew context, and in many places names were changed purposefully—such as with the apostle Paul or the apostle Peter. (This clearly explains why the names of the apostles are listed differently in the gospels, and it is not unlike contemporary naming conventions—my mother-in-law for example answers to eight different names depending upon who is calling her.)
There are several instances where the author demonstrates financial acumen (Matthew 17:24-27; 18:23-35; 20:1-16; 22:15-22; 26:15; 27:3-10; 28:11-15). For example when the Pharisees attempt to trap Jesus about whether or not they should pay Caesar’s tax, Jesus commands them to bring Him a coin. The term for ‘coin’ used in Matthew, Mark, and Luke is denarius, but only Matthew includes the term nomisma, which specifically calls it out as “tax money” (Matthew 22:19; Mark 12:15; Luke 20:24). Using this type of terminology, along with several passages that mention fiscal issues, may suggest someone who was well versed in the area of economics as Matthew the tax collector would have been.
The Gospel of Mark
As with Matthew, there is substantial external evidence that Mark wrote the gospel that is attributed to him. Several ancient manuscripts directly attest Mark as the author (ℵ, B, A, D, L, W, Θ, f13). And just as with Matthew, we have abundant testimony from the church fathers that Mark was the author of his gospel. Such examples include: Papias (cited by Eusebius), Iranaeus, Clement of Alexandria (cited by Eusebius), and Tertullian.
One key point that can be taken from the evidence of the church fathers is that Mark was not an eyewitness. He was a companion of the apostle Peter. These same church fathers clearly noted that Mark was recording Peter’s testimony as the primary source of material in his gospel. The church fathers further believed and commented that Mark was a faithful interpreter of Peter’s preaching, which he later transcribed and distributed. Papias’ wrote:
“And the presbyter would say this: Mark, who had indeed been Peter’s interpreter, accurately wrote as much as he remembered, yet not in order, about that which was either said or done by the Lord. For he neither heard the Lord nor followed him, but later, as I said, Peter, who would make the teachings anecdotally but not exactly an arrangement of the Lord’s reports, so that Mark did not fail by writing certain things as he recalled. For he had one purpose, not to omit what he heard or falsify them.”
Eusebius (quoting Papias), Hist. eccl. 3.39.14-17 (c. 325)
As in the case of Matthew, Mark is an unlikely candidate to ascribe to this gospel given that he was not an eyewitness to the events recorded therein. As many other scholars are quick to point out, if the distributors of this work had wished to give it wings, they would have more than likely chosen Peter as the name to put on the cover. But the consensus of the historical evidence from the earliest manuscripts and church fathers is that Mark was the author.
The portrait of Mark within the gospel itself is diminutive. Mark, also called John Mark, appears several times in the New Testament, particularly in the writings of Luke, Paul and Peter. While there is no way to prove that these references are all to the same person, many New Testament scholars believe that to be the case. Luke mentions that he was the son of a certain Mary in whose house the Jerusalem Christians met while Peter was imprisoned (Acts 12:12). John Mark also accompanied Paul on the first missionary journey, which Mark failed to complete (Acts 12:25). John Mark’s failure caused discord between Paul and Barnabas which subsequently resulted in their separation (Acts 15:37-40). Later however, John Mark’s relationship with Paul had apparently been repaired because the apostle specifically asked for Mark to join him in Rome (2 Timothy 4:11). Furthermore, John Mark is also mentioned as being with Peter while the apostle was in Rome (1 Peter 5:13). Consequently, it seems that the New Testament understands John Mark as an active, and possibly even well-known, Christian in the early church, which may lend credence to his authorship of the gospel.
But what about the gospel itself? Is there any internal evidence that can substantiate John Mark as the author? A few observations are in order. First, Mark’s depiction of the Twelve is rather negative, more so than the other gospels. Such harsh portrayal of the apostles may be a direct result of Peter’s testimony to Mark. Dr. Craig L. Blomberg (interviewed in the video below) argues “no one but Peter could have authorized so negative a treatment of the disciples, given how quickly the early church began to exalt them, and Peter in particular.” Second, Peter is featured primarily throughout the gospel, which is understandable considering the close association between the apostle and John Mark. Third, there are references where Mark records Peter remembering, which may indicate that these even came from Peter himself while Mark was with him (e.g. Mark 11:21; 14:72). Although the internal evidence regarding the authorship for the gospel of Mark is not conclusive, these points coupled with the evidence from elsewhere in the New Testament arguably demonstrate that the best candidate for authorship is John Mark.
In summary, the conical gospel of Mark is anonymous. However, why would the early church fathers unanimously attribute the gospel to an individual who was not part of the Twelve, who had a suspect track record in ministry, and was relatively unknown, if there was a better and more prominent candidate? The apparent conclusion is because the early church truly believed that John Mark was the author of the gospel the bears his name.
The Gospel of Luke
As with the other Synoptics, there is formidable external evidence in support of Luke’s authorship. Additionally, it is the consensus of contemporary scholarship that Luke is not only the author of the gospel but also the book of Acts. Some of the manuscript evidence that ascribes authorship to Luke includes: P75, ℵ, B, D, W, Θ, Ξ, ψ. There is also exuberant testimony from the church fathers that unanimously attest the gospel to Luke. Some of these church fathers include: Papias of Hierapolis (cited by Eusebius), Justin Martyr, the Muratorian Fragment (a.k.a. the Muratorian Canon), and Iranaeus. In addition, the two heretics Marcion and Heracleon provide evidence that they made use of the gospel and that Luke was the author. In fact, according to Tertullian, Marcion not only preferred Luke over the other gospels but he believed that Luke was a disciple of Paul and was the most faithful of the evangelists. Moreover, Clement of Alexandria references Heracleon’s commentary on Luke—even quoting his comments pertaining to Luke 12:8.
Thus, the external evidence found in the manuscripts, church fathers, and even second century secular writers unanimously supports the conclusion that Luke was the author of his gospel. Furthermore, the author clearly states that he was not an eyewitness but thoroughly researched the events he recorded. Why would church history endorse authorship of an individual who was not a firsthand witness to the ministry of the Lord Jesus Christ if there was a more suitable candidate? In fact, “no candidate other than Luke has ever been set forth in the history of the church as the author of this book” (according to Köstenberger, Kellum and Quarles).
The prevailing view regarding the identity of Luke is that he was a Gentile physician and a companion of the apostle Paul (Colossians 4:14). Furthermore, it is widely held that Luke is responsible for producing both the gospel and the book of Acts. This belief is not only unanimously confirmed throughout church history but also the internal evidence arguably validates such a position. When examining the internal evidence regarding Lukan authorship several points of interest emerge. First, the author addressed the same individual in the prologues of both Luke and Acts (Luke 1:3; Acts 1:1). Second, the phrase prōton logon (former account) in Acts 1:1 arguably demonstrates that the author was providing a sequel to his first report. Third, the arrangement of the prologue of Acts follows the practice of ancient authors who produce multiple volumes. Fourth, the evidence from the well-known “we” passages seem to indicate that Luke accompanied Paul on various occasions (Acts 16:10-17; 20:5-15; 21:1-18; 27:1-28:16). In these passages Luke diverges from his typical use of the third person plural (they) to the first person plural (we). The natural reading of these passages suggests that the author experienced these events firsthand. Finally, Paul does mention Luke is with him in Rome during the apostle’s first imprisonment there (Colossians 4:14; Philemon 24), which corresponds to the evidence from the book of Acts.
Thus, the internal evidence, though not absolutely conclusive, is rather suggestive and seems to assert that the individual known as Luke was the author of two volumes: his gospel and the book of Acts. This has been the view throughout all of church history and was virtually unchallenged until the 18th century.
The Gospel of John
The gospel of John is also technically anonymous. However, just as with the synoptics, there is ample evidence that arguably validates the author as the apostle John ( P66, P75, ℵ, B, C, D, L, W, Θ, Ψ, f1). Some of the evidence derived form the early church fathers includes: Papias (cited by Eusebius), Iranaeus, Clement of Alexandria (cited by Eusebius), Theophilus of Antioch, and Eusebius. There is no evidence in the first three centuries of the church of any Christian author attributing the fourth gospel to anyone other than the apostle John. However, an ambiguous statement by Eusebius (quoting Papias) in the fourth century has led some to question apostolic authorship. According to Eusebius, Papias wrote:
“But whenever someone who had followed the presbyters came along, I would carefully ask about the words of the presbyters, what Andrew or what Peter had said or what Philip or what Thomas or James or what John or Matthew or any other of the disciples of the Lord, and which Aristion and the presbyter John, disciples of the Lord say too.”
Eusebius, Hist. eccl. 3.39.14-17 (c. 325)
The ambiguity in the statement pertains to the two ‘Johns’ mentioned. In other words, is the first John different from the presbyter John? If so, then according to Papias it is possible that the fourth gospel could have been authored by either one. However, it seems most likely that Papias was making a distinction between the eyewitnesses who had died in contrast to John who was still alive. Specifically, if John was the only living apostle at the time Papias wrote this statement, then it is unlikely that his former mention of John was intended to include the apostle as part of the Twelve while the latter reference is meant to indicate that John was still alive and serving as one of the elders in the church. Therefore, it seems best to interpret Papias’ reference to John and then John the elder as referring to the same individual. Understanding Papias’ statement in this manner along with the testimony of the church fathers demonstrates that “every piece of ancient external evidence, save one, agrees that the author was the apostle John, the son of Zebedee” (according to Köstenberger, Kellum and Quarles).
Identifying the author of the fourth gospel with absolute certainty is untenable. However, there are hints within the gospel that arguably evince Johannine authorship. First, the author of the fourth gospel refers to himself as “the disciple whom Jesus loved.” This individual is not only an eyewitness but is closely associated with Jesus and is a notable character in the gospel (John 13:23; 19:26; 20:2; 21:7,20). Second, “the disciple whom Jesus loved” is present at the Last Supper, which indicates he was part of the Twelve. In fact, according to Köstenberger, Kellum and Quarles, “since the author never referred to himself by name, he cannot be any of the named disciples at the Last Supper: Judas Iscariot (13:2, 26-27), Peter (13:6-9), Thomas (14:5), Philip (14:8-9), or Judas the Son of James (14:22). Third, the name ‘John’ is never used in the gospel other than referring to John the Baptist. The author never uses the phrase “the Baptist” but only refers to him as John. In other words, if the apostle John wrote to a specific community with whom he was acquainted and they knew that the gospel came from him, it is understandable then why he did not refer to himself by name or distinguish himself from John the Baptist (according to Blomberg). The title KATA IŌANNĒN (according to John) would likely have been ascribed to the fourth gospel when it began to circulate with the synoptics for the purpose of distinguishing it from the first three.
Furthermore, if the gospel were written by anyone else named John (e.g. John the elder), why would the author only use the name John to refer to John the Baptist and not make any other distinction when he was writing about the apostle John? (It seems clear; because he uses the term “the disciple whom Jesus loved” to refer to himself—the apostle John.)
In addition to the evidence noted above, there are sound arguments to support the traditional authorship. Darrell Bock, Craig Blomberg, and Richard Bauckham highlight in the following video that:
- All of the existing, historical, complete gospel manuscripts that we have consistently point to Matthew, Mark, Luke and John as the authors.
- There simply are no competing, credible claims for alternate authorship of the gospels other than the names ascribed consistently through tradition.
- If the early church was looking to enhance the credibility of the gospels it is highly unlikely that they would have chosen to claim Mark and Luke as primary authors when other, more weighty names (such as Peter) were available.
If you have been clicking on the above hyperlinks to the manuscripts and early church fathers, you might have developed a greater appreciation for how far and how fast the gospels spread throughout the Roman world. As visually illustrated in this brilliant infographic by Mark Berry, there is no ancient document that begins to come close to the Bible in terms of provenance.
There are a lot of people who would like to rewrite history. Conversely, there are many who unquestioningly accept as fact what has been handed down from generation to generation. When it comes to the authorship of the gospels, who’s right? When you consider the arguments noted above, and the extent and weight of the manuscript evidence, along with the extra-biblical citations, it seems easy to build a compelling case for the traditional authorship. When you consider that there are no academically-accepted competing arguments for alternative authors, the case becomes very strong indeed. While I understand the controversy, to me discounting the traditional authorship of the gospels is a bit like questioning whether Rome is really Rome. How do we know that Rome should not be called something else? Because for thousands of years people have handed down Rome as the name of the city that is the capital of Italy, and there are no competing names. Often tradition is reliable.
For a takeaway to the question of whether Matthew, Mark, Luke and John actually wrote the gospels attributed to them, let’s end with the words of Dr. Matt Aernie, Assistant Professor of Bible and Theology at Southeastern Bible College:
“While absolute certainty is elusive, the conclusion that seems most reasonable based on the data (primarily historical) derived from the external and internal evidence is that Matthew, Mark, Luke and John did author the gospels that they are credited with.”
Matt Aernie, “Who Wrote Matthew, Mark, Luke and John?,” Areopagus Journal, Spring 2012
Excursus 1: Early Christianity in Hierapolis
You may have noticed that Papias, the Bishop of Hierapolis, is a key common source in the external evidence for traditional authorship of all four gospels. Hierapolis was an important city at the nascence of Christianity. In addition to being a beautiful, pastoral mountain resort known for its hot springs, large necropolis, and 15,000-seat Roman amphitheater, it became a base for the spread of the faith. The apostle Philip was honored with a martyrium and a church for his ministry in Hierapolis. The early church father Papias—the common external source for textual evidence regarding the authorship of the gospels, as noted above—also lived in Hierapolis. We reported on a field trip to explore an ancient byzantine bread seal that featured Philip’s Martyrium and Chapel (in Hierapolis) in a previous post. Look for an upcoming video here on Veracity that will use some remarkable technology to take a virtual tour of ancient Hierapolis.
Excursus 2: Nestle-Aland Critical Apparatus
Have you ever wondered how scholars go about creating a translation of the Bible? What source documents do they use? How do they work through textual inconsistencies? Which documents are the most reliable?
In preparing his post I had to wrestle with the sigla (those strange looking symbols that represent specific biblical manuscripts) to make sure the hyperlinks were pointed to the correct documents. In checking all those links and reading about the manuscripts I developed a better appreciation for the rich world of Bible translation and textual criticism.
It turns out there is a standard reference that Bible translators use, and it is constantly being updated: the Nestle-Aland Critical Apparatus. As New Testament scholar Daniel B. Wallace points out, the Nestle-Aland 28 is the new standard in critical texts of the Greek New Testament. Here’s a video that demonstrates how the critical apparatus is used online. This is a fascinating subject—look for another forthcoming Veracity post.
Who Wrote the Bible? The Areopagus Journal of the Apologetics Resource Center (Volume 12 No. 2).
List of New Testament Unicals (with hyperlinks)
Center for the Study of New Testament Manuscripts
The Cradle, the Cross, and the Crown (Köstenberger, Kellum and Quarles)
The Historical Reliability of the Gospels (Craig L. Blomberg)
External Evidence: Papias, Hypotyposeis.Org
Papias Posts, Hypotyposeis.Org
HT: Yvonne Brendley, Faith Smagalski
June 27th, 2014 at 8:59 am
Wow. All of that in just one blog post!!!
When I was a student in college as a young believer and I first heard the challenges to the traditional authorship of the Gospels, it did bother me. I wanted absolute certainty, but if there is anything you can count on, you can count on the fact that absolute certainty is elusive.
But this does not mean that we can not know something and have some reasonable confidence that the Gospels are truly authentic. So even if the traditional authorship claim is problematic as many claim, it does not mean we should reject the Gospels out of hand.
I find that the work of Michael Licona in this area is very sound and helpful (just as the Craig Blomberg material if excellent, too).
Thanks for an excellent, detailed and sober exposition of the issues.
July 2nd, 2014 at 11:10 am
Good discussion. The evidence for traditional authorship is compelling. As you noted, it would be unusual to have chosen these individuals (except for John) if they weren’t actually the authors.
And in fact, the identity of the authors provides another evidence for the veracity of their accounts. There is no reason why first century Christians would have been quick to accept accounts from people like Mark and Luke unless they really believed that their accounts were true and had apostolic sanction. So these were accepted as authoritative when there were still eyewitnesses living.
July 2nd, 2014 at 4:14 pm
Jon, thanks for commenting. It is amazing to see how the evidence fits together–as we should expect it to. I was studying Geisler’s From God to Us: How We Got the Bible this morning (on vacation) and headed into 2 John and 3 John. In both letters the apostle John refers to himself as “the elder (presbyter).” One more link in the chain (per the above discussion about Papias’ text). I can’t wait to share Geisler’s teaching in my next series.
July 14th, 2014 at 6:18 pm
Reblogged this on Reasons For The Hope Blog and commented:
Another great post in this series.