Who wrote the gospels?

Not long ago I was talking with a  group of Muslims from Somalia at a coffee shop in Northern Virginia. Along the way the conversation turned to the gospel accounts of Jesus, which provide us the best information on Jesus: who He claimed to be, who the Jews thought he was, what the Jewish leaders understood his claims to mean, the signs and miracles to prove his divine authority, and so on. Since the gospels claim to be either direct eye-witness accounts or testimony of eye-witnesses known by the author personally, the testimony is considered rock solid.

"But wait," said the spokesperson for the group. "You don't even know who the authors were. Who wrote Matthew?" he asked as he played what he thought would be a trump card to end the conversation. It did not.

Even more recently I had an online exchange with a Muslim apologist. He made the statement, "The fact is we don't know who wrote the Gospels. We don't know when they were written, where they were written or what their sources were. What you Christian critics and Christian Apologists fail to realize is that your religion has no evidence for itself and never will."

Do we know who wrote the gospel accounts? If yes, how do we know? What evidence do we have? Since these questions seem to be a huge barrier to Muslim-Christian dialog, the questions must be answered.

Are the authors named internally?

Like many books in the Bible, the gospels nowhere contain a direct reference to the author of each and appear to be anonymous on the surface. Some Greek manuscripts simply identifiy these as Kata Mathaion (according to Matthew), Kata Markon (according to Mark), and so on. The phrases 'According to Matthew,' 'According to Mark,' 'According to Luke,'  and 'According to John' could mean they were written anonymously from testimony gleaned by their named sources. But what other sort of evidence is there to attest to the authors?

Evidence from early sources

Evidence exists that the authors of the four gospels are in fact written by the men to whom they are attributed. Consider the following points:

  • The names of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John were associated with the gospels of the same name from the very early days of the first church fathers.
  • No other authors have been suggested for them; skeptics will attribute them to anonymous sources only and cannot produce an alternative author.
  • Literally thousands of manuscripts of the original Greek exist, as well as thousands of translations into other languages. All manuscript evidence points to the named authors, and none dispute this.

The early church fathers Irenaeus, Tertullian, Origen, and Eusebius all name Matthew as the author of the gospel attributed to him. In fact Irenaeus, who knew Polycarp (disciple of John) personally, identifies all four gospel authors by name. Papias identifies by name both Matthew and Mark, and the casual way he does so suggests these authors were well known.

For Mark, the best evidence again comes from Papias, who stated, "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. Wherefore Mark made no mistake in thus writing some things as he remembered them. For of one thing he took especial care, not to omit anything he had heard, and not to put anything fictitious into the statements. Matthew put together the oracles [of the Lord] in the Hebrew language, and each one interpreted them as best he could." Other early church leaders also attribute Mark's gospel to him, such as Irenaeus, Clement of Alexandria, Tertullian, Origen, Jerome, and Eusebius.

The authorship of Luke is attested to by Origen, Eusebius, Athanasius, Gregory, Nazianze, and Jerome. Internal evidence also suggests Luke as the author: 1) The author of Luke and Acts are one and the same (Luke 1:1-4, see Acts 1:1-3 and the use of Theophilus, mention of the former account); 2) The author of Luke/Acts joined Paul as demonstrated by the use of the first person plural 'we' in Acts 16 and 20; and 3) Luke is named by and accompanied Paul on his second and third missionary journey and was with him during his first imprisonment (Col 4:14, Philemon 24) and second imprisonment (2 Tim. 4:11). These three, taken together, point to Luke as the author of both the third gospel and the book of Acts.

Louis Berkhof in his work New Testament Introduction states, "The voice of antiquity is all but unanimous in ascribing the fourth Gospel to John. The Monarchian sect, called by Epiphanius, "the Alogi," forms the only exception." As noted above, both Irenaeus and Polycarp (according to Eusebius) attribute John's gospel account to him. Berkhof further provides the following pieces of internal evidence pointing to John as the author:

  • The author was a Jew. He had an intimate acquaintance with the Old Testament. He knew them not only in the translation of the LXX, but in their original language, as is evident from several Old Testament quotations. Moreover the style of the author clearly reveals his Jewish nationality.
  • The author was a Palestinian Jew. He clearly shows that he is well at home in the Jewish world. He is intimately acquainted with Jewish customs and religious observances and with the requirements of the law, and moves about with ease in the Jewish world of thought.
  • The writer was an eyewitness of the events he relates. He claims this explicitly, if not already in 1:14, "we beheld his glory" (Cf. I John 1:1-3), certainly in 19:35. "And he that saw it bare record, and his record is true; and he knoweth that he saith true that ye might believe." This claim is corroborated by the lively and yet simple manner in which he pictures the events; by the many definite chronological data and naming of localities, to which we have already referred; and by the great prominence given to certain individuals with whom Jesus came in contact.
  • The author was the apostle John. He often makes mention in his Gospel of a disciple whom he never names, but to whom he constantly refers as "the (an) other disciple," or as "the disciple whom Jesus loved." Cf. 13:23; 18:15; 19:26; 20:2, 3, 4, 8; 21:7. At the close of his Gospel he says of him: "This is the disciple which testifieth these things; and we know that his testimony is true," 21:24. Who was this disciple? The evangelist names only seven of the disciples of the Lord, the five that are not named being John and his brother James, Matthew, Simon the Canaanite and James the son of Alpheus. Now it is evident from 1:35-41 that said disciple was one of the first ones called by the Lord, and these according to Mark 1:16-19 were Peter, Andrew, John and James. The first two are explicitly named in John 1:41-43, so that the one whose name is suppressed must have been either John or James. But we cannot think of James as the author of this Gospel, since he died a martyrs death as early as A. D. 44. Therefore John must have been the writer.

Modern Biblical Scholars

On a general note concerning authorship, Leon Morris in his commentary on Matthew (Pillar New Testament Commentary) makes the following observation:

"It is routinely pointed out that none of the ancient [manuscripts] of this Gospel says that Matthew was the author. This argument should be looked at more closely than it usually is, despite the fact that it is almost universally accepted by modern scholarship. It takes no note of the fact that, whether in ancient or modern times, few books give any indication of authorship beyond the title page... The title page indicates the author quite clearly, and there is no reason for repeating the information anywhere else in the book. Now none of the oldest [manuscripts] of this Gospel have been preserved with the title page intact, but from the earliest ones that do have it onward the book is invariably ascribed to Matthew. We must face the fact that throughout antiquity it is accepted that Matthew wrote this gospel and there is no other name in the tradition."

Morris' point is well taken. It does not follow that the lack of a title page in existing manuscripts means we cannot accurately determine the original author of any of the gospels.

Regarding authorship of Matthew specifically, in addition to evidence from early church leaders noted earlier Morris further notes, "There remains the fact that in ancient tradition this book is universally ascribed to Matthew. To name anyone else as the author is to affirm that the name of its true author was forgotten within a comparatively short time (about 50 years?) and another name substituted, especially since Matthew was not, as far as our information goes, especially prominent either among the Twelve or in the early church. Accordingly, there seems to be no reason for assigning him to such an important writing unless in fact he wrote it."

Nearly all modern scholars attribute the gospels to those in whose name they are written. Ancient testimony is simply too numerous and too early to ignore. For example, Papias, bishop of Hierapolis, wrote a work titled Exegesis of the Lord's Oracles prior to his death in A.D. 130 in which he assigns Mark as the writer of the gospel by the same name. In addition to Papias' testimony, we have the testimony of Irenaeus who wrote in the middle of the second century affirming "Mark the disciple and interpreter of Peter, also himself handed on in writing the things he had been preached by Peter." Thus, from a variety of traditions from the end of the first century onward we see a complementary testimony that the author of the second gospel is Mark. The same can be said about Luke and John.

Muslim Objections to Authorship

Muslim apologists take great strides to discredit the authority of the Bible. First and foremost concerns authorship.

Objection: Traditions naming authors are too far removed.

This argument goes something like this: Nowhere does any gospel name its author. The authors' names are not mentioned in any church tradition until late into the second century, far too late to be considered reliable.

For example, Irenaeus lived from approximately 115-202 A.D. He knew Polycarp personally; Polycarp was a disciple of the apostle John. So when Irenaeus quotes Polycarp affirming John as the author of the Gospel, Muslim apologists discount Irenaeus as being too far removed from the writing of John to make an accurate statement as to its author.

First, this is simply a bold assertion with no evidence or basis in fact. It is nothing more than opinion stated as fact. Certainly Irenaeus was in a much better position to know what Polycarp did or did not say than today's Muslim apologists.

Second, if Muslim apologists want to discount testimony of early church fathers because it is too far removed historically (100 years), then they must reject all hadith of Muhammad on the same basis. All authoritative hadith collections were passed down orally and finally written over 200 years after the events they record of Muhammad's life. Without hadith, there is no historical Muhammad and there is no Islam. Intellectual integrity requires Muslim apologists to apply the same standard of evidence to both Islam and Christianity. There is no room to reject early Christian sources as unreliable because they are too late while accepting early Muslim sources as authentic when these are even later.

Objection: Christian Scholars themselves say we don't know who wrote the New Testament Gospels.

This author has encountered this objection by numerous Muslims I have conversed with, both online and in person. Muslims making this claim generally point to Bart Ehrman, author of Misquoting Jesus: The Story Behind Who Changed the Bible and Why and Jesus Interrupted. Ehrman supposedly once professed Christianity but now denounces it based on his research into the origins of the Bible. For this, he is called a 'Christian Scholar' by many Muslims.

As a sample demonstration of Ehrman's scholarship, consider his discussion regarding the literacy of the apostles, particularly John. If it can be demonstrated that the apostles were illiterate then it follows that they could not have been the authors of the gospels. This is what Ehrman sets out to do.

Using one verse in Acts, he makes what he thinks is a solid case for their illiteracy.  Acts 4:13 says, "Now when they saw the boldness of Peter and John, and perceived that they were uneducated and untrained men, they marveled. And they realized that they had been with Jesus." As Howe notes, the Greek words for uneducated and untrained are αγραμματος (agrammatos) and ιδιωτης (idioteis), respectively. And while agrammatos can mean 'illiterate,' it can also mean one who is uneducated and inarticulate - one perceived as having low intellectual abilities. Howe notes, "What is being pointed out here is not that Peter and John were illiterate, but that to the people they seemed to be just ordinary men, not from among the trained professional scribes or priests."

Ehrman needs to twist the text to make it say something the author never intended in order to support his presupposition that the apostles were illiterate and therefore not the gospel authors. Again, this is just one example where Ehrman takes extreme liberty with the text. Ehrman has come under fire and has been challenged by many scholars for "jumping through hoops" to make the Bible say what he wants it to say.

Howe provides a short, concise opinion of Ehrman's scholarship: "I found this book difficult because virtually every assertion and every claim is so fully laden with exaggeration, misrepresentation, selective reporting, and outright falsehoods that almost every line requires a recasting in an accurate light and involves a lengthy response to a series of misrepresentations and half-truths, each built upon the conclusions of the previous. Ehrman has woven a tight web of exaggeration, partial truths, falsehood, and misrepresentation that would take many more pages, and many more hours than we have, to unravel in order to set the record straight. It is truly a DeVinci Code of textual criticism."

Thomas Howe of Southern Evangelical Seminary has sufficiently rebutted Ehrman here.

Daniel Wallace of Dallas Theological Seminary provides a shorter critique here.

Finally, Ben Witherington has a crack at Ehrman here and here.

So What?

In reality, the author of many Biblical books cannot be ascertained with absolute certainty. But knowing the author of a book is a minor and almost irrelevant issue. What is important is not the author, but the content of the book.

Concerning the gospels, we have four mini biographies of Jesus' earthly ministry, each told from a unique perspective, a unique author, and a unique date, yet all four harmonize to present to us Jesus Christ: King of Kings, Son of Man, the suffering servant, God among us. This is the significance of the gospels. In reality, I am not much concerned with who wrote these accounts, but what they say is of vital importance.

Conclusion

There is sufficient reason, based on hard evidence, to believe that the gospel accounts were written by the authors of the same name: early attestation, multiple attestation, no alternative authors named, no compelling argument to the contrary. Muslim apologists who choose to use "Christian" scholars such as Bart Ehrman to support their view would do well to become familiar with his sloppy scholarship and steer clear of him as an authority.

For Further Study:

Dates and Authorship of the Gospels

Are the New Testament Gospels Reliable?

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