A Quest for the Text: Understanding the Authorship of the Gospels

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By Jessica Lincoln, Benedictine College

The bible is the world’s all-time best-selling book, and yet a staggeringly small number of people seem to truly know what it says. The Gospels, in particular, are highly influential yet hotly debated texts that seek to paint a picture of the man, Jesus of Nazareth. In order to discern the message of the Gospels, one must first understand where the information they contain is coming from and whether it can be trusted as a reliable source. By examining both internal and external evidence, one finds that the four canonical Gospels were written by apostles of Jesus and their disciples within the lifetime of eyewitnesses to Jesus’ life, and there is no textual or historical evidence to support an opposing claim.

In modern times, the theory that the Gospels were originally written anonymously has entered books and debates. This theory contends that the names of the Gospel writers were added long after the texts were written to provide credibility. However, absolutely no evidence supports this theory, most importantly because “no anonymous copies of Matthew, Mark, Luke, or John have ever been found. They do not exist. As far as we know, they never have” (The Case for Jesus, 15). All ancient copies of the manuscripts attribute the Gospels to the four evangelists, without any discrepancy or anonymity. This stands in stark contrast to the Letter to the Hebrews, which actually is anonymous. Historians have found copies of this letter that are attributed to different authors, such as Timothy and Paul, as well as copies with no author named, indicative of its unidentified source. The Gospels, on the other hand, have no such confusions, even though the ancient copies were extremely widespread throughout the Roman Empire. Every single ancient manuscript of any of the Gospels names the work as that of Matthew, Mark, Luke, or John.

Both the internal and the external evidence of the Gospels points to them being written by the apostles or the close followers of apostles. Matthew and John were two of the twelve apostles, who were eyewitnesses to the events of Jesus’ life as well as His close followers. Mark was a companion of Paul and both a disciple of and scribe for Peter, while Luke was a companion of Paul. All four writers either personally witnessed or lived closely with someone else, who personally witnessed the events of the Gospel he wrote. Evidence from within the texts themselves indicates that these men truly were the authors, including in each one’s obvious assertion in the title. Yet the internal evidence goes deeper still: “The clearest case [for an original title] is Luke because of the dedication of the work to Theophilus (1:3), probably a patron. It is inconceivable that a work with a named dedicatee should have been anonymous” (33). Because Luke was writing to someone well-known, it is evident that his Gospel could not have originally been anonymous, because Theophilus would have known who dedicated the work to him- Luke. Further internal evidence is seen within the other Gospels as well.

External evidence backs up the claims found within the texts themselves. There exist writings from early church fathers about the Gospels which explicitly refer to these texts as the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. In fact, “the earliest Christian writings outside of the New Testament are completely unambiguous and totally unanimous about who wrote the four Gospels,” and “some of these writings come from authors who either knew the apostles themselves, or who were only one generation removed from the apostles” (39). Early church fathers such as Papias, Justin Martyr, Irenaeus, and more from throughout the whole Roman Empire affirm, in writing, the authorship of the Gospels to these four men. Moreover, even early heretics and pagan critics cited the Gospels as being written by these four authors. If any doubt about the true authorship of the Gospels existed at the time, it would have strengthened the claim of these critics to bring up that doubt, but not a single critic did. If even heretics and pagans joined the early church fathers in identifying Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John as the Gospel writers, then external evidence overwhelmingly points to the authenticity of these four evangelists as the true authors.

There is another popular theory about the Gospels, which is that they must have been written at the end of the first century, after the fall of the Temple in 70 AD, because they include predictions of this destruction. This theory is looked upon as making the Gospels appear less credible because of a large time gap and the idea of the telephone game in passing on information. However, there are two key problems with this theory. First and foremost, even if this notion were to be found accurate, such dating would not be problematic in the way it seems, because the proposed dates still remain well within the lifespans of the apostles and evangelists. As a result, this theory does not conflict with the idea of the authorship of the Gospels.

Furthermore, “being one of Jesus’ students meant following him everywhere and listening to him all the time, for anywhere between one and three years. As the Gospels make clear, it also meant remembering what he said” (87). Because of this, they would have been extraordinarily familiar with Jesus’ actions and teachings, making the task of writing this material down less daunting than it may appear. This also indicates that the information was not passed from countless persons to persons but was instead written by someone very close to the events themselves. Therefore, the proposed dating of the Gospels to the 70s, 80s, and 90s does not pose any major threat to their credibility.

Second and perhaps most important, the assumption that the Gospels must be written after 70 AD depends upon the idea that Jesus could not have made the predictions He did before the event happened, an assumption that is simply false. “There are plenty of compelling reasons for concluding that the oracles about the Temple destruction in Mark 13 originated with Jesus Himself. And if they do go back to him, they simply can’t be used to ‘date’ the Gospel” (92). The ending of the Acts of the Apostles indicates that this text was written during the lifetime of Paul, probably around 62 AD. Since the Gospel of Luke is the first half of a two-volume work which Acts completes, this Gospel, too, must have been written well before Paul’s death. Moreover, all the major theories about the order in which the Synoptic Gospels were written (including the Two-Source Theory, the Augustinian Theory, the Griesbach Theory, and the Farrer Theory) indicate that at least one of the other two Gospels was written before Luke, if not both. Thus, at least two of the Synoptic Gospels, and likely all three, must have been written before 62 AD, placing them only a few decades after Jesus’ death. Based on this evidence, the Gospels lose no integrity based on their dating; rather, they lend themselves credibility in having been penned shortly after Jesus’ earthly life.

Because the Gospels were written by eyewitnesses and their close companions within the decades immediately after Jesus’ death, it follows that their content is historically accurate. Therefore, the things the Gospels claim Jesus of Nazareth said and did must be true. This includes Jesus’ claim of divine Sonship that was presented in riddles and puzzles within the context of the Jewish background, meaning the historical man, Jesus, truly did believe Himself to be the Son of God. If we take Him at His word, the implications of this are astonishing: God, the Creator of the universe, loved the world He created so much that He became man and died on a Cross, thus defeating Death by His death and flinging wide the gates to the Heavenly fulfillment of the story that belongs to Israel and to all of mankind.

Edited by Julea Pehl

One Response

  1. Don’t forget about John’s Gospel (5:1-18) regarding the Pool of Bethsiada still in existence at the time of his writing. This pool was destroyed in 70 AD, and recently discovered and identified about 12 years ago.
    Assuming John’s Gospel was the last written, the rest were most likely written earlier.

    The earliest gospel papyrus fragment, P52 is a portion John 18:31-33, dated about 110-120 AD, discovered 400 miles south of Alexandria Egypt.

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