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 possible that the earliest Gospel manuscripts didn’t include titles in the manuscripts themselves (though the possibility of 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 some aspects of 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.
Here’s what we do find: Once titles begin to appear in the manuscripts, every titled manuscript of the Gospel that we know as Matthew identifies Matthew as the source. And this happens not only with the Gospel According to Matthew but also with the other New Testament Gospels. Although the precise form and wording of the titles may vary, every titled manuscript of the Gospel According to Mark identifies Mark as the Gospel’s author—and the same pattern also marks manuscripts of the Gospels According to Matthew, Luke, and John. The literary form of the titles changes from one manuscript to another, but the ascribed author remains the same in every titled manuscript.
How did this happen?
Here’s the explanation that seems to make the most sense: When churches received each Gospel, they also received information about that Gospel’s origins, telling them whose eyewitness testimony this Gospel represented. Because they received clear oral traditions when they received each book, when Christians began adding titles to these manuscripts, every congregation connected each Gospel to the same author.
They already knew where each Gospel came from. Nothing less can explain the early consistency of the titles.
Who Really Wrote the Gospels?
So it seems that, from the time when the texts first began to circulate, the content of the New Testament Gospels was thought to have originated with Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. If indeed Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John were the sources of the books that bear their names, each New Testament Gospel derives from eyewitness testimony about Jesus.
What’s recorded in the Gospel According to Mark is the testimony of Simon Peter, recalled and preserved by John Mark. Luke’s Gospel integrates written and oral sources gathered by Paul’s personal physician. The materials that are unique to the Gospel According to Matthew came from Matthew, a tax collector who deserted his profession to follow Jesus. And the stories in the Gospel According to John? They originated in John Bar-Zebedee—one of Jesus’ first followers.
[i] 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): Retrieved August 1, 2006, from <http://www.holycross.edu/departments/crec/website/resurrection-debate-transcript.pdf>.
[ii] Ehrman, Lost Christianities, 235.
[iii] In the New Testament world, a theretofore-unknown idea had been emerging for some time—the requirement that a trustworthy work be reliably connected to a specific author. Otherwise, the work was subject to suspicion as a forgery. See D. Dungan, Constantine’s Bible: Politics and the Making of the New Testament (Minneapolis, Minnesota: Fortress Press, 2007) 34-35, 47.
[iv] By the early to mid-second century, the Gospels had probably reached most, if not all, primary population centers of the Roman Empire by this time.
[v] The Easter controversy makes it clear that no universally-recognized authority figure existed in the second century. Two bishops of Rome—Anicetus and Victor—tried at different times in the second century A.D. to standardize the date of Easter celebrations among Christians. Yet churches in the eastern half of the Roman Empire—primarily Asia Minor—persisted in celebrating Easter at a different time than the churches around Rome. The matter was still not settled in the fourth century A.D., as is clear from the proceedings of the Council of Nicea. For various accounts of this controversy, see Raniero Cantalamessa, et al., Easter in the Early Church: An Anthology of Jewish and Early Christian Texts (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 1993) 34-37; Eusebius, 5:23—28; Francis A. Sullivan, From Apostles to Bishops: The Development of the Episcopacy in the Early Church (Mahwah, NJ: Paulist Press, 2001) 140-153.
Original Photo: Joel Montes de Oca