Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Unlikely Candidates for Gospel Writers

Do you ever remember cutting class in High School? Perhaps there was an event you wanted to attend, so you decided to ditch one day. The problem with ditching school is the ever-present danger of being caught. Teachers take attendance and they want to know why you missed class when you show up the next day. A lot of kids I knew would simply forge an absence note from their mother or father to escape detection.

Why do kids forge notes from their parents, but not the next-door neighbor or a sibling? Usually, it is because it would make the note a whole lot less believable. If a neighbor signed the note, the student would be forced to go to much greater lengths to demonstrate he or she was in the neighbor's care or the neighbor had some legal authority over the child. It complicates things and makes people ask questions in a way that the more widely-recognized authority of the mother and father don't.

Why Forge These Guys' Names?

I bring this point up as I wrap down my little series on the authorship of the Gospels. While it is agreed that the original authors of the gospels didn't sign their names to them (something not uncommon when dealing with a popular level biographical account in the ancient world), they have always been attributed to Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. In fact, that's a big point. Those who are skeptical will usually claim that no one knows who wrote any of the gospels. They were anonymous and the names they now bear were attached later. Yet, the gospels themselves claim to come from eyewitness testimony (Luke 1:1-3, John 21:24) and ancient biographers sought out eyewitnesses as the best type of evidence. Richard Bauckham, comments that historian Samuel Byrskog stresses that "for Greek and Roman historians, the ideal eyewitness was not the dispassionate observer but one who, as a participant, had been closest to the events and those who direct experience enabled him to understand and interpret the significance of what he had seen. The historians 'preferred the eyewitness who was socially involved or, even better, had actively participated in the events.'"1

Given that involved eyewitnesses would be considered more valuable, then one would imagine that these anonymously-written accounts would offer some more significant apostolic names to be associated with them. Two of the four gospels aren't even names of the apostles: Mark and Luke. Isn't this a bit like picking the next door neighbor to write your absence note? It takes more explaining and weakens the case for their authenticity. Of the two gospels that do bear the names of apostles, Matthew is more relatively obscure apostle, not an Andrew or Peter or James. Only John's gospel account bears the name of one of the "inner circle" of apostles, and his is the one that shows up last. If the pattern was to forge the names onto the Gospels, why wait until John to pick a prominent apostle, unless Matthew, Mark , and Luke actually did write their own Gospels?

No Other Choices

Not only do we have some relatively obscure authors chosen for three of the four gospels, we also notice that there has never been any alternatives offered for the sources of the Gospels. Compare that to a truly anonymous book of the New Testament: the book of Hebrews. Early writers like Eusebius and Athanasius attribute the book to the Apostle Paul. Origen seems to have some misgivings about that, writing "For not without reason have the ancients handed it down as Paul's. But who wrote the epistle, in truth, God knows" (Eccl. History 6.25.13-14). Other possibilities like Silas, Timothy, or Apollos have also been offered, yet the book remains anonymous. The same is not true of the gospels; they are always and confidently ascribed to these four authors and no other possibility is ever advanced. Further, when the second century produced a flurry of forged gospels, such as the Gospel of Thomas and the Gospel of Peter, these were summarily rejected because they were forgeries. There does not exist any ancient list or writing offering as authoritative any accounts of Jesus's life other than Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. This is strong evidence that the early church fathers were critical of claims that an apostle wrote a book without any good supporting evidence for it that ties it all the way back to the apostles themselves.

What's More Reasonable?

Given all that we know about the gospels, the testimony of people like Papias who sought to establish their relation to the eyewitnesses, the internal testimony and claims that they were written by eyewitnesses, and the lack of other options, it is more reasonable to hold that the gospels were written by Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John than to believe they are forgeries.


1. Bauckham, Richard. Jesus and the Eyewitnesses: The Gospels as Eyewitness Testimony. Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Pub., 2006. Print. 9.


  1. Keep this series coming! Right now I'm in a college religion class that presupposes the anonymity of the gospel writers. It's nice to know there is scholarship that makes more definitive claims.

    1. Two of the biggest assumptions that many Christians make regarding the truth claims of Christianity is that, one, eyewitnesses wrote the four gospels. The problem is, however, that the majority of scholars today do not believe this is true. The second big assumption many Christians make is that it would have been impossible for whoever wrote these four books to have invented details in their books, especially in regards to the Empty Tomb and the Resurrection appearances, due to the fact that eyewitnesses to these events would have still been alive when the gospels were written and distributed.

      But consider this, dear Reader: Most scholars date the writing of the first gospel, Mark, as circa 70 AD. Who of the eyewitnesses to the death of Jesus and the alleged events after his death were still alive in 70 AD? That is four decades after Jesus' death. During that time period, tens of thousands of people living in Palestine were killed in the Jewish-Roman wars of the mid and late 60's, culminating in the destruction of Jerusalem.

      How do we know that any eyewitness to the death of Jesus in circa 30 AD was still alive when the first gospel was written and distributed in circa 70 AD? How do we know that any eyewitness to the death of Jesus ever had the opportunity to read the Gospel of Mark and proof read it for accuracy?

      I challenge Christians to list in the comment section below, the name of even ONE eyewitness to the death of Jesus who was still alive in 70 AD along with the evidence to support your claim.

      If you can't list any names, dear Christian, how can you be sure that details such as the Empty Tomb, the detailed resurrection appearances, and the Ascension ever really occurred? How can you be sure that these details were not simply theological hyperbole...or...the exaggerations and embellishments of superstitious, first century, mostly uneducated people, who had retold these stories thousands of times, between thousands of people, from one language to another, from one country to another, over a period of many decades?

  2. Firstly, any Christian with knowledge of the Gospels knows that Mark & Luke were not & do not claim to be eyewitness accounts. Mark (cousin of early church leader Barnabus) was a contemporary of Peter, one of the 12, and obviously got his most of his info of Jesus from him.

    Luke, who was "a historian of the first rank." He is credited with authoring the third Gospel and the book of Acts. Luke is mentioned three times in the New Testament. (Colossians 4:14; Philemon 24; II Timothy 4:11) and from these passages we learn that Luke was a physician and a fellow worker of Paul who traveled with him during his missionary journeys. He interviewed many eyewitnesses of Christ.

    Regarding your claim of Mark (which most scholars credit as the first Gospel) not being written till 70 AD, there is great evidence that indicates it was written much earlier.

    In the Book of Acts there is no mention of the death of the apostle Paul. His death is dated from anywhere between 62 AD to 68. 3 Acts 28:30-31 tells us that Paul was under arrest for two years but fails to mention his execution. Also we find no mention of James who was killed by the Sanhedrin in 62 AD, as recorded by Josephus. Why, if it was written after their execution?

    Nero persecuted Christians exceedingly around A.D. 64 when Rome suffered an immense fire. Therefore, the persecution had to occur during those years, yet there is no mention of this in Acts--a book that records the history of the early Christian church.

    Also, the Temple in Jerusalem was destroyed by the Romans in 70 AD, yet this is mentioned no where in Scripture. The only place we see this is when Jesus predicts it, saying "no stone will be left unturned." Surely, if the Gospels were written after 70 AD, they would have included this.

    We have good evidence to show Acts being written by 62 AD. The Gospel of Luke was written before Acts as Luke tells us this at the beginning of Acts. If Acts was written by 62 and Luke was written by 60 AD, then Luke was written less than 30 years of Jesus' death.

    Scholars believe Mark and Matthew were written prior to Luke, probably around 45-55 AD. This is 15-25 years after Jesus, which is very soon and should give us great confidence in their truthful accuracy. There would've been plenty of eyewitnesses still living.

    "No first century date allows time for myths or legends to creep into stories about Jesus." -Norman Geisler

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    1. The majority of NT scholars do not believe that the traditionally ascribed authors of the Gospels (Matthew, John Mark, Luke, John) were the actual authors of these four first century books.

      Regarding the dates of the writing of the Gospels, the majority of scholars believe that the Gospel of Mark was written between 65-75 AD. Is it possible that the Gospel was written earlier? Yes. Is it possible that the Gospel was written later? Yes. So it is possible that the Gospel was written in 80 AD, making it highly likely that Jesus "prophecy" about the destruction of the Temple was an act of fraud by the author of this book? Yes.

      But I do not make that assertion because the majority of experts believe that it is possible that Mark was written prior to the destruction of the Temple. Therefore, the best that we can say is that Jesus' prediction of the destruction of the Temple might be historical fact. As much as I as a skeptic may believe that Jesus did not have fortune telling powers to see into the future, I cannot use the date of the writing of Mark to prove it.

      I accept the position of the majority consensus of scholars on this issue.

      I suggest you do the same. As much as you would like the Gospel of Mark to have been written in the 40's, that is not what the overwhelming majority of experts believe. Therefore you are clinging to a fringe position, and I would suggest that you are clinging to this fringe position because you have a bias: You very much want the Gospel to have been written prior to 70 AD to confirm that Jesus prediction was indeed a prophecy and therefore you choose to accept a fringe position to support the earlier date.

      You are not being reasonable or rational.

      And the same is true for the dating of the other three gospels and the Book of Acts. No credible mainstream (non-fundamentalist Christian) scholar I know believes that Acts was written before 62 AD. This is wishful thinking on your part. I suggest that we all accept the consensus expert position on all issues of which we personally are not experts, including the authorship and the dates of the writing of the books of the New Testament.

      Finally, rumors regarding any emotionally-charged subject can spread at the speed of a brush fire. Common sense and ample personal experience should tell you that. To believe that this was not true in first century Palestine is, again, wishful thinking.