Sunday, October 18, 2009
Who Wrote the Gospels
Identifying the Authors of the First Four Books of the New Testament
© Brian Tubbs
Nov 14, 2008
Who were the authors of the New Testament, specifically its first four books? Identifying Bible authors has long been controversial. Who wrote the Gospels?
The New Testament is the second half of the Christian Bible. It is composed of 27 books, which lay out the basic tenets and claims of Christianity. Perhaps the most important of those 27 books are the first four -- the books known today as the "Gospels."
The first four books are Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. The credibility of these Gospels is key to Christian doctrine, since all four of the Gospels purport to cover the life and ministry of Jesus Christ.
When Were the Gospels Written?
All four of the canonical Gospels were written after the crucifixion of Jesus (most likely A.D. 30 or 33). This puts their earliest composition in the third decade of the first century. In fixing the outer limit to the composition time frame, consider the following:
* Ignatius, the Bishop of Antioch, makes indirect references to the Gospel of Matthew as early as AD 110.
* Polycarp, a famous early church leader, quotes Acts (as well as several other New Testament books) in a letter dated to about A.D. 110. If Luke and Acts are a two-volume set written by the same author (and most conservative scholars and many moderate scholars believe this), then this puts the Gospel of Luke earlier than A.D. 110.
* A papyrus fragment of the Gospel of John (containing portions of John 18) has been dated to between A.D. 110 and 160, thus confirming (beyond all doubt) that John was written no later than A.D. 160.
Establishing the time frame of the Gospels' composition is important to determining their authors. It's clear from the evidence above that all four Gospels were written sometime between A.D. 30 and A.D. 160. This time-frame is endorsed by virtually all New Testament scholars.
Conservative scholars go even further, pointing out that the book of Acts was almost certainly written before the martyrdom of Paul and Peter in the mid-60s A.D. and the destruction of Jerusalem by the Romans in A.D. 70. Since Acts and the Gospel of Luke were apparently written as a two-volume set (Luke first and then Acts), it therefore stands to reason that if Acts was written before the mid-60s A.D., so was Luke. If Mark was written before Luke (see below), then at least two of the Synoptic Gospels were written before the mid-60s A.D.
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Who Wrote the Gospels?
Placing the composition in the period between the third decade of the first century and the middle of the second century enhances the credibility of early church attribution. And if you place it between the 30s A.D. and the mid-60s A.D., then the early church attribution is virtually a slam dunk. And what is that attribution? A general review follows:
* Gospel of Matthew - The strongest evidence attesting to Matthew’s authorship is the fact that four ancient sources (Papias of Asia Minor, Irenaeus of Gaul, Pantaenus, and Origen of Alexandria and Caesarea) specifically attribute the Gospel of Matthew to Matthew, the disciple of Jesus.
* Gospel of Mark - Early church figures, including Papias, Irenaeus, Origen, Clement of Alexandria, and Jerome of Palestine all attribute Mark's Gospel to Mark. There's little reason to believe the early church would falsely attribute this Gospel to Mark, who was a second-tier church figure at best.
* Gospel of Luke - Evidence associating Luke with his Gospel (as well as the book of Acts) includes the Muratorian Canon (c. A.D. 180-200) as well as the writings of Irenaeus, Clement, and famed early church historian Eusebius.
* Gospel of John - The evidence is thinner for John than the others, but Irenaeus and Polycarp (according to Eusebius) both attribute the fourth Gospel to John.
There is strong evidence to affirm traditional attribution of the Gospels. However, in the 1800s and 1900s, New Testament textual critics began advancing literary theories that call this attribution into question.
Which Gospel Came First
In the 1800s, the placement of Matthew as the first Gospel was challenged by German scholars, including Christian Hermann Weisse and Heinrich Julius Holtzmann. These scholars claimed that Mark was the first Gospel, and was one of two sources used to then craft Matthew and Luke. Their theory, called the "two-source hypothesis," soon gained wide acceptance. While there are variations of the two-source hypothesis today, including one arguing for four original sources, the vast majority of New Testament scholars agree that Mark was the first Gospel.
If the Gospel of Mark was written first (and the authors of Matthew and Luke utilized Mark as a source), many textual critics argue that this disproves Matthew and possibly Luke as well as the authors of the Gospels bearing their names. This claim, however, is not justified, for three possible reasons:
1. It's possible that Matthew wrote Q (the theoretical source of Jesus sayings that Luke arguably alludes to at the beginning of his Gospel and which scholars believe predated and influenced all four Gospel accounts). If this is so, then Mark used Matthew's "Q" notes to write his Gospel.
2. Many scholars believe that Peter influenced the writing of Mark. If so, Matthew would logically want to benefit from Peter's memory and insight.
3. If Matthew found Mark's Gospel to be accurate, why would he "reinvent the wheel"? Why not use parts of Mark to help him put together a finished copy of his own Gospel?
The bottom line is, even if one agrees to Markan priority, this does not disprove the disciple Matthew as being the author of the Gospel of Matthew. It certainly does not disprove Luke.
While there are some questions concerning the attribution of John (there were several Johns in the early church period), there's little reason to overturn the testimony of the early church when it comes to attribution.
The copyright of the article Who Wrote the Gospels in Bible Studies is owned by Brian Tubbs. Permission to republish Who Wrote the Gospels in print or online must be granted by the author in writing.
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