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What I'm wondering is whether the actual authors of the book of John, Luke, Matthew, and Mark are who we believe them to be. I go to a Catholic high school, and in our version of the Bible it says, in the author section for each gospel, something like "traditionally the apostle John", so does that mean it could have been someone else, and we just say that the author was John the Apostle when it wasn't?

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I will start a little off-topic as it is relevant to do so.

An answer to this question would not have been easy if there was no early persecution of Christianity. It would have been a lot easier for detractors of Christianity to make a point that all the writings that we have today on which the foundation of Christianity is based upon, were in fact all cooked up and doctored with the help of the political and reigning powers at that time. But the fact is, all the worldly forces were trying to wipe out nascent Christianity by persecution and destroying all their literature. All that we have today has passed through a most turbulent period and has survived under most cruel persecution. By the time Christians could live a serene living under a favourable reigning emperor, all present day Gospels were already in use , as independent books before they were canonised in this favourable time.

To answer the question: We don’t have the original documents in our possession of any of the Gospels, thanks to this persecution. Agnostics raise this point in casting doubt on the authorship of Bible books. But seen from the table below it can be said of any other ancient literature on the surface of this earth and that too with no attempts of supression. That is the case with every historical writings and we find that evidence for authenticity of Gospel writers is much stronger than any of the other historical books.

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Apart from this shortest timeline for the earliest copy, there are other numerous external written sources, which are but only positive indicators (and absolutely nothing negative) in early history, that the gospels were written by the persons to whom they were attributed by the early church (Matthew, Mark, Luke and John).

A point to note: The two of the gospels are ascribed to such minor characters as Mark and Luke -- neither of whom, by any accounts, were themselves neither disciples nor the eyewitnesses is solid indirect clue they were who they were. If early Christian evangelist wanted to acquire credibility for what they were writing (or forging as some claim) and preaching they would undoubtedly have attributed it to someone like Peter, Thomas or James. And precisely this was what the later second and third century Gnostic gospels did. At least Christians are saying that all the Gospels were written under the guidance of Holy Spirit and not claiming that they were handed down by God Himself or were found buried somewhere in the ground. Or to think extremely they did not concise all the four gospels in to one book and say that it was written or dictated by Jesus himself.

This link cites the compelling evidence where it is explained in detail.

Additionally further information for Gospel of Mark is found in this link and Similar readings can be found here for Gospel of Luke and another link for Gospel of Mathew

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There are a number of theories about who wrote the gospels. Tradition ascribes them respectively to Matthew, one of the 12 Apostles; Mark, the interpreter for Peter in Rome; Luke, a disciple of Paul; and John, one of the 12 Apostles.

Many modern scholars have doubted these attributions, primarily because the names were not attached to the gospels until many decades after they were written, but also because the descriptions the early Christians gave of the gospels do not always match the gospels we have in the New Testament. Some scholars have gone so far as to say that we can never know who wrote the gospels.

However, there is a middle ground between blindly accepting tradition and blindly rejecting tradition. First, we need to understand the changing definition of "authorship".

Ancient notions of authorship

Scholars have identified five distinct types of authorship in the ancient world.

  1. Physical inscription of words on a page
  2. Dictation to an scribe or secretary
  3. Supplying of ideas to an scribe, who composes the final work
  4. Composition by a disciple in the spirit of his master's ideas
  5. Writing in the tradition of a famous person of the past

Of the five types of authorship recognized by the ancients, only #1 and #2 would be considered authorship today (and possibly #3 if the scribe is a ghostwriter). But in ancient times most people could not write, so #1 was the least common form of authorship.

For example, Paul's letter to the Colossians begins with the heading, "Paul, an apostle of Christ Jesus by the will of God, and Timothy our brother, To the saints and faithful brothers and sisters in Christ in Colossae." It's possible that Paul dictated the letter to Timothy, but given the stylistic differences between this and other Pauline letters, it's equally possible that Timothy composed Colossians himself after consulting with Paul. In this case Paul would still be considered an author according to the customs of the time, but would not be considered the author by today's standards.

Non-canonical gospels

None of our four gospels contain their authors' names in the text; however, in the second century a number of other gospels began to appear, claiming to have been written by Apostles (Gospel of Thomas, Gospel of Peter or a brother of Jesus (Infancy Gospel of James). The way to gain authority for a forgery is to attribute it to a famous person and hope no one sees through the ruse.

It therefore became important for church leaders to determine which gospels were truly written by Jesus' followers and which were forgeries. It was in this context that Bishop Irenaeus gave us the names Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. But how can we know if he was right?

Mark and Luke

Mark and Luke are relatively unknown people. Mark is mentioned in 1 Peter 5:13, and Luke in Colossians 4:14, but we have very little information about them. A later tradition claims this Mark is the same person as John Mark mentioned in Acts, but we can't know for certain. It would therefore be hard to explain how these gospels got these names if Mark and Luke were not in fact the authors.

Still, Mark is said to have composed his gospel based on the preaching of Peter, Luke on the preaching of Paul; and those are the two biggest names of early Christianity.

Modern scholars have therefore questioned this attribution. As evidence against the traditional authorship, scholars have noted that Mark appears to have drawn from a number of different oral traditions rather than from a coherent collection of sermons, and that Luke disagrees with Paul concerning events of Paul's life (e.g. Paul's trip to Jerusalem, Acts 15 vs Galatians 2). But defenders of the traditional view don't see these as major problems.

The evidence against Matthew and John as authors (in the #1 sense above) is stronger, but there is still reason to believe that these men had a hand in the books that bear their names.

Matthew

Tradition tells us "Matthew put together the oracles [of the Lord] in the Hebrew language, and each one interpreted them as best he could," but the Gospel of Matthew that appears in the New Testament was almost certainly written in Greek. It's possible that the canonical Gospel of Matthew was a blend of Mark's gospel and a translation of the oracles put together by Matthew.

This would fit authorship type #4 above, and explain the discrepancies we see between the existing gospel and tradition. But we can't know for certain.

John

The fourth gospel comes the closest to naming an author, "the disciple who Jesus loved." However, the book shows signs of having been edited. Chapters 5 and 6, for example, appear to have been swapped from the original chronology.

Furthermore, the end of chapter 20 appears to be a conclusion to the book, with Thomas' dramatic confession, "My lord and my God!" followed by the summary, "Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book. But these are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name."

John 21 was thus likely added by a later writer. Verse 24 draws an explicit distinction between the author of the original book and the writer(s) of this epilogue. "This is the disciple who is testifying to these things and has written them, and we know that his testimony is true." [emphasis mine]

So while John the Apostle may have been the original author of this gospel, the final published work was likely a group effort by him and one or more of his disciples.

This would fit authorship type #3 above, and explain some of the quirks of this gospel. But again, we can't know for certain.

tl;dr Conclusion

Modern scholarship has raised doubts about the traditional attributions of authorship of the gospels. This is due in part to the fact that all four gospels were originally published anonymously, and in part to changes in the concept of authorship. In the end, we can only make a reasonable guess based on the information available to us, just as the early Christians did.

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There is much debate about the authorship of Mathew, Mark, Luke and John as well as whether they copied portions of each other’s works to form their own. Some think some or all had other common sources, etc. The reason why there is so much recent debate is unclear. For whatever reason the ‘similarities and differences’ between the gospels seem to appeal to the curiosity of men. People trying to publish a book or for whatever reason ‘invent puzzles’ on pure speculation that do not actually have any practical outcome beyond their own career and academia interest. By building ‘supposition upon supposition’ and with ‘reference upon reference’ one can build an impressive superstructure of study and scholarship. However, these massive works and complex mazes can’t create anything above conjecture and for practical purposes are simply a tiring of the mind.

The simple fact of history is that we obtain less and less ability to determine what has happened in the past, the farther we move away from the event. In other words, those who first identified authors of the Bible are almost always in a better position to actually determine it. In some ways the whole subject does not matter, as it was the Holy Spirit who used men, inspired their thoughts to be infallible, had them write it down, and then move the church to accept them into a canon of God’s word. Who were exactly involved, if they were directly written by Apostles, or only accepted by them? These and many other questions have no consequence. It is inconsequential if authors used oral traditions, or miscellaneous histories that the Holy Spirit used and extracted portions of to fill out a divine and perfect guidance of the events. God is the author. The human author does not need to be known from the biblical standpoint, nor does any possible sources that they used have any measurable value.

From a historical perspective many Bible scholars simply believe the most reliable account of the human authors are simply the traditional view upon which they were accepted into the canon by those most familiar with the subject: The Apostle Matthew wrote ‘Matthew’ while the interpreter of the Apostle Peter, whose name was Mark, wrote Mark. The historian and companion of the Apostle Paul whose name was Luke, wrote Luke, while John was written by John the Apostle. Matthew, Mark, Luke and John wrote them, as their titles bear in our Bible.

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Our knowledge of who wrote the Gospels comes principally from two sources:

  • Manuscripts
  • Patristic writings (early Christian historians)

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Manuscripts

The manuscript evidence is unanimous.

A title would be found either in the superscript (the top) or the subscript (the bottom) of the manuscript, or both. There are manuscripts where these portions are missing and, as a result, the portion of the manuscript that survives has no title.

Focusing then on intact manuscripts (by which I mean manuscripts with a surviving superscript and/or subscript):

  • The number of intact Gospel manuscripts without a title: 0
  • The number of Gospel manuscripts attributed to someone other than Matthew, Mark, Luke, or John: 0
  • What % of intact Gospel manuscripts attribute the Gospels to the same names listed in modern Bibles: 100%

This is overwhelming evidence of authorship. If the authors were unknown, we should see a variety of names cropping up in the manuscript titles--this is exactly what we do not see.

The original audiences would have known who the author was; the idea that the document did not identify its author is speculative, it is supported by 0 manuscript evidence. But the idea that the recipients didn't know who wrote this document (keep in mind some of these recipients were willing to die for what these documents said) is implausible.

For a very deep dive reviewing the evidence on Gospel titles, see the work of Martin Hengel.

The manuscript evidence is 100% consistent in supporting the claim that the Gospels were written by Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John.

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Patristic writings

Numerous early Christian historians reported who wrote the Gospels--some of the most important of these historians are Irenaeus, Clement of Alexandria, Tertullian, Origen, Eusebius, Epiphanius, and Jerome. Among these heavyweight scholars it is extraordinarily rare to find unanimity--they disagree about almost everything. But on this specific topic--who wrote the Gospels--their testimonies are in agreement. All of these scholars (and many more who could be named) reported Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John as the authors of the Gospels.

The scholars I’ve named represent multiple generations and tremendous geographic diversity--they cover the breadth of the Mediterranean: Lyons, Alexandria (x2), Carthage, Caesarea, Salamis, and Dalmatia.

Let’s consider very briefly some highlights of the evidence for each of the Gospels:

Matthew

Matthew is far and away the most quoted Gospel in the early church--it was known and trusted from the earliest patristic writings. It is quoted by Ignatius & Polycarp. Eduard Masseux argued effectively that Matthew is also quoted in 1 Clement, given exact correspondence in unusual Greek wording. (see pp. 21-24 here) Matthew is also quoted by the Didache, which may have been written in the 1st century. A passage from Matthew is found in the Epistle of Barnabas; the date of this epistle is uncertain, but Robinson (Redating the New Testament Ch. 10) makes a compelling argument that it was written in the 1st Century.

Matthew is mentioned as an author by name by Papais (~105), and explicitly as the author of the first Gospel by Irenaeus (~180), but it is quoted as a known, accepted, authoritative source as early as the first century--by people who knew the apostles personally.

The absence of any controversy over authorship--not the slightest insinuation even among the enemies of Christianity, is telling evidence that the third-generation Christians did not try to rename the Gospel of Matthew. Therefore, the author to whom the first Gospel was attributed by Irenaeus is the same person to whom the Gospel was attributed by the students of the apostles (second-generation Christians like Clement, Ignatius, Polycarp)

Mark

Papias of Hieropolis preserved in his history (written ~105) the testimony of a first-generation Christian Elder, indicating that Mark wrote a Gospel based on the preaching of Peter. Clement of Alexandria recorded this information a century later as well. Since Clement provides a number of details not found in any known fragment of Papias (and since Clement was from the Alexandrian church Mark is said to have founded), it is likely that Clement has at least some independent information (For the testimony of Papias, see HE 3.39; for several of the key statements by Clement see HE 2.15 & HE 6.14).

Two very well-informed scholars report that Mark wrote the second Gospel, they corroborate each other, their testimony is sustained by every Patristic writer after them, and there are exactly 0 competing claims.

Why is the Gospel of Mark multiply attested (by early sources) as having been written by such an obscure figure? (this is not the story you’d tell if you were making it up!) Far and away the simplest explanation is that it is true.

Luke

Our earliest surviving source naming Luke as the author appears to be the Muratorian Canon, written approx. AD 170; Irenaeus also names Luke as the author when writing circa AD 180. However, we have much earlier evidence that the Gospel of Luke was written by a disciple of Paul--we just wouldn’t know which one without the 2nd century sources.

Luke-Acts forms a two-part work by the same author. Colin Hemer has masterfully argued that the Book of Acts was written by an eyewitness disciple of Paul circa AD 62 (see here) (see also an excellent summary by Frank Luke on SE-Biblical Hermeneutics here). The author is intimately familiar with the people, time, and places he describes.

We can therefore show deductively that Luke was written by a disciple of Paul:

  • P1: The book of Acts was written by an eyewitness disciple of Paul
  • P2: The same author wrote the Gospel of Luke & the book of Acts
  • C: The Gospel of Luke was written by an eyewitness disciple of Paul

Courtesy of the Muratorian Canon and the writings of Irenaeus (to say nothing of the numerous later sources corroborating the claim), we know which disciple of Paul. But that it was an eyewitness disciple of Paul can be established from first-century sources.

John

Irenaeus of Lyons is arguably our most important external witness to Johannine authorship. He was from the part of the world where John lived in his later years (Irenaeus only moved to Gaul later in life), and was a pupil of Polycarp of Smyrna, who was a disciple of John. Irenaeus is just one link removed from apostolic testimony and, crucially, only one link removed from the author he claims wrote the Gospel of John.

Irenaeus grew up in a world saturated with John’s influence. He studied the works of Papias (another disciple of John). If Irenaeus believed John wrote John, that is enormously important historical evidence.

So did Irenaeus believe John wrote John or was he just saying that to further an agenda?

Irenaeus has often been misrepresented by those who do not appreciate his method of argumentation. Irenaeus argues from premises to conclusions. The premises are things that are generally known, the conclusions are the things he wants to prove. His conclusions could be garbage (I think some of his conclusions are clearly not garbage, but certainly some of his conclusions do appear to be false), but that doesn’t matter for our analysis here. We really don’t care about the process of reasoning Irenaeus used to get from his premises to his conclusions—because his attestation of Johannine authorship is used as a premise!

It may take a minute for the impact of that last statement to sink in. Irenaeus uses John’s authorship of the 4th Gospel as a premise (see Against Heresies Book 3 chapter 1). This means in his day and age (circa 180), John’s authorship of the 4th Gospel was generally known. Irenaeus is tearing apart (no joke, read Against Heresies) his opponents’ beliefs; if he cites an obviously false premise, he leaves himself open to a devastating counter-argument.

That Irenaeus can get away with baldly stating that John wrote John, without having to argue for it, in a world just 1 generation removed from John, indicates that this was a statement that was nearly incontrovertible at that time.

For a quick but scholarly review of the evidence of Johannine authorship, Erik Manning covers both the internal and external evidence.

There is a thread on SE-Biblical Hermeneutics suggesting John could not have written the Gospel of John--my thoughts in counter to that claim are here.

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Patristic evidence for authorship by Matthew & Mark is early and unanimous

For Luke the evidence for authorship by an eyewitness disciple of Paul is exceptionally strong. That the disciple's name was Luke is well-attested, but not as well as that of Matthew & Mark.

For John, the evidence is almost unanimous, and it comes only one link removed from John himself.

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Conclusion

The historical evidence is remarkably solid--yet, as many are aware, critical scholarship in the last 2 centuries has rejected most of this evidence. F. David Farnell put it very well:

Could it be that Enlightenment-spawned Historical Criticism has so systematically ignored the early fathers because they stand as manifest contradictions to its cherished dogmas?

There are implications to Gospel authorship, and some do not like those implications. But the evidence itself is robust - authorship of the Gospels by Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John is very well-attested. Introducing later redactors (for whom we do not have evidence) to explain the authorship of the Gospels usually requires multiplying entities beyond necessity.

Others have mentioned the use of an amanuensis (scribe). Authors regularly employed scribes in antiquity, there's nothing unusual about this. But the author was considered the person who produced the ideas and approved the final draft, not the scribe who wrote it down (see further discussion in my post here).

I am in the process of producing a video series on Gospel authorship--those interested can find it here. I find that the evidence supports the view that the Gospels were indeed written by Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John.

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