17

According to the many online lectures by biblical scholars, not to mention entries in Wikipedia and other online sites, whether the experts are on either the liberal side or the conservative side of the table, they all state the four Gospels were actually anonymous works and that someone appended the names of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John to them long after the anonymous writers wrote them.

The average person you talk with has no idea of this, and he or she wholly believe the actual eyewitnesses (viz., the apostles) wrote the Gospels.

I am interested in the views of critical scholars who believe the Gospels were written by the men whose names are appended to them. I am not interested in purely religious answers such as, "The Holy Spirit guided the church to ascribe authorship to Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John." Would someone please 1) point me to scholars in the field of historical criticism who believe the attributions are accurate; and more importantly 2) summarize their arguments for me?

  • 2
  • 1
    Textual criticism doesn't actually try to identify authors, that's the field of "higher criticism". – curiousdannii Aug 28 '15 at 14:40
  • 1
    Understood, but what specifically is not answered by the first question (please ignore that I accidentally linked to a specific answer - all the answers add info)? ... The short answer is the gospels are anonymous (none says "this is the gospel of x"), but that yes, some scholars support the traditional authorship attributions. – ThaddeusB Aug 28 '15 at 14:43
  • 3
    I don't think any scholar believes that the books were authored by the names on the books. Similarly, I don't know any who would say that Jesus' birthday was in December. Maybe this belongs on hermeneutics.stackexchange.com as it really has nothing to do with Christianity directly. – The Freemason Aug 28 '15 at 17:52
  • 3
    @TheFreemason There are scholars who do believe the books were autographed as attributed, and I am compiling a list of their works and logic. – Matthew Aug 30 '15 at 19:38
14

This is part two of a two part answer. See my previous post for general arguments.

Specific books

Matthew

External - On Matthew Papias writes, "Matthew collected the oracles in the Hebrew language, and each interpreted them as best he could.". This is probably the most debated phrase in all of the patristic writings - the words translated as "oracles", "Hebrew language", and "interpreted" are all ambiguous. One possible, natural reading is that Matthew wrote a Gospel in Aramaic and other people then translated from that. Critiques use this interpretation of Papias' statement against his accuracy because we "know" our Matthew was written in Greek and doesn't show signs of being translated.4

However, there are several other possible translations - some critical scholars see the statement as a reference to the hypothetical Q document that lies behind portions of Luke and Matthew, which does show signs of Aramaic-isms. Others have suggested Papias actually meant something like "written in the Hebrew style".4

Whatever Papias meant exactly, we can be pretty sure he knew of a Greek Gospel of Matthew. (Papias himself wrote in and spoke Greek and quotes from Matthew are known from works predating Papias.) We also know that there was an Aramaic Gospel closely associated with the Gospel of Matthew (by contemporaries) that survived for several hundred years and was used by the church in Palestine. Since this document has not survived to the present day, scholars can't judge what it was exactly. Still, that means there are several possible ways Papias could be accurate within our knowledge - Matthew could have written a Gospel in Aramaic and also a version in Greek from scratch (i.e. he was bilingual so didn't need to translate); Matthew could have written a Q-like document in Aramaic that was translated and then expanded; Matthew could have written in Greek, but in the "Hebrew style" (i.e. that he Gospel was aimed towards Jews); and so on. As such, dismissing Papais as inaccurate is unwarranted.

In any case, writing not long after Papias, Irenaeus also attests Matthean authorship and appears to be drawing upon an independent tradition to do so. (He states when the gospel was authored, a subject Papias did not touch upon as far as we know.) Irenaeus knew Polycarp, who is thought to be a disciple of John the Apostle, so he likely had access to good information. Matthean authorship is then continually attested to by church fathers for the next several hundred years. Summing up the external evidence, Donald Guthrie writes:8

there is no conclusive reason for rejecting the strong external testimony regarding the authorship of Matthew

Internal - The strongest internal evidence of authorship comes from Matthew 9:9-13. This passage in the Gospel of Matthew has a couple differences when compared to the parallel passages of Mark 2:13-17 and Luke 5:27-32. Most notably, Matthew calls the tax collector "Matthew" while the other Gospels call him "Levi". Yet all three Gospels list Matthew, not Levi, as a disciple of Jesus in their lists of the 12 (Matthew 10:2-4; Mark 3:16-18; Luke 6:13-16). Matthew's list, however, does have a difference - he adds the words "the tax collector" after Matthew's name. D. A. Hagner argues that the most natural explanation is that Matthew is adding a self-deprecating identification to 10:3 and substituting his new (apostolic) name in 9:9-13, just as Peter (originally Simon) and Paul (originally Saul) do in their own works.9

In support of this conclusion is Matthew 9:10, where the author says "the house" instead of "his house" as the other Gospels. This is the kind of subtle difference one would expect if Matthew was the author of the Gospel that bears his name. The strength of this argument is underscored by the fact that some who reject Matthean authorship suggest this passage was the cause of the "anonymous" work becoming associated with Matthew. However, Daniel B. Wallace argues that an admirer of Matthew would be unlikely to adopt the subtle deprecation of the apostle, and that only Matthean authorship adequately explains the data.10

Briefly on additional evidence, Donald Senior sees the literary style of Matthew as compatible with Matthean authorship.11 Wallace, Gundry, and others notes Matthew's frequent use of precise monetary terms and his use of unique parables with monetary themes as evidence that someone familiar with money wrote the Gospel.8, 10 C. F. D. Moule suggests several subtle self-references and E. J. Goodspeed suggests Matthew would have have been uniquely equipped among the disciples to take shorthand notes during Jesus' ministry.12, 13

Objections - The most common objection to Matthean authorship is that Matthew appears to rely on Mark for a significant portion of his Gospel. A true disciple of Jesus would surely not rely on a non-disciple the argument goes. In response, it first should be noted that while the most popular solution to the Synoptic problem, Markean priority is far from certain.

More crucially, it is simply an assumption, not a fact, that a disciple wouldn't use a non-disciple as a source. Our knowledge of contemporary writing suggests the practice of reusing another's work was quite common. Additionally, Paul quotes Greek philosophers in a couple of places, but no one suggests that means he viewed them as authoritative. Finally, if Matthew knew (or at least thought) that the Gospel of Mark is based on the teaching of Peter (see the next section), there is not even a hint of a conflict.4

Mark

External - Mark has arguably the best external witness of any Gospel, starting with Papias who writes:

Mark having become the interpreter of Peter, wrote down accurately whatsoever he remembered... he neither heard the Lord nor accompanied Him. But afterwards, as I said, he accompanied Peter... [Mark] took special care, not to omit anything he had heard [from Peter], and not to put anything fictitious into the statements.6

This testimony, according to Papias, comes from the "elder John," which probably is meant to refer to the apostle John. According to Wallace, the most notable thing here is despite a strong desire to tie scripture to apostles, Papias (and later church fathers) do not attribute the Gospel of Mark to Peter. If one was simply ascribing a name to an anonymous work, there would be no reason to choose a follower of Peter instead of Peter himself. Indeed, if "according to X" merely meant "according to the teaching of X", as some critics argue, then this Gospel would be called the "Gospel according to Peter". The fact that the fathers resisted the temptation to attribute the Gospel to Peter enhances their credibility not just here, but also on other authorship testimony.14

After Papias, Mark's authorship is directly attested to by Clement of Alexandria, Origen, Irenaeus, and The Anti-Marcionite prologue within the next hundred years. Tertullian and Justin Martyr also indirectly support the testimony (i.e. in off-hand remarks in Biblical commentary). Some of these accounts are, no doubt, dependent on each other. However, there is also much independent testimony in these varied accounts. John A.T. Robinson, who does not necessarily believe the accuracy of the tradition in regards to other Gospel writers, says that one should "take seriously the tradition" in regards to Mark and that Markean authorship for, at minimum, the first draft of Mark is probable.15 Guthrie considers that the external evidence is conclusive, writing there is no need to "do little more than mention [it]".8

Internal - Since we don't know a great deal about Mark the person, internal evidence will naturally not be super strong. However, Hengel argues that the simple Greek of Mark is completely compatible with a Christian raised in Jerusalem.16 A.B. Bruce suggests that the description of the young man in Mark 14:51-52 reads like an autobiographical insert, which agrees with the early church tradition that the Last Supper took place at Mark's parents house.17

More compelling, there is good evidence that the Gospel was written by someone close to Peter. Scholars such as Michael F. Bird and Richard Bauckham have argued that Mark used a technique called inclusio, which is thought to have been used by secular historians of the period, to bracket eyewitness testimony. Since Peter regularly appears at the start and end of such passages, Mark is thus implying that Peter is the eyewitness behind those particular accounts.18

Detailed word studies, such as the work of C. H. Turner, have shown that there is a pattern in the use of third person plurals in passages involving Peter that read as if an original first person plural has been substituted. This is a literary technique known as the "plural-to-singular device." Writing on this phenomenon, F.F. Bruce states "the reader can receive from such passages 'a vivid impression of the testimony [of Peter] that lies behind the Gospel'".19

Objections - The most common objection to Markean authorship seems to be that Mark (allegedly) commits geographical errors, betraying that he is not a native of Palestine. First, this seems like an incredibly weak reason to reject all the other evidence, in my opinion. Surely a person can have less-than-perfect knowledge of the geography of their home region. More importantly, such claims of inaccuracy do not stand up to scrutiny.4 One example will be sufficient to illustrate the point. Mark 7:31 states:

Then Jesus left the vicinity of Tyre and went through Sidon, down to the Sea of Galilee and into the region of the Decapolis.

Some critics have interpreted this to mean that Jesus went through Sidon in order to get to the Sea of Galilee, which would be the wrong direction. However, it need not mean more than that He went to Sidon and then to the Sea of Galilee. Even ignoring that simple solution, Douglas Edwards notes:20

even the Jesus movement's travel from Tyre to Sidon to the Decapolis depicted in Mark... is, in fact, quite plausible. Josephus notes that ... a dispute regarding boundaries arose between Sidon and Damascus, a city of the Decapolis. It is therefore conceivable that the movement headed east toward Damascus and then south through the region of the Decapolis, following major roads linking Damascus with either Caesarea Philippi or Hippos.

Luke

External - Among the Gospels, Luke's is the one where the attribution is most likely to be original (i.e., that is was on the autograph). M. Dibelius argues that a work addressed to an individual (Theophilus) would normally also contain the name of the person it came from (on an external tag). Furthermore, it seems clear that the author of Luke intended his work to be widely distributed, which would normally require a title or name attached to the work.21

Lukan authorship is attested to by Justin Martyr, Irenaeus, the Muratorian Fragment, Origen, the Anti-Marcionite Prologue, and Tertullian by the end of second century. Perhaps most notably, the heretic Marcion accepted Lukan authorship while rejecting the other three Gospels as "too Jewish". Despite this, the Church continued to accept the Gospel and continued to attribute it to a relatively unknown figure. There are no dissenting voices among the church fathers, despite numerous possible Pauline figures to pick from (i.e. even if we assume the Church knew that the Gospel of Luke was associated with Paul, there is no compelling reason why Luke was unanimously chosen.) Summing up this evidence, Darrell L. Bock concludes:22

Such unanimity, when numerous Pauline companion candidates exist, argues for the veracity of this identification.

Internal - A discussion about the internal authorship of Luke will naturally start with Acts, where the evidence is strong. (Nearly all scholars believe Acts and Luke were written by the same person, regardless of their opinion of the author's identity.) Even a casual reading of Acts will reveal two things - after the first few chapters, Paul receives most of the writer's attention and many of the later passages use the first person plural (collectively called the "we passages").

The most natural reason for the increasingly heavy emphasis on Paul as Acts progresses is that the author was a follower of Paul and thus had more detailed information about Paul than other early church leaders. The most natural explanation for the use of "we", especially since it does not occur throughout Acts, but instead only in places, is that the author is among the group of people referred to in such passages. Examining all the known companions/part-time companions of Paul, Guthrie finds that the only other person who seems likely to have been present on all occasions is Luke.8 Andreas J. Köstenberger, L. Scott Kellum, and Charles Quarles have additional cited reasons, apart from the "we passages", why each of these people is an unlikely author of (Luke-)Acts.23

To reduce the force of this conclusion, some critics have suggested that the author had access to the travel diary of a companion of Paul. However, the "we passages" are written in the same style as the rest of the work, meaning that the author would have had to rewrite these passages in his own style while choosing not to change the pronoun. As Carson and Moo correctly conclude, "this is highly improbable".4

Objections - The chief objections to Lukan authorship are a couple of apparent discrepancies between the person of Paul in his own writings and in Acts and supposed differences between the theology of Paul and Luke.

On the apparent historical discrepancies Wallace notes that, even if they are true discrepancies, this doesn't really argue against Lukan authorship - a companion could mis-remember a detail just as easily as an outsider could be misinformed.24 Indeed, if the author was only pretending to be a follower of Paul, one would think he would make sure to match the details to that which was known from the letters of Paul (those that think Luke was not the author almost universally date the work late, by which time Paul's letters were surely circulating.) Furthermore, Carson and Moo as well as Guthrie have examined the alleged discrepancies and found no differences that cannot easily be explained by different writers (neither of which was intending to write a comprehensive history) choosing to emphasize different details of the same events.4, 8

In regards to theology, the differences, to my mind, have been greatly exaggerated - casual readers usually don't detect any difference. Furthermore, differences really only tell us that Paul himself did not write Luke-Acts. That a student could have a slightly different theology than his teacher is hardly surprising. That said, it will be worthwhile to examine one such difference: the use of the OT Law. In Acts, Paul follows the Law by, for example, having Timothy circumcised (16:3) and participating in temple purification rites (21:17-26). In his own letters, Paul recommends against circumcision (Galatians 5:2-4) and ritual restrictions (1 Corintians 8-10). This appears to be a serious contradiction, but only via a caricature of Paul. In reality, Paul's view of the Law is much more nuanced. He says he is willing to follow the Law when it is beneficial to do so (1 Corinthians 9:19-22) and says circumcision or uncircumcision is a meaningless difference (Galatians 6:15). For these reasons, Richard N. Longenecker concludes that there are no material difference between the theology of Luke and Paul.25

John

Finally, we turn to John, the only book where there would be a clear motive for the attributed authorship - John was one of the most important apostles. Naturally, this does not itself argue against the authorship, but, perhaps, means we should demand strong evidence to uphold it. That, in my opinion, is exactly what we find.

External - The strongest testimony in favor of Johannine authorship for the Gospel of John comes from Irenaeus. In a letter to Florinus, Irenaeus vividly recalls learning from Polycarp in his youth. He states that Polycarp (c. 70-156) was a follower of John and otherwise received testimony from eyewitnesses.4 Thus, Irenaeus' testimony on things related to John comes from a very good authority. On the Gospel of John, he writes:26

John, the disciple of the Lord, who also had leaned upon His breast, did himself publish a Gospel during his residence at Ephesus in Asia.

On this evidence, Guthrie remarks:8

There can be no doubt, therefore, that Irenaeus accepted John the apostle as author of the Gospel ... on the basis of Polycarp’s testimony.

Further second century testimony to Johannine authorship is found in Clement of Alexandria, Tertullian, Origen ,Theophilus of Antioch, the Muratorian Canon, and the Anti-Marcionite Prologue. The last of which is especially interesting because it references Papias as its source. (The relevant portion of Papias' work hasn't survived [very little of his work has], but there is no particular reason to doubt that he wrote that John was the author of the Gospel of John.) Since Papias himself was a follower of John, Carson and Moo argue that his testimony on the authorship is especially strong evidence.4

In addition to the usual Patristic testimony, there is strong evidence for the attribution of the Gospel of John in manuscript evidence. Wallace points out that there are two manuscripts of John - P66 and P75 - which date to the end of the second century and attest to Johannine authorship. Textual analysis shows the two manuscripts are not closely related and that their common ancestor must precede them by at least three generations. Furthermore, another early manuscript, B, shows signs of being more primitive than P75. The earliest known New Testament manuscript, P52, also comes from John. It doesn't contain the start of the Gospel, so can't itself attest authorship, but does definitely prove the Gospel was written before the year 100. Together, the documentary evidence suggests that the Gospel of John was quickly accepted by the church and widely distributed, and that the attribution was (at minimum) very early.27

Internal - The internal evidence for Johannine authorship is also very strong. Indeed, some critics argue it is "too strong" to be trusted. The most famous argument for Johannine authorship is B. F. Westcott's "concentric proofs", expanded by Leon Morris:28

  1. The author was a Jew
  2. The author was a Jew in Palestine
  3. The author was an eyewitness
  4. The author was an apostle
  5. The author was the apostle John

The first two points were once disputed, but the discovery of the Qumran literature (Dead Sea Scrolls), showing John's themes were well within the norm for contemporary Judaism have convinced nearly all scholars of the accuracy of the first point. The second point is no longer disputed either, as archaeological finds have demonstrated the author of John had an intimate knowledge of Palestine.4, 19

On the third point, there are numerous passages that suggest an eyewitness report. For example, 1:14 says "we have seen his glory". Careful analysis of this passage reveals not only the first person plural, but also a verb (θεάομαι) that normally signifies a physical examination.27 On the forth point, the author seems to have intimate knowledge of what happened in Jesus' inner circle. For example, 4:27 ("Just then his disciples came back", ESV) and 6:19 ("When they had rowed about three or four miles"). In favor of the fifth point is the author's use of "John" to describe John the Baptist. This suggests that the author was either completely unaware of the apostle John, an unlikely possibility, or expected his readers to naturally distinguish between the two Johns. The most natural explanation for this is that the writer is John and that his audience would know that he uses "the disciple who Jesus loved" when he talks about himself.28

Objections - The chief objections to Johannine authorship are the use of "beloved disciple" moniker and the high theology of John's Gospel. On the first point, the idea is that while an admirer of John may give him such a title, no Christian author, especially not a humble apostle, would give themselves such a title. On this objection, Carson and Moo state point blank that it "should be abandoned" as it doesn't hold up to scrutiny. When a New Testament writer says God/Jesus loves them "it is never to suggest that other believers are not loved or are somehow loved less." (See, for example, Galatians 2:20 and Ephesians 3:14-21.) For them, the moniker is not a mark of arrogance, but rather a mark of "brokenness". That is, John sees himself as needing Jesus' love.4

"Theological development" is notoriously subjective - who is to say how long it "must" have taken for a high Christology to develop? To claim such a framework can be developed a priori and then the New Testament fit into that framework, and that this then proves a late date for a given work, is nothing more than begging the question. When the idea was first developed in the early 1800s, the proponents of the technique were convinced the Gospel of John must have been written late in the second or early in the third century because of connections to ideas popular at that time. The manuscript discoveries since then (cited above) have proven this date utterly impossible, yet some scholars still hold to such subjective methodologies - the time frame is collapsed to fit the external realities, but the idea that John reflects "development" of theology remains.

Even if we allow such considerations, it is not a problem for Johannine authorship. According to the church fathers, John lived into the last decade of the first century. One might doubt their testimony, but certainly it would be foolish to say it is impossible that John lived that long, and the Gospel could hardly have been written any later than the 90s based on the hard documentary evidence. Furthermore, Robinson turns the high theology argument completely on its head. He asks, is it really plausible the writer of what many throughout church history have described as one of the greatest pieces of theology ever written would be completely forgotten? He says to make such a conclusion shows "an indifference to evidence (or rather to the lack of it)", for there is, in fact, no concrete evidence for any author other than John. Remarking on the unexplained oddities that various different hypothetical authors create, he concludes:29

I find it much easier to believe ... that this disciple himself 'wrote these things', and that this certificate, given in his presence, is true [a reference to John 21:24]... It is these self-created aporiai, or perplexities, in Johannine studies which seem to me so much more baffling that the breaks and discontinuities at which critics balk... In fact ironically it is the lack of final reduction to which the evidence most powerfully points.

Conclusion

The most obvious conclusion is that I failed in my goal to keep this answer to a reasonable length. :) In truth, though, I've only covered a fraction of the evidence and have barely touched on the arguments in support of the evidence...

The external authorship for the Gospels is very strong, stronger than almost any secular work of antiquity. If what we were talking about was not religious in nature, I doubt anyone would reject the attributed authors. It is only by deciding that the nature of the works means they would have been anonymous tracts that developed over time that the abundance of early witnesses for authorship are brushed aside. However, this decision is entirely a priori, lacking in hard evidence to support it. Despite an abundance of textual variations in other places, there are no extant copies of the Gospels that have different authors attached; nor is there any conflicting witness about authorship among the church fathers.

Furthermore, in the cases of Luke and Mark, there is no plausible reason why such figures would be picked as authors of anonymous works; all of the evidence suggests the early church desired apostolic authorship for its scriptures, yet two of the four Gospels bear the name of non-apostles. If the church fathers were truly making things up, we would expect variation in their attribution and would expect them to pick "bigger" names. How the universal church came to accept the attributed authors of widely circulated "anonymous" works, without any dispute or variation, would be quite a mystery. Thus, lightly tossing aside the Gospel attributions is unwarranted - we must have solid internal evidence to consider the proposition.

Looking at the internal evidence, there is nothing to seriously challenge the authorial attributions. There are a few minor oddities, sure, but nothing that is not easily explained by a careful examination of the evidence. And in most cases, there is internal evidence that can best be explained by the traditional author. In total, the internal evidence affirms the traditional authors much more than it argues against them, as each Gospel's characteristics are just as we'd expect if the attributions were accurate. By its nature, such evidence can't be conclusive, but certainly provides no reason to doubt the testimony of the church fathers, and some reasons to believe them.

Combining the external and internal evidence, I and the two dozen or so authors I cited, conclude that there is sufficient reason to trust the "according to X" titles that appear on our Gospels. In their quest for the "real story" behind the New Testament, some scholars have been too quick to dismiss what to a historian working on secular history would be quite compelling evidence. Most likely, the Gospels were written by the people who the Church has always believed wrote them.


See part one for list of citations

  • Is there a technical limitation that prevents these being one answer? – DJClayworth Sep 8 '15 at 15:30
  • @DJClayworth Yep, SE apparently has a 30000 character limit (post was 39000 characters before I split it). – ThaddeusB Sep 8 '15 at 15:35
  • Regarding John, what about the objection that he waited until he was 70 years old, and then decided to write the gospel in another language, and on top of that a very high command of the language. i.e. He spoke Hebrew/Syriac, and then at the age of 70 he wrote the Gospel in Greek. – cool breeze Sep 9 '15 at 15:45
  • @coolbreeze Briefly, I don't actually think John was written that late; I was just saying it was not impossible for the apostle to be the author if it was. Church history says John had to be persuaded to write because he didn't think himself worthy of doing so, so that would be one possible explanation of a late date. As to language, Palestine is probably largely bilingual during the first century and even if John didn't know Greek already, he would certainly have a strong motive to do so (to spread to the word). A scribe doing the actual writing also could explain the good Greek. – ThaddeusB Sep 10 '15 at 14:25
  • @ThaddeusB If he didn't think himself worthy, he probably wouldn't have spent the years required to master Greek at that level. A scribe seems more plausible if that were the case. I was also reading hot there are multiple layers in John i.e. multiple rounds of editing by authors. – cool breeze Sep 10 '15 at 18:16
11

This is part one of a two part post

The assertion in a comment on the question that no scholar "believes that the books were authored by the names on the books" is just plain false. The only way one can even come close to this conclusion is by dismissing all scholarship from conservatives out of hand as "not objective", a severe version of the genetic fallacy, and even then it would not be true as a few on the liberal side of things have supported the traditional authors as well. (Not that I think the original commenter was doing this - he was likely just misinformed.) Certainly, it is the minority view (except on Luke, where opinion is fairly evenly split), but the number of supporters has no bearing on truth and, IMO, the arguments for the traditional authors are stronger than the arguments against.

In this answer, I will lay out the general argument for the traditional authors, quoting a number of scholars as I go. To try to keep the length of this post reasonable, I won't go into too much detail (i.e. I won't list nearly all the evidence), but would be happy to provide additional details on specific areas if requested (via another question or whatever).

It might be profitable to first write a few words about what authorship means for our purposes. The first century conception of authorship does not necessarily exactly match the twenty-first century conception. The frequent use of amanuenses and scribes in the first century (clear in some of Paul's letters) means that the author need not have done the physical writing themself, and also means that the style of writing may, to some degree, reflect the amanuensis. Authorship by one person also does not exclude the possibility of subsequent editorial activity by others. Instead, what is meant by "author" is the person who was primarily responsible for the content and the organization of such content into a cohesive whole.

General arguments

Anonymity?

The argument against the traditional authors usually starts with "the Gospels are anonymous". This is true, but only in the most literal sense possible - by ignoring the "according to X" that precedes each Gospel. By that standard, most books ever written are anonymous; authors do not usually identify themselves within their text, rather the author is identified by the title page in modern books and in similar ways in ancient writings.

That the Gospel titles ("according to Matthew", "according to Mark", etc.) are not original is often just assumed, not argued for. However, there is not really any evidence that the titles are not original. For example, there are no textual variants of the Gospels that lack the titles. Against the assumption of anonymous originals, research by Martin Hengel into the contemporary practice of book distribution suggests that as soon as any church had access to two or more Gospels, it would have needed a way to identify them via a title. That fixes an upper limit on the date of the attributions to the end of the first century.1

The titles of the various Gospels are also strongly and unanimously attested in second century publications. That is, there are multiple witnesses to each title and no dissenting voices. It is extremely difficult to explain this phenomenon if the titles are not original, or at least extremely early.1 If the Gospels truly circulated anonymously for 60+ years before receiving titles, Carsten Peter Thiede argues, "a variation of titles would have inevitably risen" and this would be reflected in the works of the church fathers, as well as in the extant manuscripts themselves. Indeed that is what we find with several apocryphal works.2

Unlikely choices

If one was ascribing an author to a previous anonymous Gospel, what name would they choose? Surely an eyewitness and probably an apostle. Mark, an obscure figure, and Luke, a follower of Paul and thus twice removed from a first-hand account of the living Jesus, are very unlikely choices.3

Among the Apostles, Matthew is an odd choice. He plays no significant role in the Gospel accounts and additionally is described as a tax collector - a profession known for dishonesty. Why would anyone pick him as the author of an anonymous Gospel? Wilkins and Mooreland thus argue the names themselves provide a strong argument for their truthfulness.3

Only John is a logical choice. Numerous figures - Peter, James (apostle), Thomas, Mary, James (brother of Jesus), Paul, Barnabas, etc. - would be more likely choices for assigned authorship either because of their prominence in the Gospel accounts or because of their leadership in the early church than any of Mark, Matthew, and Luke. Indeed, the vast majority of the apocryphal works of the 2nd-4th centuries pick one of the above names.

Acceptance

It appears that the four Gospels were quickly and universally accepted in the Church. D.A. Carson & Douglas Moo argue this suggests that the authorship must have been clear. (Several of the NT books were disputed for a couple centuries before being accepted, and there is concrete evidence of the Church Fathers rejecting works which they knew to have untrustworthy author attribution. In other words, the Church did not naively accept everything, but critically assessed a work's trustworthiness.) Would an anonymous work with unknown authorship really have been received so easily?4

Pseudonymous?

If the attributed authorship is very early, then one possible way to maintain that the traditional authors are wrong is to say that the titles are original, but are pseudonymous. Pseudonymous works were common enough in contemporary society, but this idea fails to explain the odd authorial choices. Additionally, there is the problem that pseudonymity was highly frowned upon in Greek culture. And all the evidence we have suggests that the early church strongly opposed pseudonymous works, even if orthodox in theology, when discovered.5 This is a point not adequately addressed by those who see pseudonymity everywhere in the New Testament; like the "anonymous works" claim of the Gospels, it is simply assumed that pseudonymity was ignored by the early church.

Testimony of the Church Fathers

Perhaps the strongest argument in favor of the traditional Gospel authors is the testimony of the early church fathers. Their testimony is early, unanimous, and, in several cases provides good reason to be considered trustworthy. For example, the earliest extant witness, Papias (writing c. 110-130), states that he sought out reliable information from people who learned directly from the Apostles, ignoring the (in his opinion) unreliable testimony of "those who spoke much" or "related strange commandments".6 He also likely knew John personally. (See the sections on individual books for additional details.) Richard Bauckham has thoroughly defended the reliability of Papias, noting that his language is "deliberately" in the style of history writers of the day and his stated practices match those of secular historians considered reliable by modern historians.7

A common methodology of Biblical scholars is to find a probable error in a writer's work and then discard everything else, or nearly everything else, the writer says. This is not how secular historians work; if it was, there would be very little to say about ancient history. Secular historians understand that human writers aren't perfect (and sometimes even purposefully distort the facts they write about), but none-the-less they reconstruct a reasonable history that explains conflicting reports/archaeological evidence. Biblical scholars seem to expect perfection from a source to consider it worthwhile.

A second common error in the work of Biblical scholars is to assume that later authors were reliant exclusively upon Papias for information, despite these authors providing additional (and sometimes apparently contradictory) information. To a historian, that usually indicates independent sources of information, useful for reconstructing the true history; to the Biblical scholar it tends to indicate the unreliability of both sources. Of primary relvance for the subject at hand, the disagreements are over secondary details, such as locations of composition, while agreement on authorship is unanimous. Lest anyone think that the church fathers were just spouting the "party line" on authorship, it should be noted that there was disagreement about some New Testament works - James, Hebrews, Revelation, etc. - but never on the Gospels. The fathers did not naively accept everything they heard, but were perfectly capable of expressing disagreement and rejecting works they did not personally think worthy of being called scripture.

(See part two of this post for information on specific books. Stack Exchange character limits prevented me from putting it all in one post)


1Martin Hengel, Studies in the Gospel of Mark (1985) & The Four Gospels and the One Gospel of Jesus Christ (2000); cf. R. T. France, Matthew—Evangelist and Teacher (1989).

2Carsten Peter Thiede, Eyewitness to Jesus (1996)

3Michael J. Wilkins and J. P. Moreland (editors), Jesus Under Fire: Modern Scholarship Reinvents the Historical Jesus (1995)

4D. A. Carson and Douglas Moo, An Introduction to the New Testament (2005)

5Glenn Miller, "Pseudonymity? Pseudepigraphy? Pseudo*.*?" (2002)

6Papias, "Fragments of Papias" at NewAdvent.org

7Richard Bauckham, Jesus and the Eyewitnesses (2006)

8Donald Guthrie, New Testament Introduction (1990)

9D. A. Hagner, "Matthew," in the ''International Standard Bible Encyclopedia'' (1989)

10Daniel B. Wallace, "Matthew: Introduction, Argument, and Outline" at Bible.org (2004)

11Donald Senior, The Gospel of Matthew (1997)

12C. F. D. Moule, "St. Matthew’s Gospel: Some Neglected Features" (1964)

13E. J. Goodspeed, Matthew: Apostle and Evangelist (1959)

14Daniel B. Wallace, "Mark: Introduction, Argument, and Outline" at Bible.org (2004)

15John A.T. Robinson, Redating the New Testament (1976)

16Martin Hengel, "Literary, Theological, and Historical Problems in the Gospel of Mark" in Studies in the Gospel of Mark (1985)

17A. B. Bruce, "The Synoptic Gospels" in Expositor's Greek Testament (1897)

18Michael F. Bird, "Mark: Interpreter of Peter and Disciple of Paul" in Paul and the Gospels (2013)

19F.F. Bruce, The New Testament Documents: Are They Reliable? (1981); cf. C.H. Turner, The Gospel According to St. Mark (1928)

20Douglas Edwards, "The Socio-Economic and Cultural Ethos in the First Century" in The Galilee in Late Antiquity (1992)

21M. Dibelius, Studies in the Acts of the Apostles (1956)

22Darrell L. Bock, Luke (The IVP New Testament Commentary Series) (1994)

23Andreas J. Köstenberger, L. Scott Kellum, and Charles Quarles, The Cradle, the Cross, and the Crown: An Introduction to the New Testament (2009)

24Daniel B. Wallace, "Luke: Introduction, Argument, and Outline" at Bible.org (2004)

25Richard N. Longenecker, Paul, Apostle of Liberty (1976) and Acts (Expositor’s Bible Commentary) (1995)

26Irenaeus, Against Heresies (c. 180) at NewAdvent.org

27Daniel B. Wallace, "John: Introduction, Argument, and Outline" at Bible.org (2004) and "John 5,2 and the Date of the Fourth Gospel" in Biblica (1990)

28B. F. Westcott, The Gospel According to St. John (1889) and Leon Morris, Studies in the Fourth Gospel (1969)

29John A.T. Robinson, Redating the New Testament (1976); see also The Priority of John (1987) and Barnabas Lindars, Behind the Fourth Gospel (1971)

  • 2
    I know we're not to make a habit of giving the ol' thumbs up in the comment section, but I think that that "rule" is, frankly, a little harsh, particularly in light of the Bible's teaching on "encouraging one another", which is but one of scores of "one another" exhortations. All this to say, "Super job, ThaddeusB!" – rhetorician Sep 8 '15 at 21:46
  • @ThaddeusB - Wonderful, thank you so much. – Andrew Shanks 15 hours ago
3

Even conservative and Evangelical scholars will admit that all four Gospels are indeed anonymous. In order not to be anonymous each Gospel would have to begin much as the Apostle Paul's letters began--except, of course, with the name of Matthew, Mark, Luke, or John included in the opening sentences. For example, here is how Paul's letter to the Christians in Rome began,

"Paul, a bond-servant of Christ Jesus, called as an apostle, set apart for the gospel of God, which He promised beforehand through His prophets in the holy Scriptures . . . (Romans 1:1-2 NASB Updated).

However, going all the way back to the early Church Fathers (or patristics), the authorship of the Gospel According to Matthew has been attributed to him by such luminaries in the Church's first centuries as Papias, Eusebius, Origen, Jerome, and many others. This fact alone must certainly be taken into consideration when attributing authorship to any of the four Gospels, not to mention the other "books" comprising the New- and Old Testaments of the Judeo-Christian Bible. See Bible Gateway's article on Matthew, for example, here.

Moreover, biblical scholars, authors, theologians, and university and seminary professors from the 20th and 21st centuries who are considered by many Christians to be not only experts in their respected fields but who also have the respect of their peers on both sides of the table (i.e., the conservative side and the liberal side) would have to include such names as

  • Dr. E. J. Goodspeed,
  • M. H. Franzmann,
  • Dr. Charles Caldwell Ryrie (of Ryrie Study Bible fame),
  • Professor William Barclay,
  • N. B. Stonehouse,
  • J.F.K. Keil,
  • Franz Delitzsch,
  • R. V. G. Tasker,
  • Merrill Tenney,
  • Bruce Metzger,
  • F. F. Bruce,
  • Norman L. Geisler,
  • Carl F.H. Henry,
  • James Boice Montgomery, and
  • Gleason Archer,

to name but a handful. By "Google-ing" words such as "F. F. Bruce's view on the authorship of the Gospel According to Matthew," you just might find yourself on a month-long quest for some gold nuggets of wisdom, not only from the scholars I've just cited, but from a host of others who will pop up in your study as you check off the above scholars one by one.

At this point, what follows is an overview of some of my criticisms of the higher critics who tend, by and large, to do the following:

  • spend an inordinate amount of time (not to mention blood, sweat, and tears) dwelling on the relatively minor and relatively unimportant matters of who wrote what, and when they wrote it

  • ignore the largest context there is in the all-important tasks of exegesis and interpretation; namely, the entire Bible. Instead, they focus on minutiae and questions such as, "Since a person named King David never really existed, to whom did the author of First and Second Samuel refer when he (or they) used the name 'King David'"?

  • succumb perhaps to the temptation to compromise their Christian faith in order to be accepted by their unbelieving peers who have ignored the research and findings of conservative scholars down through the centuries, favoring instead a "modern" approach to biblical scholarship, as if "modern," ipso facto, makes an approach to scholarship superior to older (and traditional) approaches.

I have a feeling very few contributors to this site have the intestinal fortitude to tackle this question, so with no small amount of fear and trepidation, I hereby attempt to give voice to perhaps millions of intelligent Christians worldwide who believe that questions of authorship and dates of authorship are in a sense (and which sense I will develop shortly) smokescreens for unbelief, skepticism, closed-mindedness, and spiritual laziness, or even in some cases spiritual deadness. (At this point I will simply gloss over the tendency of higher critics to adopt a microscopic perspective on each book of scripture, and the tendency to assume biblical books, such as Isaiah, comprise two or more books written by two or more authors at two discretely separate times. Both these tendencies are untenable in my opinion.)

Perhaps the majority of the readers of my first paragraph have already closed their minds to what follows, and that’s OK. They are free to down-vote my answer without even bothering to read what follows. Again, that’s OK. As a Christian who just happens to be a rhetorician, my perspective on the OP’s question is desperately needed today, I feel, for only by making what could be called a self-reflexive move can a reader or critic of virtually any written communication (either “sacred” or “secular”) achieve a balance, or an Aristotelian “golden mean,” if you will, of both rationality and ratiocination. Let me expand on this thought.

As all sentient and literate people know, regardless of where they are on the continuum of conservative and liberal, their assumptions play a key role in how they read and interpret a writing, be it sacred or secular or an admixture of the two.

To take a great work in the English language—Dickens’s A Tale of Two Cities, for example—and look critically at, say, only one specific chapter in that relatively long book can be a legitimate critical pursuit. Perhaps even a few sentences or paragraphs from that one chapter are, to Dickens interpreters, sui generis, and for that reason alone provide them with insights about Dickens (e.g., his style and patterns of writing, the cultural and social milieu in which he grew up and lived, and perhaps even his motives for penning that excerpt, however long it may be).

At no time, however, will a critic likely forget that a particular chapter or even an excerpt (or sentence or word!) is only part of an entire work, which consists of a story, for example, having a beginning, middle, and end, which unfolds over numerous chapters. In fact, for a critic to make this error would leave him or her open to all kinds of criticism from peers, past teachers, and maybe even critics in the mass media. As the saying goes:

"A text without a context is a pretext.”

Failing to contextualize a passage can lead to all sorts of errors in thinking. Moreover, while an almost obsessive interest in relatively minor matters, such as to who authored a book or when he or she wrote it, may lead to some interesting discussions, but they are usually far from productive; rather, they seem only to provoke flame wars, which generate more heat than light.

With all these things in mind, then, why do so many of the “higher critics” forget the Bible is sui generis and must not be examined, exegeted, and interpreted in an extremely narrow, microscopic way? Moreover, why do they seemingly fixate on matters of authorship (i.e., who wrote what, and when, and where, and how), but they seldom ask why it was written. Why do they seemingly ignore the unique way in which the Bible was written, transmitted, translated, and canonized?

The Bible, after all, is unique (at least in part) by being

  • a book which comprises many books (be they narrative, law, prophecy, poems and songs, proverbs, letters, or admixtures of two or more genres) and which has a remarkable unity considering it was written by so many authors over so many years

  • a book with pretensions of being inspired supernaturally (i.e., God-breathed—Gk. Theopneustos;see 2 Timothy 3:15).

Furthermore, I pose another question: Why do so many higher critics find the very notion of a God-breathed work so very hard to swallow? If, by definition, God can do anything and everything he chooses, since he is—again, by definition—omniscient and omnipotent, why would he find breathing out his will and word to be in any way difficult, even through fallible and even fatally flawed human beings (e.g., Moses, the Egyptian killer; King David, the adulterer/murderer; the polygynist par excellence, King Solomon; impetuous Peter, the Christ denier; the slow-to-believe half-brother of Jesus—James, who eventually became a “pillar” of the first church in Jerusalem; and of course Saul, later called Paul, who was a persecutor of the followers of the Way, whom God was forced to confront as he journeyed to Damascus to round up more Christians to persecute). Would God even break a sweat in accomplishing such a feat? I think not.

Oh, but you say,

“The problem I have with your assumption is not your belief that God is omniscient and omnipotent. My problem is that God involved imperfect people in the process of transmitting his word in the first place, and imperfect people, as we all know, are incapable of perfection. That is why you cannot 1) take the Bible at face value by believing, for example, that the person whose name happens to be appended to a particular book was, ipso facto, its author; and 2) say with any degree of certainty that the content of any biblical author’s book is in any way historically reliable, let alone—God forbid—‘inspired’!”

So we come back again to key assumptions. For many conservative Bible students, God is quite capable of breathing out his word through fallible and even highly flawed people.

On the other hand, to many liberal students and scholars, God may be capable of breathing out and even protecting the transmission and eventual canonization of all 66 books in the one Judeo-Christian Bible, but he didn’t.

What we are left with, according to this view, are interesting—even fascinating—writings which contain data about culture, history (not accurate history, of course!), important events and personages from the past (maybe), and maybe a little sociology, anthropology, linguistics, and religious practices thrown in for good measure. What a sterile, lifeless, and ultimately empty pursuit, given that the Bible makes no pretensions to being primarily a book of history, science, culture, sociology, psychology, etc., but rather a book about God and his dealings with the human race.

Even to suggest to some higher critics that though the Bible consists of many skeins of genres, themes, and personages, there is nevertheless a crimson cord which comprises the theme par excellence: redemption history. From the protoevangelium of Genesis 3:15 to perhaps the most familiar Bible verse in the world, John 3:16, the running theme of Scripture can be summed up in a few simple, yet profound, statements. For example,

  • God created everything, including the human race, and called it good

  • First Satan and then our first parents messed up what God had created good, by acting as though they were autonomous critters, when in fact they were merely created beings who carried in their DNA only the image of God (imago Dei), not the ability to become a god unto themselves (let alone God, with a capital G). Just as a person’s image in a mirror is not that person (or, “the map is not the territory”), similarly, the mirror image of an image-bearer is not the person whose image he bears.

  • The human race's failure to obey God and remain under his lordship did not take God by surprise. God never had a "Plan B"; rather, he had only a "Plan A" from before the foundation of the world. That plan was to redeem the human race

Do the higher critics have anything to offer us “Bible thumpers”? Yes, of course they do! Archeologists, linguists, anthropologists, historians, sociologists, paleontologists, psychologists, and all manner of “ists,” many of whom are anything but God worshipers, have made and continue to make valuable contributions to the universe of discourse regarding all things biblical. As Grant Osborne, an Arminian Evangelical theologian has remarked (as quoted by the entry "Biblical Criticism" in Theopedia):

[higher critical methods] become enemies of the veracity of Scripture only when imbibed with the radical skepticism of negative criticism. When utilized under the aegis of an inerrant Scripture, they become positive, helpful tools" (JETS 42/2 (June 1999): 210).

Also from Theopedia come these words from Dr. Carl F.H. Henry, former editor in chief of the Evangelical magazine, Christianity Today:

"What is objectionable [to me] is not the historical-critical method [per se], but rather the alien presuppositions to which neo-protestant scholars subject it. [When it is]freed from the arbitrary assumptions of critics, [it becomes] 'highly serviceable as a disciplined investigative approach to past historical events" (Grant Osborne, Higher Criticism and the Evangelical, JETS 42/2 (June 1999): 209).

Not surprisingly, some experts who were at one time unbelievers actually became believers when other respected experts (e.g., archeologists) unearthed physical evidence that proved the Bible's severest critics to be wrong. For example, for years the higher critics asserted that the biblical "King David" never existed. Recently, however, archeologists have dug up proof that there was in fact a King David who lived and reigned in ancient Judah in the 9th century BCE. The “King David discovery” is one of many such discoveries which proved the higher critics to be wrong. For a short list, do read the context for the following excerpt from Grant R. Jeffrey’s book, The Signature of God, here.

"Recent archeological investigations have demolished the position of those who rejected the biblical account of Israel's kings such as King David. In 1993, archeologists digging at Tel Dan in Galilee in northern Israel found a fragment of a stone inscription that clearly refers to the 'house of David' and identifies David as the 'king of Israel.' This is the first inscription outside the Bible that confirms the Bible's statement that David was the king of Israel in the ninth century before Christ. Many Bible critics who had rejected King David as a myth were upset to discover their position could no longer be defended. Some critics suggested that the fragment was a 'fake.' The following summer, two additional fragments of the original inscription were found that provided scholars with the whole inscription, confirming that it referred to David as king of Israel.

In conclusion, there is no shortage of biblical scholars, theologians, seminary professors, and just plain lovers of the Judeo-Christian Scriptures who, in the absence of compelling proof which says otherwise, believe the books in the Canon of Scripture were by and large written by the people whose names are appended to them.

  • This is a fine critique of higher criticism in general. My only complaint is that, minus the list of scholars, it isn't really an answer to the question asked. Anyway, I thought you might like Jesus Crisis. It's a pretty thorough critique of higher criticism. – ThaddeusB Sep 8 '15 at 14:29
  • 2
    @ThaddeusB: True enough. I included the other 90 percent of my answer for the benefit of the OP, but also because it's content needs to be aired for the benefit of other contributors to this site who may feel cowed at times by the Bible's critics who fail to be upfront about their anti-supernatural biases and their putdowns of Evangelical Christians in particular who believe the Bible is supernatural in its authorship, transmission, and canonization. Moreover, since the historical roots of higher criticism arose from 19th century European rationalism and a rejection of supernatural revelation – rhetorician Sep 8 '15 at 15:28
  • This answer is garbage. Not only does it not answer the question, it doesn't even address the views actually held by critical scholars. It's simply a disjointed series of strawman attacks with no merit whatsoever. – Bruce Alderman Sep 8 '15 at 17:12
  • conservative and Evangelical Christians today need to be aware of the anti-supernatural biases of the higher critics. While the former folks do occasionally step out of bounds and become reactive and hostile to the excesses of historical criticism, the latter folks also step out of bounds (and more than just occasionally) by dismissing out of hand any explanation of the Bible's sui generis nature by having been breathed out by God. Don – rhetorician Sep 8 '15 at 21:08
  • @BruceAlderman: You could be right. ThaddeusB's answer is infinitely (well, almost) better. Didja read it? I hope so. Don – rhetorician Sep 8 '15 at 21:44

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.