The skeptic, Matthew Wade Ferguson, writes the following at the infidels.org website:

The mainstream scholarly view is that the Gospels are anonymous works, written in a different language than that of Jesus, in distant lands, after a substantial gap of time, by unknown persons, compiling, redacting, and inventing various traditions, in order to provide a narrative of Christianity’s central figure—Jesus Christ—to confirm the faith of their communities. (sourced from here)

If one goggle searches, "historical reliability of the Gospels" an article in Wikipedia pops up which pretty much vindicates the skeptical view that mainstream scholars believe the Gospels are anonymous works.

Is it really true that the traditional view of Christian apologists - i.e. that the New Testament was composed by either eyewitnesses are close associates of eyewitnesses of Jesus, is out of step with mainstream scholarship? Are there good reasons, in support of traditional Christianity, to doubt the doubts of the mainstream scholars on this question? And if so, what can be done to free up traditional Christianity from being subject to a type of “Babylonian captivity”?

  • 3
    Modern 'scholars' equate to the 'scribes' in the days of Jesus. They are not the ones to follow in our spiritual journey through this life. Jesus Christ sends true ministers (such as the apostles, and nowadays, such as Timothy or Titus, 'yokefellows' with the apostles). Best to heed them, not the 'scholars' who earn a living from scripture but are not of the kingdom of heaven.
    – Nigel J
    Commented Sep 16, 2021 at 6:15
  • 1
    If it were the case that the scholarly view is what your post suggests, would would you be intent on fighting that in some way rather than accepting it and seeing how that acceptance molds your faith? I'm not personally strongly leaning one way or the other on the question of gospel origin, but I do lean strongly one way when it comes to the question of how should we accept evidence that are contrary to our biases?, and the answer to that question is certainly NOT reject all such evidence at all costs to maintain our current world view. That is the literal opposite of intellectual honesty.
    – TKoL
    Commented Sep 16, 2021 at 14:25
  • There are a great many biblical scholars who are christian that accept that the bible was written by men, that every word was not directly sent down by God, that the bible contains errors and contradictions, and that we don't know for certain that the names of the Gospels are true reflections of authorship. Those facts do not necessarily force you to lose your faith. They may force you to reshape pieces of it though.
    – TKoL
    Commented Sep 16, 2021 at 14:28
  • 1
    Nigel, I think you are on to something helpful with your comment about the skeptical scholars being like the "scribes" that Jesus spoke about. If you were to do a poll of the Bible scholars in the days of Jesus, the leaders in the Sanhedrin would have represented the mainstream scholarly view on whether Jesus was the Messiah.
    – Jess
    Commented Sep 16, 2021 at 18:00
  • TKoL, Good points. I have edited in my question to be more objective in asking where the evidence leads.
    – Jess
    Commented Sep 16, 2021 at 18:31

3 Answers 3


If so, what can be done to free up traditional Christianity from being subject to a type of “Babylonian captivity of the skeptics”?

Nothing! No other book of antiquity besides the Bible has as many copies, fragments, citations in other sources like lectionaries, hymnals and letters preserved. No other book of antiquity has remaining copies created as close to the autographs as the Bible.

See http://ronrhodes.org/articles/manuscript-evidence-for-the.html for some statistics.

If the original authorship of the Bible is questioned when the original authorship of those other books is not, the issue is not scholarship, logic, science or a rational weighing of the evidence. Since that is not the issue, logic, science and better scholarship cannot combat it.

The only things that can rescue the Bible from misinterpretation are:

  • the powerful reformation and healing of the lives of people who submit to its teachings, proving its truthfulness and efficacy
  • fulfilled prophecy, proving its divine origin

A few may be persuaded based on an analysis of the patterns found in Scripture. The church has a long history of scholarship preserved. If a pattern was never spotted before during 2,000 years of church history, then is found by a scholar today, and that pattern encompasses the whole of a book or chapter, and any alteration to the text that falls within that pattern would break it, then we can safely say that the text has not been altered in the intervening years. It is like an anti-counterfeiting measure used in the printing of money. Some scholars have begun to find such patterns.

For example, the beginning and end of Isaiah were theorized by liberal scholars to have been written by different people. Some linguistic, topical and chiastic patterns have since been found that unify the two halves of Isaiah. If many more such patterns are found in the Bible, it will greatly narrow the range of textual variation that could have occurred.

See http://www.bible.literarystructure.info/bible/23_Isaiah_pericope_e.html

I have been studying Matthew lately. It repeatedly employs seven-fold patterns. So far I have found 17 of these seven-fold patterns. Some are paired into chiasms, with the pattern running forward for seven steps and then in reverse. All the patterns share thematic commonalities, such as beginning with a time of preparation or consecration and ending at peace. The pervasive appearance of these patterns and how the smaller patterns in a chapter are connected thematically as an elaboration of one point to the enclosing larger division of the seven sections of Matthew is striking. It betrays a sort of fractal construction that could not have been imposed after the original writing without a complete alteration of the material. The interplay of patterns prevents one from altering more than a few verses of the book without breaking the pattern. To make alterations that preserve the pattern would require knowing the pattern, and no scholars before the last century ever spotted such patterns - or if they did, their writings have vanished.


Is the mainstream scholarly view that the Gospels are anonymous works?

At least for Catholicism, which constitutes some 50% of Christianity globally, the answer is a resounding no.

Were the gospels really anonymous? Well, one of the things you have to do whenever you’re looking at history (now we’re looking at things from the perspective of history here, and reason. Not presuming faith. We’re just looking at it from a historical perspective) is you have to ascertain: who wrote these books (that we call the four gospels)? And there are basically two ways to tell who wrote any kind of book. You have to look at (1) internal evidence from inside the book itself or (2) external evidence, from people who were around when the book was written. Take my own book, for example. If you want to know who wrote this book, there’s two ways to figure it out. First, you can open it up or you look at the cover and say, “It says what? Brant Pitre”. So that’s evidence that I wrote the book, but, as you know, books can be forged, can’t they? You can write a book falsely and attribute it to someone else, in their name. And so you also, if there’s any reason for suspicion, can use external evidence. In other words, you can consult people who were contemporaries of the author or people who knew people who knew the author and ask them, “did that person write this book?” in order to corroborate it. So you could ask my wife, “Did Brant write a book last year?” She will tell you, “Yes.” And it caused her many headaches (of me working late nights, and that kind of thing, trying to hammer this thing out).

So those are the kinds of ways you can find out about a modern book and the same thing’s true about ancient books. You look at the internal evidence, and you look at the external evidence. So let’s look at the evidence here.

(Page 1 on the outline for The Case for Jesus) Internal evidence from the gospels themselves is striking. If you go back to the ancient Greek manuscripts and look at what they actually contain, you’ll discover something very interesting. I remember, when I was a doctoral student at Notre Dame, I began studying this for the first time and by that point I had accepted the theory that the gospels were originally anonymous, but I had also been trained to learn Greek, Hebrew and Aramaic and so I wanted to say, “Oh let me go look at the manuscripts themselves, I want to see the anonymous copies.”

And guess how many anonymous copies I found? Exactly zero. There are no anonymous manuscripts of the gospels in Greek, even though we have hundreds, in fact, thousands of manuscripts in the New Testament. None of them are anonymous.

And there are other problems with the theory. Number 1, no anonymous manuscripts; why? They don’t exist and there is no evidence that they ever did. Number 2, if you think about it for a minute, the idea that the gospels were originally anonymous is (kind of) actually an incredible theory. According to the standard theory, the gospels were originally composed without any titles. And then they circulated. They were copied, by hand, in manuscripts, decade after decade after decade, for a hundred years until the 2nd Century before anyone said, “you know what? In order to give these books some authority, we need to attribute them to apostles - to people with authority.” So a hundred years later the titles were added to the books (according to this theory) by scribes who wanted to give them much needed authority.


So I’ll give you one example here, this is just one. The whole chapter deals with it. This is from St. Irenaeus, external evidence. Irenaeus was a disciple of a man called Polycarp, whose feast we celebrated just a couple of days ago, he was martyred. And Polycarp was a disciple of John himself. So Irenaeus is just one person removed from the apostle John. And this is what he wrote in the 2nd Century:

Matthew also issued a written Gospel among the Hebrews in their own dialect, while Peter and Paul were preaching at Rome...

So Peter and Paul, still alive, Matthew writes his gospel.

After their departure, Mark, the disciple and interpreter of Peter, did also hand down to us in writing what had been preached by Peter. Luke also, the companion of Paul, recorded in a book the Gospel preached by him. Afterwards, 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. (Against Heresies, 3.1)

Meaning Asia Minor there, Turkey; modern day Turkey. That’s from his book, Against Heresies, chapter 3, paragraph 1. Okay, so notice what Irenaeus is saying here. Matthew and John, the two apostles and eyewitnesses, are the authors of the first and fourth gospels, and then the other two gospels are written by men who knew the apostles. And Mark, in particular, is interesting here. Although Mark wasn’t a disciple himself, where did he get his information from? According to Irenaeus, he got it from Peter. So, even though Mark himself is not an eyewitness, he’s taking down eyewitness testimony. Just as if you wanted to interview someone today who fought in the Vietnam War or the Korean War, or even World War II, you might not have been there but you’re getting eyewitness testimony from that person.

Alright, so, long story short, both the internal and the external evidence points to the gospels being written by the apostles and their followers; by eyewitnesses and their successors. There’s no shred of evidence that the gospels were ever anonymous.- Were the Gospels Really Anonymous?

The Early Church remained steadfast in the Gospels were written by Matthew, Mark, Luke and John.

With so much talk lately about the Gospels, I wonder, who wrote the Gospels and how do we know? To answer this question we must first be clear on how the Gospels were formed and what constitutes authorship. Citing Vatican II's Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation (Dei Verbum), the Catechism has a very succinct presentation on the formation of the Gospels (cf. No. 125-127). The foundational premise is that

Holy Mother Church has firmly and with absolute constancy maintained and continues to maintain, that the four Gospels [Matthew, Mark, Luke and John], whose historicity she unhesitatingly affirms, faithfully hand on what Jesus, the Son of God, while He lived among men, really did and taught for their eternal salvation until the day when He was taken up. (Dei Verbum, No. 19) After the ascension of Jesus, the Apostles went forth preaching the Gospel, handing on to others what our Lord had done and taught. Having been instructed by the Lord and then enlightened by the Holy Spirit, they preached with a fuller understanding. Eventually, the "sacred authors" wrote the four Gospels. Each author, guided by the Holy Spirit, selected from the events and teachings of our Lord which perhaps they had witnessed or which had been handed on either orally or in written form.

Sometimes the authors may have synthesized some of these events or teachings, or may have underscored parts or explained parts with a view to a certain audience. This is why the Gospels oftentimes tell the same story, but each will have certain details not included by the others. In a similar way, if each member of a family had to write a family history, each member would tell basically the same story, but each member would also highlight certain details he considered important and would keep in mind who would be reading the family history. Nevertheless, the sacred authors wrote "in such a fashion that they have told us the honest truth about Jesus" (No. 19). Therefore to suggest that the third-century Church "wrote" the Gospels in some kind of vacuum, almost to "create" Jesus, is without foundation.

So did Sts. Matthew, Mark, Luke and John write the Gospels? Is the sacred author also the saint? Remember only St. Matthew and St. John were among the Twelve Apostles. We must keep in mind that in the ancient world, authorship was designated in several ways: First, the author was clearly the individual who actually wrote the text with his own pen. Second, the individual who dictated the text to a secretary or scribe was still considered the author. Third, the individual was still considered the author if he only provided the ideas or if the text were written in accord with his thought and in his spirit even though a "ghost writer" did the actual composition. In the broadest sense, the individual was even considered the author if the work was written in his tradition; for example, David is given credit for the Psalms even though clearly he did not write all of the Psalms. Whether the final version of the Gospels we have is the word-for-word work of the saints [they are named for] is hard to say. Nevertheless, tradition does link the saints to their Gospels. St. Mark, identified with the Mark of Acts 12:12 and the Mark of I Peter 5:13, is mentioned in a quote contained in a letter from Papias (c. 130), Bishop of Hierapolis: "When Mark became Peter's interpreter, he wrote down accurately, although not in order, all that he remembered of what the Lord had said or done." St. Irenaeus (d. 203) and Clement of Alexandria (d. 215) support this identification. The Gospel of Mark is commonly dated about the year 65-70 in conjunction with the destruction of the Temple of Jerusalem.

St. Matthew is identified with the tax collector called as an Apostle (Mt 9:9-13). Papias again attests to the saint's authorship and indicates that he was the first to compile a collection of Jesus' sayings in the Aramaic language. For this reason, the Gospel of Matthew, at least in a very basic form in Aramaic, is considered the first Gospel and placed first in the New Testament, although the Gospel of Mark is probably the first in a completed form. St. Irenaeus and Origen (d. 253) again support this authorship. Nevertheless, some scholars doubt the saint's direct authorship because we only have the Greek version, not the Aramaic, and no citations are made from the Aramaic version in Church literature. The version of the Gospel we have was probably written between 70-80.

St. Luke, the beloved physician and disciple of St. Paul (Col 4:14), has consistently been recognized in Christian tradition as the author of the third Gospel, beginning with St. Irenaeus, Tertullian (d. 220) and Clement of Alexandria. The Gospel [has long been assumed to have been] written about 70-80.

St. Irenaeus identified the author of the fourth Gospel as St. John the Apostle. He does so based on the instruction of his teacher, St. Polycarp (d. 155), who himself was a disciple of St. John. Throughout this Gospel, the numerous details indicate the author was an eyewitness. Also scholars generally agree that "the beloved disciple" mentioned in the Gospel is St. John. This Gospel was written probably about 80-90.

Whether the actual saint wrote word-for word, whether a student did some later editing, or whether a student actually wrote what had been taught by the saint, we must remember the texts — whole and entire — are inspired by the Holy Spirit. Yes, the human authors used their skills and language with a view to an audience; however, they wrote what God wanted written. The Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation clearly asserted,

Since, therefore, all that the inspired authors, or sacred writers, affirm should be regarded as affirmed by the Holy Spirit, we must acknowledge that the books of Sacred Scripture firmly, faithfully, and without error, teach that truth, which God, for the sake of our salvation, wished to see confided to the Sacred Scriptures. (No. 11)

So no matter who actually put the finishing touches on the sacred Scriptures, each is inspired.

Interestingly, with the recent scholarship on the Dead Sea Scrolls, new evidence points to the authorship of the traditional authors. Rev. Reginald Fuller, an Episcopalian and Professor Emeritus at Virginia Theological Seminary, with Dr. Carsten Thiede, has analyzed three papyrus fragments from the 26th chapter of the Gospel of Matthew; the fragments date to the year 40, which would indicate that the author was an eyewitness to our Lord's public ministry. Father Jose O'Callaghan, S.J., studying fragments of the Gospel of Mark and using paleographic means, dated them at 50, again indicating an eyewitness author. Finally, Episcopalian Bishop John Robinson also posited from his research that all four Gospels were written between 40 and 65, with John's being possibly the earliest. This new research is not only questioning some of the modern scholarship [and dating] but also supporting the traditional authorship.

Perhaps some mystery surrounds these texts and the identity of the authors. Nevertheless, we hold them as sacred, as inspired and as truly the Word of God.

One last point: Given the blasphemous book The Da Vinci Code and its promotion of the Gnostic gospels, why were the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John included in the canon of the New Testament and no other supposed gospels? The simple reasons for their inclusion is as follows: First, the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John are rooted in the apostolic tradition and can be attributed to apostolic authorship, as noted above. Second, these Gospels are orthodox in their teaching, particularly about the identity and person of Jesus. Third, they were used in the Mass and other liturgical functions. Fourth, they were accepted by the whole Church, not just by some sect. The Gnostic gospels do not fit any of these criteria, and therefore were rejected and condemned by the Church. - Who Wrote the Gospels?

There are a few articles that may interest to some:

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    I put an up arrow on your post. But the scholarship of Roman Catholics, as many Lutherans, etc. is not unanimous. The skeptics among the German rationalist Lutherans in the 18th & 19th centuries impacted the Roman Catholic Church and much of mainstream Protestantism in a big manner. As I see it, an appeal to "consensus" often functions as a type of intellectual "stopper" for scholarly give and take. Such is the case with Wikipedia whose editors, at present, refuse to even mention the arguments like those you noted and also proposed by Brant Pitre, Martin Hengel, Simon Gathercole, etc.
    – Jess
    Commented Sep 16, 2021 at 19:54
  • @Jess Vatican II's Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation (Dei Verbum) and the Catechism of the Catholic Church do not falter in assuring the Gospels were written by the the tradition Evangelical Writers. That alone makes it a resounding no to your question in a Catholic perspective, regardless if a few modern Catholic scholars descent from the Church’s teachings.
    – Ken Graham
    Commented Sep 16, 2021 at 20:03
  • Ken, I have a book, "Why You Can Disagree and Remain a Faithful Catholic" by the Benedictine monk, Philip S. Kaufman. I am convinced, after reading the book, that I could easily become Roman Catholic without giving up on any of my core Lutheran beliefs.
    – Jess
    Commented Sep 16, 2021 at 20:20
  • @Jess That is nice, but we are going off subject here.
    – Ken Graham
    Commented Sep 16, 2021 at 20:56
  • I brought it up to give some reflection on the "No true Scotsman fallacy." That informal fallacy occurs when someone attempts to defend a universal claim by excluding any counter-examples for not being “pure” enough. So, are "mainstream" scholars only those who teach in secular universities? Are they the "pure" scholars? Can I say that Rudolf Bultmann was not Lutheran?
    – Jess
    Commented Sep 16, 2021 at 23:16

The mainstream scholarly view is that the Gospels are anonymous works, written in a different language than that of Jesus, in distant lands, after a substantial gap of time, by unknown persons, compiling, redacting, and inventing various traditions, in order to provide a narrative of Christianity’s central figure—Jesus Christ—to confirm the faith of their communities.

What scholars say, and what skeptics understand, are not necessarily the same; to illustrate, let's unpack:

the Gospels are anonymous works

This statement simply means that the texts in question, unlike the various apostolic letters following them, do not explicitly name their actual author(s).

written in a different language than that of Jesus

The entire Scripture of the Old Covenant was written in a different language than that of Jesus three centuries before His birth: see Greek Septuagint.

in distant lands

Same as above; the Greek Septuagint is a product of the Hellenistic Jewish diaspora of Ptolemaic Egypt.

after a substantial gap of time

Not the same as after the death of the twelve apostles and/or their direct disciples.

by unknown persons

To us, today;1 not to the initial audience(s) at which their books were directed.

1 i.e., their traditionally ascribed authorship cannot be objectively and unequivocally proven to unbiased non-members using the scholarly method — which is not the same as saying that no plausible or reasonable argument can be made for them, just that alternate theories cannot be unequivocally disproven; thus, for instance, there are pious Protestant Christians arguing on textual basis that the beloved disciple (and therefore author) of the fourth Gospel was actually Lazarus.

compiling, redacting, and inventing various traditions

Luke's prologue(s), in both writings attributed to him, provide ample proof for the first two points.

to confirm the faith of their communities

John's epilogue, in the Gospel traditionally attributed to him, provides ample proof of that particular Gospel being a community endeavor.

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