A typical Fundamentalist Christian’s "evidence" for the Authorship of the Gospels

Below is an article written by a popular evangelical Christian apologist, Mike Licona.  Upon reading the article, I notice how often Licona repeats the phrase “most scholars agree (with us conservative Christians) that…”.  This seems to be a common tactic with fundamentalist/evangelical Christians:  give a sweeping statement that most scholars agree with your position but never list the names of the scholars.  William Lane Craig is infamous for using this same tactic.  

I will review this short article and intersperse my comments in red. 

Copied from:  Baptist Press

FIRST-PERSON (part 2): The problem of authorship: Who wrote the Gospels?


by Mike Licona, posted Tuesday, September 15, 2009

EDITOR’S NOTE: With books such as Misquoting Jesus and Jesus, Interrupted, New Testament scholar Bart Ehrman has taken his questioning of the authenticity of Scripture straight to the New York Times bestseller list. Ehrman’s background as an evangelical “believer” turned chief skeptic has also made him a favorite of the media. This is the second in a five-part series on Ehrman.

ALPHARETTA, Ga. (BP)–Agnostic New Testament scholar Bart Ehrman claims that the traditional authorship of the New Testament Gospels (i.e., Matthew, Mark, Luke and John) is mistaken, since the original manuscripts did not have the titles now prominent in our New Testament (e.g., The Gospel According to Matthew, etc.). Therefore, Ehrman claims they are “forgeries.” In fact, in his most recent book, “Jesus: Interrupted,” Ehrman contends that of the current 27 books and letters in the NT, all but eight are “forgeries.” This is a colossal overstatement intended to shock his readers. Scholarship, though, has not confirmed such a conclusion.So who wrote the New Testament Gospels?  I have read Ehrman’s books and I don’t recall him ever saying that the Gospels are forgeries.  Since the Gospels are unsigned, anonymous works, how can you accuse the authors of forgery??  Ehrman has said that some of the epistles attributed to Paul and to Peter are forgeries.  For instance, the epistle of II Peter was not accepted into the canon of the New Testament until almost the fifth century for the very reason that many Church Fathers believed that it was not written by the Apostle Peter, but by a forger.  I believe that Mr. Licona has made an over generalization of what Ehrman actually said.

We don’t have the original manuscripts and Ehrman is probably correct that the originals did not contain the titles presently found in our New Testament. This is not nearly as big a problem as Ehrman imagines, since it was not unusual for ancient authors to leave their names out of their works. None of the 39 books of the Old Testament had titles in the originals. It wasn’t until hundreds of years later that the Rabbis added them.  Yes, and the rabbis attributed them to authors based on what?  Answer:  tradition.  Modern writing analysis has proven that Moses did not write the Penteteuch and that David probably did not write most if any of the Psalms.   However, the traditions pertaining to their traditional authorship had been firm. Since when do Protestants accept tradition as equal to an explicit statement in Scripture.  The fact is that there is no place in the entire Bible in which God gives a list of his inspired “Word” to mankind.  Twenty-one of the 27 pieces of literature in the New Testament are letters, none of which we would expect for there to have been a title. Our closest non-biblical example, however, is found in another ancient example: Plutarch, a Greek author who penned nearly 50 biographies during the late first to early second centuries. Plutarch’s name is absent from all of them. It is only the tradition that has been passed down through the centuries that gives us information pertaining to who wrote these biographies. And yet, no one questions that Plutarch is the author. We assign authorship to these biographies to Plutarch based solely on tradition, not on evidence.  If Plutarch did not write these works, who would care?  What difference would it make?  If someone else wrote these biographies, would that change anything?  No.

However, this is not the case with the books of the Bible, is it?  If neither the Apostles nor close associates of the Apostles wrote these books, then the Christian argument that there is eyewitness testimony for the Resurrection evaporates.  This is why fundamentalist and evangelical Christians will grasp at any straws to maintain the traditional authorship of the books of the New Testament, especially the traditional authorship of the Gospels, for without it, Christianity is based on nothing more than a collection of superstitious, oral, middle eastern, peasant folk tales.

There are ancient reports pertaining to the authors of the New Testament Gospels. Papias (circa A.D. 120) was an early Christian leader who may (“may”= conjecture/assumption) have known the Apostle John or another Christian leader who was close to the apostles. Papias was the first to discuss the authorship of the Gospels we have in the New Testament and attributes them to Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. Wrong!  Papias only makes mention that John Mark, Peter’s traveling companion, has written a “gospel”.  This gospel is not identified, and as far as I am aware, Papias says nothing about the other three gospels.  Papias was a known mystic, who believed that Jesus remained on earth after his resurrection until he (Jesus) was over fifty years old!  Eusubius, an early Church Father, considered Papias a dimwit.  A few decades later (you mean 50 years), another Christian leader named Irenaeus (circa A.D. 170), who had probably (“probably” = conjecture/assumption) heard one of the followers of the Apostle John named Polycarp, reiterated Papias’ tradition about the Gospels’ authorship. (The fact is, prior to Irenaeus, we have no specific mention of the authorship of the books we know call the Four Gospels.  How did Irenaeus arrive at this belief?  Irenaeus was a bishop in Lyon, France.  He was a “heretic hunter”.  He was concerned about the multiple versions of Christianity spreading through the Roman Empire.  He believed that Christianity needed to be unified under one belief system.  So the big question is:  Did Irenaeus base his assertion of authorship of the Gospel based on evidence, or based on a desire to codified the “orthodox” position of Christianity, the ultimate victors of the early Christian civil war?  The same tradition would be affirmed by later church historians (Yes, later orthodox/catholic church historians.  The Gnostics, Arians, the Ebionites, the Manicheans, etc. all lost the civil war and their input on the formation of the canon of the New Testament was stamped out.  The victors of the second and third century Christian civil war formed the Bible that we have today.  Neither Jesus, the Apostles, nor Paul left us a list of the Canon.

The challenge, of course, is determining the extent to which these reports are reliable. For some time, critical scholars have debated whether the traditional authorship of the New Testament Gospels is accurate and many, like Ehrman, have opted to reject it. However, many hold to it. For example, more scholars than not hold to the traditional authorship of both Mark and Luke. Could you give us a list of these scholars?  If Licona is saying that “most evangelical Christian scholars” hold to the traditional authorship of the Gospels, then he is correct.  But most evangelical Christian scholars believe that the Bible must be inerrant, therefore they start out the discussion with a bias.  A number of critical scholars hold to the traditional authorship of John, although today’s majority contends that a minor disciple who was not one of the Twelve but who had traveled with Jesus and was an eyewitness to His ministry is the source behind John’s Gospel and that one or two of His pupils wrote what they had heard from Him, perhaps (“perhaps” = conjecture/assumption) even under His close guidance. Even if this is the case, we still would have eyewitness testimony from one of Jesus’ disciples who had traveled with Him. The authorship of Matthew is the most heavily contested of the four Gospels. Yet there are a number of impressive scholars who maintain its traditional authorship.

So, what about Ehrman’s claim that the New Testament Gospels are “forgeries?” It’s an overstatement. (If that is what Ehrman actually said, then I would agree.) If an evangelical scholar were to argue that the traditional authorship of the Gospels is established beyond doubt, Ehrman would probably say that he or she has every right to believe that the evidence supports traditional authorship but that “established beyond doubt” is more than the evidence can bear. In a similar way, Ehrman has a right to believe that the traditional authors did not actually pen the Gospels and that their actual authorship is unknown. But to say that the Gospels are “forgeries” is an overstatement. While no rock-solid evidence exists pertaining to the authorship of the Gospels, the ancient testimony supporting traditional authorship is good. (Thank you, Mr. Licona!  Thank you for admitting that there is no rock-solid evidence for the authorship of the Gospels.  But then you go on to say that “ancient testimony supporting traditional authorship is good”.  You have contradicted yourself.  If there is good ancient testimony for the authorship of the Gospels, then that is very good evidence for the their authorship. 

The fact that our earliest manuscripts do not include the traditional titles that appear in our Bibles does not mean that we have no idea who wrote the Gospels. As the Gospels began to circulate to a wider audience, it was at this time that the titles may have been added in order to avoid confusion.In summary, a reasonable case can be made for the traditional authorship of the Gospels. Although the matter is debated, it is certainly false to assert that we have no idea who wrote them.  Wrong.  The four “gospels” were written anonymously, decades after the event, in foreign countries, in a foreign language, for purposes we do not know.  The earliest specific  attribution to their authorship occurs ONE HUNDRED AND FIFY YEARS after the alleged event. 

That is poor, poor evidence, my friends.  Fundamentalist and evangelical Christians are simply grasping at straws to maintain their assertion of eyewitness testimony to the Resurrection of Jesus, the supernatural event which serves as the foundation of their belief system.  Without eyewitness testimony to the supernatural equivalent of Mohammad’s trip to Jerusalem, flying on a winged horse, the Christian supernatural tale is no more believable than that of the Muslims, the Hindus, or the Mormons.

Mike Licona is the apologetics coordinator at the North American Mission Board. For a better understanding of today’s world religions and for resources that will help you defend your faith, visit NAMB’s apologetics website at http://www.4truth.net.


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