Best Article Refuting the Traditional Authorship of the Gospels

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Why Scholars Doubt

the Traditional Authors of the Gospels 

The traditional authors of the canonical Gospels — Matthew the tax collector, Mark the attendant of Peter, Luke the attendant of Paul, and John the son of Zebedee — are doubted among the large majority of mainstream New Testament scholars. However, the public is often not familiar with the complex reasons and methodology that scholars use to reach definitive and well-supported consensuses about critical issues, such as assessing the authorial traditions for ancient texts. To provide a good overview of the majority opinion about the Gospels, the Oxford Annotated Bible (a compilation of multiple scholars summarizing dominant scholarly trends for the last 150 years) states (pg. 1744):

“Neither the evangelists nor their first readers engaged in historical analysis. Their aim was to confirm Christian faith (Lk 1.4; Jn 20.31). Scholars generally agree that the Gospels were written forty to sixty years after the death of Jesus. They thus do not present eyewitness or contemporary accounts of Jesus’ life and teachings.”

Unfortunately, however, much of the general public is not familiar with scholarly resources like the one quoted above; instead, Christian apologists often put out a lot of material, such as The Case For Christ, targeted towards lay audiences, who are not familiar with scholarly methods, in order to argue that the Gospels are the eyewitness testimonies of either Jesus’ disciples or their attendants. 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.

As scholarly sources like the Oxford Annotated Bible note, the Gospels are not historical works (even if they contain some historical kernels). I have discussed previously some of the reasons why scholars recognize that the Gospels are not historical in their genre, purpose, or character in my article “Ancient Historical Writing Compared to the Gospels of the New Testament.” However, I will now also lay out a resource below for why many scholars likewise doubt the traditional authorial attributions of the Gospels.

Coming from my academic background in Classics, I have the advantage of critically studying not only the Gospels of the New Testament, but also other Greek and Latin works from the same period. In assessing the evidence for the Gospels versus other ancient texts, it is very clear to me that the majority opinion in the scholarly community is correct in its assessment that the traditional authorial attributions are spurious. To illustrate this, I will compare the evidence for the Gospels’ authors with that of a secular work, namely Tacitus’ Histories. Through looking at some of the same criteria that we can use to evaluate the authorial attributions for ancient texts, I will show why scholars have many good reasons to doubt the authors of the Gospels while being confident in the authorship of a more solid tradition, such as what we have for a historical author like Tacitus.

How do we determine the authors of ancient texts? There is no single “one-size-fits-all” methodology that can be used for every single ancient text. We literally have thousands of different texts that have come down to us from antiquity, and each has its own unique textual-critical situation. There are some general guidelines that can be applied broadly across all traditions, however, from which more specific guidelines can further be derived when assessing a particular tradition.

Scholars generally look for both internal and external evidence when determining the author of an ancient text. The internal evidence consists of whatever evidence we have within a given text. This can include the author identifying himself, or mentioning persons and events that he witnessed, or using a particular writing style that we know to be used by a specific person, etc. The external evidence consists of whatever evidence we have outside a given text. This can include another author quoting the work, a later critic proposing a possible authorial attribution, what we know about the biography of the person to whom the work is attributed, etc.

For the canonical Gospels there are a number of both internal and external reasons why scholars doubt their traditional authors — Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. I shall begin by summarizing the problems with the internal evidence:

To begin with, the Gospels are all anonymous and none of their authors names himself within the text. This is unlike many other ancient literary works in which the author’s name is included within the body of the text, such as Thucydides’ History of the Peloponnesian War (1:1), which states at the beginning: “Thucydides, an Athenian, wrote the history of the war in which the Peloponnesians and the Athenians fought against one another.” The anonymity of the Gospels is even acknowledged by many apologists, such as Craig Blomberg (whom I will be using here as an apologetic foil arguing in favor of the traditional authors), who states in The Case for Christ (pg. 22): “It’s important to acknowledge that strictly speaking, the gospels are anonymous.” So, immediately one type of evidence that we lack for the Gospels is their authors identifying themselves within the texts. This need not, however, be an immediate death blow, since ancient authors did not always name themselves within the bodies of their texts. I have specifically chosen to compare the Gospels’ traditions with that of Tacitus’ Histories, since Tacitus likewise does not name himself within his historical works. If the author does not name himself, there are other types of evidence that can be looked at.

First, even if the body of a text does not name its author, there is often still a name and title affixed to a text in our surviving manuscript traditions. These titles normally identify the traditional author. The standard naming convention for ancient literary works was to place the author’s name in the genitive case (indicating personal possession), followed by the title of the work. Classical scholar Clarence Mendell in Tacitus: The Man And His Work (pgs. 296-296) notes that our earliest manuscript copies of both Tacitus’ Histories and Annals identify Tacitus as the author by placing his name in the genitive (Corneli Taciti), followed by the manuscript titles [1]. For the Histories, in particular, Mendell (pg. 345) also notes that some of the best later manuscripts have the title Cor. Taciti Libri (“The Books of Cornelius Tacitus”). This naming convention is important, since it specifically identifies Tacitus as the author of the work. An attribution may still be doubted for any number of reasons, but it is important that there at least be a clear attribution.

Here, we already have a problem with the traditional authors of the Gospels. The titles that come down in our manuscripts of the Gospels do not even explicitly claim Matthew, Mark, Luke, or John as their authors. Instead, the Gospels have an abnormal title convention, where they instead use the Greek preposition κατά, meaning “according to” or “handed down from,” followed by the traditional names. For example, the Gospel of Matthew is titled εὐαγγέλιον κατὰ Μαθθαίον (“The Gospel according to Matthew”). This is problematic, from the beginning, in that the earliest title traditions already use a grammatical construction to distance themselves from an explicit claim to authorship.

Instead, the titles operate more as traditions, where the Gospels have been “handed down” by church traditions affixed to names of figures in the early church, rather than the author being clearly identified [2]. In the case of Tacitus, none of our surviving titles says that the Histories or Annals were written “according to Tacitus” or “handed down from Tacitus.” Instead, we have clear attribution to Tacitus in one case, while only vague and ambivalent attributions in the titles of the Gospels.

Furthermore, it is not even clear that the Gospels’ abnormal titles were originally placed in the first manuscript copies. We do not have the autograph original text for any literary work from antiquity, but for the Gospels many of the earliest manuscripts that we possess have grammatical variations in their title conventions. This divergence in form among the earliest manuscripts suggests that there was no original manuscript or title upon which the later titles were based. As textual criticism expert Bart Ehrman points out in Jesus: Apocalyptic Prophet of the New Millennium (pgs. 249-250):

“Because our surviving Greek manuscripts provide such a wide variety of (different) titles for the Gospels, textual scholars have long realized that their familiar names do no go back to a single ‘original’ title, but were added by later scribes.”

So, in addition to the problem that the Gospels’ titles do not even explicitly claim authors, we likewise have strong reason to suspect that these traditional titles were not even affixed to an original manuscript [3].

To be fair, no early manuscript copies of Tacitus’ Histories survived the Middle Ages for us to see if the same problem would be true in the original manuscript traditions for Tacitus (for an explanation of how the smaller number of textual copies has no bearing upon the historical value of Tacitus versus the Gospels, see here). Likewise, for our later medieval copies of Tacitus, Mendell (pg. 345) notes that “the manuscript tradition of the Major Works is not consistent in the matter of title.” Due to the negligence among medieval scribes in preserving manuscript copies for old Pagan literary works, however, both Tacitus’ Histories and Annals contain large portions of missing material. Since these are far later copies, the title variations may have crept in later in the tradition [4].

Nevertheless, Mendell (pg. 345) notes that we have strong contemporary evidence to suggest that the title “Historiae” was affixed to Tacitus’ original Histories:

“Pliny clearly referred to the work in which Tacitus was engaged as Historiae: Auguror nec me fallit augurium Historias tuas immortales futuras (Ep. 7.33.1). It is not clear whether the term was a specific one or simply referred to the general category of historical writing. The material to which Pliny refers, the eruption of Vesuvius, would have been in the Histories. Tertullian (Adv. gentes 16, and Ad nationes 1.11) cites the Histories, using the term as a title: in quinta Historiarum. It should be noted that this reference is to the ‘separate’ tradition, not to the thirty-book tradition, so that Historiae are the Histories as we name them now.”

The evidence for Tacitus’ original title is not fully conclusive, but what is noteworthy is that Pliny the Younger (a contemporary) writes directly to Tacitus and says that he is writing a “Historiae,” and Tertullian, the next author to quote the Histories, refers to the work by that title.

For the purposes of authorship, however, the exact wording of the title need not fully concern us. The evidence is certain in the case of Tacitus that the earliest manuscripts of his Histories and Annals clearly identify him as the personal author. These medieval manuscripts, though late in the process of textual transition, are corroborated by Pliny (a contemporary to Tacitus) who clearly states that Tacitus himself is writing a “Historiae,” thus showing that Tacitus was known as the author of his historical works from the beginning of their transmission. In the case of the Gospels, textual experts like Bart Ehrman doubt that there were any original named titles affixed to the texts, and even the earliest titles only state that it was “according to” the names affixed to the text. Furthermore, the church fathers who alluded to or quoted the Gospels for the first several decades of their circulation did so anonymously (discussed further below and in footnote 14), whereas the earliest external references that we have for Tacitus’ Histories are Pliny and Tertullian, who clearly identify Tacitus as the author of the work in question. In Tacitus’ case, therefore, we have a clear claim to authorship, whereas in the case of the Gospels we have generalized traditions that were probably added later [5].

For further arguments and discussion of why the canonical Gospels did not include their traditional names and titles in their original manuscripts, see Bart Ehrman’s series on the topic, “When Did the Gospels Get Their Names?.”

Beyond the titles, we can look within the body of a text to see if the author himself reveals any clues either directly or indirectly about his identity. For Tacitus, while the author does not explicitly name himself, he does discuss his relation to the events he is describing in the Histories (1:1):

“I myself knew nothing of Galba, of Otho, or of Vitellius, either from benefits or from injuries. I would not deny that my elevation was begun by Vespasian, augmented by Titus, and still further advanced by Domitian; but those who profess inviolable truthfulness must speak of all without partiality and without hatred.”

Here, while he does not name himself, the author of the Histories reveals himself to be a Roman politician during the Flavian Dynasty, which he specifies to be the period that he will write about. This matches the biographical information that we have of Tacitus outside of the Histories. For example, we know outside the text that Tacitus was writing a historical work about the Flavian period, since we have letters from Pliny the Younger (6.16; 6.20) written to Tacitus, where he responds to Tacitus’ request for information about the eruption of Mount Vesuvius. Pliny’s letters also refer to Tacitus’ career as a statesman, such as when he gave the funeral oration for the Roman general Verginius Rufus (2.1). So we know from outside the Histories that Tacitus was a Roman politician writing a history about the Flavian era. This outside information is corroborated exactly by the evidence within the text. Thus, we have good reason to suspect that the author of the Histories is Tacitus, as the internal evidence strongly coincides with this tradition.

A further note is that, as an educated Roman politician, we have every reason to suspect that Tacitus had the literary, rhetorical, and compositional training needed to author a complex work of prose, such as his Histories. That is to say, from what we know of the author’s background, he belonged to the demographic of people whom we would expect to write complex Latin histories.

As we will see for the Gospels’ authors, we have little reason to suspect, at least in the case of Matthew and John, that their traditional authors would have even been able to write a complex narrative in Greek prose. According the estimates of William Harris in his classic study Ancient Literacy (pg. 22), “The likely overall illiteracy of the Roman Empire under the principate is almost certain to have been above 90%.” Of the remaining tenth, only a few could read and write well, and even a smaller fraction could author complex prose works like the Gospels [6].

Immediately, the internal information that we have in the Gospel of John contradicts the traditional attribution of the gospel to John the son of Zebedee. We know from internal evidence, based on its complex Greek composition, that the author of the gospel was highly literate and trained in Greek. Yet, from what we know of the biography of John the son of Zebedee, it would rather improbable that he could author such a text. John was a poor rural peasant from Galilee, who spoke Aramaic. In an ancient world where literary training was largely restricted to a small fraction of rich, educated elite, we have little reason to suspect that an Aramaic-speaking Galilean peasant could author a complex Greek gospel. Furthermore, in Acts 4:13, John is even explicitly identified as being ἀγράμματος (“illiterate”), which shows that even evidence within the New Testament itself would not identify such a figure as an author [7].

Likewise, the internal evidence of the Gospel of Matthew contradicts the traditional attribution to Matthew (or Levi) the tax collector. While tax collectors had basic training in accounting, the Gospel of Matthew is written in a complex narrative of Greek prose that shows extensive familiarity with Jewish scripture and teachings. However, tax collectors were regarded by educated Jews as a sinful, “pro-Roman” class, who were alienated from their religious community, as is evidenced by the Pharisees accusations against Jesus in Mk. 2:15-17, Mt. 9:10-13, and Lk. 5:29-31 for associating “with tax collectors and sinners” (μετὰ τῶν τελωνῶν καὶ ἁμαρτωλῶν). Regarding the authorship of the Gospel of Matthew, scholar Barbara Reid (The Gospel According to Matthew, pgs. 5-6) explains, “The author had extensive knowledge of the Hebrew Scriptures and a keen concern for Jewish observance and the role of the Law … It is doubtful that a tax collector would have the kind of religious and literary education needed to produce this Gospel.” For a further analysis of why Matthew the tax collector would have probably lacked the religious and literary education needed to author the gospel attributed to his name, see my article “Matthew the τελώνης (“Toll Collector”) and the Authorship of the First Gospel.”

We have no such problem, however, in the case of Tacitus. As an educated Roman senator, who belonged to a small social class of people known to author Latin histories, Tacitus is the exact sort of person that we would expect to author a work like the Histories, whereas we would have no strong reason to believe that an illiterate peasant, like John, or a mere tax collector, like Matthew, would have been able to author the Greek gospels that are attributed to them [8].

Furthermore, the sources used within a text can often betray clues about its author. In the case of the Gospels, we know that they are all interdependent upon each other for their information. Matthew borrows from as much as 80% of the verses in the Gospel of Mark, and Luke borrows from 65%. While John does not follow the ipsissima verba of the earlier gospels, its author was still probably aware of the earlier narratives (as shown by scholar Louis Ruprecht in This Tragic Gospel).

Once more, for the Gospel of Matthew, the internal evidence contradicts the traditional authorial attribution. The disciple Matthew was allegedly an eyewitness of Jesus. John Mark, on the other hand, who is the traditional author of the Gospel of Mark, was neither an eyewitness of Jesus nor a disciple, but merely a later attendant of Peter. And yet the author of Matthew copies from 80% of the verses in Mark. Why would Matthew, an alleged eyewitness, need to borrow from as much as 80% of the material of Mark, a non-eyewitness?

Apologists have come up with fantastical ad hoc assumptions to explain this problem with the disciple Matthew, an alleged eyewitness, borrowing the bulk of his text from a non-eyewitness. For example, Blomberg in The Case for Christ (pg. 28) speculates:

“It only makes sense if Mark was indeed basing his account on the recollections of the eyewitness Peter … it would make sense for Matthew, even though he was an eyewitness, to rely on Peter’s version of events as transmitted through Mark.”

To begin with, nowhere in the Gospel of Mark does the author ever claim that he is reporting the recollections of Peter (Blomberg is splicing this detail with a later dubious claim by the church father Papias, to be discussed below). The author of Mark never names any eyewitness from whom he gathered information.

But what is further problematic for Blomberg’s assumption is that his description of how the author of Matthew used Mark is way off. The author of Matthew does not “rely” on Mark rather than redact Mark to change many of its traditions and versions of events. As scholar J.C. Fenton (The Gospel of St. Matthew, pg. 12) explains, “the changes which he makes in Mark’s way of telling the story are not those corrections which an eyewitness might make in the account of one who was not an eyewitness.” Here is a valuable article by Steven Carr that discusses some of the ways in which the author of Matthew actually used Mark. One thing that Carr discusses is how the author of Matthew “adds Jewish elements which ‘Mark’ overlooked.” To list a couple of of Carr’s examples:

  • Mark 9:4 names Elijah before Moses. Naturally, Matthew 17:3 puts Moses before Elijah, as Moses is far more important to Jews than Elijah.
  • Mark 11:10 refers to the kingdom of our “father” David. No Jew would have referred to “our father” David. The father of the nation was Abraham, or possibly Jacob, who was renamed Israel. Not all Jews were sons of David. Naturally, Matthew 21:9 does not refer to our father David.

These are subtle differences, but what they demonstrate is that the author of Matthew was not “relying” on Peter via Mark, but was redacting the earlier work to make it more consistent with Jewish teachings! This makes no sense at all for Blomberg’s hypothesis. Matthew was described as a tax collector (a profession that made one a social outcast from the Jewish religious community). Peter, in contrast, was described as a Galilean Jew privy to Jesus’ inner circle. Why would Matthew redact the recollections of Peter via the writings of his attendant in order to make them more consistent with Jewish teachings?

Instead, scholars have long recognized that the anonymous author of Mark was most likely an unknown Gentile living in the Jewish Diaspora outside of Palestine. This is strengthened by the fact that Mark uses the Greek Septuagint to quote translations from the Old Testament. Likewise, the

author is unaware of many features of Palestinian routegeography. Just for one brief example: in Mk. 7:31 Jesus is described to have traveled out of Tyre through Sidon (North of Tyre) to the Sea of Galilee (South of Tyre). In the words of scholar Hugh Anderson in The Gospel of Mark (pg. 192), this would be like “travelling from Cornwall to London by way of Manchester.” These discrepancies make little sense if the author of Mark was a traveling attendant with Peter, an Aramaic-speaking native of Galilee [9].

Instead, scholars recognize that the author of Matthew was actually an ethnic Jew (probably a Greek-speaking and educated Jew, who was also living in the Diaspora). As someone more familiar with Jewish teachings, he redacted Mark to correct many of the non-Jewish elements in the earlier gospel.
This again makes little sense if the author of Matthew were actually Matthew the tax collector, whose profession would have ostracized him from the Jewish community. Instead, scholars recognize that the later authorial attributions of both of these works are almost certainly wrong.

In fact, even conservative NT scholars like Bruce Metzger (The New Testament, pg. 97) have agreed, “the apostle Matthew can scarcely be the final author.” And Christian scholar Raymond Brown (An Introduction to the New Testament, pgs. 159-60) acknowledges, “That the author of the Greek Gospel was John Mark, a (presumably Aramaic-speaking) Jew of Jerusalem who had early become a Christian, is hard to reconcile with the impression that it does not seem to be a translation from Aramaic, that it seems to depend on oral traditions (and perhaps already shaped sources) received in Greek, and that it seems confused about Palestinian geography.”

The way that the Gospel of Luke uses Mark as a source likewise casts doubt on the tradition that John Mark, the attendant of Peter, was the original author of the text. As discussed above, the author of Luke borrows from as much as 65% of the verses in Mark. This is all very interesting, since the author of Luke is likewise the author of Acts, and John Mark, the attendant of Peter, has an appearance in Acts (12:12). This means that the author of Luke-Acts includes within his later narrative the alleged author of an earlier gospel, from which he has even borrowed a substantial amount of his material. Yet, never once does the author of Luke-Acts identify this man as one of his major sources!

As Randel Helms points out in Who Wrote the Gospels? (pg. 2):

“So the author of Luke-Acts not only knew about a John Mark of Jerusalem, the personal associate of Peter and Paul, but also possessed a copy of what we call the Gospel of Mark, copying some three hundred of its verses into the Gospel of Luke, and never once thought to link the two — John Mark and the Gospel of Mark — together! The reason is simple: the connecting of the anonymous Gospel of Mark with John Mark of Jerusalem is a second-century guess, on that had not been made in Luke’s time.”

Apologists here will try to dismiss this point as merely being an argument from silence. But again, as in the case of Matthew, the way that the author of Luke uses Mark strongly suggests that he was not “relying” on the recollections of Peter via his attendant, but was redacting an earlier anonymous narrative. For example, Bart Ehrman in Jesus Interrupted (pgs. 64-70) discusses how the author of Luke makes changes to many of the details of the passion scene in Mark. In the Markan Passion, Jesus is depicted in despair and agony, whereas in the Lukan Passion, key details are changed to instead depict Jesus as calm and tranquil during his crucifixion. For example, Jesus’ last words are altered from a despairing statement in Mk 15:33-37 to a more tranquil one in Lk 23:44-46.
But why would Luke — the mere Gentile attendant of Paul — redact and change the recollections of Peter — the chief disciple of Jesus — about the passion, crucifixion, and death of Jesus? The reason why is that the author of Luke almost certainly did not believe that Mark was written by an attendant of Peter. Instead, the anonymous author of Luke redacted and changed Mark, which was written by another anonymous author, to suite his own theological and narrative purposes [10].

A final note about the Gospels borrowing material from each other is that such works, which are not entirely original in their composition, but are largely redactions of earlier traditions, generally lack authorial personality. We saw above that Tacitus (Hist1:1) discusses his relations with the Roman emperors during the Roman civil war of 69 CE and the Flavian Dynasty, which is the period that his Histories is written about. The Gospels, in contrast, are not written to tell the recollections of any one person, let alone an eyewitness [11]. Instead, the Gospels are highly anonymous, not only in not naming their authors, but in writing in a collective, revisionist manner. New Testament expert Bart Ehrman (Forged, pg. 224) explains that the general anonymity of the Gospels, in part, derives from the anonymous narrative structures of Old Testament texts, which served as their model of inspiration:

“In all four Gospels, the story of Jesus is presented as a continuation of the history of the people of God as narrated in the Jewish Bible. The portions of the Old Testament that relate to the history of Israel after the death of Moses are found in the books of Joshua, Judges, 1 and 2 Samuel, and 1 and 2 Kings. All of these books are written anonymously … [T]he message of the Gospels … is portrayed … as continuous with the anonymously written history of Israel as laid out in the Old Testament Scriptures.”

The authors of the Gospels were thus more concerned with gathering a collection of their communities’ teachings and organizing them into a cohesive narrative, similar to the anonymous, third person narratives found in the Old Testament. This is not at all the case for Tacitus. We might be suspicious of the authorial attribution, if Tacitus had merely copied from 80% of the material of an earlier author (as the Gospel of Matthew did) in order to write a highly anonymous narrative. Instead, Tacitus wrote in a highly unique Latin style that distinguished him as an individual, personal author.

We have seen above that the internal evidence does not support Matthew, Mark, or John as the authors of the gospels attributed to them. What about Luke? The Gospel of Luke and Acts are attributed to Luke, the traveling attendant of Paul. This is all very interesting, since we possess 7 non-forged epistles of the apostle Paul in the New Testament (6 of the traditional letters of Paul — Ephesians, Colossians, 2 Thessalonians, 1 and 2 Timothy, and Titus — are forgeries, as explained by Erhman in Forged: Writing in the Name of God). If Luke was Paul’s attendant, then corroborating details between Acts and the Paul’s epistles may support the claim that Luke authored Acts. However, scholars often find the opposite to be the case. To name a few discrepancies:

  • In Acts 9:26-28, Paul travels from Damascus to Jerusalem only “days” (Acts 9:19; 9:23) after his conversion in Acts 9:3-8, where Barnabas introduces him to the other apostles. However, in his own writings (Gal. 1:16-19), Paul states that he “did not consult any human being” after his conversion (despite consulting Ananias and preaching in the synagogues of Damascus after his conversion in Acts 9:17-22), but instead traveled into Arabia (which Acts makes no mention of), and did not travel to Jerusalem until “three years” after the event, where he only met Peter and James [12].
  • In Acts 16:1-3, Paul has a disciple named Timothy, who was born from a Greek father, be circumcised “because of the Jews who lived in that area.” However, this goes against Paul’s own deceleration (Gal. 2:7) “of preaching the gospel to the uncircumcised.” Likewise, in Gal. 2:1-3, Paul brings another Gentile disciple, Titus, to the Jewish community in Jerusalem, but particularly insists that Titus not be circumcised [13]. Likewise, in 1 Cor. 7:20, Paul states regarding circumcision, “Each person should remain in the situation they were in when God called them.”
  • In Gal. 2:6, Paul makes it clear that his authority is equal to the original apostles, stating, “whatever they were makes no difference to me; God does not show favoritism—they added nothing to my message.” However, in Acts 13:31 Paul grants higher authority to those who originally “witnessed” Jesus. Likewise, Acts 1:21 restricts the status of “apostle” to those who had originally been with Jesus during his ministry, despite Paul’s repeated insistence that he was an apostle in his letters (1 Cor. 9:1-2).

In light of these and other discrepancies between Paul’s own recollections and how he is depicted in Acts, many scholars agree that the author of Luke-Acts was probably not an attendant of Paul (the speculation that he was is based largely on the ambiguous use of the first person plural in a few sections of Acts, to be addressed below). Nevertheless, the author of Luke-Acts clearly had a strong interest in Paul. However, the Oxford Annotated Bible (pg. 1919) points out that the author “was probably someone from the Pauline mission area who, a generation or so after Paul, addressed issues facing Christians who found themselves in circumstances different from those addressed by Paul himself.” Hence, we once more have an anonymous author who was distanced from the various traditions and stories that he compiled later as a non-eyewitness.

The same problem of discrepancies between a text and outside epistolary evidence does not exist in the case of Tacitus. For example, we have Pliny the Younger’s letters (6.16; 6.20) written to Tacitus about the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in Campania. This outside evidence is corroborated within the text, when Tacitus mentions the burial of cities in Campania in the praefatio of his Histories (1.2), as well as when Tacitus mentions the volcanic eruption itself in his Annals (4.6). That Tacitus alludes to the volcanic eruption in the introduction to his Histories shows that he used Pliny’s account when describing the disaster more fully later in his narrative (although these later books did not survive the bottleneck of texts lost during the Middle Ages). Thus, in the case of Tacitus, we have harmony between outside epistolary evidence and the internal evidence of the text, whereas in the case of the Gospel of Luke, we have discrepancies between Paul’s letters, showing that the author was probably not a companion of Paul.

So far I have addressed the internal evidence for the authorship of Tacitus’ Histories and the Gospels. As has been shown, Tacitus has passed the criteria with flying colors, while all of the Gospels have had multiple internal problems. However, there are likewise external reasons to doubt the traditional authors of the Gospels.

In terms of external evidence for the authorship of Tacitus’ Histories, we have Pliny the Younger (a contemporary) writing directly to Tacitus while he was authoring a work that Pliny calls a “Historiae.” This historical work that Pliny describes was further identified as the Histories that we possess today by all subsequent authors who cite relevant passages. As Mendell (Tacitus: The Man And His Workpg. 225) explains:

“Tacitus is mentioned or quoted in each century down to and including the sixth.”

Thus, Tacitus was identified as the author of his Histories from the beginning of the tradition, rather than being speculated to be the author later in the tradition. This is very strong external evidence [14].

We have precisely the opposite in the case of the Gospels. As New Testament expert Bart Ehrman (Forged, pg. 225) explains:

“The anonymity of the Gospel writers was respected for decades. When the Gospels of the New Testament are alluded to and quoted by authors of the early second century [such as Ignatius and Polycarp], they are never entitled, never named. Even Justin Martyr, writing around 150-60 CE, quotes verses from the Gospels, but does not indicate what the Gospels were named. For Justin, these books are simply known, collectively, as the ‘Memoirs of the Apostles.’ It was about a century after the Gospels had been originally put in circulation that they were definitively named Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. This comes, for the first time, in the writings of the church father and heresiologist Irenaeus [Against Heresies 3.1.1], around 180-85 CE.”

So it is not until the writings of the church father Irenaeus, some century after the Gospels’ original composition, that they were even attributed with their traditional names. Incidentally, Irenaeus wanted there to be specifically “four gospels” because there are “four winds” and “four corners” of the Earth (Against Heresies 3.11.8). This was the kind of logic by which the Gospels were later attributed…

Ehrman (Forged, pg. 226) goes on to explain:

“Why were these names chosen by the end of the second century? For some decades there had been rumors floating around that two important figures of the early church had written accounts of Jesus’ teachings and activities. We find these rumors already in the writings of the church father Papias [now lost, but still partially preserved by Eusebius in Hist. eccl. 3.39.14-17], around 120-30 CE, nearly half a century before Irenaeus. Papias claimed, on the basis of good authority, that the disciple Matthew had written down the saying of Jesus in the Hebrew language and the others had provided translations of them, presumably into Greek. He also said that Peter’s companion Mark had rearranged the preaching of Peter about Jesus … and created a book out of it.”

So, the earliest attributions that we have for accounts of Jesus being written by Mark and Matthew come from the lost writings of Papias, which are now only (vaguely) preserved in fragments. Incidentally, the church father Eusebius (Hist eccl. 3.39.13), who had access to Papias’ works and preserves his testimony, elsewhere describes Papias as a man who “seems to have been a man of very small intelligence, to judge from his books.” Likewise, another fragment of Papias tells a story about how Judas, after betraying Jesus, became wider than a chariot and so fat that he exploded

Here is what Eusebius (Hist. eccl. 3.39.15) preserves regarding Papias’ claim that Mark, an attendant of Peter, had written an account of Jesus:

“Mark, who had indeed been Peter’s interpreter, accurately wrote as much as he remembered, yet not in order, about that which was either said or did by the Lord. For he neither heard the Lord nor followed him, but later, as I said, Peter, who would make the teachings anecdotally but not exactly an arrangement of the Lord’s reports, so that Mark did not fail by writing certain things as he recalled. For he had one purpose, not to omit what he heard or falsify them.”

Regarding the account written by Matthew, Eusebius (Hist. eccl. 3.39.16) records Papias as stating:

“Now this is reported by Papias about Mark, but about Matthew this was said: Now Matthew compiled the reports in a Hebrew manner of speech, but each interpreted them as he could.”

Irenaeus later derived the authorship for The Gospel of Mark and The Gospel of Matthew by using these earlier statements from the writings of Papias. However, a major problem with this tradition is that Papias never quotes from the works that he attributes, and he is probably not referring to the texts that were later referred to as Mark and Matthew. As Gary Greenberg (Who Wrote the Gospels?, pg. 7) explains about the background behind Papias’ attributions:

“According to Eusebius, who claims to have copies of this earlier Christian’s writings, Papias set out to collect the traditions about the teachings of the Apostles. He himself had never met any of the Apostles [Hist. eccl. 3.39.2] and he relied on oral traditions from the elders of his day for his information, suggesting that these various elders were unaware of any specific writings attributed to the Apostles who knew Jesus.” 

Papias refers to two accounts being written by figures that he identifies as Mark and Matthew, but he appears to have learned about these alleged texts only through oral reports and does not quote from the contents of either of them. As Greenberg (Who Wrote the Gospels?, pg. 9) summarizes:

“In sum, then, at the beginning of the second century we have an unidentified source giving Papias an oral tradition alleging that there were Gospels written by a Matthew and a Mark. But Papias never saw these written works, the description of their contents is inconsistent with what we know about the nature of the canonical Gospels, and Eusebius considers Papias to be something of a dunce.” 

Regarding Greenberg’s point about Papias’ descriptions being inconsistent with the nature of the canonical Gospels, it is important to note that the two accounts that Papias describes both appear to be very different from the texts that we know of as Mark and Matthew in the New Testament. As Greenberg (Who Wrote the Gospels?, pg. 8) explains:

“A major difficulty with Papias’ description of Mark’s Gospel is that he describes it as ‘not in order,’ referring apparently to the sequence of events in Jesus’ life, when in fact Mark’s Gospel is clearly presented in an orderly fashion. It seems unlikely that someone who had read the actual Gospel of Mark would think of it as disorderly … Papias’ attribution of a Gospel of Matthew presents another difficult problem, the claim that Matthew wrote the text in Hebrew or Aramaic. It is overwhelmingly accepted among New Testament historians that the author of the Gospel of Matthew wrote in Greek and that the text bears no inidicia of having been translated into Greek from Aramaic … So, whatever text Papias is talking about, it is not the Gospel of Matthew as we know it.” 

Papias’ claim that the Gospel of Matthew was written in Hebrew/Aramaic, when the Matthew that we possess in manuscripts is written in Koine Greek (and based heavily on the Greek in the Gospel of Mark), is a major blow to the authorial attribution of this text. Imagine if our earliest outside critic to claim that Tacitus wrote a historical work claimed that he wrote this history in Greek, when the Histories that we possess is in Latin! I can guarantee you that, if that were the case, scholars would have many, many more problems with Tacitus’ authorial attribution.

In fact, even Christian scholars like Raymond Brown (An Introduction to the New Testament, pg. 210) acknowledge this discrepancy as a major problem for connecting Papias’ attribution with The Gospel of Matthew:

“The vast majority of scholars … contend that the Gospel we know as Matt was composed originally in Greek and is not a translation of a Semitic original … Thus either Papias was wrong/confused in attributing a gospel (sayings) in Hebrew/Aramaic to Matthew, or he was right but the Hebrew/Aramaic composition he described was not the work we know in Greek as canonical.”

These are the kinds of issues that make the authorial attributions of the canonical Gospels more problematic then the attributions of many other Classical texts from antiquity. The later Christian sources claiming that the Gospels were written by the apostles simply have far more discrepancies, show greater speculation, and involve more implausibilities than other, more solid authorial traditions that we possess from the same period, such as for works like Tacitus’ Histories.

Irenaeus’ notion that the author of Luke-Acts was an attendant of Paul likewise comes from speculation over a few passages in Acts where the author ambiguously uses the first person plural (16:10-17; 20:5-15; 21:1-18; 27:1-28:16). However, scholars studying these passages in Acts, such as William Campbell in The “We” Passages in the Acts of the Apostles (pg. 13), have pointed out:

“Questions of whether the events describes in the “we” sections of Acts are historical and whether Luke or his source/s witnessed them are unanswerable on the basis of the evidence currently available, as even the staunchest defenders of historicity and eyewitnessing acknowledge. More important, the fact that Acts provides no information and, indeed, by writing anonymously and constructing an anonymous observer, actually withholds information about a putative historical eyewitness, suggests that the first person plural in Acts has to do with narrative, not historical, eyewitnessing.”

Thus, the attribution to Luke the attendant of Paul is likewise unsound, being based on misinterpretations of vague narrative constructions in the text.

Likewise, Ehrman (Forged, pg. 227) explains how Irenaeus spuriously speculated John the son of Zebee to be the author of the fourth gospel:

“The Fourth Gospel was thought to belong to a mysterious figure referred to in the book as ‘the Beloved Disciple’ (see, e.g., John 21:20-24), who would have been one of Jesus’ closest followers. The three closest to Jesus, in our early traditions, were Peter, James, and John. Peter was already explicitly named in the Fourth Gospel, so he could not be the Beloved Disciple; James was known to have been martyred early in the history of the church and so would not have been the author. That left John, the son of Zebedee. So he [Irenaeus] assigned the authorship to the Fourth Gospel.”

As can be seen, Irenaeus’ attribution comes from little more than speculation over the identity of an unnamed character in the text (as will be shown below, the actual internal evidence within John suggests that the anonymous “disciple whom Jesus loved” was probably a fictional invention of an anonymous author).

Thus, we have a fairly clear trail for how all of the Gospels’ authors were probably derived from spurious 2nd century guesses: Matthew and Mark were based on Irenaeus misinterpreting passages in Papias that probably referred to other literary works, Luke was speculated to be an author based on little more than vague narrative constructions using the first person plural in the text of Acts, and John was based on speculation over an unnamed “disciple whom Jesus loved.” Thus, not only is the external evidence weak, but all of it can be completely explained as later, spurious mis-attributions.
That the attributions were speculations is even reflected in the later titles. As I discussed above, the use of the construction κατά (“according to” or “handed down from”) in the titles already signifies that the attributions were speculative and largely traditional. As Ehrman (Jesus: Apocalyptic Prophet of the New Millennium, pg. 42) points out, “Suppose a disciple named Matthew actually did write a book about Jesus’ words and deeds. Would he have called it ‘The Gospel According to Matthew’? Of course not… if someone calls it the Gospel according to Matthew, then it’s obviously someone else try to explain, at the outset, whose version of the story this is.” Thus, the traditional attributions come from later Christians in the 2nd century CE speculating over the different versions of the Gospels to assign apostolic traditions and names to the texts.

Apologists like Blomberg, however, will still attempt another escape hatch. In The Case for Christ (pg. 27) he argues:

“These are unlikely characters … Mark and Luke weren’t even among the twelve disciples. Matthew was, but as a former hated tax collector, he would have been the most infamous character next to Judas Iscariot, who betrayed Jesus! … So to answer your question, there would not have been any reason to attribute authorship to these three less respected people if it weren’t true.”

It is not clear to me why Matthew, as a reformed tax collector, would be hated next only to Judas, the man who betrayed Jesus. But Blomberg’s claim about these names being “unlikely” attributions is already refuted above, where a clear trail is demonstrated for how the traditional authors were speculated and assigned. Furthermore, Ehrman (Forged, pgs. 227-228) explains how the reasoning that apologists use to make this argument is specious at best:

“Some scholars have argued that it would not make sense to assign the Second and Third Gospels to Mark and Luke unless the books were actually written by people named Mark and Luke, since they were not earthly disciples of Jesus and were rather obscure figures in the early church. I’ve never found these arguments very persuasive. For one thing, just because figures may seem relatively obscure to us today doesn’t mean that they were obscure in Christian circles in the early centuries. Moreover, it should never be forgotten that there are lots and lots of books assigned to people about whom we know very little, to Phillip, for example, Thomas, and Nicodemus” [15].

Ehrman’s last point about other mis-attributions is likewise noteworthy. One thing that cannot be forgotten is that, in the context surrounding the Gospels, there were tons of mis-attributions and forgeries circulating in the early church. As Ehrman (Forged, pg. 19) explains, “At present we know of over a hundred writings from the first four centuries that were claimed by one Christian author or another to have been forged by fellow Christians.” In such a context, there were canonical disputes over which texts were authoritative, which led later authors, such as Irenaeus in works like Against Heresies, to speculate and spuriously attribute texts to early figures in the church. As Ehrman (Forged, pgs. 220-221) summarizes:

“When church fathers were deciding which books to include in Scripture … it was necessary to ‘know’ who wrote these books, since only writings with clear apostolic connections could be considered authoritative Scripture. So, for example, the early Gospels that were all anonymous began to be circulated under the names Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John about a century after they were written … None of these books claims to be the written by the author to whom they are assigned … They are simply false attributions” [16].

Such is the case for why scholars doubt the traditional attributions of the Gospels. To return to Tacitus, however, there was no prevailing context of doctrinal and canonical disputes that would have encouraged a later author to assign the Histories to the Roman senator. Furthermore, while forgery and mis-attribution could happen with secular texts, scholars have found no evidence of any in the case of Tacitus (here is an article explaining why). The later external references that mention the work simply quote Tacitus as the known author of the text, whereas the Gospels are a clear case of later speculations and mis-attribution.

Why do apologists attempt to go against the majority scholarly consensus to defend the traditional authors, anyways? The fact is that scholars over the last 150 years have recognized, after thorough study of the New Testament, that we do not possess the writings of a single eyewitness of Jesus. The closest thing we have are the 7 undisputed letters of Paul, who was not an eyewitness, but was writing decades later, and who provides few biographical details about Jesus’ life (I discuss what historical details Paul does provide here, and Ehrman likewise discusses this topic in his series “Why Doesn’t Paul Say More About Jesus?”). Because of this, most of our knowledge of Jesus, outside of a few vague references in Paul, comes from little more than garbled oral traditions, legendary development, and finally, after half a century, anonymous hagiographies, like the Gospels, that are not even written in the same language that Jesus spoke. Our sources for Jesus are thus very problematic and unreliable. None of this entails that Jesus did not exist, but we can only scarcely reconstruct a general biography of his life, let alone prove any of his miracles. For a summary of the minimal historical details that I do think can be said about the life of Jesus, see my article “When Do Contemporary or Early Sources Matter in Ancient History?.”

An apologist may still argue that, even if the Gospels’ authorial attributions are wrong, their real authors may have still had access to eyewitness original sources. However, scholars likewise find this to be very unlikely. For Mark, the earliest gospel, Ehrman (Forged, pg. 227) explains:

“There is nothing to suggest that Mark was based on the teachings of any one person at all, let alone Peter. Instead, it derives from the oral traditions about Jesus that ‘Mark’ had heard after they had been in circulation for some decades” [17].

The situation only gets worse from there, since the anonymous author of Matthew then borrows from as much as 80% of the material in this earlier anonymous source, which itself was based on oral traditions. Likewise, the anonymous author of Luke copies from 65% of the material of the anonymous author of Mark. Furthermore, the author of Luke even suggests that he did not have access to eyewitnesses, since he specifies in the in the introduction of his gospel (1:1-2) that he was making use of previous written accounts (none of which he identifies by name, but we can tell that he copied material from Mark) that were based on traditions that were “handed down” over a span of time (allegedly from distant, original eyewitnesses, although the author of Luke names none).

John is the only gospel to claim an eyewitness source, and yet the author does not even name this mysterious figure, but simply refers to him as “the disciple whom Jesus loved.” This is hardly eyewitness testimony, and it is probably the case that the author(s) of John invented this figure. One possibility is that the anonymous beloved disciple is a character already identified within the text. Verbal parallels suggest that the anonymous disciple may be Lazarus from John 11 (verses 1; 3; 5; 11; 36), whom Jesus raises from the dead in the passage [18]. This Lazarus is likely based on the retelling of a story about an allegorical Lazarus in Luke 16:20-31. In the parable, Lazarus is a beggar who was fed by a wealthy man who dies and goes to Heaven, but the rich man dies and goes to Hell. The rich man begs Abraham in Heaven to send Lazarus to warn his family, since, if someone from the dead goes to them, they will repent. In Luke, Abraham refuses to send Lazarus from the dead, arguing that people should study the Torah and the Prophets to believe and will not be convinced even if someone from the dead visits them. In the Gospel of John, however, in which Jesus is more prone to demonstrate his powers through signs and miracles, rather than by appeals to OT verses like in the Synoptic Gospels, the author instead has Jesus raise Lazarus from the dead, so that people might believe in him. The author of John thus very likely is redacting a previous story based on an allegorical character.

Regardless, even if the anonymous beloved disciple is not based on Lazarus [19], the Gospel of John is extremely ambiguous about this character’s identity, even refusing to name him at key moments, such as the discovery of the empty tomb (20:1-9), where other characters such as Mary Magdalene and Peter are named, and yet this character is kept deliberately anonymous. The traditional identification of the disciple with John the son of Zebedee, among many other reasons, is undermined by the internal evidence of this beloved disciple’s connection with the high priestly families of Jerusalem (18:15-16), which could hardly be expected of an illiterate fisherman from backwater Galilee. The Gospel of John likewise shows signs of originally ending at John 20:30-31, and chapter 21, which claims the anonymous disciple as a witness, is very likely an addition from a later author. The chapter (21:24) distinguishes between the disciple who is testifying and the authors (plural) who know that it is true, suggesting that the anonymous disciple is not even to be understood as the author of the text [20]. Furthermore, the final composition of John is dated to approximately 90-100 CE, which is largely beyond the lifetimes of any adult eyewitnesses of Jesus [21]. To compensate for this problematic chronology, the author even has to invent the detail that this supposed eyewitness would live an abnormally long life (21:23) to account for the time gap. This detail is further explained if the anonymous disciple is based on Lazarus, who was already raised from the dead and has conquered death. Ultimately, all of these details suggest that the unidentified “source” is almost certainly an authorial invention (probably of a second author) used to gain proximal credibility for the otherwise latest of the four canonical Gospels [22].

Given all of the problems with the traditional authorship of John, even Christian scholar Raymond Brown (An Introduction to the New Testament, pgs. 368-369) explains, “As with the other Gospels it is doubted by most scholars that this Gospel was written by an eyewitness of the public ministry of Jesus.”

Conclusion:

To repeat the majority scholarly opinion that I discussed at the beginning from the Oxford Annotated Bible (pg. 1744):

“Neither the evangelists nor their first readers engaged in historical analysis. Their aim was to confirm Christian faith (Lk 1.4; Jn 20.31). Scholars generally agree that the Gospels were written forty to sixty years after the death of Jesus. They thus do not present eyewitness or contemporary accounts of Jesus’ life and teachings.”

I discuss in my article “Ancient Historical Writing Compared to the Gospels of the New Testament” why modern scholars doubt that the authors of the Gospels engaged in historical analysis. In this (rather lengthy) second article I have also worked to explain why scholars doubt the apostolic authorship and eyewitness status of the Gospels. Furthermore, I have shown how the same scholarly methods for determining authorship can be used to doubt the Gospels, while confirming the authors of texts for which we have more reliable traditions, such as Tacitus’ Histories.
To summarize some of the same questions that we can ask about Tacitus’ authorship versus the Gospels, here are a few:

Does the attribution clearly identify the author, rather than use a grammatical construction that only reports a tradition?

Tacitus
Matthew
Mark
Luke
John
Yes
No
No
No
No


Did the attributed author likely have sufficient literary training to author the work in question?

Tacitus
Matthew
Mark
Luke
John
Yes
No
Plausible
Plausible
No


Does what we know of the author’s biography align with the internal evidence within the text?

Tacitus
Matthew
Mark
Luke
John
Yes
No
No
No
No


Do authors who attribute the work outside of the text show signs of speculating over the author?

Tacitus
Matthew
Mark
Luke
John
No
Yes
Yes
Yes
Yes


Was there a prevailing context of mis-attribution, forgery, and canonical disputes surrounding the text that would increase the likelihood of its mis-attribution?

Tacitus
Matthew
Mark
Luke
John
No
Yes
Yes
Yes
Yes


As has been shown, the same criteria for determining authorship can be applied for the Gospels as for any secular work, like Tacitus’ Histories. When scholars apply these criteria they find the authorial tradition of Tacitus to be reliable and the authorial traditions of the Gospels to be highly problematic. I have provided just one example here in the case of Tacitus, but textual experts likewise have undergone rigorous analysis of other ancient authors, such as Livy, Plutarch, etc., and found the evidence to confirm their authorship. My main advice for determining the author of any ancient text is to start by looking at what previous scholars have found. You will find that mainstream scholars for the last 150 years have found the authorial traditions for authors like Tacitus or Plutarch to be reliable, whereas the vast majority of scholars have doubted the authors of the Gospels.

A final note is that the criteria that I have used above provide qualitative, rather than just quantitative, reasons for doubting the Gospels’ traditional authors. That is, the criteria that I employ are independent of each other (e.g. internal vs. external evidence). This means that the many reasons we have to doubt the authors are not just based on degree, but also vary by category. Sometimes apologists will make quantitative distinctions to argue for the reliability of the New Testament. For example, apologists often claim that Irenaeus’ late-2nd century attributions, despite decades of anonymous allusions and quotations (from the likes of early church fathers such as Ignatius, Polycarp, and Justin Martyr), are not really that far from the original composition of the Gospels, or will tally later 3rd-4th century church fathers (e.g. Tertullian, Origen, and Eusebius) who use these attributions, even though they are simply repeating late-2nd century speculation. However, such arguments are one-dimensional and superficial, since the amount of time elapsed or the number of later church fathers who repeat these 2nd century attributions is only an argument by degree.

However, I have shown that categorically there are many sound reasons to doubt the Gospels’ authorial attributions (based on a variety of issues, such as manuscript titles, literacy and education, conflicts between internal and external evidence, the context of 2nd century canonical disputes, etc.), so that the mere degree of any one criterion is insignificant, when multiple other criteria go against the traditional authors. Likewise, it is noteworthy that Tacitus has passed multiple independent criteria for identifying the author. The best explanation for how Tacitus could satisfy multiple categories of inquiry is because he is genuinely the author of the text. In contrast, the best explanation for why the Gospels’ traditional authors fail multiple categories of evaluation is that the later attributions genuinely do not fit the data [23].
 

-Matthew Ferguson

[1] For Tacitus we possess two major manuscripts for his Annals and Histories. Books 1-6 of the Annals are preserved in a 9th century CE manuscript called the first Medicean manuscript. As Mendell (Tacitus: The Man And His Work, pg. 295) notes, the title of this manuscript is P. Cornelii Taciti Ab Excessu Divi Aug. Books 11-16 of the Annals and books 1-5 of the Histories are preserved in an 11th century CE manuscript called the second Madicean manuscript. The titles for the second manuscript are not complete, however, Mendell (pg. 296) notes that this manuscript still includes Tacitus’ name as the author: “The MS has a covering leaf at the beginning, added for protection. On the recto of this is the present catalogue number: Pl. 68, No. 2, and on the reverse: Cornelius Tacitus … Subsequent books have large decorative capitals and, with the exception of Books 16 and 21, a subscription, reading Corneli Taciti Liber.” The titles for both of these manuscripts use the genitive case to identify Tacitus as the author (i.e. “The Books of Cornelius Tacitus”), indicated personal possession. This standard construction is thus different from the unusual κατά (“according to”) construction found in the manuscripts of the Gospels.

[2] Further noteworthy is that the κατά (“according to”) preposition does not even have to refer to named individuals. For example, the Gospel of the Hebrews is titled τὸ καθ’ Ἑβραίους εὐαγγέλιον (“the Gospel according to the Hebrews”). This construction hardly entails that the Hebrews themselves are the authors of the work, rather than the title referring to a tradition or group that the gospel was associated with. Thus, the use of the κατά preposition does not necessarily entail an attribution of authorship. Another objection that apologists will make is that the titles had to use an unusual construction, because the title τὸ εὐαγγέλιον (τοῦ) Ιησού Χριστού (“The Gospel of Jesus Christ”) already had to use the objective genitive to indicate the subject of the life, and thus could not use a subjective genitive to indicate the author. However, there are Greek constructions that can avoid this problem and still have the author’s name in the genitive. For example, τὸ εὐαγγέλιον (τοῦ) Ιησού τοῦ Χριστοὺ τὸ (τοῦ) Μάρκου (“The Gospel of Jesus Christ, the one of Mark”). Nevertheless, the ancient scribes who added the titles made use of no such construction that would have more clearly identified an author.

[3] As Christian scholar Raymond Brown (An Introduction to the New Testament, pgs. 158; 208; 267) notes, the Gospels’ titles were probably not added until the latter half of the 2nd century CE. The late-2nd century was a time in the Christian community during which there were many canonical disputes, and connecting particular scriptures with figures in the early church was used as a means of gaining authority and canonical status for a text. A minority of scholars have speculated that they were added earlier, possibly even when the Gospels were first composed, such as Martin Hengel in The Four Gospels and the One Gospel of Jesus Christ. However, even Christian apologists find this view difficult to defend. Christian apologist Craig Blomberg (Making Sense of the New Testament, pg. 151), for example, while describing Hengel’s thesis as “suggestive and worth serious consideration,” concludes that this view is “ultimately speculative and not provable.”

NT scholar Michael Wolter has critiqued Hengel, and argues that the titles could not have been added until, at the earliest, the first half of the 2nd century CE, primarily because the formula “κατά (according to) + the author” only makes sense if it was added when there were multiple gospels in circulation. The original title of Mark was probably just τὸ εὐαγγέλιον Ἰησοῦ Χριστοῦ (“the Gospel of Jesus Christ”), but when other gospels — such as the those later called Matthew, Luke, and John — were being circulated, the names were added to distinguish them from one another. Bart Ehrman has recently suggested that the titles were added sometime after 160 CE (after Justin Martyr) and before 185 CE (when Irenaeus attributed the traditional names). Ehrman notes that Irenaeus attributes the same names that are found in the Muratorian Canon (c. 170-200 CE), and points out that both were from the Western half of the Roman Empire. Ehrman thus theorizes that a special edition of the Gospels was probably published in Rome c. 160-185 CE. This edition probably included the four canonical Gospels and added the titles that they are now associated with to distinguish them from one another, which in turn influenced the attributions of Irenaeus and the Muratorian Canon. Likewise, the edition’s probable place of publication in Rome can explain why the titles were adopted by churches all throughout the Roman Empire, since the Roman church was particularly influential and authoritative by the time of the 2nd century.

[4] The earliest manuscript copies that we have for Tacitus’ Annals and Histories respectively date to the 9th and 11th centuries CE, about seven to nine hundred years after the original composition of these texts (Histories c. 109 CE; Annals c. 116 CE). Likewise, these earliest manuscripts have large sections of missing material. For the Histories, book 5 is missing a large amount of material and all subsequent books are lost. For the Annals, books 7-10 are missing and parts of books 5, 6, 11, and 16 are missing. Furthermore, Tacitus’ works would have originally been kept on papyrus scrolls when they were first published; however, in the process of textual transmission during Late Antiquity and the Middle Ages they were transferred onto parchment codices. It is difficult to know how much the titles were altered during this process, but it is probably the case that the title variations crept in later during the trail of transmission.

Mendell (Tacitus: The Man And His Workpg. 345) notes that the first external source to quote Tacitus’ Histories by a different title was the Historia Augusta (c. 395 CE) in its Life of Tacitus 10.3 (this biography is about the 3rd century CE Roman emperor and not the 2nd century historian, but the biography refers to Tacitus the historian as one of the emperor’s ancestors). This late-4th century source claims that Tacitus wrote a “historia Augusta,” which was probably a false quotation of the title, and may have influenced subsequent manuscript titles (some of which include this later title variation), along with additional factors in medieval textual transmission and other problematic quotations from Late Antiquity. Regardless, Pliny the Younger’s (7.33.1) testimony shows that Tacitus was clearly known as the author of his historical works from the beginning of their transmission, and both Pliny and Tertullian (the earliest sources to quote a name for the Histories) refer to the work by “Historiae.”

Unlike the later manuscripts for Tacitus, we possess titled copies for the Gospels that date much earlier in their trail of transmission. NT scholar Simon Gathercole in “The Titles of the Gospels in the Earliest New Testament Manuscripts” discusses how the traditional titles of the Gospels appear on manuscripts that date to the beginning of the 3rd century CE. However, there are a number of problems with these titles which suggest that they were not originally included in the manuscripts. To begin with, as discussed in footnotes 2 and 3 above, the manuscripts of the Gospels do not use the standard title convention for indicating personal possession in antiquity of identifying the author’s name in the genitive, but instead use the unusual construction “κατά (according to) + the author” in the titles. NT scholars Michael Wolter (here) and Bart Ehrman (here) both agree that this title convention would not have been added until multiple gospels were in circulation, meaning that it would not have been placed in the original texts at their publication.

Likewise, the large number of textual variations between the titles of the Gospels found even in the earliest manuscript copies to survive suggests that these titles did not go back to any original, autograph manuscripts. Titled manuscripts for the Gospels appear around 300 CE, just about a hundred years after the texts were written in the late 1st century CE. Likewise, the Gospels were originally written on codices, instead of scrolls, so that they did not have to be transitioned as drastically from one writing medium to another during late antique and medieval textual transmission, like Tacitus. Nevertheless, even on these early manuscripts there are already a large number of textual variations in the titles. As Erhman (Jesus: Apocalyptic Prophet of the New Millenniumpgs. 249-250) explains:

“Because our surviving Greek manuscripts provide such a wide variety of (different) titles for the Gospels, textual scholars have long realized that their familiar names do no go back to a single ‘original’ title, but were added by later scribes.”

These title variations are very early in the trail of textual transmission, being only about a hundred years from the original, indicating that there were probably no consistent titles when the Gospels were first published. Likewise, as discussed in footnotes 14 and 16 below, the church fathers who alluded to and quoted the Gospels for the first several decades of their transmission all treat the Gospels anonymously. These combined circumstances strongly indicate that the Gospels were originally anonymous at the beginning of their transmission and that their traditional names and titles were only added later.

[5] Beyond just the issue of manuscript titles, another factor to take into consideration is the context of publication behind the authorial tradition in question. Sophisticated literary works published in Rome, such as Tacitus’ Histories, were publicly recited by the author (or by someone else on the author’s behalf), and were copied by professional book dealers and kept in public libraries. As such, the author of the text was known through more than just the titles on manuscript copies and internal references within the text. The author would further be identified by book dealers, libraries, and public recitals. Likewise, wealthy politicians like Tacitus belonged to elite literary circles in which authors regularly corresponded and consulted each other. For example, Pliny the Younger (7.33.1) knew that Tacitus was writing his Histories before the work was even published, because Tacitus had previously corresponded with him.

Whereas works like Tacitus’ Histories were published in high literary circles, in which the author was well known, that does not mean that all texts in antiquity were published in such a context. There were also many less sophisticated literary works that circulated in the ancient world, which were often written anonymously and were not kept by professional libraries. In the genre of ancient biography in particular — which many scholars argue is the genre to which the canonical Gospels belong — there were sophisticated scholarly biographies like Tacitus’ Agricola, but also more popular biographies, written about figures such as Homer, Aesop, and Alexander the Great, which were far more often kept anonymous. As Tomas Hägg (The Art of Biography in Antiquity, pg. 99) explains:

“Simultaneously with the emergence of a bookish form of biography in the late classical and Hellenistic periods, vital biographic traditions were in progress at an oral or subliterary level, concerning in the first place legendary figures of great popular appeal … In contrast to the Lives treated in the previous chapter, which are the works of distinctive authors and largely remain under authorial control, these are anonymous; and they are ‘open texts’, with regard to origin as well as transmission.”

The latter example of popular-level biographies that Hägg discusses shows that there were many contexts of publication in the ancient world in which texts originally circulated anonymously. Sophisticated literary works like Tacitus’ Agricola and Histories did not belong to this category. However, as I have argued in my article “Are the Gospels Ancient Biographies?,” the Gospels of the New Testament most closely belong to the oral and subliterary form of biography that Hägg discusses above, and thus they almost certainly circulated anonymously when they were first published. There are a number of reasons for thinking that the Gospels belong to this anonymous category of biography:

  • To begin with, Hägg points out that a defining feature of this category was that these types of biographies operated more as ‘open texts,’ which were subject to expansion, redaction, and adaptation. This feature describes the Synoptic Gospels perfectly, since Matthew borrows from 80% of the verses in Mark, and Luke borrows from 65% of the verses. Accordingly, the Synoptic Gospels operated very much like ‘open texts,’ which shared a large amount of material, whereas scholarly biographies — such as those written by Tacitus, Plutarch, and Suetonius — did not borrow so much of their material from previous texts, but were instead written in a unique style with far more authorial control.
  • Another reason that the original publication context of the Gospels was probably anonymous is the fact, discussed above, that the Gospels mimic the literary style of the Septuagint, and were thus write in the anonymous, third person narrative structure of the Old Testament scriptures. Whereas sophisticated literary works, such as Tacitus’ Histories, were designed to demonstrate authorial research and talent, the Gospels were instead designed to operate as sacred scripture, which was a type of literature less focused on demonstrating the talents of the author rather than providing a third person, theological narrative.
  • Finally, Christian scriptures like the canonical Gospels were neither kept in public libraries nor copied by professional book dealers in the 1st century CE. As such, they would not have been subjected to the same editorial provisions that works like Tacitus’ Histories, which was professionally published in Rome, would have been subjected to. Instead of circulating in public libraries, Christian scriptures like the Gospels circulated in early church communities, in which they would have been recited anonymously. Likewise, there would have been considerably less professional scribes available in these church communities than in public libraries, and thus there would have also been a considerably higher degree of interpolation and textual redactions during the process of making manuscript copies.

For all of these reasons, the Gospels were almost certainly published in a literary context that would have been anonymous, whereas Tacitus’ Histories was published in a context in which the author would have been considerably more well-known. I discuss this issue further here.

[6] Furthermore, certain regions of the Roman Empire had lower levels of literacy than others, such as rural regions like Galilee, and Greek literacy would have been even further limited in these areas if they were fluent in another language, such as Aramaic. In the case of rural Galilee, scholar Mark Chancey in The Myth of a Gentile Galilee and Greco-Roman Culture and the Galilee of Jesus finds that literacy was largely restricted to two major urban centers, Sepphoris and Tiberias, and that the rural Jews of the region had little interaction with the Greek language or Gentiles. These circumstances would have certainly limited figures like Peter and John, both rural peasants from Galilee, from being able to author complex Greek prose, such as in the New Testament works attributed to them. This is, of course, in addition to the fact that such poor persons would not likely have received necessary literary training even in their own language to author such complex scriptures.

Another apologetic response to the problem of literacy is that illiterate persons could have allegedly used scribes to whom they would dictate their works, rather than writing them. However, this assumption misunderstands both the nature of literacy and how scribes were used in antiquity. It is true that literate persons, such as Paul, would dictate (in Greek) to scribes who would write down their words, as is evidenced in Rom. 16:22 and Gal. 6:11. However, that does not entail that an illiterate person could dictate prose in a foreign language. One could, of course, further speculate that an illiterate person could tell a scribe the gist of a story, which the scribe would then interpret, organize, and compose in a different language. However, in such a case the scribe would be the actual author of the work. Furthermore, Ehrman (Forged, pg. 77) raises another problem for this speculation: “Where in the ancient world do we have anything at all analogous to this hypothetical situation of someone writing a letter-essay for someone else and putting the other person’s name on it — the name of the person who did not write it — rather than his own name? So far as a I know, there is not a single instance of any such procedure attested from antiquity or any discussion, in any ancient source, of this being a legitimate practice. Or even an illegitimate one. Such a thing is never discussed.”

It should also be noted that William Harris’ literacy estimates in Ancient Literacy have been critiqued and reevaluated by subsequent scholars. Most notably, William Johnson (ed.), among other scholars, in the volume Ancient Literacies have called into question Harris’ binary categorization of “literate” and “illiterate.” Instead, Johnson et al. propose that there were many degrees of functional literacy in the ancient world. While non-elites may have had substantially less education, there is still evidence that they were able to engage with administrative documents, to have sufficient literacy for voting procedures in Athens or Rome, to write graffiti, to communicate through short letters, etc. However, contributor Rosalind Thomas still notes that the ability to produce complex literature was a skill largely confined to the upper classes. As Thomas (Ancient Literaciespg. 23) explains regarding advanced literacy (to compose oratory, rhetoric, and literature):

“Gossip, oral communication, heralds, and announcements were all essential; much and was conveyed by these methods, but the ‘slow writer,’ to use the term of Roman Egypt, could hardly be equal to a member of the educated elite in their ability to master every aspect of the political system, especially as the elite could probably manipulate texts with relative ease as well compose eloquent speeches.”

In fact, even in regions of the ancient Mediterranean that had substantially higher literacy rates (e.g. Athens), Thomas (pg. 16) notes that the gap between the educated elite and the poor, in terms of literary abilities, was very substantial:

“In ancient Athens, the line at which someone is seriously disadvantaged by poor writing skills can be drawn very low, but that does not mean that he was on an educational and political level with the elite. The educated elite, who overlapped considerably with the political leaders, had advanced literacy and cultural attainments that included mousike, music, literary knowledge, and literary composition. We therefore need to examine evidence for differing literacy skills alongside the surrounding social or political demands for writing.”

Bear in mind that Thomas is referring to Athens, a place with a much higher common literacy rate than rural Galilee (she also notes that the level of common literacy probably declined in Athens in the 4th century BCE). Therefore, even if there was a wider range of literacies in the ancient world, the point still remains that it would be highly unusual for rural peasants outside of the educated elite to compose complex literature like the Gospels. For further discussion of the criterion of literacy in assessing authorial attributions, see footnote 8 below.

[7] The typical apologetic response to this passage is to claim that ἀγράμματος (“illiterate”) only means “uneducated” or “lacking formal rabbinic training.” However, it was typically educated Jews with rabbinic training who belonged to the small portion of the Jewish population who could author complex prose scripture. Furthermore, while it is possible that the passage is merely referring to rabbinic training, it is far more probable, given the historical context, that the passage also indicates illiteracy. Catherine Hezser in Jewish Literacy in Roman Palestine finds that only about 3% of the population could read, and most of these would have lived in cities or large towns (not typical of where the disciples of rural Galilee were from). Furthermore, as Ehrman (Forged, pg. 73) explains, “Most people outside of the urban areas would scarcely ever even see a written text. Some smaller towns and villages may have had a literacy level around 1 percent. Moreover, these literate people were almost always the elite of the upper class. Those who learned to read learned how to read Hebrew (not Greek).”

Likewise, we have archaeological evidence that suggests that Peter, who is described alongside John as ἀγράμματος (“illiterate”) in Acts 4:13, was in fact illiterate based on excavations of his hometown in Capernaum. As Ehrman explains (Forged, pg. 74-75), “In order to evaluate Peter’s linguistic abilities, the place to begin, then, is with Capernaum … The archaeological digs have revealed … there are no inscriptions of any kind on any of the buildings … Reed [Archaeology and the Galilean Jesus, pgs. 140-169] concludes that the inhabitants were almost certainly ‘predominantly illiterate’ [even in Aramaic] … In short, Peter’s town was a backwoods Jewish village made up of hand-to-mouth laborers who did not have an education. Everyone spoke Aramaic. Nothing suggests that anyone could speak Greek. Nothing suggests that anyone in the town could write. As a lower-class fisherman, Peter would have started work as a young boy and never attended school. There was, in fact, probably no school there.” Bear in mind that John is described as ἀγράμματος (“illiterate”) alongside Peter in the passage, for whom we have very strong archaeological evidence that he was probably illiterate. The best interpretation of the passage is thus that Acts 4:13 is describing Peter and John as both lacking Rabbinic training and being illiterate.

[8] NT scholar Jonathan Bernier has critiqued literacy as a criterion for determining the authorship of ancient texts in his blog post “Flipping Coins and Writing Gospels” (notably, Bernier does not defend the traditional authors of the Gospels, but only calls into question whether illiteracy is good argument for doubting their traditional authors). His criticism is based on the statistical fact that, even if a certain group of people, such as Galilean fisherman, is 99% illiterate, that should not lead to the deduction that a particular Galilean fisherman, such as John, could not have authored a Greek scripture. As Bernier argues:

“[T]he nature of statistics is such that even if 99% of all Galilean fishermen were persons who could not have written something like the Gospel of John it does not follow that there is a 99% chance that John, son of Zebedee, would be such a person. It’s an example of the coin flip problem: just because you flip a coin ten times and eight times it comes up heads it does not follow that the eleventh coin has a 80% chance of coming up heads; it in fact has a 50% chance; and even if that were not the case 80% is not 100%.”

However, this misinterprets the logic behind how literacy is used as a criterion in determining authorship. The argument is not that it is 99% unlikely the John could have authored a Greek scripture, simply because 99% of the group to which he belonged would have been incapable of such authorship (assuming the number is not even higher). Rather, the argument is about first assessing the demographics of people to which the attributed author of a text belongs, to see if this is an ordinary or remarkable attribution.

Virtually 100% of Roman senators in the early-2nd century CE were literate in Latin. Likewise, Latin historiography was a genre that was primarily written by Roman senators. As Classicist Ronald Mellor (The Roman Historians, pg. 4) explains, “History at Rome was written mostly by senators for senators.” So, when an authorial attribution is made to Tacitus, a Roman senator, for writing Latin historical works, such as his Annals and Histories, this is an ordinary attribution.

In the case of rural Galilee, Catherine Hezser in Jewish Literacy in Roman Palestine finds that only about 3% of the population of Palestine could read, and most of these would have lived in cities or large towns (not typical of where the disciples of rural Galilee were from). Moreover, these people would primarily be taught to read Aramaic and Hebrew, so that even fewer could read or write in Greek. Once you drop the wealthy, urban population out of the equation, the number of poor, rural people who could read Aramaic would be much smaller than 3%. Out of this reduced fraction, even fewer could read and write in Greek.

So, when a claim is made that a Galilean fisherman, like John, and a toll booth collector, like Matthew, authored complex Greek scriptures, it would have certainly been unusual and rare for someone who belonged to their demographics to have authored such texts. This already means that the authorial traditions of the Matthew and John are, at the very least, more unusual than the authorship of Tacitus. It would not be unusual or rare for a Roman senator like Tacitus to have authored a Latin history, whereas in the case of Matthew and John, these would have been very rare and exceptional individuals to author complex Greek prose, given the demographics to which they belonged.

This does not mean that it would be impossible for Matthew and John to have been able to author complex Greek prose, but the next step is to see if there is any evidence that they were exceptional. Here, there are direct contradictions in our sources for their lives. John (Acts 4:13) is explicitly stated to be illiterate, and Matthew (Mt. 9:10-13) is explicitly stated to have been ostracized from the Jewish community (despite the fact that the Gospel attributed him shows the most knowledge of Jewish Law and includes the most allusions to Jewish scriptures). So, all of the data that we have for these people suggests that they were not exceptional in terms of their literary abilities and education.
The criterion of literacy can vary by degree. Our degree of confidence that Tacitus could author a Latin history is much higher than that a rural fisherman and toll booth collector could have authored Greek scriptures. So, the authorship of Tacitus is far more secure in this respect, even if it is not inconceivable that Matthew and John may have had remarkable literary abilities for their demographics. The same is true of other Classical authors, such as Livy and Plutarch, who belonged to more literate demographics, which is why it is not a good argument for apologists to equate the authorial attributions of the Gospels with these Pagan texts. Such Pagan texts are ordinary attributions, whereas the attributions of the Gospels are highly unusual.

The fact that the attributions of the Gospels are unusual should next lead to considerations over whether there is a reason for the unusual attributions. It could be because Matthew and John were indeed remarkable in their literary abilities and education, but, as shown above, the sources for their lives state the opposite. However, a very plausible explanation for the unusual attribution is the fact that Christians were having canonical disputes in the second half of the 2nd century CE (when the Gospels were first attributed). During this process, claiming apostolic authorship was used as a way to grant authority and canonical status to a text. It should be noted that the primary motivation driving these attributions was based on finding figures of authority. However, when the Gospels were first written, their authors were most likely chosen on the basis of ability. Educated Christians in the late-1st century CE, after the generation of the apostles had faded, were commissioned to write accounts of Jesus’ life and teachings (Lk. 1:1-4). These individuals would have probably been chosen on the basis of their literary abilities as the most skilled and qualified individuals in their community. However, when there were later canonical disputes in the church, figures with authority were preferred for assigning authorship to canonical texts.

What the criterion of literacy achieves, therefore, is driving a wedge between internal and external evidence. Based on nothing but the internal evidence of authorship, the Gospels would appear to be most likely written by wealthy, urban-dwelling Greek speakers in the Jewish Diaspora, since that was how such texts were ordinarily composed. However, the external evidence says that they were written by individuals such as rural, Aramaic-speaking fishermen and toll collectors from Galilee. This would certainly be unusual, and not something suggested by the internal evidence when considered alone. The next step is to see if these unusual candidates show signs of having exceptional literary abilities and education for their demographics. When evidence outside the attribution, such as in Acts 4:13 and Mt. 9:10-13, states the opposite, the attribution becomes further anomalous. The final step is to look for whether there is any other reason for such an anomalous attribution. When the external evidence can be explained perfectly by canonical disputes in the late-2nd century CE seeking to ascribe certain texts to apostolic candidates, the cause of the anomaly becomes obvious. So, even if it is not statistically impossible that Matthew and John may could authored Greek scriptures, the internal evidence runs against the grain of the external evidence, and the external evidence itself is problematic and unreliable. In such a case, the criterion of literacy does matter when assessing an authorial attribution, especially if an authorial attribution is doubted on the grounds that it was spuriously assigned to a figure of authority, when the actual process behind a text’s composition would have instead required an individual of ability.

[9] Apologists, of course, have come up with a number of attempts to rationalize this problem in geography. However, as scholar C.S. Mann (Mark, pg. 322) explains, “While the text is clear enough at this point, the geography is impossible to reconstruct … The attempts of various commentators past and present to make sense of this awkward journey are often more inglorious than enlightening.” Mann further notes that the author of Matthew, who was probably more familiar with the region, in fact changes the itinerary to resolve the geographical problems. As Mann (pg. 322) explains, “Matthew has no reference to Tyre and Sidon, nor yet of the Ten Towns, contenting himself merely with the statement that Jesus ‘departed from there and came by the Sea of Galilee’ (15:29).”
Likewise, this particular problem is hardly the only problem with Palestinian geography in Mark. Another problematic route is in Mk 11:1, which has Jesus and the disciples, in approaching Jerusalem from Jericho, come first to Bethphage and then to Bethany. As Helms (Who Wrote the Gospels?, pg. 6) explains, “Anyone approaching Jerusalem from Jericho would come first to Bethany and then Bethphage, not the reverse. This is one of the several passages showing that Mark knew little about Palestine.” Nineham (The Gospel of St. Mark, pgs. 294-295) agrees, “Mark did not know the relative positions of these two villages on the Jericho road.” Another problem concerns the location of Geresa (modern Jerash). As Theissen (The Gospels in Context, pg. 242) explains, “According to 5:1ff, the town of Gerasa and its surrounding lands lie near the Lake of Galilee, although in reality Gerasa is about 65 kilometers southeast of the lake.” Likewise, Raymond Brown (An Introduction to the New Testament, pg. 160) notes, “No one has been able to locate the Dalmanutha of 8:10, and it may be a corruption of Magdala.”

[10] Of course, the common apologetic retort to redactions of this kind normally goes something along the lines of “different emotions can exist in the same man,” when Jesus is depicted in one gospel in a different manner than another. But such rationalizations greatly oversimplify the problem and miss the importance of the Synoptic Gospels’ interdependence in their source material. The author of Luke had a copy of Mark in front of him when he wrote about the passion and crucifixion of Jesus. Yet, at key moments, he made significant alterations in the previous narrative. In the Lukan narrative (23:27), a great number of people follow Jesus during his crucifixion, including a number of women, who are instead stated to have remained at a far in the Markan narrative (15:40). In the Lukan narrative (23:42-43), Jesus is crucified between two criminals, one of whom mocks him, but the other of whom repents. Jesus replies to the repenting criminal and states, “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in paradise.” However, in the Markan narrative (15:32), both of the criminals crucified next to Jesus mock him, and neither repents. In the Markan narrative (15:34-37), Jesus’ last words convey despair: “Jesus cried out in a loud voice, ‘Eloi, Eloi, lema sabachthani?’ (which means ‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?’).” However, in the Lukan narrative (23:46), Jesus’ last words convey resolve and tranquility: “Jesus called out with a loud voice, ‘Father, into your hands I commit my spirit.’ When he had said this, he breathed his last.”

We can try to brush off these differences by rationalizing that each author merely “told one half of the story,” but we know that the author of Luke had access to Mark. The far more natural explanation for the changes is that the author of Luke simply had a different opinion and wished to depict Jesus’ crucifixion in a different way. As I explain in my article about Bible contradictions, this is the type of conclusion that we would reach for any secular text. However, apologists who have presuppositions of inerrancy often twist themselves in logical pretzels to avoid obvious contradictions and redactions between the canonical Gospels. For secular interpreters, however, I think the discrepancies and changes between the different authors are quite clear. Since the author of Luke changed the narrative in Mark to suite a different theological agenda, I think it is quite unlikely that this author thought that the account in Mark was directly based on the teachings of Peter.

[11] Apologists, of course, have attempted to extract authorial personality from selective readings based on a few tenuous passages and uses of vocabulary. For example, apologists have claimed that the author of Luke-Acts uses vocabulary specialized to physicians (the occupation that Luke, the attendant of Paul, was said to have) and takes extra notice of sick people. However, scholar Henry Cadbury in The Style and Literary Method of Luke: The Diction of Luke and Acts has deflated much of these claims by a closer reading of the relevant passages. Cadbury undertook this research when completing his doctorate, and the joke went round in scholarly circles that Cadbury earned his doctorate by denying Luke of his.

[12] Fitzmyer (Acts of the Apostles, pgs. 438-439) elaborates further about this passage: “Luke reports the first visit of Saul to Jerusalem after his flight from Damascus (9:26-29; cf. 22:17; 26:20). It is the first of five, or possibly six, postconversion visits to Jerusalem that will be enumerated (the counting depends on a problematic variant reading). Whether they are all individually historical is problematic. It may be that Luke, dependent on different sources, has historicized and individualized some of the visits, when he should rather have realized that he had inherited more than one record of the same visit … In any case, the first postconversion visit of Saul to Jerusalem in Acts is to be taken as that reported in Gal 1:18: ‘Then after three years I went up to Jerusalem to consult Cephas, and I stayed with him for fifteen days.’ That means ‘three years’ after his experience on the road to Damascus.” As scholar Christopher Matthews (Oxford Annotated Bible, pg. 1937) concludes, “In Gal. 1:18 Paul states that his first visit to Jerusalem was three years after his conversion. Luke associates Paul with Jerusalem from the beginning.”

[13] A common apologetic rationalization for this contradiction is to claim that, because Timothy was born from a Jewish mother, he was racially considered a Jewish Christian, whereas Titus, who was born of both a Greek father and mother, was regarded as a Gentile. However, this interpretation is anachronistic and, as Fitzmyer (Acts of the Apostles, pg. 575) notes, belongs “to a later Mishnaic tradition (m. Kidd. 3:12: ‘the offspring is of her own standing’; cf. Str-B, 2.741).” However, as Cohen (“Was Timothy Jewish?,” pg. 268) explains, the “vast majority of ancient and medieval exegetes did not think” that Timothy was Jewish. “There is no evidence that Paul or the Jews of Asia Minor thought so. Ambrosiaster and his medieval followers did think so, but in all likelihood this interpretation is wrong because there is no evidence that any Jew in premishnaic times thought that the child of an intermarriage followed the status of the mother.”

[14] The first external reference to Tacitus’ Histories is Pliny the Younger’s epistles (7.33.1), a contemporary source, written to the author himself. This would be the equivalent of the apostle Paul, for example, writing a letter to Luke, in which he discussed the composition of Luke’s gospel. Needless, to say, no such evidence of this kind exists for the authorship of the Gospels.

The first external references to possibly quote or allude to the Gospels are Ignatius (c. 105-115 CE) and Polycarp (c. 110-140 CE), whose references can be read respectively here and here, neither of whom attribute the Gospels to any name or author. Justin the Martyr (c. 150-160 CE) later makes explicit quotations and references to the Gospels, but ascribes them under the category of “Memoirs of the Apostles,” without making any reference to their traditional names. Finally, Irenaeus (c. 175-185 CE) refers to the Gospels by their traditional names, and the same attributions are shared by the Muratorian Canon (c. 170-200 CE), which as noted in footnote 3, is probably due to a special edition of the Gospels that may have been published in Rome c. 160-185 CE, which attributed the Gospels to their traditional names. This publication could also explain why two sources from the Western Roman Empire — Irenaeus and the Muratorian Canon — adopted the traditional names not long after. This process, therefore, reflects a process in which the Gospels were originally anonymous at the beginning of their circulation, and were only attributed to their traditional authors after a period of anonymous quotations and allusions.

In the case of Tacitus, the contemporary Pliny identifies him as the author of a “Historiae,” but since he is writing to Tacitus before the work was published, he does not explicit quote material within it. Mendell (Tacitus: The Man And His Work, pgs. 225-226) notes that Claudius Ptolomy (c. 150 CE) was probably familiar with material from Tacitus Annals (4.72-73) in his Geography, and that Cassius Dio (c. 230 CE) was probably familiar with Tacitus’ Agricola. However, neither author quotes or alludes to Tacitus’ works explicitly, and likewise both are writing in Greek, rather than in Latin, which was the language in in which Tacitus authored his historical works. This is nothing like the earliest external references to the Gospels. Ignatius and Polycarp make references that appear to either quote or allude to verses from the canonical Gospels (in Greek, the same language as the Gospels), without attributing them to any particular name. Ptolomy and Dio, in contrast, do not quote or allude to any verses from Tacitus’ works, but simply may be familiar with some of his information (neither author likewise names all of their sources of information). Moreover, Justin the Martyr, despite explicitly quoting verses from the Gospels, simply refers to the them as “Memoirs of the Apostles,” before they were later given their traditional names by subsequent sources. It is not like Ptolomy and Dio referred to Tacitus’ works as “Memoirs of a Roman senator,” before they were attributed by a later source to Tacitus. Finally, when the Gospels were attributed, it was with the abnormal formula κατά “according to,” which, as discussed in footnote 2, is far from a direct claim to authorship. Nobody ever said that Tacitus’ works were written secundum Tacitum (“according to Tacitus”), but instead his works are correctly attributed using the genitive, as discussed in footnote 1.
The earliest external reference to quote material from Tacitus’ historical works is Tertullian (c. 200 CE), who clearly identifies Tacitus as the author in Adv. gentes 16, and refers to the quinta Historiarum (“fifth book of his Histories”). Thus, the external evidence for the authorship of Tacitus may be summed up as follows: Pliny the Younger writes contemporary letters to the historian in which he describes him authoring a “Historiae.” Although Pliny wrote his letters before Tacitus published the work, Tertullian is the next external source to directly refer to this “Historiae,” in which he likewise identifies Tacitus as the author and uses “Historiae as the title of the work in referring to its fifth book. This is in stark contrast to the Gospels, where Ignatius and Polycarp appear to quote or allude to their verses (unlike Ptolomy and Dio, who do not quote or allude to verses in Tacitus) without attributing any author. Then, Justin the Martyr clearly quotes verses from the Gospels, but does not connect them to their traditional names. For Tacitus, in contrast, the earliest external references are unanimous in his authorship, whereas for the Gospels the earliest external references treat the texts anonymously.

[15] There are also many other later Christian texts that were attributed to obscure figures, despite Blomberg’s assertion that unlikely candidates would not be chosen if an attribution was invented. As Robert Price (The Case Against The Case For Christ, pg. 19) elaborates, “In fact apocryphal (which only means ‘not on the official list’ for whatever reason) gospels are attributed to such luminaries as Bartholomew, Judas Iscariot, the prostitute Mary Magdalene, doubting Thomas, the heretical Basilides, the even more heretical Valentinus, Nicodemus, and the replacement Matthias. They didn’t always go for the star names.”

[16] A common apologetic slogan about the church fathers’ attributions is that they allegedly “universally agreed” upon Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, and thus were not speculating about the authors. However, this is only true of the later church fathers from the latter half of the 2nd CE century onward into the 3rd and 4th centuries — such as Irenaeus, Tertullian, Origen, and Eusebius — whereas the earliest references to the texts treat them anonymously (likewise discussed in footnote 14 above). Ignatius (c. 105-115 CE) and Polycarp (c. 110-140 CE), for example, allude to or quote the Gospels anonymously. As NT scholar Bart Ehrman explains, “in any of the writings of the Apostolic Fathers — ten proto-orthodox writers, most of them from the first half of the second century” — the Gospels are not identified by their traditonal names, but are treated anonymously. Later, Justin Martyr (c. 150-160 CE) refers to the Gospels collectively as the “Memoirs of the Apostles.” Later still, Irenaeus (c. 175-185 CE) finally attributes the Gospels to their traditional authors.

This trail reflects a process in which the Gospels were gradually associated with the apostles, until eventually being attributed to specific names, when there were canonical disputes in the latter half of the 2nd century. Sometimes apologists will further claim that, if the attributions were invented, we would expect to see multiple names proposed for the Gospels. However, there is little reason to expect this. If there was only one canonizing movement, then there would only be one set of names attributed to the anonymous works, whereas multiple attributions would only be expected if there were separate, conflicting canonizing movements. Furthermore, as Robert Price (The Case Against The Case For Christ, pg. 18) points out, “We don’t have everyone’s opinions. We are lucky to have what fragments we do that survived the efforts of Orthodox censors and heresiologists to stamp out all ‘heretical’ opinions. However, we do know of a few differing opinions because Tertullian, Justin Martyr, and others had to take the trouble to (try to) refute them. Marcion knew our Gospel of Luke in a shorter form, which he considered to be the original, and he did not identify it as the work of Luke. He may have imagined that Paul wrote that version … Similarly, some understood the gospel [of John] to be Gnostic … and credited it to Cerinthus.”

Finally, there are many other interpretations of the Gospels agreed upon by the church fathers that modern day scholars reject. For example, the early church agreed upon Matthean priority, placing the Gospel of Matthew first in the New Testament. However, modern scholars (and even most apologists) through source analysis and redaction criticism almost universally agree upon Markan priority, and that the Gospel of Matthew was written after Mark and used Mark. This is as radical a deviation from the church fathers’ opinion as doubting their authorial attributions, showing that scholars are not exercising any excessive skepticism when doubting the authorial attributions of the Gospels, as there are many claims of the early church fathers that modern scholars universally reject.

[17] Justin Martyr’s Dialogue with Trypho (106.3) is sometimes cited as evidence that Justin believed that the Gospel of Mark had been written based on the recollections of Peter. The passage refers to Peter’s name being changed from Simon to “Peter,” as well as James and John, the sons of Zebedee, being given the name “Boanerges,” which means “sons of thunder.” This could be a reference to Mk. 3:16-17, which includes references to both name changes. However, Justin does not explicitly refer to the Gospel of Mark (which he never calls by that name), and instead claims that the source of this information came from ἀπομνημονεύμασιν αὐτοῦ (“the memoirs of him”), adding considerable ambiguity to what text Justin is citing here. There are three possibilities that scholars have proposed for the meaning of this passage:

  1. The passage means “the memoirs of Jesus.” This view has been advocated by NT scholar Paul Foster. Under this interpretation, the αὐτοῦ (“of him”) is serving as an objective, rather than subjective, genitive, meaning that the memoirs are “about Jesus,” rather than being written or possessed by Jesus. If this interpretation is correct, then Justin is probably referring to the gospel materials collectively as sources about Jesus, and is not singling out a specific gospel, let alone claiming that the Gospel of Mark was based on the recollections of Peter.
  2. A challenge to the above interpretation is the fact that “Peter” is the nearest antecedent to the αὐτοῦ (“of him”) in the passage, rather than Jesus, meaning that the αὐτοῦ could be referring to Peter as a subjective genitive. In that case, the passage means “the memoirs of Peter.” There is still considerable ambiguity at this point, however, since Justin could be referring to the apocryphal Gospel of Peter rather than the Gospel of Mark. This view has been advocated by Bart Ehrman. If that is the case, Justin is not referring to the Gospel of Mark at all, nor claiming that the text was based on the recollections of Peter; however, a major challenge to this view is the fact that our surviving text of the Gospel of Peter is no longer fully extant, and the opening chapters are lost. The reference to Peter’s name change, as well as the sons of Zebedee being called “Boanerges,” is not included in our surviving Gospel of Peter, but it may have been in an earlier lost portion of the text. Since the opening chapters of the text are lost, however, it is impossible to determine whether this story about the name changes was ever included within the Gospel of Peter.
  3. The passage means “the memoirs of Peter” and is quoting Mk. 3:16-17, meaning that Justin is referring to the Gospel of Mark by this description. This view has been advocated by NT scholar Graham Stanton. Under this third option, Justin may have believed that the Gospel of Mark was based on the recollections of Peter. However, even if this interpretation is correct, it is entirely possible that Justin drew this connection from the writings of Papias (Hist. eccl. 3.39.15), who claimed that John Mark had written a text based on the teachings of Peter. In any event, Papias does not quote from our Gospel of Mark, nor does he even appear to have seen the text that he claims was authored by John Mark, since Papias states in Hist. eccl. 3.39.15 that he had only learned of the text from John the Presbyter. Because of this, the text that Papias is describing cannot be connected with any certainty to the Gospel of Mark. If Justin Martyr is referring to the Gospel of Mark as “the memoirs of Peter,” therefore, he may may have been the first to suggest that the Gospel of Mark was the unknown text that Papias was referring to. This would have little significance for the analysis above, however, since it has already been argued that Irenaeus (c. 185 CE) must have drawn a connection between the Gospel of Mark and the unknown text that Papias claims was authored by John Mark. If Justin (c. 160 CE) made this connection before Irenaeus, then that would only mean that the connection was made a couple decades earlier; it would not mean that Justin corroborates Papias, especially since Papias does not seem to have personally seen the text that John the Presbyter described to him in Hist. eccl. 3.39.15.

Regardless, Justin does not refer to the Gospel of Mark by name in Dial. 106.3, nor does he refer to any of the Gospels (both canonical and apocryphal) by their traditional names. Instead, Justin uses the formula ἀπομνημονεύματα τῶν ἀποστόλων (“memoirs of the apostles”) to refer to the Gospels, which provides evidence that their traditional titles and named appellations had not been made by 160 CE. Otherwise, Justin would have called them by their traditional names, as Irenaeus (185 CE) and the Muratorian Canon (c. 170-200 CE) did a couple decades later. But, as is noted in footnote 3 above, the Gospels’ titles were probably not added until c. 160-185 CE, possibly from an edition that was published in Rome around that time. Even if Justin is referring to the Gospel of Mark when he refers to “the memoirs of Peter,” therefore, that still provides no evidence that the Gospel of Mark had been given its traditional title by Justin’s time. But regardless, the meaning of  ἀπομνημονεύμασιν αὐτοῦ (“the memoirs of him”) in Dial. 106.3 is ambiguous to begin with, and could very well not be referring to the Gospel of Mark, or even Peter’s memoirs, at all.
[18] The internal evidence for Lazarus as the “beloved disciple” is so strong that even conservative NT scholar Ben Witherington supports this interpretation of the figure’s identity. In “Was Lazarus the Beloved Disciple?,” Witherington explains:

“It has been common in Johannine commentaries to suggest that the Beloved Disciple as a figure in the narrative does not show up under that title before John 13. While this case has been argued thoroughly, it overlooks something very important. This Gospel was written in an oral culture for use with non-Christians as a sort of teaching tool to lead them to faith. It was not intended to be handed out as a tract to the non-believer but nevertheless its stories were meant to be used orally for evangelism. In an oral document of this sort, the ordering of things is especially important. Figures once introduced into the narrative by name and title or name and identifying phrase may thereafter be only identified by one or the other since economy of words is at a premium when one is writing a document of this size on a piece of papyrus (Jn. 20.30-31). This brings us to John 11.3 and the phrase hon phileis [‘the one whom you love’]. It is perfectly clear from a comparison of 11.1 and 3 that the sick person in question first called Lazarus of Bethany and then called ‘the one whom you love’ is the same person as in the context the mention of sickness in each verse makes this identification certain. This is the first time in this entire Gospel that any particular person is said to have been loved by Jesus. Indeed one could argue that this is the only named person in the whole Gospel about whom this is specifically said directly. This brings us to Jn. 13.23.
At John 13.23 we have the by now very familiar reference to a disciple whom Jesus loved (hon agapa this time) as reclining on the bosom of Jesus, by which is meant he is reclining on the same couch as Jesus. The disciple is not named here, and notice that nowhere in John 13 is it said that this meal transpired in Jerusalem. It could just as well have transpired in the nearby town of Bethany and this need not even be an account of the Passover meal. Jn. 13.1 in fact says it was a meal that transpired before the Passover meal. This brings us to a crucial juncture in this discussion. In Jn. 11 there was a reference to a beloved disciple named Lazarus. In Jn. 12 there was a mention of a meal at the house of Lazarus. If someone was hearing these tales in this order without access to the Synoptic Gospels it would be natural to conclude that the person reclining with Jesus in Jn. 13 was Lazarus. There is another good reason to do so as well. It was the custom in this sort of dining that the host would recline with or next to the chief guest. The story as we have it told in Jn. 13 likely implies that the Beloved Disciple is the host then. But this in turn means he must have a house in the vicinity of Jerusalem. This in turn probably eliminates all the Galilean disciples.”

Notably, Witherington interprets Lazarus as a historical person who authored John, whereas this article favors the view that the role of Lazarus in John is probably based on a redaction of an allegorical Lazarus in Luke 16:20-31. Even if the Lazarus described in John is not based on this redaction, however, the ancient evidence for a figure by that name who was associated with Jesus’ ministry is extremely limited, being restricted primarily to the gospels Luke and John, which are sources that elsewhere reflect legendary development, allegory, and literary inventions. Given this state of the evidence, it is untenable that Lazarus was actually a historical person, rather than just an allegorical character or literary invention.

Witherington also notes a number of other problems with the tradition that John the son of Zebedee authored the fourth gospel:

“One of the things which is probably fatal to the theory that John son of Zebedee is the Beloved Disciple and also the author of this entire document is that none, and I do mean none, of the special Zebedee stories are included in the Fourth Gospel (e.g. the calling of the Zebedees by Jesus, their presence with Jesus in the house where Jesus raised Jairus’ daughter, the story of the Transfiguration, and also of the special request for special seats in Jesus’ kingdom when it comes, and we could go on). In view of the fact that this Gospel places some stress on the role of eyewitness testimony (see especially Jn. 19-21) it is passing strange that these stories would be omitted if this Gospel was by John of Zebedee, or even if he was its primary source. It is equally strange that the Zebedees are so briefly mentioned in this Gospel as such (see Jn. 21.2) and John is never equated with the Beloved Disciple even in the appendix in John 21 (cf. vs. 2 and 7– the Beloved Disciple could certainly be one of the two unnamed disciples mentioned in vs. 2).”

[19] Other proposed candidates for the author of the fourth gospel include John the Presbyter, John Mark, and Thomas. Regardless, even Christian scholar Raymond Brown (An Introduction to the New Testament, pgs. 368-369) explains, “As with the other Gospels it is doubted by most scholars that this Gospel was written by an eyewitness of the public ministry of Jesus.” What is further noteworthy is that even many conservative NT scholars doubt the traditional authorship of John. Ben Witherington identifies Lazarus as the intended author of the text (discussed in footnote 18 above), and Martin Hengel and Richard Bauckham have proposed John the Presbyter, in place of John the son of Zebedee.

[20] It is not clear that the “beloved disciple” described at the end of John is even intended to be understood as the author of the work. As scholar Robert Kysar (The Anchor Bible Dictionary, v. 3, pgs. 919-920) explains, “The supposition that the author was one and the same with the beloved disciple is often advanced as a means of insuring that the evangelist did witness Jesus’ ministry. Two other passages are advanced as evidence of the same — 19:35 and 21:24. But both falter under close scrutiny. 19:35 does not claim that the author was the one who witnessed the scene but only that the scene is related on the sound basis of eyewitness. 21:24 is part of the appendix of the gospel and should not be assumed to have come from the same hand as that responsible for the body of the gospel. Neither of these passages, therefore, persuades many Johannine scholars that the author claims eyewitness status.”

[21] Likewise, while church tradition maintains that John the son of Zebedee lived to a very old age, there is also a large body of ancient evidence indicating that he died much earlier, being executed alongside his brother James, whose martyrdom is described in Acts 12:2. This body of evidence indicating that John did not live to old age is laid out by scholar F.P. Badham in “The Martyrdom of John the Apostle.” Likewise, even conservative NT scholar Ben Witherington (“Was Lazarus the Beloved Disciple?”) explains:

Papias Fragment 10.17 has now been subjected to detailed analysis by M. Oberweis (NovT 38 1996), and Oberweis, rightly in my judgment draws the conclusion that Papias claimed that John son of Zebedee died early as a martyr like his brother (Acts 12.2). This counts against both the theory that John of Patmos was John of Zebedee and the theory that the latter wrote the Fourth Gospel.”

While it is historically uncertain whether John died alongside James, this body of evidence casts doubt on the tradition that John lived to an old age and thus raises further problems for the notion that John authored the fourth and latest gospel. As I explain in my article about the martyrdom of the disciples, our evidence for any of these church figures is very, very limited. In light of such problematic evidence, in addition to contradictions among our sources, it is not tenable that John the son of Zebedee ever lived to an old enough age to author the gospel later attributed to him. This is just another problem for the authorial tradition of the fourth gospel, in addition to the numerous other ones listed above.

[22] Sometimes apologists cite Irenaeus’ letter to Florinus (Eusib. Hist. eccl. 5.20) as evidence that he knew, on the basis of good authority, that John the disciple authored the fourth gospel. However, this argument is based entirely on speculation. In the letter, Irenaeus states that he knew Polycarp as a child. He also states that Polycarp was a companion of John the disciple. The logic goes that, since Polycarp knew John, he must have told Irenaeus (when he was a kid) that John authored the gospel attributed to his name. However, as scholar R. Alan Culpepper (John, the Son of Zebedee: The Life of a Legend, pg. 126) explains, “In this excerpt from the letter, Irenaeus reminds Florinus of their common experience, sitting at the feet of Polycarp. His point is to remind Florinus that he did not learn his Gnostic views from Polycarp … On the other hand, Irenaeus does not say that Polycarp taught that the apostle John was the author of the Fourth Gospel, the Epistles, or Revelation.” Moreover, Polycarp does not even quote or allude to the Gospel of John in his Letter to the Philippians, despite quoting (or at least making apparent allusions to) verses from Matthew, Mark, Luke, and Acts in the same epistle, which suggests that Polycarp was possibly not even aware of the fourth gospel.

Finally, it should be pointed out that the same logic used in this speculative argument can be applied to support other, more absurd conclusions. For example, Irenaeus (Against Heresies 5.33.4) also states that the church father Papias was a companion of Polycarp and a “hearer of John” (though many scholars think that this refers to John the Presbyter). This is very interesting, because earlier in the same chapter (5.33.3), Irenaeus preserves a fragment of Papias, in which he records a teaching of Jesus that was supposedly related by John the disciple:

“As the elders who saw John, the disciple of the Lord, related that they had heard from him how the Lord used to teach in regard to these times, and say: The days will come, in which vines shall grow, each having ten thousand branches, and in each branch ten thousand twigs, and in each true twig ten thousand shoots, and in each one of the shoots ten thousand clusters, and on every one of the clusters ten thousand grapes, and every grape when pressed will give five and twenty metretes of wine. And when any one of the saints shall lay hold of a cluster, another shall cry out, ‘I am a better cluster, take me; bless the Lord through me.’”

Unlike in the case of Irenaeus’ complete silence about allegedly learning from Polycarp that John authored the fourth gospel, here Papias explicitly claims that John the disciple related this teaching of Jesus. And yet scholars (including apologists) universally dismiss this supposed teaching of Jesus as spurious. The reason why is that it is obvious that Papias got it from the Apocalypse of Baruch (29.5), an apocryphal Jewish text, which contains some of the same verses. And yet, the exact same logic can be used to support the argument that Papias learned this teaching from Polycarp. In fact, Papias even states that this teaching was related by “the elders who saw John, the disciple of the Lord,” which is a category of people to which Polycarp belonged. So, did Polycarp teach Papias this teaching of Jesus, which he himself learned from John? There is as much evidence (in fact, more) to support this notion as there is to support the speculation that Polycarp taught Irenaeus that John authored the fourth gospel. Needless to say, speculative arguments like this have not persuaded critical scholars that Irenaeus claimed John as the author of the fourth gospel on the basis of good authority. Instead, Bart Ehrman (Forged, pg. 227) explains quite nicely the more likely process behind how Irenaeus assigned the fourth gospel to John:

“The Fourth Gospel was thought to belong to a mysterious figure referred to in the book as ‘the Beloved Disciple’ (see, e.g., John 21:20-24), who would have been one of Jesus’ closest followers. The three closest to Jesus, in our early traditions, were Peter, James, and John. Peter was already explicitly named in the Fourth Gospel, so he could not be the Beloved Disciple; James was known to have been martyred early in the history of the church and so would not have been the author. That left John, the son of Zebedee. So he [Irenaeus] assigned the authorship to the Fourth Gospel.”

This process, needless to say, reflects speculation, and Irenaeus (Against Heresies 3.11.8) further had to justify the inclusion of a fourth gospel by arguing that there are “four winds” and “four corners” of the Earth. Likewise, it is obvious that Irenaeus favored John, in part, because he was an inner disciple of Jesus. By claiming apostolic authorship, therefore, Irenaeus was able to help grant the fourth gospel canonical status during Christian canonical disputes that took place during the latter half of the 2nd century CE, regardless of whether the attribution was spurious.

[23] A minority of scholars have defended the 2nd century attributions and “eyewitness” status of the canonical Gospels’ authorship, perhaps most notably Richard Bauckham in Jesus and the Eyewitnesses. Bauckham’s arguments have received considerable criticism by subsequent scholars, including critical reviews from NT scholars David Catchpole, Stephen J. Patterson, and Theodore J. Weeden Sr. in Journal for the Study of the Historical Jesus. A good summary of a number of the problems that scholars have raised with Bauckham’s arguments can be found here.

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