An Open Letter to Conservative Christian Apologists: Stop Misstating the Evidence for the Authorship of the Gospels!

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“The majority of critical scholars believe that the Gospels were written by eyewitnesses.”

— Michael Licona, evangelical NT scholar, in a debate with Bart Ehrman (February 2018)

“We have strong reasons to accept the authenticity of Jesus’ claims of deity found in the gospel of John. For example, external evidence is virtually unanimous in ascribing the gospel’s authorship to the apostle John, who was an intimate eyewitness of Jesus’ ministry.”

–Josh and Sean McDowell, evangelical apologists in Evidence that Demands a Verdict, p. 177

 

 

Dear Apologists and Pastors,

Truth matters. I hope you will agree with me on that point. And when the discussion involves religion and faith, subjects which so seriously affect the lives of millions of people, we should keep our conversations and debates on the topic based on facts not falsehoods.

In reference to the quotes above, the first statement is false; the second statement is at best misleading if not also false. The majority of critical scholars do not believe that eyewitnesses wrote the Gospels. If you do not believe me, ask conservative New Testament scholar Richard Bauckham. In his book, “Jesus and the Eyewitnesses”, he clearly states that the current majority view in New Testament scholarship is that eyewitnesses did not author the Gospels. He disagrees with this majority scholarly opinion but does not deny that it is the majority view.

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The second statement is ambiguous. Is the claim that “external evidence is virtually unanimous” for John the Apostle being the author of the Gospel of John an opinion of the authors or are they insinuating that this is the “virtually unanimous” opinion of most scholars? If it is the latter, they are very wrong. Most New Testament scholars do not believe that John the Apostle authored the Gospel of John, including conservative scholar Richard Bauckham! (again, read his book, “Jesus and the Eyewitnesses”)

“Ok, so maybe it is true that the majority of New Testament scholars do not believe that eyewitnesses wrote the Gospels, but this is due to a bias: The majority of NT scholars are liberals who have a bias against the supernatural. For instance, the majority of scholars refuse to consider an earlier dating for the writing of the Gospel of Mark due to a bias against Jesus’ ability to prophesy the destruction of the Temple,” some conservative Christian apologists and pastors will respond.

This again is false.

Raymond Brown, a highly respected Roman Catholic scholar who very much believed in the existence of the supernatural and the bodily resurrection of Jesus makes this statement in his book, “The Death of the Messiah”:

 I have already said that I do not think of the evangelists themselves as eyewitnesses of the passion; nor do I think that eyewitness memories of Jesus came down to the evangelists without considerable reshaping and development. p. 14

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Does it matter that one respected Roman Catholic scholar agrees with liberal scholars that the Gospels were not written by eyewitnesses? Maybe not, but the fact is it’s not just one Roman Catholic scholar. And the last time I checked, Roman Catholics very much believe in the supernatural! Look at this statement from the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops:

“The questions of authorship, sources, and the time of composition of this gospel [Matthew] have received many answers, none of which can claim more than a greater or lesser degree of probability. The one now favored by the majority of scholars is the following. The ancient tradition that the author was the disciple and apostle of Jesus named Matthew (see Mt 10:3) is untenable because the gospel is based, in large part, on the Gospel according to Mark (almost all the verses of that gospel have been utilized in this), and it is hardly likely that a companion of Jesus would have followed so extensively an account that came from one who admittedly never had such an association rather than rely on his own memories. The attribution of the gospel to the disciple Matthew may have been due to his having been responsible for some of the traditions found in it, but that is far from certain.” –from the website of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops

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From About Catholics, a Roman Catholic website:

“They [the Gospels] were anonymously written. In fact most scholars today do not believe that the evangelists were eyewitnesses for the simple reason that their chronology of events and theological interpretations are different. The titles of the gospels were added in the second century and very well could designate the authority behind the finished gospel or the one who wrote one of the main sources of the gospel. The [Roman Catholic] Church takes no official stance on their authorship. It is important to understand that the Church by its authority and the guidance of the Holy Spirit canonized these four gospels over many others that were circulated and read in the early centuries.”

In addition, respected Anglican New Testament scholar NT Wright (who believes in the supernatural and the bodily resurrection of Jesus) has said,

“I don’t know who the authors of the Gospels were, nor does anyone else.”

In conclusion, it isn’t just liberal scholars who doubt or question the eyewitness authorship of the Gospels, it seems to be practically all scholars except fundamentalist and conservative Protestant scholars! Those are the facts, dear apologists and pastors.

The reading public deserves honest facts and statements. Please in the future consider refraining from repeating the false claim that the majority of scholars believe that eyewitnesses wrote the Gospels, and, the equally false claim that the reason that the majority of scholars doubt the eyewitness authorship of the Gospels is because they are biased against the supernatural. Neither are true. The majority of scholars doubt the eyewitness authorship of the Gospels because of the evidence! Scholars who believe in the eyewitness authorship of the Gospels are a small minority, consisting almost entirely of fundamentalist and conservative Protestants.

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6 thoughts on “An Open Letter to Conservative Christian Apologists: Stop Misstating the Evidence for the Authorship of the Gospels!

  1. Re: “We have strong reasons to accept the authenticity of Jesus’ claims of deity found in the gospel of John. For example, external evidence is virtually unanimous in ascribing the gospel’s authorship to the apostle John, who was an intimate eyewitness of Jesus’ ministry.”

    About this statement (above), you say “the second statement is at best misleading if not also false. The majority of critical scholars do not believe that eyewitnesses wrote the Gospels.”

    This is another of your “if cows have wings, then why don’t we see them flying” arguments. Nobody ever said cows had wings, and in the statement (above), nobody said a single thing about whether the majority of scholars believe eyewitnesses wrote the Gospels.

    What the statement DOES say is that EXTERNAL EVIDENCE IS VIRTUALLY UNANIMOUS in ascribing authorship of John to the Apostle John. And, this is entirely correct. The majority of External Evidence available does indeed ascribe the Gospel to the Apostle John.

    So, in short, you’re just making up an argument that doesn’t exist. I don’t know if it’s due to a reading comprehension problem, or, if you just like to make things up.

    If you want to make an argument about what was said, show how the External Evidence that we have available DOESN’T ascribe the authorship of John to the apostle.

    But, don’t go dragging in something about “the majority of scholars”, when that’s not even part of the original statement.

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    1. And you are once again missing the point:

      The McDowells are attempting to use the claim that “external evidence is virtually unanimous in ascribing the gospel’s authorship to the apostle John” to support their contention that we can trust the historicity of the very high Christological claims that Jesus makes in the Gospel of John which are absent from the Synoptics. Now, if the McDowells had said “in our opinion, the external evidence is virtually unanimous…” that would be fine with me as that is just their opinion. But the way the statement is worded could be interpreted that this is the consensus opinion of scholars…that there is overwhelming external (outside of the text) evidence supporting the apostle’s authorship of this gospel.

      That is why I labeled this statement as ambiguous, not an outright falsehood.

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      1. And here is the MASSIVE amount of external evidence which demonstrates that the Apostle John most probably did NOT write the Gospel of John:

        Matthew Ferguson, doctoral candidate in Classics:

        External Evidence:

        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 Tertullian (c. 200 CE), who was the next author to directly refer to it. Tertullian names Tacitus as the author in Adv. gentes 16, and refers to the “fifth book of his Histories” (quinta Historiarum). Regarding subsequent citations of Tacitus’ historical works, Mendell (Tacitus: The Man And His Work, pg. 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. We have precisely the opposite situation 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, 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.”

        Below are the first references and quotations of the Gospels among external source, which treat them anonymously for some decades after their composition:

        Ignatius (c. 105-115 CE) appears to quote phrases from Matthew (see here), and to allude to the star over Bethlehem (Mt. 2:1-12) in his Letter to the Ephesians (19:2); however, Ignatius does not attribute any of this material to the disciple Matthew nor does he refer to a “Gospel according to Matthew.” Polycarp (c. 110-140 CE) likewise appears to quote multiple phrases and verses from Matthew, Mark, and Luke (see here), and yet he neither attributes any of this material to their traditional authors nor refers to their traditional titles. There is scholarly dispute, however, as to whether Ignatius and Polycarp are quoting written texts, or instead interacting with oral traditions. As such, it is uncertain whether these two authors are directly referencing the Gospels that we possess today.

        A stronger case can be made that the Epistle of Barnabas (80-120 CE) quotes Matthew (22:14), particularly because the epistle says “it is written” (4:14), when referring to the verse “many are invited, but few are chosen”; and yet, the Epistle of Barnabas does not attribute this verse to a text written by the disciple Matthew. What is further worth noting is that the Epistle of Barnabas (4:3) also refers to the Book of Enoch, and states “as Enoch saith,” showing that the epistle refers to traditional authorship elsewhere, when it was known.

        Even more important, however, is when the Didache (c. 50-120 CE) directly quotes the Lord’s prayer (8:3-11), which is written in Matthew 6:9-13. This quotation is important, because the Didache attributes these verses to “His (Jesus’) Gospel” (ο κυριος εν τω ευαγγελιω αυτου) without referring to a “Gospel according to Matthew.” What the Didache is probably referring to, therefore, is the original title of the Gospels, before they were attributed to their traditional names. As discussed under the “Internal Evidence” section above, the Gospels were most likely originally referred to under the title το ευαγγελιον Ιησου Χριστου (“The Gospel of Jesus Christ”); however, when later there were multiple gospels in circulation, the construction κατα (“according to”) was added, in order to distinguish individual gospels by their designated names. The Didache likely preserves, therefore, a trace of their original titles, which were anonymous.

        Justin Martyr (c. 150-160 CE) later makes explicit references and quotations of the Gospels (see here), but ascribes them under the collective title of “Memoirs of the Apostles,” without making any explicit mention of their traditional names. Finally, Irenaeus (c. 175-185 CE) refers to the Gospels by their traditional names in the late-2nd century (see here). As such, there is a clear development in which the Gospels were first referred to anonymously by external sources, and only later associated with their traditional attributions. For this reason, Ehrman (Forged, pg. 225) concludes:

        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 some century after the Gospels’ original composition, around the time of the church father Irenaeus, that they were even given their traditional authorial attributions [20]. 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…

        Gary: The external evidence for the traditional authorship of the Gospels (and in this discussion, the Gospel of John, in particular) is pathetic. The external evidence strongly points to the original Gospels being anonymous for over one hundred years!

        …and there is much, much more. Click here to read the entire fascinating post: https://celsus.blog/2013/12/17/why-scholars-doubt-the-traditional-authors-of-the-gospels/

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  2. “external evidence is virtually unanimous in ascribing the gospel’s authorship to the apostle John”

    I don’t know what those guys are using the external evidence in support of. The quote you posted simply doesn’t say what they were talking *about*. It simply states that the “external evidence is virtually unanimous in ascribing the gospel’s authorship to the apostle John”.

    And, this is a correct statement. However, it does not at all mean that the external evidence that we have is sufficient to determine *who* wrote the gospel. But, in the quote you posted, they’re not saying that. They’re simply stating a well-known fact.

    The *debate* about the external evidence is not whether it is almost unanimous in ascribing the authorship of the gospel to John. The debate is about whether that evidence is really good enough evidence to actually *support* John’s authorship.

    But, it is exactly true that the external evidence – such as we have – is virtually unanimous in ascribing the authorship of the gospel to John.

    In other words – externally, you don’t find early evidence saying John *didn’t* write the gospel. What we have is statements by Iraneus, or maybe Polycarp, and so on. Whether any of these are *good* evidences is another matter altogether. But, what the authors of that quote are saying is, in itself, correct.

    As far as whether I get the point or not – yeh, I get your point. But the quote you chose has nothing to do with the point you want to make.

    And, that’s why I said it’s yet another one of your “if cows got wings, why don’t we see them flying” arguments. Heck, half the arguments you make are total non-sequiturs to the material you’re arguing against, and this one is a classic example of that.

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    1. But, it is exactly true that the external evidence – such as we have – is virtually unanimous in ascribing the authorship of the gospel to John.

      Wrong. The external evidence conclusively demonstrates that prior to the end of the second century (for approximately 100 years after the first gospel was written), the earliest Church Fathers did not refer to these books as written by any specific author. They simply referred to these books as “The Memoirs of the Apostles”.

      “The earliest attestation is usually the best attestation”

      The earliest attestation in this case is that the earliest Church Fathers never refer to the authors of these four books when quoting them, strongly indicating that they did not believe that the traditional authors wrote the four canonical gospels. It is very probable that Irenaeus or some other heresy hunter in the late second century invented the traditional apostolic authorship to combat all the new “gospels” popping up all over the Empire!

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  3. Wrong. The fact that the earliest Church Fathers never refer to the authors of these four books when quoting them is basis for nothing more than an argument from silence.

    And, besides, we were talking specifically about the gospel of John. What are you dragging the other gospels into this for?

    This is why I don’t bother coming here much anymore. You just come up with some of the most non-sequential BS I’ve ever read anywhere. It’s virtually impossible to have a rational discussion with you.

    So, already, I’m off this thread. This is going nowhere except into your usual black hole of incomprehensible and unconnected blips of mental static…

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