The Big Hole in the Conservative Christian Argument for the Apostolic Authorship of the Gospels

Image result for image of a hole in an argument

Conservative Christian Blogger:  [W]hen it comes to the gospels, there are huge double standards. They are often presumed to be guilty until proven innocent. Normal ways of doing history seemingly get thrown out the window. And a big example of this is when it comes to the debate [regarding the] authorship of the gospels.  We have very good external evidence that the gospels were written by the names traditionally ascribed to them — Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John.

[The Christian blog author then gives a list of statements by multiple early Church Fathers regarding the apostolic authorship of the Gospels.  Click here to read.]

…So despite all the external confirmation that we have to the authorship and early use of the four gospels, that’s not good enough. Yet this “no one knows who really wrote the gospels” isn’t anything new. It’s notable that it wasn’t a criticism brought forward until around 400 AD by Faustus the Manichean.  Now there were all kinds of critics of Christianity that we have a record of in the first three centuries of the church. Yet no one challenges who wrote the gospels until 400? Why so long?  Augustine was not having it. Here is his response:

“Why does no one doubt the genuineness of the books attributed to Hippocrates? Because there is a succession of testimonies to the books from the time of Hippocrates to the present day, which makes it unreasonable either now or hereafter to have any doubt on the subject. How do we know the authorship of the works of Plato, Aristotle, Cicero, Varro, and other similar writers, but by the unbroken chain of evidence?”

In other words: “double standards much?!”. Historians normally drool over the kind of evidence we for the authorship of the gospels. It’s early. It comes from writers from all over the Roman empire. And there’s no rival tradition.

Image result for image of papias
Papias of Hierapolis

Gary:  It is true that several second century Church Fathers such as Justin Martyr, Irenaeus, Clement, and the author of the Muratorian Fragment all indicate their belief that the Apostle Matthew, John Mark, Luke the physician, and the Apostle John wrote the Gospels, but the question is, why? We have no good evidence that any of these men ever met one of the apostles. So where did they get their information? Notice that among these Church Fathers listed above, Justin Martyr was the closest to the events in question but he wasn’t even born until the second century! Is it possible that all these men believed in the apostolic authorship of the Gospels based on one source: Papias? Many scholars suggest this is the case.

And how reliable a source was Papias? Papias admits that his sources were not eyewitnesses, but the disciples of the disciples of the eyewitnesses. How reliable is third hand information? In addition, we have statements of “eyewitness testimony” from Papias which are clearly fictional: He believed that Judas Iscariot’s body parts swelled up so big that he could not pass through a city street. Eusebius questioned the intelligence of Papias. Papias was also known as a mystic. Does he sound like a good source upon which to base one’s belief in the apostolic authorship of the Gospels?

And what about your claim that Irenaeus was a disciple of Polycarp who was a disciple of the Apostle John? Well, that is a very contested claim! No where does Irenaeus or Polycarp claim that Polycarp was a disciple of “the Apostle John”. What they state is that Polycarp was a disciple of “the Elder John”. Who was the Elder John? Answer: No one knows for sure. Some believe that he was the Apostle John, but others, including prominent conservative evangelical Christian New Testament scholar, Richard Bauckham, believe that John the Elder was a former Jewish high priest in Jerusalem who became a disciple of Jesus…but he was NOT John the son of Zebedee (the Apostle John). So how good is the evidence that Polycarp was a disciple of John the Apostle if even evangelical scholars contest that claim?

Yes, several second century Church Fathers believed that the apostles authored the Gospels, but just because they believed that, is it true?

The real problem for your argument is not that the majority of liberal, atheist, and agnostic scholars doubt the apostolic authorship of the Gospels, but that the majority of Roman Catholic scholars doubt the apostolic authorship of the Gospels. No one can credibly accuse Roman Catholic scholars of a bias against the supernatural or for having a double standard for the writings of Christianity. So why would so many Roman Catholic scholars, with the tacit approval of very conservative popes such as John Paul II and Pope Benedict, hold such a position if they did not feel that that is what the evidence indicates? THAT is the biggest problem for your argument that the majority consensus of scholars on the non-eyewitness authorship of the Gospels is based on a double standard or a bias. In fact, the evidence for a bias points in the other direction: The only scholars, with few exceptions, who hold to the traditional apostolic authorship of the Gospels are very conservative evangelicals and fundamentalist Protestants. Why is that??



End of post.



9 thoughts on “The Big Hole in the Conservative Christian Argument for the Apostolic Authorship of the Gospels

  1. One thing I still fail to understand is why these Christians present the “evidence” as if it’s somehow a compelling reason to believe that a man rose from the dead. The author of that site says the following about himself:

    “I was raised Catholic but had a very shallow understanding of the faith. I eventually became an atheist and remained one for several years. I eventually started doubting my doubts, and that led me into a journey for the truth. During that journey, the Holy Spirit got in my “bubble” and revealed himself to me in a real way.
    I knew that Jesus was real and I wanted others to know him.” [my emphasis added]

    First of all, why would you ever start doubting skepticism? I’ll grant he was an atheist, but I have a hard time with the idea that he was ever a skeptic. In the end his conversion didn’t seem to have anything to do with the evidence. God revealed himself, and now this guy is sure that Christianity is true. Great. I’ve never had an experience with the Holy Spirit, and I don’t even know how I would know if I did. If the Holy Spirit can convince anyone that Christianity is true, why are these apologists out there trying to convince us instead? Why even bother to present this evidence if that evidence isn’t what convinced you in the first place?

    I really don’t understand the minds of apologists.


    1. Jesus doesn’t like evidence, Herald. Jesus prefers that you believe without evidence (blindly). At least that is what the anonymous author of John says that Jesus said to Doubting Thomas.


      1. I’m just frustrated with some apologists, and their style.There seems to be a good number of apologists out there that who were convinced for some reason or other, but present completely different reasons and evidence than what convinced them in the first place. To me it comes down to:
        * a admission that their reasons are not good, and that this isn’t going to convince a skeptic
        * their apologetics isn’t really meant for skeptics in the first place

        I tend to favor the latter over the former.


  2. Gary, all the writings of Tacitus and Plutarch are “anonymous” in the same way that the Gospels are “anonymous” – but that doesn’t bother you. Herein lies the double standard.

    All the writings of Tacitus and Plutarch are valuable, historical sources, despite being anonymous – so the Gospels can be valuable, historical sources, even if they are anonymous. If you dismiss them as unreliable historically because of their “anonymity” – that’s the double standard.

    “The first is that there is no competing tradition of authorship. There is no record of any other authorship being attributed to any of these works. No ancient pro- or anti-christian writer ever ascribed any of the four Gospels to anyone other than Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. If these were anonymous documents that only had names attached to them later, it’s amazing that all Christians, everywhere, all attached the same four authors to the same four anonymous documents all at about the same time, and never mixed them up. The comparatively early dating (ca AD 120) for the names being connected to the writings is also not to be dismissed. With the church growing as it did, the later a person claims the date for false attribution, the bigger a problem it is to explain how a late authorship tradition was adopted by all of Christendom.”

    “Here is a brief comparison of the authorship tradition of the Gospels with that of Tacitus. Tactius’ Annuls were the last of his works to be published, probably in about AD 116. The first time anyone directly named Tacitus as the author of any of his works was Tertullian, an early Christian writer and apologist, in the early third century. This is about 100 years after Tacitus wrote.

    We need to wait until the end of the fourth or beginning of the fifth century for Tacitus to again be directly attributed as author of any of his works, in the Augustan History.

    By contrast, we have evidence (via church historian Eusebius) that Papias named Matthew and Mark as the author of those Gospels by AD 120. This is at most 50 years after Mark was written, and 30 years after John was written, according to the most accepted dating of the Gospels. About 60 years after Papias in c 180 AD, Irenaeus names each of the evangelists as the authors of their works. This is followed by Tertullian in about 207 AD and Origen in approximately 245 AD.

    All this is to show, that when compared to an accepted authorship tradition of a secular writer, Matthew, Mark, Luke and John are better attested as authors of the Gospels. The traditions for their authorship begin within 30 years of the writing of John, and continue for centuries without debate.”

    No competing tradition. How did the entire church decide to follow Papias’s supposed naming of the Gospels that you propose, even though it’s pretty clear that he himself is passing on the names he has been given of the authors of the Gospels?

    It’s also very unlikely that the Gospels would have been circulated anonymously… but anyway, keep railing against the well-attested authorship of the Gospels, when even NT Wright and others who set aside the traditional authorship still believe in the bodily, physical resurrection of Jesus because of the body of evidence.


    1. Why do you persist in failing to address the “hole” in your argument: Why do the overwhelming majority of Roman Catholic scholars reject the apostolic authorship of the Gospels? Roman Catholic scholars do not have a bias against the supernatural. Roman Catholic scholars have every incentive, like you, to claim that the Gospels are eyewitness sources? So why don’t they???


  3. And about Thomas –

    ‘“This is not the doubt of a philosophical materialist, someone who thinks that all that exists in the universe is matter and energy and time and space,” Carson said. “… Thomas was a first-century, devout Jew. He believed the Old Testament.”

    When Jesus died on the cross, Thomas likely felt that the situation was hopeless and his faith had been misplaced, Carson said. Thomas was reluctant to believe Jesus had been resurrected because he did not want to misplace his faith again, he said.

    Modern believers should not consider Thomas an entirely bad example because all Christians must be cautious about placing their faith in people and practices that appear untrustworthy, he said.

    “This is really a kind of faith that eschews gullibility,” Carson said. “There are all kinds of Christians around that are ready to believe almost anything. Thomas isn’t one of them.”

    When Thomas felt the wounds in Jesus’ hands and side, he realized the reality of the resurrection confessed that Jesus was Lord and God, Carson said.

    Upon first consideration, the fact that Jesus rose from the dead does not seem to indicate conclusively that Jesus is God because other people in the Bible rose from the dead, he said. But when one considers Jesus’ resurrection combined with His claims to deity in the gospels, the evidence indicates that He is God, Carson said.

    Like Thomas, all humans should make a personal profession of allegiance to Christ when they realize His deity, he said.

    “This is not some sort of a liturgical profession,” Carson said. “… This is intensely personal, the kind of personal confession we must make again and again and again. We must never distance ourselves from the Christ of the text, but in all of our study still bow before Him and cry, ‘My Lord. My God.’”

    Some Christians have argued from the story of Thomas that faith based upon a lack of evidence is morally superior to faith based upon evidence, Carson said. Such a view is incorrect, however, and misunderstands John’s purpose in recording the story of Thomas, he said.

    “In our culture the word ‘faith’ regularly means something like, ‘subjective, personal, religious choice abstracted from any truth claim,’” he said.

    “But of the various ways in which the word faith is used in the New Testament, not once is it used that way.”

    Biblical faith must be based on objective truth, Carson said. He stressed that faith which seems more unreasonable is not necessarily more valuable.

    “The Bible never asks you to believe anything that isn’t true,” he said. “Never. Part of faith’s validation is the truthfulness of faith’s object.’


    1. The overwhelming majority of scholars, including Roman Catholic scholars who very much believe in the supernatural, miracles, and the bodily resurrection of Jesus, reject the apostolic authorship of the Gospels. Why should anyone believe you, a non-expert, and reject the overwhelming expert consensus?

      Liked by 1 person

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