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Study Resources :: Text Commentaries :: Don Stewart :: Which Written Records about Jesus Are Trustworthy?

Don Stewart :: Who Wrote the Four Gospels?

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Who Wrote the Four Gospels?

Which Written Records about Jesus Are Trustworthy? – Question 2

The only firsthand testimony that we have about the life and teachings of Jesus comes from the four Gospels. Who were the people that wrote these books? The traditional authorship is credited to Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. How do we know this is correct? What evidence is there that these people actually wrote the gospels that are attributed to them?

There Are Three Basic Reasons to Trust the Traditional Authorship

There are three basic reasons why we believe these men wrote the four gospels that bear their names rather than these documents being composed by someone else. We can state these reasons as follows.

There Is Unanimous Tradition as to the Authorship of the Four Gospels

To begin with, in the ancient world, the four gospels are unanimously attributed to Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. Indeed, there are no other candidates. Every ancient source that deals with their authorship attributes the gospels to these men and to nobody else.

There is something else which needs to be stressed. The four gospels were accepted as authoritative works on the life of Christ by the first generation of Christians. Since the gospels were received as trustworthy at an early date, it is unlikely, if not impossible to believe, that the original authors of these works would have been forgotten. To quickly command acceptance from the people who believed in Jesus, it had to have an author that was known to them as well as from someone who could be accepted as an authoritative source. Each of the four gospels met these criteria.

Three of the Four Are Unlikely Authors

The authors of our four gospels would not have been the obvious choices to write the accounts of the life of Christ. Only one of these four men (John) was a prominent character in the New Testament. The others, though mentioned, were relatively minor figures. Why attribute a book to Matthew, Mark, and Luke if they were not the authors? The evidence for these unlikely choices is as follows.

Matthew

Matthew was a former tax collector who was a minor figure in the New Testament. He records his own conversion as follows:

As Jesus went on from there, He saw a man named Matthew sitting at the tax office, and He said to him, “Follow Me!” So he got up and followed Him. (Matthew 9:9 HCSB)

The fact that Matthew had collected taxes for Rome, from his own people, would have made him hated by the Jews. Apart from Judas, he would have been the least loved of the twelve apostles. Why attribute a gospel to him if you are targeting Jewish people with the good news about Jesus? He would seem the least likely candidate among the twelve. Yet, the first gospel has always been attributed to him.

Mark

Mark was not one of the Twelve. He is identified in the New Testament in a number of passages. For example, it was at the house of his mother Mary, which some members of the early church gathered to pray:

So, when he had considered this, he came to the house of Mary, the mother of John whose surname was Mark, where many were gathered together praying. (Acts 12:12 NKJV)

Therefore, the family of Mark was intimately involved with the work of the early church.

We also find that Mark went along with Barnabas and Saul on a missionary voyage. We read about this in the Book of Acts. It says,

And Barnabas and Saul returned to Jerusalem after they had completed their relief mission, on which they took John Mark. (Acts 12:25 HCSB)

Therefore, this man was a missionary.

However, at a later time, Paul refused to take him along on another missionary journey. We read about this later in the Book of Acts:

Barnabas wanted to take along John Mark. But Paul did not think it appropriate to take along this man who had deserted them in Pamphylia and had not gone on with them to the work. There was such a sharp disagreement that they parted company, and Barnabas took Mark with him and sailed off to Cyprus. (Acts 15:37-39 HCSB)

With such an unfavorable description of Mark by Paul, it is remarkable one of the four gospels would have been attributed to him had he not written it. Yet this is what we have.

Fortunately, Paul eventually found Mark use in the ministry. In his last letter, Paul wrote to Timothy and mentioned John Mark:

Only Luke is with me. Get Mark and bring him with you, for he is useful in my ministry. (2 Timothy 4:11 NRSV)

Interestingly, we find two of the four gospel writers, Mark and Luke, with Paul while he was in prison awaiting execution.

Luke

This brings us to our next unlikely candidate, Luke. He was not one of the Twelve. Rather, he was seemingly a Gentile and a traveling companion of Paul. He is only mentioned by name three times in the New Testament.

In the final part of his letter to the Colossians, Paul calls him the beloved physician. We read,

Luke, the beloved physician, and Demas, greet you. (Colossians 4:14 KJV)

He was obviously familiar to the people of Colosse.

Paul also mentions Luke in his letter to Philemon, along with others who send their greetings. He wrote the following:

...and so do Mark, Aristar’chus, Demas, and Luke, my fellow workers. (Philemon 24 RSV)

Luke was seemingly familiar to Philemon.

Yet this is all which we know of him. Once again, we find a minor character in the New Testament unanimously attributed to having a gospel written by him.

The unanimous attestation of these unlikely authors is another strong reason for accepting the traditional view that they penned their respective gospels. Other names, prominent in the New Testament, would have carried more weight with people than these three relatively unknown individuals. Again, there is no reason to attribute authorship to these people had they not written these works. None whatsoever.

The Documents Were Identified By Tags

The early preservation of the name of the author is another consideration. It was a common literary practice during the time of Christ to preserve the name of the author of a written work. Scrolls with written text on both sides had tags glued to them (called a sittybos in Greek) that insured the preservation of the author’s name. They were attached in such a way that a person could see who authored the scroll without unrolling it. This is similar to the function of the spine on our modern books; one does not have to open the book to find out who wrote it.

With four different written gospels circulating, there needed to be a way to distinguish them from each other. The term “gospel” would not be enough, seeing that there was more than one circulating. Therefore the church had to preserve the name of each gospel writer at an early date. The tag on the outside of the scroll would accomplish that purpose. It would read in Greek, “Gospel of Matthew” or “Gospel of Mark.”

The fact that this happened is clear in that there are no variations in the titles of the gospels. Every source is unanimous that Matthew wrote Matthew, Mark wrote Mark, Luke penned his gospel, and John wrote his.

These three reasons, the unanimous testimony of the church, the unlikely authorship of these men, and the early identification of the document, all present a strong case for the traditional authorship of the gospels.

The Apocryphal Gospels Claimed Authorship From More Prominent Figures

There is one more thing that should be mentioned. The apocryphal, or false gospels, that sprang up later in the history of the church did use the names of more important New Testament characters as their supposed author. Thus, we have such works as the “Gospel of Mary,” the “Gospel of Peter,” and the “Gospel of James. Peter, Mary, and James, Jesus’ brother, are three of the most prominent figures in the New Testament and thus, certain writings were attributed to them after the time of the apostles.

While nobody seriously believes these people wrote the so-called “gospels” credited to them, it does point out their prominence as well as providing further confirmation that the gospels we now have, Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, come from the people traditionally believed to have written them.

Summary – Question 2
Who Wrote the Four Gospels?

Four separate works known as gospels have recorded the life and ministry of Jesus Christ for us. The traditional authorship is credited to Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. There are three basic reasons why we believe these men wrote the four gospels. We can list them as follows.

First, the early church was unanimous in their testimony as to the individual authorship of each gospel. There are no other candidates! This point alone should answer the question.

However, there is more. Apart from John, the writers of the various gospels were obscure figures in the history of the church. Matthew was a hated tax collector. He certainly would not have been an expected author of one of the gospels.

Mark was once considered to be unprofitable by the Apostle Paul for the ministry. One would think a person like that would not have been chosen to write one of the gospels. Yet, he was.

The author of the third gospel, Luke, was not even Jewish. Like Matthew and Mark, he is an obscure New Testament character.

So we have the obvious question. Why attribute these sacred writings to them if they did not compose them? There is no reason to credit these men with the writing of the gospels had they not done it.

At the time of Christ it was also a practice to glue a tag on the outside of a scroll. The purpose of this tag was to identify the individual author of the work. This practice made certain the name of the author was retained. This is another factor that can cause us to be certain the correct authors have been identified.

Add to this the fact that people like Peter, Mary, and James had gospels attributed to them later in the church. They were much more prominent figures than Matthew, Mark and Luke. Again, why attribute a gospel to a lesser known figure when there were more prominent individuals who would seem more likely candidates?

The evidence is clear and convincing. The traditional belief that Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John wrote the four gospels is the only view that fits the known facts.

What Are the Main Issues We Face in Determining the Reliability of the New Testament Account of Jesus? ← Prior Section
Were the Writers of the Four Gospels Qualified to Write about Jesus? Next Section →
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