Who Wrote the Gospels?
by Jonathan Mclatchie
One often hears the claim, made frequently by skeptical scholars and laypeople alike, that we have no grounds on which to think the four canonical gospels were actually written by the people to whom they are ascribed. The original documents, we are told, were written in anonymity, the attributions being added by scribes at a later date. This claim is made frequently by the notorious textual critic Bart Ehrman. Is Ehrman’s assessment correct here, however? Do we have any evidence which might indicate the authorship of the four gospels?
Ehrman is actually mistaken in his assertion that we know the original documents did not bear the name of their author. As Ehrman knows full well (he’s constantly reminding us), we don’t have the original documents in our possession (as is the case for all sources of that time period) and so we couldn’t possibly know for sure one way or the other. But I think there is positive indication that the gospels were written by the persons to whom they were attributed by the early church (Matthew, Mark, Luke and John).
One example would be the fact that two of the gospels are ascribed to such minor characters as Mark and Luke — neither of whom, by any accounts, were themselves eyewitnesses. Had a forger wanted to acquire credibility for his writing he would undoubtedly have attributed it to someone like Peter, Thomas or James (as the later second and third century Gnostic gospels did).
Actually, there is some compelling evidence (both external and internal) that Mark penned the eyewitness accounts of Peter. For example, Justin Martyr, writing around A.D. 150, spoke of Mark’s Gospel as “the memoirs of Peter.” He suggested that Mark wrote down his material when he was in Itasly (which concurs with other early tradition which indicates that the gospel of Mark was penned in Rome for the benefit of the Christians there. Iraeneus (writing approx. A.D. 185) referred to Mark as “the disciple and interpreter of Peter.” Most famously, Papias, the bishop of Hieropolis (writing approx. A.D. 140) wrote,
“And the presbyter [the Apostle John] said this: Mark, having become the interpreter of Peter, wrote down accurately whatsoever he remembered. It was not, however, in exact order that he related the sayings or deeds of Christ. For he neither heard the Lord nor accompanied Him. But afterwards, as I said, he accompanied Peter, who accommodated his instructions to the necessities [of his hearers], but with no intention of giving a regular narrative of the Lord’s sayings. Wherfore Mark made no mistake in thus writing some sayings as he remembered them. For one thing he took especial care, not to omit anything he had heard, and not to put anything fictitious into the statements.”
It is curious, then, that Mark’s gospel did not become “the gospel according to Peter” but, rather, “the gospel according to Mark”…
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RECOMMENDED RESOURCE: Jesus and the Eyewitnesses: The Gospels as Eyewitness Testimony