Gospel Authorship—Who Cares?

Q: Dear Dr. Craig,

I am an atheist and have found you to be very sincere and reasonable in your defense of the Christian religion. You have addressed many of Dr. Bart Ehrman’s positions on textual criticism of the bible, yet I haven’t found you address the main claim of his book dealing with forgeries. How do we know that the gospels were written by the authors listed in our current day bibles? The titles were later additions, and upon reading through the other books of the new testament a common theme is that there are ample false teachers spreading false doctrine. In short, is there good evidence supporting the claims to the gospels authorship, and if so, what is it?

Dr. Craig Answers: Even though I picked your question this week, J.C., I’m actually not going to answer it. Sometimes it’s more important to explain to a person that he’s asking the wrong question than to answer his question. By helping him to see what the crucial questions are, we can avoid distractions and chasing down rabbit trails.

Your question is like that. The assumption behind the question seems to be that the authorship of the New Testament documents is somehow crucial to regarding them as credible historical sources for the life of Jesus. Such an assumption is quite out of touch with contemporary historical criticism of the New Testament. I doubt that any historical Jesus scholar thinks that successfully identifying the authors of the various documents collected into the New Testament is crucial to their serving as credible historical sources for events or sayings from Jesus.

For that reason, I think that you’ve seriously misread Bart Ehrman in taking his central claim to be that the Gospels were not written by their traditionally received authors. (J.C., characterizing uncertainty about the Gospels’ authorship as “forgery” also betrays misunderstanding. If, as you point out, the original Gospels carried no authors’ names, then they cannot be forgeries, for they make no claims about the names of their authors! Your concern, rather, is that the Gospels are anonymous, and the names of Matthew, Mark, and so on have only later come to be associated with them.) Ehrman recognizes that we can glean a lot of historical information about Jesus from the four Gospels (not to mention Paul’s letters), even if we do not know who wrote them. Indeed, until recently, despite his uncertainty about the Gospels’ authorship, Ehrman accepted the historicity of the central facts undergirding the inference to Jesus’ resurrection, namely, his burial by Joseph of Arimathea, the discovery of his empty tomb by a group of his female disciples, his post-mortem appearances, and the original disciples’ coming to believe that God had raised him from the dead. Ehrman’s recent backpedaling about some of these facts is not due to his uncertainty about the Gospels’ authorship but to other factors.

Now I do find questions concerning the date and authorship of the New Testament documents to be extremely interesting, so I do care about such questions. (My title of this week’s QoW is deliberately provocative!) But answering such questions is not crucial to the reliability of those documents…

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Gospel Authorship—Who Cares? | Reasonable Faith