Apologetics: How Do We Know Who Wrote the Gospels?

by Timothy Paul Jones

Open your Bible to the table of contents and take a look at the list of books in the New Testament. There, you’ll find the Gospels according to Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John leading the list.

But did this quartet of early Christians actually have any connection with the books that bear their names?

Did Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John really write the Gospels?

If so, how do we know?

Your first reply might be, Because their names are on the books!—and you would be correct. These four names have appeared on the manuscripts of these four Gospels for well over a thousand years. But these names may not have been present on the original manuscripts of the Gospels. In fact, some scholars are quite convinced that Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John couldn’t possibly have been the authors of these four books. According to one such scholar,

[The New Testament Gospels] were written thirty-five to sixty-five years after Jesus’ death, … not by people who were eyewitnesses, but by people living later. …

Where did these people get their information from? … After the days of Jesus, people started telling stories about him in order to convert others to the faith. … When … Christians recognized the need for apostolic authorities, they attributed these books to apostles (Matthew and John) and close companions of apostles (Mark, the secretary of Peter; and Luke the traveling companion of Paul). …

Because our surviving Greek manuscripts provide such a wide variety of (different) titles for the Gospels, textual scholars have long realized that their familiar names (e.g., “The Gospel According to Matthew”) do not go back to a single “original” title, but were added later by scribes.

B. Ehrman, Jesus, Apocalyptic Prophet of a New Millennium (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999), 248-249; B. Ehrman, Lost Christianities (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005), 235; B. Ehrman and W. Craig, “Is There Historical Evidence for the Resurrection of Jesus?: A Debate between William Lane Craig and Bart Ehrman” (March 28, 2006).

If these claims are correct, early Christians did not link the four New Testament Gospels to Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John because these individuals actually wrote the Gospels. The Gospels were, according to Bart Ehrman and many others, originally anonymous. According to this reconstruction, early Christians forged apostolic links in the second century in order to make these documents seem more authoritative. Ehrman’s proof for this supposition is the “wide variety” of different titles found among the Gospel manuscripts.

But does this reconstruction actually make the best sense of the historical evidence?

With this question in mind, let’s take a careful and critical look at the likelihood that the four New Testament Gospels actually originated with Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John…

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Apologetics: How Do We Know Who Wrote the Gospels? – Timothy Paul Jones