How do we Know who Wrote the Gospels?
by Ryan Leasure
It’s common to hear scholars suggest that we don’t know who wrote the four gospels. They say that the gospels are anonymous, and that the church didn’t add titles till the end of the second century. It is true that none of the gospels tell us the author’s name in the body of the text. The closest is John’s Gospel where the writer states, “This (the one whom Jesus loves) is the disciple who testifies to these things, and who wrote them down” (Jn 21:24).
We also learn from Luke 1:1-4 that the author was not an eye-witness himself, but that he carefully investigated credible sources. In doing so, he compiled a gospel account for an official named Theophilus. Other than these two hints, the texts themselves don’t give us many clues with respect to authorship. So why do we attribute the four gospels to Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John? We need to look to some ancient church fathers for the answer.
EARLY CHURCH TESTIMONY
A few ancient church fathers wrote about the gospels’ authorship, and what they wrote sheds light on this discussion.
Papias was a bishop in Hieropolis — a city in Asia Minor near Laodicea and Colossae. He completed five major works early in the second century, but sadly, most of his works are lost. Fortunately, Eusebius — an early Christian historian writing in the fourth century — quotes Papias’ work on gospel authorship. Notice what Papias says about the Gospel of Mark:
The Elder used to say: Mark, in his capacity as Peter’s interpreter, wrote down accurately as many things as he recalled from memory — though not in an ordered form — of the things either said or done by the Lord. For he (Mark) neither heard the Lord nor accompanied him, but later, as I said, Peter, who used to give his teachings… had no intention of providing an ordered arrangement of the words of the Lord. Consequently, Mark did nothing wrong when he wrote down some individual items just as he (Peter) related them from memory. For he made it his one concern not to omit anything he had heard or to falsify anything.
Writing sometime around the year A.D. 125, Papias is the first known writer to attribute authorship to any gospel. He indicates in this quote that the Gospel we know as Mark, is more or less Peter’s account. Papias says that Mark didn’t compile a chronological history of Jesus per se; yet, he still reported Peter’s words with precision.
The Mark Papias refers to is the John Mark who accompanied Paul and Barnabas on their first missionary journey. He’s also the Mark that Peter references in 1 Peter 5:13 indicating that the two were close companions.
In addition to Mark, Papias also comments on Matthew…