The claim: We don’t know who wrote the gospels.
Who wrote the gospels? And when? Many people wrongly believe that the gospel of ‘Matthew’ was written by Matthew the tax-collector, one of Jesus’s twelve close companions. And that the gospel of ‘John’ was written by another of that small group, the John who came to be known as ‘the beloved disciple’. They think ‘Mark’ was written by a young companion of Jesus’s chief disciple Peter, and ‘Luke’ by a doctor friend of Paul. But nobody has the faintest idea who really wrote the gospels. We have no convincing evidence in any of the four cases. Later Christians simply stuck a name on the top of each gospel for convenience.
Dawkins, Richard, Outgrowing God, Chapter 2
The gospels are our most comprehensive view into Jesus’s life, teaching, death, and resurrection. Because of this, it is important to know that they are reliable. In the above excerpt, Dawkins attempts to challenge their authenticity by suggesting that the authorship of all four accounts is definitively unknowable. There is some controversy over this matter in scholarly circles and most mainstream academic scholarship does not recognize traditional authorship of the gospels.
We will explore the arguments for both the traditional and non-traditional views of authorship and then discuss why the exact identities of the authors are irrelevant to the texts’ reliability.
The Traditional View and Arguments Against it
Dawkins’s argument that early Christians simply assigned names to the gospel accounts for convenience does not stand up to scrutiny. Early gospel manuscripts are consistent in the names to which they are ascribed. This is significant because the accounts spread rapidly over a large area. It would have been very difficult to get everyone, everywhere to assign the same names to the same accounts if they had been added after they were written. There would probably have been widespread dissent about which names to assign, and surely names that carried heavier authority than those of Luke and Mark, neither of whom were eyewitnesses, would have been chosen. Why not name Peter the author of Mark’s gospel? His name would have carried much more authority than that of Peter’s interpreter. This was not done because the names were not tagged on for convenience, but instead for honesty and accuracy. Indeed, other gospels falsely claiming to be written by the apostles themselves were not included in the canon because, among other reasons, their claimed authorship was found to be false! Dishonest claims of authorship were condemned, invalidating Dawkins’s claim to the contrary.
The traditional view takes the position that the gospels were written by those whose names are attached to the accounts. It draws upon and takes seriously the testimonies of the early church fathers such as Papias, Ignatius, Polycarp, Iranaeus, and others. Though debated by mainstream scholarship in biblical study, these patristic figures are still considered by many to be trustworthy sources because of their proximity in time to the apostolic age and their strong connections and positions within the early church.
The Gospel of Mark
Regarding Mark’s gospel, Josh McDowell and Sean McDowell cite the testimony given by Papias (AD 60-130) found in Eusebius’s work. It records what he heard from “the Elder,” who was possibly the apostle John or another prominent John by whom he was rumored to be discipled. It reads:
Mark, having been the interpreter of Peter, wrote down accurately all that he (Peter) mentioned, whether sayings or doings of Christ, not, however, in order. For he was neither a hearer nor a companion of the Lord; but afterward, as I said, he accompanied Peter, who adapted his teachings as necessity required, not as though he were making a compilation of the sayings of the Lord. So then Mark made no mistake writing down in this way some things as he [Peter] mentioned them; for he paid attention to this one thing, not to omit anything that he had heard, not to include any false statement among them (Eusebius, EH, III.39).
This testimony from an early first-century bishop was supported by later writers who looked to Papias as a trustworthy source (Wenham and Walton, 2001). John Mark, the cousin of Barnabas—Paul’s companion at the beginning of Acts—is traditionally thought to be the same Mark that composed the gospel. Though John Mark is mostly associated with Paul, in 1 Peter 5:13, Peter refers to John Mark as “my son.” This denotes a close mentoring relationship. Because of this, saying that Mark interpreted for Peter and wrote his gospel from Peter’s information makes sense.
Scholarship mostly maintains the view that Mark did write his gospel based upon information given by Peter, while a smaller dissenting number of scholars propose that Papias made an educated guess about Mark’s authorship based upon the New Testament references of him (Wenham and Walton, 2001). This seems unlikely since the New Testament mostly references John Mark in connection with Paul. The only other argument is that there is not enough information to identify the author with any certainty.
In regard to when the gospel was written, most scholarship assumes Markan priority. It is theorized that Matthew and Luke depended on Mark’s material to write their own gospels because much of their content is also found in Mark. This is important to keep in mind because this view often affects scholars’ views of both authorship and dating. Wenham and Walton (2001) state the traditional date is shortly after Peter’s death in the mid- to late-60s AD. This date is widely accepted because it fits with the contents of the book (persecution teaching and the lack of detail about the fall of Jerusalem in 70 AD). This also lines up with Markan priority because it gives time for the material to be accessible for the composition of Matthew and Luke.
The Gospel of Luke
Contrary to Dawkins’s claim, there is some internal evidence pointing to the possibility of Lukan’s authorship. Because Luke is part one of a two-book series (Luke-Acts), we have a little more information about the author from within the books themselves. We know from occurrences of first-person authorship in Acts that the author was one of Paul’s frequent travel companions and considered by Paul to be a fellow laborer in spreading the gospel. Paul mentions Luke’s presence in three of his letters (Colossians, Philemon, and 2 Timothy), increasing the likelihood of Lukan authorship.
In their book Rediscovering Paul: An Introduction to His World, Letters, and Theology, Capes, Reeves, and Richards point out that Paul was in prison at the time of the composition of Colossians and Philemon. The conditions of his imprisonment are characteristic of a high-profile Roman prisoner. He was allowed provisions and visitors. This suggests that Paul was imprisoned in Caesarea or Rome. Both locations fit in with the conditions in which Paul finds himself in Acts 23-28, which occurred, according to the Blue Letter Bible, anywhere from late AD 57-62. In Acts 21, the author is with Paul and is not said to depart. The beginning of Acts 27 confirms the author’s continued presence with Paul in Caesarea: “And when it was decided that we should sail to Italy…” (v. 1, New King James Version). This means if Colossians and Philemon were written during Paul’s imprisonment in Caesarea or Rome, they support Lukan authorship of Acts and, therefore, his gospel.
The main argument against the traditional view concerning the authorship of Luke according to Wenham and Walton is that Luke does not present Paul in the same way that represents himself in his own letters. However, if one considers the very different audiences and purpose of these writings, this is a non-issue. At best, it is a merely speculative argument that is not well supported in comparison to the evidence that supports Luke’s authorship.
The dating of Luke, assuming Markan priority, can be no earlier than the mid- to late-60s. A date of 65 AD or even a little earlier works well because of the positive view of Roman authorities (Wenham and Walton, 2001). Luke may have written shortly after Paul’s imprisonment (64 AD), or he could have written before. Either way, a later date seems highly unlikely.
The Gospel of Matthew
The Gospel of Matthew does not give much about the author’s specific identity in the way of internal evidence. However, the early church fathers Irenaeus, Papias, Origen, and Pantaenus all attested to Matthew’s authorship of the gospel. Wenham and Walton note that the name was attached to the account from very early on, and Brian Chilton, in a post shared by CrossExamined.org, points out that the CSB Study Bible informs readers that the earliest manuscripts contain the name and title of Matthew, so it is that the name itself was attached to the gospel from its first composition. In fact, Papias’s attestation to Matthew’s authorship of the gospel was recorded by Eusebius:
Matthew compiled the oracles in the Hebrew dialect and interpreted them as best he could (Eusebius Hist. eccl 3.39.16).
Eusebius later records Pantaenus (late 2nd century to early 3rd century):
It is reported that among persons there who knew of Christ, he found the gospel according to Matthew, which had anticipated his own arrival. For Bartholomew, one of the apostles, had preached to them and left with them the writing of Matthew in the Hebrew language, which they had preserved till that time.
Origen and Irenaeus later confirmed Matthew as the author.
In addition to the early church fathers’ unanimous recognition of Matthew’s authorship of the Gospel of Matthew, the characteristics of the book’s content line up well with what we would expect if Matthew were the author. The book is written from a very Judaic perspective, featuring a particular interest in Pharisees and scribes in addition to a sharp focus on pointing to Jesus’s fulfillment of messianic prophecy. We can see this in the very first line of the book: “The book of the genealogy of Jesus Christ, the Son of David, the Son of Abraham” (Mathew 1:1, New King James Version). Along with other specifically Judaic traits, Chilton (2017) points out the gospel is the only one to have this particular verse dealing with finances—specifically taxes: “When they had come to Capernaum, those who received the temple tax came to Peter and said, ‘Does your teacher not pay the temple tax?’” (Matthew 17:24, NKJV). This is an important observation – Matthew was a tax collector and dealt with financial matters for a living. He would be the one to take notice of and include such an exchange!
Again, assuming Markan priority, some scholars argue against the traditional view because they question why Matthew would rely on Mark’s material. It is a weak argument, as one could just as easily ask, “Why not?” There is no reason to doubt that Matthew could have used Mark’s material and then added some of his own. Scholars who challenge the traditional view also point out that if Matthew wrote originally in Hebrew as Papias said he did, then that would undermine the assumption that Matthew used Mark. However, because, Markan priority is an unproven theory, this line of thought does not undermine Matthew’s authorship.
Regarding the dating of Mark, Wenham and Walton state, “Most scholars date Matthew after Mark, and often relate it to the Jamnian council of AD 90. But some argue that things such as the story of the temple tax in 17:24-27 and references to mission within Palestine (e.g. 10:23) could point to an earlier date” (p. 224). Again, this dating assumes Markan priority. However, Chilton presents a different date, suggesting that it could have been written in the 50s. Either way, the dating of the book is not far from the events of its contents.
The Gospel of John, like the others, does not internally state the author’s identity. It is perhaps significant, though, that John is never mentioned by name in the gospel except in 21:2. Because John is not named outside of that reference, it must be assumed that “the disciple whom Jesus loved” is John. A close read of the gospel reveals John to be that disciple. John was in Jesus’s most intimate circle of fellowship with James and Peter. This gospel is the only one to mention “the disciple whom Jesus loved,” and the way the gospel references the disciple makes it probable that he, identified as John, is the author. For instance, John 21:20-24 refers to “the disciple whom Jesus loves” and says of him, “This is the disciple who testifies of these things and wrote these things; and we know that his testimony is true” (NKJV). This does not leave much room for doubt that this disciple’s eyewitness testimony is behind the composition of the gospel.
The earliest external evidence for John’s authorship comes from Irenaeus (AD 130-202):
Further, they teach that John, the disciple of the Lord, indicated the first Ogdoad, expressing themselves in these words: John, the disciple of the Lord, wishing to set forth the origin of all things, so as to explain how the Father produced the whole, lays down a certain principle, –that, namely, which was first-begotten by God, which Being he has termed both the only-begotten Son and God, in whom the Father, after a seminal manner, brought forth all things (as quoted in Chilton, 2017).
Eusebius also notes that Clement of Alexandria confirms this traditional testimony of John’s authorship of the fourth gospel.
Arguments against this tradition are not strong. John’s material seems to some scholars to be more Hellenistic and Greek. However, his beginning chapter is in sync with the creation chapter of Genesis, which makes it more Judaic—even with some of the Greek wording he uses, such as logos. Furthermore, the area in which he wrote was Hellenized. Though the Romans had come in and taken over, the deeply entrenched Greek influence on culture and society did not simply go away. Even if his gospel has some Greek influence, that does not undermine John’s authorship. Another criticism of the traditional view is that John’s gospel includes theology did not develop until later. However, Paul’s letters were composed before the gospels were, and Paul’s theology was quite developed, revealing that this objection to John’s authorship does not carry much weight!
This gospel is generally thought to have been written somewhere around 90 AD. Though there are some scholars that argue for a much later date, the fact that the very early church father Ignatius (AD 35-108) quoted quite extensively from the gospel refutes that idea. His use of the gospel’s material proves that the gospel was already in existence and authoritative in his time—suggesting perhaps an even earlier date than what has been proposed (Chilton, 2017).
Does uncertain authorship make the gospels unreliable?
Dawkins’s claim that there is no evidence in support of the names attached to the gospels is incorrect. Though there is not 100% proof, there is, in fact, plenty of evidence supporting the names that accompany the accounts. However, does the margin of doubt that accompanies lack of total empirical proof leave us unable to trust the gospel accounts? Were they really given by eyewitnesses as the accounts seem to claim?
Amy Orr-Ewing addresses these types of questions in a forum (shown below). She points out that the earliest fragments of the text found are only decades away from the originals, which cannot be said to be true of any other ancient texts. This means the original text is well preserved. Amy goes on to say that the test of reliability and the claim of eyewitness testimony is in the details. Do the authors have an accurate, detailed knowledge of the geography in which the events took place? Do the authors give clues that they have detailed insider knowledge of culture and society? Did the writers identify characters correctly? She uses evidence from the gospels themselves to demonstrate that the answer is a resounding “Yes!” Amy points out that the gospel writers, writing from thousands of miles away, talk about small villages and towns that would not even be on Roman maps. Some of the smaller places she names include Bethany, Bethlehem, Bethsaida, and Jericho. Only someone who had an intimate knowledge of these places and the land could have written about them as the gospel writers did.
The writers know the land and the places about which they wrote and also show an intimate knowledge of the culture and society about which they wrote through their usage of names. Amy goes through a list of the ten top most common Jewish male Palestinian names. She notes that within the lists of disciples given, there are identifiers that go with the most common names to make distinctions for the readers. The writers don’t simply write Matthew; they either write “Matthew the tax collector” or “Levi” (probably a surname). John and James are not simply “John and James.” They are the sons of Zebedee. The name Philip does not have an identifier with it because Philip was not a common male Jewish name. The writers know when to make distinctions – not only in lists of names but also in dialogue and in the narration of events. Amy emphasizes the fact that this kind of preserved detail (evidencing excellent preservation) is what would be expected of eyewitness testimony.
We have evidence that the names attached to the gospel accounts are the names of the actual authors. The arguments against this view are unpersuasive. Despite the slight uncertainty of the authorship of the gospels, the test of textual authenticity and reliability does not hang on the identities of the authors. It has more to do with the content of the text. These arguments sufficiently dispell Dawkins’s claims. We know with reasonable certainty who the authors are, and the texts themselves are reliable.
Capes, D.B., Reeves, R., & Richards, R.E. (2017). Rediscovering Paul: An introduction to his world, letters, and theology (2nd Ed.). Downers, IL: IVP Academic.
Chilton, B. (2017). Who Wrote the Gospel of Mark?. Retrieved from (https://bellatorchristi.com/2017/06/12/who-wrote-the-gospel-of-mark/
Chilton, B. (2017). Who Wrote the Gospel of Matthew?. Retrieved from https://crossexamined.org/wrote-gospel-matthew/
Chilton, B. (2017). Who Wrote the Gospel of John?. Retrieved from https://bellatorchristi.com/2017/06/26/who-wrote-the-gospel-of-john/
McDowell, J. & McDowell, S. (2017). Evidence that Demands a Verdict: Life-changing truth for a skeptical world. Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson.
Orr-Ewing, A. (2016). Can I Trust the Bible? Open Forum with Amy Orr-Ewing [video]. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=E2lnouLeQzg&t=380s
Wenham, D. & Walton, S. (2001). Exploring the New Testament: A guide to the Gospels and Acts (vol. 1). Downer’s Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press.