Who Wrote the Gospels?


Note: The following is an article by Br. Andrew Livingston, the authorship of the Gospels. Br. Andrew’s writings can be found at taqwamagazine.com. In this article, Br. Andrew takes an honest and critical look at the traditional assertions about the identities of the Gospel authors.

REGARDING THE AUTHORSHIP OF THE GOSPELS 
by Andrew Livingston

Upon seeing brother Ijaz’s debate with Tony Costa you may have gotten a sense of déjà vu. Are you beginning to get the feeling that on every single debate topic Christian apologists have precisely one opening statement that gets perpetually repeated by any number of people? As though there’s only one set of arguments to go around and therefore they must be very carefully guarded and preserved? I certainly have.

More than anything, there is one line of argumentation and one only for Christians trying to demonstrate that The Bible is more accurate than The Qur’an. Namely, they will keep on repeating—to the point where I wouldn’t be surprised to someday see one of their faces actually, literally turn blue—that The Qur’an was written six hundred years after The New Testament. If you’re not immediately struck by the sheer surreality of their reasoning, let me show you how William Lane Craig put this argument, and that should make it clear.

“Which would you trust: a collection of documents written during the first generation after the events, while the eyewitnesses were still alive, or a book written six hundred years later by a man who had no independent source of historical information? Why, to even ask the question is to answer it.” [1]

What independent source of historical information?? What on earth is he talking about??? Evidently Craig pictures Muhammad (P) sitting down at a desk in some fancy study and poring over ancient equivalents of Strong’s Concordance and the Encyclopedia Britannica, as he painstakingly pieces together historical chronicles via extensive research. That was never the idea, and Craig and Costa and their ilk very well know it. The claim The Qur’an makes for itself is that it’s a prophetic revelation. Either this claim is true or it is false. If it’s true, it won’t matter if the book came six trillion years after any of the events it describes. God (praise Him) does not forget. And if the claim is false, that’s because the belief that it’s a prophetic revelation is itself false, not because Muhammad failed at a task he wasn’t attempting in the first place. Either way this “six hundred years” talk is total, utter nonsense.

The more fitting analogy would be to compare The Qur’an not to the Gospels but to a book like Joel or Hosea. Let me put it this way. Hosea 12:4 tells us that it was an angel who wrestled with Jacob (P) in his tent. Nowhere in the original account of Genesis 32:24-30 is that specified. If anything the Genesis text seems to contradict Hosea, depicting Jacob as encountering God Himself. One way or another it contains no reference to an angel. So how could the author of Hosea, who was writing so many generations later, presume to say that he knew what happened? What independent source of historical information was he using when he wrote this belated document? Do you see now how ridiculous that sounds?

No, they’ll never see. Not Christian apologists. And I think I know why. To get into this fully would require an entirely separate essay but it suffices to explain that the assertion you’re hearing isn’t actually the assertion they have in mind: no, you have to read between the lines to find that. You see, buried beneath all of this endless harping on “early sources” is a hidden premise which, for no reason at all, we’re expected to take for granted is true. I’m referring to the belief in the traditional authorship of the gospels. If memory serves, in the aforementioned debate Costa spent his entire opening statement repeating himself ad nauseum about the relative dates of our scriptures—and then offhandedly snuck in the phrase “from the eyewitnesses” during his rebuttals. He had not devoted a single syllable of his opening statement to arguing for the Gospels’ traditional authorship; he would not offer a syllable later on. Rather, we’re automatically expected to understand, without even being told let alone convinced, that Matthew was truly written by Matthew, John by John, et cetera.

It’s not like the Gospels’ titles come from the original authors any more than the chapter and verse divisions do. Those titles are a matter of guesswork or tradition. The idea of apostolic authorship and apostolic witness seems to be rooted largely in the words of Saint Papias:

“Mark, having become the interpreter of Peter, wrote down accurately, though not in order, whatsoever he remembered of the things said or done by Christ. For he neither heard the Lord nor followed him, but afterward, as I said, he followed Peter, who adapted his teaching to the needs of his hearers, but with no intention of giving a connected account of the Lord’s discourses, so that Mark committed no error while he thus wrote some things as he remembered them. For he was careful of one thing, not to omit any of the things which he had heard, and not to state any of them falsely…Then Matthew wrote the oracles in the Hebrew language, and every one interpreted them as he was able.” [2]

At the very least Papias wasn’t talking about the same book we now call “The Gospel According to Matthew”. Rather, he was referring to a sayings Gospel (think the book of Proverbs, only this one is the proverbs of Jesus) written in Hebrew, whereas our book of Matthew is the opposite of that. It’s a narrative in Greek. Would you be surprised to find that that such misattribution applies to the other three Gospels as well? The fact of the matter is, nobody knows who wrote any of the four Gospels, just like nobody knows who wrote the book of Hebrews. What we do know is that the book of Mark came first, Matthew and Luke use Mark for source material, and John came last. And that whoever wrote Luke also wrote Acts. That’s about it.

Let us begin with John. The whole basis for its alleged Johannine authorship rests on a single verse:

“This is the disciple who is testifying to these things and has written them, and we know that his testimony is true.” (Chapter 21, verse 24) [3]

Because the traditional identity of this “disciple whom Jesus loved” is John the apostle, John therefore is supposed to be the author of the Gospel. Yet you’ll notice that the above verse doesn’t read, “This is the disciple who is sitting here writing this.” Rather, it tells us, “WE know that HIS testimony is true.” What we’re actually told here is that the author of this Gospel is using the beloved disciple as a source of information. He has this other account sitting in front of him, which he takes to have been written by the beloved disciple, and he’s basing his own text on what it contains. How do we know that he was correct about the identity of his source? That he was getting material from an authentic apostolic writing?

It’s quite a mystery who this beloved disciple is even supposed to be. Harold Attridge proposed that he may be not so much an actual historical figure as a literary device. You see, when we read through John we become faced with this maddening mystery. The most important or noticeable person in the whole book (apart from Jesus) is frustratingly anonymous. And so to figure it out we’ll go back and read the Gospel again…and again…and again. Until the actual theology or message of the book starts to catch our attention through repetition. [4]

But the important thing is that John 21:24 and its claim to apostolic witness probably weren’t present in the original version of the text. They are the result of an interpolation. “Holman Illustrated Bible Dictionary” tells us:

“John originally may have ended with 20:30-31. In the ‘epilogue’ (21) we are told of the restoration of Peter and the prediction of his death. The rumor that John was not to die before the second coming is also refuted.” [5]

Let me unpack this for you. Let’s look at the last two sentences of chapter 20:

“Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book. But these are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name.”

Be honest with yourself: how hard is it to imagine that being the last two sentences of the book itself? Come on, you can practically hear a “THE END” (or as they would have put it back then, “Amen”). And yet the book continues right on like nothing happened. For a whole chapter, no less. And it’s in this obviously tacked-on chapter that we find the claim of apostolic witness. Just before which the text reads as follows.

“Jesus said to [Peter], ‘Feed my sheep. Very truly, I tell you, when you were younger, you used to fasten your own belt and to go wherever you wished. But when you grow old, you will stretch out your hands, and someone else will fasten a belt around you and take you where you do not wish to go.’ (He said this to indicate the kind of death by which he would glorify God.) After this he said to him, ‘Follow me.’ Peter turned and saw the disciple whom Jesus loved following them…When Peter saw him, he said to Jesus, ‘Lord, what about him?’ Jesus said to him, ‘If it is my will that he remain until I come, what is that to you? Follow me!’ So the rumor spread in the community that this disciple would not die. Yet Jesus did not say to him that he would not die, but, ‘If it is my will that he remain until I come, what is that to you?’”

Now consider that passage along with these two:

“[Jesus] said to [the apostles], ‘Truly I tell you, there are some standing here who will not taste death until they see that the kingdom of God has come with power.’” (Mark 9:1)

“[Jesus said to the apostles:] When they persecute you in one town, flee to the next; for truly I tell you, you will not have gone through all the towns of Israel before the Son of Man comes.” (Matthew 10:23)

And so we can see that John 21 is partly intended to debunk previous Gospel tradition. We’re told that Jesus never actually claimed that one of his apostles would still be alive come Judgment Day: rather, what he did say was misunderstood, and the whole thing snowballed from there. Take note, reader! The Bible itself is acknowledging that parts of it—regarding Jesus, no less—are based on a distortion of the facts. [6]

But the important thing is that John 21 seems to come from somebody who lived and wrote after the apostles’ time—if only by a little bit, and as far as he himself knew. So unless that radioactive satellite from “Night of the Living Dead” was somehow involved it would seem that the book of John was not actually written by John—or any apostle.

What of the Synoptics? As it turns out, the authors of Matthew and Luke were unmistakably using Mark as their main source. Indeed, the influence of Mark can be seen even in the smallest details. If three authors all independently tell the same stories, each of their accounts being based on a different person’s eyewitness testimony, you’d expect there to be a lot of similarity in the narratives—but you would not expect to find just as much similarity in the actual writing itself. The way that everything gets described—the way that it’s worded. And yet that is often what we’ll find. Even parenthetical asides sometimes have verbatim agreement from Gospel to Gospel. That is to say, on several occasions the author of Mark will jot down a little incidental note, and should you turn to Matthew or Luke you’ll find the remark reproduced along with the rest of the story. For example compare these two passages from the Olivet Discourse:

“…When you see the desolating sacrilege standing in the holy place, as was spoken of by the prophet Daniel (let the reader understand), then those in Judea must flee to the mountains…” (Matthew 24:15-16)

“…When you see the desolating sacrilege set up where it ought not to be (let the reader understand), then those in Judea must flee to the mountains.” (Mark 13:14)

Ask yourself where the author of Matthew got the words “let the reader understand”. What, did he just so happen to write precisely the same note to his readers, in precisely the same place, using precisely the same wording? No, obviously he was copying from the text of Mark. The same applies to this passage from Luke:

“Some Sadducees, those who say there is no resurrection, came to [Jesus] and asked him a question…” (Chapter 20, verses 27-28)

Compare it to the following verse from Mark:

“Some Sadducees, who say there is no resurrection, came to him and asked him a question…” (Chapter 12, verse 18)

Did both authors just so happen to mention the Sadducees’ beliefs, in the same place, and using the same wording?

Let me clarify that I’m not accusing anyone of academic dishonesty. As modern day westerners our concept of plagiarism is fairly different from that of a first-century Palestinian. With that said, the copying itself is undeniable. The authors of Matthew and Luke were using the text of Mark. [7]

But wait a minute! How do we know that it isn’t the other way around? How do we know that it wasn’t the author of Mark who drew on Matthew and Luke? Well, Bart Ehrman has explained that very well:

“Suppose you number the stories that are found jointly in Matthew, Mark, and Luke. They occur, say, in the sequence of: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6. And then you give letters to the passages found in Matthew and Luke but not in Mark: A, B, C, D, E. What is striking is that the numbered stories are usually in the same sequence of Matthew and Luke. But the lettered stories are usually NOT in the same sequence in Matthew and Luke. So (this is an illustration: it’s not a statement of what you actually find), Matthew’s Gospel is organized from the following combination of materials: 1, A, B, 2, 3, 4, C, 5, D, 6, E. But Luke’s is organized 1, 2, C, A, 3, E, 4, B, 5, 6, D. The only materials in the same sequence between Matthew and Luke are the ones found in Mark. How could this be?

The best explanation is that Matthew and Luke each used Mark as one of their sources, and also had a different source…that they ‘plugged into’ the narrative framework of Mark at different places. That is to say, not having any indication from Mark’s Gospel where traditions like the Lord’s prayer or the Beatitudes would have fit into the life of Jesus, each author put them in wherever he saw fit. Almost never, though, did these passages go in at the same places. This curiosity of sequence can scarcely be explained if Mark were not one of the sources for Matthew and Luke.” [8]

And what of the book of Mark? Now that is a quandary. Since this time we’re looking at the world’s earliest surviving narrative Gospel, it’s much harder to puzzle out who its author could have been. Because what are you going to compare Mark to? We’ve hit rock bottom. Well, as it so happens there’s already an article here on the site which you may find helpful:

https://callingchristians.com/2015/05/23/the-markan-gospels-systematic-development-in-light-of-miracle-sets/

Apparently people who believe in apostolic authorship also find the situation problematic, because they seem to have gotten desperate. You see, no matter what Bible commentary you consult, the main argument for Markan authorship (indeed, pretty much the only argument) will be the same every time. They’ll tell you that the passage about the naked man fleeing Jesus’s arrestors (chapter 14, verses 43-52) is Mark’s humble way of identifying himself. Yeah, I don’t buy it either.

Father Nicolas King has explained that no western writer seems to have used that argument before the year 1927. [9] I certainly do find a pattern when I search through countless Bible commentaries. Most every commentary written after the early twentieth century will claim that the naked Gethsemane man was Mark himself and that this fact somehow indicates Markan authorship. (They’ll point you to Acts 12:12.) And most every commentary written before the early twentieth century will offer little speculation, or else the speculation will be unexciting. Take, for instance, the mid-1700s exegete John Gill:

“Some think this was John, the beloved disciple, and the youngest of the disciples; others, that it was James, the brother of our Lord; but he does not seem to be any of the disciples of Christ, since he is manifestly distinguished from them, who all forsook him and fled: some have thought, that he was a young man of the house, where Christ and his disciples ate their passover; who had followed him to the garden, and still followed him, to see what would be the issue of things: but it seems most likely, that he was one that lived in an house in Gethsemane, or in or near the garden; who being awaked out of sleep with the noise of a band of soldiers, and others with them, leaped out of bed, and ran out in his shirt, and followed after them, to know what was the matter.” [10]

So in other words, he was just some guy. Why is that hard to believe?

Let me put it this way. Now I want you to stop and ponder the following question for thirty seconds at least.

Is there any good reason why a Gospel written by Matthew wouldn’t be a first-person narrative? You know, “Jesus came to me and asked me my name. I said, ‘Matthew.’” Well, why wouldn’t it be written that way? Seriously, give it a good thirty seconds.

Throughout the Gospels-and-Acts collection there are only a few passages in which stories get told in the first person—told, that is, by someone who talks like he was actually there. And not a single one of these passages is a story about Jesus. They’re all in Acts. Read chapter 20 of Acts and observe how abruptly and haphazardly the text switches back and forth between the first and third person.

The author of Luke and Acts had said:

“Since many have undertaken to set down an orderly account of the events that have been fulfilled among us, just as they were handed on to us by those who from the beginning were eyewitnesses and servants of the word, I too decided, after investigating everything carefully from the very first, to write an orderly account…” (Luke 1:1-3)

So this author was getting his info partly from eyewitnesses (or people he believed were eyewitnesses) and partly from preachers or what not. Seeing as there are only a few first-person passages it would appear that the great majority of the Luke-Acts text does not fall into the “eyewitness” category.

Nor does so much as a single passage anywhere in the Gospels.

But God knows best.

NOTES:

[1] From his opening statement in the Bill Craig-Shabir Ally debate, “Who Is the Real Jesus?”

[2] Church History 3:39:15-16.

Obtained via newadvent.org. Accessed Tuesday, November 24th, 2015.

[3] All biblical quotations come from the New Revised Standard version (and through the use of biblegateway.com).

[4] From “The Gospel of John: Lazarus”, one of Harold Attridge’s dialogues with David Bartlett in the course videos at Yale’s Youtube page.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yzOvM6E-8-0

Accessed Tuesday, November 24th, 2015.

[5] “Holman Illustrated Bible Dictionary”, page 935. General editors: Chad Brand, Charles Draper, Archie England. 2003 Holman Bible Publishers.

[6] See also Mark 8:27-28. And compare Mark 14:55-59 to John 2:18-22.

[7] For more info watch this James McGrath lecture on the Synoptic Problem:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BbMBjrRijJs

[8] “Did Matthew Copy Luke or Luke Matthew?” at Bart Ehrman’s blog.

http://ehrmanblog.org/did-matthew-copy-luke-or-luke-matthew/

Accessed Tuesday, November 24th, 2015.

I hope it’s not wrong of me to publicly quote text from behind the paywall.

[9] From “Mark: The Strangest Gospel”, a speech by Father Nicholas King to the Ecumenical Chaplaincy at the University of York on January 25th, 2012.  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3pOL422Ttww

Accessed Tuesday, November 24th, 2015.

[10] “Gill’s Exposition of the Entire Bible”, commentary on Mark 14:51. As obtained via biblehub.com.

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