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16 Nov 2014 Q&A Comments (15)

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04 Jun 2015 Articles Q&A Comments (23)

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Did Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John Really Write the Gospels?

Critics of the New Testament often claim that the names of the authors of the Gospels were added after they had already been in circulation in the early Church. Instead of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, they say, the real authors were anonymous Christians who relied on hearsay and legend rather than eyewitness testimony.

Is there evidence for this claim?

First, it should be noted that even if the earliest copies of the Gospels did not contain the names of their authors, that would not disprove the traditional authorship of those texts. The works of the ancient Roman historian Tacitus often do not bear his name, but few historians have ever questioned that Tacitus wrote them. We know Tacitus is the author of these works because other ancient writers, like St. Jerome, identify him as the author.[1]

St. Augustine dealt with the charge that the Gospels were anonymous in the fourth century in his reply to the heretic Faustus:

How do we know the authorship of the works of Plato, Aristotle, Cicero, Varro, and other similar writers but by the unbroken chain of evidence? So also with the numerous commentaries on the ecclesiastical books, which have no canonical authority and yet show a desire of usefulness and a spirit of inquiry. . . . How can we be sure of the authorship of any book, if we doubt the apostolic origin of those books which are attributed to the apostles by the Church which the apostles themselves founded.[2]

Furthermore, there is no compelling evidence that the first manuscripts of the Gospels didlack attribution to their traditional authors. There are no manuscripts that simply lack titles (as lay critics might imagine). Academic critics, on the other hand, say the variants in the titles of those early manuscripts prove the author’s names were added at a much later date.[3]  However, the usual variant is just the absence of the word “Gospel” which leaves a title that begins with “According to . . .” followed by the author’s name which, by the way, is never absent from these manuscripts.

Another argument in favor of the traditional authorship of the Gospels is this: if they had been forged, it is highly likely the forgers would have pretended to be more impressive-sounding authors. This is what heretics in the second, third, and fourth centuries did when they attributed their forged Gospels to people like Peter, Philip, and even Mary Magdalene. Why pretend to be a relative unknown such as Mark or Luke? Why would they impersonate a persona non grata such as Matthew, whose popularity as a former tax collector would have been only slightly higher than that of Judas Iscariot?[4]

Biblical scholar Brant Pitre aptly summarizes the issue: “According to the basic rules of textual criticism, then, if anything is original in the titles, it is the names of the authors. They are at least as original as any other part of the Gospels for which we have unanimous manuscript evidence.”[5]


[1] See the introduction to Tacitus’ Annals at the Loeb Classical Library online at

[2] St. Augustine. Contra Faustum, Book XXXIII.6.

[3] See for example Bart Ehrman, Jesus Apocalyptic Prophet of the New Millennium (New York: Oxford University Press, 1999) 248-250.

[4] Granted, some may use this argument to try and prove that John’s Gospel is a forgery, but the eyewitness details in that text and external sources that corroborate John’s authorship make the Fourth Gospel completely different in kind to the forgeries that came centuries later (for more see Craig Blomberg’s book The Historical Reliability of John’s Gospel).

[5] Brant Pitre, The Case for Jesus: The Biblical and Historical Evidence for Christ (New York: Doubleday, 2016), 17.



  1. Tom Rafferty Reply

    Since all of the New Testament books were written decades after the supposed Jesus, what evidence do you use to support your claims? BTW, by claims, I mean ALL of it. Until there is secular evidence for the supposed miraculous events in these documents, I will take a pass. Oh, and, since the base of Christianity is Genesis, please provide a counter-argument to this. Thanks.

  2. Patrick Gannon Reply

    The author says, “Instead of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, they say, the real authors were anonymous Christians who relied on hearsay and legend rather than eyewitness testimony.” He goes on to ask if there is any evidence for this claim.
    I think the author Mark, whoever he was, intentionally created a physical, human Jesus, out of the celestial demigod “revealed” to Cephas (the real founder of the religion?), Paul and a few other apostles in visions. Jesus, it seems, was not real to begin with. He appears to have been a celestial being in the mind of Paul who was insistent that all his knowledge of Jesus came from two sources – his visions and scripture; and never from personal physical, human information. Paul does not use any “eyewitness” information, and shuns such as secondary to his own direct revelations. Prior to the gospel of Mark, (who clearly had Paul’s letters) written around 70 AD, there seems to be nothing written anywhere that specifically refers to Jesus as a physical human being, and Paul provided nothing in that regard. “Mark” gives us the baptism, ministry, miracles, sermons, disciples, and a physical crucifixion, but for Paul – none of this except a celestial crucifixion is mentioned. Can you imagine, Paul writing letter after letter to his congregations, attempting to solve problems, not ever mentioning examples from Jesus’ life, sermons, parables? Can you imagine no congregant asking what really happened at the crucifixion? Have you ever heard a priest give homily after homily week in and week out, without ever mentioning something from Jesus’ life, sermons, ministry, miracles? Paul never does so. That is very telling. Paul does not know anything about a real flesh and blood Jesus, so it seems that the author of Mark, very artistically, created him.
    Matthew clearly embellished Mark, adding the virgin birth narrative (and basing his prophecy on the Greek version of the bible, not the Hebrew version, where the word was actually young woman” or “maiden” and not necessarily “virgin” as there was a more affirmative word for that particular state). Luke disagreed with several aspects and embellished further, and John threw most of it out and for all intents, started with a completely new and different Jesus, turning a quiet, reserved man into an outgoing and gregarious one.
    Worrying about who wrote these gospels is not the issue. The issue is whether the author of Mark turned a (mythical) celestial Jesus into a physical blood and blood Jesus, as a way to make the “word” easier to spread. Enough time had gone by, a full generation in a time with no YouTube and no memories of what may or may not have happened under a long dead Pilate. Writing four decades after the supposed death of Jesus, the author of Mark was free to invent as he chose. Mark’s writing style is very distinct and intricately and cleverly designed, scholars have learned. He was picking ideas to fit a writing style, in the same way other mythical, rather than historical people were written about at the time.
    Don’t fret over who wrote these “gospels” – fret over the understanding that in the 70’s it was just beginning to be thought that Moses might be mythical. Now it is all but certain. We know there was no mass exodus as described in the bible, and no conquest of Canaan as described. Moses was a myth – probably based on prior pagan god(s). Now we’re at the same place with Jesus, and it’s beginning to look like all those people who said Jesus never existed were right – but for the wrong reason. Read Richard Carrier’s book about the Historicity of Jesus, and see what you think. I used to believe Jesus was a real man. At some point I came to understand he wasn’t a god, but I thought he was a real person. Now, after looking at the NT again – especially Paul, Acts, and Hebrews, I’m pretty well convinced Jesus was not a real man. I’ve also read some of the old gnostic texts and apocrypha, (see “The Other Bible), and there is plenty of textual support for a celestial Jesus – even by that name (a popular name at the time). In some of those old texts, Yahweh is the bad guy, a secondary god who thought he was number one, but wasn’t, and Jesus in those stories is trying to save us from Yahweh – but all this takes place above the firmament. Reading some of these texts, it’s now possible to see how Paul was likely influenced; and where his ideas came from. We’re lucky to have these few scraps. The Church is the likely culprit in systematically doing away with anything that wasn’t orthodoxy, but you never know what you’re going to dig up in the desert!
    By the way, the author references Bart Ehrman in his notes at the bottom. Read Ehrman’s books about the bible and you’ll understand very well why this question is raised. I don’t think anyone but the RCC and some fundagelicals believe that the gospels were written by MML&J. When you see articles like this, you should research to find out why these questions are raised in the first place, and then you can judge whether the apologetic responses such as this one, stand up to scrutiny. I’m not going to debate it; because it doesn’t really matter. It could provide a tiny amount of evidence for a historical Jesus, but in a greater perspective, it’s of little value in the debate over whether Jesus was historical or mythical. A full generation had gone by in a time when the average life span was 35 or so. The gospel authors, starting with Mark, had nothing but “I saw Elvis” stories to work with, when “Elvis” in this case, appears not to have existed as a flesh and blood human before the author of Mark put pen to paper. Who wrote the gospels, is not the issue. Whether Christianity is based on a mythical demigod is the issue.

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