The Bible gives four accounts of Christ’s life, referred to as the Gospels, offering different perspectives of His teaching, crucifixion and resurrection. The authorship of these Gospels is a topic of scholarly debate. The titles of the Gospels indicating the authors (Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John), which are found at the beginning of each Gospel in the modern day Bible, were not added until centuries after the Gospels were written. The Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John are traditionally attributed to each of these individuals. However, there is no explicit internal evidence within the Gospels that directly identifies their authors. The author of each Gospel is intrinsically anonymous. Instead, the authorship that is traditionally ascribed to the Gospels is based solely on early Christian Tradition and the testimony of early Church Fathers.
Some scholars argue that the Gospels were initially circulated anonymously and it was only much later that the authors would be attributed to these works. Because of this, skeptics often raise certain questions; how do we know for sure who wrote them? Can we trust Tradition as a reliable source? Did the early Church Fathers truly know more about the gospels’ authorship than we know now? If we can’t trust the validity of the claims that Tradition makes about who the authors were, then can we trust in the validity of the Gospels themselves?
According to Tradition:
Who wrote the Gospel of Mark?
Although accounts of the Church Father are unanimous in claiming that Matthew was the earliest written, most modern scholars agree that the Gospel of Mark was the first written with both Matthew and Luke borrowing from Mark. It has been traditionally believed that the author of Mark was the same John Mark who first appears in Acts 12:12 where Peter, after being freed from prison, heads to the home of “Mary the mother of John, also called Mark, where many people had gathered and were praying.” Later, Barnabas and Saul set out on their first missionary journey, bringing along a man named “John, also called Mark” (Acts 13:5). Mark eventually leaves the missionaries at Perga in Pamphylia, returning to Jerusalem (Acts 13:13). When Paul later invites Barnabas on a second journey, Barnabas wants to bring John Mark with them. Paul disagrees and the two decide to part ways (Acts 15:36–41). Paul would later refer to Mark as his “fellow worker” (Col. 4:10) and tells Timothy, “Get Mark and bring him with you, because he is helpful to me in my ministry” (2 Timothy 4:11).
The Church Fathers claim that John Mark also knew Peter. In 1 Peter 5:13, Peter sends greetings from “my son Mark.” The early church father Papias claims “Mark became the interpreter of Peter.” The early church was unanimous in claiming John Mark as the author of the Gospel of Mark as no alternatives were ever proposed. Church Fathers claiming Mark as the author include; Irenaeus, Tertullian, Clement of Alexandria, Origen, and Jerome. These Fathers also claim John Mark wrote the gospel using the eyewitness accounts of Peter.
Through Tradition, we can also assert that the Apostle John also claimed that John Mark wrote on behalf of Peter the Apostle; Eusebius of Caesarea records that Papias (a 1st century Church Father who is believed to be a disciple of John the Apostle) wrote that John “the Elder” (believed to be the apostle John) told Papias that John Mark had wrote the Gospel of Mark based off of the Apostle Peter’s memories.
Who wrote the Gospel of Matthew?
The Church Fathers have always been unanimous in their claims that the Gospel of Matthew was the first Gospel to be written. Most modern scholars, however, argue that Mark was the first written and that Matthew borrowed from Mark. This, in turn, raises questions about whether the Apostle Matthew actually authored the Gospel of Matthew; skeptics ask why would an eye witness such as the Apostle Matthew, who personally followed Christ, need to borrow from someone such as Mark, who was not an eye witness? This position should give scholars pause, however, given that the Early Church unanimously attributed this Gospel to Matthew, the tax collector, and also unanimously claimed it to be the first Gospel written. However, even if Matthew borrowed from Mark, it does not disprove the Apostle Matthew as the author. Because Mark wrote his Gospel based off the reminiscences of the Apostle Peter, Matthew would have had an interest in including the perspectives of someone within Christ’s inner circle and thus would have held Mark’s Gospel in high esteem.
All three synoptic gospels list Matthew among the twelve disciples and all three record Jesus calling a tax collector to discipleship. However, the Gospel of Matthew is the only one to refer to this tax collector as ‘Matthew’, while Mark and Luke both identify him as ‘Levi’ -a name never listed among the twelve apostles. This deviation may be circumstantial, but some scholars argue that it could also be an indicator of Matthew’s authorship. If Matthew and Luke both used Mark as a primary source, then it’s reasonable to assume that the authors of each would not have felt comfortable changing the name in the account unless it was one of their own names. While it is possible that these are two separate men, the majority of scholars agree that Matthew was most probably known by two names. Historian D.A. Carson says,
“it is significant that it is more self-deprecating than Luke’s account, which says that Matthew ‘left everything’ and followed Jesus . . .”
There are other indications of Matthew’s authorship, such as that the Gospel appears to have been written by a tax collector. The Gospel of Matthew is neatly organized and, being a tax collector, Matthew would have been an organized individual. The Gospel shows evidence of this in that it displays a certain tidiness to it’s structure; Jesus has five prominent sermons in Matthew, and each ends with some variation of the same transition: “When Jesus had finished saying these things . . .” (Matthew 7:28; 11:1; 13:53; 19:1; 26:1). In Matthew 13, the author gives us seven parables in a row. And in Matthew 23 we read seven woes to the pharisees. The Gospel of Matthew also focuses more on monetary situations than the other Gospels. The parable of the talents is only found in Matthew. Gold and silver are mentioned 28 times in the Gospel of Matthew, but they’re only mentioned once in Mark and four times in Luke. The author also uses specific money-related terms the other gospels don’t mention, such as the two-drachma temple tax in 17:24 and the Greek word stater in 17:25. In the Lord’s Prayer, the author of Matthew says “And forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors” (Matthew 6:12), whereas the author of Luke says, “Forgive us our sins, for we also forgive everyone who sins against us” (Luke 11:4).
According to Eusebius, the second-century church father Papias said “Matthew compiled the logia (‘sayings’) in the Hebrew language and everyone translated them as best they could.” Matthew is one of the less important of the disciples, as he’s hardly mentioned in the entire New Testament. Matthew’s lack of prominence in the New Testament would suggest that the early church had to have had good reason to attribute the gospel to him.
Who wrote the Gospel of Luke?
The early church credits the Gospel of Luke to Paul’s companion, Luke. Luke is mentioned throughout Paul’s letters (Colossians 4:7–17, Philemon 24, and 2 Timothy 4:11), where we learn that he was a doctor.
The author of Luke states that he is not an eyewitness to the ministry of Jesus;
“Many have undertaken to draw up an account of the things that have been fulfilled among us, just as they were handed down to us by those who from the first were eyewitnesses and servants of the word. With this in mind, since I myself have carefully investigated everything from the beginning, I too decided to write an orderly account for you, most excellent Theophilus, so that you may know the certainty of the things you have been taught.” (Luke 1:1–4)
Church tradition tells us that Luke was a converted Gentile, which would explain why the author takes such an interest in how Gentiles respond to the gospel. Given his familiarity with the Hebrew Scriptures, however, some scholars speculate that Luke may have been a “God-fearer”—a Gentile who worshiped the God of Israel.
For three main reasons, almost all scholars believe the Gospel of Luke was written by the same person who wrote Acts:
- Luke and Acts were written in the same style and express the same theology
- Both books are addressed to the same person—a man named Theophilus
- Acts 1:1–2 appears to tie the two books to the same author
Acts strongly reinforces the author’s close connection to Paul, suggesting that he went with Paul on his second and third missionary journeys, and eventually accompanied him to Rome (Acts 16:10–17; 20:5–21; 21:1–18; 27:1–28:16). Luke and Acts both use specific medical terminology, which would appear to support the claim that Luke the physician is the author of both. In Luke 13:11-13, Jesus heals a crippled woman:
“. . . and a woman was there who had been crippled by a spirit for eighteen years. She was bent over and could not straighten up at all. When Jesus saw her, he called her forward and said to her, ‘Woman, you are set free from your infirmity.’ Then he put his hands on her, and immediately she straightened up and praised God.”
The Greek words Luke uses both to describe her condition (sugkuptousa) and the exact manner of Jesus’ healing (apolelusai, anorthothe) are medical terms. In Luke 14:1–4, Jesus heals a man with dropsy:
“One Sabbath, when Jesus went to eat in the house of a prominent Pharisee, he was being carefully watched. There in front of him was a man suffering from abnormal swelling of his body. Jesus asked the Pharisees and experts in the law, ‘Is it lawful to heal on the Sabbath or not?’ But they remained silent. So taking hold of the man, he healed him and sent him on his way.”
Luke uses a word to describe the man in this passage that’s found nowhere else in the Bible: hudropikos. While this passage is the only place this word appears in the Bible, it’s a precise medical term frequently used in other texts, such as the works of the Greek physician, Hippocrates. The use of medically-accurate phrases and descriptions continues in Acts, such as Acts 28:8–9, where the writer uses puretois kai dusenterio sunechomenon to describe a man’s exact medical condition (“suffering from fever and dysentery”).
Who wrote the Gospel of John?
Of all the gospels, the Gospel of John comes closest to revealing the identity of its author. At the very end of the gospel, the author begins referring to one disciple as “the one whom Jesus loved,” and eventually suggests this disciple wrote the gospel;
“Peter turned and saw that the disciple whom Jesus loved was following them… This is the disciple who testifies to these things and who wrote them down. We know that his testimony is true.” —John 21:20–24
“The disciple whom Jesus loved” is traditionally believed to be the Apostle John. The writer of John claims to be an eyewitness to the ministry of Jesus, and the gospel contains numerous details indicating an eyewitness account;
- The number of water jars at the wedding in Cana (John 2:6)
- How long the man at the Pool of Bethesda had been crippled (John 5:5)
- The name of the servant whose ear was chopped off by Peter (John 18:10)
- The number of fish the disciples caught at Galilee (John 21:11)
The author also appears to be Jewish, recording numerous details about Jewish ceremonies and using Jewish festivals to mark when events occurred;
- He identifies the purpose of the water jars at the wedding in Cana (John 2:6)
- He notes that Jesus was in Jerusalem during the Passover (John 2:23)
- He mentions that Jesus fed the 5,000 near the Passover (John 6:4)
- He talks about the Festival of Tabernacles (John 7:2, 37)
- He specifies that it was the Festival of Dedication, where another writer might simply say “it was winter” (John 10:22)
- He records that Pilate handed Jesus over to be crucified on the day of Preparation for the Passover (John 19:14, 31)
The writer also introduces Aramaic words like Rabbi, Rabboni, Messias, and Kēphas. The Dead Sea Scrolls support the themes and imagery John uses, (such as light vs. darkness, and the children of God vs. the children of Satan) as emerging from a Jewish context.
Papias mentions both a ‘John the Apostle’ and a ‘John the Elder’, but both of which could refer to John the apostle. According to Papias’ words, all of the apostles were elders, so John the Elder could easily be the same man as John the Apostle.
Some scholars have proposed alternative possibilities for “the disciple whom Jesus loved.” First proposed is Lazarus, who first appears in John 11:1, and two chapters later, the writer identifies someone as the disciple whom Jesus loved (John 13:23). The gospel also explicitly says Jesus loves Lazarus: “So the sisters sent word to Jesus, ‘Lord, the one you love is sick.’” —John 11:3. A second proposal is Thomas. The disciple Jesus loved saw the spear pierce Jesus’ side (John 19:35), and Thomas specifically asks to see Jesus’ side when he’s resurrected (John 20:25). This encounter comes just before the gospel’s purpose statement. Despite alternative theories about the disciple whom Jesus loved, most evidence still points to the apostle John. The early church father Irenaeus wrote;
“afterwards, John, the disciple of the Lord, who also had leaned upon His breast, did himself publish a gospel during his residence at Ephesus in Asia.”
The text seems to point to John, too. The disciple whom Jesus loved was clearly close to Peter:
- Peter asks him to ask Jesus a question (John 13:24)
- Peter and this disciple race to the tomb together (John 20:2-10)
- Peter is fishing with this disciple when Jesus appears to them on the shore (John 21:2)
- Peter swims to Jesus after this disciple identifies him (John 21:7)
- After Jesus hints at Peter’s death, Peter asks about this disciple (John 21:20-24)
This close relationship supports the likelihood that this disciple was part of Jesus’ “inner circle” (Peter, James, or John). Since James is martyred early (Acts 12:1-5), and John is never mentioned by name in the whole book (which for anyone else would be a mistake), John is believed to be the most likely author.
William F. Albright, Protestant Biblical scholar and Historian
1. “I must confess that I do not find the view [that the Gospels were written by eyewitnesses or close associates of eyewitnesses] so easily dismissed, as is the fashion among New Testament scholars today. I find the case for such eyewitnesses as Matthew and John to be very persuasive.”
2. “My position concerning the synoptic problem is that of the majority of modern scholars, namely, that Mark was the earliest of the Gospels, and that Matthew and Luke had access to it when they composed their own.”