The Authorship of the Gospels

Biblical scholar Brant Pitre:

“… .it is important to note that many people who take the view that the Gospel of Mark was written first find it unbelievable that an eyewitness such as the apostle Matthew would rely on or copy from a Gospel written by a non-eyewitness such as Mark. But this just isn’t true.

For one thing, there are good reasons to conclude that the Gospel of Mark is directly based on the testimony of the apostle Peter, who was both the leader of the twelve disciples and an eyewitness to much more of Jesus’s ministry than the apostle Matthew (see Matthew 16:13-18). If Mark’s Gospel is based on the testimony of Peter, there’s nothing remotely implausible about Matthew using it as a source.

Even more important, history gives us other examples of eyewitnesses who relied on other people’s testimony when composing biographies of their own teachers. For example, when writing his account of the death of Socrates, the ancient Greek writer Xenophon (who was a disciple of Socrates) used the “reports” (Greek exēngeile) of another disciple named Hermogenes (see Xenophon, Apology, 1.2, 10).12 The reason was that Xenophon was not present at the trial and death of Socrates, whereas Hermogenes was.

In the same way, it is entirely possible that the apostle Matthew could have relied on the Gospel of Mark’s record of Peter’s testimony, especially for any events at which Matthew himself was not present—such as the early days of Jesus’s ministry (see Matthew 3–8) or the events of Jesus’s passion and death, which Matthew did not witness because he had fled the scene (see Matthew 26–28). It’s not as if all of the apostles were witnesses to everything that happened in the life of Jesus.”


Most scholars since the late nineteenth century have accepted the concept of Marcan priority. It forms the foundation for the widely accepted two-source theory, although a number of scholars support different forms of Marcan priority or reject it altogether



Many scholars in the twentieth century regarded Marcan priority as no longer just a hypothesis, but an established fact.[14] Still, fresh challenges from B. C. Butler[15] and William R. Farmer[16] proved influential in reviving the rival hypothesis of Matthaean priority, and recent decades have seen scholars less certain about Marcan priority and more eager to explore all the alternatives

This sounds very uncertain. To take this any further we need to probably dive into the details of each position.


What century is it, Bill?

EDIT: Never mind, I misread your quote.

The fact remains: Most scholars support Marcan priority. So anyone claiming that all the evidence supports the traditional authorship of the Gospels is simply wrong.

You may dive into the details is you wish, but you should recognize that you are an untrained amateur. I choose to leave this to the experts.

What you originally wrote was, " The massive uncertainties , as far as I know, are basically arguments from silence, which, in the face of actual positive evidence to the contrary, are pretty feeble arguments at best." The arguments against the traditional authorship of the gospel are not arguments from silence. They’re arguments based on the internal evidence of the gospel itself, when compared to the stories passed down from the church fathers about its writing. The two don’t match well. That’s not an argument from silence.

[Other comments removed. Repeating my previous statement: I’m not interested in arguing about the authorship of the gospels. I’m disputing a claim about the evidence on which conclusions have been reached.]


Maybe someone who understands details of Markan priority can address this.

One of the biggest problems of Marcan priority is “the Great Omission”—the name given to that section in the middle of Mark (6:45 - 8:26) which Luke entirely omits. Nothing. Nada. Luke’s omission is not a conclusive barrier to his having used Mark as a source, but it does leave it open to question. It needs explaining; if Luke used Mark—why leave that out?

Oh, OK. Well I still don’t see any actual negative (recorded testimony against) evidence concerning the authorship. In that sense it seems to me it’s arguable that, generally speaking, arguing against attributed authorship is in some way arguing from silence. But I’m not going to insist that is the case. My main concern was to point out what I perceived as an overstatement of the actual situation.

I think the problem is that apart from basic issues like Marcan priority and that Jesus existed and was crucified, once you get more “into the weeds” there’s just no broad scholarly consensus, only camps of opinions. Jonathan Bernier gives a good overview of what consensus vs. dominant vs. majority opinions are: Critical Realism and the New Testament: Consensus and Quackery

Consensus : virtually all scholars in the field affirm a given proposition, to the point that the statement “Person X is a scholar in field Y” is virtually synonymous with the statement “Person X believes that Z is the case.” In other words, the percentage of persons in the field holding this opinion is virtually 100%, statistically negligible numbers rejecting the opinion notwithstanding (in other words, the fact that two NT scholars have said they think Jesus did not exist does not obviate the fact that this is a consensus). That Jesus existed and was Jewish is an example of such a consensus, as is the supposition that the Synoptic Gospels are genetically related to one another in some fashion.

Majority : more than 50% of scholars in the field would affirm a given proposition. That Mark’s Gospel was the first written and was used by both Matthew and Luke no doubt falls into this category.

Minority : less than 50% of scholars would affirm a given proposition. That Matthew and Luke also used a second text, designated Q, probably now falls into this category (cf. the recent poll on The Historical Jesus Blog), as does the leading contender, that Luke used Matthew’s Gospel and both used Mark’s.

Dominant : more scholars would affirm this proposition than any mutually exclusive proposition. By the above definition this would be the case with any majority opinion, such that when I use the word “majority” I necessarily imply “dominant.” This category becomes important when considering positions wherein there is no majority but rather only minority positions. The poll to which I referred above suggested that 45% of scholars still hold to Two-Document Hypothesis, or Markan Priority with Q. Let’s suggest that of the 55% who reported that they did not 35% hold to the leading contender, Markan Priority without Q, and the other 20% to a variety of other solutions to the Synoptic Problem. We would then say that whilst Q is the dominant view, but not a majority one.

Some more interesting tidbits (emphasis mine):

In 1998 I was an undergraduate studying the Synoptic Gospels in a class cleverly titled “The Synoptic Gospels.” I was introduced to two competing solutions to the Synoptic Problem. According to my professor (an extremely learned fellow and one who was observant of scholarly trends) there were only two solutions that held any sway in the guild:

Option One : Mark’s Gospel was composed first. Matthew and Luke gathered the bulk of their material from Mark and another source (Q). This solution had been around since the 1800s and was now (as of 1998) held by 80 to 90 percent of Gospels scholars. This view existed before H.J. Holtzmann (1832–1910), but it was Holtzmann who gave full voice to the theory.

Option Two : Matthew was written first (cf. Patristic tradition). Luke was written second, adapting Matthew. Then Mark was a composed using both Matthew and Luke as sources. Previously known as the Griesbach hypothesis, this theory was given new life in the voice of (recently passed) William Farmer.

There was no mention to the Farrer-Goulder in my 1998 classroom. There was no third option offered. It wasn’t until a couple years later (I think it was 2000, in Nashville) that I first learned of the Farrer-Goulder approach to the Synoptic Problem.

I really have nothing invested in the Q hypothesis and remain open to being convinced otherwise. The purpose of this post is to point out that Mark Goodacre has changed the field in a very short period of time. In less than two decades, the four-source solution has gone from the consensus theory to a contested theory. I cannot imagine teaching a class on the Synoptics without offering the Farrer-Goulder-Goodacre theory among the available options.

So even whether Q existed is not a consensus opinion, and Matthean priority is definitely considered a live option, at least 20 years ago. And consensus on these more detailed issues can change rapidly within this time.


Hi everyone,

For what it’s worth, I think Christopher Tuckett’s article, The Current State of the Synoptic Problem (2008, given at the Oxford Conference on the Synoptic Problem; republished in Foster, Paul; et al., eds. (2011). New Studies in the Synoptic Problem: Oxford Conference, April 2008 . Bibliotheca Ephemeridum Theologicarum Lovaniensium. 239 . pp. 9–50) is well worth reading. Tuckett favors the two-source hypothesis, but is very fair-minded towards those who disagree with him. He writes:

In one sense, one could say that where we are now in relation to the Synoptic Problem is not very different from where we were 100 years ago. Then, as now, some form of the Two Source Theory (2ST) ruled/rules the roost. Certainly in relation to the theory of Markan Priority (MP), there is widespread (but by no means universal) acceptance of such a theory, at least in some shape or form, to explain the agreements between the gospels in triple tradition passages. There may well be greater doubt about the other main plank of the 2ST [two-source theory - VJT], viz. the Q hypothesis; though again it is probably fair to say that some form of Q theory, or at least a theory that Matthew-Luke agreements which are not due to common dependence on Mark are due to use of some kind of common tradition(s), still commands widespread (but again not universal) acceptance.

Personally, I’m not sure what I think about Q, but Tuckett makes a telling observation, drawing upon the work of Derrenbacker:

One of the points regularly made by defenders of the Q hypothesis is to refer to the phenomenon of order. Many have claimed that, if Luke used Mark and Matthew as sources (i.e. the FGH [Farrer-Goulder Hypothesis]), he must have used them in radically different ways: he appears to have stuck fairly close to the Markan order, but changed the relative order of the Matthean material he decided to include at almost every point. Hence Luke’s general approach to his sources on the hypothesis seems inconsistent. For the GH [Griesbach Hypothesis], the problem may be slightly different, but still present: Luke is using Matthew alone, but it is not clear, at least in general terms, why Luke would have chosen to keep closely to Matthew’s order in part of the tradition (the material which, according to the GH, would be later used by Mark as well), and be very free elsewhere. Further, for both hypotheses, such a radical reordering of one of his sources by Luke would be highly unusual in relation to the general procedure adopted by writers at the time using sources since writers of the time appear to have tended not to engage in any substantial reordering.

By contrast, a more coherent and/or consistent pattern of redactional activity might emerge on the Q hypothesis (especially if Q were a single source). Luke may have preserved the order of the Q material largely unchanged, operating with Q in a very similar way to the way he used Mark. Matthew may have made more changes to the order, but this may have been part of a more general redactional strategy of collecting together related teaching material into his five great teaching “blocks” (a strategy which few would deny in general terms). Thus, it is claimed, a Q hypothesis would make a more coherent picture of the overall phenomenon of the agreements and disagreements in order between the three synoptic gospels than a model which postulates Luke’s use of Matthew.


Finally, on the question of Markan Priority, here’s what the late Fr. Raymond E. Brown wrote on pages 164-165 of his work, An Introduction to the New Testament (Anchor/Doubleday, 1997):

"(1) As explained in Chapter 6, This INTRODUCTION works with the thesis that Matt and Luke used Mark. Yet for many centuries the dominant view was Augustine’s thesis that Mark was little more than an epitome of Matt; and recently attention has been given to the (modified) Griesbach hypothesis wherein Mark drew on Matt (p. 113 above). It is instructive to test the theological consequences of positing Marcan dependence on the other Synoptics. For instance, Mark would have omitted the Lord’s Prayer and the four beatitudes that Matt and Luke agree upon. As for christology, if Mark was written after Matt and drew on it, at a period when the title “God” for Jesus was becoming more common, Mark 10:17-18 would have complicated Matt 19:16-17 by gratuitously introducing an objection to giving Jesus a title that belonged to God alone. Mark 6:5 would have introduced the idea that Jesus could not do miracles at Nazareth, changing the statement of Matt 13:58 that he did none.

“Some claim that Matthean priority and Marcan dependence support traditional Roman Catholic positions, but Mark’s presentation of Mary and Peter becomes all the more difficult if the evangelist knew Matt and/or Luke. Mark would have deliberately omitted the infancy narratives of Matt and Luke, even the details in which they both agree, including the conception of Jesus through the Holy Spirit. Mark would have consciously added two items lacking in Matt and Luke pertinent to Mary, namely, that Jesus’ own family thought he was “beside himself” (3:19b-21) and that he received no honor from his own relatives (6:4). As for the Marcan view of Peter and the apostles, Mark would have deliberately omitted both Matt 16:16-19 that makes Peter the rock on which the church was built, and Luke 22:31-34 that has Peter strengthening his brothers after his own failure. (Even though those are not passages shared by both Matt and Luke, Mark can scarcely not have noticed the impact of omitting such positive passages.) Mark would have deliberately omitted the promise of Jesus to the disciples in Matt 19:28 and Luke 22:29-30 whereby they would sit on thrones judging the twelve tribes of Israel. Mark 4:38 would have made the disciples more rude to Jesus than they were in Matt 8:25. Using a book with the Gospels in parallel columns, readers are invited to test other examples of Marcan thought and procedure in the Griesbach hypothesis.”

And on the reliability of Papias, here’s a relevant footnote (36) from Matthew Ferguson’s online essay, Why Scholars Doubt the Traditional Authors of the Gospels (2013):

A minority of mainstream scholars have defended the 2nd century attributions and “eyewitness” status of the canonical Gospels, perhaps most notably Richard Bauckham in Jesus and the Eyewitnesses . (Although, even Bauckham does not think that the disciple Matthew or John the son of Zebedee authored the final versions of the gospels attributed to them.) Bauckham’s study deals less with defending the authorship of the titular names affixed to the Gospels, as much as presenting arguments that eyewitnesses lie behind the traditions and sources in the Gospels.

And here’s another footnote (28):

A common apologetic slogan about the church fathers’ attributions is that they allegedly “universally agreed” upon Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, and thus were not speculating about the authors. However, this is only true of the later church fathers from the latter half of the 2nd century CE onward into the 3rd and 4th centuries–such as Irenaeus, Tertullian, Origen, and Eusebius–whereas the earliest references to the texts treat them anonymously (likewise discussed in footnote 20 above). Ignatius (c. 105-115 CE), Polycarp (c. 110-140 CE), the Epistle of Barnabas (80-120 CE), and the Didache (c. 50-120 CE), for example, allude to or quote the Gospels anonymously. As NT scholar Bart Ehrman explains, “in any of the writings of the Apostolic Fathers–ten proto-orthodox writers, most of them from the first half of the second century”–the Gospels are not identified by their traditional names, but are treated anonymously. Later, Justin Martyr (c. 150-160 CE) refers to the Gospels collectively as the “Memoirs of the Apostles.” Later still, Irenaeus (c. 175-185 CE) finally refers to the four Gospel canon with the names of its traditional authors.

What about Papias? Ferguson argues that the question of his reliability hinges on which John he knew:

It should be noted that even Richard Bauckham ( Jesus and the Eyewitnesses , pp. 452-463) argues that both Papias and Polycarp were hearers of a separate “elder” John, and not John the son of Zebedee. As James McGrath explains in “Which John? The Elder, the Seer, and the Apostle,” by the time of Irenaeus in the late-2nd century CE, different figures in the early church named “John”–such as John the son of Zebedee, John of Patmos, and John the Presbyter (or, “elder” John)–had become conflated in their identities. One of the reasons for differentiating John the Elder from John the son of Zebedee, McGrath explains, is the fact that “Papias mentioned his efforts to find out what a variety of key figures, including John the apostle, said (using the past tense), and also what Aristion and John the Elder say (using the present tense).” This change in tense suggests that Papias is referring to John the son of Zebedee as a past figure, whereas the John the Elder was a subsequent figure, alive during his own day. Due to this ambiguity, and the general unreliability of the available sources, it is untenable that either Papias or Polycarp knew John the son of Zebedee, or any of the twelve disciples.

Food for thought. Cheers.


Thanks for this, Vincent. I know very little about this topic and have not read all of the posts herein. I’m curious, though, and wondering if you can clarify. How did the early fathers (and, presumably, the early church) refer to these “books” then? Do we know, specifically, for instance, how the book of Mark was referred to? Was it called “Mark” but just understood to be author unknown (I believe no from the quote above)? Or was it merely unnamed and it evolved a name over time? It seems strange to think that letters of such significance would not carry some sort of working title to which they could be referred.


I am not very familiar with this either. I have yet to see several arguments on these subjects that seems well supported by multiple lines of evidence. Everyone appears to be winging it. I listened to Mike Lincona who appears agnostic on Markan priority. It seems that both view points have their pros and cons. Any thesis that relies on either one of these priorities appears on shaky ground.

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Well, then, that pretty much does it for the claim that the Gospels were written by the people whose names they bear, doesn’t it?

Did anyone really argue that traditional authorship was the only opinion, or the consensus one? What are we arguing about anyway? I thought the argument was that traditional authorship is intellectually defensible, with some good arguments, even if it’s not the majority opinion.


There are some interesting ideas here

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FWIW I’ve read all the early Fathers.

Their quotes from New Testament Scripture are frequent (and there is much scholarly discussion, based on what they do or don’t quote or paraphrase, about what was available to each). But in general their quotes are just that - recycling of words that clearly carry traditional or apostolic authority. They seldom give references, or at most something vague like, “as the apostle says…” or “the Laord taught…” And of course the actual lists of canonical books are much later, elicited by particular needs.

So it is scarcely surprising if the gospel authors are not specifically attributed - they are simple used by the early writers. Just as now a Christian might say “It is more blessed to give than to receive” without even knowing the reference, or even that it’s one of the few NT sayings of Jesus not in the canonical gospels (but quoted by Paul).

It’s just as in a science-faith blog, where the phrase “creationism in a cheap tuxedo” is understood by all without needing attribution, to the extent that in a blog on atheist use of theology I could parody it as “Richard Dawkins in a cheap cassock” knowing that my readers would get it.

By today’s standards not naming a source is lazy scholarship - but in a non-literary culture it’s a sign of authoritative texts that are familiar enough to both author and reader to be common currency. The question then becomes how those gospels became universally authoritative so early, in a church scattered across the Roman Empire.

Someone like Ignatius before 107 could shoot off letters to local churches in several nations on his way to execution in Rome, knowing that his many direct and loose quotations and allusions from 3 of the gospels and 12 other NT books (from memory, certainly) would be familiar to Christians wherever he went, and would bolster his arguments.

Their authorship and provenance would clearly have had some relevance to that, as would the sources those authors used. When they did later come to be attributed, either in mss titles or in literature, to Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, they were universally recognised by those names. This suggests that the four authors were universally known in the churches.

That said, Eusebius quotes Papias (early 2nd century) in naming Matthew and Luke’s gospels. Justin Martyr in the mid 2nd century uses all four gospels without naming them, but appears to link Mark with Peter (which accords with tradition about Mark’s main source). By the later 2nd century Irenaeus is stressing the very fact of four gospels as being as foundational as the cardinal points of the compass.

I assume that someone on this long thread has already pointed out that, if the authors were a late invention, they’d be an odd choice: neither Mark or Luke were apostles and are minor figures - Luke was not even a witness to the ministry of Jesus.


Yes. It was stated that literally all the historical evidence supported this, and that there was none to support any other option.

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Faizal, I think that your assertion goes well beyond what was said or intended. Jim said that the testimony that is available is in support of the named authors and that there was no testimony that the authorship was attributed to anyone else. I am not seeing mention of historical reference to authors other than those named.

Are you referring to another argument along the way? It is a very long post.


If by “testimony”, he means written accounts of direct witnesses to the writing of the Gospels, then he is wrong. No such testimony exists, in support of either position.

And if by testimony he just means people asserting what they believe the authorship to be at sometime after their writing, then he is still wrong, as this discussion has demonstrated,

So, yes, that is the statement to which I am referring and, no, I have not misrepresented it.

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What I am understanding to have been said and still awaiting some sort of clarification regarding (as I know very little about this subject) is that there is not historical evidence that these books were written by anyone other than the named authors.

Are you finding, in your research, assertions that the gospels were attributed to named persons other than the persons for whom they are named now? If so, what named persons? This is my understanding of what Jim was saying… That it was understood or accepted that they were written by those named persons, and that there was no first-century or early second-century attestation that they were written by some other named persons.

Thanks, @jongarvey, for this explanation. It was very helpful.

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