The Authorship of the Gospels

I’ve been wondering about that.


I can say that to the best of my knowledge, no evidence has ever been presented for other named authors of any of the four gospels. Instead, the opinions of scholars range from (a) the traditional authors, ie apostles Matthew and John, John Mark, and Paul’s companion Luke, or (b) others of the same name, for example the enigmatic “John the Elder” of Papias, who may have been either a follower of John or, as Bauckham suggests, a non-apostolic disciple of Jesus, or © anonymous authors or editors to whose works names were arbitrarily added.

Historically of course there is no way to know - but in terms of the understanding of ancient practice, the odds are loaded against anonymity, because the gospels are “historical-biographies” in genre, and (as I said further up the thread) history was taken only as seriously as the author’s connection to events and testimony. An anonymous history was not a history at all, and so would not have carried weight if, say, Paul used it in his evangelism in distant lands.


@Faizal_Ali Do you agree or disagree with what Jon has written above? Though I may not be good at asking well-phrased questions, I’m thankful for those who answer them clearly anyhow! :slight_smile:

2 posts were split to a new topic: NT Wright’s View of Gospel Authorship

Some see the independence theory as especially consistent with divine inspiration of the gospels, with the similarities among the gospels explained by the Holy Spirit ensuring a faithful record of Christ’s words and deeds.

From your citation: I think this idea needs to be explored.

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If it’s not too late, I’d like to jump in here simply because I’ve been reading through The Reason For God by Tim Keller and just yesterday I read a chapter where he addresses this very point. Keller claims, apparently citing Bauckham’s book:

Critical scholars from earlier in the twentieth century assumed the early Christians would have used a relatively fluid process for transmitting popular folktales and that they would have felt free to change the tales from the past in order to correspond to their present realities and situation.

Bauckham, however, cites Jan Vansina’s study of oral traditions in primitive African cultures, in which fictional legends and historical accounts are clearly distinguished from each other and much greater care is taken to preserve historical accounts accurately. This finding undermines a hundred years of critical gospel scholarship.

Gospel scholars, from the form critics onward, [believed] that early Christians in the transmission of Jesus traditions would not have made any distinction between the past time of the history of Jesus and their own present because oral societies do not make such distinctions. This is untrue.

So according to Keller’s citing of Bauckman’s citing of Vansina, oral cultures do not necessarily “think the stories are supposed to change depending on the context,” as Ehrman is apparently still claiming as late as 2016.

Is Ehrman uninformed of the latest scholarship, or is Keller et. al. misrepresenting the relevance of what more recent studies of oral cultures have to say about our assumptions of oral cultures?


That is wrong. The majority of scholars they were written by other authors whose identities are not known.

If that is what Jim meant, it is not what he wrote. And it is an utterly trivial claim, if that is what he is saying. It is a very weak argument for the traditional authorship, if that is what it is intended to be.

Hi @Michael_Callen,

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?

In the beginning, they weren’t referred to individually. They were just quoted without a reference, as Ehrman explains here:

The Gospels of the New Testament appear to be quoted in early second century authors such as Ignatius of Antioch and Polycarp of Smyrna. But they are not called by their names in any of these writings (in fact, in any of the writings of the Apostolic Fathers – ten proto-orthodox writers, most of them from the first half of the second century). Of greater significance – quite real significance – is evidence from the middle of the second century. Justin Martyr wrote several extensive works that still survive: two apologies (reasoned defenses of the Christian faith) and a book called the “Dialogue with Trypho” (an extended controversy with a Jewish thinker about the superiority of the Christian faith to Judaism)…

In his writings Justin quotes the Gospels that later were to be considered part of the New Testament on numerous occasions. It is quite clear that he knows (intimately) Matthew, Mark, and Luke…

But the striking thing is that he does not call the Gospels by name. He instead, regularly, calls them “Memoirs of the Apostles.” And so he does associate these books with apostles, but he never indicates which apostles. And he does not say that he thinks that the apostles themselves wrote the books, only that these books preserve their “memoirs” (meaning, their reminiscences of the life and teachings of Jesus).

…[W]hy doesn’t Justin specify just which Gospels are authoritative, because of their apostolic origins? One plausible explanation, the one that strikes me as the least problematic, is simply that in Justin’s time and place – 150-60 CE in Rome — the Gospels were not yet given names that associated them with the specific apostles.

I hope that answers your question. Cheers.


Hi @joshuahedlund,

Ehrman makes the claim in an interview for his recent book, Jesus before the Gospels, for which he did extensive research on memory and how reliably oral traditions are transmitted.

Ehrman also discusses the work of Jan Vansina and other researchers in this 2016 interview here. Cheers.

Let me see if I can clarify what I meant. As far as I know, and what would seem like a safe assumption based on the fact that critics never seem to offer such evidence, there is no credible case to be made that in recorded history there are explicit contrary statements that the gospels were attributed to any names other than the four traditional names in question.

The reason I bring this up is that, to my mind, it is additional support for traditional authorship, not the only support.

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Exactly. The consensus is that these documents are anonymously written. That means no one knows who wrote them.

I’m more concerned with the evidence than I am in the consensus opinion. And I think it’s been sufficiently demonstrated in this thread that from explicit statements in history in it’s favor, and apparently no statements to the contrary, there is a decent case to be made for traditional authorship.


This seems like a motive for attributing a false name to one’s account, i.e. assigning authorship to an eyewitness in order to give credibility to one’s work.

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No, we have seen nothing of the sort. Unless you care to cite where someone gave an account of actually having witnessed Luke, Matthew or Mark writing the book.

The fact that people believed those who wrote it because that was written on the cover (not literally) is NOT historical evidence. It is just evidence of what members of a particular cult commonly believed at the time. People who believe in Bigfoot also believe in Bigfoot, strangely enough.

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On what basis is this a requirement to infer authorship?

Paul is the consensus author of at least 7 of the Pauline letters what do you think this is based on?


What would that prove? All a denier has to do is deny the validity of that, too.

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Those serious about perpetrating fraud will no doubt use any weakness they can discover, if they have sufficient resources - but it is harder to fake a Rembrandt than to be Rembrandt.

Think about it. The modern way of doing history from obscure archives is equally, on your logic, a “temptation” for historians to invent archive sources knowing that few will be able check up on them. And that has been done, but historians still exist and we still trust those with sufficient credentials and reputation.

In the First Century it was easier: you could interview the same people the historian did, and in any case history was about public events. The claims about Jesus were known widely from the Day of Pentecost. As Paul said to King Agrippa after his arrest, “These things were not done in a corner.”

Of course, one can always construct conspiracy theories based on a plot amongst numerous authors to rewrite a body of history, but that is hyperskepticism. A least one of the gospel authors, Luke, has always been known not to be an eyewitness, and so would have been judged according to the standards of a secular historian from the start. Mark too is an unlikely choice for a pseudoepigraph since he is not even mentioned in the gospels.

Bear in mind that to write a convincing historical fraud takes an accomplished historian (Morton Smith’s highly convincing fraudulent Secret Mark comes to mind - it was only convincing because of his reputation as a reliable scholar.)

Furthermore, we have a large body of pseudoepigraphic gospels and epistles from relatively early periods, written either as pious fiction or as sectarian propaganda. These are clearly distinguishable by their a-historical features, as scholars have long known, and also by the very eminence of their supposed authors, compared to their non-acceptance by the early church.

It is the job of the historian to ask, “How did these documents arise?” It is, in contrast, the ideologically motivated who ask, “How were they faked?”


It’s not a requirement, but it would be evidence of the sort @Jim insists exists. The evidence he claims to exist does not exist.

Good evidence. Of the sort that is does not exist for the traditional authorship of the synoptic Gospels.

There’s no need to deny evidence that does not exist.

I don’t believe there are many who believe these books were “faked”. Just that they were not written by Matthew, Luke and Mark.

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The evidence Jim is talking about is what is in Tims presentation. Claims of authorship around 170 AD.

How do you define good evidence. What good evidence?

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True, but the gospels aren’t Rembrandts.

Nobody’s talking about fraud. Now, if the Gospel of John said at the start “I, the apostle John, wrote all this stuff and am describing my personal experiences”, that might be fraud. But that isn’t what happened. Attaching a famous person’s name to your manuscript would appear to have been common in the ancient world. And the early church accepted as well as rejected a great many dubious claims.

I don’t think your argument is strong here.