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Who Wrote the Gospels? David Bokovoy

Who Wrote the Gospels? (part 1)


“The Scribe” by Jean Mielot

“A historical genre does not necessarily guarantee historical accuracy or reliability, and neither the evangelists nor their first readers engaged in historical analysis. Their aim was to confirm Christian faith (Lk 1.4; Jn 20.31). Scholars generally agree that the Gospels were written forty to sixty years after the death of Jesus. They thus do not present eyewitness or contemporary accounts of Jesus’ life and teachings.”


This assessment of the Gospels derives from the New Oxford Annotated Bible edited by Michael D. Coogan (pg. 1744). And it is the consensus. Open up any academic Study Bible or college level text book on the New Testament, and you’ll find the same idea: the Gospels are historical sources that lack historicity. This statement represents the mainstream academic understanding of these ancient literary works. The Gospel writers used stories about the past to describe who Jesus was from their perspective. As authors, they were not engaged in historical analysis. They wrote theological records about the past that defined Jesus as Christ.

Historically, the Gospels were not produced to appear side by side in a single scriptural volume–the way they occur today in the New Testament. Instead, they were originally individual accounts created to stand alone as independent narratives. It doesn’t take too careful a read to determine that from start to finish, the Gospels contain inaccurate historical reconstructions—stories about Jesus’ life and ministry that simply could not have taken place the way they’re depicted. We see this, for example, when the Gospels are lined up and read comparatively. There are significant discrepancies in the stories they present. And in the context of historical analysis, two or three contradictory accounts cannot all be accurate, even if one of them is.

One of the reasons these inconsistencies occur is due to the fact that the Gospels are not eyewitness accounts of Jesus’ life and ministry. They were, as the OUP Study Bible notes, written forty to sixty years after Jesus’ death by authors who did not know him personally. These authors were certainly believers, and they undoubtably preserved many correct historical traditions, but they learned about Jesus from oral and perhaps some written sources we no longer possess. Jesus’ original followers were Aramaic-speaking Jews, and the Gospels were written in Greek. They wouldn’t have been written, therefore, by Jesus’ original followers; not in their current form. Instead, the Gospels were produced by people who lived outside the regions of Galilee and Judea where Jesus ministered.

The scholarly consensus holds that the authors of Matthew and Luke used Mark to produce their narratives (the author of John, however, does not show signs of having known Mark). It’s important to note that the author of the first Gospel never presents himself as an eyewitness for any of the events he describes. If he had been, we would certainly expect that the author would have said so. The first person form was used by authors in early Christian story telling. For example, the non-Canonical Gospel of Peter contains a falsely attributed first-person reference to Peter (the account’s alleged author):

[58] Now it was the final day of the Unleavened Bread; and many went out returning to their home since the feast was over. [59] But we twelve disciples of the Lord were weeping and sorrowful; and each one, sorrowful because of what had come to pass, departed to his home. [60] But I, Simon Peter, and my brother Andrew, having taken our nets, went off to the sea. And there was with us Levi of Alphaeus whom the Lord …

This is what we would expect, therefore, if a famous author such as Mark, the traveling companion of Peter, would have written the Gospel that now bears his name. Instead, like the other three Gospels, Mark was composed as an anonymous source. And this is significant. If Matthew, for instance, was truly written by one of Jesus’ Apostles, why would it not contain first person references like the apocryphal Gospel of Peter? Matthew could have written, “Then the Lord said unto us…” Or even “And then, I Matthew, bear witness…” Doing so would have strengthened the text’s claims for historical authenticity. It’s hard to imagine that “Matthew” would have simply omitted this detail that would have strengthened the historical veracity of his account.

But that’s not all.

If Matthew was an eyewitness to the events the Gospel described, why would he have relied upon Mark’s account to create his narrative? Why wouldn’t Matthew have simply told his own story rather than produce a creative rewritten version of Mark? Especially when Mark wasn’t an eyewitness.

Though there is some academic debate on the details, scholars have a good idea concerning the approximate dates the Gospels were written. Critical historians have been studying this issue for the past two hundred years. Admittedly, dating ancient literary sources is a complicated puzzle, but there are some basic points to consider: We know, for example, that Paul wrote his New Testament epistles during the fifties of the Common Era. And despite the fact that Paul travelled throughout various Christian communities, there’s no evidence that Paul knew any of the four Gospels. If they existed, surely Paul would have encountered these narratives during his travels and we would expect that they would have impacted his own literary works. But they don’t. It’s also clear that the Gospel writers knew about later historical events after Paul’s day, including the destruction of the city of Jerusalem during the Jewish revolt against Rome in 70 CE (Mark 13:1; Luke 21:20-22). This fact alone indicates that the Gospels were likely written after this traumatic event.

Since Mark was written first, it was probably produced around 70 CE (the year Jerusalem and the temple were destroyed). Again, Matthew and Luke quote Mark’s narrative. This implies that Mark must have been in circulation for some time in order for these later authors to be aware of the account. For this reason, Matthew and Luke were most likely written at least ten years later, perhaps 80-85 CE. John has a much later theological perspective concerning Jesus from what appears in early Christian sources embedded in the New Testament. John also differs significantly in its view of Christ from the other Gospels. Thus, taking into consideration this theological development, it makes sense to date John after the synoptics, towards the end of the first century (90-95 CE). This means that the earliest surviving written accounts about Jesus derive from thirty-five (at the earliest) to sixty-five years after his death; they were probably also written after the death of many (if not all) of Jesus’ original disciples.

So who wrote these accounts? The quick answer is we simply don’t know.

The Gospels are all anonymous; none of the authors actually identifies himself within the text. Even though the authors of Luke and John do on occasion feature first person references, they never specify exactly who they are. Again, this stands in contrast to the later apocryphal Gospel of Peter, and it also contradicts many other ancient literary works in which the author’s name appears directly in the body of the text. This can be seen, for example, in Thucydides’ History of the Peloponnesian War (1:1), which at the beginning of the account reads: “Thucydides, an Athenian, wrote the history of the war in which the Peloponnesians and the Athenians fought against one another.” There’s nothing like this statement, however, in the four Gospels. Instead, we have attributions of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John attached to the books by later Christians in the second century CE.

All of the preserved manuscript versions of the Gospels contain the titles we use today, but these manuscripts do not begin appearing until 200 CE. This does not tell us, therefore, the titles Christians used for these books prior to that time period. Whatever they were called, it’s quite clear that the authors’ names were intentionally omitted.

Note that the later attributions (the ones that appear in our Bible today) state that this is the Gospel “according to X.” This provides a significant historical clue: the later attribution fails to declare actual authorship. If the attributions were intended to say, “this is the book written by X,” this would have been accomplished by placing the attributed name in the genitive state, followed by the title of the literary work: for example, in English, “The Gospel of Mark.” This naming convention would have identified the author of the book. But of course this is not what the later attributions do. Instead, they present the attributed author via the Greek preposition kata, meaning “according to.”

The term “according to” implies that the title was given by someone other than the author himself. This suggests that the titles, “The Gospel According to Matthew,” “The Gospel According to Mark,” etc. were assigned to these works after all four books had circulated in the early Christian community, so that eventually, it became necessary to differentiate between them as “the Gospel according to X.” Of course, this fact alone does not prove that these attributed authors did not write the Gospels, but it does show that the attributions were added long after the books were originally composed.



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Who Wrote the Gospels (part 2)

Christianity and Rabbinic Judaism, 2nd ed.
Back in 1992, the Biblical Archaeology Society published a collection of introductory essays in a book titled, Christianity and Rabbinic Judaism: A Parallel History of Their Origins and Development. The book contained essays by some of the most influential contributors to this fascinating field of study. Since then, it has become a standard textbook and reference work for undergraduate, graduate, and Bible study courses across the country. A newly revised version appeared in 2011.

As an undergraduate student, I purchased my first copy of Christianity and Rabbinic Judaism shorty after its initial publication. At that time, I didn’t make it very far into the book, but I did have it on my shelf.

Later during my graduate studies, I had the opportunity to take courses from one of the contributing scholars to this volume, visiting professor E.P. Sanders. This was my first serious exposure to a historical critical analysis of the New Testament. It was a wonderful experience. Dr. Sanders is a highly accomplished scholar in the fields of New Testament and Historical Jesus studies. In this classic textbook, Dr. Sanders contributes the essay, “The Life of Jesus.”

Concerning the topic of the four canonical Gospels, E.P. Sanders writes:

“These books were written anonymously, but in the second century Christians began to attribute them to four men: Matthew and John (Jesus’ followers) and Mark and Luke (early Christians, but not direct disciples of Jesus). . . Although the canonical Gospels contain almost the only worthwhile information about Jesus, they are by no means straightforward histories or biographies in the modern sense. The material in them was passed on orally for some years, being modified in the process. Further, the authors of the Gospels were more interested in theological truth than in bare historical accuracy, and their theological concerns sometimes shaped the material”(pg. 42).

Once again, therefore, we witness the standard textbook view (cited in my previous essay) concerning the four Gospels: they are anonymous historical texts that lack historicity. As Dr. Sanders explains (and as I explored in my previous post in this series), the attributions we recognize today began in the second century CE. But the Gospels weren’t originally known by these later titles. And of course there exist compelling reasons why the standard view presented in academic study Bibles and college-level textbooks rejects the possibility that these later attributions preserve correct information concerning original authorship.

The Gospel writers kept their identity anonymous. We don’t know who they were, and we cannot trust the latter attributions. But at least one fact about these books is clear: the authors were highly educated, Greek-speaking Jews who most likely lived outside of Palestine [1]. This means that the Gospels are not eye witness accounts of Jesus’ life and ministry, and they’re certainly not history.

The Gospels indicate that Jesus’ apostles were all lower-class peasants from rural Galilee. Simon Peter, Andrew, James, and John were day laborers—fishermen to be precise [2]. The Disciple Matthew is identified as a “publican” or tax collector. The accounts, however, do not specify the specific rank Matthew held within the imperial bureaucratic system. While it is possible that he may have worked directly with the governing authorities, given the social standing of Jesus’ other disciples, Matthew was most likely employed to extract funds directly from the peasant class. Either way, there is no historical evidence that Matthew’s position would have required an advanced scribal education.

In first-century Palestine, lower-class peasants like Jesus’ apostles were almost always illiterate. This was the normal condition for most people throughout the Roman Empire [3]. Admittedly, this perspective is sometimes hard for us to comprehend. Literacy in modern society, particularly in the West, is so common that we often forget that the ancient world did not share this same standard. Mass public literacy began only with the advent of the Industrial Revolution, when nations found an economic benefit in educating citizens. Nonindustrialized societies that rely primarily upon the production of agricultural goods have always devoted their resources to areas other than education. Unlike the modern West, these nations did/do not benefit either economically or socially from educating their citizens. Hence, in the ancient world, very few people could read or write.

Estimates suggest that at its highest level, literacy rates in ancient societies never amounted to more than 10 percent of the total population. This fact explains why ancient civilizations relied primarily upon oral, rather than written communication.

In Mesopotamia, less than 5 percent of the population was presumably literate. The number may have been a bit higher in ancient Egypt, but it still amounted to no more than 7 percent of the population. We believe that ancient Greece most likely held the highest literacy rate at approximately 10 percent [4].

These numbers reflect the fact that modernized education programs developed only after the invention of the printing press. Prior to that event, only the leisured upper class had the time and economic means to gain literacy skills [5]. In premodern societies, the rest of the population, which in most instances would have included over 90 percent of the community, worked as peasant laborers, lacking the time and resources necessary to purchase expensive hand written documents, let alone the education required to read them.

It comes as no surprise, therefore, that the New Testament indicates that early followers of the Christian movement were illiterate. Two of the most prominent, Peter and John, are described as “unlettered,” a term that specifically denoted illiteracy in the ancient world (Acts 4:13) [7]. The historical evidence shows that this condition was, in fact, common amongst early Christians. This trend partly resulted from the fact that Jesus’ message of “good news” and apocalyptic redemption primarily appealed to women and lower class men who felt oppressed by the imperial system. To this group, the Gospels indicate that Jesus declared such things as, “blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God” (Luke 6:20).

This historical perspective is discussed by Marcus Borg and John Crossan in their book, The Last Week: What the Gospels Really Teach About Jesus’ Final Days in Jeruasalem. On this topic, the authors note:

“In Mark (and the other gospels), Jesus never goes to a city (except Jerusalem, of course). Though the first half of Mark is set in Galilee, Mark does not report that Jesus went to its largest cities, Sepphoris and Tiberias, even though the first is only four miles from Nazareth and the second is on the shore of the Sea of Galilee, the area of most of Jesus’s activity. Instead, Jesus speaks in the countryside and in small towns like Capernaum. Why? The most compelling answer is that Jesus saw his message as to and for peasants.”

——Marcus J. Borg and John Dominic Crossan, The Last Week (Kindle Locations 489-491). HarperCollins. Kindle Edition.

If Jesus’ message of glad tidings was directed specifically to members of the peasant class, in a population that was approximately 95 percent illiterate, then almost certainly very few of Jesus’ original followers could read, let alone write. Though not an “original follower,” in this regard, the Apostle Paul was obviously unique in that he possessed both scribal skills. We can see, however, how unusual this was through Paul’s letter to his Corinthian congregation. In this epistle, Paul acknowledges that most of the community was not considered wise by human standards (1 Cor 1:27)—a statement that many scholars believe illustrates that the community was not as a whole, well-educated [8]. And as apocalyptic-minded peasants, we shouldn’t expect them to be.

The Gospel accounts are clear: Jesus’ apostles were Aramaic-speaking Jewish peasants. Given their professions and social standing, it would be surprising if any of these men could speak Greek, let alone read and compose complex literature in that language. In contrast, the authors of the Gospels were highly-educated Greek-speaking Christians. They lived in a later era (probably after Jesus’ original apostles had all died), and they wrote their accounts outside of the land of Palestine using oral (and some written) traditions about Jesus to construct their theological narratives.

The evidence, therefore, suggests that these men would not have been able to produce literary works in their own native tongue, let alone literary accounts in Greek. Concerning this point, Dr. Bart Erhman states, “to be sure, the Gospels are not the most refined books to appear in the empire—far from it. Still, they are coherent narratives written by highly trained authors who knew how to construct a story and carry out their literary aims with finesse” [9].

It’s hard to imagine that Jesus’ Aramaic speaking peasant followers who embraced his apocalyptic message concerning the kingdom of God would have composed these literary works. And according to mainstream biblical scholarship, they didn’t.

[1] Bart Ehrman, Jesus, Interrupted: Revealing the Hidden Contradictions in the Bible (And Why We Don’t Know About Them)(New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 2009), 106.

[2] Brigham Young University professor Matthew Grey has recently discussed the archaeological and literary record concerning Peter’s socio-economic background and his connection with Capernaum; see Matthew J. Grey, “Simon Peter in Capernaum: An Archaeological Survey of the First-Century Village,” in The Ministry of Peter the Chief Apostle (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 2014), 27-66. Grey’s study supports “the more traditional view of Peter as a common fisherman who came from a conservative Jewish background and who likely possessed little or no formal education” (p. 29).

[3] For literacy in the ancient world, see William Harris, Ancient Literacy (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1989); on the topic of literacy among Palestinian Jews at the time of Christ, see Catherine Hezser, Jewish Literacy in Roman Palestine(Tübingen: Mohr-Siebeck, 2001).

[4] For these statistics, see Karel van der Toorn, Scribal Culture and the Making of the Hebrew Bible (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2009), 10.

[5] Slaves were also sometimes educated in the art of literacy to serve the elite.

[7] Ehrman, Jesus, Interrupted, 105.

[8] Bart Ehrman, Misquoting Jesus: The Story Behind Who Changed the Bible and Why (New York: HarperCollins, 2009), 40.

[9] Ehrman, Jesus, Interrupted, 105-06.




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