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Who Wrote the Gospels?

First-century authors generally wrote anonymously, out of modesty, so you may ask, “Okay, Mr. Smarty Pants, if the gospel writers were so modest, why did they put their names in the titles of their gospels?” The answer is that they didn’t. Authors didn’t give their books titles back then, so we can’t prove authorship just from the title. The ancient church referred to the gospels by the names of the people who were either the author or the source of information, so far as they knew. The title “Gospel According to Matthew,” for example, could mean that Matthew wrote it, that Matthew had a ghostwriter, or that someone based it on material from Matthew.

The Gospel According to Matthew

I don’t have much to say about Matthew right now. Perhaps later.

The Gospel According to Mark

If someone asked you how many apostles there were, you’d probably say twelve. In fact, that’s a Sunday-school puzzle. If there were twelve apostles, and Matthias replaced Judas Isariot, how could Paul be an apostle? The ancient church has an answer for that. They counted 83 apostles, the Twelve, the Seventy, and Paul. These 83 people were called apostles because they were the disciples who were with Jesus from the beginning and to whom Jesus personally gave a commission to evangelize the world. The word “apostle” is an ordinary Greek word that means a person who had been sent out with a commission. In English, we only use it only to refer to people who were commissioned as evangelists by Jesus, in person, before His ascension. If ancient sources are correct, the Mark who is the source of the Gospel According to Mark is John Mark, one of the Seventy, and thus an apostle by ancient reckoning. He was present in the Garden of Gethsemane and watched everything at a distance, but he was close enough that the Roman soldiers tried to apprehend him. He later went to Egypt and founded the church in Alexandria, which we know today as the Coptic Church.

According to ancient sources, John Mark worked under Peter. As Peter got older, people encouraged him to make a written record of his preaching so they would have it after his death. John Mark did the writing, using Peter as a source, either with Peter’s approval or supervision.

Mark includes a first-person account without witnesses. (Mark 14:51-52, the young man who watched everything that happened in the garden of Gethsemane from a distance.) Since all the other disciples were asleep most of the time, this account can only have been written by the young man himself, which means it is Mark being modest.

Koinē Greek was the lingua franca of the Roman Empire in the New Testament era. It was the language of commerce and the one language that was known everywhere. Most of the people who spoke koinē Greek in that era spoke it as a second language, with varying levels of skill. Mark wrote well, but roughly, as if Greek weren’t his native language. Or maybe he just wasn’t a talented writer.

The Gospel according to Luke and The Acts of the Apostles

Luke and Acts were written by the same person, a native speaker of Greek. The Greek is polished, bordering on literary quality in places. Like the other writers, Luke never mentions himself by name, but he does say “we” in Acts when he relates events in which he participated.

Luke was a gentile physician from the city of Antioch, the location of the church that authorized Paul’s missions. He was an educated man who spoke koinē Greek as his native language, and he was the only gentile to contribute to the New Testament canon.

Paul is apparently Luke’s main source, but he had others. He says that he interviewed people before he wrote. For example, the Gospel According to Luke contains two incidents for which Mary was the only witness. (These are in Luke 1:26-38, the Annunciation, and Luke 2:41-52, the boy Jesus in the Temple.)

The journeys in Acts cover a lot of ground—not just metaphorically—but Luke gets everything right: place names, political systems, distances, length of time it takes to get from place to place, and local details. This would only be possible if the journeys really happened and Luke was along for the trip.

The Gospel According to John

Scholars generally concede a connection between the Apostle John and the Gospel of John.

John’s Gospel appears to have been written later than the others, because the writer has a different purpose in writing and seems to be consciously supplementing them. For instance:

It seems that John’s gospel was edited several times, either by the author himself or by people under his supervision. Editing a document was harder in the days before word processors. Everything was written by hand, so edits would take the form of additions rather than substitutions. This is why John’s gospel has two endings (John 20 and 21). Centuries later, Martin Luther began the Babylonian Captivity of the Church by arguing that there are three sacraments, but by the end of the book, he said there were only two.

The Apostle John is mentioned in Matthew, Mark, and Luke, but not in John. All apparent references to the Apostle John are indirect, which probably indicates that John is the author, conforming to the first-century practice of author’s modesty.

John was the youngest of the Twelve, so if he is the author, a late date of writing fits. By “late date” I mean somewhere around AD 70-85.

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