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Eyewitness to Jesus? The Gospel Authors

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By far the central figure in Christianity, next to God, is Jesus of Nazareth. He is so central to the Christian religion that, without him, there would be no Christian religion. Yet only 4 books in the entire Bible actually report on Jesus’ life and ministry. These books, of course, are the 4 gospels that open the New Testament. Tradition tells us that they were written by Mark, Matthew, Luke, and John – four eyewitnesses to Jesus’ life and death.

Throughout history, many people have lived and died. We know today nothing about the vast majority of them. A small fraction of these people leave a big enough mark on the world that their existence is recorded into the annals of history for later generations to discover and learn about. Typically, history preserves enough evidence about the most important of these people for historians to learn quite a bit. Historians know a lot about the founders of the United States, King Henry VIII and his six wives, and countless others. This might make you wonder how anyone can prove that a long deceased person actually existed or performed some act. Firstly, allow me to clarify what I mean by “proof”. Historical proof is by no means black and white – that is, something is either proved about someone or its not. Instead of speaking of “proof”, in the historical sciences it is much clearer to speak of “levels of confidence”. That is, we can have varying levels of confidence in the truth or falsity of a historical claim. The more evidence (and the better), the higher our level of confidence is.

In times before photography, there are two principle sources of evidence that can contribute to our level of confidence. One is writing – either the person wrote something down or someone else wrote something about the person. The best case, obviously, is if the person actually recorded something himself. Yet, just because something seems to be written by someone or about someone doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s good evidence. Writings can be forged and faked. Thus, not only must we consider whether or not a piece of writing has been left behind, we must also consider the trustworthiness of that piece of writing. This is why the idea of levels of confidence is so handy. A suspicious piece of writing is going to contribute very low levels of confidence as opposed to one that bares no suspicion. Given a high enough level of confidence, we can proceed to say that the particular claim has been “proven”. The other principle source of evidence is any non-literary material evidence, like a tomb with or without a body, etc.

Jesus, if the Bible is correct, is perhaps the most important person to have ever walked the face of the Earth, yet, as previously mentioned, so little has been claimed to have been written about him by legitimate sources (much has been written about him long after he allegedly lived, to be sure). Jesus didn’t write anything about himself, as far as we know. Jesus left no physical remains (not surprising if he rose from the dead) or any other material object that could be associated with him (the shroud of Turin has been ruled a fake, and so has the so-called “James Ossuary” box). If we, playing the role of  a critical historian, wish to maintain a high level of confidence that Jesus existed, performed miracles, and rose from the dead, then all that we have to rely on are, at best, eyewitness testimonies of his life and works written by people who experienced him firsthand (or, at least, knew someone who experienced him first hand).

The Gospel Authors

This leads us into my topic: Are the gospels trustworthy eyewitness accounts of Jesus? The Bible names the authors of these gospels as Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. Who were these people?

  • Matthew is one of Jesus’ named disciples and therefore an eyewitness to his ministry.
  • John is traditionally identified as the Apostle John, son of Zebedee and brother of James. As a disciple he too was an eyewitness to Jesus.
  • Luke is said to have been one of Paul’s travel companions, “the beloved” physician, and thus would not have been an eyewitness to Jesus’ ministry. A late 2nd century list of New Testament books states unequivocally that Luke did not know Jesus.
  • John Mark (or John called Mark), purported author of the Gospel of Mark, is mentioned three times in the Bible, in Acts 12:12, 15Open Link in New Window:37 and 1 Peter 5:13Open Link in New Window. He is associated with Peter and Paul, and is thought to have been their companion. Eusebius’s Church History says that Mark wrote his gospel as Peter’s interpreter, supposedly writing it in Rome as a summary of Peter’s preaching. If this is true, then Mark himself is not the eyewitness, but rather Peter, one of the Twelve named disciples.

Looking only at the names now attached to the gospels, we can see that 2 would have been eyewitnesses while the other 2 would not have been (Mark would have been an indirect eyewitness, so to speak). If we allow Mark to be Peter’s interpreter, then 3 gospels are possible eyewitness accounts and 1 is not. On the surface, this isn’t bad at all, but can we be sure that Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John were really the authors of their respected gospels?

No, we cannot.

The reality is that the gospel authors never signed their names and their names do not appear anywhere within the body of the text. The titles, “The Gospel According to Mark”, “Matthew”, “Luke”, or “John” are headings that were added sometime late in the second century. It is not likely that the author of the text would have titled it “The Gospel According to X.” Rather, these are titles given to the documents by people who wanted to identify who wrote them. With one exception – the introduction to Luke – all of the gospels are written in the third person perspective of an omniscient narrator. The authors never situate themselves within the unfolding narrative (i.e., ‘I walked into the house with the other disciples only to find Jesus…’) nor give any hint that they were invovled in the events. Several scenes involve Jesus by himself or with the disciples gone.

In that one exception, the author of Luke makes it clear that he is writing his account based on other accounts and not on personal testimony:

Luke 1:1-4Open Link in New Window
Since many have undertaken to set down an orderly account of the events that have been fulfilled among us, just as they were handed on to us by those who from the beginning were eyewitnesses and servants of the word, I too decided, after investigating everything carefully from the very first, to write an orderly account for you, most excellent Theophilus, so that you may know the truth concerning the things about which you have been instructed.

Irenaeus of Lyons, who wrote around 180 CE, is the first Christian writer to call the four gospels by their current titles and present them as dependable, authoritative, and written by people who were reputed to be followers of Jesus or in close contact with those who were. The first early Christian author to clearly quote any of the gospels is Justin Martyr, who wrote during the 150s CE, yet he only refers to them as “memoirs of the apostles” and does not name who they were. The available evidence thus indicates that the gospels were purposefully left anonymous by their authors and stayed that way until sometime between 150 and 180 CE, when someone decided to give them their current titles.

By this time, in the second century CE and continuing into the third, there were already numerous gospels floating around various Christian sects that were attributed to Peter, Phillip, Mary Magdalene, and Thomas, to name a few that we now know about. Many of these gospels were purposefully forged under a disciple’s name, like the Gospel of Phillip (3rd CE), which claims in the body of the text to have been written by the disciple Phillip himself, and the Gospel of Thomas, which claims to have been written by Jesus’ twin. Of some of the others that have been recently discovered it is not clear what they were titled, if anything.

Thus, as it stands, no Christian writer before Irenaeus is aware of any gospels like those found in the New Testament with the titles of Mark, Matthew, Luke, or John – and this includes the authors of the epistles in the New Testament. If the original authors gave their work the titles that we have now, how could any of these facts be possible? If Christian sects in the 2nd century were willing to forge gospels by Peter and Thomas, and produce many others, is it that difficult to believe that eventually 2nd century Christians impressed with these works would have assigned names to the four NT gospels as well? The anonymity of the gospel authors means that we will never know who actually composed them, although we can speculate on the author’s personality and social situation. For example, they were all obviously educated and literate in Greek, the original language of the New Testament.

This page was last modified on November 13th, 2009 at 7:16 pm

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