Of the 29 texts that make up the New Testament, most had their authorship attributed to the disciples of Jesus, or at least their immediate followers. As with the Old Testament this is often apparent simply from the title of each work; according to tradition, the gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John were written by Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, the letters of 1st and 2nd Peter were supposedly written by the apostle Peter, etc. However, also like the Old Testament these attributions have been determined false by most biblical scholars and, as I’m about to argue, should be classified as forgeries in certain cases. The exceptions are a number of letters by the apostle Paul plus, arguably, the Book of Revelation by an author named John (though highly unlikely to be apostle John).
It is important to note first off that we do not have any of the original writings of the Bible. Indeed, our Bible today is only based off of manuscripts written later – in most instances, many centuries later. Currently we have around 5,800 complete or fragmented manuscripts of the New Testament alone. And that’s just counting those in Greek. Furthermore, none of these copies are exactly the same, since the scribes who copied them had inadvertently and/or intentionally changed them in places. Just how different are they? As Professor Bart Ehrman explains in his book Misquoting Jesus: The Story Behind Who Changed the Bible and Why, “there are more differences among our manuscripts than there are words in the New Testament.” Of course, 99% of these differences are minor and insignificant, comprising largely of spelling errors. However, as Ehrman also discusses in his book, some of these differences do effect the theological meaning of the text (a topic I’ll be covering later). This fact alone should give one an idea of just how excessively the Bible is derived from human hands. That said, part of the job of a biblical scholar is to compare manuscripts in attempt to find out what the original probably said – a practice known as textual criticism. It is my hope that by understanding the points made above it will be easier to understand the arguments I’ll be making below concerning the authorship of the New Testament writings.
Let’s begin with the hypothesis that the four gospels were written by the disciples of Jesus; that Matthew was written by Matthew the tax collector, Mark by Mark the secretary of the disciple Peter, Luke by Luke, the traveling companion of Paul, and John by the “Beloved Disciple” mentioned in the Fourth Gospel. What predictions can we make? If the gospels were written by the disciples attributed to them, we should expect:
- A composition dating not too long after Jesus’ crucifixion; obviously, the more separated a text is from Jesus’ death (30 A.D.) the less likely it is to have been penned by an eye-witness.
- Textual evidence that would point to the identity of the author as being Matthew, Mark, Luke, or John.
- Consistency in literary and theological material with little to no discrepancies; we should expect the gospels to not contradict one another on important matters pertaining to Jesus’ life and identity.
Let’s test these predictions using the gospels themselves to see how this hypothesis holds water before being turned into sour wine.
Problem #1: Dating
Not much needs to be discussed here. According to most scholars, the dates of the gospels are roughly the following:
- Mark: 65–75 CE
- Matthew: 85–90 CE
- Luke: 85–95 CE
- John: 90–110 CE
The average life expectancy wasn’t too great in 1st century Palestine (about 45 years), making disciple authorship pretty unlikely based on these dates; at over 100 John probably would have been too busy soothing his aged, wrinkled body in the Dead Sea to compose a gospel. But as apologists will undoubtedly argue, these dates are merely well-established estimates by most biblical scholars and historians and therefore don’t inherently prove that they didn’t write them. So let’s continue on to some more problematic evidence.
Problem #2: Authorship
First, nowhere in any of the gospels do the authors identify themselves. In other words, our gospels are anonymous; we simply do not know who wrote them. Ideally we would have liked the text to read “I, Matthew, have recorded these deeds of our Lord Jesus Christ”, but instead all we have is “The Gospel according to Matthew” as added by later church scribes. Of course, this doesn’t prove that the gospels weren’t written by their attributed disciples, but one would think that if you were a close disciple of Jesus that you would mention it somewhere in your writing.
Second, nowhere do the authors claim to be eye-witnesses. Had the gospels been written by disciples who had been eye-witnesses to Jesus’ mission, we would expect them to write in first person, about what “we”-Jesus and and the rest of us-were doing. Instead, they write in third person, about what “they”-Jesus and the disciples-were doing. Ehrman does an excellent job explaining further in his book Jesus, Interrupted, pointing out how, “Even when [the gospel of Matthew] narrates the event of Matthew being called to become a disciple, it talks about ‘him,’ not about ‘me.’Read the account for yourself (Matthew 9:9). There’s not a thing in it that would make you suspect the author is talking about himself. With John it is even more clear. At the end of the Gospel the author says of the ‘Beloved Disciple’: ‘This is the disciple who is testifying to these things and has written them, and we know that his testimony is true’ (John 21:24). Note how the author differentiates between his source of information, ‘the disciple who testiﬁes,’ and himself: ‘we know that his testimony is true.’ He/we: this author is not the disciple. He claims to have gotten some of his information from the disciple. As for the other Gospels, Mark was said to be not a disciple but a companion of Peter, and Luke was a companion of Paul, who also was not a disciple. Even if they had been disciples, it would not guar- antee the objectivity or truthfulness of their stories. But in fact none of the writers was an eyewitness, and none of them claims to be” (p. 104).
Third, nowhere in the New Testament does it indicate that Jesus’ disciples were literate. In fact, we find evidence to the contrary in regards to Peter and John. In Acts 4:13 Peter and John are said to be “uneducated/unlettered” (agrammatoi, GRK: ἀγράμματοί), the ancient word for illiterate.
When they saw the courage of Peter and John and realized that they were unschooled, ordinary men, they were astonished and they took note that these men had been with Jesus. – Acts 4:13
This comes as no surprise for historians, for its been concluded that only about 3% of the population in Palestine during the Roman empire could read. Scholar Mark Chancey, in his exhaustive research studying every archaeological find from Galilee from around the first century along with every relevant piece of writing from the period, concludes that “the Gentiles in Galilee were almost exclusively located in the two major cities, Sepphoris and Tiberias. All the rest of Galilee was predominantly Jewish. And since most of Galilee was rural, not urban, the vast majority of Jews had no encounters with Gentiles. Moreover, Greek was not widely, let alone normally, spoken. The vast majority of Jews spoke Aramaic and had no facility in Greek” (Ehrman, Forged p. 85-86).
And so, According to biblical and historical evidence, Jesus’ disciples were lower-class, illiterate, Aramaic speaking peasants from Galilee. This contrasts severely with what we do know about the writers of the gospels, who were well educated, Greek-speaking Christians who probably lived outside of Palestine. For a fun synopsis let us now turn to Senior Sidewalk Pastor Eman Laerton featuring Mr. Gospel Potato Head Writer…
So, how and when did these gospels become attributed to Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John? What is the source of this tradition?
The earliest source we have deals only with only two gospels, Matthew and Mark. It comes to us from the early church father Papias in his work Expositions of the Sayings of the Lord written somewhere between 110 and 140 CE, which has survived only in pieces quoted by later church writers such as Eusebius. However, there are reasons to believe that his gospels of Matthew and Mark aren’t our Matthew and Mark. Papias’ Matthew is described simply as a collection of Jesus’ sayings written in Hebrew, in contrast to ours which contains more than Jesus’ sayings, written in Greek. In regards to Mark, Papias’ Mark is said to have been based off of notes Mark took listening to Peter preach. This also doesn’t sound like our Mark. Based on such these inconsistencies, Papias doesn’t appear to be our earliest reliable source.
Next up is Justin Martyr who lived in Rome around 150 CE. He does quote the synoptic gospels but calls them Memoirs of the Apostles without mentioning any of the author’s names. It is also uncertain whether he knew of the gospel of John.
It is only about 185 CE that we have the first certain reference to the four Gospels by their name, found in the writings of church father Irenaeus. By this time, there were lots of other gospels floating around among the churches and so in his five-volume work attacking Christian heresies Irenaeus lists our Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John as authentic Gospels of the church. Why only four? According to him,
“It is not possible that the Gospels can be either more or fewer in number than they are. For, since there are four zones of the world in which we live, and four principal winds, while the Church is scattered throughout all the world, and the pillar and ground 1 Timothy 3:15 of the Church is the Gospel and the spirit of life; it is fitting that she should have four pillars, breathing out immortality on every side, and vivifying men afresh.” –Irenaeus, Against Heresies (Book III, Chapter 11)
Problem #3: Discrepancies and contradictions
In an earlier post I emphasized that the Bible isn’t just one voice, it’s many. Whether your faith had lead you to view scripture to be divinely inspired or not, each individual writing of the Bible has its own author with its own voice and message. Therefore, as human documents shouldn’t be shocked to learn that the authors don’t always agree with one another. The gospels are certainly no exception.
Most people read the bible vertically, by starting at one gospel and reading it to the end before reading another. However, if you were to read them horizontally, by comparing each of the accounts they do share, you’ll inevitably find inconsistencies and contradictions within the Jesus narrative. Below are only a very small sample to make this point. Further textual problems will be addressed in later posts.
On Jesus’ birth: both gospel writers knew that Jesus was from Nazareth but also needed him to fulfill prophecy by having him born in Bethlehem, King David’s birth place. However, both gospels go about doing this very differently.
- In Luke: Joseph and Mary live in Nazareth and travel to Bethlehem to register for the census. Jesus is born in a manger and after taking him to Jerusalem to be circumcised they return to Nazareth.
- In Matthew: Mary and Joseph already live in Bethlehem. After Jesus is born there in their own home, the family flees to Egypt after being warned of Herod’s attempt to kill the child. After Herod’s death, the family doesn’t return to Bethlehem out of fear of Herod’s son who was now the ruler, and so they go to Galilee and settle in Nazareth.
- According to Matthew (2:1), Jesus was born in Bethlehem in the days of king Herod.
- According to Luke (2:1-2), Quirinius was the governor of Syria.
If Matthew is right that Jesus’ birth occurred during Herod’s reign, then Luke cannot also be right that it happened when Quirinius was the governor of Syria. We know from a range of other historical sources, including the Roman historian Tacitus, the Jewish historian Josephus, and several ancient inscriptions, that Quirinius did not become governor of Syria until 6 CE, ten years after the death of Herod.
- In Mark and Luke: On a colt (Mark 11:7, Luke 1935)
- In John: A young ass (12:14)
- In Matthew: On an ass and a colt (21:5-7) – (circus style?)
What did Jesus do after his baptism?
- In the canonical gospels: Jesus is baptized by John and then immediately goes off into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil
- In John: Jesus is too divine to be baptized by John and there is no wilderness story. Instead, he launches his public ministry by turning water into wine
When did Jesus cleanse the temple?
- In Mark: It was during the last week of his life
- In John: It was at the very beginning of his ministry
- In the canonical gospels: Simon the Cyrenian carried Jesus’ cross (Mark 15:21, Matthew 27:32, Luke 23:26)
- In John: Jesus carried his own cross (19:17)
On what day was Jesus crucified?
- In Mark: On Passover. Jesus eats the Passover meal and is crucified the following morning (which was still Passover day since back then a day went from sundown to sundown) (26:17)
- In John: On the Day of Preparation for the Passover. Jesus does not eat the Passover meal but is crucified on the day before the Passover meal was to be eaten, the Day of Preparation for the Passover. The reason for this difference is because on this day a lamb is sacrificed in the temple for the sins of the people. By having Jesus die on this day the author of John intends to symbolize Jesus as the sacrificial lamb, as clearly stated in John 1:29 (18:28, 19:14).
- In Luke: it rips before Jesus died (23:45-46)
- In Mark and Matthew: it rips after Jesus died (Mark 15:37, Matthew 27:50-51)
What happened after Jesus’ resurrection? Click here to see a comparative table for all the differences.
What was Jesus like and what did he mostly do?
- Matthew: Messiah, son of god, Jewish preacher. He spends most of his time advocating Hebrew law and preaching the Kingdom of Heaven that is just around the corner.
- John: Not only is Jesus the Messiah but also God incarnate. Instead of preaching about the Kingdom of God he mostly talks about himself and performs miracles.
This is just a small sample of the discrepancies and contradictions that arise when you attempt to harmonize the gospel accounts. Given the nature of these documents, we shouldn’t be surprised by this. After all, the authors weren’t collaborative historians set out to write a four-part biography of Jesus. They were four separate authors who had gained somewhat separate traditions about who Jesus is, what he did, and why it matters.
Because the gospel of John is seemingly more separate than the other gospels with more key differences, the other three are known as the synoptic gospels. A big reason why these three gospels stand closer together is due to the fact that both the gospel of Matthew and Luke derive some of their material directly from the gospel of Mark, which was written first. This hypothesis is called the Markan priority, which Pastor Eman Learton explains further in the video below. Sometimes, however, Matthew and Luke share explicit material that didn’t come from Mark (nor each other). So where did they both get it from? This second source has been identified by scholars as the hypothetical Q source under what is called the Two-source Hypothesis. For a more detailed chart click here.
So, how does the traditional apologetic hypothesis hold up based on evidence above? Given that (1) the gospels originate relatively late, decades are Jesus’ death, (2) were written anonymously in Greek with attribution to the disciples added many years later, and (3) are inconsistent with one another in many (often important) ways…the scholarly consensus that the gospels were not written by Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John appears to stand strong.
The Letters of Paul
Following the gospels in the Bible are are thirteen letters claimed to be authored by the apostle Paul, taking up nearly half of the New Testament. While seven of these letters are believed to be authentic by virtually all scholars, there are good reasons to believe that the remaining six (known as the “Deutero-Pauline Epistles”) were not written by him and should instead be classified as forgeries. This has to do with how they differentiate from the genuine Pauline letters in language, vocabulary, style, and theology. The following table was constructed by Paul Tobin using scholarly sources via his book The Rejection of Pacal’s Wager. For extended information I recommend his web page on the epistles of Paul.
The General Epistles
Next up are the letters of the New Testament not attributed to Paul. Despite its anonymous authorship, some apologists will claim that Paul wrote the Epistle to the Hebrews, however this theory has been strongly refuted for many centuries and has very little support in the scholarly community today.
Letter of James
The author of this letters claims to be “James, a servant of God and of the Lord Jesus Christ” and therefore has been attributed by the church to James the Just, the brother of Jesus. It’s interesting to note upon reading this letter just how much its theology clashes with that of later Pauline theology regarding faith and salvation. Some of the main reasons most scholars see it as a forgery written in the name of James are the following:
- The theology that the author opposes in the letter is one which arose after the writings of Paul in a later Pauline community.
- The historical James preached that followers of Jesus should continue to follow Jewish law, yet this concern is noticeably absent in the letter.
- As with other questionable Christian writings, the letter of James was written in very fluent Greek with its author familiar with the Greek version of the Old Testament, the Septuagint – contrasting with the historical picture of James as an uneducated, Aramaic-speaking peasant from Galilee.
First Epistle of Peter
This letter claims to be written by “Peter, an apostle of Jesus Christ.” Moreover, it indicates that the author has written his letter “through Silvanus, a faithful brother” (5:13). The problems with attributing Peter as the author is as follows:
- The author claims to be writings from the city of Rome, calling it “Babylon.” While this location fits later traditions about Peter being associated with Rome such as him being its first bishop, tradition also tells us that Peter was martyred there under Nero in 64 CE. This conflicts with the author calling Rome “Babylon” given that this code name sprang up among the Jewish and Christian communities following the Roman destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem in the year 70 (repeating what the Babylonians did centuries earlier). It would appear then that Peter was dead by the time the code name for Rome was put into circulation (also found in Rev. 14:8; 17:5), identifying our author as someone who lived after the destruction of the Temple.
- With a key theme concerned with suffering, the letter appears to be written at a time when widespread Christian persecution began, which wasn’t until the reign of Domitian in 81 BCE – after the death of Peter.
Second Epistle of Peter
The author of this letter claims to be Peter more explicitly, introducing himself as “Simeon Peter, a slave and apostle of Jesus Christ.” He also claims to have been present at the “transfiguration” scene we read about in the Gospels. This certainly then appears to be a valuable eye-witness account at first glance. But alas, there is even less debate about its authorship among scholars, and it is interesting to note that even early church fathers such as Jerome and Eusebius rejected its alleged authorship; Didymus the Blind, a notable Christian teacher of Alexandria, went so far as to explicitly reject the letter as scripture, stating that it is “not to be in the canon.” A few of the main issues are the following:
- The author tries to defend himself against those mocking Christians in their belief that the end is coming soon – which would have been after 60 A.D. Bart Ehrman explains: “When Peter himself died—say, the year 64 under Nero—there was still eager expectation that Jesus would return soon; not even a full generation had passed since the crucifixion. It was only with the passing of time that the Christian claim that all would take place “within this generation” (Mark 13:30) and before the disciples had “tasted death” (9:1) started to ring hollow. By the time 2 Peter was written, Christians were having to defend themselves in the face of opponents who mocked their view that the end was supposed to be imminent. So “Peter” has to explain that even if the end is thousands of years off, it is still right around the corner by God’s calendar; everything is still on schedule” (Forged, p. 81-82).
- The author was writing at a time when there was already a collection of Paul’s letters in circulation, saying that they were being considered on par with the Old Testament “scriptures” (3:16).
- As we saw earlier, in Acts 4:13 both Peter and John are said to be “uneducated/unlettered” (agrammatoi, GRK: ἀγράμματοί), the ancient word for illiterate.
First, Second, and Third Epistle of John
Tradition attributes the authorship of these three letters to John the son of Zebedee, which is different from the name the author introduces himself as in the second and third epistles, namely, “John the Elder.” In The Church History Eusebius himself concludes that 1 and 2 John were not written by the Apostle John. All three letters are similar in content and language, indicating that they were probably written by the same John, one separate from the Apostle John and the authors of the Gospel of John and Revelation.
Epistle of Jude
The letter allegedly written by Jesus’s own brother Jude has a long history of debate over its authorship, dating back all the way to the fourth century. One interesting fact about the letter is that it quotes the apocryphal book of Enoch as if it were authoritative scripture (1:14), leading some early Christian scholars such as Jerome to contest that it wasn’t authentic. Despite the author’s claim to be Jude in the first verse, there are serious problems believing him for reasons similar to the previous letters.
- It’s clear from the letter’s content that the author is writing during a later period of church history, when churches were already well established and “false teachers” were infiltrating them and creating a problem.
- The author tells his audience the importance of “remembering the predictions of the apostles” (1:17) as if they lived a long time before. Unlike the apostles, the author is living in “the last days” that they predicted. In other words, the author is someone living after the apostolic age.
The Book of Acts and the Book of Revelation
Our last two writings of the New Testament are somewhat simpler to diagnose. Acts was written by the author of the Gospel of Luke, which we can safely say wasn’t Luke the traveling companion of Paul for the same reasons above in addition to how much the book’s version of Paul’s mission conflicts with what Paul himself says he did (see also this summary by Dr. George T. Zervos of UNCW).
As for the Book of Revelation, while the author identifies himself as “John,” the apologetic assertion that it was John the Apostle, son of Zebedee, has been severely questioned since the early church. Revelation’s John never hints at being the close Apostle of Jesus and portrays Jesus in a different light than the one found in the Gospel of John. Other than his claim that he was exiled to the Island of Patmos, little can be pieced together about our John of Revelation.
Concluding Remarks about New Testament Authorship
Judging from the accumulative evidence concerning the authorship of the New Testament writings, it would seem only reasonable to conclude that we don’t know who many of these authors were. With the exception of seven letters by Paul and Revelation, the New Testament is largely anonymous and pseudonymous (i.e. falsely named); some texts such as the Gospels were written by highly educated Greek speaking Christians many decades after the death of Jesus, never telling us who they were and never claiming to be eye-witnesses. Their titles were attributed to disciples of Jesus by the Church centuries later. Other texts such as James, 1 and 2 Peter, and the Deutero-Epitles of Paul, are believed among most scholars to be forgeries in that the authors are not who they say they are. Why would a later Christian author do that? The answer should be obvious: to give their writing authority. In the Christian Apocrypha we find non-canonical gospels whose authors also claim to be one of the Apostles; for instance, the Gospel of Peter claims to be written by Simon Peter and the Gospel of James claims to be written by James the brother of Jesus. Scholars classify these gospels as forgeries for the same reason they classify some of the New Testament writings as forgeries. It just so happens that some forgeries by Christians gradually made their way into the canon based on the judgement of church fathers.
When was the Bible canonized?
By Jesus’ day in the first century it would appear that the books of the Hebrew Bible had more or less been decided on, though with slight differences among Jewish communities. Jesus and his followers referred to scripture quite often, and it is the Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible (aka Septuagint, ~200 BCE) that the writers of the gospels derive much of their material from. In addition, the Dead Sea Scrolls, our earliest Hebrew manuscripts, were composed between 400 BCE–300 CE by an apocalyptic fringe group known as the Essenes and comprise of each book of our traditional Hebrew Bible with the exception of Esther. It also includes four of the deuterocanonical books included in Catholic and Eastern Orthodox Bibles. As for the New Testament, its writings were written decades after Jesus’ death between 50–150 CE. The first time we see a record of our four Gospels being recognized as scripture appears around 185 CE by the church father Irenaeus. Finally, it isn’t until 367 CE that we have record of our 27 books of the New Testament listed, found in an Easter letter by Athanasius. As we’ll explore in a later article, the writings which now make up our standard Bible were hardly the only religious writings on their kind circulating among Jews and Christians. Indeed, they simply were the ones which made the cut among the elite scribes, often after much debate. For instance, the Shepherd of Hermes was a popular Christian text in the churches of the 2nd century and was almost canonized, where as the Book of Revelation almost wasn’t.
Sources and further reading:
- New Testament History and Literature by Dale B. Martin
- The New Testament: A Very Short Introduction by Luke Timothy Johnson
- The New Testament: A Historical Introduction to the Early Christian Writings by Bart Ehrman
- Misquoting Jesus by Bart Ehrman
- Forged by Bart Ehrman
- Jesus Interrupted by Bart Ehrman, 102-133
- The Myth of a Gentile Galilee by Mark A. Chancey
- The Rejection of Pascal’s Wager by Paul Tobin, p. 128-153; or online: Paul; Gospels.
- Harris, (on Pauline Epistles) p. 433-435;
- Authors of the Bible, lost-history.com
- Wiki on Authorship of the New Testament
- Wiki on Biblical manuscripts
- Wiki on the Historical reliability of the Gospels
- Wiki on Authorship of the Pauline Epistles