Why Scholars Doubt the Traditional Authors of the Gospels

[I am currently expanding this blog essay into an electronic journal article for publication. As part of the publication process, I plan to make a few changes and revisions to this current version in the future version. I will post a link here to the published article when it is finished.]

The traditional authors of the canonical Gospels–Matthew the tax collector, Mark the attendant of Peter, Luke the attendant of Paul, and John the son of Zebedee–are doubted among the majority of mainstream New Testament scholars. The public is often not familiar, however, with the complex reasons and methodology that scholars use to reach well-supported conclusions about critical issues, such as assessing the authorial traditions for ancient texts. To provide a good overview of the majority opinion about the Gospels, the Oxford Annotated Bible (a compilation of multiple scholars summarizing dominant scholarly trends for the last 150 years) states (pg. 1744):

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.

Unfortunately, much of the general public is not familiar with scholarly resources like the one quoted above; instead, Christian apologists often put out a lot of material, such as The Case For Christ, targeted toward lay audiences, who are not familiar with scholarly methods, in order to argue that the Gospels are the eyewitness testimonies of either Jesus’ disciples or their attendants. The mainstream scholarly view is that the Gospels are anonymous works, written in a different language than that of Jesus, in distant lands, after a substantial gap of time, by unknown persons, compiling, redacting, and inventing various traditions, in order to provide a narrative of Christianity’s central figure–Jesus Christ–to confirm the faith of their communities.

As scholarly sources like the Oxford Annotated Bible note, the Gospels are not historical works (even if they contain some historical kernels). I have discussed elsewhere some of the reasons why scholars recognize that the Gospels are not historical in their genre, purpose, or character in my article “Ancient Historical Writing Compared to the Gospels of the New Testament.” However, I will now also lay out a resource here explaining why many scholars likewise doubt the traditional authorial attributions of the Gospels.

Coming from my academic background in Classics, I have the advantage of critically studying not only the Gospels of the New Testament, but also other Greek and Latin works from the same period. In assessing the evidence for the Gospels versus other ancient texts, it is clear to me that the majority opinion in the scholarly community is correct in its assessment that the traditional authorial attributions are spurious. To illustrate this, I will compare the evidence for the Gospels’ authors with that of a secular work, namely Tacitus’ Histories. Through looking at some of the same criteria that we can use to evaluate the authorial attributions of ancient texts, I will show why scholars have many good reasons to doubt the authors of the Gospels, while being confident in the authorship of a more solid tradition, such as what we have for a historical author like Tacitus.

How do we determine the authors of ancient texts? There is no single “one-size-fits-all” methodology that can be used for every single ancient text. We literally have thousands of different texts that have come down to us from antiquity, and each has its own unique textual-critical situation. There are some general guidelines that can be applied broadly across all traditions, however, from which more specific guidelines can further be derived when assessing a particular tradition.

Scholars generally look for both internal and external evidence when determining the author of an ancient text. The internal evidence consists of whatever evidence we have within a given text. This can include the author identifying himself, mentioning persons and events that he witnessed, or using a particular writing style that we know to be used by a specific person, etc. The external evidence consists of whatever evidence we have outside a given text. This can include another author quoting the work, a later critic proposing a possible authorial attribution, or what we know about the biography of the person to whom the work is attributed, etc.

For the canonical Gospels there are a number of both internal and external reasons why scholars doubt their traditional authors–Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. I shall begin by summarizing the problems with the internal evidence.

Internal Evidence:

To begin with, the Gospels are all internally anonymous in that none of their authors names himself within the text. This is unlike many other ancient literary works in which the author’s name is included within the body of the text (most often in the prologue), such as Thucydides’ History of the Peloponnesian War (1:1), which states at the beginning: “Thucydides, an Athenian, wrote the history of the war between the Peloponnesians and the Athenians, as they fought against each other.” The historians Herodotus (1:1), Dionysius of Halicarnassus (1.8.4), and Josephus (BJ 1.3) all likewise include their names in prologues. Sometimes an author’s name can also appear later in the text. In his Life of Otho (10.1), for example, the biographer Suetonius Tranquillus refers to “my father, Suetonius Laetus,” which thus identifies his own family name.

It should be noted that the Gospels’ internal anonymity also stands in contrast with most of the other books in the New Testament, which provide the names of their authors (or, at least, their putative authors) within the text itself. As Armin Baum (“The Anonymity of the New Testament History Books,” pg. 121) explains:

While most New Testament letters bear the names of their (purported) authors (James, Jude, Paul, Peter, or at least “the Elder”) the authors of the historical books [the Gospels and Acts] do not reveal their names. The superscriptions that include personal names (“Gospel according to Matthew” etc.) are clearly secondary.

Two exceptions are the Book of Hebrews and 1 John, which are anonymous texts, later attributed to the apostle Paul and John the son of Zebedee, respectively. Modern scholars, however, also doubt both of these later attributions. As the Oxford Annotated Bible (pg. 2103) explains about the authorship of Hebrews:

Despite the traditional attribution to Paul … [t]here is not sufficient evidence to identify any person named in the New Testament as the author; thus it is held to be anonymous.

And about the authorship of 1 John (pg. 2137):

The anonymous voice of 1 John was identified with the author of the Fourth Gospel by the end of the second century CE … Since the Gospel was attributed to the apostle John, the son of Zebedee, early Christians concluded that he had composed 1 John near the end of his long life … Modern scholars have a more complex view of the development of the Johannine community and its writings. The opening verses of 1 John employ a first person plural “we” … That “we” probably refers to a circle of teachers faithful to the apostolic testimony of the Beloved Disciple and evangelist. A prominent member of that group composed this introduction.

As such, it is not unusual for scholars to doubt the traditional authorship of the Gospels, considering that the authorial attributions of the other anonymous books in the New Testament are also in considerable dispute.

The internal anonymity of the Gospels is even acknowledged by many apologists and conservative scholars, such as Craig Blomberg, who states in The Case for Christ (pg. 22): “It’s important to acknowledge that strictly speaking, the gospels are anonymous.” So, immediately one type of evidence that we lack for the Gospels is their authors identifying themselves within the body of the text. This need not be an immediate death blow, however, since ancient authors did not always name themselves within the bodies of their texts. I have specifically chosen to compare the Gospels’ authorial traditions with that of Tacitus’ Histories, since Tacitus likewise does not name himself within his historical works. If the author does not name himself within the text, there are other types of evidence that can be looked at.

First, even if the body of a text does not name its author, there is often still a name and title affixed to a text in our surviving manuscript traditions. These titles normally identify the traditional author. The standard naming convention for ancient literary works was to place the author’s name in the genitive case (indicating personal possession), followed by the title of the work. Classical scholar Clarence Mendell in Tacitus: The Man And His Work (pp. 295-296) notes that our earliest manuscript copies of both Tacitus’ Annals and Histories identify Tacitus as the author by placing his name in the genitive (Corneli Taciti), followed by the manuscript titles [1]. For the Histories (as well as books 11-16 of the Annals), in particular, Mendell (pg. 345) also notes that many of the later manuscripts have the title Cor. Taciti Libri (“The Books of Cornelius Tacitus”). This naming convention is important, since it specifically identifies Tacitus as the author of the work. An attribution may still be doubted for any number of reasons, but it is important that there at least be a clear attribution.

Here, we already have a problem with the traditional authors of the Gospels. The titles that come down in our manuscripts of the Gospels do not even explicitly claim Matthew, Mark, Luke, or John as their authors. Instead, the Gospels have an abnormal title convention, where they instead use the Greek preposition κατα, meaning “according to” or “handed down from,” followed by the traditional names. For example, the Gospel of Matthew is titled ευαγγελιον κατα Μαθθαιον (“The Gospel according to Matthew”). This is problematic, from the beginning, in that the earliest title traditions already use a grammatical construction to distance themselves from an explicit claim to authorship. Instead, the titles operate more as placeholder names, where the Gospels have been “handed down” by church traditions affixed to names of figures in the early church, rather than the author being clearly identified [2]. In the case of Tacitus, none of our surviving titles or references says that the Annals or Histories were written “according to Tacitus” or “handed down from Tacitus.” Instead, we have a clear attribution to Tacitus in one case, and only ambivalent attributions in the titles of the Gospels [3].

Furthermore, it is not even clear that the Gospels’ abnormal titles were originally placed in the first manuscript copies. We do not have the autograph manuscript (i.e., the first manuscript written) of any literary work from antiquity, but for the Gospels, the earliest manuscripts that we possess have grammatical variations in their title conventions. This divergence in form suggests that, unlike the body of the text (which mostly remains consistent in transmission), the Gospels’ manuscript titles were not a fixed or original feature of the text itself [4]. As textual criticism expert Bart Ehrman (Jesus: Apocalyptic Prophet of the New Millennium, pp. 249-250) points out:

Because our surviving Greek manuscripts provide such a wide variety of (different) titles for the Gospels, textual scholars have long realized that their familiar names do not go back to a single ‘original’ title, but were added by later scribes.

The specific wording of the Gospel titles also suggests that the portion bearing their names was a later addition. The κατα (“according to”) preposition supplements the word ευαγγελιον (“gospel”). This word for “gospel” was implicitly connected with Jesus, meaning that the full title was το ευαγγελιον Ιησου Χριστου (“The Gospel of Jesus Christ”), with the additional preposition κατα (“according to”) used to distinguish specific gospels by their individual names. Before there were multiple gospels written, however, this addition would have been unnecessary. In fact, many scholars argue that the opening line of the Gospel of Mark (1:1) probably functioned as the original title of the text:

The beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ…

This original title of Mark can be compared with those of other ancient texts in which the opening lines served as titles. Herodotus’ Histories (1.1), for example, begins with the following line which probably served as the title of the text:

This is the exposition of the history of Herodotus…

A major difference between the Gospel of Mark and Herodotus’ Histories, however, is that opening line of Mark does not name the text’s author, but instead attributes the gospel to Jesus Christ. This title became insufficient, however, when there were multiple “gospels of Jesus” in circulation, and so, the additional κατα (“according to”) formula was used to distinguish specific gospels by their individual names. This circumstance, however, suggests that the names themselves were a later addition, as there would have been no need for such a distinction before multiple gospels were in circulation.

So, in addition to the problem that the Gospel titles do not even explicitly claim authors, we likewise have strong reason to suspect that these named titles were not even affixed to the first manuscript copies. This absence is important, since (as will be discussed under the “External Evidence” section below) the first church fathers who alluded to or quoted passages from the Gospels, for nearly a century after their composition, did so anonymously. Since these sources do not refer to the Gospels by their traditional names, this adds further evidence that the titles bearing those names were not added until a later period (probably in the latter half of the 2nd century CE), after these church fathers were writing [5]. And, if the manuscript titles were added later, and the Gospels themselves were quoted without names, this means that there is no evidence that the Gospels were referred to by their traditional names during the earliest period of their circulation. Instead, the Gospels would have more likely circulated anonymously.

As discussed above, Tacitus’ name is not affixed to his Histories using an “according to” formula (which in Latin would have been secundum Tacitum). Instead, Tacitus’ name was attached to the title in the genitive (“The Histories of Tacitus”). This kind of construction is not likely as a secondary addition, since the name Tacitus is not being used to distinguish multiple versions of a text, but is rather being used to indicate Tacitus’ personal possession of the work itself. That being said, there are substantial variations between the titles of Tacitus’ earliest manuscript copies. As Mendell (pg. 345) explains, “the manuscript tradition of the Major Works [the Annals and Histories] is not consistent in the matter of title.” These variations report different names for the historical works that are attached to Tacitus’ name. The manuscripts of the Histories, for example, can also include the terms res gestae, historia Augustae, and acta diurna within the titles, in addition to historiae.

These title variations appear much later than those of the Gospels (which appear only a couple centuries after their composition), however, since we do not possess manuscripts of Tacitus’ historical works until several centuries after he composed, during the medieval period. (For an explanation of why the survival of fewer and later manuscript copies has no bearing upon the historical value of Tacitus versus the Gospels, see here.) Due to the negligence among medieval scribes in preserving manuscript copies of old Pagan literary works, both Tacitus’ Annals and Histories also contain large portions of missing material. Since these are far later copies, with large lacunas in the manuscripts, the title variations may have crept in later in the tradition [6].

Nevertheless, Mendell (pg. 345) notes that we have strong contemporary evidence to suggest that the title “Historiae” was originally associated with Tacitus’ Histories:

Pliny clearly referred to the work in which Tacitus was engaged as Historiae: Auguror nec me fallit augurium Historias tuas immortales futuras [“I predict, and my prediction does not deceive me, that your Histories will be immortal”] (Ep. 7.33.1). It is not clear whether the term was a specific one or simply referred to the general category of historical writing. The material to which Pliny refers, the eruption of Vesuvius, would have been in the Histories. Tertullian (Adv. gentes 16, and Ad nationes 1.11) cites the Histories, using the term as a title: in quinta Historiarum [“Tacitus in the fifth book of his Histories“]. It should be noted that this reference is to the ‘separate’ tradition, not to the thirty-book tradition, so that Historiae are the Histories as we name them now.

The evidence for the original title of the Histories is not fully conclusive, but what is noteworthy is that Pliny the Younger (a contemporary) writes directly to Tacitus and says that he is writing a “Historiae,” and Tertullian, the next author to explicitly cite passages in the Histories, refers to the work by that title.

For the purposes of authorship, however, the name of the work itself need not fully concern us. The evidence is certain in the case of Tacitus that the earliest manuscript tradition of his Histories clearly identifies him as the personal author. This manuscript tradition, though late in the process of textual transition, is corroborated by Pliny (a contemporary of Tacitus), who states that Tacitus himself was authoring a historical work about the same period and events covered in the Histories. This evidence is important, because it shows that Tacitus was known as the author of this historical work from the beginning of its transmission. And, although Pliny was writing while the work was still being composed (and thus does not cite passages from the text), the first source to cite passages from the Histories after it was published, Tertullian, clearly refers to Tacitus as the known author of the text. In Tacitus’ case, therefore, we have a clear claim to authorship, which dates back to the beginning of the tradition.

In the case of the Gospels, the first church fathers who allude to or quote the texts for nearly a century after their composition do so anonymously. Since the Gospels’ manuscript titles were likewise probably later additions (most likely after the mid-2nd century CE), this means that there is no evidence that the Gospels were referred to by their traditional names from the beginning of the tradition. Instead, these names only appear later in the tradition, which is the evidence to be expected if the Gospels first circulated anonymously, and were only given their authorial attributions in a subsequent period. Likewise, even when the later titles were added, the attributions were listed only as “according to” the names affixed to each text, which still entails considerable ambiguity about their authors [7].

Beyond the titles, we can look within the body of a text to see if the author himself reveals any clues either directly or indirectly about his identity. For Tacitus, while the author does not explicitly name himself, he does discuss his relation to the events that he is describing in the Histories (1:1):

I myself was not acquainted with Galba, Otho, or Vitellius, either by profit or injury. I would not deny that my rank was first elevated by Vespasian, then raised by Titus, and still further increased by Domitian; but to those who profess unaltered truth, it is requisite to speak neither with partisanship nor prejudice [8].

Here, while he does not name himself, the author of the Histories reveals himself to be a Roman politician during the Flavian Dynasty, which he specifies to be the period that he will write about. This matches the biographical information that we have of Tacitus outside of the Histories. For example, we know outside the text that Tacitus was writing a historical work about the Flavian period, since we have letters from Pliny the Younger (6.16; 6.20) written to Tacitus, where he responds to Tacitus’ request for information about the eruption of Mount Vesuvius (which Tacitus also alludes to Hist. 1.2). Pliny’s letters also refer to Tacitus’ career as a statesman, such as when he gave the funeral oration for the Roman general Verginius Rufus (2.1). So we know from outside the Histories that Tacitus was a Roman politician writing a history about the Flavian era. This outside information is corroborated exactly by the evidence within the text. Thus, we have good reason to suspect that the author of the Histories is Tacitus, as the internal evidence strongly coincides with this tradition.

This kind of first person interjection from the author, described above, where Tacitus mentions his own relation to events within the narrative, stands in stark contrast with the anonymous style of narration in the Gospels. Although Tacitus does not overtly name himself in his historical works, he still uses the first person to discuss biographical details about himself. The gospels Matthew and Mark, in contrast, do not even use the first person, spoken by the author, anywhere in the text! Instead, both narratives are told in the third person, from an external narrator. This style of narration casts doubt on whether either author is relating personal experiences. As Irene de Jong (Narratology & Classics: A Practical Guide, pg. 17) explains:

It is an important principle of narratology that the narrator cannot automatically be equated with the author; rather, it is a creation of the author, like the characters.

The narrators of both Matthew and Mark describe the events in their texts from an outside point of view. This is a subtle aspect of both texts, but it is a very important consideration for why scholars describe them as “anonymous.” Neither narrative is an overt recollection of personal experiences, but rather focuses solely on the subject–Jesus Christ–with the author fading into the background, making it unclear whether the author has any personal relation to events set within the narrative at all.

The author of Luke-Acts only uses the first person singular in the prologues of his works (Lk. 1:3; Acts 1:1), without describing any biographical details about himself, and it is doubtful that the use of the first person plural, scattered throughout the “we” passages in Acts (16:10-17; 20:5-15; 21:1-18; 27:1-28:16), reflects the personal experiences of the author (discussed further by William Campbell under the “External Evidence” section below). John is thus the only gospel to include any kind of eyewitness construction, through the mention of an anonymous “beloved disciple” (Jn. 21:24); however, modern scholars doubt that this “beloved disciple” was the actual author of John (see footnotes 30 and 31 below), and the character’s complete anonymity fails to explicitly connect it with the experiences of any known figure within the narrative.

Another piece of internal evidence that scholars look at is the linguistic rigor and complexity of a text. Based on the writing itself, we can tell that a certain level of education was required to author it. On this point, it is worth noting that Tacitus, as an educated Roman politician, would have had all of the literary, rhetorical, and compositional training needed to author a complex work of prose, such as his Histories. That is to say, from what we know of the Tacitus’ background, he belonged to the demographic of people whom we would expect to write complex Latin histories.

As we will see for the Gospels’ authors, we have little reason to suspect, at least in the case of Matthew and John, that their traditional authors would have even been able to write a complex narrative in Greek prose. According the estimates of William Harris in his classic study Ancient Literacy (pg. 22), “The likely overall illiteracy of the Roman Empire under the principate is almost certain to have been above 90%.” Of the remaining tenth, only a few could read and write well, and even a smaller fraction could author complex prose works like the Gospels [9].

Immediately, the language and style of the Gospel of John contradicts the traditional attribution of the text to John the son of Zebedee. We know from internal evidence, based on its complex Greek composition, that the author of this gospel had advanced literacy and training in the Greek language. Yet, from what we know of the biography of John the son of Zebedee, it would rather improbable that he could author such a text. John was a poor, rural peasant from Galilee, who spoke Aramaic. In an ancient world where literary training was largely restricted to a small fraction of rich, educated elite, we have little reason to suspect that an Aramaic-speaking Galilean peasant could author a complex Greek gospel. Furthermore, in Acts 4:13, John is even explicitly identified as being αγραμματος (“illiterate”), which shows that even evidence within the New Testament itself would not identify such a figure as an author [10].

Likewise, the internal evidence of the Gospel of Matthew contradicts the traditional attribution to Matthew (or Levi) the tax collector. While tax collectors had basic training in accounting, the Gospel of Matthew is written in a complex narrative of Greek prose that shows extensive familiarity with Jewish scripture and teachings. However, tax collectors were regarded by educated Jews as a sinful, “pro-Roman” class (as noted by J.R. Donahue in “Tax Collectors and Sinners: An Attempt at Identification”), who were alienated from their religious community, as is evidenced by the Pharisees accusations against Jesus in Mk. 2:15-17Mt. 9:10-13, and Lk. 5:29-31 for associating “with tax collectors and sinners” (μετα των τελωνων και αμαρτωλων). Regarding the authorship of the Gospel of Matthew, scholar Barbara Reid (The Gospel According to Matthew, pp. 5-6) explains, “The author had extensive knowledge of the Hebrew Scriptures and a keen concern for Jewish observance and the role of the Law … It is doubtful that a tax collector would have the kind of religious and literary education needed to produce this Gospel.” For a further analysis of why Matthew the tax collector would have probably lacked the religious and literary education needed to author the gospel attributed to his name, see my essay “Matthew the τελωνης (“Toll Collector”) and the Authorship of the First Gospel.”

We have no such problem, however, in the case of Tacitus. As an educated Roman senator, who belonged to a small social class of people known to author Latin histories, Tacitus is the exact sort of person that we would expect to author a work like the Histories, whereas we would have no strong reason to believe that an illiterate peasant, like John, or a mere tax collector, like Matthew, would have been able to author the Greek gospels that are attributed to them [11].

Furthermore, the sources used within a text can often betray clues about its author. In the case of the Gospels, we know that they are all interdependent upon each other for their information [12]. Matthew borrows from as much as 80% of the verses in the Gospel of Mark, and Luke borrows from 65%. And while John does not follow the ipsissima verba of the earlier gospels, its author was still probably aware of the earlier narratives (as shown by scholar Louis Ruprecht in This Tragic Gospel).

Once more for the Gospel of Matthew, the internal evidence contradicts the traditional authorial attribution. The disciple Matthew was allegedly an eyewitness of Jesus. John Mark, on the other hand, who is the traditional author of the Gospel of Mark, was neither an eyewitness of Jesus nor a disciple, but merely a later attendant of Peter. And yet the author of Matthew copies from 80% of the verses in Mark. Why would Matthew, an alleged eyewitness, need to borrow from as much as 80% of the material of Mark, a non-eyewitness? As the Oxford Annotated Bible (pg. 1746) concludes, “[T]he fact that the evangelist was so reliant upon Mark and a collection of Jesus’ sayings (“Q”) seems to point to a later, unknown, author.”

Apologists will often posit dubious assumptions to explain away this problem with the disciple Matthew, an alleged eyewitness, borrowing the bulk of his text from a non-eyewitness. For example, Blomberg in The Case for Christ (pg. 28) speculates:

It only makes sense if Mark was indeed basing his account on the recollections of the eyewitness Peter … it would make sense for Matthew, even though he was an eyewitness, to rely on Peter’s version of events as transmitted through Mark.

To begin with, nowhere in the Gospel of Mark does the author ever claim that he based his account on the recollections of Peter (Blomberg is splicing this detail with a later dubious claim by the church father Papias, to be discussed below). The author of Mark never names any eyewitness from whom he gathered information.

But what is further problematic for Blomberg’s assumption is that his description of how the author of Matthew used Mark is way off. The author of Matthew does not “rely” on Mark rather than redact Mark to change important details from the earlier gospel. As scholar J.C. Fenton (The Gospel of St. Matthew, pg. 12) explains, “the changes which he makes in Mark’s way of telling the story are not those corrections which an eyewitness might make in the account of one who was not an eyewitness.” Instead, many of the changes that Matthew makes to Mark are to correct misunderstandings of the Jewish scriptures. For example, in Mark 1:2-3 the author misquotes the Book of Isaiah by including a verse from Malachi 3:1 in addition to Isaiah 40:3. As scholar Pheme Perkins (Introduction to the Synoptic Gospels, pg. 177) points out, “Matthew corrects the citation” in Mt. 3:3 by removing the verse from Malachi and only including Isaiah 40:3.”

There are also other instances where Matthew adds Jewish elements that Mark overlooks. For example:

  • Mark 9:4 names Elijah before Moses. Instead, Matthew 17:3 puts Moses before Elijah, since Moses is a more important figure to Jews than Elijah.
  • Mark 11:10 refers to the kingdom of “our father” David. Ancient Jews would not have referred to “our father” David, however, since the father of the nation was Abraham, or possibly Jacob, who was renamed Israel. As such, not all Jews were sons of David. Instead, Matthew 21:9 does not refer to “our father” David.

These are subtle differences, but what they demonstrate is that the author of Matthew was not “relying” on Peter via Mark, but was redacting the earlier gospel to make it more consistent with Jewish scripture and teachings! This makes no sense at all for Blomberg’s hypothesis. Matthew is described as a tax collector (a profession that made one a social outcast from the Jewish religious community). Peter, in contrast, is described as a Galilean Jew who was Jesus’ chief disciple. Why would Matthew redact the recollections of Peter via the writings of his attendant in order to make them more consistent with Jewish scripture and teachings?

Tyre and SidonInstead, many scholars argue that the anonymous author of Mark was more likely an unknown Gentile living in the Jewish Diaspora outside of Palestine. This is strengthened by the fact that Mark uses Greek translations to quote from the Old Testament. Likewise, the author is unaware of many features of Palestinian geography. Just for one brief example: in Mk. 7:31 Jesus is described as having traveled out of Tyre through Sidon (north of Tyre) to the Sea of Galilee (south of Tyre). In the words of scholar Hugh Anderson in The Gospel of Mark (pg. 192), this would be like “travelling from Cornwall to London by way of Manchester.” These discrepancies make little sense if the author of Mark was a traveling attendant of Peter, an Aramaic-speaking native of Galilee [13].

Instead, scholars recognize that the author of Matthew was actually an ethnic Jew (probably a Greek-speaking and educated Jew, who was living in Antioch). As someone more familiar with Jewish teachings, he redacted Mark to correct many of the non-Jewish elements in the earlier gospel. This again makes little sense if the author of Matthew was actually Matthew the tax collector, whose profession would have ostracized him from the Jewish community. Instead, scholars recognize that the later authorial attributions of both of these works are most likely wrong [14]. In fact, even conservative NT scholars like Bruce Metzger (The New Testament, pg. 97) have agreed:

In the case of the first Gospel, the apostle Matthew can scarcely be the final author; for why should one who presumably had been an eyewitness of much that he records depend … upon the account given by Mark, who had not been an eyewitness?

And Christian scholar Raymond Brown (An Introduction to the New Testament, pp. 159-60) likewise acknowledges:

That the author of the Greek Gospel was John Mark, a (presumably Aramaic-speaking) Jew of Jerusalem who had early become a Christian, is hard to reconcile with the impression that it does not seem to be a translation from Aramaic, that it seems to depend on oral traditions (and perhaps already shaped sources) received in Greek, and that it seems confused about Palestinian geography.

The way that the Gospel of Luke uses Mark as a source likewise casts doubt on the tradition that John Mark, the attendant of Peter, was the original author of the text. As discussed above, the author of Luke borrows from as much as 65% of the verses in Mark. This is all very interesting, since the author of Luke is likewise the author of Acts, and John Mark, the attendant of Peter, has an appearance in Acts (12:12). This means that the author of Luke-Acts includes within his later narrative the alleged author of an earlier gospel, from which he has even borrowed a substantial amount of his material. Yet, never once does the author of Luke-Acts identify this man as one of his major sources! As Randel Helms points out in Who Wrote the Gospels? (pg. 2):

So the author of Luke-Acts not only knew about a John Mark of Jerusalem, the personal associate of Peter and Paul, but also possessed a copy of what we call the Gospel of Mark, copying some three hundred of its verses into the Gospel of Luke, and never once thought to link the two–John Mark and the Gospel of Mark–together! The reason is simple: the connecting of the anonymous Gospel of Mark with John Mark of Jerusalem is a second-century guess, on that had not been made in Luke’s time.

Apologists here will merely try to dismiss this point as being an argument from silence. But again, as in the case of Matthew, the way that the author of Luke uses Mark strongly suggests that he was not “relying” on the recollections of Peter via his attendant, as Blomberg suggests, but was redacting an earlier anonymous narrative. For example, Bart Ehrman in Jesus Interrupted (pp. 64-70) discusses how the author of Luke makes changes to many of the details of the passion scene in Mark. In the Markan Passion, Jesus is depicted in despair and agony, whereas in the Lukan Passion, key details are changed to instead depict Jesus as calm and tranquil during his crucifixion. For example, Jesus’ last words are altered from a despairing statement in Mk. 15:33-37 to a more tranquil one in Lk. 23:44-46. But why would Luke–the mere Gentile attendant of Paul–redact and change the recollections of Peter–the chief disciple of Jesus–about the passion, crucifixion, and death of Jesus? The reason why is that the author of Luke most likely did not believe that Mark was based on the teachings of Peter. Instead, the anonymous author of Luke redacted and changed Mark, which was written by another anonymous author, to suite his own theological and narrative purposes [15].

A final note about the Gospels borrowing material from each other is that such works, which are not entirely original in their composition, but are largely redactions of earlier traditions, generally lack authorial personality. We saw above that Tacitus (Hist1:1) discusses his relations with the Roman emperors during the Roman civil war of 69 CE and the Flavian Dynasty, which is the period that his Histories is written about. The Gospels, in contrast, are not written to tell the recollections of any one person, let alone an eyewitness [16]. Instead, the Gospels are highly anonymous, not only in not naming their authors, but in writing in a collective, revisionist manner. New Testament expert Bart Ehrman (Forged, pg. 224) explains that the general anonymity of the Gospels, in part, derives from the anonymous narrative structures of Old Testament texts, which served as their model of inspiration:

In all four Gospels, the story of Jesus is presented as a continuation of the history of the people of God as narrated in the Jewish Bible. The portions of the Old Testament that relate to the history of Israel after the death of Moses are found in the books of Joshua, Judges, 1 and 2 Samuel, and 1 and 2 Kings. All of these books are written anonymously … [T]he message of the Gospels … is portrayed … as continuous with the anonymously written history of Israel as laid out in the Old Testament Scriptures.

The authors of the Gospels were thus more concerned with gathering a collection of their communities’ teachings and organizing them into a cohesive narrative, similar to the anonymous, third person narratives found in the Old Testament. As Armin Baum (“The Anonymity of the New Testament History Books,” pg. 142) explains, “The anonymity of the Gospels is thus rooted in a deep conviction concerning the ultimate priority of their subject matter.” This is not at all the case for Tacitus. We might be suspicious of the authorial attribution (at least to the extent that the Histories can be considered Tacitus’ own version of events), if Tacitus had merely copied from 80% of the material of an earlier author (as the Gospel of Matthew did) in order to write a highly anonymous narrative. Instead, Tacitus wrote in a unique Latin style that distinguished him as an individual, personal author, and he likewise comments on the events within his narrative from his own personal point of view.

We have seen above that the internal evidence does not support Matthew, Mark, or John as the authors of the gospels attributed to them. What about Luke? The Gospel of Luke and Acts are attributed to Luke, the traveling attendant of Paul. This is all very interesting, since we possess 7 undisputed epistles of the apostle Paul in the New Testament (6 of the traditional letters of Paul–Ephesians, Colossians, 2 Thessalonians, 1 and 2 Timothy, and Titus–are of disputed authorship and are possibly forgeries, as explained by Ehrman in Forged: Writing in the Name of God.) If Luke was Paul’s attendant, then corroborating details between Acts and the Paul’s epistles may support the claim that Luke authored Acts. However, scholars often find the opposite to be the case. To name a few discrepancies:

  • In Acts 9:26-28, Paul travels from Damascus to Jerusalem only “days” (Acts 9:19; 9:23) after his conversion in Acts 9:3-8, where Barnabas introduces him to the other apostles. However, in his own writings (Gal. 1:16-19), Paul states that he “did not consult any human of flesh and blood” after his conversion (despite consulting Ananias and preaching in the synagogues of Damascus after his conversion in Acts 9:17-22), but instead traveled into Arabia (which Acts makes no mention of), and did not travel to Jerusalem until “three years” after the event, where he only met Peter and James [17].
  • In Acts 16:1-3, Paul has a disciple named Timothy, who was born from a Greek father, be circumcised “due to the Jews who lived in that area.” However, this goes against Paul’s own deceleration (Gal. 2:7) “of ministering the gospel to the uncircumcised.” Likewise, in Gal. 2:1-3, Paul brings another Gentile disciple, Titus, to the Jewish community in Jerusalem, but particularly insists that Titus not be circumcised [18]. Likewise, in 1 Cor. 7:20, Paul states regarding circumcision, “Each should remain in the condition in which they were called to God.”
  • In Gal. 2:6, Paul makes it clear that his authority is equal to the original apostles, stating, “Of whatever sort they were makes no difference to me; God does not show partiality–their opinions added nothing to my message.” However, in Acts 13:31, Paul grants higher authority to those who originally “witnessed” Jesus. Likewise, Acts 1:21 restricts the status of “apostle” to those who had originally been with Jesus during his ministry, despite Paul’s repeated insistence that he was an apostle within his own letters (1 Cor. 9:1-2).

In light of these and other discrepancies between Paul’s own recollections and how he is depicted in Acts, many scholars agree that the author of Luke-Acts was probably not an attendant of Paul (the speculation that he was is based largely on the ambiguous use of the first person plural in a few sections of Acts, to be addressed below). Nevertheless, the author of Luke-Acts clearly had a strong interest in Paul. However, the Oxford Annotated Bible (pg. 1919) points out that the author “was probably someone from the Pauline mission area who, a generation or so after Paul, addressed issues facing Christians who found themselves in circumstances different from those addressed by Paul himself.” Hence, we once more have an anonymous author who was distanced from the various traditions and stories that he later compiled as a non-eyewitness.

The same problem of discrepancies between a text and outside epistolary evidence does not exist in the case of Tacitus. For example, we have Pliny the Younger’s letters (6.16; 6.20) written to Tacitus about the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in Campania. This outside evidence is corroborated within the text, when Tacitus mentions the burial of cities in Campania in the praefatio of his Histories (1.2), as well as when Tacitus mentions the volcanic eruption itself in his Annals (4.6). That Tacitus alludes to the volcanic eruption in the introduction to his Histories shows that he used Pliny’s account when describing the disaster more fully later in his narrative (although these later books did not survive the bottleneck of texts lost during the Middle Ages). Thus, in the case of Tacitus, we have harmony between outside epistolary evidence and the internal evidence of the text, whereas in the case of the Gospel of Luke, we have discrepancies between Paul’s letters, showing that the author was probably not a companion of Paul.

So far I have addressed the internal evidence for the authorship of Tacitus’ Histories and the Gospels. As has been shown, Tacitus has passed the criteria with flying colors, while all of the Gospels have had multiple internal problems. However, there are likewise external reasons to doubt the traditional authors of the Gospels.

External Evidence:

In terms of external evidence for the authorship of Tacitus’ Histories, we have Pliny the Younger (a contemporary) writing directly to Tacitus while he was authoring a work that Pliny calls a “Historiae.” This historical work that Pliny describes was further identified as the Histories that we possess today by Tertullian (c. 200 CE), who was the next author to directly refer to it. Tertullian names Tacitus as the author in Adv. gentes 16, and refers to the “fifth book of his Histories” (quinta Historiarum). Regarding subsequent citations of Tacitus’ historical works, Mendell (Tacitus: The Man And His Workpg. 225) explains:

Tacitus is mentioned or quoted in each century down to and including the sixth.

Thus, Tacitus was identified as the author of his Histories from the beginning of the tradition, rather than being speculated to be the author later in the tradition. This is very strong external evidence. We have precisely the opposite situation in the case of the Gospels. As New Testament expert Bart Ehrman (Forged, pg. 225) explains:

The anonymity of the Gospel writers was respected for decades. When the Gospels of the New Testament are alluded to and quoted by authors of the early second century, they are never entitled, never named. Even Justin Martyr, writing around 150-60 CE, quotes verses from the Gospels, but does not indicate what the Gospels were named. For Justin, these books are simply known, collectively, as the “Memoirs of the Apostles.”

Below are the first references and quotations of the Gospels among external source, which treat them anonymously for some decades after their composition:

Ignatius (c. 105-115 CE) appears to quote phrases from Matthew (see here), and to allude to the star over Bethlehem (Mt. 2:1-12) in his Letter to the Ephesians (19:2); however, Ignatius does not attribute any of this material to the disciple Matthew nor does he refer to a “Gospel according to Matthew.” Polycarp (c. 110-140 CE) likewise appears to quote multiple phrases and verses from Matthew, Mark, and Luke (see here), and yet he neither attributes any of this material to their traditional authors nor refers to their traditional titles. There is scholarly dispute, however, as to whether Ignatius and Polycarp are quoting written texts, or instead interacting with oral traditions. As such, it is uncertain whether these two authors are directly referencing the Gospels that we possess today.

A stronger case can be made that the Epistle of Barnabas (80-120 CE) quotes Matthew (22:14), particularly because the epistle says “it is written” (4:14), when referring to the verse “many are invited, but few are chosen”; and yet, the Epistle of Barnabas does not attribute this verse to a text written by the disciple Matthew. What is further worth noting is that the Epistle of Barnabas (4:3) also refers to the Book of Enoch, and states “as Enoch saith,” showing that the epistle refers to traditional authorship elsewhere, when it was known.

Even more important, however, is when the Didache (c. 50-120 CE) directly quotes the Lord’s prayer (8:3-11), which is written in Matthew 6:9-13. This quotation is important, because the Didache attributes these verses to “His (Jesus’) Gospel” (ο κυριος εν τω ευαγγελιω αυτου) without referring to a “Gospel according to Matthew.” What the Didache is probably referring to, therefore, is the original title of the Gospels, before they were attributed to their traditional names. As discussed under the “Internal Evidence” section above, the Gospels were most likely originally referred to under the title το ευαγγελιον Ιησου Χριστου (“The Gospel of Jesus Christ”); however, when later there were multiple gospels in circulation, the construction κατα (“according to”) was added, in order to distinguish individual gospels by their designated names. The Didache likely preserves, therefore, a trace of their original titles, which were anonymous.

Justin Martyr (c. 150-160 CE) later makes explicit references and quotations of the Gospels (see here), but ascribes them under the collective title of “Memoirs of the Apostles,” without making any explicit mention of their traditional names. Finally, Irenaeus (c. 175-185 CE) refers to the Gospels by their traditional names in the late-2nd century (see here). As such, there is a clear development in which the Gospels were first referred to anonymously by external sources, and only later associated with their traditional attributions. For this reason, Ehrman (Forged, pg. 225) concludes:

It was about a century after the Gospels had been originally put in circulation that they were definitively named Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. This comes, for the first time, in the writings of the church father and heresiologist Irenaeus [Against Heresies 3.1.1], around 180-85 CE.

So, it is not until some century after the Gospels’ original composition, around the time of the church father Irenaeus, that they were even given their traditional authorial attributions [19]. Incidentally, Irenaeus wanted there to be specifically “four gospels” because there are “four winds” and “four corners” of the Earth (Against Heresies 3.11.8). This was the kind of logic by which the Gospels were later attributed…

Ehrman (Forged, pg. 226) goes on to explain:

Why were these names chosen by the end of the second century? For some decades there had been rumors floating around that two important figures of the early church had written accounts of Jesus’ teachings and activities. We find these rumors already in the writings of the church father Papias [now lost, but still partially preserved by Eusebius in Hist. eccl. 3.39.14-17], around 120-30 CE, nearly half a century before Irenaeus. Papias claimed, on the basis of good authority, that the disciple Matthew had written down the saying of Jesus in the Hebrew language and the others had provided translations of them, presumably into Greek. He also said that Peter’s companion Mark had rearranged the preaching of Peter about Jesus … and created a book out of it.

So, we do have references to works written by Matthew and Mark, which date prior to Irenaeus, in the writings of the church father Papias. Unlike the sources mentioned above, however, Papias does make allusions to or quote any passages from these texts, so that it is unclear whether he is referring to the texts that we know today as the Gospel of Matthew and the Gospel of Mark. Papias’ own writings are likewise no longer extant, and so his reference to these works is only preserved in the later writings of the 4th century church father Eusebius. Incidentally, Eusebius (Hist eccl. 3.39.13) elsewhere describes Papias as a man who “seems to have been of very small intelligence, to judge from his writings.” Likewise, another fragment of Papias tells a story about how Judas, after betraying Jesus, became wider than a chariot and so fat that he exploded

Here is what Eusebius (Hist. eccl. 3.39.15) preserves regarding Papias’ claim that Mark, an attendant of Peter, had written an account about Jesus:

Now, the presbyter would say this: “Mark, having become the interpreter of Peter, accurately wrote down as much as he could remember, though not in order, about the things either said or done by the Lord. For he had neither heard nor followed the Lord, but only Peter after him who, as I said previously, would fashion his teachings according to the occasion, but not by making a rhetorical arrangement [ου μεντοι ταξει] of the Lord’s reports, so that Mark did not error by thus writing down certain things as he recalled. For he had one intention: neither to omit any of the things which he heard nor to falsify them.”

Regarding the account written by Matthew, Eusebius (Hist. eccl. 3.39.16) records Papias as stating:

These things are recorded in Papias about Mark, but concerning Matthew this is said: “Matthew organized the reports in the Hebrew language, and interpreted each of them as much as he was able.”

Since Irenaeus clearly knew Papias’ works (Against Heresies 5.33.4), he probably drew the connection between these texts and the gospels Matthew and Mark from his testimony [20]. However, a major problem with this tradition, noted above, is that Papias never quotes from the works that he attributes to these authors, and he could very well not be referring to the texts that were later called Matthew and Mark. This is especially true for Matthew, which Papias claims was written in Hebrew/Aramaic, even though the Gospel of Matthew that we possess today is a Greek text. But for Mark as well, Papias’ statement that the gospel “lacked rhetorical arrangement” (ου μεντοι ταξει) does not mesh very well with the internal evidence the text itself, which is actually pretty sophisticated in its plot and rhetorical devices [21].

Papias himself had never met any of the apostles (Hist. eccl. 3.3 2), and he was relying on a tradition reported by an unknown figure named John the Presbyter, or “elder John.” It could be the case, therefore, that this oral tradition was referring to other, unknown texts that were later conflated with Matthew and MarkEven if Papias is correctly referring to our Gospel of Mark, however, there are still problems with this attribution. As NT scholar Michael Kok, who argues that Papias is referring to the text that is known as Mark today, explains about Papias’ source (The Gospel on the Margins, pg. 105):

His main source was the elder John, a figure who remains as elusive as ever. It is unlikely that he was a personal disciple of Jesus; he was probably a second-generation charismatic leader in Asia Minor. We have no clue about the elder’s connections outside Asia Minor or his general reliability. We know that Papias naively gave credence to local traditions about an original Hebrew or Aramaic edition of Matthew and other marvels (Hist. Eccl. 3.39.9, 16). If the foundation laid by Papias is rotten, how can we trust what subsequent writers build on it?

Some have tried to connect this mysterious John the Presbyter, or “elder John,” with John the son of Zebedee, who was a disciple of Jesus [22]. Papias (Hist. eccl. 3.39.4describes the elder John in a list where he first names “the disciples of the Lord” Andrew, Peter, Philip, Thomas, James, John, and Matthew, and then names in addition two other figures, Aristion and the elder John. A problem with this list is that Papias names John the disciple, who was John the son of Zebedee, already in the same passage, before mentioning the “elder John.” As Michael Kok (pg. 59) points out:

A reason for differentiating the latter two figures from the previous list of seven disciples is that it is redundant to name John twice [Hist. eccl. 3.39.4] … Another reason for discerning two distinct figures is that the second John is prefaced with the title πρεσβυτερος (elder)…

Another problem with this identification is that Papias Fragment 10.17 records a tradition in which John the son of Zebedee was martyred alongside his brother James (44 CE), whose death is mentioned in the Book of Acts 12:2 (this fragment is discussed further in footnote 32 below). If this fragment is authentic, Papias could hardly have been reporting that John the Presbyter was John the son of Zebedee, and regardless of this fragment, what Eusebius preserves of Papias’ testimony elsewhere is too ambiguous to claim that Papias had received his information from one of the original twelve disciples. These circumstances make the Presbyter, who is the crucial source behind Papias’ authorial attributions to Matthew and Mark, a completely unknown figure, undermining the reliability of the authorial attribution itself.

Kok (pp. 159-160) also points out that a clear trail can be established for how the figure of John Mark was spuriously assigned to the Gospel of Mark:

1. In the earliest reliable evidence (Phlm. 23-24; Col. 4:10), Mark is casually named among a group of Jewish missionary partners of Paul. Mark may have been involved alongside his cousin Barnabas in a short-lived spat with Paul over mixed table fellowship in Antioch (Gal. 2:13; cf. Acts 15:36-38), but it is unlikely that this led to Mark’s association with [Peter] as much later literature continues to remember Mark firmly in the Pauline camp (2 Tim. 4:11; cf. Acts 12:25; 13:5).

2. In the next stage, the pseudonymous author of First Peter plucks a few of Paul’s co-workers at random, Mark and Silvanus, from the Pauline sphere to suit a centrist vision of the Christian community under the leadership of Peter. First Peter popularly circulated throughout Asia Minor sometime between 70 and 93 CE, leaving its mark on the general milieu of the elder John…

3. The third and most important step was taken by the elders of Asia Minor who assigned an anonymous gospel to Peter through his intermediary Mark and passed the report on to Papias … The rest of the patristic writers are derivative on Papias, though each develops the tradition in distinctive ways.

As such, there is little mystery behind how the authorship of John Mark could have been invented. There is a clear trail for illustrating the process by which 2nd century speculation selected the figure, in order to connect the text with the apostolic authority of Peter and Paul.

As pointed out above, Papias’ claim that the Gospel of Matthew was written in Hebrew/Aramaic, when the Matthew that we possess in manuscripts is written in Koine Greek (and based heavily on the Greek in the Gospel of Mark), is also a major blow to the authorial attribution of this text. Imagine if our earliest outside author to describe Tacitus’ works claimed that he wrote his Histories in Greek, when the Histories that we possess is in Latin! I can guarantee you that, if that were the case, scholars would have many, many more problems with Tacitus’ authorial attribution.

In fact, even Christian scholars like Raymond Brown (An Introduction to the New Testament, pg. 210) acknowledge that this discrepancy is a major problem for connecting Papias’ statement with The Gospel of Matthew:

The vast majority of scholars … contend that the Gospel we know as Matt was composed originally in Greek and is not a translation of a Semitic original … Thus either Papias was wrong/confused in attributing a gospel (sayings) in Hebrew/Aramaic to Matthew, or he was right but the Hebrew/Aramaic composition he described was not the work we know in Greek as canonical.

One possible cause for the discrepancy may be that Papias is actually referring to an earlier literary source, which the (otherwise anonymous) author of Matthew later used when writing the gospel. This possible source has sometimes even been connected with the hypothetical “Q source.” Bruce Metzger (The New Testament, pg. 97) discusses this possibility, stating:

As a solution of this difficulty it has often been suggested that what Matthew drew up was an early collection of the sayings of Jesus, perhaps in Aramaic, and that this material, being translated into Greek constitutes what scholars today call the Q source. In that case, the first Gospel was put together by an unknown Christian who utilized the Gospel of Mark, the Matthean collection, and other special sources. 

If this is the case, however, then the disciple Matthew only authored a collection of Jesus’ sayings, which hardly entails that he stamped his eyewitness approval upon other material in Matthew, such as its legendary infancy narrative or miracles. Furthermore, even if Matthew did author such a source, then this would still entail that the Gospel of Matthew was misattributed when it was connected with his name (or at least that the attribution was oversimplified), by conflating a source for the text with its author [23].

These are the kinds of issues that make the authorial attributions of the canonical Gospels more problematic than the attributions of many other Classical texts from antiquity. The later Christian sources claiming that the Gospels were written by the apostles or their attendants simply have far more discrepancies, show greater speculation, and involve more implausibilities (or at least oversimplifications) than other, more solid authorial traditions that we possess from the same period, such as for works like Tacitus’ Histories.

Irenaeus’ notion that the author of Luke-Acts was an attendant of Paul likewise comes from speculation over a few passages in Acts where the author ambiguously uses the first person plural (16:10-17; 20:5-15; 21:1-18; 27:1-28:16). However, scholars studying these passages in Acts, such as William Campbell in The “We” Passages in the Acts of the Apostles (pg. 13), have pointed out:

Questions of whether the events described in the “we” sections of Acts are historical and whether Luke or his source/s witnessed them are unanswerable on the basis of the evidence currently available, as even the staunchest defenders of historicity and eyewitnessing acknowledge. More important, the fact that Acts provides no information and, indeed, by writing anonymously and constructing an anonymous observer, actually withholds information about a putative historical eyewitness, suggests that the first person plural in Acts has to do with narrative, not historical, eyewitnessing.

Thus, the attribution to Luke the attendant of Paul is likewise unsound, being based on speculation over vague narrative constructions in the text [24]. Luke was probably chosen, in particular, because the pseudonymous letter 2 Timothy (4:11) associates him with Paul’s company (presumably while he was staying at Rome).

Likewise, Ehrman (Forged, pg. 227) explains how Irenaeus’ notion that John the son of Zebedee authored the fourth gospel is based on speculation:

The Fourth Gospel was thought to belong to a mysterious figure referred to in the book as ‘the Beloved Disciple’ (see, e.g., John 21:20-24), who would have been one of Jesus’ closest followers. The three closest to Jesus, in our early traditions, were Peter, James, and John. Peter was already explicitly named in the Fourth Gospel, so he could not be the Beloved Disciple; James was known to have been martyred early in the history of the church and so would not have been the author. That left John, the son of Zebedee. So he [Irenaeus] assigned the authorship to the Fourth Gospel.

As can be seen, Irenaeus’ attribution comes from little more than speculation over the identity of an unnamed character in the text. (As will be shown below, the actual internal evidence within John suggests that the anonymous “disciple whom Jesus loved” was probably the fictional invention of an anonymous author.)

Thus, we have a fairly clear trail for how all of the Gospels’ authors were probably derived from spurious 2nd century guesses: Matthew and Mark were based on an oral tradition reported by Papias that originated from an unknown John the Presbyter. Luke was speculated to be an author based on little more than vague narrative constructions using the first person plural in the text of Acts, and John was based on speculation over an unnamed “disciple whom Jesus loved.” Thus, not only is the external evidence weak, but all of it can be completely explained as later, spurious misattributions [25].

That the attributions were based on speculation is even reflected in the later titles. As I discussed above, the use of the construction κατα (“according to” or “handed down from”) in the titles already signifies that the attributions were redactional and largely speculative. As Ehrman (Jesus: Apocalyptic Prophet of the New Millennium, pg. 42) points out, “Suppose a disciple named Matthew actually did write a book about Jesus’ words and deeds. Would he have called it ‘The Gospel According to Matthew’? Of course not… if someone calls it the Gospel according to Matthew, then it’s obviously someone else try to explain, at the outset, whose version of the story this is.” Thus, the traditional attributions come from later Christians in the 2nd century CE speculating over the different versions of the Gospels to assign apostolic traditions and names to the texts.

Apologists like Blomberg, however, will still attempt another escape hatch. In The Case for Christ (pg. 27) he argues:

These are unlikely characters … Mark and Luke weren’t even among the twelve disciples. Matthew was, but as a former hated tax collector, he would have been the most infamous character next to Judas Iscariot, who betrayed Jesus! … So to answer your question, there would not have been any reason to attribute authorship to these three less respected people if it weren’t true.

It is not clear to me why Matthew, as a reformed tax collector, would be hated next only to Judas, the man who betrayed Jesus. But Blomberg’s claim about these names being “unlikely” attributions is already refuted above, where a clear trail is demonstrated for how the traditional authors were speculated and assigned.

Additionally, Michael Kok has recently argued in The Gospel on the Margins that the attribution to John Mark might not be unlikely at all. The Gospel of Mark was the least favorite gospel among the 2nd century church fathers, and receives the least quotations, compared to the other canonical Gospels, on matters of doctrine and theology. Nevertheless, Kok argues that the Gospel of Mark was too early and too foundational to be removed from the canon. Likewise, the church fathers needed to protect the text from being used by heretical sects, such as those led by Valentinus, Basilides, and Carpocrates. In order to preserve the text’s canonical status, while downgrading its importance to doctrine and theology, therefore, the church fathers attributed the text to the lesser figure of John Mark, who had only imperfectly recorded the teachings of Peter. I discuss Kok’s theory in greater detail in this book review.

Furthermore, Ehrman (Forged, pp. 227-228) explains how the reasoning that apologists use to make this argument is specious at best:

Some scholars have argued that it would not make sense to assign the Second and Third Gospels to Mark and Luke unless the books were actually written by people named Mark and Luke, since they were not earthly disciples of Jesus and were rather obscure figures in the early church. I’ve never found these arguments very persuasive. For one thing, just because figures may seem relatively obscure to us today doesn’t mean that they were obscure in Christian circles in the early centuries. Moreover, it should never be forgotten that there are lots and lots of books assigned to people about whom we know very little, to Phillip, for example, Thomas, and Nicodemus [26].

Ehrman’s last point about other misattributions is likewise noteworthy. One thing that cannot be forgotten is that, in the context surrounding the Gospels, there were tons of misattributions and forgeries circulating in the early church. As Ehrman (Forged, pg. 19) explains, “At present we know of over a hundred writings from the first four centuries that were claimed by one Christian author or another to have been forged by fellow Christians.” In such a context, there were canonical disputes over which texts were authoritative, which led later authors, such as Irenaeus in works like Against Heresies, to speculate and spuriously attribute texts to early figures in the church. As Ehrman (Forged, pp. 220-221) summarizes:

When church fathers were deciding which books to include in Scripture … it was necessary to ‘know’ who wrote these books, since only writings with clear apostolic connections could be considered authoritative Scripture. So, for example, the early Gospels that were all anonymous began to be circulated under the names Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John about a century after they were written … None of these books claims to be the written by the author to whom they are assigned … They are simply false attributions [27].

Such is the case for why scholars doubt the traditional attributions of the Gospels. To return to Tacitus, however, there was no prevailing context of doctrinal and canonical disputes that would have encouraged a later author to assign the Histories to the Roman senator. Furthermore, while forgery and misattribution could happen with secular texts, scholars have found no evidence of any in the case of Tacitus (here is an article explaining why). The later external references that mention the work simply quote Tacitus as the known author of the text, whereas the Gospels are a clear case of later speculations and misattribution.

Why do apologists attempt to go against the majority scholarly consensus to defend the traditional authors, anyways? The fact is that scholars over the last 150 years have recognized, after thorough study of the New Testament, that we do not possess the writings of a single eyewitness of Jesus. The closest thing we have are the 7 undisputed letters of Paul, who was not an eyewitness, but was writing decades later, and who provides few biographical details about Jesus’ life (I discuss what historical details Paul does provide here, and Ehrman likewise discusses this topic in his series “Why Doesn’t Paul Say More About Jesus?”). Because of this, most of our knowledge of Jesus, outside of a few vague references in Paul, comes from little more than garbled oral traditions, legendary development, and finally, after half a century, anonymous hagiographies, like the Gospels, that are not even written in the same language that Jesus spoke. Our sources for Jesus are thus very problematic and unreliable. None of this entails that Jesus did not exist, but we can only scarcely reconstruct a general biography of his life, let alone prove any of his miracles. For a summary of the minimal historical details that I do think can be said about the life of Jesus, see my essay “When Do Contemporary or Early Sources Matter in Ancient History?.”

An apologist may still argue that, even if the Gospels’ authorial attributions are wrong, their real authors may have still had personal access to original eyewitnesses. However, many scholars likewise find this scenario to be unlikely. For Mark, the earliest gospel, Ehrman (Forged, pg. 227) explains:

There is nothing to suggest that Mark was based on the teachings of any one person at all, let alone Peter. Instead, it derives from the oral traditions about Jesus that “Mark” had heard after they had been in circulation for some decades [28].

The situation only gets worse from there, since the anonymous author of Matthew then borrows from as much as 80% of the material in this earlier anonymous source, which itself was based on oral traditions. Likewise, the anonymous author of Luke copies from 65% of the material of the anonymous author of Mark. Furthermore, the author of Luke even suggests that he did not have personal access to eyewitnesses, since he specifies in the prologue of his gospel (1:1-2) that he was making use of previous written accounts (none of which he identifies by name, but we can tell that he copied material from Mark), which themselves were based on traditions that were “handed down” over a span of time (allegedly from distant, original eyewitnesses, although the author of Luke names none).

John is the only gospel to claim an eyewitness source, and yet the author does not even name this mysterious figure, but simply refers to him as “the disciple whom Jesus loved.” This is hardly eyewitness testimony, and it is probably the case that the author(s) of John invented this figure. One possibility is that the anonymous beloved disciple is a character already identified within the text. Verbal parallels suggest that the anonymous disciple may be Lazarus from John 11 (verses 1; 3; 5; 11; 36), whom Jesus raises from the dead in the passage [29]. This Lazarus is likely based on the retelling of a story about an allegorical Lazarus in Luke 16:20-31. In the parable, Lazarus is a beggar who was fed by a wealthy man who dies and goes to Heaven, but the rich man dies and goes to Hell. The rich man begs Abraham in Heaven to send Lazarus to warn his family, since, if someone from the dead goes to them, they will repent. In Luke, Abraham refuses to send Lazarus from the dead, arguing that people should study the Torah and the Prophets to believe and will not be convinced even if someone from the dead visits them. In the Gospel of John, however, in which Jesus is more prone to demonstrate his powers through signs and miracles, rather than by appeals to OT verses like in the Synoptic Gospels, the author instead has Jesus raise Lazarus from the dead, so that people might believe in him. The author of John thus very likely is redacting a previous story based on an allegorical character.

Regardless, even if the anonymous beloved disciple is not based on Lazarus [30], the Gospel of John is still extremely ambiguous about this character’s identity. The text even refuses to name him at key moments, such as the discovery of the empty tomb (20:1-9), where other characters such as Mary Magdalene and Peter are named, and yet this character is deliberately kept anonymous. The traditional identification of the disciple with John the son of Zebedee is undermined, among many other reasons, by the internal evidence of this beloved disciple’s connection with the high priest of Jerusalem (18:15-16), which could hardly be expected of an illiterate fisherman from backwater Galilee. The Gospel of John likewise shows signs of originally ending at John 20:30-31, and chapter 21, which claims the anonymous disciple as a witness, is very likely an addition from a later author. The chapter (21:24) distinguishes between the disciple who is testifying and the authors (plural) who know that it is true, suggesting that (even in this secondary material) the anonymous disciple is not to be understood as the author of the final version of the text [31]. Furthermore, the final composition of John is dated to approximately 90-120 CE, which is largely beyond the lifetimes of an adult eyewitnesses of Jesus [32]. In order to compensate for this problematic chronology, the author even had to invent the detail that this supposed eyewitness would live an abnormally long life (21:23) to account for the time gap. This detail is further explained if the anonymous disciple is based on Lazarus, who was already raised from the dead and has conquered death. Ultimately, all of these factors suggest that the unidentified “witness” is most likely an authorial invention (probably of a second author) used to gain proximal credibility for the otherwise latest of the four canonical Gospels [33].

Given all of the problems with the traditional authorship of John, even Christian scholar Raymond Brown (An Introduction to the New Testament, pp. 368-369) explains: “As with the other Gospels it is doubted by most scholars that this Gospel was written by an eyewitness of the public ministry of Jesus.”

Conclusion:

To repeat the majority scholarly opinion, which I discussed at the beginning of this article, from the Oxford Annotated Bible (pg. 1744):

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.

I discuss in my article “Ancient Historical Writing Compared to the Gospels of the New Testament” why modern scholars doubt that the authors of the Gospels engaged in historical analysis. In this (rather lengthy) additional article I have also worked to explain why scholars doubt the traditional authorship and eyewitness status of the Gospels. Furthermore, I have shown how the same scholarly methods for determining authorship can be used to doubt the Gospels, while confirming the authors of texts for which we have more reliable traditions, such as Tacitus’ Histories.

To summarize some of the same questions that we can ask about Tacitus’ authorship versus the Gospels, here are a few:

Does the titular attribution clearly identify the author, rather than use a grammatical construction that only ambivalently reports a placeholder name as the attribution?

Tacitus

Matthew

Mark

Luke

John

Yes

No

No

No

No

Did the attributed author likely have sufficient literary training to author the work in question?

Tacitus

Matthew

Mark

Luke

John

Yes

No

Plausible

Plausible

No

Does what we know of the author’s biography align with the internal evidence within the text?

Tacitus

Matthew

Mark

Luke

John

Yes

No

No

No

No

Do the earliest external sources who quote passages within the text either treat the work anonymously or refer to it by a different title? 

Tacitus

Matthew

Mark

Luke

John

No

Yes

Yes

Yes

Yes

Do later external sources who attribute the work show signs of speculating over the author?

Tacitus

Matthew

Mark

Luke

John

No

Yes

Yes

Yes

Yes

Was there a prevailing context of misattribution, forgery, and canonical disputes surrounding the text that would increase the likelihood of its misattribution?

Tacitus

Matthew

Mark

Luke

John

No

Yes

Yes

Yes

Yes

As has been shown, the same criteria for determining authorship can be applied to the Gospels as for any secular work, like Tacitus’ Histories. When scholars apply these criteria they find the authorial tradition for Tacitus to be reliable and the authorial traditions for the Gospels to be highly problematic. I have provided just one example here in the case of Tacitus, but textual experts likewise have undergone rigorous analysis of other ancient authors, such as Livy, Plutarch, etc., and found the evidence to confirm their authorship [34]. My main advice for determining the author of any ancient text is to start by looking at what previous scholars have found. You will find that mainstream scholars for the last 150 years have found the authorial traditions for authors like Tacitus and Plutarch to be reliable, whereas the vast majority of scholars have doubted the authors of the Gospels.

A final note is that the criteria I have used above provide qualitative, rather than just quantitative, reasons for doubting the Gospels’ traditional authors. That is, the criteria that I employ are independent of each other (e.g., internal vs. external evidence). This means that the many reasons we have to doubt the authors are not just based on degree, but also vary by category. Sometimes apologists will make quantitative distinctions to argue for the reliability of the New Testament. For example, apologists often claim that Irenaeus’ late-2nd century attributions, despite decades of anonymous allusions and quotations (from the likes of early church fathers such as Ignatius, Polycarp, and Justin Martyr), are not really that far from the original composition of the Gospels, or will tally later 3rd-4th century church fathers (e.g., Tertullian, Origen, and Eusebius) who use these attributions, even though they are simply repeating late-2nd century speculation. Such arguments are one-dimensional and superficial, however, since the amount of time elapsed or the number of later church fathers who repeat these 2nd century attributions is only an argument by degree. And yet, I have shown that categorically there are many sound reasons to doubt the Gospels’ authorial attributions (based on a variety of issues, such as manuscript titles, literacy and education, conflicts between internal and external evidence, the context of 2nd century canonical disputes, etc.), so that the mere degree of any one criterion is insignificant, when multiple other criteria go against the traditional authors. Likewise, it is noteworthy that Tacitus has passed multiple independent criteria for identifying the author. The best explanation for how Tacitus could satisfy multiple categories of inquiry is because he is genuinely the author of the text. In contrast, the best explanation for why the Gospels’ traditional authors fail multiple categories of evaluation is that the later attributions genuinely do not fit the data [35].

-Matthew Ferguson

[1] For Tacitus we possess two major manuscripts of his Annals and Histories. Books 1-6 of the Annals are preserved in a 9th century CE manuscript called the first Medicean manuscript. As Mendell (Tacitus: The Man And His Work, pg. 295) notes, the title of this manuscript is P. Cornelii Taciti Ab Excessu Divi Aug. Books 11-16 of the Annals and books 1-5 of the Histories are preserved in an 11th century CE manuscript called the second Madicean manuscript. The titles included in the second manuscript are not complete. Mendell (pg. 296) notes, however, that this manuscript still includes Tacitus’ name as the author: “The MS has a covering leaf at the beginning, added for protection. On the recto of this is the present catalogue number: Pl. 68, No. 2, and on the reverse: Cornelius Tacitus … Subsequent books have large decorative capitals and, with the exception of Books 16 and 21, a subscription, reading Corneli Taciti Liber.” The titles of both of these manuscripts use the genitive case to identify Tacitus as the author (i.e., “The Books of Cornelius Tacitus”), indicated personal possession. This standard construction is thus different from the unusual κατα (“according to”) construction found in the manuscripts of the Gospels.

[2] In fact, even Martin Hengel, who defends an early fixation of the Gospels’ manuscript tites, still acknowledges that the κατα (“according to”) formula downplays the biographical role of the author. As Hengel (The Four Gospels and the One Gospel of Jesus Christ, pg. 49) explains:

The unusual titles of the Gospels already indicate that the evangelists are not meant to appear as ‘biographical’ authors like others, but to bear witness in their works to the one saving message of Jesus Christ. As is already shown by the beginning of the oldest Gospel, Mark 1:1, ‘beginning of the Gospel of Jesus Christ,’ the title of this Gospel could not be ‘Gospel of Mark’ because the content of his book was the ‘Gospel of Jesus Christ,’ the saving message of Christ–as subjective genitive (or genitivus auctoris), ‘coming from Jesus Christ’ and objective genitive, ‘about Jesus Christ’–but only ‘the Gospel (of Jesus Christ) according to Mark.’ The real ‘author’ of the one Gospel was Jesus Christ himself.

Further noteworthy is that the κατα (“according to”) preposition does not even have to refer to named individuals. The Gospel of the Hebrews, for example, is titled το καθ’ Εβραιους ευαγγελιον (“the Gospel according to the Hebrews”). This construction hardly entails that the Hebrews themselves are the authors of the work, but rather a placeholder name, which refers to a tradition or group that the gospel was associated with. Hengel (pg. 49) also notes that the closest parallel to this title convention, in examples beyond the NT and apocryphal gospels, is how the patristic church fathers refer to the Greek Septuagint. This translation of the Old Testament scriptures is referred to as κατα τους Εβδομηκοντα (“according to the Seventy”). It should be noted that this title is referring to a translation, and not to the authors of the Old Testament books. As such, when the κατα (“according to”) formula is used in these examples outside the NT Gospels, it does not specifically refer to authorship. 

Another argument that apologists will raise is that the titles had to use an unusual construction, because the title το ευαγγελιον (του) Ιησου Χριστου (“The Gospel of Jesus Christ”) had already used an objective genitive to indicate the topic of the text, and thus could not also use a subjective genitive to indicate the author. There are Greek constructions that can avoid this problem, however, and still have the author’s name in the genitive. For example, το ευαγγελιον (του) Ιησου Χριστου το (του) Μαρκου (“The Gospel of Jesus Christ, the one of Mark”). Nevertheless, the ancient scribes who added the Gospel titles made use of no such construction that would have more clearly identified an author.

[3] A number of scholars have also argued that, even if the Gospels originally bore the names “Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John,” these titles may have actually referred to other, unknown individuals, who were later conflated with figures like John Mark and John the son of Zebedee. Maurice Casey (Jesus: Evidence and Argument or Mythicist Myths?, pp. 83-84), for example, argues that an unknown individual named “Marcus,” who had never encountered Jesus, authored the second gospel, and that this figure was later conflated with the John Mark described in Acts 12:12. Likewise, even conservative defenders of the traditional authorial traditions, such as Martin Hengel and Richard Bauckham, argue that the Gospel of John was actually authored by John the Presbyter and later conflated with John the son of Zebedee.

Furthermore, Raymond Brown, who is cited above for noting geographical errors in the Gospel of Mark, which he argues “are hard to reconcile” with the authorship of a “Jew of Jerusalem who had early become a Christian,” such as John Mark, still argues that there may have been a different, unknown figure named “Mark” who was the original author of the gospel. As Brown (Introduction to the New Testament, pp. 160-161) argues:

If those observations do not fit the NT John Mark and one wants to give some credibility to the Papias tradition, one might speculate that earlier tradition attributed the Gospel to an otherwise unknown Christian named Mark, who subsequently was amalgamated with John Mark.

Brown (pg. 161) also notes that there may be “elements of truth in garbled form” to the Papian tradition (discussed under the “External Evidence” section above), though he still does not argue that the Gospel of Mark was directly based on the teachings of the historical Peter, but rather only a tradition attached to his name:

Did the relationship of (John) Mark to Peter in Acts and 1 Peter give rise to the Papias tradition that Mark the evangelist drew on Peter? … Again if one wants to grant at least limited credibility to Papias, one might regard “Peter” as an archetypal figure identified with the Jerusalem apostolic tradition and with a preaching that combined Jesus’ teaching, deeds, and passion … Papias could, then, be reporting a dramatized and simplified way that in his writing about Jesus, Mark organized and rephrased content derived from a standard type of preaching that was considered apostolic … Many would dismiss the entirely the Papias tradition; but the possibilities just raised could do some justice to the fact that ancient traditions often have elements of truth in a garbled form.

As such, even if the Gospels were written by individuals named “Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John,” this does not necessarily mean that they were the same authors as the figures with whom they were later identified. Furthermore, these later authorial traditions, such as those reported by Papias, even if possessing kernels of truth, could still have easily included oversimplifications and errors.

[4] Part of why the titles do not appear to be an original part of the text itself is because they can appear at multiple parts of the Gospel manuscripts. This suggests that the titles were a “floating” addition to the text. As Simon Gathercole (“The Titles of the Gospels in the Earliest New Testament Manuscripts,” pg. 34) explains:

There are in fact a number of locations in which titles may appear: (i) on a flyleaf, i.e., on a page of its own; (ii) an opening title above or at the beginning of the text of the particular gospel; (iii) in a list of the contents of a codex, or in the title of a kephalaia or capitula list, or in the title of an argumentum; (iv) as a running title, at the top of a page (or across an opening) more or less consistently through a manuscript of a gospel; (v) as a subscriptio at the end of a gospel.

The titles can also appear in multiple variations, such as ευαγγελιον κατα Μαρκον, κατα Μαρκον ευαγγελιον, or just κατα Μαρκον, which suggests that they do not go back to the wording of any original title that was a fixed feature of the text.

To be fair, it should also be noted that the titles for many Classical texts were also added by a second hand. As Yun Lee Too (The Idea of the Library in the Ancient World, pp. 44-45) explains:

In the pre-Alexandrian period in Greece, ‘titles’ of works, almost certainly added by a later hand than the author’s, were written on the outside of rolls. The normal external indication of a title was the σιλλυβος, or σιλλυβον, a strip of papyrus or vellum that hung outside the roll as it lay on the bookshelf. It contained the author’s name and the title of the work … This way of marking texts persisted into the Roman period. In the context of a boast about the way in which Tyrannion has organized his library, Cicero speaks of sillybae made out of parchment that are attached to his books … in his letters to Atticus (cf. Ep. ad Atticum 4.4a.1; cf. 4.8). Cicero comments that Atticus’ men have beautified his library by binding his books and affixing syllabae to them (Ep. ad Atticum 4.5), while at Ep. at Atticum 4.8 he observes that his house now has a mens — that is, a mind — now that Tyrannio has arranged his books; the sillybae help much. This statement suggests that the organization of books is significant in that knowing how and where to find one’s texts gives meaning and sense to one’s home. Later, Ovid makes reference to the ‘displayed titles’ (titulosapertos), no doubt the sillybae, visible on bookshelves at Tristia 1.1.109.

The first manuscript titles for Tacitus’ Histories may have thus also been added by a second hand than Tacitus himself. These earliest titles may have also appeared at multiple parts of the manuscript (as they do in the later medieval manuscripts) and included variations in the wording; although a major difference between Tacitus and the Gospels is that his name was not affixed using the κατα (“according to”) formula. Because this construction is clearly used as an expansion upon a previous title (1. “The Gospel of Jesus Christ” + 2. “according to Mark”), it was most likely a secondary addition to the title tradition. Since this is not the case with Tacitus, whenever titles were added to his historical works (probably by copyists, book dealers, or libraries as soon as they were published, if not by Tacitus’ own hand), they would not have been an expansion upon a previous, anonymous title, but would have bore the name “Tacitus” from the beginning.

Likewise, as discussed in footnote 6 below, Tacitus was clearly known as the author of the Histories before it was even published, as is evidenced in his correspondence with Pliny. The Gospels, in contrast, were quoted anonymously for nearly a century after their composition, as discussed in footnote 19. This anonymous quotation, early in the tradition, suggests that the Gospel titles were added in a later period (probably after the mid-2nd century CE), after an initial period of anonymous circulation. Likewise, as noted in footnote 7, Tacitus’ Histories would have been published in a far more professional context than the Gospels, in which it was being publicly recited in connection with the author, and probably also had public libraries or book dealers identify Tacitus as the author of the text. In contrast, the Gospels would have been published in a less sophisticated literary context that would probably not have emphasized their particular authors when they first circulated.

[5] Since the titles bearing names were probably a later addition to the Gospels, this begs the question of when they were added.

As Christian scholar Raymond Brown (An Introduction to the New Testament, pp. 158; 208; 267) notes, the Gospels’ titles were probably not added until the latter half of the 2nd century CE. The late-2nd century was a time in the Christian community during which there were many canonical disputes, and connecting particular scriptures with figures in the early church was used as a means of gaining authority and canonical status for a text. A minority of scholars have speculated that they were added earlier, possibly even when the Gospels were first composed, such as Martin Hengel in The Four Gospels and the One Gospel of Jesus Christ. However, even Christian apologists find this view difficult to defend. Christian apologist Craig Blomberg (Making Sense of the New Testament, pg. 151), for example, while describing Hengel’s thesis as “suggestive and worth serious consideration,” concludes that this view is “ultimately speculative and not provable.”

NT scholar Michael Wolter has critiqued Hengel, and argues that the titles could not have been added until, at the earliest, the first half of the 2nd century CE, primarily because the formula “κατα (according to) + the author” only makes sense if it was added when there were multiple gospels in circulation. The original title of Mark was probably just το ευαγγελιον Ιησου Χριστου (“The Gospel of Jesus Christ”), but when other gospels–such as the those later called Matthew, Luke, and John–were being circulated, the names were added to distinguish them from one another. Bart Ehrman, noting that the Gospels’ traditional names are not referred to by Christian authors writing before the late-2nd century, including Justin Martyr, has suggested that the titles were added sometime after 150-160 CE (after Justin Martyr) and before 175-185 CE (when Irenaeus attributed the traditional names). Ehrman notes that Irenaeus attributes the same names that are found in the Muratorian Canon (c. 170-200 CE), and points out that both were from the western half of the Roman Empire. Ehrman thus theorizes that a special edition of the Gospels was probably published at Rome circa 150-185 CE. This edition probably included the four canonical Gospels and added the titles that they are now associated with to distinguish them from one another, which in turn influenced the attributions of Irenaeus and the Muratorian Canon. Likewise, this edition’s probable place of publication at Rome can explain why the titles were subsequently adopted by churches all throughout the Roman Empire, since the Roman church was particularly influential and authoritative by the time of the 2nd century.

Another theory has also been put forward by David Trobisch in The First Edition of the New Testament, which argues that the Gospels (along with the other NT books) were given their traditional titles when the New Testament canon was first assembled, and published as an edition of collected works. This edition would have been highly influential on subsequent manuscript copies of the Gospels, and would thus explain why later manuscripts consistently bear the titles “according to” Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, which begin to appear in the 3rd century CE. Trobisch (“Who Published the New Testament?,” pg. 33) argues that this edition was published c. 156-168 CE, and that it likewise had a strong authoritative influence on both Rome and Asia Minor. Trobisch’s theory is largely compatible with the one given by Ehrman above, although Trobisch adds greater emphasis to the authority of the church in Asia Minor, which would have influenced the attributions at Rome.

It should be noted that Hengel (The Four Gospels and the One Gospel of Jesus Christ, pg. 50) argues that a four book edition of the Gospels could not have been the origin of their titles, since the Gospels continued to circulate individually for some time. However, a four book edition could still have influenced the titles of individual gospels, even if they weren’t bound in a four book copy. Furthermore, even if the titles were added earlier than Ehrman’s estimate, as Michael Wolter has pointed out, they still were probably not added until at least the first half of the 2nd century CE, and thus decades after the Gospels’ original composition. In addition, David Trobisch (The First Edition of the New Testament, pg. 41) argues, “The uniform structure of the titles points beyond the individual writing to an overall editorial concept and was not imposed by the authors of the individual writings. The titles are redactional … This strongly suggests that the present form of the titles was not created by independently working editors but that they are the result of a single, specific redaction.”

It is also worth noting that Hengel’s argument (The Four Gospels and the One Gospel of Jesus Christ, pg. 49) that multiple titles of the Gospels should have appeared, if they were anonymous works given titles by different libraries, actually counts against an early fixation date of the titles. As David Trobisch has pointed out, the uniformity of the titles suggests that they were all added in a single redaction. Since this redaction would have taken place when there was already a four gospel canon, it must have occurred at a point after the Gospels were written, meaning that the Gospel titles are indeed secondary. As Trobisch (The First Edition of the New Testament, pg.43) explains: 

[T]he focus of Hengel’s study is clearly on the “precanonical” state of the gospels, whereas my study concentrates on the final form of the collection. Hengel presupposes that the uniform titles are based on tradition. I argue that the awkward elements and structure of the titles are better explained as the result of editorial decisions by the collectors, who were trying to unify dissimilar material. As these collectors selected a certain number of writings, then edited and arranged them, they had a deliberate redactional strategy in mind.

Likewise, Michael Kok argues that the Gospels’ titles cannot be shown to be independent of the Papian tradition (discussed under the “External Evidence” section above). As such, they do not provide independent evidence of the authorial attributions. As Kok (The Gospel on the Margins, pp. 67-68) explains:

The titular usage of ευαγγελιον may have predated Marcion, but … it was not widespread in the first half of the second century. Aside from Papias’ discussion of named evangelists … there is no mention of a “Gospel” by name of its author before Theophilus of Antioch … If the Gospels were given titles early on, they were not necessarily the standard titles by which they are known today. Andrew Gregory [The Reception of Luke and Acts in the Period before Irenaeus, pg. 51], discussing Irenaeus’ interest in the beginnings of each Gospel (Adv. Haer. 3.11.7), suggests that their opening verses may have once functioned as the titles. We frankly do not know what they were called by in the early second century. Hengel’s case on the uniformity of the titles is tempered by the fact that the earliest evidence rests on three papyri … If I may hazard a guess about the origins of the standard titles, they presume a theological vision that no longer speaks of plural “Gospels” (ευαγγελια) (cf. Justin, 1 Apol. 66.3), but a unitary “gospel” message proclaimed “according to” different messengers. The titles presuppose more than one text under the heading ευαγγελιον, a counterpoint to somebody like Marcion who privileged a single Gospel. There is no evidence that they predate or are independent of Papias.

Hengel (pp. 36-37) also theorizes that Irenaeus may have retrieved the traditional names and the biographical information about the authors from a Christian library in Rome:

The form of this information is also interesting … [I]t corresponds to the short notes about authors in the catalogues of ancient libraries, of the kind that we know, say, from the Museion in Alexandria. Presumably this information comes from the Roman church archive. As I Clement, around AD 100, shows, the Roman community had a respectable library, even containing ‘apocryphal’ books like Esther, Judith, Wisdom, and Sirach, which are still alien to the New Testament. There in Rome where, after the destruction of Jerusalem in AD 70, all the threads of the communities in the empire came together, in the first decades of the second century they must have had the four Gospels, even if they did not recognize them all equally … The relevant information about each writing, its author and its origin were kept in the Roman church archive…

It is circular to assume, however, that the authorial traditions are reliable, if they were derived from this library. It could be the library itself that created the spurious attributions in the first place, which Irenaeus reports. Furthermore, Hengel notes that this library also would have kept named copies of Old Testament and apocryphal books, but the authorial attributions of those texts are likewise doubted among most scholars. Finally, Hengel’s discussion of this library actually provides an excellent explanation of why the authorial attributions were widespread by the late-2nd century CE, and being reported in regions like Lyons, Carthage, Antioch, and Alexandria. Even if a four book edition of the Gospels was not the origin of their traditional names (such as what Ehrman theorizes was published at Rome c. 150-185 CE), Hengel still points out that Rome was the major center of Christianity in the Mediterranean world following the destruction of the Jerusalem in 70 CE, and that the Christian library in Rome was established around the turn of the 2nd century CE. The authorial attributions could have therefore been made at Rome in the early-2nd century (at the earliest, as Wolter argues), and then spread across the Mediterranean by the late-2nd century, which is when the traditional names begin to be reported. This theory is partially compatible with Trobisch, who also argues that the church in Asia Minor may have antecedently influenced the authorial traditions at Rome. Although Trobisch also argues that the attributions were not made until the latter half of the 2nd century, and that they must have come from a single editorial redaction, not individual editors. 

Some Christian apologists have also speculated that, even before the later titles were added, there may have been notes, tags attached to the documents, writing on the sides of codices, and oral reports about authorship that circulated along with the Gospels, which related the traditional authorial traditions. But this is little more than speculation. The only evidence we have that the Gospel manuscripts bore named attributions is the manuscript titles that begin to appear in the 3rd century CE. As is discussed above, these titles were probably not added until at least the early-2nd century, and possibly as late as c. 150-185 CE, decades after the Gospels’ original composition. Likewise, these titles cannot be shown to be independent of authors like Papias, who show signs of speculation. Furthermore, even these manuscript titles they bore include the suspicious grammatical construction κατα (“according to”), which, as discussed above, downplayed the biographical role of the putative author.

Another talking point that apologists raise is that the names which appear in the titles are unanimous across manuscripts. These manuscripts only begin to appear in the 3rd century CE, however, after the date range in which scholars think that the traditional titles were added during the 2nd century. As NT scholar Keith Reich (“Gospel Authorship Part II: Formal Anonymity of the Gospels”) explains:

[T]his is not surprising at all to NT scholars since the traditional titles of the gospels are certainly established in the 2nd century, so we would expect no less. Of course manuscripts from the 3rd century would bear the traditional titles. So, barring the discovery of earlier manuscripts, the manuscript evidence will not be able to solve the issue of gospel titles, how early they were attached to the gospels, and whether the gospels were originally anonymous.

Furthermore, if Trobisch is correct that these manuscripts are derivative of the first published edition of the New Testament, this circumstance would thus explain why the titles are both uniform and still dependent upon a later redaction. And, even if the titles were not added along with the rest of the NT books, an earlier four book edition of the Gospels by itself could have still easily produced the same uniformity. 

It should also be noted that it is not strictly true that there are no Gospel manuscripts which lack the traditional names. One example is P.Oxy. 76.5073, which quotes Mark 1:1-2, but in place of the title ευαγγελιον κατα Μαρκον (“The Gospel according to Mark”), instead has the title αναγνωτι την αρχην του ευαγγελλιου και ιδε (“Read the beginning of the Gospel and see”). As Larry Hurtado notes, this manuscript likely dates to the late-3rd or early-4th centuries CE, providing a fairly early witness of a manuscript that has the beginning of a gospel extant, but lack its traditional title. That said, the manuscript is only a strip that was wound up into a Christian amulet, and so it was never a complete manuscript of the text. This may account for its different title, but it still is not strictly speaking true that all of the manuscripts of the Gospels, which have their opening lines intact, are unanimous in providing the traditional names.

[6] The earliest manuscript copies that we have for Tacitus’ Annals and Histories respectively date to the 9th and 11th centuries CE, about seven to nine hundred years after the original composition of these texts (Histories c. 109 CE; Annals c. 116 CE). On both of these manuscripts, the titles can appear at various locations, similar to the Gospels. There are also different titles that appear for the texts. The Histories, for example, is referred to by other titles than “Historiae.” These medieval manuscripts are in poor condition, however, and have large sections of missing material. For the Histories, book 5 is missing a large amount of material and all subsequent books are lost. For the Annals, books 7-10 are missing and parts of books 5, 6, 11, and 16 are missing. Furthermore, Tacitus’ works would have originally been kept on papyrus scrolls when they were first published; however, in the process of textual transmission during Late Antiquity and the Middle Ages they were transferred onto parchment codices. It is difficult to know how much the titles were altered during this process, but it may be the case that the title variations crept in later during the trail of transmission.

Mendell (Tacitus: The Man And His Workpg. 345) notes that the first external source to quote Tacitus’ Histories by a different title was the Historia Augusta (c. 395 CE) in its Life of Tacitus 10.3. (This biography is about the 3rd century CE Roman emperor and not the 2nd century historian, but the biography refers to Tacitus the historian as one of the emperor’s ancestors.) This late-4th century source claims that Tacitus wrote a “historia Augusta,” which was probably a false quotation of the title, and may have influenced subsequent manuscript titles (some of which include this later title variation), along with additional factors in medieval textual transmission and other problematic quotations from Late Antiquity. Regardless, Pliny the Younger’s (7.33.1) testimony shows that Tacitus was clearly known as the author of his Histories from the beginning of its transmission, and both Pliny and Tertullian (the earliest source to explicitly cite passages from the Histories itself) refer to the work by “Historiae.”

Unlike the later manuscripts for Tacitus, we possess titled copies of the Gospels that date much earlier in their trail of transmission. NT scholar Simon Gathercole in “The Titles of the Gospels in the Earliest New Testament Manuscripts” discusses how the traditional titles of the Gospels appear on manuscripts that date to the beginning of the 3rd century CE. There are a number of problems with these titles, however, which suggest that they were not originally included in the manuscripts. To begin with, as discussed in footnotes 2 and 5 above, the manuscripts of the Gospels do not use the standard title convention for indicating personal possession in antiquity, which was to identify the author’s name in the genitive, but instead use the unusual construction “κατα (according to) + the author” in the titles. NT scholars Michael Wolter (here) and Bart Ehrman (here) both agree that this title convention would not have been added until multiple gospels were in circulation, meaning that it would not have been placed in the original texts at their publication.

Likewise, the textual variations between the titles of the Gospels (discussed in footnote 4 above), found even in the earliest manuscript copies to survive, suggest that these titles do not go back to any original, autograph manuscripts, but were instead added (inconsistently) by subsequent scribes. Titled manuscripts of the Gospels appear around 300 CE, a little over a hundred years after the texts were written in the late 1st century CE. Likewise, the Gospels may have first been written on codices instead of scrolls (or, were at least written on codices from very early in their transmission), so that they did not have to be transitioned as drastically from one writing medium to another, especially during late antique and medieval textual transmission, as was the case with Tacitus. Nevertheless, even on these early manuscripts there are already a large number of textual variations in the titles. Thus, Bart Ehrman (Jesus: Apocalyptic Prophet of the New Millenniumpp. 249-250) concludes:

Because our surviving Greek manuscripts provide such a wide variety of (different) titles for the Gospels, textual scholars have long realized that their familiar names do not go back to a single ‘original’ title, but were added by later scribes.

Furthermore, as discussed in footnotes 19 and 27 below, the church fathers who alluded to and quoted the Gospels for the first several decades of their transmission all treat the texts anonymously (whereas Tacitus is referred to the author of his Histories from the beginning of its transmission). These combined circumstances strongly indicate that the Gospels were originally anonymous at the beginning of their transmission and that their traditional names and titles were only added later.

[7] Beyond just the issue of manuscript titles, another factor to take into consideration is the context of publication behind the authorial tradition in question. Sophisticated literary works published at Rome, such as Tacitus’ Histories, were publicly recited by the author (or by someone else on the author’s behalf), and were often copied by professional book dealers and kept in public libraries. As such, the author of the text was known through more than just the titles on manuscript copies and internal references within the text itself. The author could further be identified by these public recitals, book dealers, and libraries. Likewise, wealthy politicians like Tacitus belonged to elite literary circles in which authors regularly corresponded and consulted each other. For example, Pliny the Younger (7.33.1) knew that Tacitus was writing his Histories before the work was even published, because Tacitus had previously corresponded with him.

Whereas works like Tacitus’ Histories were published in high literary circles, in which the author was well-known, this does not mean that all texts in the ancient Mediterranean world were published in such a context. There were also many less sophisticated literary works that circulated in antiquity, which were often written and transmitted anonymously. In the genre of ancient biography, in particular–which many scholars argue is the literary genre to which the canonical Gospels belong–there were elite scholarly biographies, such as Tacitus’ Agricola, but also more popular biographies, written about figures such as Homer, Aesop, and Alexander the Great, which were far more often kept anonymous. As Tomas Hägg (The Art of Biography in Antiquity, pg. 99) explains:

Simultaneously with the emergence of a bookish form of biography in the late classical and Hellenistic periods, vital biographic traditions were in progress at an oral or subliterary level, concerning in the first place legendary figures of great popular appeal … In contrast to the Lives treated in the previous chapter, which are the works of distinctive authors and largely remain under authorial control, these are anonymous; and they are ‘open texts,’ with regard to origin as well as transmission.

The latter example of popular-level biographies that Hägg discusses shows that there were many contexts of publication in the ancient world in which texts originally circulated anonymously. Sophisticated literary works like Tacitus’ Agricola and Histories did not belong to this category. However, as I argue in my essay “Are the Gospels Ancient Biographies?,” the Gospels of the New Testament more closely resemble this oral and subliterary type of biography that Hägg discusses above. It is very likely, therefore, that the Gospels circulated anonymously when they were first published. There are a number of reasons for thinking that the Gospels belong to this anonymous category of biography:

  • To begin with, Hägg points out that a defining feature of this category was that these types of biographies operated more as ‘open texts,’ which were subject to expansion, redaction, and adaptation. This feature describes the Synoptic Gospels perfectly, since Matthew borrows from 80% of the verses in Mark, and Luke borrows from 65% of the verses. Accordingly, the Synoptic Gospels operated very much like ‘open texts,’ which shared a large amount of material, whereas scholarly biographies–such as those written by Tacitus, Plutarch, and Suetonius–did not borrow so much of their material from previous texts, but were instead written in a unique style with far more authorial control.
  • Another reason why the original publication context behind the Gospels was probably anonymous is the fact, discussed above, that the Gospels mimic the literary style of the Old Testament, and were thus written in the anonymous, third person narrative structure of the OT scriptures. Whereas sophisticated literary works, such as Tacitus’ Histories, were designed to demonstrate authorial research and talent, the Gospels were instead designed to operate as sacred scripture, which was a type of literature less focused on demonstrating the talents of the author rather than providing a third person, theological narrative.
  • Finally, as scholar Harry Gamble (Books and Readers in the Early Church, pg. 94) notes, Christian scriptures like the canonical Gospels were probably not copied by professional book dealers when they first circulated, and Gamble (pg. 196) also points out that they would have been stored in very different kinds of libraries than most elite Greco-Roman literature, consisting primarily of private Christian collections. The Christian scribes who copied the Gospels were likewise considerably less trained than those used by elite authors, as discussed by Barbara Aland in “The Significance of the Chester Beatty in Early Church History,” pg. 109). The lack of professional scribes available thus also entailed that there was a considerably higher degree of interpolation and textual redactions during the process of making manuscript copies. In fact, Classicist Peter van Minnen (“Dating the Oldest New Testament Manuscripts”) notes that the earliest manuscript fragments that we possess (dating from the 2nd-4th centuries CE) contain some of the greatest scribal errors out of all surviving Greek manuscripts of the Gospels. Given these circumstances, the Gospels would not have been subjected to the same kind of editorial provisions that works like Tacitus’ Histories, which was professionally published at Rome, were subjected to. Although the Gospels were assigned their traditional titles by at least the late-2nd century CE, the segmentary nature of their composition suggests that their final redactions were not finished until several decades after they were first composed. As argued by David Trobisch in footnote 7 above, these final redactions were likely complete around the mid-2nd century, when the individual Gospels were brought together as a combined edition. The manuscript titles would have been added as part of the final stage of redaction, in order to distinguish the individual gospels from each other by their familiar names (e.g., “according to Matthew”). Prior to this redaction, the Gospels would have likely been recited anonymously by earlier readers.

For all of these reasons, the Gospels were almost certainly published in a literary context that would have been considerably more anonymous than Tacitus’ Histories, which was published under circumstances in which the author would have been more well-known.

[8] For every Greek and Latin passage quoted in this article, I have provided my own translation.

[9] Furthermore, certain regions of the Roman Empire had lower levels of literacy than others, such as rural regions like Galilee, and Greek literacy would have been even further limited in these areas if they were fluent in another language, such as Aramaic. In the case of rural Galilee, scholar Mark Chancey in The Myth of a Gentile Galilee and Greco-Roman Culture and the Galilee of Jesus finds that Greek literacy was largely restricted to two major urban centers, Sepphoris and Tiberias, and that the rural Jews of the region had little interaction with the Greek language or Gentiles. These circumstances would have certainly limited figures like Peter and John, both rural peasants from Galilee, from being able to author complex Greek prose, such as in the New Testament works attributed to them. This is, of course, in addition to the fact that such poor persons would not likely have received necessary literary training even in their own language to author such complex scriptures.

Another apologetic response to the problem of literacy is that illiterate persons could have allegedly used scribes to whom they would dictate their works, rather than writing them. However, this assumption misunderstands both the nature of literacy and how scribes were used in antiquity. It is true that literate persons, such as Paul, would dictate (in Greek) to scribes who would write down their words, as is evidenced in Rom. 16:22 and Gal. 6:11. This does not entail, however, that an illiterate person (or someone with only partial literacy) could dictate complex prose in a foreign language. One could, of course, further speculate that such a person could tell a scribe the gist of a story, which the scribe would then interpret, organize, and compose in a different language. In such a case, however, the scribe would be the actual author of the work. The person using the scribe would at best be merely a “source” for the text. This may be the relation described between John Mark and Peter, discussed under the “External Evidence” section above, but it does not entail that the disciples Matthew and John could have actually authored the gospels attributed to them.

Furthermore, Ehrman (Forged, pg. 77) points out that attributing authorship through such a practice would be improbable even for the (shorter) epistles of the New Testament:

Where in the ancient world do we have anything at all analogous to this hypothetical situation of someone writing a letter-essay for someone else and putting the other person’s name on it–the name of the person who did not write it–rather than his own name? So far as a I know, there is not a single instance of any such procedure attested from antiquity or any discussion, in any ancient source, of this being a legitimate practice. Or even an illegitimate one. Such a thing is never discussed.

Take note that Ehrman is only describing theological epistles, not multi-chapter works like the Gospels, which compile and redact earlier sources and materials into a complex, extended narrative. The notion that an uneducated person could merely use a scribe to author such a narrative is thus even further improbable.

Regarding William Harris’ literacy estimates in Ancient Literacy, it should be noted that subsequent scholars have critiqued and reevaluated some of his conclusions. Most notably, William Johnson (ed.), among other scholars, in the volume Ancient Literacies has called into question Harris’ binary categorization of “literate” and “illiterate.” Instead, Johnson et al. propose that there were many degrees of functional literacy in the ancient world. While non-elites may have had substantially less education, there is still evidence that they were able to engage with administrative documents, to have sufficient literacy for voting procedures in Athens or Rome, to write graffiti, to communicate through short letters, etc. Contributor Rosalind Thomas still notes, however, that the ability to produce complex literature was a skill largely confined to the upper classes. As Thomas (Ancient Literaciespg. 23) explains about advanced literacy (to compose oratory, rhetoric, and literature):

Gossip, oral communication, heralds, and announcements were all essential; much and was conveyed by these methods, but the ‘slow writer,’ to use the term of Roman Egypt, could hardly be equal to a member of the educated elite in their ability to master every aspect of the political system, especially as the elite could probably manipulate texts with relative ease as well compose eloquent speeches.

In fact, even in regions of the ancient Mediterranean that had substantially higher literacy rates (e.g., Athens), Thomas (pg. 16) notes that the gap between the educated elite and the poor, in terms of literary abilities, was still quite substantial:

In ancient Athens, the line at which someone is seriously disadvantaged by poor writing skills can be drawn very low, but that does not mean that he was on an educational and political level with the elite. The educated elite, who overlapped considerably with the political leaders, had advanced literacy and cultural attainments that included mousike, music, literary knowledge, and literary composition. We therefore need to examine evidence for differing literacy skills alongside the surrounding social or political demands for writing.

Bear in mind that Thomas is referring to Athens, a place with a much higher common literacy rate than rural Galilee. (She also notes that this level of common literacy probably declined in Athens in the 4th century BCE.) Even if there was a wider range of literacies in the ancient world, therefore, the point still remains that it would be highly unusual for rural peasants outside of the educated elite to compose complex literature like the Gospels. For further discussion of the criterion of literacy in assessing authorial attributions, see footnote 11 below.

I should also note that, when I refer to the Gospels as “complex literary works,” I am referring to their rhetorical arrangement and composition, and not to the their language and dialect. As I discuss in my other article, “Ancient Historical Writing Compared to the Gospels of the New Testament,” the language in the Gospels is very simple and much less sophisticated than the elite historiographical and biographical literature of antiquity. Nevertheless, even though they are written in a simple vernacular (probably because they target a popular audience), the Gospels are still composed using sophisticated literary devices, which reflect a high level of education from their authors. Whitney Shiner in “Creating Plot in Episodic Narrative” discusses many of the literary techniques, which I summarize in a review here.

[10] The typical apologetic response to this passage is to claim that αγραμματος (“illiterate”) only means “uneducated” or “lacking formal rabbinic training.” However, it was typically educated Jews with rabbinic training that belonged to the small portion of the Jewish population who could author complex prose scripture. Furthermore, while it is possible that the passage is merely referring to rabbinic training, it is far more probable, given the historical context, that the passage also indicates illiteracy. Judaic Studies scholar Meir Bar-Ilan (“Illiteracy in the Land of Israel in the First Centuries CE”) finds that only about 3% of the population was literate, and most of this portion would have lived in cities or large towns (not typical of where the disciples of rural Galilee were from). Likewise, Catherine Hezser in Jewish Literacy in Roman Palestine (pg. 496) argues:

If ‘literacy’ is determined as the ability to read documents, letters, and ‘simple’ literary texts in at least one language and to write more than one’s signature itself, it is quite reasonable to assume that the Jewish literacy rate was well below the 10-15 percent (of the entire population, including women) which Harris [Ancient Literacy] has estimated for Roman society in imperial times.

Furthermore, as Ehrman (Forged, pg. 73) explains:

Most people outside of the urban areas would scarcely ever even see a written text. Some smaller towns and villages may have had a literacy level around 1 percent. Moreover, these literate people were almost always the elite of the upper class. Those who learned to read learned how to read Hebrew (not Greek).

Likewise, we have archaeological evidence which suggests that Peter, who is described alongside John as αγραμματος (“illiterate”) in Acts 4:13, was in fact illiterate based on excavations of his hometown in Capernaum. As Ehrman (Forged, pg. 74-75) explains:

In order to evaluate Peter’s linguistic abilities, the place to begin, then, is with Capernaum … The archaeological digs have revealed … there are no inscriptions of any kind on any of the buildings … Reed [Archaeology and the Galilean Jesus, pp. 140-169] concludes that the inhabitants were almost certainly ‘predominantly illiterate’ [even in Aramaic] … In short, Peter’s town was a backwoods Jewish village made up of hand-to-mouth laborers who did not have an education. Everyone spoke Aramaic. Nothing suggests that anyone could speak Greek. Nothing suggests that anyone in the town could write. As a lower-class fisherman, Peter would have started work as a young boy and never attended school. There was, in fact, probably no school there.

Bear in mind that John is described as αγραμματος (“illiterate”) alongside Peter in the passage, for whom we have very strong archaeological evidence that he was probably illiterate. Furthermore, both James and John the sons of Zebedee are likewise described as living around Capernaum. The best interpretation of the passage is thus that Acts 4:13 is describing Peter and John as both lacking Rabbinic training and being illiterate.

[11] NT scholar Jonathan Bernier has critiqued literacy as a criterion for determining the authorship of ancient texts in his blog post “Flipping Coins and Writing Gospels” (notably, Bernier does not defend the traditional authors of the Gospels in the post, but only calls into question whether illiteracy is good argument for doubting their traditional authors). His criticism is based on the statistical fact that, even if a certain group of people, such as Galilean fisherman, is 99% illiterate, this circumstance should not lead to the deduction that a particular Galilean fisherman, such as John, could not have authored a Greek scripture. As Bernier argues:

[T]he nature of statistics is such that even if 99% of all Galilean fishermen were persons who could not have written something like the Gospel of John it does not follow that there is a 99% chance that John, son of Zebedee, would be such a person. It’s an example of the coin flip problem: just because you flip a coin ten times and eight times it comes up heads it does not follow that the eleventh coin has a 80% chance of coming up heads; it in fact has a 50% chance; and even if that were not the case 80% is not 100%.

First off, a coin flip is a false analogy. It would only hold if 50% of fishermen were literary experts. If 99% of people of John’s status could not author a gospel, then the prior probability he could do it is indeed 1%. Bernier would need a die that only comes up “bingo” one out of a hundred times, which then in a sequence of rolls comes up “bingo” a different-than-that number of times. Then he would have a correct analogy.

However, this also misinterprets the logic behind how literacy is used as a criterion in determining authorship. The argument is not that it is 99% unlikely the John could have authored a Greek scripture, simply because 99% of the group to which he belonged would have been incapable of such authorship (assuming the number is not even higher). That would be to mistake prior probability with posterior probability. Rather, the argument is about first assessing the demographics of people to which the attributed author of a text belongs, to see if this is an ordinary or remarkable attribution.

Virtually 100% of Roman senators in the early-2nd century CE were literate in Latin. Likewise, Latin historiography was a genre that was primarily written by Roman senators. As Classicist Ronald Mellor (The Roman Historians, pg. 4) explains, “History at Rome was written mostly by senators for senators.” So, when an authorial attribution is made to Tacitus, a Roman senator, for writing Latin historical works, such as his Annals and Histories, this is an ordinary attribution.

In the case of rural Galilee, Judaic Studies scholar Meir Bar-Ilan (“Illiteracy in the Land of Israel in the First Centuries CE”) finds that only about 3% of the population was literate, and most of these would have lived in cities or large towns (not typical of where the disciples of rural Galilee were from). Moreover, these people would primarily be taught to read Aramaic and Hebrew, so that even fewer could read or write in Greek. Once you drop the wealthy, urban population out of the equation, the number of poor, rural people who were literate in Aramaic would be much smaller than 3%. Out of this reduced fraction, even fewer could read and write in Greek. The ability to write complex Greek, such as in prose scripture, would have likewise been even rarer.

So, when a claim is made that a Galilean fisherman, like John, and a toll booth collector, like Matthew, authored complex Greek scriptures, it would have certainly been unusual and rare for someone who belonged to their demographics to have authored such texts. This already means that the authorial traditions of Matthew and John are, at the very least, more unusual than the authorship of Tacitus. It would not be unusual or rare for a Roman senator, like Tacitus, to have authored a Latin history, whereas in the case of Matthew and John, these would have been very rare and exceptional individuals to author complex Greek prose, given the demographics to which they belonged.

This does not mean that it would be impossible for Matthew and John to have been able to author complex Greek prose, but the next step is to see if there is any evidence that they were exceptional. Here, there are direct contradictions in our sources for their lives. John (Acts 4:13) is explicitly stated to be illiterate, and Matthew (Mt. 9:10-13) is explicitly stated to have been ostracized from the Jewish community (despite the fact that the gospel attributed him shows the most knowledge of Jewish Law and includes the most allusions to Jewish scriptures out of the NT Gospels). So, all of the data that we have for these individuals suggests that they were not exceptional in terms of their literary abilities and education.

The criterion of literacy can vary by degree. Our degree of confidence that Tacitus could author a Latin history is much higher than that a rural fisherman and toll booth collector could have authored Greek scriptures. So, the authorship of Tacitus is far more secure in this respect, even if it is not inconceivable that Matthew and John may have had remarkable literary abilities for their demographics. The same is true of other Classical authors, such as Livy and Plutarch, who belonged to more literate demographics, which is why it is not a good argument for apologists to equate the authorial attributions of the Gospels with these Pagan texts. Such Pagan texts are ordinary attributions, whereas the attributions of the Gospels are highly unusual.

The fact that the attributions of the Gospels are unusual should next lead to consideration over whether there is a reason for such unusual attributions. It could be because Matthew and John were indeed remarkable in their literary abilities and education, but, as shown above, the sources for their lives state the opposite. However, a very plausible explanation for the unusual attribution is the fact that Christians were having canonical disputes in the second half of the 2nd century CE (when the Gospels were first attributed). During this process, claiming apostolic authorship was used as a way to grant authority and canonical status to a text. It should be noted that the primary motivation driving these attributions was based on finding figures of authority. However, when the Gospels were first written, their authors were most likely chosen on the basis of ability. Educated Christians in the late-1st century CE, after the generation of the apostles had faded, were commissioned to write accounts of Jesus’ life and teachings (Lk. 1:1-4). These individuals would have probably been chosen on the basis of their literary abilities as the most skilled and qualified individuals in their community. When there were later canonical disputes in the church, however, figures with authority were preferred for assigning authorship to canonical texts.

What the criterion of literacy achieves, therefore, is driving a wedge between the internal and external evidence. Based on nothing but the internal evidence of authorship, the Gospels would appear to have most likely been written by wealthy, urban-dwelling Greek speakers in the Jewish Diaspora, since that was how such texts were ordinarily composed. However, the external evidence says that they were written by individuals such as rural, Aramaic-speaking fishermen and toll collectors from Galilee. This would certainly be unusual, and not something suggested by the internal evidence when considered alone. The next step is to see if these unusual candidates show signs of having exceptional literary abilities and education for their demographics. When evidence outside the attribution, such as in Acts 4:13 and Mt. 9:10-13, states the opposite, the attribution becomes further anomalous. The final step is to look for whether there is any other reason for such an anomalous attribution. When the external evidence can be explained perfectly by canonical disputes in the late-2nd century CE seeking to ascribe certain texts to apostolic candidates, the cause of the anomaly becomes obvious. So, even if it is not statistically impossible that Matthew and John could have authored Greek scriptures, the internal evidence runs against the grain of the external evidence, and the external evidence itself is problematic and unreliable. In such a case, the criterion of literacy does matter when assessing an authorial attribution, especially if an authorial attribution is doubted on the grounds that it was spuriously assigned to a figure of authority, when the actual process behind a text’s composition would have instead required an individual of ability.

[12] The textual relations described in this section depend on the assumption of Markan priority, namely that the Gospel of Mark was written first, and that both Matthew and Luke used Mark. Although there is some dispute over this theory, it should be noted that Markan priority is the majority view in the scholarly community by a fairly wide margin. As NT scholar Michael Kok (“Markan Priority or Posterity?”) explains:

One sign of the consensus is that of the innumerable academic commentaries on Mark’s Gospel, C. S. Mann’s commentary on Mark for the Anchor Bible series is one of the rare exceptions in working from the basis of the Griesbach hypothesis and it has since been replaced by Joel Marcus’ two-volume commentaries that is firmly in support of Markan priority.

As such, Markan priority is assumed as the correct interrelation between the Synoptic Gospels for the purposes of this article.

[13] Apologists, of course, have come up with a number of attempts to rationalize this problem in geography. However, as scholar C.S. Mann (Mark, pg. 322) explains, “While the text is clear enough at this point, the geography is impossible to reconstruct … The attempts of various commentators past and present to make sense of this awkward journey are often more inglorious than enlightening.” The main problem with this passage is that there is no route “through” Sidon to the Decapolis. You can go south from Sidon back to Tyre, to catch the Roman road to Caesarea Philippi. If Mark said that Jesus went up to Sidon and then back down again toward Tyre, and then on his way to the Decapolis, maybe you could say that he took the Caesarea route. But really, he would just say that Jesus went from Tyre to the Decapolis through Caesarea, not “through” Sidon. Sidon would never factor in. Mann further notes that the author of Matthew, who was probably more familiar with the region, in fact changes the itinerary to resolve the geographical problems. As Mann (pg. 322) explains, “Matthew has no reference to Tyre and Sidon, nor yet of the Ten Towns, contenting himself merely with the statement that Jesus ‘departed from there and came by the Sea of Galilee’ (15:29).”

Another point that should be made is that the best supplied and thus safest route is not through the highlands from Tyre to Caesarea, but back south along the main road of the coast, then in to Tiberias and thence to Gadara (the beginning of the Decapolis) through the valley route. It hardly need be explained that fertile valleys and major coastal land trade routes are going to have far more ample water security for a hiker than a dodgy highland route built mainly for armies and caravans. And so, even beyond the fact that the geography in Mark is impossible to reconstruct, it makes far more sense that Jesus would have taken the coastal road, rather than attempting to go east along any highland route.

Likewise, this particular problem is hardly the only problem with Palestinian geography in Mark. Another problematic route is in Mk 11:1, which has Jesus and the disciples, in approaching Jerusalem from Jericho, come first to Bethphage and then to Bethany. As Helms (Who Wrote the Gospels?, pg. 6) explains, “Anyone approaching Jerusalem from Jericho would come first to Bethany and then Bethphage, not the reverse. This is one of the several passages showing that Mark knew little about Palestine.” Nineham (The Gospel of St. Mark, pp. 294-295) agrees, “Mark did not know the relative positions of these two villages on the Jericho road.” Another problem concerns the location of Geresa (modern Jerash). As Theissen (The Gospels in Context, pg. 242) explains, “According to 5:1ff, the town of Gerasa and its surrounding lands lie near the Lake of Galilee, although in reality Gerasa is about 65 kilometers southeast of the lake.” Likewise, Raymond Brown (An Introduction to the New Testament, pg. 160) notes, “No one has been able to locate the Dalmanutha of 8:10, and it may be a corruption of Magdala.”

It should be noted that some scholars have argued that, even if the author of Mark makes geographical errors, it may not undermine the notion that he was a native of Palestine. As Michael Kok (The Gospel on the Margins, pp. 49-50) argues:

[A] native Jewish writer was not exempt from the human propensity to err … A slip-up in an otherwise sensible journey from a coastal area (Tyre) to the middle of Decapolis via the Galilean Sea (7:24-31) is that Mark does not realize how north Sidon was in relation to Tyre and the lake … If not all of Mark’s geographical blunders can be excused, the issue may be moot for Markan authorship … Maps were not a ready commodity so there is no reason to expect a fully accurate knowledge outside a person’s home region.

Likewise, there are a number of scholars who argue that the author of Mark was not a Gentile, but a Palestinian Jew. For example, Talmudic scholar Daniel Boyarin (The Jewish Gospels: The Story of the Jewish Christpg. 105) argues that there are accurate depictions of Jewish customs in Mark, and that the author was likely Jewish. Michael Kok (pg. 56) also argues,“In light of recent research, the data may not contradict the authorship of a Palestinian Jew,” even though Kok also argues that the Gospel of Mark was probably not written by John Mark.

[14] Even if one could somehow rationalize why Matthew (an alleged eyewitness disciple) would depend so heavily in his material upon the version of events related by Mark (who is described as a non-eyewitness), such a textual relation would still cast doubt on the notion that the Gospel of Matthew represents the personal recollections of an eyewitness. Rather, Matthew would have served more as an editor in compiling and redacting received material.

What is especially odd about this textual relationship, however, is that Matthew would not have even told his own version of how he met Jesus. In Mark 2:14, Jesus is described choosing the tax collector Levi the son of Alphaeus to be one of his disciples. In the Gospel of Matthew (9:9) this same scene is described, but Levi’s name is instead changed to “Matthew.” As discussed in footnote 25 below, this name change is probably one of the reasons why the Gospel of Matthew was attributed to “Matthew.” It remains highly peculiar, however, why the disciple Matthew would have taken this scene (one of the only opportunities in the gospel for which he could have related an overt eyewitness experience) from the writings of another (who wasn’t even an eyewitness!). In fact, even conservative scholar Richard Bauckham (Jesus and the Eyewitnesses, pg. 112) acknowledges:

[T]he author of Matthew’s Gospel intended to associate the Gospel with the apostle Matthew but was not himself the apostle Matthew. Matthew himself could have described his own call without having to take over the way Mark described Levi’s call.

Bauckham (pg. 302) argues that this association could have been pseudepigraphical, or could have derived from Matthew being connected with source material that was used during the composition of the Gospel of Matthew (a possibility also discussed in footnote 23 below). Bauckham further argues that “Levi” and “Matthew” are probably not the same person, since it would be extremely rare to have the same individual identified by two common Semitic names (as opposed to one Semitic name, and one Greek or Latin name). As such, the figure Levi in Mark is probably not the same person as Matthew in Matthew, even though they are described in the same scene, which raises even more difficulties for who the disciple Matthew was, to begin with. Since even Matthew’s very identity is difficult to ascertain, it remains yet more ambiguous to what extent his own “eyewitness” experiences made it into the Gospels.

[15] Of course, the common apologetic retort to redactions of this kind normally goes something along the lines of “different emotions can exist in the same man,” when Jesus is depicted in one gospel in a different manner than another. But such rationalizations greatly oversimplify the problem and miss the importance of the Synoptic Gospels’ interdependence in their source material. The author of Luke had a copy of Mark in front of him when he wrote about the passion and crucifixion of Jesus (or at least had read the text previously and memorized its material). Yet, at key moments, he made significant alterations in the previous narrative. In the Lukan narrative (23:27), a great number of people follow Jesus during his crucifixion, including a number of women, who are instead stated to have remained at a far in the Markan narrative (15:40). In the Lukan narrative (23:42-43), Jesus is crucified between two criminals, one of whom mocks him, while the other repents. Jesus replies to the repenting criminal and states, “I tell you, on this day, you will be with me in paradise.” However, in the Markan narrative (15:32), both of the criminals crucified next to Jesus mock him, and neither repents. In the Markan narrative (15:34), Jesus’ last words convey despair: “Jesus cried forth in a loud voice, ‘Eloi, Eloi, lama sabachthani?’ (This means: ‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?’).” However, in the Lukan narrative (23:46), Jesus’ last words convey resolve and tranquility: “And crying forth with a loud voice, Jesus said, ‘Father, into your hands I commit my spirit.’ Saying this, he expired.”

We can try to brush off these differences by rationalizing that each author merely “told one half of the story,” but we know that the author of Luke had access to Mark. The far more natural explanation for the changes is that the author of Luke simply had a different opinion and wished to depict Jesus’ crucifixion in a different way. As I explain in essay, “Bible Contradictions: Why Are They There? What Do They Entail?,” this is the type of conclusion that we would reach for any secular text. Apologists who have presuppositions of inerrancy, however, often twist themselves in logical pretzels to avoid obvious contradictions and redactions between the canonical Gospels. For secular interpreters, however, I think the discrepancies and changes between the different authors are quite clear. Since the author of Luke changed the narrative in Mark to suite a different theological agenda, I think it is quite unlikely that this author thought that the account in Mark was directly based on the teachings of Peter.

That being said, NT scholar Michael Kok (whom I disagree with on this point) does think that the author of Luke-Acts may have been familiar the Petrine tradition about Mark (possibly from direct dependence on Papias or through common oral traditions in Asia Minor, which Kok discusses on pp. 151-153 of The Gospel on the Margins). Nevertheless, Kok also does not think that John Mark authored the Gospel of Mark, and so, even if the author of Luke-Acts was familiar with this tradition, that does not guarantee its authenticity. Furthermore, Kok’s theory is that Mark was spuriously attributed to John Mark, in order to downgrade its importance to doctrine. The author of Luke, therefore, would have made changes to Mark, since he did not fully agree with the content and structure of the narrative. Craig Blomberg, in contrast, suggests that Matthew and Luke were “relying” on Peter’s version of events, via Mark, implying that these authors would have viewed Mark as authoritative and largely derivative of Peter. This interpretation would largely not align with how Kok understands the relationship between these texts. It should also be noted that, even if the author of Luke-Acts was familiar with the Petrine tradition, he still provides no evidence that the title “Gospel according to Mark” was affixed to Mark when he used the text. Instead, this named appalation does not appear among external sources until the latter half of the 2nd century CE. 

[16] Apologists, of course, have attempted to extract authorial personality from selective readings based on a few tenuous passages and uses of vocabulary. For example, apologists will sometimes claim that the author of Luke-Acts uses vocabulary specialized to physicians (the occupation that Luke, the attendant of Paul, was said to have) and takes extra notice of sick people. However, scholar Henry Cadbury in The Style and Literary Method of Luke: The Diction of Luke and Acts has deflated many of these claims by a closer reading of the relevant passages. Cadbury undertook this research when completing his doctorate, and the joke went round in scholarly circles that Cadbury earned his doctorate by depriving Luke of his.

It should also be noted that the author of Matthew actually makes inaccurate descriptions of tax practices in pre-70 CE Palestine, despite the fact that the text is said to have been authored by a tax collector! In particular, Mt. 22:19 implies that the Roman denarius was used for taxation during the time of Jesus. Based on archaeological evidence, however, scholar Fabian Udoh in To Caesar What Is Caesar’s (pg. 236) finds:

[T]he imperial denarii were not required for Roman taxation, and they did not form the basis of the silver currency of the region.

As such, the internal evidence of Matthew actually conflicts with the occupational background of the author to which it was attributed, for it runs against the grain of this attribution that a tax collector would make mistakes about tax practices. I discuss this issue further in my essay “Matthew the τελώνης (“Toll Collector”) and the Authorship of the First Gospel.”

[17] Fitzmyer (Acts of the Apostles, pp. 438-439) elaborates further about this passage: “Luke reports the first visit of Saul to Jerusalem after his flight from Damascus (9:26-29; cf. 22:17; 26:20). It is the first of five, or possibly six, postconversion visits to Jerusalem that will be enumerated (the counting depends on a problematic variant reading). Whether they are all individually historical is problematic. It may be that Luke, dependent on different sources, has historicized and individualized some of the visits, when he should rather have realized that he had inherited more than one record of the same visit … In any case, the first postconversion visit of Saul to Jerusalem in Acts is to be taken as that reported in Gal. 1:18: ‘Then after three years I went up to Jerusalem to consult Cephas, and I stayed with him for fifteen days.’ That means ‘three years’ after his experience on the road to Damascus.” As scholar Christopher Matthews (Oxford Annotated Bible, pg. 1937) concludes, “In Gal. 1:18 Paul states that his first visit to Jerusalem was three years after his conversion. Luke associates Paul with Jerusalem from the beginning.”

[18] A common apologetic rationalization for this contradiction is to claim that, because Timothy was born from a Jewish mother, he was racially considered a Jewish Christian, whereas Titus, who was born of both a Greek father and mother, was regarded as a Gentile. However, this interpretation is anachronistic and, as Fitzmyer (Acts of the Apostles, pg. 575) notes, belongs “to a later Mishnaic tradition (m. Kidd. 3:12: ‘the offspring is of her own standing’; cf. Str-B, 2.741).” However, as Cohen (“Was Timothy Jewish?,” pg. 268) explains, the “vast majority of ancient and medieval exegetes did not think [that Timothy was Jewish] … There is no evidence that Paul or the Jews of Asia Minor thought so. Ambrosiaster and his medieval followers did think so, but in all likelihood this interpretation is wrong because there is no evidence that any Jew in premishnaic times thought that the child of an intermarriage followed the status of the mother.”

[19] In terms of the first external references and quotations of the Gospels, as is discussed under the “External Evidence” section above, Ignatius (c. 105-115 CE) appears to allude to passages and quote phrases from the Gospel of Matthew. There are number of problems with his testimony, however, which raise dispute over whether Ignatius is directly interacting with Matthew as we know the text today. Ancient historian Richard Carrier discusses these problems in his essay “Ignatian Vexation.” Polycarp (c. 110-140 CE) likewise appears to quote multiple phrases and verses from Matthew, Mark, and Luke, but there is similar dispute over whether he is interacting with written texts.

The Epistle of Barnabas (80-120 CE) most likely does quote Matthew directly, despite mentioning no author for the text. Even more importantly, however, the Didache (c. 50-120 CE) explicitly quotes Matthew 6:9-13, but refers to the text as “His (Jesus’) Gospel” (ο κυριος εν τω ευαγγελιω αυτου), without adding the appellation “Matthew.” As discussed in footnote 5 above, the Gospels were probably originally known under the title το ευαγγελιον Ιησου Χριστου (“The Gospel of Jesus Christ”), before they were further ascribed κατα (“according to”) their traditional names. The Didache likely preserves, therefore, a trace of the Gospels’ original titles, which were anonymous. Justin Martyr (c. 150-160 CE) later refers to the Gospels collectively as “Memoirs of the Apostles,” without making any explicit reference to their traditional names. It is noteworthy that both the Didache and Justin refer to the Gospels by different titles, which suggests that their traditional titles were not added until after the mid-2nd century CE.

Finally, Irenaeus (c. 175-185 CE) refers to the Gospels by their traditional names in the late-2nd century CE. Another important source, close Irenaeus’ time, which also attests the traditional authorship of Luke and John, is the Muratorian Canon (c. 170-200 CE). Since the text is incomplete at the beginning, the canon also probably mentioned the traditional authorship of Matthew and Mark, which are cut off in the manuscript. As can be gathered from the survey of sources above, there is a clear development in which the Gospels were first referred to anonymously by external sources, and only later associated with their traditional names.

It is worth noting that both Irenaeus and the author of the Muratorian Canon were writing in the western half of the Roman Empire, and, as is noted in footnote 5 above, they both probably received the traditional Gospel names from a common source at Rome. This source could have been either a four book edition of the Gospels that was published at Rome c. 150-185 CE, as Bart Ehrman theorizes, or a catalogue used by the the Christian library in Rome, which was founded in the early-2nd century, and could have added the traditional names any time after that date (possibly before the mid-2nd century, but more likely in the latter half of the 2nd century). David Trobisch likewise argues that the first edition of New Testament itself may have added the titles, which he argues was published c. 156-168 CE. Although Trobisch thinks that this edition originated from the authority of the church in Asia Minor, he also argues that it would have been influential at Rome, which would thus explain why Irenaeus and the Muratorian Canon report the traditional names in the western half of the Roman Empire.

There is also evidence that The Valentinian teachers Ptolemy (c. 140-180 CE) and Theodotus (c. 150-180 CE) may have associated the fourth gospel with John (though, this testimony is only preserved in later references among orthodox sources). As Richard Bauckham (Jesus and the Eyewitnesses, pg. 466) writes:

Other second-century writers who call the author of John’s Gospel an apostle are the Valentinian teachers Ptolemy (Letter to Flora, apud Epiphanius, Panarion 33.3.6) and Theodotus (apud Clement of Alexandria, Excerpta ex Theodoto 7.3; 35.1; 41.3).

It should be noted, however, that these authors are near contemporaries of Irenaeus, and may be writing within the same timespan in which the traditional names were added. Theophilus of Antioch (c. 180-185 CE) likewise refers to John 1:1 as being related by “John” (2.22), but also at around the same period as Irenaeus. Some have argued that Marcion may have associated the fourth gospel with John before Irenaeus. For example, Leon Morris (John, pg. 19) argues:

It is also worth noting that according to a very probable reading of the evidence Marcion held the Apostle John to be the author of this Gospel. Tertullian (Contra Marcionem 4.3) speaks of this man as laboring “very hard to destroy the character of those which are published as genuine and under the name of the apostles” by drawing attention to Paul’s rebuking even of apostles (Gal. 2:13-14). It is difficult to catch the drift of Marcion’s argument unless he did in fact think that John wrote his Gospel. His point apparently was not that John did not write it, but that John did write it and was wrong! Since Marcion seems to have come to Rome c. 140, this is quite early testimony.

This line of argument is circular, however, since Tertullian does not tell us which gospels Marcion was attacking. There were several gospels attributed to “disciples,” including Peter and Thomas. Marcion could thus be rejecting any number of gospels attributed to Jerusalem apostles in favour of what he saw as Paul’s Gospel. Likewise, we do not possess Marcion’s own words, but only Tertullian’s polemic against him. Tertullian is also writing during the 3rd century CE, when the fourfold Gospel canon and the apostolic traditions authenticating them was more prominent. Since we lack Marcion’s own testimony of which gospels he was seeking to discredit, we cannot assume that a Gospel of John was among them.

It has also been argued (such as by Darrell Bock in Studying the Historical Jesus, pg. 32) that Justin Martyr refers to the traditional authorship of Luke in Dialogue with Trypho (103.8). Justin does not mention Luke the attendant of Paul in this passage, however, but only quotes a (likely interpolated detail) from Luke 22:44, namely that Jesus sweated blood before he was arrested. Justin states that this detail is found in “the memoirs drawn up by Jesus’ apostles and those who followed them.” As discussed in footnote 28 below, however, Justin merely uses this this phrase as a collective title for all of the “memoirs” about Jesus, and so this passage is not singling out a specific author. The fact that the memoirs are associated with 1) apostles and 2) their followers likely reflects a development, prior to when the Gospels’ were given their traditional titles and named attributions, in which the Gospels came to be associated with the first and second generations of Christianity. Originally, the Gospels would have circulated anonymously, and later, by Justin’s time, they would have come to be associated with Jesus’ apostles and their followers, as the first and second generations of Christians. After Justin, by the time of Irenaeus and the Muratorian Canon, the Gospels were then given their named attributions, which specified particular apostles and their attendants. But simply because Justin plucked a detail from the third gospel, which he attributes to the collective “memoirs,” hardly entails that he is reporting a later authorial attribution connected specifically with Luke (whom Justin does not even mention) in this passage.

As can be gathered from the survey above, none of the Gospels are referred to by their traditional names until around the latter half of the 2nd century CE. Some Christian apologists will further appeal to sources who report the traditional names after the 2nd century, in order to inflate the evidence. For example, apologists will list Tertullian (c. 200 CE), Origen (c. 220 CE), and Eusebius (c. 325 CE) as sources who corroborate the traditional authors. All of these sources are writing after the 2nd century, however, and are merely repeating the same tradition. If the 2nd century tradition itself was spurious, they add nothing to the evidence of authorship.

In contrast, the first external reference to Tacitus’ Histories is in Pliny the Younger’s epistles (7.33.1), a contemporary source, written to the author himself. This would be the equivalent of the apostle Paul, for example, writing a letter to Luke, in which he discussed the composition of Luke’s gospel. Needless to say, no such evidence of this kind exists for the authorship of the Gospels. Pliny identifies him as the author of a “Historiae,” but since he is writing to Tacitus before the work was published, he does not explicit quote material within it.

Mendell (Tacitus: The Man And His Work, pp. 225-226) notes that Claudius Ptolemy (c. 150 CE) was probably familiar with material from Tacitus’ Annals (4.72-73) in his Geography, and that Cassius Dio (c. 230 CE) was probably familiar with Tacitus’ Agricola. However, neither author quotes Tacitus’ works explicitly, meaning that they are probably just familiar with information in these texts, which is not the same as citing exact verses. Likewise, neither author identifies all of his sources of information. It is also worth noting that both authors are writing in Greek, rather than in Latin, which was the language in in which Tacitus authored his historical works. This is nothing like the earliest external references to the Gospels. The Didache (8:3-11), for example, directly quotes Greek verses in the Gospel of Matthew (6:9-13) as being found in “His (Jesus’) Gospel,” which is specifically referring to the text by a different appellation than when it was later attributed to the disciple Matthew. Neither Ptolemy nor Dio, in contrast, quote Tacitus’ works by different names.

Moreover, there are also later quotations of Matthew in Justin Martyr, who, despite citing explicit passages, simply refers to the text under the collective title “Memoirs of the Apostles.” It is not like Ptolomy and Dio referred to Tacitus’ works as “Memoirs of a Roman senator,” before they were attributed by a later source to Tacitus. Finally, even when the Gospels were attributed, it was with the abnormal formula κατα “according to,” which, as discussed in footnote 2, is far from a direct claim to authorship. Nobody ever said that Tacitus’ works were written secundum Tacitum (“according to Tacitus”), but instead his works are correctly attributed using the genitive, as discussed in footnote 1.

The first external reference to explicitly cite passages from Tacitus’ historical works, therefore, is Tertullian (c. 200 CE), who clearly identifies Tacitus as the author in Adv. gentes 16, and refers to the “fifth book of his Histories” (quinta Historiarum). Thus, the external evidence for the authorship of Tacitus may be summed up as follows: Pliny the Younger writes contemporary letters to the historian in which he describes him authoring a “Historiae.” Although Pliny wrote his letters before Tacitus published the work, Tertullian is the next external source to directly cite passages in this “Historiae,” in which he likewise identifies Tacitus as the author and uses “Historiae as the title of the work in referring to its fifth book. For Tacitus, therefore, the earliest external reference to mention his work (Pliny) and the first external reference to cite passages (Tertullian) both consistently agree that he was the author.

[20] Irenaeus’ dependence upon Papias’ testimony may also be indirect, since, as discussed in footnote 5 above, he may have derived the authorship of Matthew and Mark from a four book edition of the Gospels that was published at Rome (possibly as part of a larger edition that included other books of the NT canon), or a Christian library in Rome. Nevertheless, neither of these sources can be shown to be independent of Papias, meaning that they probably derived the authorship of Matthew and Mark from his testimony as well (or at least from Papias’ source of information). NT scholar Michael Kok discusses how none of the 2nd-3rd century sources to report the authorial attributions of Matthew and Mark can be shown to be independent of Papias’ testimony in The Gospel on the Margins, which I summarize in a book review here.

[21] Sometimes Papias’ statement that Mark was written ου μεντοι ταξει, which I have translated as “without rhetorical arrangement,” is instead interpreted as “not in chronological order.” This is not a very probable reading of the passage, however. As Michael Kok ( The Gospel on the Margins, pp. 188-189) explains:

Scholars disagree on whether ταξις refers to a chronological or literary arrangement. Chronology was a desideratum of historians and Papias may have borrowed the platitude on neither subtracting nor adding falsehood from them … The difficulty with this is that historians rarely chose the term ταξις for chronology. Instead, they preferred χρονος or καιρος for sequential time … Papias probably had a rhetorical arrangement in mind. Rhetoric had a prominent role in education and Hierapolis was home to the Stoic philosopher Epictetus.

If Papias meant that Mark lacked rhetorical arrangement, this description does not mesh very well with the internal evidence of the gospel. The Gospel of Mark is actually quite polished in its rhetorical composition and uses a number of sophisticated literary devices. Whitney Shiner in “Creating Plot in Episodic Narrative” discusses many of the literary techniques used by the author of Mark, which I summarize in a review here. One possible cause for this dissimilarity may be that Papias is not actually referring to the completed Gospel of Mark, but rather a source text that was used by the author during its composition. As Michael Kok ( The Gospel on the Margins, pg. 191) explains:

Other scholars apply Papias’ remarks to an earlier draft of Mark before the final version. Based on his expertise of ancient composition practices and the distinction between private notes (υπομνηματα) and published memoirs (απομνημονευματα), the Classics scholar George Kennedy [“Classical and Christian Source Criticism”] proposes that the evangelist started with preliminary notes before integrating them into an organized account. Notebooks may have come in handy to jot down Jesus’ sayings. Kennedy has to presume that Papias was misunderstood as referring to the finished text of Mark

If this scenario is correct, one possible reading of the evidence is that the Gospel of Mark was not based directly on the recollections of Peter, but may have incorporated some notes that were based on Peter’s teachings. If Papias is only referring to one of the sources of the text, however, this does not necessarily mean that the entire account goes back to Peter’s eyewitness recollections. Moreover, as discussed by Raymond Brown in footnote 3 above, “Peter” may refer to a standard type of preaching material that was considered apostolic, and thus connected with Peter’s name, even though it was not directly based on Peter’s own eyewitness testimony. It also remains open to dispute whether the same figure who compiled the notes was also the author of the gospel itself. George Kennedy (“Classical and Christian Source Criticism, pg. 148) acknowledges that “[c]onsiderable time could have elapsed between Mark’s note-taking … and the composition of the Gospel as we have it.” Kennedy (pg. 152) also points out that such notes, even if unpublished, were often circulated to persons other than the one who wrote them. One reason that John Mark was associated with the Gospel of Mark could be due to the fact that this figure was responsible for compiling a notebook as a source text, which was then used by a different author to compose the Gospel of Mark. When the Gospels were later being attributed to their traditional authors, however, John Mark as a source was then conflated with the author of the text itself.

It should be noted that Michael Kok does not accept this view, but instead argues that Papias was referring to the completed Gospel of Mark in his statements quoted above. Kok does not think, however, that John Mark authored the gospel. Instead, Kok argues that Papias’ source attributed the text to an to otherwise obscure figure, like John Mark, in order to downplay its significance to Christian doctrine. Kok notes that Mark was the least popular gospel in the 2nd century CE, and thus received the fewest quotations among the church fathers. Mark was also a text that was too early and too foundational (which the more popular authors of Matthew and Luke even used as a source) to simply be discarded by the early church. Leaving Mark out of the canon also could have left it vulnerable to the use of heretical sects. Kok argues, therefore, that Mark may have been deliberately attributed to an obscure figure, only loosely connected with Peter, both to protect it from misuse, but also to downplay its importance to the canon. To strengthen this view, Kok even notes that John Mark is described negatively in Acts 15:37-39, thus making him a prime candidate to attribute the text to under this scenario. Since Mark’s name would have been plucked from 1 Peter (5:12-13) in the process of this attribution, which also mentions Silavanus, the negative material about Mark in Acts could also explain why Mark was specifically chosen, and not Silavanus, since Mark’s characterization was better suited for this scenario. Kok’s thesis provides, therefore, another explanation for how the Gospel of Mark could have been misattributed. I discuss Kok’s thesis further here.

[22] It should be noted that even Richard Bauckham (Jesus and the Eyewitnesses, pp. 452-463) argues that both Papias and Polycarp were hearers of a separate “elder” John, and not John the son of Zebedee. As James McGrath explains in “Which John? The Elder, the Seer, and the Apostle,” by the time of Irenaeus in the late-2nd century CE, different figures in the early church named “John”–such as John the son of Zebedee, John of Patmos, and John the Presbyter (or, “elder” John)–had become conflated in their identities. One of the reasons for differentiating John the Elder from John the son of Zebedee, McGrath explains, is the fact that “Papias mentioned his efforts to find out what a variety of key figures, including John the apostle, said (using the past tense), and also what Aristion and John the Elder say (using the present tense).” This change in tense suggests that Papias is referring to John the son of Zebedee as a past figure, whereas the John the Elder was a subsequent figure, alive during his own day. Due to this ambiguity, and the general unreliability of the available sources, it is untenable that either Papias or Polycarp knew John the son of Zebedee, or any of the twelve disciples.

[23] Michael Kok (The Gospel on the Margins, pg. 193) notes that only a minority of scholars accept that Papias is referring to a collection of sayings in his statement about an Aramaic version of Matthew:

A minority of scholars equate the λογια with “Q” in contrast to the words and deeds (λεχθεντα η πραχθεντα) that make up Mark. A better term for a sayings collection is λογοι (sayings) rather than λογια (oracles) and, from Papias’ title and the comparison with a narrative Gospel like Mark, λογια seems interchangeable with sayings and deeds.

Kok (pg. 195) further points out, however, that there are other possibilities for a type of Matthean source material that Papias is conflating with the Gospel of Matthew:

Dennis MacDonald [Two Shipwrecked Gospels, pg. 15] argues that Papias’ postulation of a lost Aramaic original was a device to explain away differences between two Greek texts–Matthew and a Matthew-like source (Q?)–while Matthew Black [“Rhetorical,” pp. 38-39] and Maurice Casey [Jesus, pp. 80-86] are open to an Aramaic vorlage behind some of the double tradition against most Q specialists. It makes sense that Papias confused Matthew’s sources with the notion of an Aramaic original of canonical Matthew, even if he was mistaken.

It is plausible that such source material, used during the composition of Matthew, may have been authored by the disciple Matthew. It remains highly obscure, however, what the nature of this source was and whether we can identify any specific passages in the Matthew that derive from it. As such, even if the disciple Matthew did author such a source, it would still be highly ambiguous to what extent his personal “eyewitness” experiences made it into the final version of Matthew. But, if such a source was later conflated with the final version of Matthew, it could explain why the disciple Matthew was associated with this gospel, even if he did not write the final version of the text itself.

Another possibility (although I think that it is quite unlikely) is that there had been an Aramaic version of Matthew, and not just a collection of sayings or source material, that had preceded the Greek version of the gospel. If so, this version may been translated into Greek. But, as George Kennedy notes, “translation” in the ancient world could refer to a much more creative adaptation of a work than the literal “word for word” understanding of translation that we have today. As Kennedy (“Classical and Christian Source Criticism,” pg. 153) explains:

When a work was translated from one language into another, existing traditions in the second language often exercised influence on the form and style of the work, and considerable freedom of rerangement or restatement was possible even if not inevitable.

If this is the case, there could have been substantial differences between this hypothetical Aramaic version of Matthew and the Greek text as we have it today. (Kennedy also argues that this translation would have been heavily influenced by Mark, and so, many of the stories in Matthew would have likely not derived from this Aramaic version, but were rather adapted from Mark.) Since it is not easy to identify and sift which passage in our current version of Matthew go back to this hypothetical Aramaic text, I do not think that scholars can reconstruct this Aramaic version of Matthew with any certainty. Kennedy (pg. 149) also notes that the titles for both Matthew and John may not refer to the authors of the works themselves, but rather to “schools” or traditions that were associated with their names. As such, even if there was an Aramaic version of Matthew, it could have easily been authored by someone other than the disciple Matthew.

Given these possibilities, and the general uncertainty of the evidence itself, I do not think that we can treat the overall content of Matthew as derivative of the disciple Matthew’s eyewitness experiences. Likewise, as discussed by Richard Bauckham in footnote 14 above, there is considerable ambiguity over the disciple Matthew’s very identity, which adds yet more uncertainty to the origins of the text itself.

[24] It is possible that the “we” sections may derive from an earlier literary source that was used by the author of Acts when constructing the narrative. This possibility has been argued by Stanley Porter in “The ‘We’ Passages in Acts as a Source regarding Paul” (chapter 2 of The Paul of Acts). This source may have been authored by a companion of Paul, and possibly even Luke. Such a source would not entail, however, that the author of Luke-Acts was an actual eyewitness of Paul, or had witnessed the events in Acts. Rather, the author of Acts may have drawn upon (limited) source material that possibly derived from an eyewitness, which does not entail that the bulk of Acts is based on eyewitness experience. If Luke did author such a literary source, however, it could explain why his name was later conflated with the authorship of Luke-Acts, even if he was not the final author of the text.

[25] David Trobisch likewise points out in The First Edition of the New Testament that the names attached to each gospel can easily be shown to have derived from internal passages within the New Testament, which a later editor used to assign titular labels to each book. Trobisch (pg. 47) argues that the title for Matthew was based on the name change from “Levi” to “Matthew” in Mt. 9:9. As discussed in footnote 14 above, Levi and Matthew are probably not even the same person, and it is also unlikely that the disciple Matthew made this name change, rather than an unknown writer. Trobisch (pp. 49-51) also points out that Mark and Luke are even named together in 2 Timothy 4:11, and that based on cross-references with other passages in the NT, these figures were assigned to the second and third gospels. As for the Gospel of John, Trobisch (pg. 53) explains:

All the readers … have to do is consult the other three Gospels. The preceding synoptic Gospels inform the readers that Jesus occasionally chose to confide in only three of the twelve disciples; these were Peter and the two sons of Zebedee, John and James … If the readers suspect the beloved disciple to be one of these three preferred disciples, they should be able to conclude with confidence that the beloved disciple is identical with John, son of Zebedee. Peter is eliminated as the possible author of the Fourth Gospel since he is mentioned next to the beloved disciple in the final chapter and in the scene depicting the Last Supper … James can be excluded from further consideration because according to Acts 12:2 the Zebedee James died early … Jn 21, however, presupposes that the beloved disciple outlived all the other disciples.

As such, it is far more likely that the authorial attributions were based on speculation over internal passages within the New Testament, rather than earlier traditions that preserved knowledge of the Gospels’ authorship. Trobisch also argues that the titles are meant to call attention to individual books of first NT edition. Accordingly, they probably serve more as an organizing paradigm, rather than as biographical authorial traditions.

[26] There are also many other later Christian texts that were attributed to obscure figures, despite Blomberg’s assertion that unlikely candidates would not be chosen if an attribution was invented. As Robert Price (The Case Against The Case For Christ, pg. 19) elaborates, “In fact apocryphal (which only means ‘not on the official list’ for whatever reason) gospels are attributed to such luminaries as Bartholomew, Judas Iscariot, the prostitute Mary Magdalene, doubting Thomas, the heretical Basilides, the even more heretical Valentinus, Nicodemus, and the replacement Matthias. They didn’t always go for the star names.”

[27] A common apologetic slogan about the church fathers’ attributions is that they allegedly “universally agreed” upon Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, and thus were not speculating about the authors. However, this is only true of the later church fathers from the latter half of the 2nd century CE onward into the 3rd and 4th centuries–such as Irenaeus, Tertullian, Origen, and Eusebius–whereas the earliest references to the texts treat them anonymously (likewise discussed in footnote 19 above). Ignatius (c. 105-115 CE), Polycarp (c. 110-140 CE), the Epistle of Barnabas (80-120 CE), and the Didache (c. 50-120 CE), for example, allude to or quote the Gospels anonymously. As NT scholar Bart Ehrman explains, “in any of the writings of the Apostolic Fathers–ten proto-orthodox writers, most of them from the first half of the second century”–the Gospels are not identified by their traditonal names, but are treated anonymously. Later, Justin Martyr (c. 150-160 CE) refers to the Gospels collectively as the “Memoirs of the Apostles.” Later still, Irenaeus (c. 175-185 CE) finally refers to the four Gospel canon with the names of its traditional authors.

This trail reflects a process in which the Gospels were gradually associated with the apostles, until eventually being attributed to specific names, when there were canonical disputes over the status of Christian texts during the latter half of the 2nd century CE. Sometimes apologists will further claim that, if the attributions were invented, we should expect to see multiple names proposed for the Gospels. However, there is little reason to expect this. If there was only one canonizing movement (or one published canonical edition, such as what David Trobisch argues in The First Edition of the New Testament), then there would only be one set of names attributed to the anonymous works, whereas multiple attributions would only be expected if there were separate, conflicting canonizing movements (or separate canonical editions that had been published).

Sometimes it is also argued that, if there was a such a canonizing movement, it should have left some trace in later Christian writings. As David Trobisch (The First Edition of the New Testamentpp. 41-42) explains:

Hengel argues that even if it could be conceded for a moment that a widely successful effort actually had been made to declare a certain selection of writings as authoritative for all, it would be all the more surprising that not one record of this event has survived, not even in the form of legend.

This need not be the case, however, if the canon was first chosen only as an edition of published works, which is quite different from the church councils that exercised control over dogmas and creeds in later centuries. As Trobisch (pp. 42-43) argues:

[A]lthough it is accurate to state that the observance of dogmas and creeds was later enforced by certain hierarchical and centralized structures of the church, this did not hold true concerning early Christian literature. The Canonical Edition was not the only work of the second century distributed specifically to Christians. There were Polycarp’s edition of the Letters of Ignatius; Marcion’s Bible; the Greek editions of Jewish Scriptures published under the names Theodotion, Aquila, and Symmachus; the Didache; the Letter of Barnabas; the Shepherd of Hermas; the Acts of Paul; and the Gospel of Thomas, to name only a few. They did not need an authoritative endorsement by the church to be produced, sold, bought, or read all over the Christian world. Hengel’s presupposition is that an edition of alleged apostolic writings could be distributed successfully among Christians only if backed by a central church authority. But this is clearly disproved by the evidence of the rich Christian literature of the time. In my view, the fact there is no record of a global church decision indicates that the editio princeps of the Canonical Edition was probably just one more ambitious Christian publication of the second century, one that faced strong competition.

As such, since the titles of the Gospels would have gone back to a published edition, rather than to any hierarchical decision in the church, there would not need to be any evidence of such a global canonizing decision, for this published edition to have later exerted influence over the titles and traditional names, which begin to appear on manuscript copies in the 3rd century CE. This edition would also explain why the titles are uniform in their names.

But furthermore, it is also not true that there were no other names proposed. The early 3rd century Roman presbyter Gaius attributed both the Gospel of John and Revelation to the authorship of the Gnostic Cerinthus (Epiphanius, Pan. 51.3.1-2). Likewise, Marcion had edited an abridged version of the Gospel of Luke, which he did not attribute to any named author. As Tertullian (Adv. Marcion 4.2.3) reports:

Marcion, in contrast, attributes no author to the gospel, that is, his own gospel, as if for the same man to whom it was not a crime to alter the very body of the text, it were not also permitted to affix a title. On this point I might have taken a stand, contending that a work ought not to be recognized, which does not erect its head, which displays no courage, and which offers no proof of credibility from the fullness of its title and the requisite authority of its author.

So, indeed, there are other attributions that survive in the record, and if the writings of “heretical” authors had not been stamped out by the orthodox church in Late Antiquity, there could have possibly been more. The sheer fact that the church fathers wrote polemics against figures like Marcion and Gaius of Rome testifies to the fact there were, indeed, disputes about the authorial attributions. In contrast, no ancient source claims that the Histories was written by a different author than Tacitus.

Finally, there are many other interpretations of the Gospels found in early church tradition that modern scholars dispute. For example, during the formation of the New Testament canon, the early church agreed upon Matthean priority, thus placing the Gospel of Matthew first in the New Testament. However, the majority of modern scholars (and even most apologists) through source analysis and redaction criticism agree upon Markan priority, and that the Gospel of Matthew was written after Mark and used Mark. This is almost as radical a deviation from church tradition as doubting its authorial attributions, showing that scholars are not exercising any excessive skepticism when doubting the traditional authors the Gospels, as there are many other claims found in church tradition that modern scholars dispute. For a discussion of why Markan priority is the majority scholarly view, see Michael Kok’s “Markan Priority or Posterity?.”

[28] Justin Martyr’s Dialogue with Trypho (106.3) is sometimes cited as evidence that Justin believed the Gospel of Mark had been written based on the recollections of Peter. The passage refers to Peter’s name being changed from Simon to “Peter,” as well as James and John, the sons of Zebedee, being given the name “Boanerges,” which means “sons of thunder.” This could be a reference to Mk. 3:16-17, which includes mention of both name changes. Justin does not explicitly refer to the Gospel of Mark (which he never calls by that name) in this passage, however, and instead claims that this information was found εν τοις απομνημονευμασιν αυτου (“in the memoirs of him”), adding considerable ambiguity to what text Justin is citing here.

To begin with, Justin usually refers to the Gospels under the collective title εν τοις απομνημονευμασι των αποστολων αυτου (“in the memoirs of the apostles of him”). What I have bolded are two words that are missing from the title in 106.3. When this title is normally used, Justin refers to the Gospels collectively as “memoirs of the apostles,” which are “of Jesus,” i.e., “about Jesus.” This is not a title that singles out the specific author of a text. In 106.3, however, Justin only has εν τοις απομνημονευμασιν αυτου (“in the memoirs of him”), which could indicate a particular author or source for the text, referred to as “of him,” i.e., “his memoirs.” This could be read as “Peter’s memoirs,” which may suggest that Justin is familiar with the Petrine tradition about the authorship of MarkA difficulty with this reading, however, is that elsewhere Justin does not single out particular authors or sources in this way.

In fact, in 106.1 just above this line, Justin refers to the Gospels collectively as εν τοις απομνημονευμασι των αποστολων (“in the memoirs of the apostles”), and in 106.4 just below this line, Justin also has εν τοις απομνημονευμασι των αποστολων αυτου (“in the memoirs of the apostles of him”). This could suggest that there is a scribal error in the text at 106.3. All that it would take to change the Greek in this passage is to remove “of the apostles” (των αποστολων), and what is left is “the memoirs of him.” Such a change could happen very easily, if a later copyist (who was perhaps familiar with the Petrine tradition about Mark) saw what he considered to be a reference Mk. 3:16-17, and simply removed the των αποστολων, so that the passage became “the memoirs of him,” i.e. “Peter’s memoirs.” This would not entail, however, that Justin had originally referred to the text in that way, if his original Greek simply had εν τοις απομνημονευμασι των αποστολων αυτου (“in the memoirs of the apostles of him”). The weak nature of the textual evidence in this passage, therefore, makes it difficult to adduce from it that Justin is referring to a specific gospel’s attribution. 

Nevertheless, textual critics of Dialogue with Trypho (106.3), such as Egard Goodspeed (Die ältesten Apologeten, pg. 222), list the Greek as εν τοις απομνημονευμασιν αυτου (“in the memoirs of him”), which should be taken into consideration, even if a scribal error is possible in this passage. If Justin originally wrote that Peter’s name change, as well as the sons of Zebedee being called “Boanerges,” was found in “his memoirs,” there are three possibilities that scholars have proposed for the meaning of this passage:

  1. The passage means “the memoirs of Jesus.” This view has been advocated by NT scholar Paul Foster. Under this interpretation, the αυτου (“of him”) is serving as an objective, rather than subjective, genitive, meaning that the memoirs are “about Jesus,” rather than being written or possessed by Jesus. If this interpretation is correct, then Justin is probably referring to the Gospel materials collectively as sources about Jesus, and is not singling out a specific gospel, let alone claiming that the Gospel of Mark was based on the recollections of Peter. To strengthen this view, it should be noted that Justin elsewhere uses the objective genitive when he refers to the Gospels as “memoirs of the apostles of Jesus,” i.e., “about Jesus.” Even though 106.3 is lacking “of the apostles” (των αποστολων), as noted above, the passage may still retain this use of the objective genitive, so that it refers to “the memoirs of Jesus,” and not to the specific author or source for the text.
  2. A challenge to the above interpretation is the fact that “Peter” is the nearest antecedent to the αυτου (“of him”) in the passage, rather than Jesus, meaning that the αυτου could be referring to Peter as a subjective genitive. In that case, the passage means “the memoirs of Peter.” There is still considerable ambiguity at this point, however, since Justin could be referring to the apocryphal Gospel of Peter rather than the Gospel of Mark. This view has been advocated by Bart Ehrman. If that is the case, Justin is not referring to the Gospel of Mark at all, nor claiming that the text was based on the recollections of Peter; however, a major challenge to this view is the fact that our surviving text of the Gospel of Peter is no longer fully extant, and the opening chapters are lost. The reference to Peter’s name change, as well as the sons of Zebedee being called “Boanerges,” is not included in our surviving Gospel of Peter, but it may have been in an earlier lost portion of the text. Since the opening chapters of the text are lost, however, it is impossible to determine whether this story about the name changes was ever included within the Gospel of Peter.
  3. The passage means “the memoirs of Peter” and is quoting Mk. 3:16-17, meaning that Justin is referring to the Gospel of Mark by this description. This view has been advocated by NT scholar Graham Stanton. Under this third option, Justin may have believed that the Gospel of Mark was based on the recollections of Peter. Even if this interpretation is correct, however, Justin probably drew this connection from the writings of Papias (Hist. eccl. 3.39.15), who claimed that John Mark had written a text based on the teachings of Peter. (Justin may have also been dependent on a common source with Papias.) In any event, Papias does not quote from our Gospel of Mark, nor does he even appear to have seen the text that he claims was authored by John Mark, since Papias states (Hist. eccl. 3.39.15) that he had only learned of the text from John the Presbyter. Because of this, the text that Papias is describing cannot be identified with any certainty as the Gospel of Mark. If Justin Martyr is referring to the Gospel of Mark as “the memoirs of Peter,” therefore, he may may have been the first to suggest that the Gospel of Mark was the unknown text that Papias was referring to. This would have little significance for the analysis above, however, since it has already been argued that Irenaeus (c. 185 CE) probably drew a connection between the Gospel of Mark and the unknown text that Papias claims was authored by John Mark. If Justin (c. 150-160 CE) made this connection before Irenaeus, then that would only mean that the connection was made a couple decades earlier; it would not necessarily mean that Justin corroborates Papias, especially since Papias does not seem to have personally seen the text that John the Presbyter described to him in Hist. eccl. 3.39.15. Likewise, even if Papias is referring to our text of Mark, and Justin is likewise, as Michael Kok notes above, their common source would have still been John the Presbyter (and those dependent upon his testimony), whose identity and reliability remains completely unknown.

Another possibility worth noting is that Justin Martyr may have believed that the Gospel of Mark was based on the recollections of Peter, but did not think that it was written by John Mark. If Justin is referring to “his (Peter’s) memoirs” in Dialogue with Trypho (106.3), he still does not say that this text was authored by John Mark. This may suggest a development in which the Gospel of Mark was first attributed to Peter, but was later attributed to one of Peter’s attendants. A possible motive for changing the attribution was to change the canonical status of the text. As Michael Kok discusses in The Gospel on the Margins (which I summarize in a book review here), the gospel attributed to John Mark was the least popular among the church fathers of the 2nd-3rd centuries in terms of quotations and theology. To downgrade the importance of the text to doctrine, therefore, the church fathers may have attributed the text to a minor figure only roughly connected with Peter. In this case, the attribution to John Mark would be spurious. It is also worth noting, under this scenario, that spuriously attributing a gospel first to Peter would not be in the least improbable, due to the fact that Peter was a very important figure in the early church. If the Gospel of Mark was first attributed to Peter, and later to John Mark, therefore, it is probably the case that the attribution to Peter was spurious as well.

Regardless, Justin does not refer to the Gospel of Mark by name in Dial. 106.3, nor does he refer to any of the Gospels (both canonical and apocryphal) by their traditional names. Instead, Justin uses the formula απομνημονευματα των αποστολων (“memoirs of the apostles”) to refer to the Gospels, which provides evidence that their traditional titles and named appellations had not been attached to the texts by 150-160 CE. Otherwise, Justin would have called them by their traditional names, as Irenaeus (185 CE) and the Muratorian Canon (c. 170-200 CE) did a couple decades later. But, as is noted in footnote 5 above, the Gospels’ titles were probably not added until c. 150-185 CE, possibly from an edition that was published at Rome around that time.

Even if Justin is describing to the Gospel of Mark when he refers to “the memoirs of Peter,” therefore, that still provides no evidence that the Gospel of Mark had been given its traditional title by Justin’s time. Likewise, Michael Kok (The Gospel on the Margins, pg. 115) argues, “There is a good probability that Justin was familiar with the Papian tradition on Mark,” which means that Justin is not independently reporting any information beyond the problematic tradition of Papias, discussed under the “External Evidence” section above. But regardless, the meaning of απομνημονευμασιν αυτου (“the memoirs of him”) in Dial. 106.3 is ambiguous to begin with, and could very well not be referring to the Gospel of Mark, or even Peter’s memoirs, at all.

[29] The internal evidence for Lazarus as the “beloved disciple” is so strong that even conservative NT scholar Ben Witherington supports this interpretation of the figure’s identity. In “Was Lazarus the Beloved Disciple?,” Witherington explains:

It has been common in Johannine commentaries to suggest that the Beloved Disciple as a figure in the narrative does not show up under that title before John 13. While this case has been argued thoroughly, it overlooks something very important. This Gospel was written in an oral culture for use with non-Christians as a sort of teaching tool to lead them to faith. It was not intended to be handed out as a tract to the non-believer but nevertheless its stories were meant to be used orally for evangelism. In an oral document of this sort, the ordering of things is especially important. Figures once introduced into the narrative by name and title or name and identifying phrase may thereafter be only identified by one or the other since economy of words is at a premium when one is writing a document of this size on a piece of papyrus (Jn. 20.30-31). This brings us to John 11.3 and the phrase hon phileis [‘the one whom you love’]. It is perfectly clear from a comparison of 11.1 and 3 that the sick person in question first called Lazarus of Bethany and then called ‘the one whom you love’ is the same person as in the context the mention of sickness in each verse makes this identification certain. This is the first time in this entire Gospel that any particular person is said to have been loved by Jesus. Indeed one could argue that this is the only named person in the whole Gospel about whom this is specifically said directly. This brings us to Jn. 13.23.

At John 13.23 we have the by now very familiar reference to a disciple whom Jesus loved (hon agapa this time) as reclining on the bosom of Jesus, by which is meant he is reclining on the same couch as Jesus. The disciple is not named here, and notice that nowhere in John 13 is it said that this meal transpired in Jerusalem. It could just as well have transpired in the nearby town of Bethany and this need not even be an account of the Passover meal. Jn. 13.1 in fact says it was a meal that transpired before the Passover meal. This brings us to a crucial juncture in this discussion. In Jn. 11 there was a reference to a beloved disciple named Lazarus. In Jn. 12 there was a mention of a meal at the house of Lazarus. If someone was hearing these tales in this order without access to the Synoptic Gospels it would be natural to conclude that the person reclining with Jesus in Jn. 13 was Lazarus. There is another good reason to do so as well. It was the custom in this sort of dining that the host would recline with or next to the chief guest. The story as we have it told in Jn. 13 likely implies that the Beloved Disciple is the host then. But this in turn means he must have a house in the vicinity of Jerusalem. This in turn probably eliminates all the Galilean disciples.

Notably, Witherington interprets Lazarus as a historical person who authored John (which he argues was later edited by John of Patmos), whereas this article favors the view that the role of Lazarus in John is probably based on a redaction of an allegorical Lazarus in Luke 16:20-31. Given this possibility, it is untenable that the Lazarus described in John was actually a historical person, rather than just an allegorical character or literary invention.

Witherington also notes a number of other problems with the tradition that John the son of Zebedee authored the fourth gospel:

One of the things which is probably fatal to the theory that John son of Zebedee is the Beloved Disciple and also the author of this entire document is that none, and I do mean none, of the special Zebedee stories are included in the Fourth Gospel (e.g., the calling of the Zebedees by Jesus, their presence with Jesus in the house where Jesus raised Jairus’ daughter, the story of the Transfiguration, and also of the special request for special seats in Jesus’ kingdom when it comes, and we could go on). In view of the fact that this Gospel places some stress on the role of eyewitness testimony (see especially Jn. 19-21) it is passing strange that these stories would be omitted if this Gospel was by John of Zebedee, or even if he was its primary source. It is equally strange that the Zebedees are so briefly mentioned in this Gospel as such (see Jn. 21.2) and John is never equated with the Beloved Disciple even in the appendix in John 21 (cf. vs. 2 and 7– the Beloved Disciple could certainly be one of the two unnamed disciples mentioned in vs. 2).

[30] Other proposed candidates for the author of the fourth gospel include John the Presbyter, John Mark, and Thomas. Regardless, even Christian scholar Raymond Brown (An Introduction to the New Testament, pp. 368-369) explains, “As with the other Gospels it is doubted by most scholars that this Gospel was written by an eyewitness of the public ministry of Jesus.” What is further noteworthy is that even many conservative NT scholars doubt the traditional authorship of John. Ben Witherington identifies Lazarus as the intended author of the text (discussed in footnote 29 above), and Martin Hengel and Richard Bauckham have proposed John the Presbyter, in place of John the son of Zebedee.

It should also be noted that Mark Goodacre (“NT Pod 38: Who is the Beloved Disciple in John’s Gospel?”), who does think that the author of the fourth gospel is trying to suggest that the beloved disciple is John the son of Zebedee, still does not think that this John authored the gospel. Goodacre notes how the entire use of the beloved disciple in the Gospel of John is highly ambivalent, and how this likely reflects the fact that even the narrator of the text is not making an overt authorial attribution. Another possible explanation of why the beloved disciple’s identity is kept anonymous is because the text is not referring to a historical figure at all, but instead is using the beloved disciple as a fictive narrative device that makes him the ideal witness for Christian readers to emulate.

[31] It is not clear that the “beloved disciple” described at the end of John is even intended to be understood as the author of the work. As scholar Robert Kysar (The Anchor Bible Dictionary, v. 3, pp. 919-920) explains, “The supposition that the author was one and the same with the beloved disciple is often advanced as a means of insuring that the evangelist did witness Jesus’ ministry. Two other passages are advanced as evidence of the same–19:35 and 21:24. But both falter under close scrutiny. 19:35 does not claim that the author was the one who witnessed the scene but only that the scene is related on the sound basis of eyewitness. 21:24 is part of the appendix of the gospel and should not be assumed to have come from the same hand as that responsible for the body of the gospel. Neither of these passages, therefore, persuades many Johannine scholars that the author claims eyewitness status.”

[32] Likewise, while church tradition maintains that John the son of Zebedee lived to a very old age, there is also a body of ancient evidence indicating that he died much earlier, being executed alongside his brother James, whose martyrdom is described in Acts 12:2. This body of evidence indicating that John did not live to old age is laid out by scholar F.P. Badham in “The Martyrdom of John the Apostle.” Likewise, even conservative NT scholar Ben Witherington (“Was Lazarus the Beloved Disciple?”) explains:

Papias Fragment 10.17 has now been subjected to detailed analysis by M. Oberweis (NovT 38 1996), and Oberweis, rightly in my judgment draws the conclusion that Papias claimed that John son of Zebedee died early as a martyr like his brother (Acts 12.2). This counts against both the theory that John of Patmos was John of Zebedee and the theory that the latter wrote the Fourth Gospel.

While it is historically uncertain whether John died alongside James, this body of evidence casts doubt on the tradition that John lived to an old age and thus raises further problems for the notion that John authored the fourth and latest gospel. As I explain in my essay “March to Martyrdom,” our evidence for any of these church figures is very, very limited. In light of such problematic evidence, in addition to contradictions among our sources, it is not tenable that John the son of Zebedee ever lived to an old enough age to author the gospel later attributed to him. This is just another problem for the authorial tradition of the fourth gospel, in addition to the numerous other ones listed above.

[33] Sometimes apologists cite Irenaeus’ letter to Florinus (Eusib. Hist. eccl. 5.20) as evidence that he knew, on the basis of good authority, that John the disciple authored the fourth gospel. However, this argument is based largely on speculation. In the letter, Irenaeus states that he knew Polycarp as a child. He also states that Polycarp was a companion of John the disciple. The logic goes that, since Polycarp knew John, he must have told Irenaeus (when he was a kid) that John authored the gospel attributed to his name. However, as scholar R. Alan Culpepper (John, the Son of Zebedee: The Life of a Legend, pg. 126) explains, “In this excerpt from the letter, Irenaeus reminds Florinus of their common experience, sitting at the feet of Polycarp. His point is to remind Florinus that he did not learn his Gnostic views from Polycarp … On the other hand, Irenaeus does not say that Polycarp taught that the apostle John was the author of the Fourth Gospel, the Epistles, or Revelation.”

That being said, it has been argued by David Trobisch (“Who Published the New Testament?,” pg. 33) that Polycarp may have been responsible for the publication of the first edition of the New Testament. Trobisch acknowledges, however, that this argument is based on probability and not certainty. Trobisch’s broader thesis is that the church in Asia Minor, during the mid-2nd century CE, had a strong influence over the selection of the canonical books. Since Polycarp was an authoritative figure in this region and during the same time period, Trobisch suggests that he may have been the one who selected the names of the Gospel titles, along with the other books of the New Testament. There is a catch, however: Trobisch also argues that the names of the Gospels were selected on the basis of internal passages within the New Testament, as discussed in footnote 25 above. As such, Polycarp would have more likely chosen the names as part of an editorial process, linking the books together, rather than on the basis of personal knowledge that he had of the disciples.

There are also major problems for assuming that Polycarp personally knew John the son of Zebedee. First, as discussed in footnote 32 above, there is a body of ancient evidence suggesting the John died alongside his brother James in 44 CE. Polycarp likewise did not write anything that we can date with certainty prior to c. 110-140 CE. This creates a rather problematic chronology, if the traditions implying an early death of the disciple John are accurate. But it should likewise be noted that, even if John had not been martyred with James, it is still doubtful that he lived and traveled long enough to know Polycarp, who was active in Asia Minor around the mid-2nd century. The sources claiming that John the son of Zebedee traveled to Ephesus (e.g., the Acts of John), and lived to a very old age, are primarily based on later traditions intended to grant special importance and authority to the church at Ephesus. As I explain in my essay, “Marck to Martyrdom,” our sources for what happened to any of the apostles, after the Book of Acts, are highly problematic, and full of legendary (and often contradictory) information. This situation likewise applies to John the son of Zebedee. Polycarp also does not state in his own writing that he knew or traveled with John or any of the apostles. Irenaeus mentions this detail, but it is likely to aggrandize Polycarp.

Why then was Polycarp associated with John? A far more likely explanation is that he actually knew John the Presbyter (which is argued in footnote 22 above). As discussed by NT scholar James McGrath in “Which John? The Elder, the Seer, and the Apostle,” there were several figures named “John” in the early church, whose identities became conflated in the 2nd century and onward, including during the time of Irenaeus. What is very likely the case, therefore, is that Polycarp knew a leading authority named “John,” who was later conflated with the disciple John the son of Zebedee. This conflation likewise happened with Papias, as Michael Kok discusses under the “External Evidence” section above. Since Papias only knew John the Presbyter, or “elder John,” it is likewise probable that Polycarp only knew this figure, as well. And, if that’s the case, it would also explain where Polycarp got the names “Matthew” and “Mark” for the first and second gospels, since these authorial traditions, as Kok explains, derive from John the Presbyter (who likewise, at least in the case of Mark, appears to have derived the name from internal references within other books of the NT). In such a case, Polycarp would have only repeated the dubious Papian tradition for the authorship of Matthew and Mark, discussed above, when he assembled the NT canon.

As noted, Trobisch’s argument that Polycarp assembled the canon is purely probabilistic. It should also be noted that Polycarp does not refer to the Gospels by their traditional names in his own writing (see here), which is part of the evidence (in addition to other anonymous quotations among the early church fathers) that the Gospels had not yet been given their traditional titles by the mid-second century CE (discussed further in footnote 19 above). Even if Polycarp was responsible for adding the titles after this date, therefore, he still provides evidence that the titular affixation did not take place until the late-2nd century.

[34] On this point, it is worth noting that Christian apologist Mike Licona (in his review of Bart Ehrman’s Forged) has compared the authorial traditions for the Gospels with Plutarch’s biographies. Licona argues:

Something else must be considered. There were many biographies written in antiquity. Plutarch was one of the most prolific biographers of that time, writing more than 60 biographies of which we still have. It is of importance to observe that Plutarch’s name is absent from all of his extant biographies, which are therefore anonymous like the four Gospels in the New Testament. Yet, modern historians are quite certain Plutarch wrote them. Most classical authors did not include their name. But the manuscript traditions pertaining to the authorship of Plutarch’s biographies are clear. Moreover, the Lamprias catalogue from the fourth century attributes them to Plutarch. Does this provide us with unimpeachable evidence that Plutarch wrote the biographies attributed to him? No. Is it reasonable to believe that Plutarch wrote them? You bet. The same may be said concerning the four Gospels in the New Testament. The traditions concerning the traditional authorship of the Gospels begin within 30 years of the final of the four to be written and continues without debate for centuries. Thus, Ehrman’s argument from the anonymity of the autographs of the four Gospels carries little if any weight.

First, it should be noted that there were debates over the authorship of the Gospels, since (as discussed in footnote 27 above) Marcion did not corroborate the authorship of Luke and Gaius of Rome instead argued that Cerinthus authored the Gospel of John. But, more importantly, Licona’s argument is riddled with methedological problems.

To begin with, there were other works of Plutarch that were attributed to him by external sources much earlier than his biographies. As Marianne Pade (“The Reception of Plutarch from Antiquity to the Italian Renaissance,” pg. 532) explains, Aulus Gellius (c. 130-180 CE) identified Plutarch (c. 45-120 CE) as the author of his Moralia in his Attic Nights (17.11.1–6), only about half a century after he was composing (not multiple centuries later). Since Plutarch wrote in a distinct Greek style, we can compare the Moralia with other works that are attributed to him, such as his biographies. Scholars use similar methods when evaluating NT authorship, such as in assessing the authorship of Paul’s epistles. A major reason why scholars think that the 7 undisputed letters are genuinely Pauline is because they are written in a very similar Greek style, suggesting a common author. Scholars could thus use similar methods to compare Plutarch’s Moralia with his biographies, and so, the external evidence for the authorship of Plutarch’s biographies would not hinge solely on a catalogue dating from the 4th century CE, since this source would need to be assessed alongside the external evidence for Plutarch’s other works.

But even more importantly, Licona is making a very shallow quantitative argument, when the issue of authorship is far more qualitative. Whether the first external source to mention a text’s authorship dates to decades or centuries after the text’s composition is not the only consideration that is factored in to why scholars consider authorial attributions to be reliable or unreliable. Sometimes the earliest external quotations of a text can count against its traditional authorship, if sources quote the text anonymously or refer to it by a different name. For example, the Didache quotes Matthew, but refers to it as “His (Jesus’) Gospel,” and not the Gospel of Matthew. This preserves a trace of an original, anonymous title, suggesting that the attribution to Matthew was added later. Even if the first external source to mention the authorship of Plutarch’s biographies dates to centuries later, therefore, if there are no earlier sources calling his works by a different name, then the external evidence for this later attribution would still be stronger than for an earlier attribution that was preceded by quotations calling the text by a different name. Since the Gospels are all quoted anonymously or referred to by different titles until the latter half of the 2nd century CE, therefore, before they receive their named attributions from sources like Irenaeus and the Muratorian Canon, this strongly suggests that their traditional names were added later. In contrast, if a text is simply not mentioned by external sources for a couple centuries, and then the author is mentioned by the first external source to discuss the work, this attribution would still be stronger (even if dating later), since there would be no trace of earlier sources calling the text by a different name.

But there are also several more considerations that would need to be factored in to Licona’s comparison. For example, were Plutarch’s biographies attributed within a context in which multiple forgeries and false attributions were being made? If not, there would be greater reason to take his attribution at face value. In contrast, if you were to take all of the works that were attributed to Jesus’ disciples and their followers from the 1st-4th centuries CE (including works like the Gospel of Peter, the Gospel of Thomas, etc.), even apologists would agree that the vast majority were falsely attributed. And so, the canonical Gospels were attributed under circumstances that would have made false attributions far more likely. This, at the very least, means that we need to treat the Gospels with greater scrutiny than works that were attributed under circumstances in which forgery and false attribution were less present.

Another consideration is the wording of the title. Plutarch’s works are not attributed “according to” (κατα) Plutarch, and so, his identification of authorship is far more common. In contrast, as is discussed in footnote 5 above, the wording of the Gospels’ titles strongly suggests that they were a secondary addition. The formula “Gospel of Jesus” with names added “according to” individual authors suggests that, when the first gospel was written, it was simply called “the Gospel of Jesus.” When multiple gospels were in circulation, however, the formula “κατα (according to) + the author” was needed to specify individual works of a multiple gospel canon. This suggests that the named titles were a secondary addition to the Gospels. Since Plutarch’s titles do not suggest such a development, there would be less reason to suspect that his name was not attached to his works when they were first published.

Likewise, as discussed in footnotes 21, 23, and 24 above, the “according to” (κατα) formula may not even be referring to the final author of the text, but rather to a source or tradition that was connected with the affixed name. This is especially true in the case of Matthew, in which the author of the text makes no authorial interjections in the first person, but which has the name “Levi” changed to “Matthew” in Mt. 9:9. What Richard Bauckham suggests in footnote 14 above is that the disciple Matthew may have had some special connection with the text, which caused a later author to make the name change. This also is what probably led to the text being titled “according to Matthew,” as discussed in footnote 25 above. Perhaps Matthew had authored an earlier source material used during the composition of the text, or perhaps the connection is even pseudonymous. Regardless, the relationship that is being designated by the “according to” (κατα) formula is hardly a clear claim to the final author of the text. This is not at all the case for the manuscripts and authorial traditions pertaining to Plutarch. Rather, Plutarch is clearly identified as the final author of his biographies, and so, his authorial tradition is a far more standard case of authorship than is the case for a text like Matthew.

Then there is the issue of literacy. Since Plutarch belonged to social elite demographics, it is far more likely that he would have had the literary training needed to author his biographies. John the son of Zebedee, in contrast, was only a Galilean fisherman, and so it is far less likely that he would have been capable of authoring a text like the Gospel of John. This is one reason why the authorship of most elite works from antiquity is more secure than the authorial attributions of (both canonical and apocryphal) Christian works that were attributed to figures like John, Peter, etc., who (despite being appealing authorial candidates for granting authority to texts) would probably have lacked the education needed to author them. 

Likewise, Plutarch’s biographies are not “anonymous” in the same sense as the Gospels. Anonymity can mean that an author does not provide his name within the body of the text, but it can also refer to whether a text is written in the author’s own voice. As discussed above, authors like Tacitus make authorial interjections in the first person (even if they do not provide their name within the text), indicating that they are relating their own personal perspective. The Gospels, in contrast, mostly lack these authorial interjections, and instead are written in a collective, third person manner of narration. Plutarch uses the first person when discussing battle monuments that were located near the town of Chaeronea, which he states could be seen during his own time, in his Life of Alexander (9.3). This passage needs to be considered alongside the fact that Plutarch was said to be a native of Chaeronea. And so, this biography is not fully anonymous, since Plutarch appears to allude to his own eyewitness experience in discussing details about his home town, which we can use to corroborate external evidence claiming that he was an author from that town.

The means of publication also need to be considered, as discussed in footnote 7 above. Many elite works were professionally published by book dealers and kept in public libraries, under the author’s name. The author would also frequently recite his own works, or have someone recite them in his name. Because of this, the author of the text would be associated with it from the beginning of the text’s transmission. In contrast, there were also less sophisticated literary works in antiquity, which circulated anonymously. Since the Gospels are more typical of this latter category, they were probably first published in a very different context than Plutarch’s biographies.

Considerations like these mean that scholars cannot merely crunch numbers when assessing an authorial attribution. The nature of authorship is complex and qualitative. Even if the Gospels were attributed earlier than our first (surviving) external source that discusses the authorship of Plutarch’s biographies, therefore, the circumstances behind the evidence are still vastly different. And so, Licona’s response to Ehrman carries little if any weight as a comparison.

I have chosen to compare the authorship of the Gospels specifically to Tacitus, partly because of an article on the Christian apologetics website Tektonics (“Dates and Authorship of the Gospels”) that makes a similar argument comparing the authorship of Tacitus, which I strongly disagree with, and also because Pliny’s letters provide an interesting parallel with Paul’s letters and Luke-Acts, where we can use outside epistolary evidence to evaluate an authorial attribution. It should be noted, however, that Pliny’s letters provide very early (i.e., contemporary) testimony for Tacitus authoring his Histories, whereas for many Classical texts, such external evidence often does not appear so early. For this reason, I have used my same criteria in this article to also evaluate the authorship of Plutarch’s biographies in this footnote, which do not have external evidence of authorship that appears as early as Tacitus. Nevertheless, through the arguments listed above, I also think that we have a much stronger case that Plutarch authored his biographies than the problematic authorial attributions for the Gospels, and so, even if the external evidence for Plutarch’s authorship appears later, it can still be more reliable. This observation about Plutarch applies equally to the authorship of most elite Classical literature from Greco-Roman antiquity.

[35] A minority of scholars have defended the 2nd century attributions and “eyewitness” status of the canonical Gospels, perhaps most notably Richard Bauckham in Jesus and the Eyewitnesses. (Although, even Bauckham does not think that the disciple Matthew or John the son of Zebedee authored the final versions of the gospels attributed to them.) Bauckham’s study deals less with defending the traditional authorship of the Gospels, as much as presenting arguments that eyewitness lie behind the traditions and sources in the Gospels. For example, in chapter 7, Bauckham argues that Peter plays a greater role in Mark than the other Gospels, and that the text thus reflects a Petrine perspective. The evidence is too vague, however, to suggest a direct connection with the disciple Peter, and it is more likely that Peter is simply a prominent character in the text, rather than a direct source whom the author consulted. As NT scholar Michael Kok (The Gospel on the Margins, pg. 80) argues:

It is not wrong to stress Peter’s significance on the literary level, but neither the inclusio nor the plural-to-singular-narrative device proves that he was one of Mark’s informants.

Bauckham’s arguments have received considerable criticism by subsequent scholars, including critical reviews from NT scholars David Catchpole, Stephen J. Patterson, and Theodore J. Weeden Sr. in Journal for the Study of the Historical Jesus. A good summary of a number of the problems that scholars have raised with Bauckham’s arguments can be found here.

Finally, it should be noted that even if the Gospels had been written by eyewitnesses, or companions of eyewitnesses, that still does not entail that many of the miracles reported about Jesus are either reliable or literal descriptions of real events. There are several other “eyewitness” accounts throughout history about equally extraordinary miracles that few apologists would defend. For example, Bart Ehrman has recently discussed the eyewitness testimony that exists for the Jewish miracle worker Baal Shem Tov (c. 1700-1760 CE), also called “Besht,” who is considered to be the founder of Hasidic Judaism. As Ehrman (“Another Jewish Miracle Worker”) explains:

Our principal source of information about the Besht comes in a series of anecdotes about his life written 54 years after his death, entitled In Praise of the Baal Shem Tov (in the Hebrew: Shivhe ha-Besht). The book was published in 1814 in Poland. Its author was Rabbi Dov Ber, who, as it turns out, was the son-in-law of a man who had been the personal scribe and secretary for the Besht, a rabbi called Alexander the Shohet. The book contains 251 short tales about the Besht. Fifteen of these are said to have come directly from Alexander; the rest come from other sources, including the rabbi of the author’s own community who had heard them from his own teacher.

Throughout the tales the Besh heals the sick, exorcises dybbuks (restless souls of dead people), and helps barren women conceive. He can ascend to heaven and miraculously shorten a journey. He is often shown to be superior to others he encounters: other rabbinic scholars, medical doctors, and sorcerers. While those outside the Hasidic tradition might consider these stories simply to be pious fictions, legendary accounts based on hearsay, started by gullible devotees, the author Dov Ber himself claims that they are rooted in reliable sources and relate historical realities. As he himself reflects, “I was careful to write down all the awesome things that I heard from truthful people. In each case I wrote down from whom I heard it. Thank God, who endowed me with memory, I neither added nor omitted anything. Every word is true and I did not change a word”…

…There are many, many tales such as these throughout the account. And what is my point? Do I think the Besht actually had supernatural powers and was able to do these things, to be transformed into a divine, glowing presence, to cast out and imprison demons, to ignite trees with his finger, to raise the dead, and all the rest? No, personally, I don’t believe it. But are the reports based ultimately on eyewitness reports? Well, writing some 55 years after the events the author claims they were indeed based on eyewitness testimony. Does that make them reliable?

Likewise, NT scholar Richard Miller in Resurrection and Reception in Early Christianity has recently argued that the account of Jesus’ resurrection in the Gospels are not literal descriptions of real events, but “translation fables” that provide narrative symbolism. The thesis of the books is:

Richard Miller contends that the earliest Christians would not have considered the New Testament accounts of Jesus’ resurrection to be literal or historical, but instead would have recognized this narrative as an instance of the trope of divine translation, common within the Hellenistic and Roman mythic traditions.

So, even if the Gospels were written by eyewitnesses, or companions of eyewitnesses, that still hardly entails that they are literally describing historical miracles.

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82 Responses to Why Scholars Doubt the Traditional Authors of the Gospels

  1. Pingback: Authorship of the Gospels | διά πέντε / dia pente

  2. jayman777 says:

    Admittedly I’m not touching on everything, but here are some quick thoughts.

    What evidence is there that the phrase “the Gospel according to X” was interpreted as not being an attribution of authorship in the case of the Gospels? What phrase should have been used, in your opinion, if authorship was being attributed?

    The fact that the Gospels did not have an original, full title is not a good reason for concluding that the traditional authorship attributions are incorrect. It is my understanding that the name attached to each Gospel is always the same. This unanimity is what we would expect if the traditional authors wrote the Gospels and not what we would expect if the early Christians were engaging in wild speculation.

    Acts 4:13 merely indicates that John lacked a formal rabbinic education. We simply don’t know what any given disciple could or could not have written. We can speculate as to what an average fisherman or tax collector could write but that doesn’t help us much in dealing with a specific fisherman or tax collector. And, of course, any disciple could have been assisted in his writing by someone more literate than he was.

    I am undecided regarding solutions to the Synoptic Problem. I think it is more speculative than many scholars admit. To take one of your examples, even if we assume Matthew used Mark as a source we don’t know that he redacted Mark to place the more important Moses before Elijah. It does not seem strange to me that an eye-witness would borrow from the writings of another eye-witness whom he presumably respects. Nor does it seem strange that he might modify things for his purposes (and we may not fully know all his purposes).

    Even if we assume that Matthew would have been ostracized from the Jewish community, that does not enable us to conclude that he was not familiar with Jewish teachings. Being a Jew in good standing with the Jewish community does not prevent one from being knowledgeable about Judaism.

    You overplay the discrepancies between Paul and Acts. For example, both sources mention Paul’s escape from Damascus. Gal. 2:2 implies that Paul did seek confirmation from the Jerusalem apostles that he had not run in vain.

    Papias was a contemporary of the authors of the Gospels (unless you want to go for an early date). While in HE 3.39.13 Eusebius seems to criticize Papias (for his millennial views), in 3.39.14 he says: “Papias gives also in his own work other accounts of the words of the Lord on the authority of Aristion who was mentioned above, and traditions as handed down by the presbyter John; to which we refer those who are fond of learning.” Papias is appealing to contemporary tradition, not speculation.

    I believe Luke 1:1-2 is using the terminology common to Jews describing the handing down of tradition from one person to another. This is not an admission that he did not have access to eyewitnesses. Paul uses the same language and we know he had access to eyewitnesses.

    Linking the beloved disciple to Lazarus is speculation. Again, the fact that the average fisherman would not have been known to the high priest tells us nothing about John the son of Zebedee. Someone living from, say, 15 CE to 90 CE is not that incredible and John’s long life is attested by the Church Fathers. Papias was a contemporary of John. Irenaeus was taught by Polycarp, who was taught by John. This means the authorship of the Gospel of John could have been learned by Irenaeus independently of Papias. Trying to discredit Papias is not enough to explain the agreement of the Church Fathers.

    • mansubzero says:

      peter told mark about what jesus said to the jews, ” it is not what you eat that defiles you but….” matthew writes to the jews and leaves OUT what pete told mark. why would matthew leave out what pete told mark about what jesus said to the jews? were romans enjoining bacon and blood in front of the jews back then? if yes , then why didnt matthew want his readers to hear that blood , flesh sacrificed to false gods and pigs meat DOES NOT defile ? i’m sure before jc came on the seen romans were munching on pigs flesh and informing the jews how tasty it is.

    • Hey Jayman,

      “What evidence is there that the phrase “the Gospel according to X” was interpreted as not being an attribution of authorship in the case of the Gospels? What phrase should have been used, in your opinion, if authorship was being attributed?

      The fact that the Gospels did not have an original, full title is not a good reason for concluding that the traditional authorship attributions are incorrect. It is my understanding that the name attached to each Gospel is always the same. This unanimity is what we would expect if the traditional authors wrote the Gospels and not what we would expect if the early Christians were engaging in wild speculation.”

      I discuss the how the traditional titles came to be added in the discussion below.

      “Acts 4:13 merely indicates that John lacked a formal rabbinic education.”

      The passage explicitly states that Peter and John were ἀγράμματος (“unlettered” or “illiterate”). We can *interpret* the passage to mean that they only lacked formal Rabbinic education, but the passage literally says “illiterate.”

      In all probability, what the passage means is that Peter and John were BOTH illiterate AND lacked Rabbinic training (it was normally Jews with Rabbinic training who belonged to the small minority of the literate Jews to begin with).

      “We simply don’t know what any given disciple could or could not have written.”

      No, we can make reasonable estimates based on the available evidence, such as William Harris’ Ancient Literacy study, which would place the category of people to which the disciples belonged in all probability within the illiterate population. Judaic Studies scholar Meir Bar-Ilan (“Illiteracy in the Land of Israel in the First Centuries CE”) finds that only about 3% of the population could read, and most of these would have lived in cities or large towns (not typical of where the disciples of rural Galilee were from). Likewise, Catherine Hezser in Jewish Literacy in Roman Palestine (pg. 496) argues, “If ‘literacy’ is determined as the ability to read documents, letters and ‘simple’ literary texts in at least one language and to write more than one’s signature itself, it is quite reasonable to assume that the Jewish literacy rate was well below the 10-15 percent (of the entire population, including women) which Harris has estimated for Roman society in imperial times.” As Bart Ehrman (Forged, pg. 73) explains:

      “Most people outside of the urban areas would scarcely ever even see a written text. Some smaller towns and villages may have had a literacy level around 1 percent. Moreover, these literate people were almost always the elite of the upper class. Those who learned to read learned how to read Hebrew (not Greek).”

      Even if we can’t know for sure, the overwhelming probability is that Jesus’ disciples were illiterate, and even if they were taught to read they would have been taught to read Hebrew. They would not belong to the small minority of people in the ancient world who could author complex Greek prose.

      Likewise, we have archeological evidence that suggests that Peter, who is described alongside John as ἀγράμματος (“illiterate”) in Acts 4:13, was in fact illiterate based on excavations of his hometown in Capernaum. As Ehrman explains (Forged, pg. 74-75):

      “In order to evaluate Peter’s linguistic abilities, the place to begin, then, is with Capernaum … The archeological digs have revealed … there are no inscriptions of any kind on any of the buildings … Reed [Archeology and the Galilean Jesus, pgs. 140-169] concludes that the inhabitants were almost certainly “predominantly illiterate” [even in Aramaic] … In short, Peter’s town was a backwoods Jewish village made up of hand-to-mouth laborers who did not have an education. Everyone spoke Aramaic. Nothing suggests that anyone could speak Greek. Nothing suggests that anyone in the town could write. As a lower-class fisherman, Peter would have started work as a young boy and never attended school. There was, in fact, probably no school there…”

      Keep in mind that John is described as ἀγράμματος (“illiterate”) alongside Peter, for whom we have very strong archeological evidence that he was probably illiterate. Thus, the best interpretation of the passage is that Acts 4:13 is describing Peter and John as being BOTH lacking Rabbinic training AND being illiterate.

      “And, of course, any disciple could have been assisted in his writing by someone more literate than he was.”

      To begin with, one does not “assist” someone in authoring a cohesive, complex Greek narrative like the Gospel of John. I have taken courses in Greek composition (via Hillard and North’s Greek Prose Composition), and I can tell you that actually writing in a consistent Greek style is not so simple. The unity of John’s style (with the exception of a possible addition in John 21) suggests a single author who was highly trained in Greek prose composition, which matches nothing of our outside biography of John.

      Furthermore, someone “assisting” John would not be an accurate description of how a claim to authorship would work in antiquity. That would mean that someone else had actually written the Gospel of John and had merely consulted John as a source (I discuss in the article how I doubt that John was such a source, regardless). John would not be the author of the text under this arrangement. As Ehrman (Forged, pg. 77) explains:

      “Where in the ancient world do we have anything at all analogous to this hypothetical situation of someone writing a letter-essay for someone else and putting the other person’s name on it – the name of the person who did not write it –rather than his own name? So far as I know, there is not a single instance of any such procedure attested from antiquity or any discussion, in any ancient source, of this being a legitimate practice. Or even an illegitimate once. Such a thing is never discussed.”

      “I am undecided regarding solutions to the Synoptic Problem. I think it is more speculative than many scholars admit. To take one of your examples, even if we assume Matthew used Mark as a source we don’t know that he redacted Mark to place the more important Moses before Elijah. It does not seem strange to me that an eye-witness would borrow from the writings of another eye-witness whom he presumably respects. Nor does it seem strange that he might modify things for his purposes (and we may not fully know all his purposes).”

      The synoptic relationship between Mark, Matthew, and Luke is accepted by even a larger majority of scholars than those who doubt the traditional authors of the Gospels (including many Christians and apologists).

      Saying “we many not fully know all his purposes” is not a good counter-theory for explaining all of the apparent redactions in Matthew. Again, Steven Carr has provided an excellent list of the changes between Matthew and Mark. A perfectly viable and probable explanation for these changes is that the author of Matthew redacted the earlier Gospel. Saying “we may not fully know all his purposes” is not a clear counter-thesis and is little more than retreating to agnosticism when there is instead strong evidence to suggest redaction.

      “Even if we assume that Matthew would have been ostracized from the Jewish community, that does not enable us to conclude that he was not familiar with Jewish teachings. Being a Jew in good standing with the Jewish community does not prevent one from being knowledgeable about Judaism.”

      Just because it was not impossible that a tax collector may have learned about Jewish teachings does not show that it is probable that he did so. Likewise, the population to which Matthew the tax collector belonged is not one that could very likely author complex Greek scriptures replete with allusions to the Jewish Septuagint. It is an extremely awkward fit to say that Matthew wrote the Gospel, when an anonymous author is far more probable and also completely consistent with the anonymous nature of the Gospel.

      “You overplay the discrepancies between Paul and Acts. For example, both sources mention Paul’s escape from Damascus. Gal. 2:2 implies that Paul did seek confirmation from the Jerusalem apostles that he had not run in vain.”

      Scholars recognize many differences between Acts and Paul, of which I have only named a few. That said, a few mainstream scholars think that it is plausible that Luke and Acts may have been authored by an attendant of Paul. As Christian scholar Raymond Brown (An Introduction to the New Testament, pgs. 326-327) states:

      “In summary, it is not impossible that a minor figure who had traveled with Paul for small parts of his ministry wrote Acts decades after the apostle was dead … but “not impossible” is all that should be claimed.”

      Brown’s evaluation is probably the closest that I would grant to the plausibility of Luke as an author; however, I tend to follow the more mainstream view that the author of Acts probably never knew Paul and was instead an unknown person from his mission area a generation later. Furthermore, it should be noted that, out of all of the traditional authors, Luke would be the most distanced from Jesus, as his primary connection would be with Paul, who was not an eyewitness of Jesus.

      “Papias was a contemporary of the authors of the Gospels (unless you want to go for an early date). While in HE 3.39.13 Eusebius seems to criticize Papias (for his millennial views), in 3.39.14 he says: “Papias gives also in his own work other accounts of the words of the Lord on the authority of Aristion who was mentioned above, and traditions as handed down by the presbyter John; to which we refer those who are fond of learning.” Papias is appealing to contemporary tradition, not speculation.”

      For starters, we know virtually nothing about the figures Aristion and John the Presbyter. Even apologists acknowledge that John the Presbyter was probably not John the Apostle, as even Craig Blomberg (The Case For Christ, pg. 27) acknowledges: “You see, the testimony of a Christian writer named Papias, dated about A.D. 125, refers to John the apostle and John the elder, and it’s not clear from the context whether he’s talking about one person from two perspectives or two different people.”

      Likewise, Papias reports a lot of other stories that scholars unanimously reject. For example, Papias claims in one story that Judas, after betraying Jesus, became wider than a chariot and so fat that he exploded. Likewise, Papias records sayings of Jesus that no scholars accept, such as one recorded by Irenaeus (Against Heresies 5.33.3), which states:

      “As the elders who saw John, the disciple of the Lord, related that they had heard from him how the Lord used to teach in regard to these times, and say: The days will come, in which vines shall grow, each having ten thousand branches, and in each branch ten thousand twigs, and in each true twig ten thousand shoots, and in each one of the shoots ten thousand clusters, and on every one of the clusters ten thousand grapes, and every grape when pressed will give five and twenty metretes of wine. And when any one of the saints shall lay hold of a cluster, another shall cry out, “I am a better cluster, take me; bless the Lord through me.”

      Virtually all scholars (including Christians and apologists) do not believe that Jesus said these lines, despite Papias’ claim about John the Disciple relating them. It is also noteworthy that Papias derives these stories from “the elders who saw John” and does not claim to know the disciple himself.

      From what we can gather about these spurious stories and sayings is that Papias was not appealing to reliable “contemporary tradition.” All scholars, Christians included, doubt their authenticity. For the same reason, many scholars doubt his statements about Matthew authoring an Aramaic collection of Jesus’ sayings (not our Greek Gospel of Matthew anyways) and about Mark recording the recollections of Peter (nothing about our Gospel of Mark claims to be the recollections of Peter). In all probability, Papias is referring to other unknown texts, or, based on his unreliability elsewhere, he is probably referring to unsubstantiated rumors.

      “Linking the beloved disciple to Lazarus is speculation. Again, the fact that the average fisherman would not have been known to the high priest tells us nothing about John the son of Zebedee. Someone living from, say, 15 CE to 90 CE is not that incredible and John’s long life is attested by the Church Fathers.”

      The identification with Lazarus is based on internal evidence within the text, discussed in the article above. Likewise, even if it is not impossible that John the son of Zebedee, as a rural peasant, might have known the high priest, it is not at all probable that he did so, and in all likelihood, by making this type of identification, the author is referring to someone else.

      Likewise, John is not attested to have lived a long life in all of the sources we have for his biography. A number of ancient sources actually state the John was martyred earlier in life alongside his brother James. Here is a valuable article that discusses the Christian sources claiming that John DID NOT live such a long life:

      http://www.jstor.org/stable/3153885

      As Badham points out, one of the sources we have for John dying earlier is in fact from a fragment attributed to Papias, which states “John the divine and James his brother were slain by the Jews.” So we have no certainty that John lived such a long life, let alone could author a complex Greek narrative by the end of it.

      “Papias was a contemporary of John. Irenaeus was taught by Polycarp, who was taught by John. This means the authorship of the Gospel of John could have been learned by Irenaeus independently of Papias.”

      Again, Papias in all probability knew an unknown “John the Elder.” One of our fragments attributed to Papias even had him reporting that John the Disciple was martyred, and when Papias specifically discusses “John the Disciple” he reports what “the elders” say about him, which does not suggest that he was a contemporary who knew him.

      As for the theory about Polycarp, Irenaeus never states that he learned from Polycarp who the author of the Fourth Gospel was. That is again speculation, something DagoodS notes in his comment below.

  3. You should also mention the best argument of all here – the Marcionites explicitly said that the apostles never wrote gospels. It is plainly evidenced in De Recta in Deum Fide.

  4. The important passage from Petty’s translation p. 91

    EUTR. How is it, Marcus, that your party do not accept those who were sent out by Christ to preach and proclaim the Gospel, yet you do accept one for whom you offer no proof? Why is it that you disparage Matthew and John, whose names are recorded in Scripture, and whom Christ sent out to preach and proclaim the Gospel, but accept Paul, for whom you have no proof? Surely this is ridiculous? Tell us this at least: Did they proclaim and preach the Gospel or not?
    MK. They proclaim the Gospel.
    EUTR. Was their proclamation and preaching of the Gospel recorded or unrecorded?
    MK. It was unrecorded.
    EUTR. It is quite absurd to assert on the one hand that those who were sent out to preach and proclaim the Gospel did so unrecorded, and on the other to claim that Paul, who had not been sent out, taught and was recorded! [p. 91]

  5. Pingback: Authors, intent and interpretation | Like a blog, but for humans

  6. DagoodS says:

    Matthew Ferguson,

    As always, very informative. I especially appreciated the section regarding the difference between “Gospel of Matthew” and the “Gospel according to Matthew.” As near as I can tell by the Greek, it would appear Papias also referred to the “Gospel according to the Hebrews” not the “Gospel of the Hebrews” further bolstering this was a designation, not a claim of authorship.

  7. jayman777 says:

    DagoodS, it is the gospel of Jesus Christ (Mark 1:1) so it would be appropriate to use different terminology in the title.

    • Hey Jayman,

      I don’t have much time to reply right now, but let me address your concerns about the titles. As Christian scholar Raymond Brown (An Introduction to the New Testament, pg. 158) acknowledged, “If we work backwards, the title ‘The Gospel According to Mark’ was attached to this writing by the end of the 2nd century.”

      Many scholars believe that the original title was in fact from the opening words of Mark 1:1, that is Ἀρχὴ τοῦ εὐαγγελίου Ἰησοῦ Χριστοῦ (“The Beginning of the Gospel of Jesus Christ”). The emphasis was on the subject, Jesus, not on the author, let alone any pretense of an eyewitness report of him. The original text, as shown in the body, was styled in an omniscient, impersonal narrative of Jesus, borrowing from aspects of the Greek Septuagint, as noted by Ehrman.

      Hence why scholars think that the later titles, such as κατά Μάρκον (“according to Mark”), were added later when there were doctrinal disputes over canonical scripture. After a century, the context was very different from the anonymous one in which the Gospels were originally written, as multiple works were floating around about Jesus, many being forged or mis-attributed (even apologists acknowledge that this was going on at least outside of our current canonical books of the New Testament). The “according to” was used to add in a later attribution to identify a tradition, in order to gain authority for canonical status. DagoodS example shows that a tradition could even be attributed to a whole group of peoples, as in The Gospel According to the Hebrews, further diminishing the idea that these constructions were used to clearly identify particular persons. At the very least, it is far more vague than how titles normally worked to identify their authors in other works from antiquity.

      Also, the claim of unanimity does not align with the manuscript traditions. Hence, why textual criticism experts like Bart Ehrman (Jesus: Apocolyptic Prophet of the New Millenium, pgs. 249-250) point out:

      “Because our surviving Greek manuscripts provide such a wide variety of (different) titles for the Gospels, textual scholars have long realized that their familiar names do not go back to a single ‘original’ title, but were added by later scribes.”

      Ehrman’s specialty while working at Princeton Theological Seminary was in textual criticism, hence he is a higher authority than most biblical scholars, who would likewise corroborate this description about the variations among the titles.

      • jayman777 says:

        Saying the name Mark was attached to the second gospel by the end of the 2nd century is a most conservative claim. Papias, Irenaeus, and Clement of Alexandria (at the least) know of a gospel written by Mark. Justin Martyr refers to Peter’s memoirs containing a passage that only occurs in Mark 3:16-17 (Trypho 106.3). If we take Papias seriously we can conclude the name Mark was attached to a gospel by the beginning of the 2nd century.

        The hypothesis that the names were attached to the Gospels later, when doctrinal disputes arose, fails to explain the unanimity of the attributions.

        Your quote from Ehrman about the manuscripts sounds ambiguous to me (I don’t have the book). Is he saying the full title is not identical in every manuscript while the name attached to it might be? If so, that does not hurt the traditional position. Your interpretation of the quote conflicts with other scholarly statements:

        These titles are widely attested in a variety of ways: by some of the earliest papyri, by reports in the second- and third-century church fathers, and by the earliest translations. They too were already completely uniform in the second century. (Martin Hengel, The Four Gospels and the One Gospel of Jesus Christ, p. 48)

        . . . the patristic tradition is unanimous in asserting Mark wrote this Gospel . . . (New Jerome Biblical Commentary, p. 596)

        There are seven major, ancient witnesses about the author [of Luke]: Muratorian Canon, Irenaeus, late 2d-cent. Prologue to the Gospel, Tertullian, Origen, Eusebius, and Jerome. (New Jerome Biblical Commentary, p. 675)

        • “Saying the name Mark was attached to the second gospel by the end of the 2nd century is a most conservative claim. Papias, Irenaeus, and Clement of Alexandria (at the least) know of a gospel written by Mark. Justin Martyr refers to Peter’s memoirs containing a passage that only occurs in Mark 3:16-17 (Trypho 106.3). If we take Papias seriously we can conclude the name Mark was attached to a gospel by the beginning of the 2nd century.”

          Again, it is important to differentiate between the earlier traditions and later ones. Irenaeus and Clement of Alexandria are later authors, who very easily could have reported later developments.

          As Ehrman (Forged, pg. 225) explains about the earlier tradition with Justin Martyr:

          “The anonymity of the Gospel writers was respected for decades. When the Gospels of the New Testament are alluded to and quoted by authors of the early second century, they are never entitled, never named. Even Justin Martyr, writing around 150-60 CE, quotes verses from the Gospels, but does not indicate what the Gospels were named. For Justin, these books are simply known, collectively, as the “Memoirs of the Apostles.”

          Some scholars do think, however, that Justin’s reference to “the memoirs of Him [putatively Peter]” may have been what led to the later attribution of Mark, based off of speculation from 1 Peter 5:13, but again, nothing about our Gospel of Mark in any way presents itself as the memoirs of Peter.

          Furthermore, if we take Papias seriously, we have no certainty that he is referring to OUR Gospel of Mark. As Ehrman (Forged, pgs. 226-227) explains:

          “There is nothing to indicate that when Papias is referring to Matthew and Mark, he is referring to the Gospels that were later called Matthew and Mark. In fact, everything he says about these two books contradicts what we know about (our) Matthew and Mark: Matthew is not a collection of Jesus’ sayings, but of his deeds and experiences as well; it was not written in Hebrew, but in Greek; and it was not written – as Papias supposes – independently of Mark, but was based on our Gospel of Mark. As for Mark, there is nothing about our Mark that would make you think it was Peter’s vision of the story, any more than it is the version of any other character in the account.”

          However, Papias’ testimony does provide a plausible explanation for how a later spurious attribution to Matthew and Mark could have arisen, as later authors like Ireneaus appear to have confused Papias’ reference to these otherwise unknown works with OUR Gospel of Matthew and Gospel of Mark.

          “The hypothesis that the names were attached to the Gospels later, when doctrinal disputes arose, fails to explain the unanimity of the attributions.”

          The attributions are not wholly unanimous. As Ehrman explains, the earliest references to the works respected their anonymity. It is true that later in the tradition, Christians eventually agreed on the four authors. However, even among later attributions, there is not full agreement. As Robert Price (The Case Against The Case For Christ, pg. 18) explains:

          “We don’t have everyone’s opinions. We are lucky to have what fragments we do that survived the efforts of Orthodox censors and heresiologists to stamp out all ‘heretical’ opinions. However, we do know of a few differing opinions because Tertullian, Justin Martyr, and others had to take the trouble to (try to) refute them. Marcion knew our Gospel of Luke in a shorter form, which he considered to be the original, and he did not identify it as the work of Luke. He may have imagined that Paul write that version. Also … Papias sought to account for the apparent Marcionite elements in the Gospel of John by suggesting Marcion had worked as John’s secretary and scribe and added his own ideas to the text, which it was somehow too late for John to root out. Similarly, some understood the gospel to be Gnostic … and credited it to Cerinthus.”

          We only have a few scattered statements for any of these authors to begin with, but, as Price shows, they were not wholly unanimous. What we do see is that there was more disagreement early in the tradition and more unity later on. This reflects the process of canonization that I discussed above.

          “Your quote from Ehrman about the manuscripts sounds ambiguous to me (I don’t have the book). Is he saying the full title is not identical in every manuscript while the name attached to it might be? If so, that does not hurt the traditional position.”

          Ehrman is saying that the titles are not unanimous in form, which suggests that there was no original formula that the later attributions were based on. Hence why the later titles have variations in their formula. Sorry that you didn’t have access to the book. I don’t have too much more time right now to discuss this, but here is an online resource that discusses the issue of the manuscripts and title.

          Many scholars and textual experts like Ehrman agree that the variations in titles suggests that they were not affixed to the original manuscripts. However, to be fair, we also do not possess the original manuscripts, so we cannot know for sure. But given the other problems that I have listed, it would appear that they were added later (which is what the variations in the titles would suggest).

  8. Pingback: The Gospels | Insomniac memos

  9. DagoodS says:

    jayman777,

    I will touch on a few of your points.

    You are correct it is possible John, son of Zebedee was assisted by someone more literate; or Acts 4:13 was referring solely to Hebrew rabbinical schools. The problem is “possible” doesn’t propel us on our journey to knowledge. As historians or scholars, we search to eliminate or reduce “possibilities” and focus on probabilities—not promulgate more and more and more theories, creating a cacophony of “possibilities” wherein everybody has their own opinion, and no one knows anything more than fidelity to their pet “possibility.”

    It is possible John, son of Zebedee wrote the Gospel according to John. It is possible another John (the presbyter?) wrote the gospel. Or all the disciples contributed a portion and John was the editor. (I am personally convinced the John we have today is an amalgamation of various gospels.) Or the gospel is a 4th Century Constantine forgery. Or a Roman governmental invention to undermine Christianity. Or a Galilean response to doceticism. Do you see the problem? We can list possibility after possibility until the comment section is overflowing…while the discussion doesn’t move forward a centimeter.

    What method do you have in place to reduce possibilities? More importantly, what method do you have in place allowing you to change your personal position (even preferred postulation) to an opposing view?

    Matthew Ferguson indicates a below 10% literacy rate in First Century Mediterranean. (I’ve generally heard it closer to 5%, but we can utilize his figures.) Just on this fact alone, it is more probable a certain individual at that time and culture was illiterate. Reach out and grab a person. 9 out of 10 would be illiterate. Now, the few who were schooled were generally in the Upper crust of Roman society—for example the senatorial or equestrian class. The percentage of literacy would be weighted within those classes.

    Secondly, we forget First Century Palestine was sustenance living—these people worked from sunup to sundown to live. They had to earn enough, grow enough, obtain enough to not only currently survive, but provide for their family, their household (including animals), store enough to survive winter, AND then have enough to start over again in the spring. All while fighting off the damages from drought, disease, war, taxes, etc. A Galilean fisherman did not have idle time to go to school, or learn to write. (Why would he—what value would it be to him?)

    A Galilean would speak Aramaic, along with his neighbors, friends and culture. If, for some reason, he did desire to learn to write, it would most likely be Aramaic. The second most likely would be Hebrew (but you concede Acts 4:13 is referring to rabbinical school.) The third would be Greek. Although the most common language in the Roman world—it was of little to no value to a Galilean fisherman. Who would he write to? What books, letters or documents would he read?

    Thirdly, there are significant issues regarding the Johannine account as compared to the Synoptics. I wrote more regarding this topic here. This calls into question the “eyewitness” nature. Frankly, either the Synoptics are correct, or John is or neither. They can’t both be. (Don’t forget, I am looking at probability—not possibility.)

    Considering the evidence, it is (very) probable the Gospel according to John was not written by a Galilean fisherman. It is possible? Sure. But so are a number of other possibilities. Let’s start focusing on probabilities, not wild goose chases.

    (As an aside, you indicate a person living 15 CE to 90 CE [75 years] is “not that incredible.” It sure was in the First Century. 75+ year olds comprised .3% of the population. Life expectancy was very different than now.)

    The problem with Matthean modifications to Markan passages is how Matthew is correcting Mark at times, and at other times makes historical modifications—not merely fine-tuning the language to suit his audience. A nice example of this is John the Baptist’s death. Mark 6:14-29; Matt. 14:1-13. Mark incorrectly titles Herod Antipas as “king” (why would a Galilean eyewitness get that wrong?), and Matthew corrects the title to tetrarch. (Although Matthew demonstrates fatigue by referring to Antipas as “king” in the middle of the story.)

    Mark portrays Antipas as sympathetic to John the Baptist; Matthew changes this to an antagonistic relationship. (Again demonstrating fatigue by making Herod Antipas sad when Herodias’ daughter asked for John’s head.) Mark puts the story in a parenthetical statement; Matthew has Jesus directly reacting to it. They both have it wrong about Antipas marrying his brother Philip’s wife—Herodias was married to Herod II.

    The synoptic problem is not just who wrote first and who used what writings—it demonstrates a deliberation in modification of the story to suit the writers’ needs. The Gospel writers were not as concerned with historical accuracy as with recipient response.

    By the Second Century, there were numerous stories regarding Jesus. (The fact Irenaeus found it necessary to limit it to ONLY four confirms this by the latter part of Second Century.) There developed a method to differentiate between what gospel a certain person was talking about. I would agree all the gospels were “Gospels about Jesus” or if you desire, “Gospels of Jesus.” But when making reference, one could not state, “the Gospel of Jesus” as this could be one of many. Therefore a means of differentiation developed—the “Gospel according to the Hebrews,” the “Gospel according to Mark,” etc. This way people could discuss reasonably.

    The nomenclature does not necessarily designate authorship…unless you are claiming the entire Hebrew population wrote a gospel!

    • jayman777 says:

      Wow! I’m assuming a number of comments were held up in moderation. Here are some more brief thoughts.

      DagoodS:

      In light of the external evidence, the traditional authorship of John is a probability, not a mere possibility. I give far more weight to the testimony of the early Christians than to the speculations of modern scholars. If, for example, my speculation from the internal evidence blatantly contradicts the unanimous testimony of the early Christians I’m likely to abandon it.

      Your analysis of John’s literacy focuses on John qua Galilean fisherman while the proper context is to focus on John qua Christian apostle. After the resurrection he traveled outside of Galilee and Judea. He was no longer working the land and in such a context Greek would have been the obvious language to learn. He wrote to the churches of Asia Minor. His long life is attested by the early sources so we don’t need to appeal to some general life expectancy.

      As I said earlier, one’s preferred solution to the Synoptic Problem involves a good deal of speculation. I don’t want to get bogged down in a discussion of inerrancy as that’s only somewhat relevant to authorship. It is a jump from noting textual differences to inferring the Gospel writers were not as concerned with historical accuracy as with recipient response.

      The canonicity of the four gospels seems to have been accepted by the time Ireneaus writes. As Martin Hengel notes, a title had to be given to the manuscripts from the beginning. My other point was that the first Christians seemed to think the titles of the canonical gospels did refer to their authors (although in the case of Matthew it may be less certain).

      Matthew:

      Sorry if I’ve forgotten exactly where we are at and if I kind of ramble. I’ve moved on to other internet discussions since last commenting. I’ll respond to multiple comments of yours.

      One of my initial criticisms was that you appeal to evidence that talks of what the average man could write. You then ignore the early Christian evidence that certain apostles did write. The fact is that Peter and John were not just average fisherman after the resurrection. These men should be studied as individuals not as average members of a given class. The average Galilean fisherman was not a disciple of Jesus. That hardly leads us to conclude that Peter and John were therefore not disciples of Jesus.

      When I said someone could have assisted the disciples I intended it to be somewhat vague. This could involve someone else writing the Gospel using the apostle as a kind of source. For example, Papias does envision Mark being an “interpreter” of Peter.

      I realize the a large majority of scholars accept the two-source hypothesis. Then again I’ve heard an historian who accepts the 2SH as the best hypothesis say he thinks it only has a 25% chance of being correct. The other hypotheses are just more unlikely still. I’m not going to base any historical reconstruction on such analyses.

      Nor do I feel any obligation to explain all the differences between Matthew or Mark. I do retreat to agnosticism on this issue. It is just as viable that Matthew changed the order of names because he thought it sounded better than because Moses was more important than Elijah. Why assume any of us knows which “viable explanation” is correct? Again, redaction criticism is too speculative in my opinion.

      My comments about Matthew’s ostracization were countering one of your arguments against the traditional authorship which I found weak. It is not a complete argument for traditional authorship in itself.

      Papias provides the earliest attestation to the authorship of the Gospels. But his attestation is picked up by later Christians who had other lines of tradition that could have corrected an errant Papias.

      Thanks for the information about the apostle John.

      I don’t think you’ve dealt with the fact that Justin Martyr seems to call the Gospel of Mark Peter’s memoirs. Papias’s comments in conjunction with Justin’s indicate that the two did have what we call the Gospel of Mark in mind.

      Price’s appeals to heretics are unpersuasive as few scholars are going to take gnostics and docetists as more historically trustworthy than the orthodox. And his quote a tacit admission that the orthodox were all in agreement?

      I’ll grant there might be some variation in the form of the Gospel titles but Martin Hengel notes that the names are unanimous. He also argues that the names had to be attached from the beginning to differentiate one book from another in a library. Attaching the names later simply fails to explain the unanimity.

      • Hey Jayman,

        Sorry for a delay in the comments. I’ve been traveling for the holidays, so I only have time to drop in every couple days or so.

        Thanks for your feedback. I only have a couple final notes:

        With regard to the disciples later “learning Greek,” there is no evidence in antiquity that people in general (let alone poor Galilean peasants) after entering adulthood would later “learn to write” even in their own language, let alone in a foreign language. Literacy was taught from childhood, mostly to wealthy individuals in urban centers in the more literate regions of the Roman Empire (e.g. Rome, Alexandria, Athens, etc., areas NOT typical of rural Galilee). As Ehrman (Forged, pg. 75) explains in the case of Peter:

        “It is theoretically possible, of course, that Peter decided to go to school after Jesus’ resurrection. In this imaginative (not to say imaginary scenario) scenario, he learned his alphabet, he learned how to sound syllables and then words, learned to read, and learned to write. Then he took Greek classes, mastered Greek as a foreign language, and started memorizing large chunks of the Septuagint, after which he took Greek composition classes and learned how to compose complicated and rhetorically effective sentences; then, toward the end of his life, he wrote 1 Peter.

        Is this scenario plausible? Apart from the fact that we don’t know of “adult education” classes in antiquity – there’ no evidence they existed – I think most reasonable people would conclude that Peter probably had other things on his mind and on his hands after he came to believe that Jesus was raised from the dead.”

        So saying that John would “learn Greek” is extremely unlikely. At most he may have learned to speak a few words and to communicate on a basic level, but there is no evidence from all of antiquity that grown adults, let alone Galilean peasants, who in all probability grew up illiterate in their own language, later learned how to author extremely complex prose in a foreign language.

        That scenario would be extremely unlikely compared to the far more probable alternative explanation of mis-attribution (especially when we know of so many other writings falsely attributed to the apostles). Likewise, appealing to other works attributed to John is not bona fide evidence for his literacy, since scholars likewise doubt the attributions of the three epistles of John and Revelation (1 John is generally agreed to be an anonymous work, 2 & 3 John is written by a figure who identifies himself as “the Presbyter,” who some scholars think is the John the Presbyter mentioned by Papias, in contrast to John the Apostle, and Revelation is written by a John of Patmos, who is generally agreed to be a different figure than John the Apostle of the same name. John, after all, was a common name). Part of the reason that scholars doubt the same author who wrote Revelation wrote the Gospel of John is based on strong differences (noted even in antiquity) of literary style. I explain in my comment below that scholars use the SAME methods when doubting secular texts, such as the pseudo-Xenophonic The Constitution of the Athenians, whose authorship is likewise doubted for internal reasons of style.

        As for the claim about a difference between John qua the Galilean fisherman and John qua the Christian apostle, there is no reason to think from a secular historical perspective that there would be any difference. Even if he traveled outside of Judea, there is no evidence of poor rural adults later being trained to author complex Greek prose in a foreign language. One might argue from a theological perspective, perhaps citing Acts 2:5-12, that the disciples were supernaturally given the ability to write in foreign languages. But then, determining the authorship of their works would be qualitatively different than determining the authors of secular works, as such supernatural forces are never considered among scholars to inspire the authors of works outside of the New Testament.

        So, from a historical-critical perspective, there is no difference between John qua the Galilean fisherman and John qua the Christian apostle. That is a theological distinction, not a historical one.

        Regarding Justin Martyr’s reference to “Peter’s memoirs” in Dialogue with Trypho 106.3, there is considerable ambiguity in the passage, and it is not even clear that it is referring to Peter specifically. I’ve added footnote 28 above, which deals with the passage in detail and concludes that it cannot be used as evidence that the Gospel of Mark was given its traditional title by 160 CE.

        As for Hengel’s claim, there are some scholars who disagree that the variation in manuscript titles shows a lack of the traditional names in the original texts. However, there are also textual criticism experts, like Bart Ehrman, who after thorough study of the variation of manuscript titles, conclude that there was no attribution in the originals. We lack the original manuscripts, so scholars either way can only make an informed estimation, but I think Ehrman’s conclusion is far more likely.

        A final note is that even if the names were affixed to the original manuscripts, it would still not necessarily be evidence for the traditional authors. This is because a number of scholars think that the common names like Marcus and Matthew actually belonged originally to unknown, obscure figures in the church, and when there was later disputes about canon, their identities were conflated with the traditional authors, who were either the apostles or their attendants. This possibility is noted by James Dowden in his comment below.

        I do not think that this theory is most probable, both because as I follow Ehrman in thinking that the later titles did not belong to the original texts and because I think that the anonymous nature of the Gospel narratives would have precluded their authors of naming themselves in their original titles. However, I also think that this theory is perfectly plausible and far more probable than the traditional attributions.

    • Haus Beach says:

      I appreciate the discussion. I need to respond, though, to Ehrman’s claim that a Galilean fisherman wouldn’t know Greek.
      Anyone who has traveled extensively in rural areas of the world knows that it’s not at all uncommon to find a ten year old boy who can speak English fluently without ever having studied it in school. On my last trip to Morocco I found that members of the merchant class invariably knew English, and many of them Japanese. Why? Because those were the languages used to converse with money-spending tourists. I dare say quite a few of these people who spoke their native Berber language, the national language of Arabic, the local trade language of French, and the international trade language of English were illiterate in several of those languages.
      So why wouldn’t a Galilean fisherman be able to converse in Greek, the regional trade language? If he wanted to sell his fish to the wealthy officials in Sepphoris, he may even know Latin as well.
      Secondly, if you want an analogy for literacy, look at early 19th century New England, where foreign visitors were astounded by a literacy rate of virtually 100 per cent. Why did even poor, rural New Englanders know how to read? Because their religion required it of them. In fact, if they continued in school beyond the bare basics, they added literacy in Latin, Greek, and Hebrew (in that order). It’s reasonable to expect that the religious environment of Galilee (where the Scriptures were read every Sabbath in the synagogues) would have been similar.
      Rural Galileans did not live at a subsistence level. They had to produce enough, in additional for their own consumption, to pay taxes at the local, regional, and empire level, and fund their own annual pilgrimages to Jerusalem.

      • Hey Haus,

        There is a difference between having partial fluency in spoken Greek and being literate in Greek composition, let alone advanced Greek composition, as in the case of the Gospel of John.

        First, most Classical scholars now doubt that Greek permeated throughout all regions of the eastern Mediterranean during the Hellenistic and Roman periods. It was once thought that, following the conquests of Alexander the Great, Greek became the dominant language in the East. However, as scholar Graham Shipley (The Greek World After Alexander, pg. 295) explains, “Scholars no longer believe that Greek was promoted as the sole official tongue. The bureaucracy was just as complicated as under the Persians, and most of it was left to run in the same way as before. In non-Greek areas, scribal languages such as Aramaic remained in use for official records.” That’s even for government documents (which were more prone to adopt an official language), let alone in common language and trade. Like under the previous Persian Empire, there was a diversity of languages, cultures, and local communities, and not everyone intermixed.

        Likewise, under the Roman period, Mark Chancey (Greco-Roman Culture and the Galilee of Jesus, pg. 229) explains, “The extent of … Greco-Roman culture in Galilee during the lifetime of Jesus has often been greatly exaggerated. Many of the characteristics that are routinely ascribed to early first-century Galilee more appropriately apply to Galilee in the second and third centuries.”

        Furthermore, Judaic Studies scholar Meir Bar-Ilan (“Illiteracy in the Land of Israel in the First Centuries CE”) finds that only about 3% of the population could read, and most of these would have lived in cities or large towns (not typical of where the disciples of rural Galilee were from). Likewise, Catherine Hezser in Jewish Literacy in Roman Palestine (pg. 496) argues, “If ‘literacy’ is determined as the ability to read documents, letters and ‘simple’ literary texts in at least one language and to write more than one’s signature itself, it is quite reasonable to assume that the Jewish literacy rate was well below the 10-15 percent (of the entire population, including women) which Harris has estimated for Roman society in imperial times.” Using a cross-cultural analogy with New Englanders in the 19th century does not hold up, since that was after the printing press during a post-industrial period. Books were far more expensive and far less common in antiquity.

        Likewise, a cross-cultural analogy with children in Morocco also doesn’t really parallel the situation. Even in 3rd world countries today, there is far more globalization and travel than in antiquity. Even in Morocco, as much as 49% of the population today has access to the Internet. That is nothing like antiquity, even for the rich and educated.

        Finally, even being able to write is not the same thing as being able to author literature. Could the children (or adults, for a better comparison) do the following?

        1. Author a grammatically correct paragraph.
        2. Author a five-paragraph essay, complete with a thesis statement.
        3. Author a chapter-by-chapter narrative, with ample and familiar quotations and uses of previous texts.

        Even today in the Western world, most of the population could not author an English equivalent of the Gospel of John. That kind of work takes years of training starting in childhood. One would need to have completed higher education, but that was almost exclusively restricted to the rich and elite in antiquity (even when basic arithmetic and simple literacy reached a broader population). In fact, I’m working at the Ph.D. level now, and I have even completed all of North and Hillard’s Greek Prose Composition, and I couldn’t author a work like the Gospel of John in Greek, without performing extensive mimeses of an already existing text.

        The people who authored the Gospels, IMO, were selected based on ability, not by authority. They were probably native Greek speakers who had learned to write from childhood, belonged to a wealthier bracket of society, and lived in an urban setting. During canonical disputes during the 2nd century, however, it was expedient to attribute a gospel to a figure of authority, when the actual compositional needs for the text would have required someone with ability. But I don’t think highlighting that fact served the canonical interests of Christians in the late-2nd century.

        • Haus says:

          Very good points are being made. But I’m still a bit skeptical about the claims of massive illiteracy in 1st-century Judea and Galilee. The Qumran community, for example, seems to have valued the scriptures so highly that it’s inconceivable they would have allowed a member to remain illiterate. I’m afraid that a lot of this conclusion of illiteracy is built on a supposition that the Bible is not an accurate source of information on the ancient world–which would dismiss, of course, the ability of a youth to write down for Gideon the names of the 77 elders of Succoth. This conclusion of illiteracy appears to be based on circular reasoning:

          1. The Bible can’t have been written by eyewitnesses, since people back then couldn’t write.
          2. Since the Bible wasn’t written by eyewitnesses, its claim that people could write isn’t reliable.
          3. Since there is no reliable evidence that people could write, the Bible couldn’t have been written by eyewitnesses.

          Am I missing something?

          • Hey Haus,

            First, estimates about widespread illiteracy in the ancient world are not specific to Palestine or issues of the Bible. William Harris, for example, in his landmark work Ancient Literacy performed a survey estimate of literacy throughout the Roman Empire and found that only about 10% of the population was literate.

            Works since Harris, such as Johnson’s volume Ancient Literacies, have considered whether there were more widespread levels of functional literacy, in which people could still read and write a few things for practical purposes, but the general consensus among scholars is that the vast majority of the population in the ancient world did not have the education to author prose literature, and that those who did predominately belonged to an elite, wealthy, and urban setting (uncharacteristic of rural Galilee). Furthermore, current Classical scholarship is now far more skeptical about how widespread knowledge and fluency of Greek was in the Hellenistic and Roman period. These observations extend beyond any discussion specific to the Jewish Bible or the New Testament, so I do not think that these wider positions stem from the supposition that the Bible is historically unreliable.

            In fact, even if we granted that the biblical texts are historically reliable, they would still only make up a fraction of the evidence that we have to consider for ancient literacy and writing practices. For example, Hezser in her analysis of literacy in Roman Palestine takes into account a much larger scope of ancient evidence and considerations, ranging from the cost and availability of scribes, the types of writing materials, the social and literary settings in which writing took place, evidence of writing for non-literary purposes, such as writing in ancient magic, where texts would be read, what evidence we have for schools in Roman Palestine, etc. It is from this large body of evidence that she reaches the conclusion that well below 10-15% population was probably literate (and Meir Ber-Ilan argues that it was below 3%). That’s a much larger body of evidence than just those relating to the Bible or the New Testament, so, even taking those works into consideration as historically reliable, we still have a much larger problem to deal with in terms of other types of evidence outweighing them.

            That said, Hezser (Jewish Literacy in Roman Palestine, pg. 47) does note, “The Qumran community may have been an exception with regard to its emphasis on … the education of children and young adults in pre-rabinnic times.” Steven Fraade (pg. 56) in “Interpretive Authority in the Studying Community at Qumran” also notes that the Qumram community provides our “only evidence from the Second Temple period for a mandatory, communal curriculum of studies for children.” The Qumram community may have put a higher emphasis on texts and readings, not just for the leaders of the community, but also for the community as a whole. However, that is the exception, not the rule, for ancient Palestine.

            As for Judges 8:14, the Book of Judges is generally agreed by scholars to have been a compilation of materials put together around the late 7th and 6th centuries BCE (Oxford Annotated Bible, pg. 355). However, the events it describes would have been from the 14th-11th centuries BCE. It is generally regarded to be a book with a lot of anachronisms imputing modern practices onto ancient ones. For a completely trivial yet astute example of this, the Book of Judges makes several references to camels being used in Palestine, even though Israeli archeologists have dated the first domesticated camels in the region to the end of the 10th century BCE. The point being is that Judges frequently includes features in its narrative that would be anachronistic and not an accurate depiction of the actual time period. The same could go for the boy writing in Judges 8:14. I think that scene is more about telling the story of Gideon, rather than an accurate record of writing and literacy in the 14th-11th centuries BCE. At the very least, a passage like this would be a much weaker, tenuous, and specific form of evidence, whereas our broader archeological, paleographical, and historical sources for literacy in Roman Palestine, as discussed by Hezser, would easily make a much larger and more powerful body of evidence to base conclusions on.

          • Haus says:

            It looks like your dismissal of literacy in the Ancient Near East is due for a re-assessment:
            http://www.haaretz.com/life/archaeology/.premium-1.652843
            The results of the analysis are being kept under wraps ahead of publication in a scientific journal. But Finkelstein believes there is sufficient evidence to show that late 7th century Judah was a sophisticated kingdom with a relatively high level of literacy.
            “The medium was so spread, that even a humble quartermaster in a small, remote desert outpost used it,” Finkelstein said. “There must have been a large education system to support that.”

          • Hey Haus,

            I am not really sure what you mean by “dismissal,” since my literacy estimates for Jewish literacy in Roman Palestine are based on the research of Catherine Hezser, who is a leading authority in this area. I have also conversed with Hezser personally over email in order to check many of the points in this blog.

            In addition to that, I also took a course on ancient education with Michelle Salzman in Winter 2014. Likewise, I have also noted in footnote 9 that William Harris’ literacy estimates for the Roman Empire more broadly have been challenged by Johnson (ed.) in Ancient Literacies. I have accounted for this recent study and noted how it does/does not affect the arguments in this article.

            Nevertheless, I welcome further research in this area, so I thank you for this Finkelstein reference. I have been talking with NT scholar Christine Thomas at UCSB, and she has recommended that I actually explore ancient authorship as the topic of my dissertation (she has also read and approved of this article). If I do follow this dissertation topic, I will already be doing a lot more research on the question of literacy to begin with, in addition to a number of other topics that are relevant to the question of ancient authorship.

            When it comes to the issue of NT authorship, in particular, it is important to remember that the issue at stake is not whether it would have been impossible/possible for Matthew and John to get an education in writing. As noted in footnote 11, the issue is about whether these figures’ identities mesh with the internal evidence of the text. For the Gospel of Matthew, for example, if we were to judge the text’s author on the basis of internal evidence alone, we would conclude that it was probably written by a Greek-speaking, educated Jew in the Diaspora, based on how such texts were ordinarily composed. Even if a toll collector in Palestine may have had a greater chance of receiving an education in Hebrew/Aramaic literacy, it does not follow that such a figure would be the probable author of a text like the Gospel of Matthew.

            I also notice that you posted this comment under the name “Haus.” I can tell from your web address “whitemail.blogspot.com” that you have also posted under the name “White” below, when you got mad at me for not diverting time in my studies to focus on the writings of James Snapp.

            I ask that you do not post multiple comments under one article using different names. It’s important for people to know that you are the same person who has already commented a number of times in this comments section. Otherwise, when you post under different names it comes off as sockpuppeting. I also note that you have already been irascible in a previous comment below, which will be factored in to how I deal with future comments from you.

  10. James Dowden says:

    The hypothesis that appeals most to me is:
    1) Mark and Matthew at least, and probably Luke, were originally titled το Ευαγγελιον Ιησου (του) Χριστου – the awkward κατα attribution was to avoid an even more awkward string of genitives doing different things.
    2) Syntactical speculation: maybe the κατα business is simply because ευαγγελιον + genitive signified whom the good news was about in general. This presumably should be testable against non-Christian use of the word.
    3) That Marcus is a good Roman name as befits the sort of person who uses such barbarisms as κεντυριων in Greek; similarly, Matthew is an adequately Semitic name for the interests of the eponymous gospel. The traditions that the Gospels were by people with those names and not other ones seem old enough and invariable enough that they might just have been by people of those names of whom we otherwise know nothing (a situation that is generally held to be true about the book of Revelation).
    4) The forger behind 2Ti 4.11 seems to have thought of the names Luke and Mark in one breath. Could just be a coincidence, but much less so than pointing to a character in Acts with an unusual double name that could have been deliberately used by the promoter of one gospel to avoid misidentification with the author of another.
    5) John is a completely different kettle of fish, because of the beloved disciple business. Its near-forgery should not prejudice the question of how the Synoptic Gospels came to get their titles.

    • “Mark and Matthew at least, and probably Luke, were originally titled το Ευαγγελιον Ιησου (του) Χριστου – the awkward κατα attribution was to avoid an even more awkward string of genitives doing different things.”

      Indeed, confusion over the genitives may be the origin of the κατα, but it is not, strictly speaking, impossible in Greek prose to still identify the author with the genitive without using the abnormal κατα preposition. For example, I at least know from taking Greek prose composition that the Gospel could have been titled το Ευαγγελιον Ιησου του Χριστου το του Μαρκου (“The Gospel of Jesus Christ, the one of Mark”). I don’t know if there are any ancient examples of someone using such a construction, but it would at least far more specifically identify the author without the κατα. So at least in theory the κατα could have been avoided and a clearer attribution could have been made.

      “Syntactical speculation: maybe the κατα business is simply because ευαγγελιον + genitive signified whom the good news was about in general. This presumably should be testable against non-Christian use of the word.”

      Indeed it is. As Helms (Gospel Fictions, pg. 25) explains:

      “The standard phrase ‘the beginning of the gospel’ (arche tou euangeliou) of Caesar (or whomsoever) seems to have been a widespread in the Graeco-Roman world … Mark begins his mythical biography of Jesus with ready-made language, intending perhaps a challenge: euangeliou is not of Caesar but of Christ!”

      “That Marcus is a good Roman name as befits the sort of person who uses such barbarisms as κεντυριων in Greek; similarly, Matthew is an adequately Semitic name for the interests of the eponymous gospel. The traditions that the Gospels were by people with those names and not other ones seem old enough and invariable enough that they might just have been by people of those names of whom we otherwise know nothing (a situation that is generally held to be true about the book of Revelation).”

      Some scholars favor this interpretation, but not all agree. I think it is plausible, but I wouldn’t place any bets on it. However, Raymond Brown (An Introduction to the New Testament, pg. 160) notes it as a possibility: “One might speculate that earlier tradition attributed the Gospel to an otherwise unknown Christian named Mark, who subsequently was amalgamated with John Mark.” While I have my reservations, I certainly agree that this is plausible and definitely more likely than John Mark actually authoring the Gospel.

  11. MWF, happy holidays & hope you are doing well. This is a slam-dunk for your best posting I’ve seen here. Definitely took some lucidity pills. Keep up the great job.
    -b

  12. White Man says:

    Tacitus is a convenient historian to use for comparison—but how about Xenophon? His Anabasis has been subjected to enough scrutiny to doubt that he wrote it, to doubt that the events related in it actually happened the way it says they did, and to doubt that the original text has been faithfully transmitted to this day. Also, Anabasis never claims to have been written by Xenophon, nor is it called a History.

    • The Anabasis is not a very representative example of the authorial traditions for most ancient works, mostly because the author unusually attributed the work under a pseudonym. As Murray in The Anabasis of Xenophon (pg. xv) explains:

      “The fact that the Anabasis was published anonymously or under a pseudonym has been thought to lend support to this view, as though Xenophon felt that the portrait he draws of himself would be discredited if it were known to come from his own hand. It is certainly true that in Hellenica III.2.2 Xenophon refers to the story of Cyrus’ expedition as having been written by Themistogenes of Syracuse. Now of an historian of that name nothing is known, and it is generally believed that Xenophon is here referring to his own work.”

      As noted by Murray, the reason why Xenophon may have falsely attributed the work is because he has a prominent, almost autobiographical role in the narrative, which would appear less glorious if he was known to have himself composed the work. Notably, unlike the Gospels (whose traditional authors would only at most be mentioned once and insignificantly in the narrative, e.g. Mt. 9:9, in a manner that no way would imply they were the authors of the text), the central role that Xenophon plays in the narrative signifies a continual, personal, and eyewitness perspective. As Murray (viii) continues:

      “In Anabasis III.1, Xenophon tells us how he came to join the expedition of Cyrus, which the Anabasis made famous.”

      As for the genre of the work, scholars do not regard it to be a history as much as an early form of autobiography. Murray (xi) explains:

      “Xenophon’s work, while not professedly autobiographical, are full of passages which throw a flood of light upon his own character.”

      Likewise, there are grammatical clues within the text that Xenophon, told in the third person, is standing in for a first person perspective, as the narrative often tells of personal communication with Xenophon where he reveals how he came across some of his sources. As Murray (xv) explains:

      “Xenophon besides using the third person throughout the work, speaks now and then as though his information had come to him at second hand.”

      So scholars have long recognized that the central character of Anabasis, Xenophon, through whose eyes much of the story is told, is probably the eyewitness author of the work. This is very different from the Gospels, where the subject, Jesus, not the witness or author, is the central focus of the work, whose story is told omnisciently and impersonally as of an anonymous narrative.

      As for the claim about doubting the textual transmission of Xenophon, I do not know of any scholar who specializes in the text of the Anabasis who doubts the overall integrity of our manuscripts (there are, as with all ancient texts, instances of disputed grammatical variations and wording). Likewise, I do not doubt that, overall, the texts of the New Testament have been mostly reliably transmitted to us (even though there are disputed passages, etc.). I also explain in another article how reliable textual transmission has no bearing on demonstrating historical reliability in a work.

      Also, another note is that Xenophon was known to be a prolific author (Murray, pg. xiii, notes that we know of forty books from antiquity authored by Xenophon), who would have had the literary training and would be in a position to author a work like the Anabasis. This, again, contrasts with the traditional Gospel authors like John, who would have almost certainly been illiterate and unable to author the works attributed to them.

      Finally, there are works attributed to Xenophon for which scholars DO doubt the authorial attribution. For example, a year ago I took a seminar where we studied a work titled The Constitution of the Athenians, which, although attributed to Xenophon, scholars doubt was authored by the Greek historian. Part of the reasons that scholars doubt that Xenophon is the author is because the writing style in this work contrasts with the style and vocabulary used in Xenophon’s other works. For the same reasons of vocabulary, word choice, and style, scholars also doubt that six of the letters attributed to Paul in the NT were actually written by their traditional author.

      So there are works attributed to Xenophon for which scholars doubt the authorial attribution using the same methods that are used to doubt the traditional authors of NT works. The Anabasis just happens to not be one of them, but the pseudo-Xenophanic The Constitution of the Athenians is.

  13. Pingback: Why Evangelicals Doubt the Historical-Critical Theories About the Gospels (Pt. 1 – On Methodological Assumptions) – The Aristophrenium

  14. ehrman said somewhere in his book that even if one could read it does not neccessarily mean he could write.

    • Indeed, such is the case. I go through this all the time when teaching Latin or Greek. Just because you can read the language, does not mean that you can speak or write the language. That’s why adults today can speak a language, but also be illiterate in it. Likewise, even if you can write a language, it does not mean that you have the literary talent to author a complex piece of prose. Works like the Gospels are so elaborate that they almost certainly were written by trained Greek-speaking and urban-dwelling authors, who were probably the best writers of their local church communities. Based on the language and blend of Koine Hellenistic and Septuagint features in the Gospels, scholars mostly agree that they were written in the Jewish Diaspora outside of Palestine. I think that Luke and Acts were written probably in Asia Minor, based on the author’s familiarity with the geography and political offices of that region. Contrast this with the author of Mark being unfamiliar with Palestinian customes and geography being used as a criterion to doubt that the author was a John Mark from Jerusalem. The same criteria that can be used to doubt an authorial attribution in one respect can also tell us about the author’s identity in another.

  15. On the variance of gospel titles you will be interested in reading, if you haven’t already, (my one time tutor) Simon Gathercole’s recent article “The Title of the Gospels in the Earliest New Testament Manuscripts” (and perhaps also his “The Earliest Manuscript Title of Matthew’s Gospel”.)

    Also on literacy I think you should mention that the ability to produce literature is not dependent upon a person’s literacy skills if they (or the people who support them) can employ a scribe. Studies that consider broadening the understanding of literacy in classical antiquity (beyond what Harris considers or discussions) surely need to inform your conclusions; e.g Rosalind Thomas’ “Writing, Reading, Public and Private ‘Literacies”: Functional Literacy and Democratic Literacy in Greece” and Greg Woolf’s “Literacy or Literacies in Rome?” articles. Also Bangal’s “Everyday Writing in the Graeco-Roman East” is also an important resource that really needs to inform your argument. If Ryan Schellenberg can argue that Paul can employ rhetorical practices and idiom not through any formal training, but by picking it up through daily interactions, then surely the same can be said for the gospels’ authors and dictation. After all, the only highly finessed Greek in the Gospels comes in the prologue of Luke.

    Personally though I think that Martin Hengel’s “The Four Gospels and the One Gospel of Jesus Christ” is persuasive (though perhaps not definitively so) in its argument that the titles are early and accurate. This would be the standard work in academic that defends this position, and coming from probably continental Europe’s most respected New Testament scholar of the past thirty decades should really be your main dialogue partner in this.

    Also your comment:

    “So saying that John would “learn Greek” is extremely unlikely. At most he may have learned to speak a few words and to communicate on a basic level, but there is no evidence from all of antiquity that grown adults, let alone Galilean peasants, who in all probability grew up illiterate in their own language, later learned how to author extremely complex prose in a foreign language.”

    That surely needs to be readdressed. Since Joseph Fitzmyer “The Languages of Palestine in the First Century A.D.” in 1970, the idea that there was only marginal, or only elite, awareness of Greek in Palestine has been largely abandoned. Amongst others, this was recently the topic of a very good PhD thesis at Harvard by Sang-Il Lee, and now published as “Jesus and Gospel Traditions in Bilingual Context.” He argues that knowledge of Greek suffused every level of Palestinian culture.

    • Hi Erlend,

      I have not been able to obtain a print copy of Bangal or of Johnson’s volume, which contains Thomas’ and Woolf’s articles, while I am staying in AZ; however, I did make the effort to track down electronic copies of these works at a local library to answer your request.

      From what I have read, nothing in these works suggests that rural peasants and tax collectors, even if there was a higher degree of “functional literacy or literacies” in the Roman Empire, would be able to author complex pieces of literature like the Gospels. I likewise did not find anything in them that would suggest that scribes were used for the purposes you and Jayman have been suggesting (I will discuss that further below).

      I’m guessing you asked me to read these works in order to stress that there were varying degrees of literacy in the Greek East, beyond the binary, literate or illiterate, categorization of Harris. I can agree that there was a range of literacies in certain times and regions, where poorer and less educated individuals could still be able engage with written administrative documents, to have sufficient literacy for voting procedures in Athens or Rome, to write graffiti, to communicate through rudimentary written correspondences, etc.

      However, Thomas (pg. 23) still notes a wide gap between the functional literacy of the poor versus the advanced literacy (to compose oratory, rhetoric, and literature) of the elite:

      “Gossip, oral communication, heralds, and announcements were all essential; much and was conveyed by these methods, but the ‘slow writer,’ to use the term of Roman Egypt, could hardly be equal to a member of the educated elite in their ability to master every aspect of the political system, especially as the elite could probably manipulate texts with relative ease as well compose eloquent speeches.”

      As Thomas notes, the ability to author complex speeches and oratory (such as seen in John 14-17) was largely an ability of the educated elite (not typical of a rural fisherman). As Thomas (pg. 16) also explains:

      “In ancient Athens, the line at which someone is seriously disadvantaged by poor writing skills can be drawn very low, but that does not mean that he was on an educational and political level with the elite. The educated elite, who overlapped considerably with the political leaders, had advanced literacy and cultural attainments that included mousike, music, literary knowledge, and literary composition. We therefore need to examine evidence for differing literacy skills alongside the surrounding social or political demands for writing.”

      Keep in mind that Thomas is referring to Athens, a place with a much higher common literacy rate than rural Galilee. She also notes that the level of common literacy probably declined in Athens in the 4th century BCE.

      You claim:

      “Since Joseph Fitzmyer ‘The Languages of Palestine in the First Century A.D.’ in 1970, the idea that there was only marginal, or only elite, awareness of Greek in Palestine has been largely abandoned.”

      That certainly needs to be readdressed. Mark Chancey in The Myth of a Gentile Galilee (2002) and Greco-Roman Culture and the Galilee Jesus (2005) has certainly not abandoned the idea. Chancey argues that the Greek literacy in Galilee was largely restricted to two major cities, Sepphoris and Tiberias, and that most of the rural Jews of the region had little interaction with Greek or Gentiles.

      Now to the issue of scribes. I think both you and Jayman have been far too ambiguous about how scribes could be used in authoring “literature.” Even if a hypothetically bilingual person from Galilee (contrary to Chancey’s recent studies) could have been suffused with Greek and picked up certain idioms in his surrounding culture, that does not mean that he could author a multi-chapter Gospel or that scribes were used to aid rural people for such purposes.

      Let’s be clear about the possible degrees of scribal involvement:

      First, scribes were generally used to write down dictation and to make copies of works. I have no problem with the idea that scribes were used in this way by the early church, as Paul even alludes to such scribes (Rom. 16:22; Gal. 6:11). In this situation, scribes are not “authoring” any piece of a text, as they are merely writing down what a literate person is dictating to them.

      Second, scribes were sometimes used by elite politicians (e.g. Cicero) to be delegated to write short letters and correspondences in their master’s names. E. Randolph Richards’ study of this practice is the most well known. Bart Ehrman does not agree with Richards that the early church used scribes in this way. Ehrman (Forged, pg. 136) states:

      “One very severe problem is the nature of our evidence. Virtually all of it comes from authors who were very, very wealthy and powerful and inordinately well educated.”

      Now, this level of scribal involvement that I have discussed so far only involves a scribe writing brief, secretarial letters for the named author.

      Third, could a scribe be delegated to write a lengthy, theological epistle for a church leader? This is very different from how scribes were delegated to write letters by politicians. As Ehrman (Forged, pg. 136) continues:

      “The reason this is a ‘problem’ is that the letters of early Christianity that we are concerned about – the letter of the Ephesians, for example, or 1 Peter – are not like that at all. They are lengthy treatises that deal with large and complex issues in the form of a letter … they are so much more extensive than typical letters, for example, in their theological expositions, ethical exhortations, and quotations and interpretation of Scripture.”

      Now, Ehrman is skeptical that someone like Paul would delegate to a scribe the writing of a theological epistle. Let’s say, however, that Paul could have used a scribe for such a purpose. The problem is that it would only solve one issue in the pseudonymous letters. It would not explain the contradictions in those letters with Paul’s teachings in the uncontested letters. For example, why would Paul delegate to the author of 1 Timothy to write verses demeaning the role of women in the church (1 Tim. 2:11-15) when it explicitly contradicted his own teachings elsewhere (e.g. Gal. 3:26-29)? Even if we can use the scribal theory as a patchwork ad hoc assumption to fix one leak, it does not work when there are multiple leaks in the pipe (the same will be shown to be true with the Gospels). The far more simple explanation is that, based on the internal contradictions, the authorship of 1 Timothy is wrong, it was probably not written with any involvement by Paul, and it is best explained as a forgery done in Paul’s name in order to gain authority among the pseudonymous author’s audience.

      Fourth, Ehrman is skeptical that Paul (a literate Greek-speaker) would use a scribe to author a theological epistle in his name. What you and Jayman are suggesting with a rural, Aramaic-speaking Jew using a scribe to write a much longer, multi-chapter Greek Gospel is far, far more speculative.

      You suggest the Gospels are simple works. Let’s be clear about their structural complexity and the degree to which we are asked to imagine that a scribe could aid an illiterate or only functionally literate person in authoring “literature.”

      Let’s say for the composition of the Gospel of Matthew we assume at a minimum that the author or scribe used the Gospel of Mark and the Q Gospel as sources. How much was the scribe involved?

      Was it the scribe or the tax collector who made subtle redactions about Jewish teachings in Mark? Was it the scribe or the tax collector who wove in sayings in the Q Gospel elegantly into the narrative and combined them with the previous Markan material? Was it the scribe or the tax collector who made ample and familiar quotations of the Septuagint? Was it the scribe or the tax collector who performed mimesis of OT episodes, such as modeling Jesus after Moses?

      Let’s say for the Gospel of John that the author or scribe used a Signs Gospel. Was it the rural Galilean fisherman or the scribe who wove in the seven miracles of Jesus as key markers in the narrative? Was it the scribe or a rural Galilean fisherman who composed a complex, multi-chapter final speech of Jesus in John 14-17? Was it the scribe or the rural Galilean fisherman who modeled Jesus as the Lamb of God and drew parallels between his death and the Passover lamb?

      As you can see from just the few problems I listed above, authoring the Gospels was not simple work. Can you provide any examples outside of the New Testament of scribes being used in this way? Can you provide an example where a rural individual of equal status as a fisherman, whose native language was different than the text, who was described as illiterate in outside sources (Acts 4:13), used a scribe to a “help him” author such a work that was then put in his name? Would the fisherman in this case have been considered the actual author by the standards in antiquity?

      I think by modern standards we should recognize that, even if it were plausible that persons like an illiterate fisherman or a tax collector used scribes in this way (I have not seen any ancient evidence for this), they would not be the true authors. Rather, they would act like sources, where the scribe was the actual author who was responsible for the creative work, organization, and composition of the text.

      But, once more, by relying on the scribal theory as a patchwork ad hoc assumption we have only fixed one leak in a pipe that is spouting in multiple directions. It would not explain the internal contradictions in the text. Why would a scribe need to use a tax collector like Matthew to redact Jewish teachings in a previous Gospel that had allegedly been authored by Peter’s secretary?

      It makes no sense that a scribe would use this person as a source. That’s the problem with these ad hoc assumptions about scribes. They only explain one problem in the evidence. But, as I have noted, the problems with the traditional authors are multifarious, where multiple independent categories of inquiry fail to affirm the traditional authors, not just the question of literacy.

      As for the issue of titles, yes, I am familiar with Gathercole’s article (I linked it earlier in the discussion with Jayman). I have emailed Ehrman about how to best address Hengel’s argument. Raymond Brown (An Introduction to the New Testament, pg. 158) notes that Hengel’s is the minority position in scholarship and that the standard and more accepted view is that the titles were affixed by the end of the 2nd century.

      However, even if Hengel’s theory about the titles being present in the texts earlier were correct, it would still not be sure affirmation of the traditional authors. This is because there are two other explanations for what the original titles could have meant:

      One is that the titles with the unusual κατα preposition were referring to traditions rather than authors. This possibility was noted by DagoodS in his comment above, where he points how the Gospel according to the Hebrews uses the same convention, but hardly denotes a claim to authorship.

      Another possibility is that the original titles referred to otherwise unknown and obscure people of the same names as early church figures, with whom they were later conflated. Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, after all, were not uncommon names. This possibility was noted by James Dowden in his comment above.

      I think it is worth noting that this second theory can also explain the supposed problem mentioned by Blomberg in Strobel’s book about the attributions being unlikely candidates, if they were false. Say that the original text of the Gospel of Matthew just said “Matthew.” During later doctrinal disputes, church leaders would attempt to link this person to whomever they could in the early church. So, even if a tax collector is an odd candidate for filling this role, his name is Matthew, so Matthew must have authored the Gospel. It is easy to see how this kind of logic could later conflate otherwise unknown and obscure figures with named figures in the early church.

      In fact, even Hengel agrees that this was the case in the Gospel of John, as he argues that the disciple John did not author the work, rather than John the Presbyter. So even Hengel is not sanctioning the traditional authorial attribution for the Gospel of John, even when he favors an earlier date for the titles in the Gospels. There are simply too many problems for the traditional authors, and simply having earlier titles (contrary to the majority view that they were added at the end of the 2nd century) still does little to resolve them.

  16. Pingback: This Non-Religious Life Episode 81: Of Apologists and Men | Zombie Popcorn

  17. the christian apologists say that the nt texts were uncontrolled texts, i quote

    “The textual variants in the Bible are rather larger on occasions. This is because the NT was produced as an illegal religion under Roman occupation and also because the transmission was not controlled (controlled meaning not overseen by a leader or committee).

    …because the transmission was not controlled, we have the historical ability to reconstruct the exact text of the autograph. We don’t rely on one man’s decision to codify one version and destroy the rest. So while the NT variants seem greater, historically speaking, they provide a much stronger textual foundation and assurance.”

    but if the following is correct,

    “Was it the scribe or the tax collector who made subtle redactions about Jewish teachings in Mark? Was it the scribe or the tax collector who wove in sayings in the Q Gospel elegantly into the narrative and combined them with the previous Markan material? Was it the scribe or the tax collector who made ample and familiar quotations of the Septuagint? Was it the scribe or the tax collector who performed mimesis of OT episodes, such as modeling Jesus after Moses?

    Let’s say for the Gospel of John that the author or scribe used a Signs Gospel. Was it the rural Galilean fisherman or the scribe who wove in the seven miracles of Jesus as key markers in the narrative? Was it the scribe or a rural Galilean fisherman who composed a complex, multi-chapter final speech of Jesus in John 14-17? Was it the scribe or the rural Galilean fisherman who modeled Jesus as the Lamb of God and drew parallels between his death and the Passover lamb?”

    isn’t the scribe controlling what should be mixed in the story?

    • That’s the problem with the confusion over the role of scribes. Ordinarily, scribes acted in a passive role when a text was being constructed. Their task was to write down what the author dictated to them, basically acting as type writers. Later, when texts were being reproduced, scribes would copy (if they were good, word-for-word) the autograph copy to make new copies. In this role they were acting basically as printers. Little about these roles suggests that scribes would play a creative role in the original composition of a text (at least to the extent that apologists are supposing).

      The quote you provided deals with another issue, namely later interpolations among scribes who were copying a text. Professional scribes were supposed to copy texts word-for-word; however, due to theological disputes in the Christian church, scribes would often author and insert new lines to change the original text. This was not an accepted practice in antiquity and it was seen as a dishonest corruption of the original. As for the quote you provided, only an apologist would argue that more variations between texts actually preserves accuracy. But what the passage you quoted seems to be dealing with is the effect that “controlled” transmission had on preserving an original text. If transmission was not controlled, then more variations would creep in between texts, but (allegedly) we can detect them because no one scribe could change all of the variant manuscripts. However, if there was a very early scribe (say in the 1st or early 2nd centuries) who made an interpolation, then a corruption could easily be reproduced early in the transmission process and not detected (even if there are larger and more detectable variations in later manuscripts). Carrier has a good article about this problem. Furthermore, in the case of Pauline epistles, many scholars think that they were compiled and edited at some point early in the 2nd century. Since the editor was not Paul, there likewise could have been other undetectable interpolations that were put in by an original editor.

      So, simply because the transmission of texts was ostensibly uncontrolled does not mean that there were no early and undetectable interpolations to the originals. Also, a text that was produced in a controlled environment by professional scribes would also be more likely to eliminate such early interpolations. Professional scribes, writing out of secretarial rather than theological obligations, would be less likely to insert new lines into a text (that was not accepted practice among professional scribes). Likewise, there were professional libraries in the Roman Empire to curb against such practices (which the earliest Christians did not have access to). For further discussion about the low professionalism of early Christian scribes, Barbara Aland in “The Significance of the Chester Beatty in Early Church History” (The Earliest Gospels, ed. Charles Horton) has many apt observations.

      The question of accurate transmission, however, is only one problem in the historical accuracy of a text. It is only a necessary condition that a text be accurately transmitted for it to be historically reliable. It is not a sufficient condition, since, even if a text is accurately preserved from the autograph, it still does not mean that the author’s original words were historically accurate. I have written another article about how, even if we had 100% of the autographs of the New Testament, word for word, they would still not be historically reliable, since that question depends on other criteria besides textual accuracy.

      P.S. Sorry about the slow response time. I have been swamped with graduate work lately and haven’t had much time for the blog.

  18. thank you for the reply. everyday learning something new.

  19. You are an amazingly accessible writer. I learned a lot today and look forward to seeing more. Thank you for what you are doing–and btw I love the links page; it’s led me to some new discoveries as well.

    I was once a bright-eyed, bushy-tailed fundamentalist. When I walked into my first upper-level history class in the late 1980s, something about Classical Rome, I was there specifically because I’d been told all my life that there was all this evidence for Jesus and all this contemporary stuff about him. I wanted to know about it, since nobody at church had seemed to have any but all were 100% convinced it was there. A few minutes after my new professor walked through the classroom door, I was a demolished wreck and so were all my equally bright-eyed, bushy-tailed fundagelical friends enrolled in it with me. None of us could believe our ears. She destroyed all the lame apologetics arguments we’d absorbed and tried to parrot at her, and she did it with the speed, grace, and ease with which someone’d brush a lock of errant hair away from a child’s forehead. I’d simply had no idea. I’m still learning, but it’s astonishing to me that the same ridiculous stuff that I was taught so many years ago is stuff real historians are still having to deal with. It must be terribly frustrating. Thank you for doing it, and doing it with the same speed, grace, and ease she did long ago.

    • Hey Captain Cassidy,

      Thanks for reading the blog! My goal is to make some of the knowledge I have gained from my academic work in Classics and Ancient History available to a wider audience, so that people can see that most apologetic arguments do not hold up to people actually familiar with antiquity.

      It is indeed very frustrating when wild exaggerations and over-simplifications circle around the Internet (such as claiming that there is more evidence for Jesus than Tiberius Caesar), spawned by apologists that do not even have an actual scholarly or historical interest in the subject, rather than the drive to convert as many people as they can to their religion.

      I could care less about people’s personal religious beliefs, but I do not like to see my academic discipline debased by people with religious agendas, so I work to correct such misinformation and to provide a resource that preserves the integrity of my discipline. I just hope that one day there will be better education in Ancient History at the high school and college level (such as what is now becoming more common for Evolutionary Science), so that more people can spot the fallacies and inaccuracies in apologetic arguments without having to be specialists.

      It is always nice to know that I have helped someone out with my efforts, so thanks!

  20. Pingback: I’ve Got 65 Problems, but Apologetics Ain’t One. | Roll to Disbelieve

  21. Pingback: The Four Facts of the Resurrection (Aren’t). | Roll to Disbelieve

  22. Pingback: Did Any of the Authors of the Gospels Know Jesus? - Page 24 - Religious Education Forum

  23. Pingback: Who Wrote the Bible? (Part 4) | Veracity

  24. Kanbei85 says:

    Those alleged “discrepancies” in the Bible that are listed here are all easily answered if one simply reads the text for themselves. They are outright misrepresentations. Just please read the text in context. I just did. None of those alleged discrepancies hold any water. The Bible has withstood the ignorant criticism of people for 2000 years, and it is not about to stop now. God bless.

    • Please read the scholarship cited under footnotes 13, 15, 17, and 18. Otherwise, please stop commenting if you have nothing substantial to contribute to the conversation.

      • Kanbei85 says:

        Alleged Discrepancy #1 :

        “In Acts 9:26-28, Paul travels to Jerusalem after his conversion, where Barnabas introduces him to the other apostles. However, in Paul’s own writings (Gal. 1:16-19), Paul states that he “did not consult any human being” after his conversion and did not travel to Jerusalem until three years after the event, where he only met Peter and James.”

        This is very easy to resolve- just read the texts in question. The claim that there is some kind of contradiction between the account in Acts and Paul’s account in Galatians is just vapid and ridiculous. Let’s read for ourselves what Paul says regarding his conversion:

        “For I would have you know, brothers, that the gospel that was preached by me is not man’s gospel. For I did not receive it from any man, nor was I taught it, but I received it through a revelation of Jesus Christ. For you have heard of my former life in Judaism, how I persecuted the church of God violently and tried to destroy it. And I was advancing in Judaism beyond many of my own age among my people, so extremely zealous was I for the traditions of my fathers. But when he who had set me apart before I was born, and who called me by his grace, was pleased to reveal his Son to me, in order that I might preach him among the Gentiles, I did not immediately consult with anyone; nor did I go up to Jerusalem to those who were apostles before me, but I went away into Arabia, and returned again to Damascus. Then after three years I went up to Jerusalem to visit Cephas and remained with him fifteen days. But I saw none of the other apostles except James the Lord’s brother. (In what I am writing to you, before God, I do not lie!) Then I went into the regions of Syria and Cilicia. And I was still unknown in person to the churches of Judea that are in Christ. They only were hearing it said, ‘He who used to persecute us is now preaching the faith he once tried to destroy.’ And they glorified God because of me.” (Galatians 1:11-24 ESV)

        Okay, and next the account of Acts, which the author above claims represents a discrepancy- but wait, if you read the text, it doesn’t really start at verse 26 as the author claims. The account of Paul starts earlier than that- at the very beginning of the chapter.

        “But Saul, still breathing threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord, went to the high priest and asked him for letters to the synagogues at Damascus, so that if he found any belonging to the Way, men or women, he might bring them bound to Jerusalem. Now as he went on his way, he approached Damascus, and suddenly a light from heaven shone around him. And falling to the ground he heard a voice saying to him, “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me?” And he said, “Who are you, Lord?” And he said, “I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting. But rise and enter the city, and you will be told what you are to do.” The men who were traveling with him stood speechless, hearing the voice but seeing no one. Saul rose from the ground, and although his eyes were opened, he saw nothing. So they led him by the hand and brought him into Damascus. And for three days he was without sight, and neither ate nor drank. Now there was a disciple at Damascus named Ananias. The Lord said to him in a vision, “Ananias.” And he said, “Here I am, Lord.” And the Lord said to him, “Rise and go to the street called Straight, and at the house of Judas look for a man of Tarsus named Saul, for behold, he is praying, and he has seen in a vision a man named Ananias come in and lay his hands on him so that he might regain his sight.” But Ananias answered, “Lord, I have heard from many about this man, how much evil he has done to your saints at Jerusalem. And here he has authority from the chief priests to bind all who call on your name.” But the Lord said to him, “Go, for he is a chosen instrument of mine to carry my name before the Gentiles and kings and the children of Israel. For I will show him how much he must suffer for the sake of my name.” So Ananias departed and entered the house. And laying his hands on him he said, “Brother Saul, the Lord Jesus who appeared to you on the road by which you came has sent me so that you may regain your sight and be filled with the Holy Spirit.” And immediately something like scales fell from his eyes, and he regained his sight. Then he rose and was baptized; and taking food, he was strengthened. For some days he was with the disciples at Damascus. And immediately he proclaimed Jesus in the synagogues, saying, “He is the Son of God.” And all who heard him were amazed and said, “Is not this the man who made havoc in Jerusalem of those who called upon this name? And has he not come here for this purpose, to bring them bound before the chief priests?” But Saul increased all the more in strength, and confounded the Jews who lived in Damascus by proving that Jesus was the Christ. When many days had passed, the Jews plotted to kill him, but their plot became known to Saul. They were watching the gates day and night in order to kill him, but his disciples took him by night and let him down through an opening in the wall, lowering him in a basket. And when he had come to Jerusalem, he attempted to join the disciples. And they were all afraid of him, for they did not believe that he was a disciple. But Barnabas took him and brought him to the apostles and declared to them how on the road he had seen the Lord, who spoke to him, and how at Damascus he had preached boldly in the name of Jesus. So he went in and out among them at Jerusalem, preaching boldly in the name of the Lord. And he spoke and disputed against the Hellenists. But they were seeking to kill him. And when the brothers learned this, they brought him down to Caesarea and sent him off to Tarsus.” (Acts 9:1-30 ESV)

        As you may have already noticed by now, this account does not actually conflict with Paul’s account. Paul says he didn’t immediately consult with anyone after his experience. The account of Acts confirms this, mentioning that he was in Damascus praying immediately afterward. So that allegation falls flat. What about the allegation that there is a discrepancy between the two concerning when Paul arrived in Jerusalem? Well, Paul gives the specific time period- three years- while the Acts account doesn’t give any specific figure, but just a vague statement of “after many days” and “when he had come to Jerusalem”. Where’s this supposed contradiction? It’s not there. What about the issue of whom he met with? Same story. Paul is specific, while Luke, writing in Acts, is more vague. Luke only says “Barnabas took him and brought him to the apostles…” That’s just a very vague, cursory statement, and in no way can be construed as a contradiction of Paul’s statement that he met only Peter and James. Simple stuff to get through, but this is what a person must do when confronted with the myriad of false allegations against the Bible that exist on the internet today.

        • Footnote 17 states:

          ‘Fitzmyer (Acts of the Apostles, pgs. 438-439) elaborates further about this passage, “Luke reports the first visit of Saul to Jerusalem after his flight from Damascus (9:26-29; cf. 22:17; 26:20). It is the first of five, or possibly six, postconversion visits to Jerusalem that will be enumerated (the counting depends on a problematic variant reading). Whether they are all individually historical is problematic. It may be that Luke, dependent on different sources, has historicized and individualized some of the visits, when he should rather have realized that he had inherited more than one record of the same visit … In any case, the first postconversion visit of Saul to Jerusalem in Acts is to be taken as that reported in Gal 1:18: ‘Then after three years I went up to Jerusalem to consult Cephas, and I stayed with him for fifteen days.’ That means ‘three years’ after his experience on the road to Damascus.” As scholar Christopher Matthews (Oxford Annotated Bible, pg. 1937) concludes, “In Gal. 1:18 Paul states that his first visit to Jerusalem was three years after his conversion. Luke associates Paul with Jerusalem from the beginning.”’

          Those are scholarly, not internet sources. You in contrast are using logical pretzels to ignore a conclusion that would be reached for any secular text. “After many days” does not equal “three years later.”

          • Kanbei85 says:

            As I just showed you, Luke does most certainly not “associate Paul with Jerusalem from the beginning.” That’s not what the text says. Luke clearly indicates the passage of time from Paul being in Damascus to going to Jerusalem, albeit using vague terminology. Vagueness juxtaposed with specific details is NOT a contradiction. Nothing I’ve said is remotely like a “logical pretzel.” Just simple, straightforward reading of the text- NOT a biased reading looking for reasons to cry foul. One finds what one looks for.

          • The Oxford Annotated Bible is more reliable than your rationalizations of a contradiction recognized by scholars.

  25. Kanbei85 says:

    Ok, don’t bother actually considering my points and responding accordingly, just keep repeating that you got it from a “trustworthy source”. That’s not good enough, sorry. That “trustworthy source” has obviously let you down. It’s claims are falling flat upon the most cursory examination.

    • I’m just not going to buy a highly strained reading of the text to avoid a contradiction. If people create ad hoc assumptions and make excuses to avoid using methodology that would be employed for any secular text, then I do not buy it. I realize that you don’t want your holy book to have contradictions, but critical scholars aren’t restricted by that bias.

      Gal. 1:15-17 states:

      “But when God, who set me apart from my mother’s womb and called me by his grace, was pleased to reveal his Son in me so that I might preach him among the Gentiles, my immediate response was not to consult any human being. I did not go up to Jerusalem to see those who were apostles before I was, but I went into Arabia. Later I returned to Damascus.”

      Acts 9:3-8 states:

      “Now as he went on his way, he approached Damascus, and suddenly a light from heaven shone around him. And falling to the ground he heard a voice saying to him, “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me?” And he said, “Who are you, Lord?” And he said, “I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting. But rise and enter the city, and you will be told what you are to do.” The men who were traveling with him stood speechless, hearing the voice but seeing no one. Saul rose from the ground, and although his eyes were opened, he saw nothing. So they led him by the hand and brought him into Damascus.”

      So, apparently Paul went to Arabia in between when he was approaching Damascus and when his travel companions “led him by hand and brought him into Damascus”? Sure, you can say, maybe they brought Paul to Damascus, and then he went to Arabia. But wait, Acts says nothing about that. It says that he staid a “days” in Damascus and then went to Jerusalem.

      Hence scholar Christopher Matthews (Oxford Annotated Bible, pg. 1937) concludes:

      “In Gal. 1:18 Paul states that his first visit to Jerusalem was three years after his conversion. Luke associates Paul with Jerusalem from the beginning.”

      Galatians 1:18-19 states:

      “Then after three years I went up to Jerusalem to visit Cephas and remained with him fifteen days. But I saw none of the other apostles except James the Lord’s brother.”

      Acts 9:23-27 states:

      “After many days had gone by, there was a conspiracy among the Jews to kill him, but Saul learned of their plan. Day and night they kept close watch on the city gates in order to kill him. But his followers took him by night and lowered him in a basket through an opening in the wall. When he came to Jerusalem, he tried to join the disciples, but they were all afraid of him, not believing that he really was a disciple. But Barnabas took him and brought him to the apostles.”

      Apparently “after many days had gone by” must refer to around 1,000 days, under your interpretation, since Paul says he did not go to Jerusalem until three years after his conversion. But when the number of days is so large as to contain multiple intervals of 365 days, you wouldn’t say “after many days had gone by.” You would say, “after some years had gone by.” Again, this is just straining your interpretation of the text to avoid an obvious discrepancy in the dating between the two accounts.

      The author of Acts also has discrepancies in whom Paul met (Barnabas and the disciples, versus Paul’s own word of only Peter and James, and no one other apostles), which you just brush off as more “vagueness.”

      Again, as ‘Fitzmyer (Acts of the Apostles, pgs. 438-439), a scholar whom you are ignoring, points out:

      “It may be that Luke, dependent on different sources, has historicized and individualized some of the visits, when he should rather have realized that he had inherited more than one record of the same visit…”

      That is the answer for the “vagueness” that you keep appealing to. The author of Acts was dependent on a variety of source material and confused Paul’s itinerary in a number of places. This is just one that we can see a clear contradiction for in Paul’s letters. Such things also happened in secular texts and scholars recognize them as errors and contradictions, as I explain in my article about Bible contradictions:

      https://adversusapologetica.wordpress.com/2013/05/01/bible-contradictions-why-are-they-there-what-do-they-entail/

      • Kanbei85 says:

        Your subjective and obviously biased statement that my reading is “highly strained” just doesn’t carry any weight, and sounds more like desperation tactics to people who are not so personally invested as you obviously are in tearing apart God’s Word. My reading is not strained, and it didn’t take me any time to cook it up. I just read your claim, then I read the text, and I took the natural and obvious reading which clears up any discrepancy.

        “So, apparently Paul went to Arabia in between when he was approaching Damascus and when his travel companions “led him by hand and brought him into Damascus?”

        Luke omits any overt mention of Paul’s trip to Arabia- although Damascus would have been either part of that region itself or extremely near to its border- and Paul’s testimony that he did go there first before entering the city of Damascus is not contradictory to Luke’s account. It’s also relevant to note that your translation isn’t very literal to the original Greek when it says “Later I returned to Damascus.” The word “later” is not there in the text- it’s the Greek word “kai” which means “and”. In other words, Paul may have been considering Damascus as part of Arabia, and his comment about Damascus is a clarification, rather than an addition, to the statement about going to Arabia. Either way, it’s not a contradiction.

        “Apparently “after many days had gone by” must refer to around 1,000 days, since Paul says he did not go to Jerusalem until three years after his conversion. ”

        Indeed. And where’s the contradiction there?

        “The author of Acts also has discrepancies in who Paul met. ”

        I already addressed that. It’s not a discrepancy. Luke’s account doesn’t give specifics, while Paul does. Not a contradiction.

        “That is the answer for the “vagueness” that you keep appealing to. ”

        Not an answer, just liberal, anti-Christian speculation without proof of any actual contradiction.

        • You state:

          “Your subjective and obviously biased statement that my reading is “highly strained” just doesn’t carry any weight, and sounds more like desperation tactics to people who are not so personally invested as you obviously are in tearing apart God’s Word”

          And:

          “Not an answer, just liberal, anti-Christian speculation without proof of any actual contradiction.”

          Kanbei85, please see my Comment Policy. If you can’t behave respectfully, this conversation is over. I have more important things to do on a Friday night.

          [Incidentally, as someone who has taught university courses on ancient Greek before, here is what Gal. 1:17 states in Greek:

          ουδε ανηλθον εις Ιεροσολυμα προς τους προ εμου αποστολους, αλλα απηλθον εις Αραβίαν, και παλιν υπεστρεψα εις Δαμασκον.

          “I did not go up into Jerusalem to those who were apostles before me, but went away into Arabia, and returned back again into Damascus.”

          What Kanbei85 apparently doesn’t understand, is that to go εις Αραβιαν (“into Arabia”) and παλιν υπεστρεψα “to return back again” εις Δαμασκον (“into Damascus”) is a clear reference to going into one region and back into another.

          So when Kanbei85 states:

          “In other words, Paul may have been considering Damascus as part of Arabia, and his comment about Damascus is a clarification, rather than an addition, to the statement about going to Arabia.”

          He is actually completely straining the Greek to avoid acknowledge that Paul is indicating a separate trip into Arabia and then a return to Damascas.]

          • Justin says:

            Matthew – I am continually impressed by the thoughtfulness and thoroughness in which you engage those who comment on your posts — even on an older thread such as this. While this particular commentator may not have produced the most intellectually rich conversation I’ve read on your site, it was an entertaining, albeit frustrating, read.

            If there is one thing that Kanbei85 can teach us it is indeed a master class on confirmation bias. One needs to look no further than his own words, “One finds what one looks for.”

            Indeed Kanbei85, indeed.

          • Hey Justin,

            Indeed, part of the reason that I hold comments in moderation is so that I have enough to time engage comments and answer them thoroughly. When comments are unmoderated, discussion threads can easily stack up, and it can be hard to answer everything. I think that good questions or comments deserve thought-out answers, especially on a blog like this, which is designed to give people information that is not always clear or easily available elsewhere.

            As for Kanbei85, when someone drops in throwing out words like “ignorant” in their first post (especially when Kanbei85’s first post was completely non-substantive, and his later argumentative ones were only reactions to me pointing out that fact), it’s very clear that they are not out for a discussion, but want to rebuke or criticize people who do not share their inerrancy. So, when Kanbei85 saw the word “contradiction” or “discrepancy,” he had to employ the typical “confirmation bias” (as you noted) to selectively read the texts in ways that could harmonize the accounts, no matter how improbable.

            This can especially be seen in Kanbei85’s insistence that “many days” = “3 years,” despite the fact that when the number of days has easily exceeded 365, people don’t say “many days” anymore rather than “years.” Likewise, the notion that Paul wasn’t writing about a separate trip into Arabia (which Acts makes no mention of) completely strains the Greek. But, those are the kind of mental gymnastics that have to be done to harmonize Bible contradictions. I am just always amazed at how they never realize that scholars would never take such leaps for secular texts, which we acknowledge can have contradictions…

          • Justin says:

            Hi Matthew,

            Thanks for the response. Not to belabor this thread any longer but I think there’s a point from your exchange with Kanbei85 worth underscoring as it speaks to a broader issue. Entangled with the strained interpretations, dismissive responses and heavy biases is the clear assertion that you, and by association the scholarship you reference, have some sort of agenda to “tear apart God’s Word” (as you quoted in your last response to him). I bring this up not to pick on Kanbei85 (in fact, I’m done with that portion of the discussion) but rather to highlight the pernicious thought process that underlies his arguments.

            I realize this is a bit of a digression but, in my opinion, this clearly illustrates a key problem we have in today’s society. Too many people outsource their critical faculties to religion or religious leaders, politicians and pundits. This lack of critical thought leads to closed-mindedness and a general unwillingness to look at facts and engage in substantive discussions. Instead we get defensiveness, entrenchment and ideas of conspiratorial agendas. People become prisoners of their own confirmation bias and cognitive dissonance (a condition I spent my whole life in until 2-3 years ago).

            In some ways this relates to your most recent blog post. You asked your readers their opinion about the timing of your book project. It almost seems selfish for one to advise you to prioritize the book while you’re juggling a daunting set of career milestones. However, I think you have a lot to add to the counter-apologetics discussion and historical awareness in general. Personally speaking, I’ve learned a tremendous amount from your writings (I may even enjoy the back and forth in the comments as much as the posts themselves). I very much appreciate that you put history first and explain facts that have been abused and mangled in the meat grinder of apologetics. So, anything you can do to keep facilitating the conversation and pushing people to think will, hopefully, go a long way. I guess that is my long-winded way of saying I vote for the book sooner than later.

            Cheers

          • Hey Justin,

            I think the problem that you describe is common among the Religious Right (especially in the US), where ideology and what one wants to be true has taken priority over critical thinking and the examination of evidence.

            We see this in science: don’t like evolution because it doesn’t align with Genesis and your holy book? Live in denial of the scientific consensus of the biological community. We see it in politics: don’t like safe sex education and birth control because it goes against your social conservatism? Try to direct government policies against such things, even though they are empirically demonstrated to benefit society. We also see it in the special pleading that they use while interpreting the Bible as an ancient text: don’t like the fact that the Bible teaches barbaric and outdated social norms, has blatant legendary elements, and contains contradictions between different authors? Become an apologist and an artisan at special pleading, motivated reasoning, and confirmation bias.

            The reality is that since many people “want” the Bible and their religion to be true, there will always be apologetics used to bend the evidence towards fitting that conclusion, rather than going openly wherever the evidence leads.

            When it comes to DC, a book like this is highly needed to set aside all of the special pleading and finally address that question: could it simply be that Christianity is genuinely false and that all of the apologetic arguments and attempts to prove otherwise are ultimately unsound? I think that a fully reasonable person can examine all the evidence and honestly reach that conclusion.

            Figuring out how to structure a book like this is tricky business, however. I am thinking about taking a break from the book for a year, until I pass all of my PHD exams, and then writing this book alongside my dissertation. I could work DC into a sort of counter-apologetics textbook. Such a thing does not presently exist and is greatly need in secular academia, IMO, mostly because apologists are publishing apologetic textbooks. People should be able to have access to counter-arguments and positions, especially when they are more mainstream among scholars (such as in the case of the Gospels being anonymous).

            Taking a year off would also give me better perspective on where to take a book like this, so I am thinking that is the next step for now.

  26. Reader says:

    “…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.”

    How do scholars know of the death of Jesus?

    • Hey Reader,

      The current majority view in mainstream scholarship is that Jesus existed a historical person. Some qualified scholars, such as ancient historian Richard Carrier, have challenged this view and argued that there is a case to be made against Jesus’ historicity. Carrier, in my opinion, makes the best case against historicity produced yet in his new book On the Historicity of Jesus Christ.

      Carrier’s arguments, however, are rather new, and the dominant view of historical scholarship for the last 150 years is that Jesus was a real person. Perhaps this view will change, but that will be for future scholarship to settle.

      As it stands, I also favor the view that Jesus existed as a historical person. The reason why is that I am not fully convinced, at this point, that I would doubt the historicity of another ancient figure who had the same historical situation as Jesus. I agree more with the mainstream view that the Jesus depicted in the New Testament is a mixture of fiction with a few kernels of fact. I agree most with the position advanced by scholars, such as Dale Allison and Bart Ehrman, that Jesus was most likely an obscure and itinerant apocalyptic prophet, whose alleged resurrection and deeds were exaggerated and turned into legend after his death.

      But, that is your question: how do scholars know the death of Jesus?

      Paul mentions Jesus’ death in 1 Corinthians 15:3, and alludes to the manner of death being crucifixion in Galatians 3:13 and 6:12. Scholars date Galatians from the late-40’s to mid-50’s CE. 1 Corinthians is dated from the mid-50’s to late-50’s CE. Scholars further conjecture that the mention of Jesus’ death in 1 Cor. 15:3 belongs to an earlier, pre-Pauline creed (1 Cor. 15:3-7), which may date to around the mid-30’s CE (Paul claims to have “received” the creed, but did not convert until around the mid-30’s CE).

      These vague references, however, are not of much help in establishing the dates for when Jesus lived and died. All of the Gospels agree that Jesus was crucified when Pontius Pilate was Roman governor of Judea (c. 26 – 36 CE).

      Luke 3:1 claims that Jesus began his ministry in the 15th year of the reign of Tiberius Caesar (29 CE). Jesus is then crucified after a year of ministry in Luke’s narrative (30 CE). However, in the Gospel of John, there are three years of Jesus’ ministry, suggesting the date was 33 CE. Luke and Matthew also disagree about the date of Jesus’ birth. Matthew places it before the death of Herod the Great in 4 BCE, but Luke places it at 6 CE during the census of Quirinius.

      Because Matthew, Luke, and John all have important disagreements about dates (in addition to Mark’s vagueness about dates), most scholars shy away from assigning a precise date to Jesus’ death. Instead, a broad date range is more likely to be accurate (if not precise), and so scholars go with the minimal details that the Gospels do agree upon. Namely, they all agree that Jesus died when Pontius Pilate was governor, which would establish a broad date range for Jesus death between 26-36 CE.

      The Gospels, as the Oxford Annotated Bible notes, are agreed by scholars to have been written during the 70-90’s CE (many scholars are also starting to favor second century dates for Luke-Acts and John). If Jesus died sometime c. 26-36 CE, and the Gospels were written 70-90 CE, then the Gospels would date to about 40-60 years after Jesus’ death.

      Of course, sources later than the Gospels contain more discrepancies about dates. Irenaeus (Demonstration of the Apostolic Preaching 74) dated Jesus’ death to the 40’s CE, during the reign of Claudius Caesar. Epiphanius (Panarion 29), in the 4th century CE, knew of a group of Christians called the “Nazorians” who believed instead that Jesus had actually been killed over a hundred years earlier, during the reign of Alexander Jannaeus (103-76 BCE).

      Typically, scholars reject these later apocryphal dates as legendary and inaccurate, and instead favor the minimal date range, which is reached by the Gospels’ agreement that Jesus died during the governorship of Pontius Pilate (26-36 CE). This is because scholars generally agree that the canonical Gospels (particularly the Synoptic Gospels) probably contain more kernels about the life of the historical Jesus than Irenaeus or later “heretical” Christian sects.

      But, as you can see from the discussion above, dating anything in the life of Jesus is messy business, and the New Testament accounts are filled with discrepancies. If one accepts that there are a few historical kernels in the Gospels, however, then their agreement upon Jesus’ death during the reign of Pilate doesn’t seem all too improbable. After all, Pilate must have executed a number of obscure Jews when he was governor. I would hold off from saying that we can “know” when Jesus died, but I do think that the broad date range suggested above is not so improbable.

  27. Reader says:

    Hi Mathew,

    Thanks very much for your thoughtful reply.

    I see that right of the bat you indicate the current position of mainstream scholarship concerning the historicity of Jesus. Though that was on my mind when I asked my question it was not at the forefront (yet:).

    What was more on my mind was to get at the very “raw data” that NT scholars claim that they work with. What is the facts that are at the foundation of their starting or unstated assumptions.
    I am presently going through Michael’s Grants ‘Jesus: An Historian’s Review of the Gospels’
    and found that he is essentially arguing circularly; using the Gospels to prove the Gospels.

    I genuinely do not want to come off as pedantic but as said to get to the bedrock of facts is my intention.

    “Paul mentions Jesus’ death in 1 Corinthians 15:3, and alludes to the manner of death being crucifixion in Galatians 3:13 and 6:12”

    How have scholars grappled with the observation in many quarters that Paul seemed on the surface of it to have no interest in a “real person Jesus”? If this is correct, must we take at face value this statement of Paul in 1 Corinthians? What external evidence apart from the letters of Paul (and the Gospels) confirm Jesus’s death? Who is this Paul? Was he a contemporary with Jesus? Are there any primary sources that place him in this historical period?….What do mainstream scholars think of the works of Herman Detering and Darrell Doughty? Would their conclusions if true invalidate this starting point about the death of Jesus?…

    Since Jesus’s death is assumed under Pontius would it not require Government records that mention the execution of a fairly popular rabble rouser (Jesus) to establish this?
    Further can we even consider the Gospels contemporaneous records and hence primary sources to even establish and accept their statement about the death of Jesus under Pontius Pilate?

    “This is because scholars generally agree that the canonical Gospels (particularly the Synoptic Gospels) probably contain more kernels about the life of the historical Jesus than Irenaeus or later “heretical” Christian sects.”

    Is this not giving traditional preference for the Gospels seeing that so many existed and others that are now considered spurious were once regarded as authentic. Randal Helms – Gospel Fictions comes to mind for this discussion, also Who wrote the the Gospels – Burton L. Mack.

    “But, as you can see from the discussion above, dating anything in the life of Jesus is messy business”.

    Agreed. The matter of dating manuscripts is also another area where I would like to dig down to the root of the matter.

    How does one go about separating historical kernels from essentially faith documents?
    Questiosns, questions…:)

    Tangentially, have you read anything by A.J Woodman that would make you reconsider the nature of Thucydides writings? I am presently reading his ‘Rhetoric in Classical Historiography’
    He seem to be onto something that there was/is a literary component to Thucydides writings and not just the perceived pioneering approach to writing history.

    Thanks again and keep on publishing very informative material.

    • Hey Reader,

      I’ll try to answer some of your questions:

      “What was more on my mind was to get at the very “raw data” that NT scholars claim that they work with. What is the facts that are at the foundation of their starting or unstated assumptions. I am presently going through Michael’s Grants ‘Jesus: An Historian’s Review of the Gospels’ and found that he is essentially arguing circularly; using the Gospels to prove the Gospels.”

      As far as “raw data,” John Dominic Crossan in The Historical Jesus provides four strata of sources for Jesus (30-60; 60-80; 80-120; 120-150 CE) that lays out the relevant materials, though the reliability and interpretation of all of these sources is disputable. I also discuss the raw sources of Jesus in comparison to other, more established, historical figures, in my articles “Ten Reasons to Reject the 10/42 Apologetic” and “Yet Another Case of Apologetic Dishonesty in Lee Strobel’s The ‘Case for Christ’: The Historical Evidence for Alexander the Great versus that of Jesus of Nazareth.”

      With regards to the Gospels in particular:

      This question touches on the issue of whether we should doubt texts until we have reasons to believe, or believe texts until we have reasons to doubt. Apologists like Craig Blomberg have argued that the Gospels should be given the benefit of the doubt, unless there is some outside reason to doubt them.

      Now, I do not at all buy this approach (I consider it rather naïve and a false dichotomy), nor would I use such methodology for any secular text. Instead, in my article “Methodological Approaches to Ancient History” I provide a set of criteria whereby historians can evaluate the historical reliability of ancient texts.

      Here is the problem: normally historians do not assume that most ancient texts have “no” historical value. Even texts like the Iliad are trusted for details about 8th century BCE Greece. Nor do historians assume that texts are inerrant (like many apologists assume about the Bible), but generally agree that most ancient texts include mixtures of fact and fiction (with varying levels in between).

      In like manner, scholars also agree that there are many fictional elements in the Gospels, but to claim that there are “no” kernels of truth at all runs the risk of being more skeptical of the Gospels than other ancient texts.

      Personally, I think, if the Gospels were written 40-60 years after the death of a figure that they claim was historical, that some kernels of truth could have been preserved in that time. However, as I note in my article, “Ancient Historical Writing Compared to the Gospels of the New Testament,” the Gospels do not tell us about where they got their sources or information, nor do they explain their methodology. As such, it is very difficult to sort out fiction from fact in the Gospels.

      For this reason, I tend to be a historical minimalist in the case of Jesus and the Gospels. I think that it is plausible that the Gospels contain a number of historical kernels, but I also think that they are so contaminated by fictional stories that it makes it difficult to know what is fact and what is fiction. However, that does not mean that there are no plausible historical kernels, even if they cannot be identified with good probability.

      “How have scholars grappled with the observation in many quarters that Paul seemed on the surface of it to have no interest in a “real person Jesus”?”

      This is a big question, which NT scholar Bart Ehrman discusses in his blog thread “Why Doesn’t Paul Say More About Jesus?” to get started on the issue:

      http://ehrmanblog.org/why-doesnt-paul-say-more-about-jesus/

      Also worth noting that Paul is an independent and earlier source than the Gospels for the historical Jesus. Most scholars think that Paul does refer to Jesus as a historical person when he makes references to his “brother” James (Gal. 1:19) and crucifixion (Gal. 3:13), though mythicists interpret these passages differently. That said, as you noted, Paul says very little about Jesus, and he does not corroborate the later exaggerations and legendary material in the Gospels.

      “What external evidence apart from the letters of Paul (and the Gospels) confirm Jesus’s death?”

      Jesus’ death is also mentioned in our surviving texts of Josephus and Tacitus. There is debate over whether Josephus’ passage is entirely forged or only partially forged, so that it is difficult to know whether his mention of Jesus’ death is genuine. Tacitus’ passage is less disputed, but he was probably dependent on Christian sources for his information. The Talmud also mentions Jesus’ death much later.

      All of these sources are problematic and probably dependent on earlier Christian claims. See this article.

      “Since Jesus’s death is assumed under Pontius would it not require Government records that mention the execution of a fairly popular rabble rouser (Jesus) to establish this?”

      I don’t know if we have government records for any crucified person from this time. As such, we shouldn’t ask for this kind of evidence in the case of Jesus. A lot of stuff from antiquity has been lost, so that we can’t always expect things like government documents. However, I do discuss when such silences are relevant in my article “Outside Corroboration As a Historical Criterion and the Validity of Arguments from Silence.”

      “Is this not giving traditional preference for the Gospels seeing that so many existed and others that are now considered spurious were once regarded as authentic.”

      Most of the apocryphal Gospels (with the possible exception of the Gospel of Thomas) were written even later than the canonical Gospels and contain even more legendary elements. For this reason, they are considered less reliable, but I wouldn’t call this “traditional preference,” rather than the acknowledgement that the apocryphal Gospels are in an even worse historical situation.

      “How does one go about separating historical kernels from essentially faith documents?”

      It’s a big problem, and historians have offered a variety of methodologies to try to do it. I am skeptical that we can fully “separate” truth from fact in the Gospels.

      However, take notice that this is not saying that there are “no” historical kernels in the Gospels. Rather, I am saying that we cannot know for most issues what is fiction and what is fact. For this reason, our ability to know anything about Jesus is limited, but that does not mean that there are no kernels of truth in the text, even if unsortable.

      “Tangentially, have you read anything by A.J Woodman that would make you reconsider the nature of Thucydides writings?”

      I’ve read and interacted with Woodman’s works on Velleius Paterculus and Tacitus, but not Thucydides. He is a great historian, so I will have to see what he says about Thucydides when I find the time.

  28. hello

    how can one prove that matthew had the short ending of mark available to him? the only thing i can think of is that he reversed the actions and emotions of the women . is matthew using marks greek wording even when he alters mark?

    • Hey MrQuestioner,

      We do not possess any manuscripts of Mark that date to the 1st century CE, so that we cannot know exactly what the author of Matthew had access to when he wrote his gospel (c. 90 CE).

      However, our earliest manuscripts of Mark do not contain the longer ending (in addition to the fact that the language and themes of the longer ending is completely unlike the rest of Mark), so that we can be certain with very high probability that the longer ending is a later interpolation.

      In fact, one of the ways that we know is that there are actually multiple extended endings to Mark. I will discuss the two best-attested ones:

      The longer ending that I believe you are referring to (Mark 16:9-20) was probably added sometime in the 2nd century CE. As the Oxford Annotated Bible (pgs. 1824-1825) notes, “These sentences borrow some motifs from the other Gospels and contain several unusual apocryphal elements.” They are clearly later interpolations to the text, which were added after the other Gospels (including Matthew) were written.

      There is also another (shorter) extended ending to Mark 16:8, which reads:

      “Then they briefly reported all this to Peter and his companions. Afterward Jesus himself sent them out from east to west with the sacred and unfailing message of salvation that gives eternal life. Amen.”

      This extended ending contains far less unusual things than other one (e.g. being able to handle snakes and drink poison, like in Mk 16:18). However, it is actually an even later addition than the other extended ending! As the Oxford Annotated Bible (pg. 1824) notes, this endings “was evidently not added before the fourth century CE.”

      So, since these longer endings don’t appear in all manuscripts, contain different language and style than the rest of Mark, and likewise contain multiple versions, we can be confident that they did not belong to the autograph of Mark or any 1st century CE copy of Mark.

      Since that is the case, the author of Matthew (c. 90 CE) would have only had the shorter ending available to him.

      • is it true that the invented added endings appear MORE in the WESTERN parts of christianity than the eastern parts ?

        if it was KNOWN more in the western locations and hardly KNOWN in the eastern locations, then can one make an argument that added endings MUST have been invented in the western locations of christianity?

        • Hi MrQuestioner,

          Richard Carrier has a great online article summarizing both the textual and external witnesses for Mark 16:9-20, which traces how it was included in the canon:

          http://www.errancywiki.com/index.php?title=Legends2#The_Manuscripts:_Textual_Evidence

        • White says:

          The definitive book on the endings of Mark is James Snapp’s. First edition can be read here:
          http://www.textexcavation.com/snapp/PDF/snappmark.pdf

          • Hi White,

            While I haven’t read Snapp’s work and will thus refrain from criticism, he has not written the “definitive” book on this topic. If so, then the vast majority of textual commentaries would not still consider Mk. 16.9-20 to be inauthentic. Here is the website to the church that Snapp is a pastor at, which places his textual criticism essays alongside “pro-life” essays. No offense intended, but I’m not sure that I would go to him for the mainstream view on these verses.

            Dr. William Farmer in The Last Twelve Verses of Mark makes a case for the authenticity of Mk. 16.9-20 still being an “open question” in NT textual criticism, which was at least published by Cambridge University Press, but has not changed the opinion of the large majority of textual critics about the ending of Mark.

            Here is what leading textual expert and Christian scholar Bruze Metzger (A Textual Commentary on the Greek New Testament) has to say about the authenticity of the longer ending to Mark:

            “On the basis of good external evidence and strong internal considerations it appears that the earliest ascertainable form of the Gospel
            of Mark ended with 16.8.”

            I will note that Snapp has criticized the essay from Carrier that I quoted above, claiming that it contains “dozens of errors and inaccuracies,” to which Carrier asked him to email him his concerns and alleged errors. I am not sure if they have communicated or debated the issue since.

            But, since I have not read Snapp’s work, and since this particular article on my blog is not about textual criticism on the ending of Mark, I would ask that further discussion on this issue be taken elsewhere. Emailing Snapp on what errors he thinks are in Carrier’s arguments could be a start, and then you could email Carrier for his response. They would both have more to say than I.

            Right now I have Greek and Latin Ph.D. qualifying exams to study for, so I’m not going to get embroiled further. Suffice it to say, until the consensus view among textual critics about the authenticity of Mk. 16:9-20 is changed, from the opinion of Metzger’s quoted above, which is still the mainstream, I will consider these verses to very likely be inauthentic and not part of the original ending of Mark.

  29. White says:

    Inasmuch as you refuse to even read the definitive work on this subject, even after being informed that there are blatant errors in the works you have been hitherto relying on, there is no sense in interacting any further with you. I will not be commenting further until you have read Mr. Snapp’s book in its entirety and publicly interacted with his accusations of inaccuracy in other current books on the subject.

    • “I will not be commenting further until you have read Mr. Snapp’s book in its entirety and publicly interacted with his accusations of inaccuracy in other current books on the subject.”

      That’s fine. I told you that I am busy with studying for my Latin and Greek Ph.D. exams right now. Also, I don’t know what you mean by “blatant errors,” since Mr. Snapp identified none of them in his comment on Carrier’s blog. If anyone wants to read Mr. Snapp’s arguments they can consult the link you posted.

  30. Pingback: A Post-Holiday Season Reflection on the Life of Jesus | Diary of a Twenty-Something

  31. Pingback: Michael Wolter, Martin Hengel, and the Titles of the Gospels | German for Neutestamentler

    • This is a great post summarizing the arguments of NT scholar Michael Wolter, who explains why the Gospels’ traditional titles could not have been added until, at the earliest, the first half of the 2nd century CE. Wolter explains that the formula “κατά (“according to”) + the author” only makes sense when multiple gospels were in circulation and the different names were used to distinguish different gospels from one another.

      Bart Ehrman has also recently argued that the titles were added sometime after 150 CE (after Justin Martyr) and before 185 CE (when Irenaeus attributed the traditional names). Ehrman notes that Irenaeus attributes the same names that are found in the Muratorian Canon (170-200 CE), and points out that both were from the Western half of the Roman Empire. Ehrman thus theorizes that a special edition of the Gospels was probably published in Rome c. 150-185 CE. This edition probably included the four canonical Gospels and added the titles that they are now associated with to distinguish them from one another. Likewise, the edition’s probable location of publication in Rome can explain why the titles were adopted by churches all throughout the empire, since the Roman church was particularly influential and authoritative by the time of the 2nd century CE.

  32. Biblical scholar James McGrath has recently written a blog post discussing this article. In the post McGrath discusses my comparison of the authorial traditions of the Gospels with Tacitus, and asks a couple of questions about whether other ancient works, besides the Gospels, may have originally circulated anonymously:

    “A discussion here on this blog brought up the question of whether other ancient works may, like the Gospels, have initially circulated without an author being indicated, with the attribution to the author being added only subsequently to the manuscript tradition.

    This led to a blog post by Matthew Ferguson, which made comparisons to the works of Tacitus, which may not have named him as author when first published.

    Since the manuscripts that we have of ancient texts are usually much later copies, I wonder how much we know about the titles and attributions of authorship that works carried when they were first circulated. The Gospels may be rare in not having what could be called titles. But are they rare in having the names of their authors added to them only later? Do we have any evidence from ancient authors who describe what one found on typical manuscripts of books?”

    I am glad that Dr. McGrath asked these important questions, and I responded with the following comment on his post:

    “Hey Dr. McGrath,

    Thanks for linking to my posts! One thing that I think is important to note is that the process of composition and publication was probably not uniform throughout the Roman Empire in the 1st century CE. Sophisticated literary works published in Rome, for example, were publicly recited by the author (or someone on behalf of the author), and were copied by professional book dealers and kept in public libraries. In other parts of the empire and in other genres of literature, the publication process could be considerably less sophisticated and more anonymous.

    In the case of Tacitus, Pliny (6.16;6.20) knew that Tacitus was the author of his Histories before he even published it, and Tacitus was also probably communicating with others in high literary circles besides Pliny. I am not sure whether Tacitus’ name was originally included in early manuscript copies of his Histories (I think it probably was), but it is likely that book dealers and libraries would have identified him as the author of the work. Likewise, when his Histories was first recited in Rome, he would have been known as the author through that is well.

    I think it is safe to say, therefore, that authors who wrote in high literary circles — such as Tacitus, Livy, Plutarch, etc. — would have been well-known as the authors of their works from the beginning of their publication.

    However, there were also lower literary circles and genres of literature in which authorship was less known. For example, in the genre of ancient biography, there were scholarly, historical biographies that were written in high literary circles (e.g. those of Plutarch and Suetonius), and there were other forms of more popular biographies, written for a more general audience, that circulated in lower literary circles. This second kind was far more often anonymous.

    As Tomas Hägg (The Art of Biography in Antiquity, pg. 99) explains:

    “Simultaneously with the emergence of a bookish form of biography in the late classical and Hellenistic periods, vital biographic traditions were in progress at an oral or subliterary level, concerning in the first place legendary figures of great popular appeal … In contrast to the Lives treated in the previous chapter, which are the works of distinctive authors and largely remain under authorial control, these are anonymous; and they are ‘open texts’, with regard to origin as well as transmission.”

    I think, therefore, that when we talk about issues of authorship, we need to consider more factors than just the titles or whether an author’s name is included in the text. We also have to consider things like genre of literature, and which literary circles and methods of publications had more authorial control.

    In the case of the Gospels, I think that their situation is more analogous to popular biographies. For example, as Hägg notes, popular biographies operated far more as ‘open texts’ and could thus be subject to expansion, redaction, and adaptation. We see this in the Gospels when Matthew borrows from 80% of the verses in Mark, and Luke borrows from 65% of the verses. Biographers like Plutarch and Suetonius did not write that way. Sophisticated biographies were more concerned with demonstrating authorial research and talent, and thus they did not just lift their material from previous texts. Instead, Plutarch and Suetonius wrote in far more unique styles that were associated with them as individual authors.

    Also, as Ehrman notes, the Gospels were originally written in imitation of the Jewish scriptures in the Septuagint. Those texts were likewise not about demonstrating a particular author’s literary talent, but were anonymous works designed to give a continuous, third person narrative. Likewise, when the Gospels were first recited, I do not think that the recitations were designed to celebrate the authors who had written them. Instead, they were probably recited in church communities anonymously as part of sacred scripture. Furthermore, the Gospels were not sold by professional book dealers and kept in public libraries in the 1st century CE. They would have thus had less editorial provisions for identifying the authors of the texts.

    Another issue that comes up in dealing with authorial traditions is whether an author identifies himself explicitly by name within the text. Herodotus and Thucydides both name themselves within the bodies of their histories. I chose Tacitus for comparing the authorial attribution with the Gospels, because Tacitus, in this case like the Gospels, does not identify himself by name in his historical works. We therefore have to look to other philological criteria that I discuss in the article for identifying him. But the issue of authorship is still more complex than whether the manuscript title names the author or the body of the text does so. We also have to consider the literary context in which the text was produced.

    My thoughts are that the original authors of the Gospels were chosen by ability. Church leaders like Theophilus would commission talented and educated members of their community to write Christian texts. However, during later canonical disputes in the 2nd century CE, authorial traditions were favored that conveyed authority. I think this is where the disconnect happened with their original authorship. The original authors may not have been particularly authoritative figures, but instead the most talented and educated individuals in their community. However, when determining canon, the literary talents of the author was not the major issue at stake, rather than the authority of the putative author as an apostle or early church figure.

    I am thinking, by the way, of expanding this discussion further when I write my dissertation (though I have not yet settled on a topic or started writing it). I’m planning to write a dissertation that combines Classical and New Testament issues of philology, genre, and 1st-2nd century CE Greco-Roman literature. It will be a little bit like Richard Burridge’s work, but less focused on “proving” that the Gospels belong to a particular literary genre, rather than analyzing them as comparative literature in context. My putative topic would cover issues like authorship, source analysis, literary structure, textual criticism, etc., and would compare the methods used by Classicists when analyzing Pagan texts with the methods used by NT scholars when analyzing Christian texts.

    My thoughts are that the methods of Classics and NT Studies should be completely congruous. We are, after all, both studying the same time period using the same types of evidence and methodologies. Unfortunately, Classics has in many respects been artificially cut away from NT Studies in the way academic departments and curricula are structured at most universities. I am hoping to write a dissertation on a topic that could help heal this rift.”

  33. Mari Zimmerman-Thompson says:

    Please include me in your mailings.
    This is so fascinating. Thank you.
    mari Zimmerman-thompson

  34. Arthur Zetes says:

    I don’t have anything substantial to add or ask, but as a Christian who has started to doubt the reliability of the gospels the more I read them, this article was fascinating. And the comments too. It really set some things for me and helped me come to some conclusions.

    I really admire your desire to know truth, to be patient with instigators, and to genuinely try your hardest at your craft.

  35. Pingback: Ten Quick Responses to Atheist Claims – Really? | The Happy Millstone

  36. Pingback: The NSFW Easter (A sermon blog) | Theo-Logical

  37. Recently I learned that (presumably) this essay was blogged about on the Christian apologetics site Logic & Light, in a post titled “The Gospels Were Not Anonymous.” I say “presumably” because the author, named Craig Dunkley, does not even provide a citation or URL, but the context of the discussion and the fact that he mentions my name suggests that he is referring to this essay.

    Below is my response to the points that are raised:

    First, Dunkley states:

    “[M]any people reject the idea that the gospels are eyewitness accounts. They argue that the gospels were written anonymously by non-eyewitnesses many decades after the events they describe. As a result, they contain significant amounts of legendary material and are not reliable as historical documents.”

    To begin with, one does not even need to assume that the Gospels were written decades later by non-eyewitnesses to argue that they contain legendary material. Rapid legendary development is a well-attested phenomenon in both antiquity and more recent periods. Consider the following example for Alexander the Great, explained by B.P. Reardon (Collected Ancient Greek Novels, pg. 651):

    “It comes as a shock to realize how quickly historians fictionalized Alexander: Onesikritos, who had actually accompanied Alexander, told how Alexander had met the queen of the (mythical) Amazons.”

    Likewise, Bart Ehrman has recently written about how there are eyewitness accounts of the Jewish miracle worker Baal Shem Tov, in “Another Jewish Miracle Worker,” which date to roughly the same period after his death as the Gospels do after Jesus, and yet contain tons of legendary and miraculous stories.

    Dunkley then states:

    “[M]any skeptical scholars still cling to the anonymous view, from well-known figures like Bart Ehrman to lesser-known bloggers like Matthew Ferguson.These atheist and agnostic critics argue that they have adopted their positions because they were simply objective and dispassionately followed the evidence where it led them. The truth is, there is nothing dispassionate about such critics, as they routinely ignore evidence that contradicts their beliefs, and often argue their misguided points with the passion of zealots.”

    Ah, nice to have ad hominem attacks at the beginning of the post, rather than having to wait for them to be embedded in the discussion. Is Dunkley “objective” and “dispassionate”? He blogs for a site that has the following stated goals:

    “Laying out a rational and persuasive case for belief in God and in His Son, Jesus

    Outlining why the Gospels are true and well-supported

    Differentiating Christianity from other faiths”

    In contrast, the purpose of my website is as follows:

    “Κέλσος is thus an online resource resource designed to introduce open-minded believers, agnostics, and skeptics alike to the views and arguments of secular scholars. The goal of this blog is not primarily to attack religion itself, but instead to provide alternative views to apologetic arguments, especially when they are used aggressively to target non-believers.”

    I should note too that “secular” scholars even include Christians who do not write for overt apologetic purposes. For example, I explain above how even Christian scholars like Raymond Brown explain that there are problems with the Gospels’ authorial traditions. This is not just something argued by “atheist and agnostic critics,” as Dunkley suggests.

    Dunkley then goes on with more ad hominem attacks:

    “The available evidence actually shows that people like Ehrman and Ferguson are wrong, demonstrate a poor understanding of first century publishing practices, lack proper knowledge of church history (or intentionally ignore it), and present biased arguments.”

    This is funny because ancient publishing practices is actually a part of my doctoral research, and I likewise cite standard library and recitation practices above. Bart Ehrman is a renowned NT scholar at UNC. Dunkley is a Christian apologist. He is welcome to have his own biases, but he is merely throwing stones in a glass house when he starts his post with an acerbic polemic like this.

    Dunkley then states:

    “To understand how the Church knew who the gospel authors were, we must first understand how documents were published in the first century. Publishing then was very different from publishing today. Manuscripts were written on scrolls, as the codex (the bound book, similar to how we know it today) would not exist for some time yet. Scrolls did not have title sheets like books do today. The author’s name did not generally appear in the text of the manuscript itself. Rather, the author’s name was usually written at the start and/or the end of the scroll.”

    There are actually several ancient texts that include the author’s name in the body of the text itself. As scholar Armin Baum (“The Anonymity of the New Testament History Books: A Stylistic Device in the Context of Greco-Roman and Ancient near Eastern Literature”) explains, the genre of Greek historiography usually included the author’s name in the prologue. Take Herodotus’ Histories (1.1), for example:

    “This is the display of the inquiry of Herodotus of Halicarnassus, so that things done by man not be forgotten in time…”

    Now, contrast this with the opening of the Gospel of Mark (1.1):

    “The beginning of the good news about Jesus the Messiah, the Son of God…”

    Notice the similar construction here with one major exception: Herodotus includes his name in the genitive, indicating possession of his work, whereas the author of Mark puts the name of Jesus in the genitive. This means that the author of Mark is not attributing the gospel to his own name, but is instead attributing it to Jesus (as the indirect author of the Gospel tradition). This form of prologue *is* fundamentally anonymous. It places emphasis on the subject, while hiding the identity of the author.

    Now, not all Greco-Roman historiographical works include the author’s name within the body of the text, which is why I explicitly discuss the example of Tacitus’ Histories above, to show how a text’s author can still be identified through other forms of internal and external evidence. Dunkley does not interact with my comparison of Tacitus to the Gospels (or many of my arguments at all, for that matter), and mostly just repeats common apologetic assertions. This is ironic, because this essay already addresses most of Dunkley’s assertions, but I will repeat the same points above to address Dunkley’s claims.

    Dunkley goes on to state:

    When the churches received these gospels, it is critical to understand that they did not consider them to be anonymous documents. They believed their pedigrees to be well-established and utterly beyond dispute. The documents had been circulating, their pedigree was known, and there were still disciples (and their immediate followers) who could vouch for the accuracy of their contents. We know this for a couple of reasons. First, there is was zero controversy regarding the origins of the four gospels … [T]here is absolutely no competing tradition regarding the authorship of the gospels. If there had been a controversy about it, then at least one competing tradition would have been recorded.”

    This actually does not reflect the early-2nd century citations of the Gospels. Ignatius, Clement, Polycarp, and the Didache all allude to or cite passages from the Gospels without referring to any of the traditional authors. Chapter 8 of the Didache even explicitly cites Matthew 6:9-13, but does not attribute it to Matthew. Instead, the author refers to the document as, “the Lord commanded in his Gospel.” Once more, the text is attributed to Jesus as the indirect author, just as in the prologue of Mark, rather than to an apostolic author. The traditional authorial attributions do not appear until the late-2nd century CE, suggesting a mid-2nd century CE date of attribution.

    Likewise, there *was* church controversy about the origins of at least 2 of the Gospels. Gaius of Rome argued that John did not author the fourth gospel, but instead attributed it to Cerinthus. Marcion edited a version of the Gospel of Luke and did not include a title with Luke’s name, keeping the text anonymous. That means that at least 50% of the Gospels’ authors were contested in one way or another. That is substantial, and hardly reflects “zero controversy,” as competing traditions are recorded.

    Dunkley then states:

    “The church also did not like anonymous documents precisely because they carried no apostolic authority. The church also despised pseudepigraphical documents (documents that were falsely attributed to an author).”

    Great, which provides an explanation for why the church would have attached names to the Gospels in the mid-2nd century, even if they were originally anonymous! If there were other non-canonical texts circulating in the 2nd century that were pseudepigraphal, and attributed to early Christian figures, it makes sense to attribute the Gospels to apostolic authorship, in order to grant them authority in a period of canonical disputes. This circumstance supports spurious attribution, but does nothing to suggest that the Gospels were given names half a century earlier, when they were first composed (in a period of less canonical disputes).

    Dunkley then states:

    “But what about the other arguments against the traditional authorship? Isn’t it true, as Ferguson and others have argued, that the names Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John were not even associated with the four gospels until the second century? Well, no.”

    Do only me and “atheist and agnostic critics” argue this? Well, no. I cite scholar Raymond Brown (a Christian) above, who even acknowledges that most scholars argue that the Gospels’ titles, bearing their traditional names, were probably not added until the latter half of the 2nd century CE. This is simply the mainstream scholarly view.

    Dunkley then argues:

    “No one can say that the first century texts did not have the authors’ names on them because no one has seen a first century text! None have survived. Our earliest gospel copy dates to about 125 A.D. and it is just a fragment. We don’t actually have any first century texts, Christian, Jew, pagan or otherwise. All of our history from this time comes from copied documents.”

    Sure, nobody has seen a 1st-2nd century manuscript with the names either! Our earliest manuscripts with title sections to survive all date to the 3rd century, which is after the period of attribution. Nevertheless, as I explain above, we have good reason to argue that these titles are later attributions:

    First, the titles that later manuscripts bear do not appear at fixed places in the manuscripts, but can appear at both the beginning, end, and other places on the manuscript. This contrasts with the rest of the text, which more or less remains fixed in position. Likewise, the titles that appear use different grammatical constructions, such as ευαγγελιον κατα Μαρκον, κατα Μαρκον ευαγγελιον, or just κατα Μαρκον, which suggests that they probably do not go back to any uniform title attribution. These variations also suggest that the titles don’t go back to an original manuscript, but were added by later scribes, which indicates a post-composition attribution.

    But furthermore, most texts in the ancient world received their titles by a second hand. As Yun Lee Too (The Idea of the Library in the Ancient World, pp. 44-45) explains:

    “In the pre-Alexandrian period in Greece, ‘titles’ of works, almost certainly added by a later hand than the author’s, were written on the outside of rolls. The normal external indication of a title was the σίλλυβος, or σίλλυβον, a strip of papyrus or vellum that hung outside the roll as it lay on the bookshelf. It contained the author’s name and the title of the work … This way of marking texts persisted into the Roman period. In the context of a boast about the way in which Tyrannion has organized his library, Cicero speaks of sillybae made out of parchment that are attached to his books … in his letters to Atticus (cf. Ep. ad Atticum 4.4a.1; cf. 4.8). Cicero comments that Atticus’ men have beautified his library by binding his books and affixing syllabae to them (Ep. ad Atticum 4.5), while at Ep. at Atticum 4.8 he observes that his house now has a mens — that is, a mind — now that Tyrannio has arranged his books; the sillybae help much. This statement suggests that the organization of books is significant in that knowing how and where to find one’s texts gives meaning and sense to one’s home. Later, Ovid makes reference to the ‘displayed titles’ (titulos … apertos), no doubt the sillybae, visible on bookshelves at Tristia 1.1.109.”

    Since the titles were probably later additions to the Gospels, therefore, this begs the question of *when* they were added. Here is where the external evidence comes into play, since, as I explain in footnote 19 above, the first Christian authors who quote or allude to the Gospels in the early-2nd century CE do so anonymously, without referring to their traditional names. You do not see references to the traditional names until the late-2nd century CE, which suggests that the titles were not added until around the time of the mid-2nd century CE.

    Dunkley next states:

    “The historical evidence, however, is clear. The gospel documents were being used in the apostolic churches long before 125 A.D., and most were in use during the first century. The evidence also shows that the early churches knew who the authors were because the gospel pedigrees were well-established and the authors’ names were on the scrolls themselves (and tagged) as per normal practice.”

    Nope. Ignatius, Clement, Polycarp, and the Didache all do not mention the traditional names. The traditional names do not appear until the late-2nd century CE, which suggests that they were added to scrolls/codices in the mid-2nd century CE.

    Dunkley then states:

    “In addition, the immediate followers of the original apostles were still around to vouch for the documents during the first century and early in the second. It wasn’t until later in the second and third centuries that other, pseudepigraphical documents began to turn up, such as the Gospels of Peter, Thomas, and Judas. The early churches knew those documents were fake, which is why they are not in the Bible we have today.”

    Does this make the attributions reliable? Consider some of the other claims that are reported by the early 2nd-century church father Papias, who is even the first known author to attribute a gospel to an apostolic figure. Papias attributes other teachings to the apostles that we *know* are false. Consider the following fragment of Papias (Irenaeus, Against Heresies 5.33.3):

    As the elders who saw John, the disciple of the Lord, related that they had heard from him how the Lord used to teach in regard to these times, and say: The days will come, in which vines shall grow, each having ten thousand branches, and in each branch ten thousand twigs, and in each true twig ten thousand shoots, and in each one of the shoots ten thousand clusters, and on every one of the clusters ten thousand grapes, and every grape when pressed will give five and twenty metretes of wine. And when any one of the saints shall lay hold of a cluster, another shall cry out, ‘I am a better cluster, take me; bless the Lord through me.’”

    Papias attributes this saying of Jesus to the disciple John, and yet we know that this saying comes from the Apocalypse of Baruch (29.5), an apocryphal Jewish text. Did the early church really know what was fake and what was not? Dunkley’s speculation is not supported by the actual patristic evidence of the period that he is referring to.

    Dunkley next states:

    “Some critics would respond that the titles themselves are too consistent: The Gospel According to Mark, The Gospel According to Matthew, The Gospel According to John, etc. Such consistency must be a strong indication that a central authority—the Church—simply assigned the titles to anonymous gospels. It sounds like a compelling argument, but it’s misguided.”

    The titles are not consistent in their placement on the manuscript or in their grammatical constructions. It is true that we don’t have different names attested in the titles (though they are attested by external sources, like Gaius of Rome). However, I would argue that the consistency with the names does suggest that they were added by a central authority. As I explain in footnote 5 above, interacting with the arguments of Martin Hengel, they may have been added by the Christian library at Rome (perhaps as early as c. 100-150 CE), or possibly by a four book edition of the Gospels, as late as c. 150-185 CE.

    But, Dunkley’s next argument gets things backwards:

    “[T]he evidence indicates that the earliest copies likely said the Greek word “kata” and the author’s name. “Kata” basically means “According to” … The word “gospel” (or “euaggelion” in Greek) was added later, when the four documents were brought together in a single collection in codex (or book) form. So, people like Mr. Ferguson can stop hyperventilating about the fact that the gospels we have today are consistently titled. Of course they are. They were given consistent titles when the separate gospels (which had originated as scrolls) were first collected as a single unit into book form. That doesn’t change the fact that the authors’ names had been associated with them from the beginning.”

    I’m the one “hyperventilating”? Perhaps Dunkley is projecting some of his own emotions. But, this scenario that he is positing is not suggested at all by either the internal or external evidence:

    First, the name εὐαγγέλιον appears in the prologue of Mark (1:1), which, like in the case of the prologue of Herodotus, was probably the original title of the text. Furthermore, the first quotations of the Gospels, such as in the Didache, refer to the text as the “Gospel of the Lord.” That was probably the original (anonymous) title of the text. The word κατά (“according to”) was what was likely added later. NT scholar Michael Wolter, who has has critiqued Hengel, argues that the titles could not have been added until, at the earliest, the first half of the 2nd century CE, primarily because the formula “κατά (according to) + the author” only makes sense if it was added when there were multiple gospels in circulation. The original title of Mark was probably just τὸ εὐαγγέλιον Ἰησοῦ Χριστοῦ (“the Gospel of Jesus Christ”), but when other gospels — such as the those later called Matthew, Luke, and John — were being circulated, the names were added to distinguish them from one another. This is supported by the external evidence, since the names that follow the κατά construction do not appear until the late-2nd century CE, suggesting a mid-2nd century CE point of attribution.

    Dunkley concludes with:

    “The earliest church leaders, some of whom had interacted with the apostles and/or their immediate followers, also provided strong testimony regarding the traditional authorship. We have covered this external testimony in other articles, so we won’t repeat it here. For now, it’s important to note that various early church leaders attested to the traditional authorship. These include Papias in Hieropolis (in modern-day Turkey), Irenaeus in Lyon (in modern-day France), Clement in Alexandria (in Egypt), and Tertullian in Carthage (in North Africa). As Dr. Timothy McGrew puts it, this testimony is significant, early, and geographically diverse.”

    I’ve already explained in footnote 5 above that the names being reported in different regions like Lyons, Carthage, Antioch, and Alexandria is probably best explained by the circumstance that a central authority, such as the Christian library at Rome, added the names, which, as the center of the early church, was able to distribute them throughout the Roman Empire.

    But, Dunkley ignores the external evidence of early Christian writers (before Irenaeus, Clement of Alexandria, and Tertullian), such as Ignatius, Clement of Rome, Polycarp, and the Didache, who refer to the texts anonymously. Instead, Dunkley quotes Tim McGrew, who is a professor of Philosophy, not Classics, NT Studies, Ancient History, or any other academic field related to this issue.

    There is also another post by Dunkley, which mentions me and is written in response to this essay, titled “Busted (7): The Book of Acts Agrees with Skeptics!?.” At least in this one Dunkley actually cites the essay above in footnote 1 of his post, though he still provides no hyperlink.

    In the post, Dunkley discusses Acts 4:13, and whether the description of John the son of Zebedee and Peter as ἀγράμματος (“illiterate”) suggests that they could not compose the later Greek writings attributed to their names.

    Dunkley writes:

    “Let’s allow Matthew Ferguson, a Ph.D. hopeful—and activist atheist—from UC-Irvine to lay it out for us:

    ‘Yet, from what we know of the biography of John the son of Zebedee, it would (be) rather improbable that he could author such a text. John was a poor rural peasant from Galilee, who spoke Aramaic. In an ancient world where literary training was largely restricted to a small fraction of rich, educated elite, we have little reason to suspect that an Aramaic-speaking Galilean peasant could author a complex Greek gospel. Furthermore, in Acts 4:13, John is even explicitly identified as being ἀγράμματος (“illiterate”), which shows that even evidence within the New Testament itself would not identify such a figure as an author.’

    Basically, Ferguson informs us that in Acts 4:13, the Bible itself says that the disciples (at least Peter and John) were illiterate, thereby unwittingly confirming what anti-Christian scholars have been saying all along! Wow, how devastating to Christianity! Or is it?”

    Apparently a “Ph.D. hopeful” is somebody with 4 years of Ph.D. graduate experience, fluent in reading Greek, Latin, and Hebrew, who has also advanced to doctoral candidacy and is currently working on a dissertation about the Gospels…

    In his post, Dunkley repeats the common apologetic response that ἀγράμματος (“illiterate”) in this passage only means lacking formal scriptural training (i.e. “unschooled”), and does not refer to the ability to write, per se. He cites only conservative scholars for this claim, such as Craig Blomberg (who works at Denver Seminary, a biased Christian school whose doctrinal statement can be read here) and Ben Witherington (who works at Asbury Theological Seminary, a biased Christian school whose doctrinal statement can be read here).

    Dunkley does not interact with any of my arguments in footnote 10 above, which explains that we also have *archaeological evidence* to suggest that this verse refers to illiteracy:

    “Likewise, we have archaeological evidence that suggests that Peter, who is described alongside John as ἀγράμματος (“illiterate”) in Acts 4:13, was in fact illiterate based on excavations of his hometown in Capernaum. As Ehrman explains (Forged, pg. 74-75), “In order to evaluate Peter’s linguistic abilities, the place to begin, then, is with Capernaum … The archaeological digs have revealed … there are no inscriptions of any kind on any of the buildings … Reed [Archaeology and the Galilean Jesus, pp. 140-169] concludes that the inhabitants were almost certainly ‘predominantly illiterate’ [even in Aramaic] … In short, Peter’s town was a backwoods Jewish village made up of hand-to-mouth laborers who did not have an education. Everyone spoke Aramaic. Nothing suggests that anyone could speak Greek. Nothing suggests that anyone in the town could write. As a lower-class fisherman, Peter would have started work as a young boy and never attended school. There was, in fact, probably no school there.” Bear in mind that John is described as ἀγράμματος (“illiterate”) alongside Peter in the passage, for whom we have very strong archaeological evidence that he was probably illiterate. The best interpretation of the passage is thus that Acts 4:13 is describing Peter and John as both lacking Rabbinic training and being illiterate.”

    But, even if John and Peter were taught basic writing in Aramaic, what makes us think that they could author the complex Greek prose found in scripture? Dunkley quotes Witherington, stating:

    “Witherington adds the following about the skeptical assertion that the Aramaic-speaking disciples could never have spoken or written in Greek:

    ‘The Holy Land had been Hellenized long before the time of Peter, and there were plenty of Jews in both Judea and Galilee who knew at least conversational Greek, which is indeed the language they would have used to talk with centurions and Roman officials of any kind who came around collecting taxes.’”

    First off, Roman officials pre-70 CE did not collect taxes, which were instead collected by local Jewish authorities, as I explain in my essay “Matthew the τελώνης (“Toll Collector”) and the Authorship of the First Gospel.” Likewise, the degree to which Galilee was Hellenized is disputed by scholars. As I explain in footnote 9 above:

    “Furthermore, certain regions of the Roman Empire had lower levels of literacy than others, such as rural regions like Galilee, and Greek literacy would have been even further limited in these areas if they were fluent in another language, such as Aramaic. In the case of rural Galilee, scholar Mark Chancey in The Myth of a Gentile Galilee and Greco-Roman Culture and the Galilee of Jesus finds that Greek literacy was largely restricted to two major urban centers, Sepphoris and Tiberias, and that the rural Jews of the region had little interaction with the Greek language or Gentiles. These circumstances would have certainly limited figures like Peter and John, both rural peasants from Galilee, from being able to author complex Greek prose, such as in the New Testament works attributed to them. This is, of course, in addition to the fact that such poor persons would not likely have received necessary literary training even in their own language to author such complex scriptures.”

    Likewise, “conversational Greek” does not equal the ability to write in complex Greek prose. As Catherine Hezser Jewish Literacy in Roman Palestine (pg. 496) argues:

    “If ‘literacy’ is determined as the ability to read documents, letters and ‘simple’ literary texts in at least one language and to write more than one’s signature itself, it is quite reasonable to assume that the Jewish literacy rate was well below the 10-15 percent (of the entire population, including women) which Harris [Ancient Literacy] has estimated for Roman society in imperial times.”

    And that just refers to Aramaic literacy. Hezser further explains that Greek literacy was even further limited in Palestine, and mostly only taught to Judeans in the Diaspora. Dunkley concludes:

    “So, to sum up: Ferguson (who is a hyper-skeptical activist atheist) has adopted an overly-simplistic translation of Acts 4:13 in order to “prove” his point. In the end, he proves nothing except his own bias and his unwillingness to consider the actual meaning of the text.”

    Ah, more ad hominem attacks and polemics. What’s funny is that Dunkley does not even point out that I do not consider it to be a hard fact that John couldn’t write in Greek. Rather, I argue that the *degree* to which we can assume that he could author complex prose is much less than the *degree* to which we can assume elite authors like Tacitus could author complex prose. This runs counter to Christian apologists like Tim McGrew who compare the authorial traditions of the Gospels to elite writers like Livy and Plutarch. Here is what I write in footnote 11:

    “Virtually 100% of Roman senators in the early-2nd century CE were literate in Latin. Likewise, Latin historiography was a genre that was primarily written by Roman senators. As Classicist Ronald Mellor (The Roman Historians, pg. 4) explains, “History at Rome was written mostly by senators for senators.” So, when an authorial attribution is made to Tacitus, a Roman senator, for writing Latin historical works, such as his Annals and Histories, this is an ordinary attribution.

    In the case of rural Galilee, Judaic Studies scholar Meir Bar-Ilan (“Illiteracy in the Land of Israel in the First Centuries CE”) finds that only about 3% of the population was literate, and most of these would have lived in cities or large towns (not typical of where the disciples of rural Galilee were from). Moreover, these people would primarily be taught to read Aramaic and Hebrew, so that even fewer could read or write in Greek. Once you drop the wealthy, urban population out of the equation, the number of poor, rural people who were literate in Aramaic would be much smaller than 3%. Out of this reduced fraction, even fewer could read and write in Greek.

    So, when a claim is made that a Galilean fisherman, like John, and a toll booth collector, like Matthew, authored complex Greek scriptures, it would have certainly been unusual and rare for someone who belonged to their demographics to have authored such texts. This already means that the authorial traditions of Matthew and John are, at the very least, more unusual than the authorship of Tacitus. It would not be unusual or rare for a Roman senator like Tacitus to have authored a Latin history, whereas in the case of Matthew and John, these would have been very rare and exceptional individuals to author complex Greek prose, given the demographics to which they belonged…

    …The criterion of literacy can vary by degree. Our degree of confidence that Tacitus could author a Latin history is much higher than that a rural fisherman and toll booth collector could have authored Greek scriptures. So, the authorship of Tacitus is far more secure in this respect, even if it is not inconceivable that Matthew and John may have had remarkable literary abilities for their demographics. The same is true of other Classical authors, such as Livy and Plutarch, who belonged to more literate demographics, which is why it is not a good argument for apologists to equate the authorial attributions of the Gospels with these Pagan texts. Such Pagan texts are ordinary attributions, whereas the attributions of the Gospels are highly unusual.

    The fact that the attributions of the Gospels are unusual should next lead to considerations over whether there is a reason for the unusual attributions. It could be because Matthew and John were indeed remarkable in their literary abilities and education, but, as shown above, the sources for their lives state the opposite. However, a very plausible explanation for the unusual attribution is the fact that Christians were having canonical disputes in the second half of the 2nd century CE (when the Gospels were first attributed). During this process, claiming apostolic authorship was used as a way to grant authority and canonical status to a text. It should be noted that the primary motivation driving these attributions was based on finding figures of authority. However, when the Gospels were first written, their authors were most likely chosen on the basis of ability…”

    So, I don’t even claim that the argument from illiteracy is a deathblow to the Gospels’ authorial attributions to begin with. Rather, I argue that it weakens the strength of the authorial attributions to a degree less than elite authors, like Tacitus.

    Dunkley in his two posts responds to very few of my arguments and mostly just repeats stock apologetic assertions. What is remarkable is that Dunkley does not even acknowledge that I respond to these assertions in the very essay he is responding to (and he doesn’t even cite that essay in the first post above). These are common apologetic tactics, with little scholarly substance.

  38. Pingback: A review of “Making the Case for Christianity” by John Bombaro and other LCMS Lutheran theologians, Part 3 – Escaping Christian Fundamentalism

  39. Pingback: Majority of Scholars agree: The Gospels were not written by Eyewitnesses – Escaping Christian Fundamentalism

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