A Good Blog Series on the Authorship of the Gospels

 (PhD in Religion, Baylor University, 2010) has been writing an intersting blog series on the authorship of the Gospels, over on his academic blog Know Thyself (Γνῶθι Σεαυτόν in Greek). Among the topics discussed are the internal anonymity of the Gospels, when their manuscripts received their titles, and the 2nd century patristic evidence of the Gospels’ authorship. Parts one, two, three, and four of his series have already been written, and Reich plans to say more.

Know Thyself

This subject is obviously of great interest to me, since my dissertation topic is on ancient authorship, and I particularly plan to evaluate the authorial traditions of the Gospels in light of the publication and authorial practices of other Mediterranean literature during that time period. I recently did a review of Michael Kok’s new book on authorship of Mark, and I appreciate Reich’s recent contributions to this topic, as well.

-Matthew Ferguson

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5 Responses to A Good Blog Series on the Authorship of the Gospels

  1. Arthur says:

    Thanks Matthew! This is really timely. I was talking to my former pastor about how I can trust the historicity of the gospels, and he recommended “Who Chose the Gospels?” By C.E. Hill. I can read both of them together now.

  2. BIS-Fox says:

    Curious, have you ever viewed Timothy McGrew’s video, “Who Wrote the Gospels?” on the Apologetics 315 channel on YT? He’s got a number of graphics of various sorts available for download as well. If youve seen it or his arguments, have you ever interacted with it/them? I appreciate your work as always. Cheers!

    • Hi BIS-Fox,

      Sorry for the delay in getting to your comment. Yes, I am familiar with McGrew’s series on the reliability of the Gospels, including his arguments for traditional authorship. McGrew makes the claim (which he shares with a number of other online apologists, such as J.P. Holding) that the patristic authorial attributions of the Gospels are as reliable as the authorial traditions of other Classical texts from antiquity. In other words, McGrew argues that NT scholars are overly skeptical in doubting the patristic attributions, since (allegedly) we would have to doubt the authors of many Classical texts if we used the same arguments/criteria.

      Overall, I think that his approach is mistaken, and fails to account for the diversity of publication practices in antiquity, as well as the philological criteria that Classicists use to determine authorship. My dissertation will be covering this topic, since I plan to discuss a variety of considerations that Classicists look for in assessing authorial attributions. (Though, I doubt that I will be responding to McGrew directly in the dissertation, since he is not a professional NT or Classical scholar, and instead I will be focusing the bulk of my criticism on more prominent defenders of the traditional attributions, such as Martin Hengel, Richard Bauckham, Robert Gundry, Donald Guthrie, Michael Bird, etc.).

      Among the philological criteria that I plan to discuss is the context of attribution. Most Classical texts from antiquity were not attributed by authors waging canonical battles with rival sects (such as the 2nd century church fathers). Moreover, if we were to take a tally of all the Christian texts that were attributed to an apostle or early Christian figure from the 1st-4th centuries CE, even apologists would agree that the vast majority are misattributed (e.g. Gospel of Thomas, Gospel of Peter, etc.). This, at the very least, justifies treating the authorial traditions of the Gospels with more caution, since they belong to a category of literature that was overwhelmingly misattributed in antiquity.

      McGrew also makes use of a number of criteria that I think are shallow and one-dimensional. For example, he argues that Papias’ witness is “early” since it was made only a few decade following the Gospels’ composition, whereas we do not have external evidence for several Classical texts’ authors until centuries after their composition. But, this approach I think is mistaken for a number of reasons: First, false authorial attributions do not require centuries to be made. A text can be given a false attribution only years after its composition. In fact, forgeries in antiquity, which identified a false author within the text, technically made their authorial attributions contemporary to the text’s composition. That’s as “early” as you can get, but the attribution is still wrong. Second, whatever external evidence happens to survive identifying a text’s author (e.g. Tertullian quoting a book of Tacitus’ Histories and naming him as the author) is usually random, since 99% of Classical texts perished during the Middle Ages. So, simply the earliest textual references to survive does not always tell us when a text was either correctly or incorrectly attributed. (As a note, I also plan to engage the arguments of Classicist George Kennedy on this point.)

      Beyond external references, however, Classical philologists also take into consideration the diversity of publishing practices in antiquity. Works like Plutarch’s Parallel Lives, for example, were published in high literary circles, where the author was known through professional book dealers and libraries. However, there were also less sophisticated literary works in antiquity, which largely circulated anonymously. 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.”

      In the dissertation, I will argue that the Gospels probably belong to this latter category, particularly because of how they operate as ‘open texts,’ with the Synoptic Gospels sharing and redacting a large amount of material. I also think that Armin Baum is correct that the Gospels belong to a category of Near Eastern literature and Jewish scripture that was largely kept anonymous. What is different about the Gospels is that 1) they were published quickly after each other (requiring titles to distinguish them from each other, which were probably added after their composition), and 2) they were circulating alongside other Christian texts that were attributed to apostles or early Christian figures in the 2nd century CE (which thus inclined the church fathers to attribute the Gospels to either apostles or early Church figures, even if the attributions were spurious).

      I’ll have a lot more to say as I move forward with the dissertation, but this is my current thinking at the present moment.

      Unfortunately, I have been away from the blog lately, due to a number of graduate projects that I won’t be completing until (at the earliest) mid-November. But, when the time comes, I plan to write a lot more on these issues. (Alright, time to head back to my graduate work, but I hope that my comment was helpful.)

  3. robert2016 says:

    if peter was really marks source why would “the rock” who was a changed man tell mark that jesus called him “satan” for having the right interpretation of messiah at the time jesus made his prophecy about his death?

    if peter was really marks source why did peter lie and say “the women said nothing to anyone for they were afraid” when the truth is that one of them came to peter and told him that some one stole the body?

    apologists say ,

    “Mark’s Gospel is the one most critical of Peter, because Peter is the ultimate source, and he knew how he had failed.”

    how could he have failed and conveyed his failing when he had the right understanding of what messiah means ? why would he tell mark about his question: “what does resurrection of the dead mean”
    when he now knows that it was rising from the dead in flesh body?

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