Who wrote the Gospels? Are there good reasons to attribute their authorship to Matthew, Mark, Luke and John? Essential Apologetics

I have posted this about a year ago, and I think it is a very good study on Gospel authenticity, as it is very detailed, so I am reposting it here together with my transcript of the entire session. This is one of those MUST READ/WATCH lectures because in most colleges in the US, your son or daughter’s religion class will teach your children that the synoptic Gospels are not authentically written by their authors, and they will date them much later than most scholars have agreed to date them and present their view as historically accurate.

Matthew, Mark, Luke & John’s Gospels ‘wordled’ (TNIV version). Wordle – Someone generated this “word cloud” from the text of the 4 Gospels. The cloud gives greater prominence to words that appear more frequently in the source text.

by Dr. Timothy McGrew (PhD Philosophy from Vanderbilt University), currently Professor, Department of Philosophy, Western Michigan University.

Video Intro from Dr. McGrew:

I teach at a secular university and one of  things that I see constantly is young people coming to university from our churches, good churches, Bible teaching churches, and falling away from their faith at the university. It is my contention that what we have given our young people is not what they needed: Bible stories, entertainment, even some devotional thoughts, but, they’re not being prepared for WAR. And, we’re sending them out with rubber swords and plastic armor and that is not enough. I always like to pick a Bible verse for a motto, and here I picked Deuteronomy 32:7: Remember the days of old, consider the years of many generations, ask your father and he will show you, your elders and they will tell you

If you hop online, in 5 minutes, you can find some of the wildest theories that have ever been invented. In this lecture Dr. McGrew is trying to show the genuineness of the Gospels. He defines

Authenticity and Genuineness

  • an ancient historical work is authentic if it gives a substantially  truthful account of the events it reports.

Authenticity is what we want in an historical document; we want to know if what it says is substantially true.

  • an ancient historical work is genuine if it was actually written by the person to whom it is attributed.

Showing the document is genuine helps to establish that it is authentic because it helps to rule out rival theories (e.g. that the document is a late mythical composition)

Dr. McGrew does 2 things in this lecture. First, he examines the genuineness of the Gospel, of it being the product of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, „just like they say”. Second, he considers the principal arguments of some people who dispute the genuineness of the Gospels.

The way Dr. McGrew argues that the historical evidence favors the traditional position. In making his argument, Dr. McGrew does not depend at all on the inspiration of Scripture, although he does in fact believe that the Scripture is inspired by God, but, in making the argument, he appeals only to evidence and criteria that can be applied to any historical document. He does not use theology to support his arguments (which is what Christians need to learn to do when arguing with atheists/non believers).

Point of departure when you walk into a University

The two statements below, made by Bart Ehrman and Richard Dawkins are taken as „point of departure” (foundational) in universities.

Bart Ehrman – a former Pastor, now an apostate, who considers himself to be an agnostic inclined towards atheism. He is the principle guy people will go to if they are looking for a negative verdict on Scripture because he has been urning out enormously popular books aimed at sort of a church level audience, undermining fundamental points of faith. Here’s what he says about the Gospel: „Some books, such as the Gospels,… had been written anonymously, only later to be ascribed to certain authors, who probably did not write the (ascribed to apostles and friends of the apostles). From Jesus Interrupted 2009 pp 101-102

Richard Dawkins – (a) The Gospels are not reliable accounts of what happened in the history of the real world. All were written long after the death of Jesus and also after the epistles of Paul, which mention almost none of the alleged facts of Jesus’ life. (b) Nobody knows who the four evangelists were, but they almost certainly never met Jesus personally. From The God Delusion 2006.

About this video:

Dr. Timothy McGrew lays out the case for the traditional authorship of the Gospels, while countering Bart Ehrman’s claims that the Gospels are forgeries. This is one hour of content followed by twenty minutes of Q&A. Uploaded by 

Augustine Against Faustus  33 6 (~400 AD)

Around 400 AD, Faustus was the first to systematically challenge that the Gospels were written by the men to whom they are ascribed. Here’s Augustine’s criterion for authorship: „Why does no one doubt the genuineness of the books attributed to Hippocrates? Because there is a succession of testimonies to the books from the time of Hippocrates to the present day, which makes it unreasonable either now or in the hereafter to have any doubt on the subject. How do we know the authorship of the works by Plato, Aristotle, Cicero, Varro, and other similar writers, but by the unbroken chain of evidence? And the chain of evidence is exactly what he says we have for our Gospels. Here’s some of the evidence:

The Early Attestation of Authorship of the Gospels

  • Tertullian of Carthage (~207) Tertullian writes: „The Gospels were written by Matthew and John, who were apostles, and Luke and Mark, who were apostolic men. Mark’s Gospel is the record of Peter’s preaching. They tell the same basic facts about Jesus, including His virgin birth and his fulfillment of prophecy. They bore the names of their authors from antiquity and the ancient churches vouch for them and no others.” 

McGrew: So, Tertullian, writing just around the 200’s (AD) that „these books bear names and have been handed down to us, this is a tradition we received from far back”. And, that the ancient Church at Corinth, the Church at Rome, the churches that received letters from Paul (Romans, 1 & 2 Corinthians); these ancient churches vouch for these Gospels and the authorship of these Gospels.

Why is Tertullian saying this? He is criticizing a heretic sect founded by a fellow named Marcion, who really hated the Old Testament and hated Judaism. (McGrew talks about how in Matthew you can find many references to fulfillment of Old Testament prophecies as one example of what Marcion rejected in the Gospels). Marcion wanted nothing to do with the Old Testament or anything Jewish. So Marcion took the Gospel of Luke and trimmed out any OT or Jewish reference and published the rest of Luke in the 130’s AD. Marcion was very well off. He gathered a following and after his death, his followers kept on going. At around 200 AD Tertullian tells them they are following a false Gospel.

  • Clement of Alexandria (~180) Clement was a great teacher and head of a school in Alexandria, Egypt. He writes: Mark wrote his Gospel by request of his knowledge of Peter’s preaching at Rome. Matthew and Luke were published first; they are the Gospels that contain the genealogies. John’s Gospel was written at the urging of friends.
  • Irenaeus of Lyons (~180) Iraneus was a bishop in France (very far away from Egypt and Clement) He writes: Matthew’s Gospel was the first written, it was originally written in the „Hebrew dialect” (Aramaic). Mark, a disciple of Peter, handed down in his Gospel what Peter had preached. Luke, a companion of Paul, recorded in a book the Gospel preached by him. Joh, the disciple of the Lord, published a Gospel while living at Ephesus in Asia.
  • Muratorion Fragment (~170) This is a damaged manuscript that gives us a catalog of books that tells us something about the authors. The first page or so is lost because it starts with saying  Thirdly, Luke.… and it keeps on going.  So, it’s a pretty good guess that the first 2 pages were probably about Matthew and Mark. He writes: Luke, the physician and companion of Paul, wrote his gospel from the reports of others, since he has not personally seen Jesus. John, who was an eyewitness, wrote his Gospel after the rest, at the urging of some friends.

McGrew: There is no dissenting views and virtually nothing contrary to show because there is no other tradition about the authors of the Gospels. The unanimous testimony of the Church coming down through the ages, coming towards the apostolic times is behind this traditional ascription to Matthew and Mark and Luke and John.

  • Justin Martyr (~150) Justin writes: The Christians possessed „memoirs” of Jesus which were so called „Gospels”. These were written by apostles and by those who were their followers. They tell us of such events as the visit of the Magi and His agony in Gethsemane. Justin’s pupil, Tatian, produced a harmony of the four Gospels, the Diatessaron.

McGrew: Up until the middle of the 19th century we didn’t have a copy that anybody knew about of the Diatessaron. In 1888 a copy surfaced. It was actually always around, however, no one ever translated it and therefore no one knew what it was until 1888. This document opens with, „In the beginning the word was …” and continues with John’s entire prologue and writes a harmony of the 4 Gospels. So, Justin Martyr was quoting from the Diatessaron, which means all four Gospels, including John’s (which is usually attacked as being written hundreds of years after the fact) are not only in existence before the year 150 , but in use.

The apostle John died right around the turn of the century (~100) at extreme old age. He was probably in his teens when he was a disciple of Jesus. So the first reference  comes within one generation of the life of the apostle John. We have to understand that we are at the mercy of whatever literature has survived. A lot of it was written on papyrus and time and weather are not kind to papyrus. Unless it is in an extremely dry environment, it deteriorates and it’s gone.

  • Papias of Hierapolis (~125) Papias is recorded for us in Eusebius’ History. Eusebius was a voracious librarian. He put together all kinds of sources, some of which we’ve now lost. except for what was preserved in him. He gives us a couple of fragments from Papias. Papias writes: Mark, having been the interpreter of Peter, wrote down what Peter had preached accurately, though, not necessarily in order. Matthew wrote the oracles (a reference to his whole Gospel? to the sayings of Jesus?) in the Hebrew language.

Attestation of Authorship Summary of Facts

The attestation of authorship is not only significant and early, it is also geographically diverse, coming from every quarter of the Roman Empire:

– Tertullian in Carthage
– Clement in Alexandria
– Irenaus in France
– Papias in Asia Minor

Dr. McGrew: There is no rival tradition of authorship for any of the four Gospels.  In any field other than biblical studies that would be enough. The Bible is always held to a standard that is higher than the standard of any other work would be held to. So let’s look at more evidence:

Assessing Genuineness – External Tests

  • External Tests – Attributions of Authorship is strong and consistent.
  • Early use in other works –  Many early writers make use of the Gospel without naming or describing the authors (Ex. in preaching, or making exhortations, etc).This evidence takes us back even earlier than the evidence of attribution.

For these authors to make use of the Gospels as authoritative sources, means that they expected their audience to recognize their quotations and allusions and to accept them as authentic. Here’s some examples:

  1. Ignatius, Letter to Polycarp (~107): In all circumstances be ‘wise as a serpent’ and perpetually ‘harmless as a dove’. Cf Matthew 10:16.
  2. Polycarp, Letter to Philippians (~108): „Blessed are the poor and those persecuted for righteousness sake, for theirs is the Kingdom of God”. Luke 6:20
  3. The witness of Basilides (~125) an agnostic heretic using quotes from the Gospel of John writes: that each man has his own appointed time, he (Basilides) says, ” The Savior sufficiently indicates when he says, ‘My hour has not yet come’„. John 2:4 and
  4. …this he (Basilides) says is what is mentioned in the Gospels, „He was the ‘light which lights every man coming into the world’„.Cf John 1:9
  • Early use – external evidence
  1. Polycarp, Letter to Philippians (~108) quotes from or alludes to verses from : Matthew, Mark, Luke, Acts, Romans, 1 & 2 Corinthians, Galatians, Ephesians, Philippians, 1 & 2 Thessalonians, Hebrews, 1 Peter. Polycarp sat at the feet of the apostle John when he was a young man. He then passed on the Gospel to his own disciples when he was an old man. One of Polycarp’s people was Iraneus of Lyons. This unbroken chain takes us back to the very disciples themselves (John).
  • Early use – summary of facts
  1. The four Gospels and Acts are used copiously by the early church fathers
  2. Even heretics tacitly acknowledged their genuineness, which they would not have done if they could help it.
  3. Justin Martyr, in his first Apology-on the reading of Scripture: „And, on the day called Sunday, all who live in the cities and in the country, gather together in one place and the memoirs of the apostles or the writings of the prophets are read, as long as time permits.” First Apology ch 67.  For the Gospels to be read as Scripture in weekly services, they must have been extremely highly regarded and well known to Christians throughout the world.

On a side note, did you know this author Thucydides c. 460 BC – c. 395 BC) was a Greek historian who is not mentioned once in any other writing for 250 years from the time of his existence? From a historical standpoint, the evidence for the Gospels isn’t just good, it’s great!

for more please visit The Library of Historical Apologetics at http://historicalapologetics.org/

After you view this video, you may want to read these  additional  articles:

  1. The Rationality of the Christian Worldview
  2. Does archaeology support the Synoptic Gospels I
  3. Does archaeology support the Synoptic Gospels II
  4. John Piper – How Are the Synoptics „Without Error”?
  5. The Real Roots of the Emergent Church (a documentary)
  6. Why I am not an atheist – Ravi Zacharias
  7. Belief in an age of skepticism – Tim Keller at University of California at Berkeley
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