But Do We Know that the Right Words Were Written? – Objection #1

Posted: June 22, 2015 in Biblical Interpretation, Historical apologetics, Positive Apologetics
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Part 2a

Part 2b

Objection #2

Objection #3

Objection #1: The Gospels Were not Written by Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John

Bart Ehrman

RightObj3“Why do we call them Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John? Because sometime in the second century, when proto-orthodox Christians recognized the need for apostolic authorities, they attributed these books to apostles (Matthew and John) and close companions of apostles (Mark, the secretary of Peter; and Luke the traveling companion of Paul).” (Lost Christianities, p.235)

Ehrman also explains that many scholars today continue to call the Gospels by their traditional names as a matter of convenience, because they do need to be called something. After all, calling them George, Jim, Fred, and Sam (Jesus, Apocalyptic Prophet of the New Millennium, p.44) would not make much sense, would it? However, he insists that the Gospels are anonymous in the strongest sense, and that the only reason they now bear the names they do is based on later speculations that arose in the church. In addition, Ehrman adds to his claims.

RightObj4“The titles of the Gospels were not put there by their authors—as should be clear after just a moment’s reflection. 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…And in fact we know that the original manuscripts of the Gospels did not have their authors’ names attached to them.” (Jesus, Apocalyptic Prophet of the New Millennium, p.42)

So, for Ehrman, even if the disciples did write the Gospels, we would not know about it by the designation, because no one would title it in their own name. Furthermore, he states that we can be certain that the original manuscripts were not ascribed to the authors from the beginning.

Alleged Anonymity of the Gospels

RightObj5Even though I consider Ehrman’s certainty about the Gospels being completely anonymous to be unwarranted, we can agree that they are technically anonymous. After all, none of the four Gospels directly names its author. It is not like the letters of Paul, where he states clearly in the first verse that he is the author, so evaluating a claim for authorship becomes more difficult. That being said, to claim that there is no reason to believe that the Gospels originated with their traditionally designated authors is beyond the evidence in my opinion, and I intend to show why. Before going into my reasoning for this opinion, though, I thought it would be helpful to take a step back and explore the implications of Bart Ehrman’s assertions. I believe this will show that the evidence I have presented in the previous article still holds up, even on the assumption that the authorship belongs to persons other than Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John.

What Would Anonymous Authorship Show?

RightObj6First of all, to hear that Matthew (for example) did not write the Gospel attributed to him, might seem to some to then imply that the Gospel of Matthew is a forgery, claiming to be written by Matthew, but not in reality having been written by him. Ehrman is not suggesting this, but I think it is worth clarifying. He is simply claiming that later Christians have attached the Apostle Matthew’s name to the writing to give it authority. A forgery would be if the Gospel itself directly indicated that Matthew had written it, while in truth, someone else had written it. When we are evaluating the claims of authorship, we are concerned with the text itself and not later attribution.

For example, many different authors have been suggested for the New Testament book of Hebrews, with Paul and Apollos being among the most common. However, since the text of Hebrews itself does not directly indicate its own authorship, to show that Paul or Apollos did not write it does nothing to damage the integrity of the writing itself. It merely finds those who suggested such authorship to be incorrect. The same is true of the Gospels, because as I have said above, I agree with a certain level of anonymity, based on direct textual assertions. RightObj7aWith that in mind, I believe it is legitimate for someone to say that they believe in the reliability of the Bible and at the same time deny the traditional authorship of one Gospel or another. In fact, there is discussion within Christian circles about whether John’s Gospel should be attributed to John the son of Zebedee or another disciple named John, both early disciples of Jesus. The Gospel merely attributes itself to “the disciple whom Jesus loved”, so the question of to whom that refers can legitimately be discussed without casting doubt on the authenticity of the writing itself.

Pro golfer Fred Couples and CBS commentator Jim Nantz

Pro golfer Fred Couples and CBS commentator Jim Nantz

Second, in the previous article, I have given reasons to believe that the Gospels present eyewitness testimony, but I have not suggested that the authors of the Gospels needed to personally be eyewitnesses. In fact, through discussing the traditional authorship below, it will be clear that I, and the majority of the church with me, affirm that two out of the four Gospels were not actually written by eyewitnesses (Mark and Luke). Though the evidence I have presented indicates that these two Gospel authors drew from authentic eyewitness testimony, which I believe to have come through oral history, it does not damage the argument to say that authors other than Mark and Luke are the real authors. We could even follow Ehrman’s joke and call them Jim and Fred, but as long as they continue to present authentic testimony to the events surrounding Jesus, their reliability must be appreciated. The writings are to be judged on their quality in reporting history and not on their later designations.

RightObj-figure 1-2

Support for the Traditional Authorship

Though it is not crucial to the reliability of the Gospels, it is worth considering why these four Gospels received the names that they did. It only adds to the case for reliability if we know the identity of the authors and can more accurately assess their credentials. If we were to call the Gospels George, Jim, Fred, and Sam, most of our evidence for reliability would have to be internal, simply because these names do not appear in the history of the early church. However, we do know something about Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, and that helps the case.

RightObj9The first thing to do would be to ask who ascribed these Gospels to their traditional authors, and then we could assess the quality of the reasons for doing that. As described above, Ehrman seems quite convinced that the authors did not, and indeed would not, ascribe the book to themselves, so he is of the opinion that the names were added later. He even asserts quite strongly that the original manuscripts did not have the authors’ names attached to them. While I do not have a problem with approaching the problem from this perspective, and will look at it in just a bit, let us first consider what ancient evidence shows us. What we learn when we do not just make modern assumptions, but look at ancient patterns, is that authors did commonly title their own works in the ancient world. One example would be that of a contemporary of Jesus’ disciples, the famous Jewish historian Flavius Josephus. The same pattern also appears among famous Greek historians Herodotus and Plutarch (Timothy Paul Jones, Misquoting Truth, p.98). So, we cannot confidently say that the authors of the Gospels did not title their own works, as Ehrman does, but it is also true that we cannot confidently say that they did, either.

So, even though we cannot be sure, let us proceed to entertain the thought that the Gospels were attributed to their traditional authors by others than the Gospel writers themselves. Now, Ehrman is convinced that the reasoning for this attribution was to give the writings apostolic authority, and it would make sense to do that, especially considering that some groups tried to do this with later writings.

Mark Roberts

Mark Roberts

Mark Roberts summarizes this view well.

RightObj10a“Quite a few scholars have argued that the names of the Gospel writers were made up in order to gain authority for the writings. This is surely true when you consider the broader collection of Christian (or semi-Christian) Gospels. In the noncanonical writings you find such documents as the Gospel of Thomas, the Gospel of Philip, the Gospel of Mary (Magdalene), the Gospel of Judas, the Gospel of Bartholomew, the Gospel of Peter, as well as many others. It’s clear to almost all observers that these books were not actually written by the supposed authors. The names were attached to give authority to the writings. So, some have concluded, the same is true of the New Testament Gospels.” (Mark Roberts, Can We Trust the Gospels?, p.48)

However, Ehrman seems to gloss over a key piece of information that is detrimental to his own case when he states what has already been quoted above. He would claim that Christians attributed two of the Gospels to “close companions of apostles (Mark, the secretary of Peter; and Luke the traveling companion of Paul).” (Lost Christianities, p.235). Why, we may ask, if the Christians were free to attach any name to these Gospels, would they pick a secretary and a traveling companion? After all, if you are making up the author, why not say Peter himself, as the above mentioned Gospel of Peter does? Why go through his secretary? These later forgers at least had the sense to pick an authoritarian figure when attempting to give their Gospels authority. Mark Roberts brings attention to the fault in the argument in the continuation of the quote above.

RightObj11“This argument could explain the naming of Matthew and John, though I think it reflects unwarranted skepticism about early Christian tradition. But the main flaw in this argument is obvious: Two of the biblical Gospels were named after relatively inconsequential characters who did not actually know Jesus in the flesh.” (Mark Roberts, Can We Trust the Gospels?, p.48)

RightObj12To add to the idea that these two would be unlikely candidates for authorship of the Gospels, it is almost as if the 2nd century Christians had to defend these two authors. Keep in mind that these are the same Christians who supposedly had the freedom to name the Gospels after whomever they wanted. After 2nd century church leaders Papias, Justin Martyr, and Irenaeus confirm the authorship of Mark and Luke by way of others who had actually been with Jesus (Timothy Paul Jones, Misquoting Truth, p.110), Tertullian (at the end of the 2nd century) does the same. However, he also felt the need to explicitly explain how the authority was assured.

“We present as our first position, that the Gospel testimony has apostles for its authors, to whom the Lord himself assigned the position of propagating the Gospel.” (Against Marcion, 4.2.)

With just this sentence, you would then expect to find the Gospels named after people like Peter or James, but it is interesting that Tertullian continues as he does.

“There are also some that, though not apostles, are apostolic—they do not stand alone; they appear with and after the apostles.” (Against Marcion, 4.2.)

If the authorship was truly open, as Ehrman would argue, and apostolic authority was desired, it is strange that the early church leaders unanimously name Mark and Luke as the authors of the second and third Gospels respectively. It is even stranger to imagine them making this up, considering the fact that Tertullian felt the need to explain how Mark and Luke could still be legitimate candidates for apostolic authorship, when they themselves were not apostles.

RightObj-figure 1-3

RightObj13The unanimous nature of their attribution is also instructive. Christianity was spread throughout the Roman Empire at this time and these were not the days of the church councils that came after Christianity was legalized over a hundred years later. Christians were certainly not as well connected as they were later in church history. In spite of that, however, the attribution of the Gospels to Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John is uniform. What we do not see is someone calling a particular work Matthew’s, someone else calling it the Gospel of John, and someone totally different saying it was written by Thomas. This is significant, because you would expect different groups in different places to come up with different names, not being connected to reliable tradition. Craig Blomberg asks a pertinent question based on this evidence.

Craig Blomberg

Craig Blomberg

“No competing traditions assigning these books to any other authors have survived, if any ever existed. Why would Christians as early as the second century ascribe these otherwise anonymous Gospels to three such unlikely candidates if they did not in fact write them?” (Craig Blomberg, in J.P. Moreland and Michael Wilkins, Jesus Under Fire, p.28)

RightObj15The third unlikely candidate he refers to is Matthew. Though not as unlikely as Mark and Luke, Blomberg also brings attention to the dislike of tax collectors in the ancient world and suggests that Matthew would also be an unlikely candidate for artificial Gospel authorship. After all, there were other apostles to choose from, so why pick Matthew, whose tax collecting past might be a stumbling block to some.

Why is Ehrman so certain that the traditional authors had nothing to do with the Gospels that bear their names? The answer is that he is not, nor could he be, based on current evidence. The original manuscripts that he strongly asserted to have been without the author’s names are not in our possession (a subject of which both Ehrman and I will have more to say in the third part of this series). All we have are copies, but it is intriguing that the complete copies that we have include the traditional authors’ names. In addition, we cannot judge all similar works to be forgeries, just because we know some of them to be forgeries. RightObj16What is revealed from reading more than just a few quotes from Ehrman is that he is trying to present Christianity as if there was no uniform tradition from the time of the apostles, even using the much later forgeries to claim that the earlier canonical Gospels should not be given superiority. He submits that there were various groups competing to have their teaching about Christ become what would only later be known as orthodox or right teaching (another subject for further exploration, this time in the fourth and final part of this series). The point I want to make is that if there was authentic apostolic tradition behind the four canonical Gospels, it not only damages Ehrman’s argument against Gospel reliability, but also his argument against early Christian orthodoxy. So, he has more than one reason for plainly asserting things that cannot be proven, even if it goes against the evidence.

RightObj-figure 1-4


Even if Ehrman’s claim that the Gospels were not written by Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John is accepted, it does not defeat the case for the Gospels presenting authentic, eyewitness testimony. However, his claim goes beyond the evidence, for there are good reasons to accept the reliability of the early church tradition. In the end, we may not say with certainty that the traditional authorship of the four Gospels in the Bible is correct. However, to deny the traditional authorship with certainty betrays another agenda, as I consider the scales of history to be tipped in the other direction, in favour of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John.


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