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FIRST-PERSON (part 2): The problem of authorship: Who wrote the Gospels?

EDITOR’S NOTE: With books such as Misquoting Jesus and Jesus, Interrupted, New Testament scholar Bart Ehrman has taken his questioning of the authenticity of Scripture straight to the New York Times bestseller list. Ehrman’s background as an evangelical “believer” turned chief skeptic has also made him a favorite of the media. This is the second in a five-part series on Ehrman.

ALPHARETTA, Ga. (BP)–Agnostic New Testament scholar Bart Ehrman claims that the traditional authorship of the New Testament Gospels (i.e., Matthew, Mark, Luke and John) is mistaken, since the original manuscripts did not have the titles now prominent in our New Testament (e.g., The Gospel According to Matthew, etc.). Therefore, Ehrman claims they are “forgeries.” In fact, in his most recent book, “Jesus: Interrupted,” Ehrman contends that of the current 27 books and letters in the NT, all but eight are “forgeries.” This is a colossal overstatement intended to shock his readers. Scholarship, though, has not confirmed such a conclusion.

So who wrote the New Testament Gospels? We don’t have the original manuscripts and Ehrman is probably correct that the originals did not contain the titles presently found in our New Testament. This is not nearly as big a problem as Ehrman imagines, since it was not unusual for ancient authors to leave their names out of their works. None of the 39 books of the Old Testament had titles in the originals. It wasn’t until hundreds of years later that the Rabbis added them. However, the traditions pertaining to their traditional authorship had been firm. Twenty-one of the 27 pieces of literature in the New Testament are letters, none of which we would expect for there to have been a title. Our closest non-biblical example, however, is found in another ancient example: Plutarch, a Greek author who penned nearly 50 biographies during the late first to early second centuries. Plutarch’s name is absent from all of them. It is only the tradition that has been passed down through the centuries that gives us information pertaining to who wrote these biographies. And yet, no one questions that Plutarch is the author.

There are ancient reports pertaining to the authors of the New Testament Gospels. Papias (circa A.D. 120) was an early Christian leader who may have known the Apostle John or another Christian leader who was close to the apostles. Papias was the first to discuss the authorship of the Gospels we have in the New Testament and attributes them to Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. A few decades later, another Christian leader named Irenaeus (circa A.D. 170), who had probably heard one of the followers of the Apostle John named Polycarp, reiterated Papias’ tradition about the Gospels’ authorship. The same tradition would be affirmed by later church historians.

The challenge, of course, is determining the extent to which these reports are reliable. For some time, critical scholars have debated whether the traditional authorship of the New Testament Gospels is accurate and many, like Ehrman, have opted to reject it. However, many hold to it. For example, more scholars than not hold to the traditional authorship of both Mark and Luke. A number of critical scholars hold to the traditional authorship of John, although today’s majority contends that a minor disciple who was not one of the Twelve but who had traveled with Jesus and was an eyewitness to His ministry is the source behind John’s Gospel and that one or two of His pupils wrote what they had heard from Him, perhaps even under His close guidance. Even if this is the case, we still would have eyewitness testimony from one of Jesus’ disciples who had traveled with Him. The authorship of Matthew is the most heavily contested of the four Gospels. Yet there are a number of impressive scholars who maintain its traditional authorship.

So, what about Ehrman’s claim that the New Testament Gospels are “forgeries?” It’s an overstatement. If an evangelical scholar were to argue that the traditional authorship of the Gospels is established beyond doubt, Ehrman would probably say that he or she has every right to believe that the evidence supports traditional authorship but that “established beyond doubt” is more than the evidence can bear. In a similar way, Ehrman has a right to believe that the traditional authors did not actually pen the Gospels and that their actual authorship is unknown. But to say that the Gospels are “forgeries” is an overstatement. While no rock-solid evidence exists pertaining to the authorship of the Gospels, the ancient testimony supporting traditional authorship is good. The fact that our earliest manuscripts do not include the traditional titles that appear in our Bibles does not mean that we have no idea who wrote the Gospels. As the Gospels began to circulate to a wider audience, it was at this time that the titles may have been added in order to avoid confusion.

In summary, a reasonable case can be made for the traditional authorship of the Gospels. Although the matter is debated, it is certainly false to assert that we have no idea who wrote them.
Mike Licona is the apologetics coordinator at the North American Mission Board. For a better understanding of today’s world religions and for resources that will help you defend your faith, visit NAMB’s apologetics website at www.4truth.net.

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  • Mike Licona