David Couchman
David Couchman is the Director of Focus and the producer of the 'God: new evidence,' 'God and the Big Bang,' 'After Life?' and 'Jesus Myths' video series. More...

Digital Evangelism blog

Who wrote the Gospels in the New Testament?

If you open a Bible today, you see books titled 'The Gospel according to Matthew,' 'The Gospel according to Mark,' and so on for Luke and John.

In fact, the Gospels are all anonymous - they don't actually say who wrote them. But:

  • The names of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John were linked with them as their authors right from the very earliest days
  • No other authors were ever suggested for them
  • There are thousands of Greek manuscripts of the Gospels, and they all give them the same authors

If the names of these authors had only been connected with their Gospels in the second or third centuries, it's very unlikely that all the Greek manuscripts would give them the same authors. By then, these Gospels were being circulated very widely.

Together

The four Gospels may have been circulated together very soon after they were written. It could have been at this stage that the authors' names were attached to them, as a way of distinguishing them from each other.

Matthew and John

Matthew's Gospel is probably based on the testimony of Jesus's disciple Matthew, and John's Gospel on the testimony of the disciple John. This doesn't necessarily mean that it was Matthew and John who wrote them down in the final form they've come to us in. In fact, in the case of John's Gospel, there's internal evidence that this isn't what happened.

Mark

Matthew and John were among Jesus's disciples, but Mark wasn't - he was a comparatively unimportant player in the New Testament story. If you were going to make up someone to be the author of a Gospel, Mark probably wouldn't have been the first name to come to mind.

But there's a tradition going back to the church leader Papias, early in the second century, that Mark's Gospel is based on the testimony of Simon Peter, written down by Mark. If it is true, this would explain why the church accepted it as authoritative so quickly.

Luke

Almost all scholars today (whatever they believe about whether the Bible is historically reliable) think that Luke's Gospel and the book of Acts were written by the same person:

  1. They are both addressed to the same person, Theophilus - see Luke chapter 1 verse 1 and Acts chapter 1 verse 1.
  2. Acts chapter 1 verse 1 indicates that it is the sequel to a previous work, about 'everything Jesus began to do and teach until the day he ascended to heaven' - which is what Luke's Gospel is about.
  3. The language and style is very similar in Luke and Acts:

'Stylistically and structurally, the Gospel of Luke and the Acts of the Apostles are so closely related that they have to be asssigned to the same author. This has been so extensively demonstrated by linguistic studies that it need not be elaborated here.' (Expositors' Bible Commentary volume 9 page 238)

Not only that, but there are some parts of the Book of Acts that are written in the first person - 'we did this,' 'we went there.' It's possible to identify the person making these statements as the Luke who accompanied the apostle Paul on some of his journeys.

This leaves two possibilities: either Luke genuinely wrote Acts, in which case he also genuinely wrote the Gospel that's named after him, or someone else forged Acts deliberately in such a way as to make it look like it was written by Luke. In which case, the same person forged Luke's Gospel. But the person who wrote Luke's Gospel claims to be concerned for historical accuracy and reliability, so there's a certain contradiction in this idea.

Although at this distance in time we can't be absolutely certain that the Bible Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John really were based on the testimony of their named authors, this is a reasonable assumption, and it would account for why the early Christians accepted them so quickly.