On Attributing the Gospels to Their Authors

Decades ago, it was the fashion to say, “Shakespeare was not written by Shakespeare but by somebody else of the same name”. That fashion died the death it deserved.

But in biblical scholarship circles it is still fashionable with some to call Mark “Mark” and Luke “Luke” and so on with the rest of the gospels. What nobody explains to me is why on earth the early Church would attribute gospels to these absolute nobodies.

I mean, Matthew and John, sure: a case (a bad one, but a case) can be made for falsely attributing gospels to them (since a tax collector is just the guy you want to appeal to in order to win friends and influence people with your faked “gospel to the Jews” and John is definitely the one and only apostle a pseudonymous author would pick for his fake name over, say, Peter).

But the other two? Why single them out of the entire circle of people in Jesus’ or Paul’s orbit and, with one voice, attribute their gospels to them?

I’m just a simple hobbit, but it seems to me that a far more reasonable explanation for the names of the gospels is that they were written by the people whose names the whole early Church attached to them.

Some will argue that Matthew was written by the followers of Matthew who told his experiences with Jesus and so on with John, Mark, and Luke.

I reply that it is certainly possible the gospels are written by amanuenses or disciples of the source authority. John definitely bears witness to more than one hand at work (“This is the disciple who is bearing witness to these things, and who has written these things; and we know that his testimony is true.” (John 21:24))

But the other gospels bear no such evidence and Luke/Acts specifically claims to be the work of a single author (Luke 1:3; Acts 1:1). Multiplying such hypotheses without evidence seem to me to be be a pointless effort. Books are normally written by an author. These books are attributed, not to a multiplicity of authors or a committee, but to Matthew, Mark, and Luke with one voice by the early Church. Why is it so difficult to accept that this is because there were written by the people the entire Church unanimously attributes them to?

The irony with Mark is that Papias (writing in the early second century) specifically says, not that somebody else, or a committee of somebody elses is writing for Mark, but that Mark is functioning as something like an amanuensis for Peter:

The Elder also said this, “Mark, being the interpreter of Peter, whatsoever he remembered he wrote accurately, but not however in the order that these things were spoken or done by our Lord. For he neither heard the Lord, nor followed him, but afterwards, as I said, he was with Peter, who did not make a complete [or ordered] account of the Lord’s logia, but constructed his teachings according to chreiai [concise self-contained teachings]. So Mark did nothing wrong in writing down single matters as he remembered them, for he gave special attention to one thing, of not passing by anything he heard, and not falsifying anything in these matters.”

Note that Papias is not 100% accurate here, since there is strong evidence the Mark was, in fact, an eyewitness of some of the ministry of Jesus, including the fact that the early Church meets in his house (Acts 12:10–17) and the very high likelihood that he himself is the young man who fled naked from Gethsemane (Mark 14:52). He seems to be in the thick of the early band of disciples (perhaps being one of the seventy disciples Jesus chose) from the get go.

Papias can be interpreted as suggesting that Matthew is the authority behind his gospel, writing in “Hebrew” (that is, Aramaic) and that other hands may have assembled what he collated into a single Greek document, but such a reading of Papias is not a solid lock. (Personally, I think that is exactly what Papias means and that this is, in fact, what happened):

Concerning Matthew these other things were said, “Therefore, Matthew set in order the logia (“divine oracles”) in a Hebrew dialect, and each interpreted them, as he was able.”

The irony is that Papias, like most ancients, cares more about oral tradition (“the living word”) than about books because people can be interrogated but books can’t. This seems to be the majority view of the primitive Church given that so few of the apostolic circle wrote anything. Most of the Twelve disappear into history and Tradition without writing a word. Obsession with documentation is a much more modern phenomenon. And exaltation of written words over spoken ones as “more reliable” is also a deeply modern idea.

For ancients, books existed as *things to be read aloud*. There is a funny passage in Augustine where he remarks with wonder that you could not hear St. Ambrose reading *even if you stood right next to him*! Silent reading was only coming into vogue in the 4th century AD. The proclaimed word, not the written or read word, was the main thing in antiquity.

Also of note is the fact that the early Church is quite willing to face up to the fact that a book’s authorship is sketchy. Hebrews is a case in point. Of it, Origen famously remarked that “God alone” knew who wrote it. James, 2 Peter, and Revelation were likewise viewed with skeptical eyes and their authorship regarded with doubt. But with the gospels, the testimony to their authorship is unanimous in the early Church. Nobody ever has a doubt about who wrote them in antiquity. I think the reason for that is “Everybody knew who wrote them.”

For me, appreciation of their authorship makes the gospels real as genuinely human accounts. It matters, I think, that Mark (alone of all the gospels) makes mention of the sons of Simon of Cyrene (who play absolutely no role whatsoever in the gospel narratives) because Mark is writing to the Roman community that knows them personally (cf. Mark 15:21; Romans 16:13). It matters that Cleopas (Luke 24:13-32) and Bartimaeus (Mark 10:46-52) are named because naming people is the way ancient Greco-Roman historians footnote their sources. So when you read the resurrection narrative in Luke, you are hearing the eyewitness testimony of Cleopas. And Cleopas is not just anybody, he and his wife Mary (a witness of the Crucifixion (John 19:25)) are the parents of James, the first bishop of Jerusalem, and Simon, the second bishop of Jerusalem) (Mark 15:40). The story becomes much more intensely personal and real and the communities around the Mediterranean know these people and have met them. It’s not just stories in an old book but the vital underground literature of real people electrified by something that happened to them and to people they know.


4 Responses

  1. “… because people can be interrogated but books can’t”
    —> “… because people can be interrogated while they’re still alive, but after they’ve died, written records are less unreliable than games of telephone (cf John 21:23)”
    Fixed it for you.

    1. No. You fixed Papias’ reasoning for him. I’m simply explaining how ancients tended to see things. You are doing apologetics for contemporary prejudices and assumptions. Like it or not, ancients tended to prefer “the living word” over written words.

      1. Right. Interestingly enough, nobody read sliently, alone, until the Early Modern period. If you went back to Ancient Rome and sat down in a public place, silently, and began reading a book (or scroll in this case, I guess) people would’ve assumed you’re a nutjob. It’d be like today if you see someone babbling to themselves outloud to no on in particular in a public place.

        On occasion this fact does make me think that to be a modern is to be at least mildly insane, btw, haha.

  2. What you wrote makes so much sense. Close families still gather to share oral history. Eventually, some member says, “We’ve got to write all that info down”. As it was then, is now…

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