If you open a Bible to the first page of the Gospel of Matthew, you will usually see the words “The Gospel According to Matthew.” Verse 1 of the gospel, however, begins with “The book of the genealogy of Jesus Christ.” Have you ever wondered why “The Gospel According to Matthew” isn’t part of the first verse?

Most scholars think that the original gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John didn’t included their names in them. In other words, when the Gospel of Matthew was originally written, the document didn’t say “The Gospel According to Matthew” like it does in our English Bibles. This would be different compared to most of the epistles in the New Testament, which contain the name of the author. So in this sense, the four gospels were probably anonymous when they were first written.

With that said, there is no evidence that the four gospels ever circulated without their titles. But if the four gospels were originally anonymous, how and when did the names of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John become attached to their respective gospels? What do we make of this?

New Testament

Before we look at how these names became attached to the gospels, what does the New Testament say about these four people? What can we learn about them?

The first gospel refers to Matthew as “the tax collector” (Matt. 10:3). Levi, one of Jesus’ followers, was called from his role as a tax collector in Mark 2:14 and Luke 5:27. All three synoptic gospels name Matthew as one of the apostles (Matt. 10:2-4; Mark 3:16; Luke 6:13-16). It is reasonable to think that Matthew and Levi are the same person: a tax collector and one of Jesus’ apostles.

A man named John Mark is mentioned in Acts (12:12, 25; 13:5, 13; 15:37) and in four of the New Testament epistles (Col. 4:10; Philemon 24; 2 Tim. 4:11; 1 Peter 5:13). According to Acts 13, (John) Mark traveled with Paul and Barnabas on their first missionary journey but left before it ended for unknown reasons. Peter refers to Mark as his son, indicating that they had a close relationship.

Luke is a companion of Paul and is mentioned in three of Paul’s letters (Col. 4:10-14; 2 Tim. 4:11; Philemon 24). The Colossians passage is significant because it calls Luke “the beloved physician.” It can also be inferred from this passage that Luke was a Gentile Christian, since he wasn’t included in Paul’s list of “the only men of the circumcision among my fellow workers.” It is generally agreed upon that the author of Luke also wrote the book of Acts. The latter half of Acts contains several “we” passages indicating that the author joined Paul at some point in his travels.

The fourth gospel comes the closest to naming its author. John 21:20-25 records a conversation between Peter and Jesus. In this passage, the author says that he was present during the event. The author refers to himself in this story as “the disciple whom Jesus loved.” He also says “This is the disciple who is bearing witness about these things, and who has written these things, and we know that his testimony is true.”

This beloved disciple is also mentioned in several other places in this gospel (13:23; 19:26; 20:2; 21:7, 20) but is never explicitly named. It is argued based on style and vocabulary that whoever wrote the fourth gospel also wrote the three epistles of John and the book of Revelation. The authorship of John is the most complex and even some conservative scholars think that someone other than John the Disciple wrote the gospel. But as we will see below, church tradition claims that the author is John, the son of Zebedee, a disciple of Jesus.

Greek Manuscripts:

There are several manuscripts of the New Testament that are dated from the second to the fifth centuries. Many of these early manuscripts have the gospel titles in them. Although there is some variation with their wording, there is no variation in their names. In other words, there aren’t any manuscripts from this time period that say that the first gospel is “The Gospel According to Peter.” The only differences in wording are things like “The Gospel According to Mark” versus “According to Mark.”

Some examples include P66 and P75, which are two early manuscripts (2nd-3rd centuries) that both have “The Gospel According to John” in them. P75 also includes Luke’s name with his gospel. Other examples include P4-64-67 (Matthew and Luke) and Codex Sinaiticus (all four gospels).

According to Luke_Sinaiticus_Large

(Codex Sinaiticus, “According to Luke”)

Early Church Tradition

In addition to our earliest manuscripts, early church tradition also names Matthew, Mark, Luke and John as the authors of the gospels. The earliest witness to all four gospel authors is Irenaeus. Around AD 180, he wrote,  

“Matthew also issued a written Gospel among the Hebrews in their own dialect, while Peter and Paul were preaching at Rome, and laying the foundations of the Church. After their departure, Mark, the disciple and interpreter of Peter, did also hand down to us in writing what had been preached by Peter. Luke also, the companion of Paul, recorded in a book the Gospel preached by him. Afterwards, John, the disciple of the Lord, who also had leaned upon His breast, did himself publish a Gospel during his residence at Ephesus in Asia” (Against Heresies 3.1.1).

Since this paragraph is brief and doesn’t have much explanation, it is reasonable to infer that this tradition was well established in the churches where Irenaeus was a leader. Irenaeus links Mark’s gospel to Peter (1 Peter 5:13) and Luke’s gospel to Paul (Col. 4:10-14). He also identifies John as the disciple who leaned upon Jesus (John 21:20) and says that John compiled his gospel in Ephesus.

The Muratorian Canon is a fragment that is dated around AD 170-200. It attributes the third and fourth gospels to Luke and John:

“The third book of the Gospel, that according to Luke, the well-known physician Luke wrote in his own name in order after the ascension of Christ, and when Paul had associated him with himself as one studious of right. Nor did he himself see the Lord in the flesh; and he, according as he was able to accomplish it, began his narrative with the nativity of John. The fourth Gospel is that of John, one of the disciples…”

The Muratorian Canon also affirms that Luke was a physician and a companion of Paul and that John was one of the disciples.

About 50 years before Irenaeus, Papias wrote his work Expositions of the Oracles of the Lord. This document no longer exists but was preserved in the writings of Eusebius. In Eusebius’ Church History, he quotes Papias as saying:

“Mark, having become the interpreter of Peter, wrote down accurately, though not in order, whatsoever he remembered of the things said or done by Christ. For he neither heard the Lord nor followed him, but afterward, as I said, he followed Peter, who adapted his teaching to the needs of his hearers, but with no intention of giving a connected account of the Lord’s discourses, so that Mark committed no error while he thus wrote some things as he remembered them. For he was careful of one thing, not to omit any of the things which he had heard, and not to state any of them falsely…So then Matthew wrote the oracles in the Hebrew language, and every one interpreted them as he was able.”

Papias affirms Matthew and Mark as gospel authors and adds that Mark was the interpreter of Peter.

Remarkable Unity

The evidence for the traditional authorship of the gospels is remarkably unified. The titles appear in our earliest manuscripts and the early church writers always attributed the four gospels to Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. This demonstrates the long-standing tradition of these authors going back to the second century at the latest.

In fact, some scholars are so persuaded by this evidence that they claim the titles go all the way back to the beginning. One such scholar is Martin Hengel, who argued that the gospels could not have circulated anonymously for 60 years without their being significant variation in the early attributions. In his mind, the fact that there is unanimous agreement of authorship shows that the gospels couldn’t have been formally anonymous in the first place.

Even though the titles go back very early and possibly back to the originals, the titles alone don’t prove the traditional authorship of the gospels. It does show, however, that we have good reasons to think that Matthew, Mark, Luke and John were the original authors of the four gospels.  

5 Points to Remember

  1. There is no evidence to suggest that the four gospels ever circulated without the names of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John.
  2. The earliest Greek manuscripts include the traditional titles without variation.
  3. The early church claims that Mark was a companion of Peter, that Luke was a companion of Paul, and that the author of the fourth gospel was John the Disciple.
  4. The early church affirmed the traditional authorship of all four gospels going back to the second century at the latest.
  5. The unified evidence gives us good reasons to trust the traditional authorship of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John.

Sources:

Carson, D. A., and Douglas J. Moo. An Introduction to the New Testament. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2005. Print.

Kruger, Michael J. “10 Misconceptions about the NT Canon: #9: “The Canonical Gospels Were Certainly Not Written by the Individuals Named in Their Titles”.” MichaelJKruger.com. N.p., 12 Nov. 2012. Web. 12 Aug. 2016.

“Irenaeus of Lyons.” , Against Heresies / Adversus Haereses, Book 3 (Roberts-Donaldson Translation). N.p., n.d. Web. 12 Aug. 2016.

“NPNF2-01. Eusebius Pamphilius: Church History, Life of Constantine, Oration in Praise of Constantine.” – Christian Classics Ethereal Library. N.p., n.d. Web. 12 Aug. 2016.

Roberts, Mark D. Can We Trust the Gospels?: Investigating the Reliability of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2007. Print.

 

22 COMMENTS

  1. “The first gospel refers to Matthew as ‘the tax collector’ (Matt. 10:3). Levi, one of Jesus’ followers, was called from his role as a tax collector in Mark 2:14 and Luke 5:27. All three synoptic gospels name Matthew as one of the apostles (Matt. 10:2-4; Mark 3:16; Luke 6:13-16). It is reasonable to think that Matthew and Levi are the same person: a tax collector and one of Jesus’ apostles.”

    In relating the story of their meeting, Matthew (Levi), if he were the author, would have used the first person, rather than the third.

    Further, as one of the twelve, Matthew would have been present for these events, and would have had no reason, as he seems to have, to copy over 90% of ‘Mark’s‘ gospel into his own.

    The Acts Seminar is a good place to find counter-evidence for ‘Luke’, and if ‘John‘ were truly John, John’s story negates so much of the synoptic gospels, that it makes it clear as to WHY they were called thesynoptic gospels.

      • Do you? Then the majority of biblical scholars must as well, as it is accepted by the majority that Levi, the tax collector was not the author of “Matthew“.

        In fact, that pseudo-Matthew is the only gospel author, as you stated in one of your comments, who calls Levi a tax-collector, may be an indication that not only was he not there, but that Levi was not, in fact, a tax collector – as we have only Matthew’s word for it.

        • First, the majority doesn’t equal truth. You have to look at the individual arguments themselves and see why people hold to their viewpoints, which I have done. And I didn’t say that only Matthew’s gospel refers to this figure as a “tax collector.” Instead what I said was that only the first gospel names this tax collector as “Matthew.” The other gospels call this person “Levi.” But they all three refer him as a tax collector in their stories:
          Matthew 10:3- “Matthew the tax collector”
          Mark 2:15- “Levi the son of Alphaeus sitting at the tax booth”
          Luke 5:27- “a tax collector named Levi sitting at the tax booth”

    • Thank you for the comment, Arch. A few responses:

      “In relating the story of their meeting, Matthew (Levi), if he were the author, would have used the first person, rather than the third.”

      Not necessarily, as I mentioned about the author of the fourth gospel, he refers to himself in the third person as the “beloved disciple” and it’s only in the end that he reveals that the he is that disciple. So Matthew could have been using the same technique just without the revealing himself. Also, some argue that since only the first gospel names Matthew as the “tax collector,” this could be an act of self-deprecation. And Matthew could be narrating his story since the same story is in Mark 2:14-17 and Luke 5:27-32 and both of these accounts call him Levi instead of Matthew.

      “Further, as one of the twelve, Matthew would have been present for these events, and would have had no reason, as he seems to have, to copy over 90% of ‘Mark’s‘ gospel into his own.”

      This relates to the Synoptic Problem, and as I am sure you are aware there are many different theories on this. Most scholars today do hold Markan priority, but a case can be made that Matthew was first and that Mark copied his gospel instead of the other way around. This theory has made a comeback with proponents like William Farmer, for example. But some have also proposed that Matthew wrote an original sayings gospel in Hebrew first but then later published a new edition into Greek after Mark’s gospel.

      But if Mark did write first, there really isn’t a problem that Matthew used Mark as a source, especially if Peter is behind the gospel. Perhaps Matthew expanded Mark’s gospel into a more Jewish gospel. I don’t see a problem in him expanding on Mark’s gospel, because all that is says is that Matthew thinks Mark’s gospel is an accurate source to use in the first place.

      “The Acts Seminar is a good place to find counter-evidence for ‘Luke’, and if ‘John‘ were truly John, John’s story negates so much of the synoptic gospels, that it makes it clear as to WHY they were called thesynoptic gospels.”

      Yes, I am aware of the Acts Seminar but to be honest I don’t know a lot about them. Is there anything specific you find compelling against Luke?

      And concerning John, my view is that he wrote his gospel last and was well aware of the synoptics. But since he was an eyewitness and remembered certain events that he experienced, he simply provided the missing details instead of repeating what had already been said. I don’t see his gospel “negating” the others but rather filling in the gaps of the story.

      Hope this helps.

      • Oh, I neglected to mention, Carey, that some biblical scholars see the hands of three anonymous authors in the writing of the Gospel of John.

  2. …as I mentioned about the author of the fourth gospel, he refers to himself in the third person as the “beloved disciple” and it’s only in the end that he reveals that the he is that disciple.

    I assume you’re referring to the verse in John 20 that says: “This is the disciple which testifieth of these things, and wrote of these things: and we know that his testimony is true.

    This verse does not automatically mean that the author of “John” was referring to that book and not another that the apostle John may have written which WAS existent then but no longer is. Again, I draw your attention to the continued use of the third person in his above verse.

    Perhaps Matthew expanded Mark’s gospel into a more Jewish gospel. I don’t see a problem in him expanding on Mark’s gospel, because all that is says is that Matthew thinks Mark’s gospel is an accurate source to use in the first place.

    Really? If pseudo-Mark’s gospel is so accurate, why do you suppose it is that pseudo-Matthew feels the need to exaggerate each of pseudo-Mark’s claims? If pseudo-Mark said that Yeshua healed a leper on a particular occasion, pseudo-Matthew will say he healed two – this is consistent throughout his gospel – see for yourself.

    But back to John —

    – John’s Gospel is the work of a trained mind who wrote good Greek with some semitizing; but Acts 4.13 says that John was illiterate.

    – John makes little reference to Galilee, which is scarcely what we would expect from a native of the province, especially since Galilee (supposedly) was the center of Christ’s ministry. Nor does he mention at all his brother, James.

    – John makes frequent and unnecessary references to the “the Jews“, as if they were a hostile group, e.g. “as I said unto the Jews” (John 13.33) said by Jesus (a Jew) to a group of Jews. He was one of them, was he not? John’s knowledge of Judaism is also tainted. Critics cite John 18.13 in this regard (as if there were an annual priest): “and brought him first to Annas, who was the father-in-law of Caiaphas, the high priest that year.”

    – The author of this work would hardly refer to himself as “the disciple Jesus loved.

    – John does NOT mention the ‘Transfiguration‘ – when supposedly Jesus was joined by Moses and Elijah (Elias) on a mountain top, transformed into “glory” and was addressed by God himself – an astounding omission considering that we are informed by each of the synoptic gospels that John was one of only three eye witnesses to this stunning miracle!

    “And after six days Jesus taketh with him Peter, and James, and John, and leadeth them up into an high mountain apart by themselves: and he was transfigured before them. And his raiment became shining, exceeding white as snow; so as no fuller on earth can white them. And there appeared unto them Elias with Moses: and they were talking with Jesus.” – Mark 9.2,9.

    – Similarly, John omits any mention of the raising of Jairus’s daughter but according to Mark’s gospel it was John who was a privileged witness:

    “”And he suffered no man to follow him, save Peter, and James, and John the brother of James. And he cometh to the house of the ruler of the synagogue, and seeth the tumult, and them that wept and wailed greatly … And straightway the damsel arose, and walked; for she was of the age of twelve years. And they were astonished with a great astonishment.” – Mark 5.37,42.

    – Nor does John mention the ‘Ascension‘, one of the crucial events of the whole Christian story. Yet apparently John was a witness to this grand finale whereas the two reporters of the bizarre story (Mark and Luke) were not!

    “”And they rose up the same hour, and returned to Jerusalem, and found the eleven gathered together, and them that were with them, And as they thus spake, Jesus himself stood in the midst of them, and saith unto them, Peace be unto you … And it came to pass, while he blessed them, he was parted from them, and carried up into heaven.” – Luke 24.33,51.

    • This verse does not automatically mean that the author of “John” was referring to that book and not another that the apostle John may have written which WAS existent then but no longer is. Again, I draw your attention to the continued use of the third person in his above verse.

      That is the verse I am referring to (although it’s in John 21). However, I am not saying that it automatically means that he is referring to this gospel but that my view is the most natural reading of the text. The author refers to this beloved disciple in several places in the Gospel (13:23; 19:26; 20:2; 21:7). The author mentions this disciple again in 21:20 and then claims that he, the author, is “the disciple..who has written these things.” That is his style in referring to himself throughout the whole gospel. Another possible reason he does this is because he refers to John the Baptist as “John” (John 1:6) and wants refers to himself differently to avoid confusion. “These things” clearly refers to the gospel since that’s where the statement appears. The author has not mentioned any other work thus far so your view imports “this other book” that he doesn’t mention into the text.

      Really? If pseudo-Mark’s gospel is so accurate, why do you suppose it is that pseudo-Matthew feels the need to exaggerate each of pseudo-Mark’s claims? If pseudo-Mark said that Yeshua healed a leper on a particular occasion, pseudo-Matthew will say he healed two – this is consistent throughout his gospel – see for yourself.

      The fact that you used the word “exaggerate” implies that Matthew is lying. I said that he is “expanding” what Mark had written. Since he was there he wants to fill in some of the details of the story.

      John’s Gospel is the work of a trained mind who wrote good Greek with some semitizing; but Acts 4.13 says that John was illiterate.

      As someone who can read Greek, John’s Greek is so much easier to read than say Paul’s epistles or even Luke’s gospel. And Acts 4:13 doesn’t say that John is illiterate. It says that he was uneducated and untrained, meaning he didn’t have formal training in the Jewish schools. That doesn’t mean he didn’t know how to read or write or that he didn’t have help with his gospel (which I think he did).

      John makes frequent and unnecessary references to the “the Jews“, as if they were a hostile group, e.g. “as I said unto the Jews” (John 13.33) said by Jesus (a Jew) to a group of Jews. He was one of them, was he not? John’s knowledge of Judaism is also tainted. Critics cite John 18.13 in this regard (as if there were an annual priest): “and brought him first to Annas, who was the father-in-law of Caiaphas, the high priest that year.”

      I don’t see your point here. In John 13:33, John was quoting Jesus. Yes, Jesus was a Jew and referred to a group of Jews. If I was talking about 2015 and said that Obama was the president that year, would you take that to mean that there was an annual president?

      Unless I am missing something, the rest of your comments have to do with what John omits. But this goes exactly in line with my point of view of John! He wrote his gospel last and filled in details that he wanted people to know about. He was aware of the other three gospels and decided not to repeat most of the material.

    • Further, the synoptics all promote the famous ‘fishers of men,’ whereas the real John was the son of Zebedee, yet pseudo-John relates that the four of them were followers of John the Baptist, one day saw Jesus walking on the other side of the Jordon, John was invited to spend the night with him, and the next day called Peter, Andrew and James too leave John the B and follow Yeshua.

      • I am sorry Arch, I am having a hard time understanding what you are saying here. Can you provide the references in the gospels you are speaking about please. Thanks.

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