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?
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.
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).
(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.
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
- There is no evidence to suggest that the four gospels ever circulated without the names of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John.
- The earliest Greek manuscripts include the traditional titles without variation.
- 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.
- The early church affirmed the traditional authorship of all four gospels going back to the second century at the latest.
- The unified evidence gives us good reasons to trust the traditional authorship of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John.
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.