When trying to discern the authorship of the four gospels, scholars look at two types of evidence: external (outside the NT) and internal (inside the NT). In my previous post, we primarily looked at the external evidence in accessing the traditional authorship of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. But what about the internal evidence? Are there any clues in the gospels and other New Testament books that back up the tradition behind these four authors?
Church tradition says that the author of the first gospel was Matthew, a Jewish tax collector. When we look inside Matthew’s gospel, there are some clues that indicate that the author was Jewish and that he was familiar with numbers and money. His gospel includes teachings of Jesus that put special emphasis on the Jewish people and the Jewish law (10:6 “house of Israel”; 5:17-20). He seems to know the geography well, even the small town of Nazareth (2:23). He was also familiar with Jewish customs, including the practice of betrothal (1:18-19). He has much respect for the Old Testament, and constantly points out when Jesus fulfilled prophecy (1:22; 2:15, 18; 3:3; 4:15-16; 12:18-21; 13:35; 21:5).
There are also clues to his background as a tax collector. He orders his gospel using certain numbered divisions, the primary example being the five sermons of Jesus ending with the same formula “And when Jesus had finished” (7:28; 11:1; 13:53; 19:1; 26:1). He also demonstrates his familiarity with money when he frequently uses monetary terms like drachma (17:24), stater (17:25) and talent (18:24). When comparing Matthew to the other synoptics, Matthew seems to prefer using monetary terminology than the others as well. For example, Matthew uses the term “gold” (2:11; 10:9; 23:16-27) while the synoptics don’t use this term at all. Another great example of this is when you compare Matthew’s account of the Lord’s prayer with Luke’s account. In asking God for forgiveness, Matthew uses the word “debts” (6:12) while Luke uses the term “sins” (11:4).
The internal evidence seems to line up well with the tradition that Matthew was Jewish tax collector.
The external evidence links Mark’s gospel with the apostle Peter. Are there any internal clues that hint at this relationship? In Acts 12:6-19, Peter was sleeping in prison when an angel of the Lord appeared to him and helped him escape. When Peter escapes and finally realizes what is going on, he goes to a house of a woman named Mary. Mary is said to be “the mother of John whose other name was Mark” (12:12). This event was no later than the mid-40s, showing that Mark had a relationship with Peter from early on. This is also corroborated in Peter’s first epistle, where he calls Mark “my son” (1 Peter 5:13).
But the most interesting evidence that links the two is comparing the outline of Mark’s gospel with the preaching of Peter. In Acts 10:36-41, Peter says
“As for the word that he sent to Israel, preaching good news of peace through Jesus Christ (he is Lord of all), you yourselves know what happened throughout all Judea, beginning from Galilee after the baptism that John proclaimed: how God anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Spirit and with power. He went about doing good and healing all who were oppressed by the devil, for God was with him. And we are witnesses of all that he did both in the country of the Jews and in Jerusalem. They put him to death by hanging him on a tree, but God raised him on the third day and made him to appear, not to all the people but to us who had been chosen by God as witnesses, who ate and drank with him after he rose from the dead.”
The basic framework of Peter’s sermon that is reflected in Mark’s gospel is this:
- John the Baptist proclaimed the coming Messiah.
- Jesus performed miracles with the anointing of God.
- Jesus traveled and ministered in Jerusalem.
- Jesus was put to death by crucifixion.
- God raised Jesus from the dead on the third day.
- Jesus appeared to his followers after his death.
Thus it seems very reasonable to think that there is some relationship between Mark’s gospel and the apostle Peter.
Similar to Mark, the external evidence links Luke’s gospel to the apostle Paul. From the internal evidence of Paul’s letters, not only do we learn that Luke was one of Paul’s companions, but we also find out that Luke was a physician and a gentile Christian (Col. 4:10-14; 2 Tim. 4:11; Philemon 24). The author of Acts, which is virtually agreed upon to be the same person who wrote the third gospel, includes himself in Paul’s travels (Acts 16:10-17; 20:5-15; 21:1-18; 27:1-28:16). This companion of Paul couldn’t be Silas, Timothy, Sopater, Aristarchus, Secundus, Gaius, Tychicus, or Trophimus since all of these men are mentioned by name in these passages. This leaves Mark, Jesus, Justus, Epaphras, Demas, Luke, Epaphroditus as the other candidates that are mentioned in Paul’s letters that were written during the “we” sections of Acts (Colossians, Philemon, Ephesians, and Philippians). Obviously, this doesn’t prove Luke wrote these books but it does narrow down the candidates.
Luke’s gospel and Acts are written to “most excellent Theophilus” (Luke 1:3), who was probably a Gentile and possibly a Roman aristocrat. Luke’s gospel has a Gentile flavor to it as he often focuses on the universality of the Gospel, often substitutes the Greek equivalent for Jewish titles (“Teacher” instead of “Rabbi”), and highlights Gentile converts in the book of Acts (Acts 10). Luke also demonstrates a knowledge of Judaism, which also fits well with the author being a God-fearing Gentile.
Luke’s vocabulary is that of an educated person. He writes with some of the finest Greek in the New Testament. In Acts 1:19, Luke refers to Aramaic as “their language” which indicates that he wasn’t Jewish. It has also been argued that Luke exhibits a knowledge of medical terminology. For example, in Matthew 8:14 and Mark 1:30, Peter’s mother-in-law is said to have a fever. But in Luke’s gospel, he adds that it was a “high fever” (4:38). However, this has been challenged to say that Luke simply uses educated language of his day and that this doesn’t necessarily point to him being a physician.
Nevertheless, the internal evidence points to an educated Gentile who was a companion of Paul, was familiar with the Old Testament, and possibly had knowledge of medical terminology. In light of this, Luke seems to be a very suitable candidate for authorship.
In the case of John’s gospel, the internal evidence points to a Jew who was an eyewitness and close follower of Jesus. The author was probably Jewish because he is familiar with the Hebrew OT (12:40), Jewish feasts (2:13), Jewish customs (11:38-44), and topography (the depth of Jacob’s well in 4:11). The author is the beloved disciple (13:23; 19:26; 20:2) who was also an eyewitness as he claims in John 1:14 and 21:20-25. The author also demonstrates that he has an insider’s knowledge of events that happened among the disciples (2:11; 4:27; 6:19).
Like Luke, the list of candidates for John’s gospel can be narrowed down to a select few. In the final chapter of the gospel, Jesus reveals himself to seven disciples: “Simon Peter, Thomas (called the Twin), Nathanael of Cana in Galilee, the sons of Zebedee, and two others of his disciples” (21:2). The author was also present (21:7) meaning that he was one of the seven mentioned here. Each of the named disciples cannot be the author since the author never refers to himself by his actual name. This narrows down the options to four people: the sons of Zebedee (James and John) or one of the two unnamed disciples. The author cannot be James, son of Zebedee, since he was martyred in AD 42 (Acts 12:2). At this point we are left with two options:
- The author is John the disciple.
- The author is one of the two unnamed disciples in John 21:2.
If we went with option 2, that would mean that the author of this gospel was unaware of John the disciple. This would be hard to accept since John the disciple is named 20 times in the synoptics and is one of Jesus’ inner circle. But one more piece of evidence tips the scale in favor of option 1. In John 1:6, John the Baptist is simply referred to as “John.” This seems to point to the fact that if the author was John the disciple, he would have to distinguish his name from John the Baptist to avoid confusion. This could explain why he refers to himself as the “beloved disciple.” In light of all of the internal evidence, it is more likely that John the disciple is the author of the fourth gospel.
5 Points to Remember
- The internal evidence in Matthew’s gospel points to a Jew who is familiar with numbers and has a monetary background.
- The internal evidence of the NT points to Mark having a relationship with Peter and the outline of Peter’s preaching in Acts matches up with the basic outline of Mark’s gospel.
- The internal evidence of Luke, Acts, and Paul’s epistles indicates that the author of Luke was an educated Gentile with a possible medical background, and a companion of Paul.
- The internal evidence of John points to a Jew who was an eyewitness and one of Jesus’ closest followers, and favors John the disciple as the leading candidate of authorship.
- Although the internal evidence for the traditional authorship of the gospels isn’t conclusive on its own, it does strongly corroborate the external tradition.
Andrews, Max. “The Author of the Gospel of John.” Sententias. N.p., 19 Jan. 2013. Web. 9 Sept. 2016.
Carson, D. A., and Douglas J. Moo. An Introduction to the New Testament. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2005. Print.
Wallace, Daniel. “1. Matthew: Introduction, Argument, and Outline.” Bible.org. N.p., n.d. Web. 09 Sept. 2016.
Wallace, Daniel. “2. Mark: Introduction, Argument, and Outline.” Bible.org. N.p., n.d. Web. 09 Sept. 2016.
Wallace, Daniel. “3. Luke: Introduction, Argument, and Outline.” Bible.org. N.p., n.d. Web. 09 Sept. 2016.
Wallace, Daniel. “4. The Gospel of John: Introduction, Argument, and Outline.” Bible.org. N.p., n.d. Web. 09 Sept. 2016.