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The Historical Literary Evidence for the Authorship of the NT Gospels
By Ron Jones, D.D. © The Titus Institute, 2010
The historical literary evidence clearly shows that the authors of the four NT gospels are Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John.
Matthew and John were apostles and eyewitnesses of Christ and Mark was a close associate of Peter (an apostle and eyewitness of Christ) and Luke was a close associate of Paul (an apostle and eyewitness of the risen Christ.)
There is no historical literary evidence from any one who wrote in the first three centuries of the early church that the gospels were written by later editors or anyone else other than Matthew, Mark, Luke and John.
The weight of historical literary evidence is on the side of those who believe these men are the authors. It is up to those who believe differently to disprove what the early church fathers said in their writings. The burden of proof is on them not on us who believe in these men as the authors.
This evidence also establishes that no Church council decreed that the
Gospels were authored by these men. This knowledge was handed down by
the churches founded by the apostles from the beginning.
Why is it important to establish who the actual authors of the NT Gospels were?
It helps establish the reliability of what they wrote. If the authors were Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, then two of the authors were eye-witnesses of many of the events that they recorded and two had access to eye-witnesses of the events.
It also establishes the authority of the Gospels since these writers were either apostles appointed by Jesus himself to preach and teach his word or close associates of apostles.
It also establishes the exclusivity of the four Gospels, since no gospels
have come down to us written during the first century.
The Historical Literary Evidence
1) By c. 245 AD Origen writes that the four NT Gospels were authored by Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John and are the only Gospels accepted in the church of God.
"Concerning the four Gospels which alone are uncontroverted in the Church of God under heaven, I have learned by tradition that the Gospel according to Matthew, who was at one time a publican and afterwards an Apostle of Jesus Christ, was written first and that he composed it in the Hebrew tongue and published it for the converts from Judaism. The second written was that according to Mark, who wrote it according to the instruction of Peter, who, in his General Epistle, acknowledged him as a son, saying, 'The church that is in Babylon, elect together with you, salutes you and so does Mark my son.' And third, was that according to Luke, the Gospel commended by Paul, which he composed for the converts from the Gentiles. Last of all, that according to John". (Commentary on Matthew 1)
2) By c. 200 AD Tertullian mentioned Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John as the authors of the NT Gospels.
"The same authority of the apostolic churches will afford evidence to the other Gospels also, which we possess equally through their means, and according to their usage. I mean the Gospels of John and Matthew whilst that which Mark published may be affirmed to be Peter's whose interpreter Mark was. For even Luke's form of the Gospel men usually ascribe to Paul. And it may well seem that the works which disciples publish belong to their masters."
(Against Marcion 4.5)
Tertullian c.207 AD
“We lay it down as our first position, that the evangelical Testament has apostles for its authors, to whom was assigned by the Lord Himself this office of publishing the gospel... Of the apostles, therefore, John and Matthew first instill faith into us; while of apostolic men, Luke and Mark renew it afterwards. These all start with the same principles of the faith, so far as relates to the one only God the Creator and His Christ, how that He was born of the Virgin, and came to fulfill the law and the prophets.
(Against Marcion 4.2)
3) By c.180 AD Irenaeus gives the origin of the four Gospels and their authors, Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John.
Irenaeus c.180 AD
“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)
This shows that by 180 AD we have solid historical literary evidence that early church leaders confirmed that the four NT Gospels were indeed written by Matthew and John, two apostles and Mark, a close associate of Peter and Luke, a close associate of Paul, two other apostles.
1) All the authors would have written in the first century and died by its close.
2) Matthew was written during the time when Peter and Paul were founding the church in Rome.
3) Mark wrote after Peter’s death at the request of the Roman Christians.
4) Luke wrote under the authority of Paul the apostle.
But that is not all, there is other evidence corroborating the statements of Irenaeus, Tertullian, and Origen.
4) By c.175-200 AD the Muratorian Fragment indicates that the gospels of Luke and John were authored by them and implies that there were two other gospels which are missing from the fragment.
The Muratorian Fragment written in Latin is best regarded as a list of New Testament books recognized as authoritative in the Roman church at that time. It was published in 1740 by Lodovico Antonio Muratori from a Codex copied in the seventh or eighth century. The date at which the list was originally drawn up is disputed; it belongs most probably to the end of the second century.
The manuscript is mutilated at the beginning. Since its first complete sentence mentions Luke as “the third book of the gospel”, it had presumably mentioned two others, and it is not excessively speculative to suppose that these were Matthew and Mark.
(Above two paragraphs from F.F. Bruce, The Canon of Scripture, IVP Press, 1988, p.158-9)
Quote from Canon Muratorianus.22 (In Muratori, V. C. Antiq. Ital. Med. oev., vol. iii. col. 854.)
“...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. When his fellow-disciples and bishops entreated him, he said, "Fast ye now with me for the space of three days, and let us recount to each other whatever may be revealed to each of us." On the same night it was revealed to Andrew, one of the apostles, that John should narrate all things in his own name as they called them to mind.
And hence, although different points are taught us in the several books of the Gospels, there is no difference as regards the faith of believers, inasmuch as in all of them all things are related under one imperial Spirit, which concern the Lord's nativity, His passion, His resurrection, His conversation with His disciples, and His twofold advent, the first in the humiliation of rejection, which is now past, and the second in the glory of royal power, which is yet in the future.
What marvel is it, then, that John brings forward these several things
so constantly in his epistles also, saying in his own person, "What
we have seen with our eyes, and heard with our ears, and our hands have
handled, that have we written." For thus he professes himself to
be not only the eye-witness, but also the hearer; and besides that, the
historian of all the wondrous facts concerning the Lord in their order.”
5) By c.165-180 AD The Diatessaron, a harmony of the four gospels, is published by Tatian, a disciple of Justin Martyr.
After Justin’s Marytrdom in 165 AD, Tatian went back to Assyria and introduced
what was to be for centuries a very influential edition of the gospels,
the Diatessaron. The word means “harmony of four.” It was a harmony of
the four gospels.
(Above two paragraphs from F.F. Bruce, The Canon of Scripture, IVP Press, 1988, p.127)
All four gospels are quoted in the Diatessaron. The following are examples of the each gospel being quoted in it.
Diatessaron 1:1-5 quotes Jn.1:1-5
“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and God is the Word. This was in the beginning with God. Everything was by his hand, and without him not even one existing thing was made. In him was life, and the life is the light of men. And the light shineth in the darkness, and the darkness apprehended it not.”
Diatessaron 2:1-8 quotes Matt.1:18-25a
“Now the birth of Jesus the Messiah was on this wise: In the time when his mother was given in marriage to Joseph, before they came together, she was found with child of the Holy Spirit. And Joseph her husband was a just man and did not wish to expose her, and he purposed to put her away secretly. But when he thought of this, the angel of the Lord appeared unto him in a dream, and said unto him, Joseph, son of David, fear not to take Mary thy wife, for that which is begotten in her is of the Holy Spirit. She shall bear a son, and thou shalt call his name Jesus, and he shall save s his people from their sins. And all this was that the saying from the Lord by the prophet might be fulfilled:
Behold, the virgin shall conceive, and bear a son, and they shall call his name Immanuel, which is, being interpreted, With us is our God. And when Joseph arose from his sleep, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him, and took his wife; and knew her not until she brought forth her firstborn son.”
Diatessaron 2:9-28 quotes Lu.2:1-20
“ And in those days there went forth a decree from Augustus Caesar that all the people of his dominion should be enrolled. This first enrolment was while Quirinius was governor of Syria. And every man went to be enrolled in his city. And Joseph went up also from Nazareth, a city of Galilee, to Judea, to the city of David which is called Bethlehem (for he was of the house of David and of his tribe), with Mary his betrothed, she being with child, to be enrolled there. And while she was there the days for her being delivered were accomplished. And she brought forth her firstborn son; and she wrapped him in swaddling cloths and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them where they were staying.
And there were in that region shepherds abiding, keeping their flock in the watch of the night. And behold, the angel of God came unto them, and the glory of the Lord shone upon them; and they were greatly terrified. And the angel said unto them, Be not terrified; for I bring you tidings of great joy which shall be to the whole world; there is born to you this day a Savior, which is the Lord the Messiah, in the city of David. And this is a sign for you: ye shall find a babe wrapped in swaddling cloths and laid in a manger. And there appeared with the angels suddenly many heavenly forces praising God and saying, Praise be to God in the highest, And on the earth peace, and good hope to men.
And when the angels departed from them to heaven, the shepherds spoke to one another and said, We will go to Bethlehem and see this word which hath been, as the Lord made known unto us. And they came with haste, and found Mary and Joseph, and the babe laid in a manger. And when they saw, they reported the word which was spoken to them about the child. And all that heard wondered at the description which the shepherds described to them. But Mary kept these sayings and discriminated them in her heart. And those shepherds returned, magnifying and praising God for all that they had seen and heard, according as it was described unto them.”
Diatessaron 7:9 quotes Mk.2:14
“And when he passed by, he saw Levi the son of Alphaeus sitting among the tax-gatherers; and he said unto him, Follow me: and he rose and followed him.”
6) By c.150 AD Justin Martyr calls the gospels the “memoirs of the apostles” clearly implying the apostolic authorship and authority of the gospels. He gives clear quotes from three of the Gospels, Matthew, Mark, and Luke.
Justin Martyr c.150
“For the apostles, in the memoirs composed by them, which are called Gospels, have thus delivered unto us what was enjoined upon them...” (there follows the institution of the Lord’s Supper) (1st Apology 66).
Justin Martyr c.150
“On the day called Sunday, all who live in cities or in the country gather together to one place, and the memoirs of the apostles or the writings of the prophets are read as long as time permits; then, when the reader has ceased the president verbally instructs, and exhorts to the imitation of these good things.” (1st Apology 67)
a) Justin quotes from Matthew’s Gospel
From Trypho 100
“For I have showed already that Christ is called both Jacob and Israel; and I have proved that it is not in the blessing of Joseph and Judah alone that what relates to Him was proclaimed mysteriously, but also in the Gospel it is written that He said: `All things are delivered unto me by My Father; 'and, `No man knows the Father but the Son; nor the Son but the Father, and they to whom the Son will reveal Him.’”
"All things have been committed to me by my Father. No one knows the Son except the Father, and no one knows the Father except the Son and those to whom the Son chooses to reveal him.
From Trypho 100
“Hence, also, among His words He said, when He was discoursing about His future sufferings: `The Son of man must suffer many things, and be rejected by the Pharisees and Scribes, and be crucified, and on the third day rise again.'”
“From that time on Jesus began to explain to his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and suffer many things at the hands of the elders, chief priests and teachers of the law, and that he must be killed and on the third day be raised to life.”
b) Justin quotes from Mark’s Gospel
He quotes from the Gospel of Mark and indicates it is from the “memoirs of Peter.”
“And when it is said that He changed the name of one of the apostles to Peter; and when it is written in the memoirs of him that this so happened, as well as that He changed the names of other two brothers, the sons of Zebedee, to Boanerges, which means sons of thunder…”
“James son of Zebedee and his brother John (to them he gave the name Boanerges, which means Sons of Thunder)…”
c) Justin quotes from Luke’s Gospel
“For in the memoirs which I say were drawn up by His apostles and those who followed them, [it is recorded] that His sweat fell down like drops of blood while He was praying, and saying, `If it be possible, let this cup pass…”
From Luke 22:44
“And being in anguish, he prayed more earnestly, and his sweat was like drops of blood falling to the ground.”
For when Christ was giving up His spirit on the cross, He said, `Father, into Thy hands I commend my spirit, as I have learned also from the memoirs.
“Jesus called out with a loud voice, ‘Father, into your hands I commit my spirit.’ When he had said this, he breathed his last.”
7) By c.130 AD John’s Gospel was known and circulated evidenced by a fragment of John's gospel discovered in Egypt which is dated to that time.
“The fragment of John 18 in the Rylands collection, Manchester (p52)
dated c. AD 130, came from a codex…”
(F.F. Bruce, The Canon of Scripture, IVP Press, 1988, p.129)
It has parts of the following Gospel text:
“Then Pilate said to them, ‘Take him and judge him according to your law.’ The Jews therefore said to him, ‘It is not lawful for us to put any man to death’ so that the saying of Jesus might be fulfilled, which he spoke, signifying what death he should die. Then Pilate entered into the judgment hall again, and called Jesus, and said to him, “Are you the King of the Jews?’”
8) By c.120-130 AD Papias writes about the Matthew and Mark as authors of gospels.
“It is notable that Eusebius, in spite of his desire to discredit Papias,
still places him as early as the reign of Trajan (A.D. 98-117); and although
later dates (e.g., A.D. 130-140) have often been suggested by modern scholars,
Bartlet's date for Papias' literary activity of about A.D. 100 has recently
(William R. Schoedel, The Anchor Bible Dictionary, v. 5, p. 140)
Papias (120 AD) as quoted by Eusebius
But concerning Matthew he writes as follows: “So then Matthew wrote the oracles in the Hebrew language, and every one interpreted them as he was able.”
(Eusebius Church History 3.39.16)
Papias (120AD) as quoted by Eusebius
“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.” (Eusebius Church History 3.39.15)
9) By c.130 AD The Letter of Barnabus gives a clear quote from the Gospel of Matthew using the authoritative words “it is written.”
The letter of Barnabus may be the letter of an Alexandrian Christian
written in the early second century.
(F.F. Bruce, The Canon of Scripture, IVP Press, 1988, p.122)
“Most scholars have concluded…that the book was written during the first
half of the second century, possibly around 130 CE.”
(Bart Ehrman, The New Testament and Other Early Christian Writings, Oxfor University Press, p.344)
It was definitely known in the church and respected.
In this letter, the writer uses the clause “it is written” to introduce the quotation “Many are called, but few are chosen” which is found only in Matt. 22:14 and nowhere else in the Bible.
This quote is
“Take heed, lest resting at our ease, as those who are the called [of God], we should fall asleep in our sins, and the wicked prince, acquiring power over us, should thrust us away from the kingdom of the Lord. And all the more attend to this, my brethren, when ye reflect and behold, that after so great signs and wonders were wrought in Israel, they were thus [at length] abandoned. Let us beware lest we be found [fulfilling that saying], as it is written, "Many are called, but few are chosen." (Epistle of Barnabus 4)
“For many are called, but few are chosen.”
10) By c.100-105 AD The Didache, a church manual, quotes from the Gospel of Matthew writing, “as the Lord commanded in his Gospel.”
“The book was probably written around 100 C.E…”
(Bart Ehrman, The New Testament and Other Early Christian Writings, Oxfor University Press, p.313)
The writer of the Didache quotes from Matt.6:5, and 6:9-13.
“And do not pray as the hypocrites, but as the Lord commanded in his Gospel, pray thus: "Our Father, who art in Heaven, hallowed be thy Name, thy Kingdom come, thy will be done, as in Heaven so also upon earth; give us to-day our daily bread, and forgive us our debt as we forgive our debtors, and lead us not into trial, but deliver us from the Evil One, for thine is the power and the glory for ever."
"And when you pray, do not be like the hypocrites, for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and on the street corners to be seen by men. I tell you the truth, they have received their reward in full.
"This, then, is how you should pray:
"Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name, your kingdom come, your will be done on earth as it is in heaven. Give us today our daily bread. Forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors. And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from the evil one. '
11) By c. 50-95 AD The four gospels are written by Matthew, Mark,
Luke, and John.