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The Manuscript Evidence of the NT Gospels

Affirmation for the Authorship of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John


By Pastor Ron Jones, D.D. @ The Titus Institute 2014


The early church fathers gave clear testimony that Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John wrote the NT Gospels.See Early Church an the Authorship of the NT Gospels

In this article I want to focus on the external evidence of the manuscript tradition. When the manuscript tradition is examined, it is consistent with the testimony of the early church fathers that Matthew and John, two apostles of Jesus Christ, and Mark, the close associate of the apostle Peter, and Luke, the close associate of the apostle Paul, wrote the gospels that bear their names.

Authors' Names on the Manuscripts

Original manuscripts of ancient works have not been preserved. Only copies of the copies of the originals have been preserved from a later date. So how do classical scholars and ancient historians establish authorship of Graeco-Roman works? They use the same principles that literary scholars use who focus on establishing authorship of literary works in later times. The principles that are used are the same for all ancient manuscripts whether secular or Biblical. The first principle that is followed by these scholars is the name of the author written in the extant manuscript copies is assumed to be the actual author unless there is external or internal evidence to the contrary. When this evidence is combined with consistent testimony of those who in a position to know, such as the early church fathers, it is very strong evidence of authorship.

Ancient manuscripts, like modern books, put the authorís name on the manuscript usually at the beginning or the end so everyone who read the manuscript would know who wrote it. Like today, books were not published anonymously except under unusual circumstances. Authors wanted others to know that they wrote their works. Many manuscripts are fragments in which the beginning or the end is missing so we are not able to discover who wrote it, but that does not mean they were published anonymously.

However, many manuscripts including the four NT gospels manuscripts have the authorís name on them. The name of a particular author which is written on the manuscripts of the extant copies by the scribes who copied them is assumed to be correct unless there is good external or internal evidence to the contrary.

"Authorship Attribution" is the name given to the study of how authorship is determined for a given literary work. Harold Love, who wrote a definitive book on this subject, called Authorship Attribution, explains this fundamental principle, "The most common reason for believing that a particular author wrote a particular work is that someone presumed to have first-hand knowledge tells us so. This telling usually takes the form of an ascription on a title-page or in an incipit, explicit or colophon..."1

An incipit is a title/author given at the beginning of the text. An explicit is the title/author given at the end of the text. A colophon is information on the scribe who wrote it sometimes with comments at the end of the text. So what Harold Love is saying is that the most common reason scholars have for identifying the author of a work is the name of the author that appears on the manuscripts that have come down to us.

Later in his book, he implies the central role in external evidence of the authorís name on the "title page" when he evaluates internal evidence. He writes, "Whereas external evidence can often be obtained without looking beyond the title-page, the pursuit of internal evidence requires close attention to every word and phrase."2

Today in modern books, the authorís name is placed on the title page. As we shall see, the title page developed around 1500 C.E. Notice that in modern books, the authorís name is not mentioned in the text itself just like the four Gospels. In the history of books, the authorís name rarely appeared in the text itself. They appeared at the beginning or end of the manuscript. So when we see that the names of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John are not in the texts themselves, we should not be surprised nor assume the Gospels were published anonymously.

To prove this, letís take a look at various manuscripts as they have come down to us. The history of books can be divided into three time periods, (1) the time of the papyrus scroll (until 2nd Ė 4th century C.E.), (2) the time of the codex (handwritten manuscripts - until 1500ís C.E.), (3) the time of the book (printed manuscripts -1500ís through present).

During the time of the papyrus scroll (until 2nd Ė 4th century), the author did not normally mention his name in the text (although some did). Thucydides and Herodotus did. Plutarch and Suetonius did not. Josephus mentioned his name in one work and did not in the other. On papyrus scrolls, the names of authors were not normally placed in the text, but at the end of the manuscript and on a label attached to the manuscript. (Sometimes it could appear at the front, but that was not the norm.)

Many examples of this can be seen from the excavations in the city of Herculaneum. Herculaneum was one of the cities buried by the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 79 C.E. In one of the villas of that city, now called the Villa Dei Papyri was discovered a library of many scrolls of works from the first century B.C.E. and C.E. David Sider describes the Greek texts found, ďThe Greek library comprises Hellenistic philosophical treatises, and nothing but. Most are Epicurean, although there are also some Stoic texts, present almost certainly to provide handy sources of philosophical errors for an Epicurean author. For many of the rolls, authorship is fixed by end-titles or overlaps with otherwise known textsÖAn example of one of the scrolls found is explicitly labelled ĎPhilodemos On Epikouros.íĒ3

This is evidence of the authorís name and where it was placed. When Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John wrote their gospels they wrote them on papyrus scrolls or parchment scrolls and placed their name at the end of the scroll as was the custom. They did not place their names in the texts because that was not the normal custom of the day. The four NT Gospels were not published anonymously. When they were published their names were written at the end of the manuscript just like all other first century works.

We donít have first century copies of their works just like we donít have first century copies of any other first century works by any other first century authors. However, we know from Herculaneum and other evidence that this was the custom and there is no good reason to assume that Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John did not follow the normal custom as any other author at that time. In fact, the solid evidence that they did is the fact that the early church not only knew who wrote the gospels, but they knew the basic time and circumstances of their writing. There was never any dispute in the early church about the authorship of the gospels or the general time period and circumstances of their publishing. This is exactly what you would expect. Further, we have more historical evidence for the authorship of the gospels than any other Graeco-Roman writing of that time period.

The scroll was eventually replaced by the codex, which was basically an ancient book with a cover and pages in a similar form as it is today. A codex is distinguished by scholars from a book in that a codex is hand-written and a book is printed. During the period of the codex (2nd c. to 16th c.), the authorís name appears at the beginning of the text and at the end of the text. If the codex contained more than one work, then it could also appear at the beginning of the work and at the end of the work for each work the codex contained although it was not always deemed necessary.

This is what we see when we look at manuscripts of both secular codices and NT Gospels codices. One example of a secular work that demonstrates this is a manuscript from the Pierpont Morgan Library, MS. M. 462. It is a fragment of 12 pages of a manuscript of the early sixth century. The fragment contains some of Pliny the Youngerís (Roman Governor of Bithynia around 110 C.E.) letters. The letters were divided up into several books. At the end of Book II the following explicit and implicit appear in Latin "C. PLINI SECUNDI EPISTOLARUM LIBER II EXC INC LIB III FELICITER" which means Gaius Plinius II end Book II beginning Book III. This was how books were separated in the same manuscript.

The New Testament manuscripts during this time period conform to this practice. In the Codex Sinaiticus and the Codex Vaticanus, two of our earliest codices from the fourth century, the name Matthew, Mark, Luke or John appears at the beginning and end of their respective gospels exactly as we would expect according to the custom of that time. It is the same for the two earliest fragments of the gospels that have a section of the manuscript with a name, p75 and p66.

During the time of the printed book through the present time the name of the author appeared as it did on the codex and when the title page was invented, on the title page. The modern book is a codex, but the term codex is used of ancient hand-copied manuscripts for clarity. Once the printing press was used for a codex, it is called a book.

The printing press was developed around the middle of the 1500ís which eliminated the need for hand-written copies. Obviously it revolutionized the book industry. Somewhere in the 1500ís after the invention of the printing press, someone created the title page, which we are all familiar with. So the printed book in the 1500ís could have the authorís name appear at the beginning of the text and at the end of the text as the codex form did or it could have a title page. If it had a title page the authorís name appeared on the title page. Once the title page became popular, it was the standard for all books printed after that time.

So this brief historical discussion of where the authorís name appeared demonstrates that the "authorís name" was copied from copy to copy as the normal practice. That is why when Classical scholars see the authorís name on extant manuscripts, there is no reason to assume this is not the authorís name that appeared on the original manuscript that was written by the author himself unless there is some good historical reason to doubt it.

It is crucially important to understand where the authorís name was placed on books in whatever form they were created. When Matthew, Mark, Luke, and Johnís names appear on the codices that have been handed down to us, it is solid historical evidence that they were the authors of those gospels.

The earliest manuscripts and all manuscripts of the gospels have only these names on them. The earliest copies of the Gospels we have with names of the evangelists on them come from the second century. These manuscripts are earlier than for any other first century writing in the secular or sacred realm. The earliest actual manuscripts with the authorís name on it are Luke on p75 (c.175-225 C.E.) and John on p66 (c.200 C.E.).4

P75 is a fragment of the Gospel of Luke which at the end of Lukeís Gospels has the subscription, "Gospel according to Luke" in Greek. P66 is a fragment of the Gospel of John. At the beginning of the Gospel, the inscription reads, "Gospel according to John" in Greek.

All four names of the evangelists appear on the three major early manuscripts of the NT, the Codex Sinaiticus (4th c), the Codex Vaticanus (4th c) and the Codex Alexandrinus (5th c). Further, no manuscripts of the gospels that we possess from any historical period with names on them have any other names, but Matthew, Mark, Luke, or John. This is exactly what we would expect if they were the authors and there was no dispute about it.

To regard all four Gospels as anonymous works is accepted by many NT scholars without adequately taking into account this manuscript evidence. When historical evidence demonstrates that the customs of book publishing are being followed by the early Christians, the burden of proof to show otherwise falls on those who would say that the early Christians did not follow the customs. The burden of proof is on those who deny the early Christians followed the normal custom in book publishing. The normal custom is to put the authorís name on the original manuscript and the subsequent copies.

What we have examined so far are the copies in the original language of the Gospels, Greek. The Gospels were also translated into other languages (called versions) and copied. When all manuscripts and versions that have an authorís name on the manuscripts have the same names on them uniformly throughout the manuscript tradition this is solid evidence that the author named on the earliest manuscript is the author of the work. This is exactly the case with the four NT gospels. Every manuscript in Greek or any other language which has an authorís name on it, has Matthew, Mark, Luke or John. This is the uniform testimony of all manuscripts of all ages coming down to us from antiquity.

Michael Kruger speaks about the universal nature of this evidence, "What we find is incredible uniformity across the board for the titles of these gospels, Matthewís Gospel is called 'Matthew'; Markís is called 'Mark'. It is amazingly consistent, something we would not expect if the titles were added later."5

This is also what we see in secular manuscripts from ancient Greek and Roman authors from the same period or later. If you scan what scholars have written about the works of the major authors of classical Greek and Roman literature, you will be amazed at how very little time is spent on establishing authorship of these works. It is because, like the Gospels, rarely does an ancient work come down to us in manuscripts with different authorís names. Classical scholars identify the authorís first by the name on the manuscripts handed down to us. It is the same for the Gospels.

Titles of the Gospels

We have already seen that in the first century when the gospels were written, the authorís name regularly appeared at the end of the scroll and then regularly at the beginning and the end of a work in a codex. We have seen this in the manuscript tradition of the gospels. Matthew, Mark, Luke and Johnís names appear in the place where the authorís name regularly appears in manuscripts as we would expect if they were the authors of the gospels. Now we want to look at the exact details of how their names appeared along with the descriptive title.

In authorship studies when the word "title" is used, it refers to both the name of the author and the description of the work (content identifier). For clarity, I will use "descriptive title" for the description or content identifier so I can discuss this separately from the authorís name.

Ancient manuscripts circulating around the Roman world always had a title, the authorís name written along with the text. As far as the descriptive title, it either appeared in a longer form as the first sentence and/or in a short form of a few words with the authorís name. As mentioned earlier, many Greek works were found at Herculaneum in the Villa Dei Papyri. One of them was "Philodemos On Epikouros." This scroll represents the typical placement of the name of the title, the authorís name followed by the descriptive title, a short description of the work, at the end of the scroll and separated from the text. This is what we see in the four gospels as well. Carson, Moo, and Morrison write, "We have no evidence that these gospels ever circulated without an appropriate designation, kata Matthaion (according to Matthew) or the like."6

Nancy Pardee writes about the view of Martin Hengel, a well-respected New Testament scholar, who explains how the gospels circulated, "As Martin Hengel pointed out for the gospels and for texts used in the Christian communities in general, however, it is unlikely and unrealistic to think that such writings could have left their original communities without titles since such works needed both a generic identification as well as some personal authorization. 'People had a certain mistrust of anonymous works without any title.' In addition, a work circulating without a title would have picked up a multiplicity of titles."7 We will see the evidence shows that the names of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John were on the original manuscripts. Every manuscript (scroll or codex) had the authorís name and the descriptive title of the work.

On the Gospel manuscripts the authorís name in Greek was preceded by the Greek word "kata" (translated "according to"). So we find "kata Matthaion, kata Markon, kata Loukan, kata Ioannen". The descriptive title was the Greek word for gospel, "euaggelion". Together they appeared as "Euaggelion kata Matthaion," translated "The Gospel According to Matthew" and the like.

The Greek word "kata" (translated "according to") followed by the name Matthew, Mark, Luke, or John was most likely the author identification written on the original manuscript of each gospel. All manuscripts of the four gospels with names have this designation. Although in secular works the possessive of authorship (the authorís name with a possessive ending) was normally used, "kata" followed by the authorís name could also be used to express authorship.

Hengel explains the view of Walter Bauer in his lexicon that "kata" with the accusative can be used as a simple periphrasis [substitute] for the genitive of authorship.8 ďKataĒ followed by the authorís name in the accusative expressing authorship of a written work had some parallels in the first century and earlier. It was used for the Greek versions of the Old Testament. Hengel writes, "The nearest parallel we have to this is that the Greek fathers often introduce the different versions of the Greek translation of the Old Testament with the formulaÖkata ton Akulon [according to Aquila], kata ton Summachon [according to Symmachus], which in an analogous way denotes the one 'Old Testament' in the particular version of the Greek translator or editor."9

"Kata" followed by the authorís name was also used when describing the historical records left by Nehemiah. Thomas Horne describes this, "A similar mode of expression occurs in the second apocryphal Book of Maccabees (ii. 13.), where we read...upomnematismois tois kata ton Neemian, in our version rendered 'the commentaries of Neemias [Nehemiah].'"10

Thus, it is reasonable to conclude that "kata" followed by Matthew, Mark, Luke, or John in the accusative denoted authorship of the writing that bore his name. Blass and Debrunner write, "In the superscriptions to the Gospels...the author of this form of the Gospel is designated by kata."11

The manuscript evidence also indicates that "kata" followed by Matthew, Mark, Luke or Johnís name was the only title on the original manuscripts that circulated. "Euaggelion" (Gospel) was added later. Codex Vaticanus, one of the most valued manuscripts from the fourth century has only the "kata" followed by these authorsí names. No title appears with the author identification anywhere in the manuscript. It must have been copied from an earlier copy that did not have the descriptive title of euaggelion or the copyist would have put it in. The earlier copy must have only had the "kata" followed by the authorsí names. If "euaggelion/gospel" had been in the earlier copy, it would have been in the Codex Vaticanus.

Martin Hengel tells us that both scholars, Harnack and Zahn, felt that the "kata" titles were original with "gospel" added later. He writes, "If we are looking for a real discussion of the problem, we must go back quite a long way, to those old masters Adolf von Harnack and Theodor Zahn. Both agreed that according to what were at that time the earliest parchment codices, Vaticanus and Sinaiticus, from the middle of the fourth century, the original titles did not follow the long form euaggelion kata Matthaion, Gospel according to Matthew, and so on, but read simply kata Matthaion."12

"Kata" followed by the authorís name was most likely used by the evangelists to identify themselves as recorders (not originators) of the one true gospel of Jesus Christ which God had authored and the apostles had preached. They are authors of the gospels they recorded, but not authors of the gospel itself. This is an important distinction for Christians. It also explains the fact that they wrote much that was similar to the other gospels. Thomas Horne writes, "The ĎGospel according to Matthew,í therefore, means the history of or by Matthew, concerning the life, acts, and doctrines of Jesus Christ."13

"Kata" followed by the authorís name in the accusative was used to express that the gospel that had been preached for over twenty years by the apostles was being recorded (not originated) in writing by Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. Martin Hengel agrees as he mentions why he believes that the genitive of authorship was not used when he states, "The concern was in fact to avoid the genitive. Instead, the striking form of the title was used to express the fact that here the gospel was narrated in the particular version of the evangelist in question."14

When the first NT Gospel was published, it would have circulated before the other gospels were written and would have had the "kata" followed by the name of the author. Most scholars believe this was Markís Gospel. I believe it was Matthewís because this is the testimony of the early church fathers (I discuss this in my paper "The Early Church Fathers on the Authorship of the NT Gospels: Historical Evidence for Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John"). It would have been very simple and consistent for the other gospel writers to use the same "kata" designation as that first Gospel published. With the usage of "kata" in other documents they were familiar with, they would have immediately understood why Mark or Matthew used it. The word ďGospelĒ was most likely originally the descriptive title of the Gospel of Mark and was given to the other three gospels when they were brought together into one collection in the early part of the second century.

In the first century, titles (descriptive titles/content identifiers) of an authorís works were not thought about in the same way as we do today. Books were identified first and foremost by the name of the author. Titles were a secondary consideration and not that important and could change. Bruce Metzger explains, "In antiquity the title of a book was not considered such an essential and unalterable part of the book as in later times, especially since the invention of printing. Our ignorance as to what title Josephus gave or meant to give to his War of the Jews is not due to the loss of the original title; Josephus himself quotes the work under different titles in his Antiquities (I.xi.4; XIII. iii. 3, v. 9, x. 6; Vita, 74), as do also the ancient writers and the manuscripts of Josephus' works."15

The title "gospel" (euaggelion) was given to each gospel when they were brought together into a collection because their similar content was the apostolic preaching of the "Gospel of Jesus Christ." Martin Hengel writes, "The title euaggelion referred, rather, to the whole canon of the four Gospels. Zahn observes: 'The title can have arisen only in the light of the fact that the four books belong together, i.e. at or soon after their being brought together.'"16

The "gospel of Jesus Christ" was viewed by the early church as one gospel which could be given in an oral or written form. The early church fathers throughout their writings continually refer to the contents of the gospel whether taken from the tradition of the apostolic preaching or the gospel texts of Matthew, Mark, Luke or John. This can be seen also in the titles of other versions of the gospel. Thomas Horne gives the titles of the Persian and Syriac versions of the Gospel of Matthew which reveals the view of the early Christians concerning the unity of the gospel in both the oral and written version of Matthewís gospel. He writes, "In the Persian version [as printed in Bishop W alton's Polyglot], it is: 'The Gospel of Matthew, which was spoken in the Hebrew tongue, in a city of Palestine, but written in Syriac at Antioch'; and in the Syriac version, 'The Gospel, the preaching of Matthew.'"17

The "gospel" had already taken on an identity as a body of doctrine in the apostolic preaching about the life and ministry of Jesus Christ by the time Matthew, Mark, and Luke began to write. The Gospel was an oral entity like the OT was a written entity. The early Christians tended to talk about "the Gospel" when speaking about the truths of the gospel and "it is written" when quoting the Gospel or "Jesus said," when quoting what Jesus said from the gospels. There was only one gospel given by the preaching of the apostles. That apostolic preaching of the gospel was the same whether it was in the oral form or written form.

In the generation of the apostles and those who regularly heard the apostles (Clement, Ignatius, Polycarp), there was no clear reference to a distinction between the oral form and the written form of the gospel. They were the same because they both recorded the apostolic preaching of the gospel and both were still in the minds of the early Christians who had heard the apostles preach. Frederic Godet writes, "In these titles, what is the meaning of the word Gospel? It does not designate these books themselves, as we might be led to believe from the sense that we are accustomed to give in ordinary language to the word gospel.

In the whole New Testament this word denotes the publication of the good news of divine salvation, due to the coming and work of the Christ. But one can easily understand the transition whereby this term has come to denote the writings themselves, in which this news is set forth. It is only, however, in the second century that this meaning of the word gospel appears; as in this phrase of Basilides (about 125): 'What is said in the gospels' and in this word of Justin (about 150): 'The Memoirs of the apostles, which are called gospels' (kaleitai euaggelia)."18

The four gospels received the title of "gospel" when the four gospels were collected into one codex in the early part of the second century most likely first by one of the apostolic churches. Frederic Godet explains that the Kata titles indicate this unity of the four Gospels, "This form serves at the same time to bring out the unity of the subject of these four writings, which are in reality but one and the same gospel, a sole divine message, and as Augustine says: 'Libri quatuor unius evangelii' [four books, one gospel]. The evidently deliberate uniformity of these titles seems to me to prove that they have not been formulated by the authors of the gospels, but really by those, or one of those, that formed the collection of them."19

The codex began to be used by the early church in the early part of the second century to collect NT books together, most likely beginning with the gospels and the letters of Paul. The earliest gospel fragment, p52, which is from the Gospel of John, is dated around 125 AD and is from a codex (writing on both sides Ė recto and verso). This is solid evidence that the codex was used in the early part of the second century. So by the time of Justin Martyr, the written form of the gospel emerged as the only form of the apostolic preaching of the apostles. Their preaching in oral form had died out and did not need to be remembered because it was already written down and brought together into one collection.

From the early second century as the four NT Gospels circulated together in one codex, most bore the same title "the gospel according to" "Matthew, Mark, Luke, or John." Additional words were added to these titles, but these titles always remained intact. A few still circulated with the original kata followed by the Matthew, Mark, Luke, or John as seen in Codex Sinaiticus and Codex Vaticanus, but none circulated without the names of these men and none circulated with anyone elseís name on it. This provides strong historical evidence that Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John were indeed the authors of the four NT Gospels.

END NOTES

1. Love Harold, Attributing Authorship: An Introduction, New York: Cambridge University Press, 2002, 54-55

2. Ibid., 79

3. Sider, David, The Library of the Villa Dei Papyri at Herculaneum, Los Angeles, Getty Publications 2005, 73, 81

4. Metzger, Bruce M., Ehrman, Bart D., The Text of the New Testament, 4th ed., Oxford University Press, NY, 2005, 56, 58

5. Michael Kruger, ďWho Wrote the Gospels?Ē video, EhrmanProject.com on YouTube, 10/1/2010

6. Carson, D.A., Moo, Douglas J., An Introduction to the New Testament, Second Edition, Zondervan Publishing, Michigan, 2005, 140

7. The Genre of the Didache: A Text-Linguistic Analysis, Dissertation, Nancy Pardee, University of Chicago, 2002, 113

8. Quoted in Hengel, Martin, Studies in the Gospel of Mark, Wipf and Stock Publishers, 1985, 65

9. Hengel, 65-66; I left out a few words and transliterated the Greek into English to make it more understandable for the English reader unfamiliar with the Greek language.

10. Horne, Thomas, Ayre, John, Tregelles, Samuel Prideaux, An Introduction to the Critical Study and Knowledge of the Holy Scriptures, Vol.4, Longman Green & Co., 1877, p.295 footnote 9; I left out a few words and transliterated the Greek into English to make it more understandable for the English reader unfamiliar with the Greek language.

11. F. Blass/A. Debrunner/R.W. Funk, A Greek Grammar of the New Testament, ET 1961, 224.2, p. 120 Quoted in Hengel, Martin, Studies in the Gospel of Mark, Wipf and Stock Publishers, 1985, 65

12. Hengel, 65; I transliterated the Greek into English to make it more understandable for the English reader unfamiliar with the Greek language.

13. Horne, Tregelles, Prideaux, 295

14. Hengel, 65

15. Metzger, Bruce, The Canon of the New Testament, Clarendon Press, Oxford, 1997, 301

16. Hengel, 65

17. Horne, Thomas Hartwell, An Introduction to the Critical Study and Knowledge of the Holy Scriptures, Vol.2, Desilver, Thomas, 1836, 296

18. Godet, Frederic Louis, Affleck, William, Introduction to the New Testament: The Collection of the Four Gospels and the Gospel of St. Matthew, T. & T. Clark, 1899, 101

19. Ibid., 101