Why Scholars Doubt the Traditional Authors of the Gospels

The traditional authors of the canonical Gospels – Matthew the tax collector, Mark the attendant of Peter, Luke the attendant of Paul, and John the son of Zebedee – are doubted among the large majority of mainstream New Testament scholars. However, the public is often not familiar with the complex reasons and methodology that scholars use to reach definitive and well-supported consensuses about critical issues, such as assessing the authorial traditions for ancient texts. To provide a good overview of the majority opinion about the Gospels, the Oxford Annotated Bible (a compilation of multiple scholars summarizing dominant scholarly trends for the last 150 years) states (pg. 1744):

“Neither the evangelists nor their first readers engaged in historical analysis. Their aim was to confirm Christian faith (Lk 1.4; Jn 20.31). Scholars generally agree that the Gospels were written forty to sixty years after the death of Jesus. They thus do not present eyewitness or contemporary accounts of Jesus’ life and teachings.”

Unfortunately, however, much of the general public is not familiar with scholarly resources like the one quoted above; instead, Christian apologists often put out a lot of material, such as The Case For Christ, targeted towards lay audiences, who are not familiar with scholarly methods, in order to argue that the Gospels are the eyewitness testimonies of either Jesus’ disciples or their attendants. The mainstream scholarly view is that the Gospels are anonymous works, written in a different language than that of Jesus, in distant lands, after a substantial gap of time, by unknown persons, compiling, redacting, and inventing various traditions in order to provide a narrative of Christianity’s central figure, Jesus Christ, to confirm the faith of their communities.

As scholarly sources like the Oxford Annotated Bible note, the Gospels are not historical works (even if they contain some historical kernels). I have discussed here previously some of the reasons why scholars recognize that the Gospels are not historical in their genre, purpose, or character. However, I will now also lay out a resource below for why many scholars likewise dismiss the traditional authorial attributions of the Gospels.

Coming from my academic background in Classics, I have the advantage of critically studying not only the Gospels of the New Testament, but also other Greek and Latin works from the same period. In assessing the supposed evidence for the Gospels versus other ancient texts, it is very clear to me that the majority opinion in the scholarly community is correct in its assessment that the traditional authorial attributions are spurious. To illustrate this, I will compare the evidence for the Gospels’ authors with that of a secular work, namely Tacitus’ Histories. Through looking at some of the same criteria that we can use to evaluate the authorial attributions for an ancient text, I will show why scholars have many good reasons to doubt the authors of the Gospels while being confident in the authorship of a more solid tradition, such as what we have for a historical author like Tacitus.

How do we determine the authors of ancient texts? There is no single one-size-fits-all methodology that can be used for every single ancient text. We literally have thousands of different texts that have come down to us from antiquity, and each has its own textual situation. However, there are some general guidelines that can be applied broadly across all traditions, from which more specific guidelines can further be derived when assessing a particular tradition.

Scholars generally look for both internal and external evidence when determining the author of an ancient text. The internal evidence consists of whatever evidence we have within a given text. This can include the author identifying himself, or mentioning persons and events that he witnessed, or using a particular writing style that we know to be used by a specific person, etc. The external evidence consists of whatever evidence we have outside a given text. This can include another author quoting the work, a later critic proposing a possible authorial attribution, what we know about the biography of the person to whom the work is attributed, etc.

For the canonical Gospels there are both many internal and external reasons why scholars doubt the traditional authors, Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. I shall begin by summarizing the problems with the internal evidence:

To begin with, the Gospels are all anonymous and none of their authors names himself within the text. This is unlike a named work, such as Thucydides’ History of the Peloponnesian War (1:1), which states at the beginning: “Thucydides, an Athenian, wrote the history of the war in which the Peloponnesians and the Athenians fought against one another.” The anonymity of the Gospels is even acknowledged by many apologists, such as Craig Blomberg (whom I will be using here as an apologetic foil arguing in favor of the traditional authors), who states in The Case for Christ (pg. 22): “It’s important to acknowledge that strictly speaking, the gospels are anonymous.” So, immediately one type of evidence that we lack for the Gospels is their authors identifying themselves in the texts. This, however, need not be an immediate death blow, since authors do not always name themselves in their texts. I have specifically chosen to compare the Gospels’ traditions with that of Tacitus’ Histories, since Tacitus likewise does not name himself in his historical works. If the author does not name himself, there are other types of evidence that can be looked at.

First, even if the body of a text does not name its author, there is often still a name and title affixed to a text in our surviving manuscript traditions. These titles normally identify the traditional author. The standard naming convention for ancient works was to place the author’s name in the genitive case (indicating personal possession), followed by the title of the work. Mendell in Tacitus: The Man And His Work notes (pg. 345) that, while not all of our surviving manuscripts are complete with titles, the titles that we do have on some of the best manuscripts have Cor. Taciti Libri (“The Books of Cornelius Tacitus”). This naming convention is important, since it specifically identifies Tacitus as the author of the work. An attribution may still be doubted for any number of reasons, but it is important that there at least be a clear attribution.

Here we already have a problem with the authors of the Gospels. The titles that come down in our manuscript traditions for the Gospels do not even explicitly claim Matthew, Mark, Luke, or John as their authors. Instead, the Gospels have an abnormal title convention, where they instead use the Greek preposition κατά, meaning “according to” or “handed down from,” followed by the traditional names. For example, the Gospel of Matthew is titled εὐαγγέλιον κατὰ Μαθθαίον (“The Gospel according to Matthew”). This is problematic, from the beginning, in that the earliest title traditions already use a grammatical construction to distance themselves from an explicit claim to authorship. Instead, the titles operate more as traditions, where the Gospels have been “handed down” by church traditions affixed to names of figures in the early church, rather than the author being clearly identified [1]. In the case of Tacitus, none of our surviving titles says that the Histories or Annals were written “according to Tacitus” or “handed down from Tacitus.” Instead, we have clear attribution to Tacitus in one case, while only vague and ambivalent attributions in the titles of the Gospels.

Furthermore, it is not even clear that the Gospels’ abnormal titles were originally placed in the earliest manuscript copies. We do not have the autograph original text for any work from antiquity, but for the Gospels, many of the earliest manuscripts that we possess have grammatical variations in their title conventions. This divergence in form among the earliest manuscripts suggests that their was no original manuscript or title upon which the later titles were based. As textual criticism expert Bart Ehrman points out in Jesus: Apocalyptic Prophet of the New Millennium (pgs. 249-250):

“Because our surviving Greek manuscripts provide such a wide variety of (different) titles for the Gospels, textual scholars have long realized that their familiar names do no go back to a single ‘original’ title, but were added by later scribes.”

So, in addition to the problem that the Gospels’ titles do not even explicitly claim authors, we likewise have strong reason to suspect that these traditional titles were not even affixed to an original manuscript [2].

To be fair, no early manuscript copies of Tacitus’ Histories survived the Christian Middle Ages for us to see if the same problem would be true in the earliest manuscripts traditions for Tacitus (for an explanation of how a smaller amount of textual copies has no bearing upon the historical value of Tacitus versus the Gospels, see here). Likewise, for our later medieval copies of Tacitus, Mendell (pg. 345) notes that “the manuscript tradition of the Major Works is not consistent in the matter of title.” However, since these are far later copies, the title variations may have crept in later in the tradition.

Nevertheless, Mendell (pg. 345) notes that we have strong contemporary evidence to suggest that the title “Historiae” was affixed to Tacitus’ original Histories:

“Pliny clearly referred to the work in which Tacitus was engaged as Historiae: Auguror nec me fallit augurium Historias tuas immortales futuras (Ep. 7.33.1). It is not clear whether the term was a specific one or simply referred to the general category of historical writing. The material to which Pliny refers, the eruption of Vesuvius, would have been in the Histories. Tertullian (Adv. gentes 16, and Ad nationes 1.11) cites the Histories, using the term as a title: in quinta Historiarum. It should be noted that this reference is to the “separate” tradition, not to the thirty-book tradition, so that Historiae are the Histories as we name them now.”

The evidence for Tacitus’ original title is not fully conclusive, but what is noteworthy is that Pliny the Younger (a contemporary) writes directly to Tacitus and says that he is writing a Historiae, and the later author Tertullian quotes the work by that title.

For the purposes of authorship, however, the exact wording of the title need not fully concern us. The evidence is certain in the case of Tacitus that Pliny (our earliest source for Tacitus’ work) clearly states that Tacitus himself is writing a Historiae. In the case of the Gospels, textual experts like Bart Ehrman doubt that their were any original named titles affixed to the texts, and even the earliest titles merely state that it was “according to” the names affixed to the text. In the former case we have a clear claim to authorship, whereas in the latter we have generalized traditions that were probably added later.

Beyond the titles, we can look within the body of a text to see if the author himself reveals any clues either directly or indirectly about his identity. For Tacitus, while the author does not explicitly name himself, he does discuss his relation to the events he is describing in the Histories (1:1):

“I myself knew nothing of Galba, of Otho, or of Vitellius, either from benefits or from injuries. I would not deny that my elevation was begun by Vespasian, augmented by Titus, and still further advanced by Domitian; but those who profess inviolable truthfulness must speak of all without partiality and without hatred.”

Here, while he does not name himself, the authors of the Histories reveals himself to be a Roman politician during the Flavian Dynasty, which he specifies to be the period that he will write about. This matches the biographical information that we have of Tacitus outside of the Histories. For example, we know outside the text that Tacitus was writing a historical work about the Flavian period, since we have letters from Pliny the Younger (6.16; 6.20) written to Tacitus, where he responds to Tacitus’ request for information about the eruption of Mount Vesuvius. Pliny’s letters also refer to Tacitus’ career as a statesman, such as when he gave the funeral oration for the Roman general Verginius Rufus (2.1). So we know from outside the Histories that Tacitus was a Roman politician writing a history about the Flavian era. This outside information is corroborated exactly by the evidence within the text. Thus, we have every good reason to suspect that the author of the Histories is Tacitus, as the internal evidence strongly coincides with this tradition.

A further note is that, as an educated Roman politician, we have every reason to suspect that Tacitus had the literary, rhetorical, and compositional training needed to author a complex work of prose, such as his Histories. That is to say, from what we know of the author’s background, he belonged to the demographic of people whom we would expect to write complex Latin histories. As we will see for the Gospels’ authors, we have little reason to suspect, at least in the case of Matthew and John, that their traditional authors would have even been able to write a complex narrative in Greek prose.

According the estimates of William Harris in his classic study Ancient Literacy (pg. 22), “The likely overall illiteracy of the Roman Empire under the principate is almost certain to have been above 90%.” Of the remaining tenth, only a few could read and write well, and even a smaller fraction could author complex prose works like the Gospels [3].

Immediately, the internal information that we have in the Gospel of John contradicts the traditional attribution of the gospel to John the son of Zebedee. We know from internal evidence, based on its complex Greek composition, that the author of the gospel was highly literate and trained in Greek. Yet, from what we know of the biography of John the son of Zebedee, it would make little to no sense if he was the author. John was a poor rural peasant from Galilee, who spoke Aramaic. In an ancient world where literary training was largely restricted to a small fraction of rich, educated elite, we have little reason to suspect that an Aramaic-speaking Galilean peasant could author a complex Greek gospel. Furthermore, in Acts 4:13, John is even explicitly identified as being ἀγράμματος (“illiterate”), which shows that even evidence within the New Testament itself would not identify such a figure as an author [4]. Likewise, the internal evidence of the Gospel of Matthew contradicts the traditional attribution to Matthew (or Levi) the tax collector. While tax collectors had basic accounting training, the Gospel of Matthew is written in a complex narrative of Greek prose that shows extensive familiarity with Jewish scripture and teachings. However, tax collectors were regarded by educated Jews as a lower, “unclean” class, who were ostracized from their community. As scholar Barbara Reid (The Gospel According to Matthew, pgs. 5-6) explains, “The author had extensive knowledge of the Hebrew Scriptures and a keen concern for Jewish observance and the role of the Law … It is doubtful that a tax collector would have the kind of religious and literary education needed to produce this Gospel.” For a further analysis of how Matthew the tax collector would have probably lacked the religious and literary education needed to author the gospel attributed to his name, see here. However, we have no such problem in the case of Tacitus. As an educated Roman senator, who belonged to a social class of people known to author Latin histories, we would exactly expect Tacitus to author a work like the Histories, while we would have no strong reason to believe that an illiterate peasant, like John, or a mere tax collector, like Matthew, would be able to author the Greek gospels that we have.

Furthermore, the sources of the work itself can often betray clues about its author. In the case of the Gospels, we know that they are all interdependent upon each other for their information. Matthew borrows from as much as 80% of the verses in the Gospel of Mark, and Luke borrows from 65%. While John does not follow the ipsissima verba of the earlier gospels, its author was almost certainly aware of the earlier narratives (as shown by scholar Louis Ruprecht in This Tragic Gospel).

Once more, for the Gospel of Matthew, the internal evidence contradicts the authorial attribution. The disciple Matthew was allegedly an eyewitness of Jesus. Mark, on the other hand, who is the alleged author of the Gospel of Mark, from which the author of Matthew copied 80% of the verses, was neither an eyewitness of Jesus nor a disciple, but was merely an attendant of Peter. Why would Matthew, an alleged eyewitness, need to borrow from as much as 80% of the material of Mark, a non-eyewitness?

Apologists have come up with fantastical ad hoc assumptions to explain this problem with Matthew, an alleged eyewitness, borrowing the bulk of his text from a non-eyewitness. For example, Blomberg in The Case for Christ (pg. 28) speculates:

“It only makes sense if Mark was indeed basing his account on the recollections of the eyewitness Peter … it would make sense for Matthew, even though he was an eyewitness, to rely on Peter’s version of events as transmitted through Mark.”

To begin with, nowhere in the Gospel of Mark does the author ever claim that he is reporting the recollections of Peter (Blomberg is splicing this detail with a later dubious claim by the church father Papias, to be discussed below). The author of Mark never names any eyewitness from whom he gathered information.

But what is further problematic for Blomberg’s assumption is that his description of how the author of Matthew used Mark is way off. The author of Matthew does not “rely” on Mark rather than redact Mark to change many of its traditions and versions of events. As scholar J.C. Fenton (The Gospel of St. Matthew, pg. 12) explains, “the changes which he makes in Mark’s way of telling the story are not those corrections which an eyewitness might make in the account of one who was not an eyewitness.” Here is a valuable article by Steven Carr that discusses some of the ways in which the author of Matthew actually used Mark. One thing that Carr discusses is how the author of Matthew “adds Jewish elements which ‘Mark’ overlooked.” To list a couple of of Carr’s examples:

  • Mark 9:4 names Elijah before Moses. Naturally, Matthew 17:3 puts Moses before Elijah, as Moses is far more important to Jews than Elijah.
  • Mark 11:10 refers to the kingdom of our “father” David. No Jew would have referred to “our father” David. The father of the nation was Abraham, or possibly Jacob, who was renamed Israel. Not all Jews were sons of David. Naturally, Matthew 21:9 does not refer to our father David.

These are subtle differences, but what they demonstrate is that the author of Matthew was not “relying” on Peter via Mark, but was redacting the earlier work to make it more consistent with Jewish teachings! This makes no sense at all for Blomberg’s hypothesis. Matthew was described as a tax collector (a profession that made one a social outcast from the Jewish community). Peter, in contrast, was described as a Galilean Jew privy to Jesus’ inner circle. Why would Matthew redact the recollections of Peter via the writings of his attendant in order to make them more consistent with Jewish teachings?

Instead, scholars have long recognized that the anonymous author of Mark was most likely an unknown Gentile living in the Jewish Diaspora outside of Palestine. This is strengthened by the fact that Mark uses the Greek Septuagint to quote translations from the Old Testament. Likewise, the author is unaware of many features of Palestinian routegeography. Just for one brief example: in Mk 7:31 Jesus is described to have traveled out of Tyre through Sidon (North of Tyre) to the Sea of Galilee (South of Tyre). In the words of scholar Hugh Anderson in The Gospel of Mark (pg. 192), this would be like “travelling from Cornwall to London by way of Manchester.” These discrepancies make little sense if the author of Mark was a traveling attendant with Peter, an Aramaic-speaking native of Galilee [5].

Instead, scholars recognize that the author of Matthew was actually a native Jew. As someone more familiar with Jewish teachings, he redacted Mark to correct many of the non-Jewish elements in the earlier gospel. This again makes little sense if the author of Matthew were actually Matthew the tax collector, whose profession would have ostracized him from the Jewish community. Instead, scholars recognize that the later authorial attributions of both of these works are almost certainly wrong.

In fact, even conservative scholars like Bruce Metzger (The New Testament, pg. 97) have agreed, “the apostle Matthew can scarcely be the final author.” And Christian scholar Raymond Brown (An Introduction to the New Testament, pgs. 159-60) acknowledges, “That the author of the Greek Gospel was John Mark, a (presumably Aramaic-speaking) Jew of Jerusalem who had early become a Christian, is hard to reconcile with the impression that it does not seem to be a translation from Aramaic, that it seems to depend on oral traditions (and perhaps already shaped sources) received in Greek, and that it seems confused about Palestinian geography.”

The way that the Gospel of Luke uses Mark as a source likewise casts doubt on Mark being the original author. As discussed above, the author of Luke borrowed from as much as 65% of the material in Mark. This is all very interesting, since the author of Luke is likewise the author of Acts, and Mark, the attendant of Peter, has an appearance in Acts (12:25). That means that the author of Luke includes in his later narrative the supposed author from whose gospel he borrowed 65% of the material. Yet, never once does the author of Luke identify this man as one of his major sources!

As Randel Helms points out in Who Wrote the Gospels? (pg. 2):

“So the author of Luke-Acts not only knew about a John Mark of Jerusalem, the personal associate of Peter and Paul, but also possessed a copy of what we call the Gospel of Mark, copying some three hundred of its verses into the Gospel of Luke, and never once thought to link the two – John Mark and the Gospel of Mark – together! The reason is simple: the connecting of the anonymous Gospel of Mark with John Mark of Jerusalem is a second-century guess, on that had not been made in Luke’s time.”

Apologists here will try to dismiss this point as merely being an argument from silence. But again, as in the case of Matthew, the way that the author of Luke uses Mark strongly suggests that he was not “relying” on the recollections of Peter via his attendant, but was redacting an earlier anonymous narrative. For example, Bart Ehrman in Jesus Interrupted (pgs. 78-84) discusses how the author of Luke changed many details of the passion scene in Mark, where Jesus is depicted in despair and agony, in order to portray Jesus instead as calm and tranquil in his own narrative (e.g. Jesus’ last words are altered from a despairing statement in Mk 15:33-37 to a more tranquil one in Lk 23:44-46). Why would Luke, the Gentile attendant of Paul, redact and change the recollections of Peter – the chief disciple of Jesus – about the passion, crucifixion, and death of Jesus? The reason why is that the author of Luke almost certainly did not believe that Mark was written by an attendant of Peter. Instead, the anonymous author of Luke redacted and changed Mark, written by another anonymous author, to suite his own theological and narrative purposes [6].

A final note about the Gospels borrowing material from each other is that such works, which are not original works but are largely redactions of earlier traditions, generally lack authorial personality. They are not written to tell the recollections of any one person, let alone an eyewitness [7]. Instead, the Gospels are highly anonymous, not only in not naming their authors, but in writing in a collective, revisionist manner. New Testament expert Bart Ehrman (Forged, pg. 224) explains that the general anonymity of the Gospels in part owes itself to influences from the Old Testament:

“In all four Gospels, the story of Jesus is presented as a continuation of the history of the people of God as narrated in the Jewish Bible … All of these books are written anonymously … the message of the Gospels … is portrayed in these books as continuous with the anonymously written history of Israel as laid out in the Old Testament Scriptures.”

Their authors were more concerned about gathering a collection of their communities’ teachings and organizing it into a cohesive narrative. This is not at all the case for Tacitus. We might be suspicious of the authorship, if Tacitus had merely copied from 80% of the material of an earlier author (as the Gospel of Matthew did) in order to write a highly anonymous narrative. Instead, Tacitus wrote in a highly unique Latin style that distinguished him as an individual, personal author.

We have seen above that the internal evidence does not support Matthew, Mark, or John as the authors of the gospels attributed to them. What about Luke? The Gospel of Luke and Acts are attributed to Luke, the traveling attendant of Paul. This is all very interesting, since we possess 7 non-forged epistles of the apostle Paul. If Luke was Paul’s attendant, then corroborating details between Acts and the Paul’s epistles may support the claim that Luke authored Acts. However, scholars often find the opposite to be the case. To name a few discrepancies:

  • In Acts 9:26-28, Paul travels to Jerusalem after his conversion, where Barnabas introduces him to the other apostles. However, in Paul’s own writings (Gal. 1:16-19), Paul states that he “did not consult any human being” after his conversion and did not travel to Jerusalem until three years after the event, where he only met Peter and James [8].
  • In Acts 16:1-3, Paul has a disciple named Timothy, who was born from a Greek father, be circumcised “because of the Jews who lived in that area.” However, this goes against Paul’s own deceleration (Gal. 2:7) “of preaching the gospel to the uncircumcised.” Likewise, in Gal. 2:1-3, Paul brings another Gentile disciple, Titus, to the Jewish community in Jerusalem, but particularly insists that Titus not be circumcised [9]. Likewise, in 1 Cor. 7:20, Paul states regarding circumcision, “Each person should remain in the situation they were in when God called them.”
  • In Gal. 2:6, Paul makes it clear that his authority is equal to the original apostles, stating, “whatever they were makes no difference to me; God does not show favoritism—they added nothing to my message.” However, in Acts 13:31 Paul grants higher authority to those who originally “witnessed” Jesus. Likewise, Acts 1:21 restricts the status of “apostle” to those who had originally been with Jesus during his ministry, despite Paul’s repeated insistence that he was an apostle in his letters (1 Cor. 9:1-2).

In light of these and other discrepancies between Paul’s own recollections and how he is depicted in Acts, many scholars agree that the author of Luke and Acts was probably not an attendant of Paul (the speculation that he was is based largely on the ambiguous use of the first person plural in a few sections of Acts, to be addressed below). Nevertheless, the author of Luke and Acts clearly had a strong interest in Paul. However, the Oxford Annotated Bible (pg. 1919) points out the author “was probably someone from the Pauline mission area who, a generation or so after Paul.” Hence, we once more have an anonymous author who was distanced from the various traditions and stories that he compiled later as a non-eyewitness.

The same problem of discrepancies between a text with outside epistolary evidence does not exist in the case of Tacitus. For example, we have Pliny’s letters (6.16; 6.20) written to Tacitus about the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in Campania. This outside evidence is corroborated within the text, when Tacitus mentions the burial of cities in Campania in the praefactio of his Histories (1.2). That Tacitus mentions the eruption in the introduction to his history shows that he used Pliny’s account when fully describing the disaster later in his narrative (although these later books did not survive the bottleneck of texts lost during the Christian Middle Ages). Thus, in the case of Tacitus, we have harmony between outside epistolary evidence and the internal evidence of the text, whereas in the case of the Gospel of Luke, we have discrepancies between Paul’s letters, showing that the author was probably not a companion of Paul.

So far I have addressed the internal evidence for the authorship of Tacitus’ Histories and the Gospels. As has been shown, Tacitus has passed the criteria with flying colors, while all of the Gospels have multiple internal problems. These internal problems are probably already sufficient to dismiss the traditional authors on their own. However, there are likewise external reasons to doubt the traditional authors.

In terms of external evidence for the authorship of Tacitus’ Histories, we have Pliny the Younger (a contemporary) writing directly to Tacitus while he was authoring a Historiae. Thus, from the beginning, Tacitus was identified as the author of a history, and this history was identified as the Histories we have today by all subsequent authors who cite relevant passages. As Mendell (pg. 225) explains, “Tacitus is mentioned or quoted in each century down to and including the sixth.” Thus, Tacitus was identified as the author from the beginning of the tradition, rather than being speculated to be the author later in the tradition. This is very strong external evidence.

We have precisely the opposite in the case of the Gospels. As New Testament expert Bart Ehrman (Forged, pg. 225) explains:

“The anonymity of the Gospel writers was respected for decades. When the Gospels of the New Testament are alluded to and quoted by authors of the early second century, they are never entitled, never named. Even Justin Martyr, writing around 150-60 CE, quotes verses from the Gospels, but does not indicate what the Gospels were named. For Justin, these books are simply known, collectively, as the “Memoirs of the Apostles.” It was about a century after the Gospels had been originally put in circulation that they were definitively named Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. This comes, for the first time, in the writings of the church father and heresiologist Irenaeus [Against Heresies 3.1.1], around 180-85 CE.”

Incidentally, Irenaeus wanted there to be specifically four gospels because there are “four pillars” of the Earth (Against Heresies 3.11.8). This was the kind of logic by which the Gospels were later attributed…

Ehrman (Forged, pg. 226) goes on to explain:

“Why were these names chosen by the end of the second century? For some decades there had been rumors floating around that two important figures of the early church had written accounts of Jesus’ teachings and activities. We find these rumors already in the writings of the church father Papias [preserved in Eusebius Hist. eccl. 3.39.14-17], around 120-30 CE, nearly half a century before Irenaeus. Papias claimed, on the basis of good authority, that the disciple Matthew had written down the saying of Jesus in the Hebrew language and the others had provided translations of them, presumably into Greek. He also said that Peter’s companion Mark had rearranged the preaching of Peter about Jesus into a sensible order and created a book out of it.”

Incidentally, the church father Eusebius (Hist eccl. 3.39.13) elsewhere describes Papias as a man who “seems to have been a man of very small intelligence, to judge from his books.” Likewise, another fragment of Papias tells a story about how Judas, after betraying Jesus, became wider than a chariot and so fat that he exploded.

Irenaeus derived the authorship for Matthew and Mark from Papias. However, Ehrman (Forged, pgs. 226-227) goes on to explain:

“There is nothing to indicate that when Papias is referring to Matthew and Mark, he is referring to the Gospels that were later called Matthew and Mark. In fact, everything he says about these two books contradicts what we know about (our) Matthew and Mark: Matthew is not a collection of Jesus’ sayings, but of his deeds and experiences as well; it was not written in Hebrew, but in Greek; and it was not written – as Papias supposes – independently of Mark, but was based on our Gospel of Mark. As for Mark, there is nothing about our Mark that would make you think it was Peter’s vision of the story, any more than it is the version of any other character in the account.”

Irenaeus’ notion that the author of Luke and Acts was an attendant of Paul comes from speculation over a few passages in Acts where the author ambiguously uses the first person plural (16:10-17; 20:5-15; 21:1-18; 27:1-28:16). However, as scholars such as William Campbell have pointed out in The “We” Passages in the Acts of the Apostles (pg. 13):

“Questions of whether the events describes in the “we” sections of Acts are historical and whether Luke or his source/s witnessed them are unanswerable on the basis of the evidence currently available, as even the staunchest defenders of historicity and eyewitnessing acknowledge. More important, the fact that Acts provides no information and, indeed, by writing anonymously and constructing an anonymous observer, actually withholds information about a putative historical eyewitness, suggests that the first person plural in Acts has to do with narrative, not historical, eyewitnessing.”

Thus, the attribution to Luke the attendant of Paul is likewise unsound, being based on misinterpretations of vague narrative constructions in the text. Likewise, Ehrman (Forged, pg. 227) explains how Irenaeus spuriously speculated John the son of Zebee to be the author of the fourth gospel:

“The Fourth Gospel was thought to belong to a mysterious figure referred to in the book as “the Beloved Disciple” (see, e.g., John 20:20-24), who would have been one of Jesus’ closest followers. The three closest to Jesus, in our early traditions, were Peter, James, and John. Peter was already explicitly named in the Fourth Gospel, so he could not be the Beloved Disciple; James was known to have been martyred early in the history of the church and so would not have been the author. That left John, the son of Zebedee. So he [Irenaeus] assigned the authorship to the Fourth Gospel.”

As can be seen, Irenaeus’ attribution comes from little more than speculation over an anonymous character in the text (as will be shown below, the actual internal evidence within John suggests that the anonymous “disciple whom Jesus loved” was probably a fictional invention of its anonymous author).

Thus, we have a clear trail of how all of the Gospels’ authors were derived from spurious 2nd century guesses: Matthew and Mark are based on Irenaeus misinterpreting passages in Papias that actually referred to other works, Luke was speculated to be an author based on little more than vague narrative constructions using the first person plural in the text, and John was based on speculation over an unknown “disciple whom Jesus loved.” Thus, not only is the external evidence weak, but all of it can be completely explained as later, spurious mis-attributions.

That the attributions were speculations is even reflected in the later titles. As I discussed above, the use of the construction κατά (“according to” or “handed down from”) in the titles already signifies that the attributions were speculative and merely traditional. As Ehrman (Jesus: Apocalyptic Prophet of the New Millennium, pg. 42) points out, “Suppose a disciple named Matthew actually did write a book about Jesus’ words and deeds. Would he have called it ‘The Gospel According to Matthew’? Of course not… if someone calls it the Gospel according to Matthew, then it’s obviously someone else try to explain, at the outset, whose version of the story this is.” Thus, the traditional attributions from the beginning started with later authors speculating over the different versions of the Gospels to assign traditions.

Apologists like Blomberg, however, will still attempt another escape hatch. In The Case for Christ (pg. 27) he argues:

“These are unlikely characters … Mark and Luke weren’t even among the twelve disciples. Matthew was, but as a former hated tax collector, he would have been the most infamous character next to Judas Iscariot, who betrayed Jesus! … So to answer your question, there would not have been any reason to attribute authorship to these three less respected people if it weren’t true.”

It is not clear to me why Matthew, as a reformed tax collector, would be hated next only to Judas, the man who betrayed Jesus. But this claim about these being “unlikely” attributions is already refuted above, where a clear trail is demonstrated for how the traditional authors were speculated. Furthermore, Ehrman (Forged, pgs. 227-228) points out:

“Some scholars have argued that it would not make sense to assign the Second and Third Gospels to Mark and Luke unless the books were actually written by people named Mark and Luke, since they were not earthly disciples of Jesus and were rather obscure figures in the early church. I’ve never found these arguments very persuasive. For one thing, just because figures may seem relatively obscure to us today doesn’t mean that they were obscure in Christian circles in the early centuries. Moreover, it should never be forgotten that there are lots and lots of books assigned to people about whom we know very little, to Phillip, for example, Thomas, and Nicodemus” [10].

Ehrman’s last point about other mis-attributions is likewise noteworthy. One thing that cannot be forgotten is that, in the context surrounding the Gospels, there were tons of mis-attributions and forgeries circulating in the early church. As Ehrman (Forged, pg. 19) explains, “At present we know of over a hundred writings from the first four centuries that were claimed by one Christian author or another to have been forged by fellow Christians.” In such a context, there were canonical disputes over which texts were authoritative, which led later authors, like Irenaeus in works like Against Heresies, to speculate and spuriously attribute texts to early figures in the church. As Ehrman (Forged, pgs. 220-221) summarizes:

“When church fathers were deciding which books to include in Scripture … it was necessary to ‘know’ who wrote these books, since only writings with clear apostolic connections could be considered authoritative Scripture. So, for example, the early Gospels that were all anonymous began to be circulated under the names Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John about a century after they were written … None of these books claims to be the written by the author to whom they are assigned … They are simply false attributions” [11].

Such is the case for why scholars doubt the traditional attributions of the Gospels. To return to Tacitus, however, there was no prevailing context of doctrinal and canonical disputes that would have encouraged a later author to assign the Histories to the Roman senator. Furthermore, while forgery and mis-attribution could happen with secular texts, scholars have found no evidence of any in the case of Tacitus (here is an article explaining why). The later authors who mention the work simply quote Tacitus as the known author, while the Gospels are a clear case of later speculations and mis-attribution.

Why do apologists attempt to go against the majority scholarly consensus to defend the traditional authors, anyways? The fact is that scholars over the last 150 years have recognized, after thorough study of the New Testament, that we do not have the writings of a single eyewitness of Jesus (the closest we come are in the 7 non-forged letters of Paul, who was not an eyewitness, was writing decades later, and provides very few biographical details about Jesus). Because of this, our knowledge of Jesus comes from little more than garbled oral traditions, legendary development, and finally, after half a century, anonymous hagiographies, like the Gospels, that are not even written in the same language that Jesus spoke. Our sources for Jesus are thus very poor and unreliable. None of this entails that Jesus did not exist, but we can scarcely reconstruct a general biography of his life, let alone prove any of his miracles.

An apologist may still argue that, even if the Gospels’ attributions are wrong, their authors may have still had access to an eyewitness original source. However, scholars likewise find this to be very unlikely. For Mark, the earliest Gospel, Ehrman (Forged, pg. 227) explains:

“There is nothing to suggest that Mark was based on the teachings of any one person at all, let alone Peter. Instead, it derives from the oral traditions about Jesus that ‘Mark’ had heard after they had been in circulation for some decades.”

The situation only gets worse from there, as the anonymous author of Matthew then borrows as much as 80% of the material of this earlier anonymous source, which itself was based on oral traditions. Likewise, the anonymous author of Luke copies from 65% of the material of the anonymous author of Mark. Furthermore, the author of Luke even makes clear that he did not have access to eyewitnesses, as he specifies in the in introduction of his gospel (1:1-2) that he was making use of written accounts (he identifies none of these authors, but we can tell that he copied Mark) that were based on mere traditions that were “handed down” over a span of time (allegedly from distant, original eyewitnesses, although the author of Luke names none).

John is the only gospel to claim an eyewitness source, and yet the author does not even name this mysterious figure, but simply refers to him as “the disciple whom Jesus loved.” This is hardly eyewitness testimony, and internal evidence suggests that the author of John likely invented this figure. Verbal parallels possibly suggest that the anonymous disciple is Lazarus from John 11 (verses 1; 3; 5; 11; 36), whom Jesus raises from the dead in the passage [12]. This Lazarus is very likely based on the retelling of a story about an allegorical Lazarus in Luke 16:20-31. In the parable, Lazarus is a beggar who was fed by a wealthy man who dies and goes to Heaven, but the rich man dies and goes to Hell. The rich man begs Abraham in Heaven to send Lazarus to warn his family, since, if someone from the dead goes to them, they will repent. In Luke, Abraham refuses to send Lazarus from the dead, arguing that people should study the Torah and the Prophets to believe and will not be convinced even if someone from the dead visits them. In the Gospel of John, however, in which Jesus is more prone to demonstrate his powers through signs and miracles, rather than by appeals to OT verses like in the Synoptic Gospels, the author instead has Jesus raise Lazarus, so that people may believe in him. The author of John thus very likely is redacting a previous story based on an allegorical character.

Regardless, even if the anonymous beloved disciple is not based on this redaction, the Gospel of John is extremely ambiguous about this character’s identity, even refusing to name him at key moments, such as the discovery of the empty tomb (20:1-9), where other characters, such as Mary Magdalene and Peter are named, and yet this character is kept deliberately anonymous. The traditional identification of the disciple as John the son of Zebedee, among many other reasons, is undermined by the internal evidence of this beloved disciple’s connection with the high priestly families of Jerusalem (18:15-16), which hardly could be expected of the illiterate fisherman from backwater Galilee. The Gospel of John likewise shows signs of originally ending at John 20:30-31, and chapter 21, which claims the anonymous disciple as a witness, is very likely an addition from a later author. The chapter (21:24) distinguishes between the one who is testifying and the authors (plural) who know that it is true [13]. Furthermore, the final composition of John is dated to approximately 90 CE, which is largely beyond the lifetimes of any adult eyewitnesses of Jesus [14]. To compensate for this problematic chronology, the author even has to invent the detail that this supposed eyewitness would live an abnormally long life (21:23) to account for the time gap. This detail is further explained if the anonymous disciple is based on Lazarus, who was already raised from the dead and has conquered death. Ultimately, all of these details suggest that the unidentified “source” is almost certainly an authorial invention (probably of a second author) used to gain proximal credibility for the otherwise latest of the four canonical Gospels.

Conclusion:

To repeat the majority scholarly opinion that I discussed at the beginning from the Oxford Annotated Bible (pg. 1744):

“Neither the evangelists nor their first readers engaged in historical analysis. Their aim was to confirm Christian faith (Lk 1.4; Jn 20.31). Scholars generally agree that the Gospels were written forty to sixty years after the death of Jesus. They thus do not present eyewitness or contemporary accounts of Jesus’ life and teachings.”

I have worked in this rather lengthy article to explain why many scholars agree this is the case. Furthermore, I have shown how the same scholarly methods for determining authorship can be used to doubt the Gospels, while confirming authors for whom we have more reliable traditions, such as Tacitus.

To summarize some of the same questions that we could ask about Tacitus’ authorship versus the Gospels, here are a few:

Does the attribution clearly identify the author, rather than use a grammatical construction to merely report a tradition?

Tacitus

Matthew

Mark

Luke

John

Yes

No

No

No

No

Did the attributed author have sufficient literary training to author the work in question?

Tacitus

Matthew

Mark

Luke

John

Yes

No

Plausible

Plausible

No

Does what we know of the author’s biography align with the internal evidence within the text?

Tacitus

Matthew

Mark

Luke

John

Yes

No

No

No

No

Do authors who attribute the work outside of the text show signs of speculating over the author?

Tacitus

Matthew

Mark

Luke

John

No

Yes

Yes

Yes

Yes

Was there a prevailing context of mis-attribution, forgery, and canonical disputes surrounding the text that would increase the likelihood of its mis-attribution?

Tacitus

Matthew

Mark

Luke

John

No

Yes

Yes

Yes

Yes


As has been shown, the same criteria for determining authorship can be applied for the Gospels as for any secular work, like Tacitus’ Histories. When scholars apply these criteria they find the authorial tradition of Tacitus to be reliable and the authorial traditions of the Gospels to be highly unreliable. I have provided just one example here in the case of Tacitus, but textual experts likewise have undergone rigorous analysis of other ancient authors, such as Livy, Plutarch, etc., and found the evidence to confirm their authorship. My main advice for determining any author for an ancient work is to first look at what previous scholars have found. You will find that mainstream scholarship for the last 150 years has found authorial traditions for authors like Tacitus or Plutarch to be reliable, whereas the vast majority of mainstream scholars doubt the authors of the Gospels.

A final note is that the criteria that I have used above provide qualitative, rather than just quantitative, reasons for doubting the Gospels’ authors. That is, the criteria that I employ are independent of each other (e.g. internal vs. external evidence). This means that the many reasons we have to doubt the authors are not just based on degree, but also vary by category. Sometimes apologists will make quantitative distinctions to argue for the reliability of the NT, such as claiming that a century is only a small span of time between the writing of a work and its attribution (e.g. apologists often claim that the 2nd century attributions are not really that far from the original compositions of the Gospels). However, such arguments are one-dimensional and superficial, since the amount of time elapsed is only an argument by degree. However, I have shown that categorically there are many sound reasons to doubt the Gospels, so that the mere degree of any one criterion is insignificant, when multiple other criteria go against the traditional authors. Likewise, it is noteworthy that Tacitus passed multiple independent criteria for identifying the author. The best explanation for how Tacitus could satisfy multiple categories of inquiry is because he is genuinely the author of the text. In contrast, the best explanation for why the Gospels’ traditional authors fail multiple categories of evaluation is that the later attributions genuinely do not fit the data.

-Matthew Ferguson

[1] Further noteworthy is that the κατά (“according to”) preposition does not even have to refer to named individuals. For example, the Gospel of the Hebrews is titled τὸ καθ’ Ἑβραίους εὐαγγέλιον (“the Gospel according to the Hebrews”). This construction hardly entails that the Hebrews themselves are the authors of the work, rather than the title referring to a tradition or group that the gospel was associated with. Thus, the κατά is hardly acting here as a claim to authorship. Another objection that apologists will make is that the titles had to use an unusual construction, because the title τὸ εὐαγγέλιον (τοῦ) Ιησού Χριστού (“The Gospel of Jesus Christ”) already had to use the objective genitive to indicate the subject of the life, and thus could not use a subjective genitive to indicate the author. However, there are Greek constructions that can avoid this problem and still have the author’s name in the genitive. For example, τὸ εὐαγγέλιον (τοῦ) Ιησού τοῦ Χριστοὺ τὸ (τοῦ) Μάρκου (“The Gospel of Jesus Christ, the one of Mark”). Nevertheless, the ancient scribes who added the titles made use of no such construction that would have more clearly identified an author.

[2] As Christian scholar Raymond Brown notes (An Introduction to the New Testament, pgs. 158; 208; 267), the titles were not added until the latter half of the 2nd century. The late-2nd century was a time in the Christian community during which there were many canonical disputes, and connecting particular scriptures with figures in the early church was used as a means of gaining authority and canonical status for a text. A minority of scholars has speculated that they were added earlier, such as Hengel in The Four Gospels and the One Gospel of Jesus Christ. However, even Christian apologists find this view difficult to defend. Christian apologist Craig Blomberg (Making Sense of the New Testament, pg. 151), for example, while describing Hengel’s thesis as “suggestive and worth serious consideration,” concludes that this view is “ultimately speculative and not provable.”

[3] Furthermore, particular regions of the Roman Empire had lower levels of literacy, such as rural regions like Galilee, and likewise Greek literacy was even further limited if these areas were fluent in another language, such as Aramaic. In the case of rural Galilee, scholar Mark Chancey in The Myth of a Gentile Galilee and Greco-Roman Culture and the Galilee of Jesus finds that literacy was largely restricted to two major urban centers, Sepphoris and Tiberias, and that the rural Jews of the region had little interaction with the Greek language or Gentiles. These circumstances would certainly limit figures like Peter and John, both rural peasants from Galilee, from being able to author complex Greek prose, such as in the New Testament works attributed to them. This is, of course, in addition to the fact that such poor persons would not have had the sufficient literary training even in their own language to author complex prose scripture. Another apologetic response to the problem of literacy is that illiterate persons could have allegedly used a scribe to whom they would dictate the work. However, this assumption misunderstands both the nature of literacy and how scribes were used in antiquity. It is true that literate persons, such as Paul, would dictate (in Greek) to scribes who would write down his words, as evidenced in Rom. 16:22 and Gal. 6:11. However, that does not entail that an illiterate person could dictate prose in a foreign language. One could, of course, further speculate that an illiterate person told a scribe the gist of a story, which the scribe then interpreted, organized, and wrote in a different language. However, in such a case the scribe would be the actual author of the work. Furthermore, Ehrman (Forged, pg. 77) raises another problem for this speculation: “Where in the ancient world do we have anything at all analogous to this hypothetical situation of someone writing a letter-essay for someone else and putting the other person’s name on it – the name of the person who did not write it – rather than his own name? So far as a I know, there is not a single instance of any such procedure attested from antiquity or any discussion, in any ancient source, of this being a legitimate practice. Or even an illegitimate one. Such a thing is never discussed.”

[4] The typical apologetic response to this passage is to claim that ἀγράμματος (“illiterate”) only means “uneducated” or “lacking formal rabbinic training.” However, it was typically educated Jews with rabbinic training who belonged to the small portion of the Jewish population who could author complex prose. Furthermore, while it is possible that the passage is merely referring to rabbinic training, it is far more probable, given the historical context, that the passage also indicates illiteracy. Catherine Hezser in Jewish Literacy in Roman Palestine finds that only about 3% of the population could read and most of these would have lived in cities or large towns (not typical of where the disciples of rural Galilee were from). Furthermore, as Ehrman (Forged, pg. 73) explains, “Most people outside of the urban areas would scarcely ever even see a written text. Some smaller towns and villages may have had a literacy level around 1 percent. Moreover, these literate people were almost always the elite of the upper class. Those who learned to read learned how to read Hebrew (not Greek).” Likewise, we have archaeological evidence that suggests that Peter, who is described alongside John as ἀγράμματος (“illiterate”) in Acts 4:13, was in fact illiterate based on excavations of his hometown in Capernaum. As Ehrman explains (Forged, pg. 74-75), “In order to evaluate Peter’s linguistic abilities, the place to begin, then, is with Capernaum … The archaeological digs have revealed … there are no inscriptions of any kind on any of the buildings … Reed [Archaeology and the Galilean Jesus, pgs. 140-169] concludes that the inhabitants were almost certainly ‘predominantly illiterate’ [even in Aramaic] … In short, Peter’s town was a backwoods Jewish village made up of hand-to-mouth laborers who did not have an education. Everyone spoke Aramaic. Nothing suggests that anyone could speak Greek. Nothing suggests that anyone in the town could write. As a lower-class fisherman, Peter would have started work as a young boy and never attended school. There was, in fact, probably no school there.” Bear in mind that John is described as ἀγράμματος (“illiterate”) alongside Peter in the passage, for whom we have very strong archaeological evidence that he was probably illiterate. Thus, the best interpretation of the passage is that Acts 4:13 is describing Peter and John as both lacking Rabbinic training and being illiterate.

[5] Apologists, of course, have come up with a number of attempts to rationalize this problem in geography. However, as scholar C.S. Mann (Mark, pg. 322) explains, “While the text is clear enough at this point, the geography is impossible to reconstruct … The attempts of various commentators past and present to make sense of this awkward journey are often more inglorious than enlightening.” Mann further notes that the author of Matthew, who was probably more familiar with the region, in fact changes the itinerary to resolve the geographical problems. As Mann (pg. 322) explains, “Matthew has no reference to Tyre and Sidon, nor yet of the Ten Towns, contenting himself merely with the statement that Jesus ‘departed from there and came by the Sea of Galilee’ (15:29).” Likewise, this particular problem is hardly the only problem with Palestinian geography in Mark. Another problematic route is in Mk 11:1, which has Jesus and the disciples, in approaching Jerusalem from Jericho, come first to Bethphage and then to Bethany. As Helms (Who Wrote the Gospels?, pg. 6) explains, “Anyone approaching Jerusalem from Jericho would come first to Bethany and then Bethphage, not the reverse. This is one of the several passages showing that Mark knew little about Palestine.” Nineham (The Gospel of St. Mark, pgs. 294-295) agrees, “Mark did not know the relative positions of these two villages on the Jericho road.” Another problem concerns the location of Geresa (modern Jerash). As Theissen (The Gospels in Context, pg. 242) explains, “According to 5:1ff, the town of Gerasa and its surrounding lands lie near the Lake of Galilee, although in reality Gerasa is about 65 kilometers southeast of the lake.” Likewise, Raymond Brown (An Introduction to the New Testament, pg. 160) notes, “No one has been able to locate the Dalmanutha of 8:10, and it may be a corruption of Magdala.”

[6] Of course, the common apologetic retort to redactions of this kind normally goes something along the lines of “different emotions can exist in the same man,” when Jesus is depicted in one gospel in a different manner than another. But such rationalizations greatly oversimplify the problem and miss the importance of the Synoptic Gospels’ interdependence in their source material. The author of Luke had a copy of Mark in front of him when he wrote about the passion and crucifixion of Jesus. Yet, at key moments, he made significant alterations in the previous narrative. In the Lukan narrative (23:27), a great number of people follow Jesus during his crucifixion, including a number of women, who are instead stated to have remained at a far in the Markan narrative (15:40). In the Lukan narrative (23:42-43), Jesus is crucified between two criminals, one of whom repents and to whom Jesus replies, “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in paradise.” However, in the Markan narrative (15:32), both of the criminals crucified next to Jesus mock him. In the Markan narrative (15:34-37), Jesus’ last words convey despair: “Jesus cried out in a loud voice, ‘Eloi, Eloi, lema sabachthani?’ (which means ‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?’).” However, in the Lukan narrative (23:46), Jesus’ last words convey resolve and tranquility: “Jesus called out with a loud voice, ‘Father, into your hands I commit my spirit.’ When he had said this, he breathed his last.” We can try to brush off these differences by rationalizing that each author merely “told one half of the story,” but we know that the author of Luke had access to Mark. The far more natural explanation for the changes is that the author of Luke simply had a different opinion and wished to depict Jesus’ crucifixion in a different way. As I explain in my article about Bible contradictions, this is the type of conclusion that we would reach for any secular text. However, apologists who have presuppositions of inerrancy often twist themselves in logical pretzels to avoid obvious contradictions and redactions between the Gospels. For secular interpreters, however, I think the discrepancies and changes between the different authors are quite clear. Since the author of Luke changed the narrative in Mark to suite a different theological agenda, I think it is quite unlikely that this author thought that the account in Mark was based off the teachings of Peter.

[7] Apologists, of course, have attempted to extract authorial personality from selective readings based on a few tenuous passages and uses of vocabulary. For example, apologists have claimed that the author of Luke-Acts uses vocabulary specialized to physicians (the occupation that Luke, the attendant of Paul, was said to have) and takes extra notice of sick people. However, scholar Henry Cadbury in The Style and Literary Method of Luke has deflated much of these claims by a closer reading of the relevant passages. Cadbury undertook this research when completing his doctorate, and the joke went round in scholarly circles that Cadbury earned his doctorate by denying Luke of his.

[8] Fitzmyer (Acts of the Apostles, pgs. 438-439) elaborates further about this passage, “Luke reports the first visit of Saul to Jerusalem after his flight from Damascus (9:26-29; cf. 22:17; 26:20). It is the first of five, or possibly six, postconversion visits to Jerusalem that will be enumerated (the counting depends on a problematic variant reading). Whether they are all individually historical is problematic. It may be that Luke, dependent on different sources, has historicized and individualized some of the visits, when he should rather have realized that he had inherited more than one record of the same visit … In any case, the first postconversion visit of Saul to Jerusalem in Acts is to be taken as that reported in Gal 1:18: ‘Then after three years I went up to Jerusalem to consult Cephas, and I stayed with him for fifteen days.’ That means ‘three years’ after his experience on the road to Damascus.” As scholar Christopher Matthews (Oxford Annotated Bible, pg. 1937) concludes, “In Gal. 1:18 Paul states that his first visit to Jerusalem was three years after his conversion. Luke associates Paul with Jerusalem from the beginning.”

[9] A common apologetic rationalization for this contradiction is to claim that, because Timothy was born from a Jewish mother, he was racially considered a Jewish Christian, whereas Titus, who was born of both a Greek father and mother, was regarded as a Gentile. However, this interpretation is anachronistic and, as Fitzmyer (Acts of the Apostles, pg. 575) notes, belongs “to a later Mishnaic tradition (m. Kidd. 3:12: ‘the offspring is of her own standing'; cf. Str-B, 2.741).” However, as Cohen (“Was Timothy Jewish?,” pg. 268) explains, the “vast majority of ancient and medieval exegetes did not think” that Timothy was Jewish. “There is no evidence that Paul or the Jews of Asia Minor thought so. Ambrosiaster and his medieval followers did think so, but in all likelihood this interpretation is wrong because there is no evidence that any Jew in premishnaic times thought that the child of an intermarriage followed the status of the mother.”

[10] There are also many other later Christian texts that were attributed to obscure figures, despite Blomberg’s assertion that unlikely candidates would not be chosen if an attribution was invented. As Robert Price (The Case Against The Case For Christ, pg. 19) elaborates, “In fact apocryphal (which only means ‘not on the official list’ for whatever reason) gospels are attributed to such luminaries as Bartholomew, Judas Iscariot, the prostitute Mary Magdalene, doubting Thomas, the heretical Basilides, the even more heretical Valentinus, Nicodemus, and the replacement Matthias. They didn’t always go for the star names.”

[11] A common apologetic slogan about the church fathers’ attributions is that they allegedly “universally agreed” upon Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, and thus were not speculating about the authors. However, this is only true of the later church fathers from the latter half of the 2nd century onward, whereas the earliest references to the texts treat them anonymously. Ignatius (c. 105-115 CE) and Polycarp (c. 110-140 CE), for example, quote the Gospels anonymously. Later, Justin Martyr (c. 150-160 CE) refers to the Gospels collectively as the “Memoirs of the Apostles.” Later still, Irenaeus (c. 175-185 CE) finally attributed the works to their traditional authors. This trail reflects a process in which the Gospels were gradually associated with the apostles, until eventually being attributed to specific names, when there were canonical disputes in the latter half of the 2nd century. Sometimes apologists will further claim that, if the attributions were invented, we would expect to see multiple names proposed for the Gospels. However, there is little reason to expect this. If there was only one canonizing movement, then there would only be one set of names attributed to the anonymous works, whereas multiple attributions would only be expected if there were separate, conflicting canonizing movements. Furthermore, as Robert Price (The Case Against The Case For Christ, pg. 18) points out, “We don’t have everyone’s opinions. We are lucky to have what fragments we do that survived the efforts of Orthodox censors and heresiologists to stamp out all ‘heretical’ opinions. However, we do know of a few differing opinions because Tertullian, Justin Martyr, and others had to take the trouble to (try to) refute them. Marcion knew our Gospel of Luke in a shorter form, which he considered to be the original, and he did not identify it as the work of Luke. He may have imagined that Paul write that version. Also … Papias sought to account for the apparent Marcionite elements in the Gospel of John by suggesting Marcion had worked as John’s secretary and scribe and added his own ideas to the text, which it was somehow too late for John to root out. Similarly, some understood the gospel to be Gnostic (rightly, I think) and credited it to Cerinthus.” Finally, there are many other interpretations of the Gospels agreed upon by the church fathers that modern day scholars reject. For example, the early church agreed upon Matthean priority, placing the Gospel of Matthew first in the New Testament. However, modern scholars (and even most apologists) through redaction criticism and source analysis almost universally agree upon Markan priority, and that the Gospel of Matthew was written after Mark and used Mark. This is as radical a deviation from the church fathers’ opinion as doubting their authorial attributions, showing that scholars are not exercising any excessive skepticism when doubting the authorial attributions of the Gospels, as there are many claims of the early church fathers that modern scholars universally reject.

[12] Other proposed candidates for the author of the fourth gospel include John the Presbyter, John Mark, and Thomas. Regardless, even Christian scholar Raymond Brown (An Introduction to the New Testament, pgs. 368-369) explains, “As with the other Gospels it is doubted by most scholars that this Gospel was written by an eyewitness of the public ministry of Jesus.”

[13] It is not clear that the “beloved disciple” described at the end of John is even intended to be understood as the author of the work. As scholar Robert Kysar (The Anchor Bible Dictionary, v. 3, pgs. 919-920) explains, “The supposition that the author was one and the same with the beloved disciple is often advanced as a means of insuring that the evangelist did witness Jesus’ ministry. Two other passages are advanced as evidence of the same – 19:35 and 21:24. But both falter under close scrutiny. 19:35 does not claim that the author was the one who witnessed the scene but only that the scene is related on the sound basis of eyewitness. 21:24 is part of the appendix of the gospel and should not be assumed to have come from the same hand as that responsible for the body of the gospel. Neither of these passages, therefore, persuades many Johannine scholars that the author claims eyewitness status.”

[14] Likewise, while church tradition maintains that John the son of Zebedee lived to a very old age, there is also a large body of ancient evidence indicating that he died much earlier, being executed alongside his brother James, whose martyrdom is described in Acts 12:2. This body of evidence indicating that John did not live to old age is laid out by scholar F.P. Badham in “The Martyrdom of John the Apostle.” While it is historically uncertain whether John died alongside James, this body of evidence casts doubt on the tradition that John lived to an old age and thus raises further problems for the notion that John authored the fourth and latest gospel. As I explain in my article about the martyrdom of the disciples, our evidence for any of these church figures is very, very limited. In light of such poor evidence, in addition to contradictions among our sources, it is not tenable that John the son of Zebedee ever lived to an old enough age to author the gospel later attributed to him. This is just another problem for the authorial tradition of the fourth gospel, in addition to the numerous other ones listed above.

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41 Responses to Why Scholars Doubt the Traditional Authors of the Gospels

  1. Pingback: Authorship of the Gospels | διά πέντε / dia pente

  2. jayman777 says:

    Admittedly I’m not touching on everything, but here are some quick thoughts.

    What evidence is there that the phrase “the Gospel according to X” was interpreted as not being an attribution of authorship in the case of the Gospels? What phrase should have been used, in your opinion, if authorship was being attributed?

    The fact that the Gospels did not have an original, full title is not a good reason for concluding that the traditional authorship attributions are incorrect. It is my understanding that the name attached to each Gospel is always the same. This unanimity is what we would expect if the traditional authors wrote the Gospels and not what we would expect if the early Christians were engaging in wild speculation.

    Acts 4:13 merely indicates that John lacked a formal rabbinic education. We simply don’t know what any given disciple could or could not have written. We can speculate as to what an average fisherman or tax collector could write but that doesn’t help us much in dealing with a specific fisherman or tax collector. And, of course, any disciple could have been assisted in his writing by someone more literate than he was.

    I am undecided regarding solutions to the Synoptic Problem. I think it is more speculative than many scholars admit. To take one of your examples, even if we assume Matthew used Mark as a source we don’t know that he redacted Mark to place the more important Moses before Elijah. It does not seem strange to me that an eye-witness would borrow from the writings of another eye-witness whom he presumably respects. Nor does it seem strange that he might modify things for his purposes (and we may not fully know all his purposes).

    Even if we assume that Matthew would have been ostracized from the Jewish community, that does not enable us to conclude that he was not familiar with Jewish teachings. Being a Jew in good standing with the Jewish community does not prevent one from being knowledgeable about Judaism.

    You overplay the discrepancies between Paul and Acts. For example, both sources mention Paul’s escape from Damascus. Gal. 2:2 implies that Paul did seek confirmation from the Jerusalem apostles that he had not run in vain.

    Papias was a contemporary of the authors of the Gospels (unless you want to go for an early date). While in HE 3.39.13 Eusebius seems to criticize Papias (for his millennial views), in 3.39.14 he says: “Papias gives also in his own work other accounts of the words of the Lord on the authority of Aristion who was mentioned above, and traditions as handed down by the presbyter John; to which we refer those who are fond of learning.” Papias is appealing to contemporary tradition, not speculation.

    I believe Luke 1:1-2 is using the terminology common to Jews describing the handing down of tradition from one person to another. This is not an admission that he did not have access to eyewitnesses. Paul uses the same language and we know he had access to eyewitnesses.

    Linking the beloved disciple to Lazarus is speculation. Again, the fact that the average fisherman would not have been known to the high priest tells us nothing about John the son of Zebedee. Someone living from, say, 15 CE to 90 CE is not that incredible and John’s long life is attested by the Church Fathers. Papias was a contemporary of John. Irenaeus was taught by Polycarp, who was taught by John. This means the authorship of the Gospel of John could have been learned by Irenaeus independently of Papias. Trying to discredit Papias is not enough to explain the agreement of the Church Fathers.

    • mansubzero says:

      peter told mark about what jesus said to the jews, ” it is not what you eat that defiles you but….” matthew writes to the jews and leaves OUT what pete told mark. why would matthew leave out what pete told mark about what jesus said to the jews? were romans enjoining bacon and blood in front of the jews back then? if yes , then why didnt matthew want his readers to hear that blood , flesh sacrificed to false gods and pigs meat DOES NOT defile ? i’m sure before jc came on the seen romans were munching on pigs flesh and informing the jews how tasty it is.

    • Hey Jayman,

      “What evidence is there that the phrase “the Gospel according to X” was interpreted as not being an attribution of authorship in the case of the Gospels? What phrase should have been used, in your opinion, if authorship was being attributed?

      The fact that the Gospels did not have an original, full title is not a good reason for concluding that the traditional authorship attributions are incorrect. It is my understanding that the name attached to each Gospel is always the same. This unanimity is what we would expect if the traditional authors wrote the Gospels and not what we would expect if the early Christians were engaging in wild speculation.”

      I discuss the how the traditional titles came to be added in the discussion below.

      “Acts 4:13 merely indicates that John lacked a formal rabbinic education.”

      The passage explicitly states that Peter and John were ἀγράμματος (“unlettered” or “illiterate”). We can *interpret* the passage to mean that they only lacked formal Rabbinic education, but the passage literally says “illiterate.”

      In all probability, what the passage means is that Peter and John were BOTH illiterate AND lacked Rabbinic training (it was normally Jews with Rabbinic training who belonged to the small minority of the literate Jews to begin with).

      “We simply don’t know what any given disciple could or could not have written.”

      No, we can make reasonable estimates based on the available evidence, such as William Harris’ Ancient Literacy study, which would place the category of people to which the disciples belonged in all probability within the illiterate population. Furthermore, other scholars, such as Catherine Hezser in Literacy in Roman Palestine have found that only about 3% of the population could read and most of these would have lived in cities or large towns (not typical of where the disciples of rural Galilea were from). As Ehrman (Forged, pg. 73) explains:

      “Most people outside of the urban areas would scarcely ever even see a written text. Some smaller towns and villages may have had a literacy level around 1 percent. Moreover, these literate people were almost always the elite of the upper class. Those who learned to read learned how to read Hebrew (not Greek).”

      Even if we can’t know for sure, the overwhelming probability is that Jesus’ disciples were illiterate, and even if they were taught to read they would have been taught to read Hebrew. They would not belong to the small minority of people in the ancient world who could author complex Greek prose.

      Likewise, we have archeological evidence that suggests that Peter, who is described alongside John as ἀγράμματος (“illiterate”) in Acts 4:13, was in fact illiterate based on excavations of his hometown in Capernaum. As Ehrman explains (Forged, pg. 74-75):

      “In order to evaluate Peter’s linguistic abilities, the place to begin, then, is with Capernaum … The archeological digs have revealed … there are no inscriptions of any kind on any of the buildings … Reed [Archeology and the Galilean Jesus, pgs. 140-169] concludes that the inhabitants were almost certainly “predominantly illiterate” [even in Aramaic] … In short, Peter’s town was a backwoods Jewish village made up of hand-to-mouth laborers who did not have an education. Everyone spoke Aramaic. Nothing suggests that anyone could speak Greek. Nothing suggests that anyone in the town could write. As a lower-class fisherman, Peter would have started work as a young boy and never attended school. There was, in fact, probably no school there…”

      Keep in mind that John is described as ἀγράμματος (“illiterate”) alongside Peter, for whom we have very strong archeological evidence that he was probably illiterate. Thus, the best interpretation of the passage is that Acts 4:13 is describing Peter and John as being BOTH lacking Rabbinic training AND being illiterate.

      “And, of course, any disciple could have been assisted in his writing by someone more literate than he was.”

      To begin with, one does not “assist” someone in authoring a cohesive, complex Greek narrative like the Gospel of John. I have taken courses in Greek composition (via Hillard and North’s Greek Prose Composition), and I can tell you that actually writing in a consistent Greek style is not so simple. The unity of John’s style (with the exception of a possible addition in John 21) suggests a single author who was highly trained in Greek prose composition, which matches nothing of our outside biography of John.

      Furthermore, someone “assisting” John would not be an accurate description of how a claim to authorship would work in antiquity. That would mean that someone else had actually written the Gospel of John and had merely consulted John as a source (I discuss in the article how I doubt that John was such a source, regardless). John would not be the author of the text under this arrangement. As Ehrman (Forged, pg. 77) explains:

      “Where in the ancient world do we have anything at all analogous to this hypothetical situation of someone writing a letter-essay for someone else and putting the other person’s name on it – the name of the person who did not write it –rather than his own name? So far as I know, there is not a single instance of any such procedure attested from antiquity or any discussion, in any ancient source, of this being a legitimate practice. Or even an illegitimate once. Such a thing is never discussed.”

      “I am undecided regarding solutions to the Synoptic Problem. I think it is more speculative than many scholars admit. To take one of your examples, even if we assume Matthew used Mark as a source we don’t know that he redacted Mark to place the more important Moses before Elijah. It does not seem strange to me that an eye-witness would borrow from the writings of another eye-witness whom he presumably respects. Nor does it seem strange that he might modify things for his purposes (and we may not fully know all his purposes).”

      The synoptic relationship between Mark, Matthew, and Luke is accepted by even a larger majority of scholars than those who doubt the traditional authors of the Gospels (including many Christians and apologists).

      Saying “we many not fully know all his purposes” is not a good counter-theory for explaining all of the apparent redactions in Matthew. Again, Steven Carr has provided an excellent list of the changes between Matthew and Mark. A perfectly viable and probable explanation for these changes is that the author of Matthew redacted the earlier Gospel. Saying “we may not fully know all his purposes” is not a clear counter-thesis and is little more than retreating to agnosticism when there is instead strong evidence to suggest redaction.

      “Even if we assume that Matthew would have been ostracized from the Jewish community, that does not enable us to conclude that he was not familiar with Jewish teachings. Being a Jew in good standing with the Jewish community does not prevent one from being knowledgeable about Judaism.”

      Just because it was not impossible that a tax collector may have learned about Jewish teachings does not show that it is probable that he did so. Likewise, the population to which Matthew the tax collector belonged was overwhelmingly not capable of authoring complex Greek prose. It is an extremely awkward fit to say that Matthew wrote the Gospel, when an anonymous author is far more probable and also completely consistent with the anonymous nature of the Gospel.

      “You overplay the discrepancies between Paul and Acts. For example, both sources mention Paul’s escape from Damascus. Gal. 2:2 implies that Paul did seek confirmation from the Jerusalem apostles that he had not run in vain.”

      Scholars recognize many differences between Acts and Paul, of which I have only named a few. That said, a few mainstream scholars think that it is plausible that Luke and Acts may have been authored by an attendant of Paul. As Christian scholar Raymond Brown (An Introduction to the New Testament, pgs. 326-327) states:

      “In summary, it is not impossible that a minor figure who had traveled with Paul for small parts of his ministry wrote Acts decades after the apostle was dead … but “not impossible” is all that should be claimed.”

      Brown’s evaluation is probably the closest that I would grant to the plausibility of Luke as an author; however, I tend to follow the more mainstream view that the author of Acts probably never knew Paul and was instead an unknown person from his mission area a generation later. Furthermore, it should be noted that, out of all of the traditional authors, Luke would be the most distanced from Jesus, as his primary connection would be with Paul, who was not an eyewitness of Jesus.

      “Papias was a contemporary of the authors of the Gospels (unless you want to go for an early date). While in HE 3.39.13 Eusebius seems to criticize Papias (for his millennial views), in 3.39.14 he says: “Papias gives also in his own work other accounts of the words of the Lord on the authority of Aristion who was mentioned above, and traditions as handed down by the presbyter John; to which we refer those who are fond of learning.” Papias is appealing to contemporary tradition, not speculation.”

      For starters, we know virtually nothing about the figures Aristion and John the Presbyter. Even apologists acknowledge that John the Presbyter was probably not John the Apostle, as even Craig Blomberg (The Case For Christ, pg. 27) acknowledges: “You see, the testimony of a Christian writer named Papias, dated about A.D. 125, refers to John the apostle and John the elder, and it’s not clear from the context whether he’s talking about one person from two perspectives or two different people.”

      Likewise, Papias reports a lot of other stories that scholars unanimously reject. For example, Papias claims in one story that Judas, after betraying Jesus, became wider than a chariot and so fat that he exploded. Likewise, Papias records sayings of Jesus that no scholars accept, such as one recorded by Irenaeus (Against Heresies 5.33.3), which states:

      “As the elders who saw John, the disciple of the Lord, related that they had heard from him how the Lord used to teach in regard to these times, and say: The days will come, in which vines shall grow, each having ten thousand branches, and in each branch ten thousand twigs, and in each true twig ten thousand shoots, and in each one of the shoots ten thousand clusters, and on every one of the clusters ten thousand grapes, and every grape when pressed will give five and twenty metretes of wine. And when any one of the saints shall lay hold of a cluster, another shall cry out, “I am a better cluster, take me; bless the Lord through me.”

      Virtually all scholars (including Christians and apologists) do not believe that Jesus said these lines, despite Papias’ claim about John the Disciple relating them. It is also noteworthy that Papias derives these stories from “the elders who saw John” and does not claim to know the disciple himself.

      From what we can gather about these spurious stories and sayings is that Papias was not appealing to reliable “contemporary tradition.” All scholars, Christians included, doubt their authenticity. For the same reason, many scholars doubt his statements about Matthew authoring an Aramaic collection of Jesus’ sayings (not our Greek Gospel of Matthew anyways) and about Mark recording the recollections of Peter (nothing about our Gospel of Mark claims to be the recollections of Peter). In all probability, Papias is referring to other unknown texts, or, based on his unreliability elsewhere, he is probably referring to unsubstantiated rumors.

      “Linking the beloved disciple to Lazarus is speculation. Again, the fact that the average fisherman would not have been known to the high priest tells us nothing about John the son of Zebedee. Someone living from, say, 15 CE to 90 CE is not that incredible and John’s long life is attested by the Church Fathers.”

      The identification with Lazarus is based on internal evidence within the text, discussed in the article above. Likewise, even if it is not impossible that John the son of Zebedee, as a rural peasant, might have known the high priest, it is not at all probable that he did so, and in a likelihood, by making this type of identification, the author is referring to someone else.

      Likewise, John is not attested to have lived a long life in all of the sources we have for his biography. A number of ancient sources actually state the John was martyred earlier in life alongside his brother James. Here is a valuable article that discusses the Christian sources claiming that John DID NOT live such a long life:

      http://www.jstor.org/stable/3153885

      As Badham points out, one of the sources we have for John dying earlier is in fact from a fragment attributed to Papias, which states “John the divine and James his brother were slain by the Jews.” So we have no certainty that John lived such a long life, let alone could author a complex Greek narrative by the end of it.

      “Papias was a contemporary of John. Irenaeus was taught by Polycarp, who was taught by John. This means the authorship of the Gospel of John could have been learned by Irenaeus independently of Papias.”

      Again, Papias in all probability knew an unknown “John the Elder.” One of our fragments attributed to Papias even had him reporting that John the Disciple was martyred, and when Papias specifically discusses “John the Disciple” he reports what “the elders” say about him, which does not suggest that he was a contemporary who knew him.

      As for the theory about Polycarp, Irenaeus never states that he learned from Polycarp who the author of the Fourth Gospel was. That is again speculation, something DagoodS notes in his comment below.

  3. You should also mention the best argument of all here – the Marcionites explicitly said that the apostles never wrote gospels. It is plainly evidenced in De Recta in Deum Fide.

  4. The important passage from Petty’s translation p. 91

    EUTR. How is it, Marcus, that your party do not accept those who were sent out by Christ to preach and proclaim the Gospel, yet you do accept one for whom you offer no proof? Why is it that you disparage Matthew and John, whose names are recorded in Scripture, and whom Christ sent out to preach and proclaim the Gospel, but accept Paul, for whom you have no proof? Surely this is ridiculous? Tell us this at least: Did they proclaim and preach the Gospel or not?
    MK. They proclaim the Gospel.
    EUTR. Was their proclamation and preaching of the Gospel recorded or unrecorded?
    MK. It was unrecorded.
    EUTR. It is quite absurd to assert on the one hand that those who were sent out to preach and proclaim the Gospel did so unrecorded, and on the other to claim that Paul, who had not been sent out, taught and was recorded! [p. 91]

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  6. DagoodS says:

    Matthew Ferguson,

    As always, very informative. I especially appreciated the section regarding the difference between “Gospel of Matthew” and the “Gospel according to Matthew.” As near as I can tell by the Greek, it would appear Papias also referred to the “Gospel according to the Hebrews” not the “Gospel of the Hebrews” further bolstering this was a designation, not a claim of authorship.

  7. jayman777 says:

    DagoodS, it is the gospel of Jesus Christ (Mark 1:1) so it would be appropriate to use different terminology in the title.

    • Hey Jayman,

      I don’t have much time to reply right now, but let me address your concerns about the titles. As Christian scholar Raymond Brown (An Introduction to the New Testament, pg. 158) acknowledged, “If we work backwards, the title ‘The Gospel According to Mark’ was attached to this writing by the end of the 2nd century.”

      Many scholars believe that the original title was in fact from the opening words of Mark 1:1, that is Ἀρχὴ τοῦ εὐαγγελίου Ἰησοῦ Χριστοῦ (“The Beginning of the Gospel of Jesus Christ”). The emphasis was on the subject, Jesus, not on the author, let alone any pretense of an eyewitness report of him. The original text, as shown in the body, was styled in an omniscient, impersonal narrative of Jesus, borrowing from aspects of the Greek Septuagint, as noted by Ehrman.

      Hence why scholars think that the later titles, such as κατά Μάρκον (“according to Mark”), were added later when there were doctrinal disputes over canonical scripture. After a century, the context was very different from the anonymous one in which the Gospels were originally written, as multiple works were floating around about Jesus, many being forged or mis-attributed (even apologists acknowledge that this was going on at least outside of our current canonical books of the New Testament). The “according to” was used to add in a later attribution to identify a tradition, in order to gain authority for canonical status. DagoodS example shows that a tradition could even be attributed to a whole group of peoples, as in The Gospel According to the Hebrews, further diminishing the idea that these constructions were used to clearly identify particular persons. At the very least, it is far more vague than how titles normally worked to identify their authors in other works from antiquity.

      Also, the claim of unanimity does not align with the manuscript traditions. Hence, why textual criticism experts like Bart Ehrman (Jesus: Apocolyptic Prophet of the New Millenium, pgs. 249-250) point out:

      “Because our surviving Greek manuscripts provide such a wide variety of (different) titles for the Gospels, textual scholars have long realized that their familiar names do no go back to a single ‘original’ title, but were added by later scribes.”

      Ehrman’s specialty while working at Princeton Theological Seminary was in textual criticism, hence he is a higher authority than most biblical scholars, who would likewise corroborate this description about the variations among the titles.

      • jayman777 says:

        Saying the name Mark was attached to the second gospel by the end of the 2nd century is a most conservative claim. Papias, Irenaeus, and Clement of Alexandria (at the least) know of a gospel written by Mark. Justin Martyr refers to Peter’s memoirs containing a passage that only occurs in Mark 3:16-17 (Trypho 106.3). If we take Papias seriously we can conclude the name Mark was attached to a gospel by the beginning of the 2nd century.

        The hypothesis that the names were attached to the Gospels later, when doctrinal disputes arose, fails to explain the unanimity of the attributions.

        Your quote from Ehrman about the manuscripts sounds ambiguous to me (I don’t have the book). Is he saying the full title is not identical in every manuscript while the name attached to it might be? If so, that does not hurt the traditional position. Your interpretation of the quote conflicts with other scholarly statements:

        These titles are widely attested in a variety of ways: by some of the earliest papyri, by reports in the second- and third-century church fathers, and by the earliest translations. They too were already completely uniform in the second century. (Martin Hengel, The Four Gospels and the One Gospel of Jesus Christ, p. 48)

        . . . the patristic tradition is unanimous in asserting Mark wrote this Gospel . . . (New Jerome Biblical Commentary, p. 596)

        There are seven major, ancient witnesses about the author [of Luke]: Muratorian Canon, Irenaeus, late 2d-cent. Prologue to the Gospel, Tertullian, Origen, Eusebius, and Jerome. (New Jerome Biblical Commentary, p. 675)

        • “Saying the name Mark was attached to the second gospel by the end of the 2nd century is a most conservative claim. Papias, Irenaeus, and Clement of Alexandria (at the least) know of a gospel written by Mark. Justin Martyr refers to Peter’s memoirs containing a passage that only occurs in Mark 3:16-17 (Trypho 106.3). If we take Papias seriously we can conclude the name Mark was attached to a gospel by the beginning of the 2nd century.”

          Again, it is important to differentiate between the earlier traditions and later ones. Irenaeus and Clement of Alexandria are later authors, who very easily could have reported later developments.

          As Ehrman (Forged, pg. 225) explains about the earlier tradition with Justin Martyr:

          “The anonymity of the Gospel writers was respected for decades. When the Gospels of the New Testament are alluded to and quoted by authors of the early second century, they are never entitled, never named. Even Justin Martyr, writing around 150-60 CE, quotes verses from the Gospels, but does not indicate what the Gospels were named. For Justin, these books are simply known, collectively, as the “Memoirs of the Apostles.”

          Some scholars do think, however, that Justin’s reference to “Peter’s memoirs” may have been what led to the later attribution of Mark, based off of speculation from 1 Peter 5:13, but again, nothing about our Gospel of Mark in any way presents itself as the memoirs of Peter.

          Furthermore, if we take Papias seriously, we have no certainty that he is referring to OUR Gospel of Mark. As Ehrman (Forged, pgs. 226-227) explains:

          “There is nothing to indicate that when Papias is referring to Matthew and Mark, he is referring to the Gospels that were later called Matthew and Mark. In fact, everything he says about these two books contradicts what we know about (our) Matthew and Mark: Matthew is not a collection of Jesus’ sayings, but of his deeds and experiences as well; it was not written in Hebrew, but in Greek; and it was not written – as Papias supposes – independently of Mark, but was based on our Gospel of Mark. As for Mark, there is nothing about our Mark that would make you think it was Peter’s vision of the story, any more than it is the version of any other character in the account.”

          However, Papias’ testimony does provide a plausible explanation for how a later spurious attribution to Matthew and Mark could have arisen, as later authors like Ireneaus appear to have confused Papias’ reference to these otherwise unknown works with OUR Gospel of Matthew and Gospel of Mark.

          “The hypothesis that the names were attached to the Gospels later, when doctrinal disputes arose, fails to explain the unanimity of the attributions.”

          The attributions are not wholly unanimous. As Ehrman explains, the earliest references to the works respected their anonymity. It is true that later in the tradition, Christians eventually agreed on the four authors. However, even among later attributions, there is not full agreement. As Robert Price (The Case Against The Case For Christ, pg. 18) explains:

          “We don’t have everyone’s opinions. We are lucky to have what fragments we do that survived the efforts of Orthodox censors and heresiologists to stamp out all ‘heretical’ opinions. However, we do know of a few differing opinions because Tertullian, Justin Martyr, and others had to take the trouble to (try to) refute them. Marcion knew our Gospel of Luke in a shorter form, which he considered to be the original, and he did not identify it as the work of Luke. He may have imagined that Paul write that version. Also … Papias sought to account for the apparent Marcionite elements in the Gospel of John by suggesting Marcion had worked as John’s secretary and scribe and added his own ideas to the text, which it was somehow too late for John to root out. Similarly, some understood the gospel to be Gnostic (rightly, I think) and credited it to Cerinthus.”

          What only have a few scattered statements for any of these authors to begin with, but, as Price shows, they were not wholly unanimous. What we do see is that there was more disagreement early in the tradition and more unity later on. This reflects the process of canonization that I discussed above.

          “Your quote from Ehrman about the manuscripts sounds ambiguous to me (I don’t have the book). Is he saying the full title is not identical in every manuscript while the name attached to it might be? If so, that does not hurt the traditional position.”

          Ehrman is saying that the titles are not unanimous in form, which suggests that there was no original formula that the later attributions were based on. Hence why the later titles have variations in their formula. Sorry that you didn’t have access to the book. I don’t have too much more time right now to discuss this, but here is an online resource that discusses the issue of the manuscripts and title.

          Many scholars and textual experts like Ehrman agree that the variations in titles suggests that they were not affixed to the original manuscripts. However, to be fair, we also do not possess the original manuscripts, so we cannot know for sure. But given the other problems that I have listed, it would appear that they were added later (which is what the variations in the titles would suggest).

  8. Pingback: The Gospels | Insomniac memos

  9. DagoodS says:

    jayman777,

    I will touch on a few of your points.

    You are correct it is possible John, son of Zebedee was assisted by someone more literate; or Acts 4:13 was referring solely to Hebrew rabbinical schools. The problem is “possible” doesn’t propel us on our journey to knowledge. As historians or scholars, we search to eliminate or reduce “possibilities” and focus on probabilities—not promulgate more and more and more theories, creating a cacophony of “possibilities” wherein everybody has their own opinion, and no one knows anything more than fidelity to their pet “possibility.”

    It is possible John, son of Zebedee wrote the Gospel according to John. It is possible another John (the presbyter?) wrote the gospel. Or all the disciples contributed a portion and John was the editor. (I am personally convinced the John we have today is an amalgamation of various gospels.) Or the gospel is a 4th Century Constantine forgery. Or a Roman governmental invention to undermine Christianity. Or a Galilean response to doceticism. Do you see the problem? We can list possibility after possibility until the comment section is overflowing…while the discussion doesn’t move forward a centimeter.

    What method do you have in place to reduce possibilities? More importantly, what method do you have in place allowing you to change your personal position (even preferred postulation) to an opposing view?

    Matthew Ferguson indicates a below 10% literacy rate in First Century Mediterranean. (I’ve generally heard it closer to 5%, but we can utilize his figures.) Just on this fact alone, it is more probable a certain individual at that time and culture was illiterate. Reach out and grab a person. 9 out of 10 would be illiterate. Now, the few who were schooled were generally in the Upper crust of Roman society—for example the senatorial or equestrian class. The percentage of literacy would be weighted within those classes.

    Secondly, we forget First Century Palestine was sustenance living—these people worked from sunup to sundown to live. They had to earn enough, grow enough, obtain enough to not only currently survive, but provide for their family, their household (including animals), store enough to survive winter, AND then have enough to start over again in the spring. All while fighting off the damages from drought, disease, war, taxes, etc. A Galilean fisherman did not have idle time to go to school, or learn to write. (Why would he—what value would it be to him?)

    A Galilean would speak Aramaic, along with his neighbors, friends and culture. If, for some reason, he did desire to learn to write, it would most likely be Aramaic. The second most likely would be Hebrew (but you concede Acts 4:13 is referring to rabbinical school.) The third would be Greek. Although the most common language in the Roman world—it was of little to no value to a Galilean fisherman. Who would he write to? What books, letters or documents would he read?

    Thirdly, there are significant issues regarding the Johannine account as compared to the Synoptics. I wrote more regarding this topic here. This calls into question the “eyewitness” nature. Frankly, either the Synoptics are correct, or John is or neither. They can’t both be. (Don’t forget, I am looking at probability—not possibility.)

    Considering the evidence, it is (very) probable the Gospel according to John was not written by a Galilean fisherman. It is possible? Sure. But so are a number of other possibilities. Let’s start focusing on probabilities, not wild goose chases.

    (As an aside, you indicate a person living 15 CE to 90 CE [75 years] is “not that incredible.” It sure was in the First Century. 75+ year olds comprised .3% of the population. Life expectancy was very different than now.)

    The problem with Matthean modifications to Markan passages is how Matthew is correcting Mark at times, and at other times makes historical modifications—not merely fine-tuning the language to suit his audience. A nice example of this is John the Baptist’s death. Mark 6:14-29; Matt. 14:1-13. Mark incorrectly titles Herod Antipas as “king” (why would a Galilean eyewitness get that wrong?), and Matthew corrects the title to tetrarch. (Although Matthew demonstrates fatigue by referring to Antipas as “king” in the middle of the story.)

    Mark portrays Antipas as sympathetic to John the Baptist; Matthew changes this to an antagonistic relationship. (Again demonstrating fatigue by making Herod Antipas sad when Herodias’ daughter asked for John’s head.) Mark puts the story in a parenthetical statement; Matthew has Jesus directly reacting to it. They both have it wrong about Antipas marrying his brother Philip’s wife—Herodias was married to Herod II.

    The synoptic problem is not just who wrote first and who used what writings—it demonstrates a deliberation in modification of the story to suit the writers’ needs. The Gospel writers were not as concerned with historical accuracy as with recipient response.

    By the Second Century, there were numerous stories regarding Jesus. (The fact Irenaeus found it necessary to limit it to ONLY four confirms this by the latter part of Second Century.) There developed a method to differentiate between what gospel a certain person was talking about. I would agree all the gospels were “Gospels about Jesus” or if you desire, “Gospels of Jesus.” But when making reference, one could not state, “the Gospel of Jesus” as this could be one of many. Therefore a means of differentiation developed—the “Gospel according to the Hebrews,” the “Gospel according to Mark,” etc. This way people could discuss reasonably.

    The nomenclature does not necessarily designate authorship…unless you are claiming the entire Hebrew population wrote a gospel!

    • jayman777 says:

      Wow! I’m assuming a number of comments were held up in moderation. Here are some more brief thoughts.

      DagoodS:

      In light of the external evidence, the traditional authorship of John is a probability, not a mere possibility. I give far more weight to the testimony of the early Christians than to the speculations of modern scholars. If, for example, my speculation from the internal evidence blatantly contradicts the unanimous testimony of the early Christians I’m likely to abandon it.

      Your analysis of John’s literacy focuses on John qua Galilean fisherman while the proper context is to focus on John qua Christian apostle. After the resurrection he traveled outside of Galilee and Judea. He was no longer working the land and in such a context Greek would have been the obvious language to learn. He wrote to the churches of Asia Minor. His long life is attested by the early sources so we don’t need to appeal to some general life expectancy.

      As I said earlier, one’s preferred solution to the Synoptic Problem involves a good deal of speculation. I don’t want to get bogged down in a discussion of inerrancy as that’s only somewhat relevant to authorship. It is a jump from noting textual differences to inferring the Gospel writers were not as concerned with historical accuracy as with recipient response.

      The canonicity of the four gospels seems to have been accepted by the time Ireneaus writes. As Martin Hengel notes, a title had to be given to the manuscripts from the beginning. My other point was that the first Christians seemed to think the titles of the canonical gospels did refer to their authors (although in the case of Matthew it may be less certain).

      Matthew:

      Sorry if I’ve forgotten exactly where we are at and if I kind of ramble. I’ve moved on to other internet discussions since last commenting. I’ll respond to multiple comments of yours.

      One of my initial criticisms was that you appeal to evidence that talks of what the average man could write. You then ignore the early Christian evidence that certain apostles did write. The fact is that Peter and John were not just average fisherman after the resurrection. These men should be studied as individuals not as average members of a given class. The average Galilean fisherman was not a disciple of Jesus. That hardly leads us to conclude that Peter and John were therefore not disciples of Jesus.

      When I said someone could have assisted the disciples I intended it to be somewhat vague. This could involve someone else writing the Gospel using the apostle as a kind of source. For example, Papias does envision Mark being an “interpreter” of Peter.

      I realize the a large majority of scholars accept the two-source hypothesis. Then again I’ve heard an historian who accepts the 2SH as the best hypothesis say he thinks it only has a 25% chance of being correct. The other hypotheses are just more unlikely still. I’m not going to base any historical reconstruction on such analyses.

      Nor do I feel any obligation to explain all the differences between Matthew or Mark. I do retreat to agnosticism on this issue. It is just as viable that Matthew changed the order of names because he thought it sounded better than because Moses was more important than Elijah. Why assume any of us knows which “viable explanation” is correct? Again, redaction criticism is too speculative in my opinion.

      My comments about Matthew’s ostracization were countering one of your arguments against the traditional authorship which I found weak. It is not a complete argument for traditional authorship in itself.

      Papias provides the earliest attestation to the authorship of the Gospels. But his attestation is picked up by later Christians who had other lines of tradition that could have corrected an errant Papias.

      Thanks for the information about the apostle John.

      I don’t think you’ve dealt with the fact that Justin Martyr seems to call the Gospel of Mark Peter’s memoirs. Papias’s comments in conjunction with Justin’s indicate that the two did have what we call the Gospel of Mark in mind.

      Price’s appeals to heretics are unpersuasive as few scholars are going to take gnostics and docetists as more historically trustworthy than the orthodox. And his quote a tacit admission that the orthodox were all in agreement?

      I’ll grant there might be some variation in the form of the Gospel titles but Martin Hengel notes that the names are unanimous. He also argues that the names had to be attached from the beginning to differentiate one book from another in a library. Attaching the names later simply fails to explain the unanimity.

      • Hey Jayman,

        Sorry for a delay in the comments. I’ve been traveling for the holidays, so I only have time to drop in every couple days or so.

        Thanks for your feedback. I only have a couple final notes:

        With regard to the disciples later “learning Greek,” there is no evidence in antiquity that people in general (let alone poor Galilean peasants) after entering adulthood would later “learn to write” even in their own language, let alone in a foreign language. Literacy was taught from childhood, mostly to wealthy individuals in urban centers in the more literate regions of the Roman Empire (e.g. Rome, Alexandria, Athens, etc., areas NOT typical of rural Galilee). As Ehrman (Forged, pg. 75) explains in the case of Peter:

        “It is theoretically possible, of course, that Peter decided to go to school after Jesus’ resurrection. In this imaginative (not to say imaginary scenario) scenario, he learned his alphabet, he learned how to sound syllables and then words, learned to read, and learned to write. Then he took Greek classes, mastered Greek as a foreign language, and started memorizing large chunks of the Septuagint, after which he took Greek composition classes and learned how to compose complicated and rhetorically effective sentences; then, toward the end of his life, he wrote 1 Peter.

        Is this scenario plausible? Apart from the fact that we don’t know of “adult education” classes in antiquity – there’ no evidence they existed – I think most reasonable people would conclude that Peter probably had other things on his mind and on his hands after he came to believe that Jesus was raised from the dead.”

        So saying that John would “learn Greek” is extremely unlikely. At most he may have learned to speak a few words and to communicate on a basic level, but there is no evidence from all of antiquity that grown adults, let alone Galilean peasants, who in all probability grew up illiterate in their own language, later learned how to author extremely complex prose in a foreign language.

        That scenario would be extremely unlikely compared to the far more probable alternative explanation of mis-attribution (especially when we know of so many other writings falsely attributed to the apostles). Likewise, appealing to other works attributed to John is not bona fide evidence for his literacy, since scholars likewise doubt the attributions of the three epistles of John and Revelation (1 John is generally agreed to be an anonymous work, 2 & 3 John is written by a figure who identifies himself as “the Presbyter,” who some scholars think is the John the Presbyter mentioned by Papias, in contrast to John the Apostle, and Revelation is written by a John of Patmos, who is generally agreed to be a different figure than John the Apostle of the same name. John, after all, was a common name). Part of the reason that scholars doubt the same author who wrote Revelation wrote the Gospel of John is based on strong differences (noted even in antiquity) of literary style. I explain in my comment below that scholars use the SAME methods when doubting secular texts, such as the pseudo-Xenophonic The Constitution of the Athenians, whose authorship is likewise doubted for internal reasons of style.

        As for the claim about a difference between John qua the Galilean fisherman and John qua the Christian apostle, there is no reason to think from a secular historical perspective that there would be any difference. Even if he traveled outside of Judea, there is no evidence of poor rural adults later being trained to author complex Greek prose in a foreign language. One might argue from a theological perspective, perhaps citing Acts 2:5-12, that the disciples were supernaturally given the ability to write in foreign languages. But then, determining the authorship of their works would be qualitatively different than determining the authors of secular works, as such supernatural forces are never considered among scholars to inspire the authors of works outside of the New Testament.

        So, from a historical-critical perspective, there is no difference between John qua the Galilean fisherman and John qua the Christian apostle. That is a theological distinction, not a historical one.

        As for Hengel’s claim, there are some scholars who disagree that the variation in manuscript titles shows a lack of the traditional names in the original texts. However, there are also textual criticism experts, like Bart Ehrman, who after thorough study of the variation of manuscript titles, conclude that there was no attribution in the originals. We lack the original manuscripts, so scholars either way can only make an informed estimation, but I think Ehrman’s conclusion is far more likely.

        A final note is that even if the names were affixed to the original manuscripts, it would still not necessarily be evidence for the traditional authors. This is because a number of scholars think that the common names like Marcus and Matthew actually belonged originally to unknown, obscure figures in the church, and when there was later disputes about canon, their identities were conflated with the traditional authors, who were either the apostles or their attendants. This possibility is noted by James Dowden in his comment below.

        I do not think that this theory is most probable, both because as I follow Ehrman in thinking that the later titles did not belong to the original texts and because I think that the anonymous nature of the Gospel narratives would have precluded their authors of naming themselves in their original titles. However, I also think that this theory is perfectly plausible and far more probable than the traditional attributions.

    • Haus Beach says:

      I appreciate the discussion. I need to respond, though, to Ehrman’s claim that a Galilean fisherman wouldn’t know Greek.
      Anyone who has traveled extensively in rural areas of the world knows that it’s not at all uncommon to find a ten year old boy who can speak English fluently without ever having studied it in school. On my last trip to Morocco I found that members of the merchant class invariably knew English, and many of them Japanese. Why? Because those were the languages used to converse with money-spending tourists. I dare say quite a few of these people who spoke their native Berber language, the national language of Arabic, the local trade language of French, and the international trade language of English were illiterate in several of those languages.
      So why wouldn’t a Galilean fisherman be able to converse in Greek, the regional trade language? If he wanted to sell his fish to the wealthy officials in Sepphoris, he may even know Latin as well.
      Secondly, if you want an analogy for literacy, look at early 19th century New England, where foreign visitors were astounded by a literacy rate of virtually 100 per cent. Why did even poor, rural New Englanders know how to read? Because their religion required it of them. In fact, if they continued in school beyond the bare basics, they added literacy in Latin, Greek, and Hebrew (in that order). It’s reasonable to expect that the religious environment of Galilee (where the Scriptures were read every Sabbath in the synagogues) would have been similar.
      Rural Galileans did not live at a subsistence level. They had to produce enough, in additional for their own consumption, to pay taxes at the local, regional, and empire level, and fund their own annual pilgrimages to Jerusalem.

      • Hey Haus,

        There is a difference between having partial fluency in spoken Greek and being literate in Greek composition, let alone advanced Greek composition, as in the case of the Gospel of John.

        First, most Classical scholars now doubt that Greek permeated throughout all regions of the eastern Mediterranean during the Hellenistic and Roman periods. It was once thought that, following the conquests of Alexander the Great, Greek became the dominant language in the East. However, as scholar Graham Shipley (The Greek World After Alexander, pg. 295) explains, “Scholars no longer believe that Greek was promoted as the sole official tongue. The bureaucracy was just as complicated as under the Persians, and most of it was left to run in the same way as before. In non-Greek areas, scribal languages such as Aramaic remained in use for official records.” That’s even for government documents (which were more prone to adopt an official language), let alone in common language and trade. Like under the previous Persian Empire, there was a diversity of languages, cultures, and local communities, and not everyone intermixed.

        Likewise, under the Roman period, Mark Chancey (Greco-Roman Culture and the Galilee of Jesus, pg. 229) explains, “The extent of … Greco-Roman culture in Galilee during the lifetime of Jesus has often been greatly exaggerated. Many of the characteristics that are routinely ascribed to early first-century Galilee more appropriately apply to Galilee in the second and third centuries.” Furthermore, scholar Catherine Hezser in Jewish Literacy in Roman Palestine finds that only about 3% of the population could read (let alone write) and most of these would have lived in cities or large towns (not typical of where the disciples of rural Galilee were from). Using a cross-cultural analogy with New Englanders in the 19th century does not hold up, since that was after the printing press during a post-industrial period. Books were far more expensive and far less common in antiquity.

        Likewise, a cross-cultural analogy with children in Morocco also doesn’t really parallel the situation. Even in 3rd world countries today, there is far more globalization and travel than in antiquity. Even in Morocco, as much as 49% of the population today has access to the Internet. That is nothing like antiquity, even for the rich and educated.

        Finally, even being able to write is not the same thing as being able to author literature. Could the children (or adults, for a better comparison) do the following?

        1. Author a grammatically correct paragraph.
        2. Author a five-paragraph essay, complete with a thesis statement.
        3. Author a chapter-by-chapter narrative, with ample and familiar quotations and uses of previous texts.

        Even today in the Western world, most of the population could not author an English equivalent of the Gospel of John. That kind of work takes years of training starting in childhood. One would need to have completed higher education, but that was almost exclusively restricted to the rich and elite in antiquity (even when basic arithmetic and simple literacy reached a broader population). In fact, I’m working at the Ph.D. level now, and I have even completed all of North and Hillard’s Greek Prose Composition, and I couldn’t author a work like the Gospel of John in Greek, without performing extensive mimeses of an already existing text.

        The people who authored the Gospels, IMO, were selected based on ability, not by authority. They were probably native Greek speakers who had learned to write from childhood, belonged to a wealthier bracket of society, and lived in an urban setting. During canonical disputes during the 2nd century, however, it was expedient to attribute a gospel to a figure of authority, when the actual compositional needs for the text would have required someone with ability. But I don’t think highlighting that fact served the canonical interests of Christians in the late-2nd century.

        • Haus says:

          Very good points are being made. But I’m still a bit skeptical about the claims of massive illiteracy in 1st-century Judea and Galilee. The Qumran community, for example, seems to have valued the scriptures so highly that it’s inconceivable they would have allowed a member to remain illiterate. I’m afraid that a lot of this conclusion of illiteracy is built on a supposition that the Bible is not an accurate source of information on the ancient world–which would dismiss, of course, the ability of a youth to write down for Gideon the names of the 77 elders of Succoth. This conclusion of illiteracy appears to be based on circular reasoning:

          1. The Bible can’t have been written by eyewitnesses, since people back then couldn’t write.
          2. Since the Bible wasn’t written by eyewitnesses, its claim that people could write isn’t reliable.
          3. Since there is no reliable evidence that people could write, the Bible couldn’t have been written by eyewitnesses.

          Am I missing something?

          • Hey Haus,

            First, estimates about widespread illiteracy in the ancient world are not specific to Palestine or issues of the Bible. William Harris, for example, in his landmark work Ancient Literacy performed a survey estimate of literacy throughout the Roman Empire and found that only about 10% of the population was literate.

            Works since Harris, such as Johnson’s volume Ancient Literacies, have considered whether there were more widespread levels of functional literacy, in which people could still read and write a few things for practical purposes, but the general consensus among scholars is that the vast majority of the population in the ancient world did not have the education to author prose literature, and that those who did predominately belonged to an elite, wealthy, and urban setting (uncharacteristic of rural Galilee). Furthermore, current Classical scholarship is now far more skeptical about how widespread knowledge and fluency of Greek was in the Hellenistic and Roman period. These observations extend beyond any discussion specific to the Bible or the New Testament, so I do not think that these wider positions stem from the supposition that the Bible is historically unreliable.

            In fact, even if we granted that the biblical texts are historically reliable, they would still only make up a fraction of the evidence that we have to consider for ancient literacy and writing practices. For example, Hezser in her analysis of literacy in Roman Palestine takes into account a much larger scope of ancient evidence and considerations, ranging from the cost and availability of scribes, the types of writing materials, the social and literary settings in which writing took place, evidence of writing for non-literary purposes, such as writing in ancient magic, where texts would be read, what evidence we have for schools in Roman Palestine, etc. It is from this large body of evidence that she reaches the conclusion that only 3% of the population was probably literate. That’s a much larger body of evidence than just those relating to the Bible or the New Testament, so, even taking those works into consideration as historically reliable, we still have a much larger problem to deal with in terms of other types of evidence outweighing them.

            That said, Hezser (Jewish Literacy in Roman Palestine, pg. 47) does note, “The Qumran community may have been an exception with regard to its emphasis on … the education of children and young adults in pre-rabinnic times.” Steven Fraade (pg. 56) in “Interpretive Authority in the Studying Community at Qumran” also notes that the Qumram community provides our “only evidence from the Second Temple period for a mandatory, communal curriculum of studies for children.” The Qumram community may have put a higher emphasis on texts and readings, not just for the leaders of the community, but also for the community as a whole. However, that is the exception, not the rule, for ancient Palestine.

            As for Judges 8:14, the Book of Judges is generally agreed by scholars to have been a compilation of materials put together around the late 7th and 6th centuries BCE (Oxford Annotated Bible, pg. 355). However, the events it describes would have been from the 14th-11th centuries BCE. It is generally regarded to be a book with a lot of anachronisms imputing modern practices onto ancient ones. For a completely trivial yet astute example of this, the Book of Judges makes several references to camels being used in Palestine, even though Israeli archeologists have dated the first domesticated camels in the region to the end of the 10th century BCE. The point being is that Judges frequently includes features in its narrative that would be anachronistic and not an accurate depiction of the actual time period. The same could go for the boy writing in Judges 8:14. I think that scene is more about telling the story of Gideon, rather than an accurate record of writing and literacy in the 14th-11th centuries BCE. At the very least, a passage like this would be a much weaker, tenuous, and specific form of evidence, whereas our broader archeological, paleographical, and historical sources for literacy in Roman Palestine, as discussed by Hezser, would easily make a much larger and more powerful body of evidence to base conclusions on.

  10. James Dowden says:

    The hypothesis that appeals most to me is:
    1) Mark and Matthew at least, and probably Luke, were originally titled το Ευαγγελιον Ιησου (του) Χριστου – the awkward κατα attribution was to avoid an even more awkward string of genitives doing different things.
    2) Syntactical speculation: maybe the κατα business is simply because ευαγγελιον + genitive signified whom the good news was about in general. This presumably should be testable against non-Christian use of the word.
    3) That Marcus is a good Roman name as befits the sort of person who uses such barbarisms as κεντυριων in Greek; similarly, Matthew is an adequately Semitic name for the interests of the eponymous gospel. The traditions that the Gospels were by people with those names and not other ones seem old enough and invariable enough that they might just have been by people of those names of whom we otherwise know nothing (a situation that is generally held to be true about the book of Revelation).
    4) The forger behind 2Ti 4.11 seems to have thought of the names Luke and Mark in one breath. Could just be a coincidence, but much less so than pointing to a character in Acts with an unusual double name that could have been deliberately used by the promoter of one gospel to avoid misidentification with the author of another.
    5) John is a completely different kettle of fish, because of the beloved disciple business. Its near-forgery should not prejudice the question of how the Synoptic Gospels came to get their titles.

    • “Mark and Matthew at least, and probably Luke, were originally titled το Ευαγγελιον Ιησου (του) Χριστου – the awkward κατα attribution was to avoid an even more awkward string of genitives doing different things.”

      Indeed, confusion over the genitives may be the origin of the κατα, but it is not, strictly speaking, impossible in Greek prose to still identify the author with the genitive without using the abnormal κατα preposition. For example, I at least know from taking Greek prose composition that the Gospel could have been titled το Ευαγγελιον Ιησου του Χριστου το του Μαρκου (“The Gospel of Jesus Christ, the one of Mark”). I don’t know if there are any ancient examples of someone using such a construction, but it would at least far more specifically identify the author without the κατα. So at least in theory the κατα could have been avoided and a clearer attribution could have been made.

      “Syntactical speculation: maybe the κατα business is simply because ευαγγελιον + genitive signified whom the good news was about in general. This presumably should be testable against non-Christian use of the word.”

      Indeed it is. As Helms (Gospel Fictions, pg. 25) explains:

      “The standard phrase ‘the beginning of the gospel’ (arche tou euangeliou) of Caesar (or whomsoever) seems to have been a widespread in the Graeco-Roman world … Mark begins his mythical biography of Jesus with ready-made language, intending perhaps a challenge: euangeliou is not of Caesar but of Christ!”

      “That Marcus is a good Roman name as befits the sort of person who uses such barbarisms as κεντυριων in Greek; similarly, Matthew is an adequately Semitic name for the interests of the eponymous gospel. The traditions that the Gospels were by people with those names and not other ones seem old enough and invariable enough that they might just have been by people of those names of whom we otherwise know nothing (a situation that is generally held to be true about the book of Revelation).”

      Some scholars favor this interpretation, but not all agree. I think it is plausible, but I wouldn’t place any bets on it. However, Raymond Brown (An Introduction to the New Testament, pg. 160) notes it as a possibility: “One might speculate that earlier tradition attributed the Gospel to an otherwise unknown Christian named Mark, who subsequently was amalgamated with John Mark.” While I have my reservations, I certainly agree that this is plausible and definitely more likely than John Mark actually authoring the Gospel.

  11. MWF, happy holidays & hope you are doing well. This is a slam-dunk for your best posting I’ve seen here. Definitely took some lucidity pills. Keep up the great job.
    -b

  12. White Man says:

    Tacitus is a convenient historian to use for comparison—but how about Xenophon? His Anabasis has been subjected to enough scrutiny to doubt that he wrote it, to doubt that the events related in it actually happened the way it says they did, and to doubt that the original text has been faithfully transmitted to this day. Also, Anabasis never claims to have been written by Xenophon, nor is it called a History.

    • The Anabasis is not a very representative example of the authorial traditions for most ancient works, mostly because the author unusually attributed the work under a pseudonym. As Murray in The Anabasis of Xenophon (pg. xv) explains:

      “The fact that the Anabasis was published anonymously or under a pseudonym has been thought to lend support to this view, as though Xenophon felt that the portrait he draws of himself would be discredited if it were known to come from his own hand. It is certainly true that in Hellenica III.2.2 Xenophon refers to the story of Cyrus’ expedition as having been written by Themistogenes of Syracuse. Now of an historian of that name nothing is known, and it is generally believed that Xenophon is here referring to his own work.”

      As noted by Murray, the reason why Xenophon may have falsely attributed the work is because he has a prominent, almost autobiographical role in the narrative, which would appear less glorious if he was known to have himself composed the work. Notably, unlike the Gospels (whose traditional authors would only at most be mentioned once and insignificantly in the narrative, e.g. Mt. 9:9, in a manner that no way would imply they were the authors of the text), the central role that Xenophon plays in the narrative signifies a continual, personal, and eyewitness perspective. As Murray (viii) continues:

      “In Anabasis III.1, Xenophon tells us how he came to join the expedition of Cyrus, which the Anabasis made famous.”

      As for the genre of the work, scholars do not regard it to be a history as much as an early form of autobiography. Murray (xi) explains:

      “Xenophon’s work, while not professedly autobiographical, are full of passages which throw a flood of light upon his own character.”

      Likewise, there are grammatical clues within the text that Xenophon, told in the third person, is standing in for a first person perspective, as the narrative often tells of personal communication with Xenophon where he reveals how he came across some of his sources. As Murray (xv) explains:

      “Xenophon besides using the third person throughout the work, speaks now and then as though his information had come to him at second hand.”

      So scholars have long recognized that the central character of Anabasis, Xenophon, through whose eyes much of the story is told, is probably the eyewitness author of the work. This is very different from the Gospels, where the subject, Jesus, not the witness or author, is the central focus of the work, whose story is told omnisciently and impersonally as of an anonymous narrative.

      As for the claim about doubting the textual transmission of Xenophon, I do not know of any scholar who specializes in the text of the Anabasis who doubts the overall integrity of our manuscripts (there are, as with all ancient texts, instances of disputed grammatical variations and wording). Likewise, I do not doubt that, overall, the texts of the New Testament have been mostly reliably transmitted to us (even though there are disputed passages, etc.). I also explain in another article how reliable textual transmission has no bearing on demonstrating historical reliability in a work.

      Also, another note is that Xenophon was known to be a prolific author (Murray, pg. xiii, notes that we know of forty books from antiquity authored by Xenophon), who would have had the literary training and would be in a position to author a work like the Anabasis. This, again, contrasts with the traditional Gospel authors like John, who would have almost certainly been illiterate and unable to author the works attributed to them.

      Finally, there are works attributed to Xenophon for which scholars DO doubt the authorial attribution. For example, a year ago I took a seminar where we studied a work titled The Constitution of the Athenians, which, although attributed to Xenophon, scholars doubt was authored by the Greek historian. Part of the reasons that scholars doubt that Xenophon is the author is because the writing style in this work contrasts with the style and vocabulary used in Xenophon’s other works. For the same reasons of vocabulary, word choice, and style, scholars also doubt that six of the letters attributed to Paul in the NT were actually written by their traditional author.

      So there are works attributed to Xenophon for which scholars doubt the authorial attribution using the same methods that are used to doubt the traditional authors of NT works. The Anabasis just happens to not be one of them, but the pseudo-Xenophanic The Constitution of the Athenians is.

  13. Pingback: Why Evangelicals Doubt the Historical-Critical Theories About the Gospels (Pt. 1 – On Methodological Assumptions) – The Aristophrenium

  14. ehrman said somewhere in his book that even if one could read it does not neccessarily mean he could write.

    • Indeed, such is the case. I go through this all the time when teaching Latin or Greek. Just because you can read the language, does not mean that you can speak or write the language. That’s why adults today can speak a language, but also be illiterate in it. Likewise, even if you can write a language, it does not mean that you have the literary talent to author a complex piece of prose. Works like the Gospels are so elaborate that they almost certainly were written by trained Greek-speaking and urban-dwelling authors, who were probably the best writers of their local church communities. Based on the language and blend of Koine Hellenistic and Septuagint features in the Gospels, scholars mostly agree that they were written in the Jewish Diaspora outside of Palestine. I think that Luke and Acts were written probably in Asia Minor, based on the author’s familiarity with the geography and political offices of that region. Contrast this with the author of Mark being unfamiliar with Palestinian customes and geography being used as a criterion to doubt that the author was a John Mark from Jerusalem. The same criteria that can be used to doubt an authorial attribution in one respect can also tell us about the author’s identity in another.

  15. On the variance of gospel titles you will be interested in reading, if you haven’t already, (my one time tutor) Simon Gathercole’s recent article “The Title of the Gospels in the Earliest New Testament Manuscripts” (and perhaps also his “The Earliest Manuscript Title of Matthew’s Gospel”.)

    Also on literacy I think you should mention that the ability to produce literature is not dependent upon a person’s literacy skills if they (or the people who support them) can employ a scribe. Studies that consider broadening the understanding of literacy in classical antiquity (beyond what Harris considers or discussions) surely need to inform your conclusions; e.g Rosalind Thomas’ “Writing, Reading, Public and Private ‘Literacies”: Functional Literacy and Democratic Literacy in Greece” and Greg Woolf’s “Literacy or Literacies in Rome?” articles. Also Bangal’s “Everyday Writing in the Graeco-Roman East” is also an important resource that really needs to inform your argument. If Ryan Schellenberg can argue that Paul can employ rhetorical practices and idiom not through any formal training, but by picking it up through daily interactions, then surely the same can be said for the gospels’ authors and dictation. After all, the only highly finessed Greek in the Gospels comes in the prologue of Luke.

    Personally though I think that Martin Hengel’s “The Four Gospels and the One Gospel of Jesus Christ” is persuasive (though perhaps not definitively so) in its argument that the titles are early and accurate. This would be the standard work in academic that defends this position, and coming from probably continental Europe’s most respected New Testament scholar of the past thirty decades should really be your main dialogue partner in this.

    Also your comment:

    “So saying that John would “learn Greek” is extremely unlikely. At most he may have learned to speak a few words and to communicate on a basic level, but there is no evidence from all of antiquity that grown adults, let alone Galilean peasants, who in all probability grew up illiterate in their own language, later learned how to author extremely complex prose in a foreign language.”

    That surely needs to be readdressed. Since Joseph Fitzmyer “The Languages of Palestine in the First Century A.D.” in 1970, the idea that there was only marginal, or only elite, awareness of Greek in Palestine has been largely abandoned. Amongst others, this was recently the topic of a very good PhD thesis at Harvard by Sang-Il Lee, and now published as “Jesus and Gospel Traditions in Bilingual Context.” He argues that knowledge of Greek suffused every level of Palestinian culture.

    • Hi Erlend,

      I have not been able to obtain a print copy of Bangal or of Johnson’s volume, which contains Thomas’ and Woolf’s articles, while I am staying in AZ; however, I did make the effort to track down electronic copies of these works at a local library to answer your request.

      From what I have read, nothing in these works suggests that rural peasants and tax collectors, even if there was a higher degree of “functional literacy or literacies” in the Roman Empire, would be able to author complex pieces of literature like the Gospels. I likewise did not find anything in them that would suggest that scribes were used for the purposes you and Jayman have been suggesting (I will discuss that further below).

      I’m guessing you asked me to read these works in order to stress that there were varying degrees of literacy in the Greek East, beyond the binary, literate or illiterate, categorization of Harris. I can agree that there was a range of literacies in certain times and regions, where poorer and less educated individuals could still be able engage with written administrative documents, to have sufficient literacy for voting procedures in Athens or Rome, to write graffiti, to communicate through rudimentary written correspondences, etc.

      However, Thomas (pg. 23) still notes a wide gap between the functional literacy of the poor versus the advanced literacy (to compose oratory, rhetoric, and literature) of the elite:

      “Gossip, oral communication, heralds, and announcements were all essential; much and was conveyed by these methods, but the ‘slow writer,’ to use the term of Roman Egypt, could hardly be equal to a member of the educated elite in their ability to master every aspect of the political system, especially as the elite could probably manipulate texts with relative ease as well compose eloquent speeches.”

      As Thomas notes, the ability to author complex speeches and oratory (such as seen in John 14-17) was largely an ability of the educated elite (not typical of a rural fisherman). As Thomas (pg. 16) also explains:

      “In ancient Athens, the line at which someone is seriously disadvantaged by poor writing skills can be drawn very low, but that does not mean that he was on an educational and political level with the elite. The educated elite, who overlapped considerably with the political leaders, had advanced literacy and cultural attainments that included mousike, music, literary knowledge, and literary composition. We therefore need to examine evidence for differing literacy skills alongside the surrounding social or political demands for writing.”

      Keep in mind that Thomas is referring to Athens, a place with a much higher common literacy rate than rural Galilee. He also notes that the level of common literacy probably declined in Athens in the 4th century BCE.

      You claim:

      “Since Joseph Fitzmyer ‘The Languages of Palestine in the First Century A.D.’ in 1970, the idea that there was only marginal, or only elite, awareness of Greek in Palestine has been largely abandoned.”

      That certainly needs to be readdressed. Mark Chancey in The Myth of a Gentile Galilee (2002) and Greco-Roman Culture and the Galilee Jesus (2005) has certainly not abandoned the idea. Chancey argues that the Greek literacy in Galilee was largely restricted to two major cities, Sepphoris and Tiberias, and that most of the rural Jews of the region had little interaction with Greek or Gentiles.

      Now to the issue of scribes. I think both you and Jayman have been far too ambiguous about how scribes could be used in authoring “literature.” Even if a hypothetically bilingual person from Galilee (contrary to Chancey’s recent studies) could have been suffused with Greek and picked up certain idioms in his surrounding culture, that does not mean that he could author a multi-chapter Gospel or that scribes were used to aid rural people for such purposes.

      Let’s be clear about the possible degrees of scribal involvement:

      First, scribes were generally used to write down dictation and to make copies of works. I have no problem with the idea that scribes were used in this way by the early church, as Paul even alludes to such scribes (Rom. 16:22; Gal. 6:11). In this situation, scribes are not “authoring” any piece of a text, as they are merely writing down what a literate person is dictating to them.

      Second, scribes were sometimes used by elite politicians (e.g. Cicero) to be delegated to write short letters and correspondences in their master’s names. E. Randolph Richards’ study of this practice is the most well known. Bart Ehrman does not agree with Richards that the early church used scribes in this way. Ehrman (Forged, pg. 136) states:

      “One very severe problem is the nature of our evidence. Virtually all of it comes from authors who were very, very wealthy and powerful and inordinately well educated.”

      Now, this level of scribal involvement that I have discussed so far only involves a scribe writing brief, secretarial letters for the named author.

      Third, could a scribe be delegated to write a lengthy, theological epistle for a church leader? This is very different from how scribes were delegated to write letters by politicians. As Ehrman (Forged, pg. 136) continues:

      “The reason this is a ‘problem’ is that the letters of early Christianity that we are concerned about – the letter of the Ephesians, for example, or 1 Peter – are not like that at all. They are lengthy treatises that deal with large and complex issues in the form of a letter … they are so much more extensive than typical letters, for example, in their theological expositions, ethical exhortations, and quotations and interpretation of Scripture.”

      Now, Ehrman is skeptical that someone like Paul would delegate to a scribe the writing of a theological epistle. Let’s say, however, that Paul could have used a scribe for such a purpose. The problem is that it would only solve one issue in the pseudonymous letters. It would not explain the contradictions in those letters with Paul’s teachings in the uncontested letters. For example, why would Paul delegate to the author of 1 Timothy to write verses demeaning the role of women in the church (1 Tim. 2:11-15) when it explicitly contradicted his own teachings elsewhere (e.g. Gal. 3:26-29)? Even if we can use the scribal theory as a patchwork ad hoc assumption to fix one leak, it does not work when there are multiple leaks in the pipe (the same will be shown to be true with the Gospels). The far more simple explanation is that, based on the internal contradictions, the authorship of 1 Timothy is wrong, it was probably not written with any involvement by Paul, and it is best explained as a forgery done in Paul’s name in order to gain authority among the pseudonymous author’s audience.

      Fourth, Ehrman is skeptical that Paul (a literate Greek-speaker) would use a scribe to author a theological epistle in his name. What you and Jayman are suggesting with a rural, Aramaic-speaking Jew using a scribe to write a much longer, multi-chapter Greek Gospel is far, far more speculative.

      You suggest the Gospels are simple works. Let’s be clear about their structural complexity and the degree to which we are asked to imagine that a scribe could aid an illiterate or only functionally literate person in authoring “literature.”

      Let’s say for the composition of the Gospel of Matthew we assume at a minimum that the author or scribe used the Gospel of Mark and the Q Gospel as sources. How much was the scribe involved?

      Was it the scribe or the tax collector who made subtle redactions about Jewish teachings in Mark? Was it the scribe or the tax collector who wove in sayings in the Q Gospel elegantly into the narrative and combined them with the previous Markan material? Was it the scribe or the tax collector who made ample and familiar quotations of the Septuagint? Was it the scribe or the tax collector who performed mimesis of OT episodes, such as modeling Jesus after Moses?

      Let’s say for the Gospel of John that the author or scribe used a Signs Gospel. Was it the rural Galilean fisherman or the scribe who wove in the seven miracles of Jesus as key markers in the narrative? Was it the scribe or a rural Galilean fisherman who composed a complex, multi-chapter final speech of Jesus in John 14-17? Was it the scribe or the rural Galilean fisherman who modeled Jesus as the Lamb of God and drew parallels between his death and the Passover lamb?

      As you can see from just the few problems I listed above, authoring the Gospels was not simple work. Can you provide any examples outside of the New Testament of scribes being used in this way? Can you provide an example where a rural individual of equal status as a fisherman, whose native language was different than the text, who was described as illiterate in outside sources (Acts 4:13), used a scribe to a “help him” author such a work that was then put in his name? Would the fisherman in this case have been considered the actual author by the standards in antiquity?

      I think by modern standards we should recognize that, even if it were plausible that persons like an illiterate fisherman or a tax collector used scribes in this way (I have not seen any ancient evidence for this), they would not be the true authors. Rather, they would act like sources, where the scribe was the actual author who was responsible for the creative work, organization, and composition of the text.

      But, once more, by relying on the scribal theory as a patchwork ad hoc assumption we have only fixed one leak in a pipe that is spouting in multiple directions. It would not explain the internal contradictions in the text. Why would a scribe need to use a tax collector like Matthew to redact Jewish teachings in a previous Gospel that had allegedly been authored by Peter’s secretary?

      It makes no sense that a scribe would use this person as a source. That’s the problem with these ad hoc assumptions about scribes. They only explain one problem in the evidence. But, as I have noted, the problems with the traditional authors are multifarious, where multiple independent categories of inquiry fail to affirm the traditional authors, not just the question of literacy.

      As for the issue of titles, yes, I am familiar with Gathercole’s article (I linked it earlier in the discussion with Jayman). I have emailed Ehrman about how to best address Hengel’s argument. Raymond Brown (An Introduction to the New Testament, pg. 158) notes that Hengel’s is the minority position in scholarship and that the standard and more accepted view is that the titles were affixed by the end of the 2nd century.

      However, even if Hengel’s theory about the titles being present in the texts earlier were correct, it would still not be sure affirmation of the traditional authors. This is because there are two other explanations for what the original titles could have meant:

      One is that the titles with the unusual κατα preposition were referring to traditions rather than authors. This possibility was noted by DagoodS in his comment above, where he points how the Gospel according to the Hebrews uses the same convention, but hardly denotes a claim to authorship.

      Another possibility is that the original titles referred to otherwise unknown and obscure people of the same names as early church figures, with whom they were later conflated. Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, after all, were not uncommon names. This possibility was noted by James Dowden in his comment above.

      I think it is worth noting that this second theory can also explain the supposed problem mentioned by Blomberg in Strobel’s book about the attributions being unlikely candidates, if they were false. Say that the original text of the Gospel of Matthew just said “Matthew.” During later doctrinal disputes, church leaders would attempt to link this person to whomever they could in the early church. So, even if a tax collector is an odd candidate for filling this role, his name is Matthew, so Matthew must have authored the Gospel. It is easy to see how this kind of logic could later conflate otherwise unknown and obscure figures with named figures in the early church.

      In fact, even Hengel agrees that this was the case in the Gospel of John, as he argues that the disciple John did not author the work, rather than John the Presbyter. So even Hengel is not sanctioning the traditional authorial attribution for the Gospel of John, even when he favors an earlier date for the titles in the Gospels. There are simply too many problems for the traditional authors, and simply having earlier titles (contrary to the majority view that they were added at the end of the 2nd century) still does little to resolve them.

  16. Pingback: This Non-Religious Life Episode 81: Of Apologists and Men | Zombie Popcorn

  17. the christian apologists say that the nt texts were uncontrolled texts, i quote

    “The textual variants in the Bible are rather larger on occasions. This is because the NT was produced as an illegal religion under Roman occupation and also because the transmission was not controlled (controlled meaning not overseen by a leader or committee).

    …because the transmission was not controlled, we have the historical ability to reconstruct the exact text of the autograph. We don’t rely on one man’s decision to codify one version and destroy the rest. So while the NT variants seem greater, historically speaking, they provide a much stronger textual foundation and assurance.”

    but if the following is correct,

    “Was it the scribe or the tax collector who made subtle redactions about Jewish teachings in Mark? Was it the scribe or the tax collector who wove in sayings in the Q Gospel elegantly into the narrative and combined them with the previous Markan material? Was it the scribe or the tax collector who made ample and familiar quotations of the Septuagint? Was it the scribe or the tax collector who performed mimesis of OT episodes, such as modeling Jesus after Moses?

    Let’s say for the Gospel of John that the author or scribe used a Signs Gospel. Was it the rural Galilean fisherman or the scribe who wove in the seven miracles of Jesus as key markers in the narrative? Was it the scribe or a rural Galilean fisherman who composed a complex, multi-chapter final speech of Jesus in John 14-17? Was it the scribe or the rural Galilean fisherman who modeled Jesus as the Lamb of God and drew parallels between his death and the Passover lamb?”

    isn’t the scribe controlling what should be mixed in the story?

    • That’s the problem with the confusion over the role of scribes. Ordinarily, scribes acted in a passive role when a text was being constructed. Their task was to write down what the author dictated to them, basically acting as type writers. Later, when texts were being reproduced, scribes would copy (if they were good, word-for-word) the autograph copy to make new copies. In this role they were acting basically as printers. Nothing about these roles suggests that scribes would play a creative role in the original composition of a text.

      The quote you provided deals with another issue, namely later interpolations among scribes who were copying a text. Professional scribes were supposed to copy texts word-for-word; however, due to theological disputes in the Christian church, scribes would often author and insert new lines to change the original text. This was not an accepted practice in antiquity and it was seen as a dishonest corruption of the original. As for the quote you provided, only an apologist would argue that more variations between texts actually preserves accuracy. But what the passage you quoted seems to be dealing with is the effect that “controlled” transmission had on preserving an original text. If transmission was not controlled, then more variations would creep in between texts, but (allegedly) we can detect them because no one scribe could change all of the variant manuscripts. However, if there was a very early scribe (say in the 1st or early 2nd centuries) who made an interpolation, then a corruption could easily be reproduced early in the transmission process and not detected (even if there are larger and more detectable variations in later manuscripts). Carrier has a good article about this problem. Furthermore, in the case of Pauline epistles, many scholars think that they were compiled and edited at some point early in the 2nd century. Since the editor was not Paul, there likewise could have been other undetectable interpolations that were put in by an original editor.

      So, simply because the transmission of texts was ostensibly uncontrolled does not mean that there were no early and undetectable interpolations to the originals. Also, a text that was produced in a controlled environment by professional scribes would also be more likely to eliminate such early interpolations. Professional scribes, writing out of secretarial rather than theological obligations, would be less likely to insert new lines into a text (that was not accepted practice among professional scribes). Likewise, there were professional libraries in the Roman Empire to curb against such practices (which the earliest Christians did not have access to). For further discussion about the low professionalism of early Christian scribes, Barbara Aland in “The Significance of the Chester Beatty in Early Church History” (The Earliest Gospels, ed. Charles Horton) has many apt observations.

      The question of accurate transmission, however, is only one problem in the historical accuracy of a text. It is only a necessary condition that a text be accurately transmitted for it to be historically reliable. It is not a sufficient condition, since, even if a text is accurately preserved from the autograph, it still does not mean that the author’s original words were historically accurate. I have written another article about how, even if we had 100% of the autographs of the New Testament, word for word, they would still not be historically reliable, since that question depends on other criteria besides textual accuracy.

      P.S. Sorry about the slow response time. I have been swamped with graduate work lately and haven’t had much time for the blog.

  18. thank you for the reply. everyday learning something new.

  19. You are an amazingly accessible writer. I learned a lot today and look forward to seeing more. Thank you for what you are doing–and btw I love the links page; it’s led me to some new discoveries as well.

    I was once a bright-eyed, bushy-tailed fundamentalist. When I walked into my first upper-level history class in the late 1980s, something about Classical Rome, I was there specifically because I’d been told all my life that there was all this evidence for Jesus and all this contemporary stuff about him. I wanted to know about it, since nobody at church had seemed to have any but all were 100% convinced it was there. A few minutes after my new professor walked through the classroom door, I was a demolished wreck and so were all my equally bright-eyed, bushy-tailed fundagelical friends enrolled in it with me. None of us could believe our ears. She destroyed all the lame apologetics arguments we’d absorbed and tried to parrot at her, and she did it with the speed, grace, and ease with which someone’d brush a lock of errant hair away from a child’s forehead. I’d simply had no idea. I’m still learning, but it’s astonishing to me that the same ridiculous stuff that I was taught so many years ago is stuff real historians are still having to deal with. It must be terribly frustrating. Thank you for doing it, and doing it with the same speed, grace, and ease she did long ago.

    • Hey Captain Cassidy,

      Thanks for reading the blog! My goal is to make some of the knowledge I have gained from my academic work in Classics and Ancient History available to a wider audience, so that people can see that most apologetic arguments do not hold up to people actually familiar with antiquity.

      It is indeed very frustrating when wild exaggerations and over-simplifications circle around the Internet (such as claiming that there is more evidence for Jesus than Tiberius Caesar), spawned by apologists that do not even have an actual scholarly or historical interest in the subject, rather than the drive to convert as many people as they can to their religion.

      I could care less about people’s personal religious beliefs, but I do not like to see my academic discipline debased by people with religious agendas, so I work to correct such misinformation and to provide a resource that preserves the integrity of my discipline. I just hope that one day there will be better education in Ancient History at the high school and college level (such as what is now becoming more common for Evolutionary Science), so that more people can spot the fallacies and inaccuracies in apologetic arguments without having to be specialists.

      It is always nice to know that I have helped someone out with my efforts, so thanks!

  20. Pingback: I’ve Got 65 Problems, but Apologetics Ain’t One. | Roll to Disbelieve

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  22. Pingback: Did Any of the Authors of the Gospels Know Jesus? - Page 24 - Religious Education Forum

  23. Pingback: Who Wrote the Bible? (Part 4) | Veracity

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