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Who wrote the gospels? How do we know?

By Dr. Jeff Mirus ( bio - articles - email ) | Dec 14, 2010

We know more about the authors of the four gospels and when they wrote from tradition than from any other source, but on the whole the best efforts of Scripture scholars over the past two hundred years have done very little to challenge, and much to support, the reliability of the Church’s traditional assertions. Various academic fads have come and gone, not infrequently fueled by an anti-Christian or anti-Church bias which demands a very late dating of the gospels. But each time a scholar has gone off in some new direction, fresh discoveries and arguments have moved the preponderance of academic opinion back toward what has been commonly held from the beginning.

It is interesting that the same fads and biases have had a great impact on a second critical question about the gospels, that is, how quickly the four gospels we accept today were received as the only four inspired accounts of the life of Christ. This question is the subject of a new book by C. E. Hill, Professor of New Testament at Reformed Theological Seminary in Orlando, Florida, entitled Who Chose the Gospels: Probing the Great Gospel Conspiracy. The lurid subtitle is actually aimed at debunking the widespread myth that there were initially a great many gospels, and only relatively late did one Christian party win out. According to this myth, “orthodoxy” is a very tardy imposition by the victorious on their less successful competitors.

I’ll be reviewing Hill’s book (the first chapter is very promising), but for now let’s summarize what we know generally about the origins of the gospels according to Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, based on tradition as largely corroborated by scholarly studies through the years.

Matthew: Matthew is the tax collector Levi mentioned in the gospels. Tradition is unanimous that this was the first gospel, written originally in Aramaic, which is why it comes first in our Bibles today. But we have no fragments of an original Aramaic text, and the Greek text that we do have seems in some respects to draw on Mark’s Gospel, so some scholars conclude that Matthew’s gospel took final form only after Mark wrote. Still, it could not have been much later, for given Matthew’s themes, it is inconceivable that he would not have noted the fall of Jerusalem and the destruction of the Temple in AD 70 if those events had taken place before he wrote. Therefore the Gospel must have been written at least as early as the late 60’s.

Mark: Mark's is considered by most scholars to be the earliest gospel, though of course there are earlier references to Christ and His teachings in the letters of Peter and Paul. According to tradition, Mark was an assistant or interpreter to Peter, whose memories of Christ he noted down. Then, shortly after Peter’s crucifixion, Mark wrote his gospel to keep Peter’s memories of Christ alive in the Church. Thus Mark’s gospel is dated to the mid-60’s AD, possibly shortly before the final text of Matthew, but not by much.

Luke: Luke was an early Christian physician and a companion of St. Paul. He wrote both his gospel and its companion volume, The Acts of the Apostles, which continues the account of the origins of Christianity from Christ’s Ascension through the establishment and early operations of the Church. Luke appears to rely in some places on Mark. He also stresses Christ’s words about the destruction of Jerusalem (21:5-38) so much that it seems he knew of their fulfillment. This places his gospel after AD 70, but probably before 85, as he betrays no awareness of Domitian’s persecutions or the struggles between the Church and rabbinic Judaism which began about that time.

John: John is of course the “beloved disciple”, who was very young at the time of Our Lord's passion, death and resurrection. Tradition holds that John wrote the gospel while in exile on the island of Patmos in about AD 90, and indeed everything about the text suggests a depth of theological reflection which is consistent with a mature mind many years after the events in question. Scholars are unanimous in the conclusion that this is the latest of the gospels.

Some scholars argue that the gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke were all in circulation before AD 70, while the latest respectable positions are probably 70 for Mark, 85 for Matthew, and 90 for Luke, with John placed as late as AD 100.

I will not dwell on the debates over precise dates, for two reasons. First, contemporary scholars are now arguing over just a few years, and certainly not centuries. The days of my academic youth, when we had to defend reasonable dates against largely ideological efforts to push the gospels well back into the second century, are long gone. Second, the more intriguing question is really something quite a bit deeper, and it is also where the contemporary action is. If orthodoxy is not a late imposition, how do we know that precisely these four gospels are special? Why are they considered inspired accounts of the life of Christ, and—as C. E. Hill asks—how were they selected as somehow “canonical”?

This is a question that lies at the heart of Christianity as we have received it, a question generally appreciated by Catholics, who do not believe that Scripture is self-evidently inspired or that it can explain itself. But it is often unrecognized by Protestants except when pushed by scholars with anti-Christian axes to grind. Therefore I’m doubly interested in the work on this question done by C. E. Hill, who is after all a professor at a Protestant seminary. I'm betting we can learn something. Stay tuned.

Next in series: Apostolic Authority and the Selection of the Gospels

Jeffrey Mirus holds a Ph.D. in intellectual history from Princeton University. A co-founder of Christendom College, he also pioneered Catholic Internet services. He is the founder of Trinity Communications and See full bio.

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  • Posted by: pdhow5802 - Dec. 22, 2010 1:49 AM ET USA

    In the Hebrew Christ, Franciscan Herald Press, 1989, I think that Claude Tresmontant makes a good case for Matthew and John in the 30's A.D., Luke 40-60, Mark 50-60.

  • Posted by: bnewman - Dec. 20, 2010 10:53 PM ET USA

    My speculation, for what it is worth,is that the authors of the Gospels were all well known, by reputation at least, by the early Christians of about 70 AD. Their accounts would complement the oral teaching of the early Apostles and the letters of Paul and Peter already available. In the absence of other competing so-called "Gospels" at that time, as seems likely, these four Gospels standing alone would carry enormous credibility. But I would love to hear what Hill makes of all this.

  • Posted by: JohnVIII - Dec. 16, 2010 5:46 PM ET USA

    Scholars come and scholars go. I'll stay with the dates in my Douay-Rheims until proven otherwise.

  • Posted by: - Dec. 16, 2010 1:47 PM ET USA

    I am VERY interested to see how a Protestant handles this issue. You have certainly peaked my curiosity.