Who Wrote the Gospels and When?

I’ve never considered myself anything other than a Christian. But that doesn’t mean I was a good one. Far from it. For most of my adult life I ignored the Bible because I thought it had nothing to offer me or the “enlightened” baby boomer generation I belong to. That was a convenient conclusion to arrive at because I’d never read it cover to cover. Dragged to church from birth to age 18, I figured I’d heard every verse at one time or another. But when I rededicated my life to Christ almost 7 years ago I decided it was high time I found out what God’s Holy Word had to tell me. I haven’t stopped reading, absorbing or studying it since. However, there were consequences to suffer for my foolishness. Since the Scriptures weren’t important to me they never were important to my two children as they grew up. To them the Bible was just another dust-covered tome on the bookshelf. Thus my claim to be a follower of Jesus is met with indifference by both and neither sense a pressing need to become believers. My son doesn’t want to discuss it at all but my daughter’s a bit more curious. Some years ago I made a concerted effort to “convert” her to no avail. The biggest hurdle I encountered was her unwillingness to accept the Bible as anything more than an ancient, heavily-biased and overly-revered religious history book that can’t be trusted to reveal honest truth – especially about Jesus. When I tried to defend its authenticity I quickly realized her deeply-entrenched assumptions were based on unfounded hearsay and secularized rhetoric, not facts. But all attempts to straighten her mistaken notions out were met with apathetic shrugs because she’d long since closed her mind about the subject and, besides, she had more pressing things to deal with (like raising my two adorable grandsons while my son-in-law finishes his doctorate in neuroscience). It’s frustrating. I can’t make them “see the light.” I know faith is a gift bestowed by God exclusively and my job is to sow seeds but I’ll never cease praying that both my offspring get saved someday.

 

What her indifference caused me to realize is that millions in the thirtyish demographic harbor the same attitude towards the Bible (and the Gospels in particular) because they haven’t been introduced to the facts. And if we Christians don’t inform people concerning those facts we’re severely handicapping our ability to fulfill the “great commission” our Savior assigned to us: “…Go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you (Matthew 28:19-20). It’s crucial we get ourselves up to speed. We have to be able to present solid, concrete evidence so we can segregate it from groundless guesses and thus be better ambassadors for our Lord, starting with establishing who, precisely, penned the four Gospels.

 

Can we say with certainty that Matthew, Mark, Luke and John are the writers? Yes, we can. While the Holy Spirit was definitely the grand instigator, there’s reasons aplenty to affirm one of the 12 disciples, Matthew, also known as the tax collector Levi, authored the first gospel in the New Testament; that John Mark, one of Peter’s closest associates, wrote the second; that Luke, Paul’s “beloved physician” wrote not only the third gospel but also the Acts of the Apostles; and that John, not only one of Jesus’ chosen 12 but also one of the most prominent, wrote his from an “I was there,” point of view. In the history of the church (an organization that’s never shied away from creating disputes) no other candidates have ever been nominated. To some this raises the question, “Isn’t it possible the church just made it all up?” But if that’s so, why assign authorship to those first three unremarkable men in particular? Mark and Luke weren’t among the 12 disciples and Matthew, whose former career surely tainted his character in the public eye, would’ve been risking comparisons to the despised betrayer Judas Iscariot if he was manufacturing fanciful lies about his Master. In other words, why not label them “the Gospels according to…” the respected and more well-known Peter, Thomas or Andrew to boost their veracity like the writers of the dubious apocryphal gospels did centuries later?

 

Conjecture aside, an early 2nd century writer, Papias, and another named Iraneus (who gained acceptance about 50 years later) expressed absolute confidence that the traditionally-recognized authorship of the four Gospels was spot on. In the latter’s Adversus haereses from A.D. 180 he wrote, “Matthew published his own Gospel among the Hebrews in their own tongue when Peter and Paul were preaching the Gospel in Rome and founding the church there. After their departure, Mark, the disciple and interpreter of Peter, himself handed down to us in writing the substance of Peter’s preaching. Luke, the follower of Paul, set down in a book the Gospel preached by his teacher. Then John, the disciple of the Lord, who also leaned on his breast, himself produced his Gospel while he was living at Ephesus in Asia.” So there’s reasonable data in existence to indicate Matthew and John wrote their own books while Peter and Paul verbally dictated their inspired recollections to their most trusted aides. Thus the events and teachings recorded are based on either direct or indirect eyewitness testimony and, to this day, nothing carries more weight in a courtroom.

 

An unbeliever may comment, “Yeah, but as biographies go the Gospels aren’t very thorough. We know next to nothing about Jesus’ pre-ministry years.” Correct, but there are two angles to take into consideration. The first is literary. That’s just how folks wrote biographies back then. Data on the person’s upbringing, schooling or influences weren’t nearly as important as relating details about the major things they uttered or accomplished. As a rule, anecdotes about or impressions of them from friends, relatives or acquaintances weren’t cited. The ancient Greeks and Hebrews didn’t even have a symbol for quotation marks! If there was no significant lesson to be preserved immemorial from an individual’s life there was simply no point in writing about them. The second is theological and related to the first. The Gospel writers concentrated on emphasizing Christ’s teachings and the eternal implications of his death on the cross and subsequent resurrection that atoned for all of humanity’s sins.

 

Someone who’s looked into or Googled this subject a little might bring up what’s referred to as “Q.” It stands for the German word Quelle, or “source.” Because of certain notable similarities found in the four Gospels a hypothesis arose that the authors all drew from a separate, independent collection of Jesus’ sayings and teachings. Sort of a “Greatest Hits” compilation, if you will. Such a thing was not an uncommon journalistic way of presenting the thoughts of wise men in that day and age. However, the Gospels provide much, much more than a collection of musings or sage advice from a 1st century philosophy genius. We’re being formally introduced to someone who claimed to be God, who said He was the personification of wisdom and the ultimate judge of all men and women. Those pronouncements set Him apart from everyone. Then there are Jesus’ extraordinary miracles that are highlighted. A simple assemblage of pithy remarks wouldn’t bother to include such things. Still, that doesn’t altogether explain why there’s a lack of coverage about Jesus’ teens and 20s. A more logical approach would be to consider that their commonly-shared incompleteness most likely arose from their limited knowledge of Christ’s youth in general. Maybe the Lord didn’t think it was something vital to impart.

 

Nevertheless, this doesn’t explain why John’s book is so strikingly unique. The first three have so much in common they’re called the “synoptic” Gospels (synoptic meaning “to view at the same time”). Except for events that occurred during Jesus’ final week leading up to the crucifixion, John doesn’t include many of the major episodes the others describe. His linguistic style is different, too. He employs alternate terminologies, speaks in extended sermons and shines a bright, tightly focused spotlight on Christ’s claim that He and the Father are one; that He is God personified; that He is the way, the truth and the life; and that He’s the literal Word of God. John doesn’t beat around the bush. Rather, he sprints to the heart of the matter right out of the gate. In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was fully God (John 1:1). In Him was life, and the life was the light of mankind (1:4). Now the Word became flesh and took up residence among us. We saw his glory – the glory of the one and only, full of grace and truth, who came from the Father (1:14).

 

One explanation is that John was familiar with what Matthew, Mark and Luke had written, saw no reason to reiterate the same material and decided to present other aspects of our Savior’s life and mission on earth. Still, while I prefer to call the differences distinctions, accusatory skeptics are apt to tag them convicting contradictions. Because John concentrates heavily on Jesus’ divinity while the other three writers don’t, critics of the Bible accuse him of purposely embellishing his narrative. But they’re wrong. The synoptic Gospels do say Christ is God, just not as implicitly. For example, we’re told Jesus walked on water in Matthew 14 and Mark 6. Most English translations have misinterpreted the original Greek text, quoting Christ as saying, Fear not, it is I.” However, the Greek phrase literally says, Fear not, I Am.” Big difference, no? I AM is the title Jesus took upon Himself in John 8:58; Jesus said to them, ‘I tell you the solemn truth, before Abraham came into existence, I am!’” It’s the same terminology God used to reveal Himself to Moses in Exodus 3from within the burning bush that didn’t get consumed by the flames. Therefore Christ was asserting, as He strolled across the roiling waves of Lake Galilee, that He had the same power over nature as the God of the Old Testament. In the synoptics Jesus also said He was able to forgive sins, something only God can do. In addition He said, Whoever, then, acknowledges me before people, I will acknowledge before my Father in heaven. But whoever denies me before people, I will deny him also before my Father in heaven (Matthew 10:32-33). Now, could a mere man be in a position to act as the final judge? No way. On top of all that, He let folks worship Him and pray to Him.

 

Then there’s the pseudo-conundrum some doubters are determined to erect out of Jesus’ frequently calling Himself the “Son of Man.” They say it proves He knew He wasn’t God Almighty, just another smarter-than-average human being. Truth be known, their ignorance is showing so don’t be deceived. That term doesn’t refer to His humanness at all. He used that special moniker in reference to what had been written by the prophet Daniel centuries before: “…And with the clouds of the sky one like a son of man was approaching. He went up to the Ancient of Days and was escorted before him. To him was given ruling authority, honor, and sovereignty. All peoples, nations, and language groups were serving him. His authority is eternal and will not pass away. His kingdom will not be destroyed.” (Daniel 7:13-14). In the proper context Jesus, by adopting the label “Son of Man,” was proclaiming nothing less than His universal authority and dominion over all of creation. William Craig wrote, “Son of Man is often thought to indicate the humanity of Jesus, just as the reflex expression Son of God indicates His divinity. In fact, just the opposite is true. The Son of Man was a divine figure in the Old Testament book of Daniel who would come at the end of the world to judge mankind and rule forever. Thus, the claim to be the Son of Man would be in effect a claim to divinity.” ‘Nuff said.

 

Yet some stubborn stiff-necks insist that John’s more theological slant belies a calculated, deliberate over-exaggeration on his part, negating the supposed “inspiration” of the Holy Spirit and casting shadows on the “infallibility” of the Bible. But that’s not a fair criticism because all four Gospels offer a different theological aspect that separates each one from the others. Luke emphasizes Christ’s compassion and concern for the poor and downtrodden. Matthew bends over backward to prove Jesus is the promised Messiah. Mark illuminates Jesus’ unparalleled humility and willingness to serve. To conclude those differences in observation indicate serious flaws in their ability to accurately and fairly describe what really happened is to dismiss as irrelevant an educated cognizance of the writing styles popular during that era. Craig Blomberg said, “In the ancient world the idea of writing dispassionate, objective history merely to chronicle events, with no ideological purpose, was unheard of. Nobody wrote history if there wasn’t a reason to learn from it.” While that can be applied to the underlying subconscious (or conscious) literary aim in any time period it doesn’t necessarily render moot the inherent historical accuracy involved. Case in point: Some have tried to deny the Holocaust. If not for Jewish scholars creating museums, preserving artifacts and documenting firsthand testimonies about the horrors inflicted upon their race by the Nazis the heinous atrocity may’ve eventually been forgotten. Did the Jews have an ideological motive? Certainly. But it doesn’t mean they weren’t being faithful to the truth. In a similar way, Christianity’s agenda is to promote the fact that Jesus was God incarnate while, at the same time, strive to maintain historical accuracy.

 

None of this alters the mindset of those like my daughter who’ve been misled into thinking the Gospels were written so long after Jesus came and went that fantastic myths inevitably arose, transforming Him from a charismatic teacher into a supernatural being equal to God. Therefore it’s crucial to know when they were written. The most liberal of experts place Mark in the 70s, Matthew and Luke in the 80s, and John in the 90s. Yet those dates still lie within the lifetime of folks who rubbed shoulders with Jesus. Surely some of them would’ve raised red flags if blatant falsehoods were being broadcast about who He claimed to be. But there’s evidence they were written earlier than those estimates. For instance Acts, authored by Luke, ends with Paul still under house arrest in Rome. That means it was finished no later than 62 A.D. Luke wrote his Gospel before Acts (restating portions of Mark’s Gospel) so all the aforementioned dates should get moved up at least ten years closer to Christ’s ascension into heaven. I’ve always found it fascinating that 99.9% of what we know about Alexander the Great comes via biographies written by Arrian and Plutarch over four centuries after his death in 323 B.C. In comparison to that time lapse, the stories of Jesus belong in the category of a “BREAKING NEWS” alert!

 

Also bear in mind the books of the New Testament aren’t arranged in chronological order. Since we know almost all of Paul’s letters were written before the Gospels were, and that his ministry began in the late 40s, it’s possible to date them even closer to Jesus’ lifetime. Paul incorporated some creeds and hymns formulated by the early church not very long after the resurrection. In Philippians 2 he makes creed-like statements such as Christ being “…in very nature God and in Colossians 1 he avows Jesus was “…the image of the invisible God.” If the earliest Christians held the belief that Christ was the great I AM in the flesh, that fact dispels the whole “exaggerated-myths-evolving-over-several-centuries” theory quite efficiently. If Jesus’ public execution happened around 30 A.D. then Paul’s conversion occurred sometime in 32 and he met with the other apostles in Jerusalem in 35. It was likely around that time he was taught the particular creed he spelled out in 1 Corinthians 15 (that describes the immediate aftermath of Jesus’ bodily resurrection) only 5 years after our Lord rose from the grave. Taking it a step further, it’s no stretch to make a strong argument that the majority of church members embraced a widely-accepted belief in the resurrection a mere two years after the miraculous event took place! The significance is enormous because if the passing of 30 to 60 years (not to mention over 400) doesn’t prevent transcribed facts from being deemed acceptable as reliable, trustworthy data concerning persons in history then two years has to be considered rock-solid information beyond reproach. More to come.

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