Thursday, September 06, 2007

The Gospels and the Men Who Wrote Them

Two disciples on the road to EmmausBy Nathan Busenitz @

Today we will consider a second reasons why the NT gospels are reliable accounts of the life and ministry of Jesus.

Not only are they consistent with previous revelation from God (in the Old Testament), but they were also written by those who were closely associated with Jesus and His ministry—men who were either eye-witnesses or had access to first-hand information about Jesus and His life.

A second reason to trust the NT gospels is that they were written by those closely associated with Jesus and His ministry.

Two of the gospels, Matthew and John, were penned by disciples of Jesus and provide eye-witness testimony to the events they discuss (cf. John 1:14; 21:20–25; 1 John 1:1-4). The Gospel of Mark was written by a close friend and associate of the apostle Peter (1 Peter 5:13; cf. Acts 12:12). In fact, the early Christian leader Papias (c. 60-c. 130) reported that “Mark became an interpreter of Peter; as many things as he remembered he wrote down accurately (though certainly not in order) the things said or done by the Lord” (Fragments of Papias 2:15). So Mark’s gospel reflects the memoirs of Peter, which Mark preserved by writing down.

Luke (who wrote both the third gospel and the book of Acts) was the traveling companion of the apostle Paul (cf. Acts 16:10-17; 20:5-15; 21:1-18; 27:1-28:16; Col. 4:14), and was a careful researcher. Luke himself reports that he wrote his gospel, “having investigated everything carefully from the beginning . . . so that you may know the exact truth” (Luke 1:3-4). The biblical gospels, then, are the product of eye-witness testimony (Luke 1:1-4; Acts 1:21-22; Gal. 1; Heb. 2:3; 2 Peter 1:16), either first-hand (in the case of Matthew and John) or second-hand (in the case of Mark and Luke). As those who venerated Jesus, they took special care in giving solemn testimony to His life (Acts 2:40; 8:25; 10:42; 18:5; 20:21; 28:23; 1 John 1:2; 4:14; 2 Pet. 1:16-20; Rev. 1:2).

That Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John were the actual authors of the gospels that bear their names is overwhelmingly supported by the testimony of church history, with affirmation coming from early Christian leaders such as Papias (c. 60-c. 130), Justin Martyr (100-165), Polycrates (c. 130-196), Irenaeus (c. 140-c. 202) who cites Polycarp (c. 69-160), Clement of Alexandria (c. 150-c. 215), Tertullian (c.160-c. 220), Origen (c.185-c. 254), Eusebius (c. 263-c. 339), Jerome (c. 345-420) and others. Never is the fourfold gospel seriously questioned. In the words of Irenaeus (c. 140-c. 202):

It is not possible that the Gospels can be either more or fewer in number than they are. For, since there are four zones of the world in which we live, and four principal winds, while the Church is scattered throughout all the world, and the “pillar and ground” of the Church is the Gospel and the spirit of life; it is fitting that she should have four pillars, breathing out immortality on every side, and vivifying men afresh. . . . And therefore the Gospels are in accord with these things, among which Christ Jesus is seated. (Against Heresies, 3.11.8)

Irenaeus continues by listing the four gospels as we know them today: Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. Of course, nearly a century earlier, Papias had already given testimony to these same four books.[1] According to the church historian Eusebius, Irenaeus also received some of his information from Polycarp, who was taught these things by the apostles (Eusebius, Church History, 4.14.3–8; cf. 2 Tim. 2:2).

Internal evidence, coming from the books themselves, is consistent with the testimony of church history. For example, Matthew’s gospel frequently references the Old Testament, and describes Jesus’ interaction with the Jews in a way that suggests its author was a native Jew.[2] It also puts greater emphasis on numbers and on money than the other gospels, a characteristic that would be consistent with the author’s occupation as a tax collector (Matthew 9:9).[3] In Mark’s gospel, the apostle Peter is cast in a more negative light than in the other gospels (cf. Mark 8:32-33; 14:29-72), suggesting that he was the self-effacing source from which Mark received his information. The author of Luke also wrote Acts (compare Luke 1 with Acts 1) and was a traveling companion of Paul (cf. Acts 16:10-17; 20:5-15; 21:1-18; 27:1–28:16). He is explicit in emphasizing that he researched his information thoroughly (Luke 1:1-4), as is seen in the many historically verifiable details he includes (some of which will be considered in a later post). This is fitting for one who was trained as a physician (Col. 4:14).

The author of John speaks of himself only as “the disciple whom Jesus loved” (John 21:7). This corresponds to John’s emphasis on love in his three epistles (1 John 3:16, 23; 4:9-10, 19; 2 John 1:6). Moreover, the author was a disciple (cf. John 21:2, 20, 24), one of the Twelve (John 13:23-24; cf. Mark 14:17; Luke 22:14), an eye-witness to the events of Christ’s life and death (John 1:14; 19:26,35), and among the inner circle of Christ’s followers, but not Peter (cf. John 20:2-10; Mark 5:37-38; 9:2-3; 14:33). Only John and his brother James fit these criteria. But since James was martyred early in church history (Acts 12:2), the evidence points to John as the author (cf. John 21:22-23). The fact that much of John’s material is unique (intended as a supplement to the other gospels) suggests that someone with authority must have written it, otherwise the early church would have never accepted it as factual.

In all four cases, the internal evidence (meaning details within the book itself such as writing style, biographical data, and historical details) and the external evidence (meaning non-biblical testimony that affirms the authorship of a given book) consistently and repeatedly affirm the authorship of the gospels by Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. On the flip side, there is nothing that should cause us to question their authenticity.

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[1] John Chapman, “St. Papias” in The Catholic Encyclopedia (New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1911).

[2] In this regard, A. Lukyn Williams, in St. Matthew, vol. 1, The Pulpit Commentary, notes: “That the author was a Jew will be granted by all. A Gentile Christian never would or could have described the relation of Jesus to the Jews and to their teaching in the way that the author has described it. The fact of his Jewish standpoint is further indicated by his Old Testament quotations.”

[3] Per Daniel Wallace, “Matthew: Introduction, Argument, Outline”; Online source.

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