Apologetics is the effort to defend Christianity as a historically true and a presently relevant faith. Often this starts with looking at the written record. How do we know we can trust the Gospels, for example? Were they legends or were they actually written by eyewitnesses?
Scholars are increasingly coming back to the idea that Matthew, Mark, Luke and John actually wrote the Gospels. If you didn’t even know they ever doubted it, that’s okay – since they’re coming full circle, you’re actually ahead of scholarship!
Brief History of the Debate:
For 1,900 years just about everyone agreed that these men wrote the books that carry their name. Within the last hundred years, a couple people proposed a theory based on form criticism. They said the Gospels might be closer to folklore than biography. They felt the Gospels were circulated anonymously (without author names attached). Then, years later, scribes wanted to give more credibility to the legends so they tacked on names of famous Christians. Voila! Let’s now pretend like none of the Bible is reliable history. It’s folklore. Isn’t it?
There’s a lot of problems with this theory, of course. The biggest problem for advocates like Bart Ehrman is this: there’s no evidence. That doesn’t make them crazy, mind you. When we are dissatisfied with something (the Gospels, for instance), we come up with new theories to explain them away and then we look for the evidence to see if we can confirm our hopes. After hard looking, all the evidence has turned against this one.
- Zero anonymous copies exist. If the Gospels were copied and circulated for a hundred years without titles, we’d expect to find some of the early copies missing titles. They don’t, they all have author’s names.
- The amount of time is not long enough for legends to arise between the actual events (Jesus’ life, c. 6BC-30AD) and the writing of the New Testament (letters in the 40’s, Gospels not long after – a title page of John’s Gospel with his name have been found all the way in Egypt on papyrus copied in the early 100s AD!). Thousands of witnesses to the events, including opponents of Christianity, were alive who could have pointed out anything that was false. A folklore model just doesn’t fit.
- Christianity’s founding documents advocate honesty, integrity and standing for what you believe. Why would any author of a Gospel refuse to put their name on it? We wouldn’t even expect to find an anonymous one. And then not just one, but four. Four people wrote biographies of Jesus but failed to put their name to it? Likewise, in a movement founded on honesty and morality, it is less likely to find people later making up titles to add credibility as this was a deceptive practice condemned historically by pagans and Christians alike.
- If they added names for credibility, why did they pick Luke or Mark – neither were eyewitnesses to Jesus’ ministry. Luke was a disciple of Paul, and Paul wasn’t even an eyewitness! He was reliable, to be sure – he knew the disciples, he knew Jesus’ family, he was in Pharisaical leadership when Stephen was stoned – he was “in the know” but why wouldn’t scribes pick people who were right there all the time, like Peter? Note that none of the apocryphal gospels lean on people like Luke or Mark – they always name someone closer to the action, like Peter, Thomas, Mary or Jesus.
- If they added names later, why do they all match? Why didn’t a church in Egypt put John’s name on the same one that a church in Turkey put Mark’s name on? Tens of thousands of believers in thousands of house churches across hundreds of miles in dozens of languages without modern communication miraculously chose the same four names and attributed them to the same four anonymous documents? I believe in miracles, but it’s so overwhelmingly likely that all four Gospels actually started with the names of the authors attached. Not only are there zero copies without names – no mislabeled copies exist either!
- At the moment more than one gospel existed, believers would need titles to differentiate. When Luke wrote his Gospel, “many” other accounts already existed (Luke 1:1-4). Faith gatherings met weekly – titles would have been needed to distinguish readings. Imagine if our Bible lacked names and pastor had to say, “Turn to that short one next to the longer one but before that super long one that has a dragon in it.” If the gospels didn’t come with titles on them, churches would have made titles up immediately just to keep them straight. If this happened, it would be miraculous to find that every church picked the same name for each (see 7 below).
- Compare the Gospels with that of a truly anonymous book, “Hebrews.” Hebrews has been attributed to lots of different authors (Paul, Luke, Apollos, Barnabas) and lots of manuscripts have titles that don’t match because scribes later tried their best to attribute to their best guesses. We have ancient manuscripts of Hebrews without an author’s name and manuscripts with names that don’t match – exactly what we would expect of an anonymous letter but exactly what we don’t find in the Gospels.
- No debates existed in the early church, among pagan writers, or among later church councils as to the authorship of the Gospels. History is uniformly, unanimously agreed that Matthew, Mark, Luke and John wrote or oversaw the writing of the books that bear their names.
“[Consider] the utter implausibility that a book circulating around the Roman Empire without a title for almost a hundred years could somehow at some point be attributed to exactly the same author by scribes throughout the world and yet leave no trace of disagreement in any manuscripts. And, by the way, this is supposed to have happened not just once, but with each one of the four Gospels.” – Brant Pitre
For further reading:
“The Case for Jesus” by Brant Pitre
Thanks for your well thought out perspective, Jared. Personally, I have no dog in the fight of making historical reliability of the gospels’ dependent on accuracy of titled authorship. If Mark, for instance, wasn’t ultimately the writer of Mark, or if he was instead the main editor or compiler of other sources, that does not threaten the reliability of the Gospel of Mark, in my opinion.
The history of the bible is understandably messy. Sometimes inspiring and heroic. Sometimes confusing and broken. Just like Christ on the cross. I believe the scriptures are reliable, but reliability in the context of imperfections in human communication, so that what is impossible with man is possible with God. I like how your article counters the voice of irrational antagonism against this text, which is by far the best preserved document in antiquity. Yet, I advocate caution, so we do not accidentally bleach pieces of the historical record because we are uncomfortable with certain objections of skeptics, cynics, and people smarter who mistake a baby for bath water. I suppose it would take a book to comb our way through the many details thrown at us, and we would still not find every shell in the sand. Thanks for offering a perspective that leaves room for faith.
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