June 08, 2014

Gospel Authorship—Who Cares?

Dear Dr. Craig,

I am an atheist and have found you to be very sincere and reasonable in your defense of the Christian religion. You have addressed many of Dr. Bart Ehrman's positions on textual criticism of the bible, yet I haven't found you address the main claim of his book dealing with forgeries. How do we know that the gospels were written by the authors listed in our current day bibles? The titles were later additions, and upon reading through the other books of the new testament a common theme is that there are ample false teachers spreading false doctrine. In short, is there good evidence supporting the claims to the gospels authorship, and if so, what is it?



United States

Even though I picked your question this week, J.C., I’m actually not going to answer it. Sometimes it’s more important to explain to a person that he’s asking the wrong question than to answer his question. By helping him to see what the crucial questions are, we can avoid distractions and chasing down rabbit trails.

Your question is like that. The assumption behind the question seems to be that the authorship of the New Testament documents is somehow crucial to regarding them as credible historical sources for the life of Jesus. Such an assumption is quite out of touch with contemporary historical criticism of the New Testament. I doubt that any historical Jesus scholar thinks that successfully identifying the authors of the various documents collected into the New Testament is crucial to their serving as credible historical sources for events or sayings from Jesus.

For that reason, I think that you’ve seriously misread Bart Ehrman in taking his central claim to be that the Gospels were not written by their traditionally received authors. (J.C., characterizing uncertainty about the Gospels’ authorship as “forgery” also betrays misunderstanding. If, as you point out, the original Gospels carried no authors’ names, then they cannot be forgeries, for they make no claims about the names of their authors! Your concern, rather, is that the Gospels are anonymous, and the names of Matthew, Mark, and so on have only later come to be associated with them.) Ehrman recognizes that we can glean a lot of historical information about Jesus from the four Gospels (not to mention Paul’s letters), even if we do not know who wrote them. Indeed, until recently, despite his uncertainty about the Gospels’ authorship, Ehrman accepted the historicity of the central facts undergirding the inference to Jesus’ resurrection, namely, his burial by Joseph of Arimathea, the discovery of his empty tomb by a group of his female disciples, his post-mortem appearances, and the original disciples’ coming to believe that God had raised him from the dead. Ehrman’s recent backpedaling about some of these facts is not due to his uncertainty about the Gospels’ authorship but to other factors.

Now I do find questions concerning the date and authorship of the New Testament documents to be extremely interesting, so I do care about such questions. (My title of this week’s QoW is deliberately provocative!) But answering such questions is not crucial to the reliability of those documents. This actually became a bone of contention with the editors at Crossway Books concerning the second edition of my Reasonable Faith. They insisted on my adding a chapter on the general reliability of the four Gospels. I protested, explaining that my case for the radical self-understanding of Jesus and the historicity of his resurrection did not hinge upon the general reliability of those documents. They were adamant, and so I asked the New Testament scholar Craig Blomberg to write such a chapter for Reasonable Faith, despite the fact that it interrupted the flow of the argument. You’ll observe that I eventually prevailed, and the extraneous chapter has been removed from the third edition. But if you’re really interested in questions of authorship and general reliability, J.C., I recommend Blomberg’s chapter to you.

So if historical Jesus scholars are not unduly worried about questions of authorship, how do they identify historical elements in the Gospels? One way is through the application of so-called “criteria of authenticity.” What these “criteria” really amount to are statements about the effect of certain kinds of evidence upon the probability of various sayings or events in Jesus’ life. For some recorded saying or event S, evidence of a certain type E, and our background information B, the “criteria” would state that, all things being equal, Pr (S|E&B) > Pr (S|B). In other words, all else being equal, the probability of some event or saying is greater given, for example, its multiple attestation than it would have been without it.

What are some of the factors that might serve the role of E in increasing the probability of some saying or event S? The following are some of the most important:

(1) Historical congruence: S fits in with known historical facts concerning the context in which S is said to have occurred.
(2) Independent, early attestation: S appears in multiple sources which are near to the time at which S is alleged to have occurred and which depend neither upon one another nor upon a common source.
(3) Embarrassment: S is awkward or counter-productive for the persons who serve as the source of information for S.
(4) Dissimilarity: S is unlike antecedent Jewish thought-forms and/or unlike subsequent Christian thought-forms.
(5) Semitisms: Traces in the narrative of Aramaic or Hebraic linguistic forms.
(6) Coherence: S is consistent with already established facts about Jesus.

Notice that these “criteria” do not presuppose the traditional authorship or even the general reliability of the Gospels. Rather they focus on a particular saying or event and provide evidence for thinking that specific element of Jesus’ life to be historical, regardless of the general reliability of the document in which the particular saying or event is reported. These same “criteria” are thus applicable to reports of Jesus found in the apocryphal Gospels, or rabbinical writings, or even the Qur’an. Of course, if the Gospels can be shown to stem from their received authors or to be generally reliable documents, so much the better! But the “criteria” do not depend on any such presupposition. They serve to help spot historical kernels even in the midst of historical chaff.

Furthermore, one of the most important developments in New Testament studies has been the identification of the historical sources behind the New Testament documents. One of the most dramatic examples is the four-line formulaic tradition about the central events of Jesus’ passion and resurrection which Paul passed on to the church that he had founded in Corinth, Greece. Paul wrote to the Corinthians:

For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received:

. . . that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures,
and that he was buried,
and that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures,
and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the Twelve (I Cor. 15.3-5).

These lines are replete with Semitisms and non-Pauline characteristics, which have convinced scholars that Paul is not here writing freely but, just as he says, delivering a tradition that he himself had received, a tradition that almost all scholars date to within the first few years after Jesus’ crucifixion. Thus the authorship and date of Paul’s letter (which is undisputed anyway) become quite secondary; what is crucial is that we have here an extraordinarily early source outlining the central events of Jesus’ passion and resurrection.

Laymen who do not understand historical method sometimes demand sources for the life of Jesus outside the New Testament--as if a document’s being later collected into an anthology somehow impugns its historical credibility! Never mind; what we now see is that there are such sources, but that the most important ones are not those which came later than the New Testament documents, such as Josephus or Tacitus’ testimonies, but rather those which came before the New Testament documents were written and were used by New Testament authors.

Finally, when you think about it, the names of the Gospels’ authors are quite immaterial. At most what matters is that the author, whether named Luke or Joshua or Herkimer or what have you, was in a position to deliver historically reliable information about the historical Jesus. So consider Luke. Luke is the received author of a two-part work: the Gospel of Luke and the Acts of the Apostles. These are really one work and are separated in our Bibles only because the church later grouped the Gospels together in the New Testament. Luke is the Gospel writer who writes most self-consciously as an historian. In the preface to his work he writes:

Inasmuch as many have undertaken to compile a narrative of the things that have been accomplished among us, just as those who from the beginning were eyewitnesses and ministers of the word have delivered them to us, it seemed good to me also, having followed all things closely for some time past, to write an orderly account for you, most excellent Theophilus, that you may have certainty concerning the things you have been taught (Luke 1:1-4).

This preface is written in the style of classical Greek, such as was used by Greek historians; after this Luke switches to a more common Greek. But he has put his reader on alert that he can write, should he wish to, like the learned historian. He speaks of his lengthy investigation of the story he is about to tell and assures us that it is based on eyewitness information and is accordingly trustworthy.

Now who was this author whom we call Luke? From what he says, he was clearly not himself an eyewitness to Jesus’ life. But we discover an important fact about him from the book of Acts. Beginning in the 16th chapter of Acts, when Paul reaches Troas in modern-day Turkey, the author suddenly starts using the first-person plural: “we set sail from Troas to Samothrace,” “we remained in Philippi some days,” “as we were going to the place of prayer,” etc. The most obvious explanation is that the author had joined Paul’s entourage on his evangelistic tour of the Mediterranean cities. In chapter 21 he accompanies Paul back to Palestine and finally to Jerusalem. What this means is that the author of Luke-Acts was, in fact, in first-hand contact with the eyewitnesses of Jesus’ life and ministry in Jerusalem.

Sceptical critics have done back-flips to try to avoid this conclusion. They’ve said, for example, that the use of the first-person plural in Acts should not be taken literally; it’s just a literary device which was common in ancient sea voyage stories. Never mind that many of the passages in Acts are not about Paul’s sea voyage, but take place on land! The more important point is that this claim, when you check it out, turns out to be sheer fantasy. There just is no ancient literary device of sea voyages in the first person plural--the whole thing has been shown to be a scholarly fiction. There is no reason to deny that Luke-Acts was written by a traveling companion of Paul who had the opportunity to interview eyewitnesses to Jesus’ life while in Jerusalem.

Who were some of these eyewitnesses? Perhaps we can get some clue by subtracting from the Gospel of Luke everything found in the other Gospels and seeing what is peculiar to Luke. What you discover is that many of Luke’s peculiar narratives are connected to women who followed Jesus: people like Joanna and Susanna, and significantly, Mary, Jesus’ mother.

Was the author reliable in getting the facts straight? The book of Acts enables us to answer that question decisively. For Acts overlaps significantly with the secular history of the ancient world, and the historical accuracy of Acts is indisputable. This has been demonstrated anew by Colin Hemer, a classical scholar who turned to New Testament studies, in his book The Book of Acts in the Setting of Hellenistic History (Tübingen: J. C. B. Mohr, 1989). Hemer goes through the book of Acts with a fine-toothed comb, pulling out a wealth of historical detail, ranging from what would have been common knowledge down to details which only a local person would know. Again and again Luke’s accuracy is demonstrated: from the sailings of the Alexandrian corn fleet to the coastal terrain of the islands to the peculiar and shifting titles of local officials, Luke gets it right.

According to the classical historian A. N. Sherwin-White, “For Acts the confirmation of historicity is overwhelming. Any attempt to reject its basic historicity even in matters of detail must now appear absurd.”1 The judgement of Sir William Ramsay, a world-famous archaeologist, still stands: “Luke is a historian of the first rank . . . . This author should be placed along with the very greatest of historians.”2 Given this author’s care and demonstrated reliability, as well as his contact with eyewitnesses within the first generation after the events, this man can be trusted when it comes to matters in the life of Jesus for which we do not enjoy independent confirmation.

This last point demonstrates that having some knowledge of the Gospels’ authors can, indeed, be helpful. But the point remains: it’s not crucial.


1 A. N. Sherwin-White, Roman Society and Roman Law in the New Testament (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1963), p. 189.

2 William M. Ramsay, The Bearing of Recent Discovery on the Trustworthiness of the New Testament (London: Hodder & Stoughton, 1915), p. 222.