Who Wrote the Gospels?

August 5, 2011 | 41 comments
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It always helps to know who wrote what you are reading, and Bible books are no exception. The four gospels, in particular, present interesting questions of how the narratives were composed and who did the composing.

The Traditional View

LDS materials generally affirm the traditional view: that Matthew was authored by Matthew (one of the Twelve, also known as Levi), John was authored by John (one of the Twelve), Mark was authored by John Mark (a young associate of first Paul, then Peter), and Luke was authored by Luke (the physician and travelling companion of Paul, referred to by name in Acts and in some of Paul’s letters).

The LDS Bible Dictionary, article “Gospels,” does not directly endorse traditional authorship, and even tiptoes around it at some points: “[T]he records of [Jesus's] mortal life and the events pertaining to his ministry are called the Gospels; the four that are contained in our Bible are presented under the names of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John.” Nevertheless, traditional authorship is more or less assumed in the text — while differences of content, emphasis, and style between the gospels are noted, the question of authorship is not raised or discussed.

Talmage’s Jesus the Christ, for years the standard LDS text on the gospels, does not appear to address the authorship issue anywhere in the text. Likewise with Elder McConkie’s Messiah series, which follows Talmage’s format of combining and harmonizing the four gospels into one stream of events, with no discussion of sources or authorship.

An interesting if ultimately disappointing article is Frank Judd’s “Who Really Wrote the Gospels? A Study of Traditional Authorship,” in How the New Testament Came to Be (the 35th Annual Sperry Symposium book). Judd gingerly explains to readers that Mark and Luke were not eyewitnesses to the events recorded in Mark and Luke. After discussing the Didache and Justin Martyr, where Matthew and Mark, respectively, were quoted but not cited by name, Judd notes:

The above references suggest that the Gospels may originally have been anonymous. Thus, it is entirely possible, as some scholars had suggested centuries earlier, that the title of each of the Gospels was added after the fact. It is important to note, however, that this premise does not necessarily imply that traditional authorship is inaccurate.

No, but if titles were not applied to the four gospels until the middle of the second century or later, that does suggest that those who assigned the titles had no personal knowledge of who actually wrote them.

And the Winner Is …

The outstanding Jesus Christ and the World of the New Testament (Deseret Book, 2006) does devote some discussion to questions of authorship. For example:

John Mark … has been identified as the author of the Gospel from the earliest period, a tradition that purportedly stretches back to the first century. Although the superscription … is late, the traditional ascription of the Gospel’s authorship to Mark is almost universally accepted by scholars. (p. 80.)

If that seems a little too pat, I’ll add that there are sidebars discussing Q (with a chart showing the dependence of Matthew and Luke on Mark and Q) and even the Secret Gospel of Mark. And here is part of Holzapfel, Huntsman, and Wayment’s straightforward discussion of the authorship of Matthew:

Connecting the apostle Matthew with the author of the Gospel bearing his name is no simple matter historically. The earliest manuscripts of the New Testament carry no appellations or designations that would clearly indicate authorship. By the third and fourth centuries, and sometimes even as early as the second century, the Gospels began carrying the titles “according to” Matthew, Mark, Luke, or John. The Gospel of Matthew, when noted, always carries the name of the Apostle Matthew, and no ancient tradition suggests anyone else wrote it. However, the vast majority of scholars today question the first Gospel’s authorship because of an apparent lack of eyewitness details in its accounts. (p. 66)

Even longer discussion of the other authors is given: four paragraphs to the authorship of Luke (p. 108-09) and four paragraphs to the authorship of John (p. 126-27). So if the question of authorship of the gospels is a fair indicator of depth of discussion, Jesus Christ and the World of the New Testament is easily the best LDS treatment of the four gospels available. If you don’t own it, go buy it while we’re still talking about the New Testament in Sunday School.

Does Authorship Matter?

I was going to include the views of some non-LDS scholars, but the post is long enough already. Instead, I’ll close with a couple of questions for thought. First, does it really matter whether Matthew wrote Matthew or Mark wrote Mark? There is no dispute that these are ancient documents. But it would matter for some whether the specific events described in the narratives were written by eyewitnesses or by someone who was only relying on oral tradition along with earlier written documents of uncertain or unknown provenance.

The second question: Why are LDS scholars so attached to traditional ascriptions of authorship? After all, Mormons are not biblical inerrantists. It may have something to do with Correlation. It may have something to do with BYU retention policies. It may have something to do with the practice of some LDS authors of granting various statements by Joseph Smith and other LDS leaders de facto inerrancy, a practice that does not seem to be required by LDS doctrine.

41 Responses to Who Wrote the Gospels?

  1. chris on August 5, 2011 at 10:57 am

    “sometimes even as early as the second century, the Gospels began carrying the titles “according to” Matthew, Mark, Luke, or John”

    I’m not really concerned that much one way or another. There is a lot of light that shines through the text from the spirit regardless.

    But what’s interesting is a consistent attempt by historians to apply modern record keeping standards and historical writing practices and evidences to the past. These people were not record keepers in the sense that we are. True, they may have had 1000 years of religious history they tried to look back upon, but they had never been the ones who were responsible for passing that history on to others.

    It seems entirely reasonable, that at some point, someone would say, “You know what, we really ought to be putting down labels for who wrote what because it’s already been a couple hundred years and it could likely be a couple hundred more years that these records will need to be passed down again.”

    It makes perfect sense to me that the oral tradition of saying Matthew wrote this, etc. suddenly got written down after 200 years because they realized it needed to be pointed out to newcomers and to ensure it was remembered in the future.

    It’s also entirely likely many of the stories were pieces together based on oral traditions and various writings they came across and false attributed to one author, when perhaps it came from another.

    So I affirm your implicit answer to the question that it doesn’t really matter if the exact words we have came from Mark. But I do not think its much of a stretch to suggest Mark is based on writings from Mark.

    Because at the end of the day, I have to either trust a historian removed 80 generations from an event or one removed 4-6 generations.

  2. Steve on August 5, 2011 at 11:30 am

    One point I find fascinating is how much time we spend in church going over and over the sayings of Jesus.

    Yet, in all likelihood, he probably didn’t say what was recorded. Too much time intervened between his life and the writing of the Gospels for the sayings to be accurate.

    At the very least, they would have been heavily altered by being repeated and/or the author of the particular Gospel “cleaning them up”.

    Yet, I’ve never heard anyone in Sunday School say: “Now, we are going to read the Sermon on the Mount. Understand, we are unsure what Jesus actually said but this is the version that was recorded some decades after he delivered it.”

    That would be refreshing — and accurate.

  3. Jonathan Green on August 5, 2011 at 12:18 pm

    Nice article, Dave. I picked up Jehovah and the World of the OT for one of the kids’ birthdays this year. I think I’ll look at the NT volume for the next birthday.

    I’d vote for authorship not mattering. It’s a bad idea to stake too much on facts that can’t be verified at the moment; you end up worrying too much about footnotes instead of reading your scriptures. Also, we canonize the texts we have, rather than some imagined ideal of what must have once been said or done.

    Chris, it’s not modern standards of record keeping, but rather contemporary 1st/2nd century standards that historians would use. Your point about people realizing at some point that books need authors is correct. Roger Chartier, for example, sees that point coming around the 16th century, if I remember correctly. Things may have worked differently in classical antiquity or with regards to scriptural texts, of course.

  4. Brad on August 5, 2011 at 12:52 pm

    “First, does it really matter whether Matthew wrote Matthew or Mark wrote Mark?”

    No, not exactly. I think we need to accept that scripture can still be inspiring even if it may not be entirely historically accurate. We need to learn to accept ambiguity and still derive important spiritual lessons from the text. I think that Grant Hardy’s and Lowell Bennion’s treatment of scripture more as literature rather than actually history is a healthier way to look at it.

    “Why are LDS scholars so attached to traditional ascriptions of authorship?”

    I would actually argue that Mormons tend to generally be biblical literalists, although not inerrantists. McConkie (who, I would argue, influenced the current predominant LDS worldview on the Bible) treated the Bible very much as a literal history. According to him the Jesus miracles all happened just as described and most everything fit quite nicely into a doctrinal whole. The LDS leadership and core membership seem to be in general agreement that the events as described in the OT and the NT are literal facts more than metaphorical expressions or popular legends.

    However, because of the notion that we believe the Bible as far as it translated correctly, and the idea that the Great Apostasy did violence to the original text, church leaders are more open to scholars questioning the Bible to a greater degree than the Book of Mormon (which seems almost untouchable). I think that leaders and members alike would be more open-minded to the question of authorship with the NT as long as you aren’t questioning the reality of miracles or prophecy. However, this would not apply to all authors. Since Joseph Smith claimed that the Book of Acts was written by Luke, people are likely to be more defensive about that. Same thing with Isaiah. The core LDS population would consider it heresy to raise the question of the book having been written by multiple authors during different periods of time.

  5. Brad on August 5, 2011 at 1:18 pm

    chris #1 wrote: “Because at the end of the day, I have to either trust a historian removed 80 generations from an event or one removed 4-6 generations.”

    Are you implying that something written more closely in time to the event is a more accurate description of it? Bear in mind that authors of scripture may not have historical accuracy as a priority when writing, but may in fact be trying to represent things according to a preexisting worldview. Sometimes historians who come later have a better vantage point with regard to historicity than the historians of earlier time periods.

  6. Dave on August 5, 2011 at 1:24 pm

    Thanks for the comments, everyone.

    Brad, I think you have done a nice job summing up how most Mormons approach the issue, and perhaps how most senior leaders see the issue. But as scholars get better and better at analyzing texts, the traditional and LDS view of the scriptures becomes more problematic.

    A telling example is the sources Elder McConkie lists at the beginning of his Messiah books. The four non-LDS books he lists (by Edersheim, Farrar, and Geickie) are all from the 19th century!

  7. BTD Greg on August 5, 2011 at 1:50 pm

    Great blog post. Thanks.

    As I understand it, it seems like Luke and John have the strongest arguments of having been written by (or at least from the perspective of) the person in the book’s title.

    Luke is part 1 of 2 (with Acts being the second), and Acts contains several “we” sections where the pronoun changes to first person plural when Luke is assumed to have been traveling with Paul. In the first chapter of Luke, the author admits that this gospel is not a first-person account, but related from eyewitnesses (either first or second-hand).

    With John, of course, we have the fact that John has this curious habit of not naming himself by name, but referring to the apostle that Jesus loved. Seems to make sense that only the author would refer to himself this way (or someone writing from that apostle’s point of view, or as it was related from that point of view).

    Ultimately, I agree that it doesn’t really matter. A lot can be learned from the New Testament by comparing and contrasting the different Gospel author’s versions and points of view, but knowing who the authors were isn’t essential.

  8. BTD Greg on August 5, 2011 at 1:59 pm

    One really interesting, but totally tangential, issue is the confusing fact that there are so many people with the same name in the New Testament. I only recently learned that neither of the two James who were two of the original twelve apostles are the same person as the James who was the brother of Jesus. (To make things even more confusing, at least two or three of the above-named James had a mother named Mary.) And the Epistle of James, which is very important historically and doctrinally to Mormons, was probably not written by either apostle, and may or may not have been written by the brother of Jesus.

  9. Ben S on August 5, 2011 at 2:04 pm

    “Judd gingerly explains to readers that Mark and Luke were not eyewitnesses to the events recorded in Mark and Luke.”

    Which is funny, since Luke flatly says he wasn’t an eyewitness. The KJV is a bit ambiguous, problem being it woodenly reproduces the Greek syntax but English can’t convey the agreement the way Greek does.

    Luke 1:1-2 “Forasmuch as many have taken in hand to set forth in order a declaration of those things which are most surely believed among us, Even as they delivered them unto us, which from the beginning were eyewitnesses, and ministers of the word…”

    cf. v. 2 in the NIV (or any other modern translation) “just as they were handed down to us by those who from the first were eyewitnesses and servants of the word.”

    It’s clear that Luke considers himself to be a receiver of the tradition from the eyewitnesses, not an eyewitness himself.

  10. Don on August 5, 2011 at 2:07 pm

    To some, the questions of authorship and when the gospels were written are obstacles to their faith. Mormons shouldn’t really care so much,should we,since we believe in continuing revelation, a living prophet and a corroberating record. Another problem is translation, since the gospels were written in Greek, Jesus spoke Aramaic, the priests and rabbis spoke Hebrew. You don’t have to get very far down that road to raise all kinds of questions.

  11. Whizzbang of Winnipeg on August 5, 2011 at 3:09 pm

    Also bear in mind that Elder McConkie like 99.9% of members of the Church were not trained in historical methods or even taken a University level history class!

  12. Brad on August 5, 2011 at 3:44 pm

    “as scholars get better and better at analyzing texts, the traditional and LDS view of the scriptures becomes more problematic”

    Agreed. I think that an increasing number of faithful members, myself included, are espousing more ‘liberal’ views of scripture and historicity, especially in relation to the Bible. I anticipate the leadership tolerating, if not accommodating, a wider range of views on a host of issues.

  13. H.Bob on August 5, 2011 at 3:56 pm

    #11, so it’s your contention that someone with a BA and JD from the University of Utah never took a university-level history class in his life? It’s my contention that 99.9% of your statistics are hogwash.

  14. BillyBud on August 5, 2011 at 4:14 pm

    Brad brings up an excellent point in no. 4. “Mormons tend to be Biblical literalists, although not inerrantists.” Problematic elements in the Bible are generally casually dismissed as things that weren’t “translated correctly” or that “plain and precious truths” have been removed during the apostasy.

    Challenging traditional authorship can cause doubts about Biblical historicity, and this can shake faith. On my mission, I remember having terrifying doubts sweep over me when I began studying some of the problematic elements in the Bible, particularly with regard to viewing the JST as a “restoration” of missing text. (I later rationalized this away by reconsidering the JST as inspired Biblical commentary, not retranslation.) For many years I felt a wide chasm of doom open up underneath my feet every time anytime I heard scholarly treatments of the Bible that dismissed literal historicity.

    So I understand the precarious feeling some Mormons might feel when confronted with scholarly doubts about traditional authorship and questions of historicity. And when we, as enlightened scholars, tamper with people’s faith in historicity, regardless of how misguided it might be, I think we are tampering with sacred things.

    For many, our beliefs are powerful because in our minds we take them literally, and not necessarily because they are historically accurate. Faith is power, not fact. I believe that for some, a measure of power may be irredeemably lost once they loose their faith in the literal historicity of the Bible.

    For others, accepting greater nuance into their belief system can help relieve the clouds of doubt which threaten to derail someone who is too orthodox in their beliefs.

  15. Whizzbang of Winnipeg on August 5, 2011 at 7:52 pm

    H. Bob-I’m saying that personally I only read history from academically trained historians, LDS or not. Don’t attack Elder McConkie for something he never claimed to be

  16. Dan on August 5, 2011 at 7:59 pm

    For the normal believer, who wrote the gospels is inconsequential. It helps in filling some context, but beyond that it really isn’t important. Either you believe what they wrote or you don’t. However, our theology puts us naturally in a position to question the authenticity of anything and everything in the Bible. After all, we believe it to be correct, as far as it was translated correctly. Well, which parts are correct and which aren’t?

    Personally I mention in my class such variables as who wrote the books, when they wrote them and who was the target audience. It helps greatly in understanding the meaning behind the tales. In the end though, we are far more literal and exact today than at any other time in history. We actually care much these days about the authenticity of this or that. If Jesus had our culture, do we honestly think he would have left his record of his testimony into the hands of four writers who only wrote his words 30-60 years later?

  17. Jax on August 5, 2011 at 8:18 pm

    Faith is power, not fact. I believe that for some, a measure of power may be irredeemably lost once they loose their faith in the literal historicity of the Bible.

    But faith is belief in things THAT ARE TRUE. If the Bible stories aren’t literal history, than it is important to know that or our faith has no power.

  18. Mark B. on August 5, 2011 at 9:46 pm

    Since it’s clear that many parts of the gospels could not have been written by a single eyewitness–the infancy narratives, the 40 days in the wilderness and the temptation of Christ, even the prayers in Gethsemane (if the three apostles slept, who was there to record them?)–the matter of authorship becomes even less important.

    As to Whizzbang–there’s no cure for insomnia like most writing by academic historians, so enjoy your nap. But that’s a needlessly narrow approach that will stop you reading some excellent works.

  19. Whizzbang of Winnipeg on August 5, 2011 at 10:43 pm

    Mark B.-I suppose, but I prefer “well-defined taste”!

  20. Ben S on August 6, 2011 at 3:09 am

    Let’s not equate “true” with “historical.” We’re wandering into the issues of genre, historiography and the nature of the text, which is often quite different than it appears on its face to a modern westerner with a post-Enlightenment worldview and assumptions.

  21. Dan on August 6, 2011 at 3:01 pm

    Jax,

    But faith is belief in things THAT ARE TRUE. If the Bible stories aren’t literal history, than it is important to know that or our faith has no power.

    Our faith isn’t anchored on the literalness or not of the Bible. Well, you can have that faith if you want, but it’s rather unstable, Jax. I wouldn’t recommend it. I’ll only speak for myself, that my faith is in Jesus Christ, not in the literalness of the Bible. I could care less how accurate it is.

  22. larryco_ on August 6, 2011 at 3:49 pm

    A nice source for information on the NT authorship discussions outside of LDS writings is Raymond Brown’s Introduction To The New Testament (part of the Anchor Bible Series).

  23. jader3rd on August 6, 2011 at 7:13 pm

    In reading the New Testament this year Mark 14:51-52 jumped out at me. Not that it has great (as far as I can tell) spiritual significance, but more of a “well that was new”. From what I can tell from my online searches it appears the only reason why the young man mentioned in the verses is there, was a way of Mark saying “I was there”.

  24. Casey on August 7, 2011 at 7:53 pm

    What if we discovered that the majority of what we believe are Joseph Smith or Brigham Young’s sermons were in fact delivered or written by someone else? (well, beyond the extent to which that’s already true…)

  25. Nate R on August 7, 2011 at 10:51 pm

    re: #9
    Luke isn’t claiming to be an eyewitness; rather, he is claiming to use the best sources, including eyewitnesses. Note that Luke says the accounts of Jesus “were HANDED ON TO US by those from the beginning who were eyewitnesses” (Luke 1:2, NSRV), so Luke is being HANDED eyewitness accounts of Jesus, rather than claiming to BE an eyewitness of Jesus.

    Luke is also a Greek name, and the person he addresses, Theophilus, is a Greek name, and the ‘we’ passages of Acts don’t start until half-way through the book, all of which suggest that Luke is a later Greek convert and not an eyewitness. Notice also that there are no ‘we’ passages in the gospel, which Luke is apparently not shy about inserting.

    re: the post
    While the names of the gospels are not written on the manuscripts until the 2nd or 3rd century, there is NO ANCIENT DISPUTES about the NAMES of the gospels. If the names of the gospels were made up hundreds of years after the fact, one would expect to see several DIFFERENT names attached to the same gospel. But (as I understand it, though I’m just a layman) this is not in fact what happens. Everybody calls the Gospel of Matthew the Gospel of Matthew and everyone calls the Gospel of John the Gospel of John, even though there are ancient disputes about whether Matthew or John actually wrote the gospels. What this tells me is that there is strong reason to think that the titles to these works are correct. Tradition passed down that this manuscript is Matthew, etc., and the appropriate names get attached to them.

    I have suggested that the TITLES have been accurately passed down (otherwise one would expect to see variation in the titles of the gospels). This does not show, however, that Matthew wrote the book of Matthew and John wrote the book of John. My understanding is that scholars take Mark and Luke at face value since there is no compelling reason to think that someone else wrote it. In the case of Matthew and John, it is possible that someone is claiming to be an apostle, and thus an eyewitness, which would give more credibility to that gospel. And there are other reasons people point to for questioning the authorship of those two gospels which I will not get into here.

    As for whether authorship matters, I don’t think so. It is the stories that matter. A close link between the authors and the events might be nice because IN SOME CASES the historicity of the accounts matters (in most cases it doesn’t). That Jesus ACTUALLY suffered for our sins, was died, and was resurrected absolutely matters. But whether the sermon on the mount is recorded word-for-word doesn’t matter all that much.

    To me what matters is the story. This story is meant to be told and retold, and if we can retell that story in a way that speaks to us and our concerns today then all the better. As the ancient authors undoubtedly did, they took a tradition of what Jesus did and said and told their version of the story that spoke to them and their audiences. There is nothing wrong with that. It turns out that in this case enough Christians identified with that message so much so that they made these works the standard accounts of gospels (favoring these over competing versions). And LDS prophets have given their seal of approval also. This doesn’t mean that everything in them occurred exactly as described, but it means that the central message of the gospel as portrayed in these gospels is the one that we accept as Mormons.

  26. Cameron N. on August 8, 2011 at 2:14 am

    “However, our theology puts us naturally in a position to question the authenticity of anything and everything in the Bible. After all, we believe it to be correct, as far as it was translated correctly. Well, which parts are correct and which aren’t?” – I think Joseph Smith’s translation of the Bible vetted the Gospels pretty well since there were few major corrections.

    “Personally I mention in my class such variables as who wrote the books, when they wrote them and who was the target audience.” – I think this is great, and this has happened in all my NT classes in seminary and at BYU. Several BYU classes went more in-depth as to different positions and debates about such things.

    “If Jesus had our culture, do we honestly think he would have left his record of his testimony into the hands of four writers who only wrote his words 30-60 years later?” The BoM was never entrusted to more than a handful of men at a time. 30-60 years is not really a barrier since after Jesus’ resurrection, the Spirit came to bring all things to their remembrance – I think this probably applied pretty well to the gospel writers.

    Quotes and experiences understood by the Spirit stick with people. Joseph Smith recounted his experiences years later but remembered them very clearly. I just don’t know why we should suspect that God has allowed gross untruths to remain in the Bible, that are not addressed by modern revelation, be it BoM, D&C, or official interpretation by contemporary prophets.

  27. Raymond Takashi Swenson on August 8, 2011 at 3:14 pm

    As I understand it, there is a closer connection in time between the extant manuscripts of the Gospels and the events they describe than there is between most of the ancient histories of Greek and Roman civilization that we rely on routinely for knowledge of events in the era before Christianity became so widespread that there were dozens of people making copies of the Gospels for distribution.

    What objective information outside the manuscripts do we have about any of the traditionally attributed authors that makes it unlikely that the named author actually had a major role in its composition? We don’t have any other writings attributed to Matthew or to Mark to compare their writings against, and none of the people commenting here has pointed to any ancient source that expresses skepticism about the traditional attributions.

    We know nothing about Mark in his own gospel, and assume he is the John Mark mentioned in Acts, who is not depicted there as writing anything. Matthew the apostle was a publican so presumably literate, which is more than we can say definitively about the other apostles. As noted above, Luke the author of the Gospel and of Acts appears to identify himiself as one of Paul’s missionary companions, and there is no logical reason to doubt this. The Church definitely grew through missionary work, and the description of Paul’s efforts include a few miracles but predominantly a lot of hard work over years, with geographical details that have great verisimilitude.

    John’s unique Gospel is associated with the author of three short epistles and the even more unique Revelation. Since we know nothing about John the apostle’s actual education, the doubts about the ability of the apostle to produce these works is based on lots of assumptions bridging the large gaps in our actual knowledge. It just seems to me that we don’t have any specific reason to doubt the attribution. In an era when every single copy of a book was laboriously copied by hand, the genealogy of a book was supported by a living tradition of scribes that affirmed the bona fides of the text.

    Basically, I would argue that the burden of proof is on someone who wants to propose an alternate author for a particular composition. I don’t see anyone doing that for any of the Gospels. My understanding is that these books were first circulated in a time when there were living people who knew the stories about Jesus and his sayings through an oral tradition only a few steps removed from apostles who had seen the resurrected Christ.

    For comparison, remember that the most senior of the current apostles had first hand intimate knowledge of prior leaders who knew Brigham Young, Wilford Woodruff and Lorenzo Snow, who were intimate acquaintances of Joseph Smith. You have a short personal chain of connections that spans two centuries. So reliance on a similar personal chain to authenticate the Gospels is not much of a stretch.

  28. Dave R on August 8, 2011 at 9:48 pm

    Sorry for jumping into this post late. Raymond, I’m sorry, but I have to disagree with your comment. All the evidence suggests the names we have assigned to the Gospels are incorrect. Almost all biblical scholars (Christian or not) agree on that point. For one, the disciples of Jesus were uneducated and almost certainly never learned Greek. Second, they were all written anonymously — intentionally so. Why not reveal their name if they knew Jesus personally? It would add tremendous weight to their account. Of course, if they weren’t a disciple, writing anonymously would be preferrable. Let me make a couple of quick arguments against Raymond’s position:

    Matthew: If the author of Matthew was a witness to the life of Jesus, why would he have to copy so many of the life stories from Mark? Wouldn’t he have his own memories to draw on? Instead, Matthew and Luke borrow very, very heavily from Mark. They insert their own teachings, but the stories of Jesus are mostly the same (often word for word and changed mainly to reflect their individual theologies).

    Luke: The argument that favors Luke is very questionable. One, its doubtful someone who knew Paul well would get so many facts about his life wrong. They often differ in very important ways when compared to Paul’s letters (compare for example Galatians chapter 1 with corresponding parts of Acts). Further the reason for suspecting Acts was written by a missionary companion is based off of a short section where the author shifts into 1st person — but it sounds like he’s actually citing a record he had — not that the author himself shared that experience.

    John: You indicated we don’t know anything about John’s education, but we do. Acts states he’s illiterate. And he spoke Aramic. So is it likely he wrote the account we have? Furthermore, the story misplaces many of the most important events in the life of Jesus, such as the cleansing of the temple and the Passover meal.

    In response to Dave’s second question, i believe we’re especially tied the traditional, literal view of the Bible because it appears to be the view held by our Church leadership (past and present). So for Latter-day Saints, accepting our past understanding was incorrect is especially challenging . . . it implies that our leadership’s understanding of the Bible is likewise incomplete.

  29. NateR on August 9, 2011 at 1:29 am

    re: Dave R

    I’ll take your argument for Matthew and apply it to John. You said that if Matthew had been there he would draw on his own stories instead of repeating Mark’s. Well, John doesn’t simply repeat what Mark (and the others) say. In fact, he seems to make a concerted effort NOT to repeat them (e.g. his account of the “last supper” doesn’t actually have a description of eating the bread and the wine); note that overall there is very little overlap between John and the synoptic gospels, all of which John would have read (so I’m told). So John is doing what you claim an eyewitness would do. Further, John clearly CLAIMS to be an eyewitness to the events. None of the other gospel writers do that, not even Matthew (although it would be implied that he was present IF Matthew is supposed to be the apostle Matthew).

    And I actually thought Raymond’s point was a really good one. The Christian community would have been rather small (we think that the Church TODAY is small, imagine playing the who-you-know game back then). Further, the gospels (perhaps except John) were written within the life times of the people who would have actually known Jesus. If the authors would have completely botched their memories of Jesus it would be unlikely that the early church members, which included eyewitnesses, would have endorsed the gospels.

    I see no reason (though, again, I’m a layman) to doubt that Mark is the author of Mark and Luke is the author of Luke. But what is perhaps questionable is whether Mark is John Mark, the companion to Paul. Maybe Luke wasn’t a companion to Paul either, though the “we” passages certainly suggest that he is.

    The primary reason for question that John was the apostle John is that it was written so late. But it is conceivable that John would still be alive and able to write a gospel (especially since in the LDS view he NEVER dies!). There is also extra-biblical evidence that the author of the gospel of John was named “John the Elder”, which could easily be a reference to the apostle John. (Note that Peter was the “first elder” in the church, so the apostles apparently got the title “elder” even back then.)

    As for knowing Greek, it is called “Koine Greek” (i.e. Common Greek) for a reason, because it was the common language across then Roman empire (everyone spoke Greek because of Alexander the Great, who conquered much of the same territory hundreds of years earlier). And while the narrative structure of the John is rather sophisticated, the language and syntax is rather simple. (As an aside, Luke is the only gospel author to use rather sophisticated Greek.) I don’t find it hard to believe that one of the apostles could write simple Greek prose. (By the way, where in Acts does it say John was illiterate?)

    Let me throw out one more interesting fact about the gospels. Mark names the fewest people in his gospel, then Matthew and Luke, and then John names the most. This means that the later the gospel was written the more people are named in it. Some have suggested that John, for example, just made up names for stories presented earlier in the Christian tradition. But here’s the twist. The naming practices within Jerusalem prior to 70 AD (when the Romans completely destroyed the temple and killed a ton of people, effectively wiping out the Christian community in Jerusalem) were radically different from naming practices in the Jewish communities outside Jerusalem. The Jews in Jerusalem used very few names, usually after one of the Maccabees (and this cultural worship of the Maccabees, who led an earlier revolt against Rome, led to the revolt in 70 AD which wiped out the temple, etc.). The Jews outside Jerusalem apparently did not feel this overwhelming desire to name their children after the Maccabees, and so their naming practices were quite different. (Bear with me, this is the pay off:) Amazingly, the gospel of John (and the others) strongly resemble the naming practices within Jerusalem prior to 70 AD. If the gospel of John was written by a later writer who did not live in Jerusalem prior to 70 AD and he just made up names, then the overwhelming probability would be that he would have assigned names that resembled naming practices OUTSIDE Jerusalem. That the naming practices resemble the naming practices INSIDE Jerusalem strongly suggests that a later author did not simply make up a bunch of names for stories he had heard. And that suggests (though is not conclusive) that the author of John either lived in Jerusalem prior to 70 AD (as the author claimed) or that he got his names (and so probably stories) from someone who did live in Jerusalem prior to 70 AD (as the other gospel writers apparently did).

    While there is lots of other evidence to consider, there is at least some positive evidence that John was the apostle John, or at least a close associate. And as I said before, there is not a compelling reason to doubt that Mark and Luke wrote their gospels (though one may reasonably doubt that they were companions to Paul).

  30. Dave R on August 9, 2011 at 10:00 pm

    NateR, thanks for the reply to my comment. I think we could agree that whoever’s right here, the answer matters. If just one of the gospels was a firsthand account, it would make a study of the life and teachings of Jesus much easier. But if you take the position that the authors were not eye witnesses, it requires you to evaluate the text using critical methods. That’s quite an additional burden, so I’m sincere when I say I would do cartwheels for a week if I thought we had a firsthand account.

    Have to quickly disagree with a couple of your statements. First, while you correctly point out that John doesn’t borrow from Mark, I’d point to an alternative explanation of why this is the case. IF the author of John had a copy of one or all of the synoptic gospels, he wouldn’t have used them because he disagrees on the historical record as well as on theology. A few examples:
    – In John, Jesus is fully divine. So much so that he doesn’t appear to suffer in the garden or on the cross. Contrast with Mark where he appears to be in shock. He pleads repeatedly to be spared in the garden. Someone has to carry his cross. When he dies, he cries in agony and asks why God has forsaken him. That’s NOT what happens in John.
    – In John, the reason he performs ‘signs’ is to PROVE his identity. In the synoptics, he refuses to do miracles to prove his identity.
    – In John, Jesus teaches almost exclusively about himself and his (equal) relationship to God. In the synoptics, he teaches about God’s future kingdom and how he will quickly bring it to pass.
    – In John, Jesus teaches for three years. In the synoptics, just one.
    – In John, the cleansing of the temple starts his ministry. In the synoptics, it ends his ministry.
    – In John, he dies on the Passover feast, in the synoptics, he dies the day after.

    We could make a very long list. But the authors of Mark and John did not see eye to eye on many teachings and life events of Jesus.

    Other points. Its generally accepted that John is likely written in three stages. There are stories that emerge from those that knew Jesus. There is a later evangelist who combines the stories and presents his own theology, stories, and interpretation, and there is a community that writes some additional verses that appear to be written when the beloved disciple dies (John 21:23). I say that to point out the claim you reference in John 21:24 has to be taken with a grain of salt. We’re probably talking about a lot of authors when we speak of John. I believe the gospel itself isn’t given a name until late 2nd century.

    In regards to Raymond’s point, i think he’s underestimating the challenges of spreading a consistent message of Jesus. You had people who were spread out all over the empire sometimes speaking different languages. No lds.org. You heard about Jesus through word of mouth from someone who heard about Jesus through word of mouth, from someone else who heard. . . this process going on for decades before anything we have is written down. It’s not hard to see how the authors of Mark and John could come up with different views of Jesus and how stories could change. It’s unlikely most early Christians ever met an eyewitness of Jesus, and there’s no evidence any of the gospels were ever ‘endorsed’ by an eye witness.

    I disagree that the primary reason against John being the author of this gospel is his age. There are many reasons he probably did not author this gospel. For one, it’s doubtful he spoke Greek (You’re incorrect that Greek was spoken by everyone in the empire). Further, if by chance the disciples of Jesus did speak some Greek, it’s very unlikely they could write it. Acts 4:13 indicates Peter and John are uneducated (illiterate). This fits with the picture we have of them in the synoptics.

    NateR, although I recognize my reply is lacking, and unlikely to change your opinion, but I’d point to almost universal agreement by well respected biblical scholars on this issue. In an area of study where no one agrees on anything, everyone seems to agree on this. We just don’t have an eyewitness account. This doesn’t affect our testimonies, but I believe it’s worth discussing because it makes quite a difference in how we approach these books.

  31. Nate R on August 10, 2011 at 1:00 am

    re: Dave R

    I’ll retreat a little bit here (signs of retreat were evident at the end of my last post, affirming that there is some positive evidence “the apostle John, or at least a close associate” wrote the Gospel of John. While I continue to think there is some positive evidence for this claim, I’m not in a position to insist that John was written by an eyewitness.

    I agree that if John couldn’t write in Greek that would be a show-stopper (though a close associate might have written it for him, or collected stories from John and put together a narrative). But it is unclear to me, though perhaps you could enlighten me, why Acts 4:13 indicates John is illiterate. The high priests indicate that Peter (and by implication John) is not trained in the Law. (The footnote to the New Oxford Annotated Version glosses the passage simply as “lacking legal training”.) Of course, one could fall short of having training in the Law and still be literate, even in Greek (by the way, I didn’t mean to assert that EVERYONE knew Greek; I was trying to explain that Greek was the COMMON language in the empire and so it would be unsurprising if one of Jesus’ disciples knew Greek). Perhaps more can be inferred from this passage than I am giving it credit, in which case I’d like to know WHY this passage shows that John can’t read, despite it not saying that John can’t read.

  32. Cameron N. on August 10, 2011 at 2:15 pm

    It seems no one has really addressed my statement that God has ‘vetted’ the Bible by a plenitude of proxy witnesses, including Joseph Smith. I know that’s boring and makes for a discussion killer, but isn’t that more practical than wondering about things that we honestly won’t know in this life?

  33. Raymond Takashi Swenson on August 10, 2011 at 5:20 pm

    To Nate R: The traditional attributions transmit the opinions of people who were a lot closer to the facts AND to whoever the real authors were. Against those, we have only deductions based on interpretations and suppositions, rather than any solid objective evidence, such as a very early manuscript of the Gospel of Matthew with a statement that it was “written by Apollos” or some such. We know from Pasul’s epistles that many of the detailed stories about what Jesus taught and what he did (e.g. the Last Supper) were already in circulation, and Paul emphasizes that he knew these things through discussion with Peter and James, who were eyewitnesses. Any gospel manuscript would be coming out into a society of church members who already knew many if not most of the stories and teachings by word of mouth, and would have vetted any manuscript against that information.

    While literacy was not as widespread in those days as it is now, the people who taught in synagogues (like Paul) were certainly literate in Hebrew, and he was certainly literate in Greek. Acts describes him speaking to Greek-speaking audiences (including at Athens, and on all sorts of occasions, like when the natives of one city thought he and his companion were Mercury and Jupiter). His defense before Agrippa and his speech in Athens show signs of classical Greek education, of a quality like the hebrew education he received from Gamaliel. And obviously every city where he sent a letter had people who could read those letters to other members. The fact that Paul transmitted a lot of information in writing makes it likely that the general information about Christ’s life and teachings were also written down and transmitted and stored, and it was not predomiinantly an oral tradition that transmitted this important Good News. Even if a person was not personally literate, it seems to me that people felt it was important to make records and to send letters, using professional and amateur scribes to record and transmit and then read information, rather than rely on word of mouth by travelers to get the word out. For comparison, I note that even though many soldiers during the Civil War were not fully literate, they enlisted others to whom they dictated letters, and used them to read letters sent from home.

    So I think that the transmission of information about the Gospel in the early church was probably a combination of memory, oral transmission, and written recording and transmission. A lot of schoolars have speculated about a second source, “Q”, for both Luke and Matthew that was in addition to Mark. “Q” could have been a compilation of shorter records and letters that were recopied and retransmitted, as they were carried from place to place by Paul, Peter and others, and were never in a single document until they were used as a resource for preparing the longer narratives. Maybe there were copies of Christ’s sermons, parables, and other teachings, that were saved up and consolidated in much the way the collected sermons of a modern apostle are edited together. Maybe Matthew didn’t write a single document version of his Gospel, but authored separate documents, like the “Sermon on the Mount” and the “Parables”, and the “stories of Jesus’ Childhood” that were assembled into a book that was given his name as the principle originator of much of the material.

    Heck, our Book of Moses is actually a patchwork narrative that includes a Book of Adam and a Book of Enoch added to a purported first person narrative from Moses’ viewpoint, but which clearly often refers to Moses in the third person. Moses stands between us and the prior narrators, so it is named for him. Perhaps Matthew has done a similar compilation, sans quotation marks and citation of sources for things, such as the events in the life of the young Jesus, which Matthew did not witness personally. He may not be the sole author, but he stands between us and the other sources of information, and thus his name is properly affixed as transmitting it to us. It is in effect his testimony, his affirmation that he believes these things occurred and are reliable information.

  34. Dave on August 10, 2011 at 6:38 pm

    Thanks for the comments, everyone. I’m surprised the discussion is still going five days after the original post!

    Cameron N (#32), I don’t know that opinions by early Church Fathers or comments by Joseph Smith, including the JST, really settle the issue. It appears that the bible manuscripts we possess have come down to us via natural human transmission (scribes copying earlier manuscripts), complete with transcription errors, intentional changes by well-intentioned editors, etc. How much of the original or authentic gospel of Jesus Christ or teachings of the early Christian Church they have retained is a question of fact rather than a question that is pre-determined by a divine guarantee. That, I think, is a point on which Latter-day Saints and Evangelicals disagree. The qualifier in the LDS Articles of Faith that we accept the Bible “as far as it is translated correctly” stands for just this proposition, I think.

    So Latter-day Saints are certainly entitled to study the Bible with a critical eye as to authorship and the authenticity of questionable passages.

    RTS (#27, #33), since one of my points is that both views (that traditional ascriptions are valid and that they are not) are open to Latter-day Saints, I’m not going to argue one side or the other. But given how prevalent the assumption is in LDS discussions that the traditional ascriptions are accurate, it is worth noting a few obvious items that suggest they are not, just so it is clear both views have some support:

    1. The traditional ascriptions did not appear on manuscripts until well into the second century, almost a century after they were written. Those who first applied names to the books thus had no direct knowledge of authorship.

    2. Matthew would have been an eyewitness to many of the events recounted in the book of Matthew, yet he follows Mark very closely — something like 90% of Mark is reproduced in Matthew. Had the author of Matthew been an eyewitness recording his own recollections, we would expect less dependence on Mark.

    3. The author of Luke in the first four verses of that gospel explains that he is relying on a variety of earlier written sources and oral traditions — in other words, the writer of Luke tells us he (or she — some scholars suggest the author was female) was not an eyewitness. Luke shows considerable dependence on Mark, on Q (a source also evident in Matthew), and on some sources unique to Luke. The author of Matthew displays a very similar approach, relying on Mark, on Q, and on some sources unique to Matthew. So Matthew was working much like Luke was — relying on earlier written sources and the oral tradition that was available to him. That both Luke and Matthew took very similar approaches, coupled with Luke’s express admission he was not an eyewitness, suggests that the author of Matthew, too, was not an eyewitness.

    As a final point, I’ll note that the conservative scholar Luke Timothy Johnson emphasizes that the four gospels in the Bible are unquestionably the most reliable sources we have about the life of Jesus. Sometimes new manuscript discoveries (the gospel of Thomas, Secret Mark, the Gospel of Peter, the Gospel of Judas, etc.) get a lot of press, and scholars love to study and publish on new documents. But all the press on new discoveries should not obscure the fact that the four gospels are the best sources we have for the life and teachings of Jesus.

  35. Dave R on August 10, 2011 at 8:38 pm

    So Nate, I take it from your reply you didn’t find my use of Acts 4:13 very convincing :). I think you’re right. I could have been clearer using that verse. Here’s why i think it’s telling:

    First, let’s start with literacy rates among early Jews in Palestine. Studies differ, but a reasonable estimate might be about three percent for any degree of literacy and one percent for full literacy (Catherine Hezser). John would have been unlikely to be in that one percent.

    Second, look at some different translations of Acts 4:13 for the two words that describe Peter and John:
    NIV: unschooled / ordinary
    KJV: unlearned / ignorant
    NRSV: uneducated / ordinary
    NASB: uneducated and untrained
    Douay-Rheims: illiterate / ignorant
    Weymouth: illiterate / untrained
    Darby: unlettered and uninstructed

    Finally, i think that we’re justified in using the term ‘illiterate’ because of the context. It seems to me that the surprise of the Jewish leaders makes sense in light of Peter and John’s education (or lack thereof). They have no business being such powerful and convincing speakers. (maybe their perception being that the best teachers / speakers were ones that were educated and literate).

    I don’t know if that convinces you, but hopefully it’s at least a little more compelling than before. I admit that even if you buy that, it doesn’t prove the case with 100% certainty. John could have potentially spent years learning and studying Greek after this is recorded — I just feel its unlikely. Furthermore, I confess that even if we both thought John was fully literate, i’d question the assertion that the Gospel of John respresents his testimony. It just doesn’t seem like an unaltered account of an eye witness.

  36. Jonathan Green on August 10, 2011 at 10:28 pm

    Dave, as a follow-up to your comment #34 above, I think the arguments for your points 2 and 3 may not actually be all that strong, because they rely on the assumption that eyewitnesses don’t cite other texts to describe their own experience. At least for the Middle Ages, this assumption turns out not to hold; I can think of one description of the Holy Land by a pilgrim who was quite clearly where he claims to have been, but which is heavily based on earlier works. Rather than a written text conforming to someone’s experiences, people’s perceptions can instead conform to a pre-existing text.

    But, again, I don’t think the traditional authorship is important, and I think the other arguments against it are sound, and what applies to the Middle Ages may not be true of the 1st/2nd century in any case. I just mention this as an example of sensible assumptions that stop working once you get back a few centuries.

  37. Brad on August 11, 2011 at 2:06 pm

    One question that needs to be raised is not so much whether or not the Gospels were written by Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, but how close the authors were to the events described. How did the authors know what happened and what to write? Did Jesus tell them personally, other witnesses, or did they witness the events themselves? Clearly Luke was not present at the birth of Jesus. I am supposing that Mary and Joseph would have filled him in on what had happened. But this raises the question as to why they would have told the story as such and as to how they constructed and reconstructed the narrative.

    Furthermore, as for Jesus’ speech, is this a word-for-word transcript, or a paraphrasing of the main ideas? Was there an editorial staff regarding the publication of these words? Were Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John the scribes themselves, or did someone else write them down?

  38. Raymond Takashi Swenson on August 11, 2011 at 3:03 pm

    As to the idea that John, or even peter, might have gotten some education and become more literate as time went on, the traditions are pretty strong that Peter actually went to Rome and preached there, and that ordinary people who did NOT speak Aramaic listened to him (e.g. Clementine Recognitions). So it appears that, over time, Peter was smart enough that he learned to at least SPEAK Greek (not necessarily Latin).

    As to learning to read and write, one of the marvels about an alphabetic, phonetic system of writing is that, once you learn the limited number of symbols that correspond to the sounds you are already familiar with, basic literacy can be acquired in a few weeks. (This is in contrast to pictographic scripts like Egyptian Hieroglyphs and Chinese characters that require mastery of hundreds of different symbols.) The key thing is motivation. I suggest that Peter, having been commissioned by Christ to carry the Gospel to the entire world (especially after his vision about taking it to Gentiles in Acts 10) would have been plenty motivated to learn basic literacy. With Greek, he could read the Septuagint (Greek version of the Hebrew Bible/Old Testament). Peter was preaching in Rome in the early 60s AD, some 30 years after the events of the Gospels, so he had LOTS of time to learn to speak Greek and to become literate in at least one language. Maybe a fisherman didn’t need to be literate, but someone whose job was teaching from the scriptures and communicating with a church of thousands of people spread across the Roman Empire had a real incentive to acquire basic literacy.

    I think of the example of Joseph Smith, who started out with the most basic of educations, but made efforts through his adult life to learn the basics of Hebrew, and other topics, and was much more articulate at the end of his life, after 15 years of ministry, than when he started out. Joseph(Age 24) was not Joseph(Age 38). And by the same token, Peter(AD 34) was not Peter(AD 62).

  39. Dave R on August 11, 2011 at 9:25 pm

    Hi Ramond, i think we may keep this post alive a little longer! Quick thought on comment #33. You raise an intersting point that the stories and teachings of Jesus would have been known and spread by Paul who recieved them from Peter and James. It makes sense, but surprisingly, there is little evidence for that. Paul emphasizes he didn’t meet Peter until three years after his conversion (Galatians 1). And if we read the Pauline letters, we learn very, very little about the life and teachings of Jesus. To Paul, it seems the importance of ‘Christ crucified’ and His resurrection far surpassed anything He did or said in His mortal life. You mention Paul is aware of the Lord’s supper. We know he’s also aware that Jesus was Jewish, had 12 disciples, and was betrayed and crucified. But that’s mostly it. And in Paul’s letters, he shares almost nothing of what Jesus actually taught. It’s not really clear at all that Paul knew that much about Jesus, and if Paul is our model, early gentile christians may not have known much about Jesus either.

  40. Dave R on August 11, 2011 at 9:48 pm

    Raymond, in #38, you have an interesting hypothesis, but no evidence. It seems unlikely Peter would have become fully literate in Greek, but fail to actually write much of anything. There’s no record of Peter communicating to early christians in the same manner Paul did. In fact, it’s generally accepted by biblical scholars that 1st Peter is very likely a forgery and 2nd Peter is certainly a forgery (and a bad one). However, even if you accept those two letters as authentic, it seems quite short sighted for Peter to put significant effort into achieving mastery of written Greek with the result being the two letters we have. That seems like a talent developed at great expense for very little in return . . . especially when he could have used that talent to record the experience he had with Jesus.

    Sorry for picking on those two points you made. Even though I disagree, I’ve really enjoyed your thoughtful defense of the traditional view of authorship.

  41. JWL on August 15, 2011 at 1:46 pm

    I don’t see the importance of arguing about whether Peter, John or James could write. Wasn’t much of ancient writing dictated to scribes? Isn’t it conceivable that an apostle with a basic knowledge of spoken common Greek could have dictated his account to a literate scribe, who might have also cleaned up the Greek a little as he wrote?

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