Who Wrote the Gospels, When, and Why?
Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily match my own. - Dr. Bart D. Ehrman
Who wrote the Gospels? According to a recent Gallup poll, only half of Americans leave any kind of will behind, and of that number, I am willing to guess only a handful take the time to leave any sort of personalized message for their loved ones to remember them by.
Americans aren’t crazy about death, so that percentage isn’t at all surprising. In all my years as a pastor presiding at funerals, I have only once read a eulogy written by the deceased person themselves. When it comes to the words of the most important man to have ever walked the earth, Jesus the Christ, surely that wasn’t the case, right?
Who Wrote The Gospels? I Have Some Thoughts
The short answer is that no, Jesus did not write any of his teachings down nor provide anything that could be taken as a “last will and testament” for his followers and loved ones. What a shame as this would have been by far the most convincing way to make his truth known about the Kingdom of God.
So if Jesus didn’t actually write these words down himself, then who did? In order to better grasp the answer to the proverbial “who done it” of Christianity’s written record, this article provides a brief examination of why the Gospels were written down at all as well as when they likely graced ancient newsstands.
I’ll let Bart’s webinar do most of the work underneath the question of who is possibly responsible for the authorship of the Gospels, but this will at least give us a starting point for how the topic is even up for debate.
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Did Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John Actually Write Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John?
The New Testament Gospels are anonymous. So why did early Christians say they were written by Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John? And what's the evidence that they actually did?
Why Were the Gospels Written?
As Bart discusses at length in his book and webinar how Jesus became God in the ancient world, Jesus was not the only influential human to cause a stir by outlasting death. Philostratus’s Life of Apollonius of Tyana, is one example of another influencer like Jesus whose life story shares components with Jesus’ story.
That Jesus’ story was written down is not surprising. Just as a person today tries to keep fresh the love story of their dearly departed through inheriting their stuff or wishes, Jesus’ followers also saw the need to keep Jesus’ legacy of love, forgiveness, and overcoming the grave from fading into obscurity.
Over time, the only way that could happen was by putting his life into words and onto papyrus. Some followers were in less of a hurry to do so than others.
When Were The Gospels Written?
In the immediate decades following Jesus’ death and mysterious reappearances spawned a new religious understanding of his teachings. His followers were too busy spreading his mission across the Jewish homeland and setting up new Christ communities to worry about writing books about their Risen Lord.
Controversies were springing up left and right regarding the rules about proper discipleship. Who qualified, how important circumcision was, etc. Also, prevalent in the immediate aftermath of Jesus’ last days was the belief that Jesus was coming back soon. A belief that created urgency about the end of the world rather than finding a publishing house.
Jesus' Words In Print
The panic button was finally pressed thirty to forty years after Jesus breathed his last breath. Most scholars agree that the very first Gospel written and distributed was the Gospel of Mark in or around the year 70.
Motivation to put pen to papyrus would have been at a fever-pitch at that time as the Roman legions destroyed the temple in Jerusalem, dousing the fiery passion of Jewish hopes for independence. The act likely triggered an enhanced need to have Jesus in print so to speak.
Matthew is traditionally believed to have been written a decade after Mark, and John a decade after that in the 90s. Scholarship regarding the arrival of Luke’s Gospel is widespread and divided, with some dating Luke/Acts as early as the time of Matthew’s Gospel in the 80s (see William James Jennings) or as late as the early second century.
Progressive theologian Marcus Borg makes a compelling case for Luke/Acts being the last of the Jesus narratives to launch, somewhere in the 110s after the earliest references to Jesus and Christianity began showing up in Roman sources like Tacitus and Pliny, arguing that Luke’s Gospel communicates the highest Christology of Jesus.
NOW AVAILABLE! THE UNKNOWN GOSPELS
A closer look at the Gospels from a scholarly perspective. How do we do when the Gospels were written? Why do scholars think Matthew and Luke copied Mark? And much more...
So Who REALLY Wrote the Gospels?
At the top of most conventional beliefs of Christians regarding the New Testament Gospel writers is Matthew. He is believed to be none other than one of Jesus’ twelve apostles, the tax collector (Matt 10:3) and that Mark was written by a secretary of the disciple Peter, and that the author of Luke was a close traveling companion of Paul.
Many Christians believe John’s Gospel was penned by the “beloved disciple” mentioned in the fourth gospel. Not all scholars agree with the traditional Christian consensus however and have some very good reasons to doubt the traditional authorship of Jesus’ disciples behind these ancient words.
My colleagues have written more in depth articles about the authorship of each gospel. You can find them at:
- Who wrote the Gospel of Matthew?
- Who wrote the Gospel of Mark?
- Who wrote the Gospel of Luke?
- Who wrote the Gospel of John?
For the rest of the New Testament, also see “Who Wrote the New Testament?”
If a person really wants to get to the truth, then I suggest asking several questions such as: why were the Gospels written in Greek versus Aramaic, the language Jesus spoke, or Hebrew, the language of Jesus’ heritage?
Weren’t Jesus’ disciples illiterate peasants with blue-collar jobs? When did they have time to learn Greek well enough to write it? How old did Jesus’ disciples live to be? Do the Gospels provide any indication of who was writing these words?
Finally, do the Gospels need to be written by Jesus’ actual disciples in order for them to speak Jesus’ truth and for that truth to stick? Next, do yourself a favor and sign up for the best free webinar you’ll ever watch, and get ready to unlock not only the most likely identities of the Gospel’s authors but also the why, when, and how behind the most influential last will and testament ever recorded.