One of the most common claims that Dr. Ehrman makes about the Gospels is that they are not written by those names that are on them. He claims the books of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John were not written by Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John; rather they are written by anonymous authors late in the 1st century. According to Ehrman, we do not know who these people are; they are people who were probably Hellenistic writers outside of Palestine simply putting down the stories they had heard about Jesus; they were not eyewitnesses; and we cannot be assured that what they are telling us really took place. This claim is reiterated often by Ehrman. Yet there is only one thing that supports that claim – the Gospels are what we call ‘formerly anonymous’. This means that in the text itself, it does not say John wrote this, or Matthew wrote this. If you read a letter of Paul, it tells you that Paul’s name is attached to it, but the Gospels are formerly anonymous. Should that be a concern? Actually, no, it should not be. Ancient biographies often were formerly anonymous. The Gospels leaving the authors’ names outside of the text formerly is not at all unusual. Then how do we know who wrote these books? There are several ways we conclude that the authors are Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John.First, the titles of the books. One thing that Ehrman claims is that the titles attached to
First, the titles of the books. One thing that Ehrman claims is that the titles attached to these documents were added later – probably well into the 2nd century, if not late 2nd century. But this claim runs into a number of problems. Our earliest manuscripts of these Gospel texts all have the title attached to them. So as far back as we can see, these Gospels had the titles with them. Moreover, one has to ask the question, ‘if these titles were a late addition, how is it that we have such uniformity in what these documents recall?’ For example, if Matthew’s gospel was not called ‘Matthew’s Gospel’ until late in the 2nd century, then why do we not have a number of copies of Matthew’s gospels with different titles and different names? And the fact is, this is not the case. What we find is incredible uniformity across the board for the titles of these gospels – Matthew’s Gospel is called ‘Matthew’; Mark’s is called ‘Mark’. It is amazingly consistent – something we would not expect if the titles were added later.
Another thing that indicates the titles were attached early is the fact that we have Mark and Luke included in the list of titles. In the 2nd century, when apocryphal gospels were written, titles would often be picked to have some of the most popular names attached to them. So we have something like ‘The Gospel of Peter’, which was an apocryphal gospel. People wanted to attach the most popular apostles’ names to their works to try and give them extra authority. So if names were arbitrarily chosen for these Gospels in the 2nd century, why would they pick Mark and Luke? They were hardly the most popular figures in early Christianity. There is no reason to think their names would have been an extra boost for any particular gospel. These are not the names we would expect to be chosen if they were arbitrarily picked in the middle-to-late 2nd century. In fact, we know from other sources that Mark’s Gospel is actually the testimony of Peter. Mark claims that what he is writing down are Peter’s words. If so, then why not call Mark’s Gospel ‘The Gospel of Peter’? That would make much more sense. Instead, it retains the title ‘The Gospel of Mark’ even though that is not the most famous figure you could attribute to the book. This suggests historical integrity, modesty, and truth. It suggests that the titles we have of these Gospels are the titles of the actual people who wrote them.
There is more evidence for why we know the Gospels are written by Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. We have very strong patristic testimony in this regard. Papyius who was a church bishop in the early 2nd century tells us and confirms for us that Matthew was the author of ‘Matthew’, and Mark was the author of ‘Mark’. Papyius claims to have heard the Gospel of John preached. If this is true, then he was only one step removed from the apostles themselves. Also, a late 2nd century church father, Irenaeus, tells us that these four gospels were written by Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. Where would Irenaus have gotten his information from? We are told in other early Christian writings that Irenaeus was a disciple of Polycarp. Polycarp was a disciple of John the apostle. So whatever Irenaeus tells us about the authors of the Gospels, he most likely got from Polycarp, who got it from the apostle John. This is a very reliable historical sequence. There are good reasons to think that Irenaeus knows who the Gospel authors are better than modern scholars today. If we take him at his word, then we have every reason to think that the gospels are written by the names that are attached to them – Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John.