Another feature in gospel studies that is often raised is the idea that the authors who are associated with the gospels did not really write the gospels that they are associated with. The claim is Matthew did not write Matthew; John did not write John; Mark did not write Mark; and Luke did not write Luke. The claim is made – and this is correct – that no gospel names its author. This is true. If you read through any of the four gospels, at no point do we get something similar to the Pauline letters’ “Paul, a slave of Jesus Christ, writing to…” We do not have anything like that in the gospels. So we have to reconstruct who the author is.
We look at how far back this gospel tradition goes. We know that the claims associated with it reach at least to the latter part of the 2nd century because Irenaeus mentions the four gospels and gives their names as Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. But is he right? We actually know from the reports we get from Eusebius about Patheos that these associations go back to somewhere between the latter part of the 1st century and the beginning part of the 2nd century – within a couple of decades of when these gospels were actually written. Patheos reports on Mark being associated as the interpreter of Peter; Matthew being a writer of a gospel in the Hebrew dialect in a Hebrew context; Luke being the writer of his gospel; and John being associated with the fourth gospel. So these take us pretty far back.
How about we consider the alternative model? The alternative model suggests that the names we attach to these gospels are attached to them in order to raise the status of the gospel in question. In other words, rather than have it be anonymous, attach the authorship to the name of a luminary – someone who will bring credibility to this work – and thereby undergird and support the testimony in what is really an anonymous gospel. Does this model work? Consider the two gospels associated with figures not recognized to be apostles – Mark and Luke.
Mark. Think about Mark’s résumé. His ‘curriculum vitae,’ if you will. His CV is that he did not make it through the first missionary journey. He went home to his mom because the pressure got to be too much for him. Second part of his CV is that he caused a split between Paul and Barnabas before they went out in ministry. So does this sound like a figure you are going to commend as the author to undergird the support of a gospel? Remember, if it the author is unknown, then the name is ‘X,’ so you can put anyone in there that you want. Yet Mark goes in there. Mark does not commend himself as a luminary who can lift up the credibility of a gospel. Some people suggest that it was not just Mark; but since he was connected to Peter, it is really Peter who is behind this gospel. That would be interesting. If you could put in any name for ‘X,’ including an apostle (like the claim for Matthew and John), then why not put Peter in there? That would solve your credibility problem instantly. The gospel tradition does not do that. It makes it very clear that Mark is responsible for the gospel, but he interacted with Peter in producing it. It seems to me that this gives evidence that the gospel tradition is trying to be very careful about how it states its origins, and does not ‘jump the gun’ in terms of credibility.
Luke is often associated with the third gospel and presented as Paul’s representative. So the third gospel is usually associated with Paul in one way or another. Again, think through the candidates of who could go in the ‘X’ slot for the author or than Luke. Who else worked with Paul that could give that gospel potential credibility? Barnabas, Timothy, Titus, Silas, Apollos, etc. There are numerous people who have a stronger background to lift up the credibility than Luke. He was basically was an unknown disciple – who may have been a doctor in the background – about whom we know very little else. So does the alternative theory that suggests a lifting up of the luminary in the ‘X’ slot actually work? When we take a close look at it, the answer is no; that theory really does not work.
The question is then raised, “Why are these somewhat obscure figures, some with questionable histories, being associated as the authors of these works?” It is more likely that it is because the tradition knew something about the authorship of these books, and that is what was passed on.