Traditionally, the four gospels in the New Testament have been attributed to Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. However, liberal scholars have recently challenged traditional authorship and suggested alternative theories about who wrote the gospels.
According to tradition, the Gospel of Matthew was written by the apostle Matthew, also known as Levi, who was a tax collector before becoming a disciple of Jesus. Although the Gospel of Matthew does not identify its author, the early Christian writers Papias, Irenaeus, and Origen reported that the Gospel of Matthew was written by the Apostle Matthew.
Origen of Alexandria (c. 184-253 AD) – “The first [Gospel] is written according to Matthew, the same who was once a publican, but afterwards an apostle of Jesus Christ, who having published it for the Jewish converts, wrote it in Hebrew”
(Commentary on John 1.6).
Irenaeus of Lyons (c. 130-202 AD) – “Matthew also issued a written Gospel among the Hebrews in their own dialect, while Peter and Paul were preaching at Rome, and laying the foundations of the Church”
(Against Heresies 3.1.1).
Papias of Hierapolis (c. 60-130 AD) – “Matthew put together the oracles [of the Lord] in the Hebrew language, and each one interpreted them as best he could”
(Eusebius, Ecclesiastical History 3.39.16).
There are several pieces of evidence that have been cited as supporting the traditional authorship of Matthew, including:
- Attribution by Early Church Fathers: Several early Christian writers, including Papias, Irenaeus, and Origen, attributed the Gospel of Matthew to Matthew the Apostle.
- Use of Aramaic Expressions: The Gospel of Matthew contains several expressions that are believed to have originated in Aramaic, the language spoken by Jesus and his disciples. This has been interpreted by some scholars as evidence that the author of Matthew was a Jewish Christian who had a close connection to the Aramaic-speaking community of the early Church.
- Literary Style: The Gospel of Matthew exhibits a distinctive literary style that includes a focus on Jewish law, a concern for the fulfillment of Old Testament prophecy, and a structure that emphasizes five major discourses by Jesus. These features have been interpreted by some scholars as reflecting the perspective of a Jewish Christian who was well-versed in Jewish tradition and literature.
- Occupation as a Tax Collector: The Gospel of Matthew describes the calling of a tax collector named Matthew, who becomes one of Jesus’ disciples and was intimately familiar with Jewish customs and the Jewish community due to his profession. His gospel contains many references to money and finance, not found in the other gospels.
There is good evidence to support the traditional view that John Mark wrote the Gospel of Mark. He was Peter’s helper and scribe. He was also a cousin of Barnabas and worked closely with both Paul and Barnabas. Peter affectionately referred to him as “my son” (1 Peter 5:13).
- Early Christian Tradition: Several early Christian sources, including Papias (AD 60-130) and Irenaeus (AD 130-202), attribute the Gospel of Mark to John Mark, a companion of Peter.
- Linguistic Evidence: The Greek style of the Gospel of Mark is simpler and less polished than the Greek of the other three Gospels, suggesting that the author may not have been a highly educated or fluent writer of Greek. This fits with the idea that John Mark was a young man when he accompanied Paul and Barnabas on their first missionary journey, and may not have had extensive formal education.
- Relationship with Peter: The Gospel of Mark contains several details that suggest the author was familiar with the teachings of Peter, including some unique stories about Jesus that are not found in the other Gospels. For example, Mark’s account of the healing of the blind man at Bethsaida (Mark 8:22-26) includes a detail about the man seeing “people who looked like trees walking around” before his sight was fully restored, which may reflect Peter’s eyewitness testimony. The Gospel of Mark often refers to Peter by his given name, Simon, and includes details about Peter’s actions and words that are not found in the other Gospels.
- Style and Content: The Gospel of Mark is notable for its fast-paced, action-oriented style and its emphasis on Jesus as a miracle worker. Some scholars have suggested that this style and emphasis may reflect the influence of Peter, who was a witness to many of the events described in the Gospel and was often brash and impulsive.
Mark was amanuensis (scribe, helper) to Peter. Early Christian tradition associates the Gospel with Mark and the linguistic and theological details that suggest a connection with Peter.
Tertullian of Carthage (c. 155-240 AD) – “The Gospel of Mark… may be affirmed to be Peter’s, whose interpreter Mark was.”
(Against Marcion 4.5).
Clement of Alexandria (c. 150-215 AD) – “The Gospel according to Mark had this occasion. As Peter had preached the Word publicly at Rome, and declared the Gospel by the Spirit, many who were present requested that Mark, who had followed him for a long time and remembered his sayings, should write them out. And having composed the Gospel he gave it to those who had requested it”
(Eusebius, Ecclesiastical History 6.14.5-7).
Irenaeus of Lyons (c. 130-202 AD) – “After their [Peter and Paul’s] departure, Mark, the disciple and interpreter of Peter, did also hand down to us in writing what had been preached by Peter”
(Against Heresies 3.1.2).
Papias of Hierapolis (c. 60-130 AD) – “And the presbyter said this: Mark, having become the interpreter of Peter, wrote down accurately, though not in order, whatsoever he remembered of the things said or done by Christ”
(Fragments of Papias 3).
Origen of Alexandria (c. 184-253 AD) – “The second Gospel is that according to Mark, who wrote it according to the instruction of Peter, who, in his General Epistle, acknowledged him as a son, saying, ‘The church that is at Babylon, elected together with you, saluteth you; and so doth Marcus my son'”
(Commentary on John 6.36).
There is strong evidence to suggest that the Gospel of Luke was written by Luke, a physician and companion of the apostle Paul:
- Authorship Claim: The preface to the Gospel of Luke (Luke 1:1-4) suggests that the author was someone who had carefully investigated the events of Jesus’ life and ministry and was writing an orderly and accurate account for the benefit of his readers. This description fits with what we know of Luke’s background as a physician and his association with Paul.
- Relationship with Paul: Luke is mentioned by name in several of Paul’s letters (Colossians 4:14, Philemon 24, and 2 Timothy 4:11), and he is described as a “fellow worker” and a “beloved physician.” This suggests that Luke was closely associated with Paul and had traveled with him on some of his missionary journeys.
- Language and Style: The Greek of the Gospel of Luke is more polished and sophisticated than the Greek of the other Synoptic Gospels (Matthew and Mark), suggesting that the author was highly educated and fluent in Greek. This fits with what we know of Luke’s background as a physician and his association with the Hellenistic culture of the eastern Mediterranean. The Gospel of Luke contains several references to medical concepts and terminology that suggest the author had a medical background. For example, Luke is the only Gospel writer to use the term “physician,” and he uses medical terms like “fever” and “bodily fluids” to describe certain ailments.
- Attention to Detail: The Gospel of Luke is notable for its attention to historical and cultural detail, including specific references to people, places, and events. Some scholars have suggested that this level of detail suggests the author was a well-educated and well-traveled individual.
- Similarities with Acts of the Apostles: The Gospel of Luke is often paired with the book of Acts of the Apostles, which is also attributed to Luke. Both works share a similar style and vocabulary, and the preface to Acts (Acts 1:1-2) shows that the author was the same person who wrote the Gospel of Luke.
Irenaeus of Lyons (c. 130-202 AD) – “Luke, also, the companion of Paul, recorded in a book the Gospel preached by him”
(Against Heresies 3.1.1).
Tertullian of Carthage (c. 155-240 AD) – “Luke’s Gospel has also been commended as Paul’s”
(Against Marcion 4.2).
The Muratorian Fragment (c. 170-200 AD) – “The third book of the Gospel is that according to Luke… Luke, the well-known physician, after the ascension of Christ, when Paul had taken with him as one zealous for the law, [wrote] it in his own name, as one who had carefully investigated everything from the beginning”
Eusebius of Caesarea (c. 260-340 AD) – “Luke… who was himself a physician, carefully traced everything from the beginning, and wrote a Gospel”
(Ecclesiastical History 3.4.6).
There is some good evidence to suggest that the Gospel of John was written by the apostle John, the son of Zebedee:
- Early Christian Tradition: The Gospel of John has been attributed to the apostle John since the early Christian period, and this tradition is attested in several early Christian sources, including Irenaeus, Clement of Alexandria, and Tertullian.
- Authorship Claim: The Gospel of John contains several passages that suggest the author was an eyewitness to the events he describes, such as the description of the disciple whom Jesus loved reclining next to Jesus at the Last Supper (John 13:23-25) and the detail that the soldier pierced Jesus’ side with a spear (John 19:34). These passages suggest that the author was someone who was present at these events, and the apostle John was one of the disciples who was closest to Jesus.
- Theological Themes: The Gospel of John contains several theological themes that are closely associated with the apostle John, such as the emphasis on Jesus as the Word of God (John 1:1-18) and the idea of eternal life through faith in Jesus (John 3:16, 17:3). These themes are also found in the letters of John (1 John, 2 John, and 3 John), which are generally accepted as authentic works of the apostle John. There is also a similarity to the book of Revelation which was also authored by John the apostle.
- Differences from the Synoptic Gospels: The Gospel of John is distinctive in its style and content compared to the Synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark, and Luke), and this suggests that it was written by someone with a different perspective or background. The apostle John was one of the disciples who was closest to Jesus and had access to unique sources of information about Jesus’ life and teachings.
Clement of Alexandria (c. 150-215 AD) – “Last of all, John, perceiving that the bodily facts had been made plain in the Gospel, being urged by his friends, and inspired by the Spirit, composed a spiritual Gospel”
(Eusebius, Ecclesiastical History 6.14.7-8).
Irenaeus of Lyons (c. 130-202 AD) – “John, the disciple of the Lord, who also had leaned upon his breast, did himself publish a Gospel during his residence at Ephesus in Asia”
(Against Heresies 3.1.1).
Quotes from early church fathers indicate the acceptance of the four canonical Gospels:
- Irenaeus of Lyons (c. 130-202 AD) – “It is not possible that the Gospels can be either more or fewer in number than they are. For, since there are four zones of the world in which we live, and four principal winds… it is fitting that she should have four pillars, breathing out immortality on every side, and vivifying men afresh… Thus, then, the Gospels are in accord with these things, among which Christ Jesus is seated. For that according to John relates His original, effectual, and glorious generation from the Father, thus declaring, ‘In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God’… Matthew also issued a written Gospel among the Hebrews in their own dialect, while Peter and Paul were preaching at Rome, and laying the foundations of the Church. After their departure, Mark, the disciple and interpreter of Peter, did also hand down to us in writing what had been preached by Peter. Luke also, the companion of Paul, recorded in a book the Gospel preached by him”
(Against Heresies 3.11.7).
- Clement of Alexandria (c. 150-215 AD) – “In his Hypotyposes, indeed, Origen has well-nigh satisfied us that in each of the Gospels what is peculiar to itself is to be accepted as true, since also in a manner the character of each Evangelist is revealed in his own narrative… Matthew also published a written Gospel among the Hebrews in their own language, while Peter and Paul were preaching at Rome, and laying the foundation of the Church. After their departure, Mark, the disciple and interpreter of Peter, himself also handed down to us in writing what had been preached by Peter. Luke, also, the companion of Paul, recorded in a book the Gospel preached by him”
- Eusebius of Caesarea (c. 260-340 AD) – “The general consensus of early tradition is that Matthew wrote his Gospel first, while he was in Palestine, and that he composed it in the Hebrew language… Mark, who had become Peter’s interpreter, wrote down carefully, but not in order, everything that he remembered of what was said or done by the Lord… Luke, who was not an apostle but was a follower of Paul, wrote a Gospel… John, the disciple of the Lord, who had lain on His breast, himself also gave forth a Gospel, while he was living at Ephesus in Asia”
(Ecclesiastical History 3.24.6-8).
These quotes suggest that the early church fathers accepted only the four canonical Gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John) as authoritative and inspired accounts of the life and teachings of Jesus. There are no quotes from the time tat suggest alternate authors. The canonical Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John were widely accepted as authoritative by the early church, and their authorship is supported by a wealth of historical evidence and tradition.