“We Do Not Know Who Wrote the Gospels”

Many of our high school and college students will hear this skeptical claim and others like it on their campuses from those who are opposed to the Christian faith.   As a result of not knowing how to answer these skeptical claims, many of this generation will fall away from the Christian faith when confronted by skeptics. In my time investigating different crimes throughout my law enforcement career, oftentimes, it was necessary to obtain documents to prove one of the elements of a criminal offense.

For instance, if I came across a man with a weapon when patrolling, I would conduct a check of his criminal history to see if he had been convicted of a felony. If the check revealed that the man was a convicted felon, then I would charge the suspect with possession of a firearm by a felon. In preparation for the court proceedings, I would order historical records (certified copies of his conviction) held by the court where he was convicted for the original offense in order to prove that he was indeed a convicted felon. When the court proceedings came along, I would present a certified copy of the court order showing the conviction to the judge or jury for their inspection. This procedure also applied to several other crimes that I prosecuted persons for in the federal system during my tenure with the U.S. Marshals Service (sex offender registry violations, escape from a federal prison, etc.).

As noted in the title of the blog article, some skeptics claim that we do not know who the authors of the New Testament are.  Dr. Richard Carrier is one such scholar. Regarding their identity, he states, “But we don’t know who Mark is, either, or when or where he wrote or who his sources were…nor do we know who Luke or John were, or when or where they wrote, or who any of their sources were (Carrier, R. 2010. ‘Why the resurrection is unbelievable’ in The Christian Delusion: Why Faith Fails).”

Are there any historical documents that shed light on Carrier’s claim of unknown Gospel authors? The answer is “yes.” There is evidence in a number of historical documents that gives guidance on this issue. The first group of documents is the New Testament books themselves:

  • The apostle Paul mentions two of the writers (Mark and Luke) in one passage together on several occasions (Philemon 1:24, 2 Timothy 4:11, and Colossians 4:10-14)
  • Mark is mentioned not only by Paul as observed above, but he is also mentioned by Peter as well (1 Peter 5:13)
  • Luke mentions Mark on a number of occasions in the book of Acts (12:12; 12:25, 15:37-39)
  • John is mentioned by Matthew, Mark, Luke, and Paul
  • Matthew is mentioned by Mark, and Luke (Acts)

The second class of documentary evidence is other documents that were written by the authors outside of the Bible:

Mark

  • Papias, Bishop of Hierapolis and hearer of the apostle John, wrote that Mark was the author of the Gospel that bears his name and that Mark had obtained his information for his Gospel from Peter
  • Other early church leaders such as Justin Martyr, Tertullian, Origen, and Clement of Alexandria write that Mark was the author of his Gospel

Matthew

  • Matthew is affirmed as author of his Gospel by the writings of second century Bishop of Lyons, Irenaeus
  • Papias also writes that Matthew is the author of his Gospel

Luke

  • Luke is mentioned as the author of his Gospel by the Muratorian fragment, a second century document which is a listing of the books of the New Testament as authenticated by the early Christian church
  • The writer of the Anti-Marcionite prologues of the late second century endorsed Luke as the author of the third Gospel
  • The oldest known manuscript of the Gospel of Luke, The Bodmer Papyrus XIV (A.D. 175 to A.D. 225) attributes authorship of the Gospel of Luke to Luke
  • Early church leaders who affirm in writing that Luke is the author of his Gospel are Tertullian and Irenaeus

John

  • John is attributed authorship to his Gospel by the writings of Irenaeus, Clement of Alexandria, and Tertullian
  • The Book of John itself mentions that he (John) was an eyewitness and wrote these things down
  • The second century anti-Marcionite prologues and Muratorian Fragment mention John as the author
  • A 2nd century enemy of the early Christian church, Celsus, identifies in writing that two of Jesus’ disciples wrote two of the Gospels even while he attacks Christianity

Just like when I would collect historical documents to prove an element of a criminal offense against a defendant, I can also view copies of historical documents that show that the Gospels were written by those named as authors in the New Testament. Furthermore, it is clear that other authors of the New Testament also knew the Gospel writers.   As you can see by the aforementioned list, there is ample documentary evidence to establish that we can know who the authors of the Gospels are. We need to let others know about this great evidential support for Christianity because Dr. Carrier and others are making spurious claims as if they are factual.  Just one more reason we should be prepared to “Contend for the faith (Jude 3).”

Atheist’s Accusation of “Contradictory Gospels” Just Doesn’t Make Sense

There are skeptical voices today that claim the Gospel narratives contradict each other. One of these voices belongs to Dr. Richard Carrier, an atheist, who specifically targets the resurrection accounts in the different Gospels as being contradictory. In regards to the resurrection of Jesus Christ, he observes contradictions in the number of angels, the lists of witnesses to the resurrection,  the details of the burial of Jesus, the post-resurrection appearances of Jesus, etc.  Does Dr. Carrier’s claim have any merit?

In my police career, when arriving at the scene of a crime, it was important for me to interview all of the witnesses of the crime. Oftentimes, these witnesses had different accounts of what happened. The witnesses would provide me with what they observed from their unique perspective. As an investigator, it was up to me to figure out what really happened from the evidence that I collected to include the testimony of the different witnesses. Later in my career as a U.S. Marshals Service fugitive investigator, I would often interview a number of informants/witnesses, on a case, who would give me differing pieces of information about the fugitive and his whereabouts. One person might tell me that they saw the fugitive last night with his girlfriend in Kernersville at a particular address whereas another witness may tell me that he heard that the fugitive was going in and out of Kernersville every couple of days in a blue Chevy truck.

These statements about the whereabouts of the fugitive are reconcilable even though they come from different perspectives and vary in small details. They both tell me that my fugitive is frequenting Kernersville even though one has more specific information than the other. In both instances (the crime scene and the fugitive investigation), it was up to me to determine the truth from the testimony of the different witnesses. One thing that I realized from my investigative career is that witnesses in the same case rarely gave identical testimony even though they had many points of similarity. If the testimony of two or more witnesses is identical in every respect, then this can lead one to believe that the testimony is rehearsed.

Does Dr. Carrier make valid points? Are the Gospels contradictory? In answering these questions, I think that the definition for the word “contradiction” would be a good place to start an analysis:

Here is a definition of the term “contradiction” that comes from Merriam Webster’s online dictionary:

2:a: a proposition, statement, or phrase that asserts or implies both the truth and falsity of something b: a statement or phrase whose parts contradict each other <a round square is a contradiction in terms>

3:a: logical incongruity b: a situation in which inherent factors, actions, or propositions are inconsistent or contrary to one another (Merriam Webster,)[1]

Do these definitions of the term “contradiction” fit the Gospel narratives? My first observation is that this term applies to a single entity. For instance, the example given is of a “round square.” This is certainly a contradictory phrase but this contradiction is included  within one phrase. We are now in the presidential campaign season (ugh!) and when you hear the candidates going back and forth, you don’t hear one candidate say to Donald Trump, “you just contradicted Ben Carson.” That would not make sense. What those irritable politicians do say to one another is “you just contradicted yourself.” In other words, a witness can contradict himself by stating something contrary to what he said before, but he cannot contradict someone else.

In light of what a contradiction actually is, Dr. Carrier’s accusation just does not make sense as the Gospel accounts are four separate versions of the ministry, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. If Dr. Carrier made the accusation that the Gospels have differences, then all would agree because they are thematically different accounts from different witnesses/sources. I would go further and say that they have to be different. If Carrier says that the accounts cannot be reconciled, then he has to deal with the great number of similarities that the Gospels share which is a big problem for him.

In the same way that information from different witnesses that I interviewed had differences in perspective and minor details, so also the Gospel evangelists wrote their accounts from different perspectives and utilized different sources. From reading the Gospel narratives, we can determine that Jesus Christ had a ministry that was accompanied by miracles and aided by twelve disciples, was crucified in Jerusalem during Passover weekend, was laid in the tomb of Joseph of Arimathea, and that many groups of witnesses observed the empty tomb as well as the risen Jesus Christ. We can have confidence in these Gospel narratives as they give us the same story although from different perspectives. Furthermore, there is no historical testimony that offers evidence to rebut this testimony. If the body of Jesus was located subsequent to the crucifixion, then surely there would be testimony to support this counter-claim in the historical record, but there is none. Dr. Carrier’s accusation just does not make sense.

[1] Merriam Webster: An Encyclopaedia Britannica Company [Web]. Contradiction. http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/contradiction Date of access: 23 June 2015.