reading the bible

The Bible gives us four perspectives of Jesus’ life. Each records a special viewpoint of the most significant event in history: the crucifixion and resurrection. All four of the gospels are named after men who lived during or after Jesus’ early ministry. Tradition says these men are the authors, but there’s one issue: none of these books name their author.

The gospels are anonymous, so how do we know who wrote them? The gospels don’t come with an “about the author” segment. The closest we get to a claim of authorship comes at the end of John, where the author indicates that the book was written by the disciple that Jesus loved. Are there other context clues we can use to figure out the authors? Can we trust tradition’s assumption about who wrote the gospels? Did the early church leaders know more about the gospels’ authorship than we know now?

Who wrote the Gospel of Matthew?

For over a millennium, the church has attributed Matthew to Matthew, a tax collector turned disciple. All three gospels and the book of Acts name Matthew among the 12 disciples, but only the book of Matthew explicitly calls him a tax collector. All three synoptic gospels have an account of Jesus calling a tax collector to discipleship. However, while the book of Matthew calls him Matthew, Luke and Mark both call him Levi. It’s worth noting that all four lists of the apostles include Matthew, while none of them include a man named Levi.

Some scholars believe that these are two different men, but most think Matthew was known by two names and was possibly called Levi because he was a part of the Levi tribe. Tradition claims that Matthew, the tax collector, wrote the gospel of Matthew, but there’s some evidence for and against this claim. The earliest evidence that Matthew wrote the gospel comes from historian Eusebius, who quoted Papias, a second-century church father. The quote is vague, and scholars can’t say what it means.

According to Eusebius, Papias said Matthew arranged the oracles in Hebrew, and every one interpreted them as best they could. The issue scholars have with Papias’ statement is that what we call the gospel of Matthew reads like a Greek original, not an interpretation or translation of a text that was originally written in another language. That being said, it’s possible that Matthew wrote or arranged another work, possibly a collection of Jesus’ sayings or a complete gospel, in Aramaic or Hebrew, then wrote a separate original Greek edition later.

Who wrote the Gospel of Mark?

Several early church leaders claim that John Mark, a friend of Peter and Paul, wrote the gospel of Mark. Through a game of literary telephone, we might have word that one of the apostles says John Mark wrote the gospel of Mark. Think back to Papias, who said Matthew wrote about Jesus. According to Eusebius, Papias also believes that John the Elder, or the apostle John, told him that John Mark had written it.

However, if this complex trail of information doesn’t convince you, several other early church writers claimed he wrote it, including Irenaeus, Tertullian, Origen, Clement of Alexandria, and Jerome. These writers also believe that John Mark wrote the gospel using Peter’s eyewitness accounts. The early church father Papias says Mark became Peter’s interpreter, but it’s unclear if he means that Mark interpreted Greek for Peter or if he means that Mark put Peter’s verbal teachings into written form.

Either way, the early church seems to have unanimously believed that John Mark wrote the gospel of Mark, and no alternatives were ever given. He wasn’t an apostle or an eyewitness to Jesus’ ministry, but we have reason to believe that John Mark was, in fact, the author of the gospel of Mark.

Who wrote the Gospel of Luke?

The early church credits Luke to Paul’s friend, Luke. Irenaeus, Origen, Tertullian, Clement of Alexandria and others list him as the author. Luke is mentioned throughout Paul’s letters, where we learn he was a doctor. At the start of Luke, the author seems to claim not to be an eyewitness to Jesus’ ministry but someone who’s spoken to eyewitnesses and investigated their stories, as detailed in Luke 1:1-4. Church tradition says that Luke was a converted Gentile, which scholars think is the reason Paul introduces him individually in Colossians 4:11-14.

Being a Gentile would also justify why the author takes an interest in how Gentiles respond to the gospel. However, given his knowledge of the Hebrew Scriptures, some scholars believe that Luke was a “God-fearer,” a Gentile who revered the God of Israel. The primary arguments against Luke as the author are the depiction of Paul and the theology presented in Acts and Luke. Some scholars say that the theologies differ and that the Paul we see in Acts isn’t the same Paul we see in his letters. The most apparent difference in Paul’s portrayal is his treatment of Judaizers in Acts 21:20-26.

Who wrote the Gospel of John?

John comes closest to sharing the identity of its author out of all the gospels. At the end of the gospel, the author starts referring to one disciple as the one whom Jesus loved, eventually suggesting this disciple wrote the gospel. According to John 21:20-24, this is the disciple who testifies to these things and writes them down, and we know his testimony is true. The disciple whom Jesus loved is usually believed to be the apostle John.

This passage may seem to point to John, but it isn’t a closed case. The writer of John claims to be an eyewitness to Jesus’ ministry, and there’s good reason to believe it’s true. The gospel has several details that seem incidental, some not even bearing a symbolic significance. For example, the number of water jars at the wedding in Cana and the number of fish the disciples caught at Galilee seem so unimportant, so it’s hard to imagine that they would be notable to a second or third-hand writer.

At the end of the day, the gospels are anonymous, with none of them identifying its author. We have good reason to support the authors named by church tradition, but we don’t have to take their word for it. However, after examining textual evidence and clues from other writings, none of the evidence against or for these authors is 100 percent conclusive.

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