Question and Answer

Authorship of the Gospels

Question:

I have a question about the authorship of the four gospels. Some friends of mine recently ridiculed a pastor who said that we know the writers of the four were at the last supper. I inquired further as to the reason for the problem, and they replied that the 12 apostles were at the first Lord's Supper, but the writers of the gospels came later. Would you comment on this? What is the evidence that the writers of these four gospels were the apostolic namesakes? Does it matter?

Answer:

The authorship of the four gospels is not per se a matter of divine inspiration; the content of the gospels, however, is. That is, the gospels themselves do not directly attest their authors (in contrast, say, to Paul's letters). But as Scripture, their every word was "God-breathed" (2 Tim.3:16) and therefore true. So the important matter to be absolutely clear on is that what they tell comes from God, regardless of who actually wrote the words. The truth of the Supper accounts, therefore, does not rely on their having all been written by those who were present, but on the work of the Spirit.

Having said that, the ancient church fathers were fairly unanimous (if not totally so, I could research it but am relying on memory here) in setting forth as the authors of the gospels those who bear their names in our Bibles (Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John).

Two of those, Matthew and John, were apostles and were certainly eye witnesses to the events they record. Considerable internal evidence seems to confirm John's authorship of the fourth gospel (references to "the one Jesus loved" and details which go well with the assumption of its being an eye witness account by that disciple who reclined on Jesus' bosom during the supper, etc.).

Matthew's gospel reflects a particularly Jewish focus in the narrating of events and the little touches that might come from having "been there", comporting well with its author having been the man whose call is recorded in 9:9 and who is not known to have been active beyond the circle of the Palestinian Jewish churches.

Mark was not an apostle, but he is very likely the young man referred to in 14:51,52 (a detail found only in this gospel) and later by name in Acts 12:12,25 (the ancient church and scholars since have seen a connection between these passages and the house in which the Last Supper was held as well as Acts 1:13 & 4:31). We are told in Acts 13:13 that Mark left Barnabas and Paul during the first missionary journey and returned to Jerusalem, occasioning a later disagreement between Barnabas and Paul and a parting of their paths (15:36-40), all of which was patched up in due time (Colossians 4:10, Philemon 24, 2 Timothy 4:11, 1 Corinthians 9:6).

So Mark was close to the inner circle of the apostles from at least the time of the Last Supper, not only in Palestine but also in the evangelism of the Gentiles. The early church fathers associated Mark with Peter as Peter's companion and aide. So it is altogether possible that the way he tells the story of Jesus' activities is the way he heard Peter doing so in his ministry.

Finally, Luke was a Gentile and no eye-witness to the gospel events. But the Spirit of God led him to compensate for that lack, if you will, by engaging in diligent research which including interviewing the eye witnesses to the events of Jesus's life. He spells this all out carefully in his opening, 1:1-4. So, although Luke was not present at the birth of our Lord, his account is an eye witness account (again indicated in little touches as well as big, such as the remark that Mary "treasured these things in her heart").

John's gospel, by all accounts written considerably after the first three (called the Synoptics, because they so closely parallel each other and can easily be combined in a synopsis), does not repeat much of the material already recorded by them, but focuses on Jesus' teaching, especially on his trips to Jerusalem.

In sum, the accounts of the four gospels (including the Supper) are indeed eye witness accounts; and we should give thanks for the wisdom of God which saw to the recording of our Lord's earthly life and ministry from four vantage points, for the richness of detail and insight this gives us far beyond what could have been provided by only one account.

Now I have no idea from whence your friends were coming with their remark that "the 12 apostles were at the first Lord's Supper, but the writers of the gospels came later." As outlined above, the best information is that two or three of them were present (two of whom were apostles) and at least one was not. Certainly their accounts were all written later, and written to meet needs arising within the life of the growing Church.

For more than two centuries there has been a movement among scholars to cast doubt on everything, both the ancient church's traditions regarding the authorship of New Testament books and also the truthfulness of the historical record in those books. And a major assertion of this critical/skeptical view is that the New Testament writings, especially the Gospels and Acts, were the products of the later church and embody in them the myths, traditions and biases which quickly developed in the first generation of the growing (and squabbling) church.

But these scholars make their assertions with no evidence to support them in the face of the testimony of those early church fathers who were closest to the apostles in time and the supporting indications within the gospels themselves.

Nevertheless, the bottom line, as I said in the beginning, is this: whoever wrote the gospels (or edited them to their final form using earlier materials, a possibility to some extent), they come to us by divine inspiration and preservation as God's holy and true Word, to be received by faith and obeyed out of thankfulness and love for their Author. They give us life and to depart from them because skeptics sneer is to abandon the only hope God holds out to us sinners.

If you are interested and have the access, good further reading on this would be: F.F.Bruce, The Books and the Parchments or Donald Guthrie, New Testament Introduction (these are books I found valuable 30 years ago. There are probably newer ones filling the same niche). The NIV Study Bible has excellent introductions to each book of the Bible and gives a thumbnail version of the relevant data.

I hope this is of help to you. Do feel free to come back with further questions, as you wish. The Lord bless and guide you into His truth and righteousness.


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