Critics of the New Testament often claim that the names of the authors of the Gospels were added after they had already been in circulation in the Church. Instead of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, they say, the real authors were anonymous Christians who relied on hearsay and legend rather than eyewitness testimony. But is there evidence for this claim?
First it should be noted that even if the earliest copies of the Gospels did not contain the names of their authors that would not disprove the traditional authorship of those texts. The works of the ancient Roman historian Tacitus often do not bear his name but very few historians have ever questioned that Tacitus wrote them. We know Tacitus is the author of these works because other ancient writers, like St. Jerome, identify him as the author.
St. Augustine dealt with the charge that the Gospels were anonymous in the fourth century in his reply to a heretic named Faustus:
How do we know the authorship of the works of Plato, Aristotle, Cicero, Varro, and other similar writers, but by the unbroken chain of evidence? So also with the numerous commentaries on the ecclesiastical books, which have no canonical authority, and yet show a desire of usefulness and a spirit of inquiry . . . How can we be sure of the authorship of any book, if we doubt he apostolic origin of those books which are attributed to the apostles by the Church which the apostles themselves founded.
Furthermore, there is no compelling evidence that the first manuscripts of the Gospels did lack attribution to their traditional authors. There are no manuscripts that simply lack titles (as lay critics might imagine) and academic critics say the variants in the titles of those early manuscripts prove the author’s names were added at a much later date.xlix However, the usual variant is just the absence of the word “Gospel,” which leaves a title that begins with “According to . . .” followed by the author’s name—a name that is never absent from these manuscripts. Biblical scholar Brant Pitre says, “According to the basic rules of textual criticism, then, if anything is original in the titles, it is the names of the authors. They are at least as original as any other part of the Gospels for which we have unanimous manuscript evidence.”
Another argument in favor of the traditional authorship of the Gospels is this: if they had indeed been forged, the forgers would certainly have pretended to be more impressive-sounding authors . This is what heretics in the second, third, and fourth centuries did when they attributed their forged Gospels to people like Peter, Philip, and even Mary Magdalene. Why pretend to be a relative unknown like Mark or Luke? Why would they impersonate a former tax collector like Matthew whose popularity would have been only slightly higher than Judas Iscariot’s?
What about the argument that the Gospels were written at least forty years after the death of Christ, which would make it difficult if not impossible to accurately remember the events of his life? Granted, forty or fifty years is a long time but the events surrounding Jesus’ life and ministry would have left an indelible mark on the apostles’ memories. Their ability to remember the events of Jesus’ life would be comparable to a veteran in the year 2016 remembering what he did during the Vietnam War.
We also have to remember that our “memory muscles” atrophy as a result of using electronic recording devices instead (such as when we fail to remember telephone numbers and rely on the directory in our phones instead). This was not the case in Jesus’ time and the Jewish Talmud even records how some rabbis could memorize the entire Old Testament.lii In addition, Jesus was a traveling preacher who delivered the same sermons throughout his travels, many of which contain poetic structure or memorable puns. The apostles would have heard his teachings dozens if not hundreds of times and then repeated it in their own preaching, thus making the deeds and teachings of Christ easy to remember.
There is also evidence that the Gospels were written before A.D. 70 because the book of Acts, which critics say was authored in the mid 80’s, does not mention the destruction of Jerusalem or the deaths of its main protagonists Peter and Paul. One plausible explanation is that Luke, the author of Acts, did not record these events because they hadn’t happened yet. That would place the composition of Acts in the early 60’s and the Gospel of Luke even earlier. Mark and Matthew would have been written earlier still, since most scholars believe they predate Luke. This would result in the first Gospel being written just two decades after the death of Christ, which is remarkable given that other ancient biographies, like those of Alexander the Great or the Buddha, were written centuries after the death of their subjects.