Did the evangelists know Jesus personally?That’s a question people often ask of the Gospels, even though a modern biography written by the subject’s friends is generally viewed as at least a little bit suspect.
Of course, the flip side is that, especially in the ancient world, the farther you stray from the subject the more likely you are to encounter legendary material. So perhaps it’s best that the canonical Gospels are supposed to be written by either Christ’s disciples or theirs.
But are they?
Roberts addresses this question in Chapter 3 of Can We Trust the Gospels? by looking at both the internal and external evidence, though he admits there is scant internal data.
For the external evidence he points to three ancient works:
Papias, writing about 125AD, specifically identifies Mark as not knowing the Lord but as transmitting Peter’s teaching. He also describes this as an established tradition he received from an elder. The reference to Matthew isn’t clear, though I think it’s implicit that Papias accepted it as apostolic when combined with other things Eusebius quoted.
The Muratorian Canon, written about 170AD, describes Luke as not knowing the Lord and John as a disciple of Jesus.
Irenaeus, in Against Heresies, written about 180AD, identifies all the Gospel authors, specifying that Mark and Luke were not original disciples and that Matthew and John were.
A brief aside regarding Irenaeus: His work gets a little weird, by modern standards, in one section; he goes into great detail about why it is fitting that there are exactly four Gospels, and some of it seems a bit out-there. This doesn’t affect his ability to know who wrote the Gospels. It’s simply his rather unusual case against the Gnostic versions.
Another aside: It’s interesting that both Papias and Irenaeus say Matthew wrote his Gospel in Hebrew, and most scholars are convinced the Gospel bearing that name was first written in Greek. Ben Witherington has floated the notion, based on Papais’ wording and other things, that what we’ve taken to calling “Q” may actually be the work they’re referring to. If it was combined with Mark by an editor, Witherington says, the new Gospel would have taken on the name of its most notable source – Matthew. It’s an interesting idea; we’ll have to wait and see if anything comes of it.
Back to the topic at hand, is this the best we have? The quote from Papias is easily 50 years after the Gospel of Mark was likely written. Why should we believe these guys? Roberts offers a few reasons to think they’re right.
First, 2nd century Christians wouldn’t make up Mark or Luke. The Gnostics were attributing their Gospels to Peter, James, and other apostles. If they were going to get creative about the authors of the canonical Gospels, they wouldn’t have chosen those who never met Jesus. And as Craig Blomberg points out in The Case for Christ, Matthew would probably be the last apostle anyone would pick too.
Roberts also says, “the anonymity of the biblical Gospels bears the stamp of truth whereas the pseudonymity of the noncanonical Gospels suggests their falsehood” (emphasis in original, p49). That their enemies were disseminating Gospels with famous names on crazy teachings lends credibility to the traditions that were passed along in the anonymous Gospels.
Second, “the fact that the second Gospel was so quickly accepted by the early church (including the other evangelists) lends credence to the notion that it was based on reliable source(s), like Peter, as Papias claimed” (p49).
Third, he also notes that “in recent years many have come to believe that the first and fourth gospels reflect the memory and the perspective of Jesus’ own disciples” even if they weren't the actual scribes (p49).
I would add an observation I read elsewhere: Just because the Gospels are anonymous, that doesn’t mean no one knows who wrote them. They were written to specific communities, and they would certainly have known who they came from and passed that on.
We can sum up the case this way: Despite the temptation to combat Gnostic Gospels with apostolic names, the early church openly acknowledged that two Gospels were written by non-apostles, supporting the authorship of Luke and Mark and the honesty of the early church (p50).
And even though we can be reasonably confident that the authors of the canonical Gospels are who tradition says, Roberts tells us “the reliability of the New Testament Gospels does not depend on who wrote them so much as on the nature and purpose of the writings themselves” (p49).
I want to end with this thought:
“Why … would a scholar in the twenty-first century doubt the traditions that go back into the second century? Doesn’t it make sense to think that those early traditions were based on actual testimony? Wouldn’t you suppose that those who passed on the Gospels also passed along information about who actually wrote them? All of this seems quite reasonable, unless you approach the tradition with a hermeneutic of suspicion, in which the claims made by church leaders are presumed to be ‘guilty until proven innocent’” (p48).
The blog form of the book: Are the NT Gospels Reliable?
Can We Trust the Gospels? 0
Can We Trust the Gospels? 1