Does It Matter Who Wrote the Gospels?

It is conceded by all but the most ardent fundamentalists that we actually have no idea who wrote the gospels.  The three synoptic gospels are anonymous and the authorship of the fourth gospel is somewhat implied (the beloved disciple) but never directly stated.  The imputed authors were added later by “tradition.”  It has been argued that it doesn’t really matter who wrote the gospels.    And that may be true, it may not matter who wrote them, depending on what they really are.

If the gospels are works of literature, then it does not matter who wrote them.  If we found irrefutable proof that Hamlet was written by Bacon or Marlowe or even Joe the Plumber, would that lessen its literary value?  And if Homer (the Greek epic poet, not the yellow cartoon guy) isn’t real or is a collection of people or whatever, is the Illiad any less compelling?  Of course not.  As literature the gospels can stand on their own, regardless of authorship.  But most people don’t claim them as just a well told story.

The only other reason authorship would not matter is if the gospels were “dictated” by god.  Obviously, if it is god speaking, it doesn’t matter who holds the pen.  And if you believe that, nothing anyone is going to say will probably change your mind.

For all other intents and purposes, I would say that it does in fact matter who wrote the gospels.  If there was only one book written about global warming would it matter whether it was written by Al Gore or Rush Limbaugh?  Of course it would.

Of course, the actual names of the authors don’t really matter at this point, but their actual characteristics do matter.  Except for some conjectures, we have no idea where the gospels were written, the exact time they were written and for whom they were written.

It could be  argued, and William Lane Craig does, that since there are four independent gospels, it doesn’t matter who wrote them, they are independent and somewhat consistent, therefore the actual names of the witnesses don’t really matter.  But virtually no scholars consider the gospels independent.  There is some question as to whether Mark is a shortened version of Matthew or Matthew (and Luke) are embellished versions of Mark, but it is clear there is a whole lot of copying going on.   There is quite a bit of debate as to whether John is independent, but even there scholars see possible use of Mark by “John.”  So, we don’t really have independent witnesses.

Another argument is that authorship doesn’t matter as the gospels are a summation of the oral traditions that have been passed down about Jesus.  But once again it does matter.  It makes a huge difference whether the gospels were written before or after 70 CE.  It is hard to imagine that the Roman destruction of Jerusalem wouldn’t have some impact on the oral traditions.  Pretty hard to collect oral traditions when everyone is scattered to the four winds.  But even if the tradition is still somewhat intact, we need to know if the gospel writers are more like Parson Weems or more like Tacitus.  Also it really does matter if that “oral tradition” is in the hands of people who were actually there (as the evangelists allegedly were) or if it is people hearing the stories twelfth hand, in another land in another language.

The circumstances of the gospels make the reliability of the authors even more important.

It is often argued that we can trust the gospels because if they were inaccurate people would have been around who knew better who could call “foul.”  Unfortunately this argument does not hold water.  First, even if Mark is writing just before the Romans cleared out Jerusalem, the gospels aren’t mentioned in any other writings until about the middle of the second century.  So, how many people could have read them and checked things out before then?  Can’t exactly say, “Hey Peter, is this right?” at that point.  Secondly, the gospels don’t seem to have been written in Palestine, “Mark” seems to have been writing in Rome or Syria (and not all that familiar with Palestine itself.)  Probably not too many folks around to contradict him.

William Lane Craig makes some other arguments for the historicity of the gospels, regardless of who wrote them.

Craig, in a disingenuous way says that “Laymen who do not understand historical method sometimes demand sources for the life of Jesus outside the New Testament–as if a document’s being later collected into an anthology somehow impugns its historical credibility!”  By which he means that the gospels should be considered independent accounts that just happen to be bundled together in one book.  He knows as well as anybody that gospels are not independent.  And he also knows that the epistles (some of which are forged!) do not corroborate the gospels in pretty much any way.  Paul never mentions any historical details of the life of Jesus.

There is one book that says that it bridges the gap between the gospels and the epistles is the Acts of the Apostles, which is actually the second half of the gospel of Luke.  Here is what Craig has to say about Luke:

Now who was this author whom we call Luke? From what he says, he was clearly not himself an eyewitness to Jesus’ life. But we discover an important fact about him from the book of Acts. Beginning in the 16th chapter of Acts, when Paul reaches Troas in modern-day Turkey, the author suddenly starts using the first-person plural: “we set sail from Troas to Samothrace,” “we remained in Philippi some days,” “as we were going to the place of prayer,” etc. The most obvious explanation is that the author had joined Paul’s entourage on his evangelistic tour of the Mediterranean cities. In chapter 21 he accompanies Paul back to Palestine and finally to Jerusalem. What this means is that the author of Luke-Acts was, in fact, in first-hand contact with the eyewitnesses of Jesus’ life and ministry in Jerusalem.

The Luke that the book is attributed to was supposedly a traveling companion of Paul, so what Craig is really saying is that, nudge, nudge, wink, wink, Luke is really written by Luke!  Or someone just exactly like him.  So, suddenly it does matter who wrote the gospel!  Craig pictures Luke as a “careful historian,” and so on.  But there are real problems with this.  First “Luke” is writing anywhere from 30 to 75 years after Paul and secondly there are many things in Acts which contradict things Paul wrote himself.  Considering that the Paul is the ONLY known, genuine New Testament author, I think we have to take his word over that of someone unknown writing in another time and another place.  The fact that “Luke” can write in the style of a historian does not make him one —  or his story any more true.  And is Dr. Craig so credulous that it doesn’t bother him that “Luke” “suddenly starts using the first-person plural.”  Dropped in a couple lines from an old draft?  Added later by a scribe?  We don’t have the original, so who knows where this comes from.

My conclusion is that Dr. Craig is right, it doesn’t matter who wrote the gospels because they are a work of literature, not in any way a history.


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