Why I Trust My Bible - Lesson 4

Do We Know Who Wrote the Gospels?

While the gospels are anonymous, tradition is very strong as to who wrote Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, and all four authors were in a position to know the truth and we can trust their writings. If the church did not care about authorship traditions, they would not have picked these four.

Bill Mounce
Why I Trust My Bible
Lesson 4
Watching Now
Do We Know Who Wrote the Gospels?

1. Challenge

Can’t trust since the gospel writers may have changed the message or didn’t know it to begin with

2. Traditional answers

a. First century documents

b. Within 60 years of the events narrated

3. Another way to look at this issue

a. Charge: Church picked a well-known, well-trusted person and attached his name to the gospel

b. We actually know this happened for other writings, based on the stories that were made up in later apocryphal gospels.

c. If the church had such a low regard for the issue of authorship, would they have attributed the gospels to these four?

4. Conclusion

  • Are you curious about the trustworthiness of the Bible? Are you looking for answers to common criticisms and questions about its reliability? "Why I Trust My Bible" is the class for you! This class is taught by Dr. Bill Mounce, former seminary professor and member of the NIV translation team. It will help you understand and defend your belief in the Bible. Whether you're a freshman in college facing new challenges to your faith, or a parent concerned about your child's belief in the Bible, this class is designed to provide you with the tools you need to think critically about these issues and to be confident as you share your belief about the reliability of the Bible with others. Don't miss this opportunity to learn about the Bible and its trustworthiness.
  • Some people feel that it is wrong to ask fundamental questions such as whether or not they trust the Bible. But if you never seriously ask the question, you will never be convinced that it really is true and trustworthy.

  • As amazing as it sounds, some people question whether Jesus actually lived, often claiming that there is only one non-biblical reference to him. That simply is not true; there are many more. But it makes sense that he is not referenced a lot since biographies were written about the rich and powerful.

  • Since there was a period of time between when Jesus lived and when the gospels were written, how can we trust that the writers' memories weren't faulty? And didn't they change history to match their theology? Actually, the "informed controlled": understanding of orality assures us that the writers were accurate and trustworthy. The gospels were not written right away because we prefer the testimony of eyewitnesses.

  • While the gospels are anonymous, tradition is very strong as to who wrote Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, and all four authors were in a position to know the truth and we can trust their writings. If the church did not care about authorship traditions, they would not have picked these four.

  • If the biblical writers were not concerned about historical accuracy, we would expect more verses that would have answered the burning questions of the first century, and we certainly would not have the many embarrassing and difficult verses that we do have. The gospel is couched in historical fact, and if the events did not happen then the teaching is false.

  • How can we trust the Bible when it is so full of mistakes and internal contradictions? Really? Where are they? Doesn't harmonization help us see how the gospels can describe the same event but in different terms? If the Bible and science and history disagree, doesn't the Bible, properly interpreted, deserve the benefit of the doubt?

  • There is no question that Jesus and Paul sound different, but are their differences complementary or contradictory? What effect would their different contexts have on how they speak and what they write about?

  • Canonization is the process by which the church determined what books belonged in the Bible (and here we are focusing on the New Testament). Despite the frequent assertion to the opposite, the canon was not determined by a few individuals in a haphazard way. It appears that the three tests were authorship, harmony of doctrine and tone, and usage in the church as a whole. Did the church get it right?

    Correction: Bill mentions "Dan Block." He means, "Dan Brown." (Dan Block is a friend of his.)

  • It does no good to talk about inspiration and canonization if the church altered the contents of the Bible through the centuries. And why are there differences among the Greek manuscripts? This is the topic of textual criticism. The current situation is that we are confident of 99% of the New Testament text, and the 1% we are unsure of contains no significant theological doctrine.

  • Unless you can read Greek, Hebrew, and Aramaic, you need a translation. But why are there so many, and why are they so often different? Can they be trusted? Bill Mounce, chair of the ESV translation for 10 years and currently on the Committee on Bible Translation that is responsible for the NIV, shares his answer to these questions.

  • We have looked at attacks on the trustworthiness of the Bible and given reasonable counter-arguments. it remains but to share personally why I trust my Bible.

We can no longer assume that people trust their Bible. The popular media has launched such an attack on the believability of Scripture that our people have serious questions about the Bible. Are you ready to answer them? Did Jesus actually live? (Bill Maher on Larry King Live says no.) Did the biblical writers get it right, or did they slant/create the message? The gospels were written so long after Jesus lived; how can you trust them? How can you believe a Bible that is full of internal contradictions with itself and external contradictions with science? Doesn’t archaeology disprove the Bible? Why should we believe the books that are in the Bible; many good ones were left out, like the Gospel of Thomas. Why trust the Bible when there are so many and contradictory translations? These questions and more are discussed and answered in this class.

The YouTube Videos and handouts that Dr. Mounce is referring to in lecture 1 are the links that you will find on the class page. The two handouts are a list of the books of the Apocrypha, and a chart showing translations of the Bible on a continuum from formal to dynamic equivalence. The two links are an article by Dr. Blomberg, and a YouTube video of a debate between Dan Wallace and Bart Ehrman. 

The bibliography and footnotes in the book, Why I Trust the Bible, by Dr. Mounce, also provide a detailed list of the resources that are the basis for this online course and for the book.

Some additional resources that will give you a picture of what is going on in culture are interviews and debates with people like Sam Harris, Jordan Peterson, Bill Maher, Ben Shapiro, Joe Rogan, Tim Keller and Steven Crowder (e.g. "Change my mind"). You will find many of these by searching on YouTube. Many of these people are not believers, and Harris and Maher, for example, think that religion is the underlying cause of all the problems in the world. 

For biblical responses regarding issues raised outside of the trustworthiness of the Bible, you can see classes on BiblicalTraining.org like C.S. Lewis: His Theology and Philosophy, Advanced Worldview Analysis, and others. Other websites that you may find helpful are Apologetics 315 and Summit Ministries


Lecture 4: Do We Know Who Wrote the Gospels?

This is the 4th lecture in the online series of lectures on Why I Trust My Bible by Dr Bill Mounce. Bill was a preaching pastor at a church in Spokane, WA, and prior to that a professor of New Testament and director of the Greek Program at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary. He also taught at Azusa Pacific University and is the author of the bestselling Greek textbook, Basics of Biblical Greek.

1. Challenge – Eye Witnesses and Historical Jesus and Proof

In this session, we are going to talk about the issue of authorship of the synoptic gospels: Matthew, Mark and Luke. The challenge is that we don’t really know who wrote them, so people do say. And because we don’t know who wrote them, we don’t know if they got the stories right or if the authors changed the stories of Jesus. So authorship is a big issue. Bart Ehrman has written book on this, entitled ‘Forged, Writing in the Name of God’ and the sub-title is, ‘Why the Bible Authors Are Not Who We Think They Are.’ It is true that Matthew, Mark and Luke are anonymous; they don’t say who actually wrote the books. We think the names were not formally attached to them until the Gospels were all put together in a codex, a book format and so the different Gospels needed to be distinguished from each other. So it is true that Matthew, Mark and Luke don’t say who the authors are Bart Ehrman and others are correct as far as that is concerned.

2. Word of Mouth

But a traditional answer to this, church tradition is very strong on Matthew writing the first Gospel, Mark wrote the second Gospel and Luke wrote the third Gospel.

3. Oral Culture

The sayings of the early Fathers as they recounted what they had heard; they are actually very strong in terms of the authorship. Matthew was one of the twelve disciples of Jesus and he was certainly in a position to know what Jesus said. We are told that Mark actually wrote the memories of Peter; in other words, behind the Gospel of Mark is Peter and his retelling of the story of the actions of Jesus and his teachings. At the same time, traditions are strong that Luke wrote the third Gospel. Luke was a gentile and he wasn’t an eye witness and he tells us this at the very beginning of Luke. He was a travelling companion of Paul. He had access to information about Jesus and so the traditions are strong that those three men wrote the first three Gospels. Not only is this tradition strong, but all three of those are in a position to know what actually happened, to know what Jesus actually taught and then to write it down in a trustworthy manner.

4. The Dates of the Gospels

Connected with this is the issue of dating the Gospels. We have a host of different arguments and beliefs as to the dating of these writings: we have the evangelicals and those who are more liberal critics. I use the word liberal critics even though I don’t like putting tags on things. So perhaps I should say non-evangelical scholars instead of liberal critics. So evangelical scholarship thinks Mark wrote the Gospel in the later 50’s or early 60’s. More critical scholarship dated it to late 60’s or early 70’s. For Matthew, the date ranges from the 60’s to the 80’s as well with Luke. John would have been written somewhere around the 80’s or 90’s. They were all written within about 60 years of the events of Jesus. In an oral culture of the time, this was not a long time and it is not that long when you compare it with other ancient biographies. For example, Alexander the Great died in 323 BC and his biographies were written in the late 1st century and early 2nd century AD. So, this was about 400 years after Alexander had lived. Interestingly, we trust those biographies and we think they convey basically accurate information. So when you look at those 400 years, then all of a sudden sixty years in an oral culture doesn’t seem to that long of a time period. So, we have good strong traditions as to who wrote the first three Gospels; they were people who would have known Jesus and his teachings and it was written in a relative short time frame. This is one way of looking at the authorship and dating as being trustworthy.

There is another way to look at this; both Darrell and Craig will spend some time in their sessions talking about this. The challenge is this: as we didn’t know who wrote them, the church was sitting there with these three anonymous Gospels and they wanted people to trust and believe them. The charge is often put forward that they simply decided on Matthew, Mark and Luke and they felt that people would respect their writings. So this is how the charge is often made. In a sense there is some truth to that because when we look at other books that were written after Christ supposedly about him where somebody would make up a story about Jesus or Paul. We have the acts of Peter where somebody made up stories and they wanted people to believe it. We know this happened. But the question is; did this happen with Matthew, Mark and Luke? The argument is whether the church was willing l to go take a name and attach it to an anonymous gospel, would they have picked Matthew, Mark and Luke? I don’t believe they would not have picked these three people to give credibility of an anonymous gospel. For example, Mark was the person who left in the middle of the first missionary journey. It was the time when Paul and Barnabas ended up going their separate ways and a disagreement. So why would anyone attach Mark’s name to the second Gospel. There would be no reason to, except that there was a very strong tradition that Mark wrote that Gospel and the church honored that tradition. And it was important for the church to get this right. Another way of looking at it, sense we know from Papias, the church historian, through Eusebius, Mark was really writing down the memories of Peter. Why isn’t it the Gospel of Peter as he was the person who stood behind it? Apparently, the church wasn’t willing to ignore the traditions which said that Mark wrote it. This tells you how the church viewed authorship; they weren’t willing to ignore traditions.

What about Matthew? Even through he was one of the twelve, he was a tax collector. But in our day and age, it is probably difficult to understand the total disgust and perhaps even hatred that Jews had of tax collectors. These collectors who were Jews were traitors to Israel; they were Jews who had aligned themselves with the Romans. It is not that they just took money from the Jews; they took it and gave it to the Romans. So why would you pick such a person to name a Gospel for? This is especially so for a Gospel geared for a Jewish audience. The Jews would dislike his name the most. It doesn’t make any sense, unless, the church understood that Matthew wrote that Gospel and they respected that and thus, attached his name to it. The same applies for picking Luke for a Gospel name. Luke wasn’t an eyewitness even though he was part of Paul’s travelling companions. Remember, he was a Greek, he wasn’t a Jew; he wasn’t an eyewitness of the events of Jesus; so why would you attach a gentile’s name to a Gospel when you are trying to give the book credibility. It doesn’t make any sense, but the conclusion was that the church wasn’t willing to attach just any name to the Gospels. But what they were willing to do, was to respect and to accept the strong traditions as to the authorship of Matthew, Mark and Luke, even though Peter was behind Mark, Matthew was a tax collector and Luke was a gentile. So this whole argument with the authorship just falls; yes, they were anonymous Gospels, the church tradition was very strong that it was Matthew, Mark and Luke who wrote those Gospels. These people had direct or very close indirect access to the stories of Jesus. The church wasn’t willing to attach just well-known names to the Gospels just to get people to believe them. The church wanted to honor the traditions and that’s why we have the Gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke. I think this is a fair conclusion to end up with.