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Do we have evidence for authorship of the gospels?

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Do we have evidence for authorship of the gospels?
Posted on December 24, 2019  - By Revanth T.

Who are the apostles/disciples/people who hold the authorship to the Gospels, and what conclusive evidence do we have for that authorship?

The New Testament gives us four different accounts of the life and ministry of Jesus Christ. Each account is a unique perspective of the most significant events in the history of the world. All the four Gospels are named after men who lived during or shortly after the earthly life of Christ. However, not one of the Gospels comes with an attribution. The closest statement we have in the Gospels about authorship is found in John 21:24, where the author says the Gospel was written by “the disciple whom Jesus loved”.

So how do we know that the Gospels were written by the four men that tradition has always affirmed? Are there reasonable evidences to determine who wrote the Gospels?

Before I present evidences for the authorship of the Gospels, I do want to say that modern scholarship is wrongheaded in assuming that the Gospels circulated for a generation or more without attribution, and that the names of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John were arbitrarily joined to them sometime in the second century. The evidences listed below will show how early the attributions were.                        

The Gospel according to Matthew: When we look at the earliest manuscript attributions that have survived, we find that it is always the Gospel kata Matthaion (according to Matthew). Several other lines of external evidence strongly support the case for Matthean authorship. That this Gospel was written by Matthew was affirmed by various surviving patristic testimonies. The letters of Ignatius and Polycarp (ca. AD 110) show that these two early church fathers had knowledge of this Gospel. The Didache (ca. AD 110) has quoted Matthew more than any other Gospel. In a similar manner, several other early church fathers like Clement of Rome, Justin Martyr, Clement of Alexandria, Tertullian, and Origen referred to Matthew (lit. “gift of God” or “faithful”) as the writer. There is also no evidence that any other author was proposed for this Gospel.

The internal evidence for Matthean authorship is also very convincing. The tax collector in Matthew 9:9 is called “Matthew” while the other Synoptic Gospels call him “Levi” (Mark 2:14, Luke 5:27). In keeping with the author’s background as a tax collector, Matthew gives more specific details about money than any other Gospel writer. He uses three words for money not found elsewhere in the New Testament (Matthew 17:24, 27; 18:24). Also, Matthew alone mentions the payment of temple tax in his Gospel (Matthew 17:24-27). In Matthew’s record of Jesus’ teachings, about one-fifth of the space is given to money matters.

In keeping with Matthew’s background as a tax collector, he gives more specific details about money than any other Gospel writer

All these details confirm the testimony of the early church fathers that Matthew the tax collector, who became a disciple of the Lord Jesus, was indeed the author.

The Gospel according to Mark: The external evidence gives adequate information to believe that “John Mark”, who is frequently mentioned in the New Testament, is the author of the Gospel. Papias, Bishop of Hierapolis (ca. AD 135-140) made the earliest known statement about Markan authorship which was cited by Eusebius. Other early evidences are found in renowned sources such as Justin Martyr (ca. AD 160), the Anti-Marcionite Prologue to Mark (ca. AD 160-180), Irenaeus (ca. AD 180), Tertullian (ca. AD 200), the Muratorian fragment, Tatian’s Diatessaron, Clement of Alexandria (ca. AD 195), and Origen (ca. AD 230). The last two were cited by Eusebius in Ecclesiastical History. The most interesting thing about this testimony is that it comes from three different centres of early Christianity: Asia Minor (modern Turkey), Rome (in Italy), and Alexandria (in Egypt). This is strong external evidence that Mark was the author of the Gospel.

Although the book does not specify its author, there is significant internal evidence to indicate that it was John Mark. Mark is the only Gospel that narrates the story of the unidentified young man who fled naked at Jesus arrest in Gethsemane (Mark 14:51-52). This was probably Mark talking about himself. Mark also gives a detailed description of the “guest room” (Mark 14:12-16), which may indicate that the Last Supper room was in his own home. And Mark often records details that were known only to Christ’s “inner circle” consisting of Peter, James and John. This goes to show that Peter may have been Mark’s key source of information, which is supported by the words “and Peter” in Mark 16:7. 

In light of the external and internal evidences, it is reasonable to conclude that the John Mark of the New Testament is the author of the Gospel. It is highly unlikely that the early church would have accepted this Gospel as authoritative, since its writer was a secondary figure, without having convincing proof that Mark was actually the one who wrote it.                              

The Gospel according to Luke: There is considerable external evidence that Luke is the author of the Gospel that bears his name. The early church fathers were unanimous in their voice that Luke “the beloved physician” (Colossians 4:14) wrote the Gospel. The earliest evidence for Lukan authorship comes from the Muratorian Canon and the Anti-Marcionite Prologue (both dated AD 160-200). These were followed by Irenaeus (ca. AD 185), Tertullian (ca. Ad 150-222), Clement of Alexandria (ca. AD 155-216) and Origen (ca. AD 230, quoted by Eusebius).

Mark records details known only to Christ’s “inner circle”. This goes to show that Peter may have been Mark’s key source of information

When we consider the internal evidence, we see that Luke’s name appears only thrice in the New Testament (Colossians 4:14; 2 Timothy 4:11; Philemon 24). When Paul lists his companions in Colossians 4:10-14, he places Luke in the list of his Gentile fellow workers. Luke evidently was a Gentile, which is confirmed by his use of polished Greek and his phrase “their own language” (Acts 1:19). Tradition has it that he hails from Syrian Antioch, never married, and died at the age of eighty-four. 

The vast majority of Bible scholars believe that the author of Luke also wrote the book of Acts. So we can use Acts to learn more about the author of Luke. Acts strongly emphasises the author’s close connection to Paul, suggesting that he went with Paul on his second and third missionary journeys, and eventually accompanied him to Rome (Acts 16:10-17; 20:5-21; 21:1-18; 27:1-28:16). This close relationship and involvement in Paul’s ministry could be what gives the author of Luke grounds to say he has “carefully investigated everything from the beginning” (Luke 1:3). Luke and Acts both use specific medical terminology, which would confirm the claim that Luke the physician is the author of both.  

Looking at the undisputed claims of early Christians and the textual evidence, there’s little reason to believe this Gospel was written by anyone other than Luke.

The Gospel according to John: The external evidence for Johannine authorship of the fourth Gospel is compelling. Irenaeus, the bishop of Lyons (ca. A.D. 130-200), mentioned that he had heard Polycarp (ca. A.D. 69-155), a disciple of John. Irenaeus learned from Polycarp that, “John, the disciple of the Lord, who also had leaned upon His breast, had himself published a Gospel during his residence in Ephesus in Asia”. Other later church fathers supported this tradition, including: Theophilus of Antioch (ca. AD 180), Clement of Alexandria, Tertullian of Carthage, and Tatian. Eusebius (fourth century) also specifically mentioned that Matthew and John, among the apostles, wrote the Gospels that bear their names.

There is a lot of internal evidence that points to John the apostle as the author. Seeing his knowledge of the Old Testament (John 12:40; 13:18; 19:37), Jewish feasts (John 2:23; 5:1; 6:4; 7:2; 10:22; 13:1), ceremonial purification (John 2:6; 11:55), and the manner of burial (John 11:38, 44; 19:40), we may conclude that the author was a Jew. He also had a tremendous knowledge of Palestine and the Temple. The writer also witnessed Christ’s glory (John 1:14). This manifestation of glory was given to Peter, James and John on the mount of Transfiguration (Mark 9:1-13). Peter is mentioned by name (John 1:42) and John’s brother James was martyred by Herod AD 44 (Acts 12:2). That leaves us with John who must be the author of the Gospel. The fact that John alone was at the crucifixion (John 19:33-35) and referred to himself as “the disciple whom Jesus loved” (John 19:26-27) supports the evidence.      

Thus, all evidence points conclusively to what the church has always believed: that Matthew, Mark, Luke and John were indeed the authors of the Gospels.

Revanth T.

About Revanth T.

Based in Bangalore, India, Revanth T is Executive Director of Truth and Life Academy, a non-formal Christian theological institute, and a regular preacher and teacher at his local assembly. His passions include expository preaching, theology and hermeneutics. He is married to Angela and they have a son, Asher Abraham.



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