Bart Ehrman: Who wrote the Gospels?

One of the many criticisms Professor Ehrman levels at the bible, and of which he makes an issue, is that the Four Gospels were written by unknown authors from the second century, who were not native to Palestine, and therefore they are not credible; and thus they were not written by the men whose names appear on them, i.e. Matthew, Mark, Luke and John.  After stating that tradition had it that Matthew had written a gospel so the one that eventually came to be known as his was first attributed to him; that Mark was a companion of the apostle Peter and thus wrote Peter’s view of Jesus’ ministry; that Luke and Acts must have been written by a companion of Paul, so the authorship was attributed to Luke; and that the fourth gospel was attributed to John, Professor Ehrman writes “None of these attributions goes back to the authors themselves.  And none of the Gospels were written by a follower of Jesus, all of whom were lower-class Aramaic speakers from Galilee, not highly educated Greek-speaking Christians of a later generation…..They were written decades later by people who didn’t know Jesus, who lived in a different country or different countries from Jesus, and who spoke a different language from Jesus.  They are different from each other in part because they also didn’t know each other, to some extent they had different sources of information (although Matthew and Luke drew on Mark) and they modified their stories on the basis of their own understandings of who Jesus was” (Ehrman, 2010, 111-112).

Authorship of the Four Gospels has always been known

This claim is irritating because Professor Ehrman ignores the fact that the Church has always accepted the Four Gospels as being written by those whose names are appended to them.  From the moment they first appeared, the Church recognised and accepted that Matthew, Mark, Luke and John wrote them.  There has never been any other name attached to them.  There were a few dissenting voices, but the Four Gospels have always been regarded as canonical, partly because of their authorship.  And there have never been any other Gospels which have challenged them or vied for a place alongside them.  They were recognised by both East and West from the beginning.  Professor Ehrman sweeps all this aside as irrelevant – ignores the evidence and denies its legitimacy – and then has the hide to say there is no evidence.  Well of course there’s no evidence if you remove it!

On the contrary, Catholic scholar Dom Chapman writes “The Christian writers of the end of the second century accepted the Gospels just as we do.  So obvious was it, and so certain were they, that there were four, and only four, that they used curious mystical and allegorical comparisons.  St Irenaeus, writing little more than eighty years after the last Gospel was published, declared that there must be four Gospels, because there are four regions of the world to be evangelized, and four winds to carry the Gospel everywhere, since the Church is to spread throughout the world…..St Irenaeus knows of no doubt within the Church as to these four Gospels.  He writes as an elderly man, born and educated in the province of Asia, probably at Smyrna, and afterwards priest and then bishop at Lyons in Gaul; so he is witness for East and West” (Chapman 1944, p 1).

Ehrman denies the evidence

Prof. Ehrman does the same thing with all the books of the Bible – he denies the evidence.  He says “Of the twenty-seven books of the New Testament, only eight almost certainly go back to the author whose name they bear” (Ehrman 2101, p 112).  He uses terms such as “the seven undisputed letters of Paul”, “probably misattributed”, “almost certainly”, “church fathers came to think it was written by Paul”, “Later church fathers accepted the book (of James) as part of Scripture because they claimed that this James was the brother of Jesus”, “biblical scholars have argued for a long time that there are New Testament books whose authors knowingly claimed to be someone other than who they were” (Ehrman 2010, p112-113).

And thus he puts a question mark over the New Testament by the use of inconclusive words such as “probably” etc.; and for authority, claims unnamed “biblical scholars”, as though the whole academic and theological world agrees.  So he undermines the authority of scripture by casting doubt over it, and then “proves” that the whole Bible is fraudulent and unreliable.  But he neglects to point out that the “biblical scholars” he claims as authorities are unbelievers (liberals or Higher Critics) who have tried to demolish the Bible and “de-mythologise” Jesus.  They had/have no faith, and corrupt the plain sense of scripture by analysing and dissecting it until there’s nothing left but a stinking, mutilated corpse.  Under their “academic” method, it has become a bizarre document that was cobbled together with various words, phrases, and sentences from different sources from different places over many years.  They have treated an ancient and historical text in a way that no other has ever been treated and probably never will be, and the stench of the corpse, and the cloven footprints all over it, betray the source as the original Higher Critic and father of lies (Jn 8:44).  The Bible is more than just an ancient and historical text, but it is that, at least, and it has been treated appallingly and unprofessionally, and certainly without faith; which faith, I should point out, does not negate scholarship or academic ability.  Thus, Professor Ehrman is able to confidently claim that there are now only eight of the twenty seven New Testament books that are undisputed.  However, I’m sure that before too much longer, the Higher Critics will have even excised them from the Bible, too.

Only four gospels regarded as canonical

But the Church has always accepted the Gospels, that there are four of them, that they were written by the men whose names are attributed to them, and with good reason.  “St Irenaeus knows of no doubt within the Church as to these four Gospels…..We can go back behind St Irenaeus. St Justin the philosopher, who lived near Jerusalem, was martyred at Rome about 165.  In his writings he quotes all the four Gospels…..Again, the Gnostic heresies of the Egyptian Valentinus and his followers arose between 120 and 130.  They used all our four Gospels, evidently finding them universally acknowledged.  One of them, Heracleon, wrote a commentary on St John’s Gospel during the reign of Hadrian, that is, before 138, and therefore less than forty years after the Gospel was written.  Without referring to any other evidence, the witnesses I have mentioned suffice to show us that our four Gospels were accepted in the first quarter of the second century.  Tradition, acceptance, implies many previous years of habitual use, and carries us back at the lowest computation to the historical date of the fourth Gospel – about 97-98.  Now the Gospel of John attests the other three Gospels.  It can be shown to quote them all three, when it occasionally touches the same events.  It is written to supplement them, and would have been unintelligible without them” (Chapman 1944, p1-2; emphases mine).

Authorship of John’s Gospel

Professor Ehrman says of the authorship of the Fourth Gospel: “Note how the author differentiates between his source of information, ‘the disciple who testifies’, and himself: ‘we know that his testimony is true’.  He/we: this author is not the disciple.  He claims to have gotten some of his information from the disciple” (Ehrman 2010, p 104 – emphases his).  In spite of his claims that there is no evidence that the apostle John was the author of the Gospel that goes by his name, the evidence itself gives the lie to Professor Ehrman’s claim.

Regarding his claim that the author is not “the disciple” but that the author says he got his information from one, Guthrie says that this supposed disciple is John the Elder; “but the existence of John the elder depends on a somewhat ambiguous statement of Papias, who makes no mention in any case of a gospel being written by him” (Guthrie 2002, p 1022).  While Chapman says it couldn’t mean John the elder/Presbyter because the apostle John, the author of the gospel, only ever refers to John the Baptist as John, unlike the Synoptics, which refer to John the Baptist by that name in order to distinguish him from John the apostle. 

But the Fourth Gospel doesn’t need to make that distinction because The Baptist is the only John besides the writer.  “There were two Simons among the Apostles, and though Simon the Canaanite is never mentioned by St. John, the other Simon is always called by the double name “Simon Peter”.  Similarly, two of the Apostles were called Judas, and the fourth Gospel always calls the traitor “Judas Iscariot, the son of Simon” and the other is “Judas, not the Iscariot” (Chapman 1946, p 40).  But because one of the “Johns” is himself, the writer of his gospel, he doesn’t need to give the other his title “The Baptist” because the readers would understand who he referred to because of who was writing.

The author of the fourth Gospel calls himself “the disciple who Jesus loved”; also “the other disciple”.  He describes himself as leaning on the Lord’s breast at the Last Supper (Jn 13:25); that he was at the foot of the cross, at which time Jesus placed his mother in John’s care (19:26-27); that he saw the blood and water flowing from Christ’s side (19:34-35); described himself as running with Peter to the empty tomb (20:3-4); that he was present at the miraculous draught of fishes, of which time he described several important sayings (Jn 21:24); and ends the gospel with the words “This is the disciple which testifieth of these things, and wrote these things: and we know that his testimony is true” (Jn 21:24).

That this disciple is John the Apostle is also suggested by the fact that the gospel mentions Philip twelve times, Thomas eight times, yet it never mentions the two who were next in importance after Peter, that is, James and John, except once by referring to them together as “the sons of Zebedee”; whereas in the Synoptics, John is mentioned seventeen times and James fifteen times, and three mentions of “the sons of Zebedee”.  The writer assumed that his readers would recognise James and John as these two sons.  So it is clear that the “beloved disciple” is either James or John, and nobody has ever said or thought that it was James.

Another consideration is that the fourth Gospel always mentions “the disciple whom Jesus loved” as being with Peter, except at the cross.  Is this disciple mentioned by name anywhere else; is there a disciple known to be close to Peter?  The Synoptics tell us that Zebedee and his sons James and John, were partners with Peter and Andrew.  Then we find that there were three of the disciples who were always close to Jesus i.e. Peter, James and John; only these three were with Jesus at significant events in his ministry – when he raised Jairus’ daughter from death (Mk 5:37; Lk 8:51); the Transfiguration (Matt 17:1; Mk 9:2; Lk 9:28); his agony at Gethsemane (Matt 26:37; Mk 14:33); and it was Peter and John who were sent to prepare the Passover (Lk 22:7; Mk 14:13).  In Mark’s gospel, which is the account given by Peter, Peter mentions John more than the two other Synoptics; and in Acts, Peter and John are always together, “Peter and John” being mentioned seven times.  So it is not feasible that the author of the fourth gospel could be anyone other than the apostle John, “the disciple whom Jesus loved”.

Even the incidental details suggest that it was written by an eyewitness e.g. the number and volume of the water jars at Cana, and the number of fishes caught in the “miraculous draught” (Lk 5:4-11).

So when we read in the fourth gospel that the writer says “we beheld his glory”, and “this is the disciple that testifieth of these things”, we know that the author speaks truth because he was an eyewitness; as a disciple, he was with Jesus.  And the Church has always recognised this.  To say that the Fourth Gospel was written by an unknown person from the second century, and who knew neither the culture, language or geography of Palestine, is totally untrue, and, in the light of all that has just been said, can only be wilful misrepresentation. 

Having demonstrated that John wrote the fourth gospel, and was an eyewitness of the events about which he wrote, we now see that he becomes a witness for the authorship of the Synoptic Gospels, a connecting link in the chain between his time and that of the Synoptics.  As Chapman points out, John assumes that his readers are familiar with the earlier Gospels – compare Jn 6:1-14 with Matt 14:14-21; Mk 6:35-44; Lk 9:12-17 for the Feeding of the Five Thousand; compare Jn 6:16-21 with Matt 14:22-33; Mk 6:47-53 when Jesus walked on the water.  These are just a couple of several examples of the same accounts in the Synoptics. 

However, in John chapter 11:2, we see how he has taken the story of the supper at Bethany related in Matthew (26:7-13) and Mark (14:3-9) and added further details.  There is the whole history of the Passion and Resurrection, with some omissions and much new detail.  He supposes his readers know the circumstances of Jesus’ Virgin Birth narrated in Matthew and Luke, and that God alone is his Father, so he makes no further statement; he writes more about John the Baptist; how Jesus washed the disciples’ feet after the Last Supper; makes more definite the treachery of Judas.  In each of the Synoptic Gospels he refers to incidents they relate and adds more details; so that, “In some passages St John’s wording seems to show that he had all the three Synoptic Gospels before him” (Chapman 1944, p36-37).

But while there are similarities between the Synoptics and John, there are also differences.  One way to account for them (not that they should all be alike as they were never meant to be) is that the Synoptics concentrate on the Galilean ministry whereas John focuses on the Jerusalem ministry, with the Synoptics’ emphasis on the parables as opposed to John’s focus on the dialogues and discourses.  Guthrie (2002, p 1022) suggests that one way to account for the most difficult of the differences, the chronology of the passion events, is the possible use of different calendars by John and the Synoptics, “but we do not know enough to arrive at a completely satisfying answer”.  And this can be applied to many of the other alleged discrepancies between the gospels.

Authorship of the Four Gospels not stated but still acknowledged

It must be admitted, though, that while the evidence points to John (and Matthew, Mark and Luke for each of their gospels) as the author, it is not as conclusive as if John had written his name at the beginning, so it can’t be dogmatically and conclusively asserted that he is the author.  But he didn’t; and this was not uncommon.  For example, the Roman historian Livy doesn’t identify himself as the author of his History, neither does Polybius identify himself as the writer of “The Rise of the Roman Empire”; nor does Julius Caesar identify himself as the author of “The Gallic Wars”, but he does speak of himself in the third person.  Yet we have no hesitation in accepting that each of these authors wrote the histories attributed to them; so why is there a problem with accepting the authorship of the gospels as being written by Matthew, Mark, Luke and John?  If you were to cast doubt on the authorship of the aforementioned secular histories, people would think you must have come down in the last shower; yet there is a long history of so-called theologians who question every jot and tittle of the gospels – indeed, the whole Bible – and deny their authenticity because they don’t have a positive identification attached to them. 

The real reason the genuineness of the gospels is denied

I suggest that the real reason unbelievers, liberals, ex-Christians, atheists, and skeptics reject the gospels is that the authors were committed to Jesus; they recorded what they saw, in the cases of Matthew and John; Mark wrote what Peter saw; and Luke wrote what disciples and other eye-witnesses saw.  Unbelievers reject the gospels because the gospels are religious.  They think that this discounts them from being legitimate.  They call the bible a religious text and therefore dismiss it as being a second-rate writing not to be taken seriously, somewhere in between the realms of fantasy and poetry – nice to read for inspiration occasionally, or to feel a bit righteous when required.  Professor Ehrman admits that he doesn’t believe the Bible but he thinks Jesus is worthy of being worshipped because he was such a good example.  He has contained the claims being made upon him by God, by denying the Bible is the word of God and is merely the writings of Man.

But just because the gospel writers had religious and spiritual aims or were committed to Jesus doesn’t mean they invented or misrepresented what they saw and heard.  And a Christian worldview doesn’t disqualify a person from being a competent or honest writer.  There is no reason to doubt the integrity of the gospel writers.  Luke, for example, states his aim in the same way that a secular historian of the time did, and this aim was to present a carefully researched account of the divine Son of God.

And when we read his Acts of the Apostles, it has the same feel as if we’re reading a classical history style-wise, and is filled with obvious touches of authenticity.  The shipwreck, for example, is full of details that only an eyewitness would think of writing, and is so vividly related, with so many details unselfconsciously described, that it could only have been written by Luke, the one who was there.

With all this in mind, it is important that we know when John wrote his Gospel.  The consensus among conservative scholars is that it was written around 90 AD, shortly before he died.  However, Dr. Ann Nyland has good reason for a much earlier date for John’s Gospel, and this would consequently push the Synoptic Gospels even further back and much closer to Jesus himself.  She writes: “John’s Good News is clearly pre-war and written before 66 AD.  John states that the pool [of Bethesda] has (not had) 5 porticoes, and describes the temple as still standing.  Both were not standing after the catastrophic war of 66-70 AD between the Jews and the Romans in Palestine.  In the war the temple was destroyed as were many parts of Jerusalem.  The reference to Peter’s prophesied manner of death in John 21:19 possibly suggests that John’s Good News was written after 64 AD, the date of Peter’s death in the Neronian persecution”.


“Jesus, Interrupted: Revealing the Hidden Contradictions in the Bible (and Why We Don’t Know About Them)” 2010, p 111-112, by Bart Ehrman, publ., HarperCollins Publishers, NY

“Calvin’s Commentaries Volume XVII; Harmony of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John 1-11”, 2009, p 327-328, by John Calvin, publ. Baker Books, Grand Rapids, Michigan.

Nyland, Dr. A, 2007, “The Source New Testament”, Translation and notes by Dr. A. Nyland.  Copyright by Anne Maxwell-Nithsdale Nyland 2004, 2007, publ. Smith and Stirling Publishing, Australia.