Who Wrote The Gospels? These 6 Ancient Sources Tell Us


By Erik Manning| Double standards are the worst. Have you ever been on the wrong side of a double standard? Of course you have.

To use an example, let’s say I have someone drop by my house unexpectedly. I have four kids so things are bound to get messy. Let’s pretend that there’s an empty pizza box sitting on the counter, crumbs on the floor, toys are strewn about the living room and a pile of dishes in the sink.

While this feels awkward for me, my wife is going to feel extremely uncomfortable and anxious about it.  Why? Because she is far more likely going to get unfairly judged over it. Even in this day where sexism is seen as a great sin, it’s a fact that women are still more harshly judged for having a messy home.

OK, so what does that have to do with the gospels? Because when it comes to the gospels, there are huge double standards. They are often presumed to be guilty until proven innocent. Normal ways of doing history seemingly get thrown out the window. And a big example of this is when it comes to the debate authorship of the gospels.

We have very good external evidence that the gospels were written by the names traditionally ascribed to them — Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John.

6 Ancient Sources:

1. Tertullian of Carthage (ca. 160–225; Against Marcion 4.2.1–2):

“I lay it down to begin with that the documents of the gospel have the apostles for their authors, and that this task of promulgating the gospel was imposed upon them by the Lord himself. . . . In short, from among the apostles, John and Matthew implant in us the faith, while from among the apostolic men Luke and Mark reaffirm it.”

So who was Tertullian? 

Tertullian is known in church history as the father of Latin theology because he was the first church leader to write his works in Latin. He wrote extensively in defense of Christianity against persecution from the outside or heresy from within.

2. Clement of Alexandria (ca. 150–215; Adumbrationes in Epistolas Canonicas on 1 Peter 5:13):

“Mark, the follower of Peter, while Peter was publicly preaching the gospel at Rome in the presence of some of Caesar’s knights and uttering many testimonies about Christ, on their asking him to let them have a record of the things that had been said, wrote the Gospel that is called the Gospel of Mark from the things said by Peter, just as Luke is recognized as the pen that wrote the Acts of the Apostles and as the translator of the Letter of Paul to the Hebrews.”

So who was Clement? 

Clement was a philosopher who traveled abroad, including Greece, Italy, Syria, Palestine, and finally to Alexandria, Egypt. Alexandria was a melting pot of all sorts of religious and philosophical ideas. There he came heard the gospel from Pantaenus, the teacher of the Alexandria Catechetical School. Clement would become a believer and in time, Clement became the head of the school in Alexandria.

3. Justin Martyr, Palestine. (ca. 100-165, The First Apology, 66)

“For the apostles, in the memoirs composed by them, which are called Gospels, have thus delivered unto us what was enjoined upon them; that Jesus took bread, and when He had given thanks, said, This do in remembrance of Me, this is My body; and that, after the same manner, having taken the cup and given thanks, He said, This is My blood; and gave it to them alone.”

Justin calls the Gospels the memoirs of the apostles and often quotes from them. Specifically, he quotes most often from the Gospel of Matthew, but also sometimes from Luke and the other familiar Gospels, albeit less obviously. These references include narrative material, including references to the narratives of Jesus’ trial, crucifixion and resurrection (See: Dialogue with Trypho 101:3; 102:3; 103:6; 104:1; 105:1, 5-6106:1, 3, 4; 107:1)

So who was Justin Martyr? 

Justin was a Christian teacher and writer. As his name indicates, he died for his faith. He was a native of Samaria who moved to Ephesus to study philosophy. Justin was impressed with the character of Christians who were willing to be martyred for their faith. One day he met an older man who challenged his philosophies and shared the gospel with him. Justin became a believer. Justin is most famous for writing Apologies, which were addressed to the Roman Emperor Pius in the face of persecution of Christians. He sought to remove misconceptions about Christianity. His writings give us great insights into the beliefs and practices of 2nd century Christians.

4. Irenaeus of Lyons (ca. 130–200; Against Heresies 3.1.1–2; cf. Eusebius, Ecclesiastical History5.8.1–4):

“So Matthew brought out a written gospel among the Jews in their own style, when Peter and Paul were preaching the gospel at Rome and founding the church. But after their demise Mark himself, the disciple and recorder of Peter, has also handed on to us in writing what had been proclaimed by Peter. And Luke, the follower of Paul, set forth in a book the gospel that was proclaimed by him. Later John, the disciple of the Lord and the one who leaned against his chest, also put out a Gospel while residing in Ephesus of Asia.”

So who was Irenaeus?

Irenaeus was a bishop in France and was a student of Polycarp, who was a student of the apostle John. (Irenaeus, Against Heresies, 3.3.3) This puts him up close to an eyewitness and Gospel writer. He wrote extensively against the heresy known as Marcionism.

5. Papias of Hierapolis (ca. 125 AD, Recorded in Eusebius 3.39)

“So then Matthew wrote the oracles in the Hebrew language, and every one interpreted them as he was able.”

“Mark, having become the interpreter of Peter, wrote down accurately, though not in order, whatsoever he remembered of the things said or done by Christ. For he neither heard the Lord nor followed him, but afterward, as I said, he followed Peter, who adapted his teaching to the needs of his hearers, but with no intention of giving a connected account of the Lord’s discourses, so that Mark committed no error while he thus wrote some things as he remembered them. For he was careful of one thing, not to omit any of the things which he had heard, and not to state any of them falsely.”

So who was Papias?

Little is known about Papias other than he was the bishop of Hierapolis in Asia Minor, and he recorded details regarding Jesus and the apostles in five books entitled Exposition of the Sayings of the Lord. Sadly, Papias’s books are now lost except for some excerpts found in the second and third-century writings of Eusebius of Caesarea and the aforementioned Irenaeus.

Papias wrote to present an accurate record of the teaching and works of the apostles, as reported to him by “John the Elder.” Irenaeus assumes this to be the Apostle John.

6. Muratorian Fragment, Rome (ca. 175 AD)

“The third book of the Gospel is that according to Luke. Luke, the well-known physician, after the ascension of Christ, when Paul had taken with him as one zealous for the law, composed it in his own name, according to [the general] belief. Yet he himself had not seen the Lord in the flesh; and therefore, as he was able to ascertain events, so indeed he begins to tell the story from the birth of John. The fourth of the Gospels is that of John, [one] of the disciples. “

So what’s the Muratorian Fragment?

The Muratorian Fragment is the oldest list of New Testament books we have discovered. The original document is dated to the late 2nd century and lists 22 of the 27 books that were later included in the New Testament.

It was discovered by (and named after) the Italian historian Ludovico Muratori in the Ambrosian Library in northern Italy and was published by him in 1740. The manuscript copy that Muratori discovered was written in Latin and has been dated to the 7th to 8th century, but several internal indicators have convinced most experts – Christian and non-Christian – that the original Muratorian Fragment should be dated near the end of the 2nd century.

So we have early external confirmation of our four gospels where they mention the writers by name, or make obvious mentions of the gospels. These attestations come from church leaders in just about all four corners of the Roman empire, making the idea of conspiracy an impossible folly.

I could go into a lot of details of how often the gospels are quoted in the Christians writers of the late first century and second century, but here’s a link to a chart that has all of it for you.

The Double Standard of Biblical Critics

Under normal circumstances, this is crazy good info. But we’re talking about the gospels, and they don’t get a free pass.

Critics will say the authors’ names were just added later to add authority. We don’t know who wrote the gospels. They were just people writing far away from the events.

These gospel writers were compiling, redacting and even inventing various traditions in order to confirm their faith. They certainly weren’t written by eyewitnesses or people who had real access to eyewitnesses. Bart Ehrman is a bestselling author who has written several books criticizing the gospels. He sums it up like this:

“A further reality is that all the Gospels were written anonymously, and none of the writers claims to be an eyewitness. Names are attached to the titles of the Gospels (‘the Gospel according to Matthew’), but these titles are later additions to the Gospels, provided by editors and scribes to inform readers who the editors thought were the authorities behind the different versions. That the titles are not original to the Gospels themselves should be clear upon some simple reflection. Whoever wrote Matthew did not call it ‘The Gospel according to Matthew.’ The persons who gave it that title are telling you who, in their opinion, wrote it. Authors never title their books ‘according to.’”

So despite all the external confirmation that we have to the authorship and early use of the four gospels, that’s not good enough. Yet this “no one knows who really wrote the gospels” isn’t anything new. It’s notable that it wasn’t a criticism brought forward until around 400 AD by Faustus the Manichean.

Now there were all kinds of critics of Christianity that we have a record of in the first three centuries of the church. Yet no one challenges who wrote the gospels until 400? Why so long?

Augustine was not having it. Here is his response:

“Why does no one doubt the genuineness of the books attributed to Hippocrates? Because there is a succession of testimonies to the books from the time of Hippocrates to the present day, which makes it unreasonable either now or hereafter to have any doubt on the subject. How do we know the authorship of the works of Plato, Aristotle, Cicero, Varro, and other similar writers, but by the unbroken chain of evidence?”

In other words: “double standards much?!”. Historians normally drool over the kind of evidence we for the authorship of the gospels. It’s early. It comes from writers from all over the Roman empire. And there’s no rival tradition.

There’s a great book on this topic written in the 1800s by Andrews Norton. You can even read it for free. Exposing the hypocrisy, he joins Augustine when he says:

“About the end of the second century, the Gospels were reverenced as sacred books by a community dispersed over the world, composed of men of different nations and languages. There were, to say the least, sixty thousand copies of them in existence; they were read in the churches of Christians; they were continually quoted, and appealed to, as of the highest authority; their reputation was as well established among believers, from one end of the Roman empire to the other, as it is at the present day among Christians in any country.

But it is asserted, that, before that period, we find no trace of their existence; and it is therefore inferred, that they were not in common use, and but little known, even if extant in their present form. This reasoning is of the same kind as if one were to say that the first mention of Egyptian Thebes is in the poems of Homer. He, indeed, describes it as a city which poured a hundred armies from its hundred gates; but he is the first mention of it, and therefore we have no reason to suppose, that, before his time, it was a place of any considerable note.”

Normal history just isn’t done the way biblical critics do history. Not when it comes to this issue. It’s an obvious double standard. I will let you draw your own conclusions why those standards exist.

For more, here’s a detailed lecture of the genuineness of the gospels by Dr. Tim McGrew. It goes into great detail of the external confirmations I mentioned here:

Here’s a short video by Dr. Michael Kruger, with some other arguments I didn’t mention here:

This article was originally featured on Is Jesus Alive and was republished with permission.

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