Most of us take for granted that the Gospels according to Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John were in fact written by Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, respectively. In times past, this would have been the obvious assumption, and questioning this assumption would have been seen as an absurd waste of time.
However, no assumption is safe today, and the identity of the authors of the Gospels is now hotly debated by some scholars.
So let’s take a look at this question. Who did write the Gospels? And why does it matter?
Briefly, we should begin by setting the parameters of the question. When talking about who wrote the Gospels, we should clarify which gospels we are talking about. There are only four canonical Gospels, those purported to be written by Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, which are considered authentically part of the New Testament by all Christians the world over. There are a great number of so-called “gospels.” Among others, there are the “Gospel of Judas,” the “Gospel of Mary,” the “Gospel of Thomas,” the “Gospel of Philip,” the Protoevangelium of James, and many more.
These are all recognized as having been written a century or more after the death of Jesus, sometimes several centuries later, and not attributable to those closest disciples of Our Lord, or even to their disciples. While these facts in and of themselves do not mean that they are unreliable historical records, we know that the authors were not divinely inspired, as the Church has discerned and declared the canon of Sacred Scripture, and the canon is closed. Scripture is public revelation from God, and such public revelation ceased with the death of the last apostle (see Dei Verbum 4, CCC 66-67, 73). So these so-called “gospels,” though they may be historically interesting documents, are not part of that canon. The authorship of those documents is not at issue here.
The four canonical Gospels were all written during the first century A.D., most likely in the second half. Jimmy Akin, in his book The Bible Is a Catholic Book, writes that the Gospels “came to be known by these names within living memory of the time they were written, when people were aware of who the authors were, and therefore we need to take the authors’ names seriously.”
There is good evidence that the Gospels of Matthew and John were written by eyewitnesses, and the Gospels of Mark and Luke were written by close associates of apostles, according to Akin. Additionally, there is little to no evidence to the contrary—not even ancient claims of different authorship. We must avoid the temptation to ignore earlier generations’ conclusions simply because those conclusions are now ancient and the temptation to accept blindly the conclusions of modern scholarship simply because it is fresh. Such chronological snobbery has no place in an honest pursuit of the truth. So although some today might say that we can’t know for certain that the Gospels were written by the men they are attributed to, we have every reason to believe that they were.
So who were Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John? Two of the authors of canonical Gospels—Matthew and John—were apostles of Our Lord. Matthew, also known as Levi, was a tax collector who was called by Jesus and left his life behind. John and his brother James, the sons of Zebedee and nicknamed “Sons of Thunder,” were fishermen along with Peter and Andrew. John is often referred to as “the beloved disciple” and was given charge of Our Lady as Jesus hung dying on the cross.
The identities of Mark and Luke are a little harder to nail down, but longstanding tradition tells us that Mark the evangelist is the “John Mark” from the twelfth chapter of Acts of the Apostles, a companion of Paul and Barnabas. Mark was a cousin of Barnabas, according to Paul’s letter to the Colossians (4:10). He is referenced many times throughout the letters of Saint Paul. The Gospel of Mark is considered by some to be St. Peter’s Gospel, as tradition holds that Mark essentially served as a scribe, recording the teachings and recollections of Peter.
Luke was a follower of St. Paul (Col. 4:14), and we have references identifying him as the author of the third Gospel dating all the way back to St. Irenaeus of Lyons in the second century A.D. He is also identified as the author of Acts of the Apostles and is noted by St. Paul as being a physician.
The identity of the authors of the Gospels is more than a point of historical interest. For many people, the question of authorship of the Gospels affects how they view the historical reliability and authority of the Gospels. If the Gospels were not actually written by the apostles (or their disciples), they might say, it is not eyewitness testimony and thus is not reliable. In fact, critics of Christianity often point to this authorial ambiguity precisely to try to undermine the Gospels’ authority. They claim that anonymous, non-apostle Christians compiled hearsay reports and legend, and these were passed off as authentic eyewitness accounts and can thus be summarily dismissed.
But the Gospels cannot be dismissed, and they must not be dismissed. They are the most important documents in the history of the world, inspired by the Holy Spirit. Historical and textual evidence points to the traditional identities of the Evangelists; the authority of the Gospels comes from their divine inspiration. But for those who do not accept that premise, their historical reliability can be demonstrated based on authorship. And the Gospels were written by eyewitnesses or others who recorded the eyewitness testimony. They are historically reliable documents, and of unfathomable import.
We cannot say with any degree of certainty that every word contained in each Gospel came from the hand (or mouth) of the attributed author. But the evidence shows that the ancient tradition of the Gospels’ authorship is reliable and worthy of belief.