The Joyce Hill Column
The Authorship of the Gospels (2)
Last month I looked at some of the general issues surrounding the authorship of the Gospels and ended with an outline of the evidence for Mark being a conceivable (though unprovable) author of the Gospel bearing his name. This month it’s the turn of the other three, beginning with the Gospel of Luke which, like that of Mark, is attributed to a figure who is not an apostle. There is, however, a Luke mentioned in the Epistles (Colossians 4: 11, 14): a gentile and a physician. If he is the author of the Gospel, this would account for the quality of the Greek, more idiomatic and polished than that of Mark. Additionally, Acts 1 v. 1 is generally interpreted as meaning that the author of the Acts and the Gospel were the same person; and in Acts parts of the narrative use ‘we’, indicating that the writer accompanied Paul on some of his travels. If, then, we think of Luke as an active participant in the establishment of the early church in the generation after Christ’s ministry, the hypothesis that the Gospel was written in the 80s is entirely reasonable. As with Mark, why would early tradition claim Luke as a name to lend authority to the Gospel when bigger names were available?
By contrast, Matthew and John are names of apostles and so would be perfect for lending authority to anonymous texts. But the dates are problematic. Matthew was a tax-collector and so, when called by Jesus to be an apostle, must have been an adult of some standing. If modern scholarship is right in dating the text to sometime in the last quarter of the first century, perhaps around the 80s, that raises questions, given normal life-spans and the fact that those who lived longer than average were usually rather ‘older’ in their 70s and 80s than people are these days. And if chronology is a problem for Matthew’s Gospel, how much more is it for John’s, written, it is thought, around the turn of the first century. If c. 90-110 is indeed the correct date, it would be extraordinary if John the Apostle were the author.
Matthew used Mark’s Gospel as a written source, just as Luke did. We can confidently deduce that the author of this Gospel was a Jew, probably writing for a Greek-speaking Jewish community of the kind that existed in various places in Syria. But beyond that, and the fact that he was writing in the context of the second-generation of Christians, we can’t draw any further conclusions.
The Gospel ascribed to John is altogether different. Firstly, it is thought to be significantly later than the other three. Secondly, it is very different in its approach. Whereas the other three (known as the Synoptic Gospels) focus on Jesus’ life and ministry, John’s Gospel teaches what has been called ‘a high Christological doctrine’, taking an altogether more reflective approach to the divinity of Christ and the sublimity of his teaching. It both draws on and appeals to a rather different theological world, and one that best makes sense in terms of the rather later date.
As I’ve explained before, date and authorship are matters of conjecture for all four Gospels. It is at least possible to argue (though by no means agreed and certainly not provable) that the Gospels of Mark and Luke were written by the figures named in the New Testament. But for the Gospels of Matthew and John authorship remains a ‘known unknown’.