Who Wrote the Gospels, and How Do We Know for Sure?
The Bible gives us four accounts of Christ’s life. Each records a unique perspective of the most significant event in history—the crucifixion and resurrection. All four gospels are named after men who lived during or shortly after Christ’s early ministry. Tradition considers these men the authors, but there’s one problem: not one of these books names its author.
The gospels are anonymous—so how do we know who wrote them?
None of the gospels came with an “about the author” section. The closest we get to a claim of authorship is at the very end of the Book of John, where the author implies that the book was written by “the disciple whom Jesus loved” (John 21:24 NIV).
Are there other context clues we can use to determine the authors? Can we trust tradition’s assumptions about who wrote the gospels? Did the early church fathers know more about the gospels’ authorship than we know now?
These questions are addressed in Dr. Mark Strauss’ course, “Four Portraits, One Jesus,” which this article comes from. Let’s start answering these questions by looking at the first canonical gospel, Matthew.
Who wrote the Gospel of Matthew?
For more than a millennium, the church has attributed this gospel to Matthew, the tax collector turned disciple. All three synoptic gospels and the book of Acts list Matthew among the twelve disciples, but only the book of Matthew explicitly says he’s a tax collector.
All three synoptic gospels record an account of Jesus calling a tax collector to discipleship, but interestingly, while the book of Matthew calls him Matthew, Mark and Luke both identify this man as Levi. It’s worth noting, however, that all four lists of the apostles include Matthew, and none of them include someone named Levi.
Some scholars argue that these are two separate men, but most believe Matthew was known by two names, possibly called Levi because he belonged to the tribe of Levi. While tradition claims the Gospel of Matthew was written by Matthew the tax collector, there’s plenty of evidence for and against this claim.
Arguments in favor of Matthew as the author
1. Papias mentioned Matthew wrote about Jesus.
The earliest external evidence that Matthew wrote the gospel comes from a fourth-century historian Eusebius quoting Papias, a second-century church father. The quote is ambiguous, and scholars can’t definitively say what it means, but according to Eusebius, Papias said this about Matthew:
“Matthew compiled (or ‘arranged,’ or ‘composed’) the logia (‘oracles,’ ‘sayings’ or perhaps ‘gospel’) in the Hebrew (or, ‘Aramaic’) language (or, ‘style’?), and everyone interpreted (or, ‘translated’) them as best they could.”
Obviously, Papias leaves us with a lot of questions regarding Matthew’s “authorship.” Did he write something, or put together a collection of things other people wrote? Was it sayings of Jesus, or a gospel? Does Papias mean the text was actually written in Hebrew or Aramaic, or that it was written in a Hebrew or Aramaic style? And did other people interpret it—implying that Matthew was a source, not an author—or did they translate his work?
This quote alone isn’t enough to prove Matthew is the author, but that’s not all scholars have to go on.
2. The Gospel of Matthew is highly organized.
Being a tax collector required constant upkeep of records and accurate relaying of information. Matthew needed to be organized in order to do his job, and the author of the book of Matthew appears to be highly organized. The major sections of the gospel are neatly divided into parts. Jesus has five prominent sermons in Matthew, and each ends with some variation of the same transition: “When Jesus had finished saying these things . . .” (Matthew 7:28; 11:1; 13:53; 19:1; 26:1). In Matthew 13, the author gives us seven parables in a row. And in Matthew 23 we read seven woes to the pharisees.
Many scholars see this neat, organized style as evidence of Matthew’s authorship, but again, it’s certainly not definitive proof.
3. The use of the name Matthew in 9:9.
The parallel passages in the other Synoptics refer to the tax collector Jesus calls as Levi. This deviation may appear to be circumstantial, but some scholars argue that it could also be an indicator of Matthew’s authorship.
If Matthew and Luke both used Mark as a primary source (as most scholars believe), then it’s reasonable to assume he would be comfortable changing his own name in the account. D.A. Carson also adds in his commentary on verse 9:9, “it is significant that it is more self-deprecating than Luke’s account, which says that Matthew ‘left everything’ and followed Jesus . . .” Humble might be a more appropriate term for the author’s choice here, but it could be argued that if someone else wrote it, they wouldn’t soften the language. However, Mark uses the same phrasing as Matthew, so that piece of the argument doesn’t really hold up.
4. The Gospel of Matthew talks about money more than the other Synoptics.
The parable of the talents is only found in Matthew. Gold and silver are mentioned 28 times in the Gospel of Matthew, but they’re only mentioned once in Mark and four times in Luke. The author also uses specific money-related terms the other gospels don’t mention, such as the two-drachma temple tax in 17:24 and the Greek word stater in 17:25.
In the Lord’s Prayer, the author of Matthew says “And forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors” (Matthew 6:12), whereas the author of Luke says, “Forgive us our sins, for we also forgive everyone who sins against us” (Luke 11:4). This substitution—plus the prominence of money and tax-collecting themes—seems to suggest that the author is very familiar with money and understands the gospel through the world of finances—like we might expect of a tax collector-turned-disciple.
5. The church ascribed the book to Matthew.
Matthew is hardly the most important of the disciples. He’s hardly mentioned in the entire New Testament. If the early church wasn’t sure who wrote this gospel, why would they choose someone so obscure? Matthew’s lack of prominence in the New Testament suggests to some that the early church must have had good reason to attribute the gospel to him.
None of these arguments make a perfect case for Matthew’s authorship, but taken together, they do support the possibility. In order to refute centuries of church tradition, we’d need a lot more evidence suggesting Matthew was not the author. Let’s look at the arguments.
Arguments against Matthew as the author
1. Papias’ statement can’t be talking about the text we call the Gospel of Matthew.
Despite the ambiguity of Papias’ claim about Matthew, one thing is clear: he’s saying Matthew was working with a text in Hebrew or Aramaic (whether he wrote it or compiled it), and others gave us the Greek version (whether they translated or interpreted it).
The problem scholars have with Papias’ statement is that the work we call The Gospel of Matthew reads like a Greek original, not a translation or interpretation of a text that was originally written in another language. That being said, it is possible that Matthew wrote or compiled another work—possibly a collection of Jesus’ sayings or a complete gospel—in Hebrew or Aramaic, and then wrote a separate, original Greek edition later. A Jewish man working as a tax collector for the Roman government certainly could have been proficient in both languages.
Most scholars believe the authors of Matthew and Luke wrote using Mark and some combination of other sources, and some believe Papias may be indicating that Matthew wrote one of these undiscovered source texts.
2. A tax collector wouldn’t emphasize Jewish ritual or the Law.
If the Gospel of Matthew was written by a tax collector, the gospel couldn’t have such intimate knowledge of the Law—because tax collectors were religious outsiders. This could arguably be addressed by the use of sources, but there may be more reason to believe the author was not a tax collector.
3. Matthew 13:52 could suggest the author was a converted scribe or Pharisee.
“He said to them, ‘Therefore every teacher of the law who has become a disciple in the kingdom of heaven is like the owner of a house who brings out of his storeroom new treasures as well as old.’” —Matthew 13:52
Is Jesus using this parable (and the author recording it) as a nod to the author’s conversion? If the author of Matthew is a teacher of the Law who has become a disciple, it could explain the gospel’s familiarity with the Law and Jewish rituals. The Gospel of Matthew constantly reveals how Jesus’ life and ministry fulfilled prophesies does appear to present “the old treasures” along with the new.
4. Most scholars believe Matthew borrowed material from Mark.
The similarities between the Gospel of Matthew and the Gospel of Mark—including using the same wording to describe the same events in the same general order—have led most scholars to believe the author of Matthew used the Gospel of Mark as a source.
A man named John Mark is believed to be the author of the Gospel of Mark (more on that next), and he wasn’t an apostle. Would Matthew the tax collector, an eyewitness to Jesus’ ministry, use the written account of someone who wasn’t there to write his own?
It sounds pretty unlikely, but it’s actually possible—there’s good reason to believe John Mark wrote Peter’s version of the events, which Matthew would certainly be willing to reference. Still, this is an argument worth considering.
So, did Matthew the tax collector write the Gospel of Matthew?
Unfortunately, there isn’t enough evidence to prove or disprove Matthew’s authorship. The church has always attributed this gospel to him, but without a direct claim in the text, that attribution comes from tradition, not Scripture. This isn’t to say tradition is wrong by any means, we just don’t know for sure either way.
Who wrote the Gospel of Mark?
Several early church fathers claim that the Gospel of Mark was written by a man named John Mark—a companion of both Paul and Peter. Through a game of literary telephone, we may even have word that one of the apostles (John) says John Mark wrote it.
Remember Papias, who said Matthew wrote about Jesus? According to Eusebius, Papias also claims that John “the Elder” (believed to be the apostle John) told him (Papias) that John Mark had written it.
Let’s recap that:
- Eusebius (fourth century) tells us that
- Papias (first–second century) said that
- John the Elder told Papias that
- John Mark wrote this gospel based on
- The Apostle Peter’s reminiscences
If that convoluted trail of information doesn’t convince you though, numerous other early church writers claimed he wrote it, including Irenaeus, Tertullian, Clement of Alexandria, Origen, and Jerome. These writers add that John Mark wrote the gospel using the eyewitness accounts of Peter.
So who is John Mark?
Mark was a popular name in the first century, but one Mark in particular consistently pops up throughout the New Testament, and he’s believed to be the John Mark who wrote the gospel. He first appears in Acts 12:12. After being miraculously freed from prison, Peter heads to John Mark’s mother’s home where the church is gathered:
“When this had dawned on him, he went to the house of Mary the mother of John, also called Mark, where many people had gathered and were praying.”
But this isn’t the extent of his involvement with the early church. One chapter later, Barnabas (Mark’s cousin) and Saul set out on their first missionary journey, bringing a man named John—who the Bible later identifies as “John, also called Mark”—as an assistant (Acts 13:5). The Bible doesn’t say why, but Mark leaves the missionaries at Perga in Pamphylia, returning to Jerusalem (Acts 13:13).
Later, Paul invites Barnabas on a second missionary journey. When Barnabas wants to bring John Mark with them, Paul cautions against it, citing his desertion in Pamphylia. The two of them disagreed so strongly that they decided to part ways. Barnabas sailed to Cyprus with John Mark, and Paul took Silas to Syria and Cilicia (Acts 15:36–41).
We don’t see Mark in Acts after that, but Paul’s letters reveal that they eventually mended their relationship. About ten years after the divide, Paul calls Mark his “fellow worker” (Colossians 4:10 and Philemon 24). In 2 Timothy 4:11, Paul tells Timothy, “Get Mark and bring him with you, because he is helpful to me in my ministry.”
The early church suggests that John Mark knew Peter as well. While Scripture shows a strong association with Mark and Paul, there’s only one verse connecting Peter to someone named Mark. In 1 Peter 5:13, he sends greetings from “my son Mark.” One could argue that this is a different Mark (again, the name was very common), but given the early church’s explanation of John Mark’s relationship to Peter, it’s probably safe to assume this is the same Mark we see throughout Acts and Paul’s letters.
The early church father Papias claims “Mark became the interpreter of Peter.” It’s unclear if he means that Mark interpreted Greek for Peter because he preached in Aramaic, or if he means that Mark put Peter’s oral teachings into written from.
Either way, the early church appears to have unanimously believed John Mark was the writer of the Gospel of Mark, and no alternatives were ever proposed. He wasn’t an apostle, and he wasn’t an eyewitness to the ministry of Jesus, but we have good reason to believe John Mark was in fact the author of the gospel that bears his name.
Who wrote the Gospel of Luke?
The early church credits the Gospel of Luke to Paul’s companion, Luke. Irenaeus, Clement of Alexandria, Tertullian, Origen, and others all list him as the author. Luke is mentioned throughout Paul’s letters (Colossians 4:7–17, Philemon 24, and 2 Timothy 4:11), where we learn that he was a doctor.
At the beginning of Luke, the author appears to claim not to be an eyewitness to the ministry of Jesus, but rather, someone who has spoken to eyewitnesses and investigated their claims.
“Many have undertaken to draw up an account of the things that have been fulfilled among us, just as they were handed down to us by those who from the first were eyewitnesses and servants of the word. With this in mind, since I myself have carefully investigated everything from the beginning, I too decided to write an orderly account for you, most excellent Theophilus, so that you may know the certainty of the things you have been taught.” —Luke 1:1–4
Church tradition tells us that Luke was a converted Gentile, which scholars suggest is the reason Paul introduces him separately in Colossians 4:11–14, introducing his Jewish companions first:
“Jesus, who is called Justus, also sends greetings. These are the only Jews among my co-workers for the kingdom of God, and they have proved a comfort to me. Epaphras,who is one of you and a servant of Christ Jesus, sends greetings. He is always wrestling in prayer for you, that you may stand firm in all the will of God, mature and fully assured. I vouch for him that he is working hard for you and for those at Laodicea and Hierapolis. Our dear friend Luke, the doctor, and Demas send greetings.”
Being a Gentile would also explain why the author takes such an interest in how Gentiles respond to the gospel. Given his familiarity with the Hebrew Scriptures, however, some scholars speculate that Luke may have been a “God-fearer”—a Gentile who worshiped the God of Israel.
For three main reasons, almost all scholars believe the Gospel of Luke was written by the same person who wrote Acts:
- Luke and Acts were written in the same style and express the same theology
- Both books are addressed to the same person—a man named Theophilus
- Acts 1:1–2 appears to tie the two books to the same author
If we can safely claim that the author wrote both books—which the vast majority of Bible scholars believe we can—then we can use Acts to learn more about the author of Luke. Acts strongly reinforces 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 his 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 appear to support the claim that Luke the physician is the author of both. In Luke 13:11-13, Jesus heals a crippled woman:
“. . . and a woman was there who had been crippled by a spirit for eighteen years. She was bent over and could not straighten up at all. When Jesus saw her, he called her forward and said to her, ‘Woman, you are set free from your infirmity.’ Then he put his hands on her, and immediately she straightened up and praised God.”
The Greek words Luke uses both to describe her condition (sugkuptousa) and the exact manner of Jesus’ healing (apolelusai, anorthothe) are medical terms.
In Luke 14:1–4, Jesus heals a man with dropsy:
“One Sabbath, when Jesus went to eat in the house of a prominent Pharisee, he was being carefully watched. There in front of him was a man suffering from abnormal swelling of his body. Jesus asked the Pharisees and experts in the law, ‘Is it lawful to heal on the Sabbath or not?’ But they remained silent. So taking hold of the man, he healed him and sent him on his way.”
Luke uses a word to describe the man in this passage that’s found nowhere else in the Bible: hudropikos. While this passage is the only place this word appears in the Bible, it’s a precise medical term frequently used in other texts—namely, the works of the renowned Greek physician, Hippocrates.
The use of medically-accurate phrases and descriptions continues in Acts, such as Acts 28:8–9, where the writer uses puretois kai dusenterio sunechomenon to describe a man’s exact medical condition (“suffering from fever and dysentery”).
Despite the support of early church fathers and the textual evidence that appears to suggest the Gospel of Luke was written by Luke, the Gentile physician and companion of Paul, not all scholars believe he’s the author.
Arguments against Luke as the author
The main arguments against Luke as the author are the portrayal of Paul and the theology presented in Luke and Acts. Some scholars claim that the theologies are different, and that the Paul we see in Acts is different from the Paul we see in his letters. The most apparent difference in the portrayal of Paul is his treatment of Judaizers. In Acts 21, a group of them tell Paul to participate in purification rituals to prove he still follows Jewish customs and will teach Gentiles to follow them as well—including Jewish food laws. He complies.
“When they heard this, they praised God. Then they said to Paul: ‘You see, brother, how many thousands of Jews have believed, and all of them are zealous for the law. They have been informed that you teach all the Jews who live among the Gentiles to turn away from Moses,telling them not to circumcise their children or live according to our customs. What shall we do? They will certainly hear that you have come, so do what we tell you. There are four men with us who have made a vow. Take these men, join in their purification rites and pay their expenses, so that they can have their heads shaved. Then everyone will know there is no truth in these reports about you, but that you yourself are living in obedience to the law. As for the Gentile believers, we have written to them our decision that they should abstain from food sacrificed to idols, from blood, from the meat of strangled animals and from sexual immorality.’
The next day Paul took the men and purified himself along with them. Then he went to the temple to give notice of the date when the days of purification would end and the offering would be made for each of them.” —Acts 21:20–26
Paul is far less sympathetic with the Judaizers in his letters, and even calls out Peter for his hypocrisy:
“When I saw that they were not acting in line with the truth of the gospel, I said to Cephas in front of them all, ‘You are a Jew, yet you live like a Gentile and not like a Jew. How is it, then, that you force Gentiles to follow Jewish customs?
‘We who are Jews by birth and not sinful Gentiles know that a person is not justified by the works of the law, but by faith in Jesus Christ. So we, too, have put our faith in Christ Jesus that we may be justified by faith in Christ and not by the works of the law, because by the works of the law no one will be justified.’” —Galatians 2:14–15
Still, the Paul of the Epistles makes it clear that sometimes advancing the gospel requires conciliation and concessions:
“To the Jews I became like a Jew, to win the Jews. To those under the law I became like one under the law (though I myself am not under the law), so as to win those under the law.” —1 Corinthians 9:20
As for the differences in theology, most scholars would argue that the difference is actually the theological emphasis, not the theology itself, which can be attributed to each book’s unique purpose.
So, did Paul’s companion Luke write the Gospel of Luke?
The overwhelming majority of Bible scholars say “yes.” Between the undisputed claims of early Christians and the textual evidence pointing to someone like Luke, there’s little reason to believe this gospel was written by anyone else.
Who wrote the Gospel of John?
Of all the gospels, John comes closest to revealing the identity of its author. At the very end of the gospel, the author begins referring to one disciple as “the one whom Jesus loved,” and eventually suggests this disciple wrote the gospel:
“Peter turned and saw that the disciple whom Jesus loved was following them. (This was the one who had leaned back against Jesus at the supper and had said, ‘Lord, who is going to betray you?’) When Peter saw him, he asked, “Lord, what about him?’
Jesus answered, ‘If I want him to remain alive until I return, what is that to you? You must follow me.’ Because of this, the rumor spread among the believers that this disciple would not die. But Jesus did not say that he would not die; he only said, ‘If I want him to remain alive until I return, what is that to you?’
This is the disciple who testifies to these things and who wrote them down. We know that his testimony is true.” —John 21:20–24
“The disciple whom Jesus loved” is traditionally believed to be the apostle John. While this passage may seem to point to John, it isn’t a closed case. Let’s look at what we know about the writer of the Gospel of John prior to this passage.
The author claims to be an eyewitness
The writer of John claims to be an eyewitness to the ministry of Jesus, and there’s good reason to believe that’s true. The gospel contains numerous details that appear incidental, some not even bearing a symbolic significance:
- The number of water jars at the wedding in Cana (John 2:6)
- How long the man at the Pool of Bethesda had been crippled (John 5:5)
- The name of the servant whose ear was chopped off by Peter (John 18:10)
- The number of fish the disciples caught at Galilee (John 21:11)
Since these details seem so unimportant, it’s hard to imagine that they would be noteworthy to a second or thirdhand writer.
The author appears to be Jewish
The writer of the Gospel of John also records numerous details about Jewish ceremonies and frequently uses Jewish festivals to show when events occurred. This could suggest he wasn’t a Gentile, but at the very least, he was intimately familiar with Jewish culture:
- He identifies the purpose of the water jars at the wedding in Cana (John 2:6)
- He notes that Jesus was in Jerusalem during the Passover (John 2:23)
- He mentions that Jesus fed the 5,000 near the Passover (John 6:4)
- He talks about the Festival of Tabernacles (John 7:2, 37)
- He specifies that it was the Festival of Dedication, where another writer might simply say “it was winter” (John 10:22)
- He records that Pilate handed Jesus over to be crucified on the day of Preparation for the Passover (John 19:14, 31)
The writer also introduces Aramaic words like Rabbi, Rabboni, Messias, and Kēphas. The Gospel of John was once believed to be the “most Greek” of the gospels, but more recently some scholars have called it the “most Jewish,” for the reasons above. The Dead Sea Scrolls support the themes and imagery John uses, such as light vs. darkness, and the children of God vs. the children of Satan, which seems to support that the gospel emerged from a Jewish, rather than Greek context.
Arguments against John’s authorship
Some scholars propose that the textual evidence doesn’t necessarily point to John as “the disciple whom Jesus loved.”
1. John would have had important information that isn’t recorded in the gospel. The gospel written by the disciple Jesus loved doesn’t include the main events where only Peter, James, and John were present—the raising of Jairus’ daughter, the transfiguration, or the prayer in Gethsemane. Plus, John followed Jesus from the beginning of his ministry (Mark 1:19), but the disciple whom Jesus loved isn’t mentioned until the Last Supper (John 13:23).
2. John may have been martyred before this gospel was written. Some scholars have suggested the apostle John was martyred too early to have written this gospel, citing Mark 10:38–39, where Jesus may be suggesting that an early martyrdom was in his future:
“‘You don’t know what you are asking,’ Jesus said. ‘Can you drink the cup I drink or be baptized with the baptism I am baptized with?’
‘We can,’ they answered.
Jesus said to them, ‘You will drink the cup I drink and be baptized with the baptism I am baptized with . . .’”
3. A fourth-century church historian says there were two Johns. We’re back to Eusebius and Papias. According to Eusebius, Papias claims that there were two men named John ministering in Ephesus (where the gospel is believed to have been written).
Some have suggested that this “other John” wrote the gospel, but Papias’ actual words leave room for interpretation, and Eusebius may have been wrong about what he meant. Papias mentions John the apostle and John the Elder, both of which could refer to John the apostle. According to Papias’ words, all of the apostles were elders, so John the Elder can easily be John the apostle.
Theories about who was “the disciple whom Jesus loved”
Given these doubts, some scholars have proposed alternative possibilities for “the disciple whom Jesus loved.” Here are three other people the unnamed disciple could be:
1. A literary representation of a faithful follower. This is unlikely, since the text not only specifically identifies him as one of the people present, but connects “the one whom Jesus loved” to the author of the gospel in John 21:24.
2. Lazarus. Lazarus first appears in John 11:1, and two chapters later, the writer identifies someone as the disciple whom Jesus loved (John 13:23). The gospel also explicitly says Jesus loves Lazarus:
“So the sisters sent word to Jesus, ‘Lord, the one you love is sick.’” —John 11:3
3. Thomas. The disciple Jesus loved saw the spear pierce Jesus’ side (John 19:35), and Thomas specifically asks to see Jesus’ side when he’s resurrected (John 20:25). This encounter comes just before the gospel’s purpose statement.
So, did the apostle John write the book of John?
Despite alternative theories about the disciple whom Jesus loved, most evidence still points to the apostle John. The early church father Irenaeus wrote, “afterwards, John, the disciple of the Lord, who also had leaned upon His breast, did himself publish a gospel during his residence at Ephesus in Asia.” Irenaeus lived in the second century, and claimed to receive this information from John’s disciple, Polycarp.
The text seems to point to John, too. The disciple whom Jesus loved was clearly close to Peter:
- Peter asks him to ask Jesus a question (John 13:24)
- Peter and this disciple race to the tomb together (John 20:2-10)
- Peter is fishing with this disciple when Jesus appears to them on the shore (John 21:2)
- Peter swims to Jesus after this disciple identifies him (John 21:7)
- After Jesus hints at Peter’s death, Peter asks about this disciple (John 21:20-24)
This close relationship supports the likelihood that this disciple was part of Jesus’ “inner circle” (Peter, James, or John). Since James is martyred early (Acts 12:1-5), and John is never mentioned by name in the whole book (which for anyone else would be a mistake), John is believed to be the most likely author.
At the end of the day, the gospels are still anonymous. Not one of them identifies its author. We have good reason to support the authors church tradition has named, but we don’t have to simply take their word for it. However, even after examining textual evidence and clues from other writings, none of the evidence for or against these authors is 100% conclusive.
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This post is adapted from material found in Four Portraits, One Jesus, an online course on Jesus and the Gospels taught by Mark Strauss.