The Seekers' Guide to the Bible
The authors of the New Testament
Before 190AD, every book of the NT had already been assigned to its traditional author. Exactly how early this happened we do not know. Paul's authorship of his genuine letters was obviously known at their inception and this may have been so for other books too. With the four Gospels it would be very surprising if they were not each given distinguishing names as soon as more than one of them was available. There is no evidence that they ever went under any other names apart from Matthew, Mark, Luke or John.
Matthew's Gospel is supposedly by the tax collector mentioned at 9:9 in this Gospel. Irenaeus, Bishop of Lyons states that Matthew wrote the Gospel in his Against Heresies (c. 180AD). Papias, Bishop of Hierapolis (c. 130AD) is quoted by Eusebius as saying that Matthew wrote the sayings of Jesus in Hebrew which made there way to India where they were said to have been found by Pantaenus in about 180 AD. The Gospel itself is sometimes said to have more of an interest in money than the others do.
Mark's Gospel is said by Papias as having been written by an interpreter of Peter although Mark himself never personally knew or heard Jesus. We are told that Mark did not write the events in the order they occurred in but rather the order Peter gave them out. Later in about 400AD, Jerome (letter CXLVI) hints that the Gospel's author went on to found the church in Alexandria and this seems to be confirmed by the controversial letter of Clement of Alexandria containing the Secret Gospel of Mark. This Mark is often equated with the John Mark mentioned in Acts (15:37 and elsewhere).
Luke's Gospel is assigned to Paul's companion, Luke the physician, in the anonymous Muratorian fragment dating from c. 190 AD (although a convincing case can be made for a later date for this fragment). It is stated that Luke was with Paul in the capacity of a lawyer and that his Gospel started with the birth of John (that is, included the nativity narratives). Irenaeus also says that it was written by a companion of Paul in Against Heresies.
John's Gospel is assigned to the Apostle John by the same Muratorian fragment. Irenaeus in Against Heresies, also refers to this Gospel as by John of Ephesus who leaned on Jesus' breast (perhaps John 13:23). We are told that Irenaeus heard this from Polycarp who was a hearer of John himself. Justin Martyr tells us that in 135AD he heard that John had been at Ephesus although Ignatius (120AD) does not mention him in his own letter to the Ephesians. Within the text of the Gospel we find that the author is declared to be the 'beloved disciple' (21:24) who, by a process of elimination would seem to be one of James or John, the sons of Zebedee. However, as James was martyred in the early 40s by Herod Agrippa I (Acts 12:2) he does not seem a good candidate. The three letters of John are all mentioned by the Muratorian fragment as well - 1 John on its own and 2 and 3 John as a pair of epistles. None of the fathers seems to doubt them.
Acts is by the same person who wrote Luke and the Muratorian fragment confirms this. In the text we find some passages written in the first person so it seems it must have been by a companion of Paul.
Of the thirteen epistles claiming to be by Paul, the early fathers were nearly unanimous that he wrote them all. The Muratorian fragment mentions all of them and even 2 Peter in the NT itself alludes to a collection of Paul's letters. However, the heretics Tatian and Marcion cast doubt on the Pastorals while 2 Corinthians does not manage to get itself quoted very early on.
The letter to the Hebrews was thought to be by Paul for centuries but after the Reformation this was idea was largely rejected. In about 200 AD Tertullian mentions that Barnabas (a companion of Paul) was the author.
The two letters of Peter claim to be by the apostle. 1 Peter was the first of the 'catholic' epistles to be widely accepted although the Muratorian fragment omits it. In the case of 2 Peter, the early fathers such as Origen (230 AD) are by no means sure and the letter does not make it into all the lists of canonical works. This letter seems to quote from Jude as well as give authority to Paul's epistles.
The letters of James and Jude suffer from similar concerns. In his letter, Jude claims to be the brother of James and we assume they were both also brothers of Jesus himself. 1 Clement (AD 95) might refer to Jude while Tertullian and Origen (230 AD) accept it. The Muratorian fragment has 'no doubt'. James is not mentioned until Origen who is doubtful of its authenticity. It eventually made the canon in the forth century.
Finally, Revelation claims that it is by John of Patmos (1:9). Justin Martyr (150 AD) and the Muratorian fragment claim this was John the Apostle. However, Dionysius of Alexandria (260 AD) thinks it is by a different 'John the Elder' mentioned by Papias as being his tutor. To support his case, he cites differences in style and that it was said there were two tombs at Ephesus revered as containing a 'John'.
The up shot of all this is that if we think the early fathers knew what they were talking about (and most modern scholars seem to believe they knew nothing of the sort) then we would give Paul credit for all thirteen letters while Mark, Luke and John's Gospels we would assign to those very names. However, we would only hold Matthew responsible for a Hebrew collection of Jesus' teaching and not the present Greek Gospel. Serious doubts would surround all the catholic letters which we would place roughly in the order of 1 Peter, Jude, James 2 Peter in decreasing authenticity. We accept the letters of John as by the author of the Gospel and the Revelation as from a slightly later John from the same area.
Nowadays, scholars are by no means decided who wrote the NT or when it was
written. Of late, the dates have been pushed back by the discovery of early
papyri and archaeology that seems to confirm details mentioned in the Gospels.
However, I think the consensus can be summarized in the following table. This is
a rather subjective exercise as everyone who holds a particular theory will be
upset that I do not think it is the consensus opinion.
Note that evangelical scholars will tend to go for the earliest dating and the traditional authorship whereas revisionists will suggest an author as late and remote as possible. I have found that the Acts of the Apostles is a useful barometer to identify a revisionist. If a scholar thinks Acts is second century, he is trying to detach Paul from the rest of early Christianity and will build his theories around the idea of Paul as the founder of Christianity. Meanwhile, the conservative will always insist that the three pastoral letters are genuinely Paul's, in part because they support a conservative outlook on scripture and sex. His inerrant view forces acceptance of the claimed authors of the catholic letters as well.
That the apostle Paul wrote some of the letters in the NT is not disputed. Romans, 1 and 2 Corinthians, Galatians, 1 Thessalonians, Philippians and Philemon are rarely, if ever, doubted. Indeed, I sometimes wonder why revisionists feel so sure about this when they feel free to question everything else!
Based on the above consensus, computers have been used to subject the other letters to various tests to see if they fit the same patterns and can be declared Pauline. As Robin Lane Fox reports in the Unauthorised Version, the results tend to be rather inclusive with the three Pastorals out on the fringe. However, they still appear to be Pauline (except perhaps Titus) and the differences in style are easily accounted for by their being to a friend and not a whole church. That said, the Pastorals also contain a good number of words not found elsewhere in the Pauline corpus and not found at all in other works until well after Paul was dead.
There are other problems with these letters which are bound up with the question of what happened to Paul after the end of Acts. There we left him preaching freely under comfortable house arrest for two years. If the pastorals are genuine we would need Paul to have been released and then later arrested again. This is because at 2 Timothy 4:20, Paul states he left Trophimus ill at Miletus while in Acts 21 Paul leaves Miletus for the last time we know of in the company of Trophimus.
There are also alleged theological problems with the Pastorals but they are hard to credit. Without looking them up in a textbook see if you can find any in the letters themselves!
The crux of the issue is whether Paul was released from the imprisonment he is suffering at the end of Acts. If he was, then the events referred to in the Pastorals could have taken place after the end of Acts and that would explain the apparent discrepancies. There are good reasons to think he might have been released:
It is also very hard to see how a disciple would dare add all the personal touches that could easily expose him. At 1 Timothy 1:16 Paul describes himself as the worst of sinners. Imagine a disciple coming up with that! In short, I believe there are good reasons to believe Paul did pen these letters although accept a good case can be made that he did not. Also Paul comes out as a sexist at 1 Timothy 2:11 and I would rather he was not that! Finally, a papyrus scrap dating from before 68 AD from Qumran (7Q4) has been tentatively identified as from 1 Timothy but this is much disputed. This would push the latest possible date of composition for 1 Timothy back into the lifetime of Paul. Nonetheless, the lack of concrete evidence for Paul's life after the end of Acts is rather disturbing.
We find two letters to the Corinthians in the Bible but they seem to have received at least four (lucky things). At 1 Corinthians 5:9 Paul refers to the first (now lost), 1 Corinthians itself is the second, 2 Corinthians 2:4 refers to the third and 2 Corinthians is the fourth. Or is it? Scholars have been amusing themselves chopping up 2 Corinthians and some are convinced it is an amalgam of no less than five. Although this is all very interesting it doesn't really matter all that much as we are all agreed that Paul did write it (or them).
Some scholars think that the Letter to the Philippians is also a composite. In his own letter to the Philippians, Polycarp (c. 110 AD) mentions Paul's letters and perhaps the change in tone at 3:1 indicates two have been merged. Once again, as long as we are talking about what Paul actually wrote it does not matter much.
Although 1 Thessalonians is also, without doubt, Paul's, 2:13-16 does cause some disquiet. It seems to be very anti-Semitic and the mention of God's wrath suggests an insertion after the fall of the Temple in 70 AD. That said, the passage does not seem to be wildly out of context and Paul has plenty of reason to be angry with his fellow Jews. 2 Thessalonians is doubted by some scholars for various stylistic reasons. I have found these too pernickety to be convincing but you can find them in any non-evangelical introduction to the letter. I am certainly not impressed by the argument that the insistence of authenticity at 2 Thessalonians 3:17 is evidence that the letter is not genuine.
Colossians and Ephesians seem to be closely related and have often been downgraded to pseudonymous works in the name of Paul.
Colossians has been questioned since the early nineteenth century when the heresy it is replying to was mistaken for second century Gnosticism. Colosse itself was a small city that was in decline by the first century. Matters took a much greater turn for the worst when the city was destroyed by an earthquake in about 63 AD. It is not unreasonable to suggest that the letter was written before that date in which case it is almost certainly Paul's. For a later disciple to write a letter to a minor city that Paul never visited and no longer even existed would be a strange choice. The wealth of personal detail also points to the letter's genuineness.
Ephesians is a very general letter that seems to summarize Paul's teaching. It lacks much in the way of personal touches and does not name any of the recipients at the end as Paul himself often does. For this reason it is sometimes thought to be a circular letter sent to several cities. The one to Ephesus just happened to be the one that wound up with us. One can imagine Paul's messenger, Tychicus (6:21) running around Asia delivering these letters from the captive apostle to each church as he went.
No one knows who wrote Hebrews although there is broad agreement that Paul did not. It appears to date from before 70 AD because it refers to the activities related to the temple in Jerusalem in the present tense. However, this is not conclusive and any date up to 95 AD (when Clement of Rome quotes this letter in his own) is possible. The intended readership and the author are second generation Christians who are clearly very knowledgeable about the OT. If the author is someone mentioned in the NT itself then Barnabas or more likely Apollos (Acts 18:24) are candidates.
1 and 2 Peter are both highly problematic although the arguments against each are very different. With 1 Peter there are two problems. The first is that it seems to reflect a situation in the last years of the first century during a persecution under Domitian. This makes it far too late to have been written by Peter who was supposed to have martyred in Rome in the 60s. The second point is that 1 Peter is written in high quality literary Greek which Peter is felt incapable of.
The question of which persecution the recipients of the letter are supposed to be suffering from is difficult to determine. There was a general persecution under Domitian but the letter is addressed to the churches of Asia only. It does seem very possible that an earlier and more localized event brought forth this letter. Also, if it arrived in the 90s it seems inconceivable that the recipients would not have been aware that Peter had been dead for thirty years. A letter arriving at the White House from John F Kennedy would probably not be treated very seriously.
The excellent quality of the Greek is best explained by Peter using his secretary, Silas, who is named in the letter (5:12). My secretary forever has to correct my mistakes and can turn my drivel into good quality prose (note that she only helps with work - not this guide!). Also the idea that Peter (and indeed Jesus) were 'peasants' is simply untrue. Although Jesus was not rich, he was middle class as his father was a craftsman. Likewise Peter was a self-employed fisherman and this was a job that demanded business acumen and dealt with a very highly prized product. In an era before refrigeration, fresh fish was a luxury and very expensive. My considered opinion is that 1 Peter is more likely genuine than not. At the very least it was composed under the authority of the Apostle.
I am much less inclined to accept 2 Peter. Actually, so is everyone else - the early church fathers took ages to accept it and even the NIV Student Bible is a little embarrassed by the obvious differences between 1 and 2 Peter. In the text itself the author refers to Paul's letters at 3:16. I do not have a problem with Peter mentioning Paul because the idea they were in continual conflict is a modern myth. Instead the very fact that a corpus of Paul's letters was circulating suggests a late date for this letter as does their being described as scripture. Second, after 3:3 the writer argues against sceptics who are demanding to know why the world has not ended yet. This would not have been a problem until at least the end of the first century as Christians were saying some of the Apostles would survive until the Second Coming.
The fact that 2 Peter is almost certainly not by Peter does cause difficulty for the inerrantist who has no choice but to maintain apostolic authorship for this letter. That is one reason why, while I am happy to say the NT is generally reliable, I do think that we would be mistaken to think it literally true at all points.
The letters of James and Jude do not give us much idea who they claim to be by although Jude does say he is James's brother (Jude 1). It is assumed that the letters are supposed to be from Jesus' brothers mentioned occasionally in the New Testament (Matthew 13:55). James himself became one of the pillars of the Jerusalem church with John and Peter (Galatians 2:9) before he was martyred by the Jews in 62 AD (Josephus Antiquities XX(9)). Although neither letter claims its writer to be Jesus' brother, we find nothing in them inconsistent with the traditional view of authorship. We might think that a pseudographer would be more inclined to make use of his subject's sibling relationship with Jesus than the letters actually do. Both letters show signs of being Palestinian Christian in origin and of being early. Finally, James's letter is very theocentric rather than Christocentric. This may reflect him still having trouble seeing his brother as God.
The letters of John are obviously from the same source as the Gospel so we will examine their authorship below.
The three so-called synoptic Gospels are the subject of more research than the rest of the NT put together. The reason for this is that quite a bit of progress seems to be possible in determining how these documents originated. Most scholars believe (in my opinion, wrongly) that they are closer to the real Jesus than anything else.
It is usually thought that Mark is the earliest Gospel and that Matthew and Luke based their work on him and another source which is usually called Q. This is called the two source hypothesis. Q stands for Quelle (the German for source, reflecting the country of origin of many of the greatest NT scholars) and is a hypothetical document containing sayings and parables of Jesus. Matthew and Luke also had their own material (such as the nativity stories) and did a bit of editing themselves.
The main problem with the Q hypothesis is that there is no trace of Q outside the Gospels. That said, it is easy to see that Matthew and Luke have a lot in common with each other that is not also found in Mark. Some scholars have gone so far as trying to extract Q and present it on its own. Given this involves undoing the evangelists' editing, the results are speculative to say the least. When a scholar like Burton Mack starts to divide the hypothetical Q into three different hypothetical layers he has moved to unsupported speculation.
A few scholars still insist on the priority of Matthew. They claim he wrote his Gospel first and Mark produced a sort of summary. Luke did some major editing but kept much more in than Mark did. The traditional view that Matthew was one of the original twelve disciples supports this theory because we would not expect Matthew (who was there) to use Mark (who was not) as a source. Careful textual analysis tends to confirm Markan priority and the two source hypothesis. This casts doubt on the identification of Matthew.
As we have mentioned, Papias claimed that Mark wrote his Gospel in Rome after the departure (or death) of Peter. The Gospel certainly appears to be intended for a Gentile audience as Mark explains Jewish customs. He makes enough mistakes himself to cast doubt on whether he was even a Jew, let alone from Palestine. Matthew is clearly Jewish and corrects Mark's mistakes (as well as some of his less elegant turns of phrase).
Luke is certainly a gentile and there is no reason to doubt the traditional authorship of a companion of Paul (not that that stops some people trying). The main reasons to doubt Lukan authorship of the Gospel and Acts are that Paul's theology and the chronology of his travels seem different in Acts than in his letters. The question of theology is best tackled by asking who is writing Acts, Paul or Luke? Luke is a highly educated, literate man who would certainly put his own spin on the speeches of Paul that he reports. No one says that Plato was not actually a pupil of Socrates because the Socrates of the Republic is very different from the person portrayed by Xenophon. Luke has included his impression of the preaching he has heard Paul give at various points in his narrative without reproducing it verbatim.
Questions regarding the chronology of Acts are addressed in the next chapter but one point should be made here. Acts shows no knowledge at all of Paul's letters and small contradictions do occur. This means that Luke certainly did not have Paul's letters at hand or think them important enough to mention. Therefore Acts must have been written before the letters had become widely read and certainly before they became so highly esteemed. As 2 Peter, Ignatius and Clement of Rome all speak of the letters as scripture or something approaching it, this means Acts must certainly date from well before the end of the first century.
Mark is sometimes identified with the fleeing youth (14:51) found only in his Gospel. I find this hard to swallow but do not discount it. I have mentioned that the last eleven verses of Mark are a later addition and we also found an odd discontinuity at 10:46. Some light appeared to have been shed on this due to the discovery in 1958 of the Secret Gospel of Mark by Morton Smith. In a letter allegedly from Clement of Alexandria, there are quotations of the missing bits of Mark's Gospel. The main part is a story similar to the raising of Lazarus in John with a couple of additional lines inserted into 10:46. While many scholars think this letter is genuine, the additional bits of Mark are treated much more sceptically. My own hunch is that Smith faked the letter but liberal scholars consider it bad taste to mention this (although they have no problem with alleging most of the NT was faked). In 2005, Stephen Carlson published The Gospel Hoax that assembles such a convincing case against Smith that we are unlikely to see Secret Mark referred to again in the scholarly literature.
Another point in Mark is worth a mention as it points to a separate source for a man usually dismissed as legendary. At 15:21 we find Simon of Cyrene mentioned as the father of Rufus and Alexander. Now, people were identified by who their father was and not by their sons. Needless to say Matthew and Luke do not mention the sons, presumable because they have not got a clue who they are. However, Mark may know them and so includes them in his Gospel as a link to the events described. A Rufus in Rome is greeted by Paul in his letter (Romans 16:13).
What of Matthew? At 9:9 in his Gospel we find the story of Jesus calling Matthew the tax collector. But exactly the same story is in Luke and Mark with the name changed to Levi. Levi is not then mentioned as one of the twelve. It seems highly unlikely that the apostle did write Matthew's Gospel but we might be able to credit him with something else. Remember Papias said Matthew had written the sayings of Jesus in Hebrew. Perhaps this is the mysterious Q? Granted, Q is expected to be in Greek like the Gospels that include it, but it is my no means impossible that it was translated before it was used. The author of Matthew's Gospel then appended the name of his illustrious contributor to the finished document, complete with 9:9 as a sort of signature.
For many years the fourth Gospel was relegated to being an early second century piece of pseudo-Gnostic theology. It was supposed to have been coloured by Greek philosophy and represent a more highly evolved form of Christianity than found elsewhere in the NT. It now seems to be making something of a comeback to the extend that some scholars are even willing to consider its traditional authorship by the apostle John.
The magnificent first chapter speaks of the Word made flesh. This Word was often associated with Plato's logos but it seems that in fact it is related to the Jewish idea of God's Wisdom. The trouble is that Wisdom (sophia) is a feminine term and this will never do for Jesus. Therefore, to avoid semantic difficulties John uses the masculine Word (logos) instead. Of course we know that God is not male or female but the sex change might have seemed inelegant.
It has also become clear that John's Gospel is not remotely Gnostic. This was a movement most popular in Egypt which held that the material world was evil and hence only the spirit mattered. This was doctrine was called dualism and the orthodox church has always opposed it. But Gnostics did use John's Gospel as well as adapting it for their own purposes. This led to some distrust of John by the orthodox church fathers.
The earliest papyrus, as we have seen, contains a fragment of John and suggests it must have been written in the first century after all. The late date is based on it not being quoted until the mid-second century but there may be good reasons for this. Besides, that is nothing if not an argument from silence.
Chapter 21 is widely agreed to be an epilogue added to the Gospel by a different hand. It contains the story of the miraculous catch of fish (also in Luke 5) and the statement that the beloved disciple is the author of the Gospel. This chapter could have been added by the disciples of John to identify him and include another story that he had told them (note the exact number of fishes being mentioned at 21:11!).
So, can we be sure John was the beloved disciple? All sorts of ideas have been presented for this problem. Many scholars seem determined that the disciple should be anyone but John as that would add credence to the belief that the Gospel is an eye witness account. Revisionists want to avoid this conclusion whatever the cost. We know the beloved disciple is one of the twelve as he was at the Last Supper (13:23) and important enough to sit next to Jesus. However, he was not Peter. He could have been James or John (21:2) neither of whom are mentioned elsewhere in the Gospel. This is despite that fact that John gets eighteen mentions in the other gospels and James gets at least fifteen. Given the beloved disciple must be James or John and that James was killed in 42 AD by Herod Agrippa (Acts 12:2) the Gospel must be claiming it is written by John.
Is there evidence for this within the rest of the Gospel itself. In fact, there is plenty. Archaeology has confirmed details like the stone pavement (19:13) and the five porticos (5:2). This means John must have knowledge of Jerusalem from before in was destroyed in 70 AD. We will also see below how John contradicts the synoptics on the date of the crucifixion and gets it right!
Finally we get endless eyewitness details inserted into what is, in effect, a long work of theology. Check out the wedding at Cana (2:1 - 11), the race to the tomb (20:1 - 9), the crucifixion (19:31 - 37) and the healing of the man born blind (9:1 - 12). Only John tells us that Jesus was nailed to the cross, the robbers' legs were broken, Jesus was speared in the side and the sign on the cross was in three languages. That nails were used and the legs of crucifixion victims broken was only confirmed in 1970 when the bones of a crucified man were discovered with a huge nail though his feet. (An initial report by Dr N Hass (Israel Exploration Journal 20, 1970) gave considerable detail about the bones which pointed to nails being used on the arms as well as the legs. However, these conclusions have been criticised more recently by J Zias and E Sekeles (Israel Exploration Journal 35, 1985) mainly on the basis of the poor state of the remains.)
The reasons given for this Gospel being written late and not by the Apostle are hardly convincing. First, we are told that John's theology is incompatible with the synoptics because he makes no mention of the Kingdom of God and other central themes. This assumes that the synoptics are closer to Jesus than John, even though the scholars usually claim that none of these Gospels are eyewitnesses either. It is odd that this difference in theology has not been of much concern to Christians over the centuries. I fully accept that John and the synoptics have a different emphasis but to claim that they are incompatible is to try and box in Jesus himself.
Secondly, we are told that John is too anti-Semitic to have been the pillar of the Jerusalem church mentioned by Paul at Galatians 2:9. But Matthew is also clearly Jewish and just as against the leaders of his own people as John. Anyway, John gives us Nicodemus as a good Pharisee and Joseph of Arimathea as a good Sadducee so obviously does not think these classes all bad. We have already seen why John has something against the Jews as his brother, to whom he was very close, was killed by the Jewish King Herod Agrippa I. It is worth noting that, unlike certain other Herods, Agrippa ruled with the approval of the Jewish hierarchy and that they could therefore be implicated in the death of James.
Finally, it is claimed that the theology of John's Gospel is advanced and late. However, anyone who has read Paul's letter to the Romans, written in 55 AD, would be unimpressed by this argument. John is certainly easier to grasp that it is.
I must confess to being supremely indifferent as to who wrote this book and when they took it upon themselves to do it. The author is undeniably called John of Patmos (1:9) and is equally undeniably not the writer of the Gospel. I mentioned above that there seem to have been two Johns and I suppose we can assign Revelation to the younger of the two.
© James Hannam 2003.