Beyond Tradition

"Beware lest any man spoil you through philosophy and vain deceit, after the tradition of men." Colossians 2:8

Meet the Ghost Writers

 by Sean D. Harmon 

Part I of II:

The ghost writers

We know that the gospels are anonymous works. There is no dispute about this, as it doesn't really take a career biblical scholar to open each gospel and see that the name of the author is nowhere to be found in the works, or that the works are written from a third person perspective. So, this inevitably leads to the question of who exactly wrote them and why we should accept the belief they were written by the apostles ascribed to them?

Since there are no about the author bios or the name of the actual author written anywhere within the canon gospels works, it's generally accepted that the title "the gospel according to (Matthew, Mark, Luke, John)" which we see today at the beginning of each gospel was added by the scribes at some point when the copying process of the originals began. 

The argument that seems to resonate mainly from the skeptical camp rather resoundingly is that since the gospels have no identifier within the works themselves, they were absolutely not written by the apostles ascribed to them. Why you ask? It's not that simple. Naturally, while most Christians argue the legitimacy of apostolic authorship, critics argue non-legitimacy, so let me present you the arguments from both sides of the battle line. Four key factors against apostolic authorship is basically as follows:


  • The gospels were written late, presumably when the eyewitnesses would have already been dead.
  • The content within the gospels don't reflect personal accounts and are strictly told from a third person narrative.
  •  Pseudepigraphy was common during this time.
  • The gospels are anonymous; there is no name ascribed within the content of the work.


The gospels were written late, presumably when the eyewitnesses would have already been dead.

As I discussed in a previous article, a generally accepted date for all four gospels is around 70-100 CE. A date any later than this is not possible based on the evidence of free flowing gospel copies that would have been presumably widely circulating throughout the Roman Empire in the second century (discussed here: The Genesis, Part II: Gospel date consensus). A date later than 100 CE is a fringe argument. Thus, if we take the 70-100 date into consideration, considering that the average maximum age at death in those days may have been under 40, and if we assume the average age of each apostle was 20, by the time the gospels were composed, using the 70-100 date benchmark, the apostles would have been somewhere in their 60-90s, making their authorship improbable at best.

Of course, if I personally found convincing evidence substantiating the fact that the gospels were unquestionably written between that date and not a decade earlier, I would concur that there is a pretty good possibility, though still not impossible, that they were not written by the original apostles ascribed to them for this reason. The problem is that any date is speculation (I've discussed the gospel date in detail in other articles).

There are other reputable scholars who argue much earlier gospel dates (i.e. pre-70 CE).[1] Nevertheless, no one really knows for certain when they were written between a date of 40-100 CE. Any attempt at an appeal of consensus, even if such a thing were possible and accurate, is not proof one way or the other. So, even though the latest assumed date is still not an impossibility against apostolic authorship, the time of conception is obviously not a basis at all by which to support an argument against apostolic authorship.

The content within the gospels don't reflect personal accounts and are strictly told from a third person narrative.

Something I briefly noted earlier is that the authors record everything from a purely impersonal and non-biographical viewpoint. They also narrate from the third person (there is no first person "I/we/us"), which is something not expected of an eyewitness account, at least in terms we would conceptualize an eyewitness account today. However, third person narration was not at all utilized uncommonly in ancient works. Josephus also referred to himself in the third person as "Josephus" in his third book War, as did historian writers Xenophon and Julius Caesar in their works. We might even suppose a desire against personal imposition, in particular in the case of religious works describing the teachings and doings of the founder.

Pseudepigraphy was common during this time.

The written content itself within the gospels were left anonymous, this we know, but whether the titles were or were not on the originals is inconclusive, so there is no way we can be sure of pseudepigraphy even if it was the case. Of course, there is no way to prove the originals didn't have this title anymore than there is proof they did. The earliest manuscripts that exist from the late second to the early third century, such as p66 and p75, do in fact include the title ascribed to John.

It's argued that it wasn't uncommon for authors to write material under pseudonyms during that time, whether by well-intentioned students who accumulated the teachings and messages of their adored teacher after they had passed on, or outright forgery to give the theology expressed in the work more authority to a broader community. It becomes very easy to subscribe to the latter since this was obviously commonplace with the apocryphal gospels, most of which were clearly done under pseudonyms and composed many decades later. However, as I mentioned, though the actual date of the gospels is disputed (they could be dated much earlier than 70-100 CE), even the latest date is well within a range that makes apostolic authorship not an impossibility.

Moreover, assuming the latest date is correct, it's certainly not impossible we're dealing with secondhand sources, or writers, perhaps direct disciples, that had firsthand connections to the apostles. What we do know for sure is that the gospels were never ascribed a different name than the ones that were ascribed to them from the second century onwards, nor was this ever a disputed issue in the early church or a subject of contention by anyone anywhere in any ancient records that we have (which I'll discuss in more detail in a bit).

It's also important to note here that the practice of pseudepigraphy wasn't at all as readily received in the ancient world as is supposed, and this couldn't be anymore truer in the case of the early church fathers, their own attitudes against such a practice, how they judged apostolic works as authentic or not based on this activity, and how they treated such inauthentic works.[2] In short, no one was passing these works around will-nilly in the church. Such works were mostly shunned, hence concentrated to isolated sects within the church. Just this issue alone presents a monumental problem for a critic, since, again, there was never any dispute about the four canon gospels in any literature at any time.

The gospels are anonymous; there is no name ascribed within the content of the work.

Aside from the anonymous argument, which I'll elaborate on later, what else is left to support a non-apostolic view? There is nothing really in the way of solid proof other than additional suppositions that are extremely anecdotal. For example, in the case of Matthew, since all the earliest manuscripts of Matthew we have today are in Greek -- a high quality Greek at that -- this suggests that the author was obviously someone who could read and write in fluent Greek, which presumably would have been unlikely for an Aramaic speaking Jewish disciple of Jesus in first century Judea. Obviously this is under a silly notion that no first century Jew could speak and write Greek (which is just as ridiculous as someone staking the odds on the improbability of a native English speaking American incapable of speaking and writing in fluent Spanish), and this is especially odd in the case of Matthew, being a tax collector, who worked in conjunction with Gentiles and Jews, thus presumably would have had fluency in Greek, Hebrew, Aramaic, and possibly even Latin.

So, how can we really be sure the canon gospels Matthew, Mark, Luke and John are the original authors? First of all, we can't beyond doubt. There is no direct evidence we could point to proving beyond doubt that they are the ascribed authors, and, other than the external evidence, the evidence is anecdotal at best, but it's cumulative. In other words, it is far less difficult to prove they were the original authors than it is to prove they weren't.

No matter how much I analyze the view against apostolic authorship, the arguments just don't work logically in several ways. I'll break this up into three categories: external evidence, common sense evidence, and internal evidence. I'll tackle the first two categories here; the third in Part II. 


External evidence

You see, an example of solid proof against authentic authorship would come from external data, such as an extant copy manuscript of one of the four canon gospels found with a different title on it other than Matthew, Mark, Luke or John (i.e. "the gospel according to Smith"), and dated either earlier or about the same time as p66, p75, Codex Vaticanus, etc. The fact that all of the oldest manuscripts we have either have no title (because they are incomplete fragments) or titled with the four names with no alternative ascription and no contentions about it, does nothing but strengthen the legitimacy of the names.

Though Ignatius (110 CE) does not mention them by name, he quotes from Matthew, Mark, and Luke, and calls it "the Gospel" (discussed in detail here: The Genesis: Who were the early church fathers and why should we care?), in addition to Polycarp (70-150 CE), and it's unlikely they would have quoted from these sources had they not been recognized with at least some authority at that time. The earliest physical evidence for Luke is p75, a manuscript (with parts of both Luke and John) titled: euangelion kata Loukan (Gospel according to Luke).[3] The earliest external attestation to Lukan authorship of both the gospel of Luke and Acts is found in the Muratorian Fragment,[4] dated to the second half of the second century, and while few date it later, some date it even earlier. The earliest recognition of Luke is the Marcionite reconstruction of Luke, the Gospel of Marcion,[5] which unquestionably dates to the first half of the second century. Clement II (late second, early third century) recognized the four by name.[6] Irenaeus (late second century) recognized the authorship of the four in his writings Against Heresies.[7] Papias (early second century) acknowledged Matthew and Mark, and that Mark was the interpreter of Peter. Let's look closely at what Eusebius quotes from Papias…

"This also the presbyter  said: 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." These things are related by Papias concerning Mark."[8]

Papias' statement was discussed in detail in another article (here: The Genesis: Who were the early church fathers and why should we care?) so I won't elaborate extensively on this issue. Though this statement remains heavily debated, three things are apparent:


  1. Matthew wrote a document in regards to Jesus.
  2. Mark wrote a document about Jesus, which was considered not in chronological order (whether this is the gospel Mark that we have today is unclear, but most likely the case).
  3. Mark specifically wrote down what Peter taught about Jesus. 


Thus, from the scant external evidence that has survived today, we can deduce that in the early second century or earlier (Papias' knowledge or the information he had obtained presumably goes as far back as the first century), Matthew and Mark are documented as gospel authors, while Luke and John are documented around the mid-to-late second century. However, in my opinion, the external evidence is not anywhere near as strong as the common sense evidence because the externals are based on records that have been preserved from the past against an untold amount of data we have lost.

For example, we know from Eusebius that Papias wrote extensively about the early church that we only have in fragmented excerpts in Eusebius' work, as well as early historians such as Quadratus and Hegesippus, both of whom were briefly mentioned by Eusebius and both of whom apparently wrote volumes of works on Christian history. Most of the earliest works that have survived are Christian letters addressed to various churches, many of which are fragmented, as opposed to actual works that address church history in detail, thus we would be surprised to have any detail about the origins of the gospel works and the authors of those works in the first few centuries of the early church.

For example, works by Eusebius and Irenaeus are our only earliest sources that go into any great depth about church history, and, contrary to what we would find in just letters, are works we would expect to find detail about the New Testament, how it came about and who authored the works therein. And of course, as we would expect, they both do give detail about the gospel works and the authors of those works.

Once again, the external evidence tells us something that is perfectly clear: none of the fathers ascribed different names to the gospels, nor were there any contentions or debates between them about the names ascribed to them even though there were contentions and debates in regards to other canon works. Nor were the names in contention with even those the orthodox Christians considered heretics. The latter is quite remarkable, which I'll explain later.


Common sense

This category might seem strange and trivial, but, in my opinion, is actually stronger than anything else. Going back to the issue of pseudepigraphy, the main problem with arguing this going out the gate is that the four canon gospels were not forged by authors using pseudonyms like some of the apocryphal gospels, because the canon works themselves were anonymous. Basically the logic against apostolic authorship here is simple -- if they were written by the real apostles, they would have ascribed their names within the content of the work. Yet not only is this just a blatant assumption, but when we examine this closely, it backfires and works in favor of apostolic authorship for this reason.

One would have to guess what methodology the church fathers used to determine authorship if we are to doubt the names they all unanimously agreed on, whether through careful analysis of both internal and external factors, or just which traditions they collectively liked or were popular. If we assume the former, which is certainly evident from their own writings in how they judged such works, though it's certainly possible they could have been mistaken, then there is no reason to dismiss their assessments outrightly. If we assume the latter, this is where it becomes rather nonsensical, and the earlier the tradition, the more nonsensical this becomes.

As was pointed out earlier, the earliest written record we have ascribing Matthew to his gospel is Papias, around the early-to-mid second century. Though it has been a long dispute whether Papias was referring to the Greek gospel Matthew we have today that may have been initially written in a Semitic language, or whether he was referring to some other work, the case is strong that it was an actual Matthean gospel (discussed here: The Q Conundrum, Problem #1). There is little doubt Papias got this tradition from an even earlier source, not just based on traditions that Papias had actual contact with the apostle John (though this is also highly disputed), but because he indicated in his own work that he often enjoyed conversing about the old traditions with those who had personal contact with the original apostles. Thus, the sources Papias had were at least secondhand to the apostles themselves; this would have been pretty darn close to the actual person who had written and first presented the Matthean work, presumably Matthew himself.[9]

Whether it was actually Matthew or not, the name was obviously used very earlier, either because it was Matthew's work or because this was what the author claimed of the work himself who passed the work off using that name. However, Matthew was not only not a very prominent disciple among the names that could have been chosen, but he was a tax collector, an infamous publican (Matthew 10:3, 18:17; Luke 18:10-11) a heathen, a sinner and essentially a trader to the Jews in league with the Roman adversaries who were his employers, all of which diminish him as one of the least glowing choices of the twelve. Moreover, since indisputable evidence suggests that the gospel of Matthew was written by a Jew specifically for a Jewish audience (and the arguments for this are almost unanimous),[10] and since we know from Papias that his authorship was a very early tradition, this is particularly puzzling if the work was not first presented by none other than Matthew himself. If the original author was not Matthew, and since he was obviously writing to Jews about the Son of David, it would have served the author better to pass his work off using a less "offensive" Jew from the discipleship name pool.

Luke and Mark were not original disciples, thus even less obvious choices. Papias also ascribed Mark to his gospel and claimed that Mark was Peter's interpreter, and whether Papias' information was accurate is irrelevant here since we at least know it was a very early tradition and we're only concerned about what the earliest Christians before Papias believed of the gospels in this case. Assigning Peter's name instead of Mark would obviously have been much more favorable, and a claim that technically could have been made with legitimacy since it was generally accepted that the works of disciples were often attributed to their teachers.[11] Thus, the absurdity that Mark's name was even considered over Peter himself who was the rightful claimant of the teaching goes without saying, unless there was no doubt or dispute about Mark's authorship.

Since it was believed that the author of the gospel of Luke was Paul's companion, Paul's name would have been a far better choice over Luke, or even one of Paul's much more visible companions, such as Timothy/Timotheus (who actually had two epistles dedicated to him by Paul -- 1 and 2 Timothy); or Silvanus/Silas who was the admitted scribal secretary of Peter's first epistle (1 Peter 5:12). This is especially underscored by the fact the apostle Luke is not mentioned anywhere in the New Testament narratives other than in passing in Paul's letters.

In contrast to this, many of the later apocryphal works or the obvious intentional forgeries were ascribed with names of some of the most notorious New Testament characters, which follows a logical course we'd expect in these circumstances. The only way to explain the choice of these lackluster names given to the earlier canon gospels is if the traditions about their authorship were firmly affixed early enough to escape any doubt or dispute, which would suggest that all these works were presented by the actual ascribed authors when they had made the works public.

Aside from the actual names they chose, there is another factor that works in favor of apostolic authorship. We know that the many apocryphal works of the second century -- the Gospel of Peter, Protoevangelium of James, the Apocalypse of Peter, Gospel of Thomas, many of the documents found in the Nag Hammadi library, etc. -- were forgeries that were either written from a first person voice, had the name of the apostle ascribed within the content of the work, or both.[12] The canon works obviously don't follow this pattern, so what is to explain this uniqueness?

The opening of Luke (1:1-4) makes it perfectly clear his readers knew exactly who it was authored by, yet he strangely never mentions his name directly. Thus, since his audience knew from where it came, we can assume this is the very reason he didn't directly signature the work. The opposite is true of a forged work -- the forger knows he has no authority but wants it be an authority, thus he is persuaded to actually assign an authoritative name within the work or make it appear that it is directly from an eyewitness. This doesn't necessarily have to be assumed under ill intentions, but a well-intentioned writer that truly believes his work is inspired and important.

We can assume that if the gospel works were not actually written by Mark and Matthew, they were being passed off falsely as their works since this tradition gores back extremely early, likely told by those when the writers were still alive. To assume that the gospels are non-apostolic works and that their authorship wasn't really certain, thus without the type of authority we expect of such an authentic work, and that they were being misrepresented as apostolic without any signature within the work itself is less logical than if the works were anonymous because they were bonafide apostolic works from the start and everyone knew this, hence the works already carried the weight it needed without the need to make this perfectly plain to the readers.

In other words, the fact that the gospels are anonymous greatly bolsters the idea that they were actual apostolic works, not the reverse. If a bonafide apostle wrote a gospel, then we would expect it to be anonymous because he need not authorize it with his name since he is obviously not seeking any undue glory, fame or recognition, and the community or church he writes it to already knows from where it came, thus has all the required authority it needs as soon as it goes public. In this respect, it makes much less sense it would have a signature. This is extremely difficult to believe of a work being passed off as an apostolic work when it wasn't. This is what I call arguing from common sense.


The heretics 

Around the second century, when different Christian sects and denominations began to veer off the path of mainstream or orthodox doctrine into ideas that were considered heretical, such as gnosticism, certain works that became known as the apocrypha emerged that reflected some of these ideas. Naturally, there arose debates over which manuscripts were authoritative and based on true doctrine. We clearly see some of these disputes, particularly with Irenaeus, as early as the second half of the second century in his work Against Heresies, as well as the Muratorian Fragment.

Obviously the issue of which apostolic names that would have been ascribed to these various conflicting works became a way to give them more clout, and of course the bigger the name the better. This is just another reason against the choice of the ascribed names given to the canon gospels, with the exception of John, unless these names were not already indelibly rooted in tradition early on or if the early Christian communities, churches and traditionalists were not accrediting names to such works without extreme caution.

This was particularly notable in the case of Marcionism, a movement founded by Marcion who was excommunicated in the first half of the second century as a result of his gnostic influences. Marcion cherished the teachings of Paul and the gospel of Luke, yet this was after his radical redactions to the latter in order to reshape Luke's gospel to conform to his beliefs (removing such things as touted prophecies of Christ's coming, his birth, and baptism), shaping it into a customized Marcion work. What better way for the mainstream church to have countered what they saw as defiant actions by attributing Luke's non-redacted gospel to Paul or some other more authoritative apostolic name? The same could be said of the heretics themselves.

Tertullian actually marveled that Marcion, who had no qualms about doctoring his own version of the gospel of Luke, kept his edited version of Luke free of a name when he could have easily ascribed Paul himself, Luke's companion, or some other apostle to add more weight to his work.[13] According to the Muratorian Fragment, this was an action some of Marcion's followers did with an epistle to the Laodiceans, ascribing it to Paul.[14] It's inexplicable why Marcion, particularly in light of his editing liberties, or some other scribe didn't choose this route, or why Marcion never disputed the authorship of the other gospels he shunned that conflicted with his theological views. It could have served him well to denounce them or at least question their authorship for the sake of his own argument, which suggests authorship was so firmly rooted with all four gospels that such an argument would have been viewed as far-fetched and would have only discredited Marcion and his aims.

We know manuscript copies of the gospels were broadly circulating by the second century (discussed here: The Genesis: Gospel date consensus). We know that there wasn't any type of church conspiracy possible or control the flow of these works. This is in addition to the fact that we're constantly finding documents that were rejected and considered heretical around this era, and we also know that potential for such textual variants existed between the different manuscripts (discussed here: The Genesis). In light of this, it is truly astounding that we never find an extant canon manuscript with a different name ascribed to it.

Irenaeus pointed out that most sects, even the ones deemed heretical and in contention with orthodoxy, such as the Eboinites and the followers of Valentius, all considered the canon gospels authoritative and used them to support their own doctrinal views with no dispute about authorship.[15] The church fathers were certainly unbiased in their analysis in this matter, being that they not only accepted some of the apocryphal works as authentic that were later rejected by the church, but even questioned works that eventually found there way into the canon, such as the epistle of James, Jude, Peter's second epistle and some of John's epistles, and Revelation (a.k.a. Apocalypse of John).[16] The gospel of John itself was in some contention because of its distinct nature from the other three gospels, with some orthodox Christians arguing against it for that reason, yet no one ever brought up the issue of authorship or whether it was spurious even though this would have bolstered there arguments against it.[17]

The point to all this being the fact there were no disputes about the ascribed names or any textual variants with different names ascribed to any of the earliest manuscripts, yet there were disputes about everything else from other spurious works and forgeries and works that were eventually considered legitimate is impossible unless the traditional names ascribed to the four canon gospels were so firmly entrenched because of indisputable evidence supporting the names that no one could refute this no matter what Christian faction, sect, view or idea they belonged. 


The apocrypha 

One last thing to consider is that if forgery was commonplace in the first century, with an extremely gullible church accepting documents being passed off as apostolic when they weren't (which we know is not true), it's somewhat surprising there were just four anonymous works circulating in the first century that was in no dispute and that were identical to each other (identical in the sense that they all had the same basic structural narrative: Jesus' ministry, his death, and his resurrection). Much of the apocryphal works lack this type of agreement with each other that the four canon gospels show in relation to each other, hence the necessity of textual-dependency theories to explain this phenomenon. 

Moreover, and though dependence is debatable with some apocryphal literature, much of the apocryphal authors seemed to take for granted that their readers were already familiar with the traditions of the canon gospels, suggesting they were using the more authoritative works as a template, often filling in gaps of missing information. These factors once again indicate that the canon gospels were not only widely accessible at the time but carried an evident authority very early on.

To accept the authenticity of the ascribed authors of the four canon gospels in face of the external and common sense evidence supporting them takes much less imagination than dismissing them. The internal evidence is basically the icing on the cake and only compliments these two factors even more, which I'll discuss in Part II.  


Click here for Part II, or go home


Source References

1. Gary Butner, When was the gospel of Mark Written (list of scholars and their dates) (

2. Stanley E. Porter, Pauline Authorship and the Pastoral Epistles, (pdf) pp.7-9 (

3. Joseph A. Fitzmyer, Luke the Theologian: Aspects of His Teaching, p.2; 2004.

4. The Muratorian Fragment (

5. Tertullian, Against Marcion, book 4, chap.2 (

    Irenaeus, Against Heresies, book 1, chap.27.1 (

    Also see Marcionism.  

6. Clement, as quoted by Eusebius, Church History, book 6, chap 14:5-7 (

    Clement, Paedagogus, book 2, chap 1 (

    Ibid., Stromata, book 1, chap 21 (

7. Irenaeus, Against Heresies, book 3 (

8. Papias, as quoted by Eusebius, Church History, book 3, chap. 39:15-16 (

9. ibid., chap.39.

10. J. A. Overman, Matthew’s Gospel and Formative Judaism: The Social World of the Matthean Community; 1990.   

    A. J. Saldarini, Matthew’s Christian-Jewish Community; 1994.

    D. C. Sim, The Gospel of Matthew and Christian Judaism: The History and Social Setting of the Matthean Community; 1998.   

    Also see Gospel of Matthew: Contemporary_scholarship.

    Daniel B. Wallace, Matthew: Introduction, Argument, and Outline: #3 Internal Evidence (

    Michael L. White, Who Was Matthew Writing For? (

    Marilyn Mellowes, The Gospel of Matthew (

    Origen, Commentary on the Gospel of John, book 6, chap. 17 (

11. Tertullian, Against Marcion, book 4, chap.2 (

12. The Gospel of Peter (   

     The Protoevangelium of James (

     The Apocalypse of Peter (

     Gospel of Thomas (

     See Nag Hammadi Library

13. Tertullian, ibid., chap. 2.

14. Muratorian Fragment (

15. Irenaeus, ibid., book 3, chap. 11:7 ( 

16. Eusebius, Church History, book 3, chap. 24:17-18, 25:3-4 (

17. Dwight Moody Smith, John among the Gospels, pp.6-10; 2001.