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). In this article, we will get to the bottom of who wrote the Gospels.
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?
Who Wrote the Gospels?
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 earthly ministry.
The four canonical gospels are those of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. The gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke are known as the Synoptic Gospels because they include many of the same stories, often in the same sequence.
Who Wrote the Gospels? While the periods to which the gospels are usually dated suggest otherwise, convention traditionally holds that the authors were two of the Twelve Apostles of Jesus, John, and Matthew, as well as two “apostolic men,” Mark and Luke, whom Orthodox Tradition records as members of the 70 Apostles (Luke 10):
- Matthew – a former tax collector (Levi) who was called by Jesus to be one of the Twelve Apostles,
- Mark – a follower of Peter and so an “apostolic man,”
- Luke – a doctor who wrote what is now the book of Luke to Theophilus. Also known to have written the book of Acts (or Acts of the Apostles) and to have been a close friend of Paul of Tarsus,
- John – a disciple of Jesus and the youngest of his Twelve Apostles.
These books are called Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John because they were traditionally thought to have been written by Matthew, a disciple who was a tax collector; John, the “Beloved Disciple” mentioned in the Fourth Gospel; Mark, the secretary of the disciple Peter; and Luke, the travelling companion of Paul.
So why are there four separate versions of the story of Jesus? Or maybe you’re wondering why there are only four if he was such an influential figure.
This is a very valid question, considering that all four evangelists of the good news wrote about the same person – Jesus of Nazareth.
They are called apostles, a word meaning “people sent to proclaim the good news” because their books aim to tell the “good news” (“gospel”) of Jesus.
What does the term “Gospel” mean?
While Jesus probably spoke Aramaic, the New Testament was written in Greek. The English term gospel comes from the Old English Godspell, a translation of the Greek noun euangelion.
Euangelion means “good tidings” or “good news,” and it eventually became a term for the good news about Jesus Christ.
It is from the word euangelion, that we get the word evangelist.
“How beautiful on the mountains are the feet of those who bring good news . . . who proclaim salvation, who say to Zion, ‘Your God reigns!’ —Isaiah 52:7
‘You who bring good news to Zion, go up on a high mountain. You who bring good news to Jerusalem, lift up your voice with a shout, lift it up, do not be afraid; say to the towns of Judah, “Here is your God!” —Isaiah 40:9
In the New Testament world, this term accompanied announcements about victory in battle or the enthronement of a Roman ruler. An inscription for the birthday of the Roman emperor Augustus reads, “Good news [euangelia] to the world!
Euangelion soon became a technical term for the good news about Jesus Christ.
Just like Paul, eventually, euangelion was used to describe the written versions of the good news about Jesus Christ. Mark introduces his work with the words, “The beginning of the gospel about Jesus Christ, the Son of God” (Mark 1:1, emphasis added). The church eventually came to call all four of these accounts gospels.
The gospel has pillars of literature that enable us to answer questions like “Why are there four gospels” and “Why are there only four gospels,”?
We need to know the type of literature we’re dealing with, which are as follows: The gospels are historical literature.
Three things tell scholars that the gospels are historical literature:
- They have a history of composition. The authors drew on their own traditions and sources to compile their works.
- They’re set in a specific historical context. Each of the four gospels takes place in first-century Palestine during the Roman occupation.
- They are meant to convey historically-accurate information. The details included in the gospels, the way the writers organize them, and the similarities in composition imply a conscious effort to include the correct information. John and Luke explicitly state their intentions, and Luke leaves no doubt that he intends to write history:
“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. Therefore, since I myself have carefully investigated everything from the beginning, it seemed good also to me 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
The gospels are narrative literature.
The gospels are not merely collections of reports or sayings of Jesus. They’re also narratives with plots, characters, and settings. While all four gospels are concerned with the same historical events—the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ—they present different versions of these events. They portray characters from different perspectives, sometimes using the same event to highlight something different about Jesus. They develop the plot in different ways, occasionally rearranging the order of events. They emphasize different settings, including accounts not recorded by the other writers.
The gospels are theological literature.
The gospels have an agenda. They record historical events, but they’re also theological documents. Through the narrative of Jesus’ ministry, the gospels instruct and encourage believers and attempt to convince unbelievers. This is why we call the gospel writers evangelists (from euangelizō, “to announce good news”). They are proclaimers of the good news about the resurrection of Jesus Christ and the coming of the kingdom of God.
Notice John’s statement of intent in John 20:30–31:
“Jesus did many other miraculous signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not recorded in this book. But these are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God and that by believing you may have life in his name.”
The gospels are revelational literature.
As much as the gospels captured the tangled data of the times of the life and ministry of Jesus, the written literature of John came out of the revelation of the person of Jesus, the one he writes about.
“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” – John 1:1
John being a mortal being, could not have been in the beginning except that which was, in the beginning, revealed to him.
The recognition that the gospel writers are theologians in their own right is one of the most important contributions of recent gospel research. Each evangelist has a story to tell and a perspective to emphasize. Each brings out unique aspects of Jesus’ identity. See how each gospel introduces his work:
“A record of the genealogy of Jesus Christ, the son of David, the son of Abraham.”
“The beginning of the gospel about Jesus Christ, the Son of God.”
“Since I myself have carefully investigated everything from the beginning, it seemed good also to me to write an orderly account.”
“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.”
Mark emphasizes Jesus as the Christ and Son of God. Matthew jumps into Jesus’ Jewish ancestry, focusing on how Jesus fulfils the promises made to Israel. Luke tells us he wants to write an accurate historical account. John introduces Jesus as the pre-existent divine Word, the self-revelation of God.
Seeing the gospel writers as theologians has important implications for how we read their accounts. We ought to read each gospel seeking to discern these theological themes.