According to…WHO? On the Authorship of the Gospels

Who wrote the Gospels? Does it matter? Since their early reception in the Church they have been attributed to Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. Until recently, this was basically unquestioned, though some may have quibbled about which John wrote the 4th Gospel.

The authorship of the Gospels came under deep scrutiny especially in the early 20th century as their very authority as authentic documentary witnesses was questioned. And if their testimony wasn’t authentic, then how could they be written by authentic witnesses? From the opposite angle, if one could prove their authorial attribution faulty, so too is their credibility as authentic witnesses marred.

In order to testify to the authentic witness of the Gospels, the Church made several pronouncements throughout last century. The following are some quotations from the popes, the Pontifical Biblical Commission, and Vatican II which show what the Church has had to say about the authorship of the Gospels (note: the Pontifical Biblical Commission was an arm of theMagisterium until Paul VI’s Sedula Cura in 1971):

* Pope Leo XIII in Providentissimus Deus (18 November 1893) wrote of how important it was to the doctrine of the Church that the Scriptures were eyewitness testimony:

Since the divine and infallible magisterium of the Church rests also on the authority of Holy Scripture, the first thing to be done is to vindicate the trustworthiness of the sacred records at least as human documents, from which can be clearly proved, as from primitive and authentic testimony, the Divinity and the mission of Christ our Lord, the institution of a hierarchical Church and the primacy of Peter and his successors. -PD 17

* On the Authorship and Historicity of the Fourth Gospel – May 29th, 1907 — Pontifical Biblical Commission

First Question: Whether…it is proved by such solid historical argument that the Apostle John and no other must be acknowledged as the author of the Fourth Gospel, and that the reasons brought forward by the critics against it in no wise weaken this tradition.
Response: Affirmative.

* Decree Condemning Certain Errors of the Modernists – July 5th, 1907 – Sacred Congregation of the Holy Office

This is an error condemned by this document: “John claims for himself the authority of a witness of Christ, but in reality he is only a distinguished witness of the Christian life, or of the life of Christ in the Church, at the close of the first century.”

* On the Authorship, Date of Composition, and Historicity of the Gospel of Matthew – June 19th, 1911 — Pontifical Biblical Commission

First Question: Whether…it may and must be affirmed with certainty that Matthew, an apostle of Christ, is truly the author of the Gospel published under his name.
Response: Affirmative.

* On the Authorship, Time of Composition, and Historicity of the Gospels of Mark and Luke – June 26th, 1912 — Pontifical Biblical Commission

First Question: Whether the clear witness of the tradition…compels us to affirm with certainty that Mark, the disciple and interpreter of Peter, and Luke the physician, the assistant and companion of Paul, were truly the authors of the Gospels respectively attributed to them.
Response: Affirmative.

* Moving from the PBC to Vatican II, Dei Verbum is a little less specific in its pronouncement:

The Church has always and everywhere held and continues to hold that the four Gospels are of apostolic origin. For what the Apostles preached in fulfillment of the commission of Christ, afterwards they themselves and apostolic men, under the inspiration of the divine Spirit, handed on to us in writing: the foundation of faith, namely, the fourfold Gospel, according to Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. -DV 18

* Dei Verbum 19 does not specifically speak to authorship questions, but asserts that the Gospels are eyewitness testimony either from Apostles or from others who were witnesses:

Holy Mother Church has firmly and with absolute constancy held, and continues to hold, that the four Gospels just named, whose historical character the Church unhesitatingly asserts, faithfully hand on what Jesus Christ, while living among men, really did and taught for their eternal salvation until the day He was taken up into heaven (see Acts 1:1). Indeed, after the Ascension of the Lord the Apostles handed on to their hearers what He had said and done. This they did with that clearer understanding which they enjoyed (3) after they had been instructed by the glorious events of Christ’s life and taught by the light of the Spirit of truth. (2) The sacred authors wrote the four Gospels, selecting some things from the many which had been handed on by word of mouth or in writing, reducing some of them to a synthesis, explaining some things in view of the situation of their churches and preserving the form of proclamation but always in such fashion that they told us the honest truth about Jesus.(4) For their intention in writing was that either from their own memory and recollections, or from the witness of those who “themselves from the beginning were eyewitnesses and ministers of the Word” we might know “the truth” concerning those matters about which we have been instructed (see Luke 1:2-4).

The Responsa of the Pontifical Biblical Commission that are listed above have been described as “open questions” by certain theologians because some have identified their teaching as historical and literary pronouncements, but not necessarily doctrine regarding faith and morals (though, historical judgments can also be essential teaching of faith and morals: e.g. the historical reality of Christ’s bodily resurrection).

In his oral presentation of Donum Veritatis (On the Ecclesial Vocation of the Theologian), Cardinal Ratzinger said this, which appeared in L’Osservatore Romano:

The text also presents the various forms of bonds that rise from the different degrees of magisterial teaching. It affirms — perhaps for the first time with this clarity — that there are decisions of the Magisterium that cannot be a last word on the matter as such, but are, in a substantial fixation of the problem, above all an expression of pastoral prudence, a kind of provisional disposition. Its nucleus remains valid, but the particulars, which the circumstances of the times have influenced, may need further ramifications.

“In this regard, one may think of the declarations of Popes in the last century about religious liberty, as well as the anti-Modernist decisions at the beginning of this century, above all, the decisions of the Biblical Commission of the time. As a cry of alarm in the face of hasty and superficial adaptations, they will remain fully justified. A personage such as Johann Baptist Metz said, for example, that the Church’s anti-Modernist decisions render the great service of preserving her from immersion in the liberal-bourgeois world. But in the details of the determinations they contain, they become obsolete after having fulfilled their pastoral mission at the proper moment.” (L’Osservatore Romano, July 2, 1990)

So, Cardinal Ratzinger seems to indicate that these pronouncements are “provisional” dispositions toward a definitive teaching. It seems to me (reading the PBC’s Responsa as non-definitive judgments) that though there has been no definitive teaching on this according to the extraordinary magisterium, there has and continues to be ample testimony from the ordinary universal magisterium regarding the authorship of the Gospels: as we say at Mass throughout the year: A reading from the Holy Gospel, according to…Matthew…Mark…Luke …John.

However this question works itself out, it is wise to show reserve by waiting for the Church. The Church has (possibly) not pronounced definitively on these issues, so then neither should we. It is a somewhat open question, but the preponderance of the evidence remains on the side of the traditional attributions.

Some recent scholarship points this way: Richard Bauckham’s Jesus and the Eyewitnesses (Eerdmans 2006) argues that the Gospels present themselves as eyewitness testimony and that’s the way we should read them. Many are pointing to the likelihood of Johanine authorship again these days when that question was thought to have been settled in the 1960’s.

However you may measure authorship, Dei Verbum shows that the Church continues to teach “firmly and with absolute constancy” that the Gospels are EYEWITNESS TESTIMONY; and if eyewitness testimony, how much further is it to assert that they are authored by the only people to whom they have ever been attributed? From a historical viewpoint, the traditional attributions are the only real testimony we have as to their authorship. Historical truth is based on witnesses and figuring out who you are going to believe.

That being said, when speaking about authorship I stick to a basic presentation of Dei Verbum 19:

Holy Mother Church has firmly and with absolute constancy held, and continues to hold, that the four Gospels just named, whose historical character the Church unhesitatingly asserts, faithfully hand on what Jesus Christ, while living among men, really did and taught for their eternal salvation until the day He was taken up into heaven (see Acts 1:1). Indeed, after the Ascension of the Lord the Apostles handed on to their hearers what He had said and done. This they did with that clearer understanding which they enjoyed (3) after they had been instructed by the glorious events of Christ’s life and taught by the light of the Spirit of truth. (2) The sacred authors wrote the four Gospels, selecting some things from the many which had been handed on by word of mouth or in writing, reducing some of them to a synthesis, explaining some things in view of the situation of their churches and preserving the form of proclamation but always in such fashion that they told us the honest truth about Jesus.(4) For their intention in writing was that either from their own memory and recollections, or from the witness of those who “themselves from the beginning were eyewitnesses and ministers of the Word” we might know “the truth” concerning those matters about which we have been instructed (see Luke 1:2-4).

2 thoughts on “According to…WHO? On the Authorship of the Gospels”

  1. Hengel has shown that the titles of the gospels must originate from their very earliest dissemination, which means their very earliest recipients thought they were written by people named Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John.

  2. Hengel’s arguments are strong! Also Keener recently changed his position and now thinks Matthew’s superscription is likely authentic and reliable. Adela Collins also adopts Hengel’s view in her Mark commentary. Others could also be mentioned.

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