Who Authored The New Testament?
In the comments section of one of his articles, Christian polemist David Wood claimed:
Who says we don't know who the authors are? With the exception of the Letter to the Hebrews (and I have a good idea who wrote that), I'd say we know who wrote every book of the New Testament. Of course, if we're going to be skeptical (as many people are when it comes to the Bible), we'd also have to be skeptical about the Qur'an and the Hadith. What happens when we're skeptical about Muslim sources? Ask your Muslim brother from Germany, who declared that Muhammad probably never existed. (My point here is that you should be consistent in your level of skepticism. You're clearly not.)
It is ironic to have this lecture on 'scepticism' coming from one who has killed a lot of time composing articles promoting the hyper-sceptic grand Uthman conspiracy hypothesis (and has been humiliated in the comments section on his own blog by some Muslims. See here & here). When it comes to the New Testament, the hyper-sceptic - who has always been unwilling to give any amount of reasonable consideration to the Quran - lowers his hyper-sceptical standards to such colossally low levels that they transform into standards of hyper-acceptance, whereby every benefit of doubt is granted to the New Testament irrespective of the evidence.
After reading the above, it is extremely difficult to resist the conclusion that Wood has probably never read a basic introductory book on the New Testament in his life and is thoroughly unfamiliar with New Testament scholarship. Otherwise, he is just being outright deceptive and lying when he asserts that "we know who wrote every book of the New Testament." But we will give him the extraordinary benefit of doubt and suppose that he is genuinely ignorant about New Testament scholarship.
Wood does not explain why one must necessarily reject the historical existence of Muhammad (peace be upon him) for being 'sceptical' towards the Muslim sources? In reality, non-Muslim scholars who do not just blindly accept the authenticity of all Muslim sources such as the hadith and who do not share Muslim religious presuppositions, do generally accept the historical existence of Muhammad (peace be upon him) without question.
The second problem is Wood's startling suggestion that the widespread doubts prevalent among mainstream New Testament scholars towards the authorship of a number of New Testament writings is equivalent to the scepticism towards the historical existence of Muhammad (peace be upon him) being promoted by one lone German scholar who hit the radar screen a while ago. Wood wants us to believe that the two are the outcome of the 'same level of scepticism'!
Before addressing his highflying claims about the authorship of the New Testament documents, we need to first get rid of Wood's equally absurd comment regarding the historical existence of Muhammad (peace be upon him).
The historical existence of Muhammad (peace be upon him) is accepted by almost all non-Muslim scholars, including, with few exceptions, the hyper-sceptical ones as well. To give readers a feel of the strength of Muhammad's (peace be upon him) historical existence and its almost universal acceptance, we will provide the example of Patricia Crone, the author of the infamous Hagarism. There have been few as sceptical as Crone in the history and development of Western Islamic studies. In a recent essay entitled, "What do we actually know about Mohammed?", Crone has this to say about the historical existence of Muhammad (peace be upon him):
...we probably know more about Mohammed than we do about Jesus (let alone Moses or the Buddha), and we certainly have the potential to know a great deal more.
She goes on to say:
There is no doubt that Mohammed existed, occasional attempts to deny it notwithstanding. His neighbours in Byzantine Syria got to hear of him within two years of his death at the latest; a Greek text written during the Arab invasion of Syria between 632 and 634 mentions that "a false prophet has appeared among the Saracens" and dismisses him as an impostor on the ground that prophets do not come "with sword and chariot". It thus conveys the impression that he was actually leading the invasions.
.this [Greek text] source gives us pretty irrefutable evidence that he was an historical figure. Moreover, an Armenian document probably written shortly after 661 identifies him by name and gives a recognisable account of his monotheist preaching.
On the Islamic side, sources dating from the mid-8th century onwards preserve a document drawn up between Mohammed and the inhabitants of Yathrib, which there are good reasons to accept as broadly authentic; Mohammed is also mentioned by name, and identified as a messenger of God, four times in the Qur'an.
The evidence that a prophet was active among the Arabs in the early decades of the 7th century, on the eve of the Arab conquest of the middle east, must be said to be exceptionally good.
Regarding the Quran itself, Crone writes:
Most importantly, we can be reasonably sure that the Qur'an is a collection of utterances that he made in the belief that they had been revealed to him by God. The book may not preserve all the messages he claimed to have received, and he is not responsible for the arrangement in which we have them. They were collected after his death - how long after is controversial. But that he uttered all or most of them is difficult to doubt.
If such a sceptical scholar as Crone does not doubt the historical existence of Muhammad (peace be upon him), then that should give us an indication of the might of the evidence. Putting aside certain questionable details and claims in Crone's essay, we will reiterate her relevant words:
"we probably know more about Mohammed than we do about Jesus (let alone Moses or the Buddha)."
We would also like to recommend our readers to read this excellent article by the Islamic Awareness team:
Dated Texts Mentioning Prophet Muhòammad From 1-100 AH / 622-719 CE
In light of the above, it is sheer lunacy and intellectually dishonest for any Christian to promote the thesis of Muhammad's (peace be upon him) non-existence as long as the historical existence of Jesus (peace be upon him) continues to be accepted without question. A Christian would first and foremost need to fully discard the historical existence of Jesus (peace be upon him) before even venturing towards the path of denying Muhammad's (peace be upon him) historical existence. In Wood's own words, 'you should be consistent in your level of skepticism'.
The so-called 'Muslim brother from Germany' who declared that 'Muhammad probably never existed' is the equivalent of Wood's 'Christian sister from America', Acharya S, the author of, The Christ Conspiracy: The Greatest Story Ever Sold and other crackpot authors. Both authors have reached bizarre conclusions by playing potty with the historical data.
To dare compare this level of absurd scepticism, shared by a few, towards the historical existence of Muhammad (peace be upon him) with the legitimate concerns widely shared by scholars towards the authorship of a number of New Testament documents tells us how astonishingly ignorant Wood truly is.
The deceitful tactic employed by Wood is to make the blatantly false analogy between the doubts commonly held by scholars - mainstream scholars - over the authorship of a number of New Testament writings with the denial of the historical existence of Muhammad (peace be upon him) being promoted by a lone German scholar who has just recently come to the limelight (and who, by the way, also denies the historical existence of Moses (peace be upon him) and other prophets). The two are not the 'same level of scepticism'. The scepticism held by some towards the historical existence of Muhammad (peace be upon him) is completely different from the wide-ranging controversies pertaining to the authorship of a number of New Testament documents. In order to deny Muhammad's (peace be upon him) existence, one is required to dismiss and explain-away all of the evidence one way or the other - be it the Quran, authentic reports, inscriptions from well within hundred years after Muhammad's (peace be upon him) passing away, together with the non-Muslim references to Muhammad (peace be upon him) etc. One then has to accomplish the difficult, if not impossible, task of explaining the origin and emergence of Islam from the mythical Muhammad (peace be upon him) hypothesis. If a Christian is willing to take this step and has the courage to be 'consistent' in their 'level of scepticism', then not much, if anything, will be left of the historical Jesus (peace be upon him) for the simple reason that there are comparatively even fewer sources to consider in this instance which, moreover, are nowhere as early as the Islamic sources to the alleged events and individuals in question. In this instance we are not merely being 'sceptical' towards the sources; we are wholesale rejecting them in toto. One is not required to be even remotely as dismissive towards the New Testament documents in order to notice, for instance, the problems associated with the traditional authorship claims of a number of New Testament writings and to doubt their accuracy (be it total or partial).
The latter is primarily an inter-Christian discussion, where mostly committed Christians are involved in the arguments, dealing with difficult historical questions and supporting their conclusions with well thought-out arguments. It is not the case of 'sceptics' denying the traditional authorship claims for a number of New Testament documents for the sake of being 'sceptics' or for the 'fun' of it. On the contrary, those who deny the authorship claims of the various New Testament documents mostly happen to be committed Christians who are genuinely concerned and wish to get in terms with the historical data in the most reasonable manner possible.
As Christians began to study the New Testament documents critically, taking into account the historical evidence, scholars had to adjust a number of earlier beliefs about the New Testament in light of the clearer picture yielded by a critical study of the documents. For instance, Matthean priority was replaced with Marcan priority, the Byzantine text form was seen to be a later text form, the fourth gospel was understood to be more of a theological tract, and legitimate doubts began to emerge pertaining to the authorship of a number of New Testament books. Sticking with the question of authorship, the current situation is that the authorship of a number of New Testament documents is being openly debated among mainstream New Testament scholars. While it is true that we are reasonably certain about the authorship of a number of New Testament writings - such as the undoubtedly genuine Pauline Epistles, Revelation (by one 'John', about whom nothing else is known), and, perhaps, Luke-Acts (probably by a one time travel companion of Paul) - doubts also continue to abound on the accuracy of traditional authorship claims of a number of writings.
We will offer a rough summary of the current stance of New Testament scholarship on the authorship question:
Beginning with the gospels, these are, strictly speaking, anonymous documents since their authors do not identify/name themselves. The vast majority of scholars find the various authorship traditions problematic for a variety of reasons. Matthew's traditional authorship is only sometimes defended, almost always by the most conservative, giving Matthew either full credit for the final form of the gospel or limited contribution therein. Many conservatives do not deem Matthew to be responsible for the final form of this gospel. Many scholars do, however, grant the real possibility of Luke, a short time companion of Paul and not an eyewitness to Jesus' (peace be upon him) historical ministry, as being the author of the third gospel and Acts. A number of scholars, some moderate but mostly conservatives, also defend the traditional authorship claim for Mark's gospel and, mostly conservative scholars, assign the fourth gospel, either fully or partially, to an apostle of Jesus (peace be upon him), with many crediting a later redactor for its final form.
The overwhelming majority regards the Pastoral Epistles (1 Timothy, 2 Timothy and Titus) to have been authored by an unknown person either (more probably) in the late first or the early second century. According to Raymond Brown, '80 to 90 percent of critical scholarship' deem Titus, 1 and 2 Timothy to be pseudonymous. (Raymond E. Brown, An Introduction To The New Testament, 1997, Doubleday, p. 639, 654, 673). The consensus considers II Peter to be pseudonymous; with a few exceptions, many conservative scholars are also not too eager to defend Petrine authorship. G.A. Wells states:
R.T France declares, in his 1993 survey of Evangelical Anglicans, that today few even among evangelical Christians would try to defend its [II Peter'] Petrine authorship with any enthusiasm'. (G. A. Wells, Can We Trust the New Testament?: Thoughts on the Reliability of Early Christian Testimony, 2004, Open Court Publishing Company, p. 66).
Most regard I Peter to be pseudonymous, although there are many scholars who also defend its Petrine authorship; the Johannine epistles are widely deemed to be anonymous documents.
Considerable disputes rage among Christian scholars on the authorship of: II Thessalonians. Raymond Brown states:
Scholars are almost evenly divided on whether Paul wrote it, although the view that he did not seems to be gaining ground even among moderates. (Brown, New Testament Introduction, p. 591)
Regarding the book of Colossians, Brown says that 'about 60 percent of critical scholarship' deem it to be pseudonymous (New Testament Introduction, p. 600), and regarding Ephesians 'about 80 percent of critical scholarship' considers it to be pseudonymous (Ibid., p. 621). Hebrews is anonymous (although various scholars have proposed guesses on the identity of the author). Many regard James to be pseudonymous as Brown states 'most think it was written by someone (a disciple?) who admired the image of James as the Christian authority most loyal to Judaism.' (Ibid, p. 726). Jude is also often considered to be pseudonymous.
There are plenty of conservative evangelical scholars who also doubt the traditional authorship claims of a number of New Testament writings, considering them to be anonymous and some even to be pseudonymous. There is diversity within conservative scholarship and not many promote an inerranist view of the Bible. There are very few who do regard the Bible to be inerrant in the sense Wood presumes it to be inerrant. On top of this, there are many more moderate Christian scholars, who have a high view of the New Testament as 'scripture', but who are genuinely doubtful regarding the authorship of a number of New Testament writings and who do not deem it to be inerrant.
Conservative Christians on the authorship of some New Testament writings
Here we will offer a quick snapshot, a survey, of conservative scholarly doubts over the traditional authorship claims of various New Testament writings as well as only partial acceptance of certain traditional authorship claims. This is to demonstrate that there are committed conservative Christians who have reached such conclusions and not just rabid 'sceptics' as Wood would have us imagine.
Most frequently, within conservative scholarship doubts are raised over the authorship of Matthew, John, occasionally Mark, Pastoral Epistles, II Peter, occasionally James and Jude, while the Johannine Epistles and Hebrews are usually considered to be anonymous. This can be seen in the following quick survey of conservative discussion on the authorship of these writings:
The late Bruce Metzger made it clear in his apologetic introduction, The New Testament, it's background, growth, and content, 1985, 2nd edition, enlarged, Abingdon Press Nashville, p. 97 that the apostle Matthew can "scarcely be the final author" of the gospel attributed to him. Regarding the fourth gospel, even though the conclusion that the author was John the son of Zebedee was "early and widespread", Metzger stated that "it is clear that others were also involved in its composition and authentication." Metzger concluded: "No simple solution to the problem of authorship is possible, but it is probable that the fourth Gospel preserves Palestinian reminiscences of Jesus' ministry." (p. 98). Metzger wrote (pp. 96-97):
Actually not much is known about these matters [the identity of the evangelists and the date of composition of each Gospel]. The text itself of each Gospel is anonymous and its title represents what later tradition had to say about the identity of the author. Of course the probabilities are that such traditions contain at least a substantial hint as to the identity of the evangelist. Sometimes, however, internal considerations are such as to cast doubt upon the full accuracy of the later tradition.
Metzger had this to say about the authorship of the Pastoral Epistles (pp. 238-239):
.there are features about these letters which make it difficult to attribute them to the apostle Paul, and most scholars believe that they either were written by an amanuensis to whom Paul gave great freedom in their composition, or, more probably, where drawn up near the end of the first century by a devoted follower of Paul, who utilized several shorter letters of the apostle which otherwise would have been lost.
Metzger was quicker to dismiss the Petrine authorship of II Peter (pp. 258-259):
Although the author of this letter calls himself "Simon Peter, a servant and apostle of Jesus Christ" (1:1), and makes reference to his being present at the transfiguration of Jesus Christ (1:18), several features of its style and contents have led nearly all modern scholars to regard it as the work of an unknown author of the early second century who wrote in Peter's name.
Unlike the style of I Peter, which is written in fluent koine Greek, the style of II Peter is almost pseudo-literary. The wording is unusual, artificial, and often obscure; it is the one book in the New Testament which gains by translation. Though some have suggested that the marked difference in style between the two letters might be accounted for by supposing them to be the work of different amanuenses, several passages of II Peter point to a date long after Peter's lifetime. Thus, the section dealing with the delay of the second coming of Christ (3:3-4) presupposes that the first generation of Christians-to which Peter belonged-had passed away. Furthermore, the letters of Paul, it appears, have not only been collected but are referred to as "scripture" (3:16), a term that was not applied to them until some considerable time after the apostle's death. The second chapter of II Peter embodies most of the little letter of Jude, which probably dates from the latter part of the first century. Moreover, II Peter is not definitely referred to by early church writers until the third century, when Origen speaks of its disputed authenticity. In the light of such internal and external evidence one must conclude that II Peter was drawn up sometime after A.D. 100 by an admirer of Peter who wrote under the name of the great apostle in order to give his letter greater authority.
The letter is a general one addressed to all Christians in all places (1:1). An analysis of the contents shows that the author had two main purposes in writing: (a) to counteract the teaching of false prophets and heretics, and (b) to strengthen the faith of Christians in the second coming of Christ and make them living accordingly.
Regarding the authorship of Hebrews Metzger wrote (p. 248):
In addition to Paul many other guesses have been made about the author of the letter . [Barnabas, Apollos, Luke, Aquila, Priscilla] . There is no compelling proof for any of these, and the only sure conclusion about the authorship of the letter is that it was not written by Paul.
In the generally conservative introduction to the early Christian writings, approved by the conservative evangelical scholar (and dedicated to the conservative scholar Craig A. Evans), Lee Martin McDonald and Stanley E. Porter (Early Christianity And Its Sacred Literature, 2000, Hendrickson Publishers) defend the traditional authorship of Mark's gospel, concluding that Mark is based on oral traditions as well as reminiscences coming from Peter. They write (p. 287):
"...we are then confronted with the difficult problem of trying to decipher which is the testimony of Peter and which are layers of tradition on top of it ..."
Lucan authorship of the third gospel and Acts is accepted with some reservations (p. 295):
"We are inclined to accept Lucan authorship, but not without some reservation ..."
Traditional authorship of Matthew, on the other hand, is dismissed. They conclude as follows on the authorship of Matthew (p. 299):
Perhaps all that can be said about the author of this Gospel is that he was a Jewish Christian, seemingly more familiar than the other evangelists with the geography of Palestine, and possibly, on this basis, a teacher in the church.
As for the fourth gospel, we are told (p. 306):
Solving the problem of authorship does not appear to be a possibility for biblical scholars today.
McDonald and Porter reach the following conclusion after discussing the authorship of the Johannine epistles (p. 550):
These may be tempting propositions, but none of them can be definitely proved, since the ascription in the Johannine Letters is only to the "elder," leaving the identification uncertain and the work formally anonymous. As noted above, the traditional view that the author of 2 and 3 John is John the disciple or apostle, the author of 1 John and the Gospel, is not directly supported by the text. There is certainly some linkage of 2 and 3 John to 1 John in vocabulary and themes . These parallels may well show that the books issued from a similar context, but they cannot establish authorship.
After a detailed discussion on the authorship of Hebrews, they conclude (p. 521):
As stated above, none of these proposals or any others have proved conclusive regarding the authorship of Hebrews. The book is anonymous, and authorship will probably stay unknown barring further discoveries. As Origen finally concludes about the authorship of Hebrews, "God only knows the truth".
For Martin Hengel it is 'probable' that the author of the gospel of Mark 'really was a companion and interpreter of Peter.' (The Four Gospels And The One Gospel Of Jesus Christ: An Investigation of the Collection and Origin of the Canonical Gospels, 2000, SCM Press, p. 79, also p. 80), but as for the origin of the gospel of Matthew, he writes (p. 77):
A further reason why the First Gospel established itself so quickly was its allegedly direct apostolic origin. It was the first to make this claim. The unknown Jewish-Christian author, who at the same time was a member of the mainstream church, was presumably prompted to this by his by his knowledge of an old Aramaic collection of sayings of Jesus which was known under the name of Matthew. This put him at the head of all four evangelists and, as was later the case with John, gave him a greater authority than his forerunners Mark and Luke, who were regarded only as disciples of the apostles.
Hengel believes that 'in all probability' the unknown Jewish-Christian teacher circulated his work as the 'Gospel of Matthew' from the borders of Syria/Palestine (Ibid).
According to the conservative scholar Michael Green:
We do not know who wrote the Gospel [of Matthew]. Like all the others, it is anonymous...
... [Second-century writers] do tell us who wrote them, and they may or may not have been right. In the case of Matthew, it is not at all easy to know whether they were right, because there is a major contradiction in the evidence. The external evidence points uniformly in one direction, the internal in another. (The Message of Matthew: The Kingdom of Heaven, 2001, Inter-Varsity Press, p. 19)
Green is inclined (p. 24) towards the following hypothesis (pp. 22-23):
... the apostle Matthew may have written the sayings collection often called Q ... Matthew, the tax collector, had the skills and the proximity to Jesus. Maybe he did the Christian church the marvellous service of collecting and writing down the sayings of his Master that are now brought to us in the teaching parts of Matthew and Luke. It would make good sense of Papias' cryptic claim that 'Matthew compiled the logia in the Hebrew tongue, and each one translated them as he was able.' On this interpretation, the logia would be not the Gospel as we have it, but the sayings of Jesus, taken down in Aramaic. People make their own translations of them until they got incorporated in one of the Greek Gospels later on. But, on this view, Matthew would not have written a Gospel himself.
Writing in another book, one geared heavily towards apologetics, Green writes:
We do not know exactly who this Matthew was who wrote the gospel. The early Christians thought that he was Matthew the tax gatherer who became one of Jesus' disciples, but this is unlikely, if only because he uses Mark's gospel as his basic source. And it would be very odd for an eyewitness to draw from the record of someone who was not himself present! Probably the name of Matthew became associated with this gospel because it embodies a lot of special material he gathered. This was, most likely, the account of the many sayings of Jesus, absent from Mark, which also appear in Luke. Matthew, the tax gatherer, had ample opportunity to make a record of the sayings of Jesus. (Who was Jesus?, 1992, Thomas Nelson, p. 125)
As for the gospel of John, Green states that it was either penned by the apostle John 'or written by a close disciple of his at John's direction'. (p. 126).
Conservative scholar Leon Morris, in his commentary on Matthew, despite his inclination towards Matthean authorship, leaves the authorship question open and concludes:
In the last resort it appears that the authorship of this Gospel will remain in dispute. In my opinion there is more to be said for the apostle Matthew than recent scholarship commonly allows and more for Matthew than for any other candidate. But the evidence certainly falls short of complete proof, and in the end divergent views will continue to be held.50 (Leon Morris, The Gospel According to Matthew, 1992, Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, p. 15)
In his commentary on the gospel of John, conservative scholar Colin G. Kruse argues for the apostle John being the author of the 'original form of the Fourth Gospel' (p. 30). He writes:
To recognize the apostle John as the author of the Fourth Gospel does not mean that the Gospel in the form we have it today came entirely from his hand. The epilogue contains the testimony of others to the truthfulness of what the beloved disciple wrote (21:24), a testimony that appears to have been added by others after the apostle John died. (The Gospel According to John: An Introduction and Commentary, 2003, Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, p. 28)
After citing John 21:20-23, Kruse proceeds (Ibid):
Jesus' words to Peter concerning the beloved disciple gave rise to a rumour in the early church that this disciple would not die before the Lord came again. The need to scotch such a rumour would have become pressing if the beloved disciple had died, and people's faith was being unsettled by the apparent failure of Jesus' word to be fulfilled. Hence the epilogue insists, 'Jesus did not say to him that he would not die, but, "If it is my will that he remain until I come, what is that to you?"' This suggests that the epilogue was written by others after the death of the beloved disciple.
Furthermore (pp. 28-29):
It is also possible that they made other editorial additions to the Gospel, including the testimony to the truthfulness of the beloved disciple found in 19:35. Perhaps the anonymous self-references made by the author found in the original form of the Gospel, expressions such as 'the other disciple' or 'another disciple' ... were explained as, or supplemented by, references to the beloved disciple by later editors of the Gospel. If this were the case, references to the beloved disciple need not reflect egocentrism on the part of the original author, but rather the attitude of a later generation of Christians to him and his special relationship to Jesus.
Therefore, the one(s) responsible for the final form of the fourth gospel is/are unknown.
In his commentary on the Gospel of Matthew, conservative evangelical scholar Craig L. Blomberg, while sympathetic towards the traditional authorship, is able to reach only a 'tentative' conclusion on the question of Matthean authorship. He writes:
All of the evidence surveyed so far ("Structure," "Theology," etc.) allows for authorship by the apostle Matthew, but none of that evidence demands it. (Craig L. Blomberg, Matthew (New American Commentary), 1992, Broadman Press, p. 43)
After a brief discussion on the authorship of Matthew's gospel, Blomberg writes (p. 44):
When all the evidence is amassed, there appears no conclusive proof for the apostle Matthew as author but no particularly cogent reason to deny this uniform early church tradition.
In light of the absence of any contrary/rival ancient authorship tradition, Matthew is reasoned by Blomberg to be the 'most plausible' (Ibid) choice for author, either of an 'original draft' (Ibid) or of 'one of its major sources' (Ibid).
Blomberg concludes (Ibid):
But again we present these conclusions tentatively. Little depends on them. Neither inspiration nor apostolic authority depends on apostolic authorship ... and the church was capable of preserving accurate information outside of apostolic circles ...
According to the prominent conservative scholar Tom Wright, a favorite of many Christian apologists:
What do we know about how the Gospels got written? Frustratingly little. We don't have Matthew's diaries of how he went about collecting and arranging his material. We don't know where Mark was written. We don't know whether Luke really was, as is often thought, the companion of Paul. We don't know whether the 'Beloved Disciple', to whom the Fourth Gospel is ascribed (John 21:24), was really 'John' (in which case, which 'John'?) or someone else. None of the books name their authors; all the traditions about who wrote which ones are just that, traditions, from later on in the life of the church (beginning in the first half of the second century, about fifty years after the Gospels were written). (Tom Wright, The Original Jesus: The Life and Vision of a Revolutionary, 1997, Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, pp. 126-127)
John Drane, a prominent evangelical conservative scholar and former student of F. F. Bruce (and I. H. Marshall), had this to say about the authorship of the gospel of Matthew:
Though some leading scholars continue to believe that the apostle Matthew was the author, it is worth pointing out that, as with all the other gospels, knowing the exact identity of the author is not going to be crucial for understanding it. The book itself is anonymous, and makes no claim at all about its author. We can be fairly certain that it would be a man, but whether he was associated with the apostle Matthew, and at what stage or in what way is impossible to say with certainty. (John Drane, Introducing the New Testament, 2001, First Fortress Press Edition, p. 207)
Regarding the gospel of John, Drane writes (p. 217):
It seems at least possible that the gospel was first written in Palestine, to demonstrate that 'Jesus is the Christ' (20:31), perhaps over against the views of sectarian Jews influenced by ideas like those of the Qumran community, and then when the same teaching was seen to be relevant to people elsewhere in the Roman empire, it was revised, with Jewish customs and expressions being explained, and the prologue and epilogue added. The advice to church leaders in chapter 21 suggests that the final form of the gospel might have been directed to a Christian congregation comprised of both Jews and Gentiles somewhere in the Hellenistic world, perhaps at Ephesus.
Drane concluded (Ibid):
...there is no widely accepted opinion on the author's identity, and the consensus at this point in time can best be described as an open minded agnosticism, with many scholars willing to allow some direct connection between John the apostle and the fourth gospel, though few wish to be more precise than that.
Drane has this to say about the origins of Jude, II Peter and the Johannine epistles (p. 457):
...it might be possible to imagine that Jude and 2 Peter both originate from a group of Peter's disciples, in much the same way as the Johannine letters appear to have originated from a 'school' of John's disciples.
Of course we do not know anything about these 'disciples' of Peter and John.
Drane concludes as follows regarding the authorship of Jude and II Peter (Ibid):
Perhaps what we have in both these short letters [Jude and II Peter] is a fresh application of the teaching of Peter to the concerns and interests of a Hellenistic Jewish Christian congregation somewhere in Asia Minor towards the end of the first century.
As for the authorship of the epistle of James, Drane considers (p. 415) the evidence for associating it with James the brother of Jesus as being 'not especially convincing...' However, he argues that there are 'strong reasons' for placing it in a 'very early period of the church's life'.
Leading conservative evangelical scholar, Ben Witherington III, grants the apostle Matthew limited contribution in the gospel named after him. He says (p. 78):
It is, however, quite possible that Matthew did contribute the unique material found in this Gospel and no other, and the book came to be named after its most famous contributor, which was not uncommon in antiquity. (Ben Witherington III, The New Testament Story, 2004, Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., Grand Rapids, Michigan)
In Witherington's view, there are 'clues' in John 19 and 21 that the 'source of this Gospel material is the Beloved Disciple, an eyewitness of at least some of the conclusion of Jesus' ministry, and perhaps more broadly of his Judean ministry.' (p. 82). Witherington writes (Ibid):
John 21:24 says that the Beloved Disciple is the one who testifies to at least some of the Gospel happenings and indeed wrote them down in some form. His community vouches for his testimony ("we know his testimony is true"). John 19:35 indicates that he was present at the death of Jesus, and his selfsame chapter claims only one such man was present - the Beloved Disciple to whom Jesus bequeathed his mother as he died.
Immediately thereafter Witherington states that it is 'highly unlikely' that John the son of Zebedee was the author of the fourth gospel. Witherington concludes (p. 83):
All in all it appears that we should think of the Beloved Disciple as the source of much of this material [raising of Lazarus, healing of the man born blind, episode of the lame man by the pool, Beloved Disciple reclining with and beside Jesus, Peter having his feet washed], and that he was a Judean follower of Jesus, not one of the sons of Zebedee, even though his name may have been John.
This means that we do not know who (or how many) was (were) responsible for the final form of the fourth gospel and separating the material from the Beloved Disciple and the later unknown redactor(s) would be difficult, if not impossible.
Even though Witherington believes (p. 68) that a 'reasonable case' can be made for Apollos being the author of Hebrews, he says 'we cannot be certain, and in any case the author wished to remain anonymous'.
As for the Pastoral Epistles (I Timothy, II Timothy, Titus), Witherington believes that they were composed 'at or just after the death of Paul' perhaps by Luke or another companion of Paul, who used as a basis 'authentic notes and/or oral comments from Paul while he was in Mamertine prison in Rome in the mid-60s'. (pp. 69-70). Witherington continues:
The person who penned these letters did so in his own hand and style ... not attempting to really imitate the Pauline style, though at times (e.g., in 2 Timothy) we seem to hear the voice of Paul directly.18' (Witherington comments in a footnote that L. T. Johnson has made a 'reasonable' case for the dictation of II Timothy by Paul).
Witherington concludes (Ibid):
Furthermore, the more conservative character of some of the ethical advice in these letters may reflect the fact that the author knows that the apostolic era is about over, and the Church leaders that were to follow apostles like Paul would not have the same authority as those who had either known Jesus during his earthly life or had seen the risen Lord. The letters could be said to help Pauline coworkers [sic] make the transition to a situation beyond the time of Paul. They are certainly closer in length and in character to other ancient personal letters than the rest of the Pauline corpus. It appears that they were written from Rome in the mid to late 60s.
In other words, we do not know who composed the Pastoral Epistles.
Witherington also denies the Petrine authorship of II Peter (p. 67):
It is highly probable that 2 Peter is one of the latest if not the latest New Testament document, written at a time when there had already been for some time a collection of Paul's letters being used by various churches. I would judge it comes from near the end of the first century A.D.
[Note: Plenty of conservative scholars have argued that II Peter is a pseudonymous document. Two further examples: J. N. D. Kelly, A Commentary on The Epistles of Peter and of Jude (Black's New Testament Commentaries), 1977, Adam and Charles Black London; Evangelical scholar Richard Bauckham places II Peter in the late first century: Richard J. Bauckham, 2 Peter and Jude, (Word Biblical Commentary Vol. 50), 1983, Nelson Reference.]
Conservative scholar, Richard Bauckham, believes it is unlikely that the apostle Matthew was responsible for the finished form of the gospel attributed to him:
Since it is not likely that the apostle Matthew wrote the Gospel as we have it ... the attribution could either be a pseudepigraphical claim to Matthean authorship or could reflect a role that the apostle Matthew actually played in the genesis of the Gospel, while not being its final author. (Richard Bauckham, Jesus and the Eyewitnesses: The Gospels as Eyewitness Testimony, 2006, Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., p. 302)
Elsewhere he writes (p. 112):
...the author of Matthew's Gospel intended to associate the Gospel with the apostle Matthew but was not himself the apostle Matthew. Matthew himself could have described his own call without having to take over the way Mark described Levi's call.
[Bauckham also denies the Petrine authorship of II Peter. See commentary above]
Like Ben Witherington above, conservative Evangelical scholar, David A. Desilva, also proposes limited contribution of the apostle Matthew in the gospel attributed to him. He posits that Matthew did compile an Aramaic sayings source 'recording what Jesus taught in the course of his own apostolic ministry'. This compilation then became the possession of the communities founded by Matthew. One of Matthew's disciples then took his material and 'other Jesus sayings familiar to the community and the Mark's Gospel, and fashioned a presentation of Jesus' life and instruction more complete than any of the sources on their own.' (p. 235). Desilva proceeds:
Because Matthew stood behind one of these sources, indeed the source that made this Gospel distinctive, it would be quite natural for his name to continue to stand behind the finished product as author and, more importantly for the early church, authenticator of that tradition.4 (David A. Desilva, An Introduction to the New Testament: Contexts, Methods and Ministry Formation, 2004, InterVarsity Press, pp. 235-236)
Hence the final product is the work of an unknown supposed disciple of Matthew.
Desilva denies the identification of the 'Beloved Disciple' with John the son of Zebedee. He argues that rather than being the author of the Gospel of John as we have it now,
The Beloved Disciple emerges, then, as the source of the tradition and probably its chief interpreter, and in that sense deserves the title "Evangelist", but he is not the final author. (p. 392).
In Desilva's view:
Lazarus may or may not have been the Beloved Disciple, but internal evidence points to him more plausibly than to the son of Zebedee, who may indeed play a very minor role in this Gospel. (p. 393)
On the authorship of the Johannine epistles, Desilva says that (p. 453) 'it seems much more probable that the author of the epistles did not also write the Fourth Gospel, although he may well have had a hand in editing it ...' Desilva goes on to say (p. 454):
Ultimately, then, all we can say is that the author was a respected teacher and leader within the circle of communities that ultimately drew their inspiration from the Beloved Disciple.19
Regarding the authorship of the gospel of Mark, Desilva says (p. 195) that many scholars are 'justifiably reluctant' in accepting Papias' testimony given the inaccuracies in his testimony regarding Matthew's gospel, even though 'it is also impossible to say definitely that the attribution is wrong...' He then avoids a detailed discussion by saying (p. 196):
What is certain is that resolving the matter of authorship does not enhance our reading of the Gospel, and leaving the matter open does not detract from it. These four Gospels remain the Word of God and the churches' witness to the person of Christ and pattern of discipleship irrespective of claims about authorship. The texts, not the titles, are "word of God" to the churches.
Desilva also denies the Petrine authorship of II Peter (p. 878):
In 2 Peter an anonymous Christian leader has sought to preserve and defend the apostolic message for a new generation.13 In the voice of Peter, this author defends the apostolic teaching he has received against rival teachers who promote their own innovations and threaten the churches' hold on the heritage that Peter and his peers bequeathed to them.
The authorship of Hebrews is described by Desilva as follows (p. 776):
The anonymous letter to the "Hebrews" provides the interpreter with neither the identity of the author nor that of the recipients. We do not know when it was written, and the location of both author and recipients remains unclear.
L. Morris and Donald W. Burdick, in their commentary on Hebrews and James, conclude that the author of Hebrews cannot be identified:
In the end we must agree that we have no certain evidence about the authorship of Hebrews. Who wrote it remains unknown to us. We can scarcely improve on the words of Origen's conclusion, that "who wrote the Epistle, God only knows the truth"... (Leon Morris, Donald W. Burdick, Hebrew/James (The Expositor's Bible Commentary with the New International Version), 1996, Zondervan Publishing House, p. 7)
Regarding Hebrews, Wood boasted, 'I have a good idea who wrote that'. Compare this with the above conservative verdicts, but also with the conclusion reached by the conservative scholar, Donald Guthrie, the author of perhaps the most distinguished conservative introduction to the New Testament, who had this to say after examining in detail the various authorship hypotheses pertaining to Hebrews:
In the light of the preceding discussion, 1 an open verdict is clearly the safest course and in this the opinion of Origen can hardly be improved upon. It may not appeal to the mind to admit that a thinker of so profound a type should remain anonymous and yet, as A Nairne pointed out, the precision of a name would not much illuminate the background.2 Of greater importance is the situation which the epistle was intended to answer. (Donald Guthrie, New Testament Introduction, Fourth Edition (revised), 1990, InterVarsity Press, p. 682)
On the epistle of James, conservative evangelical scholar, Arthur G. Patzia, finds 'attractive' the reconstruction according to which while 'much' of the material within James comes from the 'mid-forties', it circulated for 'a number of years before being put into its current form'. Patzia proceeds:
At some point an editor collected the sayings and discourses of James and circulated them as a general letter. The literary style, according to one commentator, is clearly "oral discourse, like the Greek diatribe, the synagogue homily, or a sermon."20 (Arthur G. Patzia, The Making of the New Testament: Origin, Collection, Text & Canon, 1995, InterVarsity Press, p. 96)
Therefore, James is not responsible for the finished form of the epistle and the identity of the proposed 'editor' is obviously unknown.
Patzia also denies the Petrine authorship of II Peter and concludes (pp. 94-95):
Ralph Martin's suggestion that a disciple from the Petrine circle "has been at work in assembling and publishing, in his master's name, a testament of that teaching in response to the pressing needs in the church" seems a reasonable solution to the questions of composition.
The complex nature of the authorship of the Johannine literature is explained by Patzia as follows (p. 98):
Some scholars confidently affirm that the apostle John is the author of all the literature attributed to him and that it follows chronologically the sequence found in the New Testament. Others believe that an editor(s) from within the Johannine community utilized and reinterpreted traditions that originally came from the beloved disciple. In this case, the literature probably attained its final form in Ephesus some time after John's death near the end of the first century.29
Writing in another book, Patzia has this to say about the authorship of Hebrews:
Even though scholars continue to debate the authorship, date and destination of Hebrews, virtually everyone admits that it is an anonymous letter written either from Alexandria, Jerusalem or Rome. (The Emergence of the Church: Context, Growth, Leadership & Worship, 2001, InterVarsity Press, p. 137)
Leading conservative scholar I. H. Marshall denies the Pauline authorship of the Pastoral Epistles and concludes:
. the PE belong to the period shortly after the death of Paul. They, especially 2 Tim, are based on authentic Pauline materials whose extent cannot now be traced precisely, and they may well have been produced in a group which included Timothy and Titus themselves. The stimulus came from the existence of the authentic letter behind 2 Tim, which was already beginning to face up to the problems of the opposition, and led to the composition of 1 Tim and Tit to deal more explicitly and fully with the problems caused by opposition and heresy in Ephesus and Crete. The letters were intended to give Pauline backing to Timothy and Titus . They are examples not of pseudonymity but of allonymity. Their composition was accordingly in no sense deceptive, in that it was known that these were fresh formulations of Pauline teaching to take account of the changing situation. Nevertheless, with the passage of time the origins of the letters were forgotten and they were assumed to be from Paul himself. (I. H. Marshall, A Critical And Exegetical Commentary On The Pastoral Epistles, 2004, T & T Clarke, p. 92)
Regarding II Peter, Marshall writes in another book:
Until fresh arguments are brought forward, it therefore seems wisest to admit that we do not know who wrote this letter but to recognize that it claims to stand in the tradition associated with Peter.1 This means that for practical purposes we have yet another, semi-independent voice in the chorus of New Testament theology. (I. H. Marshall, New Testament Theology: Many Witnesses, One Gospel, 2004, InterVarsity Press, p. 670)
Conservative Christian scholar Mark D. Roberts, writing in his apologetic tract states:
So did the Gospel writers know Jesus personally? Mark and Luke did not. Matthew and John might have, but we can't be positive. Yet the reliability of the New Testament Gospels does not depend on who wrote them so much as on the nature and purpose of the writings themselves. (Can We Trust the Gospels?: Investigating the Reliability of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, 2007, Crossway Books, p. 49)
According to Roberts (Ibid), 'it is possible' that the writers of Matthew and John 'were eyewitnesses of Jesus himself'. He concludes (Ibid):
There was a time when critical scholars seemed to discard this possibility energetically, almost glibly. But in recent years many have come to believe that the first and fourth Gospels reflect the memory and the perspective of Jesus' own disciples, both Matthew and John (or another Beloved Disciple, at any rate). Matthew and John may not have been the ones who finally put pen to papyrus, but they, their memory, and their authority stand behind the Gospels that bear their names.
This means that the ones responsible for the final form of Matthew and John, as we know them now, remain unknown.
Above we have cited and referred to a number of conservative evangelical scholars who regard various New Testament documents to be either anonymous or pseudonymous or partially accept certain authorship claims/traditions. Let it be made clear that our argument is not that the above scholars are right (or wrong) in their conclusions. Our aim was only to demonstrate that a variety of conservative scholars, all of whom are committed Christians with no axe to grind and who have no reason for being 'sceptical for the sake of being sceptical', have concluded - irrespective of the merits of their arguments - that there are anonymous and pseudonymous writings within the New Testament. They do not share Wood's startling view that with the exception of Hebrews - regarding the authorship of which Wood has a 'good idea'- 'we know who wrote every book of the New Testament.' On the contrary, there continues to be widespread disagreement and dispute among scholars on the authorship of a number of New Testament documents and widespread agreement and also consensus on the rejection of some traditional authorship claims for a number of New Testament writings.
Nor is it our argument that all conservative scholars share the above conclusions in totality. There are many conservative scholars who regard II Peter to be pseudonymous and some conservative scholars who endorse Petrine authorship, conservatives who deny Pauline authorship of the Pastoral Epistles and conservatives who endorse Pauline authorship, conservatives who regard the apostle Matthew to have authored the gospel under his name in its finished form and conservatives who completely deny this or accept Matthean authorship only partially etc. Conservative scholarship comes in various shades and with disagreements.
The interested reader is advised to visit a local library and spend some time going through New Testament introductions and commentaries authored specifically by conservative scholars, noting down all instances of their denials of traditional authorship claims. Such an exercise would undoubtedly substantially increase the length of the preceding section. What we have cited above is a minor sample of conservative scholarship.
Once we move outside the restricted realm of evangelical conservatism and consider mainstream and moderate New Testament scholarly views on the authorship question, we note much more uncertainty pertaining to the authorship of a number of writings (gospels, Pastoral Epistles, II Thessalonians, Colossians, Ephesians, Petrine Epistles, Johannine Epistles, Jude, James). The situation becomes overwhelming once we add to this the many writings in the Jewish Bible where our knowledge about the authors is either completely missing or very limited (and here too plenty of conservative scholars can be cited!).
In light of the above reality, it was absurd for Wood to proclaim 'we know who wrote every book of the New Testament.' 'We' most certainly do not know who wrote 'every' book of the New Testament even if Wood sincerely believes that he personally knows who wrote 'every' book of the New Testament. There would have been nothing wrong had Wood stated that he had personally come to conclude that he knew who wrote every book of the New Testament. His statement, however, conveys the utterly misleading impression as if there are no genuine scholarly doubts on the authorship of the various New Testament writings. The suggestion, as if the authorship issue has been long 'settled' among scholars, except for the rabid 'sceptical ones', is pure falsehood.
A problem equally, if not more, serious besides the authorship question is that of the historical reliability of the New Testament writings. Here virtually all scholars, whether liberal, moderate, and conservative, agree that there are errors, mistakes and historically unreliable details within the New Testament, albeit with continuing disagreements over their range and extent. The view that the Bible is 'inerrant' in such a way that it contains no conceivable error and mistake is rejected by all Christians, including conservatives, with the exception of a very few. To present an example, even though many conservative scholars happen to be more willing to attribute the fourth gospel, either fully or partially, to a disciple of Jesus (peace be upon him), it is generally acknowledged that the material therein is the result of later theological reflections, and interpretations and, therefore, should not be treated as a purely historical document giving us brute historical details about Jesus. For example, although I. H. Marshall writes,
I see no reason to deny the well-founded belief that this John, the son of Zebedee, had something to do with the origins of this Gospel. (I. H. Marshall, New Testament Theology: Many Witnesses, One Gospel, 2004, InterVarsity Press, p. 579)
Notice the conclusion he reaches after making a detailed comparison of John with the synoptic gospels (p. 593):
The Synoptic Gospels are probably much close to the ipissima verba of Jesus and to his teaching about the future, whereas the Johannine literature evidences a much more developed theology that reflects more fully the insights of early Christians in the period after the resurrection.
A number of conservative evangelical scholars have reached similar types of conclusions (sample of such views can be seen here. Or consider Richard Bauckham, who is often touted by a number of Christian apologists these days on account of one of his book (Jesus and the Eyewitnesses) even though he does not regard the New Testament as an inerrant source).
It should be clear by now that the legitimate concerns Christians scholars commonly have pertaining to the authorship of a number of New Testament writings is very different from the type of massively inflated hyper-scepticism displayed by a few, who offer a blanket dismissal of all of the historical data in order to deny the historical existence of Muhammad (peace be upon him). The two are in no way 'alike' or 'of the same level' and anyone who passes them off as being 'the same' is not only displaying remarkable ignorance but is also guilty of committing high deception.
If any Christian desires to deny the historical existence of Muhammed (peace be upon him), then he/she must be 'consistent' in their level of scepticism when it comes to the historical existence of Jesus (peace be upon him). If consistency is to be maintained, then such a Christian would first have to say 'goodbye' to the historical existence of Jesus (peace be upon him) and only then worry about the historical existence of Muhammad (peace be upon him).
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