When people ask me what my favorite work of fiction is, I’m torn between The Lord of the Rings and Jane Austen’s Persuasion. Both Tolkien and Austen were deeply influenced by their Christian faith. Far from being just a cultural Christian, Austen wrote family devotions for her and her sister, including prayers where she asked the Lord to protect them from missing out on salvation and being “Christians only in name.”
Since her death, Jane Austen has become extremely famous. But during her lifetime, her novels were published anonymously. Her first book, Sense and Sensibility, simply declared that it was written “By A Lady.” Her second, Pride and Prejudice, was “By the Author of Sense and Sensibility.” Her third, Mansfield Park, was “By the Author of Sense and Sensibility and Pride and Prejudice.” You might be spotting a theme! When it comes to novels, what matters is the quality of the writing, not who wrote it. We might be very interested to know the author once we’ve fallen in love with the book. But the book stands on its own two fictional feet.
Biographies are different. If I’m reading a biography, I want to know the author isn’t writing fiction. I want to know the author has done his or her research. The identity of the biographer doesn’t matter in and of itself. But I need to know the author is a reliable guide to the person he or she is describing, not just someone who is good at making things up. So, what do we know about the authors of the four biographies of Jesus known as Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John?
None of the Gospels names its author, and only one of them claims directly that its author was an eyewitness of Jesus’s life. A bit like Jane Austen when she called herself “the Author of Sense and Sensibility,” the author of John’s Gospel called himself “the disciple Jesus loved.” But the names Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John were attached to the four Gospels very early on—very likely as soon as they were being passed around the first- and second-century churches—and we get clues about who those authors were both in our Bibles and in other early Christian writings. Today, we’re going to track down some of those clues.
Most experts agree that Mark’s Gospel was written first. Even non-Christian scholars date Mark between thirty-five and forty-five years after Jesus’s death (i.e., between AD 60 and 70). Some Christian scholars think it was written even earlier. Either way, Mark was written well within the lifetime of eyewitnesses to Jesus. So, who was Mark, and how do we know he was consulting with these witnesses? A Christian leader named Papias, who was writing around the turn of the first century (roughly AD 95–110), recorded the testimony of a man known as John the Elder, who said that Mark based his Gospel on the memories of the apostle Peter, who was one of Jesus’s closest friends. This testimony lines up with what we learn about a man named Mark in Acts 12. That chapter tells how Peter was led out of prison by an angel in the middle of the night. At first, he thought he might be dreaming but then realized he was out of the prison and went to find the other Christians.
We also find a reference to Mark in Peter’s first New Testament letter.
She who is in Babylon, chosen together with you, sends you greetings, as does Mark, my son.
This doesn’t mean that Mark was literally Peter’s son. But it does mean that Peter was Mark’s mentor. So, Mark had lots of opportunities to consult with Peter and other eyewitnesses of Jesus’s life. In Acts 12:25, Colossians 4:10, and Philemon 24, we find that Mark was also a close companion of the apostle Paul. Paul did not know Jesus during His earthly ministry, but he was well known to the other apostles and was given specific revelation from God.
Matthew’s Gospel is generally agreed to be later than Mark’s, with many experts dating it between AD 60 to 80. Papias also mentioned Matthew, suggesting that he may originally have written his Gospel in Hebrew or Aramaic (the common language of Jews of Jesus’s time and place). Matthew, Mark, and Luke all include someone named Matthew in their lists of Jesus’s twelve apostles (Matt. 10:3; Mark 3:18; Luke 6:15).
The apostle Matthew didn’t play a big role in any of the Gospels, but our earliest evidence suggests that this Matthew became a biographer of Jesus and wrote the Gospel known by his name.
Luke’s Gospel was likely written at a similar time to Matthew, between AD 60 and 80. But unlike the other Gospel authors, Luke went on to write a sequel, which we know as the book of Acts. Luke was also a companion of Paul’s.
2 Timothy 4:11 says, “Only Luke is with me. Bring Mark with you, for he is useful to me in the ministry.”
This verse indicates that both Mark and Luke were part of Paul’s inner circle of ministry partners, meaning they probably would have known each other.
Most scholars think that John’s Gospel was the last one to be written, around sixty years after the events it records (approximately AD 90–95). But it’s also the only Gospel that claims in the text itself to have been written by an eyewitness. The name John was attached to this Gospel from the earliest records we have, and by the end of the second century, its author was being identified with John the son of Zebedee, who was one of Jesus’s twelve apostles. Many contemporary scholars follow this identification. Others, like British New Testament scholar Richard Bauckham, argue that John was actually written by another disciple of Jesus: a young, Jerusalem-based disciple, who was later known as John the Elder.1 As you may remember from our discussion of Mark, John the Elder was the one who made the connection between Mark and the apostle Peter. In either case, the author of John was a very close disciple of Jesus and an eyewitness to much of what he wrote in his Gospel. He also would have had access to the testimony of other eyewitnesses.
Perhaps you’ve heard people claiming that the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John were chosen from a larger set of early biographies of Jesus for political reasons and that if we look at other so-called Gospels—like the Gospel of Thomas or the Gospel of Mary—we’ll find a very different view of Jesus. But none of these other so-called Gospels were written as early or tied as closely to the actual eyewitnesses of Jesus’s life as Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. Also, rather than offering full biographies of Jesus, they tend to be more like mystical collections of His sayings. If you read them for yourself, you’ll find they really can’t compete with the Gospels in our Bibles. Even New Testament scholar Bart Ehrman, who is a famous skeptic of the Christian faith, assures us that the four New Testament Gospels are, “the oldest and best sources we have for knowing about the life of Jesus,” and that this is “the view of all serious historians of antiquity of every kind, from committed evangelical Christians to hard-core atheists.”2
Praise God He’s given us not just one but four incredible biographies of Jesus, so that even two-thousand years after His death, we can know so much detail about His life and teachings.
You can hear more from Rebecca McLaughlin about the Navigating Gospel Truth Bible study by watching the video from the author below or diving into the free sample here.
And to have a powerful daily reminder of the life of Jesus, click on each image to download the free wallpapers below!
1. For Richard Bauckham’s argument, see Jesus and the Eyewitnesses (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2006), 420–423, 458–468.
2. Bart D. Ehrman, Truth and Fiction in The Da Vinci Code (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004), 102.