New Testament Authorship – An Early UnderstandingUltimate Questions
In this episode of the Ultimate Questions podcast, Jon addresses the suggestion that the gospels are pseudepigraphical, and asks “then who?” and “why?” in response. No idea what any of that means? Tune in to find out!
1:20 Critics question NT authorship
3:15 Then who, and why pseudepigrapha?
4:40 Why so many writings about Jesus?
7:12 Claims made by NT authors,
10:00 Questions for skeptics
10:45 Claims of the author’s students…
15:25 …and then their students
Hello and welcome to the Ultimate Questions podcast.
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Last time we began looking at eyewitness testimony. We discussed whether having eyewitnesses giving their reports for things that happened in ancient times is even a good thing, because skeptics claim that eyewitness testimony would be circumstantial evidence, and their testimony would be biased. Despite those things, it still looks like it’s obvious that having genuine eyewitnesses would be a great way to help piece together the past. We closed off the last podcast by asking the question, how do we know that the New Testament books are actually eyewitness testimonies?
So as I mentioned last time, critics of Christianity try to devalue the faith by showing the Bible isn’t trustworthy. Earlier in the podcast, we saw that there are strong arguments to think the New Testament we have today is still the same as what was written back in the first century. We also looked into historiography and why we have good reasons to think the content is actually true as well. The critic will then try to devalue all this by saying that the books aren’t actually written by people like Matthew, John, Peter, etc. Instead, they say that other people, who weren’t connected to the events they describe, wrote down what they had heard, and then put a famous person’s name on their work. This type of writing is called “Pseudepigrapha”, which means, the person wrote a book, and then attached a famous name to their book, so that it would get more popular. This might sound strange to us, especially in our social media addicted culture, where basically everyone is trying to get famous on Instagram or YouTube. We would think someone would WANT to get famous from their writing, but in those days, that’s not the case. So as the skeptical argument goes, someone uninvolved in Jesus’ ministry wrote a book about Jesus, and then attached the name Luke to their work, so that the book would get circulated more.
Now a first issue here, is that these books were written at a time early enough that it actually could have been written by the people whose names are attached to them. We won’t go into a full argument for the dates of the Gospels right now, but even if we assume the latest of the modern skeptical dates for when the Gospels were written, they still end up being written early enough that the people who wrote them, whoever they were, could very well have been eyewitnesses. So that makes me question, if we assume the skeptic’s argument that the people who wrote the Gospels weren’t actually eyewitnesses, then who would be writing it, and why wouldn’t the real eyewitnesses write accounts of Jesus’ life? The people who wrote the Gospels lived during the time of Christ, and were obviously incredibly passionate about the Gospel, so wouldn’t it make sense that they actually knew Jesus? But there’s also an additional problem that comes up. If some random unknown person wrote a biography of Jesus’ life that ended up becoming one of the four Gospels we have in our New Testaments today, then why in the world did that random person choose the name “Luke”, or “Mark”? At least names like “John” we can understand, because John was one of the 12 disciples, and is considered to have likely been Jesus’ best friend, but why Luke? Luke was an eyewitness to some of the events of the Early Church, but he wasn’t an apostle of Jesus, and wasn’t an eyewitness to the ministry of Jesus. Mark also wasn’t an apostle, and not an eyewitness to Jesus’ ministry and death, so again, why would anyone write a work and slap Mark’s name on the cover? It would have made far more sense to assume the name “James”, or “Peter”, considering they were the two biggest names in the Early Church. The whole argument for the Gospels being Pseudepigraphical, again, meaning someone else’s name attached to it, rests on the fact that the person’s name was incredibly famous and important, so the whole argument falls apart for the Gospels of Mark and Luke.
An additional point of interest here is, why do we even have as much writing about Jesus as we do? This might seem a little unrelated, but the basic idea is this; the reason the Gospels became popular is because of the fact that they were written by eyewitnesses, and thus, had authority. As an example, let’s evaluate another famous figure, and the writings about him; let’s look at the emperor during the time of Jesus, which was Emperor Tiberius. We have four writings that write about the life of Tiberius, just as we have four about Jesus. However, the writings that refer to Tiberius are decades later, have less manuscript evidence, and two of them only mention the emperor in passing. A worse problem, one of these works is literally paid propaganda, meaning, the person was quite literally given money to write the book, and put Tiberius in a positive light. In other words, we have far greater historical documentation for the life of Jesus, a random Jewish rabbi, than we do for the emperor during that time. This is astonishing, and makes absolutely no sense, unless it’s because the eyewitnesses shared their personal accounts of the events, and they were so miraculous, so amazing, that they drastically changed the world. This is exactly what happened. The people who wrote the Gospels didn’t write them as a means of getting rich or famous. They also weren’t jumping on the bandwagon of an already successful religion (after all, it was being persecuted). There was no authority in Christianity, it hadn’t gained much popularity yet, it was being actively persecuted, and it was too early to be simply making things up, or claiming authorship of a famous person, because, after all, the famous person would have still been alive! Or at least the people that knew him would have been. So why do we have so much writing about Jesus? Here’s a good quote from Peter J. Williams, from his work, “Can we trust the Gospels?”, which I highly recommend. After looking at this data, he writes, “In other words, these four books were treated together as the best source for information about Jesus long before any central city, group, or individual in Christianity possessed enough power to impose the collection on other people. It is most natural to suppose that the credentials of the four books themselves are why they were so widely accepted.” Basically, the reason why the Gospels got circulated so widely is simply because they were recognized as being legitimate eyewitness accounts.
The next question we want to ask to try and verify whether the New Testament documents are legitimate eyewitness testimony is to look at whether the texts themselves make claims to being eyewitness accounts. For this, we need to actually go read the New Testament. In 1 Peter 5:1, it says he was a “witness of the sufferings of Christ”. In 2 Peter 1:16-17 it says he was one of the many “eyewitnesses of His majesty”. In John 21:24 it says, “the disciple who is testifying to these things and wrote these things”. The Gospel of John is also the book that refers to “the one that Jesus loved”, which most recognize is almost certainly John talking about himself in a bit of a humble brag. In 1 John 1:1 it says, “what we have heard, what we have seen with our eyes, what we have looked at and touched with our hands”. So in other words, these writers were going out of their way to affirm that they were in fact firsthand witnesses of the events they describe. In Acts 1:21-22, after Judas had died, the disciples needed to replace him. They really wanted someone who could be respected as an authority to speak on these matters, so they wanted someone who was an eyewitness, so they picked someone that had followed Jesus during His whole ministry, and had directly observed Jesus’s life and ministry. In the book of Acts in general, the disciples quite often refer to themselves as eyewitnesses, talking about what they had seen and heard, for example, Acts 2:32; 4:20; 4:33; and 10:39. In 1 Corinthians 15:7-8 we find that, while explaining the Gospel itself, one of the main things Paul mentions is how many eyewitnesses there were of the events. All in all, it seems as though it was incredibly important to the disciples and writers of the New Testament to show the authority they had to write about these things, mainly, that they literally witnessed the events as they occurred. This helps us understand why Christianity exploded the way it did. It’s incredibly easy to dismiss the wild claims of someone who heard their information second, third, and fourth hand. It’s far more difficult to dismiss the accounts of someone who was actually there. The things Jesus said and did obviously did have many eyewitnesses present, so how hard is it to believe that these people then went out preaching what Jesus said and did, and that some of them wrote it down as well? Considering we then find people claiming to be eyewitnesses, and these writings also explode and become very popular, with the only explanation for their popularity being that they were seen to have actual authority, the whole situation starts to make much more sense.
Some questions I would love to ask skeptics in this regard are things like: we know there were eyewitnesses that ended up dying for their claims of what Jesus said and did, why should we assume they didn’t write anything? When we actually have documents claiming to be written by them, why dismiss that as false? Why should we assume that the writings we do have are using fake names to gain popularity? Most importantly, why should we think that this group of early Christians would be fine with writings from people who were NOT eyewitnesses? The whole situation makes far more sense if it really was eyewitnesses who wrote down their testimonies, and they were recognized by their community as legitimate eyewitnesses, so their books became popular, simply because of the authority they had.
Going further, we just looked at whether the New Testament writers claimed to be eyewitnesses. So what about the people that immediately followed the time of Jesus? Did they consider the New Testament documents to be legitimate cases of eyewitness testimony? Now, if you haven’t studied this sort of thing too much, you might actually find this quite surprising, as I did when I first learned of this. At times we think of the New Testament as being quite removed from history, where the New Testament writers wrote their works, and then decades, or centuries past, where people just trusted the documents. However, we actually do have the writings of people immediately after this period. In fact, there hasn’t ever really been a gap large enough to allow for misinformation. So, as an example, suppose you talk about the disciple of Jesus named John. He wrote the Gospel of John, which is his biography about the life of Jesus. As it happens, John didn’t just witness the life of Jesus, write it down, and then die. He actually did other things in his life, for example, he took disciples, or students, of his own, and taught them about Jesus. Not only did his disciples write things down, telling us about John, the fact that he really was the one that wrote the Gospel of John, and confirm many details about the situation, but we even have the writings of the disciples of those disciples! All down the line of all these disciples, everyone understood the Gospels to have been written by the people who have their names on them. However, even if we did get some of the names mixed up, at the very least, we know that everyone recognized the writings of the New Testament as being written by authorities who were present for these events, and that these documents were trustworthy. Again, if a book like the Gospel of John wasn’t actually written by John, who was it written by? The skeptic can’t just shy away from the question and say, “well, someone else”, I want to know who, exactly who? The people who were students of John obviously knew John personally, and they say that this Gospel was written by their teacher. If the skeptic wants to claim it was actually written by one of the students of one of the disciples, well, we have their writings! They don’t use pseudonyms, and they quite often confirm the authorship of the books the New Testament for us. So let’s look at a few of these examples.
First up we have Ignatius, who was a student of John’s, who was born in 35ad, so basically immediately after the ministry of Jesus. Ignatius personally knew many of the disciples of Jesus, learned directly from John, and quotes from many of the books of the New Testament, including the Gospels of Matthew, Luke, and John. He also describes Jesus, as he would have been taught by John, and includes all the aspects we find in the Gospels. Basically, Ignatius confirms the books of the New Testament, confirms their authority because he knew the writers, and confirms the content of what the books say about Jesus. Also, Ignatius lived so incredibly close to the time of the events, and was quite important in the early church, so it would be absurd to think that he did NOT actually know the disciples of Jesus. He most certainly did actually learn directly from John, and interact with the other authors who wrote the books of the New Testament.
The second person we’ll look at is Papias. Now not much is known about his life, but from other writings it seems he was a student, or at least sat under the teaching, of John. He also tells us that John used to say that the Gospel of Mark was written by Mark, who was Peter’s interpreter, and that he wrote down anything he could recall about Jesus’ life that he heard from Peter. The things he wrote down likely weren’t in order, because that wasn’t really his goal. He just wanted to give a testimony of Jesus’ life, ministry, death, and resurrection, from what he had heard Peter say about Jesus. Papias was born around 60ad, so it’s entirely possible and in fact quite likely he really was a student of John, and heard directly from John about the authorship of these Gospels, considering these people would have been friends of John’s.
These men are often called the “Apostolic Fathers”, because they personally knew or were influenced by one or more of the 12 apostles of Jesus. The third one is Polycarp, who was also a student of John’s, and a friend of Ignatius. He was born around 69ad, so, again, he lived during the time when it was entirely feasible, and likely, that he actually was a student of John’s. These three first Church Fathers we’ve looked at confirm nearly all the New Testament books, confirmed the authorship of some of them, and even knew the apostles of Jesus. As we look more into this, it starts being quite unreasonable to doubt the authorship of the New Testament books.
Next up we have Irenaeus, who was taught by Ignatius and Polycarp, the previous two Apostolic Fathers we just looked at. He was born in 130, and so he didn’t have direct contact with any of the apostles of Jesus, but here we can see the chain of how the tradition gets passed along. Jesus teaches John, John teaches Ignatius and Polycarp, and then they teach Irenaeus. He tells us that Polycarp knew John’s words first hand, meaning, he confirms that Polycarp had direct access to an apostle of Jesus. He wrote about a hundred years after the Gospels had been written, and the pattern continues, where he confirms many of the writers of the New Testament documents by name, and he actually gives extensive details about them. For example, Irenaeus tells us that the Gospel of Matthew comes from Matthew, a tax collector from Capernaum, and was one of the 12 apostles. The Gospel of Mark comes from Mark, who was not an apostle, and was the interpreter for the apostle Peter. The Gospel of Luke was written by Luke, who was not one of the 12 apostles, was a medical doctor, accompanied Paul on some of his travels, and was the only New Testament writer who may have been a Gentile. Then lastly Irenaeus writes about the Gospel of John being written by John, son of Zebedee, who was one of the twelve apostles, the younger brother of James, and a fisherman from Capernaum. Again, all this data comes from someone only about a hundred years after the New Testament had been written. Here you have some of those who were taught directly by the disciples, the lineage of the teaching of the Gospel as it was passed on, and all of them understood things exactly the way we understand them today. There’s even more of these Apostolic Fathers, but we’ll leave it at that for now.
The really important thing here is, quite often the writers of the New Testament are adamant that they were eyewitnesses of the events they describe. Then, you have their students confirming this for us. You have incredibly early writers, all confirming the authorship of the Gospels and other New Testament books. These people knew the disciples, and thus, were in the perfect position to know whether the books were actually written by them, and time and time again, they confirm the authorship for us. Additionally, we never, not even once, find anyone anywhere claiming the Gospels were written by anyone except Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. No one ever even questioned the authorship! The idea of challenging who wrote the Gospels is quite a recent phenomenon. Just looking at this data alone, I personally find it absolutely bewildering that anyone in academia challenges the authorship of the Gospels, and yet, they do, which I believe is just a sign of their incredible bias. We don’t have time to dive into their arguments right now, but we will in future episodes of the podcast.
For now, we’ll have to wrap up this episode of the podcast, but I hope you’ll join me next time, as we take a deep look at the importance of names in the writings of the New Testament, and what that can tell us about the authority and legitimacy of these books. I’m excited to jump into these issues with you on the next episode, of the Ultimate Questions podcast, from Power to Change Students.