Who wrote the four Gospels? Varghese Pamplanil

James kottoorNote:  Coming  as it does from our columnist Pamplanil, some diehard  believers may even question the relevance of this article itself in the midst of a land controversy which also will die down and we also, to be forgotten for good. That is the life we live here below. Life is chain of controversies and discoveries until our minds are put to rest. So  no one needs to take any offence at the writer’s discoveries to change or hold on to one’s views. Jesus himself answered questioners and provoked  people to ask questions.

If someone meditates and wonders in his mind saying: “Jesus did not write a single word although he is called the Word incarnate. Did he ever go to any school anywhere in Palestine, or in Thaskhasila, India, where he was reported to have come? There is no possibility of Holy Spirit flying about like a dove to have written any thing! What about the bearded venerable God the Father? Did he write anything? If none of the three wrote anything, which God in heaven or earth wrote the Bible? Revealed in dream to some one? That could have been the whole truth! And the credulous go on believing every thing the priestly class say. Don’t they?”

When editing the New Leader in Chennai some 50 years ago, the weekly’s motto was: “The Whole Truth in all Charity!” That is still the motto in my life and am still in search of the WHOLE TRUTH so that I may become less of a ‘Know-nothing’. So read and find out if it helps you.

Can we blame such soliloquies of peoples? You readers dream up your own conclusions if you can’t believe the researched findings of our friend Pamplanil share with us your findings for us to learn.  After all belief is everything for those are, that includes all of us, ignorant on many things and let us all try to find WHOLE  TRUTH as far as possible,  through study and research. james kottoor, editor, ccv.)


VargheseVarghese Pamplanil

This article is meant, whatever it is worth, for those extreme types of believers, who think that the Bible is a God revealed and universally relevant book for all the people, all the world,  for all the times. They seem to have a penchant for quoting it for everything under the sun. They invariably take offence, if someone chose to disagree with them.

There is a perception that the four Gospels are written by the  contemporaries of Jesus, some of them being his disciples and the book is historically accurate. But  autographs (original copies) of the gospels were not preserved, as in the case of almost all ancient documents; the texts that survive are “third generation“ copies with no two of them completely identical.

Gospel of Mark

The majority view of modern scholars is that the Gospel of Mark was the first gospel to be composed.The Christian tradition believes that Mark was a companion and interpreter of Apostle Peter. But biblical scholars do not subscribe to this view. They conclude that it was written anonymously. They also  reject the tradition that Mark was an Evangelist.

This Gospel is believed to have been composed between CE 66 and 70 either during the time of Nero’s persecution or during the period of the first century  Jewish Revolt. The “unknown author” seemed to have worked with various sources including collection of miracle stories, controversy stories, parables and passion narratives. Mark was written for “Gentile" Greek speaking Christians of Galilee, Antioch and Rome. He was influenced by Greco-Roman biographies. He veers around the eschatological or apocalyptic, depicting Jesus caught up in the  events of the end times.

The Gospel of Mark is seen as the most reliable of the four gospels in terms of its overall description of Jesus’ life and mission. Mark portrays Jesus as an exorcist, a healer and a miracle worker.

Many scholars think that Mark might have been writing as a Galilean Christian against Jewish Christians in Jerusalem who saw the revolt against Rome (CE 66-73) as the beginning of end times. To Mark, the Second Coming would be in Galilee and not in Jerusalem. William Wrede has identified “the  tension between the church’s post-resurrection messiah belief and the historical reality of Jesus.” There is little evidence that “Son of God” was the title for the messiah in the first century Christianity. The attributes which describe Jesus are more to the Hellenistic “miracles working divine”.

Mark never calls Jesus God or claims Jesus existed prior to his earthly life. Unlike Matthew and Luke, Mark does not mention a “Virgin Birth” and apparently believed that Jesus had a human parentage and birth. Contrary to Matthew and Luke, he makes no attempt to trace Jesus’ ancestors back to King David or Adam with a genealogy. (Mark would have known that it was only at the close of the second century BCE, the Maccabee, Alexander Jannaeus (102-73 BCE), the militant champion of the Jewish religion had imposed Judaism by force over the “Galilee of the Gentiles”. Hence even the wildest of conjectures would not install Jesus into the house of David.

Gospel of Mathew

On the surface, it may imply that the Gospel of Matthew was written in Hebrew or Aramaic by Apostle Matthew and later translated into Greek. But nowhere does the author claim to have been an eye witness to events described in the gospel. Further  Matthew’s Greek reveals none of the tell-tale marks of any translation.

Most scholars believe that the gospel was composed between CE 80 and 110. The anonymous author was probably a male Jew writing in polished Semitic “synagogue Greek”. The oldest relatively complete manuscripts of this gospel are the Codex Vaticanus and the Codex Sinaiticus dating from the 4thcentury. “According to Matthew” it was added some time in the 2nd century.

The views of the majority of the scholars is: Matthew the product of the last quarter of the 1st century wrote after the destruction of the Jerusalem temple in CE 70 for a community of Greek speaking Jewish Christians.

The divine nature of Jesus was the major issue for the Matthaen community, the crucial element marking them different from their Jewish neighbours. Matthew shows Jesus as the “Son of God” from his birth, the fulfilment of Old Testament messianic prophecies. The title “Son of David” identifies Jesus as the healing and miracle working “Messiah of Israel” (exclusively in relation to miracles). As “Son of Man”, he will return to judge the world, an expectation which his disciples recognise, but of which his enemies are unaware of. As “Son of God “ he is God revealing himself through his “Son” and Jesus proving his Sonship by his obedience to Father in Heaven and his  example.

The gospel reflects the struggles and conflicts between the evangelist community and the other Jews, particularly with its sharp criticism of the scribes and Pharisees. Prior to Jesus’ crucifixion, the Jews were called Israelites, the honorific title for God’s  chosen people, after it they are called “ loudaioi” Jews, a sign that with their rejection of Christ they forfeited the “Kingdom of Heaven” and  the church becoming  the inheritors thereof.

Gospel of Luke

Acts and the Gospel of Luke make a two part work, by the same anonymous author usually dated 80-90 CE. The traditional view is Luke, the physician was the companion of Paul. The critical conclusion, however is: the author of the gospel is an  anonymous one, who was not eye-witness to any of the events he describes; he had no eye-witness sources or redaction authorship. He seems to have used existing sources such as travelogues claimed to be eye-witness. Hence the conclusion one may arrive at is: this gospel is the most unreliable one as to the events described therein including the Nativity fairytale.

The first part of Luke’s Gospel tells how God fulfilled his plan for the world’s salvation through the life, death and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth, the promised “Messiah”. The Acts continue the story of Christianity in the first century beginning with the Ascension of Jesus to Heaven. Rejected by the Jews, the message was taken to the Gentiles, it is claimed.

Luke’s Acts is an attempt to answer a theological problem viz., how the Messiah of the Jews came to have an overwhelming non-Jewish church. The answer provided: the Jews refused to acknowledge and accept Christ, the Messiah. Luke-Acts also seem as a defence (or “ apology”) on behalf of the Jesus’ movement, addressed to the Jews.

Critical consensus point out the countless contradictions  in the Acts accounts and the authentic Pauline letters emphasising that Luke was not any companion of Paul. The author, an educated man, seems to have taken as his model the works of two respected classical authors, Dionysus of Halicarnassus and the Jewish historian Josephus.

Gospel of John

The gospel of John is also written by an anonymous person between CE 90 and 110.The identification of the author as “the Disciple whom Jesus loved” mentioned in John 21.24 understood as John, son of Zebedee, one of Jesus’ Twelve Apostles, is rejected by many biblical scholars. Rudolf Bultmann (1941) argued that John’s sources are hypothetical.

The evangelist would have relied on the Jewish scripture ‘Janakh’ identical with Christian Old Testament. The “Word” that is with God from the beginning of creation derives from the Jewish concept of Lady Wisdom. He also relied on Greek philosophers in formulating  his theology. While John 6 alludes not only to the Exodus but also veers to the Greco-Roman mystery cults: John 4 alludes to Samaritan messianic beliefs.

The gospel of John presents “high Christology“ depicting Jesus as divine and yet subordinate to the One God and focuses on the relationship between the Son to the Father than the Synoptics. John identifies Jesus as the Logos (Word). In Ancient Greek philosophy the word Logos meant the principle of  “cosmic reason”. In this sense, it was similar to the Hebrew concept of Wisdom who is God’s companion and intimate helper in creation. John also adopts Philo’s description of the Logos and applies it to Jesus–the incarnation of Logos. John presents the death of Jesus as his glorification and return to Father. In this gospel, Jesus is placed in a  cosmic setting as “Logos” (Word) made flesh, the  revealed God and Lamb of God, Son of God and Christ, who gives salvation to believers, witnessed by John the Baptist, Andrew and Nathanael.

The gospel of John is usually dated at CE 90-110.Biblical scholars believe that the text went through two to three redactions or “editions” before reaching the current form. Reynolds Library Papyrus P52, a Greek papyrus fragment with John 18.31-33 on one side and 18.37-38 on the other, commonly dated to the second century is the oldest New Testament manuscript known. A substantially complete John exists from the beginning of 3rd century. John’s Gospel contains many gnostic elements and the kernel of anti-Semitism.

Changing faces of Jesus

It is doubtful whether any person  in history has undergone so many make-overs as Jesus. He has moulded, melted and remoulded time and again to suit the purposes of vested interests and the gospels reflect them.

Bart D. Ehrman, in his book “Jesus, Interrupted—Revealing the Hidden Contradictions in the Bible (and Why We Don’t Know About Them) observers, that in Mark, Jesus is silent until the very end, when he utters the wretched cry “E’loi, E’loi, lema’ sabachthani” which Mark translates as “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” According to Matthew, “at about three o’clock, Jesus cried with a loud voice “E’ll, E’ll, Le-ma’ sa.bach’tha-ni?”  that is “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”. But In Luke’s version, during his journey for crucifixion Jesus is undisturbed  and goes on to prophecy the coming destruction of the Temple.

At  time of his death he prays “Father, forgive them, for they don’t know what they are doing” (Luke 23:54). Jesus is depicted as having close communion with God and is more concerned for those who are doing this to him. In Luke, Jesus prays to God in a loud voice saying, “Father into your hands I comment my spirit”. He then breaths his last and dies (25:56). This is not a Jesus, who feels forsaken by God and wonders why he is going through this pain of desertion and death. In Luke Jesus feels God’s  presence with him and is comforted that God is on his side.

He is fully cognisant of what is happening to him and why, and he commits himself to the loving care of his Heavenly Father. John is cryptic “when Jesus knew that all was now finished, he said (in order to fulfil the scriptures), “I am thirsty.” When Jesus had received the wine, he said ‘It is finished.’ Then he bowed his head and gave up his life.” So simple and strait forward. After all, he is the pre-existing  eternal “Logos”.

Ehrman points out that the gospels, and all the books of the Bible, are distinct and should not be read as if they are all saying the same thing,  say about the death of Jesus’ death, Mark is different from Luke, and Matthew is different from John if one does horizontal reading of their respective stories of crucifixion. The historical approach to the Gospels allow each author’s voice to be heard distingly; not to conflate them into some kind of a mega Gospel that flattens the emphases of each of them. Ehrman’s book  highlights  many more  contradictions of the genre above.

Bart D. Ehrman, the James A. Grey Distinguished Professor of Religious Studies at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill is  a leading authority on the Bible and Jesus. He is the author of more than twenty books on Jesus, Bible, Christianity, the Apostles and other Biblical matters and topics.

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1 Response

  1. Isaac Gomes says:

    Very interesting, thought-provoking and signature article by Varghese Pamplanil.

    The author must be complimented for expressing his free-flowing thoughts on CCV platform. I am sure at least a few CCV readers will share their thoughts.

    Here is a reproduction from of an explanation given by Fr William Saunders, on the above matter:

    WHO REALLY WROTE THE GOSPELS?
    Fr. William Saunders

    I recently attended a religious education workshop, and the teacher said that the Gospels were written by the early Church community probably between the years 200 and 300, not by St. Mark, etc. I find this strange. If this is true, then the Gospels really don't tell us much about Jesus but seem more "made up" by later believers. A straight answer please.—A reader in Sterling

    The notion that the Gospels are the product of the early Church community in the third century is "strange" indeed. However, we must be aware that a lot of "strange" things have emerged in some circles of modern Scripture scholarship, where scholars have isolated the texts of Sacred Scripture and examined them without any appreciation for divine intervention or the living Tradition of the Church. Sad to say, some Scripture scholars would have us believe that the only thing we can know for certain is that Jesus existed. Even the pagan Roman historians could tell us that. Such a bent in Scripture is misguided.

    Therefore, to answer this question we must be clear on how the Gospels were formed and what constitutes authorship. Citing Vatican II's <Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation>, the <Catechism> has a very succinct presentation on the formation of the Gospels. The foundational premise is that "Holy Mother Church has firmly and with absolute constancy maintained and continues to maintain, that the four Gospels, whose historicity she unhesitatingly affirms, faithfully hand on what Jesus, the Son of God, while He live among men, really did and taught for their eternal salvation until the day He was taken up."

    After the ascension of Jesus, the Apostles went forth preaching the Gospel, handing on to others what our Lord had done and taught. Having been instructed by the Lord and then enlightened by the Holy Spirit, they preached with a fuller understanding. Eventually, the "sacred authors" wrote the four Gospels. Each author, guided by the Holy Spirit, selected from the events and teachings of our Lord which perhaps they had witnessed or which had been handed on either orally or in written form. Sometimes the authors may have synthesized some of these events or teachings, or may have underscored parts or explained parts with a view to a certain audience. This is why the Gospels oftentimes tell the same story, but each will have certain details not included by the others. In a similar way, if each member of our family had to write a family history, each member would tell basically the same story, but each member would also highlight certain details he considered important and would keep in mind who would be reading the family history. Nevertheless, the sacred authors wrote "in such a fashion that they have told us the honest truth about Jesus." Therefore to suggest that the third century Church "wrote" the Gospels in some kind of vacuum, almost to "create" Jesus, is without foundation.

    So did Sts. Matthew, Mark, Luke and John write the Gospels? Is the sacred author also the saint? Remember only St. Matthew and St. John were among the 12 Apostles. We must keep in mind that the ancient world, authorship was designated in several ways: First, the author was clearly the individual who actually wrote the text with his own pen. Second, the individual who dictated the text to a secretary or scribe was still considered the author. Third, the individual was still considered the author if he only provided the ideas or if the text were written in accord with his thought and in his spirit even though a "ghost writer" did the actual composition. In the broadest sense, the individual was even considered the author if the work was written in his tradition; for example, David is given credit for the psalms even though clearly he did not write all of the psalms.

    Whether the final version of the Gospels we have is the word-for-word work of the saints is hard to say. Nevertheless, tradition does link the saints to their Gospels. St. Mark, identified with John Mark of Acts 12:12 and the Mark of I Peter 5:13, is mentioned in a quote contained in a letter from Papias (c. 130), Bishop of Hierapolis: "When Mark became Peter's interpreter, he wrote down accurately, although not in order, all that he remembered of what the Lord had said or done." St. Irenaeus (d. 203) and Clement of Alexandria (d. 215) support this identification. The Gospel of Mark is commonly dated about the year 65-70 in conjunction with the destruction of the Temple of Jerusalem.

    St. Matthew is identified with the tax collector called as an apostle (Mt 9:9-13). Papias again attests to the saint's authorship and indicates that he was the first to compile a collection of Jesus' sayings in the Aramaic language. For this reason, the Gospel of Matthew, at least in a very basic form in Aramaic, is considered the first Gospel and placed first in the New Testament, although the Gospel of Mark is probably the first in a completed form. St. Irenaeus and Origin (d. 253) again support this authorship. Nevertheless, some scholars doubt the saint's direct authorship because we only have the Greek version, not the Aramaic, and no citations are made from the Aramaic version in Church literature. The version of the Gospel we have was probably written between 70-80.

    St. Luke, the beloved physician and disciple of St. Paul (Colossians 4:14), has consistently been recognized in Christian tradition as the author of the third Gospel, beginning with St. Irenaeus, Tertullian (d. 220), and Clement of Alexandria. The Gospel was written about 70-80.

    St. Irenaeus identified the author of the fourth Gospel as St. John the Apostle. He does so based on the instruction of his teacher, St. Polycarp (d. 155), who himself was a disciple of St. John. Throughout this Gospel, the numerous details indicate the author was an eyewitness. Also scholars generally agree that "the beloved disciple" mentioned in the Gospel is St. John. This Gospel was written probably about 80-90.

    Whether the actual saint wrote word-for-word, whether a student did some later editing, or whether a student actually wrote what had been taught by the saint, we must remember the texts—whole and entire—are inspired by the Holy Spirit. Yes, the human authors used their skills and language with a view to an audience; however, they wrote what God wanted written. The Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation clearly asserted, "Since, therefore, all that the inspired authors, or sacred writers, affirm should be regarded as affirmed by the Holy Spirit, we must acknowledge that the books of Sacred Scripture firmly, faithfully and without error, teach that truth, which God, for the sake of our salvation, wished to see confided to the Sacred Scriptures." So no matter who actually put the finishing touches on the Sacred Scriptures, each is inspired.

    Interestingly, with the recent scholarship on the Dead Sea Scrolls, new evidence points to the authorship of the traditional authors. Father Reginald Fuller, an Episcopalian and Professor Emeritus at Virginia Theological Seminary, with Dr. Carsten Thiede, have analyzed three papyrus fragments from the 26th chapter of the Gospel of Matthew; the fragments date the year 40, which would indicate that the author was an eyewitness to our Lord's public ministry.

    Jesuit Father Jose O'Callaghan, studying fragments of the Gospel of Mark and using paleographic means, dated them at 50, again indicating an eyewitness author. Finally, Episcopalian Bishop John Robinson also posited from his research that all four Gospels were written between 40 and 65, with John's being possibly the earliest. This new research is not only questioning some of the modern scholarship but also supporting the traditional authorship.

    Perhaps some mystery surrounds these texts and the identify of the authors. Nevertheless, we hold them as sacred, as inspired, and as truly the Word of God.

    Father Saunders is president of Notre Dame Institute and associate pastor of Queen of Apostles Parish, both in Alexandria.


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