Two kinds of internal evidence help to establish that the Gospels are authentic.
- The unity of style and purpose within each Gospel shows that it is the work of a single author.
- Each Gospel writer has left shadows of himself in his work, and these are consistent with the traditional attribution.
Unity of Style and Purpose
Higher criticism of the Gospels has, since 1900, divided into several branches. The two most important are known as form criticism and redaction criticism. Both assume that the Gospels contain material shaped by gradual evolution over a long period of time.
Form criticism, which arose after World War I under the leadership of the German scholars Rudolf Bultmann and Martin Dibelius, treats each Gospel as a collection of "pericopes"—that is, individual sayings and stories. The chief assumption of form criticism is that the Gospel writers found these pericopes in oral tradition, where, through many retellings, they had settled into a small number of traditional forms with certain stereotyped features. Bultmann postulated four basic forms: apophthegms (terse sayings), dominical sayings (authoritative teaching), miracle stories, and historical stories and legends (1).
Redaction criticism arose after World War II as an offshoot of form criticism. Whereas form criticism concentrates on the building blocks of the Gospels, redaction criticism studies the glue, as it were, that holds them together. It attempts to identify the touches of the final compiler, or redactor, as he molded the pericopes into a continuous narrative. It attempts, moreover, to discover the motives underlying his selection, positioning, and refashioning of materials from oral tradition.
Craig L. Blomberg, Robert H. Stein, and other scholars have demonstrated that neither form criticism nor redaction criticism has invalidated an early date for the Gospels (2). The studies produced by these schools of criticism suffer from two serious shortcomings.
- Although touting themselves as scientific, they stand outside true science. The hallmark of genuine scientific research is reproducibility, but no two form critics or redaction critics generate the same results. The methodological errors abounding in their work include the use of arbitrary terms and categories, the treatment of accidental correlations and similarities as significant, and the exclusion of data uncongenial to preconceived ideas.
- They fail to see the individuality of the Gospel writers. In his perusal of each Gospel, a penetrating reader without critical bias would not find a string of anonymous pieces culled from oral tradition. Nor would he find a pastiche of personal strokes upon an impersonal background. Rather, he would find a whole fabric everywhere displaying the method and design of a single craftsman. Through each runs the signature of one author.
A few words sketching the unique style and purpose of each Gospel will be helpful here.
The Gospel of Matthew is imbued with a Jewish point of view. Where the other Gospels speak of the Kingdom of God, Matthew, in deference to Jewish scruples against speaking the divine name, substitutes the expression "kingdom of heaven." The same author is always turning aside to show how Jesus fulfilled some prophecy of the Jewish Scriptures or to note how the Jewish leaders opposed Jesus.
Mark's Gospel is conceived as drama. It emphasizes what Jesus did rather than what He said. To maintain a fast pace, the author often uses a brief account of Jesus' movements to connect incidents in sequence. Moreover, he seldom brings his words to a full stop. Instead, by his constant use of "and," he joins all his statements together. As a result, his Gospel is essentially a single long sentence. To engage the reader's imagination, the author adds many vivid details missing from the other Gospels. He tells us, for example, that when Jesus fed the five thousand, the multitude sat down on green grass (Mark 6:39). Twice, when his story of a miraculous healing reaches the point of dramatic climax, he gives us Jesus' words in the original Aramaic (Mark 5:41; 7:34).
Luke's Gospel is characterized by elegance of style and composition. F. F. Bruce has commented, "In general, we may describe Luke's style as good Hellenistic Greek, somewhat more literary than the Greek of most New Testament writers" (3). Luke uses many grammatical and literary forms that were rare in the spoken Greek of his day, and he commands an unusually large vocabulary (4). Yet he does not allow skillful language to become an end in itself. He employs it merely as an instrument for effective storytelling. As Bruce concludes, "He certainly was an artist in words" (5).
Luke's special burden is to show us Jesus' love for the unlovely. The material unique to this Gospel includes the Parable of the Good Samaritan, presenting Jesus in the role of helper and healer to those scorned by official religion (Luke 10:30-37). It is the only Gospel which records that Jesus allowed a sinful woman to wash His feet with tears of repentance (Luke 7:36-50), and that while hanging on a cross He granted forgiveness to the dying thief beside Him who sought mercy on his soul (Luke 23:39-43).
The Gospel of John shares little content with the Synoptics. Since the author's chief purpose is to show Jesus' exalted standing as Savior and God, his Gospel consists mainly of monologues in which Jesus explains who He is and why He came to the earth. John's style is so distinctive that it is recognizable in almost every line. He favors repetition with slight variation. He constantly uses short declarative sentences to express high-order abstractions of surpassing profundity. "God is a Spirit" (John 4:24). "In the beginning was the Word" (John 1:1).
The unity of style and purpose evident in each Gospel upholds the traditional view that each is the work of a single author.
Clues to Authorship
The judgment of tradition concerning who wrote the Gospels is consistent with internal evidence.
We have said that Papias identified Matthew as the first to collect the sayings of Jesus. The content and structure of the first Gospel tend to verify that it is, or is based on, the book that Papias attributed to Matthew. As to content, most of the exclusively Matthean material consists of sayings and teachings. As to structure, the backbone of the book is a series of long discourses. The narrative sections between them appear to be material added later to illustrate and reinforce what Jesus taught.
Of the two miracle stories contained only in Matthew, one tells how Jesus paid His taxes, a matter in which Matthew, the former tax collector, would have taken special interest (Matt. 17:24-27).
Very little material is unique to Mark, but what there is yields some insight concerning the author. Of the two miracle stories exclusively Markan, one shows that the author spoke Aramaic as well as Greek, the language in which the book is written (Mark 7:32-37). The author's knowledge of the language of Palestine makes it unlikely that he was a Greek writer from another region. And his knowledge of Greek fits the ancient view that he was Mark, for Mark is known in tradition as Peter's interpreter.
After describing Jesus' arrest in the garden, the author of Mark says,
50 And they all forsook him, and fled.
51 And there followed him a certain young man, having a linen cloth cast about his naked body; and the young men laid hold on him:
52 And he left the linen cloth, and fled from them naked.
Who was this young man who deserted Jesus? Why is he left unnamed? Since the story appears only in the second Gospel, we suspect that it is the author's confession of his own faithlessness on the night of Jesus' betrayal. The author is following the self-belittling practice of the other Gospel writers. As we will demonstrate, they refrain from identifying themselves, and they fashion the Gospel story so that they might speak of themselves in a derogatory way. If truly autobiographical, the story of the deserter in the garden strengthens the case that the author of the second Gospel was Mark. Mark was a prominent young man among the early believers in Jerusalem (Acts 12:12). Hence, he might have been the young man with Jesus on the night before His death.
We mentioned earlier that Mark was likely Peter's secretary. Under close examination, Mark's Gospel shows the viewpoint of someone close to Peter. Compared with the other Gospel writers, Mark is more inclined to play down or overlook some of the foolish things Peter did. In the story of Jesus walking on the water, Mark, like John but unlike Matthew, neglects to tell us that Peter tried the same feat and fell in (Matt. 14:25-31; Mark 6:45-51; John 6:16-21). In the Garden of Gethsemane, Peter inflicted one minor casualty in a swashbuckling but ineffectual attempt to defend Jesus with a sword. He tried to split Malchus's head, but cut off his ear instead. Mark, like the other Synoptic writers but unlike John, leaves the perpetrator of this deed unnamed (Matt. 26:51; Mark 14:47; Luke 22:50; John 18:10). Mark, like Luke but unlike Matthew, attaches a weak excuse for the stupid irrelevancies blurted by Peter during the Transfiguration (Matt. 17:4; Mark 9:6; Luke 9:33). When Jesus on one occasion desired to know who touched His garment, Peter rebuked Him by pointing out that He was surrounded by people (Luke 8:45). Mark, the only writer besides Luke to record the insolent reply, assigns it to the disciples collectively (Mark 5:31).
Internal evidence suggests that the writer of Luke and Acts, which were originally a single continuous work (compare Luke 1:1-4 and Acts 1:1-2), was someone who accompanied Paul when he went to stand trial in Rome. Much of Acts 20:5 onward, the portion covering Paul's last journeys as well as his arrival in Rome and his first presentation of the gospel to leaders of the Jewish community in Rome, is written in the first person. Also, the opening statements in Luke and Acts imply that the occasion for writing these books was an official investigation of Christianity. The writer may be referring to the investigation that doubtless took place in connection with Paul's trial. The traditional attribution of Luke-Acts to Luke is therefore reasonable, since the Roman epistles of Paul name him as one of Paul's companions at Rome (Col. 4:14; 2 Tim. 4:11).
As we said before, Luke was a physician. Several scholarly examinations of the Greek text of Luke have verified that the author was familiar with medical terminology (6). The precise notation of a physician is everywhere evident in his treatment of healing miracles (7). He specifies that the withered hand restored by the Lord was the right hand (Luke 6:6). He observes, as a symptom of demon possession, that the man who lived in the Gadarene tombs was unclothed (Luke 8:27). He notices that the Lord's first concern after raising Jairus's daughter from the dead was to give her nourishment (Luke 8:55).
It is uncertain where Luke obtained the material for his Gospel. F. F. Bruce has proposed that during his stay with Philip the Evangelist in Caesarea (Acts 21:8-9), Luke interrogated Philip's four prophetic daughters (8), who, according to Eusebius, were famed for their knowledge of church history (9). Indeed, the material found only in Luke's Gospel has a distinctly feminine point of view (Luke 8:2-3; 10:38-42 et al.). Throughout the Gospel of Luke, women figure far more prominently than they do in the other Gospels.
Yet a strong case can be made that the ultimate source of the uniquely Lukan material was none other than Mary, the mother of Jesus. Undoubtedly she was a major contributor to the opening chapters of Luke, which tell the story of Jesus' birth. This story is marked by a mother's perspective. Is it unreasonable to surmise that, directly or indirectly, Mary furnished other information to Luke as well? Almost half of Luke's Gospel is devoted to the closing days of Jesus' ministry (Luke 9:51-18:17). It is possible that the small company who accompanied Him on His last journeys included His mother, and that the awesome importance of what was happening burdened her to commit His last teachings to memory or writing. We know that Mary always believed in her son (John 2:1-11), that she was with Jesus at His crucifixion (John 19:25), and that she spent the next few weeks with the small company of faithful disciples who waited for an outpouring of the Holy Spirit (Acts 1:14).
A story unique to Luke directly refers to Mary.
27 And it came to pass, as he [Jesus] spake these things, a certain woman of the company lifted up her voice, and said unto him, Blessed is the womb that bare thee, and the paps which thou hast sucked.
28 But he said, Yea rather, blessed are they that hear the word of God, and keep it.
Was not Mary herself the person most likely to remember and disseminate this teaching? As the story of the cowardly young man is Mark's humble and unobtrusive device for revealing himself as the Gospel writer, so this teaching unflattering to Mary may be her very own signature, showing that she is the real source of much Lukan material.
Although James and John belonged to Jesus' inner circle (10), the writer of the fourth Gospel never mentions them by name except once, when he calls them the "sons of Zebedee" (John 21:2). Yet the fourth Gospel names a total of seven other disciples, of whom several appear frequently in the narrative. There is, in addition, another central figure who is called simply "the disciple whom Jesus loved" (John 13:23). This roundabout identification suggests that the writer is speaking of himself in a modest way which avoids the first person and which directs all glory to Jesus for loving an unworthy sinner. Who then is the writer? His prominence in the group of disciples leads us to suppose that he is either James or John, who are otherwise missing from the fourth Gospel. Since James was an early martyr (Acts 12:1-2), we are left with the strong probability that the writer is John.
Further light on who wrote the fourth Gospel comes from an incident at the cross. As Jesus was dying, He gave the "beloved disciple" charge of His mother, Mary (John 19:26-27). This disciple was probably chosen because he was a close relative. From John 19:25, where the third woman at the cross is called the sister of Jesus' mother, and Matthew 27:56, where she is called the mother of the sons of Zebedee, we infer that John was the son of Mary's sister.
Besides the Gospel that we have under his name, tradition has credited John with authorship of four other books in the New Testament. These are the three Epistles of John and the Book of Revelation. The Epistles are undeniably written in the style of John's Gospel. Many thoughts in the Gospel reappear almost verbatim in the First Epistle. Two comparisons will suffice.
For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life.
In this was manifested the love of God toward us, because that God sent his only begotten Son into the world, that we might live through him.
1 John 4:9
If ye love me, keep my commandments.
For this is the love of God, that we keep his commandments: . . .
1 John 5:3
According to Papias, Matthew was the first to produce a collection of Jesus' sayings and Mark was the first to produce a narrative of His ministry. But neither author necessarily stopped after completing an initial draft. It appears that Matthew later enlarged his work, blending narrative material into the sayings, and that he then translated the final product from Aramaic into Greek. The overlapping content of the first two Gospels suggests that their authors consulted each other's work at some stage of completion. The right term is "consulted," not "copied." The evidence for Matthew consulting Mark is stronger than vice versa. We mentioned earlier that the narrative sections in Matthew might be material that the author appended to Jesus' sermons.
If Matthew indeed consulted Mark, perhaps he wanted to know which incidents Peter regarded as central to Jesus' ministry. The orthodox doctrine of inspiration does not exclude the possibility that an inspired author used sources (11).
Luke's Gospel probably came later. It appears that he drew not only from Mark, but also from another document with affinities to Matthew. The critics refer to this document as Q. If Q existed, it was probably just Matthew's Gospel in unfinished form. Luke drew also from the oral testimony of various eyewitnesses (Luke 1:1-4).
The traditional view that John was the last Gospel to be written is probably correct. In nearly all of its content, John is strictly independent of the other Gospels, yet the author seems aware of their existence. Perhaps one of his purposes was to write a final chapter to the Synoptics—to finish off the Gospel story with additional information assuring a complete and balanced picture. For example, the Synoptics expose Peter as rather foolish, no doubt because he himself wished to be remembered as a sinner saved by grace. But John gives a different view. He not only records Peter's three denials; he also recalls that after the Resurrection, Jesus forgave Peter, prompted him to declare three times that he loved the Lord, and commissioned him to "feed my sheep."
The name borne by each of the four Gospels is a most reasonable attribution, consistent with known evidence. In two cases (Mark and John) the writer indirectly identifies himself, and in a third case (Luke) he leaves a glimmer of himself in a companion work (Acts). Moreover, each Gospel carries the particular stamp that the author named by tradition, with his outlook and sources, would have set upon it. If the Gospels were not a witness to both miracle and prophecy, the traditional attributions would be unquestioned.
Critics recoil from granting the Synoptics an early date because all three prophesy the imminent destruction of Jerusalem, an event that actually came to pass in A.D. 70. The Gospel of Luke offers the most explicit foreview of the catastrophe.
42 Saying, If thou hadst known, even thou, at least in this thy day, the things which belong unto thy peace! but now they are hid from thine eyes.
43 For the days shall come upon thee, that thine enemies shall cast a trench about thee, and compass thee round, and keep thee in on every side,
44 And shall lay thee even with the ground, and thy children within thee; and they shall not leave in thee one stone upon another; because thou knewest not the time of thy visitation.
Denying an early date to the Gospels because they predict an event in A.D. 70 falters on two considerations.
- This procedure is a species of circular reasoning. The effect is to undermine the reliability of the Gospels and to cast doubt on their accounts of the supernatural. Yet this effect is accomplished only by assuming that the supernatural does not exist.
- Setting the Gospels late does not remove the events of A.D. 70 from the realm of fulfilled prophecy. These events are predicted not only by the Gospels, but also by various Old Testament texts, such as the following.
And after threescore and two weeks shall Messiah be cut off, but not for himself: and the people of the prince that shall come shall destroy the city and the sanctuary; and the end thereof shall be with a flood, and unto the end of the war desolations are determined.