While the letters written by Paul of Tarsus are the oldest documents of Christianity, the most important ones are the Gospels that narrate the life of the leader of this movement. The Gospels were written in response to the faithful’s need to know more of the life, teachings, death, and resurrection of their master. Many Gospels were written in the years following Jesus’ death: The Gospel of Thomas, the Gospel of Mark, the Gospel of Peter, the Gospel of Mathew, the Gospel of Luke, the Gospel of John, the Gospel of Phillip, the Gospel of Judas, the Gospel of the Nazarenes, the Gospel of the Ebionites, among many others.
Only four of those Gospels were included in the New Testament. Those were the Gospels of Mathew, Mark, Luke, and John. According to the Catholic tradition, they were written by Mathew, a tax-collector turned apostle; John, the “beloved disciple” mentioned in the fourth Gospel; Mark, the secretary of the apostle Peter; and Luke, the travel companion of Paul. None of this is true.
According to Erhman, the name of the Gospels says it all. For instance, in the case of the “Gospel according to Mathew”, it is evident that the name was not assigned by the author. It would be very odd for an author to title his work in third person.
Moreover, the Gospel according to Mathew, attributed to the apostle Mathew, is written in third person; it narrates what “they” –Jesus and his disciples– did, and not what “we” did. The author does not include himself among the group of disciples. When, in this same Gospel, Mathew is called upon to join the apostles, “he” is used instead of “I”.
Matthew IX, 9, As Jesus was walking along, he saw a man called Matthew sitting at the tax booth; and he said to him, ‘Follow me.’ And he got up and followed him.
Wouldn’t it be logical to think that, if the apostle Mathew actually wrote this Gospel, he would have ensured to make it clear that he was the author?
The same happens with the Gospel attributed to the apostle John. By the end of the Gospel, the author says:
John XXI, 24, This is the disciple who is testifying to these things and has written them, and we know that his testimony is true.
The author marks a difference between his source of information —to which it refers as “the disciple who bears witness”— and himself —to whom he refers as “we know his testimony is truthful”. Here, everything points to the author and the witness to the facts being two different people.
The case of Luke is the most pathetic since, apparently, he was not even close to any eyewitness. As per the Church, he was a companion of the self-designated apostle Paul of Tarsus, who did not even met Jesus. Moreover, in this Gospel attributed to Luke, the author admits that he was not present during the facts but that he researched them and wrote them upon request of someone named Theophilus.
Luke, I, 1-4, Since many have undertaken to set down an orderly account of the events that have been fulfilled among us, 2just as they were handed on to us by those who from the beginning were eyewitnesses and servants of the word, 3I too decided, after investigating everything carefully from the very first,* to write an orderly account for you, most excellent Theophilus, 4so that you may know the truth concerning the things about which you have been instructed.
We do not know the real authors of the Gospels. They were attributed to the apostles and their companions in order to create the idea that they had been written by eyewitnesses or by people who accompanied those eyewitnesses.
In general, the apostles could not have written any of the Gospels because, as told in the Gospels themselves, they were humble inhabitants of the rural area of Palestine, and such a detail reveals that they could not read or write. A passage of the “Acts of the Apostles” confirms it:
Acts IV, 13, Now when they saw the boldness of Peter and John and realized that they were uneducated and ordinary men, they were amazed and recognized them as companions of Jesus.
A word to the wise is enough…
Besides, as Jewish from Galilee, Jesus’ followers did not speak Greek, the language in which the Gospels were originally written.
But then, who wrote the Gospels we have in our Bibles?
What we can know about the identity of the authors of the four Gospels, through their legacy, does not match the reality of Jesus’ disciples. The authors of the Gospels of the New Testament seem to have been Christians with a high-level education that allowed them to write in Greek and to use a series of techniques that belong to literary composition.
Today we know that only eight books, out of the twenty-seven conforming the New Testament, were written by the author to which they have been attributed. They are: Seven of the letters or epistles from Pablo, and John’s “Apocalypse”. Although it is not clear if John was actually a disciple of Jesus.
The scholars agree that the Gospel of Mark, considered to be the oldest of the four, was the basis for the Gospels of Mathew and Luke, who enriched the aesthetics and the content of the narration. It is quite likely that the authors of the latter had access to a source that was unknown to the author of the Gospel of Mark. As to the Gospel of John, it corresponds to an oral tradition, quite different to the other three, which are called “synoptic” for their narrative resemblance.
Due to the expansion of this movement and the appearance of new Christian communities with different points of view regarding life and Jesus’ message, the need to copy and distribute these scriptures increased. This is how the manipulations of the New Testament texts started.
(The Bible quotes correspond to the New Revised Standard Version Holy Bible with Apocrypha. Oxford University Press, 1989. We have also used, as a support in case of discrepancy, The Word Study Greek-English New Testament with Complete Concordance de Paul R. McReynolds, Tyndale House Publishers, 1999.)