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Authorship of the New Testament

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Matt, Mark, Luke, Johnny and pals.
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The Bible
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Gabbin' with God
Just like the Old Testament, the "New" one is also a work of crude carpentry, hammered together long after its purported events, and full of improvised attempts to make things come out right.
Christopher Hitchens, God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything[1]

Christians have traditionally attributed the authorship of the New Testament to legendary figures from early Christianity. Following the Jewish literary tradition of pseudoepigraphic works,[note 1] an anonymous writer would "speak" in the name of a historical figure.

The Gospels, early Christians felt, would more likely be viewed as accurate, authentic, and persuasive if the flock believed that they were written by the disciples of Jesus, eyewitnesses to his ministry. The anonymously authored Canonical Gospels reflect this attitude.

In addition, Paul became one of the most fundamental figures (some would argue, more influential than Jesus himself) in what was to become the Christianity of the Roman Empire and the Roman Catholic Church. His letters held (and hold) an authority unlike any other theological writings of the day. Hence, convincing the priestly elite that Paul had written a given letter increased its likelihood of being included in a formal and final Canon as an epistle by (say) the 3rd century CE.

Determining authorship[edit]

Determining authorship of any historical work generally starts by looking for a claim within the work of who wrote it. Scholars then look at the language used in a text to see if a single voice or multiple voices are present. Such style clues include: Level of education of the writer which is determined by grammatical accuracy, choice of vocabulary, slang or linguistic codes ("yo dude" vs. "hello, sir"); preferred vocabulary and choice for names of people or important figures (Mr. Obama, vs. President Obama; YHWH vs. Elohim); knowledge of topic, area, or history (Palin's comments on the Middle East vs. Joe Biden's comments). Those same linguistic clues identifying multiple voices can be compared against the claimed author.

Scholars try to date a work, again based on language clues (in English, the word "lol" would indicate a book was written after 1990), on references to historical events ('after the temple burned, people were desperate for leadership' — such a line could not be written before 70 CE), and references to other writings or people.

Scholars also look for confirming or dis-confirming records in other sources that would list the writing in question. For example, many of Plato's (Socrates') works were mentioned by name by his students and contemporaries.

If two or more works are said to be by the same author, then scholars compare the stylistic markers with each other, looking for inconsistencies.

At this point scholars can state with a greater or lesser sense of confidence that a book was written by:

  1. the person who is named in the book,
  2. someone else, who has been identified,
  3. someone who has not been identified, but who has also written particular other texts, or
  4. an unknown author.

Most of the New Testament books, other than Paul's writings, fall into the last category.

The Canonical Gospels[edit]

Figuring out the authorship of the four Gospels (Mark, Matthew, Luke and John) stands to be nearly impossible, because they are anonymous.

The Gospels as some finalized collection of the Story of Jesus aren't mentioned in Paul's Epistles. This means that they didn't exist at all while he was still alive; that is, until his death, which occurred approximately in 64-65 CE, to be more precise.[note 2]

The entity that later became the Catholic Church did not mention the Gospels by name or content until roughly 150 CE, when Justin Martyr mentions several unnamed writings on the life of Jesus, in his First Apology. The Gospels are not mentioned by name until 180 CE in Irenaeus of Lyons's book On Heresies.

Moreover neither Paleographic or carbon-14 is precise enough to demonstrate that there are any fragments before our earliest references to the Gospels. In fact, the often referenced c. 125 CE date for Rylands Library Papyrus P52Wikipedia comes from 1935; scholarship from 2005 suggests that a range of c. 125-225 CE is far more realistic[2] and the next oldest piece, Egerton Papyrus 2 (150-200 CE), is not even from any known Gospel.

The dating of Acts is similarly vague, with its traditional dating of 80-90 CE being some time after Paul was dead and gone,[3] and there are some who suggest the Luke-Acts we have was in response to Marcion of Sinope's teaching, meaning neither can be earlier than 120 CE.

Ignatius of Antioch (98 CE) does not mention any of the four Gospels, and nor do the two earliest writings of Paul's Church beyond his epistles, the First Epistle of Clement (c. 80-140 CE)[note 3] and the Didache (The Teaching of the Twelve Apostles). On the other hand, none of the four Canonical Gospels mention each other, and neither Clement nor the Didache mention each other, and Ignatius does not mention Clement or the Didache.[4] This leads to the likely conclusion that though the words that would become the Synoptic Gospels were around in the 1st century, the associated names and traditional "authorship" do not come about till the 2nd and even 3rd century.

Gospel of Mark[edit]

The first written account of the life and ministry of Jesus, the Gospel of Mark, is generally thought to have been penned c. 65-80 CE[5], 30 or more years after Jesus was crucified by the Romans.

Tradition has it that the author of Mark was John Mark, an associate of Peter the Apostle. Eusebius of Caesarea (c. 323 CE) quotes Papias of Hierapolis (c. 130 CE) as hearing from one "presbyter" that Mark had written Peter's memoirs – something generally called "hearsay" in legalese, and not overly reliable, nearly 300 years after the fact. Also, several late second-century sources indirectly allude to John Mark's association with Peter. These claims have long been challenged by scholars, primarily because John Mark was a known Jew.

Setting "tradition" aside, modern linguistic scholarship on the Gospel actually suggests that Mark has two sources/authors, one dating from the 60s, and a second, possibly an editor, dating from the 80s or 90s[6] One passage often cited as being added is the passage about Jesus' resurrection (Mark 16:1-8), suggesting that the original author of Mark may have been part of a church that had not yet invented the Resurrection Story.[7][8][9] However, this remains a topic of debate for exegetes and scholars.[10] The author of Mark has long been seen as a collector and compiler of stories and theological ideas.[9] Biblical scholars generally state that the author of Mark had not seen or heard his stories directly, but was compelled to include legend, rumor, and history in his work.[7][8][9][11] It is fairly well accepted among historians and Biblical scholars that the errors regarding Judean geography and customs, as well as the author's need to explain Jewish law and ideas, indicate the author of Mark was not a low- or middle-class Judean Jew.[7][9]

The language, theology, and style of Mark suggest that Mark was written for the gentile, not for practicing Jews.[7][11][9]

Some more extreme theories suggest the Gospel of Mark's intention was solely to write a fictional allegory based on scripture,[12] possibly despite the absence of a historical Jesus.[13]

Gospel of Matthew[edit]

Like the other Canonical Gospels, the authorship of Matthew is unknown. The earliest known reference for the tradition of an author, Matthew, comes from Papias of Hierapolis, 120-140 CE. Quickly, the "Matthew" mentioned by Hierapolis came to be associated with "Matthew the tax collector".[9]

Matthew is traditionally (historically) understood to have been originally written in Hebrew, sometime between the 50s and 70s CE, then translated, edited, and added to by the actual author of Matthew sometime in the the last quarter of the 1st century; most scholars agree that Matthew was composed between 80 and 90 CE, with a range of possibility between 70 to 110 CE (a pre-70 date remains a minority view).[14][15] While there is linguistic evidence to support the idea that a few distinct passages in Matthew could have been written in Hebrew, linguistic markers in the Greek version of Matthew do not support this theory.[14]

In fact, as in A&E's Ancient Mysteries: Who Wrote the Bible? (the episode of that name, not the whole series and not Robert Beckford's show of the same name) by the supposed time of Jesus, Hebrew had effectively fallen out of favor as "even though their religious text were still in Hebrew their home language had become entirely Greek"

Joseph Blenkinsopp, Professor of Old Testament and Biblical Studies at the University of Notre Dame, states "If you couldn't speak Greek by say the time of early Christianity you couldn't get a job. You wouldn't get a good job. a professional job. You had to know Greek in addition to your own language. And so you were getting to a point where Jews… the Jewish community in say Egypt and large cities like Alexandria didn't know Hebrew anymore they only knew Greek. And so you need a Greek version in the synagogue."

We are then told of the Septuagint (3rd century BCE) and Rabbi David Wolpe, lecturer at the University of Judaism, explains why this was so important historically. So if Jews especially in the large cities didn't even know Hebrew, why in the name of sanity would anyone with a brain in their head write a Gospel in Hebrew for them? For instance, while Papal encyclicals are still written in Latin,[16] they are not only written in Latin and they're especially targeting a Catholic clergy which does know Latin and is able to spread the message further in the vernacular. Indeed, the example of the Catholic use of Latin, as its "learned lingua franca", is parallel to the status of Greek in the Roman Empire.

As to why the notion of Matthew being originally written in Hebrew crept in, it was likely because the early Church fathers either heard of a Jewish Gospel or read some version of what became the Gospel of Matthew with its strong emphasis on Jesus as the Jewish messiah and simply assumed that it must originally have been written in Hebrew. Back on Planet Reality if there ever had been a Jewish Gospel, odds are it would have been written in Greek, not Hebrew.

Biblical Scholars and linguists generally accept that Matthew is a compiled work from three different sources: Mark, the Q Document, and the religious "church" community the author of Matthew would have been part of. Based on the same language analysis, the author of Matthew was likely a highly-educated Jew who wrote in Greek, but with a Jewish worldview and schooled in Jewish law.[7][11] He and his community were on the edge of Jewish society, and his non-Pauline Christianity was in no way mainstream.[17] One alternative, if Q and the two-source hypothesis is discarded, is that Matthew was written as a "corrective" to Mark, exactly because Matthew and his community were dissatisfied with the insufficient Jewish theology and outright errors in depicting Jewish customs and law found in Mark, as well as Mark's general terseness, for instance its lack of a nativity story.

Gospel of Luke/Acts common authorship[edit]

See the main article on this topic: Luke the Evangelist

The Gospel of Luke and the Acts of the Apostles were almost certainly written by the same person.[18] They bear significant similarities, both in terms of their theology and in terms of their language use and style; indeed, both books are dedicated to a certain "Theophilus" in Luke 1:3 and Acts 1:1 but there is no evidence of who this person was. In and around the era of Acts Theophilus was both a common name and an honorary title for the learned of a community.

The Book of Acts is very problematic, for the following reasons:

  • It is the only surviving text which describes the beginning of early Christianity in the Mediterranean World under Roman rule.
  • It is inaccurate and not always a reliable source, from a historical point of view.
  • Its main task is to represent Paul as the "hero" of the Christian movement.
  • It expresses mostly the opinions of gentile Christians (Greeks and Romans) against their own forerunners, the Jewish Christians.

Gospel of John and the Johannine question[edit]

What do we know about John? Very little. Interestingly, John was the last gospel to be written, yet the general consensus of scholars[note 4] is that it contains the only snippets (and they are very, very small snippets) of what might be actual eye witnesses to the events.[19] From literary and linguistic analysis, scholars today point to three different levels of writing in the text. The first is a second-person retelling of a witness's story (likely written well before the temple's destruction), the second level adds to that the Johannine theology, and the third edit levels it into the clear, accessible text it is today.

The authors, and there is little doubt it is many authors, of John are also responsible for the First, Second and Third Epistle of John, as well as the Book of Revelation. The Johannine community, and therefore the authors of John, is clearly Gnostic in theology, positing a non-human, divine Jesus who simply "wore the cloak of humanity" to bring his message (despite their Gnostic theology, it and the other Johannine texts remain part of the canon even after the Gnostic texts were purged in the 3rd century). The text also shows the community is clearly anti-Jewish.[7]

Paul's Epistles[edit]

By far the largest section of the New Testament is made of the Epistles that are attributed to Paul of Tarsus. Paul is considered to have lived c. 5 to 67 CE, so the dating of his authentic works is at least restrained to a relatively narrow time frame.[note 5] His influence on the theology, rituals, and cultural beliefs of what is to become "Christianity" in its popular form is far more significant than the (supposed) words of Jesus himself. There are fourteen letters (Epistles) attributed to Paul. Of these, seven are generally undisputed as authentic, and conventionally dated c. 50 - c. 57 CE.[20]

Three of the letters are ones that are debated by scholars as to their authenticity. In several cases, it is argued he wrote part of them, but that they were later highly edited and supplemented.

It is generally accepted by scholars that 4 are not his work

Other books[edit]


For most of the time between the 5th century CE and the Reformation, Hebrews was attributed to Paul, and marked as his 14th Epistle. Even today, lay persons and ministers with little formal training generally refer to it as one of Paul's letters. This tradition was almost immediately debunked as Lutheran ministers, acting as the first real Biblical scholars, found significant evidence that elders in the 4th and 5th centuries asked it to be included, and only at that time was it considered a letter of Paul's. There is no name, nor mention of any author even unnamed, within the text of Hebrews.

Theologically, it differs enough from the rest of the New Testament that many religious philosophers have argued over the centuries that it should not have been included in the Canon.


Though expressed in the form of a letter, James, unlike Paul's Epistles, does not have the hallmarks of a true correspondence, but rather a piece of literature. The candidates for James include Jesus' two different apostles, but the tenor of the writer is such that had he had direct knowledge of Jesus, he would have said so. There appears, from generic Christian sources, to be some tradition that the James here is James the Brother of Christ. The counter to this is that, like Matthew, the author of James has been educated in formal Greek, which is not likely for a lower or middle class Judean Jew. However, little scholarly work has been done on the actual authorship of James.[21]

First and Second Epistle of Peter[edit]

The First Epistle of Peter claims to be written by "Peter, an apostle of Jesus" (1 Peter 1:1), who would most likely (and traditionally) be Simon Peter. This was accepted without question until true scholarship on the Bible became commonplace, in the late 1700's and forward. Like Mark, the Greek used in the Epistle suggests someone highly familiar and skilled with formal cultured Greek, not a Jew speaking Aramaic. Further, references to the Old Testament come not from the Hebrew bible (which Peter would have studied), but from the Greek translations of the day. The majority of scholars working on 1 Peter date it between 70-120 CE. There is quite serious debate when trying to pin it down more precisely.[22]

The Second Epistle of Peter has really never been considered an authentic work of Simon Peter. The spelling of the name "Simon" (Siemon, in this Epistle) suggests it is not even the same author as the First Epistle. The accounts of what should otherwise be intimate moments between Jesus and Peter are formulaic and expedient, again suggesting there is no real knowledge of the actual events here. Ironically, after true biblical exegesis began, a small exception of scholars have challenged the long-held notion that this was not an authentic work of Peter's by looking at the less educated Greek that is used and by noting that details which are common in pseudoepigraphical works are lacking here.

No one knows who might have actually written either Epistle. The audience for each seems to be Gentile, not Jew, and the letter is addressed to non-Pauline controlled areas of the Diaspora. But those facts tell us little of who might have written it.


The Epistle of Jude claims to be written by Jude brother of James the Just;[note 6] however the letter actually references the Epistle(s) of Peter, so it must have been written after Peter, and as was just described above, that means it would have been written only as early as the 70s, and therefore, unless Jude the Brother of James lived a really, really, really long time, it was likely not written by him.

Further, Jude, in a pattern seen quite frequently in the New Testament, was written in a well-educated Greek, and references Gnostic features, which both suggest very late 1st century or early 2nd century authorship dates. Several comments in the brief letter suggest that the author had copies of Paul's writings, but did not completely agree with Paul's views, so he might have been a leader of a competing church.

See also[edit]

External links[edit]


  1. Or, as Bart Ehrman refreshingly honestly and straightforwardly called it: forgery.
  2. Church Fathers' traditions state that Paul's trial and execution in Rome occurred in year 68 CE, but this is a too large margin of time, according to scholars.
  3. Interestingly, Clement does not even mention its own name.
  4. See the works of: Paul Anderson, Steven L. Harris, William Temple, Leon Morris as examples.
  5. The problem is that the exact birth and death of Paul rests on the Acts of the Apostles, which is a problematic source for Paul's life as it has several contradictions with the (authentic) Pauline epistles, and the even more suspect Christian tradition which inferred Paul's year of death from Acts and Tacitus' reference to Nero's persecution of Christians.
  6. Isn't it great someone in history finally decided to start using last names to help clarify things?


  1. Christopher Hitchens, God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything, p. 110.
  2. Nongbr, Brent (2005) "The Use and Abuse of P52: Papyrological Pitfalls in the Dating of the Fourth Gospel." Harvard Theological Review 98:24-52.
  3. Delbert Burkett, An introduction to the New Testament and the origins of Christianity (2002), p. 195, Cambridge University Press, ISBN 978-0-521-00720-7.
  5. "Gospel of Mark" Early Christian Writings
  6. Stephen D. Moore' Turning Mark Inside Out.
  7. 7.0 7.1 7.2 7.3 7.4 7.5 J.D. Crossan, Who Killed Jesus (1995)
  8. 8.0 8.1 Discovering What Happened in the Years Immediately After the Execution of Jesus, Crossian (1998)
  9. 9.0 9.1 9.2 9.3 9.4 9.5 Five Gospels, Funk, 1993
  10. Rudolf Schnackenburg, Das Evangelium nach Markus (1971), Patmos-Verlag, Dusseldorf, Germany.
  11. 11.0 11.1 11.2 Mack The Christian Myth 2001
  12. Price, R. G. (Oct. 20, 2007). The Gospel of Mark as Reaction and Allegory."
  13. Jesus Myth - The Case Against Historical Christ, Robert Price
  14. 14.0 14.1 Dulling, 2010, The Gospel of Matthew
  15. R. T. France, The Gospel of Matthew (2007), p. 19, Eerdmans, ISBN 978-0-8028-2501-8.
  16. Pope Francis, Lumen Fidei (29 June 2013),
  17. Baumgarden, 1997 "Jewish sects in the Maccabian era".
  18. The History and Theology of the New Testament Writings by Udo Schnelle (1998) Fortress Press. ISBN 0800629523.
  19. The Riddles of the Fourth Gospel: An Introduction to John by Paul N. Anderson, 2011
  20. See the Wikipedia article on Pauline epistles.
  21. Steven Harris, Understanding the Bible
  22. Stephen Harris, History of the New Testament, 2008