Sola Scriptura and the Authorship of the Gospels

In recent years, liberal Biblical scholars have trotted out all sorts of novel theories about the authorship of the Gospels.  For example, there have been claims that the Gospel of Luke was written by a woman, despite his use of the masculine in referring to himself in Luke 1:3 (it’s masculine in the Greek, not the English).  The “evidence” for this, by the way, is that Luke focuses a lot on Mary and the other women accompanying Christ.  Using that same evidence, I can prove that Pope John Paul II was really a woman.

Most of these theories are quite silly and can be waved away. But it got me thinking: is there any reason why an Evangelical would accept that the four Gospels were actually written by Matthew, Mark, Luke and John? After all, none of the four Gospels state who their author is.  The closest we get is John’s Gospel, in John 19:35,

The man who saw it has given testimony, and his testimony is true. He knows that he tells the truth, and he testifies so that you also may believe.

But that only establishes that the Gospel is based upon John’s eyewitness testimony. It doesn’t necessarily prove that St. John wrote it himself, or whether this was a disciple of John recording his oral testimony.  In fact, the authorship of the Fourth Gospel is the most hotly debated point.  Likewise, from Luke 1:3-4 and Acts 1:1-2, we can see that the same man authored both, and wrote them for “Theophilus.”

The Church Fathers on the Authorship of the Gospels

So taking the Bible alone, we can’t say who wrote the Gospels.  Looking at the writings of the Early Church Fathers, however, we can.  St. Irenaeus of Lyons addressed the issue of the authorship of the Gospels in Against Heresies in 180 A.D. From Book III, Chapter 1:

Matthew also issued a written Gospel among the Hebrews in their own dialect, while Peter and Paul were preaching at Rome, and laying the foundations of the Church. After their departure, Mark, the disciple and interpreter of Peter, did also hand down to us in writing what had been preached by Peter. Luke also, the companion of Paul, recorded in a book the Gospel preached by him. Afterwards, John, the disciple of the Lord, who also had leaned upon His breast, did himself publish a Gospel during his residence at Ephesus in Asia.

In about 207 or 208 A.D., Tertullian wrote that the Gospels were all written by Apostles (in the case of Matthew and John), or students of the Apostles (in the case of Mark and Luke). From Book IV, Chapter 2 of Against Marcion:

We lay it down as our first position, that the evangelical Testament has apostles for its authors, to whom was assigned by the Lord Himself this office of publishing the gospel. Since, however, there are apostolic men also, they are yet not alone, but appear with apostles and after apostles; because the preaching of disciples might be open to the suspicion of an affectation of glory, if there did not accompany it the authority of the masters, which means that of Christ, for it was that which made the apostles their masters. Of the apostles, therefore, John and Matthew first instill faith into us; while of apostolic men, Luke and Mark renew it afterwards. 

In Book III, Chapter 24 of Eusebius’s Church History (written in the early 300s, and based in large part on much earlier sources), we hear:

Nevertheless, of all the disciples of the Lord, only Matthew and John have left us written memorials, and they, tradition says, were led to write only under the pressure of necessity.

For Matthew, who had at first preached to the Hebrews, when he was about to go to other peoples, committed his Gospel to writing in his native tongue, and thus compensated those whom he was obliged to leave for the loss of his presence.

And when Mark and Luke had already published their Gospels, they say that John, who had employed all his time in proclaiming the Gospel orally, finally proceeded to write for the following reason. The three Gospels already mentioned having come into the hands of all and into his own too, they say that he accepted them and bore witness to their truthfulness; but that there was lacking in them an account of the deeds done by Christ at the beginning of his ministry.

Likewise, he cites Luke as the author of Acts in Book II, Chapter 11 and elsewhere.

Can Evangelicals Rely on These Accounts?

There are plenty more sources as well, but the point is clear. The early Christians were quite adamant that Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John were the Gospel writers. But here’s why that’s tricky for Evangelicals.  In Book II, Chapter 15, Eusebius explains that Mark was a follower of Peter’s from his time in Rome. And St. Irenaeus says that Matthew wrote his Gospel “while Peter and Paul were preaching at Rome, and laying the foundations of the Church.

But Evangelicals often deny that Peter was ever in Rome, and almost universally reject the theory that the Church has its foundations in Rome. After all, conceding that the Church is (a) Petrine, and (b) Roman goes a long way towards establishing the papacy.  So instead, a rather large Evangelical camp treats the Early Church Fathers with suspicion (and sometimes, as outright frauds and heretics), precisely because they’re so Catholic. For example, here’s Dave Hunt and T.A. McMahon explaining why you shouldn’t spend your time worrying about what the Church Fathers say, and here’s John Piper claiming that the Church from 100 A.D. onwards is unreliable, so “We are in a better position today to know Jesus Christ than anyone who lived from AD 100 to 300.”  And that doesn’t even count the folks like Ed Stevens, who claims that all the true Christians were raptured in 70 A.D.

So to the extent Evangelicals reject the Church Fathers, they’re cutting of the branch on which they’re sitting. Without the Fathers, you can’t say who wrote the Gospels, or whether the Gospels were considered orthodox by the early Christians, or whether they were considered inspired Scripture.  Almost everything we know about the Bible comes to us from the Fathers.

Of course, I’m not suggesting you have to think that each of the Fathers is 100% right on everything (nobody takes that position, as they occasionally disagree). Nor am I saying that it’s particularly important to the Faith who wrote the Gospels — I’m just using it as an example of something almost all Evangelicals believe about the Bible, but which they’re not getting from the Bible itself. My point is simply this: without the Church Fathers, there’s no particular reason to trust that we have the correct Books of the Bible, and no particular way to know anything helpful about who wrote those Books, such as whether the writers were honest and orthodox.


  1. Do Catholics know about the authorship of the Gospels either? I see the Fathers taught it, but in 1955, the Roman Pontifical Biblical Commission granted complete freedom to Roman Catholics to believe Matthew did, *or did not*, write Matthew. (see, e.g. R. Brown, The Birth of the Messiah (1993, pp. 45-46))

  2. As I understand it, everyone, Catholic or Protestant, can believe or disbelieve the Fathers on this issue. This isn’t an infallible teaching, and it’s apparently not part of the Deposit of Faith.

    My point was simply that if one chooses to believe that Matthew, Mark, Luke and John wrote the Gospels (as nearly all Evangelicals do), they seem to do so on the basis of the Church Fathers alone. Scripture’s silent on it.

    This isn’t some per se refutation of sola Scriptura (I’ve addressed those elsewhere). It’s just a way of trying to show that Christians of all stripes are much more indebted to the Church Fathers than we sometimes realize.

    The general Evangelical interpretation of sola Scriptura belittles the Church Fathers — they’re just unreliable Christians who didn’t know as much about Jesus as we do today (Piper)… if they’re even Christians at all (Stevens). We shouldn’t bother paying attention to them (Hunt). These low views of the Fathers fly in the face of the cold fact that we rely to a large degree upon the honesty and accuracy of the Church Fathers in our understanding of Scripture.

  3. Interesting. The weird thing about Piper is how schizophrenic he is about the early church. He denigrates the Fathers as you note, but also praises the “creeds”, saying:

    “One surprising fact that I did not expect to find was that the heretics protested most loudly over the non-scriptural language of the orthodox creed. They pointed out that the phrases, ‘of one essence with the Father,’ and ‘one substance with the Father’ were not in the Bible. The heretics demanded ‘no creed but the Bible’ precisely so that they could use biblical language to evade biblical truth. For example, they would happily call Christ ‘Son of God,’ and then argue that, like all sons, he must have had a beginning. So to my surprise one form of the doctrine of the ‘sufficiency of Scripture’ was used to undermine Scripture’s truth.


    “There are many today who would demand ‘no creed but the Bible’ the same way the Arians did. But we should learn from history that biblical language is not enough when it comes to defending the meaning of biblical language. R.P.C. Hanson explained the process like this: ‘Theologians of the Christian Church were slowly driven to a realization that the deepest questions which face Christianity cannot be answered in purely biblical language, because the questions are about the meaning of biblical language itself’”

    And, he can’t be talking about just the average layman when he says we are in a better position to understand Christianity, because there is no record of what the average layman thought. The “temptation” is to read the Fathers who are responsible for “the orthodox creed” that he finds so important. So he is making a strangely stark separation between the creeds and the men who wrote them.

  4. This is a very important subject to talk about, Joe! Thanks! Great quotes from the Fathers, too.

    One ‘technicality’ to point out is that a Protestant doesn’t need to know Matthew wrote Matthew to consider the book inspired and thus Scripture. However, the moment they say they accept is as Scripture because it was written by an Apostle, in this case Matthew, they’ve fallen into a logical pitfall.

    But all Protestants know that to ‘set the authorship boat out to sea’ they’ve just paved the way for Liberal Protestantism to arise and start casting all kinds of doubts and judgements on the Books.

    For example, this is where the liberal push to introduce the “Q Source” hypothesis comes from. Since, they say, Matthew likely didn’t write Matthew, the Gospel of Matthew was a 2nd-3rd generation document that is a compilation of stories from Mark and some unknown source “Q”, and thus Matthew is a man-made account of whatever these next generation Christians thought “cool enough” to include, likely even some myths about Jesus in order to prove a point!

    This is why it’s important to argue that Tradition teaches the actual men Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John were the authors. This is not a ‘little-t’ tradition, especially considering it would entail the claim the Church got it wrong this whole time as to just who wrote the book they claim was written by that very individual. It’s not something to take lightly.

  5. I wouldn’t go quite so far as nick does, that strikes me as creeping infallibility. But he reminds me that I heard Tim Keller base the NT Canon on the books’ authorship (as a run around the Church, I suppose). Joe’s post shows why that fails. And without that lt the church, where can you base their inspiration?

  6. The authorship of the Gospels would fall, at the very least, under the Infallibility of the Ordinary and Universal Magisterium: in other words, it’s a teaching that’s infallible in virtue of the fact it’s been taught everywhere and passed down throughout history (e.g. “A reading of the Gospel ACCORDING TO ST MATTHEW”).

    The moment people start going around saying “We don’t really know who wrote Matthew” opens the door to asking: Ok, what else have you mistakenly gone around trumpeting as fact that is actually false?

  7. Nick and Robert,

    I’ve enjoyed these comments a lot. On the specific point of contention, I think Robert is correct:

    (1) See Jon Anthony’s reference above to the Vatican’s willingness to permit Catholics to believe or not believe that Matthew wrote the Gospel of Matthew. If the Church openly permits Christians to take either view, it’s necessarily not an issue which has been infallibly defined. Neither Scripture nor the Church forces a single view on this issue.

    (2) As for saying “the Gospel ACCORDING TO ST. MATTHEW” in Mass, there are a few points to note. Most likely, this is understood to be an identifier. Even skeptics who reject Matthew’s authorship of his Gospel tend to call it the Gospel of Matthew, because otherwise, it’s almost impossible to figure out which Book one’s talking about.

    (3) It’s possible for the Gospel to be according to Matthew without Matthew being the one who did the writing. For example, some people claim that John’s disciples compiled his orally-transmitted eyewitness testimony into a Book upon his death. That’d still be the Gospel according to John, without John ever lifting a pen. “Bible Christian” Protestantism has spawned the error that the Gospel must be transmitted in writing — the Gospel teaches otherwise (Rom. 10:14).

    (4) It’s possible for something said by the Church to be wrong. She makes this clear Herself when She demarcates specific areas as infallible. So in the off-chance She (a) did intend to say that Matthew wrote his Gospel, and (b) was wrong about this, it would still be a relatively minor problem.

    (5) The reason that this isn’t more troubling is the very reason you cited in your initial comment, Nick. It’s possible for the Gospel not to have been written by Matthew, but still be infallible. As Catholics, we believe these four Gospels because we trust the Holy Spirit working through the Church, rather than because we trust four sinful men. That’s true regardless of who wrote the four Gospels. As both of you noted, Protestantism has had to develop work-arounds to the Church’s role in assembling Scripture — that’s why the authorship debate is of much larger consequence on that side of the Tiber.

    (6) Finally, let me just be clear, I believe Matthew, Mark, Luke and John actually wrote their Gospels. I trust that the Church Fathers are almost certainly right about this — the references to things like a Hebrew version of Matthew’s Gospel (which we’ve never seen) suggests that modern scholars and skeptics are working on wildly incomplete evidence compared to what the Fathers had. Which is all the more reason that Piper’s claim above is silly.


  8. Hi Joe,

    I’d like to see the official Church document that says Catholics are free to choose on this issue, I’ve not seen such a thing. If anything, I’d think if they did, it would be akin to Pius XII ‘permission’ (not right or rule) to look into evolution (which some falsely took as an approved or endorsed approach). In looking this up on NewAdvent, it says the Biblical Commission says the Apostle Matthew did write Matthew (see the very end of this article, under the heading “Appendix”).

    I would say that point #2 doesn’t work, because this isn’t just an ‘idenfier’, it has meaning. Otherwise we might as well just number the Gospels, or call it Pseudo-Matthew. Making it a mere identifier can be a slippery slope to “de-humanizing” the Faith, going from a deposit handed down by tangible faces to a blur of of crowd. This also contradicts the details in the Gospels when the author speaks in the first person.

    That said, I agree with your #3 in that I see nothing wrong with suggesting the Apostle Matthew had the Gospel written by a companion under his care. After all, Paul openly admits he didn’t write Romans, he merely dictated it to a trusted scribe. But I think this starts to break down if this extends out many generations since the writing takes on a more impersonal character the further removed from eye witness accounts you go.

    I’m not sure I understand your point #4. It seems to violate the very notion of Universal and Ordinary Magisterium, as well as Unanimous Consent of the Fathers. What you would have is a teaching professed and proclaimed throughout history all of the sudden overturned. That’s not “relatively minor”, rather it merely prompts the follow up: “What else has the Church been wrong about this whole time?”

    Point #5 is simply the most watered down approach a Protestant can take, and it fails once someone appeals to it as an authority on the basis it was written by an Apostle. The only place that really works is with a book like Hebrews, where there is no Universal Consent Testimony (at least not that I know of).

  9. In the Introduction of each book of the New Testament speaks about how each came to pass. There is no need to debate where it came from. Just read your Catholic bible!!!

  10. Distinguishing clearly between the author and the actual writer or amanuensis of a text, as both Joe and Nick allude to, will help to clarify the Church’s teaching on this matter. The Church has confirmed with ordinary infallibility (viz., in ecumenical councils) that the human authors of the Gospels, including the Gospel of Matthew, are Apostles (see Conc. Trident., Sess. IV (Denzinger 783) & Dei Verbum, 18). The Pontifical Biblical Commission, moreover, in the document Nick cites, has stated with the Pope’s approval (exercise of ordinary, non-infallible Magisterial authority) that St. Matthew is the human author (“auctor”) of the Gospel attributed to him (AAS, 3 (1911), as reprinted in Enchiridion biblicum, 383). The Church has not, however, made an official claim concerning the identity of the actual writer or scribe of the original copy of each of the Gospels, including St. Matthew’s. Nick’s summary of the Biblical Commission’s answer as stating that the Evangelist “wrote” his Gospel is imprecise. The question submitted to the Commission did not concern the actual writer: “affirmari certo posit et debeat Mattheum…Evangelii sub eius nomine..esse auctorem? Resp.: Affirmative.”

    Of course, the authors, both human and divine, and not of the actual writer or scribe, determine the content of the text. The fact that the Church does not and probably cannot identity of the actual writer with certainty is of little consequence.

    Your conclusion, Joe, that St. Irenaeus’ comment about Sts. Peter and Paul’s “laying the foundations of the church” refers to their laying the foundations of the Universal Church may be unwarranted. The Patristic writers often meant particular or local churches, to use modern terminology, when writing about “the church” with reference to specific areas. The Universal Church, moreover, only has its “foundations” in Rome in a specific sense, namely, in the sense that the Vicar of Christ’s See is there. It does not have its foundations in Rome in the sense that the Church was first established in there; and this latter sense of foundation, i.e., of actual establishment or organization, seems to be the one meant by St. Irenaeus. This latter sense would only be true in respect to the local Roman church. We would, in any case, have to examine the passage, preferably in the original language, to determine the actual meaning. Your observation, however, about some Protestants’ denial of the presence of Peter in Rome, let alone his martyrdom there, remains correct.

  11. Peregrinus,

    Thanks! That clarified things quite a bit.

    You might be right about Irenaeus’ comment about Peter and Paul. My reason for finding it significant wasn’t just that he said that they laid the foundations of “the Church” at Rome. I know that could be a reference to either the local or global Church. What I found significant was the context. In the immediate context, Irenaeus is explaining what Matthew is doing by putting in relation to the activities of Peter and Paul in Rome. Matthew’s operating out of the Holy Land, so this seems topsy-turvy if Roman primacy isn’t true. In a broader context, two chapters later, in Book III, Chapter 3, Irenaeus measures Apostolic succession through the See of Rome to show the validity of the global Catholic Church. So in both the immediate and broader context, I read it as a reference to the capital-c Church, but I know it can definitely be read either way.

    Great comment. God bless!


  12. Hi Peregrinus,

    I’m not sure what you’re saying regarding St Matthew writing the Gospel of Matthew, with the Church apparently clarifying he did.

    Are you saying that St Matthew the Apostle could have had a scribe? If so, that issue never seems to be addressed anywhere definitively by the Church nor an actual ‘problem’. The Gospel account is still ‘first hand’.

  13. I did a study on this subject, pulling every verse I could find on whether Jesus died for ‘all’ or for ‘many’ and I came up with half for all and half for many and a few that could be taken either way.

    I ended up with this. Jesus died for all of the many and Jesus died for many of the all. Either way you put it, not one drop of Jesus blood was wasted.

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