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Saturday, November 23, 2013

Questionable Authorship In The New Testament... and Why It's OK!

But as for you, continue in what you have learned and firmly believed, knowing from whom you learned it, and how from childhood you have known the sacred writings that are able to instruct you for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus. All scripture is inspired by God and is useful for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, so that everyone who belongs to God may be proficient, equipped for every good work (NRSVC 2 Timothy 3:14-17).
In today’s world, if an author were to claim authorship of a text that he had not written the public outcry would be substantial. Society would consider the act fraudulent and unethical. While the usage
of pseudonyms and ghost writers are not completely unheard of, they are not considered a societal norm. Using contemporary standards of authorship, many find it difficult to understand or accept the fact that there is no real feasible way of verifying exactly who it is that wrote the Gospels. The very fact that there are names attached to the books in question only serves to confuse those who cannot comprehend this mystery. To further complicate the situation; the general consensus among scholars is that the Gospels were a collaborative effort. Despite these revelations, it is crucial that one understands that our inability to definitively know the names of the authors of the Gospels does not, in any way, subtract from the inerrant truth of salvation that the texts contain. Our belief that the Bible was divinely inspired by God, does not negate the humanity of the authors. Because of the disparity this creates, modern methods of Biblical interpretation have been formulated to aid one in interpreting the intent of biblical authors critically. Fortunately, many of the reasons we have for discerning the intent of the authors, are also proofs to the actuality of various authorship. Furthermore, insight into the world of those who composed the varying books of the New Testament, also serves to help us understand why it might be necessary for the Gospels to be attributed to others. Among the methods of Biblical interpretation are: source criticism, form criticism, redaction criticism, literary criticism, and contextual criticism.

Source criticism is the search for evidence that the authors of the Bible may have been influenced by, or directly copied, text from another source. This works in conjunction with form criticism, which is the attempt by scholars to try to identify the oral tradition that the text is based on. Together with redaction criticism, a form of criticism deals more directly with the author's particular influence on the text, these three historical-critical methods serve to inform different aspects of the historical development of the Gospels. Using these methods affords us the ability to examine what we know and what can be deduced to try to answer questions about the authors of the Gospels. For example, it is more than plausible that Jesus' exploits had already been established as oral tradition prior to their being written down. Because of this sharing of information, through various orators, and the traditions that rose up around these stories, there would occasionally be what could be seen as discrepancies among the authors of scripture (source criticism). Also, if the oral history being maintained is attributed to a specific person or that person's school of thought, when that oral tradition is finally set in writing (form criticism) it would often be attributed to the person to whom the oral history is credited. This is why the authors of the Gospel would attribute them to somebody else. Redaction Criticism comes into play when trying to ascertain how each of the authors influenced the collected knowledge they set to paper. How does the author's intentions and interpretation color his writings. Redaction critics must try to understand whether or not the author took it upon himself to add or subtract from the writings or oral traditions that came before. This is why books that are attributed to the same author may vary in tone and message. Literary criticism can also help us identify differing authorship. Literary criticism is an effort to identify the literary form the author was utilizing when writing. Was the text in question meant to be literal, parable, or symbolic? Are the writings a poem, narrative, letter, or otherwise? A good example of this is how form and literary criticism together shape many of the arguments that scholars have that the Johannine works were written by different authors. Contextual Criticism involves the necessity to take the authors environment, time period, and cultural factors into account when studying the bible. When, where, and why did the authors wrote is perhaps the most telling part of why the Gospels may be credited to authors who did not write them. Simply put, the social, academic, religious, and literary norms of the Hebrews living in the Levant, and authoring these books support the claims that several various authors wrote the Gospels of the New Testament.


  1. Mike, we need to be very careful when dealing with the conclusions of modern "scholars." As faithful Catholics we are always better off trusting Tradition before anything else. To help broaden your theological education, please read these two articles on traditional authorship of the Holy Gospels: 1);

    and for more detail:

    Hope these help you to reconsider.
    With much respect,

    Adam Miller

  2. I'm confused as to the point of divergence in the links you sent me and what this essay presents. The EWTN link states the following:

    "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 though 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."

    This seems to be in line with what I have written above. As a student, I am obviously interested in further enlightenment, and I appreciate any sort of constructive criticism I may receive. I am FAR from being what I consider a definitive authority.