Trying to summarise the vast amount of scholarship on the New Testament is an enterprise to be understaken with huge caution, and something probably only to be done with prayer. That said, what follows reflects what I perceive to be broad consensus. That is not the same as saying there is complete agreement – in what field of scholarship is that ever so?
The spectrum is vast: at one end are those who would tells us that the Gospels are written by Sts Mark, Matthew, Luke and John (in that order, except for those who have Matthew first), between about 60 AD. and the year 100 AD; at the other end are those who would say that none of that is true and that they are collections of writings given Apostolic names for a variety of reasons, and that we can”t say anything much about dating other than that they are at best, late first century and possibly early to mid second century AD.; in between there are those who, to take one of my favourites, would argue that “John” is written by John, but not that John, but by another chap of the same name; reminds me of Homer and the Illiad. So what can be said in short compass without either wearying the reader or simplyfying to the point of misrepresentation?
At the end of this I append a list books which have helped guide me and from which I derive what I write here.* I am an historian, not a Scripture scholar, and my Latin and Greek are not what they were. But enough, let us press on.
For many centuries, and indeed until recent times, it was the fashion to say that Mark’s Gospel was “primitive”, a collection of sayings recorded in rather rustic Greek which acted as a source for Sts Matthew and Luke. More recent scholarship has taken a less dismissive view and has tended to recognise that far from being a somewhat defective “biography” it is a different genre, one which has no real precedent.
Papias, one of the earliest Christian writers who died around 130 AD. called Mark Peter’s interpreter”, telling is that he:
wrote accurately all that he remembered, not, indeed, in order, of the things said and done by the Lord. For he had not heard the Lord, nor had followed him, but later on, followed Peter, who used to give teaching as necessity demanded but not making, as it were, an arrangement of the Lord’s oracles, so that Mark did nothing wrong in thus writing down single points as he remembered them.
Irenaeus, who lived in the next generation, recorded the same tradition, and Justin Martyr, who wrote in the 140s AD., called Mark’s Gospel the “memoir” of St Peter. Mark himself has long been identified with what is now the Coptic Church, and some have said he was that “John Mark” who fled naked from the garden at Gethsemene, and who later appears in the Acts of the Apostles and elsewhere [Acts 12:23-13:13, 15:36-39; Colossians 4:10; 2 Timothy 4:11; and 1 Peter 5:13.} as a companion of St Paul. Others have said differently, although with Tertullian and Origen all identifying Mark with Peter, the tradition is strong, although of course they could all be relying on Papias, but as they do not quote him elsewhere, that seems a little unlikely. What we do know is that from the very earliest times Mark’s account was accepted as a record of St Peter’s testimony and preaching.
It isPapias to whom we owe the identification of the writer of the Gospel attributed to St Matthew. The problem here is that the text is ambiguous:
Matthew compiled (or ‘arranged,’ or ‘composed’) the logia (‘oracles,’ ‘sayings’ or perhaps ‘gospel’) in the Hebrew (or, ‘Aramaic’) language (or, ‘style’?), and everyone interpreted (or, ‘translated’) them as best they could.
He identifies this “Matthew” with the tax collector the other Synoptics call “Levi,” although later commentators doubt this, reasoning that if the author had been an Apostle he would hardly have relied as heavily as he did on Mark’s Gospel. On the other hand, if he was the “Levi” mentioned, and knew that Mark was Peter’s “interpreter”, he might have had good reason to use him as a source. Papias’ comment is not helpful either, because if, as he seems to say, the original of Matthew was in Aramaic, then it does not explain why the text we have reads more like a Greek original. Of course, it may be that Matthew’s original in Aramaic was adapted and used as the basis for the Gospel we have, making that original the famous Q source which scholars think is a lost “sayings” text which Luke and Matthew used as well as Mark. Whatever the truth of the matter, it remains the case that as far back as we can trace tradition, “Matthew’s” Gospel was treated as Canon.
The same is true of St Luke’s two books. It is purely accidental that “Acts” does not follow on from Luke’s Gospel as they are clearly by the same author. Irenaeus, Clement of Alexandria, Tertullian, Origen, and others all list Luke as the person mentioned throughout Paul’s letters (Colossians 4:7–17, Philemon 24, and 2 Timothy 4:11), from which we learn that he was a doctor. The interest he takes in how Gentiles respond to the Good News adds weight to the view that he was a Gentile, perhaps one of the “God fearers” who attended Synagogue. He tells us at the beginning of his Gospel that he has done a lot of research, and it seems clear that among his sources were either Mary of Nazareth or else others from the wider family of Jesus, as events such as the Annunciation can only have come from such a close source. As for when it was written, most scholars date it to after the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem in 70 AD., but it may date from as early as the following decade.
That takes us to the most majestic and mysterious and poetic of the Gospels, that of John. The scholarship here is even more contested than for the Synoptics, and it was the Gospel least widely received in the early Church because of its association with heretical movements, a reading which gathers some strength from the schisms in the Johannine community about which we learn in 2 John. There are those who think it the last of the Gospels, there are a smaller number who think it was the first. As it seems to have been finished by a later hand, or hands, there is no intrinsic reason why both hypotheses might not be true, of course. Papias tells us about two men called John, or at least he writes about the “Apostle” and the “Elder,” who may, of course, be the same man, as Apostles were Elders! Opinion is split, with some very eminent scholars opting for John “the Elder” and others opting for the Apostle, and some for someone else called John! But amidst these debate, no one contests that the Gospel was part of the Canon from early in the history of the Faith.
So, to sum up. What we do know is that the early Church Fathers received only Four Gospels as the Canon of faith, and by 200 AD. we know they were bound together as a Codex. Long before there were any Church Councils, the Church knew which texts were Canon and named the authors. But what, you might say, of other so-called Gospels? It is to that we shall turn next.
JDG Dunn, Ûnity and Diversity in the New Testament (1977)
Austin Farrer, St Matthew and St Mark (1954)
Wayne Gudrum et al (eds.) Understanding Scripture (2012)
Martin Hengel, The Four Gospels and the One Gospel of Jesus Christ (2000)
CE Hill, Who Chose the Gospels? (2010)
Bruce Metzger, The Canon of the New Testament (1987)
Graham N Stanton. The Gospels and Jesus (1989)