Testimony of Early Church Sources.


New Testament Claims to Authorship.

Following a conventional practice of the time, none of the gospels explicitly name their authors. However:

a) The introductions to Luke (1:1-4) and Acts (1:1-2), combined with their styles of writing, show these to have been written by the same, highly educated, person. The introduction to the gospel indicates that he was aware of the existence of other records of Jesus’ life, but was seeking to present a more accurately ordered account than previously attempted; whilst the introduction to Acts shows this was written as a sequel to the gospel. Switches from the third person to the first person plural (the so-called ‘we’ passages) in parts of Acts chapters 16, 20, 21, 27 and 28 indicate that he was a travelling companion of St. Paul.

b) John’s gospel contains a number of references to an unnamed disciple who was particularly loved by Jesus and who leant against him at the last supper to ask the identity of Jesus’ betrayer. This unnamed disciple is identified in John 21:20-4 as the primary source for the gospel. It is clearly not Peter, who is frequently mentioned by name: but the description and other clues fit well with John, who is not explicitly named either. The epistles of John are attributed to the same author; though again he is not named in any of them. John is also explicitly identified as the author of Revelation: though this does not contain material relevant to the present discussion.

c) There is little scholastic dispute about most of the epistles of St Paul, apart from those to Timothy and Titus. They exhibit a distinctive style and doctrinal content and are always clearly identified as being his work, a point Paul cites as an authenticating feature in 2 Thes 3:17. (Note that the Epistle to the Hebrews does not lay claim to Pauline authorship.)

d) Both 1 and 2 Peter explicitly state their authorship. This has been disputed by some scholars, although it remains the traditional view. Nevertheless, to avoid unnecessary argument they are not cited in the present discussion.

e) The epistle of Jude states that it was written by Jude, brother of James. However, it offers little direct evidence concerning the resurrection, so is not cited in this discussion.

Internal evidence relating to the dating of the New Testament documents will be discussed separately.

 

Testimony of the Early Church Fathers.

Polycarp (AD 69-155)

Polycarp, bishop of Smyrna, was personally discipled by the apostle John, and was burnt at the stake after publicly refusing to recant his faith. A letter written to the church at Philippi (not to be confused with the NT letter written by Paul) is all that survives of his own writings: but he is important as a source for the following writers.

Papias (AD 60-140)

Papias was bishop of Hierapolis in Phrygia, and a prolific writer. His writings survive today only in citations from other authors, such as Eusebius and Irenaeus. Irenaus tells us he was a companion of Polycarp and had also heard John personally. Eusebius cites one passage in which Papias describes how he would avidly question anyone he met who had first-hand knowledge of the Apostles and early church leaders. Eusebius also cites the following statement by Papias:

‘Mark, having become the interpreter of Peter, wrote down accurately everything that he remembered, without however recording in order what was said or done by Christ. For neither did he hear the Lord, nor did he follow him; but afterwards, as I said, (attended) Peter, who adapted his instructions to the needs (of his hearers) but had no design of giving a connected account of the Lord’s oracles. So then Mark made no mistake, while he thus wrote down some things as he remembered them; for he made it his one care not to omit anything that he heard, or to set down any false statement therein.’

Papias is also recorded as saying:

‘So then, Matthew composed the oracles in the Hebrew language, and each one interpreted them as best he could.’

Scholars differ as to whether Papias meant that Matthew wrote in Hebrew, or in Aramaic, the colloquial dialect of the Jewish people.

Irenaeus (AD 120-190)

Irenaus was a pupil of Polycarp, who as noted above was a disciple of John himself. He records that:

‘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 had leaned upon his breast, did himself publish a Gospel during his residence at Ephesus in Asia.’

Clement of Alexandria (AD 155-220) also says of Mark:

‘When, at Rome, Peter had openly preached the word and by the spirit had proclaimed the gospel, the large audience urged Mark, who had followed him for a long time and remembered what had been said, to write it all down. This he did, making his gospel available to all who wanted it.’

Summary

Although the gospel authors are not named in the New Testament itself, their traditional attributions are confirmed by the Early Church Fathers. These are authorities who had close, well-defined connections to the apostles and other first-generation Christians and were ready to die for their testimony.

According to the testimony of these early sources, Matthew was the first New Testament gospel written. Since Irenaus says it was done while Peter and Paul were at Rome this places the gospels after most, if not all, the Epistles of Paul (Rome being Paul’s final destination).

Mark (generally identified as John Mark, a disciple from Jerusalem who is mentioned several times in Acts) wrote shortly afterwards, based upon the testimony of Peter. Luke wrote his gospel later, followed by Acts, with John being the last of the last major witnesses to the resurrection to be recorded.

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