Who Wrote the Gospels?

The authorship of the gospels (both the New Testament and the Gnostic) is generally attributed to the Apostles, but most scholars agree that the authorship of the ancient sacred texts is not known. Scholars have been able to piece together information about the gospels that suggest possible authorship for some. Early church fathers writing polemics against certain Gnostic texts, among them gospels that some Christians claimed to possess, have made modern scholars aware that such texts existed, but only recently with the Nag Hammadi find have many of these texts become available to scholars to translate and study. Sometime in the second century, the gospels were given their names. Generally, the names given were associated with the Apostles or others important to the early church. Many New Testament scholars agree that the Apostles did not write the gospels that bear their names.

Authorship of the New Testament Gospels

John Mark, the attendant of Peter, is widely considered the best candidate for the authorship of the New Testament Gospel of Mark because he was familiar with Palestine, the language of Aramaic, and Jewish customs, culture, and institutions. Matthew, originally written in Greek, probably was written for Jews rather than Gentiles. Some sources consider it the “most Jewish” of the four New Testament gospels. Its author is unknown, but he obviously relied heavily upon the Gospel of Mark (thought to be the first of the New Testament gospels written) as well as a large body of material not found in Mark but closely corresponding to the Sayings Gospel Q.

The earliest known version of Luke dates from the second century, since it is clear that Marcion used it. Early church fathers believed that Luke, a physician and companion of the Apostle Paul, wrote the Gospel of Luke and also the Acts of the Apostles. Clement, the early church father, called the Gospel of John the “spiritual gospel.” Tradition assigns the authorship of that gospel to John, son of Zebedee. Some scholars, however, challenge that attribution, citing the sophistication of theology in that gospel. The Gospel of John varies greatly from the synoptic Gospels in the stories that are told and their sequence. It is written in a highly symbolic and literary style and features a splendid prologue. No baptism of Jesus takes place in that gospel, and the gospel is full of signs. Some biblical scholars assert that if not written by John, son of Zebedee, then possibly it was written by a Greek convert to Christianity.

Paraenesis is a term often used by scholars to describe the advice or exhortation of a moral nature found within a sacred text. It also can mean an urgent warning of impending evil. Several of the ancient Christian scriptures contain such a warning, especially for new initiates and converts to Christianity.

Authorship of the Gnostic Gospels

The Gospel of Thomas features 114 sayings of Jesus in the form of wisdom sayings, prophecies, parables, and rules. The Gospel of Thomas is attributed to Didymos Judas Thomas the twin, because the gospel itself states as much. Didymos (in Greek) and Thomas (in Aramaic) both mean “twin.” Scholars say that in the Syrian church this Thomas was known as Jesus' brother. Gnostic scholar Marvin Meyer writes in the introduction to The Gospel of Thomas: The Hidden Sayings of Jesus that there is some speculation that this gospel was used (perhaps even written by) the Manichaeans, followers of Mani who were Gnostic mystics.

The Gospel of Mary (Magdalene) is the only Christian gospel bearing the name of a woman. The work reflects tensions in early Christianity. The Gospel of Mary was written in Greek and dates to the second century. Significantly, it was in the latter part of that century that the orthodox communities of Christians established the apostolic hierarchy of leadership within their churches and left Mary out of it. The Gospel of Mary affirms the death and resurrection of Jesus but interprets his teachings in ways that depart radically from orthodox interpretations.

The Gospel of Truth most likely dates to the middle of the second century. Although the authorship is unknown, Valentinus, a Gnostic teacher who lived in the early part of the second century, has been suggested. The teachings of Valentinus seem to correspond to the Gospel of Truth. That gospel is not precisely a gospel in the sense that it tells the “good news,” because it moves between narrative and warnings of imminent evil. The early church father Irenaeus may have been referring to this gospel, among others, when he accused the Gnostics of possessing more gospels “than there really are.”

How many gospels are there?

Scholars are aware of more than fifty complete gospels, including the four canonical gospels, but have fragmentary information on only sixteen others, including Peter, Philip, Matthias, Hebrews, Egyptians, Thomas, Nicodemus, the Twelve Apostles, Basilides, Valentinus, Marcion, Eve, Judas, Teleiosis, The Writing of Genna Marias, and the Proto-Evangelium of James.

Egyptian churches during the second and third centuries may have used the Gospel of the Egyptians as a sacred text. The gospel advocates a return to a primordial and androgynous state through celibacy. The authorship of this divinely inspired gospel is listed as Seth, an interesting attribution considering that the heavenly, mythological Seth has been referred to as Father of the Gnostic race.

The Secret Gospel of John (also known as the Apocryphon of John) is a secret teaching of the Savior given to John, who declares himself brother of James, one of the sons of Zebedee. The tractate offers a narrative mythological revelation of creation, the fall, and salvation of humanity. It focuses on the origin of evil and how to escape it in order to return to heaven. It has been described as offering the most insightful detailing of dualistic Gnostic mythology so far found, and, as such, is notable among the tractates found in Nag Hammadi discovery.

The Gospel of Philip appears to be a collection of excerpts from a Christian Gnostic book of sacramental catechisms. The text is not organized in any helpful or obvious way. It contains a few stories about Jesus and offers meanings of sacred names, discusses the significance of sacramental rites, reveals meaning in Biblical passages, and provides a few of Jesus' sayings that fit into a Gnostic context and warnings of evil (paraenesis). Authorship is unknown.

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