I'll never forget when my husband, who left Christianity quite a bit before I did, asked me who wrote the Gospels. He had recently been asking me a lot of questions for which I had insufficient answers, so I wasn't completely shocked when my answer of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John was incorrect. He informed me that the authors were anonymous and most likely not even eyewitnesses to the life of Jesus. So, off I ran to my English Standard Version of the Bible to further investigate these allegations. And there it was. They were indeed anonymous and written many decades after the purported events. I suppose I should have noticed that before, but my avid Bible reading was always of the devotional, noncritical sort. Another day, another chink in my armor of God, until it eventually all fell away.
Covering the next chapter in Natasha Crain's Keeping Your Kids on God's Side, Chapter 27 addresses the question, "How do we know we can trust the Bible's authors?" Natasha relies upon homicide detective and former atheist turned Christian apologist Jay Warner Wallace's Cold Case Christianity to answer this question. He proposes that four questions must be addressed to evaluate the reliability of any eyewitness:
1) Were They Present? While Natasha acknowledges that "all four Gospels are technically anonymous," she adds that "no one in antiquity attributed the Gospels to anyone other than the four authors we recognize today. There was no debate." She further states that Matthew and John were the authors of their own eyewitness accounts. On the other hand, Mark was the author of Peter's eyewitness account, while Luke was the author of the disciples' and Paul's eyewitness testimony. She considers Paul an eyewitness to the resurrection of Jesus. Really? A vision is passable as an eyewitness account? I don't think so.
In his article, "Why Was The Gospel of Matthew Attributed to Matthew?" New Testament scholar Dr. Bart Ehrman points out that "the Gospels were all written anonymously and they circulated anonymously, for years and decades; we have no certain evidence that they - these particular Gospels - were called by their familiar names until around 180 CE..." Why didn't the authors just identify themselves? Ehrman pointedly explains in "Why Are the Gospels Anonymous?"
Yet, even if the Gospel authors are anonymous, could they not have been eyewitnesses to the life of Jesus or at least consulted eyewitnesses when writing their accounts? In considering our earliest Gospel Mark, written around 65-70 CE or approximately 4 decades after the death of Jesus, Ehrman explains that most of the eyewitnesses to the life of Jesus would have been Aramaic speaking Galilean peasants. In contrast, the author of Mark was a highly educated Christian who spoke Greek and lived outside of Palestine, likely never traveling to Galilee to interview potential eyewitnesses. Similarly, Matthew the tax collector and disciple of Jesus, although possibly proficient with numbers, would not have had the level of education required to write an advanced Greek narrative. While the author of Luke admits that he is familiar with some of the oral traditions that were being passed along by eyewitnesses, he never states that he actually spoke to any of these eyewitnesses. Lastly, the disciple John was a Galilean peasant who also spoke Aramaic and therefore was certainly not capable of writing in the complex Greek seen in the book of John. Trustworthy sources? I think not.
2) Were They Corroborated? Okay, I promise to be brief henceforth. Natasha describes internal corroboration as "evidence from within the Gospels themselves." She offers a couple of incidents in which separate Gospel accounts support each other in unintentional ways. As Classics historian Matthew Ferguson points out in his article "Why Scholars Doubt the Traditional Authors of the Gospels," (also linked above for Matthew and John) "Matthew borrows from as much as 80% of the verses in the Gospel of Mark, and Luke borrows from 65%. And while John does not follow the ipsissima verba of the earlier gospels, its author was still probably aware of the earlier narratives (as shown by scholar Louis Ruprecht in This Tragic Gospel)." I would think that should make internal corroboration quite easy. In terms of external corroboration, I'll refer you back to this previous post but reiterate that no contemporary external sources regarding the life of Jesus exist.
3) Were They Accurate? Don't worry. This is covered in the next chapter and will be addressed in my next post.
4) Were They Biased? Of course, they were. Regardless of who wrote the Gospels, the authors are obviously promoting a certain narrative. To state otherwise is...well, completely biased. Natasha explains that there is a difference between the disciples' bias prior to the resurrection versus their conviction afterwards. She notes, "There's no reason, therefore, to think that simple bias predisposed the disciples to believe or say what they did about Jesus." The disciples were certainly not neutral in their regard for Jesus. That makes them biased.
"How do we know we can trust the Bible's authors?" We don't.