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Understanding “The Gospel”: Why Authorship Claims Matter Dramatically – Part 1

November 10, 2012
English: By Rembrandt.

English: By Rembrandt. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Most people give little thought to who actually wrote the books of the New Testament.  And it doesn’t matter much unless a person takes this part of the Bible seriously.

Now there are at least two major types of people who do take seriously what is said in the New Testament (NT), which I’m summarizing here as “the Gospel.” Here are the two types, for our purposes in this very brief summary of NT understanding as it relates to who wrote the books:

  • Those who take the NT as revealed by God, with its human element guided and supervised by God such that it is authoritative in giving “his” message.  Accordingly, it is taken as  historically reliable or even, by many, as without error (with the assumption that any seeming internal inconsistencies can somehow be “harmonized”). 
  • Those who take the life and teachings of Jesus seriously and may find both the Gospels (books  on the life of the earthly Jesus) and the rest of the NT to be of real value but view them as fully human creations with the errors, personal or social biases, etc. one expects in both ancient and modern books. 

If you’re not yet familiar with my stance, it is the latter.  But I was raised believing the former, then studied the Bible and related subjects heavily in school and personally, confirming that “received” view to myself for about 27 adult years.  My switch was many years ago, so I understand the interests and issues of both groups pretty well.  I realize that changing one’s view of the Bible or the life and significance of Jesus in any major way is often very scary.  It can impact a lot of things in one’s life, socially as well as internally.  

I bring this up because authorship of NT books is right at the core of how and why one “lands” in either of these two groups (or variations of either).  The issues modern Bible scholars and theologians deal with about important authorship questions actually began during the NT era itself, and the 2nd century just after it.  When the NT authors either put their own names to their writing or attributed it to someone else (such as an Apostle) considered more authoritative or impressive, they began controversies still unsettled in many cases — or at the least, curiosities unsatisfied.

It is not much help to say, as some do, that it was common practice in that era for disciples of a certain teacher to write in the teacher’s name, and the material can be trusted to represent his views (and thus be reliable, authoritative, etc.).  Most of my first  group (above) do not seem to appeal to this argument, even for the six letters out of 13 attributed to Paul that most likely were not written by him (three of them, the “Pastoral Epistles”, almost certainly were not, by strong scholarly consensus).

My purpose in this two-part article is to merely educate people of both groups, or others with historical, literary or various interests about how and why these issues initially came up.  Additionally, it is to point out why they should not be ignored as they so often are.  This is by both “believers” and spiritual people who like to quote what is attributed to Jesus or emulate the life his biographers present.

To even begin to understand why authorship questions come up as a serious issue for NT books we have to look at both literary work of the first century and the social, political and religious matrix within which the NT books were written.

This quickly gets complicated because of varieties of genre and creativity in writing.  Then there are the complex and rapidly changing situations in Palestine alone, before even factoring in the multi-cultural, multi-religious settings of many of the NT books, beyond just Paul’s.  So we won’t get into the specifics of all that here.

For those who do study these issues, related “secular” historical materials help some but often leave us short in that sources of the time are very limited in number and we usually do not know exactly where or for which local or regional groups a given NT book was written.  In relation to this, we know that 1st century messianic (Jesus-following) Judaism and early Christianity took many forms and developed along quite different lines in various places to which these movements spread.  There is evidence that largely Jewish (Jerusalem area mainly) and largely Gentile (widely spread) groups were different on significant issues, while generally agreeing on some kind of resurrection of Jesus and his soon (imminent!) return to establish the Kingdom of God on earth.

So the complexities of the authorship issues may be one reason they tend to be avoided by most lay people and also in teachings by pastors.  But the more central reason is probably that delving too much into authorship in many cases challenges the entire basis for considering the NT books as coming with God’s authority in a unique way shared only by other Scriptures (the “Old Testament” [OT]).  Thus, this amounts to a challenge to the “inspiration and authority of Scripture” and the authoritative basis for Christian dogma and rituals.

The concept, in brief summary, is this: The Hebrew Scriptures (OT), used copiously by 1st century Jews (though not in the exact form we now have them), contained many prophecies of a coming messiah.  These came to be seen as fulfilled by Jesus.  The traditionalist position is that this view developed initially during Jesus’ lifetime and was fully “fleshed out” while his direct disciples and some of the “Twelve Apostles” were alive.

Either they or their direct companions and assistants wrote about such prophecies, the life, death and resurrection of Jesus and the meaning of these events as given by God to this special group.  (In this view, such writing goes beyond the four Gospels to letters written by Peter and James, the brother of Jesus, and John, including the apocalyptic-style book of “Revelation” which he is taken to have written).  The group included Paul, who was not one of “The Twelve” but who is also considered a God-inspired Apostle by special calling of God.

Among other reasons, this authorship claim is important for the “God-given revelation” group I’ve mentioned because it means that the four Gospels contain “eye witness accounts” of Jesus’ life, death and resurrection.  So, to go only as far as the authorship of the four Gospels for now, we can see immediately that the supposed historical evidence for key events, particularly Jesus’ purported bodily resurrection, is directly tied to apostolic or apostolic-advised authorship of the Gospels.

One final note is important for some readers: The author names assigned in titles of the Gospels (and some other NT books) were put there much later than the initial writing of the books.  In other words, the books we know as Matthew, Mark, Luke and John do not themselves claim to be written by these authors (or any named person).  This is acknowledged by virtually all scholars from traditionalist to most “skeptical.”  It is in seeking to decipher who did indeed write them, and when, that controversy arises.

Now, lest some readers take my remarks further than they are intended, I must end this section of the article saying that if the Gospels were written by other-than-apostles and not directly under apostolic sponsorship it does not mean that everything was invented and there is no historical basis to any of the Gospel accounts.  Again, it is much more complicated than that.  Jesus ministry, short as it was – likely less than one year and no more than about three – and his following during his lifetime were significant enough that we can safely assume several basic elements held in common in the Gospels are indeed historical.

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