Q. Could Matthew and John have been written by someone close to the inner 12 or one of the eyewitnesses of Jesus' life?
A. First, it is important to remember that the Gospels are anonymous and most would agree that the early church assigned the titles and not the original writers. Like many critical questions in scholarship, the answer depends on whom you ask. Some scholars argue for eyewitness testimony behind Matthew and John, while others exclude eyewitnesses—the difference riding on earlier vs. later dates of composition, respectively. One should also note recent studies on memory which suggest that even stories told by eyewitnesses may suffer from the vagaries of human memory.
Some scholars argue that the Gospels circulated anonymously for fewer than fifty years, allowing for reports by those with a living memory of Jesus. This view, while argued very strongly by some is not without its problems: one is that simply because the titles are early does not exclude pseudonymity (false claims of authorship); a second problem has to do with the Greek term often translated “according to.” This term (the Greek word “kata”) can mean “according to” but can have other meanings as well. For example, it can also mean “in conformity with” (see John 18:31 where “according to (kata) your own laws” does not indicate the authorship of the laws). So even if the titles of Luke and Matthew were early, the question of authorship remains unresolved.
Some historians and scholars see historical indications that the Gospels of Matthew and John were written by an eyewitness. For example, the very early testimony of Papias, a bishop of Hierapolis in Asia Minor (whose works have not survived and so we read them via the paraphrases of the early church historian Eusebius) seems to indicate that Matthew’s gospel was written by the one-time tax collector (Matt 9:9). This view is not without critics. First, there is considerable question about exactly who Papias really meant. Second, there are a good number of scholars who find Papias’s testimony unreliable. Third, and perhaps most troublesome is the question of why Matthew would have used the book of Mark as a source (a view accepted by most scholars) when writing his own eyewitness account particularly when reporting his personal encounter with Jesus?
As for John’s gospel, again we have early attribution by Polycarp (martyred as a bishop in 156) who was reported (again by Eusebius and even earlier by Irenaeus) to have known John. By the end of the second century virtually the entire church accepted the Johannine authorship of the book. Add this to the fact that John the apostle is not mentioned in the book (so the argument is that John avoids using his own name) and some see the evidence as very strongly favoring the apostle as author. However many scholars today do not agree with this conclusion.
In short, Matthew and John may have been written by an eyewitness, but the evidence (and the interpretation of the evidence) is divided.
Samuel Lamerson is professor of New Testament at Knox Seminary and author of English Grammar to Ace New Testament Greek (Zondervan, 2004).
A term from late Antiquity, it refers to the western-most part of Asia, bordered by the Black, the Mediterranean, and Agean Seas, in what is now modern-day Turkey.
Evaluating its subject carefully, rigorously, and with minimal preconceptions. "Critical" religious scholarship contrasts with popular and sectarian studies.
A gospel is an account that describes the life of Jesus of Nazareth.
An early (second century) Christian leader and theologian whose writings attacked heresies like gnosticism.
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