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Why Are The Gospels Called Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John?

I recently received an important and puzzling question about the names attached to our four Gospels.  All four books were written and circulated anonymously, and only later did Christian leaders maintain that they were Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John.  Why these names?  Here’s the question:

QUESTION:  I understand why the names John and Matthew ended up being part of the tradition concerning authorship for gospels, but why a tradition for Mark and Luke?  Today, they seem like unlikely characters for a tradition since they were not eyewitnesses. In the 2nd century did Jon Mark (companion of Peter) and Luke (companion of Paul) hold more significance to the early church?


Even though the question is only about Mark and Luke, I think I should provide some context by discussing Matthew and John as well.  I devoted some thought to the question for my book Jesus Before the Gospels.  Here’s what I say about it all there.


The final, big question is why these four names were chosen.   They are the names of two of the disciples of Jesus and two of the companions of important apostles.  Matthew was named after the tax-collector who became Jesus’ follower in the first Gospel (Matthew 9:9-13).   John was named after Jesus’ disciple, the son of Zebedee, assumed to be the “beloved disciple” mentioned in the fourth Gospel (John 21:20, 24).  Mark is named after a person popularly connected with Peter (1 Peter 5:13).  Luke is named after a travelling companion of Paul (Colossians 4:14).  But why these four in particular?

In fact, there were clear and compelling reasons.   Matthew was an obvious choice.  Since the days of Papias, it had been thought that Jesus’ disciple Matthew had written a “Hebrew” Gospel.  It came to be thought that this book must have been it.  (Never mind that Papias was talking only about a list of Jesus’ sayings and that our Matthew was not written in Hebrew.  Early Christians as a rule didn’t know that.)   The call of Matthew the tax collector is found only in this first Gospel (9:9-14), and so obviously (at least it was obvious to some people) this Gospel was especially focused on Matthew. [Mark 2:13-17 and Luke 5:27-32 both have the call of the tax collector to be Jesus’ disciple, but in those versions his name is Levi, not Matthew.]  Moreover, the first Gospel has always been seen as the most “Jewish” of the Gospels; if Matthew wrote a Gospel in Hebrew, it was for Jews or for Jewish followers of Jesus.   That would be this Gospel.  Whoever named the first Gospel wanted it to be attributed to a follower of Jesus, so Matthew was an obvious choice.

The reasons for naming the Fourth Gospel John are less straightforward but somewhat more intriguing.   In many ways the disciple who is closest to Jesus in this Gospel is not Peter but the mysterious “disciple whom Jesus loved” (e.g. John 13:23; 20:2).  Who was this beloved disciple?  He is never called by name.  But the author indicates that he wrote down what he knew about Jesus (21:24-25).  Some readers (wrongly) read the reference to him in 19:35 – where he sees water and blood coming out of Jesus’ side at his crucifixion – to be the author’s reference to himself, spoken in the third person.  So the author was thought to be someone particularly close to Jesus.   Which of Jesus’ close disciples would it be?

In the other Gospels, Jesus’ closest disciples, the “inner three,” were Peter, James, and John (e.g., Mark 5:37; 9:2-13).   But the Beloved Disciple of John’s Gospel could not be Peter because he is mentioned in episodes alongside Peter (e.g. 20:1-10).   Moreover, it was widely known that James the son of Zebedee had been martyred early in the history of the church, before any of the Gospels was written (Acts 12:2).  That leaves John, the son of Zebedee, who is otherwise not called by name in the Gospel.   Even though he is elsewhere said to be illiterate (Acts 4:13) he came to be considered the Beloved Disciple who wrote the fourth Gospel.

The authorship of the third Gospel, Luke, is also relatively unproblematic, but for completely other reasons.   The author of that book also wrote the book of Acts (read the first few verses of each book and you’ll see why this has always been obvious to most people).   Acts is not about the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus, but about the spread of Christianity in the years after Jesus’ ascension.  The main character for most of Acts is the apostle Paul, whose missionary endeavors form the subject of a good bit of the book.

Acts is told in the third person, except in four passages dealing with Paul’s travels, where the author moves into a first-person narrative, indicating what “we” were doing (16:10-17; 20:5-15; 21:1-18; and 27:1-28:16).   That was taken to suggest that the author of Acts – and therefore of the third Gospel – must have been a traveling companion of Paul.  Moreover, this author’s ultimate concern is with the spread of the Christian message among gentiles.  That must mean, it was reasoned, that he too was a gentile.   So the only question is whether we know of a gentile traveling companion of Paul.  Yes we do, Luke the “beloved physician” named in Colossians 4:14.   Thus, Luke was the author of the third Gospel.

That leaves the Gospel of Mark.   One can see why the Gospel of Luke would not have been named after one of Jesus’ own disciples: but what about Mark?  Here too there was a compelling logic.  For one thing, since the days of Papias, it was thought that Peter’s version of Jesus’ life had been written by one of his companions named Mark.   Here was a Gospel that needed an author assigned to it.   There was every reason in the world to want to assign it to the authority of Peter.   Remember, the edition of the four Gospels in which they were first named, following my hypothesis, originated in Rome.  Traditionally, the founders of the Roman church were said to be Peter and Paul.  The third Gospel is Paul’s version.   The second must be Peter’s.   Thus it makes sense that the Gospels were assigned to the authority of Peter and Paul, written by their close companions Mark and Luke.  These are the Roman Gospels in particular.

The main reason there may have been reluctance to assign this book directly to Peter (“The Gospel of Peter”) was because there already was a Gospel of Peter in circulation that was seen by some Christians as heretical, and which was known to authors such as Justin Martyr in Rome.   It is the Gospel I mentioned in chapter one, with a Jesus who does not appear to suffer and who comes forth from his tomb as a very non-human giant.   It was easiest then to assign Peter’s real account to the figure that had been known for many years to have written down his recollections of Jesus’ words and deeds, Mark.

That Mark and Luke were considered to be the Gospels of Peter and Paul is clearly seen in other writings from about this time.   Just about two decades after Irenaeus, the church father Tertullian, stressed: “That which Mark produced is stated to be Peter’s, whose interpreter Mark was.  Luke’s narrative also they usually attribute to Paul.  It is permissible for the works which disciples published to be regarded as belonging to their masters.”  Tertullian, of course, would have no way of knowing who actually wrote these two Gospels.  He is simply repeating the tradition he learned when he converted, that Mark represents Peter’s views and Luke Paul’s.  By his time this was the accepted view, and it continued to be the accepted view until the modern era.

If you were a member of the blog, you could get stuff like this all the time, five days a week!  That would cost you the massive total of 50 cents (per week).  Every one of those cents goes to charity.  So what’s to lose?  Why not join??


Why Would an Ancient Author Write a Book Anonymously?
Do We Know Why Jesus Went to Jerusalem?



  1. Avatar
    Thomasfperkins  May 20, 2018

    Dr Ehrman, I have wondered whether the reference to water coming from an abdominal wound meant that Jesus had cirrhosis. I have not seen anyone else make a comment about this. Have you heard or read any discussion about this?

    • Bart
      Bart  May 22, 2018

      That’s only found in the Gospel of John and is ususually taken to be be symbolic rather than literal.

    • Avatar
      mannix  May 22, 2018

      The abdominal entry wound is usually depicted as entering the right upper quadrant and toward the heart. “Water” could mean any liquid other than blood. The gall bladder is located in that quadrant…producing bile. There is a large lymphatic (thoracic) duct in the midline which some have proposed produced the “water” in the form of lymph. The stomach would have likely been pierced, and any contents a could be interpreted as liquid. The large intestine is also near, though I doubt its contents would be characterized as “water”. Cirrhosis itself would not produce any kind of pathognomonic liquid substance.

      • Avatar
        mannix  May 23, 2018

        I need to qualify my last sentence. I was thinking about the cirrhosis question after I posted and had a forehead-slapping-“couldahada V-8” moment. Cirrhosis itself doesn’t produce fluid, but it can cause accumulation of a translucent fluid in the abdominal cavity called ascites. If a spear was thrust into the abdomen, ascitic fluid would pour out and may be mistaken for water from a distance. A couple of points, however. First, it would be unusual for a 33 year old to have end stage liver disease (ESLD) There is no history of Jesus being a heavy drinker, and it would take quite a while to develop cirrhosis from alcohol abuse. Of course, there are other liver diseases such as Hep B and rarer ones that can cause cirrhosis. Secondly, ESLD is not the only cause of ascites. Lastly, in the upright position the ascitic fluid would gravitate to the lower abdominal cavity. If the spear was inserted just below the ribcage, as is usually depicted, a tremendous amount of fluid would need to have been present to flow out at that level, as opposed to lower down, where the appendix is. That much ascites, no matter what the etiology, would indicate terminal illness. Jesus was apparently fairly active and presumably healthy prior to crucifixion, making an end of life debilitated state unlikely.

  2. Avatar
    forthfading  May 20, 2018

    Dr. Ehrman,

    What do scholars know concerning the practice of early 1st century Jewish tax collecting? Would someone have to highly educated for Rome to trust them with such a task?

    To me, it is one thing to collect coins and tally them and a whole different thing to write a biography. We know it is very improbable for a 1st century lower class Jew to write a biography, but is it more probable that Matthew could have wrote one based on his role as a tax collector?


    • Bart
      Bart  May 22, 2018

      The work was taken on by tax corporations that had various layers of laborers, from the ones who organized the whole thing who would be highly educated and experienced to the guy who came knocking on your door or (more likely I suppose) sitting at the collection booth who, presumably, could be a thug.

      • Altosackbuteer
        Altosackbuteer  May 22, 2018

        There is a REASON why the publican (tax collector) of the Parable of the Pharisee and the Publican was so notorious. He WAS a robber, and had a HORRIBLE public reputation as a great sinner.

      • Avatar
        forthfading  May 22, 2018

        How does Matthew fit into that organization, in your opinion? Do you think he would have had the ability to write a gospel?

        • Bart
          Bart  May 23, 2018

          In the Gospels he’s on the lowest rung, the guy who collects the money. Nothing indicates he was literate. If he was a lower class Aramaic speaking Jew from Palestine, then he almost certainly could not have written a Gospel. (He is mentioned in only one of the Gospels, btw, and there only briefly.)

      • Altosackbuteer
        Altosackbuteer  May 26, 2018

        The Romans commonly farmed out tax collection.

        The Romans assessed how much they wanted from a given region and then farmed out a contract to someone to go get that much money. Naturally, no free person works for nothing — even SLAVES don’t work for literally NOTHING — so the tax farmers needed to extract more revenue from their districts than the Romans were demanding.

        This was a sure-fire formula for extortion and theft, since the tax farmers were interested solely in their own short-term profit interests, and didn’t give a rat’s backside whether they were placing their districts into irreversible economic decline. And, in practice, the tax gatherers were bandits, terrorists, and gangsters; this is why they had such a bad reputation. And it is this aspect, lost on most modern readers of the New Testament, which gives the parable of the Pharisee and the Publican such powerful force.

        In the later Empire, the Romans recognized that this system of taxation in effect was killing the golden goose to get at the eggs. It was actually counter-productive; in the long run, the Romans were better off demanding a sane, manageable about of tax revenues. “Shear the sheep, don’t shave it.” But at this point in the Empire, they didn’t consider this issue.

  3. Avatar
    fishician  May 20, 2018

    Paul clearly identified himself in the beginning of each letter. I’m still confused why the gospel writers didn’t clearly identify themselves and their sources. Was this common practice among ancient authors? Is there anything to suggest there was a claim of authorship in any gospel that was later stripped away to allow attribution to a more authoritative person? (And so ironic that gospels claiming to be written by Peter, Thomas, etc. were excluded while anonymous ones were accepted!)

  4. Avatar
    saeed319  May 20, 2018

    From reading the question, I assumed you might be more questioning and sceptical of the gospel names. But, it seems your answer is ‘very positive’ of the selected authors, i.e. it MUST have been Mark, Matthew, Luke and John. It could not have been anyone else!

    • Bart
      Bart  May 22, 2018

      I’m afraid you’re misreading me. I don’t think it *was* these people. I was explaining the logic that led their names to be attached. I don’t think any of those people, apart from Luke, could even *write*.

  5. Avatar
    saeed319  May 20, 2018

    Given all the evidences, in your opinion what is the % probability the assumed authors actually wrote the respective gospel i.e. 20% chance Mark wrote Mark, 95% chance John s/o/zebedee wrote John etc.

    • Bart
      Bart  May 22, 2018

      I have no idea! I’m afraid I don’t think we can do history by percentages. Would that it were a more precise science! But I would say there is almost no chance that either Mark or John wrote the Gospels called Mark and John.

      • talmoore
        talmoore  May 22, 2018

        I’m not so sure about that, Dr. Ehrman. Although it would be very presumptuous to attach specific numerical percentages, I think we can, at least, weigh their individual probabilities against each other. For instance, I would probably list their probabilities in the following order: John < Matthew < Mark < Luke. That is, John is less likely by John than Matthew is by Matthew; Matthew is less likely by Matthew than Mark is by Mark, etc. etc.

        If we add my personal opinion that the probability that John is by John is near zero, and the probability that Luke is by Luke is better than 50% but less than 100%, then I would personally put their respective probabilities in the following order: 0% < John < Matthew < %5 < Mark < 50% < Luke < 100%. That is, it's highly unlikely that John and Matthew were written by the actual John and Matthew. There's a small probability that Mark actually wrote Mark. And there's a respectable probability that Luke (and Acts) were written by the actual Luke.

  6. Altosackbuteer
    Altosackbuteer  May 20, 2018


    You wrote, “where he sees water and blood coming out of Jesus’ side at his crucifixion.”

    Did you ever stop to think about how these words imply that Jesus was taken off the cross WHILE STILL ALIVE??

    First of all: As you know, the horror of crucifixion in general was that it could take DAYS to die. And all the time, standing there, in the hot sun, with flies and birds pecking away, in horrible agony from thirst, etc.

    But Jesus was Up There ONLY for 3 HOURS.

    Furthermore: As you know, when the Romans wanted to hurry things along, they would break the legs of the crucified victims. Because in crucifixion, there is an endless cycle of exhaustion taking place. The legs hold up the body, to allow breathing, but the legs get tired, and the body’s weight falls to the arms, which prevents breathing, so it’s back to the legs until, days later, death finally comes.

    Leg-breaking was done to bring about rapid suffocation because the victim could no longer use his legs to prop himself up.

    But Jesus, not only was Up There only for 3 hours; BUT HIS LEGS WEREN’T BROKEN, EITHER!

    In our times, every year in places like the Philippine Islands, there are men who allow themselves to go through exactly what Jesus went through, and at the end of their BRIEF ordeal, they are taken down from their crosses, admittedly LOTS the worse for wear, but STILL VERY MUCH ALIVE.

    So there is a suggested possibility, just from this ALONE, that Jesus might NOT have died on the cross.

    So now consider the evidence of the Gospel of John. John wrote, blood AND WATER came out of the chest wound the Roman soldier — call him “Longinus,” which some in Italy call him to this day — inflicted on him

    WATER?? Professor, “water” implies PULMONARY EDEMA. In other words, the soldier, aiming for Jesus’ heart, MISSED the heart and struck a lung instead — where, because of the rigors of crucifixion, fluid had been gathering — pulmonary edema.

    Now the soldier missed for 3 reasons —

    1) He was aiming uphill.

    2) Organs sag and the heart wad lower than where he’d expected it to be.

    3) Skin stretches upward, making him think the heart was where it wasn’t.

    All these factors combined and caused Longinus to miss on the high side.

    So — maybe Jesus WAS STILL ALIVE when taken off the cross. This would certainly explain why people could report seeing him a few days later.

    • Bart
      Bart  May 22, 2018

      Yes, it’s a very old theory!

      • Avatar
        Silver  May 22, 2018

        If Peter was crucified upside down, is it known if he could have survived for any length of time bearing in mind what is generally said about having to push up in order to breathe etc?

        • Bart
          Bart  May 23, 2018

          Interesting question. There are source that indicate Roman soldiers (for their very sick fun) would put bodies in awkward positions on their crosses, but I don’t know anything about the history or physiology of upside down crucifixions, apart from this passage in the Acts of Peter.

    • Avatar
      Iskander Robertson  May 23, 2018


      heart stops pumping blood
      gravity pulls the blood down
      jesus gets stabbed in the side
      how is it possible that blood is flowing ?

      there is no longer any “blood pump”

      • Altosackbuteer
        Altosackbuteer  May 25, 2018

        Evidently at that point, the heart was still pumping blood. This despite the fact that the gospel says that Jesus had already given up the ghost.

        I argued in another posting in this thread that the spear MISSED Jesus’s heart and hit a lung instead, accounting for the water; it was from pulmonary edema.

        As I reported, I once saw a fatal collision between a truck and a motorcycle which tore the bike rider’s leg clean off; it was about 20 feet from the rest of him. But there was nothing more than a trickle of blood from the stump. It’s because his heart had stopped pumping.

  7. Avatar
    Stephen  May 20, 2018

    I realize some of Papias’ pronouncements are problematic to scholars, but he does seem to at least be aware of the concept of a sayings gospel. Is the intuition among scholars of “Q” that Papias could be relaying a distorted memory of “Q”?


    • Bart
      Bart  May 22, 2018

      Some have thought that. It’s certainly a better solution than thinking that Matthew is Q!

      • Avatar
        DavidNeale  May 24, 2018

        I’m very convinced by Maurice Casey’s “chaotic Q” theory, in which Q wasn’t one document but multiple sources, some of which were in Greek and others in Aramaic. For instance, Matthew’s “mint and dill and cumin” versus Luke’s “mint and rue and every herb” is best explained by both of them translating from an Aramaic text which Luke misread (since the words for “dill” and “rue” in Aramaic are apparently similar). Casey suggested at one point that some of this material might go back to sayings written on wax tablets by Matthew the tax collector (which would explain Papias’ confusion) but that might be going a bit far.

        • Bart
          Bart  May 24, 2018

          The problem is that if they were both translating Q independently, you wouldn’t have extensive verbatim agreements in *Greek*. (Just look at any two translations of Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina. How many sentences are identical?)

          • Avatar
            DavidNeale  May 25, 2018

            I understand that! His theory as I understood it was that Q was not one document but multiple documents – some in Greek (hence the verbatim agreements) and others in Aramaic.

          • Bart
            Bart  May 27, 2018

            Most of us are reluctant to multiply sources unnecessarily. Occam’s razor.

          • Avatar
            DavidNeale  May 29, 2018

            So how would you explain Matthew having “mint and dill and cumin” and Luke “mint and rue and every herb”? Are there competing theories about that? It seems like an odd change to make if both were working from the same Greek source. Whereas Casey’s explanation (that the Aramaic sh-b-th-a was misread by Luke as sh-b-r-a) seems persuasive; but I’m no expert and it may be that there are other / better theories out there.

          • Bart
            Bart  May 30, 2018

            Interesting question. It may be that a simpler option is that Jesus’ original Aramaic teaching got translated in different ways by different Greek-speaking Christians; Matthew heard one of the translations and Luke the other.

    • talmoore
      talmoore  May 22, 2018

      I have a pet theory that when the Jerusalem church would send out letters to other congregations — such as described in Acts 15:20 — the disciple Matthew may have written the letters, because he was the only member of the group who could write in Greek. And because of this, a tradition developed that a “gospel” written by Matthew was carried throughout the early Christian community. Of course, it’s impossible to verify this for sure, but if we dig into the gospels themselves, it might be possible to sift out parts that go back to such a letter or set of letters. It would take some serious forensic work.

  8. Avatar
    RonaldTaska  May 21, 2018

    I woke up just past midnight with a question of “ultimate concern” and I just could not put it aside and get back to sleep. It has to do with your good friend, Dr. Martin. I completed his online Yale course so I know that he is quite familiar with the basic historical scholarship to which you have devoted your life studying. Yet, somehow, he ends up being a progressive Christian theist while you end up being an agnostic/atheist. This is a HUGE difference and is much more than just a semantic quibble where the two of you end up at essentially the same place, but use different terminology to describe that place. It all reminds me of a book written by Reynolds Price entitled “A Letter to a Man in the Fire.” So, my question is this: Dr. Martin knowing what you know how do you end up at a place so different than where Dr. Ehrman ends up? And don’t just say it’s a matter of “faith” because “faith” has to be grounded in something. Faith can’t just come from nowhere or one can believe damn near anything from Mormonism to Islam. Anyway, I wonder if Dr. Martin might be willing to write a blog or two answering, or at least addressing, this question. What does Dr. Martin conclude about the historical Jesus, the existence of God, the existence of heaven, and so on? Why???? People using the same data ought to end up at the same place. If a patient has acute rightt, lower abdominal pain with rebound tenderness, fever, and an elevated white blood cell count, then all physicians should reach the same conclusion: appendicitis. One physician can’t conclude appendicitis and another the flu. That just doesn’t make sense unless one of the two physicians is using “fake news.” Thanks….

    • Bart
      Bart  May 22, 2018

      Yup, these are great questions. It is hard to imagine how someone can still be a person of faith IF we continue to think that the only reason to believe in Christianity is the Bible. But that view has come to us through modern American fundamentalist culture. It’s not, historically, the grounding for faith. Dale won’t write blog posts on this (I’ve asked several times before), BUT luckily his new book is devoted to just this question, so if you’re interested in pursuing it, I’d suggest checking it out. It is called Biblical Truths.

      • Avatar
        turbopro  May 22, 2018

        If I may: I’m reading the goodly Dr Martin’s, “Biblical Truth,” where he answers RT’s questions.
        I must admit that faith perplexes me. Though I have learned to understand Occam’s rationale that perhaps one may not be able to rationalise belief. Belief is based on faith, not so much on rational arguments.

  9. Avatar
    caesar  May 21, 2018

    Dan Wallace argued that if one wanted to make the gospels as authoritative as possible, you wouldn’t use mostly nobodies. He did mention that you would have expected someone to have used Peter instead of Mark. You mentioned that there was already a gospel assigned to Peter. Didn’t that date pretty late, like 2nd century? If so, does that affect your argument that Peter wasn’t named as the writer of Mark’s gospel, because there was already a gospel of Peter?

    • Bart
      Bart  May 22, 2018

      That’s right. And these four were far from nobodies. That’s precisely the point!

    • Altosackbuteer
      Altosackbuteer  May 22, 2018

      Ghost writers.

      Ghost writers often write books for celebrities. Athletes like Jose Canseco and Keyshawn Johnson have “written” books which were actually based on interviews which those “writers” made with the real writers, the ghost writers.

      The books work because they tie a celebrity’s name to someone who actually CAN write. Same thing here.

  10. Avatar
    Silver  May 21, 2018

    Why were the gospels written anonymously? Was this the usual practice with this type of account in those times?

  11. Avatar
    forthfading  May 21, 2018

    Dr. Ehrman,

    If it made sense to people in the 2nd century to attribute the third gospel to Luke based on the use of 1st person “we” and the “gentile” nature of the book, it is reasonable for us today to assume Luke really is a possible contender for authorship?


    • Bart
      Bart  May 22, 2018

      There are huge problems with it. The biggest one is that the author *claims* to be a companion of Paul but almost everything he says about Paul — from his itinerary to his theology to his preaching — stands at *odds* with what Paul says about himself. It’s hard to imagine this was one of Paul’s companions.

      • Avatar
        brandon284  May 30, 2018

        What are some of the differences between Paul and the author of Acts in regards to Paul’s theology and preaching? Thanks!

        • Bart
          Bart  May 31, 2018

          Ah, that’s a big question. I’ll add it to my mailbag.

          • Avatar
            brandon284  June 3, 2018

            Awesome, thanks!

  12. Avatar
    JRH  May 21, 2018

    Bart, I recently came across a reference to the Greek philosopher: Euhemerus (330–260 BC.) He had a theory that the gods began as ordinary human beings. As mortals, they performed notable deeds. The stories of those deeds came to be repeated, and embellished, as good stories usually are. In many retellings, they would be improved and distorted and distilled, until the mortals who had done the deeds would acquire refulgent new lives, as myths. They would not be mortals anymore. They would escape from the gravitational pull of time. They would turn into gods.

    Sounds a lot like Jesus, doesn’t it? Were you familiar with Euhemerus when you wrote your book about the start of Christianity?

    Also I have a question about Pentecost. It’s a pretty bizarre story with wind, fire, people speaking in tongues, etc. The part of the story about everyone hearing foreign speakers in their own language appears to be the reversal of the Tower of Babel story. Do you know the background for this story? Luke was a well educated writer, so you would think he would be less superstitious than other gospel writers, and yet he wrote this implausible story of Pentecost. Did he just make it up, or is there any possible historical basis to the story?

    • Bart
      Bart  May 22, 2018

      A Euhemerian understanding of Christianity (or Judaism) would say that Yahweh, the God of Israel, was originally an ancient Hebrew king, about whom legends were eventually told magnifying his importance, and then expanded into myths about his supernatural powers, until he became a God, when originally he was just some bloke who became a king. I guess it *is* roughly similar to what happened with Jesus, an apocalyptic preacher who became the Creator of the universe and Lord of All.

  13. Avatar
    3Timothy  May 21, 2018

    Bart, did Jesus say we must forgive 77 times or 490? I refer to Matthew 18:21-22. Here is the wording of the New International Version: Jesus answered, “I tell you, not seven times, but seventy-seven (77) times.” Here is the New Living Translation: “No, not seven times,” Jesus replied, “but seventy times seven (49)!”

    • Bart
      Bart  May 22, 2018

      Ah, it’s a good question. I don’t have any reference books here to check out a few details, but the Greek literally says “seventy seven” times.

      • Avatar
        JRH  May 22, 2018

        It seems overly redundant to forgive someone 77 times. IMHO this verse is another example of numerology in the Bible. Many ancient peoples, including the Jews, thought numbers were not just quantitative, but also had magical properties. Seven was a special number in many cultures. Another example of numerology can be seen in the incredible life spans mentioned in Genesis. Here’s is a good explanation of the purported life spans in Genesis that show these numbers were symbolic, and not literally how long a person lived: http://www.theopedie.com/IMG/pdf/pscf12-03hill.pdf

    • Altosackbuteer
      Altosackbuteer  May 22, 2018

      I would bet on 70 times 7 = 490.

      That would be in agreement with the 70 Weeks of Daniel, which both Christians and Jews believe refers to a period of 490 years.

  14. Avatar
    ardeare  May 21, 2018

    The commonsensical argument used by scholars and laypersons is that if they weren’t named until around the time of Iraneus, during his mission to weed out heretics (180CE?), how were they identified prior? I still find that argument compelling with no clear answers.

    • Bart
      Bart  May 22, 2018

      I’m not sure that’s a consensus view. Most scholars seem to think the Gospels may have been named earlier, as evidenced by Papias. I myself doubt that rather vigorously, but I’m not sure I’m in the majority. (Of course the “majority” includes all those thousands of conservative evangelical scholars who are eager to think that these books really *were* written by their alleged authors!). But in answer to your question, quotations of the NT are usually referred to as the “sayings of the Lord” or as having come “in the Gospel”; Justin Martyr, a generation before Irenaeus, refers to the books as “the Memoirs of the Apostles”

  15. Avatar
    JamesFouassier  May 21, 2018

    Professor, who do YOU think the Beloved Disciple is? How about Lazarus? Jesus had to have friends and believers in Jerusalem; someone had to arrange for the meeting with the jug-carrying man (not the usual woman) at the well and for the Upper Room and the tied up donkey at the gates. Lazarus, Martha and Mary had a house there. The way Jesus mourned the loss of his friend Lazarus suggests something closer and more personal than simply a follower. Also, couldn’t Lazarus be the priest, the young man in a white linen who was present at Gethsemane, and who also beat Peter to the tomb but stopped cold before entering – so he wouldn’t be ritually defiled by a dead body? If John’s gospel identifies the son of Zebedee by name why the mystery and confusion of also calling him the Beloved Disciple?

    • Bart
      Bart  May 22, 2018

      I fluctuate between thinking that he was one of the disciples especially significant for the founding of the community behind the fourth Gospel and thinking that he is a literary figure, not historical. I guess I lean toward the former. I don’t think it can be Lazarus, who was not one of the twelve.

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    Luke9733  May 22, 2018

    This is unrelated, but have you read Michael Allen Williams’ “Rethinking Gnosticism: An Argument for Dismantling a Dubious Category”? It seems as though the primary argument is that the group of texts commonly considered “Gnostic” don’t actually share a common set of beliefs that would set them in a group together, and so it’d be better to refer to them less specifically as, “”biblical demiurgical traditions.”

    I’m wondering if this is any idea you’ve come across before. I’ve never before heard of any discussion among scholars over whether an actual, identifiable belief-system of Gnosticism existed during this period, so I’m not sure if this is just a fringe idea that few are convinced by or if this is an idea that’s gaining traction that I just never heard of.

    • Bart
      Bart  May 22, 2018

      Yes indeed, it is a standard and major work in the field. Most scholars agree that we have been way too loose (or at least used to be) in what we called “Gnosticism” and that more precision is necessary (see David Brakke’s more recent book The Gnostics). But the term biblical demiurgical traditions has been almost universally considered too clunky and problematic on other terms.

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    JRH  May 22, 2018

    “Never mind that Papias was talking only about a list of Jesus’ sayings” is this the Q document?

    • Bart
      Bart  May 23, 2018

      The one he’s talking about can’t be Q because it was written in Hebrew.

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        JRH  May 23, 2018

        Bart, You might have already discussed this somewhere else in your blog, but why can’t Q have been written in Hebrew? Assuming Q was one of the very first writings about Jesus, isn’t it possible it was written by a Jewish Christian in Hebrew, at some time before Greek speakers starting converting to the new religion?

        • Bart
          Bart  May 24, 2018

          If it was, it was translated into Greek before Matthew and Luke used it (since their agreements are often verbatim); that would mean that the Q *they* used was Greek. But in any event, Q doesn’t give clear signs of having been composed in a semitic language and then translated.

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    GregAnderson  May 28, 2018

    Reading these explanations, the only conclusion I come to is, that whomever made the attributions of the gospels, they didn’t KNOW who had written the gospels. That is, they had to reason it out, because they hadn’t been told by their elders in the church. That suggests a gap in the tradition. That, and the rather mysterious testimony of Papias.

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    pueblo2  July 21, 2018

    Hello Dr. Ehrman,

    This comment is pretty late in the game for this thread, but it is engendered by a recent post by Matthew Ferguson on his blog. (https://celsus.blog/2018/07/19/did-the-author-of-matthew-intend-to-imply-that-the-disciple-matthew-was-the-brother-of-james-son-of-alphaeus/) Namely this:

    “Did the Author of Matthew Intend to Imply that the Disciple Matthew Was the Brother of James son of Alphaeus?

    “In doing research on the Gospel of Matthew the other day, I noticed a peculiarity in the Matthew’s redaction of the Gospel of Mark. The process started when I was looking into the name change between “Levi” son of Alphaeus (Mk. 2:13-17) and “Matthew” (Mt. 9:9-13) between the two gospels. The question I was searching for was: ‘What would motivate the author of Matthew to identify the role of Levi with the disciple Matthew?'”

    Ferguson adds a couple of arguments to Richard Bauckham’s similar contention that the names “Levi” and “Matthew” were switched by another editor, who was not the disciple Matthew (Ferguson cites, Jesus and the Eyewitnesses, pg. 112) and concludes that,

    “But furthermore, the need to link Matthew and James son of Alphaeus, as brothers, only resulted from the Gospel of Matthew’s decision to change the name “Levi” to “Matthew” (which I think was motivated by of a desire to create assonance in the passage, through the repetition of sounds created with the three instances of μαθητής). Had Mark originally intended “Levi” and “Matthew” to be different persons (whom he never states were the same), then there would be no problem with placing Thomas in between Matthew and James son of Alphaeus on his list of the twelve (Mk. 3:16-19). But, since the Gospel of Matthew chose to connect “Levi” and “Matthew,” that created a problem for the paradigm of fraternal succession, and so the author redacted the passage to place Matthew and James son of Alphaeus side-by-side (Mt. 10:3)”

    Do you think Bauckham’s or Ferguson’s viewpoint have some merit here? Perhaps this is a mailbag question.

    • Bart
      Bart  July 22, 2018

      It’s a pretty convoluted issue. As you know, none of these sources actually says (xplicitly) that James and Matthew were brothers, thought that does seem to be the inference. I think it’s a bit of a mystery why the Gospel of Matthew changes the name Levi to Matthew; but in any event (not your quesiton) I don’t think this is evidence that the book was written by someone named Matthew.

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        pueblo2  July 22, 2018

        Thanks, Dr. Ehrman. Definitely not likely that a disciple named Matthew actually authored that Gospel, but the speculation/hypotheses about why Levi becomes Matthew seems more interesting and harder to resolve.

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    crt112@gmail.com  February 26, 2019

    Q – Which Bart Ehrman book should I buy if I want an exegesis of Mark’s gospel ? I want a chapter by chapter analysis of what he wrote and why he wrote it that way.
    And similar for Matthew, luke & John.
    I know basics like Matthew writing for a Jewsih audience and representing Jesus as the new Moses. And John was last and added a lot more theological content. But I want details. Comparisons and analysis of parallel gospel stories.
    Which book(s) do I buy first ?

    • Bart
      Bart  February 26, 2019

      I haven’t written any biblical commentaries. But I devote a chapter to the major teachings/themes of each Gospel in my book The New Testament: A Historical Introduction to the Early Christian Writings.


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