The claim is often made that we do not know who wrote the Gospels (or at least some of them), but we can be sure it was not the authors whose names are associated with them (Matthew, Luke, etc). I want to briefly explore this from two perspectives.
First up; how can we simultaneously say the author is not Person A and at the same time say that we do not know who the author is? If we do not know who the author is then it would seem to me Person A is a fair candidate. The only way around this would be if we had fairly conclusive evidence that Person A was not in the position to write the Gospel at all (maybe it was written centuries after their death, maybe they were illiterate, etc) and we simply do not have any other leads for who, possibly, could have written it. That would be a legitimate line of reasoning, but then we need to investigate; when somebody says, “It could not have been Person A” we need to ask them what reasons they have for rejecting Person A. And remember, if they reply that the evidence for Person A is insufficient to establish that is was Person A, such a reply does not constitute evidence against Person A. In a court of law, for instance, a person would not be considered a suspect if it were truly impossible for them to commit the act (watertight alibi, for instance) but they may still be considered a suspect so long as it is remains possible for them to have committed the act, even if the evidence in favour of them committing the crime is not as strong as the lawyers might like.
There’s a second line of reasoning I was only recently acquainted with. I was listening to this fascinating interview with Peter J. Williams of Tyndale house. It is always a pleasure having high-end scholarly work presented to laypeople such as myself! He took some time to discuss the claim that the individual Gospels were assigned to somebody of influence in order to give them some kind of “street cred” (not his phrase!). Think of it this way, if you have in your hand a book about WWII written by the former General Patton you’ll probably be more inclined to take it seriously than if there’s another book on WWII written by some undergraduate history student whose parents weren’t even born until after WWII. Same with the Gospels; in order to boost sales – or something to that effect – these anonymously written Gospels were alleged to have been written by somebody of consequence.
As Peter J Williams points out, though, two of the Gospels are associated with people whose primary (or only) claim to fame is the fact that they wrote Gospels! Mark and Luke are pretty much only known because they wrote the Gospels (and Acts – Luke). Take that away and they would only be historical footnotes! Their resumes only really have one major selling point; their contributions to the New Testament canon. Well, Mark has a little more going for him than Luke but let’s take a look at both of them.
Imagine you’re being introduced to Christianity in the year 110 AD. You’d like to read about it so you ask what kind of books there are about this Jesus fellow. Ideally you’d love to see a book written by Jesus, right? Obviously. Well we don’t have any of those so what’s the next best thing? A book written by one of his disciples would be a close second. Matthew and John fit that bill, and several of the Gnostic Gospels are alleged to have been written by people close to Jesus (Thomas, Mary, Peter, Judas). There is a reason these obvious centuries-too-late forgeries picked those names; street cred. What about a book by a recent convert like the Apostle Paul? Well, that’s not as good as somebody who was actually there, part of Jesus inner circle, but that might still hold some weight.
What about the travelling partner of a recent convert to the cause? No, this would not normally be my first choice. I would have prefered somebody much closer to the events themselves. But Luke precisely fits that bill. He wasn’t Jesus. He wasn’t even a disciple of Jesus. He wasn’t even a recent convert. He was merely the part-time traveling partner of a recent convert to the faith. On what possible grounds would a forger (or a forging community) falsely ascribe authorship of the Gospel to Luke given his relative obscurity in the early church? Take a look at the ISBE entry on Luke, as well as Wikipedia, and you will see that very little is known about him and he certainly did not appear to be a major player in the early church. Given his obvious obscurity it is far more likely that he actually did write one Gospel and the book of Acts than it is that some forger picked his name out of all the available options.
A similar line of reasoning applies to Mark who was merely Peter’s interpreter, though he was not quite as obscure as Luke. He founded a church and became a Bishop but he was still a far cry from Peter himself, Mary and many others. You can read about him at ISBE and Wikipedia.
So there’s some food for thought next time somebody claims the Gospels were not written by the people whose names they bear. You will have some questions in order to get the conversation rolling. These facts do not establish that the Gospels were written by those whose names are associated with them, but it reminds us that the skepticism extended toward the traditional authorship should also be extended toward those who deny the traditional authorship.