Who Wrote the Gospels?

Seminary can be hazardous to your faith. Author and speaker Bart Ehrman attended seminary, and became an agnostic. He is the darling of secular humanists who buy his books; and university intelligentsia who bow before his seat as the James A. Gray Distinguished Professor of Religious Studies at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Educated at Princeton Theological Seminary, Moody Bible Institute and Wheaton College, Ehrman is a prolific writer and New York Times best-selling author. Forged, published in 2011, claims that the Gospels were not written by their designated authors, but anonymous writers many years removed from the actual events.

Ehrman makes simplistic claims like his assertion that the genealogies found in Matthew and Luke are glaring examples of the Bible’s contradictions.

Who can argue with a distinguished professor?

I will say that Ehrman is correct on this point — the genealogies do differ, but whether that is a contradiction we shall examine in a moment.

While researching Ehrman’s contentions I found a rather lengthy article defending his bullet points. Written by a doctoral student, the 36,000 word essay is an exhausting treatise that begins with a false premise — that the Gospels were forged.

The argument goes that the Gospels were written no earlier than 40 years after the fact — that they were not firsthand, eyewitness accounts, but were composed by anonymous authors who referenced a common source document known only as “Q”. Wasn’t he an enigmatic villain on Star Trek?

However, there is no fragmentary evidence of a mysterious “Q” document. It is simply assumed by academicians to have existed — much like the spark that ignited the Big Bang.

It is argued that the disciples were illiterate and could not have penned Greek manuscripts. Matthew was a tax collector so it’s a given that he was multilingual — Hebrew, Aramaic and Latin (since Rome conducted civic business in Latin). Luke, the physician, was surely educated in the language arts. Alexander the Great had conquered Palestine 300 years before the birth of Christ, and though he permitted a measure of autonomy with regards to the priesthood, the general public was immersed in the Hellenization of Greek language and culture. It is indefensible to suggest that the New Testament writers were illiterate. But these are the arguments by which the left deceives many — sort of like when they say that uneducated people voted for Trump. How often does common sense trump a college education?

Some skeptics will agree that Luke-Acts was probably composed as one book, but it was written late in the first century, or early in the second century; and they will say that Luke, whom Paul wrote of in Colossians 4:14, 2 Timothy 4:11 and Philemon 24 is not the same Luke. As this position is hard to defend you will find arguments that the three cited books were not authentic to Paul, but forged by pseudonymous authors.

As far as dating the Gospels there are no extant copies absent authorship citation. For example, the oldest manuscript of Luke is inscribed The Gospel According to Luke. Skeptics will argue that the original autographs had no authorship citation, but like the “Q” document they cannot provide fragmentary evidence.

It’s like saying the earth is flat, or man never went to the moon. You can make any number of claims, but without evidence …

That Luke-Acts, for example, was written late and, therefore, could not have been penned by the physician, all we need do is examine the internal evidence. The Book of Acts closes with Paul imprisoned in Rome — alive and well, writing letters and receiving guests (Acts 28:30).

We know that Nero had Paul beheaded, and we know, too, that Nero committed suicide on June 9, 68 AD — the first Roman emperor to take his own life.

So, that means Paul was executed before 68 AD, and Luke-Acts was written sometime earlier. I believe that the whole of New Testament was written before 70 AD for similar reasons. There is not one reference, after the fact, of the most catastrophic event — the Apocalypse of 70 AD that brought a climatic end to the Jewish age.

Skeptics need to posit a late-date for the Gospels, in particular, because of the prophecy of Jesus Christ in Matthew 24:2. Agnostics have to be able to discredit the authority of Jesus Christ so it is essential that they sow doubt as to the authorship and dating of the New Testament canon. If written late, the skeptics could argue that Jesus was a false prophet.

In the remainder of this post I will present my counterpoints to Ehrman’s specific claims against the Gospel record.

Ehrman, like many of his institutional colleagues, refutes a whole index of Christian orthodoxy even disputing that Christ was born in Bethlehem:

Only in this Gospel (Luke) do Joseph and Mary make a trip from their home in Nazareth to Bethlehem in order to register for a census when “the whole world” had to be enrolled under Caesar Augustus. The whole world? Luke must mean “the whole Roman Empire.” But even that cannot be right, historically. We have good documentation about the reign of Caesar Augustus, and there never was a census of his entire empire. Let alone one in which people had to register in their ancestral home. In this account Joseph and Mary need to register in Bethlehem (which is why Jesus is born there) because Joseph is descended from King David, who came from Bethlehem.

Ehrman contends that the Gospel accounts recorded in Matthew and Luke are full of irreconcilable contradictions. It is hard to argue with a learned professor unless you are well enough studied to know that his contentions are false.

Archaeology discredits the assertion that there was no census under Caesar Augustus. Two unearthed bronze plaques titled the Acts of Augustus reveal that there were, in fact, three census registrations during the reign of Augustus (27 BC – 14 AD).

One need only refer to the writings of Roman historian Tacitus and Jewish historian Josephus to corroborate the historical account.

More contentious is Ehrman’s dismissal of the genealogies as recorded in Matthew and Luke. Here we need keen discernment of scriptural context and meaning. Matthew was writing to a Jewish audience while Luke was writing to a Gentile audience.

Luke’s genealogy traces backwards from Jesus to Adam for the purpose of conveying to the Gentiles that the Christ was born for all people. Matthew’s record goes forward from Abraham to Jesus for the purpose of revealing to the Jews that Christ was their Messiah born of the seed of David.

From Abraham to David, the gospel records concur; but after David the genealogies diverge substantially with only Zerubbabel and Shealtiel appearing in both lists. This should not sow doubt, however, but reveal a greater understanding of the inspired Word of God in context of the culture and age in which the Bible was written.

When we look carefully at the two genealogies it is markedly clear that Matthew is chronicling the life of Joseph while Luke is highlighting the ancestry of Mary. Indeed, the record splits at David with Matthew’s genealogy tracing forward through David’s son Solomon while Luke records the ancestry through David’s son Nathan. Clearly, there are two ancestral lines recorded — one for Joseph and the other for Mary thus proving that Jesus Christ had both legal claim and birthright to the throne of David.

That should be sufficient to end the discussion except that Joseph is listed in both records due only to Roman custom and tradition (remember that Luke is writing to Gentiles) that dictates the mother’s ancestry be traced through her husband (thus Luke writes):

… Jesus, as was supposed, the son of Joseph, the son of Heli (Mary’s father) … (Lk 3:23).

Luke is recognizing that Joseph — as was supposed — was not the biological father of Jesus, but the son-in-law of Mary’s father Eli for it was custom and tradition for a son-in-law to have the recognition and status of a natural son through whom the mother’s genealogy is recorded.

We might point out that Luke was a meticulous historian and keeper of records. It is absurd to suggest that he would author a Gospel account that was factually inconsistent, or even contradictory to the synoptic testimonies — or that the church fathers would canonize books that were so disagreeable with historical records.

Agnostics take issue with the lineage of Zerubbabel (son of Shealtiel) in that both names appear in the post-Davidic genealogies. Zerubbabel was the grandson of outcast Jehoiachin (Jeconiah) whom God placed a curse upon during the Babylonian exile — no man of his descendants will prosper, sitting on the throne of David or ruling again in Judah (Jer 22:30).

How, then, is it possible that Christ has legal claim to the throne of David since Joseph was a descendant of the cursed Jeconiah? The simple answer is that Christ was not of the natural bloodline of Joseph by Jeconiah since He was miraculously conceived through the virgin Mary, but we then have the problem that Zerubbabel is also an ancestor of Mary.

The answer to that can be found in the Book of Haggai. The word of the LORD came to the prophet instructing him to tell Zerubbabel (who was governor of Judah upon the return from exile):

I will take you, Zerubbabel, son of Shealtiel, My servant, and I will make you like a signet ring, for I have chosen you (Hag 2:23).

The LORD explicitly conferred authority upon Zerubbabel, and renewed the covenant line of David which had been removed from Jeconiah, but now resumed through both Mary and Joseph thus confirming that the baby Jesus is the Christ of both Jew and Greek.

But how could the Messiah descend from an illegitimate ancestor? Recall that Judah had relations with his daughter-in-law, Tamar, who gave birth to Perez and Zerah (Genesis 38). Now look carefully at Matthew’s record:

Judah was the father of Perez and Zerah by Tamar, Perez was the father of Hezron, and Hezron the father of Ram. Ram was the father of Amminadab, Amminadab the father of Nahshon, and Nahshon the father of Salmon. Salmon was the father of Boaz by Rahab, Boaz was the father of Obed by Ruth, and Obed the father of Jesse. Jesse was the father of David the king (Mt 1:3-6).

The law is given in Deuteronomy that no illegitimate birth shall enter the assembly of the LORD. That’s a pretty strong case that the agnostics lay charge against the authority of Jesus Christ. However, let’s examine the complete text:

No one of illegitimate birth shall enter the assembly of the LORD; none of his descendants, until the tenth generation, shall enter the assembly of the LORD (Dt 23:2).

Now scroll up and count the highlighted names in Matthew’s record and note how many generations passed from Perez to King David — ten generations. Our God is an awesome God — faithful and true.

In this season I would encourage you to remain faithful and true to Him; and be always prepared to give an answer to those who doubt.

Behold, I bring you good news of great joy which will be for all the people; for today in the city of David there has been born for you a Savior, who is Christ the Lord (Lk 2:10-11).

Suggested reading: Newsweek vs. the New Testament

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