‘Two prong’ attack on the veracity of the Gospels–A refutation of the ‘unknown authors’ and the criteria of embarrassment

reliability-of-the-gospelsNew Testament critics/skeptics, along with Islamic apologists, often raise the issue of (1) the authorship and dates of the four Gospels. In doing so, (2) the accuracy of the Gospel texts that we have today in relation to the original manuscripts, referred to as autographs, is also brought into question. As the argument goes, “because we don’t (and can’t) know who the authors were, how can we know from whence the Gospel narratives came from? Were they really written by the eyewitnesses? How can we know?” The goal of this ‘two prong’ attack, is to discredit the Gospel narratives both historically and theologically, and as such, attempt to render the Christian faith suspect, or in the extreme, a legend or fantasy.

As an example of just how far opponents of the Gospels will go, during a debate between Muslim apologist, Adnan Rashid and Christian apologist, James White, Rashid stated the following—“We cannot possibly construct what was originally penned by Matthew, Mark, Luke and John and the rest. It is impossible for us to know what they wrote unless a copy signed by Mark was found somewhere buried in Jerusalem or Galilee or wherever he wrote. Until that happens, we cannot be certain. And even if that happens, how do we know it was actually signed by Mark? How do we know who was Mark? How can we even know that? Because biblical testimony and authority rely on one person, for example, for the gospel of Mark. Who is Mark, we don’t know, how he lived, where he lived and how he wrote and where he wrote and who he wrote for, we don’t have these details. One person somewhere writing in the middle of nowhere, we don’t know who he is.” (Full video of the debate can be found at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dlGZdiSnuxU)

Even though this example may seem to be extreme, it is not far from the type of criticisms that are often heard from Muslim and atheist apologists. It is obvious that Rashid had not taken the time to study early church history, or if he did, he opted not to ‘follow the evidence where it would have led him.’ Even a careful reading of the New Testament itself (not to mention the early church fathers writings) would have answered the questions that Rashid posed. As a brief overview of the evidence for Mark’s authorship and historical background, J. Warner Wallace offers the following:

  •  Mark was the cousin of Barnabas, and his childhood home was well known to Peter (Acts 12:12-14).
  • Mark became so close to Peter that the apostle described him as “my son” (1 Pet. 5:13).
  • Peter preserved his eyewitness testimony through his primary disciple and student, who then passed it on to the next generation in what we now recognize as the “gospel of Mark.”
  • Mark established the church in Alexandria and immediately stared preaching and baptizing new believers. History records the fact that he had at least five disciples, and these men eventually became church leaders in North Africa. Mark disciple and taught Anianus (AD?-82), Avilius (AD?-95), Kedron (AD?-106), Primus (AD 40-118), and Justus (AD?-135), passing on his gospel along with the other early New Testament accounts from the apostolic eyewitnesses.
  • There fine men eventually became bishops of Alexandria (one after the other) following Mark’s death. The faithfully preserved the eyewitness accounts and passed them on, one generation to another.[1]


In his book, The Historical Reliability of the Gospels, Craig L. Blomberg, offers the following background on Mark as well as the case for the attribution of the Gospels to those named as the authors:

“The oldest known testimony about the formation of the Gospels comes from second-century Christian writers who provided information about the authorship and dates of these documents. Papias, early in the 100’s, taught that Mark was Peter’s interpreter (or translator) ‘and wrote accurately all that he remembered, not indeed, in order, of the things said and done by the Lord.’ Toward the end of that same century, Irenaeus affirmed that ‘Mark the disciple and interpreter of Peter also transmitted to us what he had written about what Peter had preached,’ while Clement of Alexandria adds that this occurred during Peter’s lifetime. If the early church tradition is correct that Peter was martyred during the persecution of Christians by the  Roman emperor Nero between AD64 and 68, then obviously Mark’s Gospel had to have been written by that time. This conclusion accords with Jerome’s later declaration that Mark died in Alexandria, Egypt, in AD 62. Regarding Matthew, Irenaeus wrote that Matthew produced his work ‘while Peter and Paul were preaching the gospel and founding the church in Rome’ (Against Heresies 3.1.1), a reference that most naturally fits a date within the 60’s. Papias agrees that Matthew was the author of this Gospel, alleging that he initially wrote the ‘sayings’ of Jesus in a Hebrew dialect (quoted in Eusebius, Ecclesiastical History 3.39.16). If accurate, this tradition could suggest an earlier ‘draft’ of part of Matthew as early as the 50’s.”[2]


We can also apply the principle of prescription to the discussion, which is defined here by Cornelius Hagerty—“Prescription is a process by which a right is acquired through long use. It is important for a lawyer to show a court on which side of the case lies the burden of proof. Now it is an undisputed fact that Matthew, Mark, Luke and John have been credited with being the authors of the Gospels since the last quarter of the second century. The burden of proof is definitely on any modern scholar who contradicts this ancient tradition.” In other words, the burden of proof is on the revisionist, as not only does the early tradition hold to the traditional author position, but nothing within the Gospels contradicts the traditional author argument.

Criteria of embarrassment strengthens the traditional author argument

Another interesting point raised by Blomberg, is that of the historical criteria of embarrassment, a criteria that I have always found to be particularly powerful, and one that is glaringly absent in other religious traditions. An explanation given for the criteria of embarrassment is as follows—An indicator that an event or saying is authentic occurs when the source would not be expected to create the story, because it embarrasses his cause and “weakened its position in arguments with opponents.”[3] The conviction that apostles or close associates of the apostles penned the four Gospels already in the first century led Christians throughout most of church history to believe that they recorded historically reliable as well as theologically authoritative material.

That two of the four Gospels were attributed to individuals as comparatively obscure in early Christianity as Mark and Luke also inspires confidence in the tradition. John Mark was a companion of both Peter and Paul but best known for having ‘defected’ from the Pauline mission (cf. Acts 13:13 with 15:37). Luke was Paul’s ‘beloved physician’ (Col. 4:14 AV) and  traveled companion throughout those portions of Acts written in the first person plural, but is known by name in the New Testament only from brief references in the closing greetings of  three of Paul’s letters (see esp. 2 Tim. 4:11 and Phim. 24). Even Matthew, though one of the twelve apostles (also known as Levi, a converted tax-collector), would not have been a natural  choice for someone falsely ascribing authorship to a Christian authority, given his ignominious back-ground as a Jew who had worked for the hated Roman invaders.[4]

J. Warner Wallace brings this criteria to bear in the following paragraph:

“One might also wonder why, if these gospel accounts were falsely attributed to the authors we accept today, the second or third-century forgers would not have picked better pseudonyms  (false attributions) than the people who were ultimately accredited with the writings. Why would they pick Mark or Luke when they could easily have chosen Peter, Andrew, or James? Mark and Luke appear nowhere in the gospel records as eyewitnesses, so why would early forgers choose these two men around which to build their lies when there were clearly better candidates available to legitimize their work?…While it is possible that the Gospels were not written by the traditional first-century authors and were given these attributions only much later in history, it is not evidentially reasonable. If skeptics were willing to give the Gospels the same “benefit of the doubt” they are willing to give other ancient documents, the Gospels would easily pass the test of authorship.”[5]


I will be building upon the historical criteria model in other articles on this site—that of multiple, independent sources; enemy attestation; eyewitness testimony; early testimony, etc. My hope is that these concise resources will bring to your fingertips the evidence, both historically and theologically, so that you may, “always being prepared to make a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you; yet do it with gentleness and respect…(1 Peter 3:15 ESV)

[1] J. Warner Wallace, Cold-Case Christianity, 2013, pg. 226
[2] Craig L. Blomberg, The Historical Reliability of the Gospels, 2007, pgs. 26-27
[3] John P. Meier, A Marginal Jew, 1:168
[4] Ibid, Blomberg
[5] J. Warner Wallace, 2013, pgs. 172-173

The Reliability of the Gospels–Dr. Peter J. Williams

Is the Bible Reliable as a Historical Document?–Lee Strobel

Can we know who wrote the Gospels?–with Mike Licona

Who Wrote the Gospels?–Jonathan McLatchie

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