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  • Writer's pictureLaurie Larsen

Who Were the Authors of the Gospels? (Part 1 of 2)

In my trek through the Bible in a year, I had now completed the Old Testament!

(Insert celebration and cheers here – maybe the pop of a champagne cork!)  Ha ha.  Yes, reaching the New Testament was certainly a cause for celebration because I was now embarking on the central figure of the faith of Christianity – Jesus Christ!

The New Testament begins with four books known as the gospels. The four gospels are the books of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John.  They collectively tell us the stories of Jesus when he was born, carrying out his earthly ministry, was crucified, and resurrected.  Often, the gospel writers chose the same incidents to feature in their individual accounts, but there are also stories that appear in one or two gospels but not the others. 

This is understandable. It’s not like all four sat at a long table consulting with each other in the creation of their books – “Hey Matthew, did you include this parable?  No?  Okay, I will.”

Although the four gospels give us, as Christians, many stories and accounts of Jesus’ teachings while he was on earth, John’s gospel assures us, (John 21:25, NIV): Jesus did many other things as well. If every one of them were written down, I suppose that even the whole world would not have room for the books that would be written.

So … who are these men who wrote the gospels of the life of Jesus that we are still learning from thousands of years later?

When I started researching the answer, it interested me to know that not all of them were members of Jesus’ Twelve Disciples who followed him around during his ministry.  In fact, only two of them were: Matthew and John. 

Let’s dig into a little bit of research to get more familiar with all four:

Matthew:  The New Testament begins with the Book of Matthew, which of course means that Matthew also is the start of the four gospels. Before leaving everything behind to follow Jesus, Matthew was a tax collector. In the New Testament, tax collectors were considered despicable and dishonest people. I never really understood that.  I mean, we have the Internal Revenue Service in modern United States – those are basically the “tax collectors” of our time.  IRS employees don’t have the same horrid reputation, right?

No, they’re different. In an article by James M. Rochford I learned that in Jesus’ time, “taxes weren’t similar to modern day taxes, which pay for education, roads, and other public services. These taxes went directly to Rome—the occupying empire dominating Israel. In other words, the Jewish people were paying their oppressors to oppress them!”

Rochford’s article, Tax Collectors in Jesus’ Day, goes on to say, “In Jesus’ day, the Roman Empire overpowered the nation of Israel as a foreign, imperial power. The Romans extracted taxes from the Jewish people. The Romans would buy certain Jewish provinces for periods of five years. These Roman businessmen would employ local Jewish men to collect the taxes from these territories. The tax collectors would then tax imports, exports, bridge-tolls, road-money, town-dues, and much more. The highest bidder would win the territory, and consequently, the tax collectors would skim money off the top for themselves.”

Okay, now I understand the Jews’ hatred for their own people who were partnering with their oppressors to treat their countrymen unfairly.  Matthew was hated by his peers, but he wasn’t the only hated tax collector mentioned in the gospels.  Zaccheus was another one.

The Gospel of Luke, chapter 19 starts out with the story of Zaccheus who was a chief tax collector and very wealthy. He wanted to see Jesus as he walked down the street in Jericho, but Zaccheus was short and couldn’t see over the crowd. So, he climbed into a sycamore-fig tree to get a glimpse. Jesus looked up and greeted him by name and invited himself to Zaccheus’ house for dinner!

Although the people around them started grumbling about how Jesus should not be fraternizing with a hated person such as Zaccheus, the man himself announced that he would give half his possession to the poor and make right with anyone that he had cheated.

Jesus responded, (Luke 19:9 NIV): “Today salvation has come to this house, because this man, too, is a son of Abraham. For the Son of Man came to seek and to save the lost.”

Back to Matthew. I imagine he was having the same change of heart as Zaccheus when Jesus approached him. Maybe his conscience was bothering him. After years of betraying his people for profit, and probably defending his actions to his critics, being in the presence of Jesus made him realize that he was capable of much greater things than these.

In Matthew’s gospel, chapter 9, he recounts the story of his own encounter with Jesus (Matthew 9:9 – 13 NIV): As Jesus went on from there, he saw a man named Matthew sitting at the tax collector’s booth. “Follow me,” he told him, and Matthew got up and followed him. While Jesus was having dinner at Matthew’s house, many tax collectors and sinners came and ate with him … Jesus said, “It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick. … For I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners.”

Personally, it is a huge comfort to me that Jesus feels that way. Because guess what … we’re all sinners!  And he still wants us to follow him.  He doesn’t turn his back on us just because we’re not perfect.

Mark: Moving on from Matthew, the second gospel is written by Mark.  Also known in the Bible as John Mark, he was not one of Jesus’ Twelve. So, how did he get the material to write his gospel?  The answer is that he was a very active participant in the growth of the Church detailed in the book of Acts of the Apostles, following Jesus’ resurrection.

Let’s take a look at where Mark is listed in the Bible (Jack Zavada’s article John Mark – Author of the Gospel of Mark was a huge help here):

·        It is believed that Mark was present when Jesus was arrested on the Mount of Olives after being betrayed by Judas Iscariot, as he wrote this somewhat mysterious reference in his gospel. Scholars believe he is referring to himself:  A young man, wearing nothing but a linen garment, was following Jesus. When they seized him, he fled naked, leaving his garment behind.  (Mark 14: 51 – 52)

·        He is first mentioned by name in the book of Acts in connection with his mother. Simon Peter (Jesus’ disciple) had been thrown in prison by Herod Antipas, who was persecuting the early church. In answer to the church's prayers, an angel appeared to Peter and helped him escape. Peter hurried to the house of Mary, who was the mother of John Mark, where she was holding a prayer gathering of many of the church members.  (Acts 12:12)

·        We see that Mark’s family actively supports spreading the word of the Church of Jesus.  Not only does his mother Mary offer her home for large gatherings of all the believers, but his cousin Barnabas becomes a valued travel partner of the Apostle Paul.  Barnabas puts in a good word for his young cousin to Paul, and Mark becomes an active evangelist in the Book of Acts spreading the word of Jesus to all the world. 

·        But his career starts out on a sour note!  Paul made his first missionary journey to Cyprus, accompanied by Barnabas and Mark. When they sailed on, Mark left them and returned to Jerusalem. No explanation is given for his departure, and Bible scholars have been speculating ever since.  Some think that young Mark was homesick. Others say he might have been ill from malaria. A popular theory is that Mark was imagining all the hardships that lay ahead and was understandably afraid. Regardless of the reason, Mark's behavior soured him with Paul and caused an argument between Paul and Barnabas over Mark’s future (Acts 15:39).

·        Paul refused to take John Mark on his second missionary journey, but cousin Barnabas still had faith in him. Barnabas took Mark under his wing and mentored him on several trips. Over time, Paul changed his mind and forgave Mark. In 2 Timothy 4:11, Paul says, "Only Luke is with me. Get Mark and bring him with you, because he is helpful to me in my ministry." (NIV)

·        The last mention of Mark occurs in 1 Peter 5:13, where Peter calls Mark his "son," no doubt a sentimental reference because Mark had been so helpful to him over the years. It is logical to assume that during the time John Mark and Simon Peter spent together in ministry, Peter would've told Mark many stories from his time following Jesus.  Mark, coming from a wealthy family, would’ve been much more educated than Simon Peter, a fisherman in a small town who probably didn’t have much formal education.  Although Peter would’ve been an ideal candidate to write a gospel himself, it is believed by some that Mark wrote the gospel based on his close relationship and learnings from Peter.

We’ve got two more gospel writers to cover, but I’ll break that into a separate essay.  Keep reading and enjoying! 

Let’s end in prayer:

Dear God, thank you for the presence of the four gospels in the Bible. They allow us to learn so much about the life and times of your precious son, Jesus.  They help us to imagine being right beside him as one of his followers.  Please always keep our minds open to learning more about you and your church.  Amen.

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