In previous posts, I've discussed some of the reasons we have for trusting the traditional authorship attributions of the gospels. Before I move on to the particular line of evidence to be addressed in this series of posts, I want to review some of the issues I've discussed relevant to the authorship of the gospels in previous posts.
Human memory is more reliable than critics often suggest.
Eyewitnesses and contemporaries of the apostles were still alive when issues surrounding the authorship of the gospels were being discussed (see here and here).
The early Christians had high moral standards, even by the admission of some of their enemies.
The early Christians believed that they were the recipients of a historical revelation that warranted an interest in historical information, they maintained a system of authority that gave prominence to eyewitness testimony, and they recognized and utilized many of the historiographic standards of their day (see, for example, Richard Bauckham's Jesus And The Eyewitnesses [Grand Rapids, Michigan: Eerdmans, 2006]).
They were aware of the possibility of forgery, and they recognized and utilized methods of avoiding forged documents: the use of recognizable handwriting (2 Thessalonians 3:17), networking (1 Corinthians 1:11), comparing manuscripts (Irenaeus, Against Heresies, 5:30:1), punishing those who are caught in such activity (Tertullian, On Baptism, 17), analyzing writing styles (Eusebius, Church History, 7:25:8-27), etc. Polycarp expresses the general sentiment of the early Christians when he condemns "whosoever perverts the oracles of the Lord" and describes the Christian interest in maintaining "the word which has been handed down to us from the beginning" (Letter To The Philippians, 7).
When disagreements existed about the authorship of a document, such as Hebrews or 2 Peter, those disagreements were mentioned explicitly and often. Even when only a small minority of people disputed the authorship of a document, like the dispute over whether the heretic Cerinthus wrote the fourth gospel, traces of such disputes were left in the historical record. Thus, when there's widespread agreement, even universal agreement, on the authorship of a gospel, that sort of agreement is accordingly significant.
The gospels' internal evidence is consistent with and suggestive of the traditional authorship attributions (see here, here, here, and here).
The gospels probably circulated with accompanying authorship attributions from the start, whether through labels, titles, or some other means.
The authorship attributions of the early Christians were often corroborated by non-Christian sources.
Such evidence is highly significant, and it's much better than what critics offer as an alternative. However, in this article and a few more in the coming days, I want to address a line of evidence that's often underestimated. The external evidence for the authorship attributions of the gospels is significantly better than is often suggested.
Sources like Papias and Irenaeus are frequently discussed in the context of gospel authorship, but without due appreciation of the significance of their testimony. It's sometimes suggested that somebody like Papias or Irenaeus either originated or popularized an authorship attribution. But what about the influence of Christians who lived prior to their time? Why do the early enemies of Christianity say nothing of a period of something like forty, fifty, or eighty years during which the gospels circulated anonymously or with different attributions than they later had? If somebody like Papias was so influential on issues of gospel authorship, then why is he mentioned so rarely in the extant ante-Nicene literature, and why did so many Christians disagree with him on other issues, for example? As we'll see in the coming days, both Papias and Irenaeus refer to sources predating them who held the same view of gospel authorship. They were passing on what they had received. They weren't originating it, and, as we'll see, they also don't seem to have been popularizing these attributions in the sense of making something become widely accepted that hadn't been previously.
As Martin Hengel notes, the circumstances in which the gospels circulated and the manner in which they were commented upon suggest that recognized authors were associated with the gospels even in their earliest decades of circulation:
"the knowledge of a widely recognized collection of the four Gospels which is used in worship is certainly substantially older than Irenaeus...Evidently Clement [of Alexandria] took it for granted that the collection of four Gospels was based on recognized church tradition and was unchallenged, since he does not have to defend it anywhere....Another comment on the name Matthew: apart from the first Gospel, to which he gives his name, Matthew plays no role in primitive Christianity. He appears only in the lists of apostles. He is only mentioned rather more frequently at a substantially later date in apocryphal writings on the basis of the unique success of the Gospel named after him. That makes it utterly improbable that the name of the apostle was attached to the Gospel only at a secondary stage, in the first decades of the second century, somewhere in the Roman empire, and that this essentially later nomenclature then established itself everywhere without opposition. How could people have arrived at this name for an anonymous Gospel in the second century, and how then would it have gained general recognition?...the First Gospel [Matthew] already established itself quickly and tenaciously in the church at the beginning of the second century...this writing [the gospel of Mark], quite novel in earliest Christianity, managed to establish itself in the communities and to be used extensively by such self-confident authors as Luke and the author of the First Gospel - in the case of Matthew around eighty percent and of Luke more than sixty percent - only because a recognized authority and not an anonymous Gentile Christian, i.e. a Mr. Nobody in the church, stood behind it....Therefore nothing has led research into the Gospels so astray as the romantic superstition involving anonymous theologically creative community collectives, which are supposed to have drafted whole writings." (The Four Gospels And The One Gospel Of Jesus Christ [Harrisburg, Pennsylvania: Trinity Press International, 2000], pp. 14, 16, 71-72, 80-81)
Commenting on the gospel of John in particular, Craig Blomberg writes:
"In fact, the variety of contexts in which Irenaeus refers to John and/or his Gospel demonstrates that it was already commonly believed around the empire that the son of Zebedee authored this work (Lewis 1908: 24-32)." (The Historical Reliability Of John's Gospel [Downers Grove, Illinois: InterVarsity Press, 2001], p. 25)
If the traditional gospel authorship attributions were significantly disputed in Irenaeus' day, he probably wouldn't have written as he did. This is especially evident in book 3 of his treatise Against Heresies, where a rejection of his authorship attributions for the gospels would radically undermine his argument.
Similarly, Tertullian's comments on gospel authorship rest on widespread acceptance of those attributions, not just his own acceptance of them:
"So I affirm that among them - and I am not now speaking only of apostolic churches, but of all those which are in alliance with them in the fellowship of the mystery - that gospel of Luke which we at this moment retain has stood firm since its earliest publication, whereas Marcion's is to most people not even known, and by those to whom it is known is also by the same reason condemned. Admittedly that gospel too has its churches; but they are its own, of late arrival and spurious: if you search out their ancestry you are more likely to find it apostatic than apostolic, having for founder either Marcion or someone from Marcion's hive. Even wasps make combs, and Marcionites make churches. That same authority of the apostolic churches will stand as witness also for the other gospels, which no less than Luke's we possess by their agency and according to their text - I mean John's and Matthew's, though 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." (Against Marcion, 4:5)
When people like Papias, Irenaeus, Clement of Alexandria, and Tertullian commented on gospel authorship, they weren't just expressing their own views. They repeatedly, sometimes implicitly and sometimes explicitly, express their dependence on or agreement with other sources. As Martin Hengel explains, concerning written sources:
"In this connection we should not forget that simply of the second-century Christian writings known to us by title, around 85% have been lost. The real loss must be substantially higher." (The Four Gospels And The One Gospel Of Jesus Christ [Harrisburg, Pennsylvania: Trinity Press International, 2000], p. 55)
The Christians who agreed unanimously about the authorship of three of the gospels, and nearly unanimously about the authorship of the fourth gospel, did so with access to far more evidence than we have before us today.
And the lateness of some of our extant sources isn't as significant as some critics make it out to be. As Craig Keener explains, while commenting on the gospel of John:
"Granted, much of the evidence for the Gospel's [John's] authorship - like most of our external attestation for ancient works - is not from the generation immediately following the Gospel" (The Gospel Of John: A Commentary, Vol. 1 [Peabody, Massachusetts: Hendrickson Publishers, 2003], p. 100)
Notice the phrase "like most of our external attestation for ancient works". Critics often hold Christian documents to a different standard than non-Christian documents. Accepting relatively late attributions for those non-Christian documents makes sense, for a variety of reasons, such as the fact that significant earlier disputes about authorship probably would be reflected in later sources, if such earlier disputes occurred. The same is true of Christian documents. And some of those Christian documents, including the gospels, do have external testimony "from the generation immediately following the Gospel". I'll discuss some examples, as well as other relevant evidence, in the coming days.