Kieran Fenn fms
People often ask me who wrote the gospels. This is never an easy question because it involves the past and the present as well as people’s sensitivities. I could begin by saying that the Holy Spirit is the author of all the New Testament; together with this is the main body of Christians in the earliest communities, who chose the 27 works we have as being more conducive to faith than the other works that competed for inclusion in the Canon (our rule of faith).
No gospel had the author’s name written above it as being ‘the Gospel according to Matthew, Mark, Luke, or John’. These names were attached late in the second century, and represented an association with an apostle, either directly (Matthew and John) or indirectly (Peter through Mark, Paul through Luke). This gives credibility that Jesus was being faithfully interpreted according to the witness of the apostles, necessary because Luke was used by Marcion, an early heretical figure, as the only gospel, and John was the favoured gospel of the highly suspect Gnostic sects. The church in its wisdom said not one gospel but four. To collapse all four into one as Mel Gibson did in The Passion of the Christ is to lose this vital perspective.
In 1964 the highest biblical authority in the church, the Pontifical Biblical Commission, published On the Historical Truth of the Gospels. Its major point, repeated in the documents of Vatican II, and now enshrined in article 126 of the Catechism of the Catholic Church, is that a gospel contains three levels of transmission. First is the life of Jesus (around 4 BC to 30 AD); then we have the years before a gospel was written down (the oral period when the Jesus story was told and retold for different groups of Christians over 30 to 60 years, being shaped by the differing needs of these groups). Last comes the actual time of the evangelist who wrote down the finished product that we have today, though no original piece of a gospel exists.
Acts 4:13 gives us a reminder that the apostles were ‘unschooled and common’, meaning in Greek, ‘illiterate and lacking in general education’. But they were mighty proclaimers of the word of the gospel. Perhaps it would be better to see the gospel according to N as referring more to the second oral period, the time of the apostolic preaching, and the actual writing down of the gospel as the work of those inspired by the Holy Spirit and the spoken word of the apostles. This process is clear from the witness of the Beloved Disciple (Jn 19:34-35) who may well not have been the apostle John. After all, there is a precedent in the Old Testament – all the books of the prophets bear their names but were all the work of disciples.
John the Baptist and the prophets of Israel are good reminders that the Word of God is more important than the one who speaks or writes it. The power of a gospel lies in its content, not in the unknown writer or writers of the four gospels we revere. The titles they carry are a convenient means to identify them. Whether they are the names of the actual author/s we don’t know for certain, but we do know the gospels are the revealed, inspired, and trustworthy word of God.