Who wrote the New Testament? Does it matter?

This page in brief

Before we read a book, we will often want to know who wrote it and whether we can trust them to give us accurate information. It is therefore understandable that people might wonder who wrote the 27 books of the New Testament.

I have spent quite a while reading information from qualified scholars on this matter, and have found that there are few easy answers. There are widely different views on the authorship of some books, with conservative and critical scholars often disagreeing strongly with each other.

On this page you’ll find a summary of both sides of the question and an assessment of who has the better arguments, all based on a bunch of references to eminent scholars (and a few others). In the end, you’ll have to decide for yourself, but hopefully this will give you some useful background.

For those who want a quick answer, here are my basic conclusions (read on for details):

Who wrote the books of the New Testament?

This is an easy question to ask, but difficult to answer with authority. About a third of the 27 New Testament books do not name their author, and scholars dispute the authorship of about another third, leaving only about a third for which we can name authors with some certainty.

Furthermore, the scholars are far from agreed about authorship of many of the books. I have tried to present a balance of the views of more conservative and more critical scholars. In the references (below) I outline who I have relied on to cover the range of views.

What is authorship?

In today’s world, it is generally fairly clear who wrote a book. The name is on the cover and the author is known to the publishers and critics. But it wasn’t so simple with the writings that comprise the New Testament.

It is quite possible that several people were involved in the actual writing of many of the books, whether as a scribe or as one of several editors or contributors.

Scholars believe the four gospels are based on memories and stories, both oral and written, passed down from the original eyewitnesses to a later author or authors, who compiled the material that had received into the books we have today. Luke’s gospel (Luke 1:1-4) describes a process something like this.

So naming a single author may be problematic for some books.

Paul and Ephesians

I have chosen to outline the arguments about Paul’s authorship of Ephesians in a little more detail, to illustrate how the different views are supported.

For Paul’s authorship

These arguments are accepted by opponents (except for #4).

  1. The book says twice that Paul is the author.
  2. Its authenticity was universally accepted by both orthodox and heretics since the earliest days.
  3. It has been accepted for almost two millennia as genuine.
  4. Arguments about style and content which are used against Paul’s authorship (see below) have little substance.
Against Paul’s authorship

These arguments are contested by opponents, so I give a brief summary of both viewpoints where applicable.

  1. Ephesians looks like it was copied from Colossians, which may also be written by someone other than Paul. Opponents say that Paul could easily have used the same ideas in both letters.
  2. The letter contains no personal greetings, as is Paul’s normal practice, nor any reference to issues facing the church, even though he had spent a lot of time in Ephesus.

    Some old manuscripts don’t contain the address to the Ephesus church, and Marcion (c 150) names it “To the Laodiceans”, which infers several churches in the area of Laodicea. So it is possible that this was a letter written to a number of churches and therefore less personal.

  3. The writing style is different from the undisputed letters of Paul. Sentences are much longer and more complex (e.g. Galatians and Philippians each have only one sentence longer that 50 words, but Ephesians has 9). The style is therefore more “rhetorical and slow moving”, verbose and “majestic”, and appears to have been more deliberately crafted.
  4. The vocabulary is different – Ephesians has many more words that Paul doesn’t use elsewhere than do any of his undisputed letter. The vocab is closer to that used in the Dead Sea scrolls than Paul’s undisputed letters. Some of the vocabulary seems more like later christian writings, which points to someone writing after Paul had died

    Opponents are not impressed by these arguments. Some say that more text is needed before such conclusions can be drawn. Harold Hoehner argues that Galatians uses even more unusual words, yet it is universally regarded as authentic.

  5. Ephesians uses different words for some familar concepts than are used in by Paul elsewhere. For example, Ephesians in several places uses “heavenly places” where Paul normally writes the more Semitic “the heavens”.
  6. The letter seems to be making references and addressing issues that are later than Paul’s life – for example, the relation of Jews and Gentiles in the church – and his view of the church seems more “corporate”.
  7. Most importantly, it is argued that the theology of Ephesians differs from that in Paul’s undisputed letters. For example:
    • In Paul’s other letters, believers are said to have died with Christ and will in the future be raised with him (e.g. Romans 6:1-4). However in Ephesians (e.g. 2:5-6), the writer says we are already saved, already raised with Christ and already seated with him in heavenly places. Thus salvation is in the future in Paul but present in Ephesians.
    • In Philippians 3:4, Paul said he was “blameless” with respect to the “righteousness of the law”, but in Ephesians 2:3 he includes himself among those who were “gratifying the cravings of our flesh and following its desires and thoughts”.
    • Markus Barth says Ephesians has no mention of dying with Christ and a stronger sense of communal salvation as opposed to individual justification, which is contrasted to the undisputed letters.

    However opponents say that many of Paul’s characteristic teachings are indeed found in Ephesians, and it simply represents a later stage in his thinking.

Conclusions

It seems that the majority of “critical scholars” doubt that Paul wrote Ephesians, on the basis of the above stylistic, historical and theological conclusions, while the majority of “conservative” scholars accept the historical evidence and don’t find the negative evidence compelling.

References: Forged by Bart Ehrman. Raymond Collins, Harold Hoehner, Philip Long and Marcelo Souza on Ephesians

How are authorship questions decided?

There are several different approaches to determining authorship.

Documentary and historical evidence

This is the most obvious method, and probably the most certain. If a book’s author is known from an early date, and he is referred to in other early documents, this is good evidence from those closer to the time of writing who should know best. In the case of the New Testament, most of the traditional authors are identified in this way.

  • Clement (c 95) refers to several of Paul’s letters, perhaps to several other books, and to several sayings of Jesus contained in the gospels, suggesting that these books were well established as authoritative by then.
  • Polycarp (c 120) quotes from or references 13 of the New Testament books, including some of the disputed books, without naming any authors.
  • Papias, wrote in the early second century, but his writings have been lost and are only known via quotations by later writers. He identifies the traditional authors of Matthew and Mark, though many scholars doubt the veracity of this.
  • Irenaeus (c 180) is the first known writer to identify most of our present 27 books as scripture.
  • The noted church historian, Eusebius (c 325) identified James, 2 Peter, 2 & 3 John, Jude, Revelation as being disputed, with a few doubting Hebrews also, but he nevertheless recognised all 27 books and their authors.
  • There are, as far as I can determine, no cases in the first three centuries of other authors being named for any of the books.
  • When the canon of the New Testament was being formalised, there were disputes about whether a number of books (notably 2 Peter, Revelation and Jude) should be included and it was only after much discussion that they were accepted.

This is quite impressive evidence for traditional authorship, although critics point to other apparent historical mistakes made by some of these writers, and the gap between them and the original writing, suggesting there was plenty of opportunity for these early writers to be mistaken.

The setting of NT books

Another argument for early dates and the traditional authorship is based on the fact that none of the NT books mentions the destruction of Jerusalem and the end, forever it seems, of temple worship in 70 CE. This was surely one of the most important and relevant facts for the early Jewish-Christian disciples, suggesting that most of the books must have been written by then. Further, Acts concludes with Paul in prison, and doesn’t mention his likely death in the persecutions of Nero around 64 CE, or any later missionary ventures, again suggesting an early date.

Some Hebrew scholars say there are clear Semitisms in the Greek of the first three gospels, indicating that they originated in a Jewish environment before about 60 CE.

Therefore many scholars follow the views of the church down the ages and conclude that authorship and acceptance of about 20-22 of the NT books is well established, and the remaining ones can be reasonably accepted. However for reasons we are about to outline, more critical scholars take a different view of many books.

A critical examination of authorship

Modern scholarship has employed a number of approaches to test the traditional authorship.

Setting

Scholars believe christian theological concerns and understandings grew and changed over time, as the early believers grappled with different ethical and theological issues. They believe they can trace this growth and change, and so identify the situation a book was written into, and hence the approximate date of composition.

On this basis, some books are assessed as being written to address situations that arose after their apparent authors had died, suggesting that perhaps a later author had written in a more famous apostle’s name. For example, 1 & 2 Timothy and Titus write about a church with established elders and deacons, whereas in Paul’s day, it is believed that leadership was more charismatic-based and not position-based. However more conservative scholars believe Paul wrote these letters somewhat later than the undisputed letters.

Theology

Theology has always been a criterion for accepting apostolic authorship, and even in the second century some writings were rejected, or disputed, on these grounds. Using the undisputed letters of Paul as a guide, scholars believe some letters written in Paul’s name (principally Ephesians and Colossians) have quite different theological views, and were clearly written by someone else.

For example, Bart Ehrman argues that Paul in other letters always uses the concept of salvation in the future tense – believers have died with Christ and will in the future be raised with him. However in Ephesians, the writer says we are already saved, already raised with Christ and already (obviously metaphorically or spiritually) seated with him in heavenly places. But other scholars say this matter isn’t nearly so clear, that there are examples of both ideas about resurrection in Paul’s writings. For more on this question, see box: Paul and Ephesians.

Style & vocab

Ancient church leaders also used vocabulary and style to assess whether two books were by the same author. This can be done much more thoroughly today, with the use of computers.

Scholars examine sentence lengths, and find, for example, that Ephesians has much longer sentences than we find in any of Paul’s undisputed letters. And they examine the usage of different words, and find that while all of Paul’s letters contain words that are not used in any other letters, some contain many more. They believe these are indications of different authorship, though recognise that it is difficult to say for sure how much of a difference is reasonable from one writer.

Disagreements

If two books disagree with each other over a historical matter, it may be an indication that one is unreliable, and may not have been written by the claimed author. Apparent differences between John’s gospel and the other gospels, and between sections of Acts and Paul’s writings, are claimed to throw doubt on John and Acts. Both books are anonymous, but our assessment of who the author might have been may be affected by these matters.

Literacy

Most of Jesus’ first disciples came from rural peasant backgrounds, and literacy was low among such people. It is therefore argued that the mature Greek expression and philosophy/theology in books like John’s gospel and 1 & 2 Peter could not be written by these disciples.

Objections

More conservative scholars generally say that most of these arguments are quite uncertain. Illiterate or less literate people can learn to write, secretaries and scribes can be used. There was enough theological variation to make any strict assessment of the situation in many places and times as extremely problematic. Author’s styles can change with circumstances and time, and even their theological views will have changed and grown over time.

An example of the lack of precision in critics claims is the fact that Galatians has more unique vocabulary than does Ephesians, yet is is universally regarded as genuinely written by Paul.

Proponents of these “critical” assessments argue that, while any one of these points may be problematic, the cumulative weight of the arguments is telling.

Bart vs Ben

To illustrate how complex these questions are, and the wide divergence between qualified scholars, here is a brief outline of some of the disagreements between Bart Ehrman (“critical” scholar) and Ben Witherington (“conservative” scholar).

In his book Forged, Bart Ehrman shares his conclusion that the majority of critical scholars doubt that Peter wrote either letter named after him, or that Paul wrote 6 of those that claim him as author. In support of these conclusions, he offers evidence (much of it summarised on this page) which Ben Witherington disputes, about Peter and about Paul. Here are a few of the main points of contention:

  • Bart says the majority of critical scholars support his conclusions, but Ben says analysis of those who have written scholarly (not devotional) commentaries shows the majority do not come to these conclusions about Colossians, Ephesians and 2 Thessalonians at least. Ben says Bart has used older scholars and ignores a trend in current scholarship to be less certain about doubtful authorship.
  • Before Bart addresses the New Testament letters of Peter (chapter 2) and Paul (chapter 3), he outlines a number of other documents attributed to these apostles but universally agreed to be forged. He then argues that such forgeries were common, and there is reason to believe some of the NT books come into this category. But Ben argues that Bart’s examples all come from the second century when the apostles had all died, and it is incorrect to read the second century situation back into the first century.
  • Bart outlines a number of places (too many to detail here) where alleged letters of Paul conflict with the theology of undisputed letters. Ben, on the other hand, mentions cases which, he says, shows Bart is mistaken.
  • Bart assesses the pastoral epistles (1 & 2 Timothy and Titus) as being forged in Paul’s name based on (i) comparisons with Paul’s other letters showing different vocabulary and style, and (ii) the ideas in the pastorals seem to reflect a much later date. Ben argues that a comparison of vocabulary and style can only be valid if it is made between two letters that have similar purposes, and when we do that (he suggests comparing with Philemon and Philippians), the differences are not so marked.
  • Bart discusses the possible use of scribes and co-writers to explain how the illiterate Peter could write a well-written letter, and how Paul’s letters might have different vocabulary and style, but rejects the idea. He says, based on some good references, that secretaries almost never had responsibility for content in the ancient world, and if they did, they would in fact be the authors. But Ben argues Bart hasn’t considered some of the most plausible possibilities, and other studies show that scribes were often used to compose all sorts of documents in the first century. Ben suggests that many of the NT books would have had joint authorship, with the most prominent author being named.
  • One of Bart’s main arguments against Peter, James, Jude and John being authors is high illiteracy in the first century. He refers to Acts 4:13 where Peter and John are described as “illiterate”, and argues that even if they had some ability to read, they were Galilean peasants and certainly didn’t have the ability to compose complex letters. But Ben argues that Acts 4:13 says Peter and John were unlettered, that is, not educated in the Jewish scriptures by a scribe. He says they may well have had at least functional literacy, enough to work with a scribe to write a decent letter.

These brief summaries are enough to give a picture of the disagreements on these matters. It is near impossible for a layperson to decide who is correct, and we must rely on the consensus of all scholars, not just the ones from one particular side or the other.

The balance of evidence?

A neutral observer (if one exists) might conclude that both “sides”, the conservative and the critical views, claim too much.

The conservative view is surely based, at least in part, on a dogmatic starting point that the Bible is God’s inspired Word and therefore must be defended. This must throw some suspicion on conservative conclusions. But at the same time, the conservative view has almost universal support from the historical and documentary evidence from the first four centuries, and so could reasonably be taken as the default position.

The conservative view is a reasonable one to hold, but must surely be less certain than is commonly claimed.

The critical view has similar problems. While critical scholars may not have a strong dogmatic position, they often make some naturalistic assumptions – for example, that if a prophecy comes true, it most likely was written after the event. And their methods of assessment are somewhat subjective and surely less certain than they claim

The degree of support for their views is also sometimes overstated. For example, Bart Ehrman often talks about the views of “critical scholars”, but this may simply mean those who generally agree with him, and critics say that the majority of scholars don’t agree with him on many matters. (Craig Keener apparently surveyed the literature and found that the majority of academic papers on the subject favoured the traditional authorship of Mark, Luke and Acts, despite statements to the contrary by some “critical” scholars.)

A more balanced view might be to recognise the doubts and remain agnostic about some of the books, without dismissing any of them (or many of them) totally. Exactly how many should be doubted is a matter of opinion.

Personally, I am somewhat unimpressed with arguments based on the assumption that scholars understand the setting, style, theology and literacy enough to draw a definitive conclusion, especially if they start with naturalistic assumptions rather than an open mind. I have been influenced in this by a paper by CS Lewis, Modern Theology and Biblical Criticism. Lewis was not a New Testament scholar, but had considerable expertise in ancient and medieval history and literature, and he argued that some biblical critics lack literary judgment, they sometimes assume miracles don’t occur, and attempts to recover the origin of a text are often mistaken. He urges greater humility in any attempt to overturn the judgment of people closer to the event.

The critics don’t seem to me to have sufficiently discounted the possibility that some books were written by a group, or in stages, and the most prominent author named, as some scholars think has happened in both Old and New Testaments.

I also wonder if some of critical judgments have sufficient rigour. A scientific experiment would use a control group to test the outcomes, based on clear criteria. But I haven’t seen statistical criteria defined for any of the vocabulary or style conclusions, nor any comparisons made with other writers. It may have been done, but I found no examples, though one source said that such studies show greater variability among other authors than is allowed for Paul. This makes the conclusions subjective at best.

Thus I would be willing to doubt the authorship of 2 Peter, Jude and 2 & 3 John, without having a strong opinion either way, but feel the arguments against Paul’s authorship of Ephesians and Colossians are insufficient.

So who wrote the New Testament?

There is general agreement about a third of the books (the “undisputed” books) but a wide divergence of opinion on the remainder.

The “undisputed” books

Only seven books, all letters of Paul (Romans, 1 & 2 Corinthians, Galatians, Philippians, 1 Thessalonians and Philemon), have their authorship widely accepted.

The anonymous books

Seven books are anonymous (the 4 gospels, Acts, Hebrews and 1 John) and two more give only the cryptic name of “the Elder” (2 & 3 John). Opinions on authorship tend to be divided between critical and conservative scholars, although this isn’t always so – for example, Maurice Casey, who was certainly a critical scholar, accepted early dates and more or less traditional authorship for the first three gospels.

There seems little reason to doubt the traditional authorship of Luke and Acts – Luke was not a famous apostle, so there is little reason why another author would use his name falsely. It is easy to believe Luke was highly literate. The apparent discrepancies between Acts and Paul’s writings throw some doubt on this, but it seems easier to think that either Luke made some mistakes (he possibly wrote several decades later), or made some simplifications, or that we just don’t know enough.

It seems quite likely also that a man named Mark was the author of Mark’s gospel, but we can’t know if that was the John Mark mentioned a few times elsewhere in the New Testament, and we cannot know how literate he was.

As a tax collector, Matthew would have been literate, but some scholars suggest not competent enough to write such a well-written document. But it seems quite feasible that Matthew merely wrote down the sayings of Jesus that appear in the gospel in defined sections, and then a later author compiled these sayings with text from Mark and elsewhere to create the gospel.

Scholars and the early church Fathers are divided about whether the epistles of John were written by the same author, with even less consensus on who the author(s) might be and whether the same author(s) also wrote John’s gospel. Some say gospel and/or epistles were written by John the apostle, while others say he was not literate. Some say it was another figure, John the Elder, and others that it was someone else unknown. But we can say there are significant similarities in the vocabulary and simplicity of expression between the 4 books to suggest a connection which may be common authorship.

There is some evidence that John’s gospel is a compilation of several sources, at least one of which is very early. So it may be that either or both John the apostle and John the Elder contributed to the final gospel.

No-one knows who wrote Hebrews.

The disputed books

The authors of the remaining 11 books (Ephesians, Colossians, 2 Thessalonians, 1 & 2 Timothy, Titus, 1 & 2 Peter, James, Jude and Revelation) are named in their text but this identification is disputed by many scholars, for reasons already given, but the traditional authors are nevertheless accepted by many also.

Ephesians and Colossians seem to have the weakest arguments against their authorship by Paul, and there are many scholars on either side of this issue. There seems to be insufficient reason to abandon Paul’s authorship.

Revelation claims to be written by John, but there is wide diversity in opinions on who this John was, except it is generally accepted that he wasn’t the author of the gospels and epistles of John.

1 Thessalonians, 1 Peter and James also have defenders of traditional authorship, though they may be the minority, and it seems that even less scholars (though still a reasonable number) accept the pastoral epistles as being authored by Paul. It would seem wise to keep an open mind on these.

The most doubtful of all are 2 Peter and Jude, and almost all scholars doubt that Peter and Jude wrote these alone, or at all.

Table: Summary of authorship

This table summarises the range of views. All dates are CE (Christian Era). The earlier dates are generally those preferred by more conservative scholars, the later dates generally by “critical” scholars.

Book According to the text Traditional author What the scholars say Likely date
Matthew Not stated Apostle Matthew Quite possibly uses a collection of sayings recorded by Matthew, but the completed gospel was probably compiled by someone else. 50-85
Mark Not stated Mark, a protege of Peter Some say John Mark, a protege of Paul, but others say we cannot know. 40-75
Luke Not stated Luke Clearly an educated person, so Luke, a doctor and the protege of Paul seems likely, but not all agree. 60-90
John Not stated Apostle John Much argued over with little consensus. Some still say apostle John, others John the Elder. Possibly compiled by a community which revered John. 85-115
Acts Not stated Luke Same author as Luke, so probably Luke the doctor. 60-90
Romans Paul Paul Little doubt it was Paul 57-58
1 Corinthians Paul Paul Little doubt it was Paul 50-55
2 Corinthians Paul Paul Little doubt it was Paul 50-56
Galatians Paul Paul Little doubt it was Paul 48-55
Ephesians Paul Paul Much argued over. Quite likely Paul, possibly an unknown later writer. 58-90
Philippians Paul Paul Little doubt it was Paul 54-60
Colossians Paul Paul Quite likely Paul, possibly an unknown later writer. 60-70
1 Thessalonians Paul Paul Little doubt it was Paul 48-52
2 Thessalonians Paul Paul Perhaps Paul, but many say someone else. 50-75
1 Timothy Paul Paul Many doubt it was Paul, though some think it was. 55-100
2 Timothy Paul Paul Many doubt it was Paul, though some think it was. 58-100
Titus Paul Paul Many doubt it was Paul, though some think it was. 57-100
Philemon Paul Paul Little doubt it was Paul 54-60
Hebrews Not stated Unknown (once thought to be Paul) No-one knows – only guesses. 80-90
James James James, the brother of Jesus Probably most say James, but many say someone else. 48-85
1 Peter Peter The apostle Peter Much argued over, little consensus, many say apostle Peter, many do not. 62-90
2 Peter Peter The apostle Peter The most doubtful of all traditional authorships. If not Peter then unknown. 65-120
1 John Not stated Apostle John Uncertain, probably one of the several christians named John who was part of the community that compiled or edited John’s gospel. 60-110
2 John The Elder Apostle John Uncertain, probably one of the several christians named John who was part of the community that compiled or edited John’s gospel. 60-110
3 John The Elder Apostle John Uncertain, probably one of the several christians named John who was part of the community that compiled or edited John’s gospel. 60-110
Jude Jude, brother of James Jude, the brother of Jesus Uncertain. 62-90
Revelation John Apostle John John, but which of many Johns? Probably not the author of the gospel or epistles. 85-100

Implications of these doubts and conclusions

Are there forgeries in the New Testament?

We have seen that this is really two questions, about which there is much disagreement. Here is my assessment.

1. Are the authors of the NT books who tradition says they are? The answer is we can be confident of some authors, remain uncertain about others, and can have reasonable doubt about a few.

2. Does this make any of the forgeries? This is a doubtful conclusion. Even when we doubt the traditional authors, we cannot know for sure, and it may be that many books were written or compiled by several people, including the named author, but including others as well.

History

It seems that these uncertainties make little difference to our understanding of history.

The most important books historically are the four gospels and Acts which claim to be historical accounts. But regardless of uncertainties about authorship, scholars have developed good understandings of the main facts of Jesus’ life and of the early christian movement. Knowing the authors more certainly would help with determining whether they were eyewitnesses, or in contact with eyewitnesses, but here the most important factor is probably the date of composition.

The rest of the books provide teaching on christian faith and living, and here authorship is less important. Scholars know there were different views among the early christians, and a different view of authorship would change some details but not affect the overall picture much.

Christian teaching

Uncertainties about authorship make a bigger difference to christian teaching. The christians who came to accept these 27 books, and not others, did so in part because they concluded these books had apostolic authority (i.e. they were written by apostles or close associates) and they taught correct doctrine. If some books lack that apostolic authority, then we may wonder how much we should allow their teachings to guide us.

I think this ultimately becomes a matter of faith – on the basis of all the historical and documentary evidence, do we trust that God has ensured that the New Testament conveys truth to us to believe and live by? I see no compelling reason not to trust God in that.

For those who have doubts at this point, it is worth noting that the books most in doubt are generally the smallest and least important for christian living and belief.

The inspiration of the Bible

The possibility of uncertain authorship, even forgery, doesn’t seem to me to threaten the doctrine of inspiration – God can inspire and work through all sorts of people.

But those who believe inspiration implies that God gave the words to the authors would then face a dilemma – could God give false claims of authorship to a writer? Those who believe in such a form of inspiration have no alternative, I suggest, than to hold to the traditional authors.

Final summary

  1. There are reasons to question the traditional authorship of some New Testament books.
  2. Conservative and critical scholars answer some of these questions differently, and our conclusions will likely depend, at least in part, on which group we side with.
  3. I think the arguments against traditional authorship often assume more than we can really know, and are therefore less convincing in many cases, but may be right in some.
  4. This conclusion may seem to be contrary to the doctrine that the words of the Bible were given to the apostles by God, but makes little difference to those who hold a looser concept of God’s inspiration.

References

Conservative sources
More critical sources
Other references
Other pages on this website

Picture: the gospel writer Matthew, inspired by an angel, by Rembrandt – from Wikipedia, Public Domain.

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