The Identity of the Evangelists:
It is an often heard fundamentalist assertion that we can trust the fantastic stories told in the gospels because they were all "written by eye-witnesses". Indeed Christian tradition attributed the authors of the gospels to either the apostles or their close associates.
I Clement 13|
[L]et us remember what the Lord Jesus Christ said in one of his lessons on mildness and forbearance. "Be merciful", he told us, "that you may obtain mercy; forgive that you may be forgiven. What you do yourself, will be done to you ; what you give, will be given to you; as you judge, so you will be judged; as you show kindness, so it will be shown to you. Your portion will be weighed out for you in your own scales."
We can find similar (but not identical) sayings in today's gospel of Matthew:
|5:7||Blessed are the merciful, for they shall obtain mercy|
|6:14||For if you forgive men their sins, your heavenly Father also will forgive you|
|7:12||So whatever you wish that men would do to you, do so to them|
|7:1-2a||Judge not, that you be not judged. For with the judgment you pronounce you will be judged|
|7:2b||and the measure you give will be the measure you get|
These allusions could have been taken from the oral tradition or a sayings source (perhaps Q?) or perhaps even the gospel of Matthew. Whatever the case may be, note how the reference is merely to "what the Lord Jesus Christ said." No mention is made as to where or what documents the quotes were taken from.
Next on our list is Ignatius (d c.110). In his epistle to the Smyrnaeans he made a reference to the baptism of Jesus by John:
Epistle to the Smyrnaeans 1|
He was truly born of a virgin, was baptized by John, in order that all righteousness might be fulfilled by Him
This is clearly a quotation taken out of Matthew:
John would have prevented him, saying, "I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?" But Jesus answered him, "Let it be so now; for thus it is fitting for us to fulfill all righteousness." Then he consented.
Note, again, that the source of that quote is not mentioned.
Also written around the same time as the Ignatian epistles was the ancient Church manual called the Didache. In the eighth chapter, it tells Christians to "Pray as the Lord enjoined in His Gospel, thus..." following that with a version of the Lord's Prayer that closely parallels that of Matthew (6:9-13) rather than Luke (11:2-4). As in the examples above, the reference is simply made to "His [i.e. Jesus'] Gospel" not to any specific "gospel according to...".
Around 130-135 we find the Epistle of Barnabas which quoted from the gospel of Matthew, again without making explicit reference to it:
Let us beware lest we be found [fulfilling that saying], as it is written, "Many are called, but few are chosen."
This is an exact quotation from Matthew:
For many are called, but few are chosen
It was with Justin Martyr (c 100-c 165), together with his near contemporary, Papias (see below), that changes from anonymity start to take place. For in his works we find references to "Memoirs of the Apostles" as written documents recounting the acts and sayings of Jesus. Justin was also one of the first [after Marcion c. 140] to use the term "gospel" to refer to these written documents. Prior to these two, the term was used to mean only the "good news" that was preached by the Christians. [a] 
First Apology 66:3 (c155)|
For the apostles, in the memoirs composed by them, which are called Gospels, have thus delivered unto us what was enjoined upon them; that Jesus took bread, and when He had given thanks, said, "This do ye in remembrance of Me, this is My body; "and that, after the same manner, having taken the cup and given thanks, He said, "This is My blood; "and gave it to them alone. [a quote from Luke 22:19]
Dialogue with Trypho 100:1 (c160)
There is one possible specific citation to a gospel from Justin:
Dialogue with Trypho 106:3 (c160)|
And when it is said that he changed the name of one of the apostles to Peter; and when it is written in the memoirs of him that this so happened, as well as that he changed the names of other two brothers, the sons of Zebedee, to Boanerges, which means sons of thunder
This passage is from Mark:
Simon whom he surnamed Peter; James the son of Zebedee and John the brother of James, whom he surnamed Boanerges, that is, sons of thunder;
This passage shows that Justin knows of the gospel of Mark (or some harmony in which this passage is contained). The whole question lies around whether the "him" in the memoirs of him refers to Peter or to Jesus. If it refers to Peter, it would mean that the tradition of Mark's gospel being closely related to Peter is known to Justin. If it refers to Jesus, it simply means that Justin had access to the gospel either in the form of either a harmony of the gospels or an anonymous narrative.
Whatever the case may be, Justin still did not explicitly mention the names of any other gospel (if he indeed had more than one). Often his quotations were amalgams of sayings from various gospels : 
First Apology 19:7|
For we know our master Jesus Christ said..."Do not fear those [who] kill you and after these things are not able to do anything, but fear the one [who] after killing [you] is able to cast both body and soul into Gehenna."
[translation taken from Sanders & Davies Studying the Synoptic Gospels]
This is almost a perfect juxtaposition of two passages from the gospels, one from Matthew and one from Luke:
And do not fear those who kill the body but are no able to fear instead the one who is able to destroy both body and soul in Gehenna.
Justin had either remembered these two passages and quoted them from memory (hence the conflation) or he was using a "harmony" of the gospels. In either case, note that he was not concerned about whether he was quoting from a gospel "according to Matthew" or "according to Luke". It was enough that he mentioned that this was a saying of Jesus.
Although Justin, like his predecessors, did not explictly name the authors, he was already referring to them as originating from the apostles. His writings can be considered the historical dividing line between the complete anonymity of the gospels of his predecessors and the complete certainty of their authorship of his successors.
The first explicit references to the supposed authors of the gospels were from Irenaeus (c130-200). Thus we see him making references to the gospels according to Mark, Matthew, Luke and John in Against Heresies (c 180):
Against Heresies 3:10:5|
Wherefore also Mark, the interpreter and follower of Peter, does thus commence his Gospel narrative: "The beginning of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God..." [Mark 1:1]
Against Heresies 3:16:2
Against Heresies 3:10:1
Against Heresies 3:11:1
After Irenaeus, explicit quotations to named gospels became common. Thus we find this reference in Clement of Alexandria's (c 150-c 215) Stromata [or Miscellanies]:
And in the Gospel according to Matthew, the genealogy which begins with Abraham is continued down to Mary the mother of the Lord. "For," it is said, "from Abraham to David are fourteen generations; and from David to the carrying away into Babylon are fourteen generations; and from the carrying away into Babylon till Christ are likewise other fourteen generations,"-three mystic intervals completed in six weeks. [Matthew 1:17]
And it was also after this time that we find full scale treatises on specific gospels. Thus we find Hippolytus (c 170 - c.236) who wrote a work defending the apostolic authorship of John, and Origen ( c 185-254) who published commentaries on Matthew and John.
We can summarize the evidence of gospel quotations of the early Christians as follows. From the end of the first century (c 96) until the middle of the second century (c 155), the gospels were always quoted anonymously. Around that time we find (in the works of Justin) reference being made to the written sources being "Memoirs of the Apostles" or simply "Gospel" - but still with no specific apostolic names attached to any of these. There may be a specific citation of the gospel of Mark in Justin's Dialogue (106:3) - if this is the case, the explicit citation of the gospel of Mark as a gospel related to Peter was made around 160 CE. It was only around 180 CE, in Irenaeus' Against Heresies, to we find explicit references to the names of each gospels and with passages quoted from there. After this explicit references became common in the writings of the Church fathers.
The alert reader will immediately notice something amiss about this. The four gospels were all written with differing styles and theological perspectives. It is unlikely in the extreme that all four authors would "hit" upon the same form of title, i.e. the "According to...". The titles look like they were placed later on already existing works by people who were treating these writings as a group. This consideration is enough to lead one to doubt that the titles as we have them today originally accompanied these writings when they circulated as independent works.
There is a further clue in the quotations from Irenaeus given above. Note that in his quotes of the gospels he referred to the first verse of all of them when introducing the works. (For Luke it was the fifth verse because the first four verses were merely the preface to Theophilus) In effect he was saying, "Mark's gospel is the one that begins with 'The beginning of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God...'; Matthew's gospel is the one that begins with 'The book of the generation of Jesus Christ, the son of David'" and so on. Why this identification with the first verse? The most obvious answer is this - during his time, the practice of putting the suprascript titles Kata Markon or Kata Matthaion had either yet to be started or to gain widespread use.
Evidence from ancient works confirm this. The titles of ancient books were normally taken from the first line of their text, normally referred to as the incipit. Thus in anonymous works, like some of the books of the Hebrew Bible, the titles were taken from words in the first line of the text. For examples, Genesis is known in Hebrew as Beresit which is the first word of the first book of the Tanakh "Beresit bara elohim..." [In the beginning God created...(Genesis 1:1)], Shemoth, the Hebrew name for the book of Exodus, is the second word of the first line (the first word is simple "and these" - thus would not be an appropriate title) and Wayiqra ("And he called...") is the first word of Leviticus and so on.
The anonymous style of the gospels of Mark, Matthew and John was obviously based on the example set by the Jewish Bible. Even Luke, although he started his work with a preface typical of Hellenistic histories, reverted back to the anonymous writing style typical of the rest. Charles Hedrick, Professor of Religious Studies at Southwest Missouri State University, has suggested that the earliest titles of the gospels were probably taken from the first line of their text. Thus the gospel we now know as Mark was called simply "The Beginning of the Gospel of Jesus Christ" (from Mark 1:1), the gospel according to Matthew was "The Book of Generation of Jesus Christ" (Matthew 1:1), Luke was known as "In the Days of Herod" (Luke 1:5 - ignoring the prologue) and John was referred to as "The Testimony of John" (John 1:19 - again ignoring the prologue. Note, by the way, "John" here refers to John The Baptist). For the fourth gospel, the title could equally have been "In the Beginning Was the Word".
Furthermore we have evidence that early Christians do use the incipit as the title. In his complaint against the Valentinians, Irenaeus wrote that "[T]hey have arrived at such a pitch of audacity, as to entitle their comparatively recent writing 'The Gospel of Truth'" (Against Heresies 3:11:9). This is very likely to be one of the gnostic gospels discovered at Nag Hammadi, which showed the same Valentinian theology. This gospel starts thus: "The Gospel of Truth is a joy for those who have received from the Father of truth the gift of knowing him..." 
Indeed we can see from these considerations that Irenaeus - in the four quotations of the gospels given above - was simply giving his readers the titles of the canonical gospels as he knew them.
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Quoted in History of the Church 3:39:15|
And the presbyter said this: Mark the interpreter of Peter, wrote down exactly, but not in order, what he remembered of the acts and sayings of the Lord, for he neither heard the Lord himself nor accompanied him, but, as I said, Peter later on. Peter adapted his teachings to the needs [of his hearers], but made no attempt to provide a connected narrative of things related to our Lord. So Mark made no mistake in setting down some things as he remembered them, for he took care not to omit anything he heard nor to include anything false. As for Matthew, he made a collection in Hebrew of the sayings and each translated them as best they could.
His source for this information is one Presbyter John. Who is this mysterious person whom Papias quoted? We do not know. We do know that he was not one of the apostles, as earlier in the same work Papias wrote this:
Quoted in History of the Church 3:39:3-4|
And whenever anyone came who had been a follower of the presbyters, I inquired into the words of the presbyters, what Andrew or Peter had said, or Philip or Thomas or James or John or Matthew, or any other disciple of the Lord, and what Aristion and the presbyter John, disciples of the Lord, were still saying.
Note that the presbyter John is not included in the list of the apostles and is not to be confused with the apostle John who was mentioned earlier in the sentence and in the past tense. There is a further point we should note about the witness of Papias. According to Eusebius (History of the Church 3:39:13-14), Papias was a man "of very limited understanding" who "misunderstood apostolic accounts." In other words he must have been, even for his age, quite credulous. We do not foresee such a person counterchecking the reliability of the information given to him by the presbyter. He probably just accepted what was told to him verbatim.
Whatever the case may be as to the reliability of this tradition (which we will consider below), Papias' testimony tells us that the name Mark was attached to the gospel around 130-150 CE.
Were there later Patristic attestations to the gospel of Mark? There certainly were. However in considering these there is a very important fact to keep in mind: the church fathers copied from their earlier predecessors. This only made sense, for it was unlikely that an older work would have survived if later "orthodox" fathers did not consider them worth preserving. Carried further, this means that if an earlier church father was held in high regard, his successors would accept the authority of what he wrote. However they were not faithful copyists. They also normally felt free to expand, comment or extrapolate from their sources. 
As Streeter noted:
|Irenaeus (c130-200) derived materials from Papias (c60-130), Hegesippus (c110-180) and Justin Martyr (c100-165); Clement of Alexandria (c150-215), Tertullian (c160-c225) and Hippolytus (c170-c236) used Irenaeus; Origen (c185-254) read most of his predecessors; and Eusebius (c260-c340), the real "father of Church history", used all these earlier writers. Jerome (c342-420)...copied and improved upon Eusebius. But even Eusebius rarely, if ever, perceived that a later writer was merely repeating, with his own comments or conjectural amplification, the statement of an earlier writer; and he thus sets their evidence side by side, as if they were independent witnesses who corroborated one another's testimony. |
What Streeter is saying here is important to keep in mind. If we have more than one Patristic citations to a certain "fact", it does not necessarily mean that we have independent attestations of that fact. This is especially so when we know that they had access to earlier materials and that they tend to add to or revise the sources with their own comments or extrapolation. This is exactly what happened with the case of the authorship of the gospels of Mark. We see that all later Patristic citations of this authorship were ultimately based on the writings of Papias and that what was added were no more than comments, extrapolations or even exagerrations of the individual writers. Let us look at these citations for Mark:
Let us analyze each of these attestations to see if they form an independent testimony to Papias.
Origen's testimony is simple. Saying that Mark wrote his gospel per "Peter's instructions" amounts to no more that paraphrasing what Papias had wrote - which was that he noted down "Peter's teachings". Therefore we have no independent testimony from Origen.
Irenaeus' added the point that Mark wrote after Peter's death. This again is inferable from Papias' statement - since Mark, we are told there, wrote down what he "remembered" of Peter's teachings. The implication being that Peter was no longer around.
With Clement, Eusebius and Jerome we begin to see a tendency to make the gospel ever more reliable. Clement, contradicting Irenaeus and Papias wrote that Mark wrote the gospel while Peter was still alive and that Peter "heard" the gospel. Eusebius added to this that Peter was "pleased" with what he heard and actually gave "sanction" to it. This directly contradicts what Clement had wrote, which was that Peter "neither directly forbade nor encourage" the spread or reading of the gospel.
Jerome's statement is interesting, for he has taken the exaggeration of the reliability of the gospel accounts to still greater heights. Note that it is not longer the case that Peter approved of the writing which Mark wrote from memory but that the apostle is now being described as dictating his memoirs to Mark. Did Jerome had access to information hitherto unavailable to the other church fathers? Unlikely. Look at what he wrote in On Illustrious Men (c392):
On Illustrious Men 8|
Mark the disciple and interpreter of Peter wrote a short gospel at the request of the brethren at Rome embodying what he had heard Peter tell. When Peter had heard this, he approved it and published it to the churches to be read by his authority as Clemens in the sixth book of his Hypotyposes and Papias, bishop of Hierapolis, record.
Note how this detail completely contradicts his Letter to Hedibia. Here he wrote that Mark wrote what he had heard Peter tell - it was not dictated to him and that Peter heard of the gospel only later and approved it.
There is another disturbing fact about his statement here. He cited his sources as Clement and Papias. Yet the point about Peter approving and publishing the work directly contradicts what Clement himself had written - which was that Peter was "neutral" to the gospel ("neither forbade nor approve"). His source for that was Eusebius. He had simply added Eusebius' account to Clement's and removed the latter's contradictory remarks.
Jerome's handling of the traditions available to him tells us that we should be cautious of later patristic citations that seems to add more information than that found in the earlier writings. He has no more sources that what we have available - he referred to Papias and Clement and doubtless also used Eusebius. Most importantly what comes out of this is his tendency to exaggerate. Note that from his various sources he selected the information that increased and heightened the reliability of the gospels, not worrying about the contradictions. Thus, as Streeter remarked, we catch Jerome in an act of "conscious exaggeration" in his letter to Hedibia. 
We can summarize the status of the Patristic attribution for the authorship of the gospel of Mark. For Mark, the only evidence comes from around 130-150CE, through Papias - all later Patristic attributions were directly dependent in him and do not have any additional information to offer. This means that there is only a single strand of evidence for the attribution of the second gospel to Mark. Furthermore this evidence is relatively late. It only surfaced around 130 to 150 CE , or 60 to 80 years after the composition of the gospel. What to make of this? This is what E.P. Sanders, Professor of Religion at Duke University and Margaret Davies, Lecturer in New Testament at University of Bristol (UK) wrote in their textbook Studying the Synoptic Gospels:
The connection of the name Mark with the Second Gospel, then, depends on Papias and on the view that when he referred to a gospel written by Mark he meant Mark as we have it. If, as seems probable, this is the case, it may still be questioned whether Papias' information or guess was correct. This cannot be decisively proved one way or another. The key fact to recall is that the tradition about Mark does not surface until approximately 140, which on balance must make us doubt that Papias had an old and reliable tradition. |
The recent attempt by conservative scholar, Richard Bauckham to reassert the reliability of Papias is not convincing.
Quoted in History of the Church 3:39:15|
As for Matthew, he made a collection in Hebrew of the sayings and each translated them as best they could.
Note that Papias said Matthew made a collection in Hebrew of the sayings (Greek: ta logia) of Jesus. Many scholars are not convinced that this is a reference to the canonical gospel of Matthew. There are four main reasons for this skepticism. 
|We must concede that the report that Mt was written by Matthew "in the Hebrew language" is utterly false, however it may have arisen. All that remains of the tradition passed on Papias is the name, Matthew. |
The most likely explanation for this is that the "sayings" Papias was referring to is not the canonical Matthew but something like Q or the Gospel of Thomas - a different genre altogether.
Let us now look at later Patristic attribution of the authorship of the Gospel of Matthew:
We can see that the main information about Matthew - that he wrote in Hebrew - was taken from Papias. That this is identical to the canonical Matthew and that it was the earliest gospel was the information added by Irenaeus, about fifty years after Papias. Later patristic citations, such as Clement of Alexandria, Origen and Eusebius merely repeated these two with some paraphrasing and extrapolation.
Jerome is another matter. He claimed to have seen, copied and actually translated an original Hebrew Gospel of Matthew! How are we to evaluate this? We start by noting that Jerome had a habit of exaggerating: both in his presentation of evidence (as in the case of Mark above - where he had Peter dictate the gospel to Mark) and in his portrayal of his own achievements [c] Thus we cannot simply take his claim at face value. Indeed a series of considerations lead us to conclude that this is just another boast by Jerome: 
To summarize, the earliest unambiguous attribution of the first gospel in the canon to Matthew is by Irenaeus around 180 CE, almost a century after the work was written. It's attribution seems to be partly based - erroneously - on Papias' remark about a different document - a collection of sayings by Jesus. Furthermore, although we have evidence that passages from the first gospel were cited (as we have seen above), there is no sign of any tradition assigning the first gospel to Matthew in the intervening half a century period between Papias and Irenaeus. Furthermore, whatever information Irenaeus had with him did not help him to note that the information given by Papias could not have referred to the canonical Matthew. This all leads us to conclude that Irenaeus did not have any additional information than that available to Papias and that it was he who took the latter's statement about Matthew's logia to mean the canonical gospel. He was probably also the source about Matthew being the earliest gospel published.
The explanation that best fit all the facts is that the traditional attribution of the second gospel to the apostle Matthew rested on Irenaeus' misreading of Papias.
Against Heresies 3:1:1|
Luke also, the companion of Paul, recorded in a book the Gospel preached by him
There is no explicit attestation to the third gospel earlier than this. The earliest report that Marcion (c 140) used a "mutilated Luke" also came from Irenaeus (Against Heresies: 1:25:1). Marcion, of course, was an extreme Pauline and certainly equated the gospel he used with the gospel preached by Paul - but there is no attestation that Marcion identified the work as Luke's. Indeed Tertullian (c 160 - c 225), in his work Against Marcion (4:2), criticized the heretic for not naming the human author of his gospel. 
Later attestations did not add any new or more reliable information: 
The information that Marcion used Luke (or a mutilated form of it) cannot be used to attest for the name being used to identify the third gospel. As we have noted above, Tertullian (Against Marcion 4:2) specifically condemned Marcion for not mentioning Luke's name as the author of the gospel he used. 
We can summarize the case for the third gospel in the canon thus: up to 180 CE, there was no linkage of the name "Luke" to it. Thus Irenaeus - around 180 CE - formed the datum for identifying the author of the third gospel with Luke, companion of Paul.
Against Heresies 3:1:1 |
[also quoted by Eusebius in his History of the Church 5:8:4]
Afterwards, John, the disciple of the Lord, who also had leaned upon His breast, did himself publish a Gospel during his residence at Ephesus in Asia.
Since the "afterwards" came after the description of the other three gospels, Irenaeus was obviously stating that John's was the last gospel to be written. By around 200 CE, Irenaeus assertion had gained general acceptance.  Subsequent testimonies of the church fathers were all dependent on his account and did not add anything new to the tradition - nor were they like to have access to any independent tradition.
The major pillar of this is the claim by Irenaeus that he was in the direct chain of transmission of apostolic tradition. In his Letter to Florinus (quoted in History of the Church 5:20:5-6), he wrote was a student of Polycarp as a "boy" and that mentioned that Polycarp was the disciple of the Apostle John. He was to make the same assertion in his major polemic, Against Heresies (3:3:4). Furthermore, he claimed that, Polycarp was appointed bishop of Smyrna by the apostle John himself. We gave this claim in detail elsewhere in this website.
We have also noted elsewhere the reasons why Irenaeus' claims, that Polycarp knew the Apostle John and that the latter appointed Polycarp bishop of Smyrna are false. First there is the complete silence about the presence of John in Asia in the writings of the earlier apostolic fathers such as Ignatius (d. c 110) and Polycarp (c 69 - c 155). We would certainly had expected them to mention John in the writings since both had occasions to do so. Second there is the passage by Papias which completely contradicts what Irenaeus claimed. According to Irenaeus, like Polycarp, Papias was also a disciple of the apostle John. Yet it is obvious from surviving fragments of Papias' writing that John the apostle was already dead when he wrote. The only John he mentioned having met was one Presbyter John, who - as indicated in Papias' own writing - was clearly a separate person from the apostle John. Third we have, as a supplement to the two reasons above, a more reliable tradition of the succession of bishops in Smyrna (where Polycarp was bishop) which evidenced no relation to the apostle John.
Thus Irenaeus' claim of apostolic authorship hinges upon the connection of John's residency at an old age in Asia minor. Yet we are virtually certain that this tradition if false and is based on an (inadvertent?) case of mistaken identity between the Presbyter John and the Apostle John.
We mentioned above that after Irenaeus, the proto-orthodox tradition quickly settle on apostle John as the author of the fourth gospel. Yet Irenaeus' predecessors and contemporaries do not share the same opinion.
Perhaps the most poignant case is that of Justin Martyr (c 100-c 165). Justin claimed that the book of Revelation was written by the apostle John. As we have noted above, Justin had already started calling some gospels (either Matthew, Luke and Mark) or a harmony of these as "Memoirs of the Apostles". In other words, there is already a felt need to attribute apostolic origins to extant writings that support their proto-orthodox theology. We know that Justin had been to Ephesus, yet he made no mention of the apostle John having lived there or that he wrote a gospel. Justin, as we recall, wrote 30 years prior to Irenaeus and would surely had had access to people who knew the apostle John when he visited Ephesus - had that actually been the case. 
A proto-orthodox contemporary of Irenaeus, the Roman presbyter Gauis (fl c 200) in his treatise Dialogue with Proclus rejected the apostolic origin of the fourth gospel on literary-historical grounds and attributed the authorship to the Gnostic Cerinthus. The important point here is that even as late as 200 CE., the apostolic authorship of the fourth gospel was still being disputed. 
Again Irenaeus formed the datum for the claim of the apostolic authorship of the gospel of John.
In the case of Matthew, we do not have a testimony from Papias, since he was definitely referring to another document and not the canonical gospel of Matthew. Thus for Matthew, Luke and John - all we have is the testimony of Irenaeus around 180 CE. It is important to let the implication of this fact sink in. Despite the relatively voluminous surviving Christian literature from the end of the first century onwards, the first attribution of apostolic authorship to the gospels of Matthew, Luke and John were made almost a century after these gospels were written. Furthermore we can tell from the writing of Justin Martyr around 155 CE that appeal to apostolic writings were already beginning to take on an importance not felt prior to that point. Had the tradition been floating around at that time, it would surely have made it into at least some surviving manuscripts. That it did not point us to the conclusion that the tradition of apostolic authorship was relatively new during the time of Irenaeus.
We are pretty certain that Irenaeus misinterpreted the sources for attributing the authorship of the gospels of John and Matthew. Irenaeus' mistake in confusing the two Johns in Papias' led to him attributing the fourth gospel to the apostle John. He mistook Papias' description about a logia written by Matthew to mean a narrative gospel. His attribution of the authorship of the third gospel was, as we shall see below, based on pure guesswork.
In other words, the traditional attribution of authorship is pretty worthless in the case of Mark, definitely wrong in the case of Matthew and John, and no more than a guess in the case of Luke.
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We do not know who wrote the gospels. They presently have headings "according to Matthew", "according to Mark", "according to Luke" and "according to John"...These men - Matthew, Mark, Luke and John - really lived, but we do not know that they wrote gospels. Present evidence indicates that the gospels remained untitled until the second half of the second century...|
It is unlikely that Christians knew the names of the authors for a period of hundred years or so, but did not mention them in any surviving literature (which is quite substantial). It is also intrinsically possible that the gospels originally were headed only "the gospel [good news] of Jesus Christ" or something of that sort, and did not give the names of their authors...
My judgment is that all the gospels were written anonymously and that the names were assigned after the year 150...
It remains for us to tie up a few loose ends. Some questions would naturally arise. For instance, why was the mid second century the time when writings hitherto anonymous began to be labeled "Memoirs of the Apostles" (Justin c.155) or named after apostles or close companions of apostles (i.e. the "Matthew" and "Mark" of Papias)? Furthermore, if the names are fictitious - how did they come to settle for Matthew, Mark, Luke and John?
The mid-second century stands out for few good reason. One of the main reason lies with Marcion (d. c160). A native of Asia Minor, he traveled to Rome in 139. And as a result of his large donation to the church there - gained some influence. Marcion thought that the Jewish scriptures could not be the work of the God of Jesus. While he developed his theological views he also collected ten epistles of Paul and one gospel (a form of Luke). This was to constitute, for him, sacred scripture. Five years after arriving in Rome, he called for a meeting with leaders of the Roman Church and presented his ideas. However the elders did not take his theology well and branded Marcion (d. c 160), a "heretic" [remember this is a retroactive title for losers in the theological battle]. Traveling back to Asia Minor, Marcion was wildly successful in spreading his beliefs there. His collection is widely believed to be the first attempt at forming a Christian "canon" of scriptures. 
Starting from the first half of the second century, other groups of Christians - Gnostics, Montanists, Jewish-Christians - were also making contesting claims about apostolic succession in their preachings and in their writings. [We have described this elsewhere.]
Thus there was a very strong felt need on the proto-orthodox side [the side that ultimately won the theological battle of control over how Christianity would develop] to come up with their own canonical scriptures with supposed apostolic support. Given this background, the timing of the assertions of Papias and Justin about apostolic writings makes sense. 
The second question was why Matthew, Mark, Luke and John? We know from looking at the internal evidence of the gospels that these attributions are spurious. So how did they settle for these four names? The answer is simple: they guessed.
Note that we do not need to speculate that they guessed, we know - in the case of the gospel of Luke - exactly how one of them did it!
In Against Heresies 3:14:1. Irenaeus explained how he got the name "Luke" as the author of the third gospel. By referring to the "we-passages" in Acts (16:10-17; 20:5-15; 21:1-18; 27:1-28:16), he noted that the writer was a companion of Paul. Then noting from II Timothy 4:10-11 [which is "set" during Paul's imprisonment in Rome - see II Timothy 1:16-17] in which "Paul" wrote "Only Luke is with me", and tying that to Acts 28:16 which states that "we came into Rome", he come up with author to Acts and hence also the third gospel (since they are obviously written by the same person) - namely "Luke the Physician" (Colossians 4:14). Since he never referred to any tradition as the basis for his identification - we can conclude that that was how he got the name for the author of the third gospel. 
Of course, this ancient documentary detective work is not impressive by today's standards. First II Timothy and Colossians are not considered to be genuine Pauline epistles by the majority of critical-historical scholars. These are known as "pseudepigrapha" or, to put in bluntly, forgeries. The information from these two epistles are therefore of extremely dubious historicity. And it is from these two epistles that most of the details about Luke - that he was a physician, a Gentile, and, by his multiple appearances, that he was Paul's constant traveling companion - are derived. There is only one certain reference to Luke in the genuine Pauline epistle (Philemon 1:23-24). It only referred to an otherwise anonymous "Luke" as a "fellow worker".  Finally, the "we" in the we-passages does not necessarily imply that the author was an eye-witness to the events. [We have shown this elsewhere in this website.] 
The example of Luke provides an important clue to how the traditional names were derived. Due to Papias statement about Matthew collecting a now lost logia, the name of this apostle floated around the tradition of having written something. A later Christian, perhaps Irenaeus himself, connected the dots between the first gospel and the tax collector Matthew. The dots were simple and similar to the way it was done with Luke. The gospels of Mark (Mark 3:14-19) and Luke (Luke 6:13-16) listed "Matthew" as one of Jesus twelve apostles. Yet in the episode on the calling of the tax collector, both Mark 2:14-15 and Luke 5:27-29, named him Levi son of Alphaeus. Only the first gospel called him Matthew (Matthew 9:9-10). Who better to know the "real" name of this man than if the author is that very person? 
When it comes to the gospel John, an unnamed "beloved disciple" figures prominently (John 13:23-25; 20:2-8, 21:21-23). There is also a claim made in the epilogue of the gospel that this disciple was the one who wrote the gospel (John 21:24). Furthermore the beloved disciple seems to be a companion of Peter. Adducing from verses in Acts (Acts 1:13; 3:1-4; 3:11; 4:13; 4:19; 8:14) which shows that John the son of Zebedee was a companion of Peter and added that to the fact that John was never explicitly named in the fourth gospel, led the second century Christian detective(s) to conclude that he must have been the author of this work. It may have been Irenaeus that did this guesswork, or he may have been the one to connect this with the fact that he remembered being told of a "John" - whom he mistook for the apostle - who was lived in Ephesus in the early second century. 
For the case of Mark, we recall that Papias got his information from John the Presbyter. Papias, according to Eusebius (History of the Church 3:39:13-14), was "of very limited understanding" and "misunderstood apostolic accounts." It is quite likely that Papias did nothing more than transmitted the tradition of Mark's gospel from the Presbyter. Note, in passing, that it was not impossible for someone named Mark to have written the gospel [Afterall someone actually did write it!] Mark was an exceedingly common name during that time. [e] Which means that there would have been many early Christians around with that name.  Thus it is possible that the Presbyter - probably around 120 CE - heard that the author of the second gospel was of that name. Now obviously "Mark" was not the name of an apostle - so he did the best he could to bring the otherwise anonymous author into as close am association to an apostle as possible. Thus he put together the tradition [reflected in the accounts from Acts 12:12 and I Peter 5:13] that seems to suggest that Peter had a junior companion named John Mark and connected it with the gospel written by an otherwise unknown Mark. 
We can conclude from all this that the traditional identification of the evangelists: Matthew the apostle, John Mark the interpreter of Peter, Luke the travel companion of Paul, and John the son of Zebedee, were nothing more than second century guesses of the church fathers. And, of course, as we have seen, they guessed wrong.
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|a.||The first person to actually use the term "gospel" (Greek = euangelion) in referring to a written document, instead of its original meaning which was "good news" or "glad tidings" (eu [= good/happy] + angelia [= message]), was Marcion (d. c.160) who used it to refer to his version of Luke. See Koester's Ancient Christian Gospels: p35-36 for a more detail discussion on Marcion's use of the term "gospel".|
|b.||By "Hebrew", Papias probably meant Aramaic - the language spoken by the Jews in Palestine at that time. However we will continue to use "Hebrew" for our discussion.|
|c.||Jerome is known to be particularly boastful and normally claimed to have accomplished more than what he had actually achieved. A couple of examples should suffice. In his book On Illustrious Men (392) Jerome claimed that he had finished translating the Old Testament from the Hebrew when in actuality he did not accomplish this task until another fifteen years later (c406). He made similar claims about translating the whole Septuagint (the Greek OT) into Latin. There are only a few books in the Septuagint which we have extant of Jerome's translations. And these were the few books he generally referred to when asked about the translation. Indeed when Augustine asked him for a copy of his translation of the Septuagint, he simply used the excuse every schoolboy uses: he lost it!|
|d.||Some scholars, e.g. R. Alan Culpepper in John (p122-123) claimed that Theophilus formed the earliest witness to a "John" being the author of the fourth gospel. Most other scholars, e.g. Bruce Metzger, Lee M. McDonald, dated him to around 188 or 190 CE, later than Irenaeus. The opinion of the majority of scholars, as far as I can tell, is that Irenaeus provided the earliest attestation to the apostolic authorship of John.|
|e.||Just think of famous contemporaries with that name. We have the Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius (121-180 CE), the Roman general Mark Antony (83 - 30 BCE) and one of the conspirators in the assassination of Julius Caesar, Marcus Junius Brutus (85 - 42 BCE).|
|1.||Sanders & Davies, Studying the Synoptic Gospels: p9-10|
|2.||Koester, Ancient Christian Gospels: p37-43|
|3.||Sanders & Davies, op. cit.: p7-8|
|4.||Metzger, The Canon of the New Testament: p135-137, 150|
|5.||Hedrick, When History and Faith Collide: p25|
Robinson, The Nag Hammadi Library: p37
|6.||Helms, Who Wrote the Gospels?: p1-3|
Koester, op. cit.: p32-34
Sanders & Davies, op. cit.: p8-9
|7.||Streeter, The Primitive Church: p16|
|10.||Sanders & Davies, op. cit.: p12|
|11.||Koester, op. cit.: p316-318|
Sanders & Davies, op. cit.: p10
|12.||Kümmel, Introduction to the New Testament: p120-121|
|13.||Kelly, Jerome: p158, 159, 302,334|
Philipp Vielhauer & Georg Strecker, "Jewish Christian Gospels", New Testament Apochrypha I, Schneemelcher (ed): p142-49
|14.||Sanders & Davies, op. cit.: p10-11|
|15.||Koester, op. cit.: p334-335|
Metzger, op. cit.:p92
|16.||Schneele, The History and Theology of the New Testament Writings: 240|
|17.||Metzger, op. cit.:p92|
|18.||Schneele, op. cit.: p471|
|19.||Culpepper, John: p123|
|22.||Sanders, The Historical Figure of Jesus: p63-66|
|23.||Ehrman, Lost Christianities: p104-109|
|25.||Sanders & Davies, op. cit.: p.14|
Schneele, op. cit.: p240
|26.||Akenson, Saint Saul: p135-136|
Ehrman, The New Testament: p137-139
|27.||Barr, New Testament Story: p324
Mack, Who Wrote the New Testament: p230-231|
Schneele, op. cit.: p266-271
|28.||Sanders & Davies, op. cit.: p14-15|
|29.||Sanders, op. cit.:p65|
|30.||Martin, New Testament Foundations I: p213|
|31.||Sanders & Davies, op. cit.: p13|
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