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Matthean and Lukan Authorship

Having seen that the author of Mark could not have been the John Mark, the interpreter of Peter and the companion of Paul and Barnabas, we will see here that:

  • Matthew could not have been written by the apostle of that name.

  • Luke could not have been written by Luke the physician, companion of Paul.

Matthew did not write Matthew

The gospel of Matthew is an anonymous work. Nowhere in the gospel does the author identify himself. The attribution of its authorship to the apostle Matthew cannot be traced earlier than Irenaues in 180 CE. The earlier attestation of Papias (c. 130-150 CE) refers to a different document and cannot be taken as an actual reference to the gospel we now know as Matthew. [We provide a more detailed analysis of this tradition elsewhere in this website.]

Today it is considered a settled issue among critical historical scholars that author of the first gospel, whoever he was, was definitely not the apostle Matthew. [1] [For ease of reference we will continue to refer to this "anonymous author of the third gospel" as "Matthew".] Let us review the main reasons why:

Matthew's Use of Mark

The most important issue is in Matthew's use of Mark. We have demonstrated elsewhere that Matthew copied extensively from the second gospel in the canon. We have also shown that the author of the gospel of Mark was neither an eyewitness, nor a native of Palestine nor even a close acquaintance of an apostle. Thus the reliance of a supposed eye-witness on the accounts of a non-eyewitness at least three times removed from the original eye-witnesses (i.e. eye-witnesses - oral tradition - written sources - Mark) is , in the words of Raymond E. Brown, a conservative Catholic theologian, simply "implausible". [2]

The changes in details that Matthew made of Mark is not that of any eye-witness, but betrays one with a theological agenda. As J.C. Fenton noted in his commentary on Matthew:

[A] study of Matthew's use of his sources does not show us a man correcting one source from first hand knowledge of events. In the author of this Gospel, we have an editor, an arranger of material, rather than someone who is revising in the light of accurate historical information. [3]

Let us take a few examples here. The most obvious is in the call to discipleship of Matthew.

Mark 2:14-15 (Luke 5:27-29)
And as he passed on, he saw Levi the son of Alphaeus sitting at the tax office, and he said to him, "Follow me." And he rose and followed him. And as he sat at table in his house, many tax collectors and sinners were sitting with Jesus and his disciples; for there were many who followed him.

Matthew 9:9-10
As Jesus passed on from there, he saw a man called Matthew sitting at the tax office; and he said to him, "Follow me," he told him. And he rose and followed him. And as he sat at the table in the house, behold, many tax collectors and sinners came and sat down with Jesus and his disciples.

Note that the only change is the name of the person called, from Levi to Matthew. If the gospel of Matthew really was written by the apostle of that name, one would expect a vivid eye-witness account of his own personal call to discipleship. Yet, all we have is a slavish and wooden word-for-word copying of Mark. This is, according to Bart Ehrman, a New Testament scholar, "difficult to believe" if the author was actually Matthew. [4]

In the episode on the triumphal entry, Mark (11:1-11) [also Luke 19:29-35 and John 12:12-16] had Jesus entering Jerusalem riding on a young donkey. Matthew (21:1-7) had Jesus perform the impossible task of sitting on two donkeys! This, of course, cannot be an eye-witness account. The change was made because the author of this gospel misunderstood Zechariah 9:9 to mean that Jesus had to ride in on two donkeys. [We have analyzed this in detail elsewhere.]

Similarly in the crucifixion scene, his changing Mark's (15:23) myrrh to gall (Matthew 27:34) was clearly done to "fulfil" an Old Testament prophecy (Psalm 69:21). [5]

Another important piece of evidence is the case of the story of John the Baptist's martyrdom. The story is told in Mark 6:17-30 but retroactively. This can be seen from Mark 6:14-16 where Herod feared that Jesus was John the baptist raised from the dead. The story that followed this retroactive tale was the feeding of the five thousand(Mark 31:44) which chronologically follows Herod's hearing about Jesus (Mark 6:14). Matthew's fondness for adding connective links between the individual episodes provided in Mark led him to make a mistake here. Although he copied Mark's remark about Herod having already killed John (Matthew 14:2), he did not notice that in Mark the feeding of the five thousand did not take place immediately after John was buried, but later than that and therefore erroneously added the connecting link "Now when Jesus heard this [about the burial of John], he withdrew from there in a boat to a lonely place apart." (Matthew 14:13). This was the beginning of the feeding of the five thousand in Mark. Any eye-witness would never have made such a mistake. But a non eye-witness hurriedly copying his source certainly might! [6]

The Form, Content and Structure

Many other details in the gospels excludes the possibility that its author was the apostle Matthew.
  • Both the Greek literary style and the gospel's use of earlier Greek sources (Mark and Q means that the gospel was originally written in Greek. Something unlikely to have come from a Palestinian Jew like Matthew. [7]

  • As many scholars have pointed out the structural form of the gospel is systematic and artificial. Matthew had essentially inserted five chunks of sayings materials (Matthew Chapters: 5-7; 9-10; 13; 18; 23-25), mostly from Q, into the Markan narrative. Such a structure is non-biographical and weighs against the gospel being the work of an eye-witness. [8]

  • The theology in Matthew is such that would be relevant only to Christians living around the turn of the first century. For instance his emphasis on church discipline (Matthew 18:15-20) does not make sense within the context of the times of Jesus. This makes sense only at a time when the church was more fully developed. [9]

Conclusion on the Authorship of Matthew

The first gospel in the canon could not have been written by the apostle Matthew because:

  • It relied heavily in the work of a non-eyewitness (Mark)

  • The changes it made to the accounts in Mark are not what one would expect from an eye-witness

  • It was written in Greek and relied on Greek sources (Mark and Q)

  • It's structure is artificial and speaks against it being autobiographical.

  • It's theology is more suited to the situation facing the church around 80-100 CE.

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Luke did not write Luke

The first traditional attribution of the third gospel to Luke, the traveling companion of Paul, was Irenaeus of Lyons (130-200) around 180 CE. Irenaeus based his evidence on the "we-passages" in Acts (16:10-17; 20:5-15, 21:1-8 and 27:1-28:16) which makes it look like the companion of Paul was the one writing the Acts. Furthermore II Timothy 4:11 ("Only Luke is with me"), Colossians 4:14 ("Luke the beloved physician...greet[s] you") and Philemon 24 ("Luke, my fellow worker...) all seems to mentioned this person Luke who seems to be Paulís' close and constant companion. And since Acts and the third gospel is generally accepted as being written by the same person, this makes the author of the third gospel Luke, the physician. [10]

There are, of course, problems with this traditional attribution. It boils down to three separate issues:

  • That Paul had a constant traveling companion named Luke.

  • That Acts shows evidence of being written by a close companion of Paul (whoever he or she is).

  • That the "we-passages" prove the case that what we have is the eye-witness accounts of a traveling companion.

We will look at these three issues in order.

Luke as Paul's Constant Traveling Companion

It must be remembered that Luke was referred to in only three verses in all of the Pauline corpus. These are:

Colossians 4:11-14
Aristarchus my fellow prisoner greets you, and Mark the cousin of Barnabas (concerning whom you have received instructions -- if he comes to you, receive him), and Jesus who is called Justus. These are the only men of the circumcision among my fellow workers for the kingdom of God, and they have been a comfort to me. Epaphras, who is one of yourselves, a servant of Christ Jesus, greets you, always remembering you earnestly in his prayers, that you may stand mature and fully assured in all the will of God. For I bear him witness that he has worked hard for you and for those in Laodicea and in Hierapolis. Luke the beloved physician and Demas greet you.

II Timothy 4:11
For Demas, in love with this present world, has deserted me and gone to Thessalonica; Crescens has gone to Galatia, Titus to Dalmatia. Luke alone is with me. Get Mark and bring him with you; for he is very useful in serving me.

Philemon 1:23-24
Epaphras, my fellow prisoner in Christ Jesus, sends greetings to you, 24: and so do Mark, Aristarchus, Demas, and Luke, my fellow workers.

Note that everything that is normally mentioned of Luke is given in these three passages. The fact that he was a Gentile is normally derived from the fact that in Colossians, Luke was named after "these men of circumcision" were introduced: implying that Epaphras, Luke and Demas were therefore Gentiles. We are also told there that he was a physician. In II Timothy, which is set during Paul's imprisonment in Rome (II Timothy 1:16-17), we are told that "Luke alone" is with Paul. In other words we are told that he was with him till (near) the end. In Philemon, we are simply introduced to Luke as a "fellow worker" of Paul. [11]

The problem is that the derivation of information about Luke from these Pauline epistles is of dubious value. II Timothy is almost universally regarded by critical-historical scholars as a "pseudepigrapha" or, to put in bluntly, a forgery. A document written by someone else pretending to be Paul. [We give the reasons why elsewhere in this website.] Similarly a substantial majority of scholars also think that Colossians is pseudepigraphal. [12]

Thus the only certain information we have about Luke is that of Philemon 1:23-24. Here all we know is that Paul referred to Luke as a "fellow worker". We do not know if he was a Gentile, or that he was a physician or that he traveled frequently with Paul. All these additional "facts" are derivable only from Colossians and II Timothy, and since these are forgeries, we are in no position to know how reliable they are as far as Paul's companions were concerned. [13]

Thus the name "Luke" is only one of the names of the many people who were, either occasionally or often, with Paul during some of his missionary work. There is no way to single out that name as the companion who wrote Luke-Acts.

The Author of Luke-Acts as a Traveling Companion of Paul

Whatever the case may be with regards to the name or identity of the author, can it at least be concluded that the author must have been a companion of Paul? No.

A number of factual errors in Acts which weigh heavily against the author being a companion of Paul: [14]

  • There are a number of serious discrepancies in the portrayal of Paul in Acts and what we can derive from his authentic epistles. These we have shown in detail elsewhere in this website. Here we will give a summary of some of the major points:

    • Number of trips Paul made to Jerusalem.
      Acts say five, Paul noted only three (Acts 9, 11, 15, 18:22, 21 versus Galatians 1:18, 2:1 and the (planned) visit to Jerusalem in Romans: 15:25).

    • Paul's first meeting with the apostles.
      Paul mentioned that he only visited the apostles in Jerusalem three years after his conversion (Galatians 1:16-19 ) But the narrative in Acts showed that he went to Jerusalem a short time after his conversion. (Acts 9:1-26)

    • Paul in Jerusalem
      According to Acts, Paul took an active part in the execution of Stephen in Jerusalem (Acts 7:58, 8:3) where he would certainly have been seen by at least some Christians there. Yet Paul in Galatians 1:22 mentioned that when he visited Jerusalem for the first time after his conversion he was "still unknown by sight to the Churches of Judea"

    • Paul as a Miracle Worker
      Acts portrayed Paul as a miracle-worker (Acts 13:6-12; 14:8-10; 20:7-2). Yet Paul's epistle do not contain much claim of miracle working and in the rare case where is raised, it seems to be mentioned in a clearly defensive tone (II Corinthians 12:1-12) - implying that the criticism of his opponents was that his miracles were not impressive.

    • Paul as Outstanding Orator
      In Acts Paul is portrayed as an outstanding orator able to command the attention of philosophers, unruly crowds and Roman prosecutors alike. (Acts 17:22-31 21:40-22:21; 24:1-21) Yet Paul admitted that he has been criticized of having weak "bodily present" whose speech making skills is of "no account" (II Corinthians 10:10).

    • Paul as an Apostle
      Paul presented himself as an apostle (I Corinthians 9:1-3; Galatians 2:8). Acts give the criteria to be an apostle to include being one of the twelve and having eaten and drunk with the risen Jesus (Acts 1:21-25; 10:41) - thus leaving Paul out.

    • Paul's Attitude Towards the Law
      Acts portrayed Paul as a loyal and practicing Jew. (e.g. Acts 16:1-3; 16:4; 18:18;18:21, 20:16) Yet in his epistles Paul's position on the law is more complicated (I Corinthians 9:21; Galatians 2:1-6, 11-14; 2:21, 5:4 Philippians 3:5-9)

  • In Acts 15:2-21 James was portrayed as the mediator between Paul and the Pharisees but in Paul's own account (Galatians 2:9) James was placed squarely on the side which opposes Paul.

  • Acts 10:1 -11:18 stated that the mission to the Gentiles was started by Peter, yet in Galatians 2:1-10 Paul is called to defend his mission to the Gentiles against the "three pillars" (James, John and Peter). Why would he have to defend a mission to the Gentiles when Peter had already started it?

These mistakes rule out the possibility that the author personally knew the apostle to the Gentiles.

The "We-Passages" in Acts

Having ruled out the hypothesis that the author of Luke-Acts was a companion of Paul it is time to look at passages in Acts that uses the first person plural, the so-called "we-passages". (Acts 16:10-17; 20:5-15, 21:1-8 and 27:1-28:16) First let us, as an example look at one such passage:

Acts 20:37-21:1
And they all wept and embraced Paul and kissed him, sorrowing most of all because of the word he had spoken, that they should see his face no more. And they brought him to the ship. And when we had parted from them and set sail, we came by a straight course to Cos, and the next day to Rhodes, and from there to Patara.

Probably desensitized by biblical narratives, we no longer notice how odd the above passage actually is. The third person singular ("Paul", "he") suddenly and without warning shifts into a first person plural ("we"), the moment the sea voyage starts. One would expect, perhaps something more natural like, "Paul came to the ship and I, with the other brothers, were waiting for him and we set sail". Instead the change is in midstream, as it were. [15]

Indeed as Stanley E. Porter, Professor of New Testament at McMaster Divinity College admits:

An admitted difficulty for any analysis of the book of Acts, it must be conceded, is that there is apparently no significant parallel yet found in any major Greek historian, including earlier classical authors and the later Oxyrhynchus historian, that evidences a similar use of anonymous first person plural embedded within a third person narrative. [16]

This means that far from proving that the author of Luke-Acts was a companion of Paul, the way in which the "we-passages" are embedded within Acts is actually quite puzzling. This suggests something artificial about the whole construct.

The first step in the resolution is to note that the "we-passages" are limited only to stories which involve travel by sea. It is strange if the author was only present during sea voyages and nowhere else in Paul's ministry. As we can see above the shift is artificial and it happens only when there is sea travel involved.

In an important paper, Vernon Robbins [17] showed that there was a literary convention at the time Acts was written. Although in general historiographical writing was done in an informal third person (i.e. "he" they", "Paul" etc), this changed when scenes relating to sea voyages were involved. With examples from Mediterranean literature (Roman and Greek) around the time of the writing of Luke-Acts, Robbins showed that the "we-passages" is a mere stylistic device to add vividness and excitement to the account of sea voyages.

One of the examples Robbins amassed is the tale of The Voyage of Hanno the Carthaginian (c 3rd or 2nd cent BCE). Note how the narration starts in the third person and then shifts to the first person plural when the sea voyage starts:

The Carthaginians decided that Hanno should go past the Pillars and found Carthaginian cities. He set sail with sixty pentekontas ( fifty-oared ships) carrying thirty thousand men and women with provisions and other necessities. After passing the Pillars of Hercules and sailing for two days beyond them we founded the first city, which was named Thymiaterion.

Thus the presence of "we" in narratives of sea travels was a literary device during that time. It use was meant to make the accounts more vivid and exciting. It may mean the author was present during the events described but it could also equally mean that he was not. For our purposes here, we can say that the "we" in the "we-passages" can no longer be used as evidence that the author was a companion of Paul. [18] [a]

Of course if the author was merely attempting to follow a literary convention, it remains to be explained why not all the accounts of sea voyages in Luke-Acts are in the first person plural (e.g. Acts 13:13). Marrianne Bonz, managing editor of Harvard Theological Review has argued in her book The Past as Legacy: Luke-Acts and the Ancient Epic that the "we-passages" serves an important rhetorical function. They begin only after the Jerusalem council (15:22-29) where, significantly, full equality was given to Gentiles. The whole of Acts now move away from a focus on Jerusalem and the Jewish Christian church towards the Gentile mission. As Bonz continues:

Once introduced the "we" group serves as a peripheral or vicarious participant in all of the elements of Paul's active ministry: proclamation [e.g. Acts 16:13], the breaking of bread [Acts 20:7] and its salvific results - even acceptance by James and the body of Jerusalem elders [Acts 21:17-18]. Most importantly the group accompanies Paul to Rome [Acts 28:16], the dramatic climax of the narrative journey and the geographical and theological symbol of the fulfillment of the missionary prophecy.

The "we" passages do not represent historical, eye-witness accounts...the "we" references serve as a rhetorical shorthand for the Pauline Christians - those who are vicariously privy to Paul's example and who, as heirs to his legacy, have been called by him to continue his unfinished mission. They are Luke's intended audience, whose participation of the ongoing drama of God's salvation plan is signaled by the words of the Lukan prologue: "concerning the events that have been fulfilled among us." [Luke 1:1] [20] [b]
[Verses from Luke and Acts added - PT]

Thus we can discern the reasons why "we" was used in those passages in Acts. Firstly, by using a literary convention it adds a certain "vividness" to the picture and secondly, since the "we" meant, like "us" in Luke 1:1, the Gentile Christians, the vividness was a way to represent their spiritual journey.

Conclusion on the Authorship of Luke-Acts

The evidence speaks against Luke as the author of Luke-Acts:

  • A "Luke" is referenced only once in the genuine Pauline epistles, and all we know of him is that he was a "fellow worker" of Paul. Every other bit of information about him: that he was a Gentile, a physician and a constant companion of Paul came from the two spurious epistles and cannot be counted as historical.

  • The mistakes in historical events and discrepancies of the portrayal of Paul (when compared to the Pauline epistles) specifically excludes a companion of Paul (whoever he may be) as the author of Luke-Acts.

  • The "we-passages" do not imply the writing of eye-witness. It's form (switching from third person to first person plural) is puzzling and there is no known historical parallel outside the genre of sea-voyage narratives. The best explanation is that it was used as a rhetorical shortland for "all Gentile Christians".

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a.Predictably Vernon Robbin's paper has been criticized quite extensively by more conservative theologians. However their criticisms have normally centered on the claim that the parallels presented by Robbins are "somewhat inexact" (Joseph Fitzmeyer) or "not similar enough" (Stanley E. Porter). Yet as we see in Porter's admission above, there exist no parallel at all with any historiographical work of an anonymous eye-witness who shifts from third person to first person singular without explanation. It is important to note that Fitzmeyer, despite his criticism, did not dismiss the existence of such a literary convention altogether. [19]
b.Vernon Robbins reached more or less the same conclusion in his paper on the sea-voyages.


1.Barr, New Testament Story: p277
Bentley, Secrets of Mount Sinai: p142
Brown, An Introduction to the New Testament: p210-211
Ehrmann, The New Testament: p84
Kümmel, Introduction to the New Testament: p120-121
Mack, Who Wrote the New Testament?: p162
Martin, New Testament Foundations I: p238-240
Parmalee, Guidebook to the Bible: p103
Schenelle, The New Testament Writings: p219-220
Wilson, Jesus: The Evidence: p34
2. Brown, op. cit.: p210-211
Ehrmann, op. cit.: p84
Kümmel, op. cit.: p120-121
Schenelle, op. cit.: p219-220
3.Fenton, Saint Matthew: p14
4.Ehrman, op.cit.: p84
5.Fenton, op. cit.: p18
6.Kümmel, op. cit.: p107
7.Koester, op. cit.: p316-318
Kümmel, op. cit.: p121
Sanders & Davies, op. cit.: p10
8.Barr, op. cit.: 253
Fenton, op. cit.: p15
Kümmel, op. cit.: p106-107, 121
9.Martinop.cit.: p242
Kümmel, op. cit.: p121
10.Schnelle: The New Testament Writings: p240-241
11.Ehrman, The New Testament: p138
Kummel, Introduction to the New Testament: p180-184 Schnelle: The New Testament Writings: p240-242
12.Brown, An Introduction to the New Testament: p610, 675
Ehrmann, The New Testament: p 348-350, 354
Schenelle, op. cit.: p282, 331-332
13.Akenson, Saint Saul: p135-136
Ehrman, op.cit.: p138
14.Ehrman, op.cit.: p262-265
Kummel, Introduction to the New Testament: p180-184
Schnelle: The New Testament Writings: p240-242
15.Ehrman, op.cit.: p138-139
16.Porter, Paul in Acts: p23-24
17.Vernon Robbins, "By Land and By Sea: The We-Passages and Ancient Sea Voyages", Perspective in Luke-Acts, Charles Talbert (ed) 1978
18.Barr, New Testament Story: p324
Mack, Who Wrote the New Testament: p230-231
Schenelle, The New Testament Writings: p267-268
Wells, The Historical Evidence for Jesus: p146-149
19.Porter, op. cit.: p24
Powell, What are they saying about Acts?: p34
20.Bonz, The Past as Legacy: p173

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