Biblical Studies (NT)/I. Authorship and Historical Setting


Lesson 2


I. Authorship and Historical Setting

The western wall (also known as the wailing wall) of the Jerusalem temple of New Testament times, constructed ca. 19 BC during the reign of King Herod the Great. The Dome of the Rock, a holy site for Muslims, is in the background.


The four gospels each give an account of the life and ministry of Jesus Christ, and many of his teachings are reproduced within them. Together, they form the core of the best-selling book of all time and are arguably the most influential works ever written, yet we know very little about their authors. Indeed, the traditional accreditation of authorship for the gospels and especially the dates of writing have increasingly come into question in the last hundred years, and especially since World War II, and scholars have offered varying hypotheses on the subject. It is not within our purpose here to discuss these theories in depth, because the first priority of students of the New Testament must be to acquire a working knowledge of the text itself. Having done so, they will then be in a position to move on to the intricacies of theological discussion, but to do so without first becoming acquainted with the text is a capital mistake which can only lead to erroneous conclusions. Nevertheless, issues on which scholarship is at variance, as in the case of the dating of the Gospels, will be noted where appropriate.


Although the first gospel does not name its author, it has been accepted as the work of the apostle, Matthew, since the very earliest days of the church. Papias (ca. 70-155 A.D.), one of the apostle John’s students, gave Matthew credit for its authorship. Although there is a prediction of the destruction of the temple in this gospel, there is no indication that it had already occurred. This being the case, it would have been written prior to 70 A.D. Traditionally it has been placed mid-century, between 50 and 60 A.D.

Some scholars have used the prediction of the temple's destruction to argue for a later date, in the belief that no one can predict future events. On this basis, the Gospel must have been written after 70 A.D. Others note that there is no known external reference to the Gospel before the early second century, which leaves the possibility open for a later date of writing. Regardless, we can safely place the date of writing in the second half of the first century, and in the absence of evidence to the contrary, it is not unreasonable to accept the traditional position which gives credit for authorship to Matthew.

(There will be more about Matthew in the lesson entitled The Twelve Apostles.)


The second gospel has been attributed to Jesus' disciple, John Mark, since the earliest days of the church. Papias (ca. 70-155 A.D.) wrote of Mark, “One object was in his thoughts: to omit nothing that he had heard and to make no false statements.” If Mark did write this gospel, much of the information within it was probably furnished by the apostle Peter, who was a good friend and, as an apostle and one of Jesus' inner circle, would have had additional information beyond what Mark knew from his own experience.

The early church writers Eusebius, Epiphanius, and Jerome say that Mark died in Egypt in 64 A.D., which means that his gospel must have been written before that date. It has typically been placed towards the end of his life, between 56 and 64 A.D. However, Mark, like Matthew, quotes Jesus as predicting the "abomination of desolation" (Mk 13:14), i.e. the desecration of the temple. As with Matthew, some argue that this event could not have been foreseen, and in consequence Mark's gospel must have been written after 70 A.D. This would also necessitate that someone other than Mark actually wrote this gospel, as Mark would have been dead by this time. The passage does not make an explicit connection to the temple of New Testament times, however, and many interpreters see the passage as an end-times prophecy. Regardless, a date within the latter half of the first century is generally accepted.

Peter, in his first epistle, refers to Mark as his son, which may mean that Mark was a convert of his and/or that Peter was his mentor. Either way, such a description indicates a close relationship. In reality, Mark was the son of a woman of Jerusalem whose name was Mary. Their house was a meeting place for the disciples in Jerusalem and was the first place that Peter went when the angel released him from prison (Acts 12:12). Mark was a cousin of Barnabas, and since Barnabas was of the tribe of Levi from which were drawn the priests of Israel, it is likely that Mark was also, being related. It is commonly thought that he was talking about himself when he described the incident of the young man who was so eager to escape from the scene of Jesus’ arrest: “A certain young man followed him, having a linen cloth thrown around his naked body. And the young men laid hold of him, and he left the linen cloth and fled from them naked” (Mk 14:51-52).

In about 44 A.D., about fifteen years after Jesus is said to have ascended to heaven, Mark set out with Paul and Barnabas from Antioch on their first missionary journey. However, he did not complete the journey and this is thought to have caused a rift between him and Paul, for when he wanted to go with Paul on his second missionary journey about four years later, Paul refused to take him. As a result, Mark went with Barnabas to Cyprus instead. This occurrence did not drive a permanent wedge between Mark and Paul however, for we hear of Mark some twelve years later in Rome with Paul (Col 4:10). Again, just before he was executed, Paul asked Timothy to bring Mark to be with him (2 Tim 4:11).


The Gospel of Luke, like the other gospels, is named for the person who, according to tradition, is its author. We do not know to what extent Luke was an eyewitness of the events described in his gospel, yet the introduction indicates that he was in a position to be well-informed about them (Lk 1:3-4). In addition to his gospel, Luke is credited with writing the book of Acts, and both documents are addressed to a certain Theophilus. Nothing is known of this person, though his name suggests a Roman background.

Together, the Gospel of Luke and Acts form a two-part history of the early church. Since Acts ends during the period of Paul's house arrest in Rome, yet does not mention Paul's subsequent imprisonment and death, we have reason to believe that it was written between 62 and 66 A.D. The Gospel of Luke, as "the former account," [Acts 1:1] would have to have been written no later than that. There are a number of theories with regard to the date of authorship, however, with some seeing an earlier date, and others suggesting a later date. (For more information, see the Wikipedia article on the Gospel of Luke). But as with the other gospels, it is reasonably safe to assume a date within the second half of the first century.

As far as we know, Luke is the only non-Jewish writer in the Bible. Not much is known of his life. He is only mentioned three times in the New Testament. The first time is in Colossians 4:14, where Paul coined the phrase, “Luke, the beloved physician,” with which he is so often identified. Paul again refers to him in his letter to Philemon, where he calls him one of his “fellow laborers” (v.24). Again, during Paul’s last days in prison in Rome before his martyrdom, at a time when it was becoming very uncomfortable in Rome for Christians, and at a time when Paul’s “fellow laborers” had deserted him, Paul wrote to Timothy, “Only Luke is with me” (2 Tim 4:11). In all three passages, Mark is also mentioned, indicating that Mark and Luke were fellow workers in the Christian ministry and well-acquainted. Luke’s use of the pronoun “we” in certain parts of Acts indicates that he traveled with Paul from Troas to Philippi during Paul’s second missionary journey. He then spent six years as a leader in the Philippian church before rejoining Paul at the close of his third missionary journey. He stayed with Paul throughout Paul’s imprisonment in Caesarea and Rome and until Paul’s eventual martyrdom in about 66 A.D.

Luke's gospel and Acts together constitute about a quarter of the New Testament, and in terms of length, Luke's contribution is the largest of any of the New Testament authors, including Paul.

The Synoptic ProblemEdit

The first three gospels are often studied as a group, apart from John. This is because the accounts of Matthew, Mark, and Luke have many similarities. For this reason, they are called the Synoptic Gospels. (Synoptic means “from the same point of view.”) The similarity of their contents gives rise to the question, “Who wrote first, and how much did they borrow from each other?” The problem of determining the order in which they were written, how much each one influenced the others, and what sources they all had in common is called the Synoptic Problem.

Mark is the shortest of the three, and Mathew and Luke together contain almost everything included in Mark's gospel, though Matthew and Luke leave out different material, and each includes additional material unique to their own gospels. This has led some scholars to propose that Mark wrote first, and that the others took his gospel and added additional material to it. This is a distinct possibility, but it must be remembered that the opposite could also be true. Mark could have taken one or both of the other two gospels and edited them to suit his own purposes, creating a shorter account in the process, or all three may have used other sources which we no longer have.

If we accept the traditional position that these gospels were written by Matthew, Mark, and Luke, we may also conclude that Matthew, as an apostle, and Mark, as a disciple, were eyewitnesses to at least some of what they wrote. We do not know whether Luke was an eyewitness or not, but we know from Acts that he was acquainted with people who were. He opens his gospel by saying that he was in a position to know the facts, and he mentions that others had already written accounts of Jesus' life and ministry prior to his own:

Inasmuch as many have undertaken to compile an account of the things accomplished among us, just as they were handed down to us by those who from the beginning were eyewitnesses and servants of the word, it seemed good to me also, having had perfect understanding of all things from the very first, to write to you an orderly account, most excellent Theophilus, that you may know the certainty of those things in which you were instructed. (Lk 1:1-4)

It may be that Matthew and Mark were among those earlier accounts, but there is no way for us to know beyond a shadow of a doubt the order in which the three synoptics were written.


Early church writers were unanimous in giving credit to the apostle John for the authorship of the gospel which bears his name. This was not questioned until modern times, when a few scholars have raised the possibility that the author might have been another John who lived in Ephesus in the first century, among other things. However, the gospel itself testifies that the author was extremely close to Jesus, for it says, “Peter, turning around, saw the disciple whom Jesus loved following, who also had leaned on his breast at the supper… This is the disciple who testifies of these things, and wrote these things” (Jn 21:20,24). These words, coupled with the testimony of the early writers, weigh the evidence in favor of the apostle John. Also, as noted above, the content of John's gospel is substantially different than that of the other three gospels, which may indicate that the author was privy to events and dialogue of which they had no knowledge. If we accept the evidence for John the Apostle's authorship, the date of writing must be prior to 100 A.D., given John's death in the last few years of the century, but the exact date of writing is a subject of ongoing discussion.

(John will be discussed further in the lesson entitled The Twelve Apostles.)

The Emphasis of Each GospelEdit

While the gospels all tell the story of Jesus, each one has its own particular emphasis. The special emphasis of Matthew is that Jesus is the long-awaited Messiah who came in fulfillment of prophecy. Matthew repeatedly quotes from the Hebrew scriptures (the Old Testament of the Christian Bible) to illustrate this. As the first book in the New Testament, Matthew serves as a link between the Hebrew scriptures and the New Testament. Matthew's gospel opens with a genealogy of Jesus which goes back to Abraham. Matthew’s frequent references to the Hebrew scriptures powerfully illustrate the words of Jesus, who said, “Do not think that I came to destroy the Law or the Prophets. I did not come to destroy but to fulfill” (Mt 5:17).

Mark emphasizes the superhuman, miraculous power of Jesus. Where Matthew records Jesus’ discourses quite fully, Mark concentrates more on how Jesus demonstrated his deity by his divine powers. Mark’s gospel seems designed to appeal to the Roman mindset. As rulers of the greatest empire in the world until that time, the Romans would naturally have gloried in the idea of power and influence, in activity rather than in passivity. Jesus, while a humble servant of all, is portrayed as a man of action and power.

Luke emphasizes the humanity of Jesus, which is fitting for one who was both a Greek and a physician. He gives particular attention to Jesus’ kindness toward the weak, the suffering, and the outcast. Luke was a well-educated man who understood the Greek obsession with reason, beauty, and education. His account is well-suited to appeal to the lofty philosophical ideals of the Greek culture.

John’s gospel stands in contrast to that of Luke, for John dwells on the divinity of Christ, rather than his humanity. John reveals Christ to be the incarnate “Word,” that which existed before all things were made, and through whom all things were made. John is less concerned with what Jesus did and more concerned with who he was. His purpose was to establish that Jesus was the divine incarnation, not just a holy or gifted person. John was closer to Jesus, and possibly spent more time with him during his ministry years, than anyone else.

The existence of four gospels more than satisfies the requirement of the Law of Moses that "by the mouth of two or three witnesses the matter shall be established" (Deut 19:15). While each gospel has its own particular emphasis, all four portray Jesus as the son of God. Matthew and Luke specifically mention that Mary was a virgin when Jesus was born, “for that which is conceived in her is of the Holy Spirit” (Mt 1:20). This being the case, Jesus would have been the son of God in a physical sense, as well as in a spiritual sense. Mark opens his gospel with these words: “The beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ, the son of God” (Mk 1:1). John, in the first chapter of his gospel, quotes John the Baptist, who says, “I have seen and testified that this is the son of God” (Jn 1:34). Therefore, while each of the gospels has its own particular emphasis, they share an underlying premise that Jesus was the son of God.

The Historical SettingEdit

The gospels are set in the land of Palestine, which is roughly equivalent to modern-day Israel, plus the West Bank and Gaza. In the time of Jesus, it was at the eastern extreme of the Roman Empire and included (from north to south) the regions of Galilee, Samaria, Judea, and Idumea. The city of Jerusalem, located in the Judean hills, was the center of Jewish culture and religion. The Decapolis and Perea were to the east of the Jordan River. The Decapolis (a Greek word meaning ten cities) was, as the name suggests, a federation of cities marked by Hellenistic organization and culture. (Hellenistic means having to do with the culture of ancient Greece.) Today, these regions are in northwestern Jordan.

In the time of Christ, all of these regions were a part of the Roman Empire, which stretched from Spain and Morocco in the west to Palestine in the east. In the three centuries preceding Christ, Rome’s expansion from a regional power into a major world empire had been sure and steady. With the defeat of the occupying North African power of Carthage in 264 B.C., virtually the whole of the Italian peninsula came under Rome’s control. From this time on, the empire grew in leaps and bounds, with General Pompey taking over the areas at the eastern end of the Mediterranean, including Palestine, in 63 B.C. The Westminster Historical Atlas to the Bible (Westminster, 1956) says, “The Roman power was then acknowledged in a series of provinces, protectorates, and client states which ringed the Mediterranean and made it indeed what the Romans liked to call it, ‘Mare Nostrum’ (Our Sea).”

The Romans were often content to rule indirectly through a local ruler, such as Herod the Great, who pledged his allegiance to Rome. The basic division for administrative purposes however was the province, which was ruled directly by Rome through an appointed governor. Judea and Samaria, which together formed one Roman province, are an example. After Herod the Great died in 4 B.C., Judea and Samaria fell into the hands of his son, Archelaus, who proved to be so brutal and incompetent that the Romans removed him from power and instituted direct rule in 6 A.D.

While Rome provided the power that ruled the empire, Greece was the greatest cultural influence. It had a richer cultural heritage than Rome which made it a natural source of stimulation for the intellectuals of the time. The Greek language was the international language, much as English is today. This is why the New Testament was written in Greek, rather than Aramaic (the language of Palestine) or Latin (the language of Rome).

Test Your KnowledgeEdit

1 It is likely that all four gospels were written within which of the following time periods:

0-40 A.D.
40-100 A.D.
100-150 A.D.
150-200 A.D.

2 As far as we know, he was the only non-Jewish writer in the New Testament:


3 The gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke are known as:

The Coptic Gospels
The Palestinian Gospels
The Greek Gospels
The Synoptic Gospels

4 According to the Law of Moses, how many witnesses are required to establish a matter?

Two or three

5 Which of the following statements is true?

All of the gospels portray Jesus as the Son of God.
Only John portrays Jesus as the Son of God.
It is a myth that the gospels portray Jesus as the Son of God.
The Son of God is an Old Testament idea which does not appear in the New Testament.

6 During Jesus’ time, Palestine was a part of:

The Egyptian Empire
The Babylonian Empire
The Roman Empire
The Persian Empire

7 The New Testament was originally written in:

King James English

Read the Gospel of Mark, Chapters 5-8

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