BIBLE HISTORY DAILY

Writing the Good News

How were the first original Bible accounts written in the New Testament?

In this ninth-century plaque, St. John the Evangelist displays the opening text of his gospel. The inscription at the top reads, “The word of John soars to heaven like an eagle.” who wrote the first original Bible

In this ninth-century plaque, St. John the Evangelist displays the opening text of his gospel. The inscription at the top reads, “The word of John soars to heaven like an eagle.”
Credit: The Cloisters Collection, 1977/The Metropolitan Museum of Art. Public Domain.

When we study the Bible, we often ask ourselves critical and important questions: Who wrote the Bible and when? For whom did its authors write and why? In the case of the New Testament, we might also wonder how the first original Bible stories from the Gospels were written?

When it comes to the four canonical Gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John), when we ask these same questions, the picture we paint is often one of individual authors writing accounts of Jesus’s life and teachings that were read by particular Christian communities within the Roman Empire. For instance, Matthew is often considered to have been written for a Syrian audience, while Luke is sometimes thought to have circulated within Macedonia. As such, when discussing early Christianity of the late first century, scholars often reference theoretical “Matthean” or “Lukan” communities.

This view itself has become almost “canonical.” But is it the most plausible? As Robyn Faith Walsh discusses in her article, “The Origins of the Gospels,” in the Fall 2022 issue of Biblical Archaeology Review, the traditional scholarly view may not have as much historical basis as we might think.


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Scholars still debate why and for whom the Gospels were written. Only Luke names his patron and purpose, though he never mentions a specific audience other than Theophilus himself (1:3–4). And while the Gospels are often considered to be examples of first-century Greco-Roman literature, we never attempt to reconstruct the communities who read Virgil or even Josephus. These authors likely did not have a specific audience in mind (other than their patrons). Their audience was anyone who could read Greek or Latin. Could not the same have been true of the Gospel writers? Why would any author take on the arduous task of researching and compiling accounts, not to mention the expense of writing something so lengthy, only to have their “good news” read among a small community of Christians? Even Paul, who actually did write for specific groups of Christians, intended his letters to be circulated and read among different communities throughout the Empire.

Walsh also questions the traditional view that the Gospel writers largely worked alone. According to Walsh, “given that so few people in the Greco-Roman period were literate or wealthy enough to write and publish, authors usually worked within small networks of fellow writers. These groups regularly circulated, discussed, and interpreted their writings much like contemporary authors do today.” This view stands in stark contrast to the canonical picture of Gospel authors who wrote their accounts in solitude, cut off from the rest of the world. We should instead imagine the Gospel writers workshopping their stories and ideas with other writers in their authorial and literary circles.

To understand more about who wrote the first original Bible accounts in the New Testament, read “The Origins of the Gospels” by Robyn Faith Walsh, published in the Fall 2022 issue of Biblical Archaeology Review.

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Subscribers: Read the full piece, “The Origins of the Gospels” by Robyn Faith Walsh, published in the Fall 2022 issue of Biblical Archaeology Review.


Read more in Bible History Daily:

Using the Bible as a Reference for a Testable Hypothesis

Is the Gospel of Luke a Greco-Roman Biography?

All-access subscribers, read more in the BAS Library:

The Infancy Narratives in Matthew and Luke—Of History, Theology and Literature

Early References to a Marcan Source

Read the Collection, The Canonical Gospels, in the Bas Library.

Not a BAS Library or All-Access Member yet? Join today.

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2 Responses

  1. Abraham Sanchez says:

    These minimalist perspectives are all entertaining at a certain point. However it isn’t very scholarly to refer to traditional views with out explaining the tradition view on the synoptic gospels. The reason there are three synoptic gospels is to fulfill the requirement of Deut 17:6 of requiring 3 witnesses to establish that Jesus was the Christ. It is highly improbably to assume that Mark and Later Matthew and Luke could write 3 accounts with in 20-25 years after the events while the entire Jerusalem church was still alive and were eye witnesses to those same events and have it so widely accepted. An honorable mention of the traditional view would be nice.

  2. Brian Kinzel says:

    This idea that “so few people in the Greco-Roman period were literate or wealthy enough to write and publish” is an old scholarly cliché that does not match the epigraphic evidence. Scholars are realizing that the Roman empire was awash in documents, and that virtually every person alive had to deal with important written texts like land leases and tax records––even if they were illiterate. But the fragile evidence of everyday texts that has survived indicates that the vast populace needed some level of “functional literacy.” Certainly not everyone could write a long account like a gospel, but to assume that ordinary people could not read and write does not match the reality as epigraphers see it.

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2 Responses

  1. Abraham Sanchez says:

    These minimalist perspectives are all entertaining at a certain point. However it isn’t very scholarly to refer to traditional views with out explaining the tradition view on the synoptic gospels. The reason there are three synoptic gospels is to fulfill the requirement of Deut 17:6 of requiring 3 witnesses to establish that Jesus was the Christ. It is highly improbably to assume that Mark and Later Matthew and Luke could write 3 accounts with in 20-25 years after the events while the entire Jerusalem church was still alive and were eye witnesses to those same events and have it so widely accepted. An honorable mention of the traditional view would be nice.

  2. Brian Kinzel says:

    This idea that “so few people in the Greco-Roman period were literate or wealthy enough to write and publish” is an old scholarly cliché that does not match the epigraphic evidence. Scholars are realizing that the Roman empire was awash in documents, and that virtually every person alive had to deal with important written texts like land leases and tax records––even if they were illiterate. But the fragile evidence of everyday texts that has survived indicates that the vast populace needed some level of “functional literacy.” Certainly not everyone could write a long account like a gospel, but to assume that ordinary people could not read and write does not match the reality as epigraphers see it.

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