Who were “Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, and did they write their Gospels on their own?” This is a wonderfully complicated question! Let’s just say, for starters, that we think we might know who the authors are, and they certainly did not write ‘on their own.’
The books we call ‘Gospels’ in their original formats do not have authors listed—that’s our first problem. So we depend upon 2nd– and 3rd-hand traditions for who these people were.
According to the information handed down by a 2nd-century writer named Papias, Mark (who might well be the same as the traveling companion of Barnabas and Saul on their 1st Missionary Journey, and whose Mother’s house was a gathering place for the early Christians (see Acts 13:5-13 and Acts 12:11-17), was a ‘translator’ of the preaching of Peter (I Peter 5:12-13). So on this argument we can see that what we call the 2nd Gospel was based on another’s preaching.
Because of the amount of copying engaged in by “Matthew” and “Luke” on Mark’s work, and by their copying of what seems another source of Jesus’ sayings (trust me—I’m a former teacher: I know copying when I see it!), it seems clear that those two evangelists depended on at least two if not three sources for their Gospels (I also include material unique to them that had to come from somewhere).
John is very much unique as an evangelist, but we must remember that it was as common a name then as it is now—there’s no way to be sure which “John” might be being referred to. And his Gospel shows great signs of “post-production editing”—most obviously things like adding the story of the woman caught in adultery (John 8) and the “appendix” of John 21, plus some re-working of the “Bread of Life” discourse in John 6.
What is important is that these documents were chosen by the Church as being the best references for the life, teachings, and meaning of Jesus. Do they agree 100%? No, they do not, but from last week’s essay you can see that I regard that as of small importance. What must be remembered is that the evangelists were not writing for 21st century Alabamians but 1st century Jewish-Christians and Gentile-Christians, some of whom were in bitter controversy with Jews and Gentiles who did not believe. Their particular emphases reflect those circumstances. As I wrote last week, we cannot correctly understand the text of a passage if we do not first understand the context within which it was written.
Might “Luke” have been the later traveling companion of St Paul? Perhaps. Did the same writer pen the 3rd Gospel and Acts? Almost certainly. Did all 4 want to present Jesus in a particular light for a particular audience? Absolutely. Do we gain by having all these accounts? Without a doubt! Did all 4 want to present Jesus in a particular light for a particular audience? Clearly.
Do we gain by having all these accounts? Without a doubt! So whoever they actually were, we thank God for Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John.