If you were educated in a less-than-orthodox or just slightly-less-than-orthodox or in an orthodox-but-let’s-leave-that-to-the-side context, then you heard these things things about Jesus: (1) the Gospels we now read were originally anonymous, (2) Jesus was Jewish and a messianic figure but all talk that he thought he was God is from the later creeds of the church, and (3) the original Jesus is far more vital for life today than the church’s Jesus. This meta-story comprehends the (actual) rise of Christianity and faith in Christ than does the church’s traditional story.
In his new book, The Case for Jesus: The Biblical and Historical Evidence for Christ, Brant Pitre seeks to respond to this common meta-story that has become entrenched deeply into the spine and mind of critical scholarship.
He begins with the claim that the Gospels we have were originally anonymous. This claim is made over and over. Pitre’s argument is that there are no anonymous Gospels and, hence, the claim that they were originally anonymous is an inference, or speculation, or worse. Here is Pitre’s counter-claim:
What I quickly discovered is that there are no anonymous manuscripts of the four Gospels. They don’t exist. In fact, as we will see in chapter 2, the only way to defend the theory that the Gospels were originally anonymous is to ignore virtually all of the evidence from the earliest Greek manuscripts and the most ancient Christian writers. Moreover, when you compare what the earliest church fathers tell us about the origins of the four Gospels with what those same church fathers say about the origins of the lost gospels, the differences are striking. As we will see, there are compelling reasons for concluding that the four Gospels are first-century biographies of Jesus, written within the lifetime of the apostles, and based directly on eyewitness testimony (9).
Here’s a point that, however, deserves more attention in his book: Yes, all extant copies of the Gospels are “nonymous” (they have a name) but none of the copies are 1st Century. The earliest claims of an author to the Gospels is 2d Century — which isn’t bad, but there’s a difference between 2d Century claims, later copies with names, and inferring from the absolute inclusion of a name in all known copies and saying they originally had a name attached to them. Somewhere from “perhaps to probably” they had a name.
But Pitre’s point is very serious and my previous paragraph is not a criticism of what he is saying. I want to nuance what we do know — all mss have a name — from what we don’t know — what the “original” ms had on it. So, I stand in agreement with this:
In short, the earliest and best copies of the four Gospels are unanimously attributed to Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. There is absolutely no manuscript evidence—and thus no actual historical evidence—to support the claim that “originally” the Gospels had no titles. In light of this complete lack of anonymous copies, New Testament scholar Martin Hengel writes:
Let those who deny the great age and therefore the basic originality of the Gospel superscriptions in order to preserve their “good” critical conscience give a better explanation of the completely unanimous and relatively early attestation of these titles, their origin and the names of the authors associated with them. Such an explanation has yet to be given, and it never will be (18).
One is at least entitled to ask this question: What is the evidence for anonymous Gospels?
He concludes after examining the early fathers:
But for this book, what matters most is that the evidence from the early church fathers shows they were unanimous in believing that the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John were actually written by the apostles and their disciples. Likewise, they were unanimous in their judgment that the apocryphal gospels attributed to Thomas, Judas, and Peter were not written by the apostles or their disciples. This contrast is devastating for the theory that the four Gospels were originally anonymous and then later falsely ascribed to the apostles and their disciples. If this were true, then why don’t we find a single ancient Christian saying as much? If the four Gospels were really forgeries like the later apocryphal gospels, then why didn’t at least some of the early church fathers harbor doubts about whether Matthew really wrote Matthew, or John really wrote John?
Maybe, just maybe, it is because the four Gospels never were anonymous. And maybe, just maybe, it is because the four first-century Gospels—in contrast to the later apocryphal gospels—were actually authored by the apostles and their followers (65-66).