Were the Gospels Originally Anonymous?

Were the Gospels Originally Anonymous? December 31, 2013

Like many New Testament scholars, the work that I do builds on the work of those specifically engaged in the field of New Testament textual criticism. An article by Simon Gathercole in ZNW, “The Titles of the Gospels in the Earliest New Testament Manuscripts,” makes me wonder about the impression that I and most others have gotten from the critical editions of the New Testament. Gathercole points out that the critical apparatus deals with titles appearing at the start of a work, but often in ancient Greek texts (as well as texts in other languages such as Coptic) the title appeared at the end. It seems that, when the earliest texts are considered and both types of titles are considered, it may be that the widespread idea that the Gospels were originally anonymous may need to be discarded.

This wouldn’t surprise me. Rather than finding the early church trying to change the attributions of these works so that they all were allegedly by apostles, we find them doing their best to identify the authors as apostles where possible, and connect them with apostles in the other instances. That gives the impression that the attributions of authorship were pretty well fixed.

It has always seemed to me likely that the attributions of Mark and Luke to individuals by those names was likely to be authentic. Who would invent authorship by such minor characters? The possibility that the John who wrote the Gospel was one “John the Elder” distinct from John the son of Zebedee also needs to be taken seriously. Whether Matthew is simply by someone named Matthew, or that attribution is a surmise based on the use of that name in the Gospel where others have Levi, is hard to say, but either way the author was not that tax collector, since he took the description of that individual’s first encounter over from Mark – scarcely something that one would do if dealing with a story about one’s own first encounter with Jesus!

I’d be interested to hear from other New Testament scholars on this particular point. Are there any early manuscripts which have the beginnings and endings of the Gospels but lack titles altogether? If not, then does it not become likely that we do indeed know the names of the Gospel authors, even if we may know little else about them?

Gathercole has also written an article about an early flyleaf title of the Gospel of Matthew which is of related interest.


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  • Holly Hearon

    I would refer you to the article by Pieter Botha on understanding authorship in historical context (in his book Orality and Literacy in Early Christianity). Also Anne Wire’s book, The Case for Mark Compsoed in Performance. Both of these raise questions about what we mean by ‘authorship. I also think we need to be guarded about assuming Mark and Luke are minor characters. Only in our written remains. There also may be other reasons to associate Gospels with these particular individuals – for example, Luke is conveniently associated with Paul, but is also removed just enough that there are less likely to be contested memories of this figure.

    • Thanks Holly! These are all excellent points!

      • MattB

        Dr.McGrath, I have a hard time understanding the origin of the 4 gospels. If we start with Jesus’ sayings, how is it that we get to the gospels? I guess that would be my main question is the gap between Jesus and the gospel accounts. How did it evolve?

        • Can you be more specific? Are you having trouble understanding how oral storytelling transforms traditions, and how authors drawing on earlier material edit and recast things? Or do you need something even more basic than that? A good scholarly book on the Gospels might be more useful to you than a blog comment. For instance, R. H. Stein is quite good on redaction and the Synoptic Gospels, and James D. G. Dunn has written a major work on memory, oral tradition, and the Gospels.

          • MattB

            Yeah, like how the process of oral tradition started with Jesus and ended up to the evangelist communities.

          • One of Dunn’s recent volumes on the subject might be a good place to start. Can you get them via a local library?

          • MattB

            Yeah, I can see if his book(s) are in the library’s near where I live or order them online.

  • Evan Hershman

    I am only a first-year doctoral student, and hence far from an expert at the moment, but I too have thought that, of all the traditional attributions, Mark and Luke were the ones most likely to be correct. I hesitate on both counts, though, for the usual reasons scholars have for skepticism on this front. Mark makes a few errors about Palestinian Judaism (i.e. applying comments about the Pharisees to “all the Jews” in Mk 7:3) that I don’t think are plausible if the author is the John Mark described as living in Jerusalem for a time in Acts. Luke, meanwhile, I doubt as actual author because I do not think that the author of Acts could have been a companion of Paul, given his highly distorted presentation of Paul’s message in that work.

    Matthew is definitely not written by the apostle Matthew, because I cannot see any reason why Matthew, purportedly an actual disciple of Jesus, would take so much of his information practically verbatim from the work of Mark, a non-disciple (assuming the 2DH, of course).

    John is trickier. At most, I would allow that perhaps the gospel contains traditions that originated with John, son of Zebedee, but were later reworked almost beyond recognition. I have not investigated the theory that John the Elder was the author, so I can’t comment on that.

    An interesting point on titles in the manuscripts, though: Adela Collins writes in her commentary on Mark that it may be unlikely that the gospel was originally anonymous, given the absolute agreement among early Christians about the name/title. She argues that if it had been anonymous, we might have evidence of multiple titles being appended to it, as it titled in later circulation. This apparently happened with some Greco-Roman literature where the title was an addition in publication/circulation rather than a decision of the author.

    • Guest

      Side note: Has anyone heard anything more about the alleged first-century copy of Mark that Wallace mentioned a while back?

    • Jr

      If Luke knew Paul and distorted his teaching it would hardly be the first or the last time something like that happened.

      When Luke is writing his work Paul had probably been dead for some time. And Luke may have been influenced by new theological winds. Surely it would be only natural if he were to let this influence his presentation?

      Another point is that it is pretty much agreed that Luke was a creative artist (to use an euphemism) that did not just copy whatever he found in his sources. Why should he not treat his own reminiscences the same way?

    • MattB

      So is the consensus of scholars that some of the gospels may be from eyewitnesses? I seem to hear different things from scholars.

  • Keith Reich

    I ran into this issue earlier this year, reading a blog post that claimed the the traditional appellations are likely correct because our earliest gospel manuscripts that have a place for a title have one present (either at the beginning or end, or perhaps both as in the manuscript image you have included (p75)). This intrigued me, because of the truism I am sure I have read somewhere in my Ph.D. studies, that the gospels are all anonymous. Therefore, I in turn have passed on this teaching.

    Well, I did a little digging, and the clearest place I saw this in print is in Raymond Brown’s NT Introduction. He claims that the earliest manuscripts did not contain titles. Well, true as that may be, the claim requires some evidence. The slam dunk evidence I always assumed backed these claims were some early gospel manuscripts sans titles. Yet, we contain no such manuscripts with pages that would include a title yet don’t have one. What we have are some 3rd century papyri that contain the titles.

    Now, it is not surprising that 3rd century manuscripts would contain titles, since the traditions about the gospels seem pretty fixed by that date with the writings of Papias and Irenaeus. The question now is, whether the earliest manuscripts, pre-Papias contained gospel titles. Unfortunately there is a dearth of early and even close to complete manuscripts.

    Sure, the gospels are far different than say, Paul’s letters, where the sender (thus author) and recipients are clearly labeled within the letter themselves. If the titles are lacking in early copies, then they are truly anonymous. But, we lack the smoking gun, given that there are no early manuscripts without titles.

    In the end, the strongest argument I have found for anonymity is that the placement and even form of the titles was not fixed in the third and fourth century. Thus, what we have are variations in titles (e.g., markon, kata markon, euangelion kata markon), or in placement (beginning, end, margin). Because of this lack of consistency into the fourth century, it is argued that these titles are not intrinsically linked with the text of the gospels which are essentially fixed in the earliest mss.

    Nevertheless, my hunch is still that the gospels are anonymous, yet my confidence level has lowered greatly. I also agree that if the titles are correct, we may still not know much about the authors, or whether we have the correct Matthew, Mark, Luke, or John.

    • The fairly consistent use of kata + author’s name or some variation thereof is itself striking. It would be interesting to look into whether there are earlier examples of that. It certainly seems to have been far from a normal way of indicating authorship.

      • But it’s also far from normal to entitle one’s book το Ευαγγελιον [Ιησου Χριστου] (as Mark 1.1 seems to). That plays havoc with a normal genitive authorial attribution:
        1) το Ευαγγελιον του Μαρκου and the good news is about Mark;
        2) το Ευαγγελιον Ιησου Χριστου του Μαρκου and Mark becomes Jesus’ father;
        3) το Ευαγγελιον [Ιησου Χριστου] το του Μαρκου and the implication is that other gospels exist.

        The attribution with κατα cuts through the potential syntactical mess perfectly. And once one gospel is titled like this, it sets an attractive precedent, even when it is wholly inappropriate (cough, the Gospel according to the Hebrews).

        And here’s another slightly playful angle on it: formally Mark 1.1 is an opening title, albeit one that any scribe who knew more than one gospel would find totally inadequate. It seems that the scribal tradition there was consistently to add a second opening title before this, and treat the original one as part of the text. All of this is highly suggestive that Mark 1.1 is an authorial opening title. Now, if someone is going to bother writing an opening title, the chances of their writing an end title seem to be relatively high. Unfortunately Mark ends in a mess of variants, but none of them write the end title twice. So I wonder whether Mark humbly signed his autograph κατα Μαρκον. It’s a nice conjecture that is never going to be more than that.

  • Andrew Dowling

    Papias says Matthew wrote the Gospel in Hebrew (or Aramaic) and that the Greek Matthew was a translation of that (which appears to be false since it bears no marks of being a translation). So that appears to be pleading the case a little.

    I can imagine there was a Hellenistic Jew named Mark in Rome who heard Peter preach there but otherwise did not know him; thus his clearly non-eye witness material and lack of knowledge of Palestinian geography.

    Ironically I think there very well might be (in agreement with Brown) an apostle John who began the Johananine tradition. But the majority of that Gospel was written by other later scribes.

  • Since we know so little about any of the Gospel authors they might as well be anonymous. And the earliest Gospel, also the shortest, reads like a collection of relatively disjointed tales, “he went there” and suddenly he’s over there. All told in the third person. The most developed part is the ending, which remains so in the final three Gospels as well. But note that if there really was independent evidence and Jesus was wowing large crowds with miracles why does Matthew simply copy Mark’s miracle stories? Luke of course begins to add more new miracle tales, as does John who reworks the genre in his own new way. But it’s obvious that the Gospel tales grew in the telling. Even the parables grow from Mark to Matthew to Luke (the longest most involved parables). While John goes his own way, containing no parables, probably because Jesus spoke so much about the kingdom of God in his parables as if the Kingdom of God was the big thing to watch out for while John only has eyes for Jesus, so he has Jesus speaking about himself throughout his Gospel, not a single parable. Sheesh, why do people believe these tales? I guess for the same reason they love Harry Potter, they fall in love with the characters. And then there’s fan fiction, the urge to add more to the story, prequels and sequels, to fill in the blanks and questions, another thing you can see going on in the Gospel trajectory over time.

    To add to what I wrote above, maybe “Mark” wrote his Gospel in part out of a selfish motive, or a cultish one, or because some rich person financed the endeavor. Maybe the rich investor was named Mark, and maybe he couldn’t help but hire someone not only to write such a story but also beef it up. I mean, when you consider writing something in that day and age you also have to consider the other types of stories that were out there back then, so if you wanted to compete in such a miracle “market” why not beef things up? Somebody certainly appears to have beefed up the ending of Mark.

    Also,curiously, Marcion is a diminutive of Mark. And Marcion was a wealthy shipping merchant who appears to have pieced together one of the earliest groups of NT writings as a sort of earliest testament.

    I’m just saying that is Gathercole wishes to continue to pursue his Jesus maximalism project, it’s certainly an uphill project. History is rife with questions, not definitive or universally accepted answers.

    • Just lumping literature together, and people who have the same name, is not historical scholarship. Creating a plausible historical interpretation of the data involves painstaking attention to detail.

  • Pierre

    James this is a fine article, may I quote the content about two distinct John’s on my FB page?

    • You are always free to quote things that I say publicly, as long as you provide a link to the source!

  • Michael Wilson

    James, I agree that Matthew is certainly not the work of the apostle Matthew and that was probably assumed by the change of the name Levi. Luke, while not an apostle, I think was attributed to the anonymous Luke-Acts because the writer clearly could not be an apostle due the perspective of the author. The “we” portions of Acts suggest a companion of Paul wrote the book, and I think that it was settled on Luke by chance. personally I doubt the author was a companion of Paul, and the We portions may be the indication of an earlier source that purported to be the first hand account of companion of Paul.

    Regarding Mark, I do think this attribution is more likely, but I suspect that what Mark wrote was the so called Passion Gospel, or Passion Narrative/source. This work was called mark and the Mark we know was called this because it is essentially that Mark with additions. I suspect that beloved disciple of John is also Mark. While the Gospel of John is the work of some other author, I think the Passion Narrative, perhaps with additions is the written testimony that John’s author assures us is true. The attribution of the gospel to John is likely the result of the confusion of their being a John the Elder and Mark having the Jewish name, John, which more Jewish Christian groups might have remembered Mark as. My big question is whether their is any reason to believe John Mark is the author of revelation as well, which would require an analysis between of the Greek of Revelation, Mark, and the narrative parts of John.