Are the Gospels Anonymous?

Are the Gospels Anonymous? December 26, 2014

I created a draft post back in October when Michael Barber shared a link to an article about the titles of the Gospels by Simon Gathercole, planning to return to the topic. It is, in fact, something that I had blogged about previously. But I wanted to return to it, and when the recent online article by John Dickson mentioned the subject, it sparked a lot of online discussion (see for instance the blog posts by Michael Gorman and Gavin Rumney). And so this seemed like a good point at which to return to it.

Gathercole points out that the Gospels, in all our manuscripts, have some sort of title. Never are the Gospels in the New Testament attributed to anyone as author other than the authors as traditionally identified. And the form of title – “Gospel according to X” – is distinctive and unusual, and is best explained in terms of at least one of the Gospels having been given this designation early on, and others following suit.

So why is it so often said that the Gospels are “anonymous“? Because the author is not explicitly named within the work, and the titles seem like something that may have been added after the works were published. But that does not mean that the authors were in all instances unknown, and any commentary on one of the Gospels will discuss the traditional authorship attribution, as any New Testament Introduction will discuss them all.

Bart Ehrman recently suggested a plausible reason why the Gospel authors might not have included their name in publishing their works. Their model was the Hebrew Bible, the works of which do not include a title or naming of author in most instances. Among the Dead Sea Scrolls, we find other examples of works that were strictly speaking anonymous, modeled after the works of the Hebrew Bible. But in those cases too, the authors were not unknown to the community that produced and read them. And so, if we had such works beginning to be disseminated widely, and a named author at that point attached to them, we would exercise due caution, but might find reason to conclude that the attribution was nonetheless accurate.

The fact that our earliest Gospel was attributed to someone named Mark – not an obvious choice if you are making up an attribution – suggests that the name of the author was known in at least some instances. The case of Luke is another instance of a very odd choice if one were making up an attribution and looking for an authoritative source.

It seems to me that, if the Gospels may be technically anonymous in one sense, the traditions about named authors are quite early, and in at least some instances ought to be accepted. In other instances there may have been confusion or misattribution. For instance, it is possible, as Maurice Casey suggests, that the Gospel of Matthew may have received that title through a transference to it of the author of one of its sources. In another, there may have been a conflation of two people with the same name – John the Elder with John the Apostle. In both these cases, in fact, it may be that we have preserved in the titles the actual names of the authors, and it was later tradition which sought to identify as apostles the authors whose common names matched those of apostles.

There is really little justification for thinking that the Gospels are anonymous in the sense that they are either later forgeries in the names of people who did not write them and whose true authors are unknown, or that their authors were a complete mystery to the communities for whom the works were written. And so in that sense, referring to the Gospels using the term “anonymous” can be misleading.

On this subject, Mike Kok’s forthcoming book, The Gospel on the Margins: The Reception of Mark in the Second Century, deserves to be highlighted. I had the privilege of reading it prior to publication, and here’s what I have to say about it (a blurb which I think ended up not being used by the publisher for publicity purposes, but which I still want to share):

Mike Kok’s new volume brings the perspective of reception history to bear on the question of the authorship of Mark. What ancient authors say about who wrote Mark may or may not reveal what they truly thought, but how they actually used it – and the extent to which they ignored it – tells us much more. Kok surveys several of the classic methods in New Testament studies – such as form and redaction criticism – in order to evaluate their implications for how Mark was composed. A treatment of the authenticity of the so-called Secret Gospel of Mark, and its resulting place as evidence of the composition or reception history of Mark, is also included. As a result, this volume covers many of the most important introductory matters related to the Gospel of Mark, as well as offering fresh methodological perspectives and insights. As a result,The Gospel on the Margins will not only serve as an important reference work for scholars, but as a helpful point of entry for all those approaching the academic study of Mark for the first time. It seems destined to become the go-to treatment of these subjects for years to come.

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