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.

Browse Our Archives

Follow Us!

TRENDING AT PATHEOS Progressive Christian
What Are Your Thoughts?leave a comment
  • Mo Kip

    I think some of the issue around the Dickson/Lataster thing is that Dickson used the term “anonymous” to describe what Lataster said. In fact, Lataster did not use the term “anonymous,” but said they were “un-named,” which seems less dodgy than how Dickson characterized what Lataster wrote.

    Your contribution here is useful. It seems easy to accept that at the outset, some (or maybe all) of the authors were “known,” even if they were un-named in the texts themselves. Nevertheless, in context of testimony to the historicity of Jesus, remote knowledge of who they were by some of the first Christian community doesn’t help very much, since we are unable to be sure two thousand years later — even while we may provisionally accept those “according to” designations.

    The spirit of Lataster’s point is hardly rejected in NT scholarship but Dickson made it appear so by using his own term “anonymous” and then drawing a conclusion that isn’t quite honest in order to put Lataster in the corner.

    • There is very little that we are certain of when it comes to ancient history. And it is a tactic of mythicists to pretend that uncertainty is unusual in the case of early Christianity, and then to try to use that uncertainty to justify their own claims about what happened which are far less probable than what mainstream historians and scholars conclude. And so, if one can criticize the way Dickson worded his response, and presumably also his suggestion that Lataster deserved to fail rather than merely lose points for his failure to accurately represent and interact with scholarship, Dickson’s frustration with his former student seems to me entirely justified.

      • Mo Kip

        In Lataster’s case, at least in the article, it does not appear that he uses uncertainty to make any claims about what happened. He uses uncertainty to question the certainty of happenings propounded by historicists. He doesn’t really advance any positivist theories as much as he simply advances doubt. The closest he gets to making a claim is saying that a person might think Jesus’ historicity as “improbable.”

        Not having spent a load of time in mythicist literature, it’s hard to stipulate whether they all share use of a “tactic” to “pretend that uncertainty is unusual in the case of early Christianity.” I expect it must be so with at least some of them, but suspect it may not be truly so of the less radical ones — Lataster does not read like a radical. On the other hand, Dickson seemed a little off the rail by comparison — even though a person can appreciate that he might be frustrated by a former student who has made a little splash.

        I’m open in this discussion, leaning to the historicity of Jesus but with an understanding of why some are compelled to push the investigation a bit. Discernment and respect on both sides would help the whole thing run a less emotional trajectory, but it does seem to bring out the more polemic sensibilities among the interested.

      • Nick G

        There is very little that we are certain of when it comes to ancient history.

        I suppose it depends what you mean by “very little” and “certain”. But our level of certainty about the main facts of the life of Jesus’s contemporary Tiberius – the example used by Dickson – and the richness of the known connections between his life and wider contemporary events, is surely very much greater than those of the life of Jesus. I would think there are scores, if not hundreds of individuals from ancient Greece and Rome for whom the same could be said.

      • Randolph Bragg

        > uncertainty is unusual in the case of early Christianity


        • the_Siliconopolitan

          Now, now, play nice. It’s not charitable to distrust the blog-owner.

          • Randolph Bragg

            It would be nice to know from whence he derives that characterization.

          • From the inordinate amount of time I spend interacting with mythicists here on my blog.

  • Ignatz

    Here’s what I think may have happened: there is plausible reason to doubt that Matthew wrote Matthew. It does not seem to be written by a witness, and it would be odd for an apostle to use the writing of a non-apostle as his main source. (Although, as you point out, this does not preclude one of the sources – like special Matthew – having been written by Matthew.)

    Since scholars believe Papias and Irenaeus were wrong about Matthew, by extension they doubt the other attributions. But personally, I think that Luke and Mark, particularly, are the most likely authors of their Gospels. Simply because there is no reason they COULDN’T have written them, and they’ve never been attributed to anybody else. They are also unlikely attributions for someone to invent, since they weren’t apostles. (That’s such an obvious objection that I get a bit aggravated when someone says they were invented to give the Gospels apostolic authority.)

    • Jonathan Bernier

      I think it fair to say that nowadays scholars are a little more sympathetic to Papias than in the past (cf. for instance Francis Watson’s recent argument that Papias knew both about Markan priority and Farrer’s idea that Matthew used Mark as a source). As for Matthew using Mark’s gospel despite being an eyewitness, there are a couple of issues that come up. One, is it not impossible that Matthew would have thought “Why reinvent the wheel? Mark’s made a great start, so why not work on his basis?” Two, if as Papias suggests, Mark’s gospel is based upon Peter’s testimony then Matthew might well have thought it very well and good to use Mark’s gospel.

      • the_Siliconopolitan

        Farrer’s idea that Matthew used Mark as a source

        Why attribute that idea to Farrer? Matthean dependence on Mark is much older than that. What’s special about Farrer is his argument (taken up be Goulder and Goodacre), that Luke used Matthew.

        • Jonathan Bernier

          Sure, doesn’t originate with Farrer. But it’s typically called the “Farrer hypothesis” nowadays and since the history of the hypothesis is really quite irrelevant to my argument I saw no need to use anything other than the standard nomenclature.

      • Andrew Dowling

        “One, is it not impossible that Matthew would have thought “Why reinvent
        the wheel? Mark’s made a great start, so why not work on his basis?” ”

        If not impossible, pretty darn close; for starters Matthew’s (the author) view of the role of Judaism in the Jesus movement has significant differences from Mark. If this were the Apostle he wouldn’t be using a source that had so many diverging theological issues, let alone written in sometimes sloppy Koine, if he could just recount his own remembrances. Secondly, the Gospel is written in a way that suggest a merging of oral tradition (along with the use of previously written sources) and not 1st person knowledge of the events.

        • The thing that seems impossible to me is that the author of Matthew simply copied Mark’s account of his own first encounter with Jesus!

          • Jonathan Bernier

            I’m not so certain. If Matthew thought it quite adequate an account why couldn’t he decide to incorporate that into his own gospel?

          • It isn’t impossible. But the author of Matthew at times gets to a story in Mark and retells it without copying verbatim, presumably because he already knew the story and had no need to copy it. The high degree of verbatim agreement in this particular story is thus, at the very least, puzzling, if one adopts the view that the story is about the person authoring the Gospel in question!

          • Jonathan Bernier

            These are fair points, all. I am weighing them against the
            economy of seeing Papias’s statement about Matthew as a reference to the Gospel of Matthew. In truth I’m undecided, and certainly would not rule out the possibility that Matthew wrote a source used in the production of the Gospel; but I’m not quite at a point where I would rule out the possibility that Matthew is responsible for the Gospel of Matthew proper.

          • Andrew Dowling

            Ha, quite right.

        • Jonathan Bernier

          I guess I’m a little less sanguine about arguing from deduction regarding what the apostle Matthew might and might not have done. I really don’t know what Matthew *would* have done. All I know is that I have a gospel attributed quite early to Matthew, and about the origin of which Papias makes some fairly opaque statements.

  • Bethany

    So, if I’m following this argument correctly:

    When I post the Powerpoint slides of my lectures online for my students, I use “prepare for sharing” to strip the speaker notes. Let’s say for the sake of argument that I stripped the authorship information as well. (I don’t, but let’s say I did.)

    In that case there would be nothing in the slides attritributing them to any author, and if someone stumbled on them 100 years from now (or for that matter, if they stumbled on them now out of context) there would be no way of knowing who the author was. But they would arguably not be “anonymous” in the usual sense of the word, since the intended audience — my students — know perfectly well who made them.

    Still, what Lataster originally said was that “the authors of the Gospels fail to name themselves” which does seem to be true. Not that his article isn’t bunk, but this one point seems to me to be correct.

    • arcseconds

      But they do name themselves.

      It’s more like you leave the authorship in, but someone decides to call it anonymous anyway because they don’t know who Bethany is, there’s a famous Bethany who might not have written it, or they think some other PowerPoint is lying about its author.

      • Bethany

        But there’s no evidence they named themselves originally (and I think the majority opinion is that they did not). For example, Ehrman pointed out later in his series that Justin Martyr quoted Matthew, Mark, and Luke in 150 CE and was clearly familiar with them, but doesn’t refer to any of them by any name. Apparently the first person to mention them by name was apparently Irenaeus in 185.

        So it’s more like I take the authorship out, and then 100 years later someone starts calling them “Learning according to Bethany” (or more likely “Learning according to Jennifer” or something) to distinguish them from other people’s Powerpoint presentations on learning.

        Ehrman also makes an interesting point, which is that the fact that Mark seems like a nobody that you’d never name a gospel after today doesn’t necessarily mean people felt that way about him 1,900 years ago. 1,900 years is a long time. Most of the people who are well-known today no one will have heard of 1,900 years from now, after all. But he could have been an at least locally important figure in the early church at that time.

        • Why would you say that Irenaeus is the first, as opposed to say Papias?

          But we do not have earlier authors who suggest that the Gospels are anonymous or their authors unknown. Ignatius’ quotes from the Gospels are comparable to many of his quotes from Paul’s letters – unattributed to any specific work, but recognizable.

          • Papas reports a tradition concerning writings by Matthew and Mark, but he does not quote them, he does not clearly indicate that he has seen them, and his descriptions of them don’t fully align with canonical Matthew and Mark. It is impossible to be certain that the writings to which he was referring are the ones that we know by those names. Irenaeous is the first person to both quote the canonical works and name their authors.

          • I don’t see any reason to posit that there were Gospels of Mark and Matthew which have been completely lost and which no one remembered, and that later Gospels were produced and given those names and no one noticed the substitution. Occam’s Razor still has its usefulness.

          • Luke talks about there being many gospels produced before his. Isn’t that some reason to think that there are other writings that have been lost to us? What about all the letters that were produced and attributed to Paul? Most of Papias is lost to us.

            Papias says that Matthew wrote in Hebrew, which no modern scholars believe and he said that Mark didn’t have things in order which doesn’t seem to be true of canonical Mark. Moreover, it is not clear that Papias thought that either writing was more that a collection of teachings. Papias certainly gives us no indication of the kind of connection that we see between canonical Mark and canonical Matthew.

            I’m not sure what you mean by substitution. Papias doesn’t indicate that he ever saw the writings nor does he indicate who had them or how widely they circulated. He simply reports a tradition, which would provide the perfect explanation why someone might later want to claim that an anonymous gospel was actually the one that Papias referenced.

          • What reason do you have for ignoring the expanations that scholars have offered regarding Papias’ reference to Mark as “not in order” and Matthew as having been translated from Hebrew or Aramaic by more than one person? What seems lacking in explanative power in what Casey has written, or MacDonald?

          • Ben Murray

            Could you expand on this a bit, please? (Vinny’s description seems to be quite in line with Bart Ehrman’s position in his recent posts on the anonymity of the Gospels, to one of which you linked in the original post.)

          • Ehman wrote in a comment on his blog post, “I think that the authors probably were known within their own (small? large?) communities.” He adds in another comment that the the names of the authors were lost early on in the process of their being shared beyond their initial audience. What I am suggesting is that the name of the actual author circulated with the documents at those times and eventually found their way into the titles given to them. One or two of them may be mistaken, but I am not persuaded that all four titles were.

          • Ben Murray

            OK, thanks, that seems like a possibility!

          • Why do you accuse me of ignoring theories that are irrelevant to the point you raised, which I was addressing? I am aware that there are many different theories about the documents to which Papias was referring and I am not aware that there is any consensus on the question. I was not attempting to provide a definitive resolution. I was merely responding to your feigned ignorance of the reasons why one plausible hypothesis is that canonical Mark and Matthew were not the documents to which Papias was referring.

            I am curious as to what happened to Occam and his Razor. Don’t MacDonald’s and Casey’s theories invoke lost documents?

          • My own personal theory about Papias is that Eusebius may have been right that he wasn’t very bright. Given Papias’ propensity for passing along ridiculous stories like the one about big fat stinky Judas, I am surprised that anyone finds him credible.

          • MacDonald has a very interesting discussion of the implications of that story for situating Papias in the flow of Gospel composition.

            I am guessing that you have read only excerpts from other ancient literature, containing more palatable highlights, and that is why what Papias wrote seems to stand out to you?

            Sometimes the simplest explanation does involve the positing of a lost source. Having an author flip between styles, or rewrite a known source in convoluted ways, often involves positing a much more convoluted process.

          • I am not sure what it is you think I have read, but I am aware of Ehrman’s position on Papias:

            I want to argue that what he actually says about Matthew and Mark are not true of our Matthew and Mark, and so either he is talking about *other* Gospels that he knows about (or has heard about) called Matthew and Mark, that do not correspond to our Matthew and Mark, or he simply is wrong.

            I find that much simpler than Casey’s hypothesis.

          • It may seem that way. But the conservative Christian view that the Gospels overlap because they are written by eyewitnesses who all saw the same thing can seem simpler than most scholarly proposals about literary relationships. Simplicity is not a virtue in and of itself in abstraction from other considerations. If one prefers simplicity, it must be the simplest explanation which actually does justice to the evidence.

          • In what way do you think that Ehrman’s explanation fails to do justice to the evidence?

          • I do not find the match between what Papias says and the Gospels we have as severe as you make out, and it seems less likely that Papias was referring to now-unknown Gospels, than that Papias got some things wrong about the Gospels of Matthew and Mark that we know.

            One might compare ancient testimonies about the Essenes. They do not entirely match up with the evidence from the Dead Sea Scrolls. But it is more likely that those authors’ knowledge of the Essenes was imperfect, than that they were referring to a very similar but distinct group in the same region which has left no trace, while the group whose documents we have is one that no one in antiquity noticed or mentioned.

          • You may not find the mismatch as severe, but what you said in the comment to which I responded was “I don’t see any reason to posit that there were Gospels of Mark and Matthew which have been completely lost . . . .” Clearly some well respected scholars see such reasons, and, if I understand them correctly, even the scholars you cited think that Papias may have been referring to lost documents rather than canonical Mark and canonical Matthew.

          • Bethany

            That’s just what Ehrman said in the blog post, but I assume that (as VinnyJH pointed out below) it’s because Irenaeus actually uses the names in conjunction with quotes showing he’s talking about the same gospels we are, whereas Papias sounds like he’s talking about different gospels from the ones we have.

          • the_Siliconopolitan

            Technically, we no longer have Papias, so we can only call him earlier than Irenaeus, if we trust Eusebius. (In this particular case I see no reason not to, but the case can be made.)

        • arcseconds

          This like very weak evidence to suggest that originally they were anonymous, though. It seems to me that it’s just projecting a later citation style on to an earlier period. Justin not saying ‘Luke 3:22’ doesn’t mean the work wasn’t attributed to Luke at that time, only that people didn’t cite them like that. The gospels don’t cite the Tanakh either when they refer to it, but no-one thinks that means they lacked titles and attributions then.

          And Ehrman’s point is just a possibility argument, isn’t it? Seems kind of like mythicists arguing that it’s possible that ‘brother of the lord’ means something other than a normal familial relationship. Sure, it’s possible, but is it likely?

          • Ehrman’s point is a possibility argument but that is generally all that is necessary to defeat a “nobody would have invented it” argument. If we don’t have a thorough understanding of the reasons that people might have had for inventing particular names, we can’t eliminate the possibility that they did.

          • arcseconds

            Good thing nobody is arguing the possibility has been eliminated, then, I suppose.

          • Has someone considered and eliminated the possibility that Luke and Mark were bigger names than the surviving evidence might indicate? I don’t recall seeing the issue addressed.

          • arcseconds

            Honestly, Vinny, you’re like a broken record. In the very comment you replying to, I assert that no-one thinks the possibility has been eliminated, and here you are asking yet again whether the possibility has been eliminated!

            I’m also not sure how you expect someone to eliminate a possibility that’s already in an evidential blind spot.

            There are clearly an indefinite number of possibilities. Maybe Luke and Mark were names of kids that died tragically young, and there was a tradition in early Christian communities of naming works after such children. Maybe all of the Gospels were actually names of literary communities, and were understood to be such (so ‘The Gospel of John’ might be understood to be something a bit like we consider the IPCC assessment reports). Maybe there was a practice of naming them arbitrarily, like we name hurricanes.

            These have not been considered and eliminated, and they cannot be eliminated entirely — certainly not with the evidence we currently have or any kind of evidence we could reasonably expect to acquire in the future. But presumably you don’t expect such theories, which I just made up right now which have no evidence for them whatsoever, to be taken seriously. Do you?

          • I’m sorry. I interpreted your remark as being sarcastic as if I should know about the scholars who have addressed that point. Guess I misread it.

            I don’t expect people to eliminate possibilities that are in an evidential blind. I do expect historian to acknowledge when the evidential blind spots are so huge that any conclusions are speculative.

          • arcseconds

            Thinking that someone might have been a lot more famous at the time than the current evidence suggests is speculative. It’s also inherently a low probability, surely, as people are far less likely to be famous than they are to be not famous.

            Thinking that they were about as famous as current evidence suggests they were is following the evidence in a fairly direct fashion. It’s surely much less speculative than supposing the situation was something other than what the evidence suggests.

          • There are people who are named in the New Testament, who appear to have been pretty important figures at the time, but about whom we know very little today. For example, Apollos seems to have been an influential figure, but it is difficult to know exactly what the extent of that influence was. So I don’t see anything speculative in saying that we can’t be certain how important Luke and Mark were in the early church, because there are only a handful of people who are known to us.

            Among the things that are known to us are the existence of gospels that did circulate without any attribution of authorship, such as the Gospel of the Hebrews, the Gospel of the Ebionites, and the Gospel of the Nazorenes. So I wouldn’t think there should be anything at all surprising about the canonical gospels circulating anonymously until such point as it became apologetically important to establish their apostolicity.

            We also know of several other writings that could have been attributed to more significant figures such as the Gospel of Nicodemus, the Gospel of Bartholomew, the Gospel of Philip. Does the fact that they were attributed to what seem to us to be minor figures tell us anything about their authenticity?

          • arcseconds

            These are two quite different statements:

            (1) We can’t be certain of how important Mark the Evangelist was in the early Christian community.

            (a) The Gospel of Mark was not written by Mark the Evangelist
            (b) Mark the Evangelist was much more important than the evidence suggests
            (c) The Gospel of Mark was named after Mark due in part to the unrecorded importance he has.

            (1) is true and not at all speculative.

            (2) is obviously speculative would have to be considered pretty low priority, as it is the conjunction of three claims, only the first of which could be reasonably assessed as being significantly more likely than not.

            Also, it seems worth highlighting that Mark, being the earliest of the Gospels, is most likely to have been written by the person to whom it is traditionally attributed.

            As far as the Gospels of Nicodemus, Philip, and Bartholomew go: Nicodemus and Philip are known on independent grounds to be written a lot later than those figures could possibly still be alive, so consideration of the importance of their attributed authors seems beside the point. Having said that, Philip and Bartholomew are surely quite excellent figures to attribute Gospels to, as they were apostles according to the canonical Gospels. Nicodemus also seems a much more likely person to go to as he’s said to have known Jesus personally and was a scholastically-minded Jew who had sympathy with Jesus. So the argument ‘those figures give the works authority due to their fame and association with Jesus’ actually seems to have a purchase here, without having to make up the fame.

            Moreover, as we know beyond reasonable doubt that those Gospels could not have been written by the attributed authors, we require an alternative explanation for how they were attributed other than ‘the attributed author actually wrote it’.

            Bartholomew is not extant, and very little seems to be known about it. Can we rule out the case that it wasn’t written by Bartholomew?

            The discussion was about whether or not the canonical Gospels are anonymous, and James is proposing we think of this claim in the sense of whether or not the Gospels ever had the correct authors’ names, and whether or not the authors would have been at all known.

            There are quite a lot of possibilities, none of which seem all that implausible, that would be compatible with the Gospels being correctly attributed to known figures in their early years, and James has detailed a few. Note that he does not table the suggestion that they were written by the people they are traditionally attributed to — although of course that’s also a possibility, and probably shouldn’t be neglected entirely in the case of at least Mark.

            Presumably you’re not in a position to reject those possibilities, so shouldn’t your position on this matter be one of agnosticism, and to agree with James’s point that there’s little evidence to support the notion that they were anonymous in the specified sense?

          • If by “anonymous in the specified sense,” you mean that the authors were never known, I would agree that we have no evidence to establish that. However, if by “anonymous in the specified sense,” you mean that the documents circulated without the names of the correct authors attached, I don’t think I would agree in that I think there is some evidence that points in that direction, although it is hardly conclusive. At the time the gospels were thought to have been circulating anonymously, we know of other writings that were circulating without being attributed to specific authors such as the Gospel according to the Hebrews and the Gospel according to the Nazorenes. We also think that the canonical gospels were being quoted without attribution to specific authors. We know that the letter to the Hebrews was widely viewed as authoritative even though its author was unknown. As you note many of the gospels to which specific names were attached were later writings.

            While some writings derive their authority from the authority of their authors, it seems that others derive their authority from the communities that accept them. A modern example might be the Declaration of Independence. Its author is known, but it is not viewed as authoritative because Thomas Jefferson wrote it, but because the Continental Congress adopted it. Similarly, the specific author of the Preamble to the Constitution may be unknown, but that doesn’t matter because that is not where it derives its authority.

            I think one completely plausible possibility is that the author of the first gospel was viewed as putting into writing what his community already believed to be true based on its traditions. Thus, even though the person who did the writing might have been known, the content of the writing was not viewed as being attributable to him. There wouldn’t have been a reason to attach his name to the writing as it circulated because it wouldn’t have added any weight to it. It was only much later when conflicts arose between the gospels of different groups that it became important to bolster the authority of particular writings by giving them some sort of apostolic pedigree.

            In the case of Luke, its author appears not be claiming any sort of personal connection to the events in question. Rather, he is claiming to have carefully evaluated the available traditions that others had written or handed down. I think that is one rather obvious reason why it would be necessary to attribute that one to someone who was a couple of steps removed from the original followers of Jesus.

            I don’t think it really matters which writing was earliest since the issue is whether they originally circulated without the names of the authors attached. It might even be that the earliest was the least likely to have the name attached if it was in fact the later conflicts between documents that made the authority of the authors an issue. In any case, the early church seemed to have believed that Matthew was the first gospel written although I am really not sure which way that points.

            So while I don’t see any particular reason to think that the authors of the gospels concealed their identities from their readers, I think the scholars who believe that the gospels first circulated without any names attached are basing their conclusion on the evidence, even if no great deal of certainty is warranted.

          • arcseconds

            It’s certainly a good point that the earliest gospel may not have needed an attribution because it wasn’t necessary to distinguish it, it could just be ‘the Gospel’.

            However, we’re not talking about a terribly long period of time here. Using the dates Wikipedia says are commonly accepted, Mark is dated to around 70 AD, and Matthew and Luke are dated to 80-90 AD. That’s only a decade or two. Plenty of people who read the initial circulation of Mark would still be alive to see these other Gospels come out. On the assumption that the author of the Gospel of Mark was known to be someone called Mark, this being remembered by some and the name being attached at that stage does not seem particularly unlikely. In fact this seems at least as likely as the author being largely or entirely unknown, and it’s certainly much more likely than the author being known in 70 AD but forgotten entirely by 90 AD.

            I don’t think the issue really is whether the Gospels were circulated at some point with no names. If Mark was circulated for a decade without Mark’s name, but a Mark actually wrote it and this was remembered and added fifteen years later, then it’s quite misleading to say the work was anonymous. It’s not lacking in any justification whatsoever, but if it was fairly widely known who wrote it and the correct name was attached later, it’s far less misleading to say ‘it wasn’t anonymous’.

            It seems to me that there’s a lot of possibilities for at least some of the Gospels being correctly attributed to their authors. The probability of any given possibility might be quite low, but roughly speaking I think they can be treated as independent events for the different Gospels and disjoint ones for an individual Gospel, so the probabilities will be additive. The probability of at least one of the Gospels bearing the correct name in some way that preserves a connection with the original author seems to me to be quite significant.

            Under these circumstances baldly stating that the Gospels ‘were anonymous’ seems unwarranted.

          • Bethany

            Seems to me that works at least as well the other way around. There’s no evidence at all the Gospels included authorship (and widely thought that they didn’t) but it’s *possible* they did. Sure, it’s possible, but is it likely?

          • arcseconds

            Why wouldn’t it be likely? Normally titles and authorship attributions come into being along with the work, do they not?

            Of course, one can argue in particular cases that such-and-such a work wasn’t in fact written by the person that appears on the cover-sheet. But that surely is on the basis of other evidence that suggests this, not on the basis that our background expectation is that works more often don’t have a correct attribution to their author.

          • I’m not really sure what was normal. I’ve seen it asserted that Tacitus never identifies himself as the author in the books he wrote and neither did other historians of that day. As I noted above, we know of other early Christian writings that circulated without attribution.

          • arcseconds

            But many, many texts from the ancient world do have authors attributed to them today, and very often (more often than not, I would think) these attributions are accepted today. There are doubts about specific works of Plato, but most of the Platonic corpus is accepted as being Plato’s, same with Aristotle. Does anyone seriously doubt that Tacitus wrote the books that now bear his name?

            General scepticism about attributions doesn’t seem to be warranted to me, and that is what Bethany needs to assert without any further argument ‘well there’s no direct evidence they bore the current names in the 1st century so they probably didn’t have those names then’.

          • Matthew Ferguson at:


            gives an overview of the consensus scholarship that the traditional gospel attributions are incorrect. He does so by comparing attributions of the gospels to that of Tacitus’ Histories. It’s an interesting read.

          • I would also recommend Matthew Ferguson’s post Why Scholars Doubt the Traditional Authors of the Gospels for a good overview of the issue. I think that there is more to it than general skepticism about attributions.

            A big issue for me is that the first person to quote the canonical gospels and identify their authors is Irenaeous in 180 A.D in Against Heresies, and his apologetic purpose to establish the writings he prefers as authoritative is so clear. One of his arguments is that there must be four gospels because there are four winds and cherubim have four faces. His bias of course doesn’t prove that these were not the names under which they had previously circulated, but I cannot help but wonder whether he had any better reasons for believing that those names were correct than he had for believing that there could be neither more or less than four authentic gospels.

          • Guest

            That’s the same post I linked to.

          • Yes thanks. I should have been more clear that by “also” I meant “like Beau, I would recommend” rather than “in addition to all the other things I have said, I would recommend.”

          • I really like the tone of Ferguson’s writing as well. He makes his case with patience and clarity. He doesn’t post often (he’s a busy doctoral student!), but he added a great post yesterday:


            He covers some of the same arguments here, but also points out that (contrary to apologists) we do have original eyewitness sources for Alexander the Great through fragments and quotations of later writers. He also shows that the amount and quality of the source material that is available for Alexander is far greater than that for Jesus.

            Ferguson is not a mythicist; he is merely arguing that we have no eyewitnesses sources for Jesus’ history, and know comparatively little about him.

  • Mike K.

    Thanks so much James for the plug for the book; your blurb is very much appreciated and I hope it will be used in the promotion of the book. I think Bart Ehrman is on the right track that the Gospels are purposely anonymous in imitating the Hebrew Bible and, thus, that you are right that the authors would not have been anonymous to their earlier readers. I do think that the attachments to “Mark” and “Luke” were because of their associations with the authoritative apostles Peter and Paul respectively and there is good reason why second century theologians would have made these attributions whether historical or not. I also think the unusual form of the title “the Gospel according to Y” implies a developing theology that the church has one single proclamation of good news told according to the vantage points of different authors (against other Christians such as Marcion who prefers one Gospel or the writer of the Diatessaron who wants only one harmonized Gospel rather than multiple Gospel writers). I am beginning a series about the evangelists at for those who are interested.

    • Neko

      Apologies for the interjection, but your review was delightful! I look forward to your book.

      • Mike K.

        Thanks so much Neko 🙂

  • In the case of the synoptic gospels, I would think the word “author” is more problematic than “anonymous”, given the huge degree of verbatim copying between them. Anonymous or not, maybe we should call them editors and embellishers rather than authors.

    • There was a long history of referring to them in this way. But ancient authors were often a combination of what we think of as authors and editors, and so perhaps the best thing would be to use a hyphenated title?

      • Interesting. I’ve always wondered if the “copy/paste” style of sharing between the synoptics (90% of Mark preserved in Matthew; 65% in Luke, for example) can be seen in other examples of ancient story-telling.

        • “Copying and pasting” may not be the best analogy for the Synoptic interrelations. There is enough verbatim agreement to indicate literary dependency, but there is often enough verbal difference to indicate that the new author did not simply copy from the source word for word, and certainly not all the time. Following along in a source was very impractical, and so the new author would probably have read a passage, or had it read aloud to him, and then written, with minor and sometimes major modifications being introduced, sometimes deliberately and sometimes not.

          Kings and Chronicles might be another convenient place to look for comparison of source and redaction where the source still exists. I suspect that people with expertise in other literature could offer examples from outside the Biblical canon and its orbit.

          • Yes, I agree that each gospel “redactor?” had his own agenda toward which he steered the text; but there are still large portions of Mark that are simply copied word for word in Matthew and Luke. Sometimes the text is altered, sometimes not. It reminds me of the sorts of copying and paraphrasing that one sees when students commit lazy plagiarism – though I’ll be quick to add that “plagiarism” would not have been seen as the intellectual theft that it is today.

            I’m also aware that I have read very little of the text in the original Greek, as you have, so I defer to you (I studied Koine Greek briefly in undergraduate school – but I remember next to nothing, unfortunately).

          • Yes, the similarities between modern student plagiarism and ancient redactional use are striking – and studying the latter is very helpful when it comes to spotting the former! 🙂

          • Sounds like a topic for a thesis!

          • I’m going to take back part of this statement that I made 9 months ago. I now think Ehrman makes a pretty good case that plagiarism most certainly would have been seen as intellectual theft in the first century!

    • the_Siliconopolitan

      No, “editor” is far more misleading – it gives the impression that Mark &c. were disinterested, objective compilers of traditions. It denies them originality and creativity. I can see why people don’t like to think of Mark as a creative writer, but however distasteful it doesn’t mean it’s untrue.

      • I see what you mean, though I did add “embellisher” to “editor”. I can certainly see a bit of invention and creativity at work in the synoptic writers.

        How about “fabulist”?

  • Jonathan Bernier

    Thank you for this post. My own thinking on this matter has been tending in this direction for some time, especially on Mark and Luke. I vacillate on John: sometimes I’m all “Oh, yeah, son of Zebedee”; then I’m like “No, John the Elder”; then I’m saying “Some other totally anonymous John.” As for Matthew, I was leaning very strongly towards Casey’s position until I read Francis Watson’s treatment of the relationship between Mark’s gospel and Matthew’s, which has re-opened for me the possibility that maybe Matthew really was the person responsibility for Gospel of Matthew proper. One day I will write that book that keeps bouncing around in my brain–the one that works out my neurotic obsession with the dating and authorship of the NT documents–and then I’ll get it all sorted out in my head.

  • Bible Student
  • Bible Student

    “Never are the Gospels in the New Testament attributed to anyone as author other than the authors as traditionally identified.”

    That statement from paragraph two of the blog post is patently false. While everyone who drinks the Kool-Aid of assuming the traditions of men cannot be wrong is likely to agree with that formulation, the evidence in the plain text of scripture proves that claim is false.

    An explicit claim of authorship is made by the anonymous author of the fouth gospel in the closing two verse of his gospel.

    In the inspired text of scripture, the author takes pains to only refer to himself via the anonymous phrases, i.e. “the disciple whom Jesus loved”, “the other disciple, “the other disciple whom Jesus loved”. So it should be obvious to anyone that the inspired author, who went to such lengths to conceal his identity, would not have emblazoned his name in a title to his gospel. Therefore, it should be equally obvious that any so-called ‘title’ was added to his gospel by others at a later date.

    Moreover, since the facts recorded in inspired scripture PROVE that the unnamed “other disciple whom Jesus loved” cannot possibly be John ( ), the brother of James, the son of Zebedee, then those who cling to that tradition will have to set aside the authority of God’s word in order to do so — whether they do so in ignorance or not.

    • Actually no. “We know that his testimony is true” suggests that this is a note added by someone other than the author of the preceding chapters, who does not identify himself.

    • Jonathan Bernier

      The interesting thing about the verse in question is that it does not actually contain an attribution. There is, after all, no name given. Moreover, if you read Dr. McGrath’s post you will note that he does not state that the Gospel of John was written by John son of Zebedee. Thus your objections on that matter are irrelevant.

      • So what? Is that a matter to which my objection was directed?

        • Jonathan Bernier

          I’m really confused, Vinny. I wasn’t responding to you but rather to Bible Student.

          • My apologies then. I misread it.

  • the_Siliconopolitan

    “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.

    That seems rather the non sequitur. How do you judge that that is a better explanation than that the titles were added when the four canonical gospels were gather in the NT and it thus became necessary to distinguish them?

    • Well, it may have been people other than the author adding the titles. But my point is that, whether the titles are added all at the same time or one first and then the others, it is unlikely that, if those doing so were simply inventing names for the authors, that they would have invented Mark and Luke rather than names that had more authority. And if the Gospels had already circulated widely with no names attached to them, we might well expect other possible authors to be proposed by people trying to bolster the authority of these works.

      • James, to what extent should the use of Greek be a factor in the discussion? For example, how likely is it that the original apostle Matthew would have used the Septuagint in making his prophetic case?

        • There is nothing inherently unlikely about someone who knew Greek (and a tax collector ought to have) using the LXX. What convinces me that the Gospel of Matthew was not by the Apostle Matthew is the fact that the author reproduces the story of Matthew’s first encounter with Jesus as it was found in Mark, except for changing the name from Levi to Matthew. If I were writing a Gospel, I might well use an already-existing source, even if not by an eyewitness. But I wouldn’t simply reproduce someone else’s account of my own first encounter with Jesus!

          • Makes sense to me, though at some point we’re missing the story in which the tax collector Matthew forms a relationship with Greek churches and picks up Mark’s record to extend and embellish it for Greek Christians.

            If we accept the language and the relationship with Greek churches though, I have another reason for disliking Matthew as the author. The gospel of Matthew has such clear examples of story elements fabricated to match OT “prophecy”: the use of the septuagint “almah” to invent a virgin birth, the invention of Herod’s slaughter of the innocents, the weird lack of context in Matthew’s use of Hosea 11:1 in Matthew 2:15, the misread of Zechariah 9:9 resulting in Jesus riding two donkeys at the same time in Matthew 21:1-7. etc.

            It makes more sense to me if someone who never knew Jesus is spinning prophecy fulfillment yarns to serve a specific agenda. Making Matthew the writer (someone who spoke Hebrew and knew Jesus) makes the Matthew fabrications look more like bald-face lies, which I think is less likely.

          • I’ve made much the same point in relation to the Gospel of John. If one follows Bauckham and others in regarding that Gospel as directly reflecting an eyewitness’s testimony, then it becomes more problematic, not less, since the developments we see there involve not transformation in the process of transmission of tradition, but distortion of memories in the mind of the eyewitness.

          • I see that completely!

  • Andrew Dowling

    This is actually a fairly interesting topic. Here’s my two cents about the authorship of the Gospels:

    1) Mark: I do think there was a Mark who wrote this Gospel. I also think it’s probable there’s some truth to the tradition that Mark “knew” Peter, although I do not find it plausible Mark was Peter’s scribe or that the Gospel represents a direct testimony from Peter. More likely Mark heard some of his preaching (was maybe even baptized by him) and then used oral tradition/his own theological beliefs to construct the Gospel.

    2) Matthew: Seems clear to me it’s not the work of the Apostle-language, theological bent, use of Mark, allusions to fall of Jerusalem all point to a later, non-eyewitness source. However, tradition attributing the work to Matthew may be that Q comes from the Matthewan community, or maybe even the M material. I’m also not convinced by scholars that dismiss Jerome’s belief that the Gospel of the Hebrews is actually an “earlier” version of Matthew; and that may have a more direct link to the Apostle (I’m not sure if it is or isn’t, but I think it’s possible).

    3) Luke: Since I’ve become convinced the final canonical version of Luke, along with Acts, are second century compositions; I do not think it’s probable that Luke the companion of Paul was the author. Think the Luke tradition probably arose or was constructed because of the ship-wreck accounts in Acts.

    4) John: The community that produced John may have originated with the Apostle, but the stark theological and narrative differences from the Synoptic tradition point to authorship by later, non-apostolic sources (unless one wants to posit that John isolated himself from the other Apostles after the death of Jesus and became a kind of mystic black sheep of the Jesus tradition . . not impossible, but not likely, especially given Paul’s testimony about John hanging with James). The name John may have arose from confusion/conflation with John the Presbyter, who was a major author of the Gospel of John and the John epistles.

    • arcseconds

      I was just about to propose something very similar to Vinny before reading this just now!

      In the case that the Gospel of John really was written by some later John, who got conflated even later with John the Apostle, that would of course allow for the work being quite accurately attributed to the correct person in most of the initial reader’s heads.

      I also think it’s worth considering the possibility that the later tradition of attributing Gospels to apostles and other people who knew Jesus personally may have partly arisen from things like the Gospel of John being misattributed to John the Apostle.

      Although honesty insists that I reiterate my usual caveats that I really know nothing about this stuff.

      I do know a little bit more than nothing about the platonic tradition, though, and in my view the prologue, at least, seems unlikely to have originated with one of Jesus’s original apostles.

  • Kontbe Doxt

    Having looked at the earliest manuscripts that include the beginning pages of the gospels, I see no evidence that they were ever published anonymously.

    As Gathercole indicates, the title isn’t seen on the beginning page of P1 (Matthew: 3rd century)

    but they can be seen here:

    and on p66 (sorry: not viewable online )

    and here:
    (look for panel that says Luke 24:51)

    and here:
    (see second panel, top left)

    There are 18 manuscripts from the 2nd century and 64 from the 3rd, but the title pages of Gospels from these centuries are scant.

  • Gary M

    Think about this: The experts, New Testament scholars, believe that the Gospels were NOT written by eyewitnesses or the associates of eyewitnesses. Why do Christians insist that skeptics believe in the historicity of Jesus based on expert opinion, but then turn around and reject the opinion of these same experts on the authorship of the Gospels?

    I have compiled a list of sources which confirm the majority expert opinion on this issue:

    • Mythicists and religious apologists are indeed identical in this respect. They both appeal to experts when it suits them to do so, and ignore or reject them as ideologically biased (in opposite ways!) when they don’t like what they have to say,

      • Gary M

        Excellent insight.