Were the Titles of the Gospel on #Sillyboi?

Were the Titles of the Gospel on #Sillyboi? May 18, 2016

You may think I’m a “silly boy” for writing about this. But when Sarah Bond recently wrote a blog post about the ancient Greek use of a tag (sillybos) to indicate the author and title of a work on a scroll, I felt I needed to blog in a bit more detail about the possible implications of this practice for the study of the New Testament, which Bond mentioned briefly. Not that this has not come up before. But one will often hear people outside of the academy (and occasionally even within it) speak about the “anonymity” of the New Testament Gospels as though this were something surprising. The placement of a title at the top of the first page is something relatively new. It goes along with the development of the codex, since in a scroll, you wouldn’t want to have to unwind it all the way to see what it was. And so tags were used. Even in codices, whether a title would be included, and if so whether it would be at the start or end of a work, varied for a long time.

And so it seems to me unsurprising that the Gospels lack titles of the kind modern readers expect. Would the earliest version of Mark ever have been written on a scroll? It is impossible to know (Francis Moloney thinks so, and so too does Ben Witherington). But at the very least, its author would have been more used to reading scrolls than codices, and might therefore have expected any designation for his literary work to go on a tag rather than someplace else.

It is probable that the Gospel of Mark would have been known initially as “The Gospel of Jesus Christ,” with the author certainly known to those who first read the work. The Gospel of Matthew would have been known as Βίβλος γενέσεως Ἰησοῦ Χριστοῦ (“The Genesis/Genealogy of Jesus Christ”). The author of the Gospel of John may perhaps have hoped that his work would be confused with that other, already famous “In The Beginning,” and so actually have had the evangelistic purpose some have detected in the statement of purpose in John 20:31. With the composition of these other works in the same vein, however, it became natural to refer to them in a similar way, with the author being the point of comparison between them. The fact that the first of them highlighted the word Gospel at its start would then explain well why the titling followed Mark’s lead. And given that it is the conclusion of modern scholarship that Mark was written first, but that this was not the historic view of the order of the Gospels, the convergence of modern scholarship on the order with these ancient considerations about the titles is perhaps noteworthy.

(I’m pretty sure no one ever called the Gospel of Luke ΕΠΕΙΔΗΠΕΡ ΠΟΛΛΟΙ ἐπεχείρησαν ἀνατάξασθαι διήγησινπερὶ τῶν πεπληροφορημένων ἐν ἡμῖν πραγμάτων… And that too is something worth talking about, since it begins in a manner that does not make for easy reference. Might it have been referred to as ‘The Things Concerning Which You Were Instructed’ or perhaps ‘In the Days of Herod the Great,’ the words which follow the introducion?)

When groups tended to use a small number of books (and in those times, very few individuals or groups owned large collections), shorthand ways of referring to them would be preferred. Even today one can find numerous examples of this.

For those who’ve been wondering ever since they read the title, the Greek word σύλλαβος is supposed to provide the origin of the English word syllabus. But in fact, the word for a tag on parchments was σίττυβας, and it seems that “syllabus” therefore derives from a transcription mistake that was made in a Greek word, or a Latin word derived from it. You can read in various places online about the debates regarding the term – and how to make the plural of “syllabus” in English if it is neither properly Greek nor properly Latin.

See also my earlier two posts on the question of whether the Gospels were originally anonymous:

Were the Gospels originally anonymous?

Are the Gospels anonymous?

As you’ll see in the first post, we have actually found a “flyleaf” or attached tag indicating the title of the Gospel of Matthew. We know from the history of literature that the ways works were referred to could change over time.

What do you think the relevance is of this ancient practice of “tagging” literature (with what we today would call “metadata”) for the question of the titles and authorship of the New Testament Gospels?

Gathercole Matthew Gospel flyleaf


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  • John MacDonald

    The title “The Gospel of MARK” might just have been a way of lending authority to the gospel, like the way the forgers of the pseudo Pauline epistles invoked Paul’s name. The attaching of Mark’s name doesn’t mean it was actually written by Mark. That the gospel may(1) may have been identified with Mark and (2) Whether “Mark” wrote the Gospel, are two different issues.

    • How would the name “Mark” have lent it authority?

      • John MacDonald

        I would have thought that being “Mark The Evangelist,” the companion of Peter, he would have been understood to be an authority on the events of Jesus’ life. Am I misunderstanding things here?

        • John Thomas

          I don’t think anonymity of authorship made authority less likely in those times. Torah was attributed to Moses, Psalms were attributed to David, Wisdom literature attributed to Solomon, but nobody cared about whether these persons actually penned it or not.

          • John MacDonald

            If people didn’t care, then why attribute?

          • I think there are two points to be made. On the one hand, clearly there were those who were eager to associate anonymous works with known authorities. On the other hand, the fact that such attributions are not woven into the earliest Gospels in the way they would in later ones suggests that attributing them falsely to authorities was not a concern.

          • John MacDonald

            Maybe the use of the tag (sillybos) was the way it was integrated into the gospel of Mark. If the authors were actually by who we attribute to them, we have some pretty impressive authorities on the life of Jesus, like Mark (the companion of Peter), and Luke (the companion of Paul, who knew James).

          • The claim that Mark was a companion of Peter’s is later. But the very fact that neither of the two Gospels you mention claims to be by an eyewitness is itself noteworthy. In the case of works like the Gospel of John or Peter, the claim to eyewitness authority is blatant and raises suspicion. Surely if we are suspicious both of works that make such claims, and works which do not, we are creating a no-win situation!

          • John MacDonald

            The “claim” that we have that Mark was a companion of Peter may have been later, but it could have relied on an early tradition.

          • John Thomas

            It could be based on an earlier tradition. But we will never know if Ireneaus made it up as a defense too.

          • John MacDonald


          • Indeed, it could have. But the fact that the author does not (in contrast with later pseudepigraphic works) say “I, Mark, the companion of Peter, vouchsafe to you…” ought to give us more confidence, not less.

          • John MacDonald

            Unless it was really well known that Mark was the companion of Peter, in which case it need not be mentioned. Analogously, it is assumed that Paul knew much more about the life of Jesus, even though he remained silent about it (even in cases where it would have bolstered Paul’s argument to cite Jesus’ teaching or life event on the issue).

          • arcseconds

            It seems a very reasonable assumption that someone joining a new religious movement centered on the founding figure would know something about the founding figure, especially when he has met the founding figure’s brother and chief disciple. Not knowing anything about the founding figure under these conditions would be very strange, and it’s hard to see how it could come about. Perhaps Paul was relatively disinterested in Jesus the man (odd in itself, but at least there’s some kind of evidence for it) but it’s hardly credible that Jesus’s brother and disciples were similarly disinterested.

            Whereas there’s no particular reason to think that an author whose identity is unclear must have had a close relationship with any particular figure, and an assertion that comes much later is open to doubt. There would be absolutely nothing strange about Mark’s association with Peter being concocted later, possibly by conflating different people called Mark.

            So these don’t seem at all analogous to me.

          • More confidence that his name was Mark? Or more confidence that he was Mark, the companion of Peter?

            While we might acknowledge that the author’s name could very likely have been Mark, since the earliest available manuscripts have that appellation, do we have any evidence or reason to believe that this was the same Mark who was a companion of Peter?

          • John Thomas

            I don’t know the exact reason. But Ehrman’s hypothesis seems a very possible one to me. Ehrman’s hypothesis is that gospels started receiving attributions only during the latter part of second century, and it could have been necessitated due to the influence of gnostic gospels. Gnostic gospels were attributed to apostles themselves like Peter and Thomas to claim authority for their new claims. So someone like Ireneus who hold on to ‘orthodox’ position and claims apostolic succession would say in counter to the heretics that our gospels were written by a known follower of apostles who has given that information to the named follower and thus transmitted through the process of apostolic successions.

          • John MacDonald

            This seems reasonable to me.

        • Even if Marcus were an uncommon name, and it were widely known that someone by that name had been among the entourage of Peter for a while, that scarcely seems like something of such significance as to lend great authority to a work. If one were inventing an attribution after the fact, surely one would have found an actual eyewitness to attribute it to, or at least someone who was genuinely famous?

          • John MacDonald

            I mean “authority” in the sense that Mark (the companion of Peter) could be trusted to relay an accurate account of the life of Jesus, and was not just some historian trying to piece things together from second hand accounts long after the fact.

          • Mark is so early that it seems a given that it was not the work of some individual much later trying to piece things together.

          • John MacDonald

            There is an epistemological and an ontological question. In terms of ontology, Mark’s gospel was probably not pieced together long after the fact. But it might have been an issue in the writer’s mind that he was worried that his work may be understood by his audience to be a narrative based on hearsay, and so would not be persuasive.

          • John MacDonald

            Or this epistemological issue could have been an issue in the mind of whoever started the tradition that the Gospel was written by Mark, the companion of Peter.

  • One of the reasons that Bart Ehrman gives for thinking that the gospel titles did not exist until long after their composition: he notes that the gospels are quoted in writings of the apostolic fathers such as Ignatius of Antioch and Polycarp of Smyrna. They are are also quoted often by the later Justin Martyr, writing around 150-160 CE. None of these writers reference titles for the works they are quoting. Justin Martyr refers to his source as “Memoirs of the Apostles”. In Ehrman’s view, this didn’t mean that Martyr thought they were written by the apostles, but that the writings did preserve their memories.