Are the Gospels Anonymous?

Category: Bible/Christian Worldview 304 1

It is very common today to believe that the Bible is unreliable. Whether we are talking about alleged contradictions, science, history, ethics, or anything else, modern man looks at Scripture as mythical, legendary, or just plain stupid. One of the most common arguments for this has to do with the authorship of the Gospels. Skeptics argue that they are anonymous – that is, we do not know who wrote Matthew, Mark, Luke, or John. Is this true? Are the Gospels Anonymous?

The question of the authorship of the Gospels is important because if we cannot get that basic fact correct, then how can we trust the rest of the Good News? This is the way many think when it comes to the Bible. However, not everything is as it seems. This article, part one in a series on the authorship of the Gospels, will examine the titles that are attached to the four Gospels (for example “the Gospel according to Matthew”, etc.). In later articles, I will look at topics such as the external evidence (who ancient authors believed wrote the Gospels), positive evidence for the Gospels, alleged contradictions, and other problems. In my view, the evidence brought against the traditional authorship is lacking, and I truly believe that the ancient view that Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John wrote the Gospels is accurate.

Are the Gospels Anonymous?

When it comes to the titles of the Gospels, a skeptical argument goes something like this: the titles of the Gospels (for example, “the Gospel according to Matthew,” etc.) were not part of the original book. Thus, the books are anonymous, and we do not know who wrote them. Bart Ehrman, a very well-known skeptic of Christianity, says it well:

“A further reality is that all the Gospels were written anonymously, and none of the writers claims to be an eyewitness. Names are attached to the titles of the Gospels (‘the Gospel according to Matthew’), but these titles are later additions to the Gospels, provided by editors and scribes to inform readers who the editors thought were the authorities behind the different versions. That the titles are not original to the Gospels themselves should be clear upon some simple reflection. Whoever wrote Matthew did not call it ‘The Gospel according to Matthew.’ The persons who gave it that title are telling you who, in their opinion, wrote it. Authors never title their books ‘according to.’”[1]

The idea that the Gospels are anonymous and that the titles were added later are common in both conservative[2] and liberal circles.[3] Donald Guthrie, the author of the major work New Testament Introduction, notes that “there is no positive evidence that the book [Matthew] ever circulated without this title. Indeed, it may reasonably be claimed that the title was affixed at least as early as AD 125.” This sounds good, but He also adds, “Nevertheless, the title cannot without hesitation be regarded as part of the original text.”[4]

However, there is little evidence to support a late date (say 125 AD). As Scholars D.A. Carson and Douglas Moo say, “it is little more than an educated guess, based only on the presupposition that the Gospels were originally entirely anonymous and on the fact that about 140 [AD], and perhaps earlier, the traditional attributions [that Matthew wrote Matthew, etc.] were widely known, without significant variation.”[5]

This is important to know. The dating of the titles is based only on the idea that the gospels were originally anonymous. You have to assume that the gospels are not reliable to come to the conclusion that the titles were made up out of thin air.

What about the actual evidence? Didn’t Ehrman make a good case about the anonymity of the gospels? The idea that the titles were added later like Ehrman believes is not as strong as it seems. The first thing that everyone needs to understand is that skeptics do not treat the New Testament as they treat secular documents – that is, they hold a double standard.[6]

Skeptics tend to argue that because the Gospels do not contain the name of their authors, then we can never know who the real authors were. This is inaccurate to the extreme. New Testament scholar Michael Licona notes the following:

“It was not unusual for ancient authors to leave their names out of their works. Plutarch was a Greek author who penned more than 50 biographies during the late first to early second centuries. Plutarch’s name is absent from all of them. It is the tradition that has been passed down through the centuries that gives us information pertaining to who wrote these biographies. And no one questions that Plutarch is the author.”[7]

Another example is Tacitus, a historian who lived in the late first-early second centuries. One of his works was the Annals, a book which recorded the history of Rome from the early-mid first century. Interestingly, his name does not appear at all in the text of his work, just like the Gospels and Plutarch. The only place where his name appears is at the very beginning, “in what we may regard as the title.” Interestingly, skeptics do not doubt that Tacitus wrote the Annals. This is a blatant double standard on how skeptics treat other ancient documents and the New Testament.[8] Christian Apologist J.P. Holding says the obvious:

“It is a simple matter for critics to make such claims as, ‘the name on works like Matthew and 2 Thessalonians was added later.’ This is routinely argued for many of the NT documents. Why then is it not to be supposed that the titles were added later to the secular works as well?”[9]

It is important to understand that most, if not all, of the New Testament was more than likely originally written down on scrolls. The “normal practice to designate authorship for scrolls was to attach a tag on the outside identifying the work in question – not in the text of the work itself. When Christians made greater use of the codex – the early form of the book, if you will – it was then that indicating authorship at the beginning of a work would likely come into practice. Thus again, my point above with reference to secular works…It is actually indeed likely that attributions were added to the text – based on information that was previously external to the text in the form of a scroll tag.”[10]

In fact, “Anonymous works were relatively rare and must have been given a title in libraries. They were often given the name of a pseudepigraphical [false] author…Works without titles easily got double or multiple titles when names were given to them in different libraries.”[11] Interestingly, the Gospels were never given more than one title (I will discuss this more in the next article in this series).

To sum up this issue: “The unanimity of the attributions in the second century [which I will discuss in the next article] cannot be explained by anything other than the assumption that the titles were part of the works from the beginning. It is inconceivable, [Hengel] argues, that the gospels could circulate anonymously for up to sixty years, and then in the second century suddenly display unanimous attribution to certain authors. If they had originally been anonymous, then surely there would have been some variation in second-century attributions (as was the case with some of the second-century apocryphal gospels). Hengel concludes that the four canonical gospels were never even formally anonymous.”[12]

Conclusion

Skeptical arguments that the Gospels were originally anonymous based on the titles not being in the text are unfounded. Authors leaving their names out of the text of their books (and on a tag) was well-known for that period. The fact that the names of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John are not in the text of the Gospels means nothing.

What do you think? Do you believe that the Gospels were anonymous? Leave a comment below or on our Facebook page.

 

[1] Bart Ehrman. Jesus, Interrupted (New York: HarperOne, 2009). 103-104.

[2] Donald Guthrie. New Testament Introduction (Downers Grove: InterVarsity, 1990). 44, 113, 253; D.A. Carson and Douglas Moo. An Introduction to the New Testament (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2005). 172, 229; Daniel Wallace. “Matthew: Introduction, Argument, and Outline.” https://bible.org/seriespage/1-matthew-introduction-argument-and-outline. Ibid. “Mark: Introduction, Argument, and Outline.” https://bible.org/seriespage/2-mark-introduction-argument-and-outline. Ibid. “Luke: Introduction, Outline, and Argument.” https://bible.org/seriespage/3-luke-introduction-outline-and-argument. Ibid. “The Gospel of John: Introduction, Argument, Outline.” https://bible.org/seriespage/4-gospel-john-introduction-argument-outline.

[3] W. Marxsen. Introduction to the New Testament (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1970). 142, 152 (where he says that the author of Matthew “remains completely unknown to us”), 161, 259; Reginald H. Fuller. A Critical Introduction to the New Testament (Duckworth, 1974). 113 (where he says of Matthew that “The traditional title is a second-century conjecture”), 176 (he says of John, “The traditional authorship is once more a second-century attempt to secure apostolic authorship for a work it wanted to include in the Canon.”); Werner Kummel. Introduction to the New Testament. Translation (Nashville: Abingdon, 1975). 95, 120, 234.

[4] Guthrie, 43-44. Carson and Moo (140) also note how we have no evidence that the gospels ever circulated without a title. Also see the artlces by Wallace in footnote 2.

[5] Carson and Moo, 140.

[6] James Patrick Holding. Trusting the New Testament (Xulon Press, 2009). 139.

[7] Michael Licona, “Fish Tales: Bart Ehrman’s Red Herrings and the Resurrection of Jesus” in Come Let Us Reason. Paul Copan and William Lane Craig Eds (Nashville: B&H Academic, 2012). 140.

[8] Holding, 139.

[9] Holding, 139.

[10] Holding, 140.

[11] Martin Hengel. The Four Gospels and the One Gospel of Jesus (Trinity Press International, 2000). 8. Quoted in Holding, 140.

[12] Carson and Moo, 141.

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