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Why Are the Gospels Anonymous?

In my previous posts I have tried to establish that the four Gospels circulated anonymously for decades after they were written.   To some modern readers that seems surprising.   Why wouldn’t the authors name themselves?   Surely they named themselves.   Didn’t’ they?

The clear answer is, no, they did not.   But why?

There have been a number of theories put forth over the years.   Possibly the most popular one (at least it’s the one I’ve heard most often) is that the Gospel writers thought that what was most important was the message they wanted to convey about the life, teachings, deeds, death, and resurrection of Jesus.   The authors did not want their own persons to “get in the way” of the message, and so they wrote their Gospels anonymously.

In rough outline I suppose that might be true, but I would refine the idea a bit myself – as I will in a moment.   Before doing so, I should respond to an objection to this view.   Most of the *other* books of the New Testament identify their authors (Paul, Peter, James, Jude, etc.).    And most of the *later* Gospels have names attached to them (The Gospel of Peter; the Gospel of Thomas; the Gospel of Philip; the Gospel of Nicodemus; etc.).  Those authors were not afraid of having their person get in the way of the message.  So why were the Gospel writers?

Several points need to be made on this score:

  1. The writings of the New Testament that in which the authors *do* identify themselves are genres in which this is typically done – letters (e.g., of Paul, of Peter) and apocalypses (John). I will be arguing below that the Gospel writers saw themselves as writing in a genre that did not require a self-identification of an author.
  2. Then why did *later* writers of later Gospels identify their authors (falsely, as it turns out)? The answer is fairly clear and straightforward.  Later Gospel writers were very intent indeed on showing that *their* message, as opposed to the message of other Gospels, was the right, true, and apostolic message to be believed as authoritative.  To provide an authoritative account for their own book, in light of the fact that there were other books with other messages floating around, the later authors produced forgeries, *claiming* to be an apostle (Peter, James, Thomas, Philip, etc.) when in fact they were not.   That wasn’t a problem with the earlier Gospels.  When Mark wrote his Gospel, he felt no need to establish that *his* book, as opposed to others, was apostolic.  There *were* no others.    So too Matthew and Luke: they were continuing a Gospel tradition, started with Mark, that was widely seen in their circles as authoritative, and so did not need to authorize their message by pretending to be an apostle when they were not.  In John’s case the text *is* authorized: the author claims to be basing his account on the traditions passed on by “the disciple Jesus loved.”  The author’s own identity doesn’t matter – only that of his source does.
  3. I should stress that many of the New Testament writings outside the Gospels that do name the author do so pseudonymously – that is, these are forged writings, authors claiming to be a famous (apostolic) person when in fact they were not. This is true of six of Paul’s letters – 2 Thessalonians, Colossians, Ephesians, 1 and 2 Timothy, and Titus – both of the letters that go under Peter’s name, James, and Jude.
  4. Four other books, along with the Gospels, are anonymous: Hebrews (later church fathers said it was written by Paul; but the author does not claim so); 1, 2, 3 John (anonymous, but later attributed to John the Son of Zebedee).

 

So, now I’m back to the question, why would the Gospel writers not identify themselves?  Again, I think the popular answer is in essence right: they saw no need to do so.  Their point had to do with the message they wanted to deliver, not with their own identity as authorities who could deliver it.   There was no need to establish their authority.  The authority lay in what Jesus said and did.  It was only later when Christians had lots of Gospel accounts before them, with varieties of perspectives represented, that it was important to stress that this, that, or the other Gospel was the one that got it RIGHT.   And to do that, readers, editors, and scribes assigned names to earlier Gospels to show that the person delivering the teaching knew what he was talking about.  And later Gospel writers made these claims for themselves, maintaining that they were relatives of Jesus (his brother James or his brother Thomas) or disciples (Peter, Philip, and so on).

But I think there may be one other thing going on with the NT Gospels that led their authors to write their accounts anonymously.   I’ve never seen this suggested in the scholarly literature before, which either means I came up with it myself (in which case, caveat lector!) or I haven’t read enough scholarly literature.  It is this.   I think when Mark was writing his Gospel, he was imagining that he was continuing the story that he inherited from the Hebrew Bible.    As you know, the final prophet of the Hebrew Bible, Malachi, ends by promising that Elijah would be coming before the “day of the Lord.”   And how does Mark begin?   By describing the coming of John the Baptist in the guise of Elijah.   Mark is a continuation of the narrative of the Hebrew Bible.

But as you probably know, the Hebrew Bible – in the sequence of books given in the original Hebrew — does not end with Malachi, the final prophet, the way the English Old Testament does.  It ends with 2 Chronicles, a narrative book that describes, at the very end, the fall of Jerusalem to the Babylonians and then the promise to rebuild the city by the Persian king Cyrus.   There has been sin, and destruction, and the promise of restoration – told in a historical narrative.  And Mark picks up the story at that point, with the coming then of the Savior, Jesus.

The historical books of the Hebrew Bible (Joshua, Judges, 1 and 2 Samuel, 1 and 2 Kings, 1 and 2 Chronicles) are anonymous.  They are telling the history of the people of God, not based on the authority of the author but as a holy narrative of how God worked among his people.  The names of the authors are unimportant and irrelevant in this kind of sacred history.   Mark continues the sacred history, and like his predecessors, tells his story anonymously.   Matthew and Luke and even John do it in their own ways, and also, as a result, tell their sacred history in the person of Jesus anonymously.  I don’t think it’s surprising at all that they did not reveal their names.

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Why Was The Gospel of Matthew Attributed to Matthew?
Papias on Matthew and Mark

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Comments

  1. Todd  November 28, 2014

    A simplistic question: I recently read that the Gospels should be read in a Jewish context; not in a Hellenistic context.

    Your essay above recalled that thought to my mind.

    If my question above makes any sense, do you have any thoughts on that notion?

    • Bart
      Bart  November 29, 2014

      Scholars today do not neatly differentiate between “Jewish” and “Hellenistic” since most Jews in the Roman world were Hellenized. So it’s probably a false either/or. Make sense?

      • Todd  November 30, 2014

        Yes…thank you.

      • Jana  December 14, 2014

        Sorry .. always running behind … your comment has added to my delighted confusion. Hellenized in which aspects? Could you elucidate?

        • Bart
          Bart  December 15, 2014

          It was kind of like today. You wouldn’t talk about Jews and Americans, as if they were two distinct categories. In antiquity you wouldn’t talk about Jews and the Hellenized. Most Jews were Hellenized.

  2. Stephen  November 28, 2014

    What about the possibility that they were writing for individual communities with specific needs and situations, communities made up of folks who were already familiar with the writers, who had no idea that their work would ever reach an audience beyond the specific community?

    • Bart
      Bart  November 29, 2014

      Yes, I think that’s probably true.

    • remliw  December 19, 2014

      Yes, Stephen, I agree. I always imagined that the original writers actually read their gospels to Christian gatherings (most people could not read). If the author was reading to his community his own work, there was no need to say “who wrote it”.

      • HistoricalChristianity  December 20, 2014

        I think it’s probably not true. One would not undertake such a serious literary effort, especially one with an evangelistic emphasis, simply for a single local community. Paul’s letters had already been widely circulated. I’m sure the gospel authors expected the same. The only reason to cite authorship would be to imply authenticity. Since these were neither biographies nor histories, but ancient bios narratives, authenticity wasn’t the point. They were stories told to show what kind of person the author believed the protagonist to be. Readers neither required nor expected them to be necessarily true. The authors likely had no particular credentials other than the ability to write well-crafted narratives in Koine Greek. Each knew the wide range of things people were saying about Jesus, and tried to address all of them. No matter what you believed or heard about Jesus, you’d find something in the gospels to identify with. You’d find explanations for why no one had actually met him, or why no one had even heard of the miracles or the ideas during his lifetime. Mostly you’d find explanations for why the person who became the universal sacrifice could be a good person, yet be executed by Rome. He was accused of being a Zealot, found innocent, but executed anyway to prevent riots.

        • Gary  February 21, 2015

          I wish Dr. Ehrman had commented on your comment.

          Specifically I would like to know if Dr. Ehrman believes that the gospels were written by early Christians attempting to give an accurate historical account of the life of Jesus based on the oral Christian traditions available to them— or—were the authors simply professional writers who had heard the stories of one particular Jewish messiah pretender and decided to write a supernatural-laden historical fiction about him for the sole purpose of earning a living?

          • Bart
            Bart  February 21, 2015

            Sorry, I must have missed the question. You give an either-or, but I don’t think the either or the or is right! These were authors trying to proclaim the “good news” (hence the name “Gospel”) by telling stories they had heard about Jesus. They did not have our view of “accurate” history; but on the other hand they were not professional writers either.

  3. rbrtbaumgardner  November 28, 2014

    Is there any speculation about why the Gospels were given *those* particular four names?

    • Bart
      Bart  November 29, 2014

      Ah, that’s what this thread is all about — and where it’s heading!

  4. Hon Wai  November 28, 2014

    1) Why do you think there are so few gospels circulating in the 1st century? Is it because Christianity hasn’t yet spread widely around the Empire, especially among the literary elite?
    2) What might have been the process by which the 4 gospels were circulated in their communities? Someone wrote a gospel. Did he then pass a copy to the elders of the local church to be read out loud in public? When a gospel was read out, would the audience have inquired about identity of the author? Conservative Christians say it would have been the common practice for the community to inquire and know about the author before accepting the text is authoritative.

    • Bart
      Bart  November 29, 2014

      1. We don’t know how many Gospels *were* in circulation. Luke says there were “many” (see Luke 1:1-4). We don’t know what he meant by that.
      2. Yes, I think that the authors probably were known within their own (small? large?) communities.

  5. SelfAwarePatterns  November 28, 2014

    Hmmm. I’d always assumed that the Gospel authors stayed anonymous because of fear of persecution. I know that persecution is often overhyped, but it seems like the Nero persecutions were a recent and vivid memory in the late first century.

    • Bart
      Bart  November 29, 2014

      We don’t have any record of anyone being persecuted for writing a Christian book. The authorities almost certainly would not have cared. (Nero had the Christians executed for setting fire to Rome) (they probably didn’t do it, but that was the charge brought against them)

  6. simonelli  November 28, 2014

    DR. Ehrman, as you know I have published a book “The Way God Told It” it has my name on the front cover, but I was hesitant to put it there: because I felt that the writer wasn’t me. Yes, my body sat for months in front of the computer typing, but what I was typing was far beyond my actual knowledge of God or the scriptures. There is a saying in my native Italian language when one cheats at the school exams that says “NON E’ FARINA DEL SUO SACCO” in other words “it hasn’t come from him.” I know that because, the next day in re-reading my writing I was amazed of what I had written. Yes Believe it or not, God is alive and well and He still uses man for the advancement of humanity.

  7. han23614  November 29, 2014

    Hello, Dr. Ehrman!

    Reading your posts regarding John brought me to this understanding:

    Among the followers of John, the son of Zebedee, there must have been some literate persons who wrote down some of what John had to say about Jesus. Many other earwitnesses remembered what they heard from John as well.

    The anonymous author of (Gospel According to) John wrote the book based upon these written and orally transmitted information. Since we don’t have the original we can’t tell whether this book was originally written or altered later to accommodate the theological view such as the deity of Jesus.

  8. magpie  November 29, 2014

    By George, I think you’ve got it! Your interpretation makes a lot of sense. I will have to go back and read 2 Chronicles.

  9. Jana  November 29, 2014

    Remarkable insight Dr. Erhman (humbly stated for who am I too assess?? BUT) and really quite thrilling … and as a normal person plausible .. if the authors viewed themselves as narrators and what they wrote continuations of a view from even more ancient scribes if not prophets, this would make very good sense indeed! Were then the Gospels a narrative as to how Jesus (as God??) worked among His people? How can your insight be academically substantiated?

    • Bart
      Bart  November 29, 2014

      Yes, I think that’s what the narratives are meant to do. And there is no way to “prove” the theory in any scientific sense; one simply has to see if it best accounts for the known facts.

  10. RonaldTaska  November 29, 2014

    Interesting. Thanks

  11. remliw  November 29, 2014

    I have never thought of this possibility. It is as good an explanation as any. I guess we will never know. So when the author first wrote the “Gospel of Mark”, did he send a manuscript? Or did he read it to his church? Or did he speak it, largely from memory? I always assumed that he read it to the congregation since most could not read and also because duplicating a manuscript was hard work. If the author read it to his congregation, then the listeners would know who wrote it. The author had no need to write his name on the document that he kept for himself. When would the document begin to be copied and circulated? Would they have waited until the author died and the manuscript was found among his possessions?

    • Bart
      Bart  November 29, 2014

      Great questions. Maybe I’ll devote a post to them! (Short answer: Mark, whoever he was, wrote the book; it was read to the congregation — or to a small group within it; someone copied it; someone copied the copy; someone took a copy to another city where the author wasn’t known; someone copied it there; a copy was taken to another city, then another, then another. The author’s name was lost early on in the process)

      • richard  November 30, 2014

        Doc Ehrman

        in antiquity were their BIOGRAPHIES about famous authors? i mean, did people examine the lives of authors in terms of characteristics?

        memory?

        “this author had an excellent memory and he did not indulge in telling lies” ?

        • Bart
          Bart  December 1, 2014

          Yes, “bioi” were a common form of writing — thus Suetonius, Plutarch, etc.

  12. dragonfly  November 29, 2014

    If the authors did put their names to the gospels (eg. “The Gospel According to Bob”) how likely is it they would still have made it into the new testament?

  13. Hon Wai  November 29, 2014

    When the gospels were circulated between different Christian communities in the 1st century, is it likely that information about authorship was passed on orally, alongside the written text?

    • Bart
      Bart  December 1, 2014

      Probably within their own communities, I should think.

  14. HistoricalChristianity  November 29, 2014

    Perhaps each was a team, committee, or community effort? In true bios narrative practice, each author told stories about the kind of person they believed the protagonist to be. Decades after the crucifixion, in the Greek world far from Galilee, no one had any way of knowing what actually happened during the lifetime of Jesus. They could choose only from among the huge field of orally passed stories and their own creativity. Based on linguistic analysis by Bivin and Blizzard, I think the authors may have harvested typical rabbinic dialogs of the era, to show what kinds of things a backwoods Jewish sage might have said. The synoptics had to include explanations for why the ideas of Christianity were unknown during the lifetime of Jesus. They reserved their strongest efforts to explaining why a good, innocent man would be executed by Rome. Finish off with some subtle jabs at the Jews for deicide (not a formal accusation until Melito of Sardis). PS: Thanks Dr. Ehrman for that info in After the New Testament. Each gospel was a serious writing effort. Translations of the Hebrew sayings may have been a hasty effort. The overall writing was not careless or hasty. The ideas of Christianity were already being challenged. The authors were strongly motivated to tell the best story as an evangelistic and apologetic tool. To me, it’s easy to see why they might not want to attach a single specific name to it. The motivation was to compete for mindshare for their religion. I commend them for leaving them anonymous rather than making them pseudonymous. I also commend their honesty for never claiming eyewitness testimony. I have no reason for holding them to modern standards for a historian or biographer, over those of the ancient bios genre.

  15. David Scott  November 30, 2014

    What do you think about the hypothesis that the gospels were written originally as weekly readings, to be read alongside the Torah readings that were part of Jewish practice?

    The more I think about it, the more this seems more than plausible, though I’m only an interested layman and I could easily be missing something. You’ve got a community of Christians, they’re mostly illiterate, and because they’re also observant Jews, the leaders of the gatherings are still reading from the Torah every week with the intention of keeping their scriptures fresh in everyone’s memory. Of course, the worship would also include people speaking to the gathering about Jesus, but as new converts joined and as existing Christians got forgetful about this or that incident, the same basic information about Jesus’s life would be brought up over and over. It seems just about inevitable that the desire would crop up sooner or later, in some community somewhere, to create a similar series of readings about Jesus and his life and teachings, to be read alongside the Torah readings and show how Jesus’s life continued and fulfilled them.

    Because each reading would be coming around again each year, there would be repeated opportunities for the leaders of the community to make revisions — making embellishments, emphasizing a point that didn’t seem made strongly enough the first time, adding details that would relate the story to the Torah reading for that day or a recent day, and so on. Significant new material might even be added — for example, the “Little Apocalypse” reading could have been written and inserted into the gospel of Mark in response to the seizure of the Temple, even though the rest of the readings may have been in use for many years. If the readings were coming around repeated in the cycle, there would be regular opportunities for revisions; if most people in the gathering were illiterate, it would take a while before people knew the readings well enough to regard them as a fixed, traditional form.

    It also seems just about inevitable that, once such a set of readings was created, that they would be copied and passed around to other communities, who might want to tweak them for their own purposes. If the community’s beliefs and purposes were different enough, the community’s leaders might undertake a significant revision of the readings (thus creating Matthew and Luke).

    I haven’t seen this idea put forward very often, but it seems to me an entirely plausible explanation for the origins of the gospels, and to account for some of their features. But it seems that most often I see the gospels characterized as works that were written like books, committed to paper all at one time and then circulated in that matter, rather than as serials, a new installment given every week and the cycle starting over again each year, each go-round giving another opportunity for revision.

    Do you have any thoughts about this take on the gospels?

    • Bart
      Bart  December 1, 2014

      It’s an interesting theory, but I’m afraid I’ve never found it convincing, simply because the evidence for it seems so thin. And because I don’t think the Gospels, with the possible exception of Matthew, were written by Jews who had been active in their synagogues. (Mark and Luke certainly not)

  16. prairieian  November 30, 2014

    An additional thought on this…would the original authors have considered their versions as divinely inspired and hence the “author” in some sense was God? If you felt this to be the case attaching your name to the book would be at the least presumptious or at worst blasphemous. This would also explain the anonymous nature of the first gospel accounts, and then the named later gospels as per your observation.

    However, you likely have answered this somewhere, when did the Christian community start to attribute inerrancy to the bible? The epistle writers had modest, problem solving goals with their literary efforts – I doubt they thought they’d be preserved for all time as scripture. The gospel writers were either thinking themselves as God’s pen, or were individuals striving, as humans, to write down as best they could their understanding of God’s work on earth. Is inerrancy and the divine origin of the bible something relatively recent, like papal infallibility?

    • Bart
      Bart  December 1, 2014

      My sense is that the authors simply thought they were writing the accounts of what God had done, not that they were writing what God directed them to write. The idea of “inerrancy” is a modern one.

      • TWood
        TWood  May 10, 2016

        I agree, and I think most Christian scholars agree too. Do you subscribe to the idea that inerrancy began with B.B. Warfield and the Princeton theologians? The whole verbal plenary idea… because it seems even newer than that… having read Warfield’s view of Darwinism… I can’t see modern fundamentalists swallowing that idea without burping up charges of “denying the word of God.” I’m not sure it can be identified exactly (maybe it can?)… but what’s your sense on when modern “bible worship” began?

        • Bart
          Bart  May 12, 2016

          No, it is usually thought that Warfield was developing a view that was already floating around. The idea of inerrancy is usually traced to the Niagara Conferences at the end of the 19th century.

          • TWood
            TWood  May 12, 2016

            That makes sense. Did it spring out of Darbyism/Dispensationalis? Or just out of that general time? I’m just wondering if there’s a specific point it’s generally seen as “beginning” (or if it is more organic in that general period).

          • Bart
            Bart  May 13, 2016

            That’s a good question. I don’t know how much the Niagara conferences were connected (completely? not at all?) to Dispensational thought.

  17. fishician  November 30, 2014

    It makes sense that a biographer or historian might not see the need to identify himself as the author. It makes no sense that one of Jesus’ disciples, commissioned by him to serve as a witness for him, would pass up the opportunity to identify himself as an eyewitness of his Lord as he tells the story. That would be like denying Jesus as Peter did! More evidence in my mind that the gospels could not have been written by any apostles, or even an associate of an apostle who would have been sure to identify such a reliable source.

  18. Christopher
    Christopher  December 13, 2014

    I’ve been reading Adella Collin’s commentary on Mark (It’s HUGE, 800 pages) and she goes through some argumentation about why Mark probably meant to be writing in the style of the Hebrew Bible, as you argued above. She doesn’t, however, phrase it exactly like you just did, or portray Mark as seeing himself “continuing” the Hebrew Bible.

  19. sbruck  December 16, 2014

    Hi Dr. Ehrman,

    Matthew and Luke I could see as writing, like Mark, to continue to the story of the Hebrew Chronicles. But don’t they also seem to be writing to counter, rather than continue, the story of Mark? After all if they thought Mark’s version got everything right then they would not have tried to improve on it. Forgive the laymen’s question 😛

    -Sean

    • Bart
      Bart  December 16, 2014

      I think that given Luke 1:1-4, at the very least Matthew and Luke found Mark to be inadequate (though not necessarily wrong).

    • HistoricalChristianity  December 20, 2014

      Getting it right wasn’t the objective. It was covering the ideas and providing the explanations. Why were the ideas of Christianity unknown during his lifetime? The disciples were dense. They were told not to tell. Jesus used parables, not for the usual purpose of explanation, but to hide meaning from the general audiences. It was hidden from them. It was not revealed until after the resurrection.

      Was Jesus a Zealot? If you thought so, you could find enough to identify with. If you didn’t think so, you could see why other people might have thought so. You could also see it as a convenient false accusation to make to Rome about him.

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