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Did the Gospels Originally Have Titles?

I have received a number of questions from readers about my blog post that tried to explain why the Gospel writers wrote their books anonymously; some of the questions have concerned the titles of the Gospels: if they books were not *written* by named authors (Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John) why do the titles *indicate* they were, and could the titles be original to the books?

My view is that the books did not originally have titles, but – for reasons I explained in a different post (https://ehrmanblog.org/why-are-the-gospels-called-matthew-mark-luke-and-john/) – were given titles naming their authors years after they had been circulating anonymously.  I explain why I think that the Gospels were originally without titles in a couple of my books; here are a couple of extracts (slightly edited) taken from Jesus Interrupted and Forged that marshal some of the arguments that are often adduced.  There is some overlap between the two sets of comments, but together they pretty much make the point.

 

*************************************************************

 

In our surviving manuscripts of the Gospels they are always called by the same names, with titles such as “According to Matthew,” “According to Mark,” “According to Luke,” “According to John” – never by any other names (although the way the titles are phrased do differ).  Some scholars have argued that this is evidence that the Gospels were always named these things, from the beginning.   That is not necessarily the case, however.  It needs to be pointed out that we don’t …

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Comments

  1. Stephen  May 31, 2018

    So how did titling in ancient Greek manuscripts that possessed titles actually work? Was it written at the top of the manuscript? At the end? Larger print? A separate page as in modern books? Was the author’s name included?

    Thanks!

  2. fishician  May 31, 2018

    Am I correct in thinking that all 4 gospels are post-70, after the destruction of the temple? Other than Paul’s letters, are there any other Christian writings before 70 CE? And can we make anything of the fact that Paul never references any other collection of writings or gospels?

    • Bart
      Bart  June 2, 2018

      1. Yes; 2. No; 3. Debated. I think that if he had known of them he would at least have referred to them. But who knows.

      • CCDunn  June 11, 2018

        Dr. Ehrman,
        Where can I find a timeline (and order) of when the books of old and new testament were written based on current scholarly agreement?
        Thanks,
        Charles

        • Bart
          Bart  June 12, 2018

          You know, that’s a great question. I thought I had one in my book, The Bible: A Historical and Literary Introduction — but now that I look, it appears that I don’t. I assume that’s because I decided it was simply impossible to date so many of the books or even provide relative dates in relation to one another. Offhand I don’t know where you can find a scholar’s attempt to give some kind of timelines. Maybe someone else on the blog knows a place. If so HELP US!!

  3. Lev
    Lev  May 31, 2018

    Bart – what do you make of the account found in the Acts of Timothy, which agrees that the early versions of the synoptic gospels did not have titles, but that John added them himself? Perhaps this is an early witness that acknowledges the early copies of the Synoptics were untitled?

    “Some followers of the disciples of the Lord, not knowing how to put in order certain papyri which were written in different languages and put together in random fashion by these disciples and which dealt with the miracles of the Lord Jesus which had taken place in their time, came to the city of Ephesus and by common consent brought them (the papyri) to John the renowned theologian. He examined them thoroughly and taking his cue from them, after he had put in order the three gospel narratives and entitled them Gospel of Matthew, Gospel of Mark, Gospel of Luke, assigning their proper titles to the gospels, he himself theologized upon the things they had not narrated filling up also the gaps they had left, in their accounts of the miracles especially, and then he set his own name to this compilation or gospel.”

  4. Michfisch  May 31, 2018

    If these gospels were written anonymously and therefore not received based on their authority.. what is it about them that they were received so demonstrably better than all the other “Gospels” or ancient texts?

    • Bart
      Bart  June 2, 2018

      They were teh most widely used in teh proto-orthodox communities, *possibly*, in part, by the accidents of circulation.

  5. mikezamjara  May 31, 2018

    I am readind the Triumph of christianity and I have a doubt about the relationship of the gospels and the teachings of Paul. If the gospels were written after most of the letters of Paul, It means that the spread of christianity in the first century to the gentiles was done with little influence of the gospels. Do you agree? and secondly, Do you think that Paul knew anything about or even read the gospels?, Does he mention or quote them anywhere in his letters?

    • Bart
      Bart  June 2, 2018

      I think we need to differentiate between *Paul’s* mission to the gentiles and *the* mission to the gentiles. There may well have been others besides him. But no, I don’t think Paul could have read the Gospels, because they were after him.

      • Jgapologist  June 10, 2018

        Hi Bart, how about 1 Corinthians 11:23 -24. This passage looks like it comes from Luke. Do you agree or do you think it was only Oral?

        • Bart
          Bart  June 10, 2018

          I think it was the tradition about the Lord’s supper known in Pauline communities — both in Corinth and in the one that Luke was from. Luke’s Gospel was written long after Paul’s death (maybe 20 years or more?) and so could not have been the source of the passage for Paul.

          • Jgapologist  June 16, 2018

            Thank you Bart. How do we know when Luke’s gospel was written and how do we know it was after Paul’s death?

          • Bart
            Bart  June 17, 2018

            Lots of reasons. Here’s one of them. The author certainly used Mark’s Gospel as a source, and Mark appears to know about the destruction of the temple, and so is post-70 CE. Paul is thought to have died in the mid-60s.

  6. godspell  May 31, 2018

    People do, in fact, now write things with titles like “The World According to Me” but primarily as a self-aggrandizing reference to the gospels, so your point stands.

  7. John Uzoigwe  May 31, 2018

    Dr Bart Ehrman
    I would like to know if Baptism was practiced before John the Baptist in Jewish culture or any other culture
    Secondly, what does baptism symbolize in ancient times?.
    Thanks

    • Bart
      Bart  June 2, 2018

      Ritual cleansing was common in Jewish circles, to represent the purificatoin from defilement.

    • Altosackbuteer
      Altosackbuteer  June 4, 2018

      “Baptism” in Judaism is the mikveh. The Law of Moses requires women to use the mikveh (full immersion) seven days after the cessation of their menses, as a condition of engaging in clean marital relations with their husbands.

      Jewish men have long used mikvot daily; it is considered spiritually cleansing.

  8. John Uzoigwe  May 31, 2018

    Dr Bart Ehrman, The gospel of John says Jesus washed the feet of his disciples and commanded them to follow his example. Can this act be referred to as a form of ritual conversion or baptism?

    • Bart
      Bart  June 2, 2018

      Some have thought that it was symbolic of the future act of baptism.

      • John Uzoigwe  June 2, 2018

        what’s your opinion?

        • Bart
          Bart  June 3, 2018

          I’m not sure. I’ve never looked deeply enough into it to have an opinion, I’m afraid….

    • talmoore
      talmoore  June 3, 2018

      If it helps at all, the practice of washing the feet of guests did have a symbolic meaning that would have been understood by 1st century peoples. I’ll explain.

      In ancient times, it was believed that gods would, on occasion, visit people in disguise (e.g. the gods are constantly doing this in Homer). The reason for believing this is two-fold. For one, in ancient folk myths divine beings regularly visited people in cognito and anonymously (e.g. the angels who visit Abraham, who visit Lot, who visit Jacob, who visit Gideon, and so on) so as to test them.

      You see, in ancient times, traveling long distances was fraught with peril, so a custom developed that the head of a household should host any traveler who comes to his door. This is something you see a lot in the Bible . And one of the ways this custom was enforced was through the shared belief that every once in a while a guest might be a god (or angel) in disguise, so if you turn away a caller, you might just be turning away a god, which is not good. So this created the incentive for people to let in sojourners, fearing that this one stranger just might be a god or angel testing your upholding of the host norm.

      So what does this have to do with Jesus washing people’s feet? Well, the act of washing a guest’s feet stems from the traditional roles of host and guest. That is, who knows if this stranger is a divine being? Just to be sure, be a good host and have your servant wash the dirt and dust that have accumulated on the guest’s feet from hours of walking. And to combat the odor, have the servant throw a little perfume on their feet for good measure. This is the custom we see being performed, for instance, at John 12:3.

      Anyway, to make a long story short, all of this symbolism is wrapped up into the ritual of feet-washing: host/guest relationship, master/servant relationship, the god in disguise. The idea is that you are acknowledging these three norms. You’re following the host/guest norm. You’re recognizing the master/servant relationahip. And you’re appreciating the potential that you might be washing the feet of a divine being — i.e. you’re being tested. Always fear that you’re being tested!

      • Altosackbuteer
        Altosackbuteer  June 5, 2018

        Very good. I would add a couple of points.

        1) NOBODY wore socks in those days. At least, not in warm weather zones.

        2) In Jewish tradition, Abraham the patriarch not only did all the things you say, he also escorted guests AWAY from his home for a short distance. Some Jews still practice this custom.

  9. gavriel  May 31, 2018

    How is it possible that a religious sectarian movement consisting of illiterate Galileans in just a few decades mustered a number of highly educated Greek speaking authors?

    • Bart
      Bart  June 2, 2018

      Not sure why it wouldn’t be possible. A couple of decades is a long time!

    • talmoore
      talmoore  June 9, 2018

      My hypothesis is that they weren’t all illiterate, and many of Jesus’ disciples were relatively well-educated in scripture. The picture we have received of them being totally ignorant country rubes is the typical trope of faux humble origins we find in many, many, MANY stories about the founders of movements. Besides Jesus and his disciples, we have stories about, for example, Muhammad being illiterate, thus making it all the more miraculous that Muhammad was able to memorize and recite the revelations given to him by the angel Gabriel.

      This humble origins trope is so ubiquitious, in fact, that there’s an entire literary genre called the “rags-to-riches” story. The story of King David: rags-to-riches story. Barry Lyndon: rags-to-riches. Harry Potter: rags-to-riches. And so on. There’s something psychologically satisfying about the idea of a person coming from nothing and achieving greatness nonetheless — though their reason for achieving greatest may vary. For one character, it could be via destiny or divine blessing (e.g Harry Potter, Jesus, Muhammad, Moses, et al.). For others it could be through perseverance and determination (e.g. Barry Lyndon, Daniel Plainview, Horatio Alger, et al.) For some, it could be both (e.g. King David).

      The use of this humble origins trope is so blatantly, obviously applied to Jesus’ disciples in the NT that I’m genuinely surprised scholars are so quick to buy into it.

  10. galah  May 31, 2018

    “(some critics of one of my earlier books, on the problem of suffering, wryly suggested that the title “God’s Problem” should instead be entitled “God’s Problem According to Bart Ehrman” – but obviously that’s not what I myself would entitle the book!).”

    This is just one reason why you’re such an incredible author. You can get in depth and make us laugh at the same time. There aren’t many writers who have that kind of skill.

  11. Tony  May 31, 2018

    The anonymity of the four NT gospels adds to the notion that they are complete fabrications. Many scholars have observed that they are not historical narratives in any sense. All NT (and apocryphal) gospels originate directly, or indirectly, from Mark. The gospel narratives may be best understood as part of the battle for dominance between early Christian factions.

    Mark – an attack on the Jewish Christianity of Peter by Gentile followers of Paul’s religion;
    Matthew – the response by Peter’s Jewish followers to Mark’s attack;
    Luke – An attempt to reconcile the Paul/Peter warring factions, “can’t we all just get along…”. Luke part 2 goes as far in fabricating an early Christian history (Acts) showing Paul and Peter living in harmony;
    John – a likely redacted version of a Gnostic gospel variant. The opening lines reflect Paul’s mystery religion. John’s Jesus is calm and collected, because he knows everything.

    • Altosackbuteer
      Altosackbuteer  June 4, 2018

      Mostly I agree, though I note that Matthew is even more anti-Jew than is Mark. For example, there is a FRIENDLY exchange between Jesus and a Pharisee in Mark 12:28-24, in which both express mutually complimentary and complementary things about responses that the other had given. But in the parallel version found in Matthew, the friendly, amiable nature of the exchange vanishes, and is replaced by a nasty confrontation between Jesus and the bad, hypocritical Pharisees.

      You are totally correct about Luke.

      Note the dispute that Luke records between Peter and Paul in, I think it is, Acts 10. Paul himself — I think it’s in Galatians — discusses the same dispute, and does so in language which far more strongly attacks Peter.

      Quite right — the myth of Peter and Paul patching things up and henceforth marching arm-in-arm into Rome as Christian brothers is just that, a myth.

      • Tony  June 4, 2018

        Yes, but notice that Paul was a Pharisee… Sympathetic Pharisee treatment in Mark, but extreme hostility in Matthew! Matthew is attacking Paul’s religion in response to Mark’s attack on Peter.

        The contemporary audiences would have known exactly what this was all about.

        • Altosackbuteer
          Altosackbuteer  June 6, 2018

          No — Paul was NOT a “Pharisee.”

          It is true that Paul CLAIMED he was a Pharisee — a “Pharisee of the Pharisees” — in other words, a very learned Pharisee, even by their own lofty standards.

          Bu Paul’s claim is a FALSE claim. He was no Pharisee at all.

          In his book The Mythmaker, Hyam Maccoby explodes the MYTH of Paul as a Pharisee. In his writings, on at least 4 occasions, Paul attempted to dazzle his readers with his self-proclaimed Pharisee expertise, by demonstrating to them that he was able to use the methods of Pharisee reasoning and logic just as well as they could. Maccoby then proceeds to demonstrate that only on one of the four instances did Paul correctly apply the principles of dayu, Pharisee / rabbinical logic, where kol v’chomer (literally, “heavy and light”) are important. In the other three instances, Paul flopped miserably.

          The ONLY reason Paul gets away with his false claim is because he wrote his letters to Christians who understood even far less about Judaism than he did. They were bigger ignoramuses than Paul was.

          ANOTHER reason why Paul could not possibly have been a top Pharisee was because, to become a top Pharisee, one needed, then as well as now, to commence intensive studies from a very tender age. Paul did not. He was born in Tarsus, no center of rabbinical training but instead the world headquarters of the Attis Bull cult. He never studied until at least into late adolescence when he went to Jerusalem.

          Yet ANOTHER reason that Paul could not possibly have been a Pharisee was because he was the stooge of the Sadducee High Priest!

          By admission of Acts of the Apostles, Paul as Saul was nothing more than the Sadducee High Priest’s ROVING GOON. It is INCONCEIVABLE that any top Pharisee would ever jump sides and become a goon for the Sadducees.

  12. Franz Liszt  May 31, 2018

    I just have a few questions about what you said at the end. I don’t hold to traditional authorship, but I’m not sure the points you raised are really solid arguments. In regards to Matthew, wasn’t that a fairly common technique? That’s what Caesar did in his Conquest of Gaul. And presumably, Jews who thought that Moses wrote the Pentateuch talked about himself in the 3rd person.

    As to John, I thought it was widely agreed that John 21 has a different author than John 1-20. If that’s the case, then wouldn’t that verse really be a solid piece of evidence that the beloved disciple played a key role in the composition of the rest of the Gospel?

    • Bart
      Bart  June 2, 2018

      I would say that Caesar’s technique was very different from Matthew’s, if Matthew was the one who wrote the Gospel. The Gallic Wars is *all* about Caesar and his (incredibly insightful!) actions (!); in the Gospel, Matthew just makes a cameo appearance.

  13. Altosackbuteer
    Altosackbuteer  June 1, 2018

    Acts of the Apostles (written by Luke) is MOSTLY written in the 3rd person.

    But there is an interesting section, from Acts 20:5 – 21:17, which suddenly goes into the 1st person. This is the description of the journey Paul and his followers made from Greece to get back to Jerusalem, in order for Paul to present himself there to the original Jerusalem Church, to answer the question, had Paul been preaching the FORBIDDEN doctrine that, not only the Gentile followers of Jesus, but ALSO THE JEWISH FOLLOWERS should now ignore the Law of Moses?

    Question: Is the real Luke the Evangelist writing about his own personal participation in this journey with Paul? And if this isn’t Luke, then how does one account for the change from 3rd person to 1st person in this passage?

    • Bart
      Bart  June 2, 2018

      There are *four* passages in Acts where the author breaks into the first person plural; these are called the “we passages” and they are the reason people assign the book to one of Paul’s traveling companions. Wrongly, in my view. I explain my views in my book Forged, and at greater length in Forgery and Counterforgery.

  14. ddorner  June 1, 2018

    Matthew 9:9 seems to make it an open and shut case to me.
    And it seems a bit pointless to advocate for the gospels being eye witness accounts when so much of what’s in them couldn’t have been witnessed by the disciples anyway.

    For example, how would Matthew know the curtain was torn the instant Jesus died unless he was in two places at once? And if he asked someone in the temple later when it was torn how would they know it was the instant Jesus died if they were in the temple at the time?

  15. nbraith1975  June 1, 2018

    Bart – What are the dates of the earliest *complete* transcripts of each gospel?

    • Bart
      Bart  June 2, 2018

      Do you mean *manuscripts*? The first is Codex Vaticanus from the mid-fourth century

      • nbraith1975  June 3, 2018

        Yes – manuscripts.

        So the Codex Vaticanus is the earliest manuscript of each complete gospel?

        To clarify; my interest is in knowing if each of the oldest compete gospel manuscripts can be traced to different time periods. I.e., Mark = mid-fourth century, Luke = late-fourth century, etc. And what exactly are the dates for each gospel?

        Sorry for the confusion.

        • Bart
          Bart  June 3, 2018

          Yes, it is.

          • Altosackbuteer
            Altosackbuteer  June 4, 2018

            In that case, how do you account for the Harvard University copy of the Book of Matthew?

            As I’ve mentioned to you, my trumpet-playing colleague once attended the Harvard Divinity School and told me he had seen this manuscript with his own eyes.

            He told me, it dates from the first century which I now know, thanx to you, is false. Nevertheless, I am certain my friend didn’t lie to me; I’m certain he really did see such a manuscript, and that Harvard really has one, however old it might be.

            My friend says, this manuscript is MISSING The Salutation — and he saw this with his own eyes, too — The Salutation being from Matthew 16, where Jesus says to Simon, “You are Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church.” As you know, this is the traditional justification of the Catholic Church for the Primacy of the Bishop of Rome.

            If The Salutation is missing from the Harvard manuscript, that implies that a later editor forged these words and inserted them into the text after the original writer, in order to give a retroactive and false justification to the primacy of the Bishop of Rome.

            I’m CONFIDENT that the Codex Vaticanus has a manuscript WITH The Salutation.

            So — assuming my friend was correct — which I do so assume — how can you account for the likely difference?

          • Bart
            Bart  June 4, 2018

            I’m not sure what you’re asking. There is no first century copy of Matthew at Harvard, as I said. If you can ask your friend the Nestle-Aland number of the manuscript he is referring to, I can tell you about it. (I’m assuming since he knows about manuscripts and can read Greek that he will know what I mean by the Nestle-Aland number)

  16. Wilusa  June 1, 2018

    A thought that just occurred to me: if the author of something like a Gospel did want to acknowledge authorship, he surely would have had to use more than his first name! I realize surnames weren’t used then, but he could have included the name of the town he lived in, or some other identifier.

  17. godspell  June 1, 2018

    It never occurred to me to check before, but of course, nobody referred to The Iliad as such for a long time after it was composed and written down.

    Bart, do any of the original books of the Old Testament, in their earliest known forms, have titles?

    • Bart
      Bart  June 2, 2018

      I’m afraid I don’t know what the situation is with the Dead Sea Scrolls, whether their copies of the Hebrew Bible books have titles — sorry, but I’m away from home from the summer and don’t have my books with me. Maybe someone else can help us out with this one?

      • godspell  June 3, 2018

        My question is basically “How important was consistent titling to ancient writers?”

        I’m guessing not very. There was no publishing industry, in the modern sense. Most people couldn’t read, not all of those who could used that skill to peruse literature. Those who were literate didn’t have nearly so many books to choose from. It’s not like they were browsing through stacks of books arranged alphabetically. There were libraries, but those were probably mainly used by scholars, and arranged by subject.

        Titles today are used to sell a book, set it apart from other books (though in fact, even today, titles can’t be copyrighted–you could call your next book The Godfather, or Star Wars, and nobody could do anything about it).

        However, when books back then became important to a lot of people, was widely discussed, a title would usually be found. So everybody would be on the same page, so to speak.

        So that’s why I’m curious as to how early the OT books had titles. Originally, they wouldn’t have needed any. They were written for a small audience, and only became well known much later, probably after their authors were dead and forgotten.

        • Bart
          Bart  June 3, 2018

          Well, if an author gave a title to a book, he expected that to be the title it was known by, as opposed to some other title (if that’s what you’re asking)

          • godspell  June 3, 2018

            Hardly the case today–I can think of many authors I love whose books have gone by innumerable titles in different languages, and sometimes even different titles in different editions in the same language. And that’s not even getting into film adaptations.

            I looked up Thucydides’ “History of the Peloponnesian War” and turns out its original title was Ἱστορίαι’–“Histories”

            Because seriously, how many were there? No danger of confusing it with all the other histories nobody had written yet. Except maybe Herodotus’ Ἱστορίαι;

            My point is, how relevant were titles when there were so few books, and they were written for such small specialized audiences? The author’s name would be more relevant than the title. But in the case of the gospels, we don’t have the authors’ names–author names were attributed to them after the fact.

            Nobody would have thought it strange to pick up a book (in scroll form) and find it had neither title nor author. They would have had some idea what it was before they picked it up, and the way these books were written, they laid out their purposes succinctly early on.

            As some of these books have lived on into later eras, where titles were important, we’ve given them titles they did not originally have, to set them apart from the now immense number of books in the same general field. Even so, seeing all the books that cross my desk where I work, I must say, few of the titles stick in the memory all that well, and most are tediously repetitious.

            One thing separates all the gospels from other ancient books–the authors, whoever they were, were writing in the belief that the Kingdom was coming soon. They were not writing for posterity. They were writing for people of that generation, to save as many as possible. Who knows if they even believed there would be books in the Kingdom?

            And so, what difference did it make if they were remembered as the ones who wrote these books?

  18. seahawk41  June 1, 2018

    Two questions: First, you said that “the way the titles are phrased do differ”. Would you explain/show how the titles differ? Second, it would be great for someone to discover significant gospel remains from early second century. By “significant” I mean an entire gospel or a major piece of one. Given that the search has gone on for over 100 years, what is your estimate of the likelihood of such a major discovery?

    • Bart
      Bart  June 2, 2018

      The differences are never hugely significant — e.g., none of them calls the Gospel of Mark the Gospel of Peter or or Barnabas, etc. They are things like “According to Saint Mark” or “According to Mark; or The holy Gospel according to Mark” etc. Yes, we may be in for great surprises eventually — it’d be great if a large chunk of a Gospel would appear. As it is, in any event, we have portions of about half of Mark from around 200 CE in a ms called P45.

  19. Lev
    Lev  June 2, 2018

    “The same is true of the Gospels of Mark and Luke. The authors never insert themselves into their narratives.”

    Whilst it’s true that Mark never switches out of the third person, do you think Mark inserted himself into his narrative in Mk 14:51-52? (the young man who fled naked when Jesus was arrested) I understand this is a popular opinion among scholars.

    • Bart
      Bart  June 2, 2018

      I’d say nothing in the text itself suggests the author is talking about himself.

  20. prestonp  June 4, 2018

    In this letter the writer includes himself (we) as an eyewitness to Christ. He not only heard him and saw him, he touched him; he actually had physical contact with him.

    “That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked at and our hands have touched—this we proclaim concerning the Word of life. 2 The life appeared; we have seen it and testify to it, and we proclaim to you the eternal life, which was with the Father and has appeared to us. 3 We proclaim to you what we have seen and heard, so that you also may have fellowship with us. And our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son, Jesus Christ. 4 We write this to make our[a] joy complete.”

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