When Did the Gospels Get Their Names? In this series of posts on the authors’ names associated with the New Testament Gospels – Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John – we have so far seen that the texts themselves are completely anonymous.  The authors of two of these works (Luke and John) do speak in the first person in a couple of instances, but they do not say who they are. 

By the end of the second century, roughly a century after the books were written, they were being called by the names that are familiar to us today.   So naturally one might wonder, when were they given these ascriptions?

When Did the Gospels Get Their Names: Evidence 

Contrary to what you may sometimes have heard, there is no concrete evidence that the Gospels received their familiar names early on.   It is absolutely true to say that in the manuscripts of the Gospels, they have the titles we are accustomed to (The Gospel according to Matthew, etc.).  But these manuscripts with titles do not start appearing until around 200 CE.   What were manuscripts of, say, Matthew or John entitled in the year 120 CE?  We have no way of knowing.  But there are reasons to think that they were not called Matthew and John.

Here are some factors to consider.   First, the titles almost certainly cannot be what the authors themselves called their works.   It is widely thought among critical scholars that Mark did give a kind of descriptive title to his work, in what is now the first verse:  “The Beginning of the Gospel of Jesus Christ.”   This is probably not simply an introduction to what is to follow.  It may well be Mark’s own title.   Notice that his own name (whatever it was) is left out of it.

Gospels of Christ – The other three Gospels…

The other three Gospels do not have titles: they just begin.   But it is clear that they were not originally called such things as “The Gospel according to Luke” or the “Gospel according to John,” as is found in our later manuscripts.  The reason should be obvious.  No one (in either antiquity or today) would give a title to indicate whom it is “according to.” (When I wrote my book Misquoting Jesus I called it just that; I didn’t entitle it “Misquoting Jesus According to Bart Ehrman) If one wanted to entitle a Gospel, they would do what Mark did, and call it something like “The Life of Jesus” or “The Account of Jesus’ Words and Deeds” or “The Gospel of Jesus Christ” or the like.

If someone indicates, in a title, whom the Gospel is “according to,” it is someone else telling you whose version of the Gospel it is.   That must mean that the Gospels were not given their titles until it was widely known that there were several versions floating around and that it was important to differentiate among them.   So when was that?

The Name of the Gospels By the End of the First Century 

There are solid reasons for thinking that Gospels were in circulation by the end of the first century.  But there are also solid reasons for thinking that at that point, at least, the Gospels had not been given their now current names.  Luke indicates that “many others” had written accounts of Jesus’ life, and that he, unlike them, was going to give an “orderly account.”   So Gospels were known to him.   He certainly had Mark and Q at his disposal, and probably other accounts.   So too Matthew.   And John may well have known of the other three, and yet others.   But we have no record of anyone calling these books by their later names.

The Gospels of the New Testament appear to be quoted in early second century authors such as Ignatius of Antioch and Polycarp of Smyrna.   But they are not called by their names in any of these writings. In fact, in any of the writings of the Apostolic Fathers – ten proto-orthodox writers, most of them from the first half of the second century.  Of greater significance – quite real significance – is evidence from the middle of the second century.

Name of the Gospels

When Did the Gospels Get Their Names – Justin Martyr 

Justin Martyr wrote several extensive works that still survive. Two apologies (reasoned defenses of the Christian faith) and a book called the “Dialogue with Trypho” (an extended controversy with a Jewish thinker about the superiority of the Christian faith to Judaism).

Justin is an important figure in the history of Christianity.  He was one of the first intellectuals in the church, one who was trained in philosophy before converting to Christianity from paganism.  His books were written around 150-160 CE in Rome, where he had moved to set up a kind of Christian school.  Eventually because of his public Christian stance, he was arrested and martyred – hence his sobriquet, Justin “Martyr.”

In his writings Justin quotes the Gospels that later were to be considered part of the New Testament on numerous occasions.  It is quite clear that he knows (intimately) Matthew, Mark, and Luke.  It is debated whether he knows John. He does have two explicit quotations from John 3 (from the passage about “being born again”) but some scholars think that’s not enough to show that he knows John – just that he is familiar with a tradition that had earlier also found its way into John.  My own view is that he probably knew John.

Name of the Gospels – Call Them by Name