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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?

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.

The other three Gospels…

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Comments

  1. Azeus  November 17, 2014

    I could use some help with this. It has to do with Justin having access to Luke. In Trypho:78 his infancy account says Jesus was born in a ‘Cave’. This is not consistent with either Matthew or Luke. The only source I can find this account is the Gospel of James. In Dialog:100 Justin quotes Luke 1:35. However, that passage also appears in James 1:38. All mentions of Just to the infancy story seem to be consistent with James. What are your thoughts on him having access to James vs Luke?

    • Bart
      Bart  November 18, 2014

      My sense is that there were oral traditions floating around that both Justin and Proto-Gospel of James had access to, and that some authors like Justin could pick up information both from written sources and orally. It’d be difficult to give a secure date for the Proto-Gospel prior to Justin.

  2. J.J.  November 17, 2014

    Of course, Matthew 1:1 may be a title for that Gospel, depending on whether it is introducing all 28 chapters, just the first two chapters, or just the first 17 verses.

    • Bart
      Bart  November 18, 2014

      Yup, could be — although the “genealogy” mentioned there is really only the first 17 verses.

  3. Jason  November 17, 2014

    When are the earliest gospels (fragmentary, whole but discrete or gathered into codices) that have the now familiar apostolic attributions dated to?

  4. fishician  November 18, 2014

    If you were appointed by Jesus to be a witness of Him, why, when given the chance to write down your testimony of Jesus, would you fail to clearly identify yourself as one of his disciples, by name?! What do conservative scholars say to that? Also, I just listened to one of your Great Courses lessons on Papias. Fascinating how the early church leaders carefully selected material to support their beliefs.

    • scissors  March 10, 2018

      Fischian and how would you establish that either of the Gospel writers were “appointed by Jesus to be witnesses of him”?

  5. John123  November 18, 2014

    A little off topic, but I am just curious about something. Is there anything about the synoptic gospels that you can think of that would rule out the possibility that Mark, Matthew, and Luke were all written by the same person, with Mark being a first draft and Matthew and Luke being later improvements?

    • Bart
      Bart  November 18, 2014

      Yes, the writing style is different between the three. The themes are different. The emphases are different. The theological views are different. So there’s really nothing to make one think the same person wrote all three.

  6. John  November 18, 2014

    Really enjoying these posts.

  7. FrankJay71  November 18, 2014

    Other than Luke, is there any indication that the gospel writers were familiar with or gave any credence to Paul. What I’m especially curious about is why the order of appearances of the risen Christ, according to the Gospels differs from Paul’s account, i.e. “first to Peter, then the twelve….”. If Paul’s writing were available and authoritative, as I assumed they were by the time the gospels were written, why did all the Gospel writers give deference to the tradition of the women at the tomb over Paul’s account?

    • Bart
      Bart  November 20, 2014

      There’s no explicit link to Paul, but some think that Mark’s Gospel has a Pauline theology behind it. And Matthew is in some ways responding *against* Paul….

  8. nichael  November 23, 2014

    Just out of curiosity:

    Is there any evidence (say in the Fathers or in any manuscripts) that any of the four canonical Gospels were *ever* associated with any other names?

    Or to ask this another way, is it the case that the Gospel we know as “Matthew” –*if* it was given a name– was *only* ever attribute to Matthew (or “Mark” only to Mark, “Luke” only to Luke, etc)?

    • Bart
      Bart  November 23, 2014

      No, so far as we know, they were never called anything else, once they were called by these names.

  9. Jana  November 28, 2014

    Simply fascinating as well as intriguing. Onward!

  10. rolmeda  November 23, 2015

    Are you still monitoring comments on this post? I have a few questions based on (what else) an online debate I’m having.

    I made what I thought was the non-controversial observation that you (Bart Ehrman) do not believe Luke wrote Luke, and that the scholarly consensus supports you in this conclusion.

    Naturally, my debate opponent responded with the names of scholars who disagree and believe Luke wrote Luke. Lo and behold, every last one he cited was a Christian, except for one — YOU. He thought you agreed with him. I had to set him straight on that.

    In any event, what’s the state of the consensus regarding the authorship of Luke?

    • Bart
      Bart  November 24, 2015

      Conservative Christians almost entirely think Luke, Paul’s traveling companion, wrote Luke/Acts. Other scholars, not so much. I personally don’t think so at all, and have given the arguments in my book Forgery and Counterforgery

      • rolmeda  November 25, 2015

        Appreciate the reply. If it’s not too much trouble, can you be a little more detailed? Are there non-Christians who argue Luke wrote Luke? (I know there are Christians who concede he probably didn’t).

        A few influential names on either side would be helpful. I’m not demanding an answer, but if you have a few minutes, I’d appreciate it. If not, peace and Happy Thanksgiving!

        • Bart
          Bart  November 28, 2015

          My guess is that a lot of people — whether Christian or non-Christian — assume that Paul’s companion Luke wrote Luke-Acts. I give extensive reasons for showing that that’s probably not right in my book Forgery and Counterforgery. The basic line is that every time he mentions something Paul said or did that can be checked against what Paul himself says there are discrepancies. *Maybe* “Luke” just wasn’t paying attention, but it’s also possible (probable in my books) that the book was not written by a companion of Paul.

        • scissors  March 10, 2018

          Rolmeda

          You might simply as them to show that Luke was written by Luke. My suspicion is there’s a bit of looking at the attribution and the finding a Luke among the Christian community and saying AHA this Luke is the author of gLuke

  11. Keith  June 16, 2016

    Hi:

    thanks for the post! Just for clarity sake; do we have any of the earlier manuscripts that are without the “Matthew, Mark, Luke, John” attributions?

    thanks so much for your work!
    Keith

    • Bart
      Bart  June 18, 2016

      No, we don’t. But the first manuscripts we have with any titles at all are mid-fourth century.

  12. lobojose  July 4, 2016

    What is the name of the “oldest manuscript” that has the “Names of the Gospels” and the estimated date that the manuscript was written?….. Thank you

    • Bart
      Bart  July 5, 2016

      The two oldest manuscripts with Gospels and titles in them are Codex Vaticanus and Codex Sinaiticus. They both date to the middle of the fourth century CE

  13. Marko071291  April 26, 2018

    Hi Bart! You mentioned in one of your talks a thesis that Justin is actually refering to the Gospel of Peter and you said that there is a book or aritcle by some professor in Germany (in german languauge) about that. Could you please cite author and the title. I can read and write in german so I would really like to see his arguments about that! Thanks.

    Once again, grettings from Croatia!
    Marko

    • Bart
      Bart  April 26, 2018

      Peter Pilhofer, “Justin und das Petrusevangelium,” Zeitschrift fuer neutestamentliche Wissenschaft 81 (1990) 60-78.

      • Marko071291  April 27, 2018

        Thanks! I’ve read it but it seems to me that Pilhofer is taking his argument too far. The most probable explanation is that Justin is reffering to the memoirs of (or about) Jesus. But anyways, thanks for providing the title!

  14. Marko071291  May 4, 2018

    Dear Bart, I can’t find anything about autorship of the Gospel of Mark? I think that you stated that author of the Gospel of Mark didn’t know jewish customs and therefore couldn’t be our Mark (mentioned in Pauls epistle to Philemon and Acts). Could you cite few examples? Where Mark doesn’t understand jewish customs? Thanks!

    • Bart
      Bart  May 6, 2018

      A key passage is Mark 7:3, where Mark indicates that “all the Jews” have a custom of washing their hands before eating. He is talking about “the Jews” as a different group from his own, but more important, what he says about them is actually flat out wrong (this was not a custom followed by all, or even most, Jews), and he doesn’t seem to know it.

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