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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. Avatar
    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. Avatar
    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. Avatar
    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. Avatar
    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.

    • Avatar
      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. Avatar
    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. Avatar
    John  November 18, 2014

    Really enjoying these posts.

  7. Avatar
    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….

      • Christopher
        Christopher  December 7, 2014

        Why do you think the 1 Cor 15 tradition omits the women at the tomb, when it’s found in each gospel?

  8. Avatar
    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. Avatar
    Jana  November 28, 2014

    Simply fascinating as well as intriguing. Onward!

  10. Avatar
    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

      • Avatar
        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.

        • Avatar
          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. Avatar
    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. Avatar
    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. Avatar
    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.

      • Avatar
        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. Avatar
    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.

  15. Spencer Black
    Spencer Black  January 7, 2020

    Dr. Ehrman, forgive my ignorance. How much writing from those ten Apostolic Fathers do we have? How many books or pages, just to perhaps get an idea? If we don’t have much text from these Fathers, in my mind it would diminish the significance of the fact that they do not name the gospels by their traditional names.

    • Bart
      Bart  January 8, 2020

      My Greek-English edition of them is in two volumes (small size); I looked at a one-volume edition that wsa just over 700 pages (small pages), and since half of them are the English transslation, the originals would be half that, minus the editors introductions and so on, so, I don’t know, maybe 300 pages of original language text or so? Just a guess. Some of them explicitly quote early writings about Jesus in ways that make it look like they know Matthew and Luke, in writing. But they don’t name them (saying “as the Lord said” etc.). So too more interesting Justin in 150, often quotes “the memoirs of the Apostles” but he doesn’t name a single one of them. Intriguing. 30 years later, Irenaeus does name them. Have you read my discussion of all this in Forged?

      • Spencer Black
        Spencer Black  January 8, 2020

        Very interesting. No, I jumped right into Forgery and Counterforgery instead, which (perhaps I’m misremembering) doesn’t treat this topic. Does Forged give more detail about gospel authorship?

        • Bart
          Bart  January 9, 2020

          A bit. Both books are about pseudonymous instead of anonymous writings in early Xty. But yes, I devote some pages to the issue.

          • Spencer Black
            Spencer Black  January 10, 2020

            Cool. Well I’m gonna go buy your editions of the Fathers and take a gander. Thanks!

  16. Avatar
    mshussain777  January 29, 2020

    Dear Bart, Were the Gospels ever attributed to any specific indiciduals other than Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John? (So not including Justin Martyr’s “Memoirs of the Apostles”, as that’s not a specific attribution). If not, does this tell us anything interesting? If these were false attributions (as I believe they were), why were alternative attributions not suggested, and why did these particular ones catch on so universally?

    • Bart
      Bart  January 31, 2020

      No they weren’t. Yes it does. But not that they really *were* written by those people. I develop a theory about it in my book Forged. I think there was a manuscript produced probably in Rome that named the four, probably sometime in the 150s or 160s, that it was circulated among church leaders, and everyone bought into it. If the tradition were *earlier* than that the earlier evidence (which doesn’t name any of them) would be very hard to explain.

      • Avatar
        mshussain777  February 10, 2020

        Do we know whether the names were also adopted by those outside the proto-Orthodox community? In particular, did communities that were antithetical to the Roman church adopt the names? If so, would your argument still hold?

        • Bart
          Bart  February 10, 2020

          Yes, probably. and no, it would have no effect. These groups didn’t start even to emerge until the Gospels had long been in ciruulation. their later views have no bearing on what the books were originally called.

  17. Avatar
    Venzen007  July 3, 2020

    I wonder, is there anything inherent in or specific to each of the four NT gospels that would have reasonably (or unreasonably) inspired any potential “namer” to name each of them accordingly, i.e. this one seems like Matthew, this one Mark, this one looks like it was written by Luke, and this one… John.

    Also, it appears we do not have gospel manuscripts dated prior to named gospel manuscripts, whether not named or named something else. It seems there should always be an earliest manuscript of whatever writing, assuming there to be some even earlier or theoretical “first” which is unavailable. If all the manuscripts we do have, from the earliest manuscript forward, contain a certain feature, is there sufficient reason to adopt a “more likely than not” position that the certain feature in question is not “original” (in so far as that word can be used)? Is the apparent fact that earlier writings referencing the text (but not some named title) of the various gospels sufficient weight on which to base a “more likely than not” position that at the time Justin referenced the text, the gospels were not associated with the present names? I’m likely missing additional weight.

    • Bart
      Bart  July 5, 2020

      Yes, I’ve talked about this on the blog. Just search for names of the Gospels or authors of the Gospels, and you’ll find the posts. (I explain why each one was assigned to the person it was).

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