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Why Are the Gospels Anonymous?

Looking through some old posts, I ran across this one (that I’d forgotten about) that answers a question I get at least a couple of times a year.   Why didn’t the authors of the Gospels name themselves?  (They have long been called Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, of course, but you’ll notice that the authors themselves never indicate who they are; the first record we have of anyone actually quoting these books *and* calling them Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John is in Irenaeus, Against the Heresies, written about 185 CE — that is, about a century after the Gospels themselves were written and placed in circulation.    Anyway, here is the post, giving a reader’s question and my attempt at an answer.

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Among the interesting questions I’ve received recently is the following.   It’s on something other than How Jesus Became God!  Rather than type out a completely new answer, I’ve resorted to the discussion I set out in my book Forged, cited here, as relevant, in full.

QUESTION:

I still can’t quite grasp why the Gospels were written anonymously. What is the prevailing theory? Why did the authors not attempt to pass themselves off as disciples by stating so at the beginning of their writings?

RESPONSE:

It is always interesting to ask why an author chose to remain anonymous, never more so than with the Gospels of the New Testament.  In some instances an ancient author did not need to name himself because his readers knew perfectly well who he was and did not need to be told.  That is almost certainly the case with the letters of 1, 2, and 3 John.  These are private letters send from someone who calls himself “the elder” to a church in another location.  It is safe to assume that the recipients of the letters knew who he was.

[ome people have thought that the Gospels were like that: books written by leading persons in particular congregations who did not need to identify themselves because everyone knew who they were.  But then as the books were copied and circulated, names were still not attached to them.  As a result the identities of the authors were soon lost.  Then later readers, rightly or wrongly, associated the books with two of the disciples (Matthew and John) and with two companions of the apostles (Mark the companion of Peter and Luke the companion of Paul).

Another option is that the authors did not name themselves because …

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Are These Really Contradictions? My Response to Matt Firth
Contradictions in the Gospels – Rev Matthew Firth’s Response

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Comments

  1. Avatar
    godspell  April 19, 2019

    Jesus preached humility, self-abnegation. “He who exalts himself shall be abased.”

    If the gospel authors were not, in fact, well-known figures (as seems likely), they would just be exalting themselves by claiming authorship. The people whose opinions they cared about would know who they were, and it’s not like they’re getting reviewed in the Jerusalem Times.

    In general terms, how much do we know about how authorship was claimed in ancient times? For example, would the first copies of Plato’s Republic have included Plato’s name? Given how few people were literate, wouldn’t most if not all books be written for a fairly select audience of cognoscenti?

    • Bart
      Bart  April 21, 2019

      An author normally circulated his work first among a group of friends, but it circulated under his own name. We know this because “forgery” is often talked about, the act of writing something claiming to being a well known person other than who you really were.

      • Avatar
        godspell  April 21, 2019

        We don’t have original copies of Plato’s work (I assume we have no copies from anywhere near his lifetime), so if he was just giving copies to friends, would he necessarily put his name on them? Obviously he cared about people knowing it was him. He wanted to be remembered. But I’m talking about official written attribution–some ancient equivalent of a title page. What would people be reading when they looked at the beginning of a handwritten copy of book written from that time?

        Pretty sure the original working scripts of Shakespeare’s plays didn’t have Shakespeare’s name on them. (Of course, that’s because they were written by the Earl of Oxford. Kidding.)

        • Bart
          Bart  April 22, 2019

          No, he handed them over to his friends. They knew who he was. But if they went out more broadly, a name was added. That’s why authors can complain that works are circulating in their name that they didn’t actually write. (Funny story about that in Galen, which I’m sure I must have recounted on the blog)

          • Avatar
            godspell  April 26, 2019

            I googled–fascinating there is this huge body of Pseudo-Galenic literature, capitalizing on his reputation as a medical writer. Even experts in that field aren’t entirely sure sometimes whether a given work is his or not.

            But the gospel authors aren’t out to sell more books. They’re not doing it for money. Nor would there originally have been a large audience for what they were writing (that would come after they were all dead and gone).

            So it’s an interesting question how the gospels got attributed to Mark, Matthew, Luke, and John.

            I note in passing that Acts isn’t directly attributed to Luke, even though it’s known today that the author of Luke is the author of Acts, which is a direct sequel to Luke.

  2. Avatar
    fishician  April 19, 2019

    I wonder if their anonymous nature actually helped their acceptance. We have examples of writings forged in the names of famous leaders like Peter and Paul and they obviously had to be rejected. And a gospel written by a nobody might not have been taken seriously. So maybe being anonymous helped. Still, I really wish they had identified themselves!

    • Avatar
      Leovigild  April 21, 2019

      Except we do have forged documents under the names of Peter and Paul, and they are considered canonical by all churches.

      • Avatar
        fishician  April 22, 2019

        True, but the forged gospels and apocalypses were a little too far out to be considered, at least, that’s my understanding.

  3. Avatar
    Leovigild  April 19, 2019

    I think comparing the Gospels to the books of the Hebrew Bible is good, but it prompts another question. The books of the Hebrew Bible might have been anonymous, but one thing they had is titles (at least by the time of the Septuagint, if not much much earlier). So what were the titles of the Gospels? If they had the present titles, then they were not anonymous. If they didn’t, they originally had different titles which were changed.

    • Bart
      Bart  April 21, 2019

      They originally didn’t have titles — either the books of the OT or the Gospels. Titles were added later by readers/scribes/editors/translators.

      • Avatar
        Leovigild  April 21, 2019

        The books of the OT were considered to have titles by the time of the Septuagint. So if the Gospels originally didn’t have titles, that makes it problematic to compare them to the ‘anonymous’ books of the Old Testament.

        • Bart
          Bart  April 22, 2019

          Good point about titles. But the historical books of the OT do not have author’s names attached — i.e., they are anonymous.

        • Avatar
          godspell  April 26, 2019

          The idea with the OT writings is that many were written for the courts of Jewish kings. For a small erudite audience. And they got filed away in an archive, rediscovered well afterwards, and were taken for ancient knowledge–instead of just somebody arranging old legends into a coherent narrative. That then becomes accepted as Holy Writ. But it’s a bit like the Velveteen Rabbit (if you’ve ever read that wonderful children’s book). Something that began as a mere simulacra of a real thing has to get very old and fusty–and be loved for a long time–before it becomes real.

  4. Avatar
    XanderKastan  April 19, 2019

    On another topic, in what sense was Greek the lingua franca? i.e. in the places like Galilee and Jerusalem, where most people spoke Aramaic, how many and what sorts of people would have also spoken Greek? In what contexts would they use Greek and with what degree of fluency?

    Seems to me there would have to have been quite a few early Christians who spoke both languages, even if they were illiterate. The other option is (or in addition) the earliest Christians must have had ready access to interpreters. I’m assuming that the Christians Paul persecuted were generally Greek speaking, especially if he didn’t speak Aramaic. And the chain from those Christians learning about this new religion before Paul’s conversion must ultimately trace back to the initial 10 or 20 Christians — none of whom spoke Greek, right?

    (A note that you can edit out: I thought I asked this previously, in different words, but that comment seems to have been lost.. So I’m trying again.)

    • Bart
      Bart  April 21, 2019

      English is the lingua franca throughout Europe and, increasingly, most of the world. But many many people don’t speak it — and that’s with higher education required in huge swaths of the world. It was not required at all anywhere in antiquity, and so fewer people knew the lingua franca. It was known principally to the upper classes and people who had to deal with them — that is, a relatively small minority of people.

  5. Avatar
    Stephen  April 19, 2019

    Is the current view that the Gospels were substantially the work of four individuals (with later edits and additions of course) or is it possible that these were works by “committee”? For example, couldn’t some of the rough textual edges in John be explained by multiple separately composed texts being redacted into a single text?

    Thanks

    • Bart
      Bart  April 21, 2019

      Almost certainly there was one person who put pen to paper, but he is doing so based on all sorts of ealier stories he has heard (and often read) in his community.

      • galah
        galah  April 24, 2019

        Dr. Ehrman,
        Going back to Stephen’s question, Is it possible that these were works by committee? You believe it was one person, and that his writings were based on all sorts of earlier stories he had heard (and often read) in his community. Are you open to the possibility that the author’s work was influenced by the beliefs of his community? There were few who knew how to write. Someone who was skilled enough to write a narrative must have truly been rare. Perhaps a community would have been lucky to have had even a single person with such skills. And, if they were fortunate enough, couldn’t they have turned to that “one person” to combine their many stories into a single narrative? In other words, even though it was written by one person, couldn’t it still have been the work of a community?

        • Bart
          Bart  April 25, 2019

          My view is that the authors’ views were very deeply influenced by their communities. But each had his own views as well. The literary consistency and internal thematic logic shows that the books each came from the mind of one person, even if he is massively affected by the stories he obtained from others.

          • galah
            galah  April 25, 2019

            I certainly can’t refute that reply. It’s beyond my comprehension how scholars can conclude that it was one author, based on “literary consistency and internal thematic logic.” It still seems possible that a community of one mind, in strong agreement, could emulate the views of a single individual. Surely you wouldn’t think that it was impossible. After all, this isn’t a miracle we’re talking about.
            I do appreciate your reply. It is extraordinary to me.

          • Bart
            Bart  April 26, 2019

            I’m not quite sure what you mean by it not being one author. Are you thinking that one person in the community wrote one passage, then another person wrote another passage, then another another? I don’t know of any analogy for that in the ancient world. And I suppose you would have to explain why they all use the same writing style. (Imagine you, your neighbor, and your mother each writing a paragraph: would they stylistically be the *same*?)

          • galah
            galah  April 26, 2019

            No, I also believe it was one person doing the writing, but I think he may have composed his work with the help and advice he was receiving from a group. I just don’t think one person sat down, all alone, and wrote the document.

  6. NulliusInVerba
    NulliusInVerba  April 19, 2019

    Ah! This shines a light on one reason why the Gospels are dated earlier than 130CE. The being the close relationship to the biblical history of Israel. Thank you.

  7. Avatar
    AstaKask  April 19, 2019

    Do we have any idea who wrote the Historical books?

  8. NulliusInVerba
    NulliusInVerba  April 19, 2019

    Off topic, sorry: my wife has developed an interest in the Gospel of Thomas. Which of your trade/text books provides your fullest discussion of the Gospel of Thomas? Thank you.

    • Bart
      Bart  April 21, 2019

      I’ve actually changed my views of it over the years, so my earlier extended discussions are not ones I would recommend. For openers she might try the discussion in the translation my colleague Zlatko Plese did for our book The Other Gospels; or the discussion in my textbook The New Testament: A Historical Introduction….

  9. Avatar
    brenmcg  April 19, 2019

    Do you think Theophilus knew who wrote Luke-Acts or do you think he wasnt a real person?

    • Bart
      Bart  April 21, 2019

      I think it’s a symbolic name. It literally means either “Beloved of God” or “Lover of God,” and I think it’s a fictitious character the author is addressing, and he means “Christian reader.”

      • Avatar
        brenmcg  April 21, 2019

        I think Theophilus could be used as a real name though. If it was a real person I think there would then be a good chance Luke actually wrote it.

        • Bart
          Bart  April 22, 2019

          Yes, it could be. But it has no bearing on whether the person who wrote the book was named Luke.

          • Avatar
            brenmcg  April 22, 2019

            If Theophilus was a real person he would likely have known who wrote the gospel addressed to him. And it should be considered likely the name of the author was passed on with each copying.

          • Bart
            Bart  April 23, 2019

            Possibly. It was common also in antiquity to dedicate a book to a person you didn’t personally know.

          • Avatar
            godspell  May 2, 2019

            I consider it unlikely that we’d have four separate gospels written by witnesses to Jesus’ life who never once refer to themselves being present at any of these events. Plato wrote his dialogues as if he’d been present when Socrates had these learned conversations–even though in some cases he clearly wasn’t. It gives the narrative an added credibility and immediacy, and establishes Plato as an important disciple of Socrates (though whom he largely conveys his own ideas, heavily adapted from Socrates and others).

            Why do none of the gospels read like eyewitness accounts? Each feels like a collection of stories with linking material created to make them into a larger narrative–each with very different points to make, and each with different ideas of who Jesus was, and what his life meant?

  10. Avatar
    AntiochusEpimanes  April 20, 2019

    you mentioned the exiles…do you think there would be a Hebrew Bible if it werent for the Assyrian and Babylonian exiles? it seems like a lot of the OT revolves around the exiles.

    • Bart
      Bart  April 21, 2019

      Great question! No way to know! If there was a Bible then, it would have been *massively* different!

  11. Avatar
    Hon Wai  April 20, 2019

    The motivation to follow the anonymous tradition of the Hebrew Bible explains why the gospels are anonymous (though preface to Luke is close to identifying himself). The next question is at what stage in the transmission process was the identity of the authors lost. Presumably the very first recipients of each of the gospels had good idea who wrote it. Decades later, the information could be lost. What do we know about the transmission process of a written gospel: presumably it is passed into hands of leaders of a Christian community, then read to the community now and then. What happens next, and over subsequent years and decades?

    • Bart
      Bart  April 21, 2019

      I’d assume the identities get lost as soon as the Gospel book is taken to a different community where no one knows who the author is. They’re interested in the stories, not the identity of the author.

  12. Avatar
    forthfading  April 20, 2019

    Dr. Ehrman,

    I recently read an article from a scholar concerning his thoughts about the Gospels being anonymous. This is not an evangelical scholar. He claims that the Gospels probably were written anonymously but he would not die on that hill because strictly speaking, all the manuscripts we have in fact have the titles. He concludes that the earliest written sources do have authorship attributed to them so the without special pleading we need to assume in the earliest traditions there was an author. What are your thoughts about this?

    Thanks, Jay

    • Bart
      Bart  April 21, 2019

      My view is that hte original readers did know who the authors were, but the books circulated anonymously. The “titles” we have cannot go back to the authors because they are called, simply “According to Matthew” and “According to Mark” etc. That’s not a way any author would or did entitle his book. It’s someone else telling you whose version of the story it is. The fact that the manuscripts have these titles is not compelling for me, because the manuscripts with titles don’t start showing up for over a hundred years after the books were put in circulation. (Since we don’t have earlier manuscripts) By that time everyone did agree on who wrote the books.

  13. Avatar
    RayC  April 20, 2019

    Bart, I thought Papias mentioned the Gospels of Matthew and Mark in his writings, which would have been before Iranaeus? I don’t know if that changes anything, but it does seem to be an earlier citation and a recognition, even if not accurate, that two of the Gospels had names attributed to them.

    • Bart
      Bart  April 21, 2019

      See the recent posts by Stephen Carlson. Or search for Papias on the blog. I’ve several times argued that Papias is not referring to our Mark and Matthew. But my point here is that he doesn’t *quote* them and say they are Matthew and Mark, so we don’t know which books he’s talking about. Only with Irenaeus does someone for the first time both quote them and call them by their now-traditional names. See what I mean?

  14. Avatar
    Matt2239  April 21, 2019

    The most basic controversy seems to be about whether Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John ever authored any of the gospels attributed to them. The scholarly consensus is that it’s only a possibility, not a likelihood, and certainly not, um, gospel. However, if the authors can’t be identified, then it’s possible to step-up the authority of the actual authorship just as the actual authorship can be stepped-down to unknown prosers and scribes. It’s possible John the Baptist or Jesus himself wrote some sections, isn’t it?

    • Bart
      Bart  April 22, 2019

      It would be possible if either one of them knew how write and had skills in Greek composition. But as lower class peasants in rural Galilee, with only Aramaic, it don’t seem possible. Plus there are very strong reasons for thinking these stories had been floating around for decades being written down, long after Jesus’ death.

  15. Avatar
    Rokyro  April 22, 2019

    Hi Bart, as usual I’m a little late to the party. Was wondering where you stood on the issue of provenance for Mark? I think there are convincing arguments for both Rome and the Galilee. Well, actually I learn towards the Galilee for a few reasons, but the one reason against stands out like a sore thumb: it was written in Greek.

    • Bart
      Bart  April 23, 2019

      Yes, I don’t think Galilee works, both because it is written in highly literate Greek and because he doesn’t appear to know the geography of Palestine all that well. Where might he have been? God knows. Rome is the traditional site, but I’m not sure the use of Latin words (one of the usual arguments) is very persuasive, since Latin was known in lots and lots of places. So I really don’t know.

  16. Avatar
    anthonygale  April 22, 2019

    If the first explanation you proposed was correct (i.e. the author was known in his community without identifying himself), how hard would that have been to track within a century of the gospels being written? The earlier back you go, the less wide spread Christianity would be. The closer you get to the date of authorship, the easier it would be to find someone who knew someone who knew the author. Say John wrote in 100, his son told Irenaeus’ uncle in 135, Irenaeus learned of it in 170 and wrote about it in 185. I realize there is zero evidence this actually happened. But I would ask:

    1) Might tracking down the gospel writers be an achievable task in 185 for someone motivated to undertake it?

    2) Is it well documented how church fathers came to the conclusion who wrote the gospels?

    • Bart
      Bart  April 23, 2019

      1. Probably not. They didn’t even know where the books were originally written (as becomes clear when they talk about them); 2. Not really. They give hints that are probably good clues. I talk about it on the blog, the first four days of December 2014, if you want to take a look.

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