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Why Are the Gospels Anonymous?

In my previous posts I have tried to establish that the four Gospels circulated anonymously for decades after they were written.   To some modern readers that seems surprising.   Why wouldn’t the authors name themselves?   Surely they named themselves.   Didn’t’ they?

The clear answer is, no, they did not.   But why?

There have been a number of theories put forth over the years.   Possibly the most popular one (at least it’s the one I’ve heard most often) is that the Gospel writers thought that what was most important was the message they wanted to convey about the life, teachings, deeds, death, and resurrection of Jesus.   The authors did not want their own persons to “get in the way” of the message, and so they wrote their Gospels anonymously.

In rough outline I suppose that might be true, but I would refine the idea a bit myself – as I will in a moment.   Before doing so, I should respond to an objection to this view.   Most of the *other* books of the New Testament identify their authors (Paul, Peter, James, Jude, etc.).    And most of the *later* Gospels have names attached to them (The Gospel of Peter; the Gospel of Thomas; the Gospel of Philip; the Gospel of Nicodemus; etc.).  Those authors were not afraid of having their person get in the way of the message.  So why were the Gospel writers?

Several points need to be made on this score:

  1. The writings of the New Testament that in which the authors *do* identify themselves are genres in which this is typically done – letters (e.g., of Paul, of Peter) and apocalypses (John). I will be arguing below that the Gospel writers saw themselves as writing in a genre that did not require a self-identification of an author.
  2. Then why did *later* writers of later Gospels identify their authors (falsely, as it turns out)? The answer is fairly clear and straightforward.  Later Gospel writers were very intent indeed on showing that *their* message, as opposed to the message of other Gospels, was the right, true, and apostolic message to be believed as authoritative.  To provide an authoritative account for their own book, in light of the fact that there were other books with other messages floating around, the later authors produced forgeries, *claiming* to be an apostle (Peter, James, Thomas, Philip, etc.) when in fact they were not.   That wasn’t a problem with the earlier Gospels.  When Mark wrote his Gospel, he felt no need to establish that *his* book, as opposed to others, was apostolic.  There *were* no others.    So too Matthew and Luke: they were continuing a Gospel tradition, started with Mark, that was widely seen in their circles as authoritative, and so did not need to authorize their message by pretending to be an apostle when they were not.  In John’s case the text *is* authorized: the author claims to be basing his account on the traditions passed on by “the disciple Jesus loved.”  The author’s own identity doesn’t matter – only that of his source does.
  3. I should stress that many of the New Testament writings outside the Gospels that do name the author do so pseudonymously – that is, these are forged writings, authors claiming to be a famous (apostolic) person when in fact they were not. This is true of six of Paul’s letters – 2 Thessalonians, Colossians, Ephesians, 1 and 2 Timothy, and Titus – both of the letters that go under Peter’s name, James, and Jude.
  4. Four other books, along with the Gospels, are anonymous: Hebrews (later church fathers said it was written by Paul; but the author does not claim so); 1, 2, 3 John (anonymous, but later attributed to John the Son of Zebedee).

 

So, now I’m back to the question, why would the Gospel writers not identify themselves?  Again, I think the popular answer is in essence right: they saw no need to do so.  Their point had to do with the message they wanted to deliver, not with their own identity as authorities who could deliver it.   There was no need to establish their authority.  The authority lay in what Jesus said and did.  It was only later when Christians had lots of Gospel accounts before them, with varieties of perspectives represented, that it was important to stress that this, that, or the other Gospel was the one that got it RIGHT.   And to do that, readers, editors, and scribes assigned names to earlier Gospels to show that the person delivering the teaching knew what he was talking about.  And later Gospel writers made these claims for themselves, maintaining that they were relatives of Jesus (his brother James or his brother Thomas) or disciples (Peter, Philip, and so on).

But I think there may be one other thing going on with the NT Gospels that led their authors to write their accounts anonymously.   I’ve never seen this suggested in the scholarly literature before, which either means I came up with it myself (in which case, caveat lector!) or I haven’t read enough scholarly literature.  It is this.   I think when Mark was writing his Gospel, he was imagining that he was continuing the story that he inherited from the Hebrew Bible.    As you know, the final prophet of the Hebrew Bible, Malachi, ends by promising that Elijah would be coming before the “day of the Lord.”   And how does Mark begin?   By describing the coming of John the Baptist in the guise of Elijah.   Mark is a continuation of the narrative of the Hebrew Bible.

But as you probably know, the Hebrew Bible – in the sequence of books given in the original Hebrew — does not end with Malachi, the final prophet, the way the English Old Testament does.  It ends with 2 Chronicles, a narrative book that describes, at the very end, the fall of Jerusalem to the Babylonians and then the promise to rebuild the city by the Persian king Cyrus.   There has been sin, and destruction, and the promise of restoration – told in a historical narrative.  And Mark picks up the story at that point, with the coming then of the Savior, Jesus.

The historical books of the Hebrew Bible (Joshua, Judges, 1 and 2 Samuel, 1 and 2 Kings, 1 and 2 Chronicles) are anonymous.  They are telling the history of the people of God, not based on the authority of the author but as a holy narrative of how God worked among his people.  The names of the authors are unimportant and irrelevant in this kind of sacred history.   Mark continues the sacred history, and like his predecessors, tells his story anonymously.   Matthew and Luke and even John do it in their own ways, and also, as a result, tell their sacred history in the person of Jesus anonymously.  I don’t think it’s surprising at all that they did not reveal their names.


Why Was The Gospel of Matthew Attributed to Matthew?
Papias on Matthew and Mark

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Comments

  1. Avatar
    Zboilen  November 28, 2016

    Hi Bart, you wrote about the gospels,

    “There was no need to establish their authority. The authority lay in what Jesus said and did.”

    My question is how would the church receiving this gospel know that Jesus said and did these things? For example, if the church in Corinth received the Gospel of Matthew from Antioch with no name and no idea who wrote it, wouldn’t that make the church in Corinth suspicious?

    I would consider myself an agnostic now, but when I was a Christian I accepted Hebrews as inspired by God even though I thought it was ananymous. I guess I thought it was in the New Testament and it wouldn’t be there if God didn’t want it there. I see now that this is a bit naive. Do you think the early Christians were naive in accepting the authority of gospels that were anonymous? I’m just curious as to why they would have accepted it if they didn’t know if the apostles or Jesus would have approved of it.

    • Bart
      Bart  November 28, 2016

      Modern critical scholars would be suspicious, but my sense is that most ancient Christians were no more suspicious, and could not be expected to be, than most modern Christians. Somebody told them that this is how it was and they believed them!

    • Avatar
      HistoricalChristianity  November 29, 2016

      I think authority and authenticity wasn’t something people expected of a bios narrative. They were stories told to show what kind of person the author thought their protagonist to be. There was no need for the stories to be true. We do the same when we tell stories to make a point. Also, they were immersed in mythical literature about the Greek gods. They fervently believed that the gods required sacrifices. But I don’t think they considered all the stories told about the gods to be fact.

  2. Avatar
    rcberna88  June 3, 2019

    Thanks for a detailed explanation from an expert point of view – it helps to counter some of the points made from well-meaning but poorly informed opinions like physicist Dr. Aron Wall, who admittedly is not an expert in ancient languages and makes most of the general assumptions of fundamentalist believers-http://www.wall.org/~aron/blog/the-gospels-arent-anonymous/

  3. Avatar
    davidsearby  July 26, 2019

    Wow! So happy to be part of this Blog. I am a Christian who wholeheartedly believes that reading “The Books of Bart” should be obligatory for all Christians! Ehrman’s work actually builds the case for the thoughtful Christian. Sorry to learn that Bart lost his faith not from the pursuit of a historical Jesus but from his worries over the question of how a loving God could permit such suffering in the world.

    I am intrigued that this blog does not address the points made in Brant Pitre’s
    “The Case for Jesus” which utterly skewers the idea of anonymous Gospels. I thank Mr. Ehrman for his great contributions to the studies of the Gospel but urge him to consider and respond to Mr. Pitre’s points which I’m happy to make here if he wants me to. In particular the idea that the Gospels were anonymous at first, spread for decades anonymously and then magically all got attributed to the same name all around the world without a single example of a Gospel by another name. Pure silliness and of course it’s totally accepted by most (non-Christian) academics. Here’s a short video by Pitre: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eJ1osU9nkJ4

    • Bart
      Bart  July 28, 2019

      Yes, maybe I should. I have to admit, I find returning to the issue tiring…. But I do talk about it in some of my books (Jesus Interrupted, etc.)

      • Avatar
        davidsearby  July 28, 2019

        Dr. Ehrman of course I have read your book Jesus Interrupted but that was published in 2010 while Dr. Pitre’s was published in 2016 and seeks to directly refute your work. Is there somewhere I can learn about how you respond to Dr. Pitre’s Points? In particular regarding the anonymity of the Gospels? I simply don’t understand how Gospels could circulate anonymously for decades and then all be magically attributed to the same author. 4 times and all around the world. What are the odds of that happening?

        • Bart
          Bart  July 29, 2019

          No, I”ve never given a direct response — just glanced at the book whnen it came out and didn’t think there was much to it. I suppose maybe I should, but the problems always seem so obvious to me …

          What are the odds that the first five books of the Old Testament would all be assigned to Moses after circulating anonymously for decades? (centuries?). By the way, the Gospels ARE anonymous. Surely Pitre doesn’t argue the authors name themselves does he? (Calling a book “According to Mark” is not an authorial claim by the person writing the book!) (I can’t remember his exact argument, mainly I suppose because it didn’t make much of an impression!) (But yes, maybe I should take a look and respond….)

  4. Avatar
    Kakuzato  August 6, 2019

    Is there some specific reason that in NT the gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John are in the order they are?
    Is it that order just because they have to be in some order, or do they have other reasons?

    Before I thought it would be matter of the writing order, but later I learnt that Mark was written first, so it wouldn’t make sense.

    Thank you

    • Bart
      Bart  August 7, 2019

      It’s not clear, actaully. Different theories are possible. Matthew was thought to be first written, and John last: so is it chronological? (Mark was thought sometimes to be an abbreviated Matthew, so it would make sense for it to come next). Or the most popular ones to begin and end the sequence? Or the two actual disciples of Jesus to begin and end? Not all manuscripts, though, have the same sequence: another one is Matthew, John, Luke, Mark.

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