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Why The Gospels Are Anonymous

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.

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Comments

  1. Yentyl  April 12, 2013

    Nice.




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  2. James Dowden  April 12, 2013

    Re: “Mark the companion of Peter and Luke the companion of Paul”, aren’t those relatively late traditions that could well be secondary to the Gospel attributions? What makes me very very suspicious is the way that 2 Timothy 4.11 mentions both Luke and Mark. Otherwise Mark is only mentioned in the Acts of the Apostles and Luke in Pseudo-Paul’s Epistle to the Colossians.

    There is a part of me that likes the “everyone knew who they were”. After all, Mark is a good Latin name, and there are Latinisms in his Greek. I can see his book being circulated with an excited “have a look at our brother Mark’s wonderful new gospel”. The name stuck in tradition, and then some time later people started speculating as to quite who this Mark was. No way of proving it though…




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    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  April 13, 2013

      Mark as the companion of Peter is already in Papias, ca. 120 or 130. The Luke tradition is not till later — maybe first with Irenaeus? (I’m on the road and away from my books, so not entirely sure). I don’t think either tradition is reliable, especially Luke!




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  3. SelfAwarePatterns  April 12, 2013

    I often wonder to what extent the Christian persecutions under Nero had on the Gospel authors. Assuming there was still some ongoing hostility from the state, it might have simply been safer to stay anonymous.




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  4. Jim  April 13, 2013

    If it is possible to assume that Matthew and John were possibly written by Jewish authors and if I remember correctly (which is a low probability event), Paula Fredrickson (in her introduction of From Jesus to Christ, second edition) suspected that Mark could also have been written by someone who was Jewish; is it possible that all four gospels originate from Jewish Christian authors/communities (albeit presumably residing outside the Jewish homeland)?

    Is there sufficient evidence in each of the gospels (case by case) to imply that the authors sufficiently understood the Jewish culture of the homeland at a higher level than might be expected from a non-Jewish author.

    I know this question may involve pure speculation, but I would presume that’s a fun part of studying history.




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    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  April 13, 2013

      I think the opposite is the case. Mark is almost certainly not Jewish and does not understand Judaism. The clearest indication of that is in Mark 6 where he says that “all the Jews” wash their hands (as a ceremonial act) before eating. That’s absolutely not true. But he, as a non-Jew, may have thought so…




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  5. toddfrederick  April 13, 2013

    I have not read your book Forged. I need to do so. The excerpt above is very clear and informative. Thank you for posting it.




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  6. toejam  April 13, 2013

    A quick ‘yes’ or ‘no’ question (for anyone who knows the answer): I often hear Ehrman say that the titles of the Gospels were added later. Do we actually have any old manuscripts with the titles omitted to verify this?




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    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  April 13, 2013

      No.




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      • Ron  April 13, 2013

        It’s just an educated guess, in other words, on which scholars are basing the argument of anonymity.




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      • Christopher Sanders
        Christopher Sanders  September 4, 2014

        Just to clarify, we mean we have no manuscripts of Mark or the other gospels which *don’t* have the header? This means that the idea that they circulated without the title is more of an educated assertion, than something we have hard evidence for?




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        • Bart Ehrman
          Bart Ehrman  September 4, 2014

          That’s right. Our first manuscript of Mark dates from 300 years after it was first put in circulation, and that manuscript, and all later ones, have a title to the Gospels.




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  7. Ron  April 13, 2013

    In the thread “Forgery and the Gospel of Peter,” you had this response: “I don’t think Jerome had any way of knowing whether Matthew was circulating anonymously three hundred years before his own day.” My counter-response was: “If Jerome had no way of knowing if Matthew was circulating anonymously during the 1st century, there is certainly no way we moderns can know either. But, this is precisely what is being pronounced by you, despite the fact that we have no Greek texts of that century to prove it.”

    You continue to claim as a fact that the Gospels were circulating anonymously during the first three centuries, while claiming from the other side of your mouth that Jerome had no way of knowing this. How do you explain to us that YOUR knowledge is superior to Jerome’s, especially considering that you are now just coming to the awareness that Paul referred to Jesus as a “pre-existent Being?” Jesus proclaimed this throughout his ministry, as you well know, even unto his death (Mark 14:61-62).




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    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  April 13, 2013

      I’m sorry, but you have misstated my case (or maybe I misstated it). The Gospels circulated anonymously during the first decades of their existence, possibly up to 90 years or so after they were written. By Jerome’s time they had been called Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John for centuries and no one doubted those ascriptions. But yes, we do absolutely know much more about early Christianity, in many respects and areas, than Jerome knew. That is not a controversial claim.




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      • Ron  April 13, 2013

        You did misstate it. And, now “… we do absolutely know …?” There are no Greek texts prior to 4th-century to which anyone can claim for sure that the Gospels were anonymous or not. All we have is hearsay that gospels were written, with Papias being the earliest witness to say that Matthew (Levi) “composed the logia [sayings] in Hebrew style,” according to Eusebius. If we can trust Wikipedia here, this is attested by “Ireneus, Origen, Eusebius, Pantaeneus, Epiphanius, Jerome, Isho’dad, as well as, Clement of Alexandria.”




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        • Bart Ehrman
          Bart Ehrman  April 15, 2013

          When I asked if I misstated it (or suggested that I may have) it was in response to your claim that I had said that the Gospels had circulated for 300 years anonymously down to the time of Jerome. I never said that. If I did, it was a misstatement. Did I?




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          • Ron  April 16, 2013

            What you said, which I’ll re-paste from above, is this: “I don’t think Jerome had any way of knowing whether Matthew was circulating anonymously three hundred years before his own day,” or you can just read the thread. That puts us at about 100 AD when the Synoptics would have been circulating “anonymously,” you say. You claim modern scholars know this, even though Jerome could not have known (you say), not to mention that we have no documents that omit the authors’ names as proof.

            Actually, I agree with your statement about Jerome’s lack of knowledge. If we both agree that this is what you said and meant, then it simply means that nobody knows that the Gospels were circulating anonymously at about 75-125 AD. For all we know, they could have been circulating as Matthew et al.’s books.




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    • bchungdmd
      bchungdmd  May 5, 2013

      I really think that if faith is that important to you, you should have remained as a person of faith. But if you like to be perfect, have the courage to throw out all your faiths and realize that we too can be God. What difference does it make if John wrote his little insignificant tractate on Jesus? Or if Mark is the author of that little ill-devised gospel? Have this courage and claim your own divinity at once my friend!




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      • Bart Ehrman
        Bart Ehrman  May 6, 2013

        Yes, when I had faith, after being a fundy, I didn’t think these things mattered for faith at all.




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  8. Wilusa  April 13, 2013

    Great explanation! (I may get around to buying that book…)




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  9. Xeronimo74  April 13, 2013

    Bart, a side question: if Jesus conquered ‘Sin and Death’ then why hasn’t he destroyed them? Both still exist, as far as I know … Does the NT address this?




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  10. Ronck1  April 13, 2013

    Being fishermen in those days meant sweaty bodies surrounded by fish. Being men they must have told jokes. You would think that somewhere in the New Testament a bit of humor would have been included. Ron C-K




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  11. RonaldTaska  April 14, 2013

    The part about the Gospel authors remaining anonymous just like Old Testament authors remained anonymous is quite helpful.




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  12. bchungdmd
    bchungdmd  May 5, 2013

    are there gods out there?




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  13. bchungdmd
    bchungdmd  May 7, 2013

    Well, when I put my faith in Jesus Christ as a Christian, I said a prayer, believe it with all my heart, and I felt different then, and well as now. It was an emotional event. I have a saviour figure and he cares about me. I also have settled my eternity question, now I can live my life here as a beggar but in the next life, as long a I put a lot of work into my faith (gave money, went as missionary), and I would king in the next life.

    All these things are my own imagination. I no longer believe in these things. Like I no longer give money to Prairie, or to the Church. I lost my faith. So where I can put my faith safely? I say the world. After all, this world is greater than I. I can safely say that it will go on as it should. Sunshine or rain, it will go on. People who live here, are going on living, or dying as they should. I have accepted that I am here, and I am not going else where, and no gods can save me. I must be. So, I am a believer in the world, in the green earth, in the fresh green vegetables I plant this year, and in the laughter of my own children. I found a home here, in this lovely small rural community right here on the Cape. That is my faith, where I put my trust in.

    I hope it makes sense, and hope you will find your own place.




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