In his best-selling book, How Jesus Became God, Bart Ehrman outlines his case that the Gospels were originally anonymous.
First, the Gospels were written without any attached names. So, the titles you see at the top of your Gospels (“The Gospel of Matthew”) were not there originally.
Second, the Gospels then circulated for about a century as anonymous before someone attached names to them. They did this in order to give the Gospels “much needed authority.”
Last, and most important, the conclusion is that the Gospels cannot be attributed to any eyewitnesses, or to anyone that would have known an eyewitness. They are the result of a century’s worth of anonymous storytelling and editing.
Of course, this entire story is as made up as Ehrman imagines the Gospels to be. As Ehrman likes to point out, we do not have the original autographs of the Gospels, so how does he know they were originally anonymous?
He doesn’t. But he wants/needs them to be in order to discredit them.
There has never been a more textbook example of an argument from ignorance. Because we don’t have the autographs, we should conclude that they were originally anonymous? What kind of reasoning is that? Without the originals, he cannot make this case.
No Anonymous Manuscripts
Per usual, our skeptical friends have ignored an ELEPHANT in the room. This time the elephant is this: there is not a single anonymous manuscript. That is to say, we have no anonymous Gospel manuscripts. Every single manuscript that we do have, without exception (which would obviously include our very earliest manuscripts), attribute the Gospels to Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John.
Again, this bolsters the fact that Ehrman’s argument is one GIANT argument from ignorance. How can you move from (1) every manuscript we have is attributed to Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John to (2) they were originally anonymous? Reasonably, you cannot. You are arguing from what you do not know, instead of arguing from what we do know.
The only, and I mean ONLY, reasonable, or even possible conclusion is this: As far as we actually know, there has never been an anonymous manuscript, including the original autographs, for the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John.
Is it logically possible that they were originally anonymous? Of course. It’s logically possible that you are having a hallucination right now and that I didn’t actually write these words. It’s logically possible that the Gospels were written by aliens.
Who cares about what is logically possible? We want to know what is most plausible based on the evidence we actually have. And all the evidence we have attributes the Gospels to Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John without exception. There isn’t a single case to the contrary.
A relevant point in this discussion is that of the book of Hebrews. What does the book of Hebrews have to do with this conversation? I thought we were talking about the Gospels?
The Book of Hebrews is unquestionably anonymous. Not only is it “formally anonymous” like the Gospels (meaning the author doesn’t say in the body of the text, “I, Haden, wrote this book”), but the earliest manuscripts we have for the book of Hebrews are also anonymous.
Here’s a key point: Later manuscripts have title’s attached and those titles have contradictory author attribution. Some later manuscripts attribute the letter to Paul, and others to Timothy, or whoever. The point is that they are contradictory.
Based on this evidence, we are justified in saying the original was anonymous. This is what a truly anonymous letter looks like. Only God knows who wrote Hebrews.
Now, compare this with the Gospels. There is no contradiction in the manuscript evidence. ZERO. Not only are they all attributed to Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, but they are attributed without contradiction. It is not as if someone attributes the Gospel of Matthew (traditionally known) to Mark, Peter, or someone else. There is not a single case of contradictory attribution. The historical record is unanimous and uniform.
The reason for the contradictory attribution in the case of Hebrews may very well be as Ehrman says, in order to add “much needed authority” to the letter. The letter became widely accepted by the early church and somebody thought it useful to attribute the letter to Paul. Or, maybe Paul really did write the letter of Hebrews, though my friend Dr. David L. Allen makes a very convincing case for Lukan authorship.
It could have been a number of reasons, but we all agree that this letter was originally anonymous because the earliest manuscript we have is actually anonymous and later manuscripts contradict each other in regards to authorship. This is what a truly anonymous letter looks like, and the Gospels are no where close.
The Gospel manuscripts are uniform in their author attribution.
Another major problem with this anonymous scenario is, as Brant Pitre points out, “the utter implausibility that a book circulating around the Roman Empire without a title for almost a hundred years could somehow at some point be attributed to exactly the same author by scribes throughout the world and yet leave no trace of disagreement in any manuscripts” (Pitre, The Case for Jesus, pg 29).
What should also be pointed out, as Pitre goes on to do so, is that this incredible story must not just be true for one Gospel, not two Gospels, not three Gospels, but all four Gospels. The argument for alien attribution is starting to sound more plausible than this.
A common objection to the traditional authorship of the Gospels is that Jesus’ disciples were uneducated fishermen. They would have spoken Aramaic and therefore, could not have written these Greek Gospels.
The first thing to point out, which should be obvious to scholars like Ehrman, is that Matthew wasn’t an uneducated fisherman, he was an educated tax collector, and Luke and Mark were not original disciples from Galilee.
So, the first point is that this objection only has the potential to be leveled against John. The historical record tells us that Matthew was an educated tax collector, Luke was an educated Gentile physician, and Mark we don’t know much about other than that he was closely connected with Peter, Paul, and the church at Rome. Without any evidence to the contrary, we have no reason to doubt Markan authorship.
The objection of being uneducated seems at first to be a reasonable objection to John.
However, the objection amounts to nothing, as we know that even educated people like Paul used scribes to write down their words as they dictated them. If even an educated person would use this practice, how much more would an uneducated person?
As Richard Bauckham points out, “John 21:24 means that the Beloved Disciple composed the Gospel, whether or not he wielded the pen” (Bauckham, Jesus and the Eyewitnesses, pg 362).
Following that, a strong case can be made for John being the Beloved Disciple that I won’t give here. The point is that there is no reason to think John wouldn’t have simply dictated the words to a scribe. We know this was a common practice, even for educated people like Paul.
Furthermore, with regards to this John being an uneducated fisherman, I would like to push back a bit. While John used to be a fisherman, he would have written this Gospel long after his years as a fisherman, and after years of studying under the most influential teacher in history.
More importantly, when we find out that John is a fisherman in the Gospels we also find out that he worked for his father who had “hired servants.” This at least tells us that John was well-off, and could have received an education. Maybe he didn’t, it doesn’t really matter is the major point, but he very well may have.
The Early Church
Like with the manuscript attribution, the early Church Fathers unanimously attribute the Gospels to Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John without contradiction.
Whether Papias (around 120 CE), Justin Martyr (140-165 CE), Irenaeus (around 180 CE), the Muratorian Canon (around 180 CE), Clement (around 200 CE), or Tertullian (200-225 CE); the early church unanimously, and without contradiction, attribute the Gospels to Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John.
There simply is no competing historical record. The only alternative explanations exist in the minds of modern scholars, and YouTube commentators.
The idea that the Gospels were originally anonymous is simply without any historical attestation. There is none.
No anonymous manuscripts exists.
All Gospel manuscripts that we do have are attributed unanimously to Matthew, Mark, Luke and John.
The Gospel manuscript record is without contradiction, unlike the truly anonymous letter, Hebrews.
The early Church Fathers, much like the manuscript evidence, unanimously and without contradiction, attribute the Gospels to Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John.
One is left to marvel at the fact that some scholars like Ehrman, despite all of this, would prefer an argument from silence.
It doesn’t surprise me that you find these arguments all over YouTube and blog sites, but someone as educated as Ehrman ought know better. I suspect he does.
4 thoughts on “Are the Gospels Anonymous?”
No. Almost all of them tell you who wrote them. Exampl.. “I, Paul a servant of….”
This isn’t actually correct. Every COMPLETE manuscript which we have for these documents bears the traditional title for its text. However, these all date to well after Irenaus’ assertion of their authorship. We have quite a number of fragmentary manuscripts, both earlier and later, which do NOT attest to the traditional authorship– though this is to be expected.
The more relevant issue, however, is that these documents were quoted by other writers far earlier than Irenaeus. Not a single one of these earlier writers ever explicitly attributes any of these quotes to Matthew, Mark, Luke, or John. This would be extremely curious if these works had been well known to have been written by these men.
Acts of the Apostles was similarly anonymous. We believe with high certainty that its author was the same person who authored the gospel now attributed to Luke, but not because it ever bore Luke’s name. Rather, we believe this based on an analysis of writing style, vocabulary, grammar, and content.
Why would the author circulate Acts anonymously if he hadn’t published his gospel anonymously?
Obviously if a fragment doesn’t include the beginning, we can’t see the attribution, I took that understanding for granted in the article.
Again, that a few church fathers don’t specifically name them is an argument from silence. The argument is based upon what a few church fathers did not say. This is fallacious, or at least not a good way to reason.
Luke-Acts is two volumes of one work. It should be understood as one work. That the work would specifically name a designee (Theophilus) and not an author would be odd, but the (complete) manuscripts that we have do name an author: Luke.