Were the Gospels originally anonymous?

Sometimes it is fun to play with ideas, and fun to play with common accepted standpoints, whether of so-called ‘common’ knowledge, or ideas prevalent and generally accepted in much research. If no-one dares to plays with ideas, challenge them, maybe even turn them up-side-down, there will be little progress in research.

Some ideas about the origins of the New Testament Gospels are more widely accepted then others, that is, more generally accepted, even though you can always find deviating, or better, opposing positions.

The idea or standpoint that the NT gospels are, even though they by now wear titles, originally anonymous gospels; that is, that they were issued, having no authorial names attached to them, are one such idea.

Most lay people, and some conservative theologians, takes the names like ‘Gospel according Matthew’, Mark, Luke, or John as genuine authorial statements; but many don’t. It seems to be an accepted dogma in scholarly circles that the titles are later additions…

However, Brant Pitre has now published a little book in which in which he challenges the common scholarly opinion, arguing that the names Matthew, Mark. Luke and John may in fact be references to the ‘real’ authors of the Gospels.

Dr. Brant Pitre, Professor of Sacred Scripture at Notre Dame Seminary, in New Orleans, Louisiana – has come up with a book that challenges many of the more common conceptions about the origins of the gospels:

Brant Pitre, The Case for Jesus. The Biblical and Historical Evidence for Christ (Image, 2016)

I wont say I buy all he is trying to argue in this book, but it is an enjoyable and refreshing reading – so far, but I haven’t read all yet. But have a look at the arguments he presents in favor for the view that the Gospels were in fact not anonymous.

But first, the mainline view of the anonymity of the Gospels:

First, according to this theory, all four Gospels were originally published without any titles or headings identifying the authors.

Second, all four Gospels supposedly circulated without any titles for almost a century before anyone attributed them to Matthew, Mark, Luke, or John.

Third, it was only much later— sometime after the disciples of Jesus were dead and buried— that the titles were finally added to the manuscripts.

Fourth and finally, and perhaps most significant of all, according to this theory, because the Gospels were originally anonymous, it is reasonable to conclude that none of them was actually written by an eyewitness.

Then, we have the counterarguments of prof. Pitre:

“The first and perhaps biggest problem for the theory of the anonymous Gospels is this: no anonymous copies of Matthew, Mark, Luke, or John have ever been found. They do not exist. As far as we know, they never have. . . . When it comes to the titles of the Gospels, not only the earliest and best manuscripts, but all of the ancient manuscripts— without exception, in every language— attribute the four Gospels to Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. 14.” *

“Second, notice that there is some variation in the form of the titles (for example, some of the later manuscripts omit the word “Gospel”). However, as New Testament scholar Michael Bird notes, there is “absolute uniformity” in the authors to whom each of the books is attributed.”

“Third— and this is important— notice also that the titles are present in the most ancient copies of each Gospel we possess, including the earliest fragments, known as papyri (from the papyrus leaves of which they were made). For example, the earliest Greek manuscript of the Gospel of Matthew contains the title “The Gospel according to Matthew” (Greek euangelion kata Matthaion) (Papyrus 4). Likewise, the oldest Greek copy of the beginning of the Gospel of Mark starts with the title “The Gospel according to Mark” (Greek euangelion kata Markon).”

“The second major problem with the theory of the anonymous Gospels is 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. 20 And, by the way, this is supposed to have happened not just once, but with each one of the four Gospels.”

“Finally, if things happened the way the anonymous theory proposes, then why aren’t some copies attributed to Matthew, Mark, Luke, or John, but other copies attributed to someone else— for instance, Andrew, or Peter, or Jude? If the Gospels really got their titles from scribes falsely adding them to manuscripts up to a century later, we would expect to find both (1) anonymous copies— which, as we’ve already seen, don’t exist— as well as (2) contradictory titles, with some scribes attributing one copy of a Gospel to Matthew and another attributing the same Gospel to Peter or Jesus or whomever.”

“In short, the theory of the anonymous Gospels suffers not only from a lack of manuscript evidence but also from a lack of logic. It simply does not pass muster when it comes to basic criteria of historical plausibility.”

These are the main arguments of prof. Pitre in chapter 2 of his book; if your are interested in the rest of his arguments, get the book; it is available in paper as well as in a Kindle edition.

*(I’m sorry, I have no exact page references as I use a Kindle version)