The Anonymous Gospels
One of the criticisms leveled against Christianity is that our primary sources for the life and teachings of Jesus—the four gospels—are anonymous. In addition, critics often add that the gospels were likely written a long time after the events, at locations far removed from Palestine, by unknown writers who were not witnesses to the events. This essay will present substantial evidence to counter these criticisms, and conclude that the most reasonable position for the gospels’ authorship is that they were written by Matthew, Mark, Luke and John.
Most Christians have never heard of these criticisms, and might respond by saying, “But it says in my Bible ‘The Gospel According to Matthew.’” Well, the critics do have one thing right—as far as we know, the originals of the gospels did not bear the names of the writers. The traditional names of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John were added to later copies, and these are the titles used in Bibles today.
So, if the originals of the gospels did not have the names of the writers at the beginning or somewhere in the text, how do we know who wrote the gospels? Could they represent the accretion of stories collected by non-eye-witnesses decades after the events, edited and redacted to create a fictionalized account of Jesus? Many critical scholars hold this view, but a careful examination of the evidence will show that such a radical view is unwarranted because the facts support authorship by the traditional writers.
First, it was common in the ancient world for writers of histories and biographies to not include their own names. The most prominent ancient Roman historian, Cornelius Tacitus, is an example. Nowhere in his two major works—Annals and Histories—is he identified as the writer, yet no one disputes that it was Tacitus, writing in early 2nd century, who penned these works.
Next, there is no evidence among early Christians of anyone questioning the authorship of the four gospels. This may seem to the critic to be an “argument from silence,” but this is mentioned to stress that the “anonymous gospels” allegation is of recent origin, based largely on assumptions of literary style. But more important than evidence from silence is the evidence from early Christian writers. Who did the generation of Christians after the apostles think wrote the gospels?
Papias (A.D. 70-153) was the Bishop of Hieropolis in what is modern Turkey. According to Irenaeus (A.D. 125-202), Papias was a disciple (“hearer”) of John the Apostle (“Elder”), and a companion of Polycarp (A.D. 51-155). Papias, writing around the year A.D. 125, discusses the authorship of the Gospel of Mark and the Gospel of Matthew. His writings were recorded by the 4th century church historian Eusebius[i]:
The Elder used to say this also: Mark, having been the interpreter of Peter, wrote down accurately all that he mentioned, whether sayings or doings of Christ; not, however, in order. For he was neither a hearer nor a companion of the Lord; but afterwards, as I said, he accompanied Peter, who adapted his teachings as necessity required, not as though he were making a compilation of the sayings of the Lord. So then Mark made no mistake, writing down in this way some things as he mentioned them; for he paid attention to this one thing, not to omit anything that he had heard, nor to include any false statement among them.
Thus, it is from Papias that we learn that Mark, who may not have been an eyewitness to the events set forth in the Gospel of Mark, recorded the recollections of Simon Peter, who was an eyewitness to the events. During the 2nd century A.D. the relationship between Peter and the Gospel of Mark is further alluded to by Justin Martyr (A.D. 100-165) and Clement of Alexandria (A.D. 150-215). Justin writes, “It is said that he [Jesus] changed the name of one of the apostles to Peter; and it is written in his memoirs that he changed the names of others, two brothers, the sons of Zebedee….”[ii] The nearest antecedent to “his memoirs” is “Peter,” and the only text prior to Justin that refers to Jesus changing the names of James and John is the Gospel of Mark, further evidence of what Papias stated about Mark writing Peter’s accounts. These facts appear to refute the view of skeptic Bark Ehrman, who argues that Justin is referring to the Gospel of Peter rather than a canonical gospel.[iii]
Some critics contend that Justin’s references to “the Gospels” (“for the apostles in the Memoirs composed by them, which are called Gospels,”[iv]) is a scribal gloss in the margin of a manuscript that was interpolated into the text, and that Justin had no knowledge of the canonical Gospels.[v] The support for this theory is the weak assertion that since Justin only uses the plural “gospels” (euaggelia) once in his writings, the sole reference must be an interpolation. This theory fails when it is revealed that Justin makes several references to Memoirs of the Apostles, references that best fit the canonical gospels. For example, Justin writes, “…in the Memoirs, which I say were composed by the apostles and their followers, [it is recorded] that….”[vi]
Regarding the Gospel of Matthew, Papias says, “Matthew recorded the sayings (“logia”) in the Hebrew language.” Irenaeus, Bishop of Lyons, wrote in his work Against Heresies (A.D. 180 ca):
Matthew published his gospel among the Hebrews in their own tongue, when Peter and Paul were preaching the gospel in Rome and founding the church there. After their departure, Mark, the disciple and interpreter of Peter, himself handed down to us in writing the substance of Peter’s preaching.[vii]
Regarding the Gospel of Luke, Irenaeus wrote: “Luke, the follower of Paul, set down in a book the gospel preached by his teacher.”[viii]
As to the Gospel of John, Irenaeus wrote: “Then John, the disciple of the Lord, who also leaned on his breast, himself produced his Gospel, while he was living in Ephesus in Asia.”[ix] Irenaeus had been a student of Polycarp (A.D. 69-155), Bishop of Smyrna, and Polycarp had been a disciple of John the Apostle (confirmed by Tertullian, A.D. 155-240). Thus, Irenaeus heard from Polycarp eyewitness accounts of those, like the Apostle John, who had personal contact with Jesus.
In addition to the multiple, early references from church Fathers that confirm the gospel authors were Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, there is considerable internal evidence for traditional authorship. For example, the Gospel of Luke contains a prologue in which the writer presents himself as an investigative journalist. The Book of Acts appears as “part two” of the Gospel of Luke, being dedicated to the same person, “Theophilus.” Many scholars, thus, refer to “Luke-Acts” as one work divided into two parts (perhaps due to the length of the combined treatises, which together would have greatly exceeded the length of the average scroll of the time). Luke 1:3-4 says the writer has “investigated everything carefully from the beginning” so that the reader “might know the exact truth” about the things he had been taught. How do these references support Luke as the writer of the Gospel of Luke? The proven accuracy of the Book of Acts as evidence that Luke wrote Acts, which is “part two” of his original treatise, the Gospel of Luke being “part one.”
If Luke was the author of both the Gospel of Luke and the Book of Acts, the accuracy in Acts is a strong argument for his authorship of the Gospel of Luke. Archaeologist Sir William Ramsay had been taught the critical view that the Book of Acts was not written by Luke, but was, instead, written by some unknown writer around A.D. 170 attempting to unite the Jewish followers of Jesus with the Hellenistic followers of Paul. Out of necessity Ramsay began using the Book of Acts for his research of Asia Minor. He discovered such accuracy that he concluded Luke must have written Acts, for no one writing in the late 2nd century could have known the precise details provided in Acts. Ramsay referred to Luke as “a historian of the first rank; not merely are his statements of fact trustworthy...this author should be placed along with the very greatest historians.”[x] Classical scholar Colin J. Hemer documents 84 facts in the last 16 chapters of Acts that have been confirmed by history and archaeology.[xi] Thus, if the evidence supports that the writer of Acts was Luke, and the Gospel of Luke is part one of “Luke-Acts,” then it follows that Luke also wrote the gospel that bears his name.
Internal evidence supporting the Apostle John’s authorship of the Gospel of John includes the claim that it was written by an eyewitness to the crucifixion of Jesus: “And he who has seen has borne witness, and his witness is true; and he knows that he is telling the truth, so that you may believe” (John 19:35). There is considerably more internal evidence supporting Johannine authorship of the gospel that bears John’s name. For a comprehensive treatment, see William Hendriksen, Exposition of the Gospel According to John, New Testament Commentary, pp. 3-31.[xii]
A final line of internal evidence supporting the traditional authorship of the gospels by Matthew, Mark, Luke and John is the embarrassing detail included in the gospels. For example, the disciples were told by Jesus on several occasions that they had “little faith.” They failed to “watch and pray” (Matthew 26:41-43). They often misunderstood Jesus and had to be corrected, and they all fled the scene, except for John, at Jesus’ crucifixion. There is also embarrassing detail about Jesus. He is accused of being a “deceiver,” is thought to be “out of his mind” by his own family, and is crucified like a common criminal, with those who are hanged on a tree being “cursed” (Galatians 3:13). If a non-eyewitness is creating a fictional account of Jesus and the disciples, the tendency is to make the characters look good. The fact that the gospels contain embarrassing accounts of the disciples and Jesus is an argument for authenticity. A redactor would have reason to delete or alter the embarrassing details in order to make the story of Jesus and the disciples more palatable. The details found in the gospels are not the type that are included unless they are true, and would only have been known by those who were present, or those who had contact with the eyewitnesses.
The external and internal evidence militates to the conclusion that the authors of the gospels were, indeed, Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. Critical theories abound that question their authorship, starting with the misleading statement that “the gospels are anonymous.” As has been presented, the gospels are “anonymous” only in the same way that Roman historian Tacitus’ writings are “anonymous.” No one seriously doubts the authorship of Tacitus’ two major works. Similarly, no one should doubt that there is substantial evidence, both external and internal, that supports the traditional authorship of the gospels. Therefore, those who accept the gospels as eyewitness accounts of the life and teachings of Jesus do so based on solid evidence.
[i] Eusebius, History of the Church, III. 39.
[ii] Dialogue with Trypho the Jew, 106.3.
[iii] Bart Ehrman, Forgery and Counterforgery: The Use of Literary Deceit in Early Christian Polemics, 2012.
[iv] Dialogue with Trypho, 103.8.
[v] Walter Richard Cassels, Superatural Religion, 1905, p. 186).
[vi] Dialogue with Trypho, 103.8.
[vii] Against Heresies 3.1.1.
[x] William Ramsay, The Bearing of Recent Discovery on the Trustworthiness of the New Testament, 1915.
[xi] Colin J. Hemer, The Book of Acts in the Setting of Hellenistic History, 1990.
[xii] William Hendriksen, Exposition of the Gospel According to John, New Testament Commentary, Baker, 1953.