The main conclusion reached in the last post was that a common assumption that is made based upon these claims, that we have early gospel manuscripts without the titles, is an inaccurate assumption. In fact, the earliest manuscripts we have that have a space for a title, all bear the traditional gospel titles. The image to the right is a page of p75, a 3rd century manuscript that contains the gospels of Luke and John. In the image, one can see the title of Luke (euangelion kata loukan), marking the ending of Luke's gospel followed by a couple of line breaks, then the title of John (euangelion kata ioanen). As far as New Testament manuscripts, we don't have much that is earlier than the 3rd century, and much of that is fragmentary (meaning it would not contain a space for a title). So, the manuscript evidence demonstrates consistent naming of the gospels in the 3rd century. But, this is not surprising at all to NT scholars since the traditional titles of the gospels are certainly established in the 2nd century, so we would expect no less. Of course manuscripts from the 3rd century would bear the traditional titles. So, barring the discovery of earlier manuscripts, the manuscript evidence will not be able to solve the issue of gospel titles, how early they were attached to the gospels, and whether the gospels were originally anonymous.
Let's examine for a moment the claim that all four canonical gospels are anonymous? What do scholars mean when they say this? Well, if they are being careful, what they mean specifically, is that the gospels are formally anonymous. That is, leaving off the issue of the titles for a moment, and not seeking to answer the question of whether the titles were there originally or not, in the stories the gospels present, the author does not step forward and identify himself.* Nowhere in the four canonical gospels does the author say something like, "I, Matthew, am the one who witnessed these events," or "I, John, was the disciple who leaned against Jesus' breast." The gospel authors, within the stories themselves, do not self identify. This is what scholars mean when they call the gospels anonymous.
Now, each of the four gospels are different and need to be examined individually. So, the formal anonymity of Matthew and Mark are 100% with no concrete clues as to authorship (the tax collector named "Matthew" in Matthew and the naked young man in Mark are certainly not "concrete" identifications of authorship).
Luke and John do give slight clues. Let's take a look at Luke 1:1-4:
"1 Since many have undertaken to set down an orderly account of the events that have been fulfilled among us, 2 just as they were handed on to us by those who from the beginning were eyewitnesses and servants of the word, 3 I too decided, after investigating everything carefully from the very first, to write an orderly account for you, most excellent Theophilus, 4 so that you may know the truth concerning the things about which you have been instructed."The author of Luke identifies himself here in many ways, but not by name. A few things can be known about the author's identity from this passage.
1) The author knows of other attempts to write "gospels."
2) The author claims to depend on, but is not himself, an eyewitness.
3) The author has undertaken investigation.
4) The author wants to provide an orderly account.
All well and good, but none of these identifications get us closer to a name for the author.
Now look at John 21:23-25:
"23 So the rumor spread in the community that this disciple would not die. Yet Jesus did not say to him that he would not die, but, “If it is my will that he remain until I come, what is that to you?”Here we have a tantalizing statement that seems to attribute authorship. This is an aside by the narrator of the gospel. The disciple in question is not given a name, but throughout the gospel of John this disciple is known as the "beloved disciple," who is never associated with John son of Zebedee within the gospel. On first glance, it would seem that the beloved disciple is the author of the gospel, but that cannot be. In verse 24, the author(s) clearly self identify as "we." "We know that his [the beloved disciple] testimony is true." So, this gospel is written by a "we" who are basing what they write on the testimony of the beloved disciple. Tantalizing? Yes. Any closer to identifying a name for the author(s)? No.
24 This is the disciple who is testifying to these things and has written them, and we know that his testimony is true. 25 But there are also many other things that Jesus did; if every one of them were written down, I suppose that the world itself could not contain the books that would be written."
Well, that is enough for today. Come back next time for more.
*I am assuming the authors of the four gospels are male. I have no concrete evidence for this assumption other than the typical patriarchal nature of the first century Roman Empire.