Wednesday, September 30, 2015

Gospel Authorship Part III: Apostles as Authorities

In Parts I and II of this blog series, I have been discussing New Testament scholars' claims about the canonical gospel titles being added later and the anonymity of the canonical gospels.

In those posts, I came to the following conclusions: 1) if the titles were added later than the composition of the gospels, the manuscript evidence is not the definitive place to look for an answer. All of our manuscripts bear the traditional titles. 2) The canonical gospels are all formally anonymous, meaning that within the gospel stories themselves the author does not identify himself by name.  Matthew and Mark are 100% formally anonymous and Luke and John give clues as to who wrote them, but those clues are opaque and do not lead to identification with a named figure.

Today I want to look at a phenomenon that occurred mostly in the second century and beyond among Christian writings. That phenomenon is the writing of new "gospels" attributed to one of the apostles or another authoritative Christian figure. Attaching the name of an apostle to a document clearly written in the second century or later appears to be an attempt to lend authority to the story being told. Let's look at three examples of attaching names of Christian authority figures to gospels to see how this works.  All three of the following gospels are dated no earlier than the second century.*

Coptic Gospel of Thomas (opening)
"These are the secret sayings that the living Jesus spoke and Didymos Judas
Thomas recorded."
Here we have an attribution of the sayings of this gospel to "Didymos Judas Thomas" the disciple of Jesus. If Thomas wrote them, they must be reliable, right?

The Protoevangelium of James (25:1)
"James, wrote this history when there was unrest in Jerusalem, at the time Herod died. I took myself into the desert until the unrest in Jerusalem ceased.  All the while, I was glorifying God who gave me the wisdom to write this history."
This gospel, which actually focuses on the birth of Mary, is attributed to James.  This is James, the older step brother of Jesus, presumably from a previous wife of Joseph.  This is the same James who later was a leader in the Jerusalem church.

The Infancy Gospel of Thomas (1:1)
"I, Thomas the Israelite, have thought it needful to make known unto all the brethren that are of the Gentiles the mighty works of childhood which our Lord Jesus Christ wrought when he was conversant in the body, and came unto the city of Nazareth in the fifth year of his age."
Here we have another attribution of a gospel to Thomas the disciple.  This gospel, perhaps the most entertaining of them all, deals with the exploits of the childhood Jesus.

These three, and many other gospels that I could cite from the second century and beyond, demonstrate that there was a practice in later Christian centuries of attributing contemporary works to authoritative figures of the past.  This was not a new practice, as second temple Jewish literature would often try and call on the authority of a patriarch like Moses or Abraham. But, it does stand in pretty sharp contrast to the four canonical gospels which are formally anonymous. I find it interesting that there was this need to attach an authoritative figure to gospels written in the second century, presumably to lend authority or credibility to the writing itself, while no such attributions exist within the canonical gospels (all dated to the first century).  So, as time went on, it appears that there was a need, beginning in the second century, to attach the name of a first generation Christian figure to writings to lend them authority.

Is it mere coincidence then that evidence for the traditional titles of the four canonical gospels also first appears in the second century?  That will be the question addressed in part four of this series. Come back and see.

*Dates come from Wilhelm Schneemelcher, ed., New Testament Apocrypha: Volume One, (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2003).  Some argue for a first century date for Coptic Thomas, but these early datings have not persuaded the guild as a whole.

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