Friday, September 25, 2015

Gospel Authorship I: Questioning Assumptions

Today I want to deal with one scholarly assumption which needs questioning.  New Testament scholars, myself included, often make the claim that the gospel titles (Gospel According to Matthew, Mark, Luke, John) were added later, after the writing of the gospels themselves.  Therefore, a further claim is often made (guilty as charged) that the gospels were all anonymous.

This is a common, but often unquestioned, bit of New Testament scholarly common knowledge.  But what lies behind such claims? Well, I had never thought to question these assertions until a couple of years ago when a student pressed me on the issue, and I had to admit, if only to myself, that I did not know the answer.  So, as any somewhat competent scholar would do, I asked myself why I thought this, and I went searching for the "big guns," scholars of renown to back me up.

I had in my mind many claims that I was sure I had read while in Seminary and Ph.D. studies that had confidently stated things such as "the Gospel titles were all added later." Take for example this quote from Raymond Brown's magnificent New Testament Introduction: "If we work backwards, the title, 'The Gospel According to Mark' was attached to this writing by the end of the second century."1  And here is the crux, the place where I had made an assumption.  I assumed that such confident claims must have solid evidence.  Specifically, I had in mind a second claim that may or may not go with the first, and that is the claim that "the original manuscripts of the gospels do not have the titles attached." Now, I have not been able to find such a claim in print, but it logically follows on the previous claims.  If the titles were added later and the gospels are all anonymous, then clearly, the earliest manuscripts did not have the titles,  But here comes my assumption.  I assumed that lying behind such claims was the hard evidence.  And, what evidence would be the "smoking gun" that proved that the originals did not bear titles? Well, of course, having an early copy without the titles would prove the previous claims.  And this had been my assumption for years.  I assumed that there were early manuscripts that did not contain the titles.

But on further investigation, no such manuscripts exist.  We do not have a single gospel manuscript sans title.  That is, for a manuscripts complete enough to have a place for a title (i.e., a manuscript with the beginning or end of a gospel), every one we have bears the traditional titles of the gospels.

So much for that assumption.  Well, since this assumption of a manuscript sans title has turned out to be false, does that mean that the previous claims of gospel anonymity fall apart.  Stay tuned for further posts on the matter.

1 Raymond E. Brown, An Introduction to the New Testament, (New York: Doubleday, 1997), 158.



  1. I always think about the assumption that since Mark references the temple being destroyed that must mean Mark wrote after 70 A.D. If this is wrong then we may be messing up on all the others.

  2. You may be correct, that if the date of Mark does not hold around 70 C.E., much might need to be rethought. Yet, this is not merely an assumption. It is an argument. Sure, Mark's gospel does not carry a date. But, through argumentation, New Testament scholars have settled on a date around 70 C.E. The destruction of the temple is a big part of this argument, but it is not the only part of the argument. Subsequent attempts to argue for a much earlier or much later date have not convinced many in the field. Thus, until compelling arguments for an earlier or later date present themselves, that working date of ~70 C.E. serves as a starting point for other arguments about dating the gospels. Thanks for the good point.