In parts I, II, III, and IV of this series ((and partially in the post on Higher Criticism) I have been dealing with two common scholarly claims about gospel titles: 1) the titles were added later than the composition of the canonical gospels, and 2) the four canonical gospels are anonymous.
In this post, I would like to sum up the evidence discovered so far, and see where we might press further to seek answers to the questions surrounding gospel authorship and titles.
Here is the concrete evidence we have.
1) There are four gospels that are firmly dated to the first century, all written by competent Greek writers.
2) All four of these gospels are formally anonymous (see here).
3) In the second century we have our first mention of gospels written by Mark (Papias, ca. 125, Irenaeus, ca. 180), Matthew (Papias, ca. 125, Irenaeus, ca. 180), Luke, (Irenaeus, ca. 180), and John (Irenaeus, ca. 180).
4) Also in the second century we have the composition of other gospels written in the names of apostles. These are not formally anonymous but the claims to authorship come in the gospels themselves, and, given their late date, these claims to authorship are clearly spurious and are attempts to bolster the authority of these second century gospels.
5) In the third century the earliest manuscripts of the gospels that we have that are complete enough to have room for a title all bear the traditional titles of the gospels.
Here is one observation that seems to jump out when looking at this evidence: there is a clear shift in convention in gospel writing between the first and second century. The first century gospels were formally anonymous and did not require the name of an apostle to gain credibility (presumably the first audiences of these gospels knew who the authors were and accepted their authority in these matters). In the second century, association with an apostle had to be made explicit within the text itself to lend credibility to a writing. I find it an odd coincidence that at the same time gospels were being forged in the name of apostles to bolster credibility, we find our first mention of the four formally anonymous gospels from the first century being attached to apostles (or their close companions). This begs the question: are not these second century attributions of authorship to our four anonymous gospels just an attempt to shore up support for these gospels in the face of new gospels claiming apostolic authorship? Now, this is not concrete evidence against traditional authorship. Instead, it is more like circumstantial evidence, but in the face of the scarcity of the data, circumstantial evidence might have to do.
Next time we will deal with further evidence that might help to answer these questions. Come back next time.