Wednesday, October 7, 2015

Gospel Authorship V: A Preliminary Observation

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.


  1. Keith,

    Really enjoying reading this series - thanks for putting this together! I do however have a couple of queries about the points above that you label as "concrete evidence":

    1) Can we firmly date all four gospels to the first century? What is the evidence for this? The consensus dates are something like 70 AD for Mark, 75 for Matthew, 85 for Luke and 95 for John. But as with the attribution of names that you highlight here, this consensus is based on quite flimsy evidence, and there is actually a high margin for error in all of these dates. This cuts both ways - the actual dates could be either earlier or later - but my understanding is that for John at least (and more controversially also for Luke and possibly even Matthew and Mark) the date could be some time in the second century. And in the case of John, we may have some parts from the first century, and some from the second.

    2) Can we really describe Papias' testimony as a concrete reference to the gospels? It is far from clear that the documents that he was referring to were in fact the two gospels we have. Possible, certainly, but I think there is sufficient doubt that we cannot really describe his testimony as "concrete evidence".

    Would welcome your thoughts!

  2. Jeremy,
    Excellent comments. I would not disagree with anything you said in your comments. Certainly, the dating of the gospels is not "concrete" as though it were "hard data." I do however hold to the scholarly consensus dating which you mentioned. And though a scholarly consensus never becomes "hard data," it is about as concrete as one gets in doing history. That does not mean that these consensuses do not need to be requestioned and re-examined from time to time.

    With regard to Papias, I firmly agree that it is not at all clear that Papias is referring to what we know as the canonical gospels of Mark and Matthew. Especially with Matthew, I do not think his description matches canonical Matthew very closely at all.

    So, thanks for holding my feet to the fire. Often times in a blog post, I can get a little bit lazy with my language.

  3. Thanks for this series of posts on attributions. I am a rank amateur and non-Christian but find biblical criticism in its various aspects quite fascinating. I, too, was questioning the derivation of the assumption the gospels were originally anonymous just a couple of weeks ago so this series is quite timely for me. When thinking back a few years, all I can recall reading somewhere was some author referencing some citation from an entry in an old edition of the Catholic Encyclopedia I believe it was. Anyway, thanks again for this series. BTW, I also appreciate your forthrightness and open-minded reflection embodied in both your writing and answers to comments. Very refreshing!

  4. Dave,
    Thanks for your kind comments. I hope you continue to read.