Peter Gurry reviews The Alleged Anonymity of the Canonical Gospels, by Simon Gathercole, Journal of Theological Studies, 1 Oct 2018.
By most accounts, the earliest records we have for the life and death of Jesus of Nazareth come from Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. These, at least, are the names they are traditionally associated with. But scholars have long pointed out that the four Gospels do not identify their authors and that the titles by which they are now known (“The Gospel according to Matthew”, etc) were only added later. From these two claims, many have concluded that the Gospels were originally anonymous.
A recent journal article written by Simon Gathercole, reader in New Testament studies at the University of Cambridge, offers a serious challenge. Importantly, Gathercole does not question the fact that the Gospels do not name their authors in the main body of the text or that the titles were added later. Instead, he challenges their significance, writing that both points “are actually entirely irrelevant to the question of the Gospels’ anonymity”.
Gathercole asks what we should make of the fact that the Gospels’ authors do not name themselves in the body of their texts. Bible readers familiar with the letters of Paul know that he begins his letters by identifying himself in a form such as “Paul an apostle... to...” But these are letters and the Gospels are not. So what are they, and should we expect them to name their authors in this way?
The Gospels are most commonly categorised as ancient biography, technical treatise (in the case of Luke) or ancient history. Though still debated, the choice matters little in our case because there is no norm or established pattern as to whether an author would include their name in any of these texts. In the two most famous works of the first-century historian Josephus, for example, he once identifies himself as the author (Jewish Wars) and once does not (Antiquities of the Jews). In both cases, he is well known as the author. Other examples Gathercole cites include works from Xenophon, Polybius, Livy and Tacitus. If these writers could still be well known as the authors without naming themselves, the same is true for the Gospels.
One reason for this is that ancient writers had a number of other ways of identifying themselves. Since books often traveled with people, word of mouth was a natural and easy way to identify an author. There were also material means such as small tags appended to the edge of a scroll that could serve the same function. Certainly, in the preface to Luke’s Gospel, naming Theophilus (Luke 1:3) leaves little doubt that the first reader knew the author. With the other three Gospels, it takes little imagination to think that their first audiences knew them too.
This brings us to the second claim of the alleged anonymity, which is that the titles were added later. The most sensible explanation for their addition is that once multiple Gospels became well known they needed to be distinguished one from another. Until then, it would have been enough to refer to Mark simply as “the Gospel” rather than as the more cumbersome “The Gospel according to...” Gathercole does not question the claim, only the significance. He does so by taking into account (1) practical considerations involving the earliest readers of the Gospels, (2) the testimony from the earliest Church in naming the evangelists, and (3) the simple fact that no other authors are named for our four Gospels. As these lines of evidence converge, they suggest that these four names – Matthew, Mark, Luke and John – are so consistent precisely because those are the names under which they originally circulated. In sum, neither the lack of named authors nor the later addition of the titles is enough to conclude that the Gospels were originally anonymous. In fact, the evidence we do have points in the other direction.
Before concluding, it is important to note what the article does not do. It does not make the case for why we should actually believe that these named men were the authors; it only challenges the notion that they were never named as such in the first place. However, for those who are convinced on other grounds that the central claims of the Gospels are true, it is only a small step to conclude the same about the claims of authorship that accompany them. For that reason, Gathercole’s work should be of interest to those who treasure the one gospel of Jesus Christ and the four Gospels that together proclaim it.
Dr Peter J Gurry is Assistant Professor of New Testament at Phoenix Seminary