Were the Gospels Originally Anonymous?

In his most recent book, The Case for Jesus (Image Books), Brant Pitre tackles a long-held staple of New Testament scholarship: the anonymity of the Gospels.

Read any standard New Testament introduction and one of the first things it will tell you is that the Gospels are “technically” anonymous. We don’t really know who wrote them. Pitre says this conclusion is “so widespread that it was rarely discussed, much less questioned” when he was a student. The theory can be broken down into four basic claims:

  1. The four Gospels were originally published without any titles are headings identifying the authors.
  2. All four Gospels were circulated without any titles for almost a century before any attributed them to Matthew, Mark, Luke, or John.
  3. Long after the disciples of Jesus were dead were the titles finally added to the manuscripts.
  4. Since the originals Gospels were anonymous it is reasonable to conclude that none of them were actually eyewitnesses.

Pitre responds with a number of points. I’ll only list three here:

  1. “No anonymous copies of Matthew, Mark, Luke, or John have ever been found. They do not exist. As far as we know, they never have.” (p. 15) All of the extant manuscripts we have include some kind of author. While some variation may exist (e.g., “Gospel according to Matthew,” “According to Matthew”) or the title may appear at the end of the document there is “absolute uniformity” in the authors to whom each book is attributed. (p. 17)
  2. The anonymous scenario is incredible. As the theory goes the gospels circulated anonymously for almost a hundred years but then somehow at some point they are “attributed to exactly the same author by scribes throughout the world and yet leave no trace of disagreement in any manuscripts.” (p. 19) Pitre asks “How did these unknown scribes who added the titles know whom to ascribe the books to? How did they communicate with one another so that all the copies ended up with the same titles?” (p. 19) Why weren’t some of the gospels attributed to someone else like Andrew or Peter? This is, in fact, what you see with manuscripts that are actually anonymous (i.e., the book of Hebrews which is attributed to all sorts of authors). (p. 20)
  3. Why attribute Mark and Luke to non-eyewitnesses? “If you wanted to give authority to your anonymous book, would you pick Luke, who was neither an eyewitness himself nor a follower of an eyewitness, but a companion of Paul, who never met Jesus during his earthly life?” (pp. 22-23) Notice that “none of the later apocryphal gospels are attributed to non-eyewitnesses like Mark or Luke. The later false gospels are attributed to people with firsthand access to Jesus: people like Peter, or the apostle Thomas, or Mary Magdalen, or Judas, or even Jesus himself. They are never attributed to mere followers or companions of the apostles. Why? Because it is the authors of the apocryphal gospels who wanted to give much-needed authority to their writings by falsely ascribing them to people with the closest possible connections to Jesus.” (p. 23)

Pitre spends the next chapter exploring each Gospel and its title. He examines the internal evidence to show it does not support an anonymous theory. In chapter four he looks at the early church fathers and demonstrates that “the earliest Christian writings outside the New Testament are completely unambiguous and totally unanimous about who wrote the four Gospels.” (p. 39)

Pitre’s case is a strong one and worthy of attention. He points to an important article by Simon Gathercole titled “The Titles of the Gospels in the Earliest New Testament Manuscripts.” Pitre interacts considerably with the work of Barth Ehrman. Ehrman’s most recent work, Jesus Before the Gospels (2106, HarperOne), was obviously too new to be included. It would have been nice to know how Pitre would have responded to this statement by Ehrman regarding the church fathers:

“In the various Apostolic Fathers there are numerous quotations of the Gospels of the New Testament, especially Matthew and Luke. What is striking about these quotations is that in none of them does any of the authors ascribe a name to the books they are quoting. Isn’t that a bit odd? If they wanted to assign ‘authority’ to the quotation, why wouldn’t they indicate who wrote it.” (Jesus Before the Gospels, p. 109)

The Case for Jesus is a hardback with 256 pages and sells for $23.00.

BRANT PITRE is a professor of sacred Scripture at Notre Dame Seminary in New Orleans, Louisiana. He is the author of the bestselling book Jesus and the Jewish Roots of the Eucharist: Unlocking the Secrets of the Last Supper (2011). Dr. Pitre is an extremely enthusiastic and highly sought-after speaker who lectures regularly across the United States. He has produced dozens of Bible studies on both CD and DVD, in which he explores the biblical roots of the Catholic faith. He has also appeared on a number of Catholic radio and television shows, such as Catholic Answers Live and EWTN. He currently lives in Louisiana with his wife, Elizabeth, and their five young children.

The Case for Jesus by Brant Pitre


Book Give Away

This week I’m offering The Fourfold Gospel by Francis Watson. Here’s the catalog description:

“This groundbreaking approach to the study of the fourfold gospel offers a challenging alternative to prevailing assumptions about the creation of the gospels and their portraits of Jesus. How and why does it matter that we have these four gospels? Why were they placed alongside one another as four parallel yet diverse retellings of the same story?

Francis Watson, widely regarded as one of the foremost New Testament scholars of our time, explains that the four gospels were chosen to give a portrait of Jesus. He explores the significance of the fourfold gospel’s plural form for those who constructed it and for later Christian communities, showing that in its plurality it bears definitive witness to what God has done in Jesus Christ. Watson focuses on reading the gospels as a group rather than in isolation and explains that the fourfold gospel is greater than, and other than, the sum of its individual parts. Interweaving historical, exegetical, and theological perspectives, this book is accessibly written for students and pastors but is also of interest to professors and scholars.”

Francis Watson (PhD, University of Oxford) is Research Chair in Biblical Interpretation at Durham University. He previously held the Kirby Laing Chair of New Testament Exegesis at the University of Aberdeen and taught at King’s College London. Among his numerous works are the critically acclaimed Paul and the Hermeneutics of Faith; Paul, Judaism, and the Gentiles: Beyond the New Perspective; and Gospel Writing: A Canonical Perspective. He is also coauthor of Reading Scripture with the Church.

Leave your name in the comments section by NLT Friday, May April 29 6:00 am EST. I’ll announce the winner that day. If I don’t hear back from the winner within seven days the book will go to another entry.

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What a Difference the Gospel of John Makes

I’m currently reading The Fourfold Gospel by Francis Watson. What an amazing book. Here’s a small excerpt which I hope will whet your appetite.

“In John, the “cleansing of the temple” takes place at the beginning of Jesus’ ministry and follows an incident—water turned to wine at Cana of Galilee—that is not recorded elsewhere. In the synoptics, the temple incident takes place at the end of Jesus’ ministry and is a link in the chain of events that leads to his death.

In John, most of Jesus’ activity takes place in or around Jerusalem, which he visits for feasts such as Passover or Tabernacles on four occasions before the final Passover when he meets his death. References to Jesus in Galilee are limited to three passages. In the synoptics, Jesus’ main activity takes place in or around Galilee, and he visits Jerusalem only once.

In John, Jesus’ debates with opponents in Jerusalem focus mainly on the issue of who he claims to be. Even when he heals on the Sabbath, it is his identity that becomes the primary issue rather than Sabbath healing as such; the Jerusalem authorities seek to kill him because “he not only broke the Sabbath but also called God his own father, making himself equal to God.” In the synoptics, Jesus’ debates occur in Galilee as well as Jerusalem, and they are mainly concerned with the observance and interpretation of the law.

In John, the event that leads to Jesus’ death is the raising of Lazarus. In the opinion of Caiaphas the high priest, this miracle poses a threat to public order with potentially disastrous consequences; the only responsible course is to put Jesus to death. In the synoptics, Jesus performs no miracles in Jerusalem or its vicinity (apart from blighting a fig tree and restoring a severed ear). His death is unrelated to his activities as a miracle worker.

In John, Jesus speaks at length with his disciples about a future in which he will be absent and yet present to them in a new way, through the Paraclete, or Holy Spirit. In the synoptics, this period of absence is viewed as a time of tribulation for the world that will culminate in the coming of the Son of man on the clouds of heaven.

In John, Jesus prays for himself, his disciples, and future believers while still in the upper room following the Last Supper. Confident of his own destiny, he asks to be restored to the glory that he shared with his Father “before the foundation of the world.” In the synoptics, he is distressed at his forthcoming suffering and prays in Gethsemane that the cup of suffering be removed, while subjecting himself to his Father’s will.

In John, Jesus’ “glory” is manifested not only in his miracles but also and above all in his death. In death he is “exalted” or “glorified.” The cross is his throne, and the crucifixion is his enthronement. In the synoptics, the revelation of Jesus’ glory takes place not on Good Friday but on Easter Day.

While it is modern scholarship that has labeled Matthew, Mark, and Luke as the “synoptic gospels,” the distance that separates them from John is not a modern discovery. Its recognition is as old as the four-gospel collection itself; the very fact of John’s inclusion shows that the distance was felt to be a positive rather than a negative factor. The question is how and why that distance enhances the canonical collection rather than undermining it and making it incoherent.

The differences illustrated here may not all be of the same kind. It is unlikely that Jesus performed similar demonstrations in the temple at both the beginning and the end of his ministry. It is not unlikely that Jesus visited Jerusalem more than once in the course of his ministry. All the same, these differences show why it has proved so difficult—indeed, impossible—to construct out of the four gospels a credible account of Jesus’ ministry in its actual historical sequence.” (The Fourfold Gospel, Baker Academic pp. 86-88)

The Fourfold Gospel is available in hardcover with 224 pages and sells for $24.99.

Francis Watson (PhD, University of Oxford) is Research Chair in Biblical Interpretation at Durham University. He previously held the Kirby Laing Chair of New Testament Exegesis at the University of Aberdeen and taught at King’s College London. Among his numerous works are the critically acclaimed Paul and the Hermeneutics of Faith; Paul, Judaism, and the Gentiles: Beyond the New Perspective; and Gospel Writing: A Canonical Perspective. He is also coauthor of Reading Scripture with the Church.

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Book Give Away – “You Are What You Love”

This week I’m giving away a copy of Jamie Smith’s new book You Are What You Love. Here’s a brief introduction to the book by the author. There are other clips on YouTube by Jamie on the book which I would encourage you to listen to. Leave your name in the comments section by NLT Friday April 22, 6:00 am EST. I’ll announce the winner that day. If I don’t hear back from the winner within seven days the book will go to another entry.

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New from IVP Academic – “The Acts of the Apostles”

When Craig Keener speaks I listen. When he recommends a book on Acts you can consider it sold. IVP Academic has released The Acts of the Apostles by Osvaldo Padilla. Here’s what Keener has to say about it:

“It is rare to find a work that blends epistemological, hermeneutical and historiographic sophistication with mature handling of the extensive primary and secondary literature, but this is such a work. Padilla’s introduction to questions of the authorship and genre of Acts and the character of its speeches is a superbly informed and trustworthy guide.”

Here’s the catalog description:

“The book of Acts is a remarkable fusion of the historical and theological, and its account of the early church has fascinated theologians and biblical scholars for centuries. Just who was the author of this work? And what kind of book did he write? How do we classify its genre?

The Acts of the Apostles provides an advanced introduction to the study of Acts, covering important questions about authorship, genre, history and theology. Osvaldo Padilla explores fresh avenues of understanding by examining the text in light of the most recent research on the book of Acts itself, philosophical hermeneutics, genre theory and historiography. In addition, Padilla opens a conversation between the text of Acts and postliberal theology, seeking a fully-orbed engagement with Acts that is equally attuned to questions of interpretation, history and theology.”

Osvaldo Padilla (PhD, University of Aberdeen) is associate professor of New Testament at Beeson Divinity School in Birmingham, Alabama. He is the author of The Speeches of Outsiders in Acts: Poetics, Theology, and Historiography and he has written articles and reviews for Themelios, Bulletin for Biblical Research, New Testament Studies and Ex Auditu. Previously, he taught New Testament at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School and served as pastor of Jesus el Buen Pastor, a Hispanic congregation in the Chicago area. He is married to Kristen, and they have one son.

The Acts of the Apostles is a paperback with 288 pages and sells for $26.00.