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

 

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