The Gospels were NOT Anonymous

Many people subscribe to the anonymous Gospel theory. That theory says the Gospel authors wrote their works and circulated them anonymously.  The New American Bible Revised Edition reports that the majority of scholars hold the following view:

The ancient tradition that the author was the disciple and apostle of Jesus named Matthew (see Mt 10:3) is untenable. . . [NABRE, The Gospel According to Matthew].

Following the #1 thing, let’s ask a question. What is the evidence that makes such a claim untenable? You might think we have early copies of Gospel manuscripts that don’t contain attribution to Matthew, Mark, Luke, or John.

Did the original manuscripts lack names? Have archaeologists unearthed Gospel manuscripts without attribution? That certainly would constitute evidence that the Gospels are anonymous writings.

But we don’t have that. In fact, we have the opposite. Brant Pitre spells out the full arguments in his excellent book. Consider these summary points.

The Evidence

1) No extant copies of the four Gospels lack the traditional attribution to Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. All extant copies of the Gospels that contain the beginning (i.e. not counting papyrus fragments of the middle or end of a Gospel) also contain attribution to Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John.  Pitre explains this clearly:

The first and perhaps biggest problem for the theory of the anonymous Gospels is this: no anonymous copies of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John have ever been found. [p. 15]

2) All early sources mentioning Gospel authorship (namely: Papias, the Muratorian fragment, and Irenaeus) attribute them to the traditional authors Matthew, Make, Luke, and John.

3) Implausibility due to the wide range of circulation coupled with the lack of quick communication in the ancient world plagues the anonymous scenario. Pitre states:

The second major problem with the theory of the anonymous Gospels is the utter implausibility that a book circulating around the Roman Empire without a title for almost a hundred years could somehow at some point be attributed to exactly the same author by scribes throughout the world and yet leave no trace of disagreement in any manuscripts. [p. 18-19]

4) The book of Hebrews exhibits true anonymity. It presents a paradigm case for what the attribution of an anonymous book looks like. Depending which manuscript you read, scribes attribute the letter to Paul, Timothy, or to no one at all.

The Scholars Object

Given this evidence, you may wonder about the arguments on the other side. If scholars  find the traditional authorship untenable, what leads them to this conclusion? Consider this summary of common arguments.

  • Matthew, an Apostle and eyewitness, couldn’t have written the Gospel bearing his name since his Gospel used Mark’s Gospel as a source. Matthew would never have done this if he were truly an eyewitness.
  • High level Greek disqualifies Matthew as a potential author of his Gospel.  Very low literacy rates (less than 5%), indicate a man of his stature could not have commanded the Greek language that well.
  • Papias citations muddle the issue. He clearly  refers to some other form of Matthew’s Gospel, not the one as we know it today. This undercuts the external evidence.

I answer these objections in part 2. None of them establish the anonymous Gospel theory over against traditional authorship.

In the meantime, don’t miss out on a copy of Dr. Brant Pitre’s book!

A Tactical Question to Ask: What is the best evidence that the Gospels were written and circulated anonymously? 

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