The Gospels were NOT Anonymous (part 2)

In part 1, I summarized the evidence against the anonymous Gospels hypothesis. It’s a strong case.

But you might wonder, if the case is so strong, why do many scholars oppose it? For example, the NABRE introduction to all of the Gospels promotes the anonymous Gospel theory:

From the second century onward, the practice arose of designating each of these four books as a “gospel.” Understood as a title, and of adding a phrase with a name that identified the traditional author, e.g. “The Gospel according to Matthew.” [NABRE, Introduction to The Gospels].

Notice how they present the anonymous gospel theory as fact. They present no alternative theories or evidence. Additionally, the NABRE Introduction to Matthew states:

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

 As you can see, the scholars make strong claims, going so far to say the traditional authorship of Matthew in “untenable.”

What are the Arguments?

 Brant Pitre documents the fact that there is no direct evidence of anonymous gospels. So, the scholars argue against the traditional authorship from other considerations.

Consider this summary of common arguments in the case of Matthew’s Gospel:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. Papias citations muddle the issue. Papias clearly refers to some other form of Matthew’s Gospel, not the one we know today. This undercuts the external evidence for traditional authorship. [This objection is the most technical]

Answering the Scholars

These points are all compatible with traditional authorship, and fall far short of showing the Gospel of Matthew is anonymous. Let’s answer them one by one:

Reply to 1:

The reasoning that “Matthew would never have done this” is too quick. One must ask, what is the source of Mark’s Gospel? The early sources suggest Mark traveled with Peter who provided the source material for his Gospel. The Gospels construe Peter as a sort of Chief Apostle. Peter’s primacy provides one reason why Matthew found it fitting to use the material in Mark. If Matthew knew Mark’s material came from Peter, he deemed it sanctioned by the Chief Apostle. Also, Matthew included a lot of his own material that is clearly independent of Mark’s Gospel.

Reply to 2:

This argument consists of a sweeping generalization. Consider an analogy. 5% of my students passed their math test. Therefore, Sally did not pass her math test. The conclusion does not follow, especially if there is independent evidence that suggests Sally passed. So, Matthew may have been in the 5% equipped with literacy skills.

Daniel B. Wallace points out:

The high quality of the Greek is hardly an argument against Matthean authorship, for Matthew would have to have known both Aramaic and Greek in order to collect taxes from the Jews and work for the Romans.23Further, there is a growing consensus that Galilee of the first century was thoroughly bilingual—so much so that Greek was probably the native tongue of most Jews24  [Wallace, Daniel B. Matthew: Introduction, Argument, and Outline,]

Going Deeper

Reply to 3:

This objection deserves more attention and requires careful study. Here, I present the highlights. Papias (writing around 125 AD) provides the earliest external evidence for traditional authorship. Scholars debate whether Papias knew the Apostles firsthand or merely knew their followers. Monte Shanks makes a strong case that Papias knew the Apostle John (Michael Kruger summarizes the case here). However, even if Papias did not know the Apostles firsthand, his writings provide early evidence for the authorship of Mark’s Gospel and possibly Matthew’s.

It’s true that Papias refers to Matthew as author of  the “sayings” (λογια, “logia”) of Jesus in a Hebrew language. Unfortunately, it is not clear what document Papias has in mind, since there is no extant manuscript of an Aramaic or Hebrew collection of sayings or a Gospel. Nonetheless, many early church writers refer to an Aramaic or Hebrew version of Matthew’s Gospel. So, perhaps they knew such a document.

But the main point of rebuttal is this: uncertainty surrounding Papias’ reference does not constitute evidence against the idea that Matthew wrote the Gospel attributed to him. It’s certainly possible that Matthew wrote something in Aramaic or Hebrew, such as a collection of the sayings of Jesus. Next, he compiled the sayings into a fuller narrative in Greek that became the Gospel bearing his name. Maybe Mark’s Gospel motivated Matthew to write his own biography of Jesus in the Greek language.

Another possibility: perhaps Papias erred in describing Matthew’s writings. The case against the anonymous Gospel hypothesis does not rest on the inerrancy of Papias. All of the early manuscripts and clear external attestations point to the traditional authorship. Moreover, even when the evidence is unclear (as in the case of Papias), no alternative authors are named.

In summary, those promoting the anonymous Gospel hypothesis do not have a good case. Strong evidence against the theory abounds, and the objections to traditional authorship fall short.

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