– by Liam Doyle

A common claim that I run into is that the canonical Gospels were originally anonymous. Now, the Gospels are anonymous in the sense that that the authors don’t give their names in the body of the text that they are writing. This is no different, however, than most biographies that a person will get in the biography section of a bookstore. Over the last few years I have read several biographies of people such as Nelson Mandela, Steve Biko, Chris Hani and others and nowhere in the text of the books do the authors of these works name themselves in the body of the biography. Their names are given on the covers and on the title page, not within the works themselves. So in this sense the four Gospels, and Acts, are about as “anonymous” as most modern biographies or works of non-fiction. And, as we shall see, they are just as “anonymous” as various works of antiquity.

But do we have a good reason to doubt the traditional authorship of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John?

Before looking at this question, I want to mention that even if we didn’t know who wrote the Gospels, they have proven so reliable in what historians have been able to confirm – names of officials (Roman and Jewish), places (in large and small details), customs and much more – that these accounts prove to be accurate history. Who wrote isn’t as important as that what was written can be trusted, and the Gospels can certainly be trusted.

This doesn’t stop atheists ranging from the likes of Richard Carrier (who has a doctorate in ancient history) to those on internet forums from arguing that the alleged anonymity of the Gospels’ authorship is a reason to distrust what the New Testament has to say.

So, is it accurate to claim that the Gospels are anonymous and we can’t know who wrote them? In a word: no. I will give three reasons for this answer. 

The first is that there is no competing tradition of authorship. There is no record of any other authorship being attributed to any of these works. No ancient pro- or anti-christian writer ever ascribed any of the four Gospels to anyone other than Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. If these were anonymous documents that only had names attached to them later, it’s amazing that all Christians, everywhere, all attached the same four authors to the same four anonymous documents all at about the same time, and never mixed them up. The comparatively early dating (ca AD 120) for the names being connected to the writings is also not to be dismissed. With the church growing as it did, the later a person claims the date for false attribution, the bigger a problem it is to explain how a late authorship tradition was adopted by all of Christendom.

The second reason is that it is very unlikely that these writings would have circulated anonymously.

For external evidence, a whole library of scrolls dating to the 1st centuries B.C. and A.D. was discovered at the Villa Dei Papyri in the city of Herculaneum. On many of the scrolls in the library, a tag is affixed to the end of the scroll, which gives the title of the work and the author’s name. This seems to have been the common practise at the time, which is the same time as when the Gospels were written. So we know that in all likelihood, the scrolls were circulated with a tag attached to them, with the name of the work and the author[1].

For some internal evidence, the writers of Luke-Acts and John both seem to know the audience to whom they are writing (See Luke 1:1-4, Acts 1:1-2, John 22). The onus would be on the party trying to convince us that Luke and John were not the writers since it was probably the earliest recipients of these Gospels who told everyone that Luke and John had written them. Luke speaks specifically to the person he’s writing to, and John presumes that his original audience knows him so well, he can humbly refer to himself as the “Disciple Whom Jesus Loved” in the text and they will know he’s talking about himself. This reminds me of Anthony Keidis in the introduction of his autobiography, where he refers to himself not by name, but by reputation as a singer-songwriter in a band[2]. I do think an objective reader of the Gospel passages mentioned above would have to agree that the authors knew to whom they were writing and that the audience would have known the writers. 

The third reason is that the tradition itself compares more than favourably to other traditions of authorship of ancient writers. I would say that it is a superior tradition to any secular writer from the ancient world. Tacitus and Plutarch are just two examples of ancient historians whose names do not appear in the works they authored. Their works are therefore as “anonymous” as the Gospels.

Here is a brief comparison of the authorship tradition of the Gospels with that of Tacitus. Tactius’ Annuls were the last of his works to be published, probably in about AD 116. The first time anyone directly named Tacitus as the author of any of his works was Tertullian, an early Christian writer and apologist, in the early third century. This is about 100 years after Tacitus wrote.

We need to wait until the end of the fourth or beginning of the fifth century for Tacitus to again be directly attributed as author of any of his works, in the Augustan History.

By contrast, we have evidence (via church historian Eusebius) that Papias named the four evangelists as the authors of the Gospels by AD 120. This is at most 50 years after Mark was written, and 30 years after John was written, according to the most accepted dating of the Gospels. About 60 years after Papias in c 180 AD, Irenaeus names each of the evangelists as the authors of their works. This is followed by Tertullian in about 207 AD and Origen in approximately 245 AD.

All this is to show, that when compared to an accepted authorship tradition of a secular writer, Matthew, Mark, Luke and John are better attested as authors of the Gospels. The traditions for their authorship begin within 30 years of the writing of John, and continue for centuries without debate[3].

To summarise: there has never been an alternative tradition of authorship for any of the four canonical Gospels. At the time the Gospels were written it was common practise to attach tags with the authors’ names and titles of written works to scrolls, so we have every reason to think that the original scrolls and earliest copies identified the authors of the Gospels. When comparing the authorship question of the Gospels to how we know that Tacitus and Plutarch wrote the works attributed to them, the Gospels’ authorship is more assured.

In short we have very, very good reasons to accept Matthew, Mark, Luke and John as the authors of the Gospels that bear their names.

Liam Doyle is an estate agent with a BA majoring in Ancient History and Classical Culture from UNISA (hoping to pursue honours at some point in the future). He has been involved in teaching ministry at his church for almost 20 years (kids, adult classes, small groups, young adults). Contact him on +27 82 569 8204 or implodded@yahoo.com.

[1] See jesusevidences/manuscriptevidence.php – Ron Jones’s article was how I found out about the library. I did also check his end note on the library: Sider, David, The Library of the Villa Dei Papyri at Herculaneum, Los Angeles, Getty Publications 2005, pgs 73, 81

[2] Scar Tissue, Co-authored with Larry Storman, 2004 pg 3

[3] I am indebted to www.tektonics.org/ntdocdef/gospdefhub.php for this part of the article. Check it out for more details and answering other objections about this topic. Tektonics.org is a great resource for a number of issues. See www.risenjesus.com/review-of-bart-ehrmans-book-forged-writing-in-the-name-of-god for a little more information on Plutarch and his authorship, as well as addressing issues of authorship for most of the New Testament. For a break down of the Gospel authorship tradition, see http://jesusevidences.com/authorsipntgospels.php