10 Misconceptions about the NT Canon: #9: “The Canonical Gospels Were Certainly Not Written by the Individuals Named in Their Titles”

Michael J. Kruger

Posted on

November 14, 2012

Note: this is the ninth installment of a blog series announced here.  The full series can be found here.

One of the most commonly made claims regarding the canonical gospels is that they were not written by the individuals named in their titles.  Instead, we are told that these gospels were written later in the first century by anonymous individuals outside of Palestine who were not eyewitnesses of any of the events that they record.  After all, the text of the gospels themselves offers no indication of their authorship.   And the gospel titles, it is argued, were added at a later point—probably the middle of the second century—in order to bolster the credibility of these anonymous texts.

Now it should be noted from the outset that we have too little space here to offer a full scale investigation into the authorship of these four gospels.  Moreover, the authorship of ancient books is a tricky matter and not always easy to ascertain.  So, we will narrow our focus here on the issue of the gospel titles themselves. Although the titles themselves don’t guarantee the authorship of a book, they are key piece of historical evidence about who early Christians understood the authors to be. So, were the titles added late in the second century as some scholars maintain?  We shall argue here that there are good reasons to think the titles were included at a very early point

1.  The manuscript evidence.  Although we possess a limited number of gospel manuscripts from the second and third centuries that preserve the title pages, the ones we do possess have the title present. In other words, we do not find “title-less” gospel manuscripts from this time period.  Examples of early gospels manuscripts with titles are P66 (John), P4-64-67 (Matthew and Luke) and P75 (Luke and John).  Put simply, as far back as we can see in the manuscript tradition the titles are present.

2. The uniformity of the titles.  Perhaps one the most compelling reasons to think the titles were added early is the fact that there is such uniformity in these titles within the early centuries of the faith.  If the titles were added late, we would have expected a substantial amount of diversity to have developed.  After all, the users of these gospels had to have called them something (especially if they had more than one gospel), and since they were anonymous it is reasonable to think they would have called these gospels by different names.  In fact, when the ancient writer Galen published his works without a title, he acknowledges that “everyone gave them a different title.” But, incredibly, the titles of these four gospels are consistent—Mark is always called “Mark,” Luke is always called “Luke,” etc.   Such uniformity cannot pop into existence over night.  It suggests these titles had been there a while.

3. The inclusion of Mark and Luke.  If the titles were added in the late second century, as some suppose, then it is difficult to imagine that Mark and Luke’s names would have been included.  If names were arbitrarily chosen, we would hardly expect these two.  If one wanted to get quick credibility for a gospel, it would have been named after an apostle—indeed, this is what happened with so many of our apocryphal gospels (e.g., Thomas and Peter).  Yet, here we have two gospels named after non-apostles.  It would have been especially easy to name Mark’s gospel after Peter, given the historical connections between the two men, but the early church resisted. This, I would suggest, is a sign of authenticity.

All of these factors suggest that the titles were added very early—if not from the very beginning.  If so, then we have very good reasons to think these titles reflect the actual authorship of these books.

But, this still leaves the question of why the gospel writers didn’t just include their names in the actual gospels accounts themselves.  Why write a gospel that is formally anonymous?  For one, this did happen from time to time with Greco-Roman biographies.  We do have examples of formally anonymous biographies, so this would not have been unheard of (e.g., Lucian’s Life of Demonax, Secundus the Silent Philosopher, Lives of the Prophets, Arrian’s Anabasis, and Sulpicious Severus’ Life of St. Martin ).  But, Armin Baum has suggested another, and even more fundamental reason.  Baum has argued that the Gospels were intentionally written as anonymous works in order to reflect the practice of the Old Testament historical books which were themselves anonymous (as opposed to other Old Testament writings, like the prophets, which included the identity of the author).[1]  Such a stylistic device allowed the authors of the gospels “to disappear” and to give “highest priority to their subject matter.”[2]  Thus, the anonymity of the Gospels, far from diminishing their scriptural authority, actually served to increase it by consciously placing the Gospels “in the tradition of Old Testament historiography.”[3]

In the end, we have little reason to doubt the titles of these gospels and thus little reason to doubt the authorship of these books. The evidence still suggests that the most likely authors are Matthew, Mark, Luke and John.


[1] Armin D. Baum, “The Anonymity of the New Testament History Books: A Stylistic Device in the Context of Greco-Roman and Ancient Near Eastern Literature,” NT 50 (2008): 120-142.

[2] Baum, “Anonymity,” 139.

[3] Baum, “Anonymity,” 139.


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