Critical scholars have long asserted that the Gospels of the New Testament are anonymous and written too late to have been written by the traditional names ascribed to their authorship (Eerdmans Dictionary of the Bible, 871). Such scholars think that early Christians and second-generation Christians wrote the Gospels between AD 65–110 (Carson and Moo. An Introduction to the New Testament, 140–41). Secular academics base this on the fact that the authors do not name themselves in the body of their writing. These scholars consider the Gospels anonymous in the context that other sectarian Gnostics attributed false “Gospels” to Thomas, Peter, and Mary in the second century. Are they right about the Gospels being anonymous? This article will consider facts and insights that critical scholars overlook.
Modern and ancient texts do not pass the criterion that the author of a text must name oneself in the body of the text or it is anonymous. By this criterion, Plato did not write the Republic and Aristotle is not the author of the Poetics. Tacitus did not write “The Annals of Imperial Rome.” Shakespeare is not the author of Hamlet. C.S. Lewis would not be the writer of “Mere Christianity.” Who knows who the real author of this article is? By presuming innocence, any claim that a text was not written by the ascribed author must be supported by evidence.
No ancient manuscripts of the Gospels exist without the names of the authors. D.A. Carson and Douglas J. Moo reported that there is “no evidence that these gospels ever circulated without an appropriate designation” (140). Carson and Moo noted the Gospels being “originally entirely anonymous” is a presupposition. Furthermore, they reported Martin Hengel’s observations that it is inconceivable that the gospels circulated anonymously for sixty years, and then all unanimously attributed the Gospels to the same authors in the second century (141). In the Biblical Background Commentary, Craig Keener noted that large narratives as are the Gospels “rarely circulated anonymously, especially in the first generation when the recipients generally knew the authors” (IVPBBC 126). Keener reported that all unanimously accepted the authors of the Gospels, and furthermore “the first generation would have probably remembered and transmitted accurately traditions about their authorship” (IVPBBC 44).
For the Gospels to have been originally anonymous, churches would have circulated a text written by an unknown author, someone would have assigned a significant author without dissent from others, and then everyone would have changed all copies simultaneously throughout the nations to accept the assigned author. The assigning of names to writings becomes more implausible when considering that the Gospel of Mark bears the name of Mark instead of Peter, another Apostle, or anyone of more notoriety than John Mark. Furthermore, the Gospel of John identifies the author as the disciple “whom Jesus loved” but does not name himself in the body of the text (John 21:20, 24). Most scholars observe that the author of John’s Gospel was a disciple of Jesus of Nazareth.
Ancient writers assigned their names below the title on a secondary line on the outside or fringe of the body of the writing. Paul, Peter, James, and Jude wrote their names at the beginning of their texts. Charging someone who wrote a text as a fraud by asserting that the person did not sign one’s name when that person did sign the text is lying defamation. The Gospels stand by their traditional authorship. Early Christian writers such as Irenaeus, a church elder of Lyon in the second century AD, noted that Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John wrote the four Gospels (Against Heresies 3.1.1). Irenaeus is one among a number of early church writers of whom all agreed upon the authors of the four Gospels.
The only book of the New Testament that may be considered anonymous is the Epistle to the Hebrews. However, the author assumed that the audience knew who he was in writing to them and that they knew Timothy by reporting about his release from prison (Hebrews 13:23). The Epistle to the Hebrews was not originally anonymous. The teaching of the text is Pauline and the wording is Lukan. This linguistic observation is fitting to the traditional history that Luke recorded Paul’s teachings in this epistle.
Today, Christians can have all confidence that God preserved the Gospel accounts of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. As Jesus proved Himself to be the Christ in the Gospels, Jesus has proved thus the entire Bible (Luke 24:44–48). John declared, “These are written so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name” (John 20:31).