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). These scholars assert 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 others 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 evangelical scholars accept and many critical scholars overlook.
By presuming innocence, any claim that a text was not written by the ascribed author must be supported by evidence. 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.” By this reasoning, Shakespeare is not the author of Hamlet. Lewis would not be the writer of “Mere Christianity.” Who knows who the author of this very article is?
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 that the Gospels being “originally entirely anonymous” is a presupposition. Furthermore, they reported Martin Hengel’s observations that the Gospels being circulated anonymously for sixty years and then everyone unanimously attributed the Gospels to the same authors in the second century is inconceivable (141). Ancient writers assigned their names below the title on a secondary line on the outside or fringe 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 it is lying and slanderous. The Gospels stand by their traditional authorship and were most evidently signed by the authors.
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). Early Christian writers agree to the traditional authorship 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 on the authors of the four Gospels. Why would anyone want to remove the names of the authors of the Gospels?
For the Gospels to have been originally anonymous, churches would have circulated a text written by an unknown author, some would have assigned a significant author without dissent, and then all copies throughout the nations would accept and ascribe the assigned author to all texts. 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 someone of more notoriety. 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). A forgery would most likely noted and not hidden John’s name throughout the text by claiming the notoriety of John’s discipleship with Jesus.
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 when he wrote it and this is evident by reporting news such as Timothy being released from prison (Hebrews 13:23). The Epistle to the Hebrews was not originally anonymous. Scholars recognize that the teaching of the text is Pauline and the wording is Lukan. This is fitting to the traditional authorship that Luke recorded Paul’s teachings in the epistle.
Today, people can read the Gospels and cross-examine them to affirm the facts and the truthfulness of the texts. Christians can have confidence that the Gospel accounts preserve the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ via witnesses. For these reasons, readers can consider the intention of the Gospels as 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).