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Were the Gospels Really Anonymous?

by Brant Pitre February 20, 2019 0 Comments



Were the gospels really anonymous? Well, one of the things you have to do whenever you’re looking at history (now we’re looking at things from the perspective of history here, and reason. Not presuming faith. We’re just looking at it from a historical perspective) is you have to ascertain: who wrote these books (that we call the four gospels)? And there are basically two ways to tell who wrote any kind of book. You have to look at (1) internal evidence from inside the book itself or (2) external evidence, from people who were around when the book was written. Take my own book, for example. If you want to know who wrote this book, there’s two ways to figure it out. First, you can open it up or you look at the cover and say, “It says what? Brant Pitre”. So that’s evidence that I wrote the book, but, as you know, books can be forged, can’t they? You can write a book falsely and attribute it to someone else, in their name. And so you also, if there’s any reason for suspicion, can use external evidence. In other words, you can consult people who were contemporaries of the author or people who knew people who knew the author and ask them, “did that person write this book?” in order to corroborate it. So you could ask my wife, “Did Brant write a book last year?” She will tell you, “Yes.” And it caused her many headaches (of me working late nights, and that kind of thing, trying to hammer this thing out).

So those are the kinds of ways you can find out about a modern book and the same thing’s true about ancient books. You look at the internal evidence, and you look at the external evidence. So let’s look at the evidence here.

(Page 1 on the outline for The Case for Jesus) Internal evidence from the gospels themselves is striking. If you go back to the ancient Greek manuscripts and look at what they actually contain, you’ll discover something very interesting. I remember, when I was a doctoral student at Notre Dame, I began studying this for the first time and by that point I had accepted the theory that the gospels were originally anonymous, but I had also been trained to learn Greek, Hebrew and Aramaic and so I wanted to say, “Oh let me go look at the manuscripts themselves, I want to see the anonymous copies.”

And guess how many anonymous copies I found? Exactly zero. There are no anonymous manuscripts of the gospels in Greek, even though we have hundreds, in fact, thousands of manuscripts in the New Testament. None of them are anonymous.

And there are other problems with the theory. Number 1, no anonymous manuscripts; why? They don’t exist and there is no evidence that they ever did. Number 2, if you think about it for a minute, the idea that the gospels were originally anonymous is (kind of) actually an incredible theory. According to the standard theory, the gospels were originally composed without any titles. And then they circulated. They were copied, by hand, in manuscripts, decade after decade after decade, for a hundred years until the 2nd Century before anyone said, “you know what? In order to give these books some authority, we need to attribute them to apostles - to people with authority.” So a hundred years later the titles were added to the books (according to this theory) by scribes who wanted to give them much needed authority.

Now the problem with that is, if that is actually what’ve would’ve happened, first of all, we would expect to see some anonymous copies and we don’t have a single one. Second problem with the anonymous theory is, if the gospels really circulated for a hundred years before the titles were added, then how did all the scribes know to attribute the exact same titles? Do you understand what I mean? If you are a scribe in Africa, and a scribe in Italy, in the 2nd Century A.D., and you got this blank, anonymous document, how do you both know to attribute it to Matthew? And both know to attribute it to Luke? And both know to attribute it to John? Which you would expect, if they were anonymous, is that you’d have different scribes attributing them to different people. Makes sense? Right? So it would actually take a miracle for all the manuscripts we possess to have (coincidentally) been attributed to the same people.

So the theory is incredible. It doesn’t make any sense. In other words, it’s not logically possible. Oh, which by the way too, we can contrast that with the evidence from another book in the New Testament, the Letter to the Hebrews. The letter to the Hebrews was actually anonymous. It doesn’t have a title; it doesn’t have a name in the book. And so guess what happened in the manuscripts? Some people attributed it to Paul, some people attributed it to Luke, some people attributed it to Titus, some say that Titus wrote it for Paul, so in other words, there were debates about it because it was actually an anonymous book. But, as we’ll see in a second, there’s no debate about the gospels.

Third and finally (third and final problem), if you really wanted to give your book authority and you’re faking it (so you’re just forging it), why would you attribute your gospel to Mark or Luke? When I was younger I used to think they were apostles, but they’re not. Mark was a companion of Peter, Luke was a companion of Paul. Neither one of them were eyewitnesses to Jesus; they were the companions of apostles. So if you’re trying to give your book authority, why Mark or Luke? These guys are nobodies. If you want to give authority, why not attribute your gospel falsely to Peter? Or to Thomas? Or for that matter, hey, if you’re faking it, why not go straight to the top and say the gospel of Jesus himself. Just go to the top and say, “Jesus wrote this book”. That would give it authority. But they didn’t do that. Why? Because they were never anonymous and they weren’t forged. And they weren’t falsely attributed. In fact, if you look at the handout there, all of the Greek manuscripts we possess are completely unanimous in attributing the four gospels to these four men:

Number 1, Matthias, otherwise known as Matthew. The tax collector, and one of the 12 apostles.

Number 2, Marcus, known as Mark, the companion of Paul and also a scribe of St. Peter.

Number 3, Lucas, also known as Luke, who was a Gentile physician and the companion of St. Paul (I give you the New Testament references there, giving us that evidence).

And then finally, Ioannes, John, the Beloved Disciple, the fisherman and one of the 12.

So all of the internal evidence we possess is unanimous in attributing it to these men. I might add here, one quick point too: if you wanted somebody to trust the author, you wouldn’t attribute your gospel to Matthew. He was a tax collector. He’s basically an ancient version of an IRS agent, okay? And everybody trusts the IRS, right? No, no, no. You don’t pick the IRS guy to attribute your gospel to if you want somebody to trust it. Why might Matthew have been the one who wrote the gospel? Well, another objection scholars will sometimes say is, “how could some illiterate fisherman of Jesus have ever written a book?” There’s one scholar, Bart Ehrman, who makes this claim regularly. He says (and I’m quoting, basically, here), “Even if the apostles had wanted to write a gospel, they wouldn’t have been able because they were a bunch of illiterate fisherman.” Now this frustrates me because, yes it’s true, four of Jesus’ 12 Apostles were fishermen. Peter, Andrew, James and John. But not all of the Apostles were fishermen. And yes it’s true, it does say in the book of Acts that Peter and John were “unlettered”, they were untutored, they were unschooled, they were (technically speaking) illiterate. But they are not the only Apostles. There’s another apostle, called Matthew, who is a tax collector. And to be a tax collector, guess what you had to write out? Tax documents. You’re going to be doing that soon, right? It’s coming real soon, okay? So, taxes required literacy and Matthew was a literate Apostle. So think about it: if you’re all sitting around, you’re studying with Jesus for three years, you’re like, “man, this guy’s a really good teacher. Maybe somebody should take some notes. Let’s see: fisherman, fisherman, fisherman, fisherman, tax collector.” Hmm, who do you think might be the one to write some of this down? It’s Matthew, obviously. You see? It makes sense. So, even that issue is not a deal breaker. And finally too, even if John was illiterate, like even if he couldn’t write, which is what the book of Acts actually says, you don’t have to be a rocket scientist to actually figure this out: if you can’t write yourself, but you want to write a book, what might you do? What possible avenue might you have? Especially if you’re the Bishop of a church in Ephesus, what do you do? You get a secretary to write it for you and then you dictate it, no? Right? Ancient people had secretaries just like modern day people (they’d have secretaries) and that’s what (actually) some of the church fathers say about John.

So all the internal evidence points to Matthew and John (two Apostles), and then Mark and Luke (companions of Apostles), as being the authors of the text. Now, but that’s just internal evidence. That could all be fake, in theory, in principle, it could all be forged, so now we also want to look at, “what about external evidence?” Well I have a whole chapter in this book called The Early Church Fathers where I go through the ancient Christian writings outside of the New Testament, by men who knew the apostles, or by men who knew people who knew the apostles: they were called the Apostolic Fathers. And these are fascinating books, they come from the 1st, 2nd, 3rd and 4th Centuries A.D., and I never knew they existed when I was younger, I thought the New Testament was all we had, and then I began to read The Early Church Fathers and it really changed my view of this question, because I went into The Fathers expecting that what I had learned as an undergraduate (that nobody knows who wrote the gospels and they were anonymous), I thought the Fathers were going to say that. I thought the people closest to the events would not know, that they’d be (kind of) vague or fuzzy on who wrote the gospels, and instead guess what I found? The Church Fathers are completely unanimous on the gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John having been been written by Matthew, Mark, Luke and John.

So I’ll give you one example here, this is just one. The whole chapter deals with it. This is from St. Irenaeus, external evidence. Irenaeus was a disciple of a man called Polycarp, whose feast we celebrated just a couple of days ago, he was martyred. And Polycarp was a disciple of John himself. So Irenaeus is just one person removed from the apostle John. And this is what he wrote in the 2nd Century:

Matthew also issued a written Gospel among the Hebrews in their own dialect, while Peter and Paul were preaching at Rome...

So Peter and Paul, still alive, Matthew writes his gospel.

After their departure, Mark, the disciple and interpreter of Peter, did also hand down to us in writing what had been preached by Peter. Luke also, the companion of Paul, recorded in a book the Gospel preached by him. Afterwards, John, the disciple of the Lord, who also had leaned upon His breast, did himself publish a Gospel during his residence at Ephesus in Asia. (Against Heresies, 3.1)

Meaning Asia Minor there, Turkey; modern day Turkey. That’s from his book, Against Heresies, chapter 3, paragraph 1. Okay, so notice what Irenaeus is saying here. Matthew and John, the two apostles and eyewitnesses, are the authors of the first and fourth gospels, and then the other two gospels are written by men who knew the apostles. And Mark, in particular, is interesting here. Although Mark wasn’t a disciple himself, where did he get his information from? According to Irenaeus, he got it from Peter. So, even though Mark himself is not an eyewitness, he’s taking down eyewitness testimony. Just as if you wanted to interview someone today who fought in the Vietnam War or the Korean War, or even World War II, you might not have been there but you’re getting eyewitness testimony from that person.

Alright, so, long story short, both the internal and the external evidence points to the gospels being written by the apostles and their followers; by eyewitnesses and their successors. There’s no shred of evidence that the gospels were ever anonymous.

Brant Pitre
Brant Pitre


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