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In most articles I read online, the claim is that the Gospels originally were anonymous and that the current names were assigned to them in the 2nd century by the apostolic fathers in order to give them more authority.

What is the evidence for or against that?

And, if true, then why didn't they pick someone highly respected like Peter or James instead of minor figures like Mark and Luke?

Here are two of the articles I'm referring to:

The original texts of the gospels had existed for about a hundred years with no names. The Church Fathers in the 2nd century CE assigned the names; none of the writers signed their work.

Source: World History Encyclopedia "The Gospels"

All four were anonymous (with the modern names of the "Four Evangelists" added in the 2nd century), almost certainly none were by eyewitnesses, and all are the end-products of long oral and written transmission

Source: Wikipedia "Gospel" quoting Reddish 2011, pp. 13, 42. (which I don't have access to)

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    You should quote a source to prove the first assertion. Suffice to say, such a source is uninformed - every ancient manuscript of the Gospels has a title, "According the Matthew", "According to Mark", etc. That is, the names of the authors are as ancient as the manuscripts themselves. The fact that minor names are attached is evidence that they were not fabricated.
    – Dottard
    May 1, 2023 at 10:12
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    I'll add some sources May 1, 2023 at 10:34
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    Some doubt the words on the page (Matthew, Mark, Luke and John) : because they have listened to the words of doubters.
    – Nigel J
    May 1, 2023 at 15:27
  • Have often thought about asking this Q but never have. I think I was afraid of the answer to be honest. I've never wanted to think that the "gospels" authorship might be in question. My hat is, therefore, off to you for having the courage to ask. + 1. May 1, 2023 at 23:26

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That the Gospels originally were anonymous is well accepted. It is also generally accepted the earliest evidence for their titles comes from 2nd century in writings of the apostolic fathers. Whether this was done in order to give them more authority is impossible to know.

I refer the reader the following article in Zondervan Academic ("Who Wrote the Gospels, and How Do We Know for Sure?", ZA Blog, 20 September 2017), which I will summarize:

Matthew

  • In favor: Papias mentions that Matthew wrote about Jesus. This Gospel's neat, organized style is consistent with Matthew's job as a tax collector. This Gospel calls the tax-collector "Matthew," others call him Levi. Money is a frequent theme in this gospel. Matthew’s lack of prominence in the New Testament suggests to some that the early church must have had good reason to attribute the gospel to him.

  • Against. Papias is clearly not talking about the Gospel of Matthew. A tax collector would not present Jesus as being strict about Torah observance. Most scholars believe Matthew borrowed material from Mark, which doesn't make sense if the author, unlike Mark, was an eyewitness note-taker.

Mark

Many Church Fathers testify to Mark's authorship, he being a companion of both Peter and Paul, though not an eyewitness. "The early church appears to have unanimously believed John Mark was the writer of the Gospel of Mark, and no alternatives were ever proposed. He wasn’t an apostle, and he wasn’t an eyewitness to the ministry of Jesus, but we have good reason to believe John Mark was in fact the author of the gospel that bears his name."

Luke

"Despite the support of early church fathers and the textual evidence that appears to suggest the Gospel of Luke was written by Luke, the Gentile physician and companion of Paul, not all scholars believe he’s the author." The main argument against is that scholars notice that the Paul we see in Acts is quite different from the Paul we see in his letters. However, even if so, this could be explained by the fact that Luke wrote later than the still controversial Paul and sought to harmonize the "real" Paul with the needs of the Church as a whole.

John

"The writer of John claims to be an eyewitness to the ministry of Jesus, and there’s good reason to believe that’s true" as he includes many vivid details of Jesus' ministry and miracles. He also introduces Aramaic terms which Jesus knew and displays a good understanding of Jewish customs.

Arguments against include

  • John would have had important information that is not recorded in the gospel.
  • John may have been martyred before this gospel was written.
  • There seems to have been more than one prominent "John" writing in Ephesus, and the author may have been the "other" one.

The Zondervan writers conclude:

"At the end of the day, the gospels are still anonymous. Not one of them identifies its author. We have good reason to support the authors church tradition has named, but we don’t have to simply take their word for it. However, even after examining textual evidence and clues from other writings, none of the evidence for or against these authors is 100% conclusive."

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  • Another nice job here too. + 1. May 1, 2023 at 23:32
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The Gospels are formally anonymous in the same way nearly every book on your bookshelf is: the author is not identified in the body of the text.

So my copies of the Harry Potter books are anonymous in the same way the Gospels are--nothing in the body of the text tells me that JK Rowling is the author. However, this does not mean I don't know who the author is or that the work was originally published without attribution.

  • In a modern work, we typically know who the author is based on the cover or attribution in the introductory pages
  • On an ancient scroll (which had no pages nor a book cover) the author would generally be identified in a tag attached to the scroll, and may also be named in the superscript or subscript of the work (these were notations at the top or the bottom of the scroll, respectively). The tag was essential for filing documents; without a way to identify a scroll from the outside, one would have to laboriously open every scroll to find what one was looking for

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An example from the same era of history

Formally anonymous works such as these were not uncommon in the past and they are not uncommon in the present. A comparable, historical example would be the Annals of Tacitus. Tacitus doesn't identify himself in the work, and although there are some contextual clues, the earliest surviving statement we have definitively identifying Cornelius Tacitus as the author comes from Tertullian, almost a century later (so our source for who wrote of the Annals of Tacitus is about as close to the time of writing as is our attribution of the Gospel of John).

Tacitus & the Gospel authors were writing histories about other people, not themselves, and it is not surprising that they elected not to identify themselves by name. Although there is debate about what ancient Greco-Roman genre best describes the format of the Gospels, they are clearly documents about Jesus, not about Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John.

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What were the original titles

The original title of Matthew appears to be Matthew 1:1

The book of the generation of Jesus Christ, the son of David, the son of Abraham.

The original title of Mark appears to be Mark 1:1

The beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God

Luke's work comes with a formal dedication & preface (see Luke 1:1-4). The patron (Theophilus) would have known who wrote the treatise and would have catalogued it in his library with the author's name.

John's Gospel opens with conscious echoes of the book of Genesis, but the text itself does not allow us to infer what the title might have been.

Whichever Gospel was written first would not have been called The Gospel According to X, because "Gospel" as a genre of literature didn't exist yet. It would be several generations before the early Christians settled on an agreed title for this genre ("Gospel") and firmly delimited what was covered by the genre.

Early methods for referring to the texts about Jesus' ministry appear to include:

  • Logia (Papias)
  • Gospel (Didache)
  • Memoirs (Justin)

By the time of Irenaeus (writing circa AD 180), "Gospel" had emerged as the preferred name to use.

However, once a second Gospel was in circulation, it would have been necessary to distinguish between them. Some early manuscript titles state "According to X", while others state "Gospel According to X", suggesting that the word "Gospel" itself was not part of the original title, but "According to X" would have been an effective way to disambiguate amongst the accounts of Jesus' ministry as soon as there was more than one.

No surviving, intact manuscript lacks an "According to X" title, and the custom is remarkably uniform, suggesting that this style of title is very, very early (and possibly even original in the case of the Gospel of John, generally held to have been the last of the 4 written). It appears, then, that once Christians settled on calling these documents "Gospels", many manuscripts started including "Gospel" in front of "According to X" in their titles.

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Conclusion

The Gospel writers were writing about Jesus, not about themselves. They chose to be self-effacing rather than self-aggrandizing, and did not draw much attention to themselves. This is not surprising considering how important they considered Jesus to be.

Some may argue that because the Gospels are formally anonymous, we do not know who wrote them. This is a non-sequitur. One simply does not follow from the other.

Although the Gospels are formally anonymous -- that is a true statement -- it is also a trivial statement -- so are millions of other texts whose authors are known. The original recipients of the documents would have known who wrote them, and would had to have catalogued the scrolls.

The question for historians, then, is not whether the earliest Christians knew who wrote the Gospels--they did know. The question is whether Christianity forgot who wrote the Gospels. For a more detailed discussion on this topic, including a deductive argument that Matthew really did write Matthew, see my video: Who Wrote Matthew?



Notes

1 The link above is part of a series going in-depth on the authorship of the Gospels. It addresses a number of related matters, and rebuts the conspiracy theory that Irenaeus of Lyons (or a colleague of his) was responsible for assigning names to the Gospels.

2 A potent evidence for accuracy in attribution--that the Gospels really were written by Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John--is that 100% of the manuscripts agree who the author is. Had authorship been in doubt, we would expect competing traditions to have emerged (such as occurred with Hebrews & 2 Peter), requiring debates among Christian scholars as to which attribution was correct. There is no record of any such doubt, debate, or dispute. At no point in early Christian history is there evidence of any doubt whatsoever--by Christians or their critics--regarding the authorship of Matthew, Mark, or Luke (there was a minor debate regarding John).

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    I Knew you would have a worthy answer to this. Nice job. + 1. May 1, 2023 at 23:31
  • So, if I understand you correctly, the question whether they were anonymous has no bearing on the the question who wrote them or whether they are eyewitness accounts. May 2, 2023 at 1:03
  • @TobiasBrandt that's correct May 2, 2023 at 3:13
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    @TobiasBrandt let's consider the opposite scenario: Paul writes a couple letters to Timothy and starts with his name. Does this preclude debates about authorship? The same folks who passionately believe we don't know who wrote the Gospels also passionately believe who don't know who wrote 1 & 2 Tim. The presence of the author's name in the body (1&2 Tim) or in the external documentation (Gospels) has little effect on this outcome. May 2, 2023 at 12:41
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Collins Dictionary: "If you remain anonymous when you do something, you do not let people know that you were the person who did it." There are other definitions of "anonymous" but to say the gospel accounts were anonymous using the Collins' dictionary definition (a very common usage) is surely inaccurate. As another responder has pointed out, the autographs were doubtlessly accompanied by the names of its authors, being tagged or in some other way identified. The earliest readers knew the authors and there is no reason to doubt the church traditions of authorship

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