Control was particularly important for a new movement. (Being new, they didn't have the luxury of relying on a teaching guaranteed by many centuries of history. The gospels were new. Their message to the churches was barely a few decades old. In a new movement, you are vulnerable to loss of control of direction, and you take measures to address the risk. How will you try to address it? (If you are in doubt about the risk, look at the tension and stress in Paul’s letters when he has heard that churches seem to be departing from a teaching that he personally gave them. Or look at the letters to Timothy which emphasise the need to safeguard the message and pass it on as received. Control was intrinsic to spreading their movement successfully, and keep the community together.)
- Acts 18:27: “And when he wished to cross to Achaia, the brothers encouraged him and wrote to the disciples to welcome him.”
- Acts 15:22-23: “They sent Judas called Barsabbas, and Silas, leading men among the brothers, with the following letter: “The brothers, both the apostles and the elders, to the brothers who are of the Gentiles in Antioch and Syria and Cilicia, greetings...””
- Acts 9:1-2 “But Saul, still breathing threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord, went to the high priest and asked him for letters to the synagogues at Damascus”.
- 2 Corinthians 3:1 - “do we need, as some do, letters of recommendation to you, or from you?” (So here, we see that Paul was writing to people he knew and so did not want to have to use a letter of approval to give him the right to continue teaching them. Whereas other Christian teachers were clearly travelling with letters of commendation, their passport to a church audience.)
- 1 Corinthians 16:3: “I will give letters of introduction to the men you approve and send them with your gift to Jerusalem.” (This is how money was sent from one church to another.) cf 2 Kings 5:5-6.
- Colossians 4:16 – “After this letter has been read to you, see that it is also read in the church of the Laodiceans and that you in turn read the letter from Laodicea.”
- 1 Thessalonians 5:27 – “I charge you before the Lord to have this letter read to all the brothers and sisters.”
Message control doesn't begin and end with the first generation of copies, or the first planting of churches. Control is an ongoing factor. If it was needed in the 60s of the first century, then it was also needed in the 70s and the 80s and the 90s. Continuously, in other words. The early church was a continuous project. The need for control doesn't disappear as time goes on. If anything, the need for it increases, as the number of voices in Christian networks grows.
We have extra evidence that provenance mattered from another witness – at just the right time. Still in the second half of the first century, in the latter part of it, a young man was gathering sayings of Jesus. In the early part of the second century, he wrote up his findings. His name was Papias, and we have his words.
When Papias was researching, in the second half of the first century, he was in a world where he could research sayings on the basis of provenance.
Papias is clear that Matthew’s Gospel suited his purposes, because it was easy to extract whole chunks of well-ordered sayings from it – a huge bonus for writing a book of sayings. He was a little irritated by Mark’s Gospel: sayings of Jesus are mainly immersed in a matrix of Mark's narrative, and extracting individual sayings from Mark, going through a scroll, was a much bigger job, not to mention his task of ordering them thematically. What he goes on to tell us makes clear that Papias did not find the ordering of stories in Mark’s Gospel conducive to producing sayings in a convenient order. Not when his focus was compiling his five volume book of sayings. No wonder he preferred the chunky way that sayings are ordered in Matthew. But this is getting off the subject.
The point is this: in the second half of the first century, the church employed a system of assuring control by use of letters of authority conveying clear provenance and approval.
Matthew and Mark’s Gospels were research materials for his books. This makes sense that he mentions these two. Here's why. Matthew’s Gospel is partly copied from Mark's. Therefore, Matthew’s community had at least two gospels – Matthew and Mark - so they existed together. And – lo and behold – Papias has got the provenance of two gospels that existed together. Two facts that fit together.
Historical context, a small pool of known writers in the community, the need for authoritative normative message control, and control of church direction, establishing provenance, commendation and authority, identification of multiple scrolls, historical chain – there are multiple sound reasons why the gospels could never have originally been issued as anonymous, and why knowledge of author-identity couldn't just disappear into thin air in no time at all. Every step of this chain indicates things that had to happen as a practical necessity.