Sunday, 6 May 2018

The biblical gospels were all originally anonymous? How historically plausible is that?

Some claim that the gospels were originally anonymous. Allow me to explain why that claim is not historically plausible. Most secular scholars would say they were originally anonymous, but then I’ve never yet one seen one lay out the evidence with as much clean simplicity as I’m doing in this post. Anyone can make things complicated. Simplicity takes time to think things through. I’ve been doing so for years, absorbing academic sources, and I commend this simple thread of argument to anyone to think through.

I’ll do another set of posts to address how very complicated secular scholars can make it. But here, things will be kept simple.


Amongst scholars, it is generally recognised that literacy rates were low in the first century world of the early church. The large percentage of people in the Roman world in those days could write their name. A smaller percentage could read at least basic official documents. A smaller percentage still could read religious texts. There would also be copyists who could copy out a book letter by letter, not necessarily with great style. A smaller percentage still could create literature of a more than basic standard, such as the texts in the New Testament.


If you lived in such a community, you knew the names of the literate people. When they stood up and read from a scroll, that was a dead giveaway. But you would know anyway. People needed to know. They needed someone to read official documents to them. Literate people were of even greater value to the community if they had the additional ability to write for official purposes or to write letters for people. It would be selfish (and implausible) to keep it a secret that two or three people in a community could write well. Their services were needed, to write ordinary letters on behalf of other people to take from one place to another, and so on. You needed to know who they were. You did know who they were. If they were of greater literary ability, the fact could not be hidden.

It any small community, such as an early Christian community, only a small number of people had the education and ability to create something as sophisticated as a gospel.

If you were in a community in which, say, only four people had the level of literacy to write a book of some quality, and a book was written, the author was known to you. There was no anonymity in a close community. Let’s say it was a Jewish community, and in it only a minority were Christians, and maybe only two of them could write something as sophisticated as a gospel, then it is even more obvious that the author in your community was known to you. There was no anonymity for them. If you were in a small Christian community in which the only two people with significant literacy were, say, Luke and Paul, and one of them wrote a gospel, then everyone knew which of them wrote it. There was no hiding. If it was Luke who wrote it, you – as a member of that small community - knew it was Luke.

A first century library of multiple gospels

Let’s move on from writers to readers. If you were in that community, and you had sufficient literacy to read such a book, it wouldn’t be the only book in your whole world.

In Luke’s community in particular, you would be aware that Luke had at least one more gospel, because Luke adapted parts of Mark’s Gospel in writing his own. And he possibly used Matthew’s Gospel too.  Imagine being in the first century, with two or three of these gospels in a little library of scrolls and parchments, thanks to Luke using one or two in the process of writing his own. As soon as Luke finished writing, Luke’s group had two or three gospels. The community already, here in the first century, is in possession of two (Luke and Mark) or three (Luke, Matthew and Mark) gospels.

(It is amazing to me to see reputable scholars supposing that only in the second century did a multiple-gospel library exist, at the same time as arguing that Luke in the first century used Mark, without seeing the inherent contradiction in those two positions.)

Now imagine you are a reader in this community with a shelf of scrolls including two such gospels as well as, say, Daniel and the Psalms. As a reader, how do you know which scroll is which? Which is Mark, which is Luke? What are the others? Easy. You tag them. The old way.


Next step. Let’s say you lack ability to write a gospel, but you are a copyist, with adequate literacy to copy a gospel out by hand, letter by letter. In that case, you are an important community asset as a copyist. Imagine a message comes to you to copy one of the gospels by hand, say Luke’s Gospel. How do you identify the right one to copy, Luke rather than Mark? Easy. The scroll is tagged.

So you are making a copy of Luke’s Gospel, which you know is for the purpose of it being sent to another church to add to its small collection of scrolls. Naturally, they need to know what it is when they receive it. What does the copyist do? Presumably, the copyist copies what he found in the library where he is, by tagging the one he sent out, e.g. simply “Luke”, to put next to their “Daniel”.

This is even more the case if you are asked to copy more than one scroll in your little library to be taken to another church’s little library. How will the receiving church know which is which after you send it? They will not want to be muddled. You tag them before the carrier takes them off you.


Next, crucially, imagine the purpose for which the gospel scrolls are being sent. They are typically being sent out to be read to another congregation, sent as authoritative normative church teaching. Let’s say it is being sent from Rome to Antioch. On what basis would the Antioch church receive it and use it as authoritative normative teaching? Provenance. A gospel needed provenance, saying something like “Mark wrote down Peter’s teaching. Read it to the congregation in Antioch.” If it had no provenance, then it instantly loses any such authoritative status at the receiving church.

You wouldn’t risk wasting something so important, produced at a high cost (materials) and with such labour involved. You would make sure it was received with confidence, and would be used. How do you make that happen?

Bear in mind that the gospels were not mass-produced for commercial sale by street traders. The gospels were for insiders, a means of control within Christian communities, in the nicest sense. Control in such an environment doesn’t work anonymously.

And of course, control doesn't begin and end with the first generation of copies, or the first planting of churches. Control is an ongoing factor. If control 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 control increases, as the number of voices in Christian networks grows.

Control was particularly important for a new movement, which couldn’t rely just 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 control the risk. How will you try to control 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.)


So how was authority controlled? Actually, we know of a key way it was done. In the early church, authority was controlled in person and/or by writing letters by named parties. Authority is only possible with provenance. Peter couldn’t turn up in person everywhere. Letters were crucial. If Barnabas turned up in Antioch saying, ‘Peter told me to tell you something,’ hearsay might not be accepted as good enough for a crucial message. If Barnabas turned up in Antioch with a letter of commendation from Peter, now you’re talking.

So back to the gospels. You have an important document produced with great labour and expense, carried to a church by hand. It is meant to have an effect of control on church teaching, with authoritative provenance, so that it cuts the ice. What is the actual evidence that letters were a means of control?

The author of Luke’s Gospel and Acts reveals to us all about letters of commendation and authority (Acts 18:27, 15:22-23, 9:1-2). Paul reveals it too. That’s how it was done. Letters gave authority, provenance and approval, to control the message being received by one church from another. The networks of churches were keen on control in the nicest possible sense, as said, even more so when the mother church in Jerusalem still existed and had to be acknowledged as such; but still increasingly so as the number of Christian voices multiplied. Maintaining knowledge of the provenance of the gospels - valuable crucial normative material - was one such means of control. Anonymity undermines control. Provenance assures it. 

We know that letters of commendation (written on papyrus) existed but have not survived, worn out or crumbled to dust after 2,000 years in the middle east climate. But evidence they existed is abundant. Here are examples from Luke’s Acts 18:27, 15:22-23, 9:1-2:

  • 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...””

It was not a Christian invention, this practice. Luke tells us that it was already a practice known in the Jewish synagogues:

  • 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”.

Here are other examples from Paul’s letters:

  • 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.

And there is obvious evidence that important messages to churches could be circulated by letters:

  • 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.”

Letters of authority were part of the modus operandi of community control in the early church, and the evidence for that is abundant.

Since Luke, the author of Acts, advertises the importance  of letters of approval and authority (see the quotes from Acts above), it is highly improbable that he (or his fellow church members) would splash around copies of his gospel without using the same method when despatching gospels to be used authoritatively to control teaching in churches. Gospels laboriously and expensively copied were far too important for their authority to be left to chance.

Circulating multiple gospels

Since Luke’s community was obviously in possession of Mark and Luke’s Gospels, and possibly Matthew too, it is no stretch to picture copies of Mark Luke, or all three, being made and circulated from that community, with tags to tell them apart and letters of authority citing their provenance and commending them for church use. All in the latter half of the first century, note. That dating is significant for the next link in the chain.


We have evidence that provenance mattered not only from letters but 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.

His interest in provenance is famous. He was writing a book of sayings of Jesus and he knew that it would cut the ice with nobody unless it had provenance for the sayings. Provenance mattered earlier, and it still mattered here. Papias sought out provenanced oral and written tradition of Jesus’ sayings. He explained this:

‘If, then, any one came, who had been a follower of the elders, I questioned him in regard to the words of the elders — what Andrew or what Peter said, or what was said by Philip, or by Thomas, or by James, or by John, or by Matthew, or by any other of the disciples of the Lord, and what things Aristion and the presbyter John, the disciples of the Lord, say.’


‘This also the presbyter said: Mark, having become the interpreter of Peter, wrote down accurately, though not in order, whatsoever he remembered of the things said or done by Christ.


‘So then Matthew wrote the oracles in the Hebrew language, and every one interpreted them as he was able.’

So Papias is provenancing both written and orally transmitted sayings. He took provenance of oral and written tradition to be very important. Why? As indicated, Papias was compiling a five-volume book of Jesus’ sayings (‘logia’ in Greek), and he obviously wanted it to be authoritative. For this purpose, Papias’ interest in gospels was as one of the sources (along with oral tradition) from which he could extract sayings of Jesus. (He possibly thought his compilation of sayings was more important than the gospels!)

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 entirely immersed in a matrix of narrative, and extracting individual sayings from Mark, rolling 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.

When Papias was researching, still in the second half of the first century, he was in a world where he could research sayings on the basis of provenance. Matthew and Mark’s Gospels gave him that. This makes sense. Matthew’s Gospel is partly copied from Mark. Therefore, Matthew’s community had at least two gospels – Matthew and Mark. And – lo and behold – Papias has got the provenance of two gospels that existed together.

Historical context, literacy levels, community needs, provenance, approval, control, authority, scroll identification, 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 practical necessity as vital controls.


In my studies of secular scholarship, I have never come across anyone present the logic of that as a simple coherent chain. I have seen a huge amount of entirely speculative scenarios that need not of necessity happened at all, stringing together things that have no obvious causal connection.  Are their explanations complicated? Oh, yes! But this needs examination, and I will do so in other posts, looking at the most thorough cases of liberal scholars.

For example, so far I‘ve shown only the necessity of cause and effect in how gospel authors’ names were known. Scholars will ask questions how a Galilean fisherman could be behind a sophisticated gospel such as John. It’s a good question. Scholars will sometimes muddy the waters by speaking of 'formal anonymity' which is something different from the matters presented above. Further posts will address such things.


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