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 technically anonymous at first, but only technically in terms that authors' names might not have been fixed to the scrolls they were written on (but people knew who wrote them). Some scholars go further and say no-one ever knew who wrote them, but that argument ends up being very complicated - and that's the one that this blog is about. This is my answer. I’ve been been reading academic sources for some years, and I commend this simple thread of argument to anyone who is willing to think it through.

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


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 compiled in the New Testament.

Your small pool of writers

If you lived in a church community two millennia ago, you knew the names of the literate people, because there wouldn't be many of them. 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.

Tags in the library

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 you had at least one more gospel, because Luke adapted parts of Mark’s Gospel in writing his own. So you have to count both of them. And he possibly used Matthew’s Gospel too.  Imagine being in a church in the first century, in Luke's community, with two or three of these gospels in a little library of scrolls and parchments, and they would be there together simply because of Luke using one or two gospels in the process of writing his own. Thank about that. As soon as Luke finished writing his gospel, it logically meant that Luke’s group now 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. That means you somehow have to tell apart things that look similar.

(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, which is Daniel? What are the others? Easy. You tag them. The old way.

Sending out tagged copies

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 - say, Luke rather than Mark? Easy. The scroll is tagged.

And suppose 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? Naturally, the copyist copies does the same as he found in the library where he is based, and tags the one he sends 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? They will not want to be muddled. You tag them before the carrier takes them all off you.

Staying "on message"

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. Vital teaching such as a gospel needed provenance in the first churches, and 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 message control within Christian communities, in the nicest sense. Message control in a brand new movement doesn't work without something to back it up that everyone respected.

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.)


So how was authority asserted? Actually, we know of a key way it was done. In the early church, authority was asserted by turning up 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,’ it might not work. 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 by one of the rare people who could write a book, carried to a church by hand. It is meant to have keep church teaching on message, with authoritative provenance, so that it cuts the ice. What is the actual evidence that letters were used that way?

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 safeguard 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 respected as the mother church; and it mattered all the more when the number of Christian voices was multiplying. Maintaining knowledge of the provenance of the gospels - valuable crucial normative material - was one such means of message 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 church structure and teaching in those times, 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 them, if they were meant 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.

Dating the chain

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 make sense of the picture. All in the latter half of the first century, note. That dating is significant for the next link in the chain.

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.

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. Papias sought out oral and written tradition of Jesus’ sayings. He explained his way of getting provenance for them:

‘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.’

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. 

So he is provenancing both written and orally transmitted sayings. 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 that they were one of the sources (along with oral tradition) from which he could extract sayings of Jesus, and publish them. (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 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.


In my studies, I have seen entirely speculative scenarios that need not of necessity happened at all, stringing together things that have no obvious causal connection. Are these rival theories about the gospel authors’ names complicated? Oh, yes! But this needs examination, and I will do so in other posts, looking at cases of liberal scholar.

They will ask questions about how a Galilean fisherman could be behind a sophisticated gospel such as John. It’s a good question. And some scholars will muddy the waters by speaking of 'formal anonymity' which is something different from the matters presented above. Further posts will address such things.

No comments:

Post a Comment