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Gospels and Names

May 10, 2018

My posting about “anonymous gospels” certainly has elicited interest.  I’ll try here to emphasize some points and hopefully clarify some matters.

First, the main observation in my previous posting was that none of the authors (and they were authors) of the NT Gospels included his name in his text.  This immediately contrasts, of course, with Paul’s regular identification of himself in his epistles, and the prophet John in Revelation, just to cite NT texts.  And also note the direct claim of authorship in the so-called “Gospel of Thomas.”  (But “Hebrews” is the other, even more curious, example of an early and influential anonymous text.)

The reason(s) why these authors didn’t explicitly identify themselves are debatable, and possibly varied.  In the case of the text we call “1 Clement,” for example, we think it was written and sent as from the church in Rome to the church in Corinth.  It reads very much as the product of a single author.  But, if so, he/she doesn’t claim the work, probably precisely because it was sent as communication from the Roman church, and so carried its authority, not that of its author.

But the traditional ascriptions of authorship to the NT Gospels must be very early.  A number of scholars place the formation of the (unusually phrased) traditional titles (“the gospel according to X”) in the early second century, and Hengel proposes the late first century.  Indeed, it quite plausibly (in my view) may reflect a view/knowledge of the matter that circulated along with these texts from the moment of their composition.

It bears noting that these ascriptions include two names of figures who weren’t apostles:  “Mark” and “Luke”.  The authority of figures known in early Christian circles as apostolic figures, such as “Matthew” and “John”, would have given to the texts linked to them a certain standing.  So, it’s interesting that the two other NT Gospels aren’t attributed directly to such figures.  Instead, “Mark” and “Luke” are referred to in early Christian comments as companions and associates of Peter and Paul respectively.  So, their texts carry some authority in a more derived manner.

Therefore, if as scholars commonly judge, “Mark” was the first of these texts written, and even if the traditional authorship was attached from the outset, this text is noteworthy in having such a strong effect without itself claiming apostolic authorship, or making any claim at all about authorship.  On the one hand, it generated somewhat similar compositions, most obviously “Matthew” and “Luke.”  On the other hand, each of the authors of these latter texts produced a distinguishable “rendition” of the Jesus-narrative.  Perhaps part of the reason for the influence of the Gospel according to Mark is that the association of “Mark” with Peter goes back to those earliest years after the text appeared (noting here Hengel’s case for a date ca. 69 CE).

In any case, the four NT Gospels are perhaps the four most widely read books ever written.  And, whatever your stance as to their contents and purposes, you have to admit that they are historically exceptional.

(For further reading, e.g., Martin Hengel, The Four Gospels and the One Gospel of Jesus Christ [London:  SCM; Harrisburg, PA: Trinity Press International, 2000.)

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  1. Oyebola Feranmi permalink

    Prof. Hurtado,
    Thanks for your reply and your essay is enlightening. But I am afraid you have not addressed my question concerning those who are trying to weaken the patristic evidences. They argued that we do not have the original and of the early church fathers and that we should apply NT textual critical methods to them. It is even claimed that most of the writings of the ante-nicene fathers came from Eusebius and should not be taken seriously. Is there any evidence that the alleged early church fathers writings are considerably in their pristine forms?

    • For some early Christian writers, we have full texts preserved in manuscript (e.g., Justin Martyr),Shepherd of Hermas. For others, early editions (e.g., Ignatius of Antioch). Some others (e.g., Papias) are extant solely as excerpts in Eusebius. You can’t generalize. You have to look at the basis for each writer in question. For a good, recent set of studies, see the following:
      –Andrew Gregory and Christopher Tuckett, eds., Trajectories Through the New Testament and the Apostolic Fathers (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005)
      –Andrew Gregory and Christopher Tuckett, eds., The Reception of the New Testament in the Apostolic Fathers (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005)

  2. Oyebola Feranmi permalink

    Dr. Hurtado,
    In the 2016 debate with Tim McGrew, Ehrman said that anonymous writings are writings where the authors do not tell us their names. But wait a minute … IMO, the passing down of the authorship of the Gospels is not like the “telephone line game”. When the Gospels were first published for public reading, thousands of believers (and even unbelievers as well) will be aware of the authors of the Gospels. Even if there is no John the Elder or Papias, I think Irenaeus is still in the position to know the authors of the Gospels since it is already a general knowledge. At least, they will know that it came from the apostles.
    The fact that there are no rival authors to the traditional authors strongly suggests that the the evidence of the traditional authorship of the Gospels is strong. What do you think about that?
    Second, some are dampening patristic evidence based on the claim that we do not have the original writings of the early church fathers and that most of them were found in the writings of Eusebius. Please what is the significance of this on the NT criticism? Or what book will you recommend?

    • See my posting today for a start. Ehrman’s “telephone game” is totally misleading (and just a bit mischievous). The oral transmission of the Jesus tradition was far more complex, much more important than a parlour game, and so hemmed about by group concerns. The written transmission of the Gospels likewise was multiple copies read out and used corporately, which gave “ownership” to their text. See, e.g., my essay: Larry W. Hurtado, “The New Testament in the Second Century: Text, Collections and Canon,” in Transmission and Reception: New Testament Text-Critical and Exegetical Studies, ed. J. W. Childers and D. C. Parker (Piscataway, N.J.: Gorgias Press, 2006), 3-2 (the pre-publication version is on this blog site here:

    • David Madison permalink

      Oyebola, There are good reasons for rejecting the telephone game analogy. In the first century there was an organised and highly committed Jesus movement. That didn’t have to be the case. We can easily imagine stories about Jesus circulating without an organised movement to monitor and pass on the stories. If that had been the case it would be appropriate to think of the telephone game. The analogy becomes completely inappropriate when we realise that there was a Jesus movement.

      The form that the movement took is also significant. At an early stage there was a network of churches which communicated with one another. This is important because networks have a very useful quality: they are robust. If parts of the network go wrong the rest will remain intact. We can test this quality of early Christianity by looking at what happened with heretical beliefs such as were embraced by the Gnostics.

      Gnostic ideas were noticed and rejected by mainstream Christians. Furthermore, we can see that they were right to do this. Whereas the canonical Gospels place Jesus in a clearly recognisable historical setting, the Gnostic works are unable to provide a plausible context for their portrayal of Jesus. The Gnostics tried to invent their own version(s) of Jesus but the spurious nature of their efforts is apparent in the works themselves. So the rejection of heresy demonstrates the robust nature of the network.

  3. Dr. Hurtado,

    I tried to make this request over at, but the comments were closed.

    In The Journal of Inductive Biblical Studies 4/1:6-31 (Winter 2017), Holland wrote an article entitled
    “The Meaning of Ἐξέστη in Mark 3:21” wherein he argues that it only means that people other than Jesus family were claiming to have been “amazed” by Jesus, and therefore, it was never saying somebody thought Jesus was “insane”.

    I find it difficult to believe that in such honor-shame society, Jesus’ immediate family would seek to take custody of him and thus prevent his preaching merely because they were aware that other people felt “amazed” by things he said or did.

    What is your opinion of Holland’s rebuttal to the consensus on Mark 3:21?


    • In Mark 3:21, Ἐξέστη rather clearly depicts a view of Jesus as “beside himself,” or out of control or mad. And the “they” in the verb (“they were saying”) rather obviously refers to his family, who come to him later in the narrative, and with somewhat hostile intent, and whom Jesus rejects in favour of his followers. The textual variants in 3:21 are several, reflecting the discomfort with some ancient readers.

  4. Griffin permalink

    If the gospels were originally anonymous, did this suggest to any scholars that this is one reason why we should not be certain who wrote them?

    • The NT Gospels were “anonymous” in the sense that I stated: The authors don’t overtly identify themselves, at least not in the text of what they wrote. But it is entirely plausible that from the outset the actual authors were known, anyway, and so the traditional ascriptions may quite plausibly identify the actual authors. But, as with so many historical matters, one cannot be “certain”. Certainty is rarely a historical result.

      • Griffin permalink

        You have mentioned evidence suggesting that Mark got some of his information from, or in association with, or “deriving” from, Peter.

        So couldn’t we say that in effect, in Mark, we can probably hear not just one, but in effect, two sources? Or, we might say that we have in effect, two authors of its information? Mark … and Peter.

      • The tradition that John Mark wrote drawing upon Peter’s preaching is ancient. Can’t be directly confirmed or disproved.

  5. Gustavo permalink

    Excuse me I didnt know where to ask, and this is the only post where I found open Comments.
    My question is about another topic.
    Larry where were the disciples when Jesus was crucified?
    Ehrman says they were in Galilea, but is there some evidence for that?

    • Jesus’ followers accompanied him to Jerusalem. They would have been there when he was arrested and executed.

  6. fellowsrichard permalink

    It is important to distinguish between two independent questions:

    1. Were the names of the authors of the gospels and Acts added to the papyrus upon publication? For example, did Theophilus’s scribe add a title with the name of the author of Luke-Acts to each of the copies that he made? Richard Bauckham says yes.

    2. Did the authors of the gospels and Acts use self-reference sparingly (compared to modern conventions and/or compared to ancient conventions)? Baum says yes.

    Both can be true. . . . . .

    • On 2) Compared with modern conventions, perhaps. Compared with ancient conventions, no. Josephus, who wrote ambitious, lengthy works of history, with Thucidydes and Polybius as his models, and an autobiography, is not a good example for comparison. But, as I said, even Josephus, when he appears in his own narrative, appears as “Josephus,” not “I.” This was common practice, and it is followed by the fourth evangelist, who appears in his Gospel as “the disciple Jesus loved” and Identifies himself, the author, as this character at the end. Anyone who wants to think Matthew the apostle himself wrote the Gospel of Matthew could say the same about the appearance of Matthew the taxcollector in his call narrative, though I think myself the compiler of Matthew intended no more than to write in some way under the auspices of Matthew.

  7. A great deal of ancient literature is technically anonymous in the sense that the authors do not name themselves within the text. The authors’ names are transmitted by the scribes who added titles. Most modern books are the same. The publishers add the author’s name on the title page.

    A relevant example (a bios): Lucian’s life of Demonax. Lucian doesn’t name himself, even though he was a pupil of Demonax and relied in part on his personal knowledge.

    Does Plutarch name himself in any of his biographies?

    I think the whole idea that the Gospels were substantively anonymous is bogus. They would have been copied and transmitted in a context where people knew who wrote them.

    The difference from the NT letters and Revelation (which is generically a letter) is an issue of genre. The letter genre requires that the author name himself/herself and specify the addressees. So Hebrews (which has an epistolary conclusion) IS very odd, but not the Gospels. It is inconceivable that Theophilus did not know who wrote the Luke’s Gospel: the preface creates a context in which Theophilus is the patron who puts the work into circulation.

    • Richard: With respect, your point is both well taken and . . . beside the point. Which is that the authors of these texts refrained from indicating their identity *as part of their text*. Indeed, except for the Luke-Acts prefaces, they don’t give circumstances of writing or say anything about themselves. That is the sense of “anonymity”. And that is significant, suggesting that these authors perhaps thought it inappropriate to “intrude” themselves into their narratives, preferring to foreground the contents, the narratives of Jesus.

      • But my point is, it was normal practice. It’s not something special about the Gospels that needs explanation.

      • Hmm. No name included. No personal details or the circumstances of writing, effectively no preface at all, no first-person narrative. The total package (esp GMark) seems a bit other than “normal practice” in historiographical writing or biographical texts.

      • Some bioi have prologues in which the author speaks in the first person, others do not, but start straight in by naming the subject and beginning the narrative. I don’t have the texts to hand to check, but certainly some of Plutarch’s Lives are in the latter category, as is the Life of Secundus the Silent Philosopher (often compared with the Gospels because it is a bios on a lower literary level than most that have survived, as the Gospels are too). After the preface it is very unusual for writers of historiographical works to speak in the first person addressing the readers. Polybius is exceptional in doing this. Most writers did not want to interrupt the narrative flow, and for this reason even when they take part in the action they appear in the story in the third person, as Josephus does in the War.

      • Griffin permalink

        Whether it was 1) normal practice or 2) not, in either case we are left with this same, very unsatisfactory situation: we don’t really know much about the people who wrote the gospels

        What kind of people were they? Were they honest and good and faithful reporters, as they implied? Or did they have, say, personal or political agendas and biases?

      • Griffin: The fact that the four NT Gospels so quickly obtained such widespread acceptance suggests that their contents (even with the variations among them) were perceived to reflect prior traditions. I.e., their contents spoke for them.

      • Griffin permalink

        1) Acceptance of various versions of the Jesus story – with four significantly different gospels, and 2) a whole New Testament added to the Old, suggests tolerance of significant variations.

        Then too, as you noted, 3) a gap in excess of 100 years separated 30 AD from the first actual physical gospel fragment. Leaving many.uncertain what gospels looked exactly like before that date.

        Early 4) proto church authorities, bishops, or 5) some evident editing for continuity, suggest some overarching controlling editorial forces at work, even between different gospels, to assure any partial, nominal consistency.

        Presumption of an eary perfect continuity is therefore a presumption only.

      • Griffin: You spout empty and ill-informed speculations. PLEASE. If the subject is important enough to you to comment on then, don’t you think that you should make the effort to become somewhat informed and competent first?
        We have every good reason to think that our earliest fragmentary manuscripts of the Gospels reflect pretty much how they looked earlier still, as shown in numerous publications (again, read, read). In the 2nd century there were no “church authorities” with power to suppress or dictate the text of the gospels. Scholars don’t “presume” (we try to inform ourselves!), and no one is claiming “perfect continuity” (again, if you read scholarship, you’d know that we all make allowances for various types of textual variations, mainly accidental ones).
        If you can’t be bothered to study the matter, please, please desist from your incompetent comments. It reflects poorly on you, and is a complete distraction from the serious business of the blog site.

    • John MacDonald permalink

      I would say “Theophilos” simply means “friend of God,” and so just may be a title for the generic reader Luke is writing for, and not necessarily an actual person.

      • John, can you cite any parallel for such a way of using a name? I don’t know any. Theophilus was a common Greek name, and popular with Jews who wanted a Greek name because it was theophoric (included reference to God). I can’t imagine any contemporary reader not assuming Theophilus was a real person, especially as a preface addressed to a named patron was a normal practice.Why go for a weird explanation when an obvious one is entirely plausible?

      • fellowsrichard permalink

        John, I think you may be right to suggest that the meaning of the name “Theophilus” is significant. He probably sponsored the publication of Luke-Acts, and the benefactors of the early church were often given new names with appropriate meanings. See my “Name giving by Paul and the destination of Acts” Tyn Bull 2016. I discussed Theophilus on page 261. Alternatively, the name might be coincidence. Either way, he was a real person, and his scribe could have added titles to the copies of Luke and Acts.

        Josephus usually refers to himself in the third person, simply as “Josephus”. The fact that the ancients were content to ascribe the gospel of Matthew to Matthew shows that they were familiar with a convention in which an author refers to himself by name without stating he is that person. It is therefore possible that Acts does name its author, and Lucius (Acts 13:1) would be a candidate because Lucius is the long form of the name Luke, and because it can be argued from Rom 16:21 that the author of Acts was a Lucius.

        It is therefore possible that the author’s name was both in the title and in the body of Acts.

  8. Tim Henderson permalink

    Thank you for these recent posts on the titles of the gospels. One point that hopefully isn’t off topic is the matter of why these texts were given the titles “The GOSPEL according to X.” What is your opinion regarding the suggestion that this may have derived from the opening line of Mark (“The beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ…”)?

    If Mark’s gospel carried some influence/authority, which seems obvious based on its use as a source for Matthew and Luke, then it seems reasonable to think that perhaps the opening sentence of Mark was the catalyst for thinking of subsequent works in this genre as also being “gospels” in the same way that Mark apparently describes his story as a “gospel.”

    The logic then among early Christians was that all these works were “the gospel of Jesus Christ,” but in order to distinguish between the various works they were titled “the gospel according to X,” implying that each one is actually “The Gospel [of Jesus Christ] according to X.”

    • The opening line of GMark makes it (the ensuing complete narrative) “the arche [beginning, foundation] of the gospel of Jesus Christ”. As the several other references in GMark make clear, “the gospel” is the message about Jesus proclaimed by the churches. The term = the message, not a book. By mid-2nd century, however, the term’s meanings had expanded to include the designation of the texts that we know as “Gospels”.

  9. Victoria Grayson permalink

    Every rabbi living before Luke-Acts would have understood Mark and Matthew as symbolic fiction.

    Mark and Matthew were composed in a symbolic chiastic structure.

    We have a symbolic explanation for every aspect Mark and Matthew. Jesus riding on a donkey is from Zechariah 9. The cleansing of the temple as a fictional scene has its primary inspiration from an ancient faulty translation of Zech. 14.21 which changed ‘Canaanites’ to ‘traders’. etc. etc.

    • “Victoria” (we use real names on this site, please): You make the elementary mistake of misconstruing the intentional presentation of Jesus’ actions as fulfillment of OT texts as indicating that they are “symbolic/fictional.” You really should learn more about ancient texts before pontificating so confidently. Consider, e.g., the similar ways that the Qumran texts read historical events and figures as fulfillment of OT texts. But, in any case, your mistaken comment is off-topic. So, go study some more.

    • David Madison permalink

      Victoria, you say that every Rabbi living before Luke-Acts would have understood that Matthew and Mark were fiction. So what happened after Luke-Acts? Did every Rabbi suddenly lose the ability to recognise the fictional nature of Matthew and Mark? If we follow your “reasoning” on the subject we would have to assume something like this mysterious inability to recognise what had been so “obvious” before. Otherwise the Jewish opponents of Christianity would have had the perfect weapon. When Christians started to believe that the Gospels were actual accounts of Jesus’ life, their Jewish opponents could simply have reminded them that the Gospels were “originally” fictional accounts.

      I’m afraid that you have provided another demonstration of the twisted “logic” of mythicists.

  10. Bill Wortman permalink

    An “anonymous donation” has a different connotation from saying GLuke, Acts, or Hebrews are “anonymous.” The former aims to be unknown, the latter do not (it seems). ls there a better catch-all term?

    • OK. Bill. “No name included,” or “Unspecified author,” or “unsigned” or . . . you get the idea?

  11. Mark P. permalink

    I believe Bart Ehrman’s take on the names of the Gospels is that the names were applied in response to the apocryphal, Gnostic gospels which circulated in the mid- / end- 2nd century. His view is that (you probably already know this), since an apocryphal “Gospel of Peter” was circulated, the “Orthodox Church” then realized they had to name the accepted Gospels to give them authority. Since “Peter” was already taken as a name, the Church decided to use Mark’s name instead as the “next best thing” since he was known as a companion to Peter. But obviously this would raise the question if, indeed these names were applied so late, how they were applied uniformly and also, why Mark of all possible candidates, was chosen to headline the Gospel. It may be even more curious why no “Gospel of Paul” exists, despite other apocryphal works concerning Paul, especially since in his letters Paul mentions the “gospel” he has been preaching to the addressed communities.

    It seems more likely that “Mark” was an accepted Gospel, and named so, much prior to the composition and circulation of the Gospel of Peter. If anything, the author of Peter probably felt that he hit the jackpot, in complete disbelief that one “of Peter” did not yet exist. It would be akin to finding out that nobody has yet claimed the web domain “” or that the vanity license plate one desired for so many years was still available, despite how obvious of a choice it would be.

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