The academic view is that the Gospels were written anonymously. But why is it exactly that the consensus amongst scholars is that the Gospels were written anonymously. And why didn’t Matthew, Mark, Luke and John probably write their Gospels? This article explains why.
Anonymous Narratives in the Ancient World
One reason why it is safe to assume that the Gospels were written anonymously, is because it was quit common in the Ancient World to write narratives anonymously. It was thought that an anonymous narrative would be more authoritative than a narrative whose writer was known. New Testament scholar Bart Ehrman writes:
“Another option is that the authors did not name themselves because they thought their narratives assumed greater authority if told anonymously. If the Gospel stories about Jesus are claimed by a particular author, then in some sense they seem to lose their universal appeal and applicability; they are seen as one person’s version of the story, rather than “the” version of the story.” – Jesus Interrupted (p. 223)
English classicist and ancient historian Robin Lane Fox agrees:
“For many hundreds for years eastern narratives were issued anonymously,whereas books of prophecy, wisdom or poetry were not.” – The Unauthorised Version: truth and fiction in the Bible. (p. 96)
He goes on:
“Anonymity raised its credit. A nameless narrative seemed like “the” story and could not be attacked from personal bias or ignorance; anonymous authors escape their own errors or lies. ” – The Unauthorised Version: truth and fiction in the Bible. (p. 96)
Literacy in Roman Palestine
Another reason why Matthew, Mark, Luke and John probably didn’t write their Gospels is because of the literacy rate in Roman Palestine. Jesus’ earliest followers were all Aramaic speaking lower class Jews from rural Galilee who had no education whatsoever, so it’s highly improbable the could read and write. Let alone compose a book in highly literate Greek. When it comes to John, for instance, the New Testament even acknowledges the fact that John was unschooled:
“When they saw the courage of Peter and John and realized that they were unschooled, ordinary men, they were astonished and they took note that these men had been with Jesus.” – Acts 4:13
There are several important studies on ancient literacy in Roman Palestine, the most authoritative being “Jewish Literacy in Roman Palestine” by Catherine Hezser. In this book she tells us that:
“It is no exaggeration to say that the total literacy rate in the land of Israel at that time (of Jews only of course), was probably less then 3 percent.” (p. 35)
The people who were literate were mostly upper crust Jewish aristocrats who could afford an education, not lower class Jewish peasants from rural Galilee. Sometimes slaves would learn to read and write so they could function as a scribe for their master but there is no reason to think Matthew, Mark, Luke and John were educated slaves.
The important question one should ask himself is how many writers do we know of in first century Palestine who could write in Greek? There are very little. One of them was Josephus and he was an upper crust aristocratic Jew.
So couldn’t Jesus his earliest followers have spoken Greek and dictated their stories to a scribe who put their names above the narratives? Most likely, no. Although the next segment is about Jesus speaking Greek, it most probably also applies to his earliest followers since they also were lower class uneducated Jews from rural Galilee:
“It is true that Greek was spoken in the major cities of Galilee (all two of them) among the cultured elite. But Jesus was not from a major city and was not a member of the cultured elite. There is no evidence to indicate he ever (EVER!) went to one of the large cities of Galilee (Sepphoris or Tiberius), let alone that he was educated or cultured there, or took language classes at the local high school. Sepphoris is never, ever mentioned in the New Testament. It is not helpful to say that Jesus could / would have walked there from Nazareth. Most lower class rural people then (and now, for that matter, although things are much better since they invented bicycles, motorcycles, trains, and cars) did not travel *at all*. If someone was a common laborer, he worked six days a week. And he had no money for travel. And the one day a week that he could travel, if he was a Jew, because he did not have to work, he could not travel, because it was the Sabbath.
In Nazareth Jesus would have had zero reason to learn Greek, and probably no way to learn Greek. Rural Galilee was completely Jewish (culturally) and thoroughly Aramaic (linguistically). Even when Jesus was an adult, there is no reference to him visiting a major city (until he goes to Jerusalem at the end of his life), or speaking Greek, or knowing Greek. He was a rural Jew in the Jewish hinterlands of Galilee. He almost certainly could not speak Greek.” – Bart Ehrman – Ehrmanblog: Did Jesus Speak Greek (www.ehrmanblog.com)
So couldn’t they have learned Greek after Jesus had died? It is a possibility, but not very probable given what I have written earlier. Also, there is no historical evidence that supports this claim.
Again I would like to refer to Josephus. He mentioned something of importance when it comes to speaking Greek in first century Roman Palestine:
“My compatriots admit that in our Jewish learning (par” hëmin paideian) I far excel them. But I labored hard to steep myself in Greek prose [and poetic learn- ing], after having gained a knowledge of Greek grammar; but the constant use of my native tongue (patrios . . . synëtheia) hindered my achieving precision in pronunciation. For our people do not welcome those who have mastered the speech of many nations or adorn their style with smoothness of diction, because they consider that such skill is not only common to ordinary freemen but that even slaves acquire it, if they so choose. Rather, they give credit for wisdom to those who acquire an exact knowledge of the Law and can interpret the Holy Scriptures. Consequently, though many have laboriously undertaken this study, scarcely two or three have succeeded (in it) and reaped the fruit of their labors” – Antiquities of the Jews 20 (p. 263)
Not only does Josephus, a Jewish upper crust aristocrat nonetheless, admit that he had trouble writing in Greek, he also tells us that knowing the Jewish Law was far more important to the Jews than learning the Greek language.
Early Attestation of the Gospel Tradition
Apologists, and sometimes even scholars, argue that the Gospel tradition is early attested. Meaning the Gospels were called Matthew, Mark, Luke and John early on and thus proving they always were called Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. However, this is not the case. We have no clear evidence the Gospels were named as we know them today early on.
The early church fathers indeed quote Gospels. Justin, Ignatius, Polycarp and 1st Clement all quote Gospels, but they never tell us what Gospel they’re quoting from. Justin, for instance, writes around 150-60 C.E. and explicitly quotes these books as “Memoirs of the Apostles,” but he does not tell us which apostles they are to be associated with.
It’s not until we get to Irenaeus around the year 180 C.E. with his work “Against Heresies” that we have our first ancient author naming our Gospels. Some 100 years after the Gospels were written!
Papias on Matthew and Mark
Sometimes early church father Papias gets brought up as evidence for early attestation of the Gospels. Papias says about Mark:
“The Elder used to say: Mark, in his capacity as Peter’s interpreter, wrote down accurately as many things as he recalled from memory—though not in an ordered form—of the things either said or done by the Lord. For he neither heard the Lord nor accompanied him, but later, as I said, Peter, who used to give his teachings in the form of chreiai, but had no intention of providing an ordered arrangement of the logia of the Lord. Consequently Mark did nothing wrong when he wrote down some individual items just as he related them from memory. For he made it his one concern not to omit anything he had heard or to falsify anything.” – Eusebius, Hist. Eccl. 3.39.15–16
Papias says about Matthew:
“Therefore Matthew put the logia in an ordered arrangement in the Hebrew language, but each person interpreted them as best he could.” – Eusebius, Hist. Eccl. 3.39.14-17.
When it comes to Matthew, there is nothing that suggests Papias is referring to our Matthew. Our Matthew wasn’t written in Hebrew but in Greek. Matthew’s Gospel was based on Mark’s Gospel and the latter definitely was written in Greek, so it’s not very probable to think Matthew was written in Hebrew. Matthew doesn’t solely contain the “logia” (sayings) of Jesus but it also contains information about Jesus’ deeds and experiences.
When it comes to Papias’ reference to Mark there is nothing that suggests we are reading Peter’s version of the story. In fact, there is nothing that would make you think that Mark was based on the teachings of any one person at all. Instead, it derives from oral traditions about Jesus that “Mark” heard after they had been in circulation for some decades. Mark’s Gospel take about two hours to read out loud, should one really think Peter, who was around Jesus day and night, had only two hours worth of material to tell to Mark? It doesn’t seem very plausible.
Next, I am going to explain who Matthew, Mark, Luke and John were according to early church tradition, why it is the Gospels were attributed to them, and why they most probably were misattributed.
The Gospel of Matthew
Matthew is traditionally seen as a tax collector and sometimes it is said that because of his occupation he was able to read and write Greek. However, we don’t know how far up the tax organisation Matthew was. He most probably was the kind of guy who came banging on your door telling you to pay up. So very little writing skills were required for this job and the skills that might have been necessary weren’t sufficient to be able to write a book in highly literate Greek with Greek rhetorical flourishes. Like I’ve said before, the vast majority, some 97% , was illiterate and there is no reason to think Matthew was one of the elite in Roman Palestine who could read and write.
That Matthew as a tax collector must have been literate in order to do his job is simply an assertion. There is no evidence presuming tax collectors were highly literate in those days. Presumably they could recognize currency, count, and add. But these skills are not indicative of the ability to read, let alone the ability to compose a very large narrative in a foreign language. There are plenty of illiterate people in America who can recognize a twenty-dollar bill when they see it or give change for a fiver.
Bart Ehrman tells us the following about the tax collecting business in Roman Palestine in those days:
“In ancient Roman society there were tax collectors and there were tax collectors. Taxes were raised in the provinces by tax corporations who bid for the job. They agreed to provide X amount of money to Rome, and anything they raised above that amount was their profit. The higher ups in this corporate business may well have been literate. But they hired people below them as managers, and people below them actually were the ones who banged on doors to get the funds. Nothing in the account in Matthew 9 indicates that Matthew was one of the higher ups. My guess is that he was the one who banged on doors. And so what evidence does Matthew 9 give us that Matthew was literate? No evidence, either way. It doesn’t indicate that Matthew was educated, or literate, or a cultural elite, or an urban sophisticate. It simply says that he was a tax collector.” – Ehrmanblog: Was the author of Matthew Matthew? (www.ehrmanblog.com)
So why was the Gospel of Matthew attributed to Matthew? Well, there is no real particular reason that Matthew’s Gospel was assigned to the tax collector. There is absolutely nothing in the text of Matthew’s Gospel itself that associates it with this particular disciple. Read the account of his “call” in Matthew 9 for yourself. The author does not indicate that he is telling a story about himself. The most probable reason that the Gospels got attributed to Matthew is because he was one of Jesus’ earliest followers and it therefore held some kind of authority.
The Gospel of Mark
Mark was somewhat of an household name in early Christianity. He gets mentioned in Acts 12 & 15, Philemon 24, Collosians 4:10, 2 Timothy 4:11 & 1 Peter 5:13 for instance. So ascribing a book to his name wasn’t that strange.
The tradition is that Mark was Peter’s personal secretary. But there is nothing in the text of Mark that would make you think it is Peter’s version of the story. And again, should we really believe Mark only wrote down this little information? Remember, it takes only about two hours to read the Gospel of Mark out loud. That’s very little information for someone who was supposed to be Peter’s personal secretary.
Mark was a companion of one of the two apostles thought to be co-founders of the church in Rome, namely Peter and Paul. So it’s not that strange that it this Gospels was attributed to him. Especially when a Gospel of Peter had been going round at the same time.
The Gospel of Luke
The author of Luke and Acts are most probably one and the same person. Traditionally Luke is seen as the gentile physician and the traveling companion of Paul, but this is a dubious claim. The claim is derived from the mention of Luke in the book of Colossians, but Paul almost certainly did not write Colossians. Paul does mention a companion named Luke in the book of Philemon, but he does not say anything at all about him.
Most of the evidence that Luke wasn’t the author of Luke and Acts comes from the book of Acts. The most important evidence is that there are to many theological discrepancies between “Luke’s” presentation of Paul’s theology and Paul’s actual theology from his authentic letters. Bart Ehrman says:
“Paul’s theology and preaching differ between Acts and the letters. Other differences are in Paul’s attitude towards pagans, his relationship to the Jewish law, his missionary strategy, and this itinerary. At just about every point where is is possible to check what Acts says about Paul with what Paul says about himself in his authentic letters, there are discrepancies. The conclusion is hard to escape that Acts was probably not written by one of Paul’s travelling companions” – Forged (page 208)
So whoever wrote Luke and Acts, he sure wasn’t Paul travel companion.
The Gospel of John
So that brings us to the final Gospel, the Gospel of John. A lot of the same objections to Matthew having written his Gospel apply for John. Acts 4:13 clearly states John was unschooled. John was a fisherman from rural Galilee and they were almost certainly illiterate. There were no schools were he lived so he never would have learned to read. Let alone learned to write (since reading and writing were separate skills in the Ancient World). Let alone learned to write in Greek. Let alone learned to write sophisticated, philosophically informed prose narratives in Greek. Is it probable John learned to read and write in Greek after Jesus died? It is a possibility but not a very probable. And as I’ve said before, there is no evidence to suggest John did learn to read and write after Jesus died.