4 Gospels or 4 Forgeries?
My name doesn’t carry much weight. I’m not that big of a deal in popularity or authority. There is no need for a press release when the words “by C. Michael Patton” appear on a post.
Because of my lackluster, I could have tried to manipulate things in order to ensure that you read this post. I could have said John Piper wrote it. After all, I do have control of the admin panel and could create Dr. Piper as an author. He’s so busy, he’d probably never know.
Dr Piper is so busy. He’d probably never know.
I might do that because my name doesn’t have as much weight as John Piper’s. I might have thrown out a broader net and said this post was by Billy Graham. Or I could have gone for a whole different audience, if I said it was by Pope Benedict XVI. In any case, were I to pull off such deception, my message would (in theory) be held in higher esteem. Now, I am a Christian. While sinning is something I (unfortunately) practice, I don’t think I could ever stoop to such a low place, even if it gave me more credibility (at least initially).
Forgeries, Pseudepigrapha, and Plagiarism in the Early Church
The practice of taking credit for the work of another is called forgery. Pseudepigrapha (“false writing”) is the formal name of the genre. Today, we simply call it plagiarism. It may surprise you to know that this practice was not unheard of in the early centuries of the church. Very often, people of undignified stature would attempt to give strength to their ideas and beliefs by attaching another’s name to it. This is especially the case in the story of Jesus.
Within a hundred years of Christ’s death, pseudepigrapha began to arise.
Within a hundred years of Christ’s death, pseudepigrapha began to arise. Among the earliest known forgeries is the Gospel of Thomas. The author of this work claimed the Apostle Thomas as its originator in mind and hand. The work begins with these words: “These are the secret sayings that the living Jesus spoke and Didymos Judas Thomas recorded.” The general consensus of scholarship, both conservative and liberal, is that Thomas did not write this work. It probably does not date before A.D. 100, many years after Thomas died. This is not the only work which claimed the name of an apostle. Dozens sprang to life over the next few hundred years:
- The Gospel of Peter
- The Acts of John
- The Acts of Paul
- The Apocalypse of Peter
- The Gospel of Judas
- The Infancy Gospel of James
- The Gospel of Mary (who would be more credible than the mother of Christ?)
Piggybaking Someone Else’s Fame
The common characteristic of all of these works is that they attempted to solidify their testimony by tagging it with the name of a credible eyewitness. After all, if someone in the third-century wants to teach some new idea about what Jesus did or said, it wouldn’t do much good unless it came from an eyewitness. Why? Because if the person was not there. At the very least, they need to have received their information from someone who was and would vouch for them. We have no reason to believe them if they came hundreds of years later.
Often, they would name their writing the “lost” or “secret” teaching, hoping this would explain why it took so long to surface.
Many people would claim to be Apostles when they penned their work. Often, they would name their writing the “lost” or “secret” teaching, hoping this would explain why it took so long to surface. The early church hardly gave these spurious writings a second thought. Why? Because they knew that they were not written by a credible source. They knew they were fakes.
The Gospels Aren’t Forgeries (Technically Speaking)
This brings up an interesting point about the four canonical (i.e., accepted into the Bible) Gospels: Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. Tradition holds that all of these were written either by eyewitnesses (Matthew and John) or by writers who received their information from eyewitnesses (Luke and Mark). These traditions go back to the earliest days of the church. The first church fathers, who wrote at the end of the first century and the beginning of the second century, tell us that these Gospels were accepted as true and written by their namesake. However, it is very interesting to note that they are not forgeries. They can’t be. It’s impossible. Why? Because these Gospels don’t ever claim to be written by Matthew, Mark, Luke, or John. They are nameless. Go ahead. Check for yourself. I’ll wait.
The anonymity of the Gospels doesn’t hurt their credibility, it supports it!
Told ya. While there are many reasons we can be confident that their current names do accurately represent their authorship, it isn’t because these guys claimed such. Of course they could have. They could have all started their respective works with, “I [author’s name] have written this story of Jesus.” Most people would be happier if they did. But they didn’t. And do you know what? I am glad. Their anonymity serves as one of the many reasons why I believe their stories with so much conviction. Because the Gospel writers left their names off the accounts of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection, we can be more confident that Christ is truly risen. Hang with me.
If someone was selling fiction as fact (as many claim the Gospels do), there’s no reason to think they wouldn’t also claim it was from someone more credible. We see it every day. Yet in a world where this is common, the Gospel writers left their names out. Now, if they had included their names, this wouldn’t mean they weren’t eyewitness accounts. However, by leaving their names out while claiming the historicity of their accounts, an element of embarrassment is provided that seems hard to account for if the story they wrote about is untrue. They had every reason to include their names, since their names would have provided immediate value… but they didn’t. John Piper, Billy Graham, and the Pope sign their names to everything they write because their names have established value and credibility. But, by being anonymous, the Gospel writers demonstrated that they were not fabricating their testimony.
Rebranding the Gospels for Marketing Purposes
The earliest Christians show the same formidable character, since they didn’t attempt to ascribe the Gospels of Mark and Luke, who were not apostles, to any of the original Twelve, or Paul. Mark, as early traditions claim, was a sort of biographer for Peter. Luke was a convert and companion of Paul. However, no one in the subsequent early years attempts to call Mark, “The Gospel According to Peter” or Luke, “The Gospel According to Paul.”
The early church showed great integrity by not trying to rebrand the Gospel of Mark with St. Peter’s name.
While the early church is not without its imperfections, this is one place where it shows great integrity. If the early church fabricated Christ’s story, why use people such as Mark and Luke to do so? Who were they? It would have been easy enough to upgrade the value of the testimony to Peter and Paul. Ironically, this act, two thousand years later, gives the story of Christ and his resurrection not less credibility, but more!
My friends Ed Komoszewski, Dan Wallace, and Jim Sawyer write about this in their excellent work, Reinventing Jesus. Concerning the Gospel of Mark they write:
The treatment of the Gospel of Mark in the ancient church ought to serve as a bold reminder that the early Christians took seriously the question of authorship. Especially when a particular book was anonymous, it allowed any influential person to fill in the blank with his favorite apostle. But this was not done with the Gospel of Mark. Surely the impulse to claim that Peter wrote one of the Gospels was especially strong. That the church refrained from this, claiming only that Mark got his Gospel from Peter, shows remarkable restraint. In fact, the claim has all the earmarks of authenticity. (p. 139)
I am not John Piper and I would never claim to be (even if Piper was not around to defend himself). That the Gospel writers did not claim their own names in their writings is beyond extraordinary.
In an incredibly unforeseen (by men) and ironic way, their act of humility (leaving out their names) gives us even more cause today to celebrate the resurrection of Christ, saying, “It is really true.” Who wrote the Gospels? Those who were confident enough in their testimony to leave their names out.