In the New Testament, there are four canonical “Gospels.” These are basically four different people writing about the life, death, and resurrection of Christ from differing perspectives and for their own purposes. We call these books “Matthew,” “Mark,” “Luke,” and “John.”
You may not know this, but none of the Gospel writers give their name in their writing. They are left, from this perspective, anonymous. The reason we title them the way we do is because early second-century Christians said that these four wrote them. And it became part of Christian tradition.
Some Christians become disturbed that the Gospels, in the originals, are nameless. Liberals, in Christian scholarship rarely, if ever, believe that the traditional titles represent the true authors. When reconstructing the historical Jesus, they believe that the Gospels (especially John), for the most part, are unreliable sources, coming from later communities who made Jesus into what they needed him to be, not how he actually was. Again, many people see this as a problem.
But let me give you two reasons why I believe that they are more trustworthy accounts of the historical Jesus precisely because they are nameless:
1. Anonymity Can Be a Sign of Authenticity
At the time when these works were written, it was common practice to compose a work and say that someone of more stature than you wrote it. It is the reverse of plagiarism. Instead of stealing someone else’s words and claiming them as your own, you would steal someone else’s name and claim your work as theirs. These writings are called pseudopigrapha, meaning “false writings.” It would be like if I wrote a work and claimed in the writing that it came from the pen of Billy Graham. Today, this would be difficult to pull off, and I would surely get caught. But back then, people did it all the time. We have the Apocalypse of Peter, the Gospel of Mary Magdalene, the Gospel of Thomas, and many others.
Richard Bauckham puts it this way:
One thing is clear: by the later second century there were lots of Gospels around and most of them claimed to be apostolic, bearing the names not only of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, but also of Thomas, Philip, James, Mary and others. (Source)
These other Gospels were written too late to have a chance of being written by their namesake. However, they did try to use the name of someone closely associated with Jesus so that their story (fabricated as it may be) might have a better chance of being accepted and integrated into their community.
[Tweet “If the Gospel authors were fabricating, lying, just making it all up, why remain nameless?”]
This is what is incredible about the four Gospels in the Bible. They were written in the mid/late first-century (both liberal and conservatives agree) and remained nameless. If the Gospel authors were fabricating, lying, just making it all up, why remain nameless? It is actually a mark of embarrassment (and, maybe, humility) that they didn’t come out and tell us who was writing. If these were fabrications, why not claim the name of someone close to Christ to give these more credibility? From a historians perspective, this very well could give the four canonical (accepted) Gospels more credibility, not less.
2. Why Use Mark and Luke?
Of the four Gospels, only two have the possibility of being written by one of the Twelve Apostles. Matthew and John were both Apostles of Christ, so their testimony would have immediate credibility due to the fact that they would have been eye-witnesses to most of the events they record. So it might be understandable for the early Church, if it were fabricating, to use the names of these two (although, again, they never explicitly used their names in these works, just as the title, which makes a fabrication suspect). However, Luke and Mark were not Apostles. More than that, they don’t have enough notoriety to have their names stolen.
In the case of Luke, prima facie, it is hard to know who he is. He is probably a Greek convert that Paul picked up in somewhere in Acts 15 and mentioned in some of his letters (Col. 4:14, 2 Tim. 4:11, Phm 1:24). Either way, he is hardly someone of stature or authority.
Mark is also an obscure figure. Not only is he not an Apostle but he is probably the deserter that caused such a rift between Barnabas and Paul (Acts 15:37-38). Paul did forgive him later (2 Tim 4:11), but there is no reason to think that the early Church would have believed to be a good candidate for telling the Gospel story. He was the subject of the first church split in history!
So, why these two guys with little to no notoriety? If you were going to make this story up, at least tag a heavy hitter to it!
[Tweet “All four would have been accepted organically. It would have been a sort-of “grass roots” acceptance of the Gospels.”]
However, if the Gospels present true history, this is just what we might expect. Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John knew the people to whom they were writing. If this is the case (and I believe it is), it is not problem that they remained nameless. All four would have been accepted organically. It would have been a sort-of “grass roots” acceptance of the Gospels. And this is just what we see in the early second-century as these became part of the Good News that overturned the world. For this reason, there is much warrant for these Gospels to testify to the historical Jesus.
C. Michael Patton is the primary contributor to the Parchment and Pen/Credo House Blog. He has been in ministry for nearly twenty years as a pastor, author, speaker, and blogger.
Th.M. Dallas Theological Seminary (2001), president of Credo House Ministries and Credo Courses, author of Now that I’m a Christian (Crossway, 2014) Increase My Faith (Credo House, 2011), and The Theology Program (Reclaiming the Mind Ministries, 2001-2006), host of Theology Unplugged, and primary blogger here at Parchment and Pen. But, most importantly, husband to a beautiful wife and father to four awesome children. Michael is available for speaking engagements. He can be contacted at [email protected]