Why the Anonymous Gospels? Failure of Scholarship in Pitre’s The Case for Jesus

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by Neil Godfrey

It is an abuse of one’s status as a public intellectual to write dogmatic apologetics for lay readers. Professor Brant Pitre cobbles together a grab-bag of rationalisations to promote Catholic dogma and presents it to his lay readers as a work based on superior scholarship. The title of this post might have as well have begun with “Betrayal of lay readers” as “Failure of scholarship”.

Take the second chapter of The Case for Jesus: The Biblical and Historical Evidence for Christ as but one example. After having earlier stressed the importance of understanding the Gospels in their Jewish context, Pitre in this chapter abandons that Jewish context and flips to a non-Jewish Greco-Roman context, resorts to anachronisms, fallacious rhetorical arguments and some misleading statements about the manuscript evidence to pummel the lay reader into “just knowing” that our canonical gospels were composed as we read them today, complete with their author names, Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, heading each one. The book could be ignored as another Catholic tract if it were not for his academic peers — some of whom have been known to react with indignation if one dares suggest they are not objectively engaged in intellectually honest pursuits — publicly complimenting the work.

In seeking to reassure faithful readers that the Gospels were not originally written anonymously Pitre time-warps out of his “spiritually enlightening” Jewish context of the previous chapter and appeals to modern Western reading preferences:

Imagine for a moment that you’re browsing the shelves of your local bookstore, and you come across two biographies of Pope Francis. One of them is written by a longtime friend and contemporary of the pope. The other biography is anonymous. Which one would you buy? Most people, I would venture to guess, would go for the one written by someone who had actually spent time with him, someone who was a friend of Jorge Bergoglio, the man who later became pope. At the same time, I think most people would also view the anonymous biography with some level of suspicion. Who wrote this? Where did they get their information? Why should I trust that they know what they’re talking about? And if they want to be believed, why didn’t they put their name on the book?

Pitre, Brant (2016-02-02). The Case for Jesus: The Biblical and Historical Evidence for Christ (p. 12). The Crown Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

Scholars who argue the contrary (which, incidentally, would probably be most critical scholars) do so because of religious prejudice, because they do not want to believe in the Jesus in the Gospels, according to Pitre. The lay believer is led to think of critical scholars as hostile to his or her faith and to be dismissed as some sort of enemy of the truth:

The theory [of the anonymous Gospels] is remarkably widespread among scholars and non-scholars alike. It is especially emphasized by those who wish to cast doubts on the historical reliability of the portrait of Jesus in the four Gospels.

Pitre, Brant (2016-02-02). The Case for Jesus: The Biblical and Historical Evidence for Christ (p. 16). The Crown Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

I’ll dwell upon the anachronistic analogy and the convenient abandonment of the Jewish context of Brant’s argument in this post.

Pitre explains:

[T]he Gospels are a form of ancient Greco-Roman biography. As experts in ancient biography have pointed out, “authors of biographies… normally were named.” Craig S. Keener, The Gospel of Matthew: A Socio-Rhetorical Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2009), 40. Moreover, one of the standard “opening features” of an ancient Greco-Roman biography was ordinarily some kind of “title.” Richard Burridge, What Are the Gospels?, 156– 57. These titles sometimes identify the author in the third person (see, e.g., Josephus, Life of Josephus; Tacitus’s Agricola; Diogenes Laertius, Lives of Eminent Philosophers). This makes perfect sense, since when it comes to biography, the reader will want to know who is giving the account of the subject’s life, and how they got their information.

Pitre, Brant (2016-02-02). The Case for Jesus: The Biblical and Historical Evidence for Christ (p. 207). The Crown Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

Has Pitre read beyond the works of fellow apologists like Craig Keener and Richard Bauckham in his investigations into this question? Nowhere in his bibliography or index does one find reference to the 2008 article in the reputable journal Novum Testamentum 50:2 120-142 by Armin D. BaumThe Anonymity of the New Testament History Books: A Stylistic Device in the Context of Greco-Roman and Ancient Near Eastern LiteratureProfessor Baum’s article actually offers Pitre, Bauckham, Keener and others a way to consistently evaluate the Gospels without sacrificing their Jewish context. But that would also mean stepping away from what modern readers might look for in a biography and accepting that the gospels just might have been originally anonymous after all.

Anonymity: A Stylistic Device

Begin with the abstract of Baum’s article:

The anonymity of the NT historical books should not be regarded as peculiar to early Christian literature nor should it be interpreted in the context of Greco-Roman historiography. The striking fact that the NT Gospels and Acts do not mention their authors’ names has its literary counterpart in the anonymity of the OT history books, whereas OT anonymity itself is rooted in the literary conventions of the Ancient Near East. Just as in the OT, where the authors of books that belonged to the genre of wisdom and prophetic literature were usually named while historical works were written anonymously, only the NT letters and the Apocalypse were published under their authors’ names while the narrative literature of the NT remained anonymous. The authorial intent of the Gospels’ anonymity can also be deduced from its ancient Near Eastern and OT background. Unlike the Greek or Roman historian who, among other things, wanted to earn praise and glory for his literary achievements from both his contemporaries and posterity, the history writer in the Ancient Near East sought to disappear as much as possible behind the material he presented and to become its invisible mouthpiece. By adopting the stylistic device of anonymity from OT historiography the Evangelists of the NT implied that they regarded themselves as comparatively insignificant mediators of a subject matter that deserved the full attention of the readers. The anonymity of the Gospels is thus rooted in a deep conviction concerning the ultimate priority of their subject matter.

Three New Testament historical works, Luke, Acts and John, contain prologues, the literary place-marker where one would most expect to find a reference to the author’s identity. But no,

Whenever New Testament narrators address their readers, whether in the first person or in some other way they consistently remain anonymous. (p. 122)

It is in the prologues of Greco-Roman history that we normally find the author’s name.

The absence of a prologue was usually considered as a departure from long established standards. Therefore, Lucian could write disapprovingly:

There are historians who “produce bodies without any heads?works lacking an introduction that begin at once with the narrative.”

Thus, the Jewish historian Josephus prefixed elaborate prologues to his Bellum Judaicum and to his Antiquitates because he did not want his works to appear, in the eyes of his educated Hellenistic audience, like headless bodies. 

The same applied to Greco-Roman biography:

Greco-Roman biographies were published under the names of their authors (Euripides, Isocrates, Lucian, Philo, Plutarch, Suetonius etc.) as well. Only the lives that belong to the genre of popular literature (1st to 4th century A.D.) were an exception: the Vita Aesopi the Vita Alexandri Magni (later ascribed to Callisthenes), the somewhat more sophisticated narrative Lucius seu asinus and the Vita Secundi philosophi. These biographies have not only a rather low and episodic style but also anonymity in common. (pp. 126f.)

After surveying the range of ancient biographies and histories Baum concludes:

On the basis of these observations we may conclude: If a Hellenistic historian did not mention his name in (the prologue of) his work, he deviated from an ancient and widespread literary convention. (p. 127)

Baum then compares Old Testament and other Jewish historiography:

In contrast to the works of Greco-Roman historiography the Old Testament historical books are anonymous without exception. The author’s name is never mentioned. Even the historical source texts to which the Old Testament narrators refer remain anonymous. The historical books of the Hebrew Bible are not named after their authors but after their introductory words (“In the beginning” etc. in the Pentateuch), after their content (Chronicles) or after their main characters: Joshua, Judges, etc. Later narrative works like Tobit, Judith or the Books of the Maccabees and other writings like the anonymous Vitae Prophetarum or Joseph and Aseneth have also been named after their main characters.

Only the prophetic books in the “Old Testament” and the Wisdom literature contain author names.

A Near Eastern practice

Read against the background of Ancient Near Eastern literature the anonymity of the Old Testament history books was anything but unusual.

  • Acadian literature was for the most part handed down anonymously as well.
  • In Mesopotamia, historical epics were generally published without their authors’ names.
  • And Egyptian literature was mostly written anonymously as well.
  • Near Eastern Wisdom books frequently carried their authors’ names.
  • Writings on the deeds of the Pharaohs, however, were usually written by unknown authors.

Not until the time of Alexander the Great did Greek literature and literary conventions gain a decisive influence in the Ancient Near East, “among them the wider use of authors’ names.” Nevertheless, even during the Hellenistic period, Jewish writings were still being published without the names of their authors. As a rule, however, only wisdom, apocalyptic, and testamental literature mentioned the names of the respective authors. (p. 128, my formatting and bolding)

Qumran literature is also mostly anonymous, as are the later Jewish Mishna, Tosefta, the Talmudim and Midrashim.

Baum’s remarks on the later 2 Maccabees are interesting:

Furthermore, the Hebrew history books did not have a prologue that informed the readers about their purpose and their sources. They also did not contain authorial reflections in the first person. Even 1 Maccabees still makes use of this Old Testament style.

In contrast, 2 Maccabees already includes a prologue by the author in the first person. This prologue concludes with the following words (2 Mace 2:19-32):

At this point therefore let us begin our narrative, without adding any more to what has already been said; for it would be foolish to lengthen the preface while cutting short the history itself. 

By writing these words the author of 2 Maccabees adopted a literary device characteristic f Greek historiography. Yet, even 2 Maccabees remains anonymous. 

2 Maccabees is thus a close analogy to the Gospel of Luke and Acts in which we have a prologue without mention of the author’s name.

The Context of Ancient History of Literature

By writing anonymously the New Testament narrators were closer to Hebrew than to Greco-Roman historiography. The first and second Gospel present themselves in the style of Old Testament history books: anonymous, without prologues, and without any first person reflections by their authors. The Gospel of Luke and especially the Book of Acts with their prologues and the statements of their authors in the first person conformed to a certain extent to the conventions of Greco-Roman historiography. Yet they, like 2 Maccabees, remain anonymous. Their authors integrated elements of both traditions. 

Baum’s conclusion:

The New Testament historical books share the feature of anonymity, which distinguishes them from Greco-Roman historiography, with all the works of Old Testament (and Near Eastern) historiography. In concealing their authors’ names the narrative books of the New Testament follow the model of the Old Testament books from Genesis to 2 Kings as well as 1 and 2 Chronicles, Ezra, and Nehemiah. (p. 131)

The reason Greco-Roman authors of histories and biographies published their works under their own names is not hard to find. Many of them are quite forthright about their reasons:

Every Greco-Roman author, not just the historians, wanted to receive recognition for his literary accomplishments. A book had the potential to make its author famous. . . . 

Historians, too, were hoping for fame and recognition by publishing their historical works. In the prologue to his Antiquities Josephus mentions several goals that, according to him, motivated historians to write their works. In the first place he refers to fellow writers who approached their task “eager to display their literary skill and to win the fame therefrom expected.”

Even epitomisers like Justin reckoned with the appreciation of their readers for their (albeit comparatively small) literary efforts:

“For your approbation is sufficient for me for the present, with the expectation of receiving from posterity, when the malice of detraction has died away, an ample testimony to my diligence.”

Only authors who published their work under their own names could hope for fame and recognition. That is why Greek and Roman history books were not published anonymously.

Would apologist scholars really like to compare the Gospels with Greco-Roman “biographies” if that comparison imputes to the evangelists the same vain glorious motives as those godless pagan authors?

Reasons for Anonymity in Ancient Near Eastern Historiography

Anonymity is just one of the contrasts with Greco-Roman historical writings. In the Old Testament historical works we find no intrusive first person reflections on the events by the author as we do in Greco-Roman works. Herodotus and Thucydides and others are always jumping in to the pages of their text to tell readers their thoughts. There is nothing like this in the OT historical works– or canonical Gospels.

Speech material in the OT (and Gospels) nearly always written as direct speech, in dialogue form, again in stark contrast to “comparable” typical Greco-Roman writings. Direct speech was largely left behind with Homer and later historians generally presented much of their discourse material in indirect speech.

The author(s) of Chronicles appears to have wanted to preserve the original wording of his source material in the Books of Samuel and Kings. He preserved 80% of those sources in his own historical work. Contrast Greco-Roman historians who sought to impress their readers with their literary skill. Altering and editing their source material was standard practice.

The anonymity of Old Testament historiography is related to the fact

  •  that it does not contain reflections in the first person
  • nor does it use indirect speech
  • and that it reproduces the wording of the respective source texts rather closely.

(p. 137, my formatting.)

The effect of direct speech is to distance even further the author from the narrative. The characters speak for themselves. There is “no mediator” as such.

Baum offers the following explanation for the anonymity of Near Eastern historiography:

In order to understand the relationship of Hebrew historians to their subject matter an additional factor has to be taken into account. According to W. Speyer the historical books of the Old Testament were to be regarded as “records of very old oral traditions.” This characterization is basically accurate. It must, however, be modified in light of the written sources to which Hebrew historians regularly refer (1 Kings 11:41 et al). Old Testament narrators thought of themselves as mediators of oral and written traditions.

“The narrator disappears behind his material. He does not, as it were, report on historical events; rather he passes on traditions.”

The writer remains invisible behind the tradition he hands on, acting as its nameless mouthpiece. In Old Testament historiography the historical tradition had absolute priority, as indicated by the fact that these historical works are almost invariably anonymous. 

In contrast to the anonymous historical works, the prophetic and Wisdom books of the Old Testament (and the Ancient Near East) were published under their authors’ names. (p. 137)

Why the difference with the Wisdom literature? Wisdom depended upon the authority of the teachers.

New Testament Anonymity from the Readers’ Perspective

By writing their works without mentioning their names, the New Testament narrators deliberately placed themselves in the tradition of Old Testament historiography. Like their Old Testament models, they wanted to use the anonymity of their works to give priority to their subject matter, the narratives about the life of Jesus (and the spread of the early Jesus movement). As authors they wanted, for the most part, to disappear behind their subject matter. In order to move the subject matter to the foreground as much as possible they let their actors talk mostly in direct speech and abstained from any reflections in the first person. Even in this respect they took over the stylistic devices with which the Old Testament historians had already tried to disappear as far as possible into the background of their narratives. Since they were mainly concerned with their subject matter and not with displaying their literary skill, the narrators of the New Testament also largely abstained from elevating the colloquial Hellenistic prose of their sources to a more sophisticated literary level. All of these literary idiosyncrasies of the Gospels and Acts were designed to make the authors as invisible as possible and to highlight the priority of their subject matter. (pp. 139-140)

Of course the anonymity of the Gospels did raise concerns among many in the early Christian movement and author names were eventually associated with them. Why and how that came about is a question for another post, probably when I discuss Pitre’s third chapter in which he argues for the originality of the names Matthew, Mark, Luke and John in our canonical gospels.


The anonymity of the New Testament historical books should not be regarded as peculiar to early Christian literature nor should it be interpreted in the context of Greco-Roman historiography. The striking fact that the New Testament Gospels and Acts do not mention their authors’ names has its literary counterpart in the anonymity of the Old Testament history books, whereas Old Testament anonymity itself is rooted in the literary conventions of the Ancient Near East. Just as in the Old Testament, where the authors of books that belonged to the genre of wisdom and prophetic literature were usually named while historical works were written anonymously, only the New Testament letters and the Apocalypse were published under their authors’ names while the narrative literature of the New Testament remained anonymous. The authorial intent of the Gospels’ anonymity can also be deduced from its Ancient Near Eastern and Old Testament background. Unlike the Greek or Roman historian who, among other things, wanted to earn praise and glory for his literary achievements from both his contemporaries and posterity, the history writer in the Ancient Near East sought to disappear as much as possible behind the material he presented and to become its invisible mouthpiece. By adopting the stylistic device of anonymity from Old Testament historiography the Evangelists of the New Testament implied that they regarded themselves as comparatively insignificant mediators of a subject matter that deserved the full attention of the readers. The anonymity of the Gospels is thus rooted in a deep conviction concerning the ultimate priority of their subject matter. (p. 142)




  • Tim Widowfield
    2016-02-09 23:23:23 UTC - 23:23 | Permalink

    He presents half-truths in bite-size factoids that his lay audience will remember and eventually parrot back. For example, he tells us that no full gospel manuscript exists without its name, and that name is always the same. However, we have no complete gospel manuscript until at least 200 CE, and by that time they’re in collections with other gospels. And by then a lot of water has flowed under the bridge.

    We have no autographs. We have no gospels in scroll form. The earliest codex fragments may come from separate gospels, but we can’t tell. The more you know about the state of the evidence, the less impressive his factoid becomes.

    Must we once again suspect poor reasoning skills and sloppy scholarship over deliberate dishonesty? The pattern of behavior here favors that latter explanation.

  • Paxton Marshall
    2016-02-10 02:31:28 UTC - 02:31 | Permalink

    Anonymous or not, somebody wrote the gospels and other people knew who they were. They either based the books on a real man, or…. What? They made it up? They based their accounts on oral stories, handed down by those who claimed to have known him? God, or the Holy Spirit told them what to write?

    • Neil Godfrey
      2016-02-10 03:25:01 UTC - 03:25 | Permalink

      A number of scholars (e.g. Thomas L. Thompson) have argued that the gospel authors were following the literary ways of authors of the historical narratives in the Jewish scriptures. One example is the creative adaptation of the divided waters motif. The image of a new life or creation emerging from parting waters is repeated by various authors, each one attempting an emulation of known uses of it. We first read of it in the Creation account of Genesis; it next appears with the new covenant in the wake of the flood; then the new Israel is born through the Exodus; the nation is re-born in crossing the Jordan; the work of Elijah is renewed with double the spirit after the crossing of the brook Kidron; and we next see the motif in the baptism of Jesus, except that here we have the ultimate “transvaluation” and emulation of the motif with the parting of the heavens.

      I don’t believe any of the authors of these episodes were basing their accounts on real histories or oral stories. They were writing creative literature to express, in each case, a higher or greater or at least related meaning of the action of beginning a new through the parting or receding waters of chaos.

      Were the stories of Elijah and Elisha’s miracles of raising the dead based on true stories? The stories of Jesus doing the same are well-known to be based on those OT episodes. Once all of these literary relationships are added up we begin to see what the evangelists were really up to.

      • Pofarmer
        2016-02-10 05:33:16 UTC - 05:33 | Permalink

        And out if Christs side flowed the living water.

      • David Ashton
        2016-02-10 11:45:24 UTC - 11:45 | Permalink

        The “astro-theological” aspects of the canonical gospels (as with the origins of religion and mythology) need a fresh, thorough, balanced and scrupulously scholarly analysis.

        Neil, how do you rate the source of parables and inclusion of other teachings in these “literary compositions”?

    • rob
      2016-02-10 12:19:33 UTC - 12:19 | Permalink

      if people knew who they were does that mean when the text was copied and sent to another city people still knew who they were?

      • Bee
        2016-02-10 14:25:15 UTC - 14:25 | Permalink

        Maybe. But when those original letters were found to be in some ways too unsophisticated, and in need of substantial rewrite by four or five later bishops, say? Then who is now “the” author?

        I think there are equivocal hints at possible single authors. But even gMark was subjected to much editing by many hands, before it reached the state we see it in today.

        In deference to those – especially Greek and Roman Christians – who wanted single names, many priests claimed that the names at the heads – Matthew, Mark, Luke, John – were the author’s. Who were often claimed to be among the original twelve. But like most things in the NT, when looking closer for and firm ground, like a name for an author, all we see are vague hints. And phrases with three or more different readings. Even in the matter of who wrote each gospel.

        For that matter, I see many hands, or scribe’s wrists, and their literary fruits (poly carps), at work on every single gospel. So even someone who knew what persons wrote each gospel, would not be able to firmly, unequivocally name just a single name for each.

        Nor would such a knowledgeable person want to indicate any editors whose dates were far removed from the dates for any possible eyewitnesses.

  • Pofarmer
    2016-02-10 05:38:21 UTC - 05:38 | Permalink

    Doesn’t it present a problem to his argument that the entire bible is essentially anonymous? It’s kind of a thing.

    • Neil Godfrey
      2016-02-10 06:46:56 UTC - 06:46 | Permalink

      No need to go that far. Gospels are only four of the 27 New Testament books — 22 of the remainder all name an author. You missed the detail in the post pointing out what OT writings also come with authors.

      • paxton marshall
        2016-02-10 14:59:44 UTC - 14:59 | Permalink

        “of the 27 New Testament books — 22 of the remainder all name an author.”

        Yes, but a number of them have been shown not to have been written by the person claimed to be the author. Were these written by the followers of the claimed author in order to enhance the authority of the piece? Saying a letter was authored anonymously would not have bolstered its claim to be included in the canon.

        With the OT, isn’t it agreed that much of it was put in its final form by priestly committees whose goal was to represent it as ancient texts? Wouldn’t have worked if one of these authors had put his name to it.

        • Tim Widowfield
          2016-02-10 15:40:08 UTC - 15:40 | Permalink

          Just to be clear, anonymous and pseudonymous are two different things.

          • paxton marshall
            2016-02-10 16:39:37 UTC - 16:39 | Permalink

            Yes, they are different, but both leave us wondering who actually wrote the stuff, when, what they knew, what they’d heard, and what they made up.

        • Ignorant Anos
          2016-02-10 17:30:58 UTC - 17:30 | Permalink

          “Were these written by the followers of the claimed author in order to enhance the authority of the piece?”

          Whether they were written by the claimed followers of the author or not, there is evidence that texts were forged to enhance the authority of the piece. Name dropping seems to have been popular in ancient times too.

          I read somewhere, perhaps in Ehrman’s “Forged”, that this sort of Malarkey was well understood as a problem in antiquity and frowned upon. Those getting found out were liable to castigation from various directions.

          Still, it seems to me the more problematic of the two given that the forger is definitively being dishonest, where the anonymous writer could quite possibly only be guilty of carrying tall tales, the author might well believe are what they write is honest. The books of the NT are not of this nature of course.

      • Bob de Jong
        2016-02-11 07:15:39 UTC - 07:15 | Permalink

        Letter to the Hebrews and Acts of the Apostles are two other anonymous books in the NT. So six in total, and well over half the NT.

  • Giuseppe
    2016-02-10 18:00:41 UTC - 18:00 | Permalink

    Readers of my comments know that I’m partial to the priority of the Gospel of Marcion. I like to remember that to the extent that the first Gospel was intended to be surprising (by introducing again and again the radical contrast between old and new) then his author could not go unnoticed…

    • Bee
      2016-02-11 10:21:35 UTC - 10:21 | Permalink

      Marcion himself, say, was definitely noticed. But often, noticed unfavorably. So any who emulated him later, might well seek anonymity. Indeed, Gnosticism as a whole seems selfprotectively obscure.

  • Bee
    2016-02-11 12:19:47 UTC - 12:19 | Permalink

    Often the gospels were introduced in church, as having been written by Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. Who were sometimes said or assumed to be apostles, even among the Twelve. Though scholars question that attribution.

    So probably the gospels are best approached therefore, as not so much anonymous, as pseudepigraphal. As having appeared under questionable or misleading names. As say, James Barr hinted (in his “Interpretation” article in the Ox. Comp. to the Bible, p. 319).

    • Ignorant Amos
      2016-02-11 14:40:45 UTC - 14:40 | Permalink

      “Often the gospels were introduced in church, as having been written by Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. Who were sometimes said or assumed to be apostles, even among the Twelve.”

      How do you know? Is there evidence of such?

      Not that it matters. Anyone, can introduce any book, to any audience, anywhere and at any time, as written by whoever. It matters very little and that’s not how it works. A writing with no attached author is anonymous. A writing with an attached author who didn’t write it, is forged. Even the clues that folk use to attempt authorship of Luke and John are not enough to reject anonymity.

      • Bee
        2016-02-11 17:24:40 UTC - 17:24 | Permalink

        Well, the word pseudepigrsphal accomplishes about the same things as “anonymous,” and avoids some controversies. I’m pretty sure I’ve personally heard sermons and read quasi scholarly articles decades ago, that attributed the gospels to the figures named on the frontispiece or title page.

        So why not just sidestep that? The word pseudepigraphal also tells us that the real author(s) are not known.

        Maybe contemporary scholars accept “anonymous”?

        • Ignorant Amos
          2016-02-11 18:39:59 UTC - 18:39 | Permalink

          “Well, the word pseudepigrsphal accomplishes about the same things as “anonymous,” and avoids some controversies.”

          No, it really doesn’t. Revisit the definition or read how scholars use the word.

          “I’m pretty sure I’ve personally heard sermons and read quasi scholarly articles decades ago, that attributed the gospels to the figures named on the frontispiece or title page.”

          I’m not very convinced or concerned about what you are pretty sure about. Anecdote is just that and any sermon you personally heard is circa 18 centuries removed from the first attribution of those names to the books. If you have citations to articles that evidence the claim that the gospels were being named Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, in sermons of the early Church, I’d be very interested.

          “So why not just sidestep that? The word pseudepigraphal also tells us that the real author(s) are not known.”

          Whether the real authors are known or not is irrelevant. The word means the texts are spurious writings, especially writings falsely attributed to someone else by the actual author. The gospels are not pseudepigraphal because the authors don’t attribute the works to any person, that comes a lot later and by someone else other than the author.

  • Neil Godfrey
    2016-02-11 20:38:29 UTC - 20:38 | Permalink

    Whatever has been said about the authorship of the canonical gospels since Irenaeus the question Baum and Pitre address is whether those attributions of authorship (true or false) were assigned some time after the gospels made their appearance. Baum says they were written in the style of OT historical books; Pitre says they were written in the style of Greco-Roman biographies despite the fact that Greco-Roman biographies generally contained author attributions in the prologue (sometimes at the end) of the body of the text and not as a separate or flyleaf title.

    • Bee
      2016-02-11 23:05:11 UTC - 23:05 | Permalink

      The current Luke though, begins in part with “I too decided… to write an orderly account.” So here we have an extra task, if we go for anonymity: prove that claims of authorship don’t exist, in the face of evidence that they do. Rather than fight that battle too, I just go directly for the key, simpler task: suggesting that any claims of authorship don’t hold up.

      • paxton marshall
        2016-02-12 00:57:59 UTC - 00:57 | Permalink

        Yeah, fact is we don’t know who the hell wrote any of this stuff. Maybe Paul was a fictional character as well.

      • Neil Godfrey
        2016-02-12 02:29:18 UTC - 02:29 | Permalink

        But the “I too” person remains anonymous. Compare the anonymous “we” in the 2 Maccabees prologue. Theophilus is just as likely a personification of the reader, too — a lover of God. Though admittedly it is a step towards the Hellenistic manner.

        • David Ashton
          2016-02-12 12:11:27 UTC - 12:11 | Permalink

          Theophilus ben Ananus?

        • Bee
          2016-02-13 19:55:23 UTC - 19:55 | Permalink

          That’s a good point.

          On another subject: Pitre (Peter?) is Catholic. And most of his work will make an obligatory bow to Catholic dogma. But under that, things get interesting. Pitre acknowledged that people just WANT a single simple author named. But here, perhaps he sees subjective desire, not objectivity, motivating the assignment of authors.

          And if that also seems Greco Roman? Then after all, that is an admission of some such, not purely Jewish, influences on the texts. Influences possibly from early myth. Or possibly later; considering the interventions of the Greek Orthodox and Roman Catholic churches.

  • John MacDonald
    2016-02-12 22:02:15 UTC - 22:02 | Permalink

    Interesting article!

  • David Ashton
    2016-02-15 19:21:08 UTC - 19:21 | Permalink

    Were not the Four Gospels attributed, earlier or later, to their named authors largely because of internal features that pointed in that direction; e.g. the treatment of humble Peter in Mark in contrast to Matthew’s; the “medical” interest of Luke + “we” diaries; “self”-reference in John?

    • Neil Godfrey
      2016-02-16 08:35:29 UTC - 08:35 | Permalink

      No. The medical interest in Luke was long ago demonstrated to be an urban myth. There is no reason within the fourth gospel to attribute the self-reference to John; the ‘humble Peter” in Mark argument is classic ad hoc rationalisation. I might do a post one day to address the still lingering myth of Luke’s medical interests.

      • Ignorant Amos
        2016-02-16 14:18:35 UTC - 14:18 | Permalink

        It is my understanding, and it may be wrong, that the medical interest and the attribution of the name Luke to the gospel, arrives through The Acts. The author of The Acts was believed to have been a travelling companion of Paul and due to some internal clues in the text that lead to who was with Paul, when and where, the short-list was whittled to Luke the Evangelist, who was also thought to be a physician as per the reference in Col 4:14.

        Colossians 4:14 King James Version (KJV)

        14 Luke, the beloved physician, and Demas, greet you.

        Because The Acts is seen as an extension of the prequel gospel and authored by the same person, if The Acts was authored by Luke the Physician, then the gospel must also be by Luke the Physician, hence the Gospel according to Luke title.

        Anywhere near accurate?

        • Neil Godfrey
          2016-02-16 20:49:07 UTC - 20:49 | Permalink

          The choice of Luke as the companion of Paul was more political than analytical. At least there is no evidence I am aware of to suggest any analytical whittling down process to identify the author. Once Luke was chosen others began “finding” additional clues like the supposed preference for medical terms in “Luke’s” writings — all imaginary. Will dig out my old Cadbury article or chapter demonstrating much of this.

      • David Ashton
        2016-02-16 16:58:05 UTC - 16:58 | Permalink

        If Jesus never existed, then he never had any followers who could record anything he said or did.

        I am not arguing that the Gospels as we have them were actually written by Matthew-Levi, John Mark, “Doctor” Luke, or St John of Zebedee; for example, I think Luke-Acts “depends” on Josephus (rather than vice-versa) and its complete composition is too late for Paul’s companion.

        My suggestion is that early Christians reflecting on “clues” in these documents either formulated the traditional ascriptions or found that these “fitted” the contents. In John, for instance, who best fits the “beloved”-source than the intimate disciple otherwise not identified by name?

        I look forward to your refutation of arguments from Werner Marx and William Hobart that “Luke” was written by a compassionate physician. As for “urban myths”, of course, this gospel has an ancient version of the “ghostly hitch-hiker” in the Emmaus episode which commentators inexplicably find so charming as to be especially credible!

        • Ignorant Amos
          2016-02-16 17:38:14 UTC - 17:38 | Permalink

          “If Jesus never existed, then he never had any followers who could record anything he said or did.”

          Are you suggesting that characters in literature must exist before writers can put words into their mouths or invent things they did? Seems a bit of a strange tact to me.

          If God never existed, then he never had any followers who could record anything he said or did. Would that be correct?

          If Ned Ludd never existed, then he never had any followers who could record anything he said or did. Would that be correct?

          We could play this game all day long with fictional characters…Sherlock Holmes would be my favourite.

          • David Ashton
            2016-02-16 20:15:25 UTC - 20:15 | Permalink

            I am not “suggesting” anything other than what I have actually said clearly here recently or in the past, and leave any “playing games” to you.

            Some fictional characters are based to some extent on real people, and others not at all. In the case of Jesus I still think the former is more likely. However, I share the view of Popper that truth is very largely provisional, and of Keynes that if the facts change, one should change one’s opinion accordingly.

        • Neil Godfrey
          2016-02-16 21:02:24 UTC - 21:02 | Permalink

          Can you post links to Werner Marx’s arguments or post them here or email them to me? (No need for the same re Hobart’s. They were the ones so thoroughly demolished by Henry Cadbury way back in 1919.)

          I am unable to find anything online by Werner Marx — except a citation to what looks like an evangelical journal that one can only access by paid subscription. I have no interest in funding evangelicals.

  • David Ashton
    2016-02-16 22:28:53 UTC - 22:28 | Permalink

    I cannot provide any Marx references other than the articles found on-line. It is generally agreed that Hobart over-egged his pudding.

    • David Ashton
      2016-02-16 22:39:46 UTC - 22:39 | Permalink

      PS. A. T. Robertson’s “Luke the Historian in the Light of Research” (1928) is on-line with comment on these “medical” interests and vocabulary.

    • Neil Godfrey
      2016-02-17 00:19:01 UTC - 00:19 | Permalink

      It’s Marx articles online that I’m interested in. Can you link to them at least? Good idea when you mention sources to give links or directions to finding them — even better to outline their arguments in summary form. A.T. Robertson — his agenda and bias in all his reasoning is not hard to discern.

      • David Ashton
        2016-02-17 11:49:55 UTC - 11:49 | Permalink

        A few “surgeon’s needles” can be found in these haystack apologetics. You can Google the links, but will likely feel much the same about Werner Marx, “Thank You, Doctor Luke” (Minerva Press 1999)! So further efforts seem otiose.

        • Neil Godfrey
          2016-02-17 19:14:36 UTC - 19:14 | Permalink

          David, you went to the heart of the reason I originally took an interest in the lines of inquiry for which I initially created Vridar when you wrote: “I look forward to your refutation of arguments from Werner Marx and William Hobart that “Luke” was written by a compassionate physician.” I think I always enjoy investigating such queries as these and responding in some detail.

          But I cannot do so if you do not provide me with a copy (by sending me a copy by email or by posting a link here) or even presenting just one detail of an argument you expressed a desire to see me respond to.

          Because I am interested in responding to such queries I did attempt to find your source by Googling but the best I came up with was a single article behind an evangelical paywall and the following words on another site:

          Reading through the Gospel of Luke and the Book of Acts in Greek, one is struck with the abundant use of medical terminology in these books (Hobart 1882; with words of caution from Marx 1980a: 168-172).

          Coincidentally the author makes the same observation as you that imply that Hobart merely “over-egged” his claims. It is evident that the author — Gordon Franz who runs the site as a apologetic ministry dedicated to proving the Bible is true etc — has never read Cadbury’s thorough rebuttal of Hobart’s claims or he could not suggest that Hobart merely exaggerated somewhat.

          Have you actually read Werner Marx’s argument — the one you have asked me to respond to and to which I am very keen to respond? If so, can you kindly forward me a copy of it or a link to it or set out one of his arguments here since my Googling efforts have failed me.

          If you seriously want me to respond to the arguments of authors you refer to (and I assume you are, and I certainly am interested in doing so) please do give me more help in accessing those articles. I assume you have them before you or know directly how to access them so I am not keen to spend a lot of time in online searching yielding no reasonably quick results when you can just point me directly to them. (I do trust you are not just reading references to articles and then asking me to respond to those without having read, let alone accessed, the articles yourself.)

          • David Ashton
            2016-02-17 21:35:54 UTC - 21:35 | Permalink

            I have mislaid the one ExpT article I obtained, but don’t recall that Marx came up with anything impressively new for you – though there is Loveday Alexander’s study of the Gospel Preface (Cambridge SNTS 2011) which can be sampled, along with her critics, in extracts from Google Books.

            I have just read on-line Cadbury’s reply to critics (JBL, “Lexical Notes…” 1926) that is persuasive, albeit just a bit sweepingly dismissive of the “cumulative detail” argument.

            I shall be away from my library and laptop for another week or so in the care of real doctors, but meanwhile Bon voyage with your own missionary journey across these troubled waters!

            • Neil Godfrey
              2016-02-17 21:59:58 UTC - 21:59 | Permalink

              I see Cadbury’s book that I said I would post on is actually online at https://archive.org/details/cu31924008115481 He deals comprehensively with Hobart’s arguments (and others that have been ignorantly/apologetically repeated since) from page 39 on in that volume.

            • Bee"
              2016-02-18 13:21:36 UTC - 13:21 | Permalink

              The middle initial is important. Werner M. Marx ? taught theology in Nicaragua. I found a 1980 article by him, on Luke, in an evangelical review journal. EBSCO. But my quick scan showed nothing relevant there at least. It’s about the identity of Luke’s “Theophilus.”

              • David Ashton
                2016-02-19 11:35:11 UTC - 11:35 | Permalink

                Some comments in haste before my hospital transport arrives.

                The first page of the W. G Marx article can be downloaded free, as can all of A. T. Robertson, “Luke the Historian” (1920).

                H. J. Cadbury (who “gained his doctorate depriving Luke of his”) replied to critics with comparable erudition in “Lexical Notes on Luke-Acts II” – available in full from biblicalstudies.org.uk/

                D. E. Hiebert, “Introduction to the NT. Vol.I” (2003) gives a balanced summary on pp.121-3. In my view half-a-dozen little “anomalies” re e.g the healing stories escape wholesale Cadbury deflation (e.g. Luke 8.43 v. Mark 5.26) apart from themes of compassion that suffuse the material.

                How educated the writer was in Hellenistic literature generally is disputed. The preface has some slight resemblance to e.g. the introductory dedication by Dioscorides, “De Materia Medica” (also available on-line); this and other “handbooks” are discussed by Prof. Alexander.

  • 2016-02-17 09:36:36 UTC - 09:36 | Permalink

    I wonder if I can comment on one aspect of Baum’s article?

    The article makes the large claim that “At the beginning or end of his prologue the Greek historian” – by which he means writers of history or biography of the first century AD – “would mention his name and his provenance” and then talks about Herodotus and Thucydides, almost half a millenium before the period in question, and before the large changes that took place in the Hellenistic period.

    Now this point is one that the author perhaps borrows from others, and it would be unfair to complain if he deals with it briefly. But it is quite a claim. The form and format of Greek historical writing changes over the succeeding millennium in various ways, and the use of prologi, titles, and so forth, is a subject of great difficulty because of the very various and limited evidence on these subjects. It doesn’t get better that he specifies that only “historical and biographical” writers need be considered, because this reduces the data volume even more. The prologues of ancient works are often lost – for instance that of Suetonius still existed in the 6th century AD, and said that the work was dedicated to Septicius Clarus; but it has not reached us.

    What we need, obviously, is a list of writers, which feature ancient prologues, and which we can look up and check. This Baum does not really give us.

    My own confidence in Baum’s claims was considerably undermined by the following statement, which seemed to be such a list:

    “The same is true of the early Jewish narrators Eupolemus (157/158 B.C.), Artapanus, Cleodemus Malchus und Theophilus are all (around 100 B.C.), who
    quoted by Eusebius in the 9th book of his Praeparatio Evangilica (from the lost writings of Alexander Polyhistor).27 These Jewish historians also published their works under their own name.”

    From this I inferred that he had evidence that these authors wrote their names in the prologues to their lost works. If so, this would be interesting, so I thought that I would go and see. However if you actually look at the Praeparatio Evangelica, book 9, you find merely quotations from these authors. Try it – the work is here: http://www.tertullian.org/fathers/eusebius_pe_09_book9.htm There’s no discussion whatever of the subject of prologues. Alexander Polyhistor knew who the authors were, just as the Fathers knew who wrote the gospels. But he doesn’t say how, and nor do they.

    Apparently a mention of a passage with an author’s name is enough to show that an author did not publish anonymously. But if so, none of the gospels are anonymous, and on the same ground.

    Arrian (2nd c. AD) does not mention his name; so Baum speculates that a titulus gave it. Probably it did; but of course the value of such speculation is nothing. Xenophon does not mention his name. So … who precisely DOES mention his name? Lucian may feel that histories should start with a prologue, but of course that means nothing for the argument unless that prologue must contain the author’s name.

    One might note that Eusebius, writing around 310AD in the Praeparatio Evangelica, does not mention his own name. 🙂 He doesn’t mention it at the start of his Church History – written in 10 books, just like a Graeco-Roman history, and with tables of contents like those of Diodorus Siculus.

    But of course it would be a different article, if Baum had to show this point; and he is probably summarising the author of the 1970 article that he quotes.

    • Neil Godfrey
      2016-02-17 20:21:41 UTC - 20:21 | Permalink

      Thanks for the response, Roger. You set aside Thucydides and Herodotus as too early yet they did set the standards for the centuries that followed and historians well into the Roman era imitated their works, and even the works of the much earlier Homer. (This brings us back to some of the characteristics of Luke-Acts, but that’s another if related topic.) One of the apparent exceptions to the point I have also often posted on — the identification of Greco-Roman historians — is Arrian, and your comment brought me back to some of my earlier explorations of his works. I look forward to attempting a more thorough response within a few days, but meanwhile will leave here as a place-marker the following from classicist John Moles (“The Interpretation of the ‘Second Preface’ in Arrian’s Anabasis” in The Journal of Hellenic Studies, Vol. 105 (1985), pp. 162-168 http://www.jstor.org/stable/631532 ).

      After detailing the richly detailed intertextual evidence for Arrian’s imitation of Herodotus, Thucydides and Xenophon, Moles writes:

      Arrian does not need to state his identity, background and achievements, since they are well-known, and-more important– . . . are his ‘real’ country, family and offices, and have been since youth, so that it is upon them that his claim to competence as an Alexander historian rests. This is, of course, a formal recusatio of the traditional historiographical [topos] whereby the historian announces his name and various particulars about himself, such as his city, family and public career. . .

      Moles presents a detailed demonstration that Arrian’s modesty is in fact a form of out-boasting others who boast; he is claiming behind the facade of modesty a greatness for himself and his work that surpasses that of his rivals, and that it is so great he does not need to “vaingloriously” name himself as do his rivals, or at least on of his targets in particular. (In his boasting about his not boasting he gives enough detail for contemporaries to know exactly who he is anyway.) In other words, we have here testimony to the accepted practice of historians boasting of their names and provenance and Arrian’s apparent exception proving the general rule.

      • 2016-02-19 10:50:31 UTC - 10:50 | Permalink

        Thucydides and Herodotus set all kinds of standards for the future in terms of literary style and genre. But things like how a work is packaged up – titles, divisions, name of author on the top – are another matter. Consider: these writers did not divide their works into books; yet a division into decades of 10 books is absolutely standard by this period. Over the next century or two, various standards for the composition of Greek histories came into being; and far from being definitive, these writers were divided up by those who followed. Likewise tables of contents, or summaries, many forms of prologi; these items belong to the subsequent period. This is an area in which I am interested, and even went to the stage of being asked to write a academic article on, so I am aware of some of the issues, and the rather uncertain state of the data.

        So what I want to see, when presented with a claim as to the standards current in the 1st century AD, is at least some evidence from that period (while not rejecting classical approaches). And this is strangely lacking. I’d like to see a list of all writers for whom a “prologue” (which begs many questions as to what these items actually are) is found in the manuscripts, for whom we believe it to be authorial, and which actually start with the name of the author. In the absence of this information, is there any pressing reason to buy this claim? We can’t really generalise on a couple of anecdotes.

        On Arrian: he does not give his own name. That is the opposite of what Baum claims is normal. That means he cannot be used as evidence for his claim. If – if – we know that his claim is valid, then we might find some reasons why Arrian disregarded the practice. But until then, it’s just beating the wind, or so it seems to me, to talk more about Arrian.

        • Neil Godfrey
          2016-02-19 11:16:38 UTC - 11:16 | Permalink

          On the Arrian point for now — Arrian (or whoever the author is) certainly does intrude his authorial self into his narrative, both as the author and with his explicit viewpoints on events in the narrative. This is indeed common among historians of the era and the way in which they continue the ways set by Herodotus and Thucydides There is no comparison with the canonical gospels. The difference is as stark as the work of Herodotus from the historical works of the OT.

    • Neil Godfrey
      2016-02-19 12:31:13 UTC - 12:31 | Permalink

      I’ve caught up with your earlier comment. I have not followed up the footnotes to Baum’s remarks about the Jewish historians mentioned by Eusebius and not sure that I would be able to do so quickly. So I cannot comment on the grounds for his claims. I’d be interested in attempting to contact Baum to ask for his explanation — as I have attempted to do other times to seek explanations for what I have read in books and articles.

      But I don’t have a problem with the main argument because it comports with what I know of the Greco-Roman literature of the day. I don’t think anyone who is aware of the texts needs to rely upon a single footnote to some other article to make the point. Authorial intrusion into Greco-Roman histories and biographies can almost be said to be a defining feature — and very often that includes the author’s identity.

      I don’t understand how surviving manuscript evidence can outweigh the evidence we have from the contents that testify strongly in a variety of ways about authorial practices. You’ll have to explain that one in more depth.

      Nor do I understand the relevance of later editorial tasks on works. That seems to me to be a separate question from genre and authorial practice.

      In the end, I am not even sure what would be established even if one could find strong reasons to think that the present titles of the canonical gospels — according to Matthew, Mark, Luke, John — really were added soon after their composition. Just a single name like that is hardly identifying the author. Who is Matthew? Who is Mark? Such a title tells us nothing. It only adds another question: when did those names come to be associated with disciples or companions of apostles? There is nothing in the titles to indicate Matthew, for example, was “the” Matthew who was just a name in a list of Twelve and one who had for some reason been introduced as a replacement for Levi. This is not the pattern of authorship that we find with the Classical literature in this era.

      Further, you originally said Herodotus was too early to have relevance to our era of interest, but you then bring in Eusebius as apparent evidence. There seems to be some contradiction there. (But of course Herodotus was of strong relevance into the second century CE at least.)

      But back to the central point: I take it you don’t acknowledge the canonical gospels being written in the style of the historical books of the Jewish Scriptures? I’d be interested in your reasons.

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