An Explanation for the Gospels being Anonymous

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by Neil Godfrey

Revised 6 Dec to add more on "denying originality" in Mark

The canonical gospel titles, Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, are not original. They are much later attributions of authorship. But why did the original authors not declare their identities?

A year or more ago “N.T. Wrong” suggested here that I read Deuteronomy and the Hermeneutics of Legal Innovation by Bernard M. Levinson as an example of how a text deliberately revises older traditions. One passage by Levinson hit me as potentially pertinent to the above question.

In a culture with a curriculum of prestigious and authoritative texts, how are legal innovation and religious transformation possible? The solution is to disclaim authorship and to deny originality. . . . They never speak in their own belated, seventh-century B.C.E. scribal voice. Instead, they defer to the voice of authoritative antiquity. . . (p.34)

In other words, they are written to be documents of which it could be said, “It Is Written”. The author(s) of Deuteronomy had the advantage of being able to use Moses as a character mouth-piece.

A personal name attached to the first gospel would loudly advertise its novelty. Antiquity, not novelty, was venerable and authoritative. A common, well-known example is the way Plato chose to write under the name of his highly respected teacher, Socrates.

Denying originality

But was not the first gospel starkly innovative anyway? The author of Deuteronomy could disclaim originality by putting his reformist religion in the mouth of Moses. The gospels of Mark and Matthew likewise wrapped the words and acts of Jesus in the words of the ancient prophets.

Mark embedded his new religious narrative from the outset in the ancient prophecies.

The beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God; As it is written in the prophets, Behold, I send my messenger before thy face, which shall prepare thy way before thee.  The voice of one crying in the wilderness, Prepare ye the way of the Lord, make his paths straight. (Mark 1:1-3 citing Isaiah and Malachi)

The teachings of Jesus in Mark are not new either, but presented as even older than those of Moses.

They said, “Moses permitted a man to write a certificate of divorce, and to put her away.” And Jesus answered and said to them, “Because of the hardness of your heart he wrote this precept. But from the beginning of the creation, God ‘made them male and female.’ ‘For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh’; . . .Therefore what God has joined together, let not man separate.” (Mark 10:4-9)

Matthew introduces its Jesus through genealogy, a voice of antiquity, and prophecy.

Genealogy: there is a biological link to David and Abraham

The book of the genealogy of Jesus Christ, the son of David, the son of Abraham. (Matt.1:1)

Voice of antiquity: there is a birth narrative told in a literary voice that echoes loudly the ancient narratives of the births of patriarchs and history of Moses

Compare angels announcing imminent miraculous births in both Matthew and Genesis; compare the massacres of the innocents by both Herod and Pharaoh . . .

Prophecy: Matthew riddles his narrative with references to fulfilled prophecies

1:23 (a virgin shall conceive); 2:6 (Bethlehem to be the Messiah’s birthplace); 2:18 (Ramah’s people weeping for the massacre of infants; 2:23 (Nazareth chosen as hometown to fulfil a prophecy about being called a Nazarene) . . .

The early chapters in Luke are redolent of the tone and settings of the birth narratives of Samuel and the patriarchs.

John even identifies Jesus with a being existing from the beginning with God.

The canonical gospels either used the voice, tone, structures and character types of the ancient biblical narratives to introduce Jesus, and/or ancient prophecies to validate their innovations. Something new was wrapped in the above ancient trappings.

Disclaiming authorship

Through these techniques the authors were creating documents that directed the reader to the written text, and to imagine links between the new text and the past sacred texts.

To announce the author’s identity would possibly have been counterproductive if in fact it was their purpose to introduce novelty to audiences with a suspicion of novelty and a reverence for the hoary. An author’s name in the introduction would deflect attention from such an aim and direct it in some part to the identity and reliability of the person of the composer. And the composer was undeniably contemporary, and probably identifiable with some position that was controversial.

Much of Deuteronomy is written as the words of Moses or the words spoken by God to Moses. So much so that it is easy to forget that the book speaks of Moses in the third person and to assume Moses wrote the book himself. And such is the tradition that attached itself early to not only Deuteronomy but to the other books of the Pentateuch as well.

Genesis to 2 Kings is known as the Primary History of Israel, and it is a collection of anonymous works. But anonymous works that assume authority arouse curiosity and cannot stay anonymous for long in the popular imagination. Just as Moses was soon assumed to be one author, Joshua and Ezra quickly became the assumed authors of the remainder of the books.

Similarly in the case of the gospels: anonymous authorities inevitably arouse speculations of authorship. It was inevitable that the names of apostles and close faithful associates of apostles were soon fixed on the superscription of each of the gospels.

The facade cracks and masks appear

Luke is arguably later than the other gospels (Matson et al.) and it does name a patron in its introduction. We don’t know if the patron’s name was historical or figurative, but with this later gospel we see a tentative early step away from the anonymity of the earlier gospels. Similarly with John, that hints at authorial identity, however fictional, by claiming to be written by the “beloved disciple”. Once the new had been established, other gospels could no longer attempt to vie with the originals by the same anonymity technique. They had to change tack and deploy the names of Peter, Philip, Thomas, et al, the way Plato masked himself behind the name of Socrates.

So thanks to “N.T.Wrong” for introducing me to Levinson’s book on Deuteronomy. Levinson’s explanation for the anonymity of Deuteronomy may not be the answer to the anonymity of the Gospels, but if it isn’t, I have not been able to think of a better possible explanation.

Masked and Anonymous
Image via Wikipedia
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Neil Godfrey

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7 thoughts on “An Explanation for the Gospels being Anonymous”

  1. I am honored that you found my work of benefit. The non-inclusion of Ben Sira in the Protestant and Jewish canons of scripture, because of its non-anonymous prologue, would add additional support for your thesis.

    I am very interested in the New Testament as well. When my new book here:

    went through a panel review at the Annual Meeting of the Society of Bbilical Literature in New Orleans last November, I actually drew upon the prologue to Luke to make a point about the Deuteronomy and the Old Testament, so we are on the same page. Thank you for your interest in my work.

  2. Dear Mr. Godfrey,
    The price of the volume is indeed shocking; I completely agree. Equally shocking: the author receives zero by way of honorarium or royalty. That is the difficult state of publishing in academic religious studies. However, there is some major good news: because several reviews have called for a paperback, the publisher has just announced its attention to issue one sometime this summer. In the meantime, if I could make a recommendation, please consider recommending that your local university/seminary/public library acquire it for its collection. Cambridge has not been able to reach many such libraries, to make it more available (and, again, I receive nothing: just want it to be more accessible).

    Now to the substantive point: the response about the significance of Luke’s prologue, and the analogies to Deuteronomy, is not something I have ever published; it remains thus far part of the “oral” not the “written” Torah. There was a panel review of the volume at SBL in New Orleans, and in debates on different approaches to the Pentateuch, I used the analogy in response to a question to make a larger point about authorship and canon.

    At the risk of another, even more lethal price shock, may I mention another recent volume that you might find interesting for your own work, but that is even more horribly expensive, and so relevant only for libraries:
    and for some reviews of the volume:
    Again, the publisher (Mohr Siebeck) pays no royalties or honorarium. There are discussions underway, mercifully, for a paperback. There is a first chapter on the literary approach to biblical studies, with an additional discussion of authorship and anonymity/pseudepigraphy; and in a response McConville’s critique of my analysis of the Passover laws, an investigation of the Matthean redactor’s presentation of Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount!

    Sorry for this long response: and may the paperback versions come soon!


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