I would like to thank Larry Hurtado for his recent post Anonymous Gospels. Hurtado draws attention to a feature of our four canonical gospels that he believes is too often overlooked: the fact that they originally were anonymous and even the titles they later acquired are not declarations of authorship but rather statements about whose point of view each gospel represented (e.g. The Gospel according to Matthew / Mark / Luke / John.)
In particular, Hurtado refers readers to a 2008 article written by Armin D. Baum
Baum, A. D. (2008). The Anonymity of the New Testament History Books: A Stylistic Device in the Context of Greco-Roman and Ancient near Eastern Literature. Novum Testamentum, 50(2), 120–142.
The article is accessible on JSTOR: https://www.jstor.org/stable/25442594. Anyone interested who is unable to access that article or too short on time to read it in full might be interested in previous blog posts here discussing its contents:
I’ve addressed the question of gospel anonymity in other posts, too, such as An Explanation for the Gospels being Anonymous.
But in thinking back on the question after perusing Hurtado’s post a related gospel feature suddenly took on a new significance for me. There can be little doubt that many of the gospel stories are kinds of re-writes of narrative episodes in the “Old Testament”. (An adjective widely used to describe this type of adaptation is “midrashic” but I have since come across Roger Aus’s suggestion that a more appropriate term might be “etiological haggada“.)
For example, it seems fairly obvious that John the Baptist in the first two gospels is based on Elijah. It is in 1 and 2 Kings where we find the lone prophet in the wilderness wearing rough animal skin clothing. Jesus’ baptism in the Jordan followed by his forty day time of trial in the wilderness is evidently a reminder of the Exodus of Israel and their forty year wandering through the Sinai. The calling of the disciples in the Gospel of Mark reminds readers of Elijah’s calling of Elisha. And so on right through to the final six chapters in which Howard Clark Kee counted 160 allusions to Scripture (and Karel Hanhart knows he missed at least one). See the posts on Mark 13, Mark 11-12, Mark 14-16.
What does this have to do with the anonymity of the gospels?
Well such “midrashic” retellings of well-known Scriptural tales demonstrate that their authors had some sense of rewriting Scripture or crafting a new type of “Scriptural Narrative” on to old ones. I don’t mean they thought of themselves writing holy writ whose every jot and tittle was breathed by God. That is hardly likely given the way we see how they freely adapted and changed each other’s work.
But it does make some sort of sense that someone writing a renewed or revised adaptation of stories from the anonymous books of biblical history would, as per those original historical books, likewise allow their own compositions to go without authorial identification.
The authority of anonymity, as someone said. Harder to argue with a story that bypasses a fallible human intermediary.
For another scholarly discussion of how certain texts did come to be attributed to known biblical heroes see my posts on Eva Mroczek’s work.
There is just one detail I believe should be corrected in Larry Hurtado’s post. He states
As we move into the second century, however, the four Gospels were ascribed to the now-traditional authors.
That’s slightly misleading, I think. Even after we move well into the second century right up to the time of Justin Martyr (who was around the middle of the century) we find no hint that the gospels were known by the names we attach to them. Justin speaks only of “memoirs of the apostles” when he (according to most scholars) is referring to our canonical gospels. It is not until we get well past the middle of the second century and into the later part of the second century and the writings of Irenaeus that we find our gospels referred to by the names we recognize.
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