Anonymous Gospels

Creative Commons License

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.

by Neil Godfrey

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:

The Gospels: Written to Look Like (the final) Jewish Scriptures?

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

The Arguments For and Against the Anonymity of the Canonical Gospels

For and Against the Anonymity of the Gospels — without table format

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.


The following two tabs change content below.

Neil Godfrey

Neil is the author of this post. To read more about Neil, see our About page.

Latest posts by Neil Godfrey (see all)

If you enjoyed this post, please consider donating to Vridar. Thanks!

21 thoughts on “Anonymous Gospels”

  1. If I author something and you who I am or something about my background, views etc then I as author need to be consistent with that awareness or my writing will lack credibility. If you know I live in Adelaide but am describing events in, say, Ulan Bator the question of my source[s] will naturally arise. And so on.
    But ‘anonymity’ allows authority.
    Richard Pervo in “The Mystery of Acts” p.5-6 expresses well the advantages of anonymity:
    “Unnamed authors can serve as omniscient narrators ….Anonymity allows narrators to see and know all that they wish to report. In a phrase anonymity conveys AUTHORITY”.
    And he could have added that the authority is, possibly, in reality, invalid. The author could be just making stuff up.

  2. Hurtado thinks that Justin Martyr knew the authors of the gospels, but just didn’t identify them in his Dialogue with Trypho because their names wouldn’t have impressed the Jews with whom he was supposedly debating.

      1. Some details that Hurtado’s argument overlooks:

        1. Justin nowhere attempts to advance the view that Trypho can be assured that eyewitnesses (apostles who were said to be with Jesus and supposedly wrote the “memoirs/gospels”) could verify anything done by Jesus. Justin appeals to Jewish scriptures to verify anything he claims to be done by Jesus;

        2. If the “memoirs” were eyewitness accounts of Jesus and the same as our gospels we have to wonder why Justin says Jesus had no known genealogy, that Jesus was not born in a stable but in a cave, why he says John the Baptist was “sitting” by the Jordan and that a fire engulfed the river at Jesus’ baptism, that very few people took any notice of Jesus when alive, that Jesus never spoke a word to Pilate, and that the Twelve remained in tact without any hint of a Judas. (He can’t have suppressed Judas because of embarrassment because he has Trypho say he has already read the “gospels” and the Judas betrayal only served to glorify God’s and Jesus’s power etc all the more.

        So if Justin had what are our gospels in any special regard one has to ask why he did not highly regard their accounts of Jesus.

        1. My thought was that Justin probably had Christian readers in mind even though the Dialogue was ostensibly an exchange with a Jewish figure, and it’s unlikely that he would have omitted names that his actual Christian readers revered just because a hypothetical Jewish interlocutor would have been unimpressed.

  3. I didn’t see a good reason in Baum’s article to believe that the gospels were “originally” anonymous. Just the usual appeals to the consensus.
    Has anyone researched where and how this theory originated, and how valid that analysis was? Few people today realize that the Documentary Hypothesis is rooted in the need to “disprove” Spinoza’s assertion in 1670 that Moses didn’t write the Torah. Just because some idea has floated around in scholarship a long time and has been lazily accepted by a large number of seminary teachers hardly justifies leaving such assumptions unexamined.

  4. It’s a good question to raise. The Gospels didn’t just appear out of the ether, and it’s doubtful that the first people to begin using each one would do so without knowing where they came from. So if the authors had any true authority on the subject, why were their identities suppressed? Most likely because they didn’t.

    1. We don’t know who wrote the Old Testament historical books but what is important for believers is that they are recognized as authoritative by their church leaders.

  5. Has anyone studied the provenance of the idea that the Bible is the “inspired” or “inerrant” word of God? How old are those ideas? Could the authors have had such claims in mind?

    And what is the history of such claims (of divine inspiration, or inerrancy) in religious literature generally?

    Where can one go to research this topic?

    Forgive me if this is not the best place to ask this question.

      1. Bauckham came back and said: John, can you cite any parallel for such a way of using a name? I don’t know any. Theophilus was a common Greek name, and popular with Jews who wanted a Greek name because it was theophoric (included reference to God). I can’t imagine any contemporary reader not assuming Theophilus was a real person, especially as a preface addressed to a named patron was a normal practice.Why go for a weird explanation when an obvious one is entirely plausible?

        So I responded: Richard, another example of inventing a person/name would be “Jesus Barabbas,” meaning “Jesus, son of the father.” So we have two “Jesus, sons of the father,” one released and one crucified, to reflect the practice at Yom Kippur. This would be meant to fulfill the scripture of “the scapegoat” that would be set free (Leviticus 16:7-10). There is no reason to think there was an historical “Jesus Barabbas.” Barabbas was probably just invented to make a theological point. The custom of releasing prisoners in Jerusalem at Passover is known as the Paschal Pardon, but this custom (whether at Passover or any other time) is not recorded in any historical document other than the gospels, leading scholars to question its historicity.

        1. I cannot fathom any scholar who is familiar with the scholarly discussions on the preface/s to Luke-Acts working on the assumption by default that they are addressed to a real person and are in any way comparable to other prefaces of historical works. Certainly one is entitled to hypothesize that Theophilus is a real person and then to argue the case, but assume by default?

          We have no way of knowing who wrote/finalized Luke-Acts. To assume that we can somehow read the mind of that unknown person and conclude that he intended to address a real person in a work that is otherwise primarily fictitious is going beyond the normal limits of responsible research. To then use that otherwise unknown name to assume that it was that of a real person and that that real person is evidence that the author of Luke-Acts was generally known at the time is, …. dizzying?

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Discover more from Vridar

Subscribe now to keep reading and get access to the full archive.

Continue reading