Skeptical New Testament scholars argue that the Four Gospels in our New Testament are anonymous. There was no original “Gospel According to Matthew,” and the same goes for Mark, Luke, and John. Their titles were left blank originally. Or so the theory goes.
These four gospels allegedly were distributed without titles for almost a hundred years before scribes attached them to Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, well after these apostles were dead. Names got assigned to give the four gospels more prestige. Skeptics like Bart Ehrman go on to conclude that because these books were anonymous, they probably aren’t based on eyewitness testimony.
While many NT critics have latched onto this anonymous Gospel theory, I believe that it suffers from some serious flaws. Let’s take a look.
There are no anonymous copies of the four gospels
First of all, there are no anonymous copies of the four gospels. Zero. Zilch. Nada. Every single shred of manuscript evidence we have attributes them to the traditional authors. While there is a slight variation in how they’re titled, the familiar names are all there. These go back to the most ancient copies that we possess in our hands right now. There’s no historical evidence that the originals had no titles. Just take a gander at the table below:
|Gospel Title||Earliest Manuscript||Estimated Date|
|Gospel According to Matthew||Papyrus 4||2nd century|
|Gospel According to Matthew||Papyrus 62||2nd century|
|According to Matthew||Codex Sinaiticus||4th century|
|According to Matthew||Codex Vaticanus||4th century|
|Gospel According to Matthew||Codex Washingtonianus||4th-5th century|
|Gospel According to Matthew||Codex Alexandrius||5th century|
|Gospel According to Matthew||Codex Ephraemi||5th century|
|Gospel According to Matthew||Codex Bezae||5th century|
|According to Mark||Codex Sinaiticus||4th century|
|According to Mark||Codex Vaticanus||4th century|
|Gospel According to Mark||Codex Washingtonianus||4th-5th century|
|Gospel According to Mark||Codex Alexandrius||5th century|
|Gospel According to Mark||Codex Ephraemi||5th century|
|Gospel According to Mark||Codex Bezae||5th century|
|According to Luke||Codex Sinaiticus||4th century|
|According to Luke||Codex Vaticanus||4th century|
|Gospel According to Luke||Codex Washingtonianus||4th-5th century|
|Gospel According to Luke||Codex Alexandrius||5th century|
|Gospel According to Luke||Codex Bezae||5th century|
|Gospel According to John||Papyrus 66||Late 2nd century|
|Gospel According to John||Papyrus 75||2nd-3rd century|
|According to John||Codex Sinaiticus||4th century|
|According to John||Codex Vaticanus||4th century|
|According to John||Codex Washingtonianus||4th-5th century|
|Gospel According to John||Codex Alexandrius||5th century|
|Gospel According to John||Codex Bezae||5th century|
The anonymous gospel theory strains credulity
The biggest problem with the anonymous gospel theory is it lacks plausibility. Consider this scenario:
You have a book floating around the Roman Empire without a title for nearly a century. But somehow, at some time, it ends up being associated with the same author repeatedly — in fact, every single time. We have 0 traces of disagreement.
And this didn’t just happen once — it happened four different times, throughout the vast Roman Empire. Somehow, by sheer luck, Christians living in Africa, Rome, Syria, and so forth attributed these gospels to the same four guys. All this without the help of email, text, social media, or Google.
If the anonymous gospel theory were correct, we’d expect to see at least some disagreement over who wrote what. But we have no contradictory titles. We don’t have a ‘Gospel According to Mark’ attributed to someone like Peter, Andrew, Simon the Zealot, Bartholemew, or whomever.
Why Mark and Luke?
And if you think about it, Luke and Mark could have had more impressive names attributed to them. Scholars have unanimously rejected apocryphal gospels ascribed to Thomas, Peter, Judas, and Mary Magdalene. They all have some attention-getting names — people who would’ve had firsthand access to Jesus. But Luke and Mark weren’t firsthand witnesses to the resurrection or disciples of Jesus. So it’s a bit odd attaching their names to two of these gospels if they’re not genuine.
Also, think about the book of Hebrews for a moment. People throughout church history have debated over who wrote it. Was it Paul? Barnabas? Timothy? We do have ancient manuscripts attributing Hebrews to all three of these different writers. To this day we have no idea who wrote Hebrews. But there is no debate in church history about who wrote the four Gospels.
The anonymous gospel theory fails
The anonymous gospel theory doesn’t add up. It fails to explain the utter lack of manuscript evidence. And it’s just implausible that the same four gospels got the same attributions of authorship without a hint of disagreement. Mark and Luke aren’t eyewitnesses of Jesus’ life, so adding their names to the Gospels adds very little in terms of authority. Skeptics can snobbishly appeal to the scholarly bandwagon all they want, but as it turns out, the anonymous gospel theory has some serious issues.
New Testament scholar Martin Hengel was on the nose when he wrote:
“Let those who deny the great age and therefore the basic originality of the Gospel superscriptions in order to preserve their “good” critical conscience give a better explanation of the completely unanimous and relatively early attestation of these titles, their origin and the names of the authors associated with them. Such an explanation has yet to be given, and it never will be.”The Four Gospels and One Gospel of Jesus Christ, p. 55
- The Case for Jesus: The Biblical and Historical Evidence for Christ, Brant Pitre
- The Four Gospels and the One Gospel of Jesus Christ, Martin Hengel
Erik is a Reasonable Faith Chapter Director located in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. He’s a former freelance baseball writer and the co-owner of a vintage and handmade decor business with his wife, Dawn. He is passionate about the intersection of apologetics and evangelism.