The Early Church Would’ve Never Received Anonymous Gospels

Some skeptics claim that before Irenaeus wrote his book Against Heresies in 185 AD, many different Gospels were used in early churches. Irenaeus supported only the four Gospels we have today in the Bible, saying they were special. He linked them to important figures like Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John to make them more authoritative. So crudely put, our current Gospels got their names from a cranky 2nd-century bishop.

However, Tertullian, writing about 20 years later from Carthage, throws a monkey wrench into this whole idea by suggesting that the early church would not have accepted anonymous Gospels. Tertullian, initially a lawyer, later became a theologian and used his legal mind to challenge the legitimacy of Marcionism through his writings.

Writing around 207–208, he stressed the importance of believing that the apostles were the authors of the Gospels in response to the heretic Marcion. He wrote:

“Of the apostles, therefore, John and Matthew first instill faith into us; while of apostolic men, Luke and Mark renew it afterwards. These all start with the same principles of the faith…. Marcion, on the other hand, you must know, ascribes no author to his Gospel, as if it could not be allowed him to affix a title to that from which it was no crime (in his eyes) to subvert the very body. And here I might now make a stand, and contend that a work ought not to be recognised, which holds not its head erect, which exhibits no consistency, which gives no promise of credibility from the fullness of its title and the just profession of its author.”

(Against Marcion, 4.2) 

In these words, Tertullian highlights the importance of Gospels written by apostles—like John and Matthew—as the bedrock of Christian belief. He also mentions Luke and Mark, connected with apostolic men, which support these beliefs. Tertullian compares these with Marcion’s Gospel, which doesn’t mention its author. According to Tertullian, a Gospel without a clear author in its title shouldn’t be recognized or believed.

Tertullian goes on to write:

“The same authority of the apostolic churches will afford evidence to the other Gospels also, which we possess equally through their means, and according to their usage—I mean the Gospels of John and Matthew—while that which Mark published may be affirmed to be Peter’s whose interpreter Mark was. For even Luke’s form of the Gospel men usually ascribe to Paul.”

(Against Marcion 4.5) 

In other words, Tertullian points out that the apostolic churches supported not just John and Matthew’s Gospels but also the one linked to Mark, believed to be guided by Peter. He also mentions that Luke’s Gospel is often associated with Paul. This shows how these Gospels are closely tied to apostolic connections or influences.

Though some thought Marcion rejected Matthew and John’s apostolic authorship, but Tertullian’s argument hints that Marcion actually acknowledged their traditional authorship but didn’t agree with their teachings:

“In the scheme of Marcion, on the contrary, the mystery of the Christian religion begins from the discipleship of Luke. Since, however, it was on its course previous to that point, it must have had its own authentic materials, by means of which it found its own way down to St. Luke; and by the assistance of the testimony which it bore, Luke himself becomes admissible. Well, but Marcion, finding the Epistle of Paul to the Galatians (wherein he rebukes even apostles for not walking uprightly according to the truth of the gospel, as well as accuses certain false apostles of perverting the gospel of Christ), labors very hard to destroy the character of those Gospels which are published as genuine and under the name of apostles, in order, forsooth, to secure for his own Gospel the credit which he takes away from them…When Marcion complains that apostles are suspected (for their prevarication and dissimulation) of having even depraved the gospel, he thereby accuses Christ, by accusing those whom Christ chose.” 

(Against Marcion 4.5)

So, Tertullian says that Marcion believed the Christian teachings started with Luke, not the apostles. But Tertullian says that since Christianity began before Luke, it had its own true teachings before him. He accuses Marcion of trying to ruin the apostles’ Gospels, suggesting that by doing this, Marcion is criticizing Christ indirectly because these apostles were chosen by Christ. Tertullian thinks Marcion is trying to make his own version of the Gospel look better by doubting the apostles’ stories.

Tertullian kept going, pointing out that Marcion couldn’t explain why everyone agreed on the apostles’ Gospels. Tertullian was curious why Marcion ignored Gospels linked to apostles like Matthew and John but paid more attention to changing Luke’s Gospel: 

“Well, then, Marcion ought to be called to a strict account concerning these (other Gospels) also, for having omitted them, and insisted in preference on Luke; as if they, too, had not had free course in the churches, as well as Luke’s Gospel, from the beginning. Nay, it is even more credible that they existed from the very beginning; for, being the work of apostles, they were prior, and coeval in origin with the churches themselves. But how comes it to pass, if the apostles published nothing, that their disciples were more forward in such a work; for they could not have been disciples, without any instruction from their masters? If, then, it be evident that these also were current in the churches, why did not Marcion touch them—either to amend them if they were adulterated, or to acknowledge them if they were uncorrupt? For it is but natural that they who were perverting the gospel, should be more solicitous about the perversion of those things whose authority they knew to be more generally received.”

(Against Marcion 4.5)

So again we see that Tertullian challenges Marcion’s exclusive focus on Luke’s Gospel, suggesting that other apostolic Gospels were also accepted from the beginning. He questions why Marcion didn’t acknowledge these widely accepted Gospels, implying that Marcion might have manipulated their authority to suit his heretical beliefs.

Driving the point home even further, Tertullian wrote:

“But if there be any (heresies) which are bold enough to plant themselves in the midst of the apostolic age, that they may thereby seem to have been handed down by the apostles, because they existed in the time of the apostles, we can say: Let them produce the original records of their churches; let them unfold the roll of their bishops, running down in due succession from the beginning in such a manner that [that first bishop of theirs] bishop shall be able to show for his ordainer and predecessor some one of the apostles or of apostolic men,—a man, moreover, who continued stedfast with the apostles. For this is the manner in which the apostolic churches transmit their registers: as the church of Smyrna, which records that Polycarp was placed therein by John; as also the church of Rome, which makes Clement to have been ordained in like manner by Peter. In exactly the same way the other churches likewise exhibit (their several worthies), whom, as having been appointed to their episcopal places by apostles, they regard as transmitters of the apostolic seed. Let the heretics contrive something of the same kind. For after their blasphemy, what is there that is unlawful for them (to attempt)? But should they even effect the contrivance, they will not advance a step. For their very doctrine, after comparison with that of the apostles, will declare, by its own diversity and contrariety, that it had for its author neither an apostle nor an apostolic man; because, as the apostles would never have taught things which were self-contradictory, so the apostolic men would not have inculcated teaching different from the apostles, unless they who received their instruction from the apostles went and preached in a contrary manner.”

So in short, Tertullian challenges heretical groups to prove their legitimacy by showing a direct line of bishops tracing back to the apostles. He highlights how reputable churches like Smyrna and Rome maintain this lineage. Tertullian argues that if the teachings of these heretical groups contradict the consistent doctrine of the apostles and their direct successors, it indicates a lack of true apostolic authority behind those teachings, which is bad for Marcion.

Was Tertullian getting his info from Irenaeus?

Some might argue that Tertullian drew his traditions from Irenaeus since he had read his works. However, this assumes that Tertullian’s knowledge of Gospel authors stemmed from Irenaeus to prove their point, which is really circular reasoning. Tertullian never says that he got his information from Irenaeus. It’s more likely he’s discussing what was considered common knowledge of the time.

The early Christians didn’t randomly pick certain texts and then claim they were written by important figures, like apostles, just to make them special. Instead, they highly valued specific Gospels because they believed these texts came from direct connections to Jesus’ closest companions—the apostles or those very close to them. So, it wasn’t a case of making these texts sacred first and then saying, “They must be from the apostles.” They believed they were from the apostles, and that’s why these texts became so significant to them. Tertullian uses legal thinking to argue for this very point. 

Why don’t we hear about the author’s names until the late second century?

Also, some critics say that figures like Ignatius of Antioch, Justin Martyr, Clement of Rome, the writers of the Didache, and Polycarp referred to the Gospels as really important texts but didn’t specifically name the authors. They argue that because these authors didn’t mention names, it means the Gospels were anonymous. But this argument doesn’t hold up. Irenaeus and Tertullian, who often quoted the Gospels without naming the authors, are not seen as treating the Gospels as anonymous. Just because someone doesn’t mention a name doesn’t mean the texts are anonymous. Lots of writings from ancient history are lost, and absence of evidence isn’t always evidence from absence.

Secondly, it’s simply untrue that we only learn about all the authors’ names from Irenaeus, as I’ve discussed previously here. And in the passages we’ve just discussed, Tertullian gives us a clear window into how the early church would have viewed anonymous Gospels.

Why didn’t the authors identify themselves?

The big question here is: why don’t the Gospels mention the names of their authors in the books themselves? To understand this, let’s compare it with how names were handled in similar types of writings back in the ancient world.

First, let’s look at technical books. In some cases, like Luke’s Gospel, not mentioning the author’s name was typical for scientific manuals. Other scientific writings from that time also skipped mentioning the author’s name, so it wasn’t unusual for Luke to do the same. These include Diocles, (Letter to Antigonus (4 BC), Demetrius’s Formae Epistolicae (1 BC), Hero of Alexandria’s Pneumatica I (1/2 AD), and Galen’s De Typis (2 AD).

Next, when it comes to history, there’s a bit of debate. Some scholars argue that Greek historians typically included their names. However, this isn’t entirely true. While some Greek historians did mention their names, it wasn’t a universal practice. Even some well-known historians like Polybius and Diodorus Siculus didn’t do it.

Moving on to biographies, which are a kind of history, the situation is similar. Many biographers, such as Plutarch, Philo, and Nepos, didn’t mention their names in their works. Even famous biographical writings often skipped mentioning the author’s name in the preface.

The absence of the author’s name within the text itself wasn’t a big deal because there were other ways to figure out who wrote a piece. Authors’ names could appear in the title, in lists of contents before the main text, or in headers or end titles. Sometimes, the author’s name was on the outside of the book or on a bookmark-like tag inserted into the book. These methods were used to identify the author without them having to introduce themselves within the text.

Interestingly, it’s the later apocryphal or heretical gospels where the authors make an effort to name themselves in the text, such as the Gospel of Peter, the Gospel of Thomas, the Gospel of Judas, the Gospel of Mary Magdalene, and so forth.

So, in conclusion, the absence of the authors’ names in the Gospels’ prefaces isn’t that strange considering how authors were identified in other writings of that time. It was quite common for authors’ names not to be explicitly mentioned within the text because readers or listeners usually knew who wrote the work through other means. It was often the fakers who felt compelled to name themselves in the texts. And Tertullian tells us what the churches would’ve thought about anonymous Gospels. They valued apostolic tradition too much to just receive any old nameless text.

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