Bart Ehrman, a famous New Testament scholar, claims that the four canonical Gospels were written anonymously, and were later falsely attributed to Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, a century after they had been written. In his book, “Forged: Writing in the name of God, Why the Bible’s authors are not who we think they are”, he builds a story for why these names were selectively chosen after they had already been in circulation in the early Church. Instead of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, he says, the real authors were anonymous Christians who relied on hearsay and legend rather than eyewitness testimony. He claims that the canonical Gospels were written in the third person, and were not attested for, in church fathers until Irenaeus, in the late second century.
Is there evidence for this claim?
First, there is simply no evidence that the first manuscripts of the Gospels lacked attribution to their traditional authors. There are no manuscripts that simply lack titles that consistently identify Matthew, Mark, Luke and John to their respective Gospels. Academic critics, on the other hand, say the variants in the titles of those early manuscripts prove the author’s names were added at a much later date. However, the usual variant is just the absence of the word “Gospel” which leaves a title that begins with “According to . . .” followed by the author’s name which is never absent from these manuscripts! If this is evidence for anything, then it is evidence for the unbroken and consistent oral tradition that churches worldwide had about the authors of each Gospel.
In fact, many scholars reject the notion that the Gospels were anonymous at all. They argue that the hypothesis, that the Gospels were anonymous, requires many assumptions to be validated, which violates the principle of Occam’s Razor (that the best explanation is the one that requires the fewest assumptions). They maintain that the Apostolic fathers didn’t mention the Gospels’ authors because this was their custom even when they quoted the Pauline epistles or the Old Testament.
Second, even if the earliest copies of the Gospels did not contain the names of their authors, that would not disprove the traditional authorship of those texts. For example, the works of the ancient Roman historian Tacitus often do not bear his name, but few historians have ever questioned that Tacitus wrote them. We know Tacitus is the author of these works because other ancient writers, like St. Jerome, identify him as the author. Bart Ehrman himself explains that anonymous literature was the custom of that period of time.
Third, again, even if the earliest copies of the Gospels did not contain the names of their authors, it is not accurate to classify them as anonymous writings. An anonymous writing is one where the author deliberately hides his/her identity. This is not the case in the Gospel of Luke for example. Luke clearly addresses his Gospel to Theophilus who seems to have inquired about the story of Jesus and requested Luke to develop an accurate account of Jesus. It is clear that the recipient – Theophilus – would know that Luke is the one who is addressing him given the context of their exchange. It also isn’t the case with the Gospel of John as he refers to himself often within the Gospel as the “disciple Jesus loved” (John 13:23).
Fourth, there is an unbroken chain of evidence since the beginning of the church that Matthew, Mark, Luke and John are the authors of the Gospels. As St. Augustine has dealt with the same claim in his reply to the heretic Faustus, he stated:
“How do we know the authorship of the works of Plato, Aristotle, Cicero, Varro, and other similar writers but by the unbroken chain of evidence? So also with the numerous commentaries on the ecclesiastical books, which have no canonical authority and yet show a desire of usefulness and a spirit of inquiry. . . . How can we be sure of the authorship of any book, if we doubt the apostolic origin of those books which are attributed to the apostles by the Church which the apostles themselves founded?”
By the end of the first century, the authorship of each Gospel had been confirmed. Papias of Hierapolis, wrote in the first decades of the second century that the Gospels of Matthew and Mark were in circulation by the end of the first century. Justin Martyr, in 150 AD, referred to the Gospels as written by the Apostles or their companions, and Irenaeus, in 190 AD, affirmed the traditional authorship of the Gospels, mentioning that this was handed down to him. He concluded that the Gospels’ authorship would have been confirmed within a generation from their writing, among all Christian communities, without confusion or any evidence for discussion or disagreement.
Finally, another argument in favor of the traditional authorship of the Gospels is this: if they had been forged, it is highly likely the forgers would have pretended to be more impressive-sounding authors. This is what heretics in the second, third, and fourth centuries did when they attributed their forged Gospels to people like Peter, Philip, and Mary Magdalene. Why pretend to be a relative unknown such as Mark or Luke? Why would they impersonate a persona non grata such as Matthew, whose popularity as a former tax collector would have been only slightly higher than that of Judas Iscariot?
Biblical scholar Brant Pitre aptly summarizes the issue: “According to the basic rules of textual criticism, then, if anything is original in the titles, it is the names of the authors. They are at least as original as any other part of the Gospels for which we have unanimous manuscript evidence.”