Not So Anonymous: Evidence for the Early Existence of the Titles of the Gospels

The end of the Gospel of Luke with the title of the Gospel of John.

An observant reader of the New Testament will note that all four of the Gospels are formally anonymous. The Synoptics do not give any hint concerning authorship, while John’s Gospel only hints at the author’s identity in the cryptic title of the “disciple whom Jesus loved.”[1] The question naturally arises about where the titles of the four Gospels come from if they do not come from the text themselves.

Critical scholars have typically taken the approach that the Gospels are anonymous works, with the titles only being later and perhaps even spurious additions. Bart Ehrman has declared that “we know that the original manuscripts of the Gospels did not have their authors’ names attached to them.”[2] Some evangelical scholars have taken the same stance concerning the anonymity of the Gospels and later addition of the titles, with Darrell Bock and Dan Wallace taking such anonymity as a contrast to Gnostic Gospels, asserting that the canonical Gospels “almost surely were anonymous when penned. Later editors added the titles.”[3] Simon Gathercole notes two common factors leading scholars to take such opinions: 1) the Gospels do not indicate authorship, and 2) the assumption that the titles were only added when Gospels began circulating together.[4] Gathercole has challenged the common view that the Gospels are truly anonymous, arguing that “as far back as we can go, and probably from the beginning, these were the names attached to the Gospels.”[5] If names were attached, they were not actually anonymous works. In this post, I will examine this claim and its implications for Christian reception of the Gospels. In doing so, I will consider the manuscript data, patristic testimony, and additional factors that point towards the early existence of titles alongside the Gospels.

The Titles in the Greek Manuscripts 

The earliest manuscripts, that is, the papyri, follow the pattern of euangelion kata + evangelist, i.e. euangelion kata Markon (εὐαγγέλιον κατὰ Μᾶρκον). Translated, the titles would be “(the) Gospel according to Mark,” or in some more abbreviated versions, simply “according to Mark.” The titles amongst the other early manuscripts follow the same pattern with only a few slight variations, such as adding an article or adjusting word order.[6] Where titles are found in the manuscript tradition, they consistently apply the same name to each Gospel and follow the pattern of marking the Gospels out as “according to” their respective authors.

In our English Bible, we are accustomed to thinking of each of the four Gospel titles in a sort of possessive sense, as if each belonged to the specific evangelist: this one is John’s Gospel and that one is the Gospel of Matthew, and so forth. This way of thinking about the titles may even imply that each individual evangelist had his own gospel message, such that the gospel that Mark proclaimed may have been something rather different Luke’s gospel, with these different gospels being recorded in each individual written Gospel. This way of thinking about the Gospel titles is completely erroneous, but our language does allow for such misconceptions. The Greek titles, quite interestingly, are clearer in communicating that there are not multiple gospels, but the one gospel that is communicated according to each evangelist. Harry Gamble, although assuming the titles are later additions, touches upon this issue:

Yet when more than one Gospel narrative became available in a Christian community two problems emerged. The first was theological: it seemed inappropriate to speak of Gospels (in the plural), for theologically speaking the gospel was spoken of in the singular as one Christian message. The second was practical: how these documents were to be distinguished from each other. The peculiar form of the titles of the Gospels – the gospel (singular) according to (kata) a putative individual author (Mark, Matthew, and so on) – may well have arisen for a practical reason: “the titles were necessary for arranging the Gospels in community libraries and for liturgical reading.” This explanation is appealing because it links the unusual titles of the Gospels to particular circumstances and needs and can account for the adoption of those titles before the formation, in the late second century, of a four-Gospel collection.[7]

The titles are attached to the Gospels, and consistently so, in the earliest textual strata available to us today, and the form of the titles suggest something about how Christians viewed these Gospels, namely that they accepted more than one from a reasonably early date. Early as the titles of the manuscripts are, the patristic testimony concerning authorship is earlier, to which we now turn.

Patristic Testimony Concerning the Titles

The testimony of the church fathers is a complementary, though not necessarily dependent thread concerning the Gospel titles. It is one thing to acknowledge that the Gospels have titles associated with Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, but it is another to ask why it is that these names in particular are attributed to the four Gospels; that an attribution exists does not tell us why it exists. Of course, this need not imply that the titles are dependent upon patristic testimony; the testimony and the titles in the manuscripts are in fact independent of each other. For this testimony concerning the authors, and by proxy, the titles of the Gospels, we have extant the explicit testimony of two second century witnesses—Papias of Hierapolis and Irenaeus of Lyons—as well as more implicit testimony from a number of other second century sources.

What is known of Papias (c.60 – c.130) is preserved through Irenaeus and expanded upon by Eusebius of Caesarea. Eusebius quoted Irenaeus as saying that Papias was “an ancient man who was a hearer of John and a companion of Polycarp,”[8] making Papias very closely related to the apostles in both time and in relational distance. Eusebius records further testimony from Papias of his regard for obtaining traditions from the apostles:

If, then, any one came, who had been a follower of the elders, I questioned him in regard to the words of the elders,—what Andrew or what Peter said, or what was said by Philip, or by Thomas, or by James, or by John, or by Matthew, or by any other of the disciples of the Lord, and what things Aristion and the presbyter John, the disciples of the Lord, say. For I did not think that what was to be gotten from the books would profit me as much as what came from the living and abiding voice.[9]

Papias also was noted to have lived in Hierapolis, the same location as the daughters of Philip, and that he also learned of at least some oral tradition from them. These connections place  Papias at the tail end of the apostolic age, having heard the apostle John personally and having had direct contact with the second generation of Christians. With that in mind, it is no small thing that Papias is the earliest source concerning authorship of two of the Gospels. As he wrote,

This also the presbyter said: Mark, having become the interpreter of Peter, wrote down accurately, though not in order, whatsoever he remembered of the things said or done by Christ. For he neither heard the Lord nor followed him, but afterward, as I said, he followed Peter, who adapted his teaching to the needs of his hearers, but with no intention of giving a connected account of the Lord’s discourses, so that Mark committed no error while he thus wrote some things as he remembered them. For he was careful of one thing, not to omit any of the things which he had heard, and not to state any of them falsely… So then Matthew wrote the oracles in the Hebrew language, and every one interpreted them as he was able.[10]

The testimony raises intriguing questions concerning the production of Matthew’s Gospel, though we will set those aside in this paper. What concerns us is that Papias’s source is quite likely John himself, who he refers to here as the “presbyter” or the “elder.”[11] Michael Kruger suggests that the origins of Papias’s testimony may actually go back to as early as AD 90-100 when he would have heard it from John.[12] Kruger also indicates it quite likely that Papias knew of John’s Gospel based upon his knowledge of 1 John and Revelation, and also opens up the possibility of Papias evening knowing of Luke’s Gospel.[13] If Papias did indeed know of the two other canonical Gospels, or even only one of them, this pushes the date for the titles of all ofthe Gospels back until perhaps the late first century.

The testimony of Irenaeus (c.130 – c.202), while somewhat later in time, is no less significant, as he too had a relatively close apostolic connection. Irenaeus notes that he saw Polycarp as a youth while growing up in Smyrna since Polycarp lived to a rather old age, which is noteworthy because Polycarp, like Papias, was recorded to be a hearer of John by both Irenaeus and Tertullian.[14] Although Irenaeus lived towards the latter end of the second century, his relation to the apostle John is only one degree removed, with Polycarp being the intermediate link. Irenaeus thus testifies concerning the authorship of the Gospels in a similar manner as Papias, providing testimony concerning all four Gospels:

Matthew also issued a written Gospel among the Hebrews in their own dialect, while Peter and Paul were preaching at Rome, and laying the foundations of the Church. After their departure, Mark, the disciple and interpreter of Peter, did also hand down to us in writing what had been preached by Peter. Luke also, the companion of Paul, recorded in a book the Gospel preached by him. Afterwards, John, the disciple of the Lord, who also had leaned upon His breast, did himself publish a Gospel during his residence at Ephesus in Asia.[15]

Irenaeus’s testimony accords with that of Papias concerning Mark and Matthew, though giving Matthew at least implicit precedence in order of production. In any case, Irenaeus holds to a fourfold Gospel and sees each one as bearing apostolic witness, whether directly through Matthew and John or through intermediaries as in Mark and Luke.

A little  later than Papias and Irenaeus, around the turn of the third century, the Muratorian Canon testifies to Luke and John’s origins. It is fragmentary, however, and may be reasonably inferred to also testify to the authorship of Matthew and Mark. Preserved is probably the tail end of the testimony concerning Mark, which reads, “…at which nevertheless he was present, and so he placed [them in his narrative].”[16] The remainder of the text bears close resemblance to Irenaeus’s own words:

Luke, the well-known physician, after the ascension of Christ, when Paul had taken with him as one zealous for the law, composed it in his own name, according to [the general] belief. Yet he himself had not seen the Lord in the flesh; and therefore, as he was able to ascertain events, so indeed he begins to tell the story from the birth of John. The fourth of the Gospels is that of John, [one] of the disciples.[17] 

Less specific testimony also exists. Ignatius of Antioch in the early second century likely alludes to passages from multiple Gospels.[18] The there are the words of Justin Martyr around the year 160 where he says that the the memoirs of the apostles “are called Gospels”,[19] are read in the weekly gathering of Christians,[20] and are “drawn up by His apostles and those who followed them.”[21] which reality presupposes access to multiple Gospels with titles attached to them. Polycrates in the late second century wrote that John was he who “reclined upon the bosom of the Lord,” a statement which assumes attribution of John’s Gospel to the apostle. Richard Bauckham comments that in using such language, “Polycrates not only identifies John as the author of the Fourth Gospel, but also suggests the special value of the Fourth Gospel as deriving from a disciple who was especially close to the Lord.”[22] More references could be listed,[23] but the overall picture from both the implicit and the explicit testimony of the church fathers is early knowledge of the canonical Gospels’ existence, which highly suggests knowledge of the titles.

Factors Suggesting the Early Nature of the Titles

In addition to the manuscript tradition and the patristic testimony, there are further factors that point towards the early existence of titles. These factors are the circumstances actually giving rise for the titles, the interrelation of the Synoptic Gospels, the ring of truth and reasonableness of the individuals attributed in the titles, and the uniformity and consistency of the same figures being attributed in the titles.

The Need for the Titles

That Christians used multiple Gospels from an early date is evident from both patristic testimony and patristic usage of the Gospels. Gamble, cited above, linked the need for titles to the theological presupposition of there being one gospel and the presence of multiple Gospel accounts.[24] Other scholars have seen a similar need for the titles. Bauckham, noting the peculiar euangelion kata + evangelist title for the Gospels, says “A Christian community that knew only one Gospel writing would not have needed to entitle it in this way.”[25] He comes to the same basic conclusion as Gamble: “Whether or not any of these titles originate from the authors themselves, the need for titles that distinguished one Gospel from another would arise as soon as any Christian community had copies of more than one in its library and was reading more than one in its worship meetings.”[26] The need for the titles is fairly apparent, so the question then becomes, how early did such a need arise? Judging by patristic testimony alone, this is by, at latest, the late first or early second century. Judging the Gospels based upon internal criteria, this could have been as soon as they were written.

The Synoptic Problem

In tracing the development of the canon of the New Testament, Bruce Metzger has observed that “the trend toward a multiplicity of Gospels existed from the very beginning,” noting the prologue of Luke’s Gospel as an example,[27] which says that “many have undertaken to compile a narrative of the things that have been accomplished among us” (Luke 1:1).  While Metzger raises the point to suppose that the multiplicity caused offense in the church,[28] he actually hits upon an element that is further suggestive of the early requirement for titles: the synoptic problem. Biblical scholarship recognizes that the three Synoptics bear some relation and mutual dependence, with attempts to deduce how this dependence plays out being known as “the synoptic problem.” The view tending to hold the most currency in solving the synoptic problem is the suggestion that Mark was written first, while both Matthew and Luke used and adapted the earlier material, though the actual order of precedence is irrelevant for the point. If we assume that Matthew and Luke used Mark, it may be a stretch to imagine that they used the material in ignorance of who the source was. Gathercole finds it hard to believe that “a professedly conscientious investigator like Luke would, without any accompanying testimony, follow (by ancient standards, extraordinarily closely) a naked anonymous account.”[29] He instead suggests that they would have had either an “oral or paratextual” statement concerning the provenance of the Gospel of Mark, for “The first readers and audience of Mark’s Gospel would have known who wrote it, and the distance in time between Mark and his Synoptic successors was not very great (Mark is rarely considered to be much more than about 15 years earlier than Matthew and Luke).”[30] Even if Mark’s material was fully anonymous, it is perhaps even more of a stretch to assume that neither Matthew or Luke would have marked their material in such a way as to distinguish it from Mark. If the need for titles does indeed arise once a community has access to more than one Gospel, then both the Matthean and the Lukan communities would have had need for such titles from the very beginning.

The Reasonableness of the Titles

Bart Ehrman has attempted to portray the titles of the Gospels as suspicious, late additions to the manuscript tradition. He does so by pointing to the circumstances in which Irenaeus provided his testimony concerning the four Gospels, alleging that, because of theological battles, Christians were motivated to try to find names for the anonymous works that were circulating:

As a result, Christians started attaching names to the various books that were originally anonymous, and battles were fought over which ones were truly inspired by God.
It’s probably no accident that the first time Christians started insisting that the Gospels they preferred were written by apostles and companions of the apostles (Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John) was after various “heresies” began to thrive, heresies in which alternative beliefs were propounded and books embracing these beliefs were distributed. It may be that earlier traditions— including the somewhat vague but tantalizing traditions about Mark and Matthew preserved by Papias— may have helped make the claims more plausible.[31]

If the Gospels are simply a later unreliable tradition, it may be asked why Christians would choose an obscure apostle like Matthew, a rather ignominious figure like John Mark, or a largely unknown traveling companion of Paul like Luke. John is the only figure who seems like an obvious choice. If Irenaeus and others were attempting to prop up their own Gospels, it seems there were better figures to choose from. When we turn to the pseudonymous apocryphal Gospels, we find this tendency to try to attach well known names, such as in the Gospel of Thomas, the Gospel of Peter, the Gospel of Mary, the Gospel of Judas or the Protoevangelium of James. That three of the four canonical Gospels are attributed to fairly obscure figures adds an additional air of authenticity, which suggests further that the titles may be traced to an early date.

The Consistency of the Titles

One final factor that points to the early date of the Gospel titles is the fact that we know of no other names or titles being attached to the four canonical Gospels. If the titles were a second century addition attached well after the Gospels had been written and disseminated throughout the Mediterranean world, we would hardly expect for them to be uniformly attributed. Gathercole has noted that, although this is an argument from silence, it is a highly suggestive silence: “If the titles simply emerged very late, say in the mid- to late-second century, we would expect to find diversity among the names, but we do not.”[32] As an example of why this is a reasonable assumption, he cites the case of the Epistle to the Hebrews, which bears no name in its text. Given a certain amount of time circulating anonymously, we would expect to find multiple attributions of authorship, which is exactly what occurs with Hebrews. By the mid third century, Paul, Barnabas, Clement, and Luke were all proposed as possible authors of the epistle, though such speculation never occurs in regard to the four Gospels.[33] Bauckham adds a strong affirmation of the consistency of the titles:

Whether or not the actual form of title, “Gospel according to . . .” was already used when the Gospels first circulated around the churches, it is very likely that the ascription of the Gospels to Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John dates from this very early stage, since this is the only way that one of the Gospels could have been distinguished from another. Our evidence offers no alternative way in which this could have been done. Again the universality of these ascriptions of authorship and the fact that they seem never to have been disputed indicate that they became established usage as soon as the Gospels were circulating.[34]

The only titles that are known for the four Gospels are those that are attributed to Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. Against the assumption that the Gospels are wholly anonymous, factors pointing towards the early date of the titles are surprisingly strong.

Conclusion

Given the broad scholarly opinion concerning the titles of the Gospels being late additions, the evidence to the contrary is actually quite strong. The unanimity of the manuscript tradition and the broad early agreement amongst the church fathers points to the titles being, at latest, late first- or early second-century additions. The circumstances surrounding the writing of at least two of the Synoptic Gospels (Matthew and Luke) are also ripe for the necessity of a title of some kind, with the reasonableness of the names adding an extra ring of truth to the early nature of the titles. That the attributions are uniform and consistent and that there is only minor variation on the same theme in the manuscripts indicates that the Gospels were not being transmitted as anonymous works, for if they were for any significant period of time, they would have very likely left their mark. In all, the early existence of the titles of the Gospels has implications for how early all four Gospels were largely acknowledged as authoritative. If all four were circulating with the title “(the Gospel) according to…”, then so much the stronger for the fourfold Gospel giving unified testimony to the one gospel of Jesus Christ.  


[1] See John 13:23, 19:26, 20:2, 21:7, and 21:20.

[2] Bart. D. Ehrman, Jesus: Apocalyptic Prophet of the New Millennium (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999), 42.

[3] Darrell L. Bock and Daniel B. Wallace, Dethroning Jesus: Exposing Popular Culture’s Quest to Unseat the Biblical Christ (Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson, 2007), 127.

[4] ​​Simon Gathercole, “The Alleged Anonymity of the Canonical Gospels,” Journal of Theological Studies 69, no. 2 (October 2018): 454.

[5] Ibid., 448.

[6] Simon J. Gathercole, “The Titles of the Gospels in the Earliest New Testament Manuscripts,” Zeitschrift Für Die Neutestamentliche Wissenchaft Und Die Kunde Der Älteren Kirche 104, no. 1 (2013): 37-47.

[7] Harry Y. Gamble, Books and Readers in the Early Church: A History of Early Christian Texts (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1995), 154. Emphasis original.

[8] Eusebius of Caesarea, Ecclesiastical History 3.39.1, Eusebius himself citing Irenaeus from Against Heresies 5.33.4.

[9]  Ibid., 3.39.4.

[10] Ibid., 3.39.15-16.

[11] There is some debate over whether John the Elder is to be identified as a separate person from John the Apostle. In either case, this Elder is an early and respected source.

[12] Michael J. Kruger, Canon Revisited: Establishing the Origins and Authority of the New Testament Books (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2012), 220.

[13] Ibid., 221-222.

[14] Irenaeus of Lyons, Against Heresies 3.3.4; Tertullian, De praescriptione haereticorum 32.2.

[15] Irenaeus of Lyons, Against Heresies 3.1.1.

[16] The Muratorian Canon, recorded in whole Bruce M. Metzger, The Canon of the New Testament: Its Origin, Development, and Significance (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1987), 305-307.

[17] Ibid.

[18] Kruger, Canon Revisited, 215. Kruger provides a list of possible allusions in a footnote, listing Epistle to the Smyrnaeans 1.1 (Matt. 3:15); Smyrnaens 3.2 (Luke 24:39); Smyrnaeans 6.1 (Matt. 19:12); Epistle to the Magnesians 8.2 (John 1:14, 17:16); Epistle to the Philadelphians 7.1 (John 3:8).

[19] Justin Martyr, First Apology 66.

[20] Ibid. 67.

[21] Justin Martyr, Dialogue with Trypho 103.

[22] Richard Bauckham, “Papias and Polycrates on the Origin of the Fourth Gospel,” The Journal Of Theological Studies 44, No. 1 (1993): 31.

[23] Gathercole does so in “The Alleged Anonymity of the Canonical Gospels,” 463-473.

[24] Gamble, Books and Readers in the Early Church, 153.

[25] Richard Bauckham, Jesus and the Eyewitnesses: The Gospels as Eyewitness Testimony, 2nd ed. (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans, Co., 2017), 248, ProQuest Ebrary.

[26] Ibid.

[27] Metzger, The Canon of the New Testament, 263. 

[28] Ibid. 262-264. He believes Irenaeus’s analogies of four drawn from nature was a defense of the use of all four Gospels to the church.

[29] Gathercole,“The Alleged Anonymity of the Canonical Gospels,” 462.

[30] Ibid.

[31] Ehrman, Jesus: Apocalyptic Prophet of the New Millenium, 44.

[32] Gathercole, “The Alleged Anonymity of the Canonical Gospels,” 474.

[33] Ibid., 474-475.

[34] Bauckham, Jesus and the Eyewitnesses, 248.

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