Post Author: Bill Pratt
A common complaint about the reliability of the letters and books contained in the New Testament is that we don’t know, for sure, who wrote all of these documents. In particular, the four Gospels are singled out as being anonymous since there is nothing in the text of the four Gospels that says, “So-and-so wrote this Gospel.”
There are many historical scholars who do believe that we can identify the authors of the Gospels and most of the other letters in the New Testament, but what if we could not? What if the authors of these documents were unknown? Would we have to throw out the contents? Are they worthless, in that case, for historical investigation?
Historical scholar Mike Licona, in his book The Resurrection of Jesus, says “no.” Licona first answers the charge that the Gospels were not written by eyewitnesses:
Bracketing the fact that a number of scholars have taken a contrary position, this challenge is not unique to the New Testament literature. No surviving account of the life of Alexander the Great was written by an eyewitness. Tacitus and Suetonius were not eyewitnesses to the majority of the events they reported. Nevertheless, historians remain confident that they are able to recover the past to varying degrees without ever knowing who their sources were.
Historian C. Fasolt argues that Paul’s letter to the Roman church is helpful as a historical source “only on the assumption that it was written by Saint Paul.” Is Fasolt right? Licona notes historian M. S. Cladis’s response to Fasolt:
This is going to be news to countless social historians of the religions of the ancient Mediterranean basin who investigate archaeological and textual work without always knowing the specifics of the exact agents involved. Indeed, these historians are investigating the society that shaped the agents, even if they do not know most of the agents’ names (and all that this means).
They collect, analyze, and interpret evidence from a variety of sources—monuments and tombs, literary texts and shopping lists—in order to learn something important about the socio-historical circumstances in which people, like Paul, lived, moved, and had their being. The historian of antiquity, then, can learn much about the past from the ‘Letter to the Romans’ whether or not that text was actually written by Paul.
Here is the takeaway point: even if we grant that the books and letters of the New Testament are anonymous, we can still gather important historical information from those texts. Anonymity of the sources is not a death knell for historical New Testament studies, and should not be used as some kind of sweeping indictment of the texts. We can know what happened to Jesus and his disciples two thousand years ago, using the New Testament documents as our sources.