Were the Gospels Written and Circulated Anonymously? Part 3

Post Author: Bill Pratt

In part 2 we finished looking at Richard Bauckham’s first reason for rejecting the anonymity of the Gospels. Bauckham continues with the second of his three reasons, the traditional titles of the Gospels.

Throughout the early manuscript tradition, from c. 200 onward, the only titles for all four canonical Gospels are in the form “Gospel according to  .  .  .” (euangelion kata  .  .  .), with the exception of manuscripts Vaticanus and Sinaiticus which have the short form “According to.  .  .  .”

Martin Hengel has argued persuasively, not only that the longer form was the earlier form, but also that the meaning is not “the Gospel writing written according to the tradition that derives from Mark,” but “the Gospel (i.e., the one and only gospel message) according to Mark’s account.” The usual genitive for the author’s name has been avoided in favor of the very unusual “according to  .  .  .” (kata  .  .  .) formula, in order to “express the fact that here the gospel was narrated in the particular version of the evangelist in question.”

So why is this fact important?

Each of these titles therefore presupposes the existence of other Gospel writings (not necessarily all three of the other canonical ones), from which the Gospel in question needed to be distinguished. A Christian community that knew only one Gospel writing would not have needed to entitle it in this way. Even a Gospel writer who knew other Gospels to be circulating around the churches could have himself given this form of title to his work. (In the first century CE, most authors gave their books titles, but the practice was not universal.)

Why would the early Christian communities need or want to distinguish between the different Gospel accounts?

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. For the former purpose, it would have been necessary to identify books externally, when, for example, they were placed side-by-side on a shelf. For this purpose a short title with the author’s name would be written either on the outside of the scroll or on a papyrus or parchment tag that hung down when the scroll was placed horizontally on a shelf.

In the case of codices, “labels appeared on all possible surfaces: edges, covers, and spines.” In this sense also, therefore, Gospels would not have been anonymous when they first circulated around the churches. A church receiving its first copy of one such would have received with it information, at least in oral form, about its authorship and then used its author’s name when labeling the book and when reading from it in worship.

So when did the titles start getting attached to the various Gospels?

Hengel argues that, given that the Gospels must have acquired titles at a very early stage, the titles that survive in the earliest manuscript tradition (c. 200 onward) are these “original” titles.  In favor of this is the fact that no evidence exists that these Gospels were ever known by other names. The unusual form of the titles and the universal use of them as soon as we have any evidence suggest that they originated at an early stage.

Once the Gospels were widely known it would be much more difficult for a standard form of title for all four Gospels to have come into universal use. Helmut Koester, who thinks Marcion was the first person to use the word “Gospel” for a book, rejects Hengel’s argument that the full form “Gospel according to  .  .  .” could have been used to entitle the Gospels already early in the second century, though he does not necessarily deny that the ascriptions to authors may be early. However, Graham Stanton supports Hengel’s argument on the basis of other early instances of the term “Gospel” (euangelion) used for a written Gospel.

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.

In part 4, we will look at Bauckham’s third reason for rejecting the anonymity of the Gospels.