What Do We Mean When We Say the Gospels Were Originally Anonymous?

GospelsAlthough many Christians accept that Matthew, Mark, Luke and John wrote the Gospels attributed to them, scholars will state emphatically that the Gospels were originally anonymous.

But what does that even mean?

When we hear that the Gospels were originally anonymous, very specific thoughts come to mind. It sounds as if no one knew who wrote the Gospels and that the church had to later pick some names to go with these writings.

While some scholars might believe that, that is not exactly what is meant by anonymous Gospels. All that scholars are saying is that no where in the text of the Gospel does it say who wrote it.

Let me illustrate by giving an example of a Gospel that is not anonymous. The first verse of the Gospel of Thomas says this: “These are the secret sayings which the living Jesus spoke and which Didymos Judas Thomas wrote down.”

I don’t know of any scholar who really believes that Thomas wrote that Gospel, but at least an author is identified. The same is not true for the canonical Gospels. The text itself is silent about the author (other than John being by the unidentified Beloved Disciple).

Does this mean that no one in the first century knew who wrote these Gospels? I’m not so sure about that.

Read carefully the preface to Luke:

“Now many have undertaken to compile an account of the things that have been fulfilled among us, like the accounts passed on to us by those who were eyewitnesses and servants of the word from the beginning. So it seemed good to me as well, because I have followed all things carefully from the beginning, to write an orderly account for you, most excellent Theophilus, so that you may know for certain the things you were taught.” (Luke 1:1-4)

Does that sound like someone who was trying to hide their identity? This author is dedicating his work to a named individual. Presumably Theophilus knew who wrote the book. Perhaps others did as well.

It is true that the earliest Christian writers don’t give the names of the authors. But from my reading of them, it seems that they saw the authority not in the authorship of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John but in the words being spoken by Jesus. It was only later as competing Gospels were being written that the apostolic authorship needed to be asserted.

Am I arguing that Matthew, Mark, Luke and John absolutely wrote those Gospels, without a doubt? While I lean toward that interpretation, my goal is much more modest. I simply want to state that the anonymity of the Gospels is saying that the authors are not identified within the text and that is all.

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