When did the Gospels get their names?


In this series of posts on the authors’ names associated with the New Testament Gospels – Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John – we have so far seen that the texts themselves are completely anonymous. The authors of two of these works (Luke and John) do speak in the first person in a couple of instances, but they do not say who they are. By the end of the second century, roughly a century after the books were written, they were being called by the names that are familiar to us today. So naturally one might wonder, when were they given these ascriptions?

Contrary to what you may sometimes have heard, there is no concrete evidence that the Gospels received their familiar names early on. It is absolutely true to say that in the manuscripts of the Gospels, they have the titles we are accustomed to (The Gospel according to Matthew, etc.). But these manuscripts with titles do not start appearing until around 200 CE. What were manuscripts of, say, Matthew or John entitled in the year 120 CE? We have no way of knowing. But there are reasons to think that they were not called Matthew and John.

Here are some factors to consider. First, the titles almost certainly cannot be what the authors themselves called their works. It is widely thought among critical scholars that Mark did give a kind of descriptive title to his work, in what is now the first verse: “The Beginning of the Gospel of Jesus Christ.” This is probably not simply an introduction to what is to follow. It may well be Mark’s own title. Notice that his own name (whatever it was) is left out of it.

The other three Gospels do not have titles: they just begin. But it is clear that they were not originally called such things as “The Gospel according to Luke” or the “Gospel according to John,” as is found in our later manuscripts. The reason should be obvious. No one (in either antiquity or today) would give a title to indicate whom it is “according to.” (When I wrote my book Misquoting Jesus I called it just that; I didn’t entitle it “Misquoting Jesus According to Bart Ehrman) If one wanted to entitle a Gospel, they would do what Mark did, and call it something like “The Life of Jesus” or “The Account of Jesus’ Words and Deeds” or “The Gospel of Jesus Christ” or the like.

If someone indicates, in a title, whom the Gospel is “according to,” it is someone else telling you whose version of the Gospel it is. That must mean that the Gospels were not given their titles until it was widely known that there were several versions floating around and that it was important to differentiate among them. So when was that?

There are solid reasons for thinking that Gospels were in circulation by the end of the first century, but there are also solid reasons for thinking that at that point, at least, the Gospels had not been given their now current names. Luke indicates that “many others” had written accounts of Jesus’ life, and that he, unlike them, was going to give an “orderly account.” So Gospels were known to him. He certainly had Mark and Q at his disposal, and probably other accounts. So too Matthew. And John may well have known of the other three, and yet others. But we have no record of anyone calling these books by their later names.

The Gospels of the New Testament appear to be quoted in early second century authors such as Ignatius of Antioch and Polycarp of Smyrna. But they are not called by their names in any of these writings (in fact, in any of the writings of the Apostolic Fathers – ten proto-orthodox writers, most of them from the first half of the second century). Of greater significance – quite real significance – is evidence from the middle of the second century. Justin Martyr wrote several extensive works that still survive: two apologies (reasoned defenses of the Christian faith) and a book called the “Dialogue with Trypho” (an extended controversy with a Jewish thinker about the superiority of the Christian faith to Judaism).

Justin is an important figure in the history of Christianity. He was one of the first intellectuals in the church, one who was trained in philosophy before converting to Christianity from paganism. His books were written around 150-160 CE in Rome, where he had moved to set up a kind of Christian school. Eventually because of his public Christian stance, he was arrested and martyred – hence his sobriquet, Justin “Martyr.”

In his writings Justin quotes the Gospels that later were to be considered part of the New Testament on numerous occasions. It is quite clear that he knows (intimately) Matthew, Mark, and Luke. It is debated whether he knows John – he does have two explicit quotations from John 3 (from the passage about “being born again”) but some scholars think that’s not enough to show that he knows John, just that he is familiar with a tradition that had earlier also found its way into John. My own view is that he probably knew John.

But the striking thing is that he does not call the Gospels by name. He instead, regularly, calls them “Memoirs of the Apostles.” And so he does associate these books with apostles, but he never indicates which apostles. And he does not say that he thinks that the apostles themselves wrote the books, only that these books preserve their “memoirs” (meaning, their reminiscences of the life and teachings of Jesus).

This is significant because among other things Justin was one of the earliest heresiologists – that is, a Christian thinker who classified and attacked “heresies,” false forms of teaching. We know for a fact that various “heretical” groups that advocated one view or another claimed to have Scriptural authority for their views, in Gospels that proto-orthodox Christians like Justin rejected as not being apostolic or authoritative. Given that context, why doesn’t Justin specify just *which* Gospels are authoritative, because of their apostolic origins? One plausible explanation, the one that strikes me as the least problematic, is simply that in Justin’s time and place – 150-60 CE in Rome — the Gospels were not yet given names that associated them with the specific apostles. Then when did that happen? That is what I will explore in subsequent posts.

Categories: Gospels, New Testament scholarship

22 replies

  1. I hope mr. Bart erhman doesnt dig deeper. It would be like bringing what was a million dollars in ashes to a bank.

    • Liberal scholar!!!!!!

    • @ Atlas

      Don’t worry Atlas its a common mistake.

      • While I do agree with Ehrman on most of his points, I do not regard the topic as particularly damaging to the christian faith. Ehrman himself is not unaware of the fact that a number of christian scholars agree (at least partly) with his conclusions. Daniel Wallace, Mike Licona and Dale Martin are such scholars. During the Ehrman-Licona debate, the topic came up. Licona dismissed it as not so important. Such problems are common with historical documents. Daniel Wallace said similar stuff in one of his video responses to Ehrman.
        So, my point is – modern day christians seem to have adopted a minimalistic approach to the Bible. The discussion on authorship hence hardly damages their faith.

  2. Reblogged this on The Quran and Bible Blog and commented:

    Bart Ehrman explains why the gospels are anonymous documents. It is time for Christians to come to terms with the facts.

  3. Martin Hengel, an eminent scholar, (recently passed away) who I believe even Paul Williams used him at least once at one of his three blogs; wrote (in the quote):

    As far as the title (“kata Markov” = according to Mark), Hengel insists that the lack of the smallest shred of any other name for the gospel is important. “The unanimity of testimony to the titles of the Gospels, for which there are still no variants of any kind in this early period, rules out a late origin” (p 66) for the title.

    R. T. France has an extended discussion of this issue in his commentary on Mark, on pages 39-40.

    France points out that:

    “In contrast to this general skepticism, Martin Hengel’s Studies in the Gospel of Mark offers a robust argument for taking the patristic accounts of Mark seriously. Hengel is particularly scornful of the repeated assertion that the gospels are ‘anonymous’ documents, to which the names of authors were conjecturally attached sometime in the second century. his study on the titles of the Gospels argues that as soon as more than one written version of the ευαγγελιον was in circulation some label would be necessary in order to distinguish them, and the only such labels we know are the traditional terms κατα Μαθθαιον, κατα Μαρκον, etc. which are found with remarkable unanimity from as early as we can trace the titles of the books. Hengel points out how improbable it is that a late conjectural attribution could have produced such unanimity and left no trace of alternative attributions. He also quotes Tertullian, Adv. Marcion 4.2.3, as typical of the the view that a ‘gospel’ not bearing the name of its author could not be accepted as authoritative. It is thus altogether improbable that gospel books cold have circulated in the latter part of the first century without titles, and those titles took the form of a statement of authorship. The tradition that Mark was the author of this gospel therefore goes back even earlier than Papias, close to the time of the book’s own composition. ” (R. T. France, The Gospel of Mark, pages 39-40)

    A footnote # 80 on page 39 says:

    “. . . most modern books (including this commentary) are also ‘anonymous’; it is only on the title page and cover that the author is named. And ancient manuscripts regularly carried titles or colophons which might be expected to identify the word contained in them; it was in such titles rather than in the text itself that the author’s name would be found.”

    In short, every evidence that we have when we have the title page of the gospels, κατα Μαθθαιον, κατα Μαρκον, Κατα Λυκαν, κατα Ιωαννην (John) are all there, when extant.

    • The blind leading the blind. Kenny is unable to respond to Ehrman’s main points, and instead provides speculative “evidence”. This guy is a lost cause!

      • Paul Williams in the past (at one of his past deleted blogs or at the one Ijaz took over) cited both Martin Hengel and R. T. France as excellent scholars.

        by the way, I looked over at Ijaz’ “blogging theology” and it looks dormant for months. (no new articles since 2018 )

  4. Ehrman’s main argument is an argument from silence. And even Ehrman admits that Justin Martyr knew the Gospel according to John – since Justin uses the Logos principle as describing Christ (based on John 1:1, 1:14, etc. (1 Apology 46:2; Dialogue with Trypho 88:7) and Justin quotes from John chapter 3 and alludes to things in John’s gospel other times. (the Logos)

    see extended discussion in Dr. Michael Kruger’s book, “Christianity at the Crossroads: How the second century shaped the future of the Church”, pages 215-216

    “For the apostles, in the memoirs composed by them, which are called Gospels, have thus delivered unto us what was enjoined upon them; that Jesus took bread, and when He had given thanks, said, “This do ye in remembrance of Me, this is My body;” and that, after the same manner, having taken the cup and given thanks, He said, “This is My blood;” and gave it to them alone. Which the wicked devils have imitated in the mysteries of Mithras, commanding the same thing to be done. For, that bread and a cup of water are placed with certain incantations in the mystic rites of one who is being initiated, you either know or can learn.”
    (1st Apology, 66- with obvious quotes from Luke 22:19-20 and parallels in Matthew and Mark)

    Justin Marty cites from all four canonical gospels.

    3 synoptics – Dialogue with Trypho 100:1; 103:8; 106:3-4
    From John: I Apology 61:4

    Justin Martyr refers to:

    “the memoirs of the apostles” (Ist Apology, 67:3 – “Justin plainly affirms the authority of these books when he tells us that they were read alongside with the OT Scriptures and even expounded upon by the pastor/preacher. (Michael Kruger, Christianity at the Crossroads, p. 216)

    “the memoirs of Peter” – (Dialogue with Trypho, 106) probably a reference to Mark

    “For in the memoirs which I say were drawn up by His apostles and those who followed them, [it is recorded] that His sweat fell down like drops of blood while He was praying, and saying, ‘If it be possible, let this cup pass:” (Justin Martry, Dialogue with Trypho, 103)

    “memoirs of the apostles” – refers to at least the 2 that go by apostles, Matthew and John

    “and those who followed them” = Luke and Mark

    “indicating that he received (at least) two gospels from apostles and (at least) two gospels from their followers – a likely reference to the canonical four” (ibid, Kruger, p. 215)

    and obviously quoting Luke 22:44 and 42

    See Justin Martyr, Dialogue with Trypho, 103 (see below)


    Also, Tatian, who was Justin Martyr’s disciple, came up with the first harmony of all four canonical gospels – The Diatesseron, “Making it highly unlikely Justin would have been unfamiliar with the canonical four.” (ibid, Kruger, p. 215)

  5. Interesting!!

    Ijaz has joined Shabir Ally’s team defending Islam.

    What do you think Paul?


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