If you open the first Gospel in the New Testament you will find a heading something like, “The Gospel According to Matthew.” You will find the same heading for Mark, Luke or John. What you might not notice is that this heading is not actually part of the original text, in fact, the headings attributing the Gospels to Matthew, Mark, Luke and John were added once more than two of the Gospels began to circulate together, more than likely around the beginning of the second century.
The title served the purpose of distinguishing one Gospel from another and avoiding mix-ups. Thus, strictly speaking, all four Gospels are anonymous, that is, the author is not explicitly named within the work. This begs the question why the authors did not include their name in publishing their Gospel account.
To begin, unlike Paul’s letters, which were written from one city to Christians living in another city, the Gospels were written by the author for his own Christian community. For example, Paul’s letters to the Thessalonians were written from Corinth. The failure to identify himself as author could have caused confusion.
On the other hand, Mark’s Gospel was likely written from Rome for Roman Christians. The audience would know full well who authored it: He was part of their everyday lives. It was only later, when the Gospels began to circulate more widely, that the need arose to add the author’s name in a title. Furthermore, Old Testament books, which likely served as a model for the Gospel writers, did not include a title or name of author in most instances.
The more important question is whether their anonymity should shake our confidence in the Gospels, and even more, should it cause us to doubt their authority? In short, the answer to both concerns is “absolutely not.”
The reality is that, although the titles weren’t part of the original Gospels, they were very early, within 40 years of their publication. Furthermore, there is not one example of a manuscript of any of the four Gospels that attributes authorship to anyone other than Matthew, Mark, Luke or John. And let’s be honest, if you were forging a story about Jesus and attempting to pass it off as an authoritative source, you would not attribute it to someone named Mark or Luke? This actually strengthens the tradition that these otherwise little known figures in early Christianity wrote these Gospels.
In summary, the tradition is early and consistent that Matthew, Mark, Luke and John wrote these four Gospels somewhere between A.D. 50-100. Two of these, Matthew and John, were part of the Twelve who spent three years with Jesus. The other two, Mark and Luke, were close companions of Peter and Paul, two strong sources for the life of Jesus. They would have also had access to many other eyewitnesses of the events.
Luke might have known that the little girl Jesus raised from the dead was the “daughter of Jairus,” because Jairus himself is the eyewitness source of the story. Surely Jairus did not simply vaporize from Galilee after his daughter was restored to life.
How would Luke know the details of Jesus’ birth? Surely Mary would have been available to tell and retell the story for years to come to anyone who would listen. As a result, what we have in our four Gospels should be considered eyewitness testimony.
These Gospels, written within the lifetime of many of the eyewitnesses, embody the direct accounts of specific, named eyewitnesses to the life and ministry of Jesus. The fact that Matthew and John, themselves eyewitnesses, and Mark and Luke, close companions of eyewitnesses, were all four inspired by God results in four documents where history and theology meet in perfect harmony. Thanks be to God.
In my upcoming columns I will explore what we know about Matthew, Mark, Luke and John.