A common criticism of the Gospel accounts is that they are of low historical value because they are anonymous. This is based on the observation that the authorship is never explicitly mentioned in the main body of the texts of the Gospels attributed to Sts. Matthew, Mark, Luke, or John.
If we use this criterion, then as far as I can tell from briefly sampling my own library and prior reading, the works attributed to these authors also seem to be anonymous:
- Aristotle's Poetics
- Plato's Republic
- Aristophanes' Birds
- Livy's The Early History of Rome
- Tacitus' The Annals of Imperial Rome
- Shakespeare's Hamlet
- Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice
- Kant's Prolegomena to Any Future Metaphysics
- C.S. Lewis' Mere Christianity
Clearly this criterion is a silly one. It is customary, both in ancient and modern times, for the authorship of a work to be stated, not in the main body of the text, but in the byline written in the title header, or else on the outside of the book. The author may choose to begin his book by introducing himself by name to the reader (especially if there is a preface), but this is not the only way that an authorial name can be attached to a book. It's certainly not the primary method we use today. We're more likely to find the author's name on the spine or title page than in Chapter One.
According to this apologetics website, author names in the first century were typically written on a tag which was attached to the outside of the scroll, and possibly also in the title at the beginning or end of the document. I have checked the earliest complete manuscript of the New Testament with my own eyes (via an online scan) and I find that the authors names are clearly stated on the manuscript itself, in a header (e.g. "The Gospel of Mark") which directly proceeds the text itself. There is no evidence that an earlier form of the Gospels ever circulated which did not contain the author name. In other words, it is reasonable to assume that the texts were probably written by their stated authors, for roughly the same reason that we assume that the modern-day books on your shelf were probably written by their stated authors.
A better set of definitions is as follows:
- A document is anonymous if it was first published (i.e. distributed to a broad audience) in a way that did not have the name attached to the book. Later readers may speculate about who wrote it, and the text may thereby acquire a traditional authorship, but it is still anonymous as originally written. Otherwise, if there is a stated author:
- Call it genuine if it was really written by that author;
- Call it pseudonymous if it was really written by someone else.
Pseudonymous books are not anonymous. They have a name clearly attached to them, it's just that the name is either fraudulent or fictitious (depending on whether the author intended the reader to be deceived).
A book of the New Testament which actually is anonymous is the Epistle to the Hebrews. The author was clearly known to the original readers, but in its published form it says nothing about authorship. Although it is traditionally attributed to St. Paul, the text itself nowhere says this, and there are significant differences in writing style (as I know from personal experience trying to translate it one time—the Greek is difficult and uses classical words; I only got four verses in). The later history of Hebrews was exactly as you would expect for a truly anonymous document: discussion and disagreement about whether it was really written by Paul or several other proposed candidate authors, and uncertainty about whether or not it should be included in the canon. From the 4th century on there was a near consensus that the letter was written by Paul, but this consensus fell apart after the Reformation. By contrast, the other 13 Pauline epistles have Paul's name clearly stated in the salutation, and are therefore each either genuine or pseudonymous.
Now, it's certainly logically possible that the Gospels were all originally anonymous. However, achieving this would require a complicated historical process. It would require believing that for each gospel 1) the gospel was actually written by some person of sufficiently little importance that their name was not recorded, 2) so that the document was published and first circulated without any names attached, 3) then, at some later time, someone speculated that it was really written by the proposed author, 4) belief in this authorship became widespread without any recorded dissent, and 5) all copies of the text which have descendants were modified to include the title. This has to have happened, not once, but four times.
The Gospel of John is a special case, because the author is mentioned in the text specifically, although not by name, by the title "the disciple whom Jesus loved". There's been a lot of ink spilled about the identity of this person, but I think much of it is an effort to deny the obvious. The scenes with this person strongly indicate that he was one of the Twelve Apostles. Moreover, the statement of authorship in John 21:24, "This [disciple whom Jesus loved] is the disciple who testifies to these things and who wrote them down. We know that his testimony is true," doesn't make much sense if the identity of the apostle was intended to be mysterious. But it all makes sense if the Gospel was originally circulated with the name "John" attached to it (as it is in every copy we have). This isn't a watertight proof by any means, but I think it is significant when combined with the other evidence.
So I think the skeptic would do better to say that the Gospels are pseudonymous. However, they have to pay a probability price for this too. In addition to bucking the standard presumption of genuine authorship, we also have testimony from other early documents. This includes the writings of St. Papias (as preserved in Eusebius) and St. Irenaeus explicitly stating the authorship of the Gospels, and even providing details about how they were written (e.g. that Mark was based on St. Peter's preaching). These two individuals are connected by very short chains to the original generation of apostles. In fact, both Irenaeus and Papias assert that Papias was a disciple of John, although some scholars try to argue (in my view unconvincingly) that this was a different John than the apostle. In any case, he seems to have been related by multiple two-step chains to the original apostles, so it would be hard for a pseudonymous work to fool him. Irenaeus, in turn, was a disciple of St. Polycarp who was a disciple of John, again a very short chain of transmission.
This is excellent evidence for the traditional authorship of the Gospels, although it may be a more efficient investment of "improbability" for the skeptic to dismiss Papias and Iranaeus rather than accept the fact that two of the four Gospels were written by direct eyewitnesses to the events in question. (The question of whether apostolic authorship is consistent with textual evidence of date and style will have to wait for another post.)
I'm reminded that at one time it was popular for scholars to believe that Homer never really existed. Somehow, contrary to all modern experiences of authorship, they thought that the Illiad and Odyssey must have precipitated out of the folk-consciousness, without any definite author. That's pretty crazy. But let's suppose that there was some definite author, and we simply don't know what his name was. Seem plausible? Well, this would require believing that a class of professional singers, specially trained to memorize over 27,000 lines of poetry, were completely unable to remember a single word accurately.
UPDATE: I should clarify that Papias only refers to the circumstances of the authorship of Matthew and Mark; he does not (at least in the fragment preserved by Eusebius) discuss the authorship of the Third and Fourth Gospels. Irenaeus, on the other hand, bears witness to all four canonical Gospels.