Monday, July 27, 2015

On Bart Ehrman and the authorship of the gospels

A few weeks ago my husband, Tim McGrew, a specialist in epistemology and the history and philosophy of science, recorded two one-hour, back-to-back sessions of an informal radio debate with New Testament scholar Bart Ehrman on the British show Unbelievable. They aired a week apart. Part I is here. Part II is here. Full disclosure: I haven't yet listened to Part II. I decided to write this post first, since it is related to Part I, and then listen to Part II.

Justin Brierley, the show's host, decided to take the early part of the discussion in the direction of the authorship of the gospels. Eventually he decided (understandably) that enough time had been spent on that subject and moved along to other topics. After listening to the podcast, I decided that it would be useful to come back to the subject in writing, re-emphasize and say more about some points Tim made, and make some additional points. In preparation I have also read some additional material by Ehrman as background. (I have, for now, obtained a paid membership at Ehrman's blog, so some of the exact quotes here will be fair use of portions of articles that, in their entirety, are behind a paywall.) When I refer to the interview my indications of minutes will be approximate.

"The gospels were circulated anonymously at first."

This claim, in various wordings, is made by Ehrman times without number in his writings on the subject of who wrote the gospels, and the claim that the gospels were originally anonymous also comes up in the podcast with Tim.

Tim points out in the radio debate (around minute 29) that the sense in which Ehrman is using the word "anonymous" is compatible with everyone's having always known who wrote the gospels! Tim points out that all that is meant by their being formally anonymous, and all that can be shown, is that in the body of the text the book's author does not identify himself. This point deserves emphasis. It is an absolutely standard part of Ehrman's approach to this issue that he defines "anonymous" in a very narrow sense which is impossible to dispute but then slides in his usage to a much broader meaning without defending the slide. In the debate, around minute 33, Ehrman tries to say that this is "not a technicality." "That's what anonymous writings are," he says. "Anonymous writings are books where the authors do not tell us their names."

But let's think about that for a moment. If that is literally all that is meant by "anonymous," then the gospels are still anonymous today! For the bodies of their texts have not changed, and the authors did not name themselves in the body of the text. More: A great many modern books on your shelves and mine are "anonymous" in this fairly pointless, and, yes, technical sense. If you glance through the body of the text of many, many books, articles, and even blog posts, you will find that the author almost never pauses and names himself in the body of his text. Why would he? That's what a title page, superscription, or subscription at the end of the article or post is for! When I write a professional article in philosophy, I never put my name into the body of the text. I would never pause in the middle of discussing probability theory and say, "I, Lydia McGrew, say unto you that this is a consequence of Bayes' Theorem." When the article is accepted, my name is printed at the beginning and sometimes at the end of the article by the publishing journal, to whom I have separately given my name as the author. This does not mean that my article is ever anonymous in any sense in which any ordinary person would use that term, or in any sense that is of the slightest use in discussing the history of my work. In fact, the article has my name associated and even printed with it from its first appearance. Just not in the body of the text.

Historian Martin Hengel points out (The Four Gospels and the One Gospel of Jesus Christ, p. 44) that ancient books usually were disseminated with titles and with the author's name and would always have had titles and author designations when collected in a library. In other words, we should not assume that ancient conventions were all that much different from our own in this respect. As in our own time, even if the body of the text did not include a title and author designation, one was normally included in a superscription or subscription, even in scrolls. (See this rather humorous New York Times article about the ancient poet Martial's complaints about not getting royalties for his work, which confirms the common practice of superscripting and/or subscripting ancient works with the equivalent of a title page.)

In fact, Ehrman himself admits (here, behind paywall) that the ancient manuscripts of the gospels (presumably he means those that are complete enough that they do not have the beginning or ending discernibly damaged) do have the author ascriptions of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. He simply states that these manuscripts are available only from about 200 A.D. onward and that we don't know what still earlier manuscripts looked like! Well, yes, by definition one might say that we don't have any complete manuscripts that are earlier than the earliest complete manuscripts we have. Nonetheless, the evidence of the complete manuscripts is, as far as it goes, against the anonymity of the gospels.

What all of this means is that all of our manuscript evidence, together with the evidence concerning the ancient practice of superscripting books with author names, is fully compatible with the hypothesis that the gospels never circulated without their present titles. (Hengel presents an additional argument for this conclusion from the remarkable uniformity of the form of the gospel titles as we have them in manuscripts and the fact that this form was unusual in the ancient world, pp. 44-55.)

Naturally, we don't have an ancient videotape of the gospels circulating around, say A.D. 100 or earlier, so we cannot prove by that sort of evidence that they always had author names affixed, but the point that I am making is that the term "anonymous" is being abused to imply that there definitely was a period during which their authorship was unknown or unattributed, and there is in fact no positive evidence of any such period at all and actually evidence to the contrary.

It would be tedious to document the many places in which Ehrman is clearly using the term "anonymous" in the more common sense. Here is just one:
But the Gospels that were widely accepted as authoritative in Irenaeus's circles were originally anonymous. The solution to the problem of validating these texts was obvious: they needed to be attributed to real, established authorities.
Jesus, Interrupted, p. 111
Here, Ehrman cannot mean by "anonymous" merely "not having the name of the author given in the body of the text." For that extremely limited meaning of "anonymous" would not by itself create any problem which needed to be solved by later attribution to "established authorities." That narrow sense of "anonymous" is compatible with the gospels' always having circulated with author ascriptions and/or with continuous, widespread knowledge within the Christian community of who their authors were. The wider meaning of "anonymous," which is what Ehrman needs for his argument, is that their authors were unknown. But from the extremely narrow meaning there simply is no inferential road to the broader meaning.

What is the significance of apostolic fathers' quotations without explicit names?

At about minute 32 and following, Ehrman states that he did not mean to argue from the fact that early apostolic fathers quote the gospels without naming their authors that they did not know who the authors were. He states that Tim has misunderstood his argument and that he was merely arguing that their quotations without giving specific author names should not be taken as evidence for the traditional ascriptions of authorship.

As I shall argue later, Ehrman definitely does argue from silence in precisely that way--i.e., from the absence of explicit attribution of named authorship in the course of the apostolic fathers' quotations to the conclusion that the documents did not have the traditional attributions of authorship at that time. His usage of the absence of explicit author names even in the interview gives that impression in any event, but he makes the argument even more clearly in his other written work. It is, in fact, a very poor argument.

In this section, my point is a little different. Ehrman is also wrong that, when the apostolic fathers quote from the gospels, these quotations do not constitute evidence of authorship unless they contain explicit attributions of specific authors.

Here's why: When the apostolic fathers quote the gospels, they do it in a particular way, and their treating these documents in that way needs to be explained. For example, Polycarp of Smyrna, whose life appears to have overlapped that of the Apostle John, says,

[B]eing mindful of what the Lord said in His teaching: "Judge not, that ye be not judged; forgive, and it shall be forgiven unto you; be merciful, that ye may obtain mercy; with what measure ye mete, it shall be measured to you again; and once more, "Blessed are the poor, and those that are persecuted for righteousness' sake, for theirs is the kingdom of God." (Epistle to the Philippians, chapter 2)
In these citations of Matthew 7, Polycarp clearly takes what he is quoting to be a reliable source of the words of Christ and one which his hearers should know and be mindful of.

Similarly, Clement of Rome, earlier still, says,
[B]eing especially mindful of the words of the Lord Jesus which He spoke teaching us meekness and long-suffering. For thus He spoke: Be merciful, that you may obtain mercy; forgive, that it may be forgiven to you; as you do, so shall it be done unto you; as you judge, so shall you be judged; as you are kind, so shall kindness be shown to you; with what measure ye mete, with the same it shall be measured to you.
Justin Martyr, about whom I shall have much more to say below, writing circa 150 A.D., refers countless times (search on the page here and here) to the "memoirs of the apostles," quotes repeatedly from all of our gospels (much more from the synoptics than from John), and says that these "memoirs of the apostles" were read in the churches along with the prophets. Hence, Justin shows that the works he is talking about were regarded as having Scriptural authority.

It is true that none of these authors (Clement of Rome, Polycarp, or Justin Martyr) names the authors of the writings from which they are quoting. But it remains a datum, requiring explanation, that clearly our own four gospels were known at an extremely early period and were regarded as authoritative sources of the words of Jesus and as worthy of treatment akin to that of the Old Testament.

One can, and from what I have seen it appears that Ehrman does, treat this simply as an unexplained surd--for some reason or other, we know not what, it could have been completely irrational and historically unfounded, the early church believed that these gospels were reliable sources of the words and deeds of Jesus, whom they worshiped, and the early church treated them with great respect accordingly. But that is a profoundly unsatisfying hypothesis, if indeed it deserves to be called an hypothesis at all. It is more like the absence of an hypothesis.

An actual hypothesis with some explanatory force is that they treated and quoted these texts in this way because they already had reason to believe that they came from the apostles or companions of the apostles. In other words, they didn't just inexplicably glom onto a randomly selected set of four documents and decide arbitrarily to treat them as holy books but rather treated them in this way because they already had reason to believe that they came from authoritative and knowledgeable sources.

Hence, even the quotation of the gospels without specific, explicit attribution to Matthew, Mark, Luke, or John is external evidence and attestation relevant to the question of their authorship. And it is evidence which tells in favor of their authorship by the followers of Jesus and their companions.

I want to note here that in the debate, at about minute 23:35, Ehrman says that he has been interested in the question, "When it is you start getting the tradition that these books were written by followers of Jesus?" At that point, perhaps rather unfortunately, the host, Justin, breaks in and says, "I.e., Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John," and Ehrman agrees. For much of the remainder of the discussion Ehrman beats the drum about the absence of explicit attribution (before we, in fact, do have documents which do contain explicit attribution!) to those particular authors. But what he said originally was that he is interested in the question of when we "start getting the tradition that these books were written by followers of Jesus." The quotations and usage by the early apostolic fathers, far earlier than Irenaeus (on whom Ehrman wants to concentrate) argue that we "started getting the tradition" to that effect from the earliest post-apostolic period. In other words, the evidence we have is all well explained by the hypothesis that this "tradition" didn't "start" at some later point but rather was known all along.

Ehrman does argue from silence concerning the apostolic fathers' quotations

As I mentioned above, in the debate Ehrman says that he is not claiming that the lack of explicit naming in the extant early church fathers' citations of our gospels constitutes an argument that they did not know the authors but that he is merely saying that their quoting without explicitly naming the authors is no evidence for apostolic authorship.

I have just argued that this would not be a good argument in any event. But was Ehrman really making only the argument he claims he was making? Even in the debate this seems an odd claim about what he was doing. At about minute 24, after saying that the it is a "striking thing" that gospels were "anonymous" at first, he says, "Another interesting thing is that when they get quoted early on, they're never named." Prima facie, both of these certainly sound like they are intended as arguments that their authors were not known at this early date. Concerning Justin Martyr, he says, "The striking thing of Justin Martyr, of course, is that he quotes Matthew, Mark and Luke extensively but never says that they were written by Matthew, Mark, or Luke, and never mentions John, either." Again, the statement that this is a "striking thing" hardly sounds like a mere statement that Justin Martyr's citations don't count as evidence for traditional authorship.

In this post (and this portion of the post is outside of the paywall), Ehrman says,

In the previous post we saw that the Gospels almost certainly circulated anonymously at first, just as they were composed anonymously. It is an interesting question why the authors all chose to remain anonymous instead of indicating who they were. I have a theory about that, and I may post on it eventually when I get through a bit more of this thread on why the Gospels ended up with the names they did. At this stage, what we can say with certainty is that the Gospels are quoted in the early and mid-second centuries by proto-orthodox Christian authors, who never identify them as Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John.
That is especially significant when we come to Justin around 150-60 CE, who explicitly quotes these books as “Memoirs of the Apostles,” but does not tell us which apostles they are to be associated with.
Here Ehrman cannot claim, as in the debate, that he is merely responding to someone else's argument that there is extensive external evidence for the gospels' provenance and is merely denying that the early fathers' quotations count as such evidence. Here he is making his own argument. This post is even titled, "The Gospels Are Finally Named! Irenaeus of Lyons." And the above quotation continues, "Some thirty years after Justin, another proto-orthodox church father, Irenaeus, does identify the Gospels by name. He is the first to do so." (Emphasis added.) It is extremely difficult not to conclude in this context that Ehrman is implying that the fact that the earlier church fathers, including Justin, "do not tell us" or "never identify" the gospels by specific authors (in their extant writings) is an argument (from silence) that they did not know the authors.

But all question about the form of his argument is laid to rest when he lays it out at greater length here, in "When Did the Gospels Get Their Names?" (Most of the article is behind the paywall.)

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).
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? (Emphasis added.)
Here, as in the debate, Ehrman calls this a "striking thing" about Justin, and here he spells out an absolutely explicit argument from silence concerning the fact that Justin does not name the authors of the gospels "Matthew," "Mark," "Luke," and "John."

So, yes, Ehrman is arguing from silence in this fashion; that is not a misunderstanding of his argument.

It should go without saying that this is an extremely weak argument. There could be many reasons why the writings of Justin that we currently have do not name Matthew et. al. as authors--the most obvious of which is that those author attributions were well-known among the audience to which Justin was writing and that he found his most common phrase, "memoirs of the apostles," to be a convenient shorthand for the purposes of the points he was making.

Ehrman's mistakes about Justin Martyr

Ehrman makes a number of mistakes and/or misleading statements about Justin Martyr that are important enough to deserve mention.

His statement about Justin Martyr in the debate shortly after minute 24 continues: "You mention Justin Martyr, but the striking thing of Justin Martyr, of course, is that he quotes Matthew, Mark and Luke extensively but never says that they were written by Matthew, Mark, or Luke, and never mentions John, either. The only gospel he names by name is the gospel of Peter."

To say that Justin Martyr names by name the apocryphal gospel of Peter is sufficiently tendentious and misleading that I consider myself justified in calling it an outright falsehood.

Here is the quotation from Justin Martyr to which Ehrman is apparently referring. Justin, in his Dialogue with Trypho 106, is making a somewhat typological application of the end of Psalm 22 to Jesus' life:

The remainder of the Psalm makes it manifest that He knew His Father would grant to Him all things which He asked, and would raise Him from the dead; and that He urged all who fear God to praise Him because He had compassion on all races of believing men, through the mystery of Him who was crucified; and that He stood in the midst of His brethren the apostles (who repented of their flight from Him when He was crucified, after He rose from the dead, and after they were persuaded by Himself that, before His passion He had mentioned to them that He must suffer these things, and that they were announced beforehand by the prophets), and when living with them sang praises to God, as is made evident in the memoirs of the apostles. The words are the following: 'I will declare Your name to my brethren; in the midst of the church will I praise You. You that fear the Lord, praise Him; all you, the seed of Jacob, glorify Him. Let all the seed of Israel fear Him.' And when it is said that He changed the name of one of the apostles to Peter; and when it is written in the memoirs of him that this so happened, as well as that He changed the names of other two brothers, the sons of Zebedee, to Boanerges, which means sons of thunder; this was an announcement of the fact that it was He by whom Jacob was called Israel, and Oshea called Jesus (Joshua), under whose name the people who survived of those that came from Egypt were conducted into the land promised to the patriarchs.
I have bolded the part of the passage that is crucial for the present argument. Much debate has centered on the question of what is meant by "memoirs of him" in the bolded sentences. A useful summary of the scholarly discussion is available here and here. Ehrman contends that "memoirs of him" means "memoirs of Peter." Linguistically, as far as I know, there is no problem with that--that is, that the "him" in "memoirs of him" is Peter. Others have contended that it means "memoirs of Jesus"--i.e., memoirs about Jesus. That could be the accurate translation as well, but I know of no reason to argue that "him" in that phrase definitely refers to Jesus rather than to Peter.

But to say that "memoirs of him" not only means "memoirs of Peter" but further is naming by name the apocryphal Gospel of Peter is, frankly, absurd and highly misleading. Even if Ehrman's further conjecture that this is a reference to the Gospel of Peter were correct, which it almost certainly is not (see next paragraph), this is not naming by name the Gospel of Peter.

In fact, Justin says that in these "memoirs of him" it is written that Jesus changed the name of one of the apostles to Peter and also changed the name of the sons of Zebedee to Boanerges, meaning sons of thunder. As Tim Henderson points out, neither of these is found in the extant portion we have of the so-called Gospel of Peter, but both of them are included in the Gospel of Mark! The statement about calling the sons of Zebedee Boanerges is found only in Mark. This should really settle the matter as to whether this is even a reference to the Gospel of Peter in Justin Martyr. In the face of these facts, to call this "naming by name" the apocryphal Gospel of Peter is almost breathtakingly wrong. If anything, what this is doing is "naming by name" Peter as the source of what we know as the Gospel of Mark, a point that fits notably well with what Papias says earlier in the second century about the relationship between Peter and Mark--namely, that Mark wrote down what he heard from Peter about Jesus Christ.

An egregious mistake Ehrman makes about Justin Martyr is in his generalization about the apostolic fathers. At about minute 24, Ehrman says,
In none of the apostolic fathers...are these books ever named by apostolic names or even said to be writings by apostles.
As I already noted, Justin says times without number that the gospels he is quoting are "memoirs of the apostles." It is his signature phrase. He indicates, moreover, that these are written down, that Jesus' words are recorded in them, and that they are read in the churches along with the prophets. How much clearer does it need to be that Justin most certainly is saying that these are writings by apostles?

It may be that Ehrman realized that he had made an error here, because it was immediately at this point that he doubled back, named Justin Martyr, and began once more beating the drum about Justin's not naming specific apostles as the authors of specific gospels. But the flatly erroneous statement was already out of the bag and too late to recall: Ehrman had just said that never in the apostolic fathers are these books even said to be writings by apostles, a claim counterexampled by Justin Martyr repeatedly.

Based on Ehrman's argument about Justin Martyr quoted above from his blog, it is possible that he would try one more dodge to salvage the claim that these were "never even said to be writings by apostles." There he says, of Justin Martyr,
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).
In point of fact Justin Martyr makes no such distinction between "preserving" the apostles' memoirs and memoirs written by the apostles, nor are his claims limited in the way that Ehrman implies. On the contrary, he simply calls what he is citing the "memoirs of the apostles," a point that Ehrman's statement here radically obscures. No claim that these documents merely "preserve" the memoirs is made by Justin Martyr.

But there is more, if more were needed: In actual fact, Justin Martyr does explicitly say that he thinks the apostles themselves, and their followers, wrote these books! He says it in two places. In the Dialogue with Trypho 103, Justin says,
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:'
This is, of course, a citation of Luke's gospel. Here Justin explicitly states that the memoirs he is talking about were "drawn up by His apostles and those who followed them." Readers will note how perfectly this fits with both Papias's claims about Mark and with the designations we have for our four gospels.

Similarly, in the Apology 66, on the Eucharist, Justin says,
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 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.  
The words concerning the bread are a clear citation of Luke 22;19. The words concerning the cup appear to be a citation of the account either in Matthew 26:38 or Mark 14:24; the two passages are very similar. Again, Justin expressly states that the memoirs were "composed by the apostles," and (bonus!) that they "are called Gospels."

So Ehrman's statement that never in the apostolic fathers are these works said to be writings by the apostles is wrong from every possible angle. Justin's repeated references to the memoirs of the apostles clearly counterexample it. If Ehrman attempts to say that "memoirs of the apostles" (which Justin makes clear were in the form of written documents) does not mean "writings by the apostles" (which is silly), this is just another error: Justin twice explicitly says that these were indeed composed and drawn up by both apostles and their followers.

Poisoning the well against Irenaeus and the Muratorian Canon

As the debate continued, Tim stressed that the external evidence we possess is, by the norms of secular history, extremely good for the authorship of the gospels. Ehrman contested this, and as a final point attempted to dismiss the entirety of the external evidence we possess like this, at about minute 40:
The other thing I'll point out is this.The people who assigned certain books to Thucydides or to Herodotus had no ideological reasons to do that. The people who assigned the gospel of John to John the Son of Zebedee, the disciple of Jesus, had very clear theological reasons for wanting to say that. So there is a very strong difference between what we're talking about when we're talking about the gospels and what we're talking about when referring to the writings of ancient Greek and Roman histories.
Thus Ehrman attempts to treat the external evidence for the authorship of the gospels as not being real, normal external evidence but rather as being unreliable and suspect en toto (at about minute 39 he dismissively calls it "the Christian tradition") on the grounds that, he alleges, those who made these ascriptions had "ideological reasons to do so" whereas this is not the case in secular history.

What Ehrman does not say is that, in fact, there is not the slightest positive evidence for his claim. It is made as a mere assertion and bolstered only by tendentious story-telling verging on question-begging. I repeat: The claim that the ascriptions of authorship of the gospels were made for "ideological reasons" rather than historical reasons is made without evidence. There is, for example, no evidence whatsoever of controversy at the time of Irenaeus (which is when Ehrman thinks they were "first named") about the authorship of our four gospels. There is no statement whatsoever that they must be accepted for ideological reasons or that they are assigned these authors because of their theology. There is nothing of the sort whatsoever. This is a bare assertion, a blatant piece of unsupported well-poisoning.

Here, from Jesus, Interrupted, is an example of how Ehrman proceeds to "argue" for this claim:

The first certain reference to the four Gospels is in the writings of the church father Irenaeus. In a five-volume attack on Christian heresies he names as the four Gosepls of the church Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. By the time of Irenaeus (180 CE), it is not surprising that church fathers would want to know who wrote these anonymous books. As we will see in a later chapter, there were lots of other Gospels floating around in the early church--most of them actually claiming to have been written by disciples of Jesus, for example, Peter, Thomas, and Philip. How was one to decide which Gospels were to be trusted as apostolic? This was a thorny problem, since most of these "other" Gospels represented theological perspectives branded heretical by the likes of Irenaeus. How can one know the true teachings of Jesus? Only by accepting Gospels that actually were written by his followers, or close companions of his followers.
            But the Gospels that were widely accepted as authoritative in Irenaeus's circles were originally anonymous. The solution to the problem of validating these texts was obvious: they needed to be attributed to real, established authorities. Traditions had been floating around for decades that Matthew had written a Gospel, and so what is now our first Gospel came to be accepted as that book. Mark was thought to be a companion of Peter: our second Gospel came to be associated with him, giving Peter's view of Jesus' life. The author of our third Gospel wrote two volumes, the second of which, Acts, portrayed Paul as a hero. Church leaders insisted that it must have been written by a companion of Paul, and so assigned it to Luke. And to round it all out, the fourth Gospel, which explicitly claims not to be written by an eyewitness, was nonetheless attributed to one, John, one of Jesus' closest disciples...
Jesus, Interrupted, p. 111.

But these are just claims, bolstered only by the tendentious and misleading use of the word "anonymous" I have already discussed. There is nothing else here. Ehrman simply asserts that the authors of these gospels were previously unknown, that they were accepted as authoritative (why? who knows?) in Irenaeus's "circles," and that they were then fictitiously attributed to authoritative sources to solve a "problem" in an ideological war. This is not historical argument at all.

The picture Ehrman gives here is anachronistic, but unwary readers and hearers may miss its anachronism. Most of us Christians have known people in the 20th and 21st centuries who accept, say, the Protestant canon of sixty-six books in the Bible simply because that is what they have been taught to revere as "the Bible" and because their ideological and denominational self-definition depends upon accepting and venerating these books and rejecting others--say, the additional books included in the canon by Catholics.

Ehrman takes this type of current historical situation and projects it, or something like it, upon Irenaeus's time, assuming that Irenaeus and company (and in particular, the hypothetical editor whom he conjures up in his various posts on why the gospels were attributed to specific authors) were like a dogmatic, fundamentalist preacher of 2015 who accepts the Protestant canon as a given document to which he is committed for no other reason at all than that it is the B-I-B-L-E. But he has no evidence that things were like that at all.

This is what Irenaeus himself actually says about the origins of the gospels:
Matthew also issued a written Gospel among the Hebrews in their own dialect, while Peter and Paul were preaching at Rome, and laying the foundations of the church. After their departure, Mark, the disciple and interpreter of Peter, did also hand down to us in writing what had been preached by Peter. Luke also, the companion of Paul, recorded in a book the Gospel preached by him. Afterwards, John, the disciple of the Lord, who also had leaned upon His breast, did himself publish a Gospel during his residence at Ephesus in Asia. (Against Heresies 3.1.1)
I invite readers to read the context of these remarks in Irenaeus here and here. To be sure, Irenaeus is making these claims in the context of an argument against heretics, but he does not imply that the heretics are alleging that the documents in question were not written by apostles and their followers, that their origin is a subject of doubt or controversy, or that he is ascribing them to apostles to bolster his case. On the contrary, he argues as one who takes it as a given that these gospels are known and acknowledged historically to be from the apostles. On that basis, he argues that the heretics are going against apostolic teaching. For example, here is what he says in the next chapter:
1. When, however, they are confuted from the Scriptures, they turn round and accuse these same Scriptures, as if they were not correct, nor of authority, and [assert] that they are ambiguous, and that the truth cannot be extracted from them by those who are ignorant of tradition. For [they allege] that the truth was not delivered by means of written documents, but vivâ voce: ... And this wisdom each one of them alleges to be the fiction of his own inventing, forsooth; so that, according to their idea, the truth properly resides at one time in Valentinus, at another in Marcion, at another in Cerinthus, then afterwards in Basilides, or has even been indifferently in any other opponent...

2. But, again, when we refer them to that tradition which originates from the apostles [and] which is preserved by means of the succession of presbyters in the Churches, they object to tradition, saying that they themselves are wiser not merely than the presbyters, but even than the apostles, because they have discovered the unadulterated truth. For [they maintain] that the apostles intermingled the things of the law with the words of the Saviour; and that not the apostles alone, but even the Lord Himself, spoke as at one time from the Demiurge, at another from the intermediate place, and yet again from the Pleroma, but that they themselves, indubitably, unsulliedly, and purely, have knowledge of the hidden mystery: this is, indeed, to blaspheme their Creator after a most impudent manner! It comes to this, therefore, that these men do now consent neither to Scripture nor to tradition.
The Muratorian canon, from about the same time as Irenaeus, names the author of the third gospel as Luke and the fourth gospel as John. (What we have is a document fragment.) It also, interestingly, gives a glimpse of a theological context in which the acceptedness of particular writings is clearly a conclusion drawn from information known about their origins, not an arbitrary ideological given which then motivates people to attribute apostolic origins to particular writings:

The third book of the Gospel, that according to Luke, the well-known physician Luke wrote in his own name in order after the ascension of Christ, and when Paul had associated him with himself as one studious of right. Nor did he himself see the Lord in the flesh; and he, according as he was able to accomplish it, began his narrative with the nativity of John. The fourth Gospel is that of John, one of the disciples. When his fellow-disciples and bishops entreated him, he said, "Fast ye now with me for the space of three days, and let us recount to each other whatever may be revealed to each of us." On the same night it was revealed to Andrew, one of the apostles, that John should narrate all things in his own name as they called them to mind. And hence, although different points are taught us in the several books of the Gospels, there is no difference as regards the faith of believers, inasmuch as in all of them all things are related under one imperial Spirit, which concern the Lord's nativity, His passion, His resurrection, His conversation with His disciples, and His twofold advent,--the first in the humiliation of rejection, which is now past, and the second in the glory of royal power, which is yet in the future. What marvel is it, then, that John brings forward these several things so constantly in his epistles also, saying in his own person, "What we have seen with our eyes, and heard with our ears, and our hands have handled, that have we written." For thus he professes himself to be not only the eye-witness, but also the hearer; and besides that, the historian of all the wondrous facts concerning the Lord in their order.
2. Moreover, the Acts of all the Apostles are comprised by Luke in one book, and addressed to the most excellent Theophilus, because these different events took place when he was present himself; and he shows this clearly-i.e., that the principle on which he wrote was, to give only what fell under his own notice-by the omission of the passion of Peter, and also of the journey of Paul, when he went from the city--Rome--to Spain.
4....We receive also the Apocalypse of John and that of Peter, though some amongst us will not have this latter read in the Church. The Pastor, moreover, did Hermas write very recently in our times in the city of Rome, while his brother bishop Plus sat in the chair of the Church of Rome. And therefore it also ought to be read; but it cannot be made public in the Church to the people, nor placed among the prophets, as their number is complete, nor among the apostles to the end of time.

Notice that the Shepherd of Hermas is rejected as Scripture on the grounds of its known post-apostolic origins.

This judicious evaluation is as far as possible from Ehrman's picture of biased editors or writers, committed a priori to gospels about which no historical information is independently known, inventing after the fact an historical pedigree for the four gospels to which they are irrationally, ideologically committed. There is, in fact, not the slightest evidence for that picture.

Ehrman has the cart before the horse. He has it precisely backwards. The gospels did not get attributed, late, to their particular authors because the writers of the time wished to oppose, say, Marcionism and gnosticism. Rather, the writers of the time opposed Marcionism and gnosticism because they already had traditions they considered reliable about the origin of various documents, and these gnostic teachings were heretical when compared with the teachings in those documents.

I have now read all four of Ehrman's posts on why the gospels were attributed to their particular authors. If readers wish to read them in their entirety, they will have to purchase a subscription to Ehrman's blog, which is only $3.95 for a one-month trial. (The blog tells us, speaking of Ehrman in the third person, that he receives no profit for this and that all the profits go to charity.) Readers can either take my word for it or check for themselves, but in not a single one of these posts does Ehrman bring independent evidence of controversy around the time of Irenaeus concerning the origins of these gospels nor any independent evidence that the church fathers at this time were committed non-historically to these documents and assigned their authors to them for non-historical, ideological reasons. On the contrary, he assumes in these posts (on the basis of his earlier "arguments," some of which I have discussed here) that the authorship of the gospels could not have been the traditional one, that it was unknown until after Justin Martyr (see the argument from silence quoted above), and therefore that the attribution arose somewhere between Justin and Irenaeus. He conjures up an entirely hypothetical editor, working between Justin and Irenaeus, who (he imagines) produced the first edition of the gospels that attributed them to these authors. 
[T]here is no reason to think that people widely associated them with their familiar names before that. The reason this became a widespread tradition is that it was started by a single editor – possibly based, of course, on things being said in his church or the wider Christian community (on that we have no evidence); once this edition took root, its views proved completely amenable to Christians in Rome, and the tradition spread from there.
(This is from his post on Matthew, just before the break for the paywall.) 

His posts on why the gospels were attributed to particular authors in this hypothetical edition consist of elaborate hypothesizing of a sort that pretty much defines "ad hoc" about the motivations and thoughts of this hypothetical editor. 

At no point does he come up with a plausible theological reason for these particular assignments. (He even admits that he doesn't have any particular reason for the assignment by this "editor" of Matthew to Matthew, except that perhaps the editor was loosely relying on Papias' mention of some account written by Matthew.) The nearest he gets to a specific theological reason is with respect to Mark: He conjectures that the hypothetical editor did not assign the gospel of Mark directly to Peter as its author because a document known as the Gospel of Peter was already floating around, so Mark was chosen as a second-best author designation based on the reference to him in I Peter 5:13. This ignores, of course, the remarkable unanimity of all the evidence from Papias to Justin Martyr to Irenaeus concerning Mark (see the discussions of Mark above). But more than that, it is senseless. If the ideological motivation for assigning authors is to bolster the gospel we know as Mark (among others) and to lead Christians to reject alternatives like what is known as the Gospel of Peter, the obvious thing to do would be to go ahead and attribute this gospel to Peter and to insist that this is the real gospel of Peter and that the other one claiming to be by Peter is phony! Why would a deeply ideologically motivated editor, willing to make stuff up to push an agenda, submit to the popular designation of a document he was rejecting as written by Peter while not trying to claim that accolade for the document he wished to promote?

When it comes to Luke, Ehrman's story is so ad hoc as almost to boggle the mind: Acts and Luke, he says, were written by the same person but not really by Luke. However, the author of those documents wished to pretend that he was Luke, and he left behind clues (tied into Colossians, which was thought to be written by Paul but which, Ehrman says, wasn't really written by Paul) that he was pretending to be Luke. The hypothetical 2nd century editor evidently followed up these clues, sleuth-like, and decided to attribute this gospel to Luke on the basis of the clues left by the deceptive author. Ehrman doesn't say whether the editor actually believed that Luke was written by Luke or whether he was just playing along, for his own ideological purposes, with the game initiated by the original, deceptive author. In any event, to call this hypothesis about how this gospel came to be attributed to Luke "complex" is too mild. It is byzantine.

In contrast, the hypothetical editor is supposed to have engaged in a simple act of attribution to an authoritative apostle when it comes to John. Desiring a high-prestige source because of his ideological prejudices, and conjecturing that the "beloved disciple" might be John, the editor attributes the document to John. End of story. Why such a hypothetical editor could not or would not have made an equally direct, simple attribution to an apostle in the case of Luke, thereby linking it to a prima facie higher-prestige source than Luke, Ehrman cannot explain. For John, too, Ehrman has to walk a fine line. He gives at some length the actual evidence that John really was the beloved disciple. He then says that there is a tradition that goes "a long way back" that John was the beloved disciple. But he wishes to deny that the book of John was actually widely attributed to John any earlier than his fictional editor in the latter half of the 2nd century! So he moves rather swiftly from his rather decent argument that John was the beloved disciple to an elaborate, layered argument from silence, which I do not have time to describe, that Papias and Polycarp didn't know or believe that John was the author of John! So evidently the hypothetical editor is supposed to have been the first influential person to put together the argument that the beloved disciple wrote this gospel, John is the beloved disciple, therefore John wrote this gospel.

It should be obvious at this point that, when it comes to Ehrman's claim that the external evidence for the gospels is tainted because we know that those making the attributions had "ideological reasons," there is no there there. In the absence of positive historical evidence, Bart Ehrman has given his own assumptions dressed up as elaborate, ad hoc hypothesizing. But that does not amount to argument.

The simple fact is that our external evidence about the authorship of the gospels all points one way and only one way and that there is a cumulative body of such evidence. Ehrman attempts to obscure this by chopping the evidence up into pieces and trying to explain away each piece separately by a combination of tendentious phrases, question-begging, story-telling, and sometimes outright misrepresentation. It is the job of anyone who wants to know the truth to step back instead and look at the external case as a whole.


Daniel Wynne said...

Thanks for your analysis. It occurred to me that Ehrman was making accusations without evidence. While there may be no extant documents before Justin Martyr or Irenaus attributing the authorship of the Gospels to Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, there are also no documents naming anyone else. However, who at any time in history ever guided a movement on the basis of documents which no one knew who wrote them? Moreover, if it is fair for Ehrman to accuse Irenaus of lying about the authors for ideological reasons, it is equally fair to accuse Ehrman of manufacturing controversy on the issue just to get media attention. Just because it is possible for someone to benefit from lying, it is not good reason to think they are lying. I'm sure Ehrman would not appreciate being treated that way.

Tony said...

I am afraid you make one small error, inadvertent, I am sure:

In any event, to call this hypothesis about how this gospel came to be attributed to Luke "complex" is too mild. It is byzantine.

Byzantine is also too mild a word for this. It needs something stronger. Even "byzaarantine" would not be adequate for this claptrap. He is probably so caught up in the effort to manufacture "reasons" why Luke was ascribed to Luke by our completely fictitious editor, he simply forgets ANY of the axioms of telling fibs. He forgets to keep it simple. He also forgets to have a reason for the fiction, etc.

Lydia McGrew said...

"Moreover, if it is fair for Ehrman to accuse Irenaus of lying about the authors for ideological reasons, it is equally fair to accuse Ehrman of manufacturing controversy on the issue just to get media attention."

Or the hypothetical editor, yes. I also find it hard to understand how the hypothetical editor is really supposed to have benefited. Surely such a person would have known that he was manufacturing a story. This is especially the case with Ehrman's theories about Mark and Matthew, where he does not say anything that could be interpreted to mean that the hypothetical editor actually invented an _argument_. Where these assignments are so obviously arbitrary, wouldn't a Christian editor scruple to lie, even to oppose heresy? I know of some ideological Christians who accept weak arguments, but I don't know of any of them who would handle the Word of God so unscrupulously. Ehrman is envisaging an editor who is so deeply committed to these and only these documents that he's willing to do almost anything to support their recognition, but this blind allegiance to these particular documents remains unexplained. This complexifies the entire hypothesis almost beyond belief. Take away all assumption of rational, historical reasons for the traditional attribution, thus leaving the commitment to these four gospels a kind of bare theological enthusiasm. Then imagine an editor infected with this enthusiasm willing to dream up names and authors for the documents to keep it from being abandoned by others.

Why would anyone think a thing like that instead of the self-evidently simpler hypothesis--that the church, motivated to maintain its own purity of tradition and doctrine _from the beginning_, kept careful track of these things and passed down reliable traditions of the provenance of the documents being read in the churches from earliest times?

MontJoie said...

As Daniel hinted above, were it the case that the authorship of these documents was completely up in the air for 200 years, it would be reasonable to except there would be a Mark around somewhere that had been attributed to James, or a Matthew attributed to Philip, or something. But all the copies we know have the same name. Which means either authorship was widely believed to be what we now know, or that a cabal of gospel-namers sped their way around the Mediterranean to make sure nobody misnamed the falsely named Gospels.

Lydia McGrew said...

Depending on when you think the gospels were written, more on the order of one hundred than two hundred years. (Needless to say, Ehrman thinks the gospels were written rather late, though scholarship has disproven the _wildest_ late-gospel theories of the 19th century--i.e., that the gospel of John was not written until the late 2nd century.)

But the point stands even if we are talking about something in the neighborhood of one hundred to one hundred thirty years. In fact, frankly, I think epistemologically the wealth of evidence we have could stand up *even if* there *were* some crankish second-century writers attributing the gospels to someone else. It's kind of remarkable that the evidence is as unanimous as it is. After all, we see in our own day how silly-clever people can make up pretty much anything about the authorship of the gospels. We're just fortunate it didn't start any sooner. It appears that the heretics of the second century did not choose to make *that* their hill to die on. For example, instead of trying to say that Matthew wasn't written by Matthew, my understanding is that Marcion & co. criticized it for being too Jewish (which come to think of it is an argument that it *was* written by one of the apostles, who were all Jews).

Comparatively speaking, though, it's certainly true that the unanimity of evidence we have is *much* more to be expected given that the gospel authors were indeed known all along than given that they were up in the air for a hundred plus years.

steve said...

"In contrast, the hypothetical editor is supposed to have engaged in a simple act of attribution to an authoritative apostle when it comes to John. Desiring a high-prestige source because of his ideological prejudices, and conjecturing that the "beloved disciple" might be John, the editor attributes the document to John."

As you know, Bishop Westcott argued that, by process of elimination, the Beloved Disciple was John. But if the motivation is to attribute the document to a high-prestige source, why would the "anonymous" narrator or redactor be so oblique? Isn't that counterproductive? Why not explicitly identify the witness as the apostle John within the body of the text? Why leave it to chance? Why leave it to attentive readers to piece it together based on elliptical narrative clues?

If, on the other hand, John was known to be the author at the time of publication, he could afford to be more roundabout.

Lydia McGrew said...

I think the idea is that by this time it was too late for the hypothetical editor to change the *text* of the document (e.g., to insert identifying sentences) because the text was already too well-known. So, the theory is, he did the next best thing by boldly sticking attributions on as superscripts in his edition.

steve said...

Also, isn't the skeptical argument circular or even backwards? Would Matthew be such a high-prestige source unless a Gospel was named after him (rather than the other way around)? Would John be such a high-prestige source unless a Gospel was named after him? They weren't named after famous names. Rather, the named Gospels made them famous.

To be sure, you have apocryphal gospels, Acts of apostles, &c., named after apostles. But how did those names get established in the first place? Because they were named in the canonical gospels, either in the body of the text/and or in the titles.

And, of course, the authors of the canonical Gospels would be known to their contemporaries.

Lydia McGrew said...

Actually, I tend to agree with Bart (a rare occurrence) that John *would* have been a high-prestige source aside from his having been said to write a gospel. He would have been high prestige on the basis of the content of the gospels. The gospels tend to show Peter, James, and John as an inner circle around Jesus (e.g., all present at the Transfiguration).

Matthew is a less prominent apostle, so less high-prestige than John, but qua apostle he would always be a high-prestige source just to that extent within the Christian community.

So I think both Matthew and John would be high-prestige apart from the attribution of gospels to them, to at least some extent.

A more serious question of that sort arises with regard to Mark and Luke. I think it's true to say that Mark would not be at all high-prestige unless a gospel were attributed to him, and the same for Luke. This is why Ehrman really has to scramble even to make up stuff about why Mark and Luke were attributed to those sources. In the case of Mark he has this very lame comment behind the paywall in the post that hey, maybe Mark was better known than we realize in the early church! Um, why? If true, on Ehrman's theory, it couldn't have been because he was known to have written a gospel! So Ehrman is vaguely hypothesizing some totally alternative, unknown reason why Mark might have been well-known. The best he can come up with is the I Peter reference to "my son, Mark." But of course there were a zillion companions of Paul about whom Paul says much more. Why not attribute a gospel to one of them?

For any apostles, at least we can see that they had prestige qua apostles. Not that that gets him very far, as I argue in the main post!

junia said...

I do believe that Lydia has stabbed the eel. What a remarkable tour de force this is!

It filled in a few gaps for me too.

As well as making it difficult to breathe from outrage!

And I am now really, really suspicious of the paywall.

Perhaps we should have a christian pact with one another, only to debate this man in print, because the subtly misleading language, in the form of maldefinitions, goes by so quickly as to make it impossible to engage them in the moment

By the time you have realised what he is actually saying the opportunity is gone.

Much brighter people than I have been tearing out their hair in frustration.

I was just thinking...what does he mean by gospel of Peter? Does he mean Mark? Surely he cant mean that gnostic one?

By that time...its too late!

But Lydia’s incisive and brilliant piece shows that in print, a clever and well read person is persuasive, and Ehrman’s fantasising is exposed.

Thank you Lydia. This will go viral.

Lydia McGrew said...

Thanks, Junia. By the Gospel of Peter Ehrman does *not* mean the Gospel of Mark. That's his point--he's alleging that Justin Martyr "names by name" the 2nd century Gospel of Peter rather than any of the canonical gospels Matt., Mark, Luke, and John.

But actually it strongly appears that Justin Martyr is alluding to the gospel of Mark. The two details he mentions are found in Mark, one of them _only_ in Mark (Boanerges), and _neither_ in the Gospel of Peter. It's completely outrageous that Ehrman said that Justin Martyr "names by name" the Gospel of Peter.

Here's the short text we have of the Gospel of Peter, not to be confused with the Apocalypse of Peter.

leftunhinged said...

This is a great review. Thanks for putting so much time and energy in analyzing the part 1 discussion. I wish a transcript was available for this show. Ehrman is so slippery, it's hard to keep up whether he's giving an argument or an assertion based on conjecture. Tell Tim that he did a great job on the Unbelievable show and that I hope he goes on there more often!

Joel Fischer said...

This is a fantastic post Lydia. I've heard enough of Ehrman to know how dangerous he can be. He is very skilled at throwing a *lot* of ambiguous chaff in the air at once during a debate, and then when his opponent objects to a piece, throwing more. He tries to distract the listener from the sheer weight of corresponding evidence that we have for the veracity of the Gospels by drawing out each point. He's a very skilled debater in that way, I can see why he's a favorite of atheists, and dangerous to less-informed Christians.

It takes a long, well-written post like this to address the mountains of unsubstantiated chaff he is capable of throwing in the air whenever he debates. It's much easier to tear something down than it is to build it up, and Ehrman is skilled with a sledgehammer.

steve said...

I think it's a useful thought-experiment to abstract away the reputation of the apostle John based on the Gospel of John (as well as 1 John–not to mention Revelation), and consider what a diminished figure he'd be in ecclesiastical memory if all we had to go by were incidental references in the Synoptic Gospels and Acts.

Ehrman's contention is like saying The Purpose-Driven Church originally circulated anonymously until a wily and unscrupulous dealer attached the name of a famous, best-selling megachurch pastor to the book, after which it sold like hotcakes.

In reality, Rick Warren was a relative unknown until his book became an unforeseen blockbuster.

To a great extent, the Gospels made their authors famous, not the other way around.

steve said...

A concrete illustration of the McGrew's distinction is Lewis's A Grief Observed. Technically, this was originally anonymous. However, Lewis's confidants (e.g. Warnie, T. S. Eliot) knew that he was the author. It wasn't anonymous vis-a-vis his inner social circle.

Lydia McGrew said...

Ah, but it's much worse than that, because the title page of A Grief Observed gave a pen-name, not Lewis's. (N.W. Clerk.) In contrast, the definition of "anonymous" that Ehrman is beginning with is so extremely narrow that it is compatible with there being a superscription on a document giving the *actual* author's name. In the first copies circulated! In fact, though I can't claim to have looked through and verified that he never says, "I, Bart Ehrman," such locutions are unusual enough in professional writing that I wouldn't be surprised if quite a few of Ehrman's own books are "anonymous" by this useless definition.

It's really that bad.

Stuart said...


This is an outstanding rebuttal to Dr. Ehrman. Thank you so much for doing the legwork to make this possible, I know it was a lot of work. It it much appreciated!

Jason Engwer said...

You've made a lot of good points, Lydia. Here are some more that people should take into account:

- Papias doesn't just give us his view of who wrote the second gospel, but even traces that view to an earlier source he refers to as "the elder" (cited in Eusebius, Church History, 3:39:15).

- Eusebius tells us that Clement of Alexandria attained information about the gospels from "the early elders" or "the earliest elders" (Church History, 6:14:5-7). We don't know just what information Clement attained from these elders. Eusebius refers to how Clement attained information about the order in which the gospels were written, but he goes on, in the same context, to cite other issues Clement discussed, including the authorship of the gospels.

- On pages 164-76 of Who Chose The Gospels? (New York: Oxford University Press, 2010), C.E. Hill cites evidence that the gospels are attributed to the apostles in two documents of the early to mid second century, the Apocryphon Of James and The Epistle Of The Apostles.

- According to Tertullian, Marcion used Galatians as an argument against the gospels he rejected (Matthew, Mark, and John), since the apostles behind those gospels allegedly were condemned by Paul. Notice that Marcion's argument assumes the attribution of these gospels to apostles:

"But Marcion has got hold of Paul's epistle to the Galatians, in which he rebukes even the apostles themselves for not walking uprightly according to the truth of the gospel, and accuses also certain false apostles of perverting the gospel of Christ: and on this ground Marcion strives hard to overthrow the credit of those gospels which are the apostles' own and are published under their names, or even the names of apostolic men, with the intention no doubt of conferring on his own gospel the repute which he takes away from those others." (Against Marcion, 4:3)

- Ptolemy, a heretic who lived around the early to mid second century, refers to the fourth gospel as written by "John, the disciple of the Lord" (Irenaeus, Against Heresies, 1:8:5). Elsewhere, he refers to the gospel as written by "the apostle":

- Richard Bauckham argues that the Gospel Of Thomas is familiar with the canonical gospels and that it even suggests that the first gospel came from Matthew (Jesus And The Eyewitnesses [Grand Rapids, Michigan: Eerdmans, 2006], 236-7 and n. 102 on 237).

- Bauckham also notes that Theodotus, a second-century source, refers to the fourth gospel's author as an apostle (ibid., n. 96 on 466).

- According to Origen (Commentary On John, 6:2), Heracleon (a heretic of the second century) referred to the fourth gospel as written by "the disciple". Origen had the apostle John in mind, and he makes no suggestion that Heracleon disputed that attribution.

(continued below)

Jason Engwer said...

(continued from above)

- Martin Hengel notes that Irenaeus seems to be relying on an earlier Roman source in his discussion of the authors of the gospels:

"Claus Thornton has shown that this [a passage in Irenaeus about gospel authorship] is an earlier tradition, which must be taken seriously; as the geographical references and references to persons show, it is written throughout from a Roman perspective....As Thornton has demonstrated, it corresponds to the short notes about authors in the catalogues of ancient libraries, of the kind that we know, say, from the Museion in Alexandria. Presumably this information comes from the Roman church archive." (The Four Gospels And The One Gospel Of Jesus Christ [Harrisburg, Pennsylvania: Trinity Press International, 2000], 35-6)

- Celsus, a pagan who wrote against Christianity in the second half of the second century, referred to the gospels as written by "the disciples" (cited in Origen, Against Celsus, 2:13-16). The phrase "the disciples" is more naturally taken as a reference to the apostles, not disciples in a more general sense. Origen, who had a copy of Celsus' treatise, interprets him that way, and he nowhere has to interact with an argument from Celsus against the traditional authorship attributions. Origen makes a comment, in this same passage, about how the apostolic authorship of the gospels isn't disputed by the Jewish opponents of Christianity whom Celsus is citing:

"For they [non-Christian Jews] will not maintain that the acquaintances and pupils of Jesus Himself handed down His teaching contained in the Gospels without committing it to writing, and left His disciples without the memoirs of Jesus contained in their works." (Against Celsus, 2:13)

- John Cook's The Interpretation Of The New Testament In Greco-Roman Paganism (Peabody, Massachusetts: Hendrickson Publishers, 2002) provides many examples of ancient non-Christian sources referring to the gospel authors as Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John: e.g., pages 140, 184, 198, 203, 235, 263, 289, 297, 301, 303-304.

Jason Engwer said...

If critics are going to cite 1 Peter 5:13 as an explanation for why the second gospel was attributed to Mark, then why wasn't the gospel attributed to Silvanus instead? He's mentioned in 1 Peter 5:12, is spoken of more highly than Mark, doesn't have Mark's negative characteristics, and is mentioned specifically in a literary and canonical context ("Through Silvanus…I have written to you"). Even better, why not attribute the second gospel to Andrew, one of the more prominent apostles and Peter's sibling? And given how late critics often want to date 1 Peter, why is the attribution of the second gospel to Mark so early (the elder cited by Papias, etc.) and unanimous? If the second gospel was circulating for a while before 1 Peter was composed, as the later dates for 1 Peter suggest, why don't we see the attribution of the second gospel to Mark arising later and inconsistently?

Concerning the third gospel, why wasn't it attributed to a more prominent companion of Paul instead? Why not Titus, for example?

reubster said...

Just want to say, thanks for writing this Lydia. It's been sooo helpful to me.

BJE said...

"The gospels were circulated anonymously at first."

This claim is falsifiable. In the 3th verse the prologue of Luke’s Gospel we read: “it seemed fitting for ME [capitals pres. auth.] as well, having investigated everything carefully from the beginning, to write it out for you in consecutive order, most excellent Theophilus;” (NASB) With ME it is definitely clear that the writer is referring to a name above the book. So one Gospel was not published anonymously and by that the claim of Ehrman has been falsified definitely. Was it the name of Luke at the moment of publication? That is the remaining question.
Until about 300 the Christians have been persecuted badly and many of their books have been burnt at that period. We only possess two pieces of papyri from about 200 AD with the name of John above P66 and P75. From that time onwards more documents of the Gospels have survived (Parchements) and they all have the names as we know them now. It is a silly effort of Ehrman to come up with this nonsense.

Lydia McGrew said...

That's an interesting idea--that the use of the first person in Luke indicates that it was superscripted.

It's possible though that he gave his manuscript personally to Theophilus who therefore knew to whom the first person referred.

BJE said...


Your remark is understandable, but not defendable.

You said:
"It's possible though that he gave his manuscript personally to Theophilus who therefore knew to whom the first person referred."

It was certainly not Luke who put his name above the Gospel he wrote. That becomes visible by the expression KATA LOUKAN (According to Luke). This was not written by the author of the book, but by a second hand, reasoning in all simplicity. To my conviction this second hand came from an apostle to autorize the book on behalf of the apostles. It was their task as true witnesses of Jesus Christ that correct copies about Him came on the market. And their approval is to be seen above each of the four Gospels with "According to ...".

Maybe this approach is a little bit irritating, too easy and too dominant in the debate. But that is the nature of drawing the line where it should be.

Lydia McGrew said...

I wasn't saying that he would have put his name above the gospel, though I don't know that it is "certain" that an author never wrote a superscription. My point was simply that if the text was delivered,perhaps even personally, to its intended recipient, it is possible there was no superscription. I am, however, quite open to the idea that there _was_ a superscription (or subscription) from the beginning. In fact, that was one of my points--that for all our evidence tells us, these gospels may always have been circulated with a superscription. Obviously, we cannot prove that matter either way. I was simply pointing out that the use of the first person does not absolutely settle it that he *must* have been alluding to a superscription.

BJE said...


It took some time before I could react. You made your point very clear in the last reply. Thanks for that. Indeed from a strict historical point of view it is true that the Gospel of Luke could have been given to Theophilus without a title and by that without Luke’s name. And that later on the title was connected with the book? But is that a fair point of view? We have to do with a most complete Gospel book about the life of Jesus. Would that not have a title from the outset? That would be rather strange, wouldn’t it?
One may ask: But why did the author write only for one man: Theophilus? Of course not that only Theophilus would be the reader of it. It was not given to him as a personal document, only for him. No, as any normal book it was written to be read by far more people. But it had from the outset for each reader a face to face (man to man) quality. That was certainly an implication of the author’s intention by writing for Theophilus, and he chose for the same method writing the Acts of the Apostles (1:1).
Personally I have left the strict historical critical starting point in exegesis, in favor of a historical grammatical starting point. That is: I accept the text as it is and accept it as original; except in case of a variant reading I try to take the most reasonable option in my eyes. So I accept the title “Gospel according to Luke” or in short “According to Luke” just as we do with any other book with a title that comes from the past to us. Then there are two conclusions.
1. Grammatically. It is inevitable that there is a connection between ME (verse 3 of the prologue) and Luke.
2. Historically. From the outset there is an integral relation between Luke and the Gospel he wrote as everyone knows that the prologue is the opening mark of the author.
These are two fair conclusions, I feel, and to me it is unfair to deny them without solid counter information.

I hope that you understand that I wrote this not wanting to be right, but to make my point more clear and to lay open my intentions and the practical implications for this important subject.

God bless.

Lydia McGrew said...

I myself do think it plausible historically that the gospels always circulated with titles. If so, of course, Luke would have known that the title was on it with his name and would have known that the "me" in his introduction would be taken to refer to the title. Obviously we don't have proof of that, and I'm not going to assume it absolutely, but I'm quite open to it.

Roger M said...

Well, let's be frank. Bart Ehrman owned McGrew in this discussion, right from the opening round when he had McGrew on the ropes about the inerrancy issue.

It was so obvious that McGrew was stubbornly refusing to show his hand on inerrancy, for the very reason that Erhman claimed - adherence to inerrancy, or even the lesser belief in the inspired nature of the documents, cannot help but prejudice a scholar's complete and honest objectivity when approaching the question of historical reliability. One cannot be entirely objective if you hold a metaphysical belief about the inspired nature of the documents. McGrew knows this and hence refused - even comically - to honestly and frankly answer Erhman's question.

For the rest of the discussion, Erhman was superior in both style, delivery and the content of his arguments. Round 1 to Erhman by a TKO.

Lydia McGrew said...

First, I notice that Roger M., like his hero Bart Ehrman, seems to have such an obsession with the topic of inerrancy that he finds it difficult to talk about any other topic--e.g., the authorship of the gospels or the historical reliability of the gospels. Roger M. does not see fit even to address any of the points I have carefully made in the main post on which he is commenting, such as Bart Ehrman's misleading use of the term "anonymous" or his errors about Justin Martyr. He prefers to drone on and on about inerrancy. It's an odd thing. It's rather like other contexts in which someone says that conservatives have an obsession about x but it is, in fact, the person bringing the accusation who obsessively insists upon talking about x instead of other topics, even when those are the topics actually on the table for discussion! (As was the case on Unbelievable, which was not, in fact, supposed to be a discussion of inerrancy but rather of the more interesting question of reliability.)

Roger M. also fails to note that, in fact, Tim _did_ state, unequivocally, that he does _not_ approach the gospels with the assumption that they are inerrant (minute 17:21). This was directly addressed to Ehrman's statement that he doesn't approach Josephus with the "theological belief" of inerrancy because of what he "teaches his children" or "thinks late at night" or "does on Sunday morning." Tim answered explicitly that he does not approach the gospels with such a religious or theological assumption of inerrancy. For some reason, this clear statement was something Ehrman refused to accept for an answer. Yet Tim was declaring _exactly_ the same approach to the gospels that Ehrman was declaring to Josephus--namely, that he is not assuming religiously that they do not contain errors but rather examines that question in an open-minded, historical manner. Ehrman's obsession was such that he would not even accept _that_ answer, in clear response to his _own_ analogy to Josephus. It almost sounded like he didn't hear it. He certainly rode over the end of Tim's answer. Apparently his followers aren't able to hear the answer, either, but want to waste further time.

As far as claiming "victory," it would be interesting to find a single bit of actual *evidence* on the question of authorship (for example) that Ehrman brought in the debate to support his contention that no one really knows who wrote the gospels. I didn't notice any. The nearest he got was the argument from silence from their being quoted without explicit naming of authors early on, but he himself attempted to claim (disingenuously, as I show in the main post here) that he wasn't attempting to use that as an argument! It's a little difficult, it seems to me, to achieve victory in a debate when one brings no positive evidence for one's claims while one's opponent does bring positive evidence.

naturalspirituality said...

I realize I'm very "late to the party" on this one.... Just discovered the debate and this response to it. To be honest, I haven't taken the time to read all of it, but do have background for a pertinent remark on the issue. Beyond M. Div. (graduated) and PhD (not quite completed) work, I've studied NT backgrounds and exegesis in the thousands of hours. My point is this:

I doesn't much matter, really, whether the Gospels are "anonymous" or properly attributed by tradition (perhaps quite early tradition) to certain people. Dating issues are still in play and are fairly important. (It's real hard to make a solid case for even Mark being earlier than 70, though possible John is a bit earlier than the others of the 70s and after.)

Regardless, there are SEVERAL lines of evidence for the Gospels being heavily fictionalized, beginning with the idea that such is quite apparent even to a casual reader, confirmed by deep analysis and inter-textual and intra-textual comparisons. I won't go into other factors, as I know from reading him that Ehrman covers most or all the important aspects, and quite responsibly and capably. And he is far from the only one... just one of the most noted and widely read in recent years to do so. The strong, strong majority of biblical scholars come out basically where he is... some of them religious and some not. (For those not familiar, Ehrman was a solid Evangelical for a number of years, having studied at Moody Bible Inst. and then Princeton Seminary, including being under the relatively "orthodoxy"/conservative Bruce Metzger. So he didn't come to his "higher critical" skepticism lightly or without being well aware of arguments on both sides.)

Lydia McGrew said...

1) Yes, actually, it _does_ matter who wrote the gospels, and the question of whether their authorship is known is relevant to that question. Obviously, it matters to the question of whether the people who wrote them had close knowledge of the events. Your own hero, Bart Ehrman, clearly thinks it's important. That's why he has spilled so much ink over it.

2) There are _no_ lines of evidence that support the conclusion that the gospels are "heavily fictionalized," and any casual reader who thinks that is "apparent" is badly confused. "Deep analysis" and "inter-textual and intra-textual aspects" sound impressive but, in fact, do not name any good arguments to that effect.

3) Ehrman has not argued responsibly and carefully, and this post goes into great detail as to how irresponsible and misleading he has been on just a couple of issues. There are plenty of other examples that could be given. But it's interesting that you do not even bother interacting with the arguments in the post.

4) I, like most people who know anything about Ehrman, am aware of his background. The idea that his being former evangelical makes his current position more authoritative is laughable, but it is typical of the skeptical community who will often use someone's position as a deconvert to give him some kind of "cred." "Oh, he _must_ know the best arguments that can be given for that position, because he used to be a Christian/evangelical/pastor/what-not." The quality of Ehrman's argumentation, and in particular his frequently misleading moves, can be evaluated all on their own, without giving him extra points ab initio for having deconverted from evangelicalism.

grant mohler said...

Did Bart ever reply to this? It was pretty a pretty devastating critique.

Lydia McGrew said...

Grant, I heard by the grapevine that someone posted a link to this on his Facebook page, but I never could confirm that he wrote any response to it. Some people told me that he had, but I could not find it, so it seemed to be a confusion arising from the fact that someone drew his attention to it.

The fact of the matter is that Ehrman has *incredibly* poor judgement when it comes to these kinds of matters. He throws around poor arguments with an air of great confidence and thus bamboozles people. I have not listened to the recent debate with Bauckham, but reports of it indicated that he's still doing the same-old, same-old. I have little reason to think that he will ever change, because this misleading modus operandi works for him. In the main post here I caught him in _several_ places where it really appears that he was being knowingly misleading.

What motivation does he have to apologize or retract? His sociological superstar status and the perception of him by the public at large as a great scholar is largely untouched by a blog post like this, and it really (I'm sorry to say) looks like he long ago abandoned any inclination to think that he might be wrong about these matters.