Monday, September 25, 2017

Early Interest In Gospel Authorship

It's common today to claim that the gospels initially circulated anonymously, even for as long as several decades. Here's something I recently wrote on the subject in the comments section of an old thread:

In closing, I suggest that people think about the context of early Christianity and whether it was a setting in which the gospels are likely to have circulated anonymously for nearly a century. Christianity wasn't a philosophical system of ideas that were being promoted independently of authority figures. Rather, it was a system founded on the authority of named individuals, starting with Jesus and going on to the apostles and other individuals who were named (Matthew 10:1-3, Mark 3:13-19, Ephesians 2:20, etc.). Luke's gospel opens with a reference to the significance of eyewitnesses (1:2), a concept that requires distinguishing among sources (differentiating between those who were eyewitnesses and those who weren't), which would include distinguishing among the authors of written sources. The fourth gospel expresses an interest in authorship, its own authorship with the implication of concern about authorship more widely (John 21:24). Ferguson raises doubts about whether Papias was discussing the authorship of the canonical gospels or the authorship of other documents instead, but there was a concern about authorship of gospels or similar documents either way. And Papias cited an earlier source (the elder, probably the apostle John), who likewise was interested in authorship issues. The same can be said about the authorship concerns expressed in the dispute between Marcionism and Christian orthodoxy. I've cited other sources in the same timeframe, prior to the late second century, with similar authorship interests.

In that sort of atmosphere of concern for named authority figures, distinguishing among sources, and trying to discern who wrote documents like the gospels, it's far more likely that the gospels were circulating with authorial attributions than that they were circulating anonymously. There would have been a high degree of interest in the gospels' authorship well before the second half of the second century. And early belief in their traditional authorship attributions provides a far better explanation for the prominence of the gospels and how little dispute there was about their authorship.

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