Thursday, January 05, 2023

Were the gospel titles added when all four gospels were first collected?

Walter Wilson's recent commentary on Matthew refers to the similarities among the titles of the early manuscripts of the gospels (e.g., "The Gospel According To Matthew") and claims that "the inscriptiones [titles] were affixed to all four gospels at a single point during the process of aggregation, that is, when they first began to circulate as a collection, in order to distinguish them from one another." (The Gospel Of Matthew, Vol. 1, Matthew 1-13 [Grand Rapids, Michigan: Eerdmans, 2022], approximate Kindle location 1208) Earlier, he had written that the title of the gospel of Matthew was "affixed to the document in the early second century CE as a way of both differentiating it from the other gospels and affirming its authenticity as a witness to the apostolic faith." (605) So, Wilson apparently thinks that the titles were applied when "all four gospels" were collected in the early second century.

There would have been a need to distinguish one gospel from another (or a gospel from some other document, like the ones that weren't canonical gospels referenced in Luke 1:1-3) as soon as two such documents were being used together. That would have occurred before all four of the canonical gospels were placed into a collection. If Matthew used Mark as a source, for example, as Wilson and other scholars think he did, then there would have been a need to distinguish between Matthew and Mark around that time, even though a collecting of all four canonical gospels didn't occur until later.

Elsewhere in his commentary, Wilson dates Matthew in accordance with the gospel's use of Mark as a source, and he dates Mark to the range of 66-73 A.D. (617). But the gospel for which we have the best evidence for its dating is Luke, not Mark. The scholarly tendency to focus on Mark in these contexts is a bad habit that needs to be abandoned. The internal evidence strongly suggests a date for Luke/Acts no later than the mid 60s, as explained here and here. The earliest external evidence, the use of Luke's gospel in 1 Timothy 5:18, supports the same dating.

So, the means of distinguishing among the gospels likely originated in the middle of the first century, not sometime in the second century. Even if we went by a dating of the gospels like Wilson's, the means of distinguishing among the gospels would have been implemented in the first century, not the second. It's unlikely that the means of distinction can even be dated to the late first century. It existed earlier. Luke's comments in the opening of his gospel about many accounts circulating make more sense if at least some of those documents dated to the middle of the century. The second century shouldn't even be coming up in these discussions. Rather, the focus should be on whether the means of distinguishing the gospels arose in the middle of the first century or late in that century. And the evidence strongly favors the middle of the century.

Whether the means of distinguishing among the gospels took the form of document titles is a less significant issue, but the use of titles (along with whatever else) earlier rather than later makes more sense. In a context like distinguishing one document from another during a church service or finding a document in a library, written forms of identification would be used. The documents would be identified orally as well, but my focus here is on the inclusion of a written form of identification, not the exclusion of oral forms. The most efficient way, by far, to handle documents in a private or public library or in the context of a church service, for example, would have been to attach written identifiers of some sort to them, whether titles above the main body of the text, writing on the front or side of a codex, writing on a tag, or whatever else. And the titles of the gospels are the form of written identification for which we have the best evidence (e.g., the manuscript record, Tertullian's testimony about how gospel titles were expected in his day and at the time of Marcion [Against Marcion, 4:2]). While it would be possible for some other written means of distinguishing among the gospels to have been used earlier without the use of the titles in question, continuity is more likely than discontinuity. It's unlikely that some significantly different means of identifying the documents was used earlier, then was universally lost and universally replaced with what we see from the second century onward.

In this and other contexts involving historical judgments, we need to keep in mind that the issue is what explanation is best, not merely what's possible. If it's possible that the authorship attribution of a document originated the same day that attribution first appears in the historical record, it doesn't follow that dating the attribution to that day is the best explanation of the evidence. One way to illustrate that fact is by taking an approach that's the opposite of looking for the latest possible date. What if we were to look for the earliest possible one? Critics would object that that's simplistic, gullible, naïve, etc. Well, if we don't want to be overly optimistic, we also don't want to be overly pessimistic. That would just be simplistic, gullible, naïve, etc. in the opposite direction.

While it's possible that the gospel titles didn't originate until the early second century, in a context of gathering all four canonical gospels into one collection or some other such context, that isn't the best explanation of the evidence. We also shouldn't conclude that the titles originated as early as possible, with the publication of the earliest of the "many" sources referred to in the opening of the gospel of Luke. The best explanation is that the titles originated sometime later, in the middle of the first century, when there were "many" (Luke 1:1) such documents circulating, the context that likely produced all three of the Synoptics and in which Luke used Mark as a source. There would have been a need for distinguishing among the documents at that point, and that timing offers the best explanation for why referring to the gospels by the traditional authors' names was so widespread from the second century onward. By contrast, placing the origin of the gospel titles in the late first century or later doesn't address the earlier need for distinguishing among the documents and offers a weaker explanation for the widespread practice of referring to the gospels by the traditional authors' names.


  1. Would you even need two gospels in order to add the title? Would you not simply need two writings of any kind for it to make sense to add a title? I suppose someone could say the first gospel was simply labeled "Gospel" and then became the "Gospel according to Mark" when a community had two or more gospels.

    1. A lot of different scenarios could have occurred with the first document in the process. It may have had the traditional title "The Gospel According To [author's name]" from the start or shortly after. Or it may have been one of the "many" sources Luke refers to that wasn't thought to have much significance and was never included in any context in which it needed a title (e.g., it was possessed by somebody who didn't own many other documents and didn't have much of a need to distinguish among the documents he had). Or it could have been given some title other than the traditional type, such as the "Gospel" title you referred to. Whatever the case, the main point in the context of this thread is that scenarios not involving a traditional gospel title wouldn't have lasted long and probably were replaced with a scenario involving the traditional titles in the first century, with the middle of the century being more likely than the late first century.

      There are other ambiguities as well, such as how to define "middle of the first century". Maybe one of the "many" pre-Lukan sources included an account written during Jesus' public ministry, as early as the late 20s, for example. Do we classify that as the early first century or the middle of the century? Referring to "the 20s" sounds early, but you could also refer to it as "the second quarter of the century", since the late 20s would fall into that category, and that could more easily be classified as the middle of the century.

      Though there are some ambiguities here, I think the best way to summarize the situation is that the traditional gospel titles probably originated sometime during the middle of the first century.