Tuesday, April 02, 2024

Why were the early sources so confident about gospel authorship attribution?

A neglected aspect of the evidence for the authorship of the gospels is how much more prominent the authorship of the gospels was than the authorship of other documents. And that greater prominence suggests that the early sources' gospel authorship attributions have greater significance.

People in the ancient world often discussed the possibility that authorship attributions were incorrect. Both the early Christians and their early opponents often mentioned doubts they had about the authorship of various documents, including some books of the New Testament (Porphyry's doubts about Daniel, disputes over the authorship of Hebrews, disagreements about Revelation, etc.). Why was there so much confidence about the gospel authorship attributions?

Gospel authorship issues would have come up early and often, across a wide variety of contexts. And unlike the situation with some other documents (e.g., naming letters after their recipients), the gospels were distinguished from one another by means of the names of the authors, just as we distinguish them that way today. Here are some examples of the contexts in which one gospel needed to be distinguished from another:

- When looking up a passage for personal reasons (to read something, while doing research, etc.).

- When reading a gospel during a church service.

- When storing or retrieving a gospel in a personal library.

- When storing or retrieving a gospel in a public library.

- When distributing copies of the gospels, such as in the context of evangelism or in the context of planting a church.

Given the foundational nature of the gospels (a good reason for putting them at the front of the New Testament), the early Christians probably were involved in activities like the ones mentioned above more with the gospels than with other documents. That's likely why the gospels are singled out when Eusebius discusses how Quadratus and his colleagues distributed documents in the contexts of evangelism and the planting of churches in the late first and early second centuries, for example. Or why Justin Martyr singles out the gospels when discussing what was read during church services (First Apology, 67). The Muratorian Canon begins its discussion of the New Testament books with the gospels.

Or think of the prominence of the gospels in early interactions between Christians and their opponents. That's illustrated by how prominent the gospels are in Justin Martyr's Dialogue With Trypho and Origen's Against Celsus, for example. Consider the corroboration of gospel authorship attributions among ancient non-Christian sources, even though non-Christians offered more opposition to the authorship attributions of other documents. For other examples of ancient non-Christian corroboration of the authorship of the gospels, beyond the ones cited in the post just linked, see here. We need to ask why non-Christians accepted the gospel authorship attributions, but we should also consider how their acceptance of the attributions would have increased the confidence of the early Christians about the authorship of the documents.

Some of the factors I've mentioned are unique to the gospels, namely the ones related to the foundational nature of those documents. Other factors aren't unique to the gospels. For example, letters are sometimes named after their author rather than the recipient. The gospels aren't the only documents named that way. But even where these factors aren't unique to the gospels, they're still contributing factors that go into producing a cumulative effect. The early sources had a lot of reasons to give attention to the authorship of the gospels and to be confident about the authorship attributions.

1 comment:

  1. Yes, this is why I often emphasize the extensive quoting of the Gospel of Matthew as authoritative in early church fathers--the *Greek* Matthew--despite the relatively few attributions of authorship explicitly to Matthew. (The obviously most important one being Papias, and he refers to Matthew as writing in a Hebrew tongue, the meaning of which is then famously debated.) Given Justin Martyr's reference to reading in the services from the memoirs of the apostles and their companions, there was obviously an interest in giving this highly approved status only to apostolic documents. The high regard for Matthew thus indicates a great confidence concerning apostolic authorship of Matthew. It's also worth remembering that "Matthew wrote Matthew" or "John wrote John" etc., with definite descriptions attached to the meaning of those names, are not *miraculous* statements. They have no particularly low prior probability "by type." Their prior is low only in the sense that they are highly specific. After all, someone wrote the books!