According to the theory of the originally anonymous gospels, the titles of the most ancient surviving manuscripts were added later on.

I would like to know:

For each gospel, how many different, distinct, "assigners" were there? When did they do the assignment and where were they? I am not asking about the authorship of the gospels, but supposing there were no titles, who assigned them.

For example:

The gospel according to Matthew was assigned by:

1) X1 person or group, in the Y century in the Z region.

2) X2 person or group, ...""

If much of this is not possible at least list the number of the different assigners and whether they may have assigned these texts independently of one another.

The gospel according to Luke... ""

Please give sources, thank you!

  • 1
    A key question might be whether any of the gospels have ever been found with a different attribution? Commented May 10, 2020 at 13:32
  • 1
    None of the four gospels were known to be called by any other name in preserved historical records or documents, if that's what you're asking or inquiring about.
    – user46876
    Commented May 10, 2020 at 14:25
  • No, according to that theory, the gospel titles were added later on, but they were added in different regions and at the same and different times. So I'm interested in those who assigned them in that way.
    – Kantomk
    Commented May 10, 2020 at 15:39
  • @DJClayworth as far as it is known today, the same texts have the same assigned authors.
    – Kantomk
    Commented May 10, 2020 at 18:07
  • You might want to post this in the history section of stackexchange. The dialog there might be more conducive in getting comments from those defending the view that Gospels were originally distributed & received by the followers of Jesus in an anonymous manner. That is the dominant viewpoint found in Wikipedia articles. But they don't allow much dialog there. At least with stack exchange you can post your arguments. But you might have to put up with a few down votes.
    – Jess
    Commented Jan 5, 2022 at 21:50

4 Answers 4


Who assigned the gospel authors originally?

Matthew assigned the name to the Gospel of Matthew. Mark assigned the name to the Gospel according to Mark. Luke assigned the name to the Gospel of Luke; and John assigned the name to the Gospel of John. If they did not, then they certainly vouched for their own authorship. As soon as there was more than one written gospel account it was necessary to distinguish easily between the two of them with a name.

I am a Reformed Calvinist Baptist. One of the best books I have read in recent years (come to think of it, ever read) is by the Roman Catholic scholar Dr Brant Pitre, "The Case For Jesus", 2016. This is aimed at the lay reader. (If you want you can read my review along with many other 5 star reviews on Amazon.co.uk.)

Brant Pitre lays to rest the possibility that the Gospels were originally anonymous. I quote:

First, there is a striking absense of any anonymous Gospel manuscripts. This is because they don't exist. Not even one. The reason this is so significant is that one of the most basic rules in the study of New Testament manuscripts (a practice known as textual criticism) is that you go back to the earliest and best Greek copies to see what they actually say. Not what you wish they said, but what they actually say. When it comes to the titles of the Gospels, not only the earliest and best manuscripts, but all of the ancient manuscripts - without exception, in every language - attribute the four Gospels to Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John.

There is one book in the NT that really was given anonymously... the letter to the Hebrews. Dr Pitre demonstrates to us what happened in this case: from the 2nd to the 4th century the copies only had as the title "To the Hebrews". Starting in the fifth century additions to the title began: one manuscript adds "written from Rome", another "written from Italy", another "written from Italy by Timothy", another "written from Rome by Paul to those in Jerusalem", and finally "written in Hebrew from Italy anonymously by Timothy"(!) But in the case of the Gospels there is no deviation from the four names attributed. Unanimous indicates not anonymous.

Just one more slightly shortened quote, else Brant will start chasing me for theft:

The Anonymouos Scenario is Incredible....Think about it for a minute. According to the theory of anonymous Gospels, the Gospel of Matthew was "originally" the gospel according to nobody. It was copied by hand, and recopied and recopied, and circulated throughout the Roman Empire for decades....[Likewise with the other three Gospels.] Then sometime in the early second century AD, the exact same titles were supposedly added to not one, not two, not three, but all four of these very different, anonymous books. Moreover, this attribution of authorship supposedly took place even though by the second century the four Gospels had already been spread throughout the Roman Empire: in Galilee, Jerusalem, Syria, Africa, Egypt, Rome, France, and so on, wherever copies were found.

When it came to the false gnostic "gospels", the authors thought it necessary to attribute their "gospel" creation to one of the Apostles, eg "the Gospel of Thomas", to try to add to their credibility. So why were two of these four gospels attributed to relatively insignificant authors, ie "Mark" and "Luke", if the titles were added to try "add credibility" as some claim?

I can't resist one more quote (really sorry Brant, I hope you get more purchases from this).

Before I quote, you obviously appreciate that some manuscripts of a Gospel will not have a name of the author simply because only a portion of the middle of the said gospel remains extant. To have a name you must have "page 1", as it were, of the gospel where the name is going to be written. In some cases the name is given (probably again) at the end of the gospel, and the beginning has deteriorated (so we do not know if the name was put at the front as well as at the end).

Anyway, Brant gives a list of all 27 of the earliest manuscripts which have "page 1" or the end "page". Now in all 27 cases the title on the front page or at the end is either "Gospel according to (name)" (i.e. Matthew Mark Luke or John) or "According to (name)". The word "Gospel" appears in 18 titles and is missing in 9 titles. (The earliest of them all are Papyri 4 (Matthew), 62 (Matthew), 66 (John), & 75 (Luke & John)).

Then he quotes Bart Ehrman:

Because our surviving Greek documents provide such a wide variety of (different) titles for the Gospels [emboldening mine], textual scholars have long realized that their familiar names (e.g., "The Gospel according to Matthew") do not go back to a single "original" title, but were added later by scribes." (Note 16: Quoted from "Jesus: Apocalytic Prophet" by B Ehrman, 248-49n1.)

Brant Pitre continues:

Look back at the chart [of the 27 manuscripts] showing the titles of the earliest Greek manuscripts. Where is the "wide variety" of titles that he is talking about? The only significant difference is that in some of the later copies, the word "Gospel" is missing, probably because the title was abbreviated. In fact, it is precisely the familiar names Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John that are found in every single manuscript that we possess! According to the basic rules of textual criticism, then, if anything is original in the titles, it is the names of the authors. They are at least as original as any other part of the Gospels for which we have unanimous manuscript evidence.

Well I'm done, but to finish:

Because our surviving Greek documents provide such a wide variety of titles for the Gospels...

In the light of Brant's presentation of the evidence that statement is just mind-bogglingly misleading and scandalous.

That may not be the answer you were looking for, but I think it is beyond question the correct one. I recommend Brant's book to all, it isn't a slog to read in the slightest - it would make a great, slightly different, birthday or Christmas present, too.

The only way that precisely the same names could have been added in the early 2nd century to these four Gospels is if there was a huge "conspiracy" across the whole Roman Empire and beyond. Such a conspiracy would have required a central ecclesiastical authority to impose its will on all the Church. The nearest claim to such a central authority would have been the Bishop of Rome. So the best line of pursuit would be to ask the added question "What authority did the Bishop of Rome exercise over the whole worldwide Church in the first two centuries AD?"

For a whole world of Christians to see the appearance of names to previously anonymous works without any mention of it to successive generations would require a very excessive level of worldwide self-deception. It would have required a level of cultish control in the early church for which there is absolutely no evidence.

(For an idea of how cults manage to gain such a level of control over their adherents I suggest Steve Hassan's books, and his "BITE model" for starters... Behaviour Control..incl "keep 'em busy", Information Control.. incl. "tell 'em all info outside the group is devilish/unnecessary to pay any attention to", Thought Control, Emotional Control.. "Keep 'em feeling guilty they are not doing enough, & give 'em a fear of leaving the group, you will lose all hope of the real salvation".)

Furthermore, surely unbelieving parents would warn their children of the deceit to try to stop their children being persuaded by these works (i.e. the Gospels). And some of these warnings would have been made by scholars at the time, and some of these warnings would be extant today: there are no such warnings extant. So the conspiracy would have had to have extended to the seizure of such written warnings.

Obviously, there is no historical evidence of any such attempts of the suppression of material hostile to a Church's agenda, itself unsubstantiated, in the first two centuries.

In addition to all the above, the existence of variations in the text of the Gospels shows the Gospels were not edited or controlled by any central authority. I am referring not only to significant variations such as the location or existence of John 7:53-8:11 in John's Gospel, but scores of trivial variations as well: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_major_textual_variants_in_the_New_Testament

These variants prove there was no central committee deciding to add titles to all Gospel manuscripts in the second or third century.

It might interest the reader to compare the lack of historical evidence of any central authority in the early church capable of exercising such an enormous sway over the whole Church, and lack of any historical evidence of any conspiracy within the Church in the creation of the NT and Gospels of the Scriptures, with the situation in the Muslim world when the Quran we have today was being created:-


  • I agree this is the correct answer even though it is not the answer I was looking for. Mainly because I consulted this source and was pretty convinced, but since I am making a calculation based on the theory of anonymous gospels being right, I wanted a solid number as for my question. It's just a fun problem that occurred to me, I could send you a link when I'm done, you can correct me!
    – Kantomk
    Commented May 11, 2020 at 1:09

First, a minor point:

the titles of the most ancient surviving manuscripts were added later on

It's not that the ancient manuscripts were untitled and centuries later someone added a title; rather, the presumption is that the ancient manuscripts we have—consistently bearing ancient titles of the form "Gospel according to X",1 sometimes with elaboration—were ultimately copied from untitled originals. If, for example, Mark's Gospel were written first (as some believe), its own author would hardly have entitled it "Gospel according to Mark". So, as you ask, when, where, and by whom did the titles become attached to the Gospels?

The question of titles is of course entangled with that of the authorial attributions they imply and with the formation of the four-gospel canon, whose members would have to be distinguished.

Our earliest witness to all four attributions together is not the manuscripts but Irenaeus (ca. 185). Naturally, a number of scholars have insinuated or speculated that Irenaeus himself created the four-gospel canon and standardized the ascriptions of each gospel, though on numerous grounds such a hypothesis is quite implausible. In any case, the attributions are all at least that old, and there is the further question of to what extent they reflect older tradition. Surviving quotations from Papias (ca. 100) at least refer to Matthew and Mark as scriptural authors, which implies that some if not all of the attributions go back to the first century.

The specific form of "Gospel according to X" is both uniform and idiosyncratic throughout Greek literary titles (besides obvious subsequent imitations). In fact, the systematic nature of New Testament titles, along with the phenomena of nomina sacra and codices—distinctive innovations consistently found throughout the early New Testament manuscripts—all strongly suggest that someone somewhere created a normative edition of essentially the entire New Testament, upon which all surviving early manuscripts are ultimately modeled.2 If so, the gospel titles originated at that point, based upon the compiler's knowledge of their respective authorships. Trobisch thinks this happened in the second century and points the finger at Polycarp,3 although such a late date (and a figure who could not even persuade the Roman Church about Easter) strains credulity.

On the other hand, several ancient texts refer to John the Evangelist's role in gathering and ratifying "the gospels", whether that means the four-gospel canon or the entire New Testament (as it came to be called in the second century). Several scholars would link the completion of John's Gospel with the formation of the four-gospel canon,4 and some would even see John himself (who probably knew the other three Evangelists personally) as directing the authoritative compilation of New Testament scripture.5 If so, this would be in Ephesus, shortly after John's return from exile, so approximately 70.

Those, however, who regard some or all of the attributions as fictitious have little basis on which to speculate further.

1 Simon J. Gathercole, “The Titles of the Gospels in the Earliest New Testament Manuscripts,” ZNW 104 (2013).

2 David Trobisch, The First Edition of the New Testament (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000), 8–44.

3 David Trobisch, “Who Published the Christian Bible?,” Committee for the Scientific Examination of Religion Review 2 (2007): 29–32.

4 Theo K. Heckel, Vom Evangelium des Markus zum viergestaltigen Evangelium, WUNT 1/120 (Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 1999), 192–218.

5 Luke J. Stevens, “The Two-Volume Archetype of the Pauline Corpus,” JSPL 8 (2018): 102–26, at 123–24.


One of the earliest "assignees" so-called of the same names of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John to their respective gospel accounts is Irenaeus of Lyons (~130-202 AD) who was a well-known, respected, apologetic writer about Classic Christianity.

Here is his account of the 4 gospels and his reasonings.

  1. It is not possible that the Gospels can be either more or fewer in number than they are. For, since there are four zones of the world in which we live, and four principal winds, while the Church is scattered throughout all the world, and the "pillar and ground" of the Church is the Gospel and the spirit of life; it is fitting that she should have four pillars, breathing out immortality on every side, and vivifying men afresh. From which fact, it is evident that the Word, the Artificer of all, He that sitteth upon the cherubim, and contains all things, He who was manifested to men, has given us the Gospel under four aspects, but bound together by one Spirit. As also David says, when entreating His manifestation, "Thou that sittest between the cherubim, shine forth." For the cherubim, too, were four-faced, and their faces were images of the dispensation of the Son of God. For, [as the Scripture] says, "The first living creature was like a lion," symbolizing His effectual working, His leadership, and royal power; the second [living creature] was like a calf, signifying [His] sacrificial and sacerdotal order; but "the third had, as it were, the face as of a man,"-an evident description of His advent as a human being; "the fourth was like a flying eagle," pointing out the gift of the Spirit hovering with His wings over the Church. And therefore the Gospels are in accord with these things, among which Christ Jesus is seated. For that according to John relates His original, effectual, and glorious generation from the Father, thus declaring, "In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God." Also, "all things were made by Him, and without Him was nothing made." For this reason, too, is that Gospel full of all confidence, for such is His person. But that according to Luke, taking up [His] priestly character, commenced with Zacharias the priest offering sacrifice to God. For now was made ready the fatted calf, about to be immolated for the finding again of the younger son. Matthew, again, relates His generation as a man, saying, "The book of the generation of Jesus Christ, the son of David, the son of Abraham; " and also, "The birth of Jesus Christ was on this wise." This, then, is the Gospel of His humanity; for which reason it is, too, that [the character of] a humble and meek man is kept up through the whole Gospel. Mark, on the other hand, commences with [a reference to] the prophetical spirit coming down from on high to men, saying, "The beginning of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, as it is written in Esaias the prophet,"-pointing to the winged aspect of the Gospel; and on this account he made a compendious and cursory narrative, for such is the prophetical character. And the Word of God Himself used to converse with the ante-Mosaic patriarchs, in accordance with His divinity and glory; but for those under the law he instituted a sacerdotal and liturgical service. -AH III XI 8-

In addition from this, the same gospel names have survived to this day.

I am not aware of any other names assigned to the four gospel accounts besides these four until perhaps circa 1800 as questions from the Tubingen School of Theology arose specifically about why John's gospel supposedly contradicts the Synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke) account of the days and dates of the death, burial, resurrection of Christ Jesus. Because of that so-called contradiction, ideas that John's gospel really wasn't written by John arose.


Gospel copies with titles do not start appearing until around 200 CE. Tradition ascribes certain identities and stories to the authors of the Gospels, but they are not based on what most textual historians would regard as significant evidence. For example, the Gospel of Matthew reads like a Greek original, not a translation or interpretation of a text that was originally written in another language.

The most likely theory is that the names of the apostles were added at that time to enhance the importance and credulity of these texts, in very much the same way and period a collection of Ancient Egyptian texts were given the title "The Scrolls Of Toth" in the Ptolemaic (Greek) dynasties. It was a Greek custom to attribute texts mythical authorship in the Hellenistic period.

enter image description here

From The Classical Tradition

We do not know the names of the individual scribes who first assigned the apostolic names to the texts.

  • 3
    Do you know which pre-200 manuscripts of the Gospels don't have titles? That'd be a great detail to add.
    – curiousdannii
    Commented May 10, 2020 at 11:27
  • If we do not know the names of the scribes who first assigned the apostolic names of the texts, do we know if the assigners were distinct in each region, and what about the non-apostolic names? What could one reasonably assume on their distinction? Clearly I wouldn't think there was a single scribe who assigned all the titles in every region, thus may it be a reasonable assumption to assume at least a scribe per region per lifetime? Thanks.
    – Kantomk
    Commented May 10, 2020 at 16:08
  • Propably even muliple scribes per region. The oldest NT papyri are from several sources: Oxyrhynchus, Bodmer and Chester Beatty
    – Codosaur
    Commented May 11, 2020 at 7:27
  • 3
    @Codosaur The only one of those collections that has page one of a Gospel of a date not later than 200 CE is P66, which does have a title. So we're still waiting to see the evidence for titles being lacking before then.
    – curiousdannii
    Commented May 11, 2020 at 23:59
  • "Gospel copies with titles do not start appearing until around 200 CE." - This is badly worded: what you mean is there are no extant manuscripts prior to 200 CE containing a title. In fact all extant manuscripts dated to before 200 CE are not of the first verses of any Gospel - the extant manuscripts are therefore of no use in telling us if the titles existed prior to 200 CE. On the current available evidence, it would be just as accurate to claim that as far as we know all of the Gospels had titles from the beginning. Commented Apr 16, 2021 at 10:13

You must log in to answer this question.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged .