Were the 4 Gospels given FAKE names?

Augustine Wikmedia Commons

Were the 4 Gospels attributed to anonymous authors until decades after they were written?

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  1. Manuscript evidence points to consistently named manuscripts
  2. Truly anonymous books were treated differently
  3. Historical writings consistently point to 4 key Gospel authors
  4. Meet 2nd century Bart Ehrman who disagreed with Ehrman- Celsus
  5. Choose some better fake names


According to leading sceptic of Christianity, Bart Ehrman, in How Jesus Became God: The Exaltation of a Jewish Preacher from Galilee:

The books were written anonymously — the authors never identify themselves — and they circulated for decades before anyone claimed they were written by these people. The first certain attribution of these books to these authors is a century after they were produced.. There’s not much mystery about why later Christians would want to claim that the authors were in fact companions of Jesus, or at least connected with apostles: that claim provided much needed authority for these accounts for people wanting to know what Jesus was really like (p.90).

Ehrman contends that given the Gospels were added names later, we can’t be confident the Gospels were based on eyewitness accounts.

Please note in this piece we are primarily focusing on the consistency of the names applied to the Gospels rather than a detailed discussion about who exactly these people were.


It took several centuries after the Gospels were attributed to Matthew, Mark, Luke and John for sceptics to start suggesting the Gospels were given fake names. Faustus the Manichean made similar claims in around 400 AD to which Augustine responded in Contra Faustum that Faustus was applying double standards and treating the Gospels differently to the works of Hippocrates et al:

Those books, again, from a comparison with which the productions of questionable origin were rejected, are with certainty attributed to Hippocrates; and any one who denies their authorship is answered only by ridicule, simply because there is a succession of testimonies to the books from the time of Hippocrates to the present day, which makes it unreasonable either now or hereafter to have any doubt on the subject. How do we know the authorship of the works of Plato, Aristotle, Cicero, Varro, and other similar writers, but by the unbroken chain of evidence?


No. In our guide to the resurrection, we outlined key facts which need to be explained. The facts determined in the minimal facts case do not even rely on the Gospels. The facts in the core facts case are determined by applying criteria such as dissimilarity, embarrassment, multiple attestation, enemy attestation etc to content within the Gospels without making assumptions about the authors.

Even if we start with Greek, Jewish and Roman sources, some early church fathers and an early creed from 1 Corinthians (which many sceptics claim stems from within 5 years of Christ), we have some key facts to explain concerning Jesus which are best explained by the resurrection.


The Gospels authors do not explicitly identify themselves in the books they wrote, we agree on that. Anonymity encompasses more in this context. It means the original audience did not know who wrote the books and that no trace whatsoever could have been left on the manuscript as to who wrote the books. The books weren’t attributed to anyone until decades after they were written.

Charles Meryon


Do you think a small child can catch ashes from a fire when the fire has started and the ashes are well into the sky? The Gospels weren’t centrally controlled for consistent name changes to be possible.

We’re in the mid to late 2nd century AD. There is no such thing as email or phone calls or text messages or Google searches. It’s about 80–120 years since the four Gospels were written. Meet Theophilus the Turk, Eleazar the Egyptian, Ilario the Italian, Thomas the Tunisian, Simon the Syrian and Felix the Frenchman.

They’re never met each other. They never write anything the other person reads. They all come across content from the four Gospels and decide to give each author a name.. The names they randomly decide on are Matthew, Mark, Luke and John.. that’s right they agree not once, not twice, not three but four times.

They also miraculously agreed that Matthew, a tax collector, should be the author of the Gospel to the Jews (Jews hated tax collectors) while Mark and Luke should be authors to add credibility to the Gospels even though they were not eyewitnesses themselves!



Brant Pitre Case for Jesus p.20

(For a discussion on the dates of the manuscripts see the work of Metzger and Ehrman, The Text of the New Testament: Its Transmission, Corruption and Restoration)

Brant Pitre notes in The Case for Jesus , “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 (p.21).”

Note this only includes manuscripts where we have enough of the manuscript to determine if a title was left or not (eg. first or last page).

As Pitre adds, “Even if one anonymous Gospel could have been written and circulated and then somehow miraculously attributed to the same person by Christians living in Rome, Africa, Italy and Syria, am I really supposed to believe that the same thing happened not once, not twice, but with four different books, over and over again, throughout the world (p.22).”

As you can see in every instance the copies of the manuscripts (which contain a section for a heading- eg. not a fragment from middle of a book) show an author consistent with Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. Papyrus 4 for Matthew, Codex Sinaiticus for Mark, P75 for Luke, P66 for John.

P66 John

P4 Matthew

P75 Luke

Codex Sinaiticus Mark heading


To assess if the four Gospels were anonymous, we can compare to how an anonymous book was treated. The Book of Hebrews was most likely anonymous (in the sense even most early readers weren’t clear who wrote it) due to the evidence both from the manuscript traditions and from church history. Note, how different the divergent views are on the authorship of the Book of Hebrews compared to how the four Gospels were treated.

Origen of Alexandria declared only “God knows” who wrote the epistle to the Hebrews (Eusebius, Church History, 6.25.14). This was following some church fathers who claimed Paul wrote Hebrews but didn’t identify himself, others who claimed Timothy translated Paul’s letter from Hebrew to Greek, others say Barnabas or Clement of Rome wrote it. Manuscript evidence is broken down below.

Case for Jesus, page 24


Pitre contends, “the earliest Christian writings outside of the New Testament are completely unambiguous and totally unanimous about who wrote the four Gospels (p. 39).” This evidence spans from different parts of Turkey to Tunisia to Egypt to France to Italy to all the way back to Palestine.

Case for Jesus, p.40


Papias of Hierapolis, Irenaeus of Lyon and Clement of Alexandria all agree Matthew wrote a Gospel with a focus on preaching to the Hebrews. The Gospel of Thomas (13) makes an implicit reference to Matthew as a Gospel author. As a tax collector, Matthew would have been literate. Simon Gathercole from the University of Cambridge in his 2018 paper in the Journal of Theological Studies article Alleged Anonymity of the Canonical Gospels mentions how Claudius Apollinaris of Hierapolis also referred to Matthew writing a Gospel (c.175, Chronicon Paschale, Peri Pascha).



Matthew and Luke rely heavily on Mark and it is highly questionable if they would depend to such an extent on an unnamed source due to the precision both Matthew and Luke exhibit in their writing.

Regarding Mark, Papias of Hierapolis, Irenaeus of Lyon and Clement of Alexandria all agree Mark wrote according to what he had heard from Peter. Papias of Hierapolis admits Mark was not an eyewitness, “having neither heard the Lord nor followed him (Eusebius, Church History, 3.39.15).”

Irenaeus suggests the Gospel of Mark was handed down after Peter and Paul died (Against Heresies,3.1) while Clement of Alexandria claims Mark was written while Peter was still alive (Eusebius, Church History, 2.15.1–2). Nevertheless, they both agree Mark’s writings were founded on Peter’s witness and teaching.

Gathercole goes one step further and contends that Eusebius’ reference to John the Elder’s comment on the Gospel of Mark, implies first century attestation for the Gospel being written by Mark.


As Luke likely had a patron (Theophilus Luke 1:1–4), it is highly unlikely no one original readers knew he was the author. The early evidence for Luke’s authorship of the third Gospel spans from France to Rome to Tunisia (Carthage) to Egypt. Irenaeus claims Luke was a “follower of Paul, (who) put down in a book the gospel (Against Heresies 3.1.1, Eusebius Church History 5.8.3)”.

The Muratorian Fragment from Rome refers to Luke as the well known physician who followed Paul and was “able to ascertain events.. To tell the story from the birth of John” though he “himself had not seen the Lord in the flesh (Metzger, 1987, 305–306)”. In other words claiming Luke was not an eyewitness.

Tertullian of Carthage refers to “Luke’s form of the Gospel” (Against Marcion 4.2.5) and how Luke followed Paul. Origen of Alexandria refers to the third Gospel as that “according to Luke, who wrote, for those who from the Gentiles (came to believe) the Gospel that was praised by Paul (Eusebius Church History 6.25.4).”

Origen asserts the Gospel of Luke was written while Paul was still alive. Origen and Jerome both interpret 2 Corinthians 8:18 which in the literal Greek sense refers to a brother “famous in the Gospel (en to euangelio)” as a reference to Luke as a Gospel author. This brother was sent with Titus (2 Cor 8:16–18).



Simon Gathercole argues John’s authorship of the fourth Gospel is the best attested in the 2nd century out of the four Gospels.

Justin Martyr refers to the memoirs or Gospels of the apostles (Dialogue with Trypho, 103.8). Irenaeus of Lyons describes how after the three prior Gospels were given “John, the disciple of the Lord, who had rested on his breast, himself also gave forth the Gospel, while he was living at Ephesus in Asia (Against Heresies 3.1.1, Eusebius Church History 5.8).”

Irenaeus records that John was written to defend the divinity of Jesus against a man named Cerinthus (Against Heresies, 3.11.1–2).

The Muratorian Canon of Rome, nos. 9–16 refers to how “the fourth of the Gospels is that of John (one) of the disciples.”

Clement of Alexandria claims “of all those who had been with the Lord only Matthew and John left us their recollections.. The three Gospels which had been written down before were distributed to all including himself (John); it is said he welcomed them and testified to their truth.. John was asked to relate in his own Gospel the period passed over in silence by the former evangelists (Eusebius Church History 3.24.1–13).”

Tertullian exclaimed, “We lay it down as our first position, that the evangelical Testament has apostles for its authors, of the apostles, therefore, John and Matthew first instill faith into us; whilst of apostolic men, Luke and Mark renew it afterwards (Against Marcion, 4.2).”

Gathercole also refers to Polycrates of Ephesus (c.190), Theophilus of Antioch in his Ad Autocyclum (c.180), Hegessipus (c.175–180), the Acts of John (c.150–200) and even Valentinian theologian Ptolemy (c.150–175) all pointing to John as the author of the fourth Gospel.


Pitre adds that during the “first three centuries after Christ, even those identified as heretics and enemies of the Church seem to have accepted that the four Gospels were actually written by Matthew, Mark, Luke and John (p.49).” The Ebionites used only Matthew, the Marcionites a shortened version of Luke, various Gnostics only used Mark while the Valentinians only used the Gospel of John. We would expect far more disputes and confusion about who wrote the four Gospels if these names were falsely attributed or attributed late to the books.

Simon Gathercole, 2018


Fierce second century opponent of Christianity, Celsus, even conceded the disciples of Jesus wrote accounts regarding Jesus:

The disciples of Jesus, having no undoubted fact on which to rely, devised the fiction that he foreknew everything before it happened.. The disciples of Jesus wrote such accounts regarding him, by way of extenuating the charges that told against him (Celsus, Against the Chrisitians).”

Third century opponent of Christianity, Porphyry also attacked the four evangelists and had a particularly strong focus on the Gospel of Matthew. In point 3 we talked about how even early heretics did not deny or dispute who wrote the Gospels.


Mark and Luke were not eyewitnesses of Jesus (they relied on eyewitness accounts but were not eyewitnesses). If adding these titles was an attempt to add authority to these works, why add names of people who were not there? Furthermore, why invent Matthew as the author of the first Gospel when this Gospel had a particularly Jewish focus or appeal and Jews heavily disliked tax collectors such as Matthew?

You would be better off picking titles like those of the Gnostic Gospels if you were finding names to add authority to a book- Peter, Thomas, Phillip, Judas or even Mary Magdalene and so forth.

It was a common practice to use scribes in the first century. There is no reason these authors could not have used a scribe even as their education levels potentially increased with roles in the church. Paul used Tertius as a scribe and Peter, Silvanus (Rom 16:22, 1 Peter 5:12). Regarding whether or not John was literate, Clement of Alexandria referred to John as “simple.. in speech” ( Eusebius Church History 3.24.1–7) while the Anti-Marcionite Prologue to the Gospel of John refers to John dictating his Gospel to one of his disciples.

Testify gives a breakdown of some key locations


Consistent manuscript evidence. Consistent testimony in and out of the church. Is this what you would expect for four books where no one had a clue who wrote them for 100 yrs? Did scribes and writers all around the Roman Empire miraculously determine to name the four Gospels with the same names despite having limited contact or proximity to one another?

Why was there much more confusion over who wrote the Book of Hebrews but not the canonical Gospels?

If only Theophilus the Turk, Eleazar the Egyptian, Ilario the Italian, Thomas the Tunisian, Simon the Syrian and Felix the Frenchman were able to tell us how they miraculously all had the same idea. The costs of them believing in Jesus were not light either- some of them and their peers were martyred for their faith. This was hardly something they did for political or worldly gain.

These points form 1 point out of 10 in an upcoming article “Are the Gospels based on eyewitness accounts? 10 key considerations.” We touched on undesigned coincidences last time. What are the other points? Subscribe to find out!

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