Anonymity of the Gospel Writers as an ANE Literary Tradition

Paul Regnier left this comment on a post by James McGrath.  It describes how Ancient Near Eastern (ANE) writers had a tradition that elevated the importance of what was written above the writer.  Here is the comment without the context:

Hi Mike,

I thought I would share with you my thoughts on Neil’s post about anonymous faith documents.

For myself, I don’t see the anonymity of the Gospels as a problem. Think of it another way – the scholarly consensus generally views Mark as composed by an anonymous author who was not an eyewitness to the events he narrates, who writes around 70 A.D. possibly from somewhere in the East of the Roman world.

OK, now let’s just suppose that tomorrow we found a piece of evidence that conclusively proved that Mark was written in the year 70 by a person named Judas who was writing from Alexandria and who was not an eyewitness to the events he narrates. Now this would no doubt be fascinating and add much to our understanding of “Mark”, but for me it wouldn’t in any way change my view of the historicity (or otherwise) of its contents, and I do not for a second think that such a discovery would change the minds of any mythicists either.

The other point that bears thinking about is this – it seems that the authors of the gospels purposely did not give their names. They are anonymous, not pseudepigraphical. There is a big difference. Ironically, if the NT Apocrypha are anything to go by, the grander the claims of authorship in Christian historical writing, the less reliable the source!

There is an article by Baum that would seem to suggest that the writers of the earlist gospels are following the literary conventions of the Ancient Near East in writing anonymously, rather than Roman conventions – they had no desire to earn fame or praise for themselves, therefore no need to draw attention to themselves. It was all about the gospel they were spreading.… – I’ve not read the whole article yet, I’ll have to track it down. It seems an excellent point though.

If Baum is right of course, it means that by evaluating the NT sources on the basis of their author’s identifiability, is simply a value judgement: it is saying that a stylistic device that was important device for Roman authors should form the yardstick for a group of authors who were following an entirely different set of conventions.  I think that’s plainly a mistake.

I have a different set of problems with Neil’s assessment of faith documents (I have no problems with the term per se), I’ll share those some other time.

PS: I don’t claim to be an expert on historiography, so I’m going to discuss the above with some of my colleagues in the History department and also get some reading material from them. I reserve the right to change my mind 🙂

Authorship of the gospels is often a contentious issue, but as Paul and A. D. Baum show, it doesn’t have to be.


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