UNDERSTANDING: ACCORDING TO …
We may wish that each Gospel author had opened and closed with his name and other details. But would this be sufficient to silence the critics? There are 13 Epistles where Paul uses his name at the beginning or the end, or at both. Yet his authorship is still denied.
There was one message of Good News, one Gospel – the Gospel of Christ. Justin Martyr used the word ‘Gospel’ in the singular, but used the plural when he says the memoirs of the Apostles are called Gospels. This dual meaning had evolved by his time, although signs of it may be seen earlier in Rom.11:16, 16:25, Tim 2:8 and 2 Thess 2:14. Because four authors had given their separate accounts of the one Gospel, it is easy to understand how the expression, ‘According to…’, came to be used.
There is however a deeper way to look at this subject. The early Christians were soaked in the traditions of the Old Testament. According to Claude Tresmontant, when the Gospel of Matthew was translated from Hebrew into Greek, the same lexicon was used as that used for translating the Septuagint ((CTH 17-23)). Christian artists in the Roman catacombs depicted scenes where the Old and New Scriptures were compared. The five Christian foundation scrolls (the four Gospels and Acts) were set beside the five scrolls of the Torah.
The Jewish Palestinian Talmud of the 5th century confirms that the Christians, so as to underline that the Christian books were of equal quality to the Torah, wrote in the same format as the Jews ((CTJ 76-77)).
When we look at the Old Testament, we find that the authors of historical books do not give their names, while the authors of prophetic books do ((GS 276)). The Apocalypse is clearly framed on the model of the Old Testament. The transition from the third to the first person in the Apocalypse; ‘his servant John’ and ‘I John’ (1: 1, 1: 9, 21: 2, 22: 2) is parallel to the usage of Isaiah (1: 1, 2: 1, 6: 1, etc.), and of Daniel (1: 6, 7: 1, 2, 15, etc.).
It was a matter of following Jewish tradition for the author of a prophetic book to give his name. We should not be surprised when the authors of the Gospels and Acts omit to give their names in historical books. John gave his name in his prophetic book, but not in his Gospel. Luke explains how he collected the historical material for his Gospel and produced the clearly historical ‘Acts of the Apostles’. Yet in both cases he omits his name. It follows that the four authors considered their compositions to be mainly historical books.
Note. The books known as Josue, Samuel and Esdras do not take the names of their authors, but from their subject matter. There was a reason for the traditional rule to be broken in one case. Nehemias (i.e. 2 Esdras) was a continuation of Esdras. The anonymous author had died, so Nehemias gave his own name when explaining that he was continuing the account.
The early Church knew, ‘according to’, meant ‘written by’. Eusebius writes of the hearers of Peter beseeching Mark to leave them a written statement and: “so became the Scripture called the Gospel according to Mark” ((EH 2: 15, 2)).