By Bill Warren, Professor of New Testament and Greek at NOBTS
Question: How do we know the names of those who wrote the New Testament books where authors are not mentioned?
Bill Warren responds: The Gospels, Acts, and Hebrews comprise the NT books without named authors, so let’s look at these. The title pages of Gospel manuscripts (dating from the second century forward) name the authors as Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, with no alternative names ever given. The Church Fathers refer to the Gospels by the names Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, and ascribe Acts to Luke, with no discussion of other possible authors. We also have canon lists and prologues (introductions) to the Gospels and Acts from the late second century forward with these same authorship identifications. So all the evidence from the early church is unanimous about the authors of the Gospels and Acts.
Hebrews was a different case since Paul was not named as the author. The early church debated the identity of the author, with some ascribing it to Paul, and others connecting it to a coworker of Paul (Hebrews 13:23 mentions Timothy, thus connecting the book to the Pauline circle). Around 200, Tertullian wrote that Barnabas was the author. Perhaps the wisest view even today is that of Origen who said that only God knew who wrote it.
To be sure, authorship in the ancient world was not exactly what we sometimes envision today. For an author to be aided by an “editorial” scribe or helpers (disciples or coworkers such as we see in Paul’s letters sometimes) was not unusual. The scribe took down the content, then put it in good Greek grammar in a clean copy ready for sending to others, normally with the author’s approval of the final product (much like the roles of secretaries and editors today).
Literary books were preplanned in substantial detail even down to ordering the right amount of papyrus from the market, so planning was involved in the pre-writing stage, the writing stage, and the distribution stage. Nevertheless, the force behind the writing was that of the creative author and no one other than the creative author would have been mentioned as the authority behind the text. It was his work, not the work of the scribe or others who may have helped in the process.
These early church discussions confirm the seriousness with which the task of ascertaining which books should serve as foundational was undertaken. The books had to have integrity in their background (apostolic, orthodox, and highly valued by Christians) and be spiritually vital, with life breathed into them from God (the literal definition of “inspiration”). As a professor of mine put it, “the books we have are in the Bible because nobody could keep them out.” What a great way to affirm their inspiration!