Sunday, 6 December 2015

Who authored the gospels?

Some people like to ask this question: who wrote the four gospels?

But that’s not one question, it’s four. Let’s start with one: the best question of all. What is the earliest evidence for who wrote any of these gospels?

Mark’s gospel

Mark’s gospel is dated to the first century and the authorship is credited to Mark. But how do we know that? It is Papias’ comments on how Mark came to write his gospel that give it away. Who was Papias? Born in the first century, he was a church leader in Asia.

In the second century he published a series of books of Jesus’ sayings, sadly now lost. Bits remain. In them, he explains Mark’s gospel as it as was told to him:

“Mark, who had been Peter’s interpreter, wrote down carefully, but not in order, all that he remembered of the Lord’s sayings and doings. For he had not heard the Lord or been one of His followers, but later, as I said, one of Peter’s. Peter used to adapt his teachings to the occasion, without making a systematic arrangement of the Lord’s sayings, so that Mark was quite justified in writing down some things just as he remembered them. For he had one purpose only – to leave out nothing that he had heard, and to make no misstatement about it.’” (Eusebius, History of the Church, III.39.)[i]

The fact that Papias didn’t wholeheartedly approve of the way Mark’s gospel is ordered gets a bit of attention. This doesn't seem to mean that Mark has no structure at all; but by contrast Papias says that Matthew wrote an ‘ordered arrangement’ of the material in his gospel. We know that Mark's gospel is structured very carefully, if you have eyes to see it. Either Papias couldn't see that, or he didn't like it. Papias was probably measuring Mark against the 'Matthew's gospel' that he knew, and preferred the order of events in this Matthew.[ii]

It is worth mentioning that there are critics who distrust Papias as a historian getting his facts straight about who wrote Mark, but they do so because they do trust Papias as a historian saying the contents of Mark are not in proper order. This is a really methodologically unsound criticism. How can Papias be a good enough historian to know what order the contents should be in, but at the same time not a good enough historian to say that Mark was the one responsible for that order?

There are several good reasons for finding this account, as recorded by Papias, credible:

  • Papias doesn’t try to credit the writing to an apostle. Naming a relatively obscure person – Mark – as the author is the sort of thing you wouldn’t do unless there was real substance to this. Mark’s name doesn’t give the gospel any great boost, it establishes it as second hand. In the second century, the fashion was to attribute newly written gospels to the name of an apostle or someone else with a big role in the New Testament. Mark’s name just doesn’t tick those boxes. The opportunity to pass the work off as written by an apostle isn’t seized. It signals authenticity in Mark’s name.
  • Papias’ criticism levelled at Mark (for not putting all the events in a clear chronological order) suggests that this is an honest account of the gospel’s origins. This isn’t some legend unreasonably praising it to the skies. Far from it.[iii]
  • The span of time between the writing of Mark and the presbyter's knowledge of how it was written isn’t going to be very great. It’s within the span of living memory.[iv]

The link with Peter, as Mark’s source, also has support which is important for the credibility of what Papias says:

  • With unintentional usefulness, episodes written elsewhere establish a link between Peter and Mark. Peter led a group meeting in the house of Mark’s mother (Acts 12:12).[v]
  • Peter is repeatedly the focal point of anecdotes in Mark’s gospel.[vi]
  • More than that, Mark’s gospel is structured with an inclusio making Peter the first and last disciple named (Mark 1:16, 16:7), a known literary device signalling that he is the source of Mark’s information.[vii]

These factors confront anyone who doubts what Papias wrote.

In the second century, church leader and author Irenaeus also wrote, “After [Peter’s] death Mark, the disciple and interpreter of Peter, himself delivered to us in writing what had been announced by Peter.” (Irenaeus, Against Heresies, III.1.1[viii]) Irenaeus probably got that from Papias. Apart from Papias, an early church writer called Clement corroborates Marks authorship of the gospel.[ix]

The evidence places the writing of Mark’s gospel squarely in the second half of the first century. That comes via Papias from the presbyter who was closer in time to when Mark was written.[x]

Or was Mark’s gospel really inspired by Paul?

By the way, an interesting thing about this: it’s been suggested to me by a sceptic that the biblical gospels are based on Paul’s teaching instead of that of Jesus’ disciples. But if that were so, then Paul is very conspicuous by his absence in Papias’ accounts of the writing of the gospels! Take a look: Papias says more about his sources of information, and – wait for this – Paul doesn’t get the slightest mention anywhere.

Papias interviewed people late in the first century about the sayings of Jesus, and names some of them. He wrote about it early in the second century. (His words are preserved in Eusebius, History of the Church, III.39).[xi] Papias interviewed people who knew the first century 'elders' (named by him as John and Aristion) who were still living and had known the disciples Andrew, Peter, Philip, Thomas, James, John and Matthew. Note: no Paul there.

Papias did the interviews to get as much as possible of the disciples' recollection of Jesus' teachings. (That these elders, still living, had known the disciples therefore puts Papias’ interviews in the late first century.[xii]) The point of his interviews is that these earlier disciples had direct access to Jesus' teachings, that was not possible for later Christians such as himself and the readers of his book. This does not make sense, by the way, unless Jesus was known to be a real person by Papias' contacts, and that Jesus lived when Andrew, Peter, Philip, Thomas, James, John and Matthew were alive.[xiii]

No mention of Paul, to return to the point. Papias’ chains of transmission do not include Paul, either for Jesus’ sayings or for the gospels. This undermines one of the modern conspiracy theories that Paul was behind it all. He doesn’t even figure in Papias’ picture. (In fact, the first person to try to tie Paul to a gospel – the gospel of Luke – comes later in the form of Irenaeus, but he’s not very convincing about it.) And Papias’ information was first century information.

Was Mark’s gospel originally anonymous?

It’s been argued by some that all the biblical gospels are anonymous. Careful scholars mean that in the purely technical sense, which is that in the body of the text the author is anonymous in the same way that the actual authors are anonymous in the text of Harry Potter, Oliver Twist and To Kill A Mockingbird. Scholars who like to speculate go on to assert that when the gospels were first circulated there was nothing attached to them equivalent to a book cover with an author's name on but that the communities reading them knew who the authors were. Scholars who like to speculate more go on to assert that no-one originally knew who wrote any of the four gospels, and that names such as Mark were only added to them long afterwards. This is what the ordinary person means by 'anonymous'.

But is Mark’s gospel anonymous? The argument arises (apart from other theories explained further below) by speculating as to what was on Mark's gospel before it got its formulaic "according to Mark". The argument for anonymity infers that there was a version before the "according to attribution Mark" attribution, and it assumes that this earlier version had no attribution. On the basis of inference, speculation and assumptions, critics assert, as if it were a fact, that the gospels were anonymous. This is not a conclusion drawn from evidence.

The argument gives the weird impression of some intentionality - that the author's name was deliberately withheld, that the early Christian community was in the dark about the origin of this gospel and every biblical gospel. It is a strange scenario. It's like comparing it to when a writer of a complaint wants their name withheld, or to a generous donor who wishes to remain anonymous. But why assume all the writers of all the gospels would so wish it? It's a big assumption.

By way of background, the words “according to Mark” are a formula (like “according to Matthew”, “according to Luke”, “according to John”), a formula that, it is inferred, became the norm in the second century rather than the first, and that this happened regardless of how the gospels authors’ were presented beforehand.[xiv] The inference is really an argument from silence, based on the observation that non-biblical Christian authors don't refer to them as "gospel according to..." until later. However, arguments from silence are hard to make stick. And a manuscript tradition of these supposed earlier versions is unattested by the church fathers and absent from ancient manuscripts. It remains an inference.

Of course in general, if the readership knows who wrote a book, then the mere absence of a name on a cover does not make it anonymous in the sense that most people use the word. That’s just detail - the authorship is known. Therefore, speculating that there were versions for every gospel without authors' names on scrolls does not in any case necessarily lead to a conclusion that they were anonymous. The theory of anonymity assumes more or less also that the original readership was uninformed as to authorship.

In the close-knit world of the first Christians, it seems unlikely that a gospel would appear out of thin air without those around knowing who wrote it. Its no surprise that Papias knows. Papias just happens to provide our earliest surviving discussion of the subject.[xv] The main point is that it is rash to speak of the gospels as if they were produced anonymously by hermits unknown to anyone. First century Christianity was very much about community. There is no reason to suppose that the first recipients of the gospels happened to find the gospels miraculously without knowing who wrote them, as if they were dropped on the doormat in the night wrapped in unmarked brown paper by a masked individual wearing a hood.

The balance of probabilities is that the Christian communities knew who amongst their members could read and write and who was spending all the hours God sends writing up a gospel. It would have been a talking point. In such communities, if you have something unusual for breakfast the whole community knows about it by lunchtime. It is easy to imagine the scribe being thanked before the community (eg in church). Deliberate anonymous writing within the church community - for something as substantial as a gospel - would have been unlikely to say the least, and one wonders what sort of society is imagined by people who suppose this. Complete anonymity is a pretty incredible idea when we’re talking about this. The only realistic question which could possibly be asked is whether the attribution of names has been preserved accurately, which name on which gospel.

What about other academic theories that the gospels were anonymous?

Such theories usually circle around the fact that early church fathers cite passages corresponding with the gospels but none of them name them as contents of this or that named gospel until Irenaeus does in the second half of the second century. 

The hasty conclusion that the gospels were anonymous on the basis of their not being named in their earliest citations by church fathers (eg Ignatius, Justin Martyr) is unscientific in a manner unfortunately typical of the humanities. In contrast, any scientist would introduce a control for comparison: for example, do the said church fathers normally name authors when citing books with famous author attributions? If the answer is yes, then the 'anonymous' gospels theory has more weight. If the answer is no, then the anonymous gospels theory can draw no support from the manner of early citations. In fact, in case after case, we find early church fathers quoting all manner of things without naming their source - they are inconsistent, but very often quote without citing sources. This humanities theory does not pass more scientific manners of testing. 

The same unscientific humanities-style fault can be found when scholars inspect Irenaeus' contribution. Many a humanities scholar will say that as Irenaeus was first to report the names of the four gospels as a group (forgetting for the moment about Papias), unlike earlier citations in Ignatius and Justin Martyr etc., then Irenaeus must have invented the four gospel authors names. Where is the scientific control element in this? In fact, Irenaeus names things in the manner of a cataloguist, which he very much does across the breadth of his work, especially in cataloguing heresies. The fact that he normally behaves as a cataloguist  - which provides a control element - does not mean that he invents the things he is cataloguing in the case of the gospels. He groups and orders information undoubtedly. In fact he names a number of apocryphal gospels too - are we to suppose that he invented their names also? Are we to assume that Irenaeus invented the name of every darned thing he catalogues except for those already named by a predecessor? Hardly. But humanities-style imaginations sometimes run riot when analysing the naming of gospels. 

About our witness Papias

We only have snippets of what Papias wrote, preserved by being quoted by other writers (e.g. Irenaeus, Eusebius, Apollinaris, Jerome and Andreas and half a dozen other church fathers discuss it[xvi]). The longest quotes from Papias are found in Eusebius’ History of the Church. Can we trust these quotes? There is no basis in evidence to dispute the accuracy of Eusebius’ quotes from Papias. Eusebius was no fan of Papias (because of Papiasmillennarian theology) so it is inconceivable that Eusebius fictitiously made Papias into an authority about any subject.

Also on the gospels:

Chinese Whispers? On the reliability of the accounts of Jesus' life & teachings

How could a historical Jesus prophesy that the Temple would be destroyed?

62AD: The year in which the Book of Acts was written? (This gives a date for when Luke's Gospel was written by.)


[i] Eusebius, The History of the Church, translated by G.A. Williamson, with an introduction by A. Louth (London, Penguin, 1989) 103-4..
[ii] Schoedel, W.R., “Papias” in The Anchor Bible Dictionary, v. 5, 140.
[iii] Barnett, P., The Birth of Christianity The First Twenty Years (Michigan/Cambridge, William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2005) 160-1.
[iv] Ibid.
[v] Ibid.
[vi] Barnett, P., Finding the Historical Christ (Michigan/Cambridge, William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2009) 90.
[vii] Bauckham, R., The Gospels as Eyewitness Testimony (Cambridge, Grove Books Ltd., 2008) 12.
[viii] Grant, R.M., Irenaeus of Lyons (London/New York, Routledge, 1997), 124.
[ix] Ehrman, B. D., The New Testament and other Early Christian Writings: A Reader, Second Edition (New York/Oxford, Oxford University Press, 2004) 369.
[x] Barnett, P., The Birth of Christianity The First Twenty Years (Michigan/Cambridge, William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2005) 159.
[xi] See introduction in Grant, R.M., Irenaeus of Lyons (London/New York, Routledge, 1997), 35. Grant’s conclusion is that Papias supplied his information towards the end of the first century or soon after.
[xii] Wedderburn puts it that Papias was writing when the elders were still alive. Wedderburn, A.J.M. A History of the First Christians (London, T&T Clark International, 2004) 246 n.21.
[xiii] Jake O'Connell, "Papias' Testimony to the Existence of Jesus" in Shattering the Christ Myth, ed. James Patrick Holding, (Xulon Press, 2008) 73-86.
[xiv] When English translations say, “according to”, that is just our way of translating the original Greek word which is just KATA. “According to…” was probably put on the four gospels to preserve the names for each gospel as passed down to us.
[xv] You might ask: supposing Mark’s name was never on the gospel, in contrast why is it different for Paul whose name appears in his letters? Paul put his name precisely because they were letters from him to someone else. The gospels are not letters. The question is: what should be expected of a gospel? (not, ‘why does a gospel not look like a letter?’).
[xvi] Ehrman, B. D., The New Testament and other Early Christian Writings: A Reader, Second Edition (New York/Oxford, Oxford University Press, 2004) 369.

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