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]
- 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]
As said, careful scholars mean ‘anonymous’ in a 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. (e.g. You don't see J. K. Rowling's name in the Harry Potter stories. The actual text of Harry Potter is technically anonymous. We know the author's name from the book cover and publicity.)
Many scholars like to go further and speculate that when the gospels were first circulated there was nothing attached to them equivalent to a book cover with an author's name on it. (This would typically be a tag attached to a scroll in ancient times, not a book cover). Some scholars go even further and 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 sort of absolute anonymity is what the ordinary person would mean by 'anonymous', as distinct from the purely technical use of the word. So who is right?
Let’s go straight to Mark’s Gospel. Is it 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 kind of author's attribution at all. No tag. Thus, on the basis of inference, speculation and assumptions, critics assert, as if it were a fact, that the gospels were anonymous in the sense that there was no tag on them. This is not a conclusion drawn from evidence, but from inference – scholars observe that since the first copies no longer exist, then it is fair game to infer what they were like. Some would say they probably had a tag. Others say they probably didn't have a tag.
The argument for anonymity can easily give the weird impression of some intentionality - that the author's name was deliberately withheld from the start, that the early Christian community was in the dark about the origin of this gospel and every biblical gospel. It is a strange scenario. You might think 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 the argument for absolute anonymity is more extreme than that. Why assume all the writers of all the gospels would so wish it? It's a big assumption. When you try to image the scene, it starts to look very silly. I'll come to that.
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 quite reasonable, although it is really an argument from silence, based on the observation that the church fathers don’t at first 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. Now it is not a wild suggestion to say that ‘Gospel according to…’ was added as a formula. But it is a more radical suggestion to say that the name ‘… Mark’ was added later, for example.
What about other academic theories that the gospels were anonymous?
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) 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.
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.)