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Archive for November, 2011

I want to start my series on the authorship of the gospels with the Gospel of Mark. There is somewhat more agreement (“somewhat”), so it will perhaps be a good starting point. Also, Mark is generally agreed to be the earliest of the four gospels to be written. Some conservative scholars date it as early as the AD 50s, although a date @ 60-65 fits the chronology better in some respects, but also presents problems. The difficulty hinges on the authorship of Luke and Acts. If one accepts the traditional author as being Luke, the associate of the apostle Paul, then an early date for Mark is required. It is evident that the authors of both Matthew and Luke used Mark as one of their sources. So if Luke wrote his gospel, Mark must have been written early enough for Luke to use it. Also, since Acts ends before the death of Paul ( traditionally AD 63-64), Acts must date to before AD 64, which means Luke must be earlier and Mark earlier still. If this sounds confusing and problematic it is. It is a complicated issue, and we just have to accept that.

This brings up a significant fact which I am not sure we often recognize. The Gospel of Mark represents the earliest written account we have of Jesus’ life and ministry. For that reason, it must be considered of primary importance. We may speculate about oral traditions and the earliest representations of Jesus’ life and ministry, as well as His death and resurrection, but the reality is that Mark is the earliest account we have. For this reason, the picture Mark presents of Jesus must be taken seriously.

The question I want to consider today is whether or not Mark’s information is based on eyewitnesses who knew Jesus personally, or if it is one or more steps removed from direct contact with Jesus. I am not at this point considering who wrote Mark, merely how close to Jesus the information in Mark reflects.

Even allowing for shorter life spans in the ancient world, Mark’s gospel was written within the lifetime of people who had known Jesus. Eyewitness testimony was a possibility. So the question is whether Mark preserves material older than what he has written. I believe the answer is that he definitely did include earlier material.

The very word “gospel” which Mark uses (for instance Mark 1.1) is older than Mark. Paul (writing @ AD 50-51) uses the same word in 1 Corinthians 15.1-7 to refer to the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus. So it appears that while Mark gives us perhaps the earliest preserved account of these events, they did not originate with him.

In the first half of the second century (AD 100-130) a man named Papias preserved some very early traditions relating to the gospels. Unfortunately, all that remains of his work are fragments that are quoted or referred to by later writers, notably Eusebius in AD 325 (who was somewhat critical of Papias) as well as Irenaeus. At the same time, the fragments of the writings of Papias are intriguing and cannot simply be ignored. Papias has been interpreted as saying that he received teaching directly from some of the apostles, although I do not think that is what he says. What does appear probable is that Papias was in contact either directly or indirectly with the teachings of at least two of the elders who had known the apostles. We know that he knew Polycarp (who had known the apostle John), and apparently he also knew directly the teachings of “John the elder.” Some have equated John the elder with the apostle John, but it likely refers to another person who did know John.

Either way, Papias specifically says this about the gospel of Mark.

“Mark, having become Peter’s interpreter, wrote down accurately everything he remembered, though not in order, of the things either said or done by Christ. For he neither heard the Lord nor followed him, but afterward, as I said, followed Peter, who adapted his teachings as needed, but had no intention of giving an ordered account of the Lord’s sayings. Consequently Mark did nothing wrong in writing down some things as he remembered them, for he made it his one concern not to omit anything that he heard or to make any false statement in them.” (Holmes, Michael W., ed. The Apostolic Fathers in English).

Papias does not identify who Mark was, and I want to talk about that more in the next post. However, I believe two points are justified. First, as already mentioned, the Gospel of Mark is the most primitive account we have of the life and teachings of Jesus. Any objective study of these issues must take the Gospel of Mark seriously. Also, the writings of Papias represent the most ancient information about the source of Mark’s information, and we are told that it was the apostle Peter. None of this is proof, nor will I pretend that it should be taken as such; however, it is evidence that any honest evaluation must consider. Certainly scholars have contested all of these issues, but I believe the evidence is such that the burden is on the skeptics to show that Mark is not essentially based on eyewitness testimony. Simply characterizing the traditional view as simplistic and naïve will not do. The evidence requires a better response than that.

And so, I leave you with two conclusions, one is certain, the other less so. First of all, it is certain that the Gospel of Mark was written early enough to have been based at least partially on testimony of eyewitnesses, who had known Jesus and been with Him. I believe it is also at least possible that the apostle Peter was Mark’s primary source. If these two conclusions are true, it has huge implications for the picture of Jesus as presented, not only in Mark, but in Matthew and Luke as well.

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You may have heard Matthew, Mark, and Luke referred to as the “Synoptic Gospels,” but have you ever wondered what that means? Quite simply, it is a way of recognizing some similarities in these gospels and attempting to explain them.

At first, you might assume that there would be similarities, because the gospels are all essentially telling the same story. To a degree that is correct. All of the gospels tell of Jesus’ ministry, they all record miracles He performed, something of His teaching, and all of them record His crucifixion and resurrection in some form. What we are looking for are similarities that go beyond that level, and that has led most scholars, conservative as well as liberal, to recognize that there are parallels in the first three gospels that do not exist in John. For this reason Matthew, Mark, and Luke have been given the title “Synoptic Gospels.” The word “Synoptic” come from a combination of Greek words that mean something like “see or appear together,” referring to how these gospels record many of the same events, in similar order, and sometimes in similar or identical words.

Most scholars believe that Mark was the first of the four canonical gospels to be written. What we find is that Matthew and Luke record parallels to Mark that are so striking that it appears possible, perhaps even likely, that both Matthew and Luke used Mark as one of the sources for their own gospels.

At the same time, both Matthew and Luke share other similarities that do not have parallels in Mark. Of course each gospel also records its own unique perspective. But the question arises, if certain parallels in Matthew and Luke can be attributed to both using Mark as a source, how does one explain the parallels they have which are not found in Mark? Some scholars have suggested that there is another unknown source which both Matthew and Luke used in addition to Mark. Since we do not know what this source was, it is simply referred to as “Q,” which stands for the German word “Quelle” or “Source.” I even have a book which takes these common passages and attempts to reconstruct what this hypothetical source said. I would suggest that this is really stretching what we can legitimately do with the evidence.

Perhaps the most challenging argument submitted about “Q” is the assertion that it said nothing about Jesus’ death or resurrection. This idea arises because we do not have the parallels in Matthew and Luke dealing with Jesus’ death and resurrection that we do in other areas. Some scholars have even suggested that “Q” represents the original gospel which was later changed to reflect the teaching of Jesus’ death and especially His resurrection.  But it appears to me to be highly speculative to suggest that because of silence in an unknown and even unproven document we can simply throw aside the central tenet of the Christian message. That goes way beyond what the scant evidence we have would suggest.

First of all, let’s recognize that “Q” is a hypothetical document. No manuscript of “Q” has ever been discovered, nor is there any tradition that it ever existed. If it did exist, it is also very possible (I think likely) that “Q” represents oral tradition, rather than a written document. In the ancient world oral traditions were far more important than they are in industrialized countries today. I have read estimates that literacy in ancient Israel may have been as high as 80%; however, when we move out into the Greco-Roman world, the literacy rate plummets. The vast majority of people in the first century could neither read nor write. So it would have been natural for oral sources to be used in spreading the gospel. We even see evidence of them in the writings of Paul. And these oral sources would have become standardized in order to ensure that they would reflect the Christian message as accurately as possible. Is it possible that the source Matthew and Luke used was in fact a form of oral tradition that was common to both? It is possible that later on this tradition was written; however, we have no evidence of that. As I mentioned earlier, there is no documentation of “Q” or even a tradition that it existed.

Where then does this leave us? I would not be surprised at all if Matthew and Luke both had access to Mark and used this gospel in preparing their own. It answers some questions and does not affect my faith in the Bible at all. I also acknowledge that there are other similarities between Matthew and Luke that would suggest that they may have both used another common source. We can call it “Q” if we wish. It’s as good a name as any. It does appear strange that we have no written record of “Q,” nor any tradition relating to it. At the very least, this should give us pause before we make any strong statements about what it contained.

In the end, we have four gospels that each say what they say, and we are left with them as they are. While it may be interesting to investigate the sources behind them, we must recognize that our conclusions must by definition be largely speculative, and I suspect they will reveal as much about us and our biases as they will about the gospels themselves. As I have said before, opinions are opinions, and facts are facts. And we have far more opinions than we have facts.

I need a little time for some other things, so I will probably take a week or so off. I will try to do another post in a couple of weeks.

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Did the writers of the gospels simply record what they witnessed, or did they use other sources? Obviously, your answer to that question will affect your view of who the authors were. At the same time, don’t get caught up too much in that issue. It is more complex than that.

First of all, the gospel of Luke never claims to have been written by an eyewitness. On the contrary, he tells us specifically, that he did research, consulting other sources to obtain information. Look at what he says in the opening verses of Luke:

Luke 1.1-4 (NIV)  Many have undertaken to draw up an account of the things that have been fulfilled among us,  2 just as they were handed down to us by those who from the first were eyewitnesses and servants of the word.  3 Therefore, since I myself have carefully investigated everything from the beginning, it seemed good also to me to write an orderly account for you, most excellent Theophilus,  4 so that you may know the certainty of the things you have been taught.

The author of Luke openly acknowledges that he conducted research, so we must assume that he obtained information from other sources. He also says that at least some of that information he used (either oral or written) was based on eyewitness accounts.

But what of the other gospels? Did they use other sources? The short answer is that they probably did. We shall look at some of those possible sources when we consider what is often referred to as the “Synoptic Problem” and a hypothetical document called “Q.”

For some people that very admission eliminates the possibility that the gospels could have been written by any of the traditional authors, especially Matthew and John. After all, an eyewitness would have no need to consult other sources. He would simply write from his own memory. I think we need to consider that for a moment.

In 1995 (twenty-five years after I returned from Vietnam) I began writing my memoirs. I was not writing a history of the war. Rather, I was attempting to relate primarily my own experiences. At the same time, I found it helpful to consult other sources in order to put my experiences in context and to fill in information I could not possibly have known. Also, I found that after twenty-five years, my memory was not as sharp as it was immediately after the events. In the process of writing my memoirs, I referred to sixteen sources that are listed in the bibliography. I can just see someone a couple of hundred years from now saying that this proves I did not write these memoirs, but that they were written later by someone doing it in my name.

My point is that just because the writers of the gospels used other sources does not prove they were not written by the traditional authors. We should also remember that only Matthew and John are traditionally ascribed to eyewitnesses. Mark is indirectly related to Peter according to a man named Papias. The gospels also indicate that Peter, James, and John formed somewhat of an inner circle, and only they were present for certain events. Matthew would not have direct experience of those events or teachings.

All of this is intended to show that the question of authorship is complex. In my next post I want to delve a little further into the sources that may have influenced our gospels. Eventually we shall consider each gospel separately and attempt to discover what we can about its author.

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Over the next few posts, I want to begin to deal with the question of authorship and the Bible, starting with the gospels. Today we will do little more than lay the groundwork for the study, but I feel this to be an important first step. We shall continue that for at least one or two weeks before we consider the gospels themselves. The question of authorship can be an emotionally charged subject, and I hope to deal with it in a manner that is respectful to all views. At the same time, I recognize that the subject itself is so sensitive that my discussion may offend some people, probably at both ends of the spectrum. This is certainly not my desire. I hope that I am seeking the truth in this matter, as indeed in all areas of my life.

The study of authorship of the gospels is not a single issue. We have four gospels in the accepted canon, each of which has been traditionally ascribed to a particular person. Each gospel is different, and the evidence for each is also different. We simply cannot address the question with a generalized response.

In the beginning, I would like to lay some groundwork, beginning with what we know. Are there any elements with which the majority of people (Christian or not) can agree? I believe there are at least three areas with which I hope most of us can agree. I have no illusions that I will convince everyone. All I can do is express my understanding and the reasons for my belief. After that, I leave it to each of you to examine your own beliefs. If I help anyone look inward and examine why they believe what they believe, that will be the greatest compliment I could receive. So this morning, let me tell you three things I hope we can agree on concerning those who wrote the gospels.

The gospels are anonymous.  Nowhere do any of them claim to have been written by a specific individual. As we discussed earlier, the titles were added later and cannot be used to determine authorship. This does not mean we cannot find hints of authorship for some of the gospels. Honesty should compel us, however, to admit our limitations.

Tying a specific individual to each of the gospels need not become an issue of faith. Fundamentalist or evangelical groups normally have a high view of Scripture (as do I), and nothing I say should be intended as a criticism of that. The difficulty comes when we confuse tradition with fact. The truth is that since the gospels are anonymous, our faith in the legitimacy of any of the gospels should not be connected to proving that a particular person wrote it. Since none of the gospels specifically claim a particular author, how can our faith be threatened by studying the subject?

We cannot absolutely confirm or deny traditional authorship. This should be the starting point of our investigation, because ultimately it will be where we end. Just as conservatives often assume traditional authorship, I find that liberals are often just as quick to assume that the traditional authors did not write the gospels. What concerns me is that both conservatives and liberals often approach the subject with an agenda which makes it difficult to consider an alternative point of view. Can we all start by admitting that no absolute answers exist?

Over the next few posts, I will give you my take on the authorship of the gospels. Let’s look at the evidence together. Even if you end of disagreeing with my position in any of these issues, it can still be a fun and fascinating undertaking.

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