Posts Tagged ‘Synoptic’

I have delayed writing another post regarding the authorship of John, because I wished to do further research. Is it appropriate to admit from the beginning that I find no solution that totally satisfies all the questions I have? I hope this does not disturb you; it is simply the way real things are, and in my mind it reinforces the authenticity of the Gospel. If someone wanted to write a gospel in the name of John (although the gospel never does that), we should expect all the elements to fit together and difficulties either ignored or smoothed out. The very fact that there are questions tells me we are dealing with a legitimate work. Rather quickly, I want to suggest some of the possible answers to the question of who wrote the Gospel of John.

One writer wrote a comment on my last post with a link to an e-book in which he defends the position that Lazarus wrote the gospel attributed to John. I can think of a number of reasons why that might be an attractive choice, but rather than trying to defend that view, I would suggest you download his e-book yourself (it is free).

I recently read a book by a fairly conservative scholar who believes that this gospel was written by the “disciple whom Jesus loved,” whom he identifies with “John the Elder,” a close disciple of Jesus, but one who was not one of the twelve apostles. There is considerable evidence that someone referred to as “John the Elder” was perhaps a disciple of Jesus and that some of the books of the New Testament may have been written by him. I would especially consider 2 and 3 John as likely. Some would also include Revelation; however, I have not studied this enough to comment.

Then we come to the traditional view that  the author of the fourth gospel was John the apostle, one of the sons of Zebedee. If one accepts ancient tradition as having any value, this view has almost universal support. Actually, except for some “heretical” writings referred to by Irenaeus, virtually no one questioned the apostle John’s authorship until the eighteenth century and the rise of modern criticism.

Further support can be traced back even further. Eusebius quotes Irenaeus as saying that Polycarp (AD 69-155)  knew John, and apparently it was from Polycarp that Irenaeus got his understanding that John, the apostle, wrote the fourth gospel. This view is also supported by Clement of Alexandria (AD 150-215) and the Muratorian Canon (AD 170-200).

It is generally recognized that the Gospel of John has a number of Semitic elements and was written by someone for whom Greek was probably not his native language. I make no pretense at being qualified to address the Semitic elements except to note that the author sometimes transliterates Aramaic words into Greek letters, especially the word “Messiah” (4.25) and proper names (1.42). I only list two examples of several in the gospel. I can attest from my fairly elementary knowledge of Koine Greek that the gospel of John employs relatively simple vocabulary and grammar. It was the only Greek readings course I took beyond the basic grammar course, because it is perhaps the simplest book in the Greek New Testament to read.

Could the apostle John have written the fourth gospel? This is where we get into some difficulties. I regret that I cannot examine all the issues involved because of space limitations. The issues are huge and highly complex. Instead I wish to address a few of the more prominent questions.

John, along with his brother James, is addressed as one of the “Sons of Thunder,” and in one instance they want to call down the wrath of God on a village. The gospel of John does not appear to have been written by someone with that kind of temperament. I can only think of one possible resolution to that question. If tradition is correct, the gospel was written late in the first century. Is it possible that over perhaps 50 years or more the transforming power of the gospel actually changed John’s temperament and personality so that the “Son of Thunder” was transformed into the apostle of love? As a Christian, I certainly believe in the transforming power of the gospel. I would love for this to be one example of that happening.

Finally, I want to repeat something I mentioned in my last post. If John the apostle is not the “disciple whom Jesus loved,” then that very prominent apostle does not even appear in the fourth gospel which very ancient tradition ascribed to him. I cannot conceive a gospel written in the late first century that makes no reference at all to such a prominent apostle. If not the “disciple whom Jesus loved,” just where is the apostle John in the fourth gospel?

It has been argued that the description of Jesus as a preexistent deity could not have come from a direct follower of Jesus, because this was a later doctrine of the church; however, I believe this supposition involves a logical fallacy (Remember when people studied logic?). To presuppose what Jesus did or did not claim about Himself and then reject anything that contradicts that presupposition is circular reasoning. I cannot prove that Jesus on earth claimed to be incarnate deity. At the same time, I don’t see how anyone else can prove He did not.

At the same time, I acknowledge that this understanding of Jesus may have developed over time, especially with the influence of Paul’s writings. So, it is very possible that John would not have understood this clearly at the beginning, but came to accept it over the years. And this could explain why the fourth gospel is so different from the Synoptics. John is not writing to give the life of Jesus or to prove His miracles and healings. The Synoptics cover that quite well. Indeed, he may have written late in the first century, especially to present Jesus as God Incarnate, a picture that is not as clearly taught in the Synoptics. I must admit I am puzzled as to why John would not include the Transfiguration which would certainly support that view. Honesty compels me to admit I do not have the answer to that.

So I am back where we started. I tend to accept the traditional authorship of John, but must acknowledge that unanswered questions remain. I must leave the issue with that. It will not be the last time I will admit I don’t know the answer. If you choose to follow my blog, I you will have to get used to the limitations of my knowledge.

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Why do I phrase the question like that? For a simple reason. Most biblical scholars, liberal or conservative, agree that the same person wrote both books. Why is this so? Partially, because the book of Acts tells us that. While neither book refer to the author’s name, both of them begin by telling us they were written to someone named Theophilus, and Acts refers to “my first book.” Some people believe this was not an actual person. The name Theophilus is compounded from two Greek words which together mean “lover of God.” So was the author of Luke writing to a real person named Theophilus, or was he being more general? Your guess is as good as mine, although, in the absence of more evidence, I tend to accept the more mundane view that Theophilus was a real person. Names is the ancient world usually had some meaning, so there is no reason a person could not be named Theophilus.

This of course says nothing about who wrote the book. As with so many biblical questions, there are two basic views. The traditional belief is that both Luke and Acts were written by Luke, a physician and associate of the apostle Paul. Many scholars see these books as being written later, even as late as the second century. One of the reasons for questioning the traditional authorship is the apparent differences in theology between the author of Luke-Acts and the writings of Paul. Also, Luke’s discussion of the Parousia (or second coming) suggests a date late enough for that to be an issue.

In answer to that, those supporting a traditional interpretation make several points. First is the virtually universal acceptance of the traditional authorship until modern times, going back to the second century and Irenaeus. The earliest manuscript we have of the gospel of Luke (@ AD 200) gives it the title “According to Luke.” We should also recognize that there is no clear reference to the letters of Paul in Luke’s writing. This has to do not only with authorship, but also with dating. If these books were written in the second century, it would seem likely that there would be references to Paul’s teaching, especially in Acts, which emphasizes Paul so strongly. Since there is not, a logical assumption might be that these letters were either still being written or that they were so recent that they had not achieved a status of recognition as authoritative.

At the same time, there are passages which suggest some degree of association between Luke and Paul. For instance, both of them describe the institution of the Lord’s Supper in very similar terms (Luke 22.19-20 and 1 Corinthians 11.24-25).

Then we must deal with what have come to be called the “we” passages. Several times in the book of Acts, the narrator switches from the third person. Just one of these changes occurs in Acts 16.8-11. “8So they passed by Mysia and went down to Troas. 9During the night Paul had a vision of a man of Macedonia standing and begging him, ‘Come over to Macedonia and help us.’ 10After Paul had seen the vision, we got ready at once to leave for Macedonia, concluding that God had called us to preach the gospel to them.11 From Troas we put out to sea and sailed straight for Samothrace, and the next day on to Neapolis.” Notice how the writer switches from “they” in verse 8 to “we” in verse 10. One would logically assume that the writer is indicating that after writing about Paul’s decision to go to Macedonia, the author of Acts joined him in going to Neapolis. Scholars who question the traditional authorship sometimes contend that only the “we” portions represent the original eyewitness portions (and that these may have been written by Luke). They would suggest that later on, someone else wove these passages and other traditions together to form the final narrative. At the same time, the stylistic evidence, upon which modern scholars so often rely, seems to suggest otherwise. There is no real difference between the “we” passages and the rest of Acts.

We should also recognize that Luke was a relatively minor character in the New Testament. If someone in the second century wanted to write in the name of someone else, why would he not pick a more prominent person, such as Paul himself?

For all of these reasons, I tend to accept the traditional view that Luke and Acts were written by Luke, an associate of Paul. This of course, brings up the question of dating, which brings its own series of problems.

Since almost all scholars believe that Luke used the gospel of Mark as one of his sources, it must have been written after that gospel. You may remember that we suggested that Mark should most likely be dated between AD 60 and 70. The conflict we have is that giving Mark and (therefore Luke-Acts) an early date resolves some issues, but giving Mark a later date helps answer other questions.

Supporting later dates for Luke and Acts are some of the issues we have already discussed, particularly Jesus’ prediction of the fall of Jerusalem in Luke 21. Conservative scholars normally see no conflict here, because they argue that Jesus could foresee the future. More liberal scholars tend to reject this and point to this passage as proof that the gospel of Luke was written after AD 70 and the fall of Jerusalem. Even scholars who believe that the passage preserves a genuine prophecy of Jesus might argue that it was emphasized because the author had experienced the fulfillment. Ultimately, arguments such as this really do not speak to me one way or the other. We also discussed the concept of the Parousia or second coming, but this also does not require a late date. In 1 Thessalonians, Paul deals at length with this subject, and 1 Thessalonians is one of the earliest books in the New Testament.

So, what arguments can be given to support an earlier date? First of all, there are the “we” passages which suggest an eyewitness account for at least part of the book of Acts. Other explanations are given for them, but why not accept the simplest explanation as the true one? Acts was written by a contemporary of the events described and an eyewitness to many of them. Of course, the author of the gospel of Luke specifically says he was not an eyewitness of Jesus’ life, but that he consulted a number of sources.

There is also Luke’s description of the Last Supper to which we referred earlier. In addition to matching closely Paul’s description in 1 Corinthians, Luke does something found in no other gospel. He refers to a first cup, then the bread, then a second cup. Could this indicate that Luke was writing at a very early date when the precise order of the Lord’s Supper had not yet become fixed?

One final issue needs to be mentioned, and that is the close of the book of Acts which is very strange. The book closes with Paul in prison, but not apparently in any immediate danger, and it is very different from the description in 2 Timothy 4. While I am aware of the issues regarding dating of the Pastorals, we can assume they rely at least on ancient accounts which describe the final weeks or months of Paul’s life. And it is interesting that the one person described in 2 Timothy upon whom Paul relies is — Luke. If Acts were written after Paul’s death, it seems very strange that Paul’s death would not have been recorded. It would suggest that perhaps Acts was written before Paul’s death. Of course, this brings up another problem. Acts was written after Luke. Even if Mark were written as early as AD 60, Luke would have been very busy writing in order to complete both Luke and Acts before Paul’s death.

So, I must leave you with an uncertain conclusion. I do tend to accept the traditional authorship of Luke and Acts as being written by Luke, the companion of Paul. Dating is a difficult subject, and I am not able to offer a conclusion that satisfies even me. The ending of Acts seems to point to a date before Paul’s death; however, that requires a date too early to fit into the chronology of the gospels as we know it. Two possibilities present themselves. One is that Luke and Acts were written later in the first century which allows Luke to make use of Mark’s gospel. The other possibility is that our accepted chronology of the gospels is wrong. Either Mark was written even earlier than AD 60, or (and this is unlikely) Luke was written before Mark.

I am afraid I must leave us with questions for which there are at this time no good answers. At the same time, I still see no compelling reason to deny that Luke and Acts were written by Luke, the companion of Paul. I have read no convincing arguments to contradict that, and it still appears to be the simplest explanation.

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As I was writing the post for today, I was struck with how much material I am forced to leave out. Most of the subjects I write about are so complex that time and space limitations force me to summarize in ways that must appear simplistic to those who are aware of the issues. I make an attempt at least to summarize the various interpretations. Then, I go on to provide my conclusion. My purpose is not to provide a comprehensive discussion or even defense of all the issues involved. That would require posts much too long to be of benefit or even interest to most of those to whom this blog is addressed. So if you find yourself asking if I am not oversimplifying some of the issues, please know that you are right, and I am painfully aware of that. If you wish to bring up any of these issues in response, please feel free to do so. I will be happy to address them within the limits of my knowledge, as long as we do not get bogged down with them. That being said, today I want us to consider the gospel of Matthew.

Matthew is the only one of the gospels consistently linked to one of the twelve apostles (we will deal with John a little later). Tradition says that it was written by Matthew, the tax collector, one of the twelve apostles. Let me remind you that nowhere does the gospel itself ever make this claim, so there is no question of honesty or inspiration involved in the question. We are simply looking at the evidence.

The earliest source we have for the authorship of Matthew once again is Papias, whom we referred to in the discussion about Mark. Here is what Papias says about Matthew. “So Matthew composed the oracles in the Hebrew language and each person interpreted them as best he could” (Michael W. Holmes. The Apostolic Fathers).

Remember that Papias probably wrote @ AD 120-140, certainly early enough for ancient (and accurate) traditions to have been preserved. At the same time, we must recognize that this quotation reveals very little. It is even hard to understand just what Papias is trying to say. At the very least it indicates that whatever Matthew wrote was not simply a coherent gospel that was transmitted pretty much as written. Papias indicates that whatever lies behind Matthew as we have it was first written in Hebrew (or perhaps Aramaic) and that it was translated in a variety of ways.

Many scholars discount what Papias says and date Matthew to late in the first century, anywhere from AD 80-100. Part of the reasoning for a later date is the recognition that Matthew apparently used the gospel of Mark as one of his sources (as did Luke). Also, the Greek gospel of Matthew as we have it does not show signs of being a translation from Hebrew.

First of all, while it would be unwise to accept what Papias says uncritically, it is just as wrong simply to reject his account out-of-hand. Papias is, after all, the earliest witness we have. I see no reason to deny that the apostle Matthew in some form lies behind the gospel as we have it. At the same time, there is every reason to believe that the origin of the gospel is more complex than that. As I said in an earlier post, the fact that our gospel used Mark as one of his sources does not mean it could not go back to an eyewitness. People who write eyewitness accounts (including me) rely on other sources to fill in where necessary.

Matthew, in the form we have it, also preserves a very Jewish flavor. It is a coherent presentation of the theme of what Matthew refers to as “the Kindom of God.” For this reason, it is likely that Matthew goes back to someone very knowledgeable of Jewish religion and customs.

While the gospels tell us that Matthew was a hated tax collector, that very occupation would require him to be able to converse and write in both Aramaic and Greek. As with most male Jews, he would probably have some knowledge of Hebrew as well. What Papias refers to as the “oracles” (“logia” in Greek) may refer to a collection of the sayings of Jesus written by Matthew. Look at a red-letter edition of Matthew. Jesus says more in Matthew than any of the other gospels. It is also organized in sections. We have the Sermon on the Mount, many of the parables are arranged together, as with many of the miracles. It is as if Matthew is divided into sections that are topical, not chronological.

So here in summary is my position. I do believe that our gospel goes back to a Hebrew or Aramaic document written by the apostle Matthew. At the same time, at some point Matthew or someone else took this material, and I am guessing between AD 70-80 wrote in Greek the gospel we have now. To repeat what I said earlier, this should not be a matter of faith. Once again, I have left myself open to strong disagreement from both conservative and liberal positions. So be it. This is simply how I see the evidence at this point. Next year I may well understand it differently.

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In my last post we considered the dating of Mark (@ AD 60-65, although some scholars date it to AD 70 or even later) and whether or not it was based on eyewitness testimony. I gave my conclusion that while we cannot say with certainty that Mark was based on eyewitness testimony, it was written early enough that eyewitness testimony was possible. This is all we can say with confidence, so today we must of necessity get into areas of speculation and opinion. Very briefly (which means I am leaving out tons of material) I wish to examine this tradition and the origin of the gospel of Mark.

We talked about a man named Papias, someone who knew both Polycarp and possibly Irenaeus and how Papias wrote during the first half of the second century (AD 100-130), preserving very ancient traditions about early Christianity. Here again is what he said 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).

First of all, Papias says that the author of Mark received his information from Peter. Other ancient writers have supported this view. Irenaeus @ AD 180 adds that the gospel was written in Rome. A second century prologue to the gospel refers to Mark as Peter’s interpreter and says the gospel was written in Italy. So, it appears that at least from the second century on, the second gospel was said to have been written by someone named Mark who derived at least part of his information from Peter.

Is there any evidence that Peter is more prominent in Mark than in the other gospels? Compared to the other synoptic gospels, there is at least some indication that Peter plays a larger role in Mark than he does in Matthew and Luke. First of all, we need to understand that Mark is the shortest of these three gospels. The three synoptic gospels together in Greek contain 49,131 words. As a percentage, Mark is 23% of the total, Matthew is 37%, and Luke is 40%. However, even though Mark contains only 23% of the total words in the synoptic gospels, when we compare the occurrences of Peter or Simon ( when referring to the apostle Peter), we find that the occurrences of the names in Mark comprise 33% of the total references to Peter in all the synoptics. Certainly this is circumstantial, but it does present at least some evidence that Peter may have influenced the gospel of Mark. Since we indicated in the last post that Matthew and Luke probably used Mark as one of their sources, it is interesting that their accounts do not emphasize Peter to the same degree, even though they relied partially on Mark’s gospel.

But what about authorship? Can we say that Mark wrote the gospel which is attributed to him? Well, the first question obviously must be, “Who was Mark?” Unfortunately, that is not an easy question to answer. Mark was an extremely common name, and nowhere are we specifically told who the author was. The most commonly suggested person is John Mark. The first reference to him is in Acts 12.12 when (interestingly enough) Peter goes to his mother’s house. The reference to his mother’s house would indicate that at that time John Mark was very young, possibly a child or a teenager. The last reference to him is in Acts 15, where Paul has an unfavorable impression of Mark, who then becomes associated with Barnabas. One possible final reference is in 2 Timothy 4.11 (authorship of the Pastorals will have to wait for another time). If this is the same Mark, it could indicate that in later years he and Paul resolved their differences, but now we go deeply into the area of speculation.

Trying to put all this together, we have to say that we cannot say with certainty who Mark was or when the gospel attributed to him was written. Conservative scholars tend to date it early; liberal scholars suggest a later date (no surprise in either case). What I keep coming back to is the very ancient testimony that Mark was written by a man named Mark and that he was an associate of Peter.

I want to prepare one final post regarding the gospel of Mark, explaining a little more of my reasoning and dealing with one specific episode in that gospel. At that time, I intend to put all this together, and then move on.

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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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Daniel B. Wallace

Executive Director of CSNTM & Senior Research Professor of NT Studies at Dallas Theological Seminary

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