The four Gospels of the New Testament appear under slightly different names in the most ancient manuscripts, for example, sometimes the Gospel of Mark is τὸ κατὰ Μᾶρκον εὐαγγέλιον, “The Good News According to Mark” and sometimes it is merely κατὰ Μᾶρκον, “According to Mark.” There is no case of one of the four canonical Gospels appearing without a name, as “anonymous.”
Who wrote them? Holy Tradition ascribes the Gospel of Mark to the Apostle Mark, a companion of St. Peter, and the Gospel of Luke to the Apostle Luke, a companion of St. Paul. Mark and Luke are not among the original Twelve Apostles who were the companions of Christ, but are among the Seventy Apostles that Christ sends abroad in his name:
The Mission of the Seventy
10 After this the Lord appointed seventy others, and sent them on ahead of him, two by two, into every town and place where he himself was about to come. 2 And he said to them, “The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few; pray therefore the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into his harvest. 3 Go your way; behold, I send you out as lambs in the midst of wolves. 4 Carry no purse, no bag, no sandals; and salute no one on the road. 5 Whatever house you enter, first say, ‘Peace be to this house!’ 6 And if a son of peace is there, your peace shall rest upon him; but if not, it shall return to you. 7 And remain in the same house, eating and drinking what they provide, for the laborer deserves his wages; do not go from house to house. 8 Whenever you enter a town and they receive you, eat what is set before you; 9 heal the sick in it and say to them, ‘The kingdom of God has come near to you.’ 10 But whenever you enter a town and they do not receive you, go into its streets and say, 11 ‘Even the dust of your town that clings to our feet, we wipe off against you; nevertheless know this, that the kingdom of God has come near.’ 12 I tell you, it shall be more tolerable on that day for Sodom than for that town.
Likewise, Holy Tradition ascribes the authorship of the Gospel According to Matthew to the Apostle Matthew and the Gospel According to John to the Apostle John, both of whom were among the original Twelve Apostles.
No one should be surprised that the Christian Tradition maintains that the four Gospels were written by the men whose names they bear.
As many of you are also probably aware, the Apostolic authorship of the Gospels has been questioned by modern Biblical Criticism. Is this a serious cause for concern for traditional Christians? Should we entertain serious doubts about the ascription by Holy Tradition of Apostolic authorship to the Gospels?
In a word: No.
Why not? To put the matter as briefly as possible—I do not intend to lay out the entire case here, but only to give you a sketch of the situation—modern historical-Biblical criticism is an essentially secular approach to scriptural texts that, modeling itself after the methods of natural science, builds into its entire approach a number of fundamentally secular assumptions. That is to say, it reasons in the following pattern: “Under the ‘neutral’ assumption that these texts are not divinely inspired, then X, Y, and Z.”
An excellent illustration of this is the modern dating of the Gospels. Countless scholars and sources will report that, for example, Mark is the earliest Gospel and was written no earlier than 66-70 A.D.
Why should we think this? In this case, Wikipedia, while not reliable in itself, seems reasonably well-sourced and typical. Let’s have a look at what it says, first concerning the Synoptic Problem:
The synoptic problem and the historicity of Mark
The gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke bear a striking resemblance to each other, so much so that their contents can easily be set side by side in parallel columns. Their close relationship is termed the synoptic problem, and has led to a number of hypotheses explaining their interdependence. The most widely accepted hypothesis is that Mark was the first gospel and was used as a source by both Matthew and Luke, together with considerable additional material. The strongest argument for this is the fact that Matthew and Luke only agree with each other in their sequence of stories and events when they also agree with Mark.
The 19th century recognition of Mark as the earliest gospel led to the belief that it must therefore be the most reliable. This conclusion was overturned by two works published in the early decades of the 20th century: in 1901 William Wrede argued that Mark’s sequence of episodes is in fact an artificial construct with theological motivation; and in 1919 Karl Ludwig Schmidt showed how the links between the episodes are the invention of the writer, thus undermining the gospel’s claim to be a reliable guide to the chronology of Jesus’s mission. The modern consensus is that Mark’s purpose was to present a theological message rather than to write history. [Italics mine]
So, the view that Mark is the earliest Gospel, while not unreasonable, is still only the most widely accepted hypothesis, e.g. something that falls a bit short of proof beyond any possible doubt or even beyond a reasonable doubt. And the hypothesis was formulated under the not apparently regarded as false assumption that Mark is not an composition informed by theological considerations. But what follows from that?
We are told “in 1901 William Wrede argued that Mark’s sequence of episodes is in fact an artificial construct with theological motivation“; we are also told that “The modern consensus is that Mark’s purpose was to present a theological message rather than to write a history.” Both of these claims are sourced to footnote 14, which is Williamson, Lamar (1983). Mark. John Knox Press. And what does Williamson have to tell us on this point? Only that Mark’s primary intention is to announce a message rather than to write a history:
It should hardly come as surprise that the writer of a Gospel has the primary intention of announcing the Christian message, rather than conforming to the norms of 19-21st century historiography. Nor does this primary intention of the part of the writer of Mark necessarily say anything about the historical accuracy of the Gospel of Mark. Williamson, for his part, only notes that the historical dimension of the Gospel is not a major concern of the author, not that the author is engaging is historical falsification, or that the genuinely historical portions of the Gospel are somehow necessarily unreliable.
But what about “in 1901 William Wrede argued that Mark’s sequence of episodes is in fact an artificial construct with theological motivation“, also sourced to Williamson? Well, Williamson does not in fact mention anything from 1901, and only mentions Wrede on p. 13 of his introduction, to credit him with “a brilliant and influential explanation” of Jesus’ apparent caginess in his claims to be the Messiah, an “elaborate explanation” which Williamson nonetheless rejects, and—more importantly for our purposes—has nothing whatever to do with the Wikipedia’s assertion that the author of Mark was engaged in “creating an artificial construct with theological motivation.” Neither the words “artificial” nor “construct” seem to appear anywhere in Williamson’s book. Before we leave Williamson, let us note that he apparently holds that Mark was written c. 70 A.D. More on that below.
Let’s go on. The “artificial construct with theological motivation” phrasing is apparently the invention from whole cloth of the Wikipedia editor(s), but it is, in itself, a highly ambiguous phrase: it seems to suggest falsehood without actually asserting it. Isn’t any writing “an artificial construct” in the sense of being a product of art, rather than nature? What about the Wikipedia’s more robust claim that “in 1919 Karl Ludwig Schmidt showed how links between the episodes are the invention of the writer, thus undermining the gospel’s claim to be a reliable guide to the chronology of Jesus’s mission.” Here we have what seems to be a much less weaselly way of saying that the author of Mark simply made up false things, the “invention of the author.” Let’s source it. This time we are directed to footnote 15, which is the entry on the Gospel of Mark by Marcus Joel in Eerdman’s Dictionary of the Bible. Now since there is no such person as “Marcus Joel” and the entry in Eerdman’s is by Joel Marcus, I’m just going to assume that’s what Wikipedia meant to say—Wikipedia: proving daily that “you get what you pay for.”
Does Joel Marcus’ entry on the Gospel of Mark back up Wikipedia’s claim that “in 1919 Karl Ludwig Schmidt showed how links between the episodes are the invention of the writer, thus undermining the gospel’s claim to be a reliable guide to the chronology of Jesus’s mission“? No, it does not. What Marcus says, and all he says, is that Schmidt contended that this was the case, as a matter of historical fact, and that the inference that Mark is “not a reliable guide to the chronology of Jesus’ ministry” has been widely accepted:
As to the nature of Schmidt’s case, and how exactly he purports to know that some parts of the Gospel are invented by the author, we are not told. Note that the Wikipedia claims that Schmidt showed this, whereas the source it uses to support this only says Schmidt contended this. Certainly it would make my life as a scholar easier of all it took to show that something is the case was to contend that it is the case!
Wikipedia certainly hasn’t made its case yet. Let’s see if we can track down Schmidt’s case, shall we? Why not start with the Wikipedia entry on Karl Ludwig Schmidt himself, wherein it is claimed “In 1919, his book Der Rahmen der Geschichte Jesu (“The Framework of the Story of Jesus”) showed that Mark’s chronology is the invention of the evangelist. Using form criticism, Schmidt showed that an editor had assembled the narrative out of individual scenes that did not originally have a chronological order.”
Here’s that same “showed” language. This time, the source is pp. 5-7 of Theissen, Gerd and Annette Merz. The historical Jesus: a comprehensive guide. Fortress Press. 1998. translated from German (1996 edition). Do Theissen and Merz give is any evidence, for example, Schmidt’s argument? They do not. They do, however, seem to be the source of the “showed” language:
Here we have not only “showed” but “demonstrated.” I don’t want to question Schmidt’s credentials and competence, but I would actually like to see his argument before accepting it, rather than endless second-hand reports of what he supposedly showed. He apparently used something called form criticism to do it. Let’s take a look at that, shall we?
Would you be shocked to learn that “form criticism” is now regarded as an entirely discredited method? Are you surprised that the results of a now wholly discredited method are still being stated as facts? Does it surprise you that no scholars today would acknowledge the soundness of Schmidt’s method, but nonetheless will blithely continue to say that his work demonstrates or shows or proves X, Y, or Z?
If any of these things surprise you, welcome to the world of textual scholarship, where ridiculous claims based on ridiculous methods can live on literally for centuries even when the methods, theories, and ideas that led to the claims are considered thoroughly discredited, outdated, flawed, debunked, or which “must be considered suspect.”
In other words,
- Schmidt used a fallacious method to argue something;
- Despite recognition of the fallacious nature of Schmidt’s method, we are still to take the conclusions of his arguments as fact;
- Because reasons.
So what have we learned? Two things.
1. Despite all the smoke, noise, and assertion, we have not actually been given any good reason to think the author of the Gospel of Mark was inventing anything, and
2. A principle well enunciated by former prosecutor and legal commentator Vincent Bugliosi (the prosecutor of Charles Manson):
I really had planned to get into some other claims found on Wikipedia, and common in modern Biblical scholarship, for example:
The Gospel of Mark is anonymous. A tradition beginning in the early 2nd century with Papias of Hierapolis (c.AD 125) ascribes it to Mark the Evangelist, a companion and interpreter of the apostle Peter, but most scholars do not accept Papias’ claim. It was probably written c.AD 66–70, during Nero’s persecution of the Christians in Rome or the Jewish revolt, as suggested by internal references to war in Judea and to persecution.
6. Sanders 1995, p. 63-64.
7. Burkett 2002, pp. 155–6.
8. Perkins 1998, p. 241.
Footnote 6: Wikipedia says that “the Gospel of Mark is anonymous”, according to Sanders 1995. However, footnote 6 is the only reference to Sanders on the page. No such work appears in the Sources. I suppose I could try to find Sanders.
Footnote 7: We are told that “most scholars do not accept Papias’ claim” about the authorship of the Gospel of Mark. Wikipedia’s source is valid, for once. It does indeed state that most scholars, or at least “most critical scholars” do not accept Papias’ claim:
Of course, the source 1. doesn’t give us any evidence that the claim is true, that “most critical scholars do not accept Papias’ claim.” But let’s just grant it; it’s probably true. It still gives us no reason to think “most critical scholars” are correct not to accept Papias’ claim. We saw above that “critical scholars” seem to think that Schmidt had shown something very important about the Gospel of Mark, even while they admit his method was radically flawed.
One of the things that I am thankful for is that my discipline, philosophy, has proven resistant (not immune) to this very bad scholarly habit of what philosopher David Stove described as “sabotaging logical expressions,” that is, replacing claims like “such and such is the case” with claims like “most scholars think such and such is the case,” which are of course two entirely different claims and two entirely different sorts of claims.
Burkett’s short passage blithely asserts that “both the Proto-Orthodox and the Gnostics attributed their writings to to apostles” etc., without bothering to explain such things as why there are no anonymous manuscripts; how it is possible that all the Proto-Orthodox Christians all over the world could pull off the hoax of adding an author to an anonymous manuscript at the same time over the vast Roman Empire without anyone noticing; why the Gnostics were called out as obvious liars and forgers when they did this (because the ancients had no more love for fraud than we do) but the Proto-Orthodox were able to get away with it (because the ancients were too stupid or ignorant to understand the concept of fraud). Burkett presents no evidence that the Gospel of Mark was ever anonymous; he just assumes it, and then makes up a wildly implausible post hoc “explanation”, which he apparently didn’t think about very hard, and apparently hopes no one else thinks about very hard either. Thought through, his claim amounts to something like this “Both authors of texts and plagiarists attribute writings to people in order to justify their claims of authorship.” He seems unaware that, while this is true, there is a distinction between the true attribution of a work to an author and a false attribution of a work; he just blandly notes that both groups do, in fact, attribute a work to an author, as if this fact all by itself made both attributions equally suspect.
Footnote 8: This one concerns the dating of the Gospel, specifically to c. 66-70 A.D. What does our source tell us? Once again, we have a source-which-is-not-a-source:
We are asked to believe that Mark was written c. 66-70 A.D. on the authority of Perkins. Perkins, however, is simply repeating a claim made by Donahue, whoever that is.
Do you feel like you are going mad yet?
In order to even begin to evaluate the claims that Mark is not the author of Mark and that the Gospel of Mark was written c. 66-70 A.D., I would have to track down (minimally) Sanders and Donahue. And the odds are high that one or both of them will just be repeating a claim made somewhere else by someone else, rather than presenting an argument—because that is how the game is played. If I am lucky, they’ll provide me with their source(s) for the claim so I could continue to dig.
But for now, I’m tired, and this post has already grown far longer than I intended it to be. I only wanted to convince you all that the claims that Gospel of Mark wasn’t written by Mark, and was written 33-37 years after the death of Christ are far from being facts known with something like certainty, but are rather theories (and not in the strong scientific sense of the term either) based on a variety of suppositions and hypotheses. Alas, I wasn’t able to do that as thoroughly as I wanted to, because I have so far been entirely unable to locate the actual arguments for these claims (not that this fact makes the claims more plausible). Instead I have got lost in the bewildering maze of scholars citing scholars citing other scholars in a giant academic circle. Being a scholar myself, I don’t know why I should have expected otherwise; I suppose, again, it is because my discipline, philosophy, whatever else you say about it, does not (for the most part) fear actual arguments.
However, I hope I have succeeded in convincing you, by this little descent into the scholarly rabbit hole, that you ought not to rely very heavily on the words of or even the consensus of scholars. “The scholarly consensus” makes it sound as if all the scholars have actually examined the matter and most of them have come to the same conclusion about it; this is not the case: far more often, a “scholarly consensus” results from some scholar (e.g. Schmidt) propounding a theory, and it getting “picked up” in the literature, with the next generation of scholars (and the next, and the next, etc.) simply being taught it as established orthodoxy.
I will take up the question of the authorship and dating of the Gospels another time. Until then: don’t believe everything you read, neither on Wikipedia nor in scholarly sources. Many scholars would rather die than admit “I don’t know.” But you should never be ashamed of those words: as Socrates taught, they are the beginning of real wisdom.