The four Gospels originally circulated anonymously; none of them bear the name of their authors. The names that are presently attached to our canonical Gospels are the product of second-century speculation, and they are intended to stress the apostolic credentials of the Gospels. Most of us assume that the Gospels are the direct products of either Jesus' apostles (John and Matthew) or their loyal lieutenants (Mark and Luke); however, this is not the overwhelming view of the majority of biblical scholars.
There is no doubt that there is a minority of ultra-conservative scholars who accept uncritically such an assumption. And that is all it is, an assumption based on Patristic speculation. Accordingly such a view begs many questions that are often overlooked by conservative scholars. In fact, neither I nor the overwhelming majority of objective biblical scholars would accept all of the implications suggested by this assumption.
Implications of the Question…
First, with the majority of Biblical scholars, I would certainly support the view that the traditions upon which the four Gospels draw are, for the most part, derived from the Apostles. In this case there is a great deal of reliable historical reminiscence contained in the four Gospels, which was originally passed on orally for several decades before being incorporated into our written Gospels. In this sense the Gospels are "apostolic"; however, we need to be aware that such Apostolic traditions were not simply passed on word-for-word.
The individual stories about Jesus and those told by Jesus had a long period of oral transmission in which they were translated (from Aramaic to Greek and Latin), restructured according to certain styles of storytelling (both the parables and the miracle stories follow precise templates), and they were interpreted and reworked to suit different audiences and purposes (both evangelical and catechetical).
On these points, we need only compare the Gospels of Matthew and Luke which, while drawing on the same sources (Mark and the hypothetically suggested gospel "Q"), freely change both the individual Markan or Q materials and the order in which those stories and sayings appear.
Second, I would argue strongly that the four gospels are "divinely inspired", but that claim does not guarantee historical reliability or factual inerrancy. Mark in particular is replete with a huge number of factual inaccuracies. The Markan Evangelist regularly gets place names confused and incorrectly identifies geographical markers. He mistranslates Aramaic expressions, and he misrepresents Jewish practices.
Again, a comparison of Mark with the other two Synoptists reveals many places where the better informed writers of Matthew (because the writer of this Gospel was a Jew who lived in Syria) and Luke (because the writer of this Gospel took more care in his research and he was probably a former Gentile God-fearer) change and correct Mark's mistakes.
Thirdly, the claim that the Gospels are "divinely inspired" most certainly does not guarantee the inerrancy of the patristic traditions surrounding the authorship of the Gospels. The Church fathers were not in possession of any reliable evidence about authorship. Much of what they do tell us or claim cannot be confirmed or corroborated by analysis of the text itself. Let me take Mark as an example.
Second-Century Patristic Speculation…
The Gospel later attributed to Mark is commonly assumed to be our earliest Gosple and it appears to have originally circulated without any name attached (as was the case with all four Gospels). By the first half of the second century, the Church began to ask questions about authorship, no doubt made necessary by the Marcionite heresy that brought to the fore the whole issue of a Christian canon. The earliest piece of speculation we have about authorship comes with Papias of Hierapolis (c. 120/130 C.E.), already some 60 or 70 years after the composition of the anonymous Gospel:
"And the presbyter said this: Mark the interpreter of Peter, wrote down exactly, but not in order, what he remembered of the sayings of the Lord, for he neither heard the Lord himself nor accompanied him, but, as I said, Peter later on. Peter adapted his teachings to the needs [of his hearers], but made no attempt to provide a connected narrative of things related to our Lord. So Mark made no mistake in setting down some things as he remembered them, for he took care not to omit anything he heard nor to include anything false. As for Matthew, he made a collection in Hebrew of the sayings and each translated them as best they could." (quoted in Eusebius, History of the Church 3:39:15)
Later, Irenaeus, writing around 180 makes claims that are so similar that they can only be dependent upon Papias:
"Matthew published his gospel among the Hebrews in their own tongue, when Peter and Paul were preaching the gospel in Rome and founding the church there. After their departure, Mark, the disciple and interpreter of Peter, himself handed down to us in writing the substance of Peter's preaching. Luke, the follower of Paul, set down in a book the gospel preached by his teacher. Then John, the disciple of the Lord, who leaned on his breast [John 13:25;21:20], himself produced his gospel, when he was living in Ephesus in Asia. (Irenaeus, Adversus haereses 3.3.4)
The most obvious problem with this Patristic speculation, of course, is the anomalous claim that Matthew wrote in "Hebrew" (Aramaic?). Experts in linguistics tell us that Matthew's Gospel was clearly written in Greek by one whose first language was Greek. Jerome does speak of a "Gospel to the Hebrews" (now lost to us), which was written in Aramaic and was favoured by heretical Christian Jewish groups in the late second and early third centuries (two hundred years after the Greek Matthew). The few quotes from this that Jerome provides suggest that it is very close to Matthew, but this hardly confirms Papias' (and Irenaeus') statement. The "Gospel to the Hebrews" could, and most likely was, a much later Aramaic translation of the Greek Matthew; or an entirely different Gospel that contained similar material to Matthew.
However, the really big problem is with the statements about Mark, none of which makes sense when we look at the text itself. Papias would have us believe that Mark is a somewhat disordered, but faithful, collection of "sayings". He explicitly says that Mark made no attempt to "make a connected narrative". But Mark is a highly structured narrative with very few "sayings". Indeed, Mark's Jesus says the least of all the four Gospels.
To pursue the problems further, we must observe, if Mark is Peter's disciple it is remarkable that while Peter does figure prominently in the Gospel, his portrayal is negative, at best, and condemnatory, at worst. Peter is presented as thick-headed and duplicitous; he is condemned and cursed by Jesus; he deserts Jesus at the Passion and is never redeemed. Such a portrayal of Peter would be very strange from one whom Papias claims to be a disciple of Peter. If Papias is speaking of a Gospel written by someone called "Mark", it can hardly be our Mark; and, in that case, any claim by us about the authorship of our Mark based on Papias would be erroneous.
We may make a similar comment about Irenaeus' views on Luke, who is simply titled a disciple of Paul. But such a claim is far from simple. While Paul does figure prominently in Acts, his portrayal is far from factually correct. Luke does not even tell us the most important thing we all know about Paul, that he wrote letters.
Now it may be possible that Luke was in possession of an itinerary of Paul's journeys written by a companion of Paul. Hence in Acts, there is significant material written in the second person and, by and large, Luke accurately plots of Paul's missionary journeys. But, clearly, Luke neither had a copy of Paul's letters nor knew of their existence. More importantly, Luke does a great injustice to Paul by presenting him as Law-observant and fundamentally in agreement with the Apostles, two facts which are completely repudiated by Paul's letters.
For these and many other reasons, the overwhelming view amongst most objective Biblical scholars is that the Gospels were not written by the Apostle's "loyal lieutenants". This does not, however, compromise any other claim that the Gospels are dependent upon Apostolic traditions or that they were divinely inspired.
Still, it does suggest that the Gospels are not simply biographies written by close associates of the original Apostolic circle. They are faith-statements and theologically-significant stories penned by pastoral leaders of communities in the sub- and post-Apostolic periods of the Church. Such pastoral leaders no doubt stood squarely in the line of Apostolic succession and, therefore, represented faithfully the apostolic deposit of faith. But their "take" on that material was shaped by the entire transmission history of the traditions and according to the pastoral needs of the communities where those traditions were preserved, edited and augmented.
Why Is the Question of Authorship Important?
To many, this "quest" to uncover the transmission history or to identify precisely the authors of the Gospels texts may seem to be questions of "no great moment". The reality is that the results of such discussions can only add to the Patristic "evidence" even more "speculation". The paucity of evidence does not allow us to arrive at any definitive answers. Still I think the quest is indispensable, for a number of reasons.
First, I think that the one fact that does emerge from the "quest" is that the transmission history of the Jesus' traditions that underlie the Gospels is anything but a simple straight line of succession from Apostles to Evangelists.
To reduce history to such a simple linear model leads to a "fundamentalist" or "literalist" understanding of the scriptures and the divine inspiration that underpins them. We can all too easily "turn people off" if we choose to ignore or dismiss the discrepancies, factual errors, ambiguities, and contradictions found throughout the Four Gospels. The "market" for religious devotees is now a highly educated one. Most people today have finely tuned "BS-detectors" and we can hardly expect to be taken seriously if we take a simplistic and reductionist approach to our sacred texts.
Second, on a more profound level the historical-critical analysis of the Gospels and their underlying traditions and tradents speaks to an Incarnational view of reality. God is totally discrete and transcendent, but the divine being has deigned to enter human history. Hence, God is found in the historical details, in the rough and tumble complexities of human commerce, and in the political intricacies of factional infighting. How divine inspiration gave birth to the Gospels via a convoluted path of catechesis and conflict tells us much about the God we believe in.
Meditating on the "world behind the text" is just as important as reflecting on the "world within the text"; both can inform the "world in front of the text". As many in our forum have rightly intuited, my abiding interest in the factional divisions of the early Church reveals important lessons for us today — e.g. the Ecumenical movement can benefit from debunking the myth of the undivided church; and ecclesiology and moral theology can be informed by a better understanding of the early Church and its political squabbles.
Third, on a more personal level this sort of historical investigation is where I find God. Not for me the heights of ecstasy found in chanting mantras, or the delving into the depths of my "soul" through contemplation of my navel. I find God in the pages of history where the more I study, the more my mind is driven to marvel at God's wondrous and mysterious ways. All-too-often a hard slog resulting in that "Eureka!" moment of enlightenment when I uncover something "new" (at least to me) about the early Church or the Scriptures draws me into prayer and praise. The book of history (as indeed the Book of the Scriptures which is part-and-parcel of God's dabbling in history) is as significant a meeting place of the divine and the human as the sacred space within the walls of any church or temple.
Bibliography and Further Reading:
What are your thoughts on this essay?
Ian Elmer can be contacted at: Ian Elmer <firstname.lastname@example.org> Please Note: You need to remove the "NOSPAM" words at the beginning of the email address before sending the email"
©2007 Ian Elmer