I’m often amazed at how disinterested most Christians seem to be on the question of who wrote the Bible. This perplexes me because it seems, to my mind anyway, that it should matter where the texts came from, who wrote them, when, and why. Yet these questions don’t seem to concern many Christians that I know.
Just to test this theory out, I ran it by some of my Christian family members. None of them cared.
Be that as it may, the authorship of the Bible is an important issue, and some folks may be surprised to discover just how little we really know about who wrote these texts and where they came from. The history of how we got the Bible is complex and can fill volumes. Here, I intend simply to provide, in a continuing “series,” an overview of the authorship for each of the 27 books of the New Testament, briefly discussing the various perspectives. My hope is to keep these discussions brief and accessible, while still detailing the pertinent information.
Any discussion of the New Testament usually starts with the four Gospels. These are the books that tell us intimate details about the life of Jesus, from his birth up through his baptism, ministry, and death in Jerusalem. Almost as interesting as the content of these texts is the discussion about who, exactly, wrote them. In what follows, it is important to keep in mind that the Gospels, themselves, are anonymous. They did not come with titles, and nothing in the text tells us who the writer is. The authors of these Gospels clearly figured their audience would know who they were.
The Gospel of Mark
Date: 70 C.E.
Textual Claim: Anonymous
Church Tradition: John Mark, a companion of Peter and Paul
Mark is not the first Gospel in our Bibles, but it was the first Gospel to be written, composed somewhere around 70 C.E., about the time that Jerusalem was falling to the Roman legions and the Jewish people were being dispersed throughout the Mediterranean world. Because it was traditionally believed to have been the second gospel written, it is typically referred to as the Second Gospel. I put it first simply because scholars now know that it was, in fact, the first to be written.
Church tradition has attributed this Gospel to a man named John Mark, said to have been a companion of Paul and later a secretary to Peter. This view goes back quite a long way, all the way back to the first part of the 2nd century, with a writer named Papias, who, we are told, was the leader of the church in Heirapolis, in modern day Turkey.
Scholars tend to date Papias’ work to roughly 115 C.E. As far as post-New Testament authors go, Papias is one of the very earliest that we know about.
None of Papias’ writings have survived for scholars to read. We know of him and his work only because he was quoted by Christian writers who came after him. As such, we have a few statements from Papias, but no complete works.
One of his quoted pieces deals with the authorship of Mark. He states: “Mark having become the interpreter of Peter, wrote down accurately whatsoever he remembered.”
This isn’t much, of course, but it’s enough to establish that by the first part of the 2nd century, Christians were attributing some text or another to Mark, a companion of Peter. Whether Papias understood this to be the same Mark who had previously been a companion of Paul (and who, according to Acts, parted ways early on with Paul) is unclear. It is also not clear exactly what text Papias is talking about. Is he referring to our Gospel of Mark? Or some other text purportedly written by Peter’s companion? There is nothing in our Gospel of Mark to suggest that it was written by a companion of Peter (one might expect, for instance, that it would be heavily “pro-Peter” if it was written by one of his followers, but it is not).
There are other reasons to suspect that Papias may have been talking about a different text. To begin with, Papias quotes several stories that are not found in any of the four Gospels of the New Testament. He gives, for instance, an account of the death of Judas that is completely different from the ones found in Matthew and Luke. Additionally, he quotes a parable of Jesus that is not found in any other source, either inside or outside the New Testament. Could these stories have come from the text that Papias believed was authored by Mark? If so, then he certainly was not referring to the text we know as the Gospel of Mark.
In addition to the general doubts about what text Papias was talking about, there is also the issue of who, exactly, John Mark was. We know from the letters of Paul that he had a companion by this name, though Paul simply calls him “Mark.” “John Mark” is how he is referred to in the book of Acts. In Acts, Mark and Paul have a falling out, and Mark abandons him, never to return to the story. In the book of 1 Peter, ostensibly written by the apostle Peter, Mark is also referenced as sending his greetings to the recipients of the letter. Is this, perhaps, where the tradition comes from that Mark, after abandoning Paul, became the secretary of Peter? Perhaps, but there is nothing in the text itself to indicate that this is the same Mark. In Acts, for instance, when Mark leaves Paul, he doesn’t go to Peter, but instead sets out with Barnabas.
In the end, it seems likely that the text we know as the Gospel of Mark was probably not written by anyone who was a companion of Peter or Paul, or even by anyone named Mark. The attribution to Mark, the secretary of Peter/companion of Paul, seems to be a “best guess” by early Church fathers attempting to assimilate the available data and add authority to those texts considered pure and orthodox by the emerging Church.
The Gospel of Matthew
Date: 80-85 C.E.
Textual Claim: Anonymous
Church Tradition: Matthew the tax collector, also called Levi, a disciple of Jesus
Matthew is typically called the First Gospel, even though it is now known to have been the second gospel written. When it comes to this text, the waters become even murkier than with the Gospel of Mark. Perhaps the best place to start is with the identity of the person we call Matthew.
In Church tradition, Matthew was also known as Levi, and he was a tax collector. In Mark’s Gospel, this connection is not explicit. There is a story about Jesus calling a man named Levi, who is a tax collector, but later – when Mark provides a list of the 12 disciples – Levi is absent. A man named Matthew is named as one of the disciples, but there is no suggestion by Mark that this is the same person as Levi the tax collector. In the Gospel of Matthew, the conundrum is cleared up. When this author re-tells Mark’s story about Levi the tax collector, he doesn’t call him Levi at all, but instead calls him Matthew. Luke does not tell the story of the tax collector, but does mention that one of the disciples was named Matthew.
We also have a reference to a disciple named Matthew in the Gospel of Thomas, though no biographical information is provided. Additionally, there is a reference in the Gospel of Peter to a disciple named Levi, but again there is no biographical information.
Clearly, the author of the Gospel of Matthew believed that Levi the tax collector and the disciple Matthew were one and the same. This, in and of itself, causes one to wonder if that does not explain where the tradition of Matthean authorship comes from – the assumption being that the author of this text knew Matthew and Levi were the same person quite simply because the author was, in fact, Matthew himself.
Whether that is the source for the tradition of Matthean authorship or not, our earliest reference to this tradition again comes from the aforementioned Papias. Papias says: “Matthew put together the oracles [sayings of Jesus] in the Hebrew language, and each one interpreted them as best he could.”
We are faced again with the same problem we saw with Mark. Is Papias talking about the same text we know as the Gospel of Matthew? Here, the doubt is even greater, because as anyone familiar with the Gospel of Matthew knows, it is not simply a list of sayings (“oracles”) of Jesus, but an entire “gospel” detailing Jesus’s life from birth to death. Papias’ description actually sounds more like the Gospel of Thomas than the text we know as the Gospel of Matthew. Furthermore, the Gospel of Matthew was written in Greek, not Hebrew. Before you wonder if it might have originally been written in Hebrew, and simply translated later into Greek, there is no evidence to suggest this. I am certainly no ancient Greek scholar, but those folks who are scholars of ancient Greek have ways of determining if a Greek text is an original Greek composition or a translation from some other language. From what I understand, it is widely agreed that this text is an original Greek composition.
There is one more point to be made about Papias’ identification: recall from the discussion of Mark that Papias gives an account of the death of Judas which is different than the account found in Matthew and Luke. If the text Papias knew as Matthew was the same text we know as Matthew, why would Papias give an account of Judas’ death that differs from what is found in Matthew?
It seems likely to me that whatever text Papias was talking about, it was not the Gospel we know as Matthew.
Again, we are in a position similar to the one we faced with Mark: the disciple Matthew almost certainly didn’t write the text we know as the Gospel of Matthew, and even the disciple Matthew’s very identity is in question.
In Part II, we will look at the authorship of the Third and Fourth Gospels, Luke and John.