By Clarke Bates| As a continuation of the earlier article regarding the authorship of the Gospel of John (here), this article will approach the authorship of the second Gospel, attributed to Mark. Of the four gospels, John stands apart as holding the clearest level of internal evidence to attest to its authorship; we continue to Mark as it is considered the earliest gospel, and the one upon which the rest of the Synoptics draw.
It is no surprise that the second gospel falls under intense scrutiny and skepticism, for if doubt can be raised to its authorship or accuracy, that doubt must naturally spread to both Matthew and Luke. While it was stated earlier that the authorship of a biblical text is not a necessary element in demonstrating its truth, it can reinforce the authoritative nature with which it speaks.
What follows is in no way an encompassing discussion on the various challenges to traditional authorship, but a survey of the evidence from which we can draw conclusion regarding the most likely, or plausible author.
The Gospel According to Who?
Just as is the case for the Gospel of John, the Gospel attributed to Mark is formally anonymous. The attestation which all Christians are now familiar stems the formal titles attached to the documents in the second century. “The first reference to the author and circumstances of the second Gospel comes from Papias, bishop of Hierapolis in Asia Minor. . . composed sometime prior to his death in AD 130.”(1)
The original writing of Papias has long since been lost, but was recorded within the writings of the early church historian, Eusebius, in the fourth century. It is from Eusebius’ Ecclesiastical History that much of these earliest works remain extant.
According to Papias, one who lived during the time of the apostles, as recorded, “Mark became Peter’s interpreter and wrote accurately all that he remembered, not, indeed, in order, of the things said or done by the Lord. For Mark had not heard the Lord, nor had he followed him, but later on, as I said, followed Peter, who used to give teaching as necessity demanded but not making, as it were, an arrangement of the Lord’s oracles, so that Mark did nothing wrong in thus writing down single points as he remembered them.
For to one thing he gave attention to leave out nothing of what he had heard and to make no false statements in them.”(2)
If this is, in fact, the case, the gospel of Mark consists of eyewitness accounts from one closest to the Lord. Edwards agrees with this sentiment, writing, “That the Second Gospel was in many respects ‘Peter’s memoirs’ found, as far as we know, unanimous agreement in the early church.”(3),(4)
By examining the Papias quote, three points are illustrated concerning the author of the second gospel:
- Mark wrote the gospel that, in Eusebius’ day, was identified with his name.
- Mark was not an eyewitness but obtained his information from Peter.
- Mark’s gospel lacks “order,” reflecting the occasional nature of Peter’s preaching.
By no later than the mid 4th century, the second gospel was consistently and unanimously attributed to Mark. While Mark himself was not an eyewitness of Christ, his source for information was, giving the gospel the necessary credentials for canonicity.
From our standpoint it might seem odd that Papias would suggest a lack of order to the second gospel, given that it seems orderly in English texts, but what is likely meant by this statement is that it lacks rhetorical or artistic order common in first century compositions, particularly the other gospels.(5)
Given that the name “Mark” is being thrown around in connection to the second gospel with relative ambiguity, it would be helpful to clarify the author in question. The lack of further explanation by Papias or any of the early church when discussing the gospel bearing his name affirms that only one “Mark” could hold such a distinction.
He was the son of a prominent Christian woman in the Jerusalem church (Christians gathered in her home during Peter’s imprisonment) (Acts 12:12); cousin of Barnabas (Col. 4:10); accompanied Paul and Barnabas on their first missionary journey (Acts 13:5, 13); left the pair before it ended resulting in a separation between Barnabas and Paul on account of the latter not wanting to take Mark on any subsequent journeys (Acts 15:36-40); reconciled to the apostle Paul later and accompanied the apostle during his Roman imprisonment (Philemon 24; Col. 4:10); and traveled with Peter, referred to by the apostle as his “son” possibly suggesting that Mark was converted through Peter’s ministry (1 Pet. 5:13).
In the New Testament this Mark is often referred to by his full name, “John Mark.” It has been speculated that he was the “young man” who “fled naked” from Gethsemane when Jesus was arrested (Mk. 14:51-52) which could be an account added by the author himself. Some have suggested that this would call into question Papias’ statement that Mark was not an eyewitness of Christ, and while it is mere speculation, it remains curious that Mark’s Gospel contains the only account of this instance.
Difficulties With Traditional Authorship
For many who doubt the traditional authorship of the second gospel, difficulties abound. Among them is the second gospel author’s alleged ignorance of Jewish customs and errors about Palestinian geography. It is claimed that a Jerusalem-bred writer, would not make such mistakes.
However, when careful reading is applied to the second gospel, along with careful investigation, these alleged discrepancies or errors, are alleviated. In fact, the narrative of the second gospel corresponds smoothly with all known facts surrounding Jesus’ place of ministry.
Some have speculated doubt regarding what appears to be Pauline-influenced theology within the second gospel. It is argued that such influence would indicate a later date of authorship and likely indicate an author far removed from the actual events of Christ. Again however, given the aforementioned connection of John Mark with the apostle Paul, this could be an adequate explanation for such influence. In addition, the amount of Hebrew and Aramaic Semitisms found in the Greek of the second gospel match what would be expected from a Jerusalem-bred Christian. (6)
This led Markan scholar Martin Hengel to exclaim,
“I do not know any other work in Greek which has so many Aramaic and Hebrew words and formulae in so narrow a space as does the second gospel.”(7)
Mark’s connection to the words of the apostle Peter are also in great scrutiny, as many critics view the message of the gospel as a culmination of complex tradition-history developed by a later Christian community. While this approach garners much support, this kind of sweeping promulgation requires considerably more evidence than has been brought to bear.
Although, it should be noted that while such hyper-skepticism is largely without warrant, it would not be unacceptable to allow for Mark to have used sources in addition to Peter in the compiling of the second gospel, but the link between the information contained within the second gospel and an eyewitness perspective cannot be easily glossed over.
Only in Mark do we find the added description of the grass being green when the five thousand are fed by Christ (Mk. 6:39). Likewise, while the apostles are often presented in critical fashion throughout the gospels, Mark stands out with its vivid characterizations of the twelve.
In Mark they are seen as cowardly, spiritually blind, and hard of heart, descriptions reserved for someone that would have known them closely, and only in Mark do we read of Peter “remembering” earlier occurrences (Mk. 11:21; 14:72). Finally, the similar structure of the second gospel and Peter’s early sermons (Acts 10:36-41) only further the claim of Papias that Mark recorded the testimony of the apostle.(8)
While this evidence is not conclusive, it supports the traditional interpretation of Mark’s authorship, and it should be acknowledged that skeptics like Bart Ehrman and others have no positive alternative. Some have suggested the apostle John, others a Pauline community, but common recourse is to simply label the author of the second gospel as “unknown”.
In a similar fashion to the fourth gospel, much of the authorship for the Gospel of Mark must be determined indirectly. While this may not be the most desired method, it is all that is available and not uncommon for ancient literature.
A sense of skepticism regarding traditional claims can be a healthy and natural response if it causes one to investigate deeper, but when the traditional claims offer the most probable explanation given the available evidence and no positive alternative can be suggested there remains very little reason to persist in doubt.
Who Wrote The Gospel Of Matthew?
As we continue in this discussion of New Testament authorship, our third destination is what is commonly known as the “first gospel” or the “Gospel according to Matthew.” The order in which these articles are being presented, haphazard as it may seem, is not without intent. Having begun with John , (a gospel that stands apart from the three Synoptic Gospels in content and theology), attention was then turned to Mark.
The reason being that while Mark is the second gospel in order of canonical inclusion, it is considered by most to be the earliest written record, and the source upon which the other Synoptic Gospels draw some of their information. So, having established the most likely authors of the previous gospels, attention will now be turned to the gospel that followed Mark in dating, Matthew.
While it has been the format of the earlier articles to begin with the internal evidence of gospel authorship and then to move into external evidence that supports the text, the discussion on Matthew will differ. The reason for this article beginning with external evidence and moving inward is that a larger portion of authorial suggestion comes from outlying tradition. It seems best, then, to begin with the weightier evidence before analyzing it with the text itself.
Just as could be said of most of the gospels, the Gospel according to Matthew is formally anonymous. The commonly attributed titles by which we now know the fourfold Gospel seem to have originated around AD 125 but this is little more than an educated guess.
As was briefly noted in the previous discussion on Mark’s gospel, this educated guess has been called into question. Given Hengel’s detailed examination of book distribution in the ancient world, evidence has surfaced that titles of some sort would have been necessary for proper identification from other works.(9)
Implicit support for this position is found within Tertullian’s criticism of the heretic Marcion for publishing his own gospelwithout the author’s name. As part of his rebuke, Tertullian writes, “a work ought not to be recognized, which holds not its head erect. . . which gives no promise of credibility from the fullness of its title and the just profession of its author.” (10) Writing in the mid-second century, Tertullian’s statement regarding the need for titles, falls within the time frame of earlier speculation, but it seems unlikely that such a view could have become prolific within only a few decades.
Hengel’s main thesis on the subject is that it would be inconceivable that the gospels could circulate anonymously for up to sixty years, and then in the second century suddenly display unanimous attribution to certain authors. If the authors had been largely anonymous prior to the second century, one would expect there to be more variation within the following attributions; especially given that this was the case with several second-century apocryphal gospels.(11)
“a work ought not to be recognized, which holds not its head erect. . . which gives no promise of credibility from the fullness of its title and the just profession of its author.”
In detraction to this view, it is often stated that the Greekkata (according to) that precedes Matthew in the title of the gospel need not indicate authorship but merely conformity to a certain style (i.e. The Gospel According to the Hebrews, The Gospel According to the Egyptians). In fact, this is its more common usage in Greek literature of the time. (12)
Hengel agrees with this but also notes a telling analogy: In the Greek fathers, the one Old Testament is referred to as “according to the Seventy” where the prepositional expression is used to introduce the person responsible for producing the version concerned. Hengel argues that the one Gospel circulated in the same way with four distinct forms (i.e. “according to Mark”, “according to Matthew” etc.). (13)
The only existing statement of Papias (AD 70-163) regarding this gospel comes to us through the writings of Eusebius in the fourth century in fragmented form and is notoriously difficult to translate. (14) It reads, “Matthew (composed, compiled, or arranged in orderly form), (the sayings, or gospel) in (the Hebrew [Aramaic] language or style), and each (interpreted, translated, or transmitted) them as best he could.” (15)
While this excerpt contains obvious problems, certain textual data within the first Gospel can be illuminating. To begin with, the early church interpreted this text to say that Matthew originally wrote the gospel in Hebrew or Aramaic which was later translated into Greek.
However, the Old Testament quotations contained within the text lack Aramiac rendering and read more as from an author writing in Greek but knowledgeable of Semitic languages. Given that Matthew’s dependence on the Gospel of Mark is widely maintained, the verbal connections between the two make Aramaic or Hebrew origins less likely. Finally, the existence of Semitisms throughout the first Gospel do not allow for an average translation form Greek.
These Semitic enhancements surround the sayings of Jesus and are used for effect by a writer who is demonstrably capable of writing Hellenistic Greek. (16) If this is the case, Papias’ claim that Matthew wrote in Hebrew becomes questionable, and while some have argued that this discredits the entirety of Papias’ statement there is no need for such extremism, as author’s have often been known to err in one point without erring in all. (17)
Evidence from within the gospel itself provides some leading information regarding authorship. Only in Matthew do we find the apostle referred to as, “Matthew the tax collector” (Matt. 10:30). In Mark 2:14 and Luke 5:27, the man whom Jesus calls from his role as a tax collector is identified as “Levi”. However, in the same parallel passage in Matthew (9:9-13) the tax collector is named “Matthew”.
While some have sought to create an alternative proposal, the most economical explanation is that Matthew is to be identified as the same tax collector named Levi elsewhere. That this tax collector is the apostle can be confirmed through the apostolic lists of the Synoptic Gospels (Matt. 10:2-4; Mark 3:16-18; Luke 6:13-16).
If Matthew is the aforementioned tax collector, this makes sense of several details within the text. In several instances, recorded exclusively by the first gospel, financial depictions are discussed (17:24-27; 18:23-35; 20:1-16, et. al.). This does not require insider information, so to speak, but does become curious when contained solely within the text of a gospel traditionally held to have been written by a financial dealer. A tax collector would need to be fluent in both Greek and Aramaic, coinciding with what has previously been discussed regarding the textual transmissions of Semitisms in Greek.
In addition, The gospel’s connection to Mark could be viewed as perfectly reasonable, given that plagiarism bore no negative connotations prior to the invention of the printing press, and even more so if the underlying message in Mark comes from Peter, as is popularly believed. It would be difficult to find a reason why Matthew would not utilize the writings of a fellow apostle in such an instance.
While it is argued that Matthew’s Christology is far too advanced for the time of its writing, thereby disproving apostolic authorship in favor of a late date authorship, a high Christology demonstrably developed early as seen in the Christ hymns of the Pauline writings (Phil. 2:5-11: Col. 1:15-20).
Also, it is clearly distinguished within the first gospel what the apostles thought of Christ in the moment opposed to what the author knew of Christ at the time of his writing. (18) Such evidence, rather than disputing apostolic authorship might better be seen as proving it, given that only those closest to the Lord could preserve such clear distinctions.
Matthew’s gospel relates the opposition to Jesus by the Pharisees and Sadducees as a united front, but rather than confusing the two faculties, the author distinguishes them when needed (22:23-33). This should not be seen as ignorance of Jewish customs but a clear effort on the part of the author to depict the unified opposition of the “world” to the things of Christ.
Matthew also bears distinction in its attempt to demonstrate the Jewish nature of Jesus mission (15:24; 10:5-6) and the universal call to the world as its result (28:18-20). Taken alongside the long-standing tradition of Matthew’s Hebrew emphasis this corresponds nicely with an author seeking to reach the nation of Israel while not alienating the Hellenistic world.
What does it matter to identify the author of the first gospel with the apostle Matthew? In some cases it doesn’t matter much at all. The message of the gospel stands upon the truth of its claims, not on the identity of its author. However, how one perceives the authorship of this gospel (and others) changes the manner in which one views of the early church and the remainder of the New Testament. To close with an extended quote from D.A. Carson:
“Strong commitments to the view that this gospel reflects late traditions that cannot possibly be tied directly to any apostle inevitably casts a hermeneutical shadow on how the evidence, including the external evidence, will be evaluated. Conversely, the judgment that in all probability the apostle Matthew was responsible for the work casts a hermeneutical shadow on the reconstruction of early church history. The web of interlocking judgments soon affects how one weighs evidence in other parts of the New Testament.” (19)
- James R. Edwards, Pillar New Testament Commentary: The Gospel According to Mark,”(Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2002), 3.
2. Eusebius, Ecclesiastical History, 3.39.15.
3. Edwards, Mark, 4.
4. Justin Martyr, Dialogues with Trypho, 106; Jerome, Commentary in Matthew, Prooemium, 6; Eusebius, Ecclesiastical History, 2.15; 5.8.2; (Irenaeus) 6.14.6; (Origen) 6.25.5.
5. In fact this is exactly the position of Pierson Parker’s article, “The Authorship of the Second Gospel” that should cause readers to doubt Markan authorship. Pierson, Parker, “The Authorship of the Second Gospel,” Persp-RelStud, 5 (1978), 7.
6. D.A. Carson and Douglas J. Moo, An Introduction to the New Testament: Mark, (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2005), 175.
7. Martin Hengel, Studies in the Gospel of Mark, (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1985), 46.
8. C.H. Dodd, “The Framework of the Gospel Narrative,” ExpTim 43 (1932): 396-400.
9. Martin Hengel, Studies in the Gospel of Mark, (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1985), 64-84.
10. Tertullian, Against Marcion, 4.2.
11. D.A. Carson and Douglas J. Moo, An Introduction to the New Testament, (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2004), 141.
12. Alfred Plummer, An Exegetical Commentary on the Gospel According ot Matthew (London: Robert Stott, 1909), vii.
13. Hengel, Mark, 83.
14. If you’ve read the two earlier articles regarding the authorship of John and Mark, you will recall that Eusebius contains the writings of Papias and Irenaeus regarding early apostolic authorship of each gospel.
15. This translation comes from Eusebius, Ecclesiastical History, Vol. 1, transl. Kirsopp Lake (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1926). The areas in parentheses indicate Greek word usage that remains ambiguous between the three listed options.
16. C.F.D. Moule, “St. Matthew’s Gospel: Some Neglected Features,” SE2 (1964). A Semitism is a saying in the Greek New Testament that can only be made sensible by appealing to a Semitic underlay or Hebrew idiom.
17. It is possible that Papias was led astray by a common error. Carson notes that Epiphanes claims that a heretical group known as the Ebionites based their beliefs on the Gospel of Matthew that they called “According to the Hebrews,” written in Hebrew but falsified and mutilated.
18. D.A. Carson, “Christological Ambiguities in the Gospel of Matthew,” Christ the Lord, (Leicester: IVP, 1982), 97-114.
19. D.A. Carson, New Testament, 150.