Mark, Luke, and Pseudonymity

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Mark Roberts gives an argument that hadn't occurred to me. Some people doubt the traditional authorship of the gospels. One thing that's strange about that view is that we have no explanation of why someone would choose the minor characters of John Mark and Luke, even if they did have some connection with Peter and Paul. Wouldn't it make more sense to choose someone who had actually met Jesus to serve as the invented author of gospels that are pretty much accounts of Jesus' life? If you're going to be inventing the authorship of the book we now call Mark, and you're going to say that the author who wrote it was Mark, who got his information from Peter, why not just say that it came from Peter? There was no Gospel of Peter at the time, so it wasn't as if the name was taken? Even if it made sense to choose a companion of someone who knew Jesus, it would be silly to choose a companion of someone who as far as we know didn't. That makes the choice of Luke extremely strange.

What Mark then goes on to argue is that this makes it far more likely than otherwise that the attributions to Matthew and John are accurate. Even if it seems really silly to question the tradition on Mark and Luke, it doesn't automatically follow that the tradition on Matthew and John is inaccurate. But it is the same tradition. These listings appear together generally, all around the same time, and we shouldn't expect it to be right on two of the four gospels but drastically wrong on the other two. That does increase the plausibility factor for Matthew and John a little.

Now I don't think much stands of falls on this issue. The only gospel of the four that makes any claim relevant to its authorship is John, and that's not exactly unambiguous (though I do think the most plausible expanation is that John is its author). But if we found out for sure that all four gospels were written by people we've never heard of, it wouldn't threaten conservative views on scripture's authority. It's just that this is a real difficulty for those who want to suspect that the tradition is unreliable. This is at least one reason for thinking of it as more reliable than many scholars, even some evangelicals, are willing to admit.

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6 Comments

Good point, Jeremy. As you know, this attibutation to known names was done during the inter-testamental period. The recent "Gospel of Judas" is another attempt to give credence through association. The church has rightly seen such attempts for what they are.

Defending the canon is no small task--and every little bit helps. This is one of those glaringly obvious facts that somehow escapes our notice or, at least, escaped my notice.

I agree that Mark and Luke are unlikely choices (while some may argue that because Paul's apostleship was well-established and recognized by the church at the time, their association with Paul makes them good candidates). We also could say that the other gospels are more accurate, not only because of tradition and the fact that they were included in the same lists, but because they contained some of the same content. If this reason suggests that Mark and Luke are accurate, then the other gospel accounts of the same events, teaching, miracles...would have a greater aura of reliability.

As you noted, the unlikely authorship reason is not terribly ground-shaking, but certainly one more thing we can add to our arsenal in defending the Bible.

I don't have anything relevant about Mark, but the intro to Luke posits an author who is something of a scholar assembling sources he has found, but makes no claim to be an eye-witness (as John does). Assuming for the sake of argument that the authorship was assigned by the church in, say, the 3rd century, the author would need to be someone who was conversant with Jesus disciples but not one of them himself. Luke would be one of the people who could fit that bill.

Mark could fit in the same way, though he provides very little in the way of identity cues. I think Wright and some other scholars are correct in positing a lost ending to Mark (given the mish-mash of textual traditions there and other reasons), so it is entirely possible there was at one time some authorial statement at the end which has been lost.

What I don't know in any of this is the textual history of authorial inscription. What are the oldest manuscripts or other references to gospel authorship? If these are early enough I think they could argue more strongly for the traditional authors.

Wouldn't there have been many others who would be better candidates, e.g. Paul, Apollos, Priscilla and Aquila, Timothy, Titus, or even Clement? Luke doesn't seem to be the most obvious choice among those who fit what the book describes the author as being.

I doubt there was an authorial statement in the ending of Mark. It would likely have influenced Matthew and Luke to have them too.

There are no manuscripts without the titles that attribute authorship. The oldest complete manuscripts do have the titles. The information I can find about earliest complete manuscripts seems to have the earliest complete manuscripts of Luke and John about 225, with Matthew and Mark more like 350. There are translations before these dates, however, and those might count for something. The Papias statement that lists the four is usually assumed to be about 140, but Carson/Moo, almost certainly Carson in this case, says it could have been as early as 120.

Martin Hengel has argued, however, that the titles need to be much older than that, because there must have been some way of distinguishing between the gospels. It's not as if each congregation only had one gospel. If the gospels were circulating for (at minimum) 60 years, then there must have been some way of referring to them. It would be a little surprising if the titles that were adopted for that purpose were later suddenly changed in such a way that all the copies would display the same names. This makes me think they were probably never anonymous in the sense of not having a title circulating with them.

Well, who knows :)

I think the arguments from canonical history are certainly intersting. I haven't seen those discussed much (compared to discussions of internal evidence (or lack thereof)), but I don't read a whole ton of commentaries on the gospels.

The question of early attribution in secondary, non-extant sources gets cloudy, I would think, for this reason. Let's again assume a somewhat late date for assignment of authorship. The later names could then have been inserted into quotations from earlier authors like Papias or whoever.

What is missing in that scenario, though, is a compelling reason why the church needed to assign authorship at some particular time. I suppose it could have been for apologetic purposes, but then your objections to Mark and Luke as non-key figures becomes relevant.

It might have been also just to distinguish between them so they knew which one they were referring to. That's Hengel's argument.

As for later names being inserted, that's possible, I suppose. I don't remember the full context of the Papias quote, but if it includes descriptions of how the authors got their information (as I suspect) then a lot more would have had to have been altered than just inserting names. Scholars who doubt the attributions don't tend to doubt that Papias said this, however. They just think he got it wrong.

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