My ten-year-old daughter and I, both atheists, are teaming up to review J. Warner Wallace’s children’s apologetics book ‘Cold Case Christianity For Kids’. Links to all posts in the series are collected at the end of this introductory post.
Several chapters back, in response to Jason’s question about how we know that the gospels are ‘real eyewitness testimonies instead of legends or myths or something’, Jeffries promised that we’d get a whole session on that topic. (Although only, apparently, after we’d spent the then-current session discussing the gospels on the assumption that they were reliable accounts, so that raises some concerning questions about Wallace’s approach to evaluating evidence.)
Given the emphasis on the theme of eyewitness statements in this chapter, I think this is supposed to be the session to which he was referring. However, this session only covers the authorship of the gospel normally known as Mark… which is not meant to be an eyewitness testimony. While Church tradition does have it that two of the gospels (‘Matthew’ and ‘John’) are written by eyewitnesses, there are no such claims for ‘Mark’, which was supposedly written by someone who’d obtained his information second-hand, from the apostle Peter. (Of course, if that’s true it would still be potentially good evidence, but it wouldn’t be an eyewitness testimony.) So, if this is supposed to be the promised explanation of how we know the gospels are eyewitness testimonies, then it’s a pretty inadequate attempt at it.
Oh, well. I don’t know for sure that this is the session Wallace/Jeffries was referring to, and there are two more chapters left after this one, so it is theoretically possible that he actually had a different session in mind which is still to come. I’m willing to give him the benefit of at least some doubt.
Before getting on to what Wallace/Jeffries has to say about the authorship of the gospel of Mark (which I’ll henceforward refer to by the abbreviation gMark, to save typing time), I’ll give a quick general rundown on the subject for anyone who wants it. (Thanks here go to historian and blogger Matthew Ferguson for his post Why Scholars Doubt The Traditional Authors Of The Gospels, which was a useful source for a couple of these points.)
The author of gMark, like those of the other gospels, does not identify himself in the text of his work. The earliest information the Church has on gMark’s authorship comes from the early church bishop Papias, who probably wrote some time between 95 and 120 CE (AD). Papias’s actual works have been lost, but one of the few quotes of his work that we have from later authors is about gMark, and states that it was written by Peter’s interpreter Mark, who wrote down what he remembered of Peter’s teaching as accurately as he could. This information is backed up by two other authors from the second century; Irenaeus, in the third volume of his work ‘Against Heresies’, states that ‘Mark, the disciple and interpreter of Peter, did also hand down to us in writing what had been preached by Peter’, and a few of the quotes we have from Clement of Alexandria’s work state that Mark was a follower and companion of Peter who wrote his gospel at the request of some of Peter’s other followers.
(There is also a tradition that this Mark was the John Mark mentioned a few times in Acts. I can’t actually find anything in any of the above quotes to specify whether this is the case; as far as I can see, it’s plausible that these authors were talking about a different Mark and other people made an understandable but incorrect assumption that they were referring to John Mark. However, while this is an interesting question, I don’t think it’s a terribly important one; if gMark was written by someone very familiar with Peter’s teachings, then that’s important information regardless of whether the author was John Mark or not. Wallace also doesn’t raise this issue and I won’t go into it further.)
The question is, of course, whether Papias, Irenaeus and Clement were actually right. All of them were writing decades after gMark was written, and we don’t know how reliable their information was. Papias got his information from someone known only as ‘the presbyter John’, and we don’t know who this person was or where he got his information. We have no idea where the other two got their information; it might, for all we know, trace back to Papias, or perhaps to a source of similarly uncertain reliability. (Of note is that both Papias and Irenaeus also described the gospel of Matthew as being a work originally written in Hebrew… but scholarship has since established that Matthew was originally written in Greek. If those two made a mistake that basic regarding one gospel, we can’t count on what they say about others.)
On top of this, it’s been noted that gMark makes various geographical and cultural errors that would be unlikely in the writings of someone who was a close follower of Peter. (For example, he depicts Jesus as travelling from Tyre to the Sea of Galilee via Sidon, which was, in fact, in the opposite direction from the Sea of Galilee for someone starting from Tyre; he depicts Jews as calling out the phrase ‘our father David’ when in fact David, while a highly important figure in Jewish history, was not considered one of the Jewish fathers and wouldn’t have been referred to as such.) Also, his quotes from the Jewish scriptures come from the Greek version, not from the original Hebrew that Peter would have been expected to use.
The result of all this is that it is now the general consensus of scholars that Papias and co. probably had it wrong; that, whoever wrote gMark, it probably wasn’t someone who’d received his information directly from Peter.
I’m going to add here, by the way, that this does seem to me to be – ironically – a better conclusion as far as the Church’s point of view is concerned. After all, one notable aspect of gMark is that it originally did not contain any actual accounts of people seeing a resurrected Jesus. (Some versions do have a short paragraph about resurrection appearances, but these aren’t in the earliest copies we have and have long since been established as being later additions. The actual gospel ended with the women learning from an unnamed man at the empty tomb that Jesus had risen, then leaving in fear.) Yet, from the accounts we have of the resurrection appearances from other sources, Peter was supposedly one of the key witnesses. If gMark really is the comprehensive and reliable report of Peter’s teachings that Papias tells us, surely the fact that this doesn’t include any reports of post-resurrection appearances should be rather awkward for the Church?
In any case… back to the book.
I think Wallace actually ran into a bit of a conundrum in writing this bit. On the one hand, he has this whole structure of focusing on one police-related theme for each chapter and he really wanted the theme of this chapter to be eyewitness statements. On the other hand, the subject he actually wanted to write about was the authorship of a gospel that wasn’t written by an eyewitness.
His method for resolving this conundrum was to have Jeffries claim to the cadets that, since the gospel was based on Peter’s teachings, it actually counts as Peter’s eyewitness statement.
I realise that Wallace genuinely does know a lot more about the whole subject of witnesses and statements than I do and thus it is actually possible that I’m wrong and he’s right here, but… surely an eyewitness statement has to be the words of an eyewitness? Seems to me that, even if he and the Church are right here and Mark actually was Peter’s close follower/interpreter, the gospel would still at best be Mark’s eyewitness statement about Peter’s teaching. (Since it’s been formalised and anonymised in the writing, I’m not sure it would even count as that much. I couldn’t find a definition of eyewitness statements for the US, which is where Wallace works and writes, but I found a page from the UK about eyewitness statements that specified that they have to include a description of what the witness actually saw or heard. Any US police officers or lawyers reading this who can comment?)
On top of that, of course, there’s the fact that the gospel includes scenes for which Peter wasn’t present. Even if the Church is right about Mark being a follower of Peter’s, those particular scenes can only be third-hand at best.
Jason, I was pleased to see, is likewise dubious:
“Why isn’t it just called the gospel of Peter then?” asks Jason.
“Because Mark was Peter’s ‘scribe’—he wrote down Peter’s teaching, so he’s the actual author.” Jeffries can tell that Jason isn’t satisfied with that answer.
And rightly so, IMO. I mean, isn’t it a contradiction to say that Mark is the author but it’s Peter’s eyewitness statement? If someone other than the eyewitness is the author, then surely by definition it’s not an eyewitness statement. I can’t see that one standing up in court, Jeffries.
However, turns out Jason is unsatisfied for a different reason; he wants to know how Jeffries can be sure that this gospel is in fact based on Peter’s information. In other words, this is Wallace/Jeffries’ cue to explain why we should believe – based on analysis of gMark – that it actually was written by a close follower of Peter’s.
And that, my dear readers, is going to be the subject of the next CCCFK post. See you there!