Cold Case Christianity For Kids, mother and daughter team review – Chapter Six, part 2

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!


  1. ridana says

    It sounds like he’s wriggling out of it by implicitly equating Mark with a court reporter. I don’t know if court reporters are attributed in legal transcripts, but even though the reporter wrote it, it’s still considered the eyewitness’s testimony rather than hearsay from the reporter. Not that Mark is in any way the equivalent of a court reporter.

  2. Dr Sarah says

    I did wonder whether that was it; I mean, I didn’t think of the court reporter analogy (which is a good one) but I vaguely recall hearing the theory that Mark was literally just a scribe who took down the account that Peter dictated to him. If that had been Wallace’s argument, then, although the argument itself would not have stood up (the Church Father quotes from which we get the ‘Mark was Peter’s follower/interpreter’ belief in the first place do make it clear that he was writing his account based on his memories of Peter’s teaching, not taking dictation), I would at least have felt that Wallace was being consistent in calling it an eyewitness account.

    In fact, when I looked at what Wallace had actually written (there you go, I’m being careful to take account of Wallace’s exact choice of words; nicely appropriate, given the chapter theme), it’s clear that that isn’t what he was saying. For one thing, Jeffries’ description of Papias’ quote is that ‘Mark wrote the gospel based on the preaching of Peter’. For another, he then goes on to analyse Mark’s gospel in ways that make it clear that he is treating it as another person’s words about Peter, not Peter’s words. (This is literally going to be the point of this chapter.) So, no, he doesn’t get this excuse.

    (Although it’s a fair point; I wonder whether Wallace might have had this in mind on some level, and been equivocating? On the whole, though, I think it’s just an example of how his attempts to simplify everything into the ‘here is this week’s example of a police-related thing that relates to Gospel learning’ format at a level understandable for children (which, to be fair, is no doubt harder than it looks) actually end up with him giving not just simplified but incorrect information.)

  3. Owlmirror says

    I have to wonder why, in this alleged scenario, Mark couldn’t include a single line before he started: “These are the teachings of Peter, disciple of Jesus, as written by Mark, disciple of Peter”. And why they would have been “memories” of those teachings. Why not write it all down as soon as he heard it?

    You probably missed it, but there was a bit of a kerfuffle over at PZ’s on the topic, with comments by actual scholars on the topic.

    Welcome back, by the way.

  4. Dr Sarah says

    Oooh, I did miss it! Thanks for the heads-up. I’ve read quite a lot about the historicity debate; at some point I’d like to write a series of posts reviewing the subject, but it’s a big undertaking so I suspect I’ll never have time. Oh, well…

    It does actually make sense to me that Mark wouldn’t write it down straight away; this just wasn’t a literacy-oriented society, plus, at the time, the followers of Yeshua were expecting his return to be fairly imminent. They probably weren’t thinking in terms of preserving anything for posterity. As for getting the word out to the people at the time… in a society where all writing needs to be done by hand and literacy levels are very low anyway, word of mouth is a better way to do that. So I’m OK with the idea that it wouldn’t have occurred to a follower of Peter to make notes straight away.

    I agree with your first point, though; the author gives no indication of where the information came from, even though listening to an actual eyewitness of Jesus would surely in itself have been a pretty awesome experience for a devoted follower. I mean, for example, there’s a famous letter from Irenaeus in which he describes listening, as a child, to the teachings of Polycarp and how Polycarp described hearing the words of John; Irenaeus makes it utterly clear what important memories these are for him. Even if ‘Mark’ was less effusive by nature, I’d think he’d put in something about what a privilege it was to hear all this from none other a person than Peter. It’s not conclusive that he didn’t, of course, but it is a bit suspicious.

  5. Owlmirror says

    It does actually make sense to me that Mark wouldn’t write it down straight away; this just wasn’t a literacy-oriented society

    I really have to dispute this. The gospels themselves directly and indirectly reference written works as the source of prophecy, as do the letters of Paul. Even if the gospels were complete fabrications from the start, they were basing the authority of their statements on prior written words. Not too long before and not too far away, people thought that written works were so important to be preserved that they were putting them into jars to be hidden in caves in the desert.

    While the degree of literacy in that society might be arguable, saying that it was not literacy-oriented is going much too far.

    Finally, if Mark was supposedly already a scribe, and Peter’s scribe at that, then writing things down was what he had been trained to do, and would have been expected to do by everyone around him.


    Getting back to the historicity issue, one of the links with arguments that I had not seen before was this one, which references wordings in the NT that are problematic if their authors had in mind a real Jesus, and lists early Christian writers who make apologetics for Christianity with no mention of Jesus.

    I have to admit, it is weird no matter which way things are supposed to have gone: How a Son/Christ who supposedly had no earthly incarnation could have suddenly gotten one in the specific time and place of Judea in the 30’s. Or the other way; how a Jesus who was presumably real and taught in the 30’s could be so easily ignored/erased by those who came later.

  6. Dr Sarah says

    Phew! I’m extremely sorry to have taken so long to reply to this. First I was working on the posts about gender dysphoria, and then I drafted out such a long reply to your last paragraph that it ended up as a post. Which is here.

    As for the other points:

    I think we’re meaning different things by ‘literacy-oriented society’. I agree that this was certainly a society that held written works (or, to be more specific, particular written works) in high esteem. What I meant was that, in terms of day-to-day living, your average person in the street was not likely to think in terms of writing things down to preserve them; after all, most people couldn’t read or write, so passing things down by word of mouth was normally more effective in the short term. Long term was of course a different matter, but short term was what Jesus’s followers thought they were working with; they were expecting him to show up again any day now, overthrow the Romans, and go public. So they were trying to reach as many people as possible in as short a time as possible, which meant giving public speeches.

    Is there any evidence that Mark was a scribe? Papias and Irenaeus describe him as Peter’s interpreter, but that’s not the same thing. I might have missed something.

    Going back to the historicity debate for a moment, Tim O’Neill (who takes the historicist position) wrote this post in reply to the debate over at PZ’s blog, which is well worth a read if you’re still interested in the debate. I would also strongly recommend his other posts on the subject, as he has some really useful observations about the available historical data and why a couple of the references to Jesus by non-Christian writers do in fact stand up very well as being reliable references to his existence.

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