Thursday, July 28, 2011

Ancient testimony to Matthew and Mark

Gospel of Mark

We can begin with two pieces of information provided by Papias, an early second century Christian bishop from Hierapolis in the Roman province of Asia. According to Eusebius, Papias wrote five books containing the recollections of the Christian elders he had known. While these five books have not survived, we have a couple of fragments preserved by Eusebius in his Ecclesiastical History. One of Papias’ sources was the man known to history as John the Elder. The Elder told Papias what he knew about the writing of Mark’s Gospel. He said that it was based on Peter’s preaching. In this regard, Papias is reported to have written:

The Elder also said this, “Mark, being the interpreter of Peter, whatsoever he remembered he wrote accurately, but not however in the relative order that these things were spoken or done by our Lord. For he neither heard the Lord, nor followed him, but afterwards, as I said, he was with Peter, who did not make a complete (or ordered) account of the Lord’s logia, but taught according to the needs (of the people). So Mark did nothing wrong in writing down single matters as he remembered them, for he gave special attention to one thing, of not passing by anything he heard, and not falsifying anything in these matters.”[1]

It is possible that John the Elder had in mind Mark’s ordering of the early stories in his gospel. In this context, one can imagine Peter putting together a number of stories in order to show rising resistance to Jesus’ authority. These are found in Mark 1:35-3:6, in this order:
  1. First preaching tour in Galilee – everyone is seeking for Jesus
  2. Jesus cleanses a leper – leper commanded to show himself to the priest
  3. A paralytic healed, but also forgiven – the scribes object to the forgiveness
  4. Levi the tax collector is called – the scribes complain that Jesus eats with sinners
  5. Jesus explains that his disciples do not fast because he is the bridegroom, thus indicating his claim to a special status
  6. The disciples eat on the Sabbath, and Jesus explains that he is lord of the Sabbath
  7. Jesus heals on the Sabbath – the Pharisees and the Herodians plot his death
These seven anecdotes make up a seven-point sermon, which accords with Papias' report on Peter's method. The mooted organisation of this material in Peter's sermon can serve to explain why this order differs from the order of this material as found in the Gospel of Matthew.

Mark was a very frequently used Roman name, being one of about fifteen personal names (praenomen) used to identify a male child within a given Roman family. Nevertheless, there is no reason to doubt that the traditional view that Papias was referring to the author of our second gospel, since the early Church was not flooded with men known by these names. (We have a Gaius, Lucius, Publius and Titus.)  Indeed, the Mark of the New Testament appears to have played a central role in the early Church, and even the fact that he was invited on the first missionary journey with Barnabas and Paul can be joined together with the Elder’s testimony to suggest that Mark had already acquired a good knowledge of the stories about Jesus from Peter, thus giving him a specific role in this missionary enterprise, and reason for his inclusion beyond his personal connection with Barnabas.

Gospel of Matthew

Papias’ report concerning Matthew’s logia is much briefer than his report on Mark's work:

Matthew set in order (wrote a treatise consisting of) the logia (“divine oracles”) in the Hebrew dialect, and each interpreted them, as he was able.

A contrast is suggested here between Matthew’s logia, which were said to be “set in order,” and Mark’s work, which was not necessarily set in order. Since the Gospel of Mark does not seem to be particularly “out of order,” one imagines that John the Elder’s comment was in relation to a specific problem, or problems, that had been raised in relation to the Gospel of Mark, as already explained.

However, the textual evidence shows that our canonical Gospel of Matthew is not Matthew's logia. The Gospel of Matthew has one main clear indication that it was not originally written in the Hebrew dialect (Aramaic as it is called in modern linguistics), namely the extensive borrowings in that work from the Greek of the Gospel of Mark. Yet it is possible to "discover" Matthew's logia by a process that begins by removing the elements in the Gospel of Matthew that have been clearly taken from the Gospel of Mark.

The parts of the Gospel of Matthew that have been taken from the Gospel of Mark can be relatively easily identified. For example, if we compare Mark 14:26-31 with Matt. 26:30-35, we can see that one account has been borrowed from the other, namely the writer of the Gospel of Matthew has borrowed from the Gospel of Mark. This degree of borrowing can be seen in the citation given below, with the text that has not been carried over to the Gospel of Matthew being highlighted, and the bracketed items being the text that is only found in the Gospel of Matthew.
Mark 14:26: Singing a hymn, they went out into the Mount of Olives. 27 And Jesus said to them, “All will be scandalised [in this night], as it is written, ‘Strike the shepherd, and the sheep [of the shepherd] will be scattered.’ 28 But after I am raised up, I will go before you into Galilee.”
29 Peter said to him, “Even if all are scandalised, I will not [I will never be scandalised].”
30 Jesus said to him, “Truly I say to you, “Today, this night, before the rooster crows twice, you will deny me three times.”
31 But he [Peter] said vehemently, “Even if it is necessary for me to die with you, I will not deny you.” In like manner [Similarly], said all the others [the disciples].

Even though there are some differences, the verbal identity between these two works is very striking. This degree of similarity can only be attributed to borrowing, since two different authors will never use such similar words to describe the same event. Indeed, every telling of an anecodote from the viewpoint of an eyewitness involves some condensing of the account of the original experience, and each teller of the story will emphasise those things that he or she considers most important, and will use the word order they consider to represent the most appropriate way of expressing his or her own ideas.

For example, we can look at the account of the same event in the Gospel of Luke, which was based on similar material, but also has significant differences, showing that Luke  had access to another report, beyond that found in the Gospel of Mark:

Luke 22:31: “Simon, Simon, behold Satan has earnestly entreated to sift you as wheat [Amos 9:9], 32 but I requested concerning you that your faith will not fail, and when you have turned, support your brothers.” 
33 He said to him, “Lord, I am prepared to go with you to prison and to death.”
34 But he said, “I tell you, Peter, a rooster will not crow today before you will deny knowing me three times.”

Here we can see a normal situation, of different accounts that we can consider were based on two eyewitness reports, wherein the actual details are quite different. Even though it appears that each eyewitness has drawn out the elements that he or she wanted to highlight, yet the same overall meaning is carried forward in both reports.

Since we can establish that the Gospel of Matthew includes elements that have been drawn from the Gospel of Mark, it becomes feasible to remove those elements. After doing this, we discover that we are left with a coherent account. Therefore, it is not a giant logical leap to conclude that the Gospel of Matthew was primarily based upon joining together two works. One of these we know to have been the Gospel of Mark; based on Papias' report we can deduce that the other work was Matthew's logia, a work originally written in Aramaic, but later translated into Greek, and then incorporated in the Gospel of Matthew.

Sometimes both Matthew's logia and the Gospel of Mark discussed the same topic. Where this happened, it appears that he writer of the Gospel of Matthew has interleaved the respective contributions. This results in the same things being said twice, but in a different form. For example, Jesus’ taught that whoever receives him receives the one who sent him (Matt. 10:40-41). It is likely that Matthew’s logia originally said:

Matt. 10:40 “The one who receives you receives me, and the one who receives me receives the one who sent me. 41 The one who receives a prophet in the name of a prophet will receive a prophet’s reward, and the one who receives a righteous man in the name of a righteous man will receive a righteous man’s reward.”

Adding to this, the author of the Gospel of Matthew has appended a similar teaching, found in a quite different context, from the Gospel of Mark:

Matt. 10:42 “Whoever gives a cup of cold water to drink to one of these little ones only in the name of a disciple, truly I tell you, on no account will that person lose his or her reward.”

In the Gospel of Matthew there is no indication of who is meant by “these little ones” (leaving this reference up in the air) but the meaning can be found in the Gospel of Mark, with this verses apparently having been built up from two verses from the one dialogue in that gospel, dealing with the question, “Who is the greatest?”

Mark 9:37 “Whoever receives one of such children [he had a child in his arms] in my name receives me.”
Mark 9:41 “Whoever gives you a cup of water on account of your name, that you are of me, truly, I tell you that in no way will that person lose his or her reward.”

There are many examples of this kind of borrowing and interleaving, so that we can conclude that the author of the Gospel of Matthew has attempted to include as much as possible in his work, within the physical constraints of the maximum practical length of a papyrus scroll. This author appears to have been reluctant to omit anything that he could profitably include from either source. This is why the Gospel of Matthew and the Gospel of Mark are so alike, combining two works and condensing and bringing the majority of the Gospel of Mark over into it, and one assumes including even more of the substance of Matthew’s logia.

On the basis of the argument presented here, the Gospel of Matthew can be considered to be a harmony, primarily consisting of Matthew’s logia and the Gospel of Mark. This is particularly interesting from a historical perspective because it means that we can independently date Matthew's logia. Based upon on its apparent citation in 1 Thess. and 2 Thess., we can date it to AD ca. 50, which makes it one of the earliest New Testament works, and very early account of Jesus' teachings.

[1] Eusebius, Ecclesiastical History, 3.39.15.

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Origins of the four gospels

The gospels can be understood as historical resources, and judged on their merits according to that standard. It is appropriate to assess the gospels in accordance with the applicable canons of historical research, since Christianity is founded upon a series of historical events, most importantly on the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Therefore, the gospels, being the account of Jesus’ life should initially be approached as works of history, and assessed using to that measure.

The gospels were primarily based on the eyewitness testimony of three disciples of Jesus, namely Matthew, Peter and John. Of these, only John is thought to have been directly responsible for a canonical gospel of the New Testament, that is, a gospel in its final form. Matthew wrote a work in Aramaic, which was a foundation document of the early Church. In regard to Peter, there is good evidence that the Gospel of Mark was primarily based upon his testimony, which Mark heard and wrote down, probably after Peter’s death. Luke’s work was a true historian’s endeavour, in which he crafted his own unique account using the historical resources available to him, starting with Matthew’s Aramaic work and the Gospel of Mark, to which he added the testimony of one or more companions of Jesus, and also included an account of events around Jesus’ birth.

None of the gospels explicitly indicate who was its author: all of the attributions are traditional, although that is not a reason to reject them. The only gospel for which the traditional attribution is made difficult by the text itself is the Gospel of Matthew, which has been attributed to Matthew, one of the twelve disciples of Jesus. Since a large part of this work can be demonstrated to consist of direct borrowings from the Gospel of Mark, it is unlikely that Matthew was the author of the canonical Gospel of Matthew. This is because it is hard to substantiate the claim that an eyewitness, like Matthew, would have chosen to borrow so extensively (and in substantially the same order) from a work written by someone else who was not himself a direct eyewitness.

Despite the fact that it is likely that Matthew was not the author of the final form of the Gospel of Matthew, it remains likely that Matthew was the author of a text underlying this work. If this assertion can be substantiated, it would mean that Matthew was the creator of its unique emphases, its order, and of the majority of its text. Our evidence for this claim is a report that can be dated to early in the second century, when a bishop of the province of Asia, Papias, recorded comments, probably from John the Elder, a disciple of Jesus, to the effect that Matthew wrote logia, which is to say the “sayings,” or “oracles,” or “divine sayings” of Jesus. His report provides the grounds to believe that the Gospel of Matthew received its name because it simply was an expansion of a work that was actually written by Matthew, with the canonical work carrying his name because he was the author of the foundations (and most of the text) that led to the “edited” final gospel.

Like the Gospel of Matthew, the Gospel of Luke is also a composite account. It draws upon the Gospel of Mark and Matthew’s logia, but to a lesser degree than the Gospel of Matthew. Indeed, the author of the Gospel of Luke said that his account was based on the work of a number of others, who in turn had based their accounts upon the report of eyewitnesses.

Luke 1:1-4: Many have undertaken to draw up a narrative concerning the things accomplished amongst us, as delivered to us by those who were eyewitnesses from the first and who became servants of the word. Therefore, it seemed good to me also, having investigated accurately all things from their source, to write to you, most excellent Theophilus, in order that you might know the reliability of the words of teaching in which you have been instructed.

We have no reason to doubt that Luke was a companion of Paul, and that he wrote both Luke and Acts. As a companion of Paul, he had access to a rich source of materials, which he would have had the opportunity of supplementing when he was in the province of Judea during Paul’s time of imprisonment (AD 60-62). One of his sources was probably someone who told him about the mission of the seventy disciples, who Jesus sent to preach and to heal, and who would have continued with him right up to the time he entered Jerusalem. Another source was someone who could tell him the stories built around Jesus’ birth, and told from Mary’s perspective.

The Gospel of John is unlike the other three gospels. It is a personal reflection on Jesus’ life and teaching and is a true eyewitness report, since in large measure it only deals with those things that can reasonably be associated with him in some way or another. The author identifies himself only by the circumlocution at the end of the work as the “disciple Jesus loved,” and he can also be found at the beginning of the work as the disciple conspicuously not named. Although the author of this work has generally been thought to be John the son of Zebedee, one of Jesus’ twelve disciples, this is not actually the impression conveyed by the work itself. It is more likely that the author of the Gospel of John was a Jerusalem disciple, not a Galilean follower of Jesus. There are three strong indicators of this. Firstly, the author had a home in Jerusalem, to which he was able to take Mary, Jesus’ mother, when Jesus was crucified (John 19:27). Secondly, the author was known to the high priest, and had access to the high priest’s house (John 18:16). Thirdly, most of the action in the Gospel of John takes place in Jerusalem and Judea, with less emphasis on events in Galilee than in the other three gospels. The action in his account starts with John the Baptist, who was baptizing in the Judean part of the Jordan, when the author was a disciple of John the Baptist. This disciple was baptised by Jesus along with his companion Andrew after John the Baptist pointed them to Jesus. Simon Peter, Andrew’s brother, joined them (John 1:19-42). This unnamed disciple is likely to have been the man known to history as John the Elder, and probably the same person who identified himself as “the elder” in the New Testament book, 2 John.[1]

Therefore, there are three clearly identifiable eyewitness sources in the four gospels: Matthew, Peter and John the Elder. Beyond these, there are other recognizable sources used by the Luke and the author of the Gospel of Matthew, although they are more difficult to identify. The range of sources used means that tensions inevitably arise in the narrative in the resulting four gospels, in that the details in the parallel passages in the four gospels are sometimes different, and indeed not strictly reconcilable, except by preferring one account to another. Yet this is not necessarily a problem. This diversity amongst the witnesses can be considered to show their independence from one another, and to the overall truthful of these witnesses and of those who wrote the reports.

Matthew was the first to write an account of Jesus’ life, giving his work a strong emphasis on Jesus’ sayings; Mark followed him and wrote an account that supplemented (and expanded) Matthew’s logia, with an emphasis on Jesus’ deeds. Then followed the two compilations, the Gospel of Matthew and the Gospel of Luke, drawing largely on their two predecessors, but also on other sources as well. In parallel, and probably independently came John the Elder, who would have known of Matthew’s logia, the Gospel of Mark, and probably the Gospel of Luke, but not the Gospel of Matthew. Significantly, John the Elder did not try to harmonize his account with those that had gone before. Instead, like his predecessors, he strove to get as close as possible to an accurate rendering of account of the events he was describing, as he remembered them.

Not only do we have four gospels, but there are a number of identifiable contributors to these gospels. By looking behind the gospel accounts that have come down to us we have the opportunity to discover a further insight into what the early followers of Jesus wanted to communicate to their fellows, and through them to us.


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Further reading 

Richard Bauckham, Jesus and the Eyewitnesses: The Gospels as Eyewitness Testimony (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2006). Get it from Amazon.

[1] Richard Bauckham, Jesus and the Eyewitnesses, pp.420-433.

Saturday, February 5, 2011

Matthew's Book of Jesus' Sayings

Early in the second century, Papias of Hierapolis (from the Roman province of Asia) reported that, while Mark wrote down the things that Jesus said and did, Matthew made an ordered arrangement of Jesus' sayings, "which each person interpreted as best he could." This suggests that Matthew's book of Jesus' sayings was somewhat different in style from Mark's Gospel. Papias evidence also suggests that Matthew's book of Jesus' sayings had not been lost, but rather had been used by other writers for their own purposes. Obviously, the first place we should look for Matthew's book of Jesus' sayings is in the Gospel of Matthew itself.

Indeed, we can discover the content of Matthew's book of Jesus' sayings, since it is possible to remove from the Gospel of Matthew those parts that are clearly taken from the Gospel of Mark. We are not going to far if we say that most of the text that remains from the Gospel of Matthew was originally derived from Matthew's book of Jesus' sayings.

The writer of the Gospel of Matthew did not substantially change most of the text of the material borrowed from the Gospel of Mark. In general, he even followed the same sequence, inserting the Markan material in blocks in the same order as it is found in the Gospel of Mark. So, if the writer of the Gospel of Matthew dealt with Matthew's book of Jesus' sayings in the same way as he dealt with the Gospel of Mark, one can expect that he did not change it very much, at least in terms of the actual content. This gives us confidence that we can reconstruct the text of Matthew's book of Jesus' sayings from the Gospel of Matthew, just by removing the Markan elements in the Gospel of Matthew, and noting the way in which the author of the Gospel of Matthew dealt with these Markan elements.

Having carried out this task, the content of Matthew's book of Jesus' sayings is likely to have been as follows:
  • Preaching of John the Baptist and Jesus' baptism.
  • Temptations of Jesus.
  • Sermon on the Mount.
  • Healing and teaching.
  • Teaching in Jerusalem.
  • Jesus' passion.
  • Jesus' burial and resurrection.
In regard to the Sermon on the Mount, while Jesus could have delivered this teaching all at the one time, it is more likely that the account has been supplemented by teaching that was delivered on other occasions. In any event, Jesus would have gone over the same teaching many times in his three years of ministry, in different places, and in different circumstances.

The inclusion of the range of material listed here is not surprising, even though it was called a "book of sayings." As F.F. Bruce observed, in his The New Testament Documents: Are they reliable? (Leicester: Inter-Varsity Press, 1960), pp.38-40, the "sayings" attributable to Matthew seem to follow the pattern of the Old Testament prophets. These works usually included an account of the prophet's call to prophesy, and then went on record their prophecies and the circumstances in which the prophecies were delivered. Similarly, it would be inexplicable for an early Christian to have omitted any reference to Jesus' passion and resurrection, and to have omitted the speeches and teaching surround these events.

While the Gospel of Matthew has been traditionally attributed to Matthew, there is nothing in the text itself that indicates this. Instead, it is clear, and relatively uncontroversial, that Matthew, one of the twelve disciples, did not write the work called the "Gospel of Matthew." Almost half of the work consists of direct borrowings from the Gospel of Mark, and it is unlikely that an eyewitness of the events would choose to borrow so extensively from a work written by someone else who was not himself a direct eyewitness.

However, it is likely that Matthew wrote the text identified here as "Jesus' sayings," which represents most of that part of the Gospel of Matthew that has not been drawn from the Gospel of Mark. It was probably on the basis of the substantial use of Matthew's work that led to the Gospel of Matthew, in its current form, being attributed to Matthew.

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Jesus and the Eyewitnesses

There are two basic models used to explain the origin of the Gospel accounts of Jesus' life. The first model is that the Gospel stories arose out of the collective memory of the Christian community. Under this model, it is argued that the Gospel stories circulated in the Christian community, creating a kind of "Jesus tradition," which was later encapsulated by the Gospel writers, probably at a time when all the original eyewitnesses had died.

However, the evidence does not support this model. It is much more likely that the four Gospel accounts were more directly linked to specific eyewitness accounts of the events described.

The case for the Gospels representing eyewitness testimony has been made most recently by Richard Bauckham, Jesus and the Eyewitnesses: The Gospels as Eyewitness Testimony (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2006). This work sets a new standard in the analysis of the Gospel accounts. Written from a scholarly evangelical perspective, it evaluates the evidence supporting the argument that the Gospels were written from eyewitness accounts.

This case begins with the argument that Papias, a Christian writer from the early second century AD (from Hierapolis in the old Roman province of Asia), said that he had been told that Matthew had written down a book of Sayings of Jesus in the Hebrew dialect (that is, in the Aramaic language spoken in Palestine), "but each person interpreted them as best he could."  Matthew's Book of Jesus' Sayings stands in place of the mysterious Q source that scholars have been seeking to find (by textual analysis of Matthew, Luke and the Gospel of Thomas) for the last one hundred years. 

Papias also indicated that Mark was the interpreter of Peter, and that Mark's purpose in writing his Gospel was to faithfully reproduce the substance of what Peter said about Jesus' life and words.
Matthew's Gospel was not itself an eyewitness account, but it was based upon two eyewitness accounts. It appears to have been an edited work, being constructed from Matthew's Book of Jesus' Sayings and from Mark's Gospel. There is no doubt about the influence of Mark's Gospel upon the Gospel of Matthew, since most of Mark's Gospel is reproduced in Matthew. The Markan elements in the Gospel of Matthew are found in the same order as they are found in Mark, with some measure of summarising of the material having been carried out by the "Matthean editor."

It can be argued that most of Matthew and Mark were based on eyewitness accounts. This increases our confidence that they are likely to represent substantially what the two observers at first hand, Matthew and Peter, believed to be a fair testimony to Jesus' life and words.

The situation with the Gospel of Luke is slightly different. The author, most probably Luke, indicated that he approached the matter as a historian would have done, collecting as much evidence as he could from the available sources. A study of the text of Luke indicates that the two main sources for the Gospel of Luke were the book of Matthew's Book of Jesus' Sayings and the Gospel of Mark. However, Luke was not limited to these sources, but referred to other accounts as well, which in turn were based on eyewitness accounts. Since it appears that Luke spent time in Palestine during Paul's imprisonment in Palestinian Caesarea (ca. AD 60), it is likely that he collected his sources for his gospel at that time, and that he wrote his two works, the Gospel of Luke and the Acts of the Apostles, when he was in Rome, again accompanying Paul.

Traditionally, the Gospel of John has been attributed to John, the son of Zebedee, one of Jesus' twelve disciples. However, the Gospel of John does not positively identify the author, but rather the author calls himself the "Disciple Jesus loved." It is unlikely that this disciple was the John who was the son of Zebedee, since the Beloved Disciple had a home in Jerusalem (to which he took Jesus' mother after the crucifixion). He is also likely to have been the unnamed disciple who met Jesus with Andrew (John 1:35-42), and the unnamed disciple who went into the high priest's house (John 18:15), and one of the two unnamed disciples who met Jesus at Lake Tiberius (John 21:1-2). Since the fisherman son of Zebedee is unlikely to have had a home in Jerusalem (in addition to his home in Galilee), and to have known the high priest, and to have the facility in Greek and Greek philosophy evident in the Gospel of John, one should abandon the traditional ascription of this work to the John, the son of Zebedee, and instead look for another man named John, who was also a disciple of Jesus.

The work itself supports this argument, since it includes elements, such as Jesus' dialogue with Nicodemus, that indicate the author's access to the higher levels of Judean society, beyond that found in the other three Gospels. The work itself is suggestive of an author who moved in the same circles as Nicodemus.

This brief analysis serves to show that a reasonable argument can be made that all four Gospels were based upon eyewitness testimony, with the fourth Gospel being written in its entirety by an eyewitness.