SUNDAY SERMON: Who Wrote The Gospels?

Before we begin, I want to point out that I’m a Christian, but I’m not a literalist. While I’m a pretty good armchair theologian/historian, I’m not accredited or empowered by anyone as clergy, nor do I have any degrees in these matters. Basically don’t take anything I say about the Gospel as Gospel truth, OK? I’m capable of being wrong, and I’m not writing this to change anyone’s mind or challenge anyone’s faith, I’m just putting it out there because it’s interesting, and because I think discussion on the subject WITH THOSE WHO ARE READY FOR IT could be kind of interesting. If you’ve got a fragile faith, I caution you to turn back now because I will probably say things that might upset your faith, and I don’t want to do that. People did that to me when I was a kid, and it really messed me up, and I would never want to do that. Again: Turn back now if you’re not very secure in your relationship with God.

This will be a historical discussion of the origins of the Gospels, not a theological one.

OK: Who wrote the Gospels?

On the face of it, that’s simple: Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John wrote ’em. Duh. Everyone knows that. The problem is that all four gospels are actually anonymous, and make no claims of authorship. The names we gave them are simply traditions – with one possible partial exception – and are frequently based on fairly specious reasoning and no real incontrovertable evidence. Before we begin, I want to point out that nothing I say means the Gospels are not true, or that they’re not inspired scripture. I believe they are. I simply believe they had a somewhat more convoluted origin than most people do.

Today I’m going to focus on Matthew and Mark.

Let’s start easy: What order were they written in? Probably you’ll say “Matthew was first, then Mark, then Luke, then John around the end of the 1st century.” That’s been the official position of Christianity as a whole since about the 4th century, and was the unofficial opinion for a long time before that. This notion comes from a guy named Papias, writing around 100 AD, who said that Peter was the first one to write down the Sayings of the Lord, and that Mark was his secretary, and later on Mark attempted to relate the stories of Jesus that Peter had told him, though he got some of the order wrong. This would seem to settle the matter, but it kind of doesn’t. Papias was regarded by high-ranking Church folk in the 4th century as “A man of limited imagination.” Since Papias work only survives in excerpts embedded in other people’s writings, we can’t really be sure. Particularly since some people quoting him say he was a dope.

But let’s assume he wasn’t a dope, and we’ll get back to him in a minute.

If you read Matthew and Mark cold, like if you’ve never read them before, and you read Mark first, you will almost definitely conclude that Mark is the earlier book. It’s much more primitive in its storytelling, it ignores a lot of details, the author is clearly very excited by what he’s telling, but he’s got more enthusiasm than skill, and I mean no offence by that. Matthew, by comparison, is much more polished, much slicker, much more detailed, and – again, if you’re reading it cold – it seems like it was based on Mark. A rewritten, expanded version.

This is actually the opinion of most secular scholars of the Bible (Yes, such a thing exists) and a significant number of Christian scholars. And Chistian scholarly posers like me. But what of Papias? How could he have bungled something that happened so soon before his own time?

Well, there’s a clue: He never says “Gospel,” he says “Sayings of the Lord.” Then he says Mark wrote his own book based on reminiscences of Peter afterwards. We assume he meant Gospel, but he might not have.

Jesus is the Son of God, but while human He lived the life of an intinerrant preacher, a wandering sage. Such things were not uncommon in Judea. John the Baptist is another example, but there are quite a few others. In such cases, it’s not uncommon for one or two of the closer followers to write down their teacher’s maxims. In fact it’d be unusual if someone didn’t do that. Generally these things ended up with no narrative, just a bunch of sayings. Think of the book of Proverbs.

In the 19th century, people studying the Gospels noticed a high degree of correlation between the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew and the Sermon on the Plain in Luke. Even if they’re recording the same sermon (Which the Gospels make clear they are not), the word order is too precise for people relying on memory 30 or 40 years after the event. Particularly since Luke wasn’t even there. This gave rise to the theory that both the authors of Matthew and Luke were making use of some pre-existing source that consited of just the sayings of Jesus. This came to be known as the “Quelle” theory (“Source” in German), but mostly we call it “Q” for short. While it is by no means definite that the Q existed, and there’s one major hole in the theory, it , and variations on it, have been kind of the dominant theories for the last 130 years or so.

Papias said that Peter wrote down the “Sayings of the Lord.” What if he literally meant “The sayings of the Lord,” and nothing beyond that? In other words, what if Peter wrote Q? Presumably it would have ciruclated and been associated with him.

Hypothesis: Someone gets a copy of Q, and a copy of Mark, and thinks, “You know, I really should incorporate these sayings into this other book, and I could add some stories I know that the book doesn’t have, and I could smooth over some passages and stuff.” They might have taken Mark’s Gospel, used it as a boilerplate, and then written Matthew. Since the Q would have already been associated with Matthew, people would probably assume he wrote the Gospel as well. Over time this misattribution gets to be taken as ‘established fact,’ And there you go.

You know, assuming the Q existed in the first place, which, I stress, is hypothetical. One argument in favor of this is that Papias says Matthew wrote in Hebrew, but the Gospel of Matthew was clearly written in Greek. (Linguists can tell that, pretty much beyond doubt) The Sermon on the Mount was also written in Greek, but that’s not problematic because it just means somewhere along the line someone made a fairly free translation from Hebrew to Greek.

There is a big hole in this theory: There is no material evidence that Q existed. No copies survive, and if it did, there are no surviving mentions of it apart from (possibly) Papias. This is not insurmountable, however: there are actually very, very few really early Christian writings that survive. Saint Whomever of Whatever might have gone on and on and on about the Q, but since all copies of his work were lost in, say, the fire of Rome (64 AD) or the two times Jerusalem was burned to the ground (70 AD and 166 AD), it’s not uncommon. And encapsulating Q in a larger, more readable source would render it rather obsolete, so it wouldn’t be surprising if it just kind of faded from history as a result.

Again: Just a hypothesis, not a fact. It’s a very common hypothesis, however. The idea that Matthew wrote the Q is my personal spin on it, though I’m sure others have suggested it at some point.

So who actually wrote Matthew? Dunno. The most likely speculation is that he was the leader of a church, probably in Antioch, Syria, probably around 80 or 90 AD. People spoke Greek there, but the author makes no effort to explain Jewish practices (Which Mark’s Gospel does), which implies his audience would have already been familiar with them, whereas Mark’s Gospel was intended for a more strictly Gentile audience. It might also have been written by a small committee of learned Christians. This is speculation, but it’s all pretty reasonable. The end result was that Matthew ended up becoming the most widespread, and most popular Gospel, quickly crossing the empire.

Let’s get back to Mark:

The book is most commonly thought to have been written between 70 and 80 AD, which seems reasonable. There are a number of clues that indicate it took place after the First Jewish War (66-70 AD) but I’m not going to get into those. An early date of authorship gives it plenty of time to get spread around, and plenty of time for the anonymous author of Matthew to expand and rewrite it. While clearly written in Greek, Mark is most commonly thought to have been written in Rome, given that the author includes a lot of Latin terms, and explains a lot of Jewish customs.

So who wrote it? Dunno. The author never identifies himself, nor gives any clues. It almost definitely wasn’t Mark, though. So how did it get associated with him? Again: Dunno. Perhaps some of the stories were based on things Mark told people. Perhaps the author knew Mark. It’s impossible to say. It’s important to remember that Christianity was a very small religion in those days. There might only have been a few thousand Christians in the entire world in 70 AD. There wasn’t much communication between them, and with the destruction of Jerusalem, there was no centralized authority or leadership. Basically this is a situation where misinformation would spread much faster than accurate information.

There is one more interesting curiosity about Mark: the earliest manuscripts – and the earliest remaining commentary about the Gospel – all end at 16:8. The version in our Bibles ends at 16:20. What’s that all about?

When early Christians talk about Mark – in such documents as remain – they never mention anything after the women running away from the tomb, then it ends. In the 4th century, Eusebius flat out states that the Gospel ends at that point, though several different endings had begun to turn up. These, he says, are not original, and some are to be considered as spurrious. The NIV and several other translations of the Bible have a footnote at 16:8 saying “The oldest manuscripts stop at this point.”

Why the abrupt ending? Why no post-resurrection appearance of Jesus? The book makes it very clear that Jesus did come back from the dead, but we never see Him. There are three basic theories about this:

1 – There was an ending, but it’s been lost over time.

2 – The author always intended to end the book where he did for whatever reason.

3 – The author died before finishing the manuscript, and it’s incomplete.

Of these, #1 is the most popular, but I think least likely. No one ever makes any comment about any missing scenes. There’s no “Hey, what did you think of that bit where Jesus and James go for a post-resurrection walk and Jesus tells James….” or “What’s with that weird death scene for Judas in the end of Mark?” or anything like that. What this tells us is that the ‘original ending’ must have been lost very, very, very early, since no one seems to have ever heard of it.

I’ve heard several explanations supporting #2, but none of them really hold water for me, so I won’t bore you with them.

#3 seems most likely. People die all the time, and 70 AD wasn’t exactly the safest time for Christians.

Bottom line: at some point after the first century, but before the fourth, some well-meaning Christians took it upon themselves to ‘finish’ Mark. They made a short synopsis of the post-resurrection events from the other three Gospels, and tacked it on. I say “They” because there are actually at least four different endings to Mark that have been found.

Thus Mark technically had two authors: Whomever actually wrote it, and whatever person or persons wrote the last 12 verses.

I want to reiterate that I believe the Gospels to be scripture, inspired by God. The books we got are the ones God wanted us to have. I just believe that the “editing process” God directed them through before they got to their present form was more involved than is commonly realized. And also more fascinating. I also want to make it clear that I do not think this is a salvation issue. I do not believe anyone will go to hell if they think Matthew didn’t write Matthew, or if they do think he did. I don’t believe it matters for our salvation in anyway.

So what do you think? Sound off below!

Next time out, we’ll talk about the Gospel of Luke and Acts, which is kind of my specialty.

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