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Jonathan Bernier’s Critique of my Theories on the Traditional Authorship of Mark’s Gospel

It is almost a decade since I finished my PhD on the tradition about the Evangelist Mark, which was revised for publication in The Gospel of the Margins. You have a limited window to try to put forward a relatively new idea so, like many scholars, I look back on my dissertation wishing I had read more to strengthen some arguments, revise others, and edit out the howlers! I take reassurance in Paul’s words that we always just know in part and see through a mirror dimly. Anyways, I am grateful for the reviews from Christopher Skinner, Elizabeth Struthers Malbon, and David Evans. I am also grateful for Jonathan Bernier’s extensive critique of my arguments in his book The Quest for the Historical Jesus after the Demise of Authenticity that I want to engage on this blog. I will respond to select quotes from his critique.

“Indeed, as Hengel demonstrates in the following pages (48-56), the oft-stated ‘fact’ that not just the Gospel of Mark but all the canonical gospels originally were anonymous works simply does not hold up to scrutiny. There is, in fact, no evidence that they ever circulated without the traditional attributions. These attributions, of course, might well be false, and thus the works pseudonymous, but it defies the evidence to describe them as anonymous works.” (128n.4)

I do not consider this to be an accurate characterization of the Gospels of Mark and Matthew, which make no explicit (and I would even add implicit) authorial claims within the texts. One could make a case for or against pseudonymity when it comes to Acts or the Johannine epilogue (e.g., John 21:24), but I lean towards viewing the “we” in Acts as a dramatic literary device or possibly the remnants of an earlier source and both the third evangelist and the Johannine beloved disciple are left unnamed. The attributions to Mark and Matthew are attested early by Papias, but I am not persuaded that he wrote anything about Luke or John and he stands alone in referring to the authorship of the Gospels before Justin Martyr. In my book, I cited Helmut Koester‘s counter-argument that the earliest mention of a “Gospel” along with a named author is from Theophilus of Antioch (Autol. 2.22). I do not share Hengel‘s confidence that the standard titles attested in the late second century in our limited textual evidence can be dated so early and stand by my argument that the “Gospel according to [named evangelist]” was formulated to differentiate the Gospels from each other when they were grouped together in an authoritative collection.

“… [C. Clifton] Black actually does not say that there were fourth-century copies of Mark’s Gospel that lacked the superscription, but, rather, that the fourth-century De recta in Deum fide does not refer to the superscriptions of either the Markan or Lukan Gospels when discussing who wrote these texts.” (129n.4)

I should have been more careful in my footnoting of Joel Marcus and Black and double checked Black’s argument, so I accept Bernier’s correction. I realized I had made a mistake when reading a similar critique from Richard Bauckham of Marcus’s commentary on this point.

“Most properly then, we should state that Kok permits a date between 100 and 110 for Papias’s treatise.” (131n.11)

I followed some leading experts on Papias in settling on 110 CE (e.g., Schoedel, K├Ârtner), but Bernier is right that my arguments allow for a range from 100 to 110. I am now even inclined to date Papias’s writing activity closer to 100 CE, shortly after he met the Elder John in the beginning of Trajan’s reign. See this post on the date of Papias.

“[Kok argues that] second century orthodox writers distance Peter from Mark’s Gospel, in order to protect the apostle from associations with a marginal narrative, at the same time that they use the Petrine association as part of ‘a deliberate power play by centrist Christians to co-opt this Gospel to advance their agenda.'” (p. 132)

I would nuance this summary. The orthodox writers had to deal with Mark’s Gospel because it was the earliest biography of Jesus and circulated widely enough to be used as a source by Matthew and Luke, but they had some literary and theological issues with it. Their solution may have been to defend its apostolicity, while blaming its perceived shortcomings on an intermediary like Mark. This was my attempt to explain the ambivalence in the traditions that Peter’s interpreter Mark did not put his material in order, wrote without Peter’s knowledge or after Peter’s demise, and received the epithet stump-fingered.

“[Kok’s thesis] relies upon a very questionable ordering of early Christian texts (1 Peter-Papias-Acts, and that is leaving aside the question of when Colossians was written: not every scholar would assent to treating it as functionally coeval with Galatians). It is little more than assertion that 1 Peter, even if pseudonymous (an open debate in New Testament studies), randomly selected Silas and Mark for inclusion as Petrine colleagues, and, moreover, Kok has provided no evidence indicating that Silas and Mark could not have been companions of both Peter and Paul; in fact, the assertion is, if anything, refuted by the very material which Kok supposes these figures were extracted” (132; footnote 16 also notes that Col 4:10 associates Barnabas with Mark and Gal 2:13 has Barnabas aligning with Peter against Paul)

I would have thought that Bernier would be a fan of challenges to the consensus on the dating of Christian sources based on his recent book :), but here is how I would respond to his individual points:

  • My view of the epistle to Philemon as a prison epistle sent from Paul in Rome is conventional, though the letter could be dated earlier if Paul was imprisoned in Ephesus. Verse 24 notes Mark as Paul’s colleague.
  • I am open to the epistle of Colossians being written either by Paul during his Roman imprisonment or shortly after his lifetime and both options find plenty of support in the commentaries, but others date this disputed epistle later in the first century. Col 4:10 identifies Mark as Paul’s colleague from the circumcision and Barnabas’s cousin.
  • Numerous scholars doubt that the literate, rhetorically-trained writer of 1 Peter was a Galilean fisherman and date the letter between the destruction of the Jerusalem Temple by “Babylon” (i.e. Rome) in 70 CE and its earliest attestation by Papias, Polycarp, and 2 Peter. Silvanus is referred to as the letter-carrier, though most of the references in Acts and Paul’s letters associate him with Paul, and Mark is called Peter’s son. I accepted David Horrell’s case that 1 Peter is a unifying document drawing on a range of traditions and that its inclusion of the names of two known colleagues of Paul was consistent with its use of other Pauline language and themes, but I will respond to Bernier’s fair objection below.
  • I joined an increasing minority of scholars who date Acts to the early second century, while Bernier supports an equally minority position in dating Acts before Paul’s martyrdom. Acts introduces Silas as an emissary from the Jerusalem apostles before joining Paul on his missionary journeys and places John Mark in Jerusalem before narrating his travels with Paul and Barnabas. Acts mainly links them with Paul and the new detail about Mark’s Semitic name is consistent with the other characters whose Semitic names are highlighted (e.g., Saul/Paul, Silas/Silvanus, Joseph/Justus). Despite Acts’ late date and theological tendency to subordinate Paul to the Twelve in Jerusalem, I was too hasty in downplaying the data that Silas and Mark may have mediated between the Jerusalem Pillars and Paul. Certainly Barnabas performed this role and Gal 2:13/Acts 15:37-39 note that he and Mark sided with some Jewish Christ followers against Paul during the Antioch incident, though tensions must have smoothed over by the time Colossians was written. I still think that Mark was added to Acts 12:12 to link Peter to Paul and Barnabas and reflects developing traditions about Mark.
  • Revisiting my case as a whole, I would allow that the author of 1 Peter may have picked Mark and Silvanus as known intermediaries between the Jerusalem pillars and Paul, which fits the letter’s theme of unity. However, the close association between Peter and Mark still seems to me to be a secondary development first attested in 1 Peter 5:13. Bernier has a blog post where he suggests that the John Mark of Acts could have been the fourth evangelist, so I will refer readers to my response to Dean Furlong’s brilliant defense of this position in the Catholic Biblical Quarterly.

“[I]f we do not know enough about [the Elder John] to render judgment upon how he obtained his information, then surely we cannot state that the information is bad with any greater confidence then we can state that it is good” (p. 132)

It matters whether the Elder John was the Apostle John who was part of Peter’s inner circle, a disciple of Jesus outside of the Twelve, or a second-generation follower of Jesus in Asia Minor when evaluating the credibility of his testimony. I evaluate the internal evidence within Mark’s text differently than Bernier as I do not think that it supports Papias’s view of it as a Petrine Gospel.

“Kok does not actually provide any evidence that centrist and non-centrist Christians were engaged in such a struggle over Mark’s Gospel during the years between c.70 and 110, that is, the period during which he posits the fictional link between Peter and Mark was developed… he describes the evidence that Papias and even Justin were ‘caught up in a war over the ownership of the Gospel texts’ as ‘vague hints’, hardly a sign of confidence that such conflicts were taking place in the early second century, let alone the late first centuries [sic]. From Justin Martyr, Clement of Alexandria, and Irenaeus, he presents some evidence that conflicts were taking place in the later second century, but given his own insistence that the Papian evidence cannot inform us about events occurring less than forty years before Papias’s time, it is unclear how he can suppose that these writers can inform us about events occurring between eighty and a hundred and thirty years before theirs” (pp. 132-33, 133n.20 critiques my doubt that the tradition about Mark goes back to the 80s CE).

Bernier may overlook my arguments about Matthew’s and Luke’s redaction of Mark’s Gospel, from adding birth and Easter narratives to editing select verses (e.g., Mark 6:5; 10:18; 15:34) that were liable to being misinterpreted. Francis Watson and Mark Goodacre seem to make similar points about how Matthew’s and Luke’s editorial work helped rehabilitate Mark’s reputation. I also reviewed Bart Ehrman’s arguments about the theological effect of certain scribal corrections to Mark’s text, though I recognize the weaknesses of trying to discern a scribe’s intentions and some would demur from his judgments (e.g., the presence of “Son of God” in Mark 1:1). I admitted that Papias’s polemic against those who say many things or teach foreign commandments and Justin’s stress on Jesus’s historical fulfilment of Psalm 22 may be too vague to know if the conflicts involved Mark’s Gospel and Bernier fairly objects that much of my data comes from Irenaeus’s Against Heresies. One could add Clement’s Letter to Theodore which testifies that there was an edition of Mark’s Gospel in Alexandria that was misappropriated by Carpocrates (ca. 125 CE), but Clement is a late witness too and the text may be even later if it was a forgery. One figure that I wish I discussed in more detail is Cerinthus. Irenaeus claims that those who divide the human Jesus from the divine Christ preferred Mark’s work and summarizes Cerinthus’s perspective that the divine Christ aeon descended like a dove on Jesus at his baptism and departed from him before he died (Haer. 1.26.1; 3.11.7). He shares an anecdote about a confrontation between John, the Lord’s disciple, and Cerinthus in a public bathhouse in Ephesus that he inherited from the students of Polycarp (3.3.4). If he confused the Apostle John with the Elder John, might this hint that there was a late first-century conflict between two rival theologians who both used Mark’s Gospel?

Bernier’s valid criticisms have forced me to re-evaluate some points and make a better defense of others. In the end, I still at least hold that the figure of Mark begins to be more closely associated with Peter in the last decades of the first century, the second canonical Gospel circulated anonymously before the Elder John created the tradition about its authorship, and the reception of the text may have been controversial in some circles which made the defense of its apostolic origins necessary. But I might be wrong and Bernier might be right, so it is worth testing all our theories. And I should note that this critique is a small part of Bernier’s book, which makes an important contribution on historiographical methodology in the study of the historical Jesus.


Engaging Jeremiah Coogan’s Article on the Gospels according to Matthew and the Hebrews

I have read with interest the open-acess article by Jeremiah Coogan, “The Ways that Parted in the Library: The Gospels according to Matthew and according to the Hebrews in Late Ancient HeresiologyThe Journal of Ecclesiastical History 73 (2022): 1-18. Full disclosure: I am convinced by the two Gospel hypothesis advocated by notable scholars such as Simon Claude Mimouni, Petri Luomanen, and Andrew Gregory and have argued that the Gospel according to the Hebrews and the Gospel of the Ebionites postdated Papias of Hierapolis in this article. I will also offer a different take on how these two Gospels became associated Matthew in a chapter in a forthcoming book, though I am at the proofs stage so may have limited interaction with this article if I can get it in, and I have been working more on the Gospel of the Ebionites including compiling a bibliography on it for the e-clavis Christian Apocrypha.

The article begins by contextualizing the Christian “bibliographic debates” in light of the wider Roman world, when educated readers commented on how to determine the authorship and authenticity of literary works. He argues that the efforts to distance the Gospel according to the Hebrews from the Gospel according to Matthew, when earlier Patristic witnesses may have regarded them as variant versions of a similar text, also reflect attempts to encourage the “parting of the ways” between Christian and Jewish communities. He rightly points out that titles such as the Gospel of the Ebionites or the Gospel of the Nazoreans are modern creations, that Epiphanius (Pan. 29.9.4; 30.3.7; 13.2) and Jerome (Vir. ill. 3; Tract. Ps. 135; Comm. Matt. 12.13) associate Matthew in varying ways with the texts that they entitle the Gospel according to the Hebrews, that Irenaeus’s statement that the Ebionites exclusively used Matthew’s Gospel (Haer. 3.11.7) was understood by Eusebius as a reference to the Gospel according to the Hebrews (Hist. Eccl. 3.27.4), and that there are parallels to Matthew’s text in the fragments of what are usually seen as discrete Jewish Gospels.

I agree with Coogan that Jerome was aware that the Nazoreans had their own translation of Matthew’s Gospel that he expounds on in his Commentary on Matthew, though I think that he has confused it with the Gospel according to the Hebrews that he read about in earlier Christian sources like Origen. I too doubt that there was a separate Gospel of the Nazoreans. I agree that the textual variants ascribed to to ioudaikon (“the Jewish Gospel”) were probably to Matthew’s text. I agree that there are Synoptic parallels in the passage on the rich young ruler in the Latin translation of Origen’s Commentary on Matthew (15.14) which I ascribe to the “Gospel according to the Hebrews”, in Epiphanius’s citations which I ascribe to the so-called Gospel of the Ebionites, and in the parable of the talents cited in Eusebius’s Theophany (theoph. fr. 4.22) though Gregory has persuaded me that this source was not the Gospel according to the Hebrews.

However, I disagree with his thesis that the Gospel according to the Hebrews was an alternative version of Matthew’s Gospel rather than a separate text entirely that may have at points been influenced by the Synoptics (e.g., John’s possible use of the Synoptic tradition is an analogy). It seems to me that a number of fragments from the Gospel according to the Hebrews are not just variants of passages in Matthew’s Gospel, but completely unrelated it to it, and the earliest Patristic witnesses do not ascribe it to Matthew. Clement (Strom., Origen (Comm. John 2.12.87), and Didymus of Alexandria (Comm. Ps. 184-9-10) never refer to it as Matthew’s Gospel “according to the Hebrews.” Origen and Eusebius clarify that it is a non-authoritative text, in contrast to Matthew’s Gospel which is part of the fourfold Gospel canon. Irenaeus assumed that the canonical Gospel of Matthew was appropriated by the Ebionites in the same way that the canonical Gospel of John was by the Valentinians, but Eusebius misunderstood the point that he was making. Epiphanius and Jerome continued to confuse matters after Eusebius when they linked the texts that they identified as the Gospel according to the Hebrews to the old, probably erroneous tradition going back to Papias that our canonical Gospel of Matthew was a translation from a Hebrew or Aramaic original.

In my view, the Gospel according to the Hebrews likely originated in Alexandria in the second century and has its own distinctive retelling of Jesus’s sayings and deeds. The text that Epiphanius cites should not be confused with it. For instance, its account of the baptism is not only completely different from it (compare Epiphanius, Pan. 30.13.7-8 to Jerome, Comm. Isa. 11.1-3), but it conflates the Synoptic passages to a far greater extent than what we see in most of the other fragments on the Gospel according to the Hebrews and this is not the sole example of it doing so. The Gospel of the Ebionites is just a modern title given to it because Epiphanius attributed to the Ebionites, rightly or wrongly, and I suspect that his text was pseudonymously attributed to the twelve apostles (cf. Pan. 30.12.2-3) and was designed to replace the Synoptic Gospels. Epiphanius thought that it was a corrupted version of Matthew’s Gospel because he was influenced by Papias and the text that he had also highlighted Matthew’s conversion story (30.12.3).

Wherever you land on the debate over the Patristic testimonies about the Jewish Gospels, it must be admitted that the evidence is extremely fragmentary and amenable to different interpretations. This article makes a great contribution and is well-worth reading. The author should be congratulated on winning an award (i.e. the Eusebius prize) for it. I will try not to say more about the topic so that I do not give too much away in my forthcoming publications.

Blog Posts on the Longer Ending of Mark

The vast majority of text critics argue that the longer ending in Mark 16:9-20 is a later addition to a text that ended at 16:8, though whether the evangelist purposely ended the narrative on the note of the women leaving the empty tomb or the original ending was lost is a more debated question. However, there are a few monographs that have been written in defense of the originality of the longer ending:

  • Farmer, William R. The Last Twelve Verses of Mark. SNTSMS 25. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1974.
  • Lunn, Nicholas P. The Original Ending of Mark: A New Case for the Authenticity of Mark 16:9-20. Cambridge: James Clarke and Co,
  • Snapp Jr., James. Authentic: The Case for Mark 16:9-20: 2016 Edition. Amazon Digital Services, 2011.
  • See also the contributions of Maurice Robinson and David A. Black in Black, D. A., Editor. Perspectives on the Ending of Mark: Four Views. Nashville: B&H Academic, 2008.

There are two informative posts written by James Snapp and Peter Head debating the textual evidence for the longer ending of Mark 16:9-11. Snapp has also contributed a website on “Resources for the Study of Mark 16:9-20” and frequently discusses this issue on his blog “The Text of the Gospels“, while Head is a contributor to the blog Evangelical Textual Criticism that also has a number of informative posts on this topic. Stephen Carlson has written a critical review of Lunn’s book for the Australian Bible Review. A conference on Mark 16 was put on by Claire Clivaz, Mina Monier, and Dan Botovici. My take is that the scribal addition of a longer ending to Mark’s Gospel, like Matthew’s and Luke’s redactional changes (e.g., adding other traditions about Jesus’s birth or post-Easter appearances and editing select verses such as Mark 6:5 or 10:18) or the Patristic traditions linking the evangelist to the Apostle Peter, ultimately helped rescue Mark’s narrative for Christian orthodoxy and preserved Mark’s distinctive voice in the canon of Christian Scripture.