I teach the New Testament in a confessional Christian context. A podcast has been created at my college entitled Good Morling Australia. I was interviewed about the authorship of the canonical Gospels in general and the beloved disciple in particular. Since it is directed towards an evangelical audience, I shared my own faith journey, explained why the anonymity of the Gospels does not undermine my trust in their historical and theological value, and challenged them to always critically examine the various lenses through which we read Scripture (focusing on the Patristic traditions about the evangelists). One of the big emphases in my classes is how Christ followers are continually called to retell the story of Jesus and communicate its theological relevance in ever-changing historical and social contexts. I have not too many interviews on podcasts and did not prepare for the questions beforehand, so hopefully there are not too many mistakes in my off-the-cuff responses, especially when tackling questions that I have not researched in depth (e.g., the Gospel of Peter). I hope that you enjoy the podcast!
There is an open-access article by Joel Kuhlin and Paul Linjamaa entitled “The ‘Heretical’ Reception of the Gospel of Mark” Patristica Nordica Annuaria 36 (2021): 69-88. I look forward to joining in the dialogue as they critically engage my and Francis Watson’s work.
The article begins with the paradox that Brenda Deen Schildgen highlighted, namely that Mark was linked to the Apostle Peter, yet was neglected during the Patristic period (70). The authors quote my argument that theologians who had a separationist Christology such as Carpocrates, Basilides, and Valentinus may have privileged this Gospel (70-71), but they fault it for relying heavily on Irenaeus’s polemical claims rather than the “heterodox” sources (71). They grant that the Patristic writers had a “Markan problem”, which is evidenced by the different endings appended to the text (71), its lack of manuscript attestation (72), the ordering of Mark after Matthew and John in the Western Order (72), and the comments by Patristic writers that only indirectly associate Mark with Peter while undermining its theological value (73). I appreciate their fair summary of the “interesting way” that I build on these points (73-75) and they agree with my analysis that Mark was seen as a “theo-political problem text” (85)
Since my work on the Valentinian reception of Mark was indebted to Watson, they evaluate Watson’s case that the fourfold Gospel canon was created to unite the church and prevent the Valentinians’ alleged misuse of each of them (75). Watson notes that Irenaeus (Haer. 1.3.3) describes them as reinterpreting Mark’s passage about the haemorrhaging woman, but this story is not unique to Mark, Mark’s distinctive wording does not play a vital role in the Valentinians’ theology, and Irenaeus may not have even been aware that the Valentinians drew on Mark for the Saviour’s question (77-78). In their judgment, Watson exaggerates the importance of the Valentinians citing Mark’s wording of Jesus’s cry from the cross rather than Matthew’s (1.8.2), since Irenaeus again may have not realized that they were drawing on Mark as they were mainly relying on shared Synoptic material in support of their theology (80). Generally speaking, Irenaeus seems ignorant of distinctive Markan details when harmonizing his Synoptic sources and only explicitly attributes (and in one instance misattributes) material to Mark three times (3.10.5; 16.3; 4.6.1) (77n21, 78, 79-80).
Next, they problematize the depiction of “Valentinians”, “Carpocratians”, or “Basilideans” as homogenous movements in distinction from “Christianity.” They allow that the followers of Basilides claimed their teacher was a disciple of Peter’s interpreter Glaucias (imitating Papias?) and may have liked the absence of resurrection appearances in Mark when denying Jesus’s physical suffering and resurrection, but they point out that the fragments from Basilides in Clement’s Exegetica do not draw on Mark at all (82). They acknowledge that Irenaeus mentions that Basilides had Simon of Cyrene suffer in Jesus’s place, which could be based on their construal of Mark 15:21 (or Matt 27:32), but they doubt that Irenaeus had accurate information on this point (82n36). They argue that the little information that we have on Carpocrates and Epiphanes is from secondhand polemical sources (e.g., Irenaeus, Clement), so it is hard to reach any conclusions about the Carpocratians use of Mark (82-83). The fragments or writings assigned to Valentinus and his followers do not seem to have been particularly influenced by Mark’s Gospel; rather, they tended to be inspired by Paul or John (83-85). Any Markan material that surfaces in Nag Hammadi Valentinian sources tends to be paralleled in the Gospel of Matthew (and at times Luke) and could have been taken from the latter (84-85). They argue that the Patristic writers would have had a bigger problem with Mark if it had fallen into the “wrong hands” (86) and, unlike the case for Mark, Irenaeus refutes the Valentinian exegesis of Paul’s letters in detail (86-87). Although they observe that Mark shows up in the controversies with Arianism in the fourth century (87), they conclude that Mark had some symbolic authority yet was neglected by proto-orthodox and heterodox thinkers alike (88).
This is a well-argued, thoughtful rebuttal of the case that I had made. They rightly object that I should have consulted more primary sources themselves when examining the views of Irenaeus’s opponents and, in my book, I conceded that Mark is the least represented Gospel of the four in the Nag Hammadi Library based on Christopher Tuckett’s analysis (235). A point that they raised that I had not adequately considered is, even when the sources seem to be reproducing Mark’s unique material, it does not mean that they were consciously aware that they were reciting Mark in particular rather than Synoptic tradition in general. Mark might not have played much of a role for Basilides, Valentinus, or their followers as I had thought when I just accepted Irenaeus’s accounts about them.
There are a few points that they may have missed. Irenaeus (Haer. 3.11.7) makes a general statement that those who divide Jesus from the divine Christ who could not suffer preferred Mark, which is the most likely choice since Mark starts with the anointing of Jesus by the Spirit at his baptism and has Jesus’ lament that he was divinely forsaken on the cross. Matthew and Luke would not work as well since they begin with Jesus’s miraculous conception and Luke and John reword Jesus’s last words from the cross. One figure that I had paid too little attention to was Cerinthus, who was one of the first to espouse the view that Jesus was possessed by the Christ aeon at his baptism before it left him prior to his crucifixion and was the adversary of John, the Lord’s disciple (=Papias’s Elder John?). They do not note Clement’s Letter to Theodore, which cites a specific version of Mark’s text used by the Carpocratians, but perhaps they join some other scholars in regarding this letter as an (ancient or modern) forgery. Clement also seems to combat the misuse of Mark’s passage about the rich man in writing his own commentary on the text, but this is also a triple tradition passage. I think that Cerinthus and Carpocrates remain contenders for early readers of Mark, but it is too bad that we lack primary sources for them. The redactional changes to Mark’s text by the later evangelists and scribes should also be factored into the reception of the Gospel, so at least there was a real concern that Mark’s Christology could be misconstrued regardless of whether that fear was grounded in reality.
Update: For those interested in the debate over the authenticity of the Letter to Theodore and its reference to an esoteric edition of Mark’s Gospel used by the Carpocratians, I have compiled a bibliography for the e-Clavis entry on “Secret Mark.” When I was working on my dissertation, Scott G. Brown was the leading defender of the authenticity of the text (see also Helmut Koester, Allan J. Pantuck, Charles Hendrick, Marvin Meyer, Jeff Jay, Timo S. Paananen) against a number of scholars who argued that it was forged by Morton Smith (e.g., Stephen Carlson, Peter Jeffery, Francis Watson, Craig A. Evans, Pierluigi Piovanelli). Since then, I built on the appendix to my book in an article looking at what light the letter may shed on the Carpocratians, Michael T. Zeddies argued for Origen’s authorship of the letter in a few articles, Brent Landau and Geoffrey Smith have a forthcoming work arguing that the text was written later than Eusebius but not by Smith, and M. David Litwa’s commentary on the Carpocratians and Thomas J. Whitley’s PhD dissertation on the Carpocratians maintain that the letter was forged by Smith.