How do we know that Mark wrote the gospel of Mark? How do we know that Mark recorded the observations of an eyewitness?
The short answer is because Papias (< 70 – c. 155) said so. Papias was a bishop and an avid documenter of oral history from the early church. His book Interpretations was written after 120 CE.
Jesus died in 30, Mark was written in 70, and Papias documents Mark as the author in 120 (dates are estimates). That’s at least 50 years bridged only by “because Papias said so.”
But how do we know what Papias said? We don’t have the original of Papias, nor do we have a copy. Instead, we have Church History by Eusebius, which quotes Papias and was written in 320.
And how do we know what Eusebius said? The oldest copies of his book are from the tenth century, though there is a Syriac translation from 462.
Count the successive people in the claim “Mark wrote Mark, which documents an eyewitness account”: (1) Peter was an eyewitness and (2) Mark was his journalist, and (3) someone told this to (4) Papias, who wrote his book, which was preserved by (5) copyist(s), and (6) Eusebius transcribed parts of that, and (7) more copyist(s) translated Eusebius to give us our oldest manuscript copy. And the oldest piece of evidence that we can put our hands on was written four centuries after Mark was written.
That’s an exceedingly tenuous chain.
The sequence of people could have been longer still. Papias was the bishop of Hierapolis, in western Asia Minor. Mark might have been written in Syria, and no one knows how long the chain of hearsay was from that author to Papias. No one knows how many copyists separated Papias from Eusebius or Eusebius from our oldest copies.
It gets worse. Eusebius didn’t think much of Papias as a historian and said that he “seems to have been a man of very small intelligence, to judge from his books” (Church History, book III, chapter 39, paragraph 13). Evaluate Papias for yourself: he said that Judas lived on after a failed attempt at hanging and had a head swollen so large that he couldn’t pass down a street wide enough for a hay wagon. Who knows if this version of the demise of Judas is more reliable than that in Matthew, but it’s special pleading to dismiss Papias when he’s embarrassing but hold on to his explanation of gospel authorship.
Even Eusebius’s Church History is considered unreliable.
The story is similar for the claimed authorship of Matthew. A twist to this story is that Papias said that Matthew wrote his gospel in Hebrew (or perhaps Aramaic), which makes no sense since Matthew used Mark, Q, and the Septuagint Bible, all Greek sources.1
What about the other gospels? That evidence comes from other documents with simpler pedigree but later dates.
- Irenaeus documented the traditional gospel authorship in his Against Heresies (c. 180). Our oldest copy is a Latin translation from the tenth century.
- Tertullian also lists the four traditional authors in his Against Marcion (c. 208), but he doesn’t think much of Luke: “[Heretic] Marcion seems to have singled out Luke for his mutilating process.” Our oldest copy of this book is from the eleventh century.
- The oldest manuscript labeled “gospel according to Luke” dates from c. 200.
- The Muratorian fragment, a Latin manuscript from the seventh century, may be a translation of a Greek original from the late second century (or maybe from the fourth). It lists many books of the New Testament, including the gospels of Luke and John.
We grope for evidence to back up the claim that the gospels document eyewitness accounts. Perhaps only faith will get you there.
1Randel Helms, Who Wrote the Gospels? (Millennium Press, 1997), 41.
If we submit everything to reason,
our religion will have no mysterious and supernatural element.
If we offend the principles of reason,
our religion will be absurd and ridiculous.
— Blaise Pascal
Photo credit: Wikimedia
Reminds me of the game of “Telephone” (sometimes called “Gossip”) we used to play as a kid: what came out had only the vaguest reference to what went in. And “Telephone” was a lot more fun.
And probably more reliable.
I’m no biblical historian but I was under the impression that it was well established and accepted by serious scholars that the gospels were not written by the disciples but by later authors who used the disciple names as pseudonyms. I think that even the Catholic church recognizes this. Perhaps somebody else knows for sure about this and can contribute a comment . . .
I’d be interested to hear more on this.
Well, people who ARE Biblical historians certainly agree with you. The one I’m best acquainted with is Robert M. Price of the Jesus Seminar:
He has entire books that reinforce your understanding of where the Bible came from.
My only hesitation with what AtheistExile wrote is that, as I understand it, the authors of the gospels didn’t name them at all. The names were assigned decades later, as I’ve noted.
The problem with using historical FACTS to debunk any religious doctrine is that the “true believers” don’t care. Their answer would be that their god caused the book to be written. Who wrote it and when doesn’t matter, since their god was the one directing the show.
Ain’t faith marvelous? It lets you get along with your life not troubled by uncomfortable facts. Or something.
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Two of the biggest assumptions that many Christians make regarding the truth claims of Christianity is that, one, eyewitnesses wrote the four gospels. The problem is, however, that the majority of scholars today do not believe this is true. The second big assumption many Christians make is that it would have been impossible for whoever wrote these four books to have invented details in their books, especially in regards to the Empty Tomb and the Resurrection appearances, due to the fact that eyewitnesses to these events would have still been alive when the gospels were written and distributed.
But consider this, dear Reader: Most scholars date the writing of the first gospel, Mark, as circa 70 AD. Who of the eyewitnesses to the death of Jesus and the alleged events after his death were still alive in 70 AD? That is four decades after Jesus’ death. During that time period, tens of thousands of people living in Palestine were killed in the Jewish-Roman wars of the mid and late 60’s, culminating in the destruction of Jerusalem.
How do we know that any eyewitness to the death of Jesus in circa 30 AD was still alive when the first gospel was written and distributed in circa 70 AD? How do we know that any eyewitness to the death of Jesus ever had the opportunity to read the Gospel of Mark and proof read it for accuracy?
I challenge Christians to list in the comment section below, the name of even ONE eyewitness to the death of Jesus who was still alive in 70 AD along with the evidence to support your claim.
If you can’t list any names, dear Christian, how can you be sure that details such as the Empty Tomb, the detailed resurrection appearances, and the Ascension ever really occurred? How can you be sure that these details were not simply theological hyperbole…or…the exaggerations and embellishments of superstitious, first century, mostly uneducated people, who had retold these stories thousands of times, between thousands of people, from one language to another, from one country to another, over a period of many decades?