Monday, October 12, 2015

Gospel Authorship Part VI: Questioning the Traditional Titles

In Parts I, II, III, IV, and V of this series on gospel authorship, I have been addressing the claims of scholars that 1) the traditional titles Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John were added later than the writing of the canonical gospels, and 2) the canonical gospels are all anonymous.

In this post, I would like to look more at the traditional authors of these texts and some questions those traditional authors pose for scholars.

First, lets look at the four traditional authors:

Matthew was a tax collector (called Matthew only in Matthew's gospel, elsewhere in the call of the tax collector story, he is called Levi, although a Matthew makes the list of 12 disciples in all three synoptics).

Mark, was neither a disciple nor an eyewitness according to Papias' statement, but was an interpreter of Peter and his gospel is supposedly a record of the preaching of Peter.  This Mark is often equated with John Mark from the book of Acts whose mother owned a home in Jerusalem where the early church stayed.

Luke was neither a disciple nor an eyewitness according to Irenaeus' statement, but instead was a companion of Paul (who himself was not an eyewitness to Jesus' ministry).  This Luke is often equated with Luke the doctor (physician, healer) whom Paul mentions in three of his letters (Colossians 4:14, Philemon 1:24, 2 Tim 4:11).  Yet, Irenaeus does not make this explicit connection.

John was a disciple of Jesus, the son of Zebedee and brother of James.  Irenaeus makes the connection between John the son of Zebedee and the beloved disciple of the fourth gospel, though he does not spell out his reasoning for doing so.  John the son of Zebedee was a fisherman.

So those are the four traditional authors of the gospels.  We have two disciples (Matthew and John), two non-eyewitnesses (Mark and Luke).  We have a physician (Luke), a fisherman (John), a tax collector (Matthew), and a man of unknown profession (Mark).

Now, these traditional authors raise some interesting questions.  We know from the gospels that are written that the four authors of the canonical gospels were all competent Greek writers of varying levels of proficiency.  Now, this raises important questions for at least two of our traditional authors. Literacy rates in the first century were abysmal compared to today.  Estimates of literacy in the Roman Empire top out at about 10%-15% in urban cities (with probably much lower rates in rural areas).  In short, literacy was a luxury reserved for the rich, those who had leisure time.  Two of our traditional authors do not meet that standard.  John, a fisherman from rural Galilee would not typically be able to write in Greek (which would not be his native language at that).  Matthew, a tax collector would probably have limited literacy, but probably very limited and only enough to complete financial transactions. Neither the first nor fourth gospels in their evidence of fluid Greek prose seem to fit the pictures of the traditional authors.  For the second gospel (Mark), which has the least accomplished Greek composition skills, we do not know the profession of the attributed author John Mark, so we cannot make claims as to his literacy.  Finally, for the third gospel (Luke), which has the most complex and accomplished Greek prose of the four gospels, we know little for sure regarding its traditional author.  A physician may or may not be literate to a high level, but it certainly was not requisite for physicians to be literate at all.  So, the literacy of the traditional authors are all in some level of doubt.

A second question arises and that has to do with the scholarly consensus (see post on scholarly consensus here) regarding the synoptic problem.  In short, there is a consensus among scholars that the second gospel (Mark) was written first and was then copied by the first gospel author (Matthew), and the third gospel author (Luke).  If that scholarly consensus is correct (and I count myself among the scholarly majority in this matter), then we have a very strange situation.  If John Mark, a non-eyewitness of Jesus wrote his gospel first, why then did Matthew, an eyewitness and disciple of Jesus, copy large portions of his gospel, including the overall narrative structure, from John Mark, a non-eyewitness and non-disciple of Jesus?  Would not Matthew, an eyewitness and disciple of Jesus consider himself a greater authority on the life of Jesus and not bother to copy a large portion of his gospel from a non-eyewitness?

I will let these questions linger for a while.  Come back next time when I will hopefully wrap up this series with some tentative conclusions.


  1. Dear Keith,

    A great series. Could a further question be posed that "If Matthew copied large portions of Mark's gospel and the authorship was know then he would be guilty of plagiarism?"


  2. Absolutely. By our modern academic standards, both Matthew and Luke are guilty of plagiarism. Yet, by the standards of their time, this was a common practice.

  3. Although it was common place do you think it would have caused the authors no ethical concerns? Scott McGill in his book Plagiarism in Latin Literature puts a pretty strong argument for the widespread comprehension of plagiarism even prior to the 1st century....for example in the works of Vitruvius who boasts about his works being free from stealing thereby revealing what must have been a widely held view.

  4. Keith...did you have a comment on my post? Based on the evidence presented in the McGill source Matthew and Luke where guilty of plagiarism by both modern and ancient standards. The practice may have been common place in the 1st century but timelessly unethically in my opinion.

  5. Grant,
    Sorry I am so late in getting back to you on these excellent comments. I will say that I have not read, and therefore cannot comment intelligently on Scott McGill's writing. Yet, it looks fascinating and I might get a chance to pursue that rabbit whole at some point. Then I will probably blog about my findings. Thanks for your comments.