Raleigh Bagley Reformed Theology
Authors of the Gospels
This post explores the external and internal evidence for authorship along with the purpose and destination of Matthew and Mark followed by an explanation regarding the importance of author identification to modern readers. Thomas D. Lea and David Alan Black explain that the external evidence for the Gospels primarily rests in the opinions of the early Church Fathers, whereas internal evidence rests within the evangelists’ words (132). Furthermore, the internal evidence also provides insight into the purpose and destination of the two Gospels.
Regarding the external evidence of Matthew, Lea and Black reference Eusebius’s quote from Papias who suggests that “Matthew wrote the oracle” (132). Although the debate continues over the exact meaning of Papias’s quote, D. A. Carson and Douglas J. Moo appropriately point out that later church fathers such as Irenaeus, Tertullian, and Origen all supported Matthean authorship (145). Likewise, Eusebius references a quote from Papias regarding the authorship of the second Gospel, which states, “Mark became Peter’s interpreter and wrote accurately all he remembered” (Carson and Moo, 172-173). Similar to their support of Matthean authorship, the later church fathers also support Papias’s quote regarding Mark (Carson and Moo, 173).
Regarding the internal evidence of Matthew, Lea and Black refer to the tight organizational structure and financial content (134). Since Matthew was a tax collector, it seems reasonable that he would write in an orderly manner, refer to temple tax, and humbly refer to himself as a tax collector (Lea and Black, 134). Although the internal evidence of Mark is less compelling than the external, Carson and Moo note that the uncomplicated Greek would fit the style of an individual indigenous to Jerusalem such as John Mark (175). Furthermore, John Mark’s relationship with Paul may account for the Pauline theological imprint in Mark’s gospel (Carson and Moo, 175). Finally, the Petrine overtones within Mark’s gospel also add to the external evidence of Papias (Carson and Moo, 176).
Although neither Gospel specifically provides a statement of purpose, the content of the works provide direction. Carson and Moo suggest that most assume Matthew wrote for Jewish individuals within close proximity (157). The assumption fits nicely with Lea and Black’s assertion that Matthew’s purpose was to reach the Jewish people with the teaching, “person, and work of Jesus” (139). Alternatively, Carson and Moo propose that Mark likely wrote with a Gentile Roman audience in mind based on the inferences and expressions within the second Gospel (Carson and Moo, 182-183). Accordingly, various specific purposes of Mark have emerged including eschatology, Christology, apologetics, and politics, but similar to Matthew, Mark shares Matthew’s overarching purpose of sharing the gospel of Christ with the world (Carson and Moo, 183-186).
The authorship of the Gospels is an important issue for Christians in today’s society for two primary reasons. First, proper identification of authorship supports the credibility of Scripture. The authors of the Gospels were eyewitnesses or closely connected with eyewitnesses, which undergirds the reliability of the evangelists, strengthens the faith of believers, and provides a strong apologetic to unbelievers. Second, correctly establishing the author of the Gospels facilitates a proper interpretation of the message by connecting the background of the authors with the subject matter written. Accordingly, the topic of authorship continues to be highly relevant to modern readers.
Carson, D. A., and Douglas J. Moo. An Introduction to the New Testament. 2nd ed. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2005.
Lea, Thomas D., and David Alan Black. The New Testament: Its Background and Message. 2nd ed. Nashville, TN: Broadman & Holman Publishers, 2003.
The Means of Evaluating Jesus From Historical Sources and Important Historical Points Regarding His Life
The criteria for evaluating Jesus from historical sources has often proved autobiographical in nature because the resultant Jesus often mirrored that of the author and researcher. Several factors led to the failure of this undertaking over time. On the one hand, it was doubtful that researchers could arrive at the historical Jesus.1 It is evident from even a cursory reading of the literature that scholarly attitudes toward the historicity of the gospel materials vary drastically. On the one side we have those scholars who possess a positive attitude toward the gospel materials and state “In the synoptic tradition it is the inauthenticity, and not the authenticity, of the sayings of Jesus that must be demonstrated.”2
On the other side there are those who possess an equally negative attitude toward the materials and question the value of such an undertaking. ... “clearly, we have to ask ourselves the question as to whether this saying should now be attributed to the early Church or to the historical Jesus, and the nature of the synoptic tradition is such that the burden of proof will be upon the claim to authenticity.”3 This latter view clearly presumes that the gospel traditions are “guilty,” i.e., historically not true, unless they can be proven “innocent.” Scholars involved in the so-called quests for the historical Jesus have typically come to this task with a relatively small number of significant questions about Jesus and early Christianity which they hope to answer, or, at least, to throw some light upon.
Stein presents several considerations for believing that the Gospel accounts are accurate: Eyewitnesses would have ensured that authentic stories were accepted and inauthentic ones rejected; The central Jerusalem church would have ensured that authentic stories were accepted and inauthentic ones rejected; the New Testament epistles show that care was taken to distinguish Jesus’ teaching from apostolic teaching; the transmission of the difficult or hard sayings of Jesus shows how faithful the church was in passing on the teachings of Jesus accurately; the fact that a number of the important difficulties the early church faced are not treated; in the Gospels shows that the early church was not in the habit of putting inauthentic teaching in the mouth of Jesus; and the culture had a strong moral character, which would have made the accurate transmission of stories natural.4
The matter of the historicity of the gospel resources has been dispensed in a number of ways in the past. One popular method was to evaluate the general historicity of the gospel materials by comparing those historical portions of the gospel materials which have parallels in secular or non-Christian historical records and see whether these records support or tend to deny the historicity of the gospel parallels. By this means perhaps some general attitude might develop toward the accuracy or inaccuracy of the gospel accounts as a whole. Another attempt has been to establish if a gospel writer was an eyewitness to the accounts he records in his Gospel.
1 Robert H. Stein, Jesus the Messiah: A Survey of the Life of Christ (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 1996), 11.
2 Joachim Jeremias, New Testament Theology (Norwich NR6 5DR, UK: SCM Press, 2012), p. 37.
3 Norman Perrin, Rediscovering the Teaching of Jesus (New York, NY: Harper & Row, 1967), p. 39.
4 Stein, Jesus the Messiah, 17-24.
If he was an eyewitness, then this would lend credence to the historicity of his account. The problems with this approach, however, are two-fold.5
For one, only two of the gospels are associated traditionally with eyewitnesses and it is a much- debated question as to whether any of them actually were written, as now found, by an eyewitness. Secondly, even if they were written by eyewitnesses, this does not in itself demonstrate that what they wrote are accurate historical accounts of the life of Jesus. It does not necessarily follow that eyewitness accounts of historical events are a priori accurate historical accounts. Such accounts are of course better historical records than non-eyewitness accounts. One cannot, however, assume that one has proven the historicity of the gospel accounts if one can demonstrate that behind them stands the testimony of an eyewitness. On the other hand, it seems logical to assume that, if eyewitness testimony of the gospel materials could be established, then the burden of proof should rest upon those who would deny the historicity of the events reported.6
A vast number of different pictures of Jesus have been proposed by scholars working on the historical Jesus since the nineteenth century. It is possible to identify a small number of broad categories which are regularly exploited, such as: teacher; miracle-worker; prophet; messianic pretender; and Savior. Some scholars adopt a single category, while others exploit multiple categories to explain Jesus. Portraits of Jesus which focus on him as a teacher often differ over whether or not it was something in Jesus’ teaching which led to his crucifixion, and if so, what exactly. One of the big problems with such models of Jesus is that they often struggle to account for why resurrection accounts were believed of such a teacher, and why the Christian movement took on the shape it did and came to the beliefs that it did about this teacher. Generally, the problem with such pictures of Jesus is not so much what they assert, but what they deny or ignore. It is the dubious rejection of much of the material in the canonical gospels which makes these sketches so distorting.7
Even quite skeptical scholars have proposed portraits of Jesus which acknowledge that he performed miracles and healings. “The Gospels contain more than thirty miracles associated with the life and ministry of Jesus. In Mark alone 209 of the 661 verses deal with the miraculous.”8 Some scholars go beyond thinking that Jesus performed such miracles to arguing that this activity is primarily what characterized him, and which best explains both his own intentional mission and the response of his contemporaries which eventually led to his death. Marcus Borg’s phrase is that Jesus was a “spirit person,” by which he means Jesus was a “mediator of the sacred.”9 “The central characteristics of a Spirit person have already been briefly described: a person known for his or her intimacy with the sacred and for the ability to perform miracles.”10
5 Robert H. Stein, “The ‘Criteria’ for Authenticity,” R.T. France & David Wenham, eds., Gospel Perspectives, Vol. 1, Studies of History and Tradition in the Four Gospels. Sheffield: JSOT Press, 1980. pp.225-
8 Stein, Jesus the Messiah, 18.
9 Marcus J. Borg, Conflict, Holiness and Politics in the Teachings of Jesus (Harrisburg, PA: Trinity Press,
Literary Criticism and the Interpretation of the Gospel of John: What appropriate cautions can be raised regarding recent literary approaches?
With the deemphasis of theology in recent years, the practice of literary criticism in several aspects has overshadowed the apprehension of the message of the Johannine Corpus. The precedence of the Gospel’s literary art is the antithesis of “John’s desire to lead his readers to faith; 19:35; 20:31.”1 Based on this illustration, scholarly investigation of any given biblical text must be kept in proper perspective so that the aspects of history and theology bound the faithfulness to the author’s intentions of the Scriptures in the examination. The proper recognition of the literary devices employed by John and other biblical authors will be beneficial to improve one’s appreciation of The Fourth Gospel.
The illegitimate dichotomy between history and literature is fundamental in literary criticism as well, where the literary analysis of storylines found in Scripture has repeatedly become an opportunity to evade the historical aspects of biblical text. The historicity of biblical Christianity concludes that Scripture is not only world literature but is a definitive essay of the evolution of Western civilization. As well, “it is divine revelation that confronts readers with their sin and need for salvation and forgiveness, calling upon them to make a choice that has eternal ramifications: to receive Christ’s free gift of salvation or to reject it.”2 One who reads Scripture is confronted by it and “must act in response to it rather than merely revel in interesting plotlines, masterful characterization, or various other instances of skillful literary techniques employed by the biblical authors”3 or those who are purely dispassionate literary detractors.
Historical and theological significance are reasons for caution while using recent literary approaches. Köstenberger notes: In recent years scholars have increasingly attended to literary aspects of John’s gospel. Indeed, the science of literary criticism as practiced in nonbiblical studies has invaded the enterprise of biblical exegesis as a whole, often overshadowing traditional historical and theological concerns. Several factors may account for this phenomenon:
• A growing disenchantment with the limitations of the so-called historical-critical method.
• An impasse regarding historical questions in biblical scholarship.
• The rise of postmodernism in reaction to the perceived flaws of modernism.4
Based on these increasing observations, the emphasis of proper exegesis of Scripture will propose to the reader in not “focusing on the tree” as Carson suggests, while the entire forest remains unseen, except perhaps as a vague and ominous challenge.
1 Andreas Köstenberger, Encountering John: The Gospel in Historical, Literary, and Theological Perspective, 2nd Edition, (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic Publishing, 2013), 14.
4 Ibid., 13.
The antidote is to direct attention to the narrative—not only the narrative of the entire Gospel, but each narrative within it.”5
This solution will help one to overcome what Köstenberger observes as the theological and historical insignificance approach to John and will aid in presenting the indicatives and imperatives of the Fourth Gospel to others. By keeping the focus of this challenge in the context of redemptive history, one will avoid the error of reconstructing the community of the Evangelist and forgetting what he says about Jesus.
What does this passage tell us about Jesus? This is not the question of unreflective pietism. It is the question that must be asked precisely because the material we are studying is a Gospel. To put the matter more positively, it is essential to locate the Gospels in their proper place in the stream of redemptive history. Although the Gospels were written after most of the epistles, what they purport to describe occurred.6
Why does John call Jesus the “Word” in the Prologue? What are the potential sources for John’s depiction of Jesus as the “Word” and how does this depiction of Jesus relate to John’s Gospel as a whole?
“The striking opening of John’s gospel establishes a connection between God’s act of creation through his spoken Word and his act of providing salvation through the incarnate Word, Jesus.”7 Carson’s statement relates to the Gospel of John as a whole and is the substratum of explaining Jesus to a modern reader of the Gospel. The revelation is Jesus the Christ of God, human and divine, the Son who maintains a relationship, and is one with the Father, and the eschatological, end-times Shepherd.
In the prologue of the Fourth Gospel, John affirms the eternal divinity of Christ, providing the reader that Christ is the everlasting God who “(He) was manifested in the flesh” (1 Timothy 3:16). The accomplishment of humanity’s restoration was in and of the Son of God; subsequently, by his power, “all things were made through him, and without him was not any thing made that was made. In him was life, and the life was the light of men.” (1:3-4) He alone has uniquely exhibited his power and his grace unto all creation, breathing life into them. He continues to display his generosity toward Adam and his descendants even after the Fall.
John persuades one that belief in Christ does not move one away from the one eternal God, and also the restoration of the sinner is made possible through the kindness of Christ, who was the supplier and creator of life when humanity was without sin. John refers to Christ, the Son of God the Word, because he is God’s eternal wisdom and will, and the image of God’s purpose. Rightly, God expresses himself to us by his speech or Word; comparatively, man’s speech is called the expression of his thoughts.
5 D. A. Carson, The Gospel According to John: The Pillar New Testament Commentary, (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing, 1991), 95.
7 Andreas Köstenberger, Encountering John: The Gospel in Historical, Literary, and Theological Perspective, 2nd Edition, (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic Publishing, 2013), 26.
Other implications of the Word are not so appropriate. The term λ ό γ ο ς (logos) is diverse in its meanings. Some of these include: “word,” “speech,” “matter,” “thing,” “command,” “message,” “account,” “reckoning,” “settlement,” “respect,” and “reason.”8 John Calvin said, “But I do not wish to enter into philosophical discussion beyond the limits of my faith. And we see that the Spirit of God is so far from approving such subtleties that in talking with us his very silence proclaims how sober we should be in our intellectual approach to such high mysteries.”9
John’s presentation of who Jesus is lies at the heart of all that is distinctive in this Gospel. It is not just a question of some titles being ascribed to Jesus that are not found outside the Johannine corpus (e.g., ‘Lamb of God’, ‘Word’, ‘I am’). Rather, fundamental to all else that is said of him, Jesus is peculiarly the Son of God, or simply the Son. Although ‘Son of God’ can serve as a rough synonym for ‘Messiah’, it is enriched by the unique manner in which Jesus as God's Son relates to his Father.10
The potential sources of John’s depiction of Jesus as the “Word” are rooted in both Torah and Nevi’im. The prophets of the Old Testament and the reference to literature of Israel’s ancient Near Eastern neighbors, the term ָר ָב דּ (dābār) is significant in relation to both power and activity.”11 The term ָר ָב דּ means ‘the Word of God,’ representing communication from God to humanity,12 and translated λόγος (logos) in the Septuagint.13
Other examples of OT Scripture utilized by John are offered. In the former, the phrase word of God is creative; cf. Genesis 1:3,6,9, etc., the creating words of God’s commands, summarized in Ps. 33:6, “By the word of the Lord were the heavens made.” In the latter, the word of the Lord is the prophet’s message referring to how God communicates his purpose to his people; see, e.g., Jeremiah 1.4, “Now the word of the Lord came unto me”; Ezekiel 1:3; Amos 3:1.14 These examples determine that “the word is not abstract but spoken and active”15 when considering that λ ό γ ο ς has two meanings: the word of God ָר ָב דּ as the word of the Creator.16
8 William F. Arndt and F. Wilbur Gingrich, A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament, and other Early Christian Literature (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1957), 478-80.
9 John Calvin, Commentary on John, https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/cal/john-1.html.
10 D. A. Carson, The Gospel According to John: The Pillar New Testament Commentary, (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing, 1991), 95
11 H. D. Preuss, OT Theology, vol.1 (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 1995), 195.
12 Bill T. Arnold & H. G. M. Williamson, Dictionary of the OT Historical Books (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 2005), 999
13 Paul Edwards, The Encyclopedia of Philosophy, vol. 5 and 6 (Broadway, NY: Simon & Schuster, 1972), 84
14 C. K. Barrett, The Gospel According to St John, An Introduction with Commentary and Notes on the Greek Text (Marylebone Road, London: S.P.C.K., 1958), 127.
16 Paul Edwards, The Encyclopedia of Philosophy, 84.