Michael Kok, “The Gospel on the Margins: The Reception of Mark in the Second Century”

Kok-Gospel-of-MarkRecently NT scholar and fellow blogger Michael Kok (Ph.D. in Biblical Studies, University of Sheffield) sent me a copy of a his newly published book–The Gospel on the Margins: The Reception of Mark in the Second Century–for me to review on my blog. Kok does not engage in counter-apologetics like myself, but his work on the authorship of Mark and the gospel’s reception among the church fathers of the 2nd-3rd centuries is highly relevant to my Classics PhD research. In particular, Kok’s new book is relevant to my dissertation topic, which will be about ancient authorship. Kok received his PhD in 2013, and since he is a scholar only a few years ahead of myself, who is likewise working on a number of similar issues, I have been greatly interested in his research and arguments.

The Gospel on the Margins deals with the reception of the Gospel of Mark from the church father Papias (early-2nd century CE) to Clement of Alexandria (early-3rd century CE). In particular, Kok investigates why the church fathers associated the gospel with the figure of John Mark–who is described in the company of Peter in Acts 12:12 and 1 Peter 5:13, and also as an attendant of Paul in Col 4:10, Phlm 24, 2 Tim 4:11, and Acts 12:25; 13:5; 13:13; 15:37-39. Furthermore, Kok likewise discusses how the Gospel of Mark received the least amount of scriptural citations from the church fathers compared to the other canonical Gospels–Matthew, Luke, and John–during this period. This silence is peculiar, given the fact that the gospel was claimed to be written by an attendant of Peter, who was the first head of the early church. If the gospel was really based on the recollections and teachings of Peter, as the church fathers claimed, why did it receive so little attention from them?

In his new book, Kok advances the thesis that the Gospel of Mark was attributed to the authorship of John Mark–and, by relation, was connected with the disciple Peter–in order to grant the text orthodox status early in the 2nd century CE. This designation of authority was done, in part, because Mark was the earliest gospel (and thus one of the earliest accounts of Jesus’ life), but also to prevent the text from being used by heretical sects–such as those led by Valentinus, Basilides, and Carpocrates. Nevertheless, the original composition of the Gospel of Mark in the 1st century occurred under very different circumstances, which casts doubt on the authenticity of the Petrine tradition, especially since it can be demonstrated to have canonizing motivations in the 2nd century. In short, “Kok describes the story of Mark’s Petrine origins as a second-century move to assert ownership of the Gospel on the part of the emerging Orthodox Church,” as this book’s Google Books’ description summarizes nicely. Below is my review:

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Posted in History, Patristics, Reception, Reviews | Tagged , , , , , | 4 Comments

Christian Apologist David Marshall’s Recent Behavior and Response to My Blog

interview-david-marshallI have focused heavily on doing academic work over the past couple weeks, which has freed up time this Friday to address some recent activity in Christian apologetics circles. Recently, Christian apologist David Marshall wrote a critique of me on his blog Christ the Tao. The incident started about a month ago, however, when Marshall was asked by a friend to post a critical comment on an essay of mine, which apparently his friend found troubling.

The essay that Marshall commented on is titled “Ancient Historical Writing Compared to the Gospels of the New Testament,” which I wrote in August 2013. After publishing the essay, I received positive comments from James McGrath (professor of New Testament language and literature) here, Michael Kok (Ph.D. in Biblical Studies) here, and Erlend MacGillivray (Ph.D. candidate in New Testament Studies) here. I do not mean to imply that any of these scholars agree with or endorse the article, but I link to their comments, in order to provide a contrast with the tone and attitude of Marshall’s comment. Also, take a look at the essay itself, and see if anything in my writing is as acerbic as Marshall’s comment.

Here is the comment that I received from Marshall about a month ago on the essay. Take note that I was not arguing or interacting with Marshall online at any recent point before this incident. The comment below, therefore, reflects David Marshall’s behavior as the instigator of our recent interactions (yellow highlight is my own):

Marshall's Original Comment

For the record, I am a Classics Ph.D. student who also holds an M.A. in the subject with an emphasis in ancient history. Such experience has involved studying multiple Greek and Latin authors in the original language, in addition to doing genre criticism and understanding the history of 1st century CE literature. I have likewise taken graduate seminars on the New Testament and Christian Origins (in addition to teaching these subjects in college courses), some of which I wrote about here recently. So, when I read Marshall make statements like:

“…you have not yet really read the gospels in a serious way, however many times you have leafed through the texts.”


“It is clear you do not as yet have any clue, what you are dealing with in the gospels.”

I frankly found Marshall’s tone to be rude and his accusations to be misinformed. In fact, to make these claims about someone with my academic background amounts to outright misrepresentation.

Now, I have no problem with people posting critical comments on Κέλσος, provided that the discourse is substantive and polite (as I specify in my ‘Comment Policy’), but I think it is quite obvious that Marshall’s first comment was outside the bounds of appropriate commenting behavior. The story only begins there, however, since, in the weeks following this comment, Marshall’s behavior has become increasingly rude and polemical, leading up to Marshall writing a post on his blog, titled “How Matthew Ferguson Helps Prove the Gospels,” which attempts to refute my essay.

Both Marshall’s online behavior interacting with me over the last month, and his blog post attempting to raise arguments against my own, will be addressed below.

Part I of this response will address David Marshall’s behavior interacting with me online, and Part II will respond to the arguments that Marshall has raised against my essay. Each part also has subsections addressing the various issues that have come up during this exchange.

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Posted in Apologists, Replies to Critics | Tagged | 22 Comments

Some New Thoughts on My Book Project

In an earlier post I discussed some of the plans that I had in mind for my anticipated book project, which will be inspired by this blog. Since writing that post, however, I have decided to take the book in a new direction (there may be more posts like this down the road, depending on how things unfold). So, here is the new idea that I have in mind.

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Posted in Announcements, Publications | Tagged , | 28 Comments

The Certamen of Homer and Hesiod and the Gospels: Some Comparanda

In my earlier essay “Ancient Historical Writing Compared to the Gospels of the New Testament,” I contrasted the canonical Gospels with the genres of ancient historiography and historical biography. To be sure, historiography and biography were not the same genre in antiquity, as the former was based on the history of a broader period or event, while the latter was based on the life of an individual. Nevertheless, the two can both be sufficiently described as “historical writing,” especially since many of the narrative conventions between the two are similar. Plutarch, for example, compares his source material and makes historical judgements in a manner very similar to Dionysius of Halicarnassus, even if he was writing historical biographies while Dionysius wrote a Roman history. In the essay, I show how the Gospel authors do not follow the narrative conventions of historical biographers like Plutarch and Suetonius.

I likewise discuss in my essay “Are the Gospels Ancient Biographies?” how the genre of biography was rather diverse in antiquity, and that not all Greco-Roman biographies were historical biographies. Plutarch and Suetonius were political biographers, whose research and methodology was fairly rigorous (at least for the time). At the same time, there were also more novelistic and legendary biographies, such as the Alexander Romance, as well as legendary Lives about figures such as Aesop and Homer, in addition to a number of other kinds of ancient biographies that I discuss in the essay.

In “Ancient Historical Writing Compared to the Gospels of the New Testament,” I also suggest that the Gospels are structured more as prose novels than historical writing. To be clear, that essay is not about making a comparison with the novel, since it is instead contrasting the Gospels with ancient historiography and historical biography. Some of what I write in this new essay, however, will discuss the comparison with the novel in more detail.

The comparison of the Gospels’ genre with the ancient novel is a mainstream view in biblical scholarship. Among the scholarly works exploring the comparison are Ronald Hock (ed.) Ancient Fiction and Early Christian Narrative, Jo-Ann Brant (ed.) Ancient Fiction: The Matrix of Early Christian and Jewish Narrative, and Marília Pinheiro (ed.) The Ancient Novel and Early Christian and Jewish Narrative: Fictional Intersections, as well as Richard Pervo in Profit With Delight: The Literary Genre of the Acts of the Apostles. Apologists, of course, do not like this comparison, but the fact remains that it is a mainstream scholarly position.

The comparison with the novel is often juxtaposed against the comparison with Greco-Roman biography. Espousing this latter view are Richard Burridge in What Are the Gospels?: A Comparison with Graeco-Roman Biography and Dirk Frickenschmidt in Evangelium als Biographie: die vier Evangelien im Rahmen antiker ErzählkunstAs I discuss in my essay “Are the Gospels Ancient Biographies?,” however, I think that the boundaries between these two genres are actually far more blurred and fluid than is sometimes understood. Ancient biography was a highly diverse genre. As Arnaldo Momigliano (The Development of Greek Biography, pg. 9) argues:

“An account of the life of a man from birth to death is what I call biography.”

That definition is pretty broad. The Gospels of Matthew and Luke, of course, fit it fairly well, though Mark and John do not include a birth narrative. Then again, Plutarch’s Cato Minor and Galba don’t include birth narratives either, so the genre can be even more flexible sometimes than Momigliano’s very basic definition.

Personally, I think that, if the Gospels do belong to the genre of Greco-Roman biography, they are far more aptly compared to the novelistic and legendary biographies discussed above, such as those about Alexander, Aesop, and Homer. It should be noted that these kinds of biographies are much more similar to prose novels than historical biographies, based on their storytelling elements and lack of analytical rigor. To illustrate this comparison, I am going to discuss a somewhat obscure text, The Certamen of Homer and Hesiod. The Certamen (“contest”) is a sort of dual biography about the epic poets Homer and Hesiod. Much like the Gospels, scholars debate what genre the Certamen belongs to. It tells the lives of Homer and Hesiod from birth to death, but the main focus of the text seems to be on storytelling and setting the stage for their famous contest at the center of the narrative. The way that the Certamen is written has a number of interesting parallels with the Gospels.



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Posted in Ancient Biography, Ancient Novel, History | Tagged , , , , , , , , | 7 Comments

Some Bibliography on Naturalism and Secular Humanism

Walter and HeckmannI recently added a ‘recommended resources’ section to Civitas Humana, which provides a bibliography of academic books pertaining to naturalism and secular humanism. Among the topics that the bibliography includes are humanist philosophy, the metaphysics of naturalism, materialist philosophy of mind, cosmology, and ethics. The books range in their level of rigor, with some being fairly introductory and others being highly advanced. Some are pretty expensive, but it is good to know that they are out there if you need to do research on these topics. The bibliography can be found here:


-Matthew Ferguson

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A Personal Health Announcement

I have a number of writing projects that I plan to engage in during the 2015-2016 school year. In particular, I will be discussing plans for my anticipated book project, as well as my dissertation, at some point in the near future.

Before that, however, I want to make an announcement on this blog about my personal health, since it is relevant to the amount of blog writing that I can do in the near future.

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Daniel Boyarin, “A Radical Jew: Paul and the Politics of Identity”

Earlier this year I had the privilege of meeting Dr. Daniel Boyarin when he visited the Thesaurus Linguae Graecae at UC Irvine during the Winter academic quarter. He gave a guest lecture in the TLG for a “Jews in Theory” course that was being offered at the time. Boyarin is currently working on a project studying the use of the Greek word θρησκεία (thréskeia), which is typically translated as “religion.” Boyarin utilized the TLG database to track down all the attested uses of the word in antiquity, to challenge whether this is really the best translation. This current project is very similar to the work done by Brent Nongbri in Before Religion: A History of a Modern Concept.

51oy3MJ585L._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_I also read a number of Boyarin’s earlier publications when taking seminars on the New Testament and Christian origins last Spring quarter. Among the books I read was A Radical Jew: Paul and the Politics of Identity. The apostle Paul is a rather enigmatic figure in early Christianity for a number of reasons. Not only was Paul from the Jewish Diaspora, making him a more Hellenized Jew, but he also joined the original apostles later in Christianity’s development, and likewise had an unusual drive to convert Gentiles. This background placed Paul at the intersection of a number of different cultures in the Mediterranean. Because of his blurred identity, reconstructing the historical Paul can be a rather challenging task.

It was for this reason that New Testament scholars started asking Daniel Boyarin to do more work on the historical Paul, as well as the historical Jesus and the Gospels. Boyarin is, by training, a Talmudic scholar. In fact, he is (literally) one of the leading Talmudic scholars in the world. Very, very few people have comparable credentials. Because of his training in ancient Judaism (though, Boyarin does not like to use the word “Judaism” when describing the ancient Jews, and prefers to call them “Judeans”), NT scholars were interested in his take on Paul’s identity. Could Paul become a Christian, take his mission to the Gentiles, even abandon the practice of circumcising Gentile converts and demanding kosher, and yet still be a fully practicing Jew? Boyarin’s answer is a definite “yes” and in this fascinating book he explains why.

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Posted in Historical Paul, History, Religious Studies, Reviews | Tagged , , , , , | 10 Comments