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:

Kok begins his study by noting Mark’s generally poor reception among the church fathers of the 2nd-3rd centuries CE, at least in terms of scriptural citations and theological influence. As Kok (pp. 3-4) explains:

“The neglect of Mark is evident from the frequency of Gospel citations in a standard reference work like the Biblia Patristica. It lists roughly 1,400 citations of Mark in comparison to 2,000 citations of John, 3,300 of Luke, and 3,900 of Matthew from the earliest period to Clement of Alexandria and Tertullian. Excluding Origen, the number of citations of Mark drops sharply to about two hundred and fifty in the third century. Compare this with the 3,600 citations of Matthew, 1,000 of Luke, and 1,600 of John. The count for Origen’s citations is approximately 8,000 for Matthew, 5,000 for John, 3,000 for Luke, and 650 for Mark. From this maximalist list, Mark is clearly cited the least by far.

The statistics from Biblia Patristica are a “maximalist” list, and other studies, using more rigorous and selective methods, have found fewer quotations. Nevertheless, these more selective studies have likewise found that the Gospel of Mark is still quoted very rarely by the 2nd century church fathers. As Kok (pp. 4-5) explains:

“Studies that implement methodologically rigorous criteria do not have as high a number of intertextual references to the canonical Gospels in the second century. References to Mark, however, can literally be counted on one or two hands. For Helmut Koester, Justin (Dial. 106.3) gives the sole sure citation of Mark before Irenaeus. Edouard Massaux, who reaches the polar opposite verdict to Koester’s on the extensive use of Matthew in the second century, basically agrees that Mark’s influence was negligible. Adela Collins expands Koester’s list slightly to include the Papyrus Egerton 2 fragment (Mark 12:14), Hermas Similitude 9.7.6 (Mark 13:36), the Gospel of Peter 50–57 (Mark 16:1-8), and the Gospel of the Ebionites (Epiphanius, Pan. 30.13.4 [Mark 1:4-6]). Lastly, the new Oxford committee on the reception of the New Testament in the Apostolic Fathers yields very little for Mark.”

Given Mark’s comparatively smaller influence, one might ask why the text was preserved at all, especially since such a large amount of its material had already been redacted and edited by the subsequent Gospels of Matthew and Luke. The Gospel of Matthew was, by far, the preferred gospel among later church fathers, and yet this text had already incorporated and re-arranged the bulk of Mark’s material. Why keep Mark, then?

Kok discusses how Mark’s continued presence in the canon was due, in no small part, to its early composition. By the time that the Gospels of Matthew and Luke were circulating, Mark had already been spread to numerous centers of early Christianity.

But furthermore, the proto-orthodox church fathers of the 2nd century were also battling with “heretical” sects during this period, and they could hardly allow for such an early cornerstone text to be used by their opponents. Kok (pg. 251) argues that “there is good evidence in Irenaeus that Mark was taken in support of adoptionist and separationist Christologies,” which were views that were deemed heretical by proto-orthodox Christians in the 2nd century. There is also evidence that the authors of Matthew and Luke, too, were dissatisfied with Mark’s Christology, in that they make a number of redactions to key passages within the text. For example, Kok (pg. 252) points out:

“In Mark 10:17-18, a wealthy person greets Jesus with an extravagant gesture and addresses him as “good teacher” (διδάσκαλε ἀγαθέ), but Jesus retorts, ‘Why do you call me good? No one is good except one, God’ (τί με λέγεις ἀγαθόν; οὐδεὶς ἀγαθὸς εἰ μὴ εἷς ὁ θεός). A few scholars have flipped the text into an affirmation of Jesus’s intrinsic goodness, hence his divinity. The recourse in Matthew 19:16-17a is to excise the potentially troubling implications with a slight modification: the rich man inquires about ‘what good thing must I do’ (τί ἀγαθόν ποιήσω) and Jesus answers, ‘why do you ask me concerning the good? One is good’ (τί με ἐρωτᾷς περὶ τοῦ ἀγαθοῦ; εἷς ἐστιν ὁ ἀγαθός). Matthew and Luke redact Mark at the points where it could be liable to be construed in support of a Christology of which they disapprove.”

Given Mark’s early circulation, and potential use among heretics for advocating adoptionist or separationist Christologies, the text could not be wholly be done away with. However, Mark was also the least preferred of the canonical Gospels among the patristic church fathers. A solution had to be reached, therefore, for how to appropriate the text into the orthodox canon of scriptures, while keeping it away from Christian heretics. As Kok (pg. 178) explains:

“In defining Christian origins and demarcating the center from the periphery, centrist Christians appropriated Mark to prevent it from falling into the wrong hands. Mark became a ‘prestige good’ without intrinsic value, like an unread book sitting on a shelf can be regarded as a ‘collectible.'”

The Gospel of Mark, therefore, needed some claim to scriptural authority, and assigning the text to the authorship of an early Christian figure was the primary means of granting the text canonical status. This practice was not restricted to Mark alone, but was common for many Christian texts of the same period. As Kok (pg. 183) elaborates:

“The second century was a time of intense Christian social formation and competition with rival Christian associations. Myths of origin functioned to articulate the historical authenticity and internal homogeneity of the Christian communities. Christians gravitated to all sorts of first-century texts to fulfill this purpose, some of which may have been highly valued like Matthew and others that were less so like Mark. Out of anxiety that Mark could be usurped by opposing Christians in support of divergent beliefs or practices, it was secured for the centrist Christian side by vouching for its apostolicity.”

But 1) why was the text associated with John Mark, in particular, and 2) how was the connection with Peter understood through this figure?

To answer the first question, Kok (pp. 158-159) sketches the following literary evolution for how the figure of John Mark, in particular, was associated with the Gospel of Mark:

“1. In the earliest reliable evidence (Phlm 23-24; Col 4:10), Mark is casually named among a group of Jewish missionary partners of Paul. Mark may have been involved alongside his cousin Barnabas in a short-lived spat with Paul over mixed table fellowship in Antioch (Gal 2:13; cf. Acts 15:36-38), but it is unlikely that this led to Mark’s association with Cephas as much later literature continues to remember Mark firmly in the Pauline camp (2 Tim 4:11; cf. Acts 12:25; 13:5).

2. In the next stage, the pseudonymous author of First Peter plucks a few of Paul’s co-workers at random, Mark and Silvanus, from the Pauline sphere to suit a centrist vision of the Christian community under the leadership of Peter. First Peter popularly circulated throughout Asia Minor sometime between 70 and 93 ce, leaving its mark on the general milieu of the elder John and the author of Luke-Acts.

3. The third and most important step was taken by the elders of Asia Minor who assigned an anonymous Gospel to Peter through his intermediary Mark and passed the report on to Papias. The author of Luke-Acts may have been aware of this new tradition, which might indicate that the characterization of John Mark expresses the author’s feelings about the source material, or Acts may have just linked Peter and Mark in 12:5 under the influence stemming from 1 Peter. The rest of the patristic writers are derivative on Papias, though each develops the tradition in distinctive ways.”

But perhaps the most interesting part of Kok’s analysis is his discussion of how the gospel’s connection with Peter was understood through an otherwise obscure church figure. A common apologetic slogan in defense of the patristic authorial attributions is that the 2nd century church fathers would not have assigned the canonical Gospels to obscure figures, unless their authorship was genuine. As Christian apologist Craig Blomberg (The Case for Christpg. 27) argues, for example:

“These are unlikely characters … Mark and Luke weren’t even among the twelve disciples. Matthew was, but as a former hated tax collector, he would have been the most infamous character next to Judas Iscariot, who betrayed Jesus! … So to answer your question, there would not have been any reason to attribute authorship to these three less respected people if it weren’t true.”

However, Kok argues that this attribution may not be unlikely at all, especially considering how the relationship between Mark and Peter was understood. Remember that the Gospel of Mark was not a popular text among the patristic writers, and a lot of their interest in claiming apostolic authority for the text was because it was, as Kok describes, a “prestige good” and “collectible.” But it still took back seat to the other canonical Gospels in terms of its theological influence. A text associated with a disciple like Peter, but not actually written by the Peter, could allow for a greater distance between the text and the disciple’s teachings, which could account for many of the shortcomings in Mark.

Through a close reading of the patristic authorial attributions of Mark, Kok demonstrates that they very often include qualifying statements about John Mark’s limited ability to record Peter’s teachings. Kok notes that Irenaeus (Against Heresies 3.1.1qualifies that Mark allegedly wrote the gospel after the departure (ἔξοδος) of Peter, implying that the account was written some time after the disciple’s death. As Kok (pp. 205-206) argues:

“In this way, Irenaeus subtlety distances the apostle from his protégé … by the extrapolation that Peter had died before the evangelist resolved to write.”

A similar qualifying statement is found in Clement of Alexandria’s attribution of the gospel to John Mark. Notably, Clement contradicts Irenaeus by arguing that John Mark wrote the text while Peter was still alive. Here is what Eusebius (Hist. Eccl. 6.14.5-7) relates about Clement’s words:

“He [Clement] used to say that the first written of the gospels were those having the genealogies, and that the Gospel of Mark had this formation. While Peter was publically preaching the Word in Rome and proclaiming the gospel by the Spirit, the audience, which was numerous, begged Mark, as one who had followed him for a long time and remembered what had been said, to write down the things he had said. And he did so, handing over the Gospel to those who had asked for it. And when Peter got to know about it, he exerted no pressure either to forbid it or to promote it…”

Clement’s statement might likewise contradict Markan priority and the modern scholarly consensus that Matthew and Luke were written after Mark [1]. Furthermore, the fact that Clement probably contradicts Irenaeus’ statement about the time of the gospel’s composition (arguing that the text was written while Peter was alive, whereas Irenaeus claims that it was written after his death) casts even more doubt on whether either of these church fathers had accurate information about the actual circumstances of the text’s composition. But, what is notable, is Peter’s indifference to Mark’s composition in Clement’s description, as well as the fact that Clement seems to assign the text to a lower status than Matthew and Luke. As Kok (pp. 209-212) argues:

“Clement may have downgraded Mark by dating it after Matthew and Luke, but he would be unique in construing the literary relationship of the Synoptics in this fashion as this solution to the Synoptic Problem is otherwise unattested before the ninth century and his successor Origen assumes the canonical order … When the news reached Peter that the evangelist transcribed his preaching, the response was apathetic. Braun [“The First Shall be Last: The Gospel of Mark after the First Century,” pg. 51] amusingly paraphrases Clement’s credulity about Peter’s ‘unauthorized memoirs’ as saying, in other words, ‘I won’t stop him, but I sure as hell won’t give him any encouragement either.’ Like … Irenaeus, Clement achieved the necessary distance from Peter by having Peter not outright endorse the evangelist.”

Kok identifies similar statements downgrading the status of Mark in the writings of Papias and the Gospel of Luke. I should note, however, that Kok’s interpretation of these two authors is more controversial.

In the case of Papias, scholars are not certain that he knew of the Gospel of Mark, as we possess the text today. Eusebius (Hist. eccl. 3.39.15) records a fragment of Papias in which he discusses a text written by John Mark, which Papias claims was not written in an orderly fashion (οὐ … τάξει). Papias claims that he learned of this text from a certain John the Presbyter, who is an obscure and largely unknown figure from Asia Minor in the early-2nd century (Kok argues against this figure’s connection with John the son of Zebedee on pp. 60-64). However, Papias quotes no verses from the Gospel of Mark, so that it is difficult to ascertain whether Papias is referring to the Gospel of Mark, as we possess the text today, or is simply referring to another, unknown text. If Papias is referring to the our Gospel of Mark, however, his statement that the gospel was written without τάξις (“orderly structure”) could imply further denigration of the text. Papias writes:

“Mark, who had indeed been Peter’s interpreter, accurately wrote as much as he remembered, yet not in order [τάξις], about that which was either said or did by the Lord. For he neither heard the Lord nor followed him, but later, as I said, Peter, who would make the teachings anecdotally but not exactly an arrangement of the Lord’s reports…”

Once more, this statement by Papias seems to distance Mark from Peter, as well as from Jesus. Papias emphasizes that Mark was not an eyewitness of Jesus and that he only recorded Peter’s teachings as much as he could remember them. In this way, the text could be associated with Peter’s authority, while still not being taken as a comprehensive account of Peter’s teachings.

In the case of the Gospel of Luke, modern scholars are certain that the author of Luke possessed a copy of our Gospel of Mark, but there is no agreement that the author of Luke believed that this text was written by John Mark. At no place in either Luke or Acts does the author identify John Mark as the author of his source material, despite the fact that this Mark makes multiple appearances in at least the narrative of Acts (12:1212:25; 13:5; 13:13; 15:37-39). As Randel Helms (Who Wrote the Gospels?, pg. 2) argues:

“So the author of Luke-Acts not only knew about a John Mark of Jerusalem, the personal associate of Peter and Paul, but also possessed a copy of what we call the Gospel of Mark, copying some three hundred of its verses into the Gospel of Luke, and never once thought to link the two—John Mark and the Gospel of Mark—together! The reason is simple: the connecting of the anonymous Gospel of Mark with John Mark of Jerusalem is a second-century guess, on that had not been made in Luke’s time.”

Nevertheless, there are a number of scholars, Kok among them, who argue that the author of Luke may have believed that the text was written by John Mark. (This is an area of scholarly dispute, so I will not treat it as a given fact, even though I will be entertaining the possibility to discuss Kok’s analysis.) If the author of Luke believed that the Gospel of Mark had been written by John Mark, there are a number of clues that he too may be downgrading this author’s status. To begin with, there is the prologue in Luke 1:3 where the author promises to write an “orderly” account of Jesus, which Kok argues might be echoing Papias’ description of Mark. (That Luke was aware of Papias’ writings is another area of scholarly dispute; Kok notes that he is open to direct literary connection between Papias and Luke-Acts, but also argues that the two authors could only be near contemporaries drawing on common traditions circulating in Asia Minor.) As Kok (pg. 152) argues from this passage:

“Since Mark lacked a suitable arrangement (τάξις) (cf. Hist. Eccl. 3.39.15), the motivation expressed in Luke 1:3 was to precisely (ἀκριβῶς) write an “orderly account” to supersede it.”

But furthermore, the depiction of John Mark in the narrative of Acts is relatively negative. In Acts 15:36-38, Paul decides not to take John Mark on a journey with Barnabas, because “he had deserted them in Pamphylia and had not continued with them in the work.” As Kok (pg. 154) argues:

“Paul refuses to receive him back in the fold after he turns out to be a bitter disappointment (Acts 15:36-38). The text does not explicitly attribute to John Mark a motive for leaving Paul behind earlier in the narrative (13:13), but … it had something to do with his failure to continue in “the work” (τὸ ἔργον) of ministering to the nations for which they were set apart to do (15:38; cf. 13:2; 14:26). Consequently, John Mark is not the faithful co-worker at Paul’s side in the epistles, but a symbol of backward-thinking Pharisaical Christians (cf. 15:1) who thwart the progress of the good news into non-Jewish territory.”

To summarize Kok’s arguments so far: from the writings of Papias, to Luke, to Irenaeus, to Clement of Alexandria, John Mark is associated with Peter and the authorship of the Gospel of Mark. (I have noted that Kok’s interpretations of Papias and Luke on this point are controversial, but his interpretations of Irenaeus and Clement are undisputed). Nevertheless, all of these authors either depict John Mark in a negative light or include qualifying statements about his limitations in writing the gospel. While the text was associated with Peter’s authority, therefore, it was not considered to be a comprehensive or fully accurate account of his teachings. In this way, the Gospel of Mark could be granted canonical status, while still being treated as theologically inferior to the Gospels of Matthew and Luke, which are both cited far more numerously among the patristic church fathers.

If this is how the Petrine tradition was used to grant the Gospel of Mark authority among centrist Christians, while distancing the text from the exact teachings of Peter, where then did this tradition originate?

Before surveying the external evidence, Kok discusses how, taking into consideration the internal evidence of the gospel’s structure and sources alone, the Petrine tradition cannot, at the very least, be taken at face value. The Gospel Mark never explicitly claims to be based on Peter’s recollections, and form critics have long realized that the text is not based on one individual’s teachings, but was instead formed out of earlier pericopes and oral traditions that had circulated long before the text’s composition. As Kok (pg. 27) explains:

“A fundamental insight of form criticism is that Papias simplified a complex process by excluding all oral tradents for Mark save for Peter. The method cannot rule out the role of some eyewitnesses in the oral transmission process and, in theory, Peter may have had a big hand in shaping a number of the traditions that reached Mark … [L]et me make the point that I am not advancing a positive case that Peter played a role in formulating any of the pericopae incorporated into Mark. My contention at this point is that the method of form criticism to classify the pre-Gospel oral units according to form and seek out their functions in different social settings is inadequate to render a verdict.

So, at the very least, the Petrine tradition is a simplification of Mark’s composition. Kok (pg. 28) notes that this consideration alone “is inadequate to render a verdict” against Markan authorship, but it does show how the tradition cannot be taken at face value. 

In chapter 3 of the book–“From Paul’s Fellow Worker to Peter’s Interpreter” (pp. 107-160)–Kok traces the origin of the Petrine tradition to the writings of Papias (pp. 108-111), and argues that all subsequent church fathers to report this tradition–namely, Justin Martyr (pp. 112-115), Irenaeus (pp. 115-118), and Clement of Alexandria (pp. 121)–were dependent on Papias. In short, none of the other church fathers are independent of Papias, and thus they do not constitute independent evidence for either the Petrine tradition or Markan authorship. The validity of the tradition, therefore, hinges on Papias’ testimony.

I should note a couple reservations that I have with Kok’s thesis at this point. To begin with, as I have already discussed above, Papias’ awareness of the Gospel of Mark, as we possess the text today, is disputed among scholars. Likewise, Justin Martyr never cites the Gospel of Mark by name, and the passage in Dialogue with Trypho (106.3), which is taken as a citation of Mk. 3:16-17, is disputed among scholars. Here is an article written by NT scholar Tim Henderson that discusses different scholarly interpretations of the passage. As Henderson explains, “the memoirs of him” (ἀπομνημονεύμασιν αὐτοῦ), discussed in the passage, could be taken as referring to: 1) a collective term for the memoirs of “Jesus” (as scholar Paul Foster has argued), 2) the apocryphal Gospel of Peter (as Bart Ehrman has argued), or 3) the Gospel of Mark (as Graham Stanton has argued). Kok leans towards the third option, and argues that Justin is reporting the Petrine tradition, which Kok argues he inherited from Papias. While I think that the evidence is too limited to issue a favorable verdict for this interpretation, I nevertheless agree with Kok that it is certainly plausible that Justin is referring to the Petrine tradition in this passage. But, because of the ambiguity and scholarly dispute surrounding this passage, I will only assume Kok’s interpretation for the sake of argument (I myself am agnostic on this issue).

I should note that, If Papias and Justin Martyr are not referring to the Gospel of Mark, as we posses the text today, then the first author to connect the Petrine tradition with our Gospel of Mark is Irenaeus, who in Against Heresies is arguing against Christian sects and interpretations of the Gospels that he and other proto-orthodox Christians deem heretical. That Irenaeus would wish to connect the Gospel of Mark with a figure in the early church, therefore, in order to grant the text authoritative status, serves an obvious canonizing motive. If the tradition originated in Irenaeus, therefore, I see little reason to trust its reliability, especially since the same author also uses obviously bogus arguments–such as claiming that there must be “four Gospels” because there are “four winds” of the Earth (Against Heresies 3.11.8)–in order to defend his view of the canon. (Though, I will grant that a connection of Papias’ statement with the Gospel of Mark that we possess today may have been made before Irenaeus by another source serving similar canonizing motives. Likewise, I also grant that it is plausible that Papias is referring to our Mark, so that he may have been the first to make the connection. We just can’t know on the basis of the surviving evidence.)

But, what I find the most interesting about Kok’s thesis, however, is his conclusion that, even if the Petrine tradition long preceded Irenaeus, going back all the way to the beginning of the 2nd century CE, we would still have little reason to trust it! The reason why is that, even if the tradition dates back to the turn of the 2nd century, all authors reporting the Petrine tradition can be demonstrated to be dependent upon Papias, and Kok finds little reason to trust Papias’ testimony. Since Kok summarizes his reasoning for this verdict better than I can, I will simply quote his conclusion about Markan authorship below (pp. 104-106):

“I have tried to fairly evaluate the arguments, pro and con, on whether the patristic consensus on the authorship of Mark is a viable option for critical scholarship. If some objections no longer hold water, it does not mean that we can uncritically run back into the arms of Papias. His main source was the elder John, a figure who remains as elusive as ever. It is unlikely that he was a personal disciple of Jesus; he was probably a second-generation charismatic leader in Asia Minor. We have no clue about the elder’s connections outside Asia Minor or his general reliability. We know that Papias naively gave credence to local traditions about an original Hebrew or Aramaic edition of Matthew and other marvels (Hist. Eccl. 3.39.9, 16). If the foundation laid by Papias is rotten, how can we trust what subsequent writers build on it?

The internal evidence is no better. It would help if the evangelist stated that Peter was a vital informant or began with a dedication to Peter. Undoubtedly Mark testifies to Peter’s stature in early Christian memory and some of the material may have genuinely originated with Peter, or perhaps with other eyewitnesses for that matter, but Mark equally resists the veneration of the Twelve. For this reason Peter frequently plays the part of the ignoramus in Mark’s drama, which militates against his having a quintessential role in this Gospel’s composition. The odds of a connection with Paul are higher. Several points from the focus on Jesus’ death to the noun εὐαγγέλιον could be congenial to a later Paulinist and there are early references to a coworker named Mark in Paul’s epistles (Phlm 23; Col 4:10). On the other hand, the huge variances from Paul makes the authorship of a direct co-worker of Paul less likely, just as the differences of Luke-Acts from the Pauline epistles sway many critical scholars against Lukan authorship.

The evidence is insufficient to ascribe the Gospel to an associate of Peter or Paul, albeit it is not inconceivable that some Petrine or Pauline elements were mediated to the evangelist from various streams of tradition. We cannot peek behind the screen of the evangelist’s intentional anonymity. This does not mean that nothing can be said about the author from the internal clues of the text. Its author was likely Jewish, though the Aramaic translations and clarifications of customs point to an ethnically mixed audience, and the text has the hallmarks of an intramural dispute within Second Temple Judaism(s). The product of a disenfranchised author, alienated from the Judean aristocracy as backed by Roman imperial authority and the symbolic world that centered on the temple cult, the author dared to envision a new world order called the ‘kingdom of god.’ Pursuing this social program engendered opposition from the political and religious leaders, leading to a preoccupation with the symbol of the cross. The ‘good news’ is that soon there would be a regime change and reversal of fortunes at the return of Jesus as the Son of Man.

The message was far more important than the medium. Baum [“The Anonymity of the New Testament History Books,” pg. 142] elucidates the motivations behind the purposeful anonymity: ‘The anonymity of the Gospels is thus rooted in a deep conviction concerning the ultimate priority of their subject matter.’ Only when second-century Christians were confronted with competing visions of the ‘good news’ did it become a necessity to validate some versions of it over others by ascribing them to legitimate apostolic channels and did an anonymous Gospel need to be authored by an apostolic interpreter.”

BoyarinThe only final point that I will make is that I find it interesting that Kok identifies the anonymous author of Mark as most likely being Jewish in background. Scholars of the late-20th century leaned towards the view that Mark was most likely authored by a Gentile convert living in the Jewish Diaspora. This interpretation was based on a number of passages in Mark that scholars argued showed a lack of familiarity with Jewish customs, as well as the observation that the author of Matthew (whom the same scholars regarded as most likely being Jewish in background) seems to redact a number of the Jewish teachings Mark. Kok (pp. 51-55) raises a number of arguments against this interpretation, but I find it interesting that Talmudic scholar Daniel Boyarin has likewise argued that the author of Mark was probably Jewish in background in The Jewish Gospels: The Story of the Jewish Christ (pg. 105). Perhaps the majority view of the 20th century on Markan authorship will be changed in the 21st, and this is an issue that I will certainly be exploring in more depth as I work on my dissertation. 

Overall, I found Kok’s The Gospel on the Margins to be a well argued, nuanced, and highly informative read. As I have noted above, there are places where I have reservations about some of Kok’s interpretations of the external evidence. But, Kok does a great job of interacting with both the liberal and conservative scholarship on Markan authorship over the past century. His arguments for why Mark was associated with an attendant of Peter are innovative, and I especially appreciated his reasoning about how this tradition actually downgraded the importance of the text. It is not at all surprising to me, after reading Kok’s analysis, that the church fathers of the 2nd century would assign the Gospel of Mark to the authorship of an obscure church figure. As Kok explains, Mark was not their favorite gospel, but they still needed to preserve the text’s canonical status. Assigning the gospel to an attendant of Peter, who had imperfectly written a disorderly account of his teachings, provided a perfect means of both preserving the text’s canonical status, while downplaying its importance to Christian doctrine and theology.

-Matthew Ferguson

[1] There is there is an argument that Clement of Alexandria did not contradict Markan priority, but was referring to Matthew/Luke (the Gospels with the genealogies) being “set forth publicly” or openly published while Mark’s text was meant for a small private circle in Rome. This argument is set forth by Stephen Carlson in “Clement of Alexandria on the ‘Order’ of the Gospels.”

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

    • Thanks so much Matthew! This was a thorough and fair review and I found it very helpful coming from a scholar in Classics. I would also be happy to respond to any questions or critical feedback if anyone is interested. I just want to leave a few points:
      – You are right to point out that Papias and Justin Martyr are debated and I will be interested to see if readers will find my arguments in favor of the Gospel of Mark as the referent or, say, Bart Ehrman’s argument against this position.
      – While I am open to a literary relationship between Luke-Acts and Papias, I do not think there has to be a direct literary connection as the authors could have been two near contemporaries drawing on traditions circulating in Asia Minor (e.g., Mark/Peter, Philip’s prophetic daughters, Judas death, etc.).
      – I totally agree that Daniel Boyarin is another important voice for deconstructing some of the boundaries modern scholars have set up between ancient Jews and Christians.
  1. Oh, and one more point I forgot, there is an argument that Clement of Alexandria did not contradict Markan priority, but was referring to Matthew/Luke (the Gospels with the genealogies) being “set forth publicly” or openly published while Mark’s text was meant for a small private circle in Rome. Interested readers could check out Stephen’s Carlson’s “Clement of Alexandria on the ‘Order’ of the Gospels” (http://www.academia.edu/968395/Clement_of_Alexandria_on_the_Order_of_the_Gospels).

  2. jamesbradfordpate says:

    Reblogged this on James' Ramblings and commented:
    Reblogging for future reference.

  3. Eric Bess says:

    I’m not sure why an assertion of a connection to Peter would serve anyone trying to appropriate GMark to their own Christian group. ‘Heretical’ Christians could invoke Peter’s authority too, could they not? I’m not exactly following the argument there.

    Also, what precisely are the arguments in this book in particular that the attribution to John Mark was missing?

    • Hey Eric,

      Sorry for the delay in getting back to you. To answer your second question:

      “Also, what precisely are the arguments in this book in particular that the attribution to John Mark was missing?”

      The Gospel of Mark does not identify “John Mark” as its author anywhere within the body of the text. The manuscript titles attested from the 3rd century CE onward bear the title Κατά Μάρκον (“according to Mark”). It is not entirely clear if these titles refer to “John Mark,” since a number of NT scholars think that the name may refer to another, unknown “Marcus.” Maurice Casey (Jesus: Evidence and Argument or Mythicist Myths?, pg. 84), for example, argues for this view.

      But, moreover, most NT scholars doubt that the 3rd century CE manuscript titles were originally included within the text. As Bart Ehrman (Jesus: Apocalyptic Prophet of the New Millennium, pp. 249-250) explains:

      “Because our surviving Greek manuscripts provide such a wide variety of (different) titles for the Gospels, textual scholars have long realized that their familiar names do not go back to a single ‘original’ title, but were added by later scribes.”

      As Raymond Brown (An Introduction to the New Testament, pg. 158) points out:

      “If we work backwards, the title ‘The Gospel According to Mark’ was attached to this writing by the end of the 2nd century.”

      NT scholar Michael Wolter argues that the titles could not have been added until, at the earliest, the first half of the 2nd century CE, primarily because the formula “κατά (according to) + the author” only makes sense if it was added when there were multiple gospels in circulation. Bart Ehrman has also recently suggested that the titles were added sometime after 160 CE (after Justin Martyr) and before 185 CE (when Irenaeus attributed the traditional names). Ehrman notes that Irenaeus attributes the same names that are found in the Muratorian Canon (c. 170-200 CE), and points out that both were from the Western half of the Roman Empire. Ehrman thus theorizes that a special edition of the Gospels was probably published in Rome c. 160-185 CE.

      A minority of scholars have followed Martin Hengel’s suggestion that the titles were added earlier, possibly when the Gospels were first composed. However, even conservative scholars and apologists find this view difficult to sustain. For example, Craig Blomberg (Making Sense of the New Testament, pg. 151), while describing Hengel’s thesis as “suggestive and worth serious consideration,” concludes that this view is “ultimately speculative and not provable.”

      As such, there is no definitive evidence that the Gospel of Mark bore the title “according to Mark” when it was first published. This circumstance, in combination with the fact that the body of the text does not identify an author, renders the text formally anonymous. I think that this addresses what you were asking about the attribution to John Mark being missing.

      As for Kok’s argument in the book, he does not take a position on when the titles were added to the manuscripts. However, Kok also argues that the 3rd century CE manuscript titles cannot be used to determine the author (pp. 67-68):

      “The titular usage of εὐαγγέλιον may have predated Marcion, but Koester established his case that it was not widespread in the first half of the second century. Aside from Papias’s discussion of named evangelists (Hist. Eccl. 3.39.15-16; cf. Justin, Dial. 106.3), there is no mention of a “Gospel” by name of its author before Theophilus of Antioch (Autol. 2.22) in 170 ce. If the Gospels were given titles early on, they were not necessarily the standard titles by which they are known today. Andrew Gregory, discussing Irenaeus’s interest in the beginnings of each Gospel (Adv. Haer. 3.11.7), suggests that their opening verses may have once functioned as the titles. We frankly do not know what they were called by in the early second century. Hengel’s case on the uniformity of the titles is tempered by the fact that the earliest evidence rests on three papyri and, as late as the fourth century, copies of Mark circulated anonymously. If I may hazard a guess about the origins of the standard titles, they presume a theological vision that no longer speaks of plural “Gospels” (εὐαγγέλια) (cf. Justin, 1 Apol. 66.3), but a unitary “gospel” message proclaimed “according to” different messengers. The titles presuppose more than one text under the heading εὐαγγέλιον, a counterpoint to somebody like Marcion who privileged a single Gospel. There is no evidence that they predate or are independent of Papias.”

      As for your other question:

      “I’m not sure why an assertion of a connection to Peter would serve anyone trying to appropriate GMark to their own Christian group. ‘Heretical’ Christians could invoke Peter’s authority too, could they not? I’m not exactly following the argument there.”

      I’ll ask Michael to weigh in, since he has offered to help answer questions. I’ll send him an email shortly.

      • Thanks Eric Bess for your comment. One of the main strategies that the centrist or proto-Orthodox used to defend themselves against rival Christian groups was the whole notion of “apostolic succession”, which means that there was a chain of succession of Christian leaders going back to the apostles and that “orthodox” doctrine/interpretations were carefully handed down against later schismatic “heretical” groups. These Christians attached apostolic names to the canonical Gospels (i.e. the Apostles Matthew and John, Mark as the interpreter of Peter and Luke as the interpreter of Paul) in order to legitimate these texts as “apostolic/orthodox” and to claim that they were the rightful interpreters of these texts as the apostles’ true successors. Of course, you are right to note that their opponents also claimed their own writings went back to Peter’s authority, but the proto-Orthodox response would be to just deny that is the case. For instance, in the case of the Gospel of Peter, the bishop Serapion initially permitted it to be read, but when he thought that the Gospel taught docetism (i.e. denied Jesus’ real humanity) he rejected it as unorthodox and denied that Peter could have written it.

        As for your other question, I am not totally clear but I think the “John Mark” of Acts and the “Mark” who appears in the Pauline Epistles/1 Peter is the same individual and that this figure becomes identified as the evangelist in Patristic tradition. It is strange that only Acts reports that “Mark” bore the Semitic name “John”, but Acts is also alone to report that Paul also went by the Semitic name “Saul.”

  4. Arthur says:

    Here’s a quick question.
    If the majority of Matthew and Luke use material directly from Mark, then wouldn’t it be difficult to know which gospel is being quoted? The wording is really similar, or exact in many cases, between the different gospels.

    Given the premise of the book, it seems more in line with the author’s goals to assign more citations to Matthew or Luke instead of Mark, where they could just as easily been from Mark.

    Unless the citation specifically notes the gospel from which it comes, or the citation is of a unique account only found in one gospel, how can we know that the writer is citing Matthew or Luke instead of Mark?

    • Hey Arthur,

      While both Matthew and Luke borrow a large amount of Mark’s material, they usually make enough changes, so that we can tell which gospel a verse is coming from. Kok’s statistics are based (on the maximalist end) on those of the Biblia Patristica, and (on the more minimal end) on those of Massaux, Koester, etc.

      I’ll let Kok know your question though, in case he has more feedback to offer.

      • Thanks Arthur for this great question. You are right that the verbatim agreement between the Synoptic Gospels makes it difficult to always know which Gospel is being cited and it is possible that they cited Mark more than can be demonstrated. On the maximalist end, you have a resource known as the Biblia Patristica which counts every possible allusion to Matthew, Mark, and Luke (e.g. if a church father notes that Jesus was baptized, it would count it as a reference to Matthew, Mark and Luke). The problem is that there were other oral and written traditions about Jesus, but, even on the maximalist counting, Matthew and Luke are referenced far more than Mark (e.g. Matthew and Luke have a bunch of shared and unique material not in Mark that the Church Fathers may reference). If you take the minimalist approach of Helmut Koester, than a reference to a Gospel can only be established if a later author cites the editorial changes to the tradition made by each evangelist. What this means is that Matthew may copy Mark’s account of Jesus’ baptism, but he adds some dialogue between Jesus and John the Baptizer and if that dialogue is repeated than we can be confident that Matthew is being referenced in particular. When these standards are in place, the number of references to all three Synoptic Gospels goes down, but the references to Mark become almost nil in the second century.

  5. I have recently learned that this blog post was discussed a couple months ago in the comment section of a blog post on the Christian apologetics site Triablogue. There, a number of arguments are presented against Kok’s thesis, as well as some of my own arguments, in addition to a number of inaccurate statements. Below, I have corrected the inaccuracies in the discussion and have also responded to the counter-arguments on Triablogue.

    First, the discussion began when a commenter named Alex Dalton linked to this review and described it as follows:

    “This seems to be an extensive argument for the Early Church falsely attributing Mark to John-Mark to legitimize it.”

    To this, a commenter named Steve replied:

    “How would attributing the first Gospel to Mark legitimize it? Mark was a minor figure in the early church. Indeed, it’s his Gospel that made him famous, not the other way around.”

    This already presents a misunderstanding of Kok’s argument. To begin with, Kok’s argument is not that the gospel was connected with Mark to legitimize it, but rather that it was connected with Peter. However, Kok points out that the Gospel of Mark was the least favorite gospel among proto-orthodox Christians, especially in terms of theology, and, accordingly, was the least quoted gospel by the 2nd century church fathers and onward. As such, Kok argues that directly attributing the gospel to Peter would have overemphasized its importance.

    Nevertheless, Mark was too early of a Christian text and too foundational to not be included in the canon. So, Kok argues that the gospel was only indirectly linked with Peter, by attributing it to one of his attendants. This secured Mark’s placement in the canon, which protected it from heretical use, but also downplayed its importance to theology.

    The commenter named Alex Dalton next states:

    “He argues that Mark was being used to justify adoptionist & separationist Christological heresies, and, it being such an early Gospel, this was the motive to legitimize it – essentially laying claim to it – by attributing it to an associate of Peter. This seems an odd move in itself – falsely attributing authorship to a document that was already apparently causing issues. I’m not sure how that really solves any problems. Why lend it even more legitimacy if its problematic?”

    This again presents a misunderstanding of Kok’s view. Kok argues that the Gospel of Mark was not given “more legitimacy” but rather less legitimacy by being attributed to an attendant of Peter. However, it was given enough legitimacy to be included in the canon and protected from heretical use. This explains why Mark was attributed to an otherwise more obscure church figure, precisely because it was a problematic text, but one that was too early not to include in the canon.

    Alex Dalton next states:

    “Um, is it me, or did Kok just really not understand the question/issue? Since he is arguing that Mark lent itself to heretical Christologies, it would seem the strategy would be for the Church to simply deny that it was Apostolic. Or, at a minimum, leave it unattributed so that it would not be seen as trumping Matthew for instance.“

    This is precisely the issue that Kok, a Ph.D. in Biblical Studies, wrote his dissertation addressing. Alex Dalton doesn’t seem to understand Kok’s thesis. If so much of Matthew and Luke share material with Mark, it would be problematic not to include the text in the canon. Denying that the text was apostolic would leave it vulnerable to heretical sects. But, by assigning it to a non-apostolic figure, such as John Mark, the text was explicitly protected from trumping a gospel like Matthew, which was assigned to an apostolic figure.

    The commenter named Steve next remarks:

    “I can see how attributing the first Gospel to Peter would legitimate it. But attributing it to Mark is a very roundabout way of deriving a Petrine pedigree or Petrine imprimatur. If one is going to resort to a pseudonym to legitimate it, why that convoluted connection?”

    The reason why there is a roundabout and convoluted connection is precisely for the reasons that Kok has given: the text was problematic in terms of its popularity and theology, but too early and too foundational to either be excluded or to be directly attributed to Peter. Instead, the text was attributed only indirectly to Peter through a one of his non-apostolic attendants. Simply reading Kok’s book answers this question.

    A commenter named Jason Engwer then states:

    “I haven’t read Kok’s book. I have read Ferguson’s article. There are a lot of problems with it.

    He doesn’t provide much of an explanation of why the second gospel was so influential and why the early Christians had so much interest in retaining it to begin with. The traditional view of the gospel’s origins makes more sense of that situation.”

    Kok does address this issue. Mark was a very early Christian text. The first gospel written, if you follow the mainstream view of Markan priority, which in turn influenced Matthew and Luke. To exclude such a text from the canon would be problematic, but it was also problematic to attribute it to a figure as important as Peter. Instead, the text was attributed to a less important figure connected with Peter, which canonized it without giving it authority over texts attributed to apostolic figures, like Matthew.

    Engwer then states:

    “The hypothesis of anonymous gospels is highly unlikely. Ferguson doesn’t interact with the arguments Martin Hengel and others have raised against it.”

    To begin with, I interact with the arguments of Hengel in the comment above, and Kok likewise devotes a whole subchapter to extensively responding to Hengel’s arguments on pp. 64-68 of his book. But likewise, I also interact with Hengel’s arguments in depth in my essay “Why Scholars Doubt the Traditional Author of the Gospels” in footnotes 2, 5, 27, and 30.

    Engwer then states:

    “Ferguson’s speculation that the Markan tradition “originated in Irenaeus” is false, not only because of evidence from sources outside of Irenaeus, but also because of what we know of Irenaeus himself. As Hengel noted:

    “Claus Thornton has shown that this [a passage in Irenaeus about gospel authorship] is an earlier tradition, which must be taken seriously; as the geographical references and references to persons show, it is written throughout from a Roman perspective….As Thornton has demonstrated, it corresponds to the short notes about authors in the catalogues of ancient libraries, of the kind that we know, say, from the Museion in Alexandria. Presumably this information comes from the Roman church archive.” (The Four Gospels And The One Gospel Of Jesus Christ [Harrisburg, Pennsylvania: Trinity Press International, 2000], 35-6)”

    First, both Kok and I discuss how the attribution of a gospel to Mark first appears in Papias. Whether the text in question is the Gospel of Mark that we have today is disputable, but Irenaeus is not the first church father to attribute a text to Mark. (Irenaeus is the first author to indisputably refer to the text of Mark that we have today as written by Mark, since scholars like Bart Ehrman have disputed whether authors like Papias and Justin Martyr do so; but, Engwer does not acknowledge the important *if* that I qualify the statement with, when I say that Irenaeus may have been the first source to do so. Another source may have done so before him, such as possibly a Christian library at Rome, which I discuss below, but sources like this are only possible, and Irenaeus is the first source to do so with certainty.) But furthermore, I actually respond directly to Hengel in footnote 5 of the essay linked above (even the exact pages that Engwer is quoting) about his hypothesis that Irenaeus derived the name from a Christian library in Rome. Here is what I write:

    “It is circular to assume, however, that the authorial traditions are reliable, if they were derived from this library. It could be the library itself that created the spurious attributions in the first place, which Irenaeus reports. Furthermore, Hengel notes that the library also would have kept named copies of Old Testament and apocryphal books, but the authorial attributions of those texts are likewise doubted by most scholars. Finally, Hengel’s discussion of the library actually provides an excellent explanation of why the authorial attributions were widespread by the late-2nd century CE, and being reported in regions like Lyons, Carthage, Antioch, and Alexandria. Even if a four book edition of the Gospels was not the origin of the traditional names, such as what Ehrman proposes was published in Rome c. 150-185 CE, Hengel still points out that Rome was the center of Christianity following the destruction of the Jerusalem in 70 CE, and that the Christian library at Rome was established around the turn of the 2nd century CE. The authorial attributions could have then been made in Rome, therefore, in the early-2nd century, such as Wolter proposes, and then spread across the Mediterranean by the late-2nd century, which is when the traditional names begin to be reported.”

    Furthermore, Kok devotes extensive analysis to how no 2nd century source can be shown to be independent of Papias on pp. 112-121. Even if we grant a hypothetical attribution by this Christian library, it cannot be shown to be independent of the testimony of Papias. Irenaeus could have therefore either derived the attribution to Mark either directly from Papias, or from a library that was previously influenced by Papias’ attribution.

    Engwer next states:

    “Irenaeus’ arguments about the gospels, especially in book 3 of Against Heresies, make little sense if he or somebody else close to his time originated the Markan tradition. One of his often-repeated themes is how the gospels and other Biblical documents are so publicly known, widely accepted, and corroborated even by many of the heretics. He’s arguing from ancient tradition, not recent speculations.”

    Both Kok and I agree that the attribution of a gospel to Mark probably preceded Irenaeus by several decades. It may have been to another text than to the Gospel of Mark that we possess today, which I discuss below, but I never state that an attribution to John Mark as an author was derived close to Irenaeus. We see the attribution half a century earlier in Papias. If it was a different text, it could have been connected with our Gospel of Mark before Irenaeus (I discuss the possibility that a Christian library in Rome made the connection above), possibly decades earlier, but I also grant that the possibility that Papias is referring to our Gospel of Mark. We just don’t know because the evidence is limited.

    Engwer next states:

    “Ferguson doesn’t interact with the arguments Hengel, Richard Bauckham, et al. have put forward for the Petrine character of the second gospel. He repeats a lot of common skeptical objections related to the gospels and the patristic evidence, and he doesn’t show much awareness of the counterarguments.”

    I have already pointed out above above where I directly respond to the arguments of Hengel in the essay that I have linked. I likewise respond to the arguments of Bauckham in footnotes 14, 19, 22, 30, and 35. But furthermore, both Hengel’s The Four Gospels and the One Gospel of Jesus Christ and Bauckham’s Jesus and the Eyewitnesses are sitting on the shelf in my office as I write this. Engwer in this statement doesn’t seem to show much awareness of either who I am or what I have written.

    Regarding whether there is a “Petrine character” to Mark, this is problematic. At no point does the author of Mark identify Peter as an oral source for the gospel. It’s possibly that he was, but it is also possible that it was associated with Peter for canonical reasons. Kok also addresses this issue on pg. 27 of his books:

    “A fundamental insight of form criticism is that Papias simplified a complex process by excluding all oral tradents for Mark save for Peter. The method cannot rule out the role of some eyewitnesses in the oral transmission process and, in theory, Peter may have had a big hand in shaping a number of the traditions that reached Mark. Each example, such as the healing of Peter’s mother-in-law (Mark 1:29-31) or Peter’s denials (14:66-72), needs to be evaluated on a case-by-case basis.”

    And I agree with Kok on this point. Even if Peter was an oral source for the text, the sources for Mark would have still been more complex and there would have been other sources than what Papias names. But it is not even certain that Peter was an oral source for the text, since he is never identified. Things like the healing of Peter’s mother-in-law and his denials of Jesus are stories that feature Peter, but it is a leap to assume that simply because a story is about Peter that it must have been derived from Peter.

    I recently emailed Kok on whether he thinks it can be demonstrated that there is a Petrine character to Mark, and here is what he responded with:

    “I think you could say I am agnostic about it. Perhaps Peter originally began to tell these accounts, or James and John, or another disciple (at least John’s Gospel has the anonymous beloved disciple in the courtyard with Peter during the denials), a local witness, or a later oral tradent. I am not sure how you could prove Peter was the source as any particular episode that have all been worked over in Mark’s style and the Gospel itself does not name its sources.”

    Engwer then states:

    “He brings up the popular speculation that the document Papias refers to might not be our gospel of Mark, puts forward the astonishingly implausible hypothesis that all of the later sources were dependent on Papias, and repeats the usual objections about Papias’ elder not being the apostle John…”

    This oversimplifies much of what I have stated. To begin with, I acknowledge that it is possible that Papias may be referring to our Gospel of Mark, but we can’t know because he doesn’t quote the document (Kok, for the record, does think that Papias is referring to our Gospel of Mark). Regarding the dependence on Papias, Kok devotes extensive analysis to this on pp. 112-121. As for Papias’ John the Elder not being the apostle John, even Hengel and Bauckham themselves think that the author of the fourth Gospel was a different John the Elder and not the apostle John. Kok likewise devotes extensive analysis to why John the Elder is probably not the same figure as the apostle John, responding to Robert Gundry, on pp. 60-64.

    Engwer then states:

    “In Ferguson’s own translation, Papias’ elder refers to how Mark “accurately wrote as much as he remembered, yet not in order”. There was no objection to Mark’s accuracy, contrary to what Ferguson suggests elsewhere in his post.”

    Actually, Kok responds to this very issue in his book. Regarding Irenaeus, Kok points out that he attributed the book to Mark only after Peter’s death, which distanced it from the lifetime of Peter himself. Furthermore, Kok also spends pp. 186-199 discussing Papias’ statement that the Gospel lacked τάξις (“compositional order”), a complaint that may be echoed in Luke 1:3, and how this is probably a complaint against the reliability of Mark, at least in the sense that other gospels were needed to polish and rearrange its material.

    “Something Ferguson never addresses is why the early heretics, especially the ones the early Christians supposedly were responding to when fabricating their Markan traditions, never left any trace in the historical record of any objection to those traditions. We see objections to the authorship of the fourth gospel, the authorship of 2 Timothy, the authorship of Revelation, etc., but nothing about Mark or Peter as Mark’s source.”

    This is largely because our surviving evidence for heretical (or, non-orthodox) thought is fragmentary and problematic to begin with. But, I discuss in the essay linked above how Gaius of Rome disputed the attribution of the 4th gospel to the apostle John, and how Marcion did not corroborate the authorship of Luke. That means that the authorship of 50% of the canonical Gospels were disputed in one way or another, which is substantial. Why we should expect even more disputes to survive in the record, when we primarily only know of them through orthodox authors, is not something Engwer adequately explains.

    Engwer then states:

    “Ferguson claims that Kok’s “interpretations of Irenaeus and Clement are undisputed”. That’s false. Kok has already corrected Ferguson, in the comments section below his post, regarding Clement.”

    All I was stating in this section, in context, is that no scholar disputes that Irenaeus and Clement refer to our Gospel of Mark as we possess the text today. Even Engwer would agree with this if he had responded to what I say in context. It is disputed whether Papias is referring to our current text of the Gospel of Mark, since he doesn’t quote any material from the text that he refers to. Bart Ehrman disputes that he is referring to our Mark, and even Christian scholars like Raymond Brown grant that Papias may not be referring to our Gospel of Matthew. So that there is scholarly dispute over this is an objective fact, regardless of whether Engwer disagrees.

    Likewise, Kok does not “correct me” on Clement. He references an article suggesting that Clement may not contradict Markan priority, but he still grants that he might, so it was more of an elaboration than a “correction.” For the record, I also sent an email to Kok right after I published this review asking him to comment on whether he would like me to elaborate on any points, so I invited his feedback.

    Engwer then states:

    “Furthermore, we have multiple lines of good evidence that Luke, which apparently used Mark as a source, was written no later than the mid 60s:”

    I actually recently debated this issue with evangelical scholar Craig Evans last month (who complemented me multiple times on my knowledge and understanding of the Gospels’ philological issues). You can listen to the debate here:


    Engwer then states:

    “My comments on Facebook quoted above were written in early September of last year. Later in the year, Ferguson added some material to the comments section of his thread.

    He brings up Hengel’s work, but he doesn’t address most of Hengel’s arguments…”

    Actually, I responded to this not only in the comment thread here, which Engwer discusses, but also in the previous essay linked above, which explicitly addresses Hengel’s statements about early Christian libraries. Likewise, even conservative scholar Craig Blomberg (Making Sense of the New Testament, pg. 151), states that, while Hengel’s thesis is “suggestive and worth serious consideration,” it is “ultimately speculative and not provable.”

    There are three major considerations that suggest that the titles weren’t connected with the text when the Gospels were first written:

    First, even as authors like Gathercole concede, the titles don’t appear at consistent places in the manuscripts, which means that they were probably added by later scribes, since the rest of the text mostly remains fixed in transmission. Furthermore, these titles, even if they are uniform in the names, use different grammatical constructions, such as ευαγγελιον κατα Μαρκον, κατα Μαρκον ευαγγελιον, or just κατα Μαρκον, which suggests that they probably do not go back to any uniform title attribution. Finally, titles for most literary works in antiquity were added by libraries after the composition of the text itself. As Yun Lee Too (The Idea of the Library in the Ancient World, pp. 44-45) explains:

    “In the pre-Alexandrian period in Greece, ‘titles’ of works, almost certainly added by a later hand than the author’s, were written on the outside of rolls. The normal external indication of a title was the σίλλυβος, or σίλλυβον, a strip of papyrus or vellum that hung outside the roll as it lay on the bookshelf. It contained the author’s name and the title of the work … This way of marking texts persisted into the Roman period. In the context of a boast about the way in which Tyrannion has organized his library, Cicero speaks of sillybae made out of parchment that are attached to his books … in his letters to Atticus (cf.Ep. ad Atticum 4.4a.1; cf. 4.8). Cicero comments that Atticus’ men have beautified his library by binding his books and affixing syllabae to them (Ep. ad Atticum 4.5), while at Ep. at Atticum 4.8 he observes that his house now has a mens — that is, a mind — now that Tyrannio has arranged his books; thesillybae help much. This statement suggests that the organization of books is significant in that knowing how and where to find one’s texts gives meaning and sense to one’s home. Later, Ovid makes reference to the ‘displayed titles’ (titulos … apertos), no doubt the sillybae, visible on bookshelves at Tristia 1.1.109.”

    Since the titles were probably later additions to the Gospels, therefore, this begs the question of *when* they were added. Here is where the external evidence comes into play, since the first Christian authors who quote or allude to the Gospels in the early-2nd century CE do so anonymously, without referring to their traditional names. You do not see references to the traditional names until the late-2nd century CE, which suggests that the titles were not added until around the time of the mid-2nd century CE. Here is what I write in footnote 19 in the essay linked above:

    “The first external references to possibly quote or allude to the Gospels are Ignatius (c. 105-115 CE) and Polycarp (c. 110-140 CE)… neither of whom attribute the Gospels to any name or author. The Didache (c. 50-120 CE) at 8:3-11 also appears to allude to Matthew 6:9-13, and yet only refers to the text as “His [Jesus’] Gospel,” without calling the text the “Gospel of Matthew.” Justin Martyr (c. 150-160 CE) later makes explicit quotations and references to the Gospels, but ascribes them under the category of “Memoirs of the Apostles,” without making any reference to their traditional names. Finally, Irenaeus (c. 175-185 CE) refers to the Gospels by their traditional names in the late-2nd century, and the same attributions are shared by the Muratorian Canon (c. 170-200 CE). As such, there is a clear development in which the Gospels were first referred to anonymously and only later associated with their traditional names.

    There is also indication that the appellation of the fourth gospel to “John” may have been added around the mid-2nd century CE. The Valentinian teachers Ptolemy (c. 140-180 CE) and Theodotus (c. 150-180 CE) seem to have associated the fourth gospel with John. As Richard Bauckham (Jesus and the Eyewitnesses, pg. 466) mentions:

    “Other second-century writers who call the author of John’s Gospel an apostle are the Valentinian teachers Ptolemy (Letter to Flora, apud Epiphanius,Panarion 33.3.6) and Theodotus (apud Clement of Alexandria, Excerpta ex Theodoto 7.3; 35.1; 41.3).”

    It should be noted, however, that these authors are near contemporaries of Irenaeus, and may be writing within the same timespan of c. 150-185 CE in which Ehrman argues the traditional names were added. Theophilus of Antioch (c. 180-185 CE) also refers to John 1:1 as being related by “John” (2.22). Some have argued that Marcion may have associated the fourth gospel with John. For example, Morris (John, pg. 19) argues:

    “It is also worth noting that according to a very probable reading of the evidence Marcion held the Apostle John to be the author of this Gospel. Tertullian (Contra Marcionem 4.3) speaks of this man as laboring “very hard to destroy the character of those which are published as genuine and under the name of the apostles” by drawing attention to Paul’s rebuking even of apostles (Gal. 2:13-14). It is difficult to catch the drift of Marcion’s argument unless he did infact think that John wrote his Gospel. His point apparently was not that John did not write it, but that John did write it and was wrong! Since Marcion seems to have come to Rome c. 140, this is quite early testimony.”

    This line of argument, however, is circular: it assumes the canon existed when Marcion wrote. But in fact there were tons of Gospels by “disciples,” including Peter and Thomas. Since Tertullian does not tell us which gospels Marcion was thus arguing against, we cannot assume a Gospel of John was among them…

    …As can be gathered from the survey above, none of the Gospels are referred to by their traditional names until around the latter half of the 2nd century CE. As noted in footnote 5, these late-2nd century named attributions are probably due to a special edition of the Gospels that may have been published in Rome c. 150-185 CE, which attributed the Gospels to their traditional names. Or, even if the names were added earlier, they could have derived from a Christian library at Rome in the early-2nd century CE. Either a four book special edition or a Roman library catalog can also explain why two sources from the Western Roman Empire — Irenaeus and the Muratorian Canon — not only adopted the traditional names, but also reported similar biographical information. This process, therefore, reflects a development in which the Gospels were originally anonymous at the beginning of their circulation, and were only attributed to their traditional authors after a period of anonymous quotations and allusions.

    Finally, some Christian apologists try to appeal to authors who report the traditional names after the 2nd century CE, in order to inflate the evidence. For example, apologists will list Tertullian (c. 200 CE), Origen (c. 220 CE), and Eusebius (c. 325 CE) as sources who corroborate the traditional authors. All of these sources are writing after the 2nd century CE, however, and are merely repeating the same tradition. If the 2nd century tradition itself was spurious, they add nothing to the evidence of authorship.”

    Engwer next writes in response to my quotation of NT scholar Michael Wolter:

    “Ferguson writes:

    “NT scholar Michael Wolter argues that the titles could not have been added until, at the earliest, the first half of the 2nd century CE, primarily because the formula ‘κατά (according to) + the author’ only makes sense if it was added when there were multiple gospels in circulation.”

    But the “gospel according to” concept could have arisen in oral contexts and in literary contexts other than that of our canonical gospels. Luke comments that many accounts were circulating in his day (Luke 1:1). And if Matthew and Luke were using Mark in the first century, then there were already multiple gospels known to some Christians that early. The idea that the need for distinguishing among the gospels by means of titles wouldn’t have arisen until “at the earliest, the first half of the 2nd century CE” doesn’t make sense.”

    This doesn’t address the point that Wolter is raising. The first verse of Mark begins with this formula: Ἀρχὴ τοῦ εὐαγγελίου Ἰησοῦ Χριστοῦ (“the beginning of the Gospel of Jesus Christ”). That was probably the original title of the text, since ancient texts frequently gave their titles in the opening line. See Herodotus 1:1, for example, which starts with Ἡροδότου Ἁλικαρνησσέος ἱστορίης ἀπόδεξις ἥδε (“this is the display of the History of Herodotus of Halicarnassus”). Notice how this is very similar construction to the opening line of Mark, but there is a major difference: the name in the genitive (indicating authorship) in Herodotus is his own name, meaning that we was attributing the work to himself. In contrast, in Mark, the genitive names Jesus (“the Gospel of Jesus Christ”), meaning that Jesus was probably understood to be the author of the gospel tradition (at least in the sense that he had originated its teachings), not the editor who later compiled the materials, who is otherwise anonymous in the text.

    When Mark was first written, there would have been no other gospels in circulation, meaning that there was no need to add further designations. What Wolter argues, therefore, is that the further designations using the the κατά construction were likely added after other gospels were written. These gospels would have needed to circulate, however, and to have become widely known, before specific names were needed to distinguish individual books of a multiple gospel canon. As such, what Wolter argues is that they were probably added following a gap of time after Matthew and Luke were written (to allow these gospels time to circulate), which would have been around the early-2nd century CE, as Wolter has stated.

    It also wouldn’t have made sense for the authors of Matthew and Luke to add the “according to” designation when they first wrote. Even if they knew of multiple gosopels, this does not mean that they envisioned a multiple-gospel canon. The κατά construction was used specifically to designate multiple gospels in a canon. A multiple-gospel canon does not become a concept, however, until the 2nd century.

    Engwer then states:

    “Furthermore, what about the other means of identifying a document’s author, such as the ones Hengel and Bauckham discuss? What about oral reports of authorship, tags attached to documents, etc.?”

    I likewise address this issue in the essay linked above:

    “Some Christian apologists have also speculated that, even before the titles were added later, there may have been notes, tags attached to the documents, writing on the sides of codices, and oral reports about authorship that circulated along with the Gospels that related the authorial traditions. But this is little more than speculation. The only evidence that we have that the Gospel manuscripts bore named attributions is the manuscript titles that begin to appear in the 3rd century CE.”

    Engwer then states:

    “Ferguson acts as though it’s sufficient for him to dismiss views like Hengel’s because they aren’t “necessarily” correct and there’s no “definitive evidence” for them. But the issue here, as with history in general, is probability, not high probability or certainty. Even a slight probability is still a probability.”

    I don’t dismiss Hengel’s view. I interact with it. As I discuss above, given how titles were added in antiquity, in addition to the grammatical variations in the titles, as well as the fact that Mark 1:1 probably reports the original title, it is *probable* that the titles were added second-hand. This raises the issue of *when* they were added. Here, the external evidence becomes important, because the first Christian authors to quote or allude to the Gospels in the early-2nd century CE do so anonymously, and named attributions don’t begin to appear until the late-2nd century CE. This provides an argument from probability that the names were added around the mid-2nd century CE.

    Engwer then states:

    “Proposing some sort of radical discontinuity – as if the gospels first had titles other than the ones we know them by, then attained the traditional titles so widely and with so little dispute, with the alleged earlier titles leaving so little trace in the historical record – is deeply problematic.”

    Whoever said that the Gospels had different titles? They probably had no original titles beyond the opening lines, which in Mark is Ἀρχὴ τοῦ εὐαγγελίου Ἰησοῦ Χριστοῦ (“the beginning of the Gospel of Jesus Christ”). That is reflected in the record and is not a discontinuity, because the Gospels continued to be called by that name (i.e. gospels of Jesus). In fact, this title is even reflected in the Didache (8:3), which probably predated the attribution of the names and titles! The only addition that was made was the names using the κατά construction, since a further designation was needed after there was a multiple Gospel canon.

    Engwer also states:

    “As I note there, something like an attribution of the gospel to Silvanus or Andrew would have made far more sense than an attribution to Mark, if the early Christians were just speculating or lying.”

    No, these names don’t make sense under Kok’ thesis. The reason why Mark was chosen is because there was specifically negative material about him Acts (15:37-40). By picking a character with a negative reputation, but still connected to the apostles, the Gospel of Mark could be downgraded without removing it from the canon. Silvanus is depicted more positively in that passage, and so his name would grant the text too much authority. The same goes for Andrew, since he was an apostle and Peter’s brother.

    Finally, Alex Dalton responds to Engwer by stating:

    “Jason – excellent! Thx for sharing this. I have tried to post to Ferguson’s blog to make some comments but they don’t show up.”

    This is also not true. Alex Dalton has commented here previously and been approved (see here), as is everyone who posts a comment that abides by my ‘Comment Policy.’ What he is probably confused by is the fact that his comment didn’t show up right away, since I moderate comments on this blog. However, that happens even to people who post comments in agreement with me, so there is no special discrimination against Dalton on this point.

    Anyways, I will be writing even more about the anonymity of the Gospels in the upcoming months, since I am publishing an article on it, and I will be responding to Hengel and Bauckham even more there than I already have in my posts online and in the commentary above.

  6. Thanks Matthew for this extensive comment. You are really helpful in communicating my position in a nuanced way and also I have learned some new points for my consideration (e.g. your comments about ancient libraries in interaction with Hengel). I left this comment that I hope will have a pastoral function:

    “Matthew Ferguson alerted me to the comments here and I want to thank both you and him for interacting with my work. I think Matthew has done a good job of summarizing my perspective despite some minor differences (e.g. I think Papias and Justin Martyr referred to our text of Mark while he is more hesitant) and I only want to clarify my position as a Christian academic.

    The Gospels are purposefully anonymous to keep the spotlight on the “good news” of Jesus Christ (a few exceptions are that Luke 1:1-4 has an address and mentions predecessors without naming them and John 21:24 credits the Gospel to the mysterious beloved disciple). Nevertheless, second century Christians felt the need to defend their “rule of faith” and certain writings by recourse to their authoritative authors (i.e. Apostles or their associates) against rival traditions or texts promoted by their opponents. Despite lingering rhetorical or theological qualms that the Church Fathers occasionally express about the second canonical Gospel, they secure it for the canon by ascribing it to a leading apostle (Peter), albeit indirectly to a lesser Christian authority (Mark). We can look at a parallel issue: some Christians who did not favor the contents of the book of Revelation attributed it to the “heretic” Cerinthus (Gaius) or to a non-apostolic John (Dionysius, Eusebius), but its Christian defenders supported its apostolic authorship. My theory could be wrong – new ideas tested out in PhD theses often are 🙂 – but I do not see it as a threat to the historical or theological value of Mark’s Gospel. I never deny that eyewitnesses could have played a role in the formation of the Gospel tradition even if I doubt that the Gospel is a direct transcript of Peter’s preaching and authorship was only one of the four criteria for the New Testament canon (cf. ancient, widespread, orthodox). I do not believe that modern Christians need to share the exact same reasons that Patristic Christians had in order to view this Gospel as inspired or theologically edifying for the community of faith. Best wishes,”

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