Did Mark write Mark? A couple of weeks ago I did an eight-lecture course on the Gospel of Mark for my separate (unrelated to the blog) venture, a series of courses on “How Historians Read the Bible” (the courses are available on my website: www.bartehrman.com). It was a blast. One of the things I loved about doing it was that I was able to read and reread scholarship on Mark and I learned some things I had long wondered about, and re-learned other things that I used to know.
One of the things I had to think seriously about for the first time in some years was the question of why church fathers in the second century (but when?) began claiming that our second Gospel was written by John Mark, allegedly a secretary for the apostle Peter. That took me straight back to the question of the reliability of an early Christian writer named Papias (writing around 120 or 130 CE?).
Papias gets used all the time as proof that Mark wrote Mark. Conservative Christian scholars cite him on the point as “gospel truth.” But for the past 30 years I’ve found the evidence unconvincing. I’ve written about the issue briefly on the blog before, but I decided to look up my lengthiest discussion of the matter in my book Jesus Before the Gospels (HarperOne, 2016) and lo and behold, I made some points there that I didn’t remember!
I thought it would be worthwhile to present that discussion here. It tries to show why Papias’ witness is so problematic for establishing the authorship of both Mark and Matthew, the only two Gospels he mentions in the snippets of his writings we still have. This will take three posts.
In this one I give the backdrop to the testimony of Papias.
The Gospel writers are all anonymous. None of them gives us any concrete information about their identity. So when did they come to be known as Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John? We might begin by considering the earliest references to the books, which occur in a group of authors who were writing, for the most part, immediately after the New Testament period. These are the so-called “Apostolic Fathers.” That term is not meant to indicate that these authors themselves were apostles, but that, in scholarly opinion starting hundreds of years ago (though no longer), they were companions of the apostles. Theirs are among our earliest non-canonical writings.
In the various Apostolic Fathers there are numerous quotations of the Gospels of the New Testament, especially Matthew and Luke. What is striking about these quotations is that in none of them does any of these authors ascribe a name to the books they are quoting. Isn’t that a bit odd? If they wanted to assign “authority” to the quotation, why wouldn’t they indicate who wrote it?
Almost certainly the first apostolic father is the book of 1 Clement, a letter from the church of Rome to the church of Corinth written around 95 CE (and so, before some of the last books of the New Testament) and traditionally claimed to have been composed by the third bishop of Rome, Clement. Scholars today widely reject that claim, but for our purposes here it does not much matter. Just to give an example of how the Gospels are generally treated in the Apostolic Fathers, I quote one passage from 1 Clement:
We should especially remember the words the Lord Jesus spoke when teaching about gentleness and patience. For he said: “Show mercy, that you may be shown mercy; forgive, that it may be forgiven you. As you do, so it will be done to you; as you give, so it will be given to you; as you judge, so you will be judged; as you show kindness, so will kindness be shown to you; the amount you dispense will be the amount you receive.” (1 Clement 13:1-2)
This is an interesting passage, and fairly typical, because it conflates a number of passages from the Gospels, containing lines from Matthew 5:7; 6:14-15; 7:1-2, 12; Luke 6:31, and 36-38. But the author does not name the Gospels he has taken the texts from, and certainly doesn’t attribute them to eyewitnesses. Instead, he simply indicates that this is something that Jesus said.
The same is true of other Apostolic Fathers. In chapter one of the intriguing book known as the Didache, which contains a set of ethical and practical instructions to the Christian churches, the anonymous writer quotes from Mark 12, Matthew 5 and 7; and Luke 8. But he never names these Gospels. Later he cites the Lord’s prayer, virtually as it is found in Matthew 6; again he does not indicate his source.
So too, as a third example, Ignatius of Antioch clearly knows Matthew’s story of the star of Bethlehem (Ignatius, Ephesians 19) and Matthew’s story of Jesus’ baptism which was undergone “in order to fulfill all righteousness” (Smyrneans 1). But he doesn’t mention that the account was written by Matthew. Similarly, Polycarp of Smyrna quotes Matthew chapters 5, 7, and 26 and Luke 6, but he never names a Gospel.
This is true of all of our references to the Gospels prior to the end of the second century. The Gospels are known, read, and cited as authorities. But they are never named or associated with an eyewitness to the life of Jesus. There is one possible exception: the fragmentary references to the Gospels of Matthew and Mark in the writings of the church father, Papias.
 For a translation of their writings, with introductions, see Bart D. Ehrman, The Apostolic Fathers, 2 vols. (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2003). I have used this translation for all my quotations.