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Mark as Peter’s Scribe

QUESTION:

Why are scholars almost certain that Peter did not give the general details of Jesus’ life and ministry to his companion Mark, who faithfully recorded the details in Greek, in the style found in his gospel? I know you’ve said that someone such as Peter, aside from not knowing Greek, almost certainly wouldn’t have had the ability to build the relatively sophisticated structure of Mark’s gospel, but why couldn’t Mark have “put form” on Peter’s prosaic verbal account ?

RESPONSE:

                This is a very good question, and as it turns out it is a bit complicated.   The first thing to say is that one has to look for *evidence* if one wants to think, for example, that Mark is recording the traditions given to the author by Peter.  The idea that he does so ultimately goes back to Papias.

To begin answering the question, in this post I thought I’d talk about Papias and the tradition of the Gospels.  And rather than write it all out from scratch, I’ve decided simply to reproduce what I say about the matter in my book Jesus Interrupted.   I’ll have more to say about the question later.  So, from my book, as a partial response to the question:

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Despite the fact that the evidence indicates that none of the disciples wrote a Gospel, we need to deal with the early church tradition that indicates that some of them did so.  How is one to deal with this tradition?

The earliest source of this tradition deals with only two early Christian Gospels, Mark and Matthew.  This is an enigmatic source, an early Christian church Father named Papias, who wrote a five-volume work called Expositions of the Sayings of the Lord.  Scholars have plausibly dated the work anywhere from 110-40 CE., forty to seventy years after the first Gospel.  The work no longer survives: a number of later Christian authorities found Papias’s views either offensive or insufficiently sophisticated, and so the work was not copied extensively for posterity.   Everything we know about the work comes from quotations of it by later church fathers.

Papias has nonetheless often been portrayed as a useful source for establishing early church tradition, in part because of how he indicates he received his information.  In some of the quotations of the Expositions that survive, he states that he personally talked with Christians who had known a group of people he calls “the elders,” who had known some of the disciples, and that he has passed along information that he received from them.  And so, in reading Papias, we have access to third- or fourth–hand information:  Papias tells us what one-time companions of people who knew disciples told him.

It is this latter kind of third- or fourth-hand information that concerns a much quoted tradition given us by Papias, about Mark and Matthew, authors of Gospels.

 

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  1. Avatar
    billgraham1961  June 2, 2013

    I’m a bit confused about Mark, and I need your help. There appears to have been at least two possible people by this name. One was John Mark, who appears in the book of Acts and a few Pauline epistles. He would have been close to Peter for sure, but I’m not convinced he was literate. He appears to have been born in Palestine along with the other disciples, but I’m not sure where he was when he passed away.

    Then, there is another Mark who died in Alexandria, Egypt as a martyr in approximately 68 CE. He is the one some scholars think wrote the Gospel of Mark. At least that is the way I understand it. In either case, Papias would not have known the person so named very well. In the case of Mark of Alexander, he would have been about eight years old when he died. If I am not mistake, Papias was born in Asia Minor sometime around 60 CE. At that time, Mark would have either been in Rome, but would have moved to Alexandria shortly thereafter.

    The thing that makes it so hard to identify even which Mark Papias meant was the original language in which that gospel was written. There are hints of Aramaic. Was it originally written in Aramaic, and then translated into Greek? Or, was it originally written in Greek with a few hints of Aramaic surviving from oral tradition? It’s all very confusing to me.

    Complicating the matter further is the actual date of the original autograph. Since we don’t have it, it’s impossible to determine when it was written. On the other hand, NT scholars seem to think it was written between 50 and 60 CE or somewhere in that timeframe. I am aware of the claim made by Daniel B. Wallace last year of the early manuscript of Mark, placing it sometime in the First Century. I also know that nothing has been confirmed on that find just yet.

    That being the case, do you think it’s possible that Mark was written after all or most of the apostles had already passed away? Obviously, the author of this gospel took advantage of the Q source, but I’m not really even sure what that or the M source or the L source were. The author of Luke indicates that many had undertaken to write down an account of things that had happened. Could it be that a class of Christian scribes had already arisen somewhere between 60 and 90 CE, and had gathered the stories passed down through oral tradition and smaller manuscripts that had been written down long before?

    Oh well, perhaps no one has the answer, but I’d like to think that one day we’ll find out or come a lot closer to identifying the real author or authors. That’s another interesting possibility. Could it be that the Gospel of Mark had multiple authors with perhaps one or two editors who enforced style? Now that’s an interesting possibility. I wonder how they would have done that without the benefit of the printing press or the benefit of making instantaneous changes. It must have been painstaking, laborious work that was prone to human error.

    1
    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  June 3, 2013

      Quickly: 1) The Mark who established the church in Egypt (according to legend — it’s not historical) is the same John Mark who allegedly wrote the Gospel; 2) The Gospel of Mark was definitely composed originally in Greek; it is not “translation Greek”; 3) Most scholars date Mark to 65-70 CE, since it appears to know about the Jewish War (e.g., Mark 13:1); 4) Mark did not know Q; 5) Dan Wallace’s first-century mark has yet to make it’s appearance. I’ll be amazed if it changes anybody’s views about anything, given what Dan has said about it. But I could be wrong, and will be happy to be!!

      • Avatar
        billgraham1961  June 4, 2013

        Thank you very much. That clears up a lot for me. It’s pretty confusing with all the information that’s out there.

        1
  2. Avatar
    bobnaumann  June 2, 2013

    If Mark had really been reporting Peter’s words, why wouldn’t he have said so in order to give it more authenticity? If the early church fathers believed that Mark was recording Peter’s words, why wouldn’t they called it the Gospel according to Peter?

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  June 3, 2013

      Good point and good question. My view is they couldn’t call it the Gospel of Peter because by the time Peter’s connection with the Gospel was being noised about, that title had already been “taken”

  3. Avatar
    issam  June 2, 2013

    Truly I believe:
    (79 ) So woe to those who write the “scripture” with their own hands, then say, “This is from God,” in order to exchange it for a small price. Woe to them for what their hands have written and woe to them for what they earn.
    ( 80 ) And they say, “Never will the Fire touch us, except for a few days.” Say, “Have you taken a covenant with God? For God will never break His covenant. Or do you say about God that which you do not know?”
    ( 81 ) Yes, whoever earns evil and his sin has encompassed him – those are the companions of the Fire; they will abide therein eternally.
    ( 82 ) But they who believe AND do righteous deeds – those are the companions of Paradise; they will abide therein eternally.
    ( 83 ) And [recall] when We took the covenant from the Children of Israel, [enjoining upon them], “Do not worship except God; and to parents do good and to relatives, orphans, and the needy. And speak to people good [words] and establish prayer and give charity.” Then you turned away, except a few of you, and you were refusing

  4. Avatar
    donmax  June 2, 2013

    Nicely put. It confirms that we don’t know many of the things we think we know. 🙂

    Here’s something I received on my facebook page. It’s not connected to Papias, but it does relate to what we know and how we know it. (Maybe your blog needs a “general interest” page for people to express themselves and respond to, back and forth? as an alternative to the vertical way it’s set up now.)

    FYI : Robert Eisenman via Wesley F Revels
    7 hours ago ·
    I’m currently reading Prof. Robert Eisenman’s “James the brother of Jesus, The Key to Unlocking the secrets of Early Christianity and the dead Sea scrolls.” Eisenman’s exhaustive research on the characters in the New Testament, and those who wrote about them in the 1st century, is without question the greatest contribution toward understanding how the Christian religion began. The article written below is an example of how Platonic Philosophy continues to influence our belief in God today.
    The Carpenter’s Theorem, The Holy Grail of Speculative Freemasonry, Reaching Out To Find God
    http://www.academia.edu/2996063

  5. Avatar
    hwl  June 2, 2013

    Given later authorities dislike Papias’ work and little of his work survives, is it accurate to label Papias as a Church Father?

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  June 3, 2013

      Yes, I think so. He’s normally numbered among the “Apostolic Fathers,” even though as you point out, there are problems with putting him in that group.

  6. Avatar
    Seeker  June 2, 2013

    I disagree about the Mark only being 2 hours long as an objection to Papias accuracy. If you notice in Mark it is very subtle and stark. It really only tries to convey the main points of Jesus’ ministry. I don’t know if Papias is correct or not though. Also, it’s plausible that the gospels were information from the early church fathers themselves. These were probably gentile Christians who were high up in the church who wrote these gospels. Luke is my favorite gospel because of the intro. I have a question about 1st and 2nd Peter, isn’t it possible that Peter wrote 2nd peter, and a scribe wrote the other one for him? I find it hard to believe that the early church fathers would accept it to the canon if it was so forged. It could have been just one of Peter’s disciples that wrote them to give credit to peter. Also if I’m not mistaken didn’t Dom Crossan just argue that the Gospels were extended parables of Jesus. SOrry for my grammar I am on a half working laptop.

    P.S I am on pg 190 on your DJE? book and I am quite convinced that Jesus existed now. My only doubt remains is the “crucified by the rulers of the age”. But the evidence is compelling that Jesus the Christ did infact exist.

  7. Avatar
    RonaldTaska  June 3, 2013

    It is an excellent question and an excellent answer. Confirmation bias, with people hearing what they want to hear, is a huge problem in both religion and politics. The biggest problem, as you so capably describe in “Jesus Interrupted,” is that if the Gospels were really written by eyewitnesses, then there would not be so many discrepancies in the four Gospels accounts.

  8. Avatar
    SJB  June 3, 2013

    Prof Ehrman

    I’ll defer to your expertise on the reliability of Papias but his quotations do raise some questions.

    1. Does anybody think “his” Matthew was “Q”?
    2. When he says “Hebrew” did he actually mean Hebrew? Would he have known that Jesus spoke Aramaic? 3. Some scholars detect an Aramaic underpinning to some of the Jesus sayings so what of the possibility that there was a pre-canonical Aramaic literary layer as well as an oral one?

    thanks

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  June 3, 2013

      Yes, some have suggested his Matthew was Q; the problem is that our Matthew, and our Q, were both composed in Greek. And yes, Hebrew may mean Aramaic in this context.

  9. Avatar
    FrankJay71  June 4, 2013

    Dr. Ehrman. Speaking of Papias, I believe I read in one of your books a while back Papias’ discussion on death of Judas. It seems other translations I’ve read have Judas becoming stuck in a passageway and being struck down and killed by a chariot. From what I recall your translation didn’t mention that. Was there a reason for the discrepancy, or am I just incorrectly recalling what I read?

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  June 6, 2013

      I think you got the passage mixed up a bit. Papias says that Judas swelled up so much that he got so large that he could not walk down a narrow street that a wagon could go down — not even his head would fit. He eventually “burst open” — which I guess means that he got so fat he blew up. (I’m always reminded of a scene from the Brad Pitt movie “Seven”)

      • Avatar
        FrankJay71  June 7, 2013

        The passage I’ve seen is referred to as Fragment III of Expositions of the Oracles of the Lord. The passage reads, “Judas walked about in this world a sad example of impiety; for his body having swollen to such an extent that he could not pass where a chariot could pass easily, he was crushed by the chariot, so that his bowels gushed out.

        Some sites make the point that the translators are Roberts-Donaldson, about whom I know absolutely nothing . Is it not a reliable translation? I’ve run across it on many sites, including for example http://www.earlychristianwritings.com/text/papias.html.

        • Bart Ehrman
          Bart Ehrman  June 7, 2013

          I’m not sure which text they are translating. I have a collection of all the fragments of Papias in Greek and Latin in my Loeb edition of the Apostolic Fathers, and I provide translations there. Without my books (I’m, uh, at the beach…) I can’t tell whether they are mistranslating or basing their translation on some later version of the tradition. (We don’t have Papias’s writings, only later quotations of them; but I don’t recall this one)

  10. Avatar
    fred  June 12, 2013

    Richard Bauckham (“Jesus and the Eyewitnesses” agrees that the Papias tradition about Mark is untrustworthy, but he believes there’s good evidence that the Gospel nevertheless derives from a preaching tradition that starts with Peter.

    His argument begins by reference to the preface of Luke’s Gospel. Luke refers to his sources as being “those who were from beginning eyewitnesses and ministers of the word.” This indicates that Luke valued testimony from eyewitnesses, and of course (some version of the) Gospel of Mark was his most important source. Next, he demonstrates Peter’s prominence in the narrative (e.g. Peter is the first disciple named in the Gospel, and Peter is also named specifically at the end when the women are told to tell Jesus’ “disciples and Peter that he is going ahead of you to Galilee.” Finally, he presents evidence that the Gospel is written from the perspective of a member of the 12, and it would be most likely to be Peter because of his prominence in the narrative.
    Are you familiar with this theory? What do you think of it? If this is a credible theory, doesn’t it also suggest there may have been an element of truth to Papias’ comments?

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  June 13, 2013

      Yes, I’m familiar with the theory. I don’t buy it for a second — I think it’s problematic at every point. But it would take more than a comment here to deal with. I hope to write a book on the broader topic some day. (But for openers: I think claims that Mark’s Gospel is from an insider’s perspective simply does not take into account how narratives are *typically* constructed by authors. Even novels could be claimed to have been written from an insider’s perspective. It has nothing to do with historical reality but simply literary technique.)

      1
  11. Avatar
    Hngerhman  April 5, 2019

    Dr Ehrman –

    It’s clear that Mark seems to make mistakes in terms of places in Palestine, names of Herodian family and ancient high priests, and the incompleteness of the destruction of the Temple, to name just a few.

    Question 1: are there examples where Mark also makes obvious errors regarding the prevailing beliefs in then-current Judaism?

    What sparked the question: in “Paul”, NT Wright proffers an interesting point – that during the Roman occupation there was a strong sense that God had not yet fully returned to the Temple. NTW contends that, despite the rebuilding post-exile and the functional centrality of the Temple, it more represented the memory of divine presence; the full divine restoration had yet to take place. If this is truly the case, it would then seem to imply that Mark’s rending of the temple curtain stems from a misunderstanding of the nature of the then-present relationship between God and the Temple and people. God was not there, so the tear in the curtain didn’t symbolize what Mark meant for it to.

    Question 2: Do you think NTW has this point correct?

    Thanks a ton!

    • Bart
      Bart  April 5, 2019

      1. The big issue is Mark 7:1-3, and whether “all the Jews” could be plausibly said to wash their hands before eating. Debated point, but hte usual answer is no.
      2. I’ve never heard that argument and can’t think what evidence there is for it, so I don’t know!

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