I will get back to blogging the various patristic traditions about Mark soon, but in the meantime here is Mike Bird’s view on the emergence of the four Gospel canon. My own view is that the Apostolic Fathers tend to quote either independent oral tradition or, if they reference a written text (e.g., the Didache), it is most likely Matthew (see the studies by Koester, Massaux, Gregory and Tuckett, etc). The Synoptic Gospels and possibly John (and other sources?) are included in Justin Martyr’s “Memoirs of the Apostles,” memoirs written by the apostles or their assistants (Dial. 103.8). I think a fourfold gospel canon probably emerged sometime between Justin and Irenaeus; Irenaeus’ curious argument about why there are four and only four Gospels shows that he is defending an already existing fourfold Gospel canon that was popular but may have not yet won the day. Other Christian groups selected just one Gospel like the Marcionites (some version akin to Luke), the Ebionites (a Hebrew version of Matthew) or the Diatessaron or were willing to use both the New Testament Gospels and their own Gospels such as the Valentinians. What do you think?
In the last post and the good discussion in the comments I noted I lean towards the view that the early 2nd century bishop Papias of Hierapolis was referring to some version of canonical Mark and Matthew. Since I have no reason to assume that Papias was not telling the truth when he writes that he received the tradition from followers of John the Elder, I think that his tradition is important in helping to determine the date of these two gospels and their early reception if these ideas were being entertained by the elders at the turn of the century. But whether they are necessarily historically accurate is another question. As it happens Robert Myles, a PhD candidate at the University of Auckland who I met at an SBL meeting, has written a post tackling what seems to be a pendulum shift in terms of accepting the historical reliability of the traditional authorship of Matthew. He also brings up the interesting question of ideological context that sees the rise of highly traditional views in some quarters of scholarship and one could cite the rise of popular mythicism online at the far end of the spectrum on the other side as part of this same cultural matrix. But what do you think: does the evidence (the unanimity of the patristic tradition and titles, the gospel as engaged in an internal Jewish debate, the name change from Levi the tax collector to “Matthew” in Matt 9:9) support Matthean authorship or is there too many historical issues with the Papian tradition (e.g., Greek Matthew is dependent on Greek Mark) to speculate beyond the anonymity of the Gospel?
Every year there is a student conference hosted by the Universities of Sheffield, Manchester or Durham. I have really enjoyed participating the last 2 years as it is a chance to meet a variety of scholars and students and each institution has its own strengths and research interests so it makes for great discussion. At it on Monday I presented on “Papias and the Four Canonical Gospels” where I looked at the question of whether Papias’s traditions on the evangelists Mark and Matthew (as quoted in Eusebius, H.E. 3.39.15-16) were meant in reference to canonical “Mark” or “Matthew” and whether there is evidence that Papias also knew the Gospels of Luke and John even though there is no explicit tradition on the latter in the surviving citations of Papias (unless Charles E. Hill is right on a New Papian Fragment). In my view, I think it is more probable than not that Papias was intending to refer to some version of our “Gospels according to Mark/Matthew,” despite issues with the (mistaken?) tradition that Matthew originally wrote in a Hebrew (Aramaic?) dialect, but that the evidence put forward by some scholars for knowledge of Luke and John is inconclusive at best. I received some great questions afterwards and most rewarding of all got the chance to discuss some of my ideas on Papias with Dr. Francis Watson who has recently worked on the fourfold Gospel canon.
A number of other papers caught my attention. One student looked at how to interpret Johannine language that suggests believers will be incorporated into the “divine identity” (borrowed from Richard Bauckham). Another looked at the parable of the tenants in the Gospel of Matthew and Thomas and, avoiding the archaelogical question of the independence or dependence of Thomas, instead addressed the meaning of the parable in the literary context of each and how this impacts on its meaning whether as a christological allegory or a critique of the desire for wealth. Other papers looked at the feminine imagery of Babylon in the book of Revelation in light of other sapiental texts, the historical Jesus’ threats of eternal judgment on the rich as a very unpalatable figure for scholarship in a modern capitalist context, at the possible authenticity of Lk 22:43-44 where Jesus sweats drops of blood against a text critic such as Bart Ehrman who finds it a later interpolation, at an ecclesiological reading of “all Israel” in Romans 11, on the interaction of Greek and Roman culture in Corinth and so on. Whether I agreed or disagreed with any of the papers, there was much food for thought.
In order to pinpoint a date for a literary work, it is important to establish a terminus a quo (limit from which) and terminus ad quem (limit to which). For instance, if we have evidence of a later author explicitly mentioning Mark or signs of literary dependence specifically on Mark (rather than some apostolic fathers just quoting oral tradition or triple tradition material in all three Synoptic Gospels), then we know that Mark must date before that text. So the external evidence:
- The earliest manuscript evidence comes from the Chester Beatty papyri (p45) in the 3rd century that contains all four gospels.
- Irenaeus (ca 180 CE) has a specific tradition on the evangelist Mark along with the other three evangelists (Against Heresies 3.1.1) and explicitly cites the text of Mark’s Gospel (e.g. A.H. 3.10.5).
- Justin Martyr’s Dialogue with Trypho the Jew (ca 150 CE) cites Mk 3:17 which alone refers to the sons of Zebedee by the name Boangeres, which is translated by Mark as the ’sons of thunder’ (Dial. 106.3).
- The Longer Ending of Mark (16:9-20) is written some time in the first half of the second century by a scribe dissatisfied with the abrupt ending at Mark 16:8 and wanting to harmonize it with the resurrection narratives of the other three NT Gospels (the definitive study is by James A. Kelhoffer, Miracle and Mission: The Authentication of Missionaries and Their Message in the Longer Ending of Mark).
- Some time in the first quarter of the second century (though most likely 110 CE), Papias refered to Mark as the “interpreter of Peter” (quoted in Eusebius, Ecclesiastical History 3.39.15). I know this is more debatable, but I am convinced that Papias was referring roughly to our NT Mark (and Matthew, cf. 3.39.16), despite some of the critical problems about matching the tradition with what has come down to us as the “Gospel according to Mark” or the ”Gospel according to Matthew.” Also, I think Papias genuinely received it at an earlier time from followers of the Elder John, so this tradition can be traced back to ”the presbyters” at the turn of the century.
- Assuming the dominant scholarly consensus on Markan priority, Mark must have been written before Matthew and Luke and there must be certain amount of time for Mark to have achieved wider circulation to have been independently (?) used by both.
- When the patristic authors write about the origins of Mark’s gospel, the patristic tradition seems divided between the view that Mark was written after Peter had died (e.g., Irenaeus, A.H. 3.1.1.; the anti-Marcionite Prologue) or that he was still alive (e.g., Clement of Alexandria, quoted in Eusebius H.E. 2.15.1-2; 6.14.5-7). However, at least a few scholars have disputed that the use of exodos in Irenaeus is a euphemism for death and intend think it means that it refers to after Peter and Paul “departed” (i.e. left) Rome, Mark transmitted the Gospel to Rome (J. Chapman, E.E. Ellis; see bibliography). For more on the patristic traditions and some critical doubts, see my post here)
Thus, if we just rely on the external evidence, I think we still have enough to safely date Mark sometime in the latter half of the first century. The next step is to turn to the internal evidence to see if we can narrow that date further (around 70 CE? Late 60s CE? Even earlier?)