Is Mark an Eyewitness Account?

How do we know that Mark wrote the gospel of Mark? How do we know that Mark recorded the observations of an eyewitness?

The short answer is because Papias (< 70 – c. 155) said so. Papias was a bishop and an avid documenter of oral history from the early church. His book Interpretations was written after 120 CE.

Jesus died in 30, Mark was written in 70, and Papias documents Mark as the author in 120 (dates are estimates). That’s at least 50 years bridged only by “because Papias said so.”

But how do we know what Papias said? We don’t have the original of Papias, nor do we have a copy. Instead, we have Church History by Eusebius, which quotes Papias and was written in 320.

And how do we know what Eusebius said? The oldest copies of his book are from the tenth century, though there is a Syriac translation from 462.

Count the successive people in the claim “Mark wrote Mark, which documents an eyewitness account”: (1) Peter was an eyewitness and (2) Mark was his journalist, and (3) someone told this to (4) Papias, who wrote his book, which was preserved by (5) copyist(s), and (6) Eusebius transcribed parts of that, and (7) more copyist(s) translated Eusebius to give us our oldest manuscript copy. And the oldest piece of evidence that we can put our hands on was written four centuries after Mark was written.

That’s an exceedingly tenuous chain.

The sequence of people could have been longer still. Papias was the bishop of Hierapolis, in western Asia Minor. Mark might have been written in Syria, and no one knows how long the chain of hearsay was from that author to Papias. No one knows how many copyists separated Papias from Eusebius or Eusebius from our oldest copies.

It gets worse. Eusebius didn’t think much of Papias as a historian and said that he “seems to have been a man of very small intelligence, to judge from his books” (Church History, book III, chapter 39, paragraph 13). Evaluate Papias for yourself: he said that Judas lived on after a failed attempt at hanging and had a head swollen so large that he couldn’t pass down a street wide enough for a hay wagon. Who knows if this version of the demise of Judas is more reliable than that in Matthew, but it’s special pleading to dismiss Papias when he’s embarrassing but hold on to his explanation of gospel authorship.

Even Eusebius’s Church History is considered unreliable.

The story is similar for the claimed authorship of Matthew. A twist to this story is that Papias said that Matthew wrote his gospel in Hebrew (or perhaps Aramaic), which makes no sense since Matthew used Mark, Q, and the Septuagint Bible, all Greek sources.1

What about the other gospels? That evidence comes from other documents with simpler pedigree but later dates.

  • Irenaeus documented the traditional gospel authorship in his Against Heresies (c. 180). Our oldest copy is a Latin translation from the tenth century.
  • Tertullian also lists the four traditional authors in his Against Marcion (c. 208), but he doesn’t think much of Luke: “[Heretic] Marcion seems to have singled out Luke for his mutilating process.” Our oldest copy of this book is from the eleventh century.
  • The oldest manuscript labeled “gospel according to Luke” dates from c. 200.
  • The Muratorian fragment, a Latin manuscript from the seventh century, may be a translation of a Greek original from the late second century (or maybe from the fourth). It lists many books of the New Testament, including the gospels of Luke and John.

We grope for evidence to back up the claim that the gospels document eyewitness accounts. Perhaps only faith will get you there.

1Randel Helms, Who Wrote the Gospels? (Millennium Press, 1997), 41.

If we submit everything to reason,
our religion will have no mysterious and supernatural element.
If we offend the principles of reason,
our religion will be absurd and ridiculous.
— Blaise Pascal

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  • LearnerN

    Bob:

    Awesome post – very helpful! I’ve heard hints from Ehrman at a few of the details you mentioned in your post, so I’ve actually been looking for this further detail you provided in your post. Thank you.

    Have you read Ehrman’s book Forged? If so, how does it compare to Randel Helms’ book on the authorship of the gospels?

    And I’m not a big literary person or too knowledgeable about text transmission, except to know a little about the scribal additions and edits to the gospels in the first couple centuries. So I assume this would be expected as well with other documents we don’t have the originals of? Meaning, if Eusebius was referring to Papias well after Papias’ time…and our latest copy of Eusebius isn’t until the tenth century except for one translation in the 400’s…I guess the honest historian would admit anything’s fair game in terms of not knowing exactly what the originals said. I think the fundamentalist Christian often assumes (wrongly) that Christians of past centuries would seek to preserve the truth without any prejudice or ulterior motives…but I think evidence and fairness showed Christians in the past had no qualms changing things to fit their purposes. These are just a few thoughts of an average person thinking about how reliable/unreliable text transmission can be via ancient persons and ancient methods.

    • I’ve read “Who wrote the gospels?” by Helms but haven’t gotten to “Forged” yet. I’ve also read “The bible against itself” and “Gospel fictions” by Helms. I can’t comment on “Forged” and enjoy both authors.

      As you note, for clues as tenuous as these, the best we can say is that we see how the names became attached to the gospels, but that’s hardly strong evidence that it was the case.

  • TheNuszAbides

    it’s special pleading to dismiss Papias when he’s embarrassing but hold on to his explanation of gospel authorship.

    aw, but he was just a little slow — his ~heart~ was in the right place! meanie atheists don’t like slow folk. they wanna take slow folk’s guns away!

    #don’tpoisonthewelltooskillfully

  • Alfred Cucchiara

    For serious scholars I am disappointed that you have never mentioned the reference to Jesus by Josephus ben Matthias. Book 18 has a passage known as the Testimonium Flavianum, where it states that Jesus was the Christ and that Pilate had condemned him to the cross, that He had appeared to those who loved him on the third day as the divine prophets had foretold these and ten thousand other wonderful things concerning him. Interestingly, historians, who have existed after Plato and who have never seen Plato have written accounts about Plato that most accept as historical fact. The history textbooks you used in highschool were written by scholars who never saw George Washington. Evolution, on the other hand can be simply disproven by the simple experiment that an ancester species cannot be intentionally created by manipulating environmental conditions, and then purposefully selecting offspring with ancestorial genetically degenerated traits and then successfully mating male and female to recreate, so to speak, an ancestor species.

    • epeeist

      For serious scholars I am disappointed that you have never mentioned the reference to Jesus by Josephus ben Matthias. Book 18 has a passage
      known as the Testimonium Flavianum

      Serious scholars discount the Testimonium Flavianum as at best tampered with and at worst a fake.

      Interestingly, historians, who have existed after Plato and who have never seen Plato have written accounts about Plato that most accept as historical fact.

      Josephus never saw Jesus, neither did Paul, it is more than likely that the authors of the gospels never saw Jesus either. Your rather feeble attempt to discount the historicity of Plato or George Washington also applies to Jesus.

      Evolution, on the other hand can be simply disproven by the simple experiment that an ancester species cannot be intentionally created by manipulating environmental conditions

      It species were created intentionally then this might be true. However anyone who knows anything at all about the theory of evolution is aware that it makes no teleological claims.

      • Alfred Cucchiara

        Suffice to say that we disagree on the authenticity. My research shows that the consensus among scholars, including secular scholars, for at least partial authenticity that includes the name Jesus, who was a wise man, who had performed startling deeds, had a substantial following, was condemned to the cross by Pilate, and that those who loved him were known as Christians.

        With regard to Plato, your argument is futile because anyone can argue that someone else never existed, whom the one arguing had never seen. For example, presuming your great grandfather is deceased, but I had never seen him, I could simply insist that he never existed. Taking this logic one step further, some people still don’t believe that humans ever landed on the moon or are even techologically capable of such an accomplishment, in spite of having watched it on TV.

        With regard to reversing evolution, to me, it’s just common sense. If, with modern technology at our disposal, we cannot trace backwards over one step into the past to create an inferior breedable species, even with the realization that we know what we want to create, then how could it be possible that it had occurred forward, accidentally, to a more complex organism with an increased intellectual capacity, and where no plan, blueprint, or design exists?

        • adam

          “My research shows that the consensus among scholars, including secular
          scholars, for at least partial authenticity that includes the name
          Jesus, who was a wise man, who had performed startling deeds, had a
          substantial following, was condemned to the cross by Pilate, and that
          those who loved him were known as Christians.”

          https://uploads.disquscdn.com/images/08fc091ddefe88aa409f88a2d3b191c87f81a23ac8ae4651b93606d5747c10ac.jpg

          And yet, history, even mundane history, took no notice of a Jesus.

        • adam

          ” If, with modern technology at our disposal, we cannot trace backwards
          over one step into the past to create an inferior breedable species,”

          https://uploads.disquscdn.com/images/637bfeb32fe76da958e611fbfd841246baeabb7b96c48f9a41144e316ea0e22d.jpg

          https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/DNA
          The field of DNA science is VERY,VERY, VERY young.

          ” then how could it be possible that it had occurred forward, accidentally,”

          Twas no accident

          https://uploads.disquscdn.com/images/dbb5ebd19667aae2c9b60afdbf72e9907a2c37d01a0986f1232ed576484110bb.jpg

        • Greg G.

          The Coincidences of the Emmaus Narrative of Luke and the Testimonium of Josephus [Link] by Gary J. Goldberg, Ph.D. shows that when the parts that are considered to be a Christianese varnish is removed, the underlying text is very much like the Emmaus Road narrative from Luke 24. Goldberg considers three possibilities:

          1. The similarity is by chance.

          He rejects that because of the density and specifity of the coincidences.

          2. That someone wrote it into Antiquities.

          He rejects that because he doubts anyone in the ancient past could have imitated Josephus’ style.

          3. That both authors used a common source.

          This is what he goes with.

          But the Emmaus Road narrative is just a summary of the story in the Gospel of Luke, and Luke is mostly based on Mark which does not have those coincidences. So the apologist fallback position of a common source should be rejected.

          The Testimonium Flavianum, Eusebius, and Consensus [Link] by Ken Olson shows that Eusebius used a lot of Josephus-like terminology in his own writings, including phrases from the Christian varnish and the underlying text. So we have a person who did have the ability to imitate Josephus, so we can eliminate Goldberg’s objection to the second alternative.

          Eusebius has been accused of forging the Testimonium Flavianum for centuries. Nobody is recorded to have noticed the TF before him and for a century after him until Jerome mentioned it once, along with about 90 known references to Josephus where he doesn’t mention it.

          Origen refers to Josephus a few times regarding the mention of James and John the Baptist a few times and both together, which seems to be referring to all of Josephus’ mentions of Jesus, and the TF is now found just a few paragraphs before the JtB passage, so he would have been unlikely to miss any form of it. Origen also states that Josephus did not believe in Christ, which would be an unlikely conclusion if he had read the TF.

          Origen of Caesarea bequeathed his library to the city of Caesarea. The library was curated by Pamphilus of Caesarea. Pamphilus of Caesarea became the mentor of Eusebius of Caesarea so Eusebius was probably reading the very same texts that Origen had read yet he found the TF and Origen didn’t.

          The evidence not only shows that it was forged but whodunit, too.

        • What is your point about evolution? Are you saying that we’re unable to tend toward characteristics of our ancestors? Read about the Siberian experiment of intentionally selecting wild foxes for pet-like characteristics, making them friendly (and also changed in appearance) in about 5 generations.

        • epeeist

          My research shows that the consensus among scholars, including secular scholars, for at least partial authenticity

          Your research? Are you publishing under your own name on Google Scholar I get zero results, though when I remove your name I get a significant number of hits. Looking through the list confirms my claim about scholars regarding it as inauthentic.

          With regard to Plato, your argument is futile because anyone can argue that someone else never existed

          No, the analogy is exact. You sought to cast doubt on the historicity of Plato and George Washington based on the fact that historians had never seen either of these two people. The same argument also applies to Jesus, neither Josephus, Paul or, in all likelihood, the authors of the gospels had seen Jesus.

          With regard to reversing evolution, to me, it’s just common sense. If,
          with modern technology at our disposal, we cannot trace backwards over
          one step into the past to create an inferior breedable species

          The problem with common sense is that it only applies over a small set of human level scales (time, size, velocity) and even then isn’t reliable.

          As it is you would be wrong about breeding backwards, South African scientists have brought back the quagga and other groups are considering breeding woolly mammoths and the Tasmanian wolf.

          As for “inferior” in the past and implicitly superior in the future you are, as I said, invoking teleology which is not part of the theory. This is a fairly standard creationist straw man.

          and where no plan, blueprint, or design exists?

          All that is required is something that replicates, undergoes variation and is subject to selection pressures. Oh, and time of course but we have plenty of that.

    • adam

      ” Evolution, on the other hand can be simply disproven by the simple
      experiment that an ancester species cannot be intentionally created by
      manipulating environmental conditions,”

      How does that disprove evolution?

      https://uploads.disquscdn.com/images/de704260c6038172c69830f5b8a4718830b6eecec8c4b134d8197a027a59c2d2.jpg

    • The Testimonium Flavianum is almost universally seen as an addition to the manuscript. The conservatives are clinging to the hope (a faint one IMO) that Josephus actually wrote something here that we can get back to. If you think about it for a few seconds, you can see that this is something that a Jew like Josephus would never write.

      You should read some textbooks to learn about evolution, not Answers in Genesis or the Disco Institute.

    • MNb

      “the simple experiment that an ancester species cannot be intentionally created by manipulating environmental conditions”
      Only problem is that Evolution Theory predicts it is impossible exactly because environmental and other conditions cannot be manipulated well enough. Even better – in the case of Aurochs

      https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Aurochs

      breeders came pretty close.

      “genetically degenerated traits”
      Empty phrasology.

      FInally a fine example of reversed evolution is taking place right now before our eyes – except for creationists with their blinkers.

      http://sciencenordic.com/grizzly-polar-bear-hybrids-spotted-canadian-arctic