The Gospel of Mark is broadly accepted as the earliest extant Canonical Gospel. Though there have been challenges to this assumption over time, notably in the Augustinian Hypothesis, which claims that the Gospel of Matthew came first, modern consensus holds that Mark has priority.
According to tradition supposedly put forth by early church father Papias of Hierapolis, Mark’s writer was Mark the Evangelist, who functioned as an interpreter for Saint Peter prior to Peter’s death in the 60s. Though this tradition is no longer accepted by serious scholars, you will occasionally hear versions of this tradition from Christians who care very little about how scholarship disagrees with their faith’s traditions.
To defenders of Christian tradition, it is a shame that scholars tossed out Papias’ testimony, because it would have helped to explain how a religion supposedly founded by illiterate Aramaic speakers could have churned out a religious text written in Koine Greek. To reasonable skeptics, the reasoning behind the disregard for Papias’ testimony is self-evident.
To the skeptically-minded interpreter of this historical matrix, serious red flags are raised as a result of Marcan priority. The most notable concern is that Mark’s author seems to know very little about Judean culture. For instance, the famous story of the night trial by the Sanhedrin is remarkably implausible, given that night trials were illegal (as were trials held on feast days). Mark also seems to have invented the town in which Jesus lived, Nazareth.
The most reasonable conclusion, and one which any honest analyst on this subject will conclude, is that Mark was neither in communication with anyone intimately connected with Jesus (ie Peter’s interpreter), nor was he from Judea. In other words, perhaps Mark’s writer did come from a Jewish tradition, but his likely geography was somewhere in the Diaspora.
The Gospel of Matthew’s writer corrected Mark’s error in Matthew 26:36-46, when he sent Jesus away to pray three times prior to his arrest. In so doing, Matthew bought Jesus a few extra hours overnight, which eliminated Mark’s technical error about the night trial. Yet Matthew’s writer also truncated the timeline Peter had to deny Jesus 3 times prior to the rooster crowing.
As with Mark’s Gospel, church father Papias also claimed to know who Matthew’s writer was; Papias claimed Matthew was Jesus’ apostle, Levi.
Once again, this claim is dead on arrival, because an apostle who knew Jesus first-hand would not have needed to rely so heavily (or at all) on the testimony of the 2nd hand Evangelist, Mark (90% of Mark can be found in Matthew). A healthy skeptic would reject the claim of apostolic authorship right away for this and other reasons, notably that scholarly consensus presumes Matthew was written not much earlier than the year 85 – Matthew is traditionally dated between 80 and 90, and was probably written after Mark but before Luke.
If we suspend our skeptical predispositions for a moment, and assume Jesus the messiah did indeed exist, then we must remain adherent to these reconstructed timelines, which means Matthew’s writer would have been in his 80s by the time he wrote his Gospel; this creates another logical dissonance, as the typical 1st century Roman adult could expect to live to be about 50 years old. To the apologist, this proposition gives nearly no problem at all; to people who actually care about whether what they believe is true or not, this timeline begins to seem implausible.
All this dissonance around the Gospels’ backstory is quite intriguing to me. It makes me wonder who these Gospel writers were, and what their philosophical agendas were. Historians assure us that we can never know for sure who wrote these gospels, and honestly, there have been so many scribal interpolations and redactions over the millennia, the claim that these texts were written by a single or couple authors is demonstrably absurd.
But suppose we imagine Mark and Matthew in their earliest forms (often referred to as proto-Gospels). For the sake of this exercise, we do not have to go line-by-line and assess whether some passage is original or a later interpolation…we can abstractly say that there were, once upon a time, original versions of these texts, and that these original versions were fairly close to the versions that existed around the year 185CE, when Irenaeus, the much-beloved Saint and Bishop of Lyon, France, penned his 220,000 word tome, Against Heresies, where he presented an official canon which included the Synoptic Gospels and John’s Gospel, along with other epistles.
How might an educated 2nd century Roman who was reading Irenaeus have imagined Mark and Matthew’s writers?
I think we can discern a fairly clear picture of these writers’ profiles based on Irenaeus and the internal text contained within their writings, despite the fact that Irenaeus repeats Papias’ folly of assigned authorship.
My contention is that the most obvious place to start looking for the people who wrote these gospels is to look for the people who used these gospels. In the case of Mark, Irenaeus tells us exactly who primarily consumed it in Book 3, Chapter 11.7:
Those, again, who separate Jesus from Christ, alleging that Christ remained impassible, but that it was Jesus who suffered, preferring the Gospel by Mark, if they read it with a love of truth, may have their errors rectified.
In other words, Irenaeus tells us that the Christians who believed the Christ did not suffer on the cross, and who saw Jesus and the Christ as separate entities relied on the Gospel of Mark. Can we determine which Christians saw Jesus and the Christ as separate entities?
As far as I can tell, the earliest heretic who held such a view was Cerinthus. Though Irenaeus does not give a concrete timeframe for when Cerinthus was active, he does give an anecdote where the Apostle John encountered Cerinthus in an Ephesian bathhouse. As a result of this traumatic encounter, John ran screaming “Let us fly, lest even the bath-house fall down, because Cerinthus, the enemy of the truth, is within.”
Given Irenaeus’ invocation of John, we might assume he intended for this event to happen between 70 and 100 CE, as tradition holds that John moved to Ephesus prior to the temple destruction in 70. A later heresy hunter named Epiphanius of Salamis linked Cerinthus to the Apostle Peter, who tradition holds was killed under Nero in the mid-60s.
Though a reasonable reader of Epiphanius should rightly be skeptical of his voluminous claims, in this context it seems quite reasonable to me that we should put Cerinthus in the so-called “apostolic age,” sometime in the mid-to-late 1st century CE.
Irenaeus gives the following statement about Cerinthus:
Moreover, after his baptism, Christ descended upon him in the form of a dove from the Supreme Ruler, and that then he proclaimed the unknown Father, and performed miracles. But at last Christ departed from Jesus, and that then Jesus suffered and rose again, while Christ remained impassible, inasmuch as he was a spiritual being.
Though there were actually several people/groups who believed Cerinthus penned Revelation and the Gospel of John, including Caius the Presbyter and an anti-Hellenistic Christian group called the Alogi, I think it is clear that the theological bias the Gospel of Mark is that Jesus should be seen as separable from the Spirit which came to him after Baptism. In that sense, I do not believe it is much of a stretch to presume the Cerinthians relied on the Gospel of Mark, and this community, according to Epiphanius, would have been somewhere between Ephesus and Galatia, in Roman Asia.
There are internal hints Mark gives for this bias, including Mark 1:10:
And straightway coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens rent asunder, and the Spirit as a dove descending upon him
There are also indications of this bias in Mark 15:21, where Simon of Cyrene carried Jesus’ cross.
Another heretic Irenaeus mentions, Basilides, also held that this reference to Simon carrying the cross allowed for trickery which allowed Jesus “…not himself suffer death, but Simon, a certain man of Cyrene, being compelled, bore the cross in his stead; so that this latter being transfigured by him, that he might be thought to be Jesus, was crucified, through ignorance and error, while Jesus himself received the form of Simon, and, standing by, laughed at them”.
This Basilidean view managed to survive, even into modern religions. The Islamic view, as represented in An-Nissa 4.157, gives the similar account:
That they said (in boast), “We killed Christ Jesus the son of Mary, the Messenger of Allah”;- but they killed him not, nor crucified him, but so it was made to appear to them, and those who differ therein are full of doubts, with no (certain) knowledge, but only conjecture to follow, for of a surety they killed him not:
So far, we have three geographically and historically distinct groups who saw Jesus as separate from the spirit, which would have given him the ability to avoid the cross: Cerinthus, Basilides, and those pre-Islamists who carried this story into Islam.
As it turns out, there is a name for this view. It is called Docetism.
In Lost Christianities, Bart Ehrman describes Docetism as coming in two separate forms. “According to some docetists, Christ was so completely divine that he could not be human…for these docetists, Jesus’ body was a phantasm.” For other Docetists who held “…Jesus was a real flesh-and-blood human. But Christ was a separate person, a divine being, who, as God, could not experience pain and death.” This Docetism continued as a running thread throughout the centuries, particularly in Arianism.
Even though Cerinthus and Basilides are often referred to as Gnostics, it would appear that they were Docetists, perhaps with varying amounts of Gnostic sensibilities in their theologies (note: The term Gnostic is quite loaded, but what I mean is that Gnostics had a particular cosmological view, where the Earth was separated from the heavenly bodies known as the Pleroma and Kenoma, and that they saw the creation of the universe as a series of emanations that began with angels in the high heaven, or Pleroma, and subsequently, these emanations gave rise to the middle heaven [Kenoma] and the material world. In a sense, the Gnostic view was a very clever solution to not only the problem of evil, but also to the question of how and why a divine realm could have given rise to the material realm. On a sidenote, I think Docetic Christianity preceded Gnostic Christianity).
One later Docetic, at whom Irenaeus launched a brutal attack in Against Heresies (later heresy hunters continued to attack him for the next several hundred years), was Marcion of Sinope, Turkey (his name would have been pronounced Mark-ee-on). Marcion held the phantasmal Docetic view, and was said by Irenaeus to have used an altered version of the Gospel of Luke. Modern reconstructions of Marcion’s supposed gospel omit, among other things, the birth story that was included in Luke’s Gospel. These reconstructions raise the question as to whether Irenaeus may have misinterpreted Marcion’s Gospel; perhaps Marcion was using an altered version of the Gospel of Mark. This hypothesis finds support with the fact that Marcion had a student named Lucan. What we might indeed have with Marcion’s Gospel is the elusive Q document.
Given this matrix of early heretics, Cerinthus, Basilides, Marcion, and community members within their respective sects are all plausible candidates for Mark’s potential author(s). This plausibility is increased when we consider that they were all living between the late 1st and mid-2nd century, exactly the timeframe when Mark was written.
Next, I turn my attention to Matthew. Who could have written Matthew?
Again, my suspicion is that any sect which exclusively used Matthew becomes the most likely candidate for the sect which wrote Matthew. Again, Irenaeus tells us who that was:
[The Ebionites] use the Gospel according to Matthew only, and repudiate the Apostle Paul, maintaining that he was an apostate from the law
As far as I can tell, there is no specific author that we can find who was an early (pre-180) member of the Ebionites, save for their presumed leader, Ebion (that probably wasn’t his name, as Ebionite meant “poor”). One speculation I have made in the past is that the real identity behind a man referred to as Peregrinus Proteus might have contributed to Matthew. We are told by Lucian that Peregrinus wrote for Christians around Palestine in the 120s, roughly the area of Pella.
With the Ebionites, we also have a candidate to whom Paul referred in his Epistle to the Galatians 2:11-12, when he wrote of Cephas being influenced by men “from James” who discouraged him from eating with the Gentiles:
When Cephas came to Antioch, I opposed him to his face, because he stood condemned. For before certain men came from James, he used to eat with the Gentiles. But when they arrived, he began to draw back and separate himself from the Gentiles because he was afraid of those who belonged to the circumcision group.
Strengthening the link here is that the Ebionites were said to revere James. Early church historian Eusebius of Caesarea tells us that James’ followers fled to Pella, Jordan after James’ death. Pella is almost directly between the Sea of Galilee and Jerusalem.
An intriguing contrast is drawn between the Gospel of Mark and the Gospel of Matthew. Consider Mark 9:38-40:
“Teacher,” said John, “we saw someone driving out demons in your name and we told him to stop, because he was not one of us.”
“Do not stop him,” Jesus said. “For no one who does a miracle in my name can in the next moment say anything bad about me, for whoever is not against us is for us. “
The Gospel of Matthew (7:22-23) gives a stark contrast to Mark’s description of a welcoming Jesus.
Many will say to me on that day, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name and in your name drive out demons and in your name perform many miracles?’ Then I will tell them plainly, ‘I never knew you. Away from me, you evildoers
Matthew again responds to Mark 9:40 in Matthew 12:30:
Whoever is not with me is against me…
As Irenaeus writes, the Ebionites “repudiate the Apostle Paul, maintaining that he was an apostate from the law”. In the small matrix of early Christian players I have so far described, there is a compelling link between one of the heretics and the Apostle Paul. Tradition holds that Marcion, the Docetic who was active some decades after Cerinthus (perhaps as early as the 120s), elevated Paul above all other apostles, and regarded him as the only true apostle. Marcion used 10 of Paul’s surviving epistles; the only Pauline epistles Marcion did not use were the so-called Pastorals, 1 and 2 Timothy and Titus. A compelling curiosity is that Marcion even used Pauline epistles that are today not considered authentic, including Colossians and Ephesians.
Tertullian of Carthage, a heresy hunter who had a particular disdain for Marcion, and who wrote about 30 years after Irenaeus, gives an indication in Against Marcion that Marcion discovered Paul’s epistle to the Galatians. In my opinion, one way to interpret Tertullian’s following statement is that Marcion actually wrote Galatians:
…but Marcion, finding the Epistle of Paul to the Galatians (wherein he rebukes even apostles) for “not walking uprightly according to the truth of the gospel,” as well as accuses certain false apostles of perverting the gospel of Christ), labours very hard to destroy the character of those Gospels which are published as genuine and under the name of apostles, in order, forsooth, to secure for his own Gospel the credit which he takes away from them.
The striking curiosity about Marcion’s reverence to Paul (and his anti-apostolic disposition) is that Paul never met Jesus, but the other apostles did! A skeptic might wonder if Marcion had some insight which would justify his antipathy towards the very people who were direct followers of his messiah. A cynic might conclude (as I have) that Marcion understood that Jesus’ apostles (specifically Cephas, James, and John), never actually knew a human Jesus.
Pursuing that speculation, one explanatory solution for why Marcion knew such a thing is because Marcion wrote the story which originally described Jesus on Earth (alternatively, Marcion knew the person who wrote it).
Marcion’s authorship is not terribly plausible if the Gospel of Mark was written around the year 70. Marcion might have been active as late as the 150s, and there are few indications that he was active prior to 120.
The reason we can give a minimum date of 70 to the Gospel of Mark based on the reference to the temple in 13:1-2
And as he went forth out of the temple, one of his disciples saith unto him, Teacher, behold, what manner of stones and what manner of buildings! And Jesus said unto him, Seest thou these great buildings? there shall not be left here one stone upon another, which shall not be thrown down
The Gospel of Mark also references Josephus’ Wars of the Jews, which was written in 75, when he wrote in 15:37 that Jesus “gave up the ghost”. This passage, along with other passages throughout Mark, bears a resemblance to passages found in Book 6 Chapter 5, where Josephus describes Jesus ben Ananias, a loner preacher who was imprisoned, suffered under the Judean governor (Albinus), and was killed by a catapult boulder during the Jewish Roman War in the mid-60s. Incidentally, Wars of The Jews was also heavily referenced in Revelation, which was said to have been written by Cerinthus, the Docetic heretic who had a run-in with the Apostle John.
Another fascinating parallel between Marcion and the Gospel of Mark is that Irenaeus conveys that Marcion was taught by a man named Cerdo (or Kedron). Tradition holds that Mark the Evangelist created the church in Alexandria. The fourth pope of Alexandria was also named Cerdo, and was active in the first decade of the second century. This might lead one to wonder if some version of the truth managed to work its way in to Irenaeus’ account of early church history, despite the contrary impression which Irenaeus gives, that of a zealous ideologue.
Pragmatic historians are correct when they say that we cannot isolate the original writers of these texts; however, as I think I’ve demonstrated in this post, we can get close…certainly closer than the fairy tells which tradition conveys.
With regards to the Gospel of Luke, one of the earliest consumers of Luke appears to have been Carpocrates, who is described by Irenaeus in Against Heresies i.25. My impression of Carpocrates is that he was a clear forerunner to Gnosticism, where he had elaborated on the “inferior angels” who created the Earth. In that sense, Carpocrates seems to have extended Cerinthus’ theology, which, prior to any subsequent facts, might make him a candidate for Matthew or Luke authorship. Since I have already associated Matthew with the Ebionites, Carpocrates might therefore be associated with Luke’s Gospel.
According to Irenaeus, the Carpocratians found the Luke/Matthew sentiment “Verily, I say unto you, you shall not go out thence until you pay the very last farthing” meaningful in their experiential rituals. Once again, the Carpocratians, particularly considering that we do not see evidence that they were Paul’s adversaries, seem to fit the profile of Luke’s authors.
One takeaway from Irenaeus’ consumer profiles he described in AH iii.11.7 is that these people were simply consumers and not authors of the texts. That, of course, is an economical conclusion, in that we do not need to make unwarranted assumptions. However, it seems to me that these earliest consumers of the Gospels are also exceedingly good candidates for authorship, especially in light of an increasing inclination for late-dating of the Gospels.