# The Gospels Aren't Anonymous

A common criticism of the Gospel accounts is that they are of low historical value because they are anonymous.  This is based on the observation that the authorship is never explicitly mentioned in the main body of the texts of the Gospels attributed to Sts. Matthew, Mark, Luke, or John.

If we use this criterion, then as far as I can tell from briefly sampling my own library and prior reading, the works attributed to these authors also seem to be anonymous:

• Aristotle's Poetics
• Plato's Republic
• Aristophanes' Birds
• Livy's The Early History of Rome
• Tacitus' The Annals of Imperial Rome
• Shakespeare's Hamlet
• Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice
• Kant's Prolegomena to Any Future Metaphysics
• C.S. Lewis' Mere Christianity

Clearly this criterion is a silly one.  It is customary, both in ancient and modern times, for the authorship of a work to be stated, not in the main body of the text, but in the byline written in the title header, or else on the outside of the book.  The author may choose to begin his book by introducing himself by name to the reader (especially if there is a preface), but this is not the only way that an authorial name can be attached to a book.  It's certainly not the primary method we use today.  We're more likely to find the author's name on the spine or title page than in Chapter One.

According to this apologetics website, author names in the first century were typically written on a tag which was attached to the outside of the scroll, and possibly also in the title at the beginning or end of the document.  I have checked the earliest complete manuscript of the New Testament with my own eyes (via an online scan) and I find that the authors names are clearly stated on the manuscript itself, in a header (e.g. "The Gospel of Mark") which directly proceeds the text itself.  There is no evidence that an earlier form of the Gospels ever circulated which did not contain the author name.  In other words, it is reasonable to assume that the texts were probably written by their stated authors, for roughly the same reason that we assume that the modern-day books on your shelf were probably written by their stated authors.

A better set of definitions is as follows:

1. A document is anonymous if it was first published (i.e. distributed to a broad audience) in a way that did not have the name attached to the book.  Later readers may speculate about who wrote it, and the text may thereby acquire a traditional authorship, but it is still anonymous as originally written.  Otherwise, if there is a stated author:
2. Call it genuine if it was really written by that author;
3. Call it pseudonymous if it was really written by someone else.

Pseudonymous books are not anonymous.  They have a name clearly attached to them, it's just that the name is either fraudulent or fictitious (depending on whether the author intended the reader to be deceived).

A book of the New Testament which actually is anonymous is the Epistle to the Hebrews.  The author was clearly known to the original readers, but in its published form it says nothing about authorship.  Although it is traditionally attributed to St. Paul, the text itself nowhere says this, and there are significant differences in writing style (as I know from personal experience trying to translate it one time—the Greek is difficult and uses classical words; I only got four verses in).  The later history of Hebrews was exactly as you would expect for a truly anonymous document: discussion and disagreement about whether it was really written by Paul or several other proposed candidate authors, and uncertainty about whether or not it should be included in the canon.  From the 4th century on there was  a near consensus that the letter was written by Paul, but this consensus fell apart after the Reformation.  By contrast, the other 13 Pauline epistles have Paul's name clearly stated in the salutation, and are therefore each either genuine or pseudonymous.

Now, it's certainly logically possible that the Gospels were all originally anonymous.  However, achieving this would require a complicated historical process.  It would require believing that for each gospel 1) the gospel was actually written by some person of sufficiently little importance that their name was not recorded, 2) so that the document was published and first circulated without any names attached, 3) then, at some later time, someone speculated that it was really written by the proposed author, 4) belief in this authorship became widespread without any recorded dissent, and 5) all copies of the text which have descendants were modified to include the title.  This has to have happened, not once, but four times.

The Gospel of John is a special case, because the author is mentioned in the text specifically, although not by name, by the title "the disciple whom Jesus loved".  There's been a lot of ink spilled about the identity of this person, but I think much of it is an effort to deny the obvious.  The scenes with this person strongly indicate that he was one of the Twelve Apostles.  Moreover, the statement of authorship in John 21:24, "This [disciple whom Jesus loved] is the disciple who testifies to these things and who wrote them down. We know that his testimony is true," doesn't make much sense if the identity of the apostle was intended to be mysterious.  But it all makes sense if the Gospel was originally circulated with the name "John" attached to it (as it is in every copy we have).  This isn't a watertight proof by any means, but I think it is significant when combined with the other evidence.

So I think the skeptic would do better to say that the Gospels are pseudonymous.  However, they have to pay a probability price for this too.  In addition to bucking the standard presumption of genuine authorship, we also have testimony from other early documents.  This includes the writings of St. Papias (as preserved in Eusebius) and St. Irenaeus explicitly stating the authorship of the Gospels, and even providing details about how they were written (e.g. that Mark was based on St. Peter's preaching).  These two individuals are connected by very short chains to the original generation of apostles.  In fact, both Irenaeus and Papias assert that Papias was a disciple of John, although some scholars try to argue (in my view unconvincingly) that this was a different John than the apostle.  In any case, he seems to have been related by multiple two-step chains to the original apostles, so it would be hard for a pseudonymous work to fool him.  Irenaeus, in turn, was a disciple of St. Polycarp who was a disciple of John, again a very short chain of transmission.

This is excellent evidence for the traditional authorship of the Gospels, although it may be a more efficient investment of "improbability" for the skeptic to dismiss Papias and Iranaeus rather than accept the fact that two of the four Gospels were written by direct eyewitnesses to the events in question.  (The question of whether apostolic authorship is consistent with textual evidence of date and style will have to wait for another post.)

I'm reminded that at one time it was popular for scholars to believe that Homer never really existed.  Somehow, contrary to all modern experiences of authorship, they thought that the Illiad and Odyssey must have precipitated out of the folk-consciousness, without any definite author.  That's pretty crazy.  But let's suppose that there was some definite author, and we simply don't know what his name was.  Seem plausible?  Well, this would require believing that a class of professional singers, specially trained to memorize over 27,000 lines of poetry, were completely unable to remember a single word accurately.

UPDATE: I should clarify that Papias only refers to the circumstances of the authorship of Matthew and Mark; he does not (at least in the fragment preserved by Eusebius) discuss the authorship of the Third and Fourth Gospels.  Irenaeus, on the other hand, bears witness to all four canonical Gospels.

I am a Lecturer in Theoretical Physics at the University of Cambridge. Before that, I read Great Books at St. John's College (Santa Fe), got my physics Ph.D. from U Maryland, and did my postdocs at UC Santa Barbara, the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, and Stanford. The views expressed on this blog are my own, and should not be attributed to any of these fine institutions.
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### 34 Responses to The Gospels Aren't Anonymous

1. lavalamp says:

A common criticism of the Gospel accounts is that they are of low historical value because they are anonymous.

Is it? Sounds like a terrible argument to me. I'd call it a strawman even-- but sadly, I'm sure you can find someone saying it somewhere.

P.S. Before you can use things like "Polycarp said X" as strong evidence for X, we need to talk about how reliable your source for *that* is. I'm guessing that the writings of Polycarp are not nearly as widespread and well-preserved as the NT documents.

2. g says:

Pedantic note: Aron, you have spelt "Irenaeus" in two ways, both of them unfortunately incorrect.
[Fixed --AW]

Suppose for a moment that Aron's argument is basically correct; then I think we can conclude something like the following.

1. That the "gospel according to Mark" was produced by someone called Mark. I think this would have basically no significance for its reliability, importance, etc. (If it were called "The gospel according to Mark, who was a close associate of the apostle Peter and based his writing on Peter's eyewitness reminiscences", that would be a different matter, but the people who named it regrettably omitted to give it that name.)

Note: actually "produced by" is an oversimplification. I'll come to that later.

2. That the "gospel according to Matthew" was produced by someone called Matthew. This might mean it was by the apostle Matthew, listed in the Synoptic gospels but notably not in John; but, again, the author neglected to call it "The gospel according to Matthew, the tax collector and apostle", and unlike John it contains no internal evidence that it has anything to do with him.

3. That the "gospel according to Luke" was produced by someone called Luke. If we assume -- as everyone does, with quite good reason -- that Luke and Acts were written by the same person, then here there's a bit of internal evidence that the Luke in question is the one mentioned in some of Paul's letters, who appears to have accompanied Paul on some of his journeys. That might be evidence for the reliability of Acts. It wouldn't do much for the gospel, since there's no reason to think that that Luke was an eyewitness or closely associated with any eyewitness.

4. That the "gospel of John" was produced by someone called John. Here the internal evidence provides a very obvious John for it to be, and I think it's fair to say that if it was originally circulated as "according to John" then either it's that John or someone was being deliberately deceitful. But it's also notable that the same internal evidence also makes it clear that the document wasn't simply written by that person; some, at least, was written by someone else. The usual story, which seems to me perfectly consistent with the evidence and doesn't require any particular dishonesty anywhere, is that the GoJ is "by" John in something like the sense in which "Surely you're joking, Mr Feynman" is "by" Richard Feynman; that is, John talked to someone else, who wrote the "gospel according to John". It's fairly clear that John had died by the time the GoJ reached its final form; I don't think we can be sure of whether he actually got to read any of it before his death. -- This would suggest that the GoJ has at least some contact with eyewitness testimony.

In other words: we could conclude that John was probably (at least) based on what John said; about Mark and Luke we'd learn basically nothing new; as for Matthew, we'd have reason to think it was written by a Matthew but not much to think it was written by the Matthew. None of that seems like it would be a huge disaster for skeptics. So, anyway, is the argument correct? Some of it, maybe; it seems plausible that the gospels were circulated with their standard attributions very early on, and maybe from the outset. But I'm not so convinced that this makes pseudonymy implausible. Consider: among early Christian documents that purport to have been written by apostles and others of comparable stature, what fraction were actually written by their alleged authors? Even if we assume that the NT documents' traditional ascriptions are all correct, we have to set them alongside (for instance) two gospels "of Thomas", one "of Peter", one "of Mary", one "of James", plus a whole bunch of other things "of Peter". It seems clear that at least some of the early Christians were very willing to assign books to these authors that probably were not actually written by them, and that plenty more found the assignment plausible. I therefore consider the step from "There is no evidence that an earlier form of the Gospels ever circulated which did not contain the author name" to "In other words, it is reasonable to assume that the texts were probably written by their stated authors" quite wrong, and that "in other words" seems particularly overoptimistic.

Also ... there's an interesting rhetorical move in what Aron's written: he argues that it's improbable that all the gospels were originally anonymous, on the grounds that it's unlikely that the same sequence (obscure author -- forgotten author -- tradition springs up -- tradition generally accepted) would happen independently four times. But then the conclusion he actually wants is that none of them was originally anonymous. Of course the fact that it's unlikely for something to happen independently four times doesn't mean it's unlikely to happen once out of four opportunities!

It seems really quite unlikely that Matthew's gospel was written by one of Jesus's disciples. It shows every sign of borrowing a lot from Mark (which makes no claim to have been written by an eyewitness); why would an eyewitness, who was present for most of the events described, do that? And Papias seems to think that Matthew, or at least the sayings of Jesus it contains, were written "in the Hebrew dialect", but there's no sign at all that that's true. What grounds are there for thinking that Papias is a reliable informant about who wrote what? The fact -- assuming it to be one; the evidence seems extremely thin -- that he was at one time taught by John is hardly much reason for thinking he couldn't be wrong about the authorship of Matthew.

3. Aron Wall says:

lavalamp:

I'd call it a strawman even-- but sadly, I'm sure you can find someone saying it somewhere.

I'm guessing that the writings of Polycarp are not nearly as widespread and well-preserved as the NT documents.

Polycarp comes into the chain of testimony for the Gospels as an intermediate step (although we do have a letter by him to the Philippians it doesn't address the authorship of the Gospels). So you should be asking how many manuscripts of Irenaeus and Eusebius we have. For Eusebius, the answer seems to be 36, including manuscripts in Syriac, translated before 462. In the case of Irenaeus, I found a website saying there were 3 manuscripts prior to the 10th century, with the first branch point is prior to its translation into Latin in 380, although the Greek manuscripts are not complete. Additionally there is the possibility for textual corruption of whatever manuscript of Papius Eusebius had.

Of course this isn't as good as for the NT itself. It's more similar to the situation with most other ancient historical documents. But that doesn't mean you don't still pay a steep probability price for postulating a textual corruption. It's just not quite as large as for the NT books. Also, if you have to explain away both the NT documents and later documents, then one is stacking up more improbabilities than if it were the NT alone.

One could illustrate this point by imagining a silly skeptic (this one is a strawman, for purposes of illustration) who refuses to believe Irenaeus is really written by Irenaeus until you show him a document by someone else saying that it was, and then he'll refuse to believe that document until its authorship is cited by another author, and so on ad infinitum. That might make sense to people reasoning from a "foundationalist" epistemology, but from the Bayesian point of view the point is you pay a price for each additional deception you need to postulate.

4. lavalamp says:

Also, if you have to explain away both the NT documents and later documents, then one is stacking up more improbabilities than if it were the NT alone.

Depending on whether or not they're independent corruptions.

...and then he'll refuse to believe that document until its authorship is cited by another author, and so on ad infinitum.

My favorite example of this is in Lewis Carrol's "What the Tortoise said to Achilles".

I don't think there's a question that additional layers of removal reduce evidential weight (it's not like evidence gets *better* over the telephone game, and it probably won't stay the same, either, therefore...). The question is just how much. To use Polycarp as evidence, we actually have to trust Eusebius and Eusebius's source(s), that Irenaeus is actually independent, etc. I don't think this is going to add up to 20dB of evidence; maybe 10dB is possible. And, as g points out, once you're all done you've shown something that doesn't really make much difference (in this case).

Anyway, I personally don't doubt that the commonly ascribed authorships for most of the books go back very far indeed. It's not the same as claiming they're correct, which I'm more pessimistic about. :) But even that doesn't matter too much.

Actually, I guess it does matter a little. It'd be pretty bad for the Christian's case if it turned out that most of the books were pseudonymous and deliberately crafted to appear to be written by someone other than the original author.

5. Aron Wall says:

g:

1. That the "gospel according to Mark" was produced by someone called Mark. I think this would have basically no significance for its reliability, importance, etc. (If it were called "The gospel according to Mark, who was a close associate of the apostle Peter and based his writing on Peter's eyewitness reminiscences", that would be a different matter, but the people who named it regrettably omitted to give it that name.)

Again, this is logically possible, but how likely is it? Like the anonymity hypothesis, it requires a relatively complicated chain of events to pull this off. You need to postulate that 1) there existed in first few decades after Jesus' ministry some other person, completely unknown to us, named Mark (different from the companion of Peter & Paul described in Acts, 2 Timothy 4:11, and 2 Peter 5:13, Papias, and Iranaeus), 2) who was sufficiently close to the original disciples of Jesus to incorporate some valid historical material about Jesus into the text, 3) but sufficiently far away that the skeptic gains traction by saying it was written by the hypothetical Mark instead of the obvious Mark. Furthermore that 4) the authorship of the Gospel was originally genuine (intended to display the actual authorship) but that there was a mix-up and the Church forgot the actual author of one of its most important texts, coming to believe that it was written by the more famous Mark. And then, after all that, one still has to face the fact that's it's flatly contrary to the testimony of Papias and Irenaeus, who are quite clear that the Gospel was written by the Mark, based on Peter's teaching. This seems to me to be comparably bad or worse to the anonymity hypothesis. Both the traditional view and the pseudonymous view are a lot better than this.

The improbability is compounded if you end up having to use this explanation for Matthew as well as Mark:

2. That the "gospel according to Matthew" was produced by someone called Matthew. This might mean it was by the apostle Matthew, listed in the Synoptic gospels but notably not in John; but, again, the author neglected to call it "The gospel according to Matthew, the tax collector and apostle", and unlike John it contains no internal evidence that it has anything to do with him.

But it does contain internal evidence. If the phrase "The Gospel according to Matthew" was in the title header of the original text, then the term Matthew is defined, in the very same text, in verses 9:9 and 10:3. An ordinary reader of the text would assume these were the same person---it's if they weren't the same then the onus would be on Matthew #2 to have named himself in more detail. If he didn't, this would be borderline deceptive and I think would almost qualify the text as being psudonymous. On the other hand, if the author was being deceptive, there's no reason to postulate that its author was even named Matthew. So again, pseudonymity is a better line for the skeptic to take here.

Let me note in passing here that if, in order to avoid becoming a Muslim, I had to postulate that parts of the Qu'ran were written, not by Mohammed, but by some other unknown Mohammed who was confused with the original, I would start getting very worried that Islam might be true after all...

3. That the "gospel according to Luke" was produced by someone called Luke. If we assume -- as everyone does, with quite good reason -- that Luke and Acts were written by the same person, then here there's a bit of internal evidence that the Luke in question is the one mentioned in some of Paul's letters, who appears to have accompanied Paul on some of his journeys.

I'm glad you seem inclined to accept the Lucan authorship of Luke and Acts. I agree that of the four gospels, Luke is the one with the most evidence of genuine authorship. However, I'm going to try to make you regret this concession. ;-}

That might be evidence for the reliability of Acts. It wouldn't do much for the gospel, since there's no reason to think that that Luke was an eyewitness or closely associated with any eyewitness.

Except for Luke's preface, where he explicitly states that, not being content with written sources (1:1) based on eyewitness testimony (1:2), he himself "carefully investigated everything from the beginning" (1:3), so that "you may know the certainty of the things you have been taught" (1:4). In other words, Luke claims to have done an independent historical investigation, and he knows that it is important to go back to the original sources. If this is the Luke who was the companion of Paul in the 50's, then he was certainly early enough to have interviewed primary eyewitness sources for his gospel. I can't imagine why he wouldn't have done so. We certainly knew he travelled around.

But even if one thinks that Luke is only a reliable historian for Acts, that book still contains lots of events which are very hard to explain if Naturalism is true, including in the parts associated with Paul's ministry.

4. That the "gospel of John" was produced by someone called John. Here the internal evidence provides a very obvious John for it to be, and I think it's fair to say that if it was originally circulated as "according to John" then either it's that John or someone was being deliberately deceitful. But it's also notable that the same internal evidence also makes it clear that the document wasn't simply written by that person; some, at least, was written by someone else. The usual story, which seems to me perfectly consistent with the evidence and doesn't require any particular dishonesty anywhere, is that the GoJ is "by" John in something like the sense in which "Surely you're joking, Mr Feynman" is "by" Richard Feynman; that is, John talked to someone else, who wrote the "gospel according to John". It's fairly clear that John had died by the time the GoJ reached its final form; I don't think we can be sure of whether he actually got to read any of it before his death. -- This would suggest that the GoJ has at least some contact with eyewitness testimony.

I agree that verse 21:24 (the next to last verse) was indeed written by someone else (speaking for a plural group as "we") than John. It's not clear what role this person or group played in the rest of John, whether they just added this codex at the end as an authenticating statement, or whether John dictated to them, or whether they played some editorial role in helping to shape the content of the document. But as long as the eyewitness himself was the main source for the factual details, I don't see that this matters very much. I'm inclined to think that "Surely you're joking, Mr. Feynman" is a very accurate historical source---aren't you?

But I don't see why you say that it's "fairly clear that John had died by the time the GoJ reached its final form". 21:24 speaks of the disciple's testimony in the present tense. There does seem to be a conclusion for the whole book at the end of chapter 20, but all this means is that the author(s) thought of more things to write after they'd finished (I've done it myself many times), and that they lived before the days of word processors.

Consider: among early Christian documents that purport to have been written by apostles and others of comparable stature, what fraction were actually written by their alleged authors? Even if we assume that the NT documents' traditional ascriptions are all correct, we have to set them alongside (for instance) two gospels "of Thomas", one "of Peter", one "of Mary", one "of James", plus a whole bunch of other things "of Peter". It seems clear that at least some of the early Christians were very willing to assign books to these authors that probably were not actually written by them, and that plenty more found the assignment plausible.

Well, we certainly know that the 2nd-4th century Gnostics were willing to make up a bunch of fan-fiction gospels of dubious historical worth and assign to them the names of various important people such as apostles. (By the way, I think it is some evidence for the genuineness of Mark and Luke that both are, apart from their authorial roles, rather minor characters in the NT. I think that pseudonymous writers are likely to reach for the most prestigious name they think they can get away with. Why attribute your Gospel to Mark, when it would be even more impressive if it came from Peter?) The proto-orthodox party seems to have been much more interested in verifiable chains of apostolic testimony than the gnostics were. On the other hand, these gospels never had the same degree of circulation and acceptance as the canonical gospels did, and for good reason: most of them are obvious fakes!

I think people underestimate how hard it is to produce a really convincing fake. Any fool can write something and put someone else's name on it, but it's surprisingly difficult to make a forgery without including some dead give-away which is out of character for the time period or author. Especially if the document has to be convincing to both ancient and modern readers (who are sensitive to different kinds of anachronisms from each other).

Here's a particularly egregious fake: The Apostolic Constitutions (not to be confused with the 1st century Didache on which it is partly based). A choice sentence: "Wherefore we, the twelve apostles of the Lord, who are now together, give you in charge those divine constitutions concerning every ecclesiastical form, there being present with us Paul the chosen vessel, our fellow-apostle, and James the bishop, and the rest of the presbyters, and the seven deacons. In the first place, therefore, I Peter say... [insert 4th century canon law]".

Now, of course, most pseudonymous documents aren't nearly this bad. But there is a general tendency for overreaching, I think. It may not be so bad if you just want to write a didactic epistle and then put the name of someone famous on it (though even here the greetings section may pose challenges), but if you want to write a historical gospel you'll either have to avoid putting in corroborating details of historical place and manner (in which case you'll get something similar to a lot of the gnostic gospels) or else make a lot of stuff up (which makes it more likely you'll make a false step and say something verifiably wrong---I'm not talking about the sorts of superficial or apparent contradictions you find in all historical documents, but obvious smoking guns.)

My point here is that it's not hard to create a pseudonymous fake, but it is hard to create a convincing fake and then get it universally accepted amongst a group of people whose leaders are assigned status based on their degree of acquaintance with the actual apostles. Pseudonymity is still probably the least bad of the available options for the skeptic, but once again you pay a probability price, especially if you need to use it multiple times.

Also ... there's an interesting rhetorical move in what Aron's written: he argues that it's improbable that all the gospels were originally anonymous, on the grounds that it's unlikely that the same sequence (obscure author -- forgotten author -- tradition springs up -- tradition generally accepted) would happen independently four times. But then the conclusion he actually wants is that none of them was originally anonymous. Of course the fact that it's unlikely for something to happen independently four times doesn't mean it's unlikely to happen once out of four opportunities!

Yes, for small values of $\epsilon$, $4\epsilon$ (the probability that one Gospel is anonymous) is indeed a lot bigger than $\epsilon^4$ (the probability that all four Gospels are anonymous, to the extent that this is independent).

But look, for apologetic purposes I don't actually need all 4 Gospels. If any of the Gospels is genuine, then I can begin to build a case based on that Gospel. Sure, the more Gospels you allow me, the easier things will be, but if even one Gospel is basically accurate, Naturalism is doomed. So even if I lose some of the Gospels along the way, I can still reach the finish line.

It seems really quite unlikely that Matthew's gospel was written by one of Jesus's disciples. It shows every sign of borrowing a lot from Mark (which makes no claim to have been written by an eyewitness); why would an eyewitness, who was present for most of the events described, do that?

Because Jewish law strongly emphasized the fact that you need multiple eyewitnesses to prove things, so strongly that the rabbis required witnesses to agree to word-for-word identical testimonies? So Matthew (whose Gospel is the most Jewish in other ways) could have easily believed that his use of Mark was an effective way to communicate his endorsement of Mark's testimony?

Because Matthew had more of a legal mind than a narrative mind, so he decided to use Mark's account (with which he largely agreed) as a baseline account into which he inserted Jesus' sayings, freely editing Mark's narrative whenever he wished to include new material, or remembered things a bit differently than Mark, or perhaps even was embarrassed by Mark's material (the only 2 miracles in Mark which Matthew deletes are those in which Jesus uses spit to perform the miracle, and in one case has to attempt the healing a second time to get completely effective results).

Neither of these hypotheses seem all that implausible to me.

And Papias seems to think that Matthew, or at least the sayings of Jesus it contains, were written "in the Hebrew dialect", but there's no sign at all that that's true.

The question of the "Hebrew Matthew" is a puzzle, but I don't think we can dismiss it out of hand especially since it is mentioned by several other early church historians as well. Presumably "the Hebrew dialect" refers to Aramaic (the native language spoken by Jesus and other Jews of the time), rather than the language of the Old Testament (which only rabbis could understand). Since Jesus would presumably have preached in Aramaic, his sayings would in any case have to be translated into Greek in all 4 Gospels (which contain lots of "Aramaicisms" anyway). I don't see how we could tell whether this translation occured before or after the sayings were written down.

There's nothing particularly implausible about Matthew having first written an Aramaic edition of his Gospel, and then later writing a Greek version for a broader audience. It could even be that the 1st edition is what's now called "Q", but of course that's just speculation.

What grounds are there for thinking that Papias is a reliable informant about who wrote what? The fact -- assuming it to be one; the evidence seems extremely thin -- that he was at one time taught by John is hardly much reason for thinking he couldn't be wrong about the authorship of Matthew.

The evidence that Papias was a disciple of John is not "exceedingly thin", it's stated by Papias himself as well as by Irenaeus (who are obviously not independent of themselves, but it is presumably as reliable as any of their other statements!). Unless you buy the theory that it was a different John.

Yes, of course John isn't the same person as Matthew, but since they were both in the Twelve they were close associates. So this only adds a single additional step. And of course, the additional step is not there when discussing the authorship of the Gospel of John.

6. g says:

I'm not convinced that the chain of events needed for Mark or Matthew to have been written by someone of that name but not quite the way the tradition says is so very complicated. Yes, you need someone else of the appropriate name. That doesn't seem particularly improbable; were Mark and Matthew terribly uncommon names? Yes, they need to have been "sufficiently close ... to incorporate some valid historical material" but that's basically a null requirement; anyone could do that. Yes, they need to be "sufficiently far away" to be an improvement for the skeptic, but again that's basically a null requirement, especially in the case of Matthew; most people weren't apostles. Yes, you then need the authorship to have been forgotten over, let's say, a span of 100 years; that's quite a long time. And then it's not at all surprising if the thing gets ascribed to the most famous Matthew available.

Yeah, sure, it's a conjunction of things and conjunctions tend to be less probable than one thinks. But every term in the conjunction seems to me exactly the sort of thing one would expect. Maybe it happened, maybe not, but I don't see what's supposed to be so implausible.

I don't buy the claim that if you write a book with a character called Matthew and sign yourself Matthew, you're claiming to be the same person as the Matthew in the book. I'm inclined to say it's the other way about: if you write a book with someone in it called Matthew and don't say "by the way, that's me" then readers should be expected to assume you aren't the same Matthew.

Whether Luke+Acts was written by Luke, and whether the claims its author makes of having investigated everything carefully are correct, are two completely separate questions. And those claims do not, in fact, amount to saying that Luke "was an eyewitness or closely associated with any eyewitness". I didn't say that Luke was (or that I am inclined to think he was) a reliable historian for Acts, by the way; that's another thing that's a separate question from whether he was personally involved in some of it. (My impression of Luke, for what it's worth, is that he is rather too willing to accept whatever nice-sounding stories he was told.)

The point about John/Feynman was simply that I wanted to clarify how far "according to John", assuming it to be both original and honestly intended, goes in attaching the document to John. There's no particular reason why they should be comparable in reliability. But, since you ask, I would assume SYJMF is reasonably accurate, but I bet it contains plenty of exaggeration, self-deprecation, self-aggrandizement, misrememberings, distortions for comic effect, etc. And if it contained an account of an outright miracle I would not believe it, even from Feynman.

I think John-the-person was probably dead when John-the-gospel was completed because the bit about "if it is my will that he remain until I come, what is that to you?" seems like exactly the sort of thing one would write if (1) a tradition had arisen that the Second Coming would take place before John's death but (2) he had recently died, and (3) some people were troubled by this.

Yeah, most of the noncanonical works with apostles' names attached are pretty bad. (Though there's nothing particularly Gnostic about, say, the Gospel of Peter or the Protevangelium of James or the Apocalypse of Thomas; when you say "the 2nd-4th century Gnostics", I can't help wondering: how much do you actually know about the Gnostics and about the documents you ascribe to them?)

I agree that making really convincing forgeries is difficult. We may, however, disagree about how many of the books in the canonical New Testament are examples of this :-). I think, e.g., that 2 Peter and the Pastorals are probably not-altogether-convincing forgeries. And, guess what?, they're ascribed to extremely eminent authors. So I don't agree with you that the proto-orthodox avoided doing that.

You're welcome to use whatever set of gospels (or other documents) you wish to build your case. But I'm sure you'll have the good sense not to pretend that "there's a reasonable chance that this gospel is derived at not too many removes from the testimony of someone who was an eyewitness to some of the events in it" is at all the same thing as "whatever this gospel says is likely to be true". Many of the scriptures (or whatever the right term is for them) of the Scientologists were written by L Ron Hubbard himself, but that doesn't mean that we should believe anything in them.

I'm afraid your proposals for why Matthew, if he was an eyewitness, might have based his gospel on Mark's both seem distinctly far-fetched to me. For instance, if the point was that he wanted to endorse Mark's gospel and say (in effect) "look, here are two eyewitnesses who agree", wouldn't you expect that he'd make that explicit?

The evidence for Papias being a disciple of John is as follows. (1) Irenaeus says that Papias was "a hearer of John"; he doesn't say what he means by this and it seems to me that it could easily mean a lot less than "disciple". (2) Er, that's it. So far as I can tell, Papias does not in fact claim to have been a disciple of John or anything of the kind. There's a bit in Eusebius where E. says that P. "says that he was himself a hearer of Aristion and the Elder John" (and explains why he thinks "the Elder John" doesn't mean the apostle; I think he's right about this) but so far as I can tell no actual words of Papias making that claim have survived. Well ... (3) some other later writers refer to "Papias, the disciple of John", but we have no idea on what evidence they base this and I don't see that we can put very much weight on it.

I don't understand the last bit of what you say. Papias doesn't say anything about the authorship of John, does he?

7. lavalamp says:

The evidence for Papias being a disciple of John is as follows.

One of my perpetual frustrations while a christian was being told X very emphatically, and then when I went and looked it up, it turns out X has evidence that looked like that, sometimes a bit worse or better. Assuming g is giving an accurate summary, I'm not sure how one could be more than 50% confident that Papias was John's disciple. After a while I got the impression that Christians basically experience a lot of motivated cognition when they examine evidence...

8. Larry Wall says:

Ah, yes, the argument that many Christians are silly, therefore <mumble>. Indeed, there are many silly Christians. In any large group of X, there will be a large subset of silly X. Christians do not have a corner on "motivated cognition"—in my experience, there's just as much motivated cognition on the part of those who are desperate to find a way to justify screwing around with one or more of the Seven Deadlies, especially if they were raised to respect 'em. As religions of convenience go, Christianity is far from the most convenient. In fact, it seems downright inconvenient at times.

People do not want to walk in the light. That's motivation too.

9. lavalamp says:

Christians do not have a corner on "motivated cognition"—in my experience, there's just as much motivated cognition on the part of those who are desperate to find a way to justify screwing around with one or more of the Seven Deadlies, especially if they were raised to respect 'em.

Do you agree that the world does not consist solely of Christians and people-who-are-denying-the-obvious-because-they-want-to-sin? Your comment sounds kinda like you don't recognize other groups, but I can't tell.

By "motivated cognition", I am referring to this collection of concepts: http://wiki.lesswrong.com/wiki/Motivated_cognition

I did not intend to say that motivated cognition is something that only happens to Christians. In fact, I think it requires great effort for people to avoid it.

I won't speak for others, but I was rather unhappy to discover that I didn't believe any more. In this area, at least, I do not think I can be accused of motivated cognition (i.e., because I chose opposite the direction I was motivated to choose).

Ah, yes, the argument that many Christians are silly, therefore

That's not what I was trying to say. There are forms of this argument that are not as silly as this. Please try to pretend I meant one of the non-silly ones.

10. Mom the linguist says:

Anyone can play this game if you are talking about dating or "authoring" the gospels--people want them to be by the original authors because they want to believe them, they want them to be late because they want to not believe them, on and on and on. If you read or watch anything about archaeology in Israel you can see how thick all the prejudices are on all sides, such that it's hard for any conclusions to gain consensus whatsoever. But one factor of "motivated cognition" that I think people tend to ignore is that in any scholarly pursuit, you can't get attention unless you are saying something new. This is partly why you can find someone who argues for just about any position on the order and dating of the gospels that is conceivable, even some that seem deserving of the word "silly"--for instance, that Luke was first and Mark condensed from it, which it's hard to believe anyone who has actually read them could think.

Can't we just assume that everyone has reasons for wanting to believe one way or the other, and sometimes even reasons on both sides, but accept that it is possible to come to a conclusion that you don't like at all when there is sufficient logic? If we don't think this, I don't see why we are arguing at all.

To the point in question, I think that reading John's gospel pretty simply, under the assumption that other gospels are already in circulation, it's pretty clear from internal evidence that it's claiming to be written by John the brother of James, since "the beloved disciple" is always doing stuff in the threesome of Peter/James/John established by the other gospels. The funny part about this is the author seems to be going to all this trouble to avoid his own name because he's NOT the famous John of his time--that would be John the Baptist, who is prominent in the book, and whose cache all the gospel writers are anxious to rub off on themselves. John the Baptist was amazingly influential for someone without associated writings--when the church was putting together creeds in the 4th century, there were still minority groups who considered John more important than Jesus, and there seem to still be remnants of one of those groups today.

As for why Matthew might use Mark's gospel instead of just writing from scratch--because we are all used to reading all kinds of biographies today, it's hard to really appreciate how unusual the gospel of Mark (or any gospel) is in its historical context. At this time period if someone is writing about someone famous usually you just get collections of the things they said, maybe with a little context if you are lucky, and maybe an outline of the major events of their life. A collection of incidents like this, with lots of weird little details of place and the sounds Jesus made when someone says something stupid to him--there's no model for that, and it's harder than it looks.

11. lavalamp says:

But one factor of "motivated cognition" that I think people tend to ignore is that in any scholarly pursuit, you can't get attention unless you are saying something new.

I'd call this publishing bias, FWIW. Yes, it happens, and as a result more than the expected 5% of p=.05 studies end up being wrong.

This is partly why you can find someone who argues for just about any position on the order and dating of the gospels that is conceivable...

This is bad news if you want history to strongly confirm a particular conclusion. It implies that the truth of the matter is not well constrained by the available facts. For reference, compare the contrarian stuff written about evolution, something which is well-constrained by evidence. (I.e., my perception is that there's much less anti-evolution writing and the authors of it have much higher crankpot quotients.) The liberal/conservative interpretations of NT history are much more evenly balanced than that. If the evidence were one-sided, the liberal scholars would get laughed out of town, but they aren't.

Can't we just assume that everyone has reasons for wanting to believe one way or the other, and sometimes even reasons on both sides, but accept that it is possible to come to a conclusion that you don't like at all when there is sufficient logic?

In my experience, very few people can be convinced by logical reasons, because very few people actually hold their beliefs for logical reasons in the first place. But yes, I'm rather hoping/assuming that's not the case for Aron, or I wouldn't be commenting. The ability to change one's mind about an important belief is actually an extremely rare skill, so I don't generally assume people have it. (Exception: people trained in fields constrained by evidence often seem capable of changing their mind on topics within their field.)

12. Aron Wall says:

First of all, I've updated the post to clarify that Papias only speaks to the authorship of Matthew and Mark, not Luke and John. On the other hand, Irenaeus discusses all 4 Gospels.

Regarding Papias' connection to John, Eusebius quotes the actual words of Papias, in which Papias makes the claim to have gotten information from "John the Presbyter" as source who was lived at the same time as him (when he gathered the info, not when he wrote his books). Note that Presbyter or "elder" is an official title for a church leader, not a statement about age. The main controversy---which I did not attempt to conceal from you---is whether this is the same person, or a different person, from John the Apostle. If you want to argue that "hearer" in Irenaeus means something less than close disciple, that may be so, but the fact remains that Papias cites him specifically as his source for the claim about the Matthew and Mark.

Besides John the Presbyter, Papias also cites as a living source Aristion, another disciple of Jesus (though not one of the Twelve) and as past-tense indirect sources the "disciples of the Lord" Andrew, Peter, Philip, Thomas, James, John, and Matthew, whom he also calls Presbyters despite the fact that this is pretty obviously a list of Apostles. Eusebius argued that John being mentioned twice meant that there were actually two separate Johns, although as a textual matter this can be just as reasonably explained by the fact that John was still alive, and therefore fell into both the Apostle and the Contemporary Source categories.

It also seems extremely probable to me (on the basis of a very distinctive literary style which comes through rather strongly even in translation) that the Johannine Gospel and Epistles were written by the same person, although 2-3 John (signed by the "Presbyter") have a lesser degree of external support than the Gospel and 1 John. Putting all this together, I think the traditional view makes better sense of the facts than the Two John view. However, I don't think that the Two John view is crazy, since it's actually based on some evidence, unlike the Two Matthew or Two Mark views. On the other hand, even if there were two Johns, I think that the testimony of a "John the Presbyter" who overlapped in time with the Apostles should still be taken seriously as a valid historical source for authorship information.

Regarding the Two Matthew or Two Mark theories, I don't think the various steps involved are all that likely, let alone exactly the sort of thing one would expect. There are a number of works attributed to Plato and Aristotle. Scholars believe that some of them are pseudonymous. But I've never heard of anyone saying that they were actually genuine but written by some other person named Plato or Aristotle. Switcheroos like that just don't happen all that often, certainly not as often as deliberate pseudonymity happens. In the ancient world, documents didn't just exist on their own--they survived because they were cherished by some community that preserved them. Such communities have a collective memory which passes down actual information. Of course, oral traditions aren't going to be reliable over the course of centuries, but decades is a different matter, especially when the chain is short and involves named individuals.

Sure, the mere existence of someone else in the 1st century Church named Matthew or Mark is not all that implausible. But a gap of 100 years during which the authorship can be forgotten and then misremebered is just not the sort of thing that happens all that often. Also, to a certain extent one faces the "Homer was not written by Homer but by another 8th century blind poet with the same name" problem. In any case there are some pretty clear signs that the Gospel of Mark was written by someone with a fairly close connection to the primary sources. Not only the wealth of detail, place names and circumstances, but the portrayal of the disciples (espeically Peter) as total doofuses who don't get Jesus' teaching (rather than as idealized heros as in later pseudiopigraphia) is not at all the sort of thing I'd expect to find in a text significantly more removed from the Apostles than Mark would have been.

Regarding the authorship of Matthew, I think that a lot of the things that seem strange to you might be partly attributable to different literary conventions between ancient and modern cultures. Sure, it seems strange to us for an author to talk about himself in the 3rd person in a historical text, but the fact is we have at least two other seeming examples of this in the NT alone (the Gospel of John, and 2 Cor 12:1-7---for purposes of this argument, it doesn't matter whether those texts are genuinely by John & Paul, since I'm only citing them for cultural expectations about what an apostolic author would be expected to do). Nor would they have the same scruples about "plagiarism" that have been bred into us by an academic world in which (unlike the ancient world) originality is taken as a sign of status. This isn't to say that your arguments against Matthew's authorship have no force, but I don't think any of them are as strong as the reasons to think it was written by him.

I don't understand the last bit of what you say. Papias doesn't say anything about the authorship of John, does he?

I was talking about the authorship of Matthew, via the chain [Matthew -> John -> Papias]. (Or if you insist on two Johns,[Matthew -> John -> John -> Papias]), although note that Papias claims to have multiple chains besides this one back to the original Apostles, including Matthew himself. But so far as the authorship of John's gospel goes, we have the short chain [John -> Polycarp -> Irenaeus] (and here I think the evidence from Irenaeus and Tertullian clearly indicates the Apostle John). Note that even if you think there's a 5% chance of an authorship fact becoming garbled at any given step in this chain, there's still a significant amount of evidential traction to be gained from chains this short.

I can't help wondering: how much do you actually know about the Gnostics and about the documents you ascribe to them?

Well, I've actually read some of them, which is a good start. The only gnostic gospel I've looked at which seemed as if it might contain some valid historical information about Jesus, was the Gospel of Thomas.

I don't deny the existence of pseudonymous materials in the proto-orthodox camp; what I was trying to say is that this camp seems to have made a serious effort to only accept documents which were apostolic in origin. Whether you think they did a good job on the NT epistles is an argument for another time (I think the dissimilarities between the Pastorals and the other letters of Paul are overstated), but the only non-NT documents which seem to have been serious contenders for the canon were 1 Clement (genuine, but not apostolic), Barnabas (pseudonymous) and the Shepherd of Hermas. Within the NT, the books seriously questioned in some circles were Hebrews, James, 2 Peter, 2-3 John, Jude, and Revelation.

Do you agree that the world does not consist solely of Christians and people-who-are-denying-the-obvious-because-they-want-to-sin? Your comment sounds kinda like you don't recognize other groups, but I can't tell.

lavalamp, if you go back and re-read my dad's comment, I think it will be clear that he neither denies the existence of motivated cognition among atheists, nor is suggesting the non-existence of intellectually honest atheists.

The liberal/conservative interpretations of NT history are much more evenly balanced than that. If the evidence were one-sided, the liberal scholars would get laughed out of town, but they aren't.

As for the effects of motivated cognition on NT debates, since both sides have possible biases, we can't find out who is right just by looking at motivations. But it does make it more likely that, of the two warring sides, one side is basically being silly, and should be laughed out of town, but aren't because they control their own town councils... Not that you won't find people making silly claims on the correct side too, mind you.

Both my wife and my best friend went to Chicago divinity school, and from the reports I got from them, the kinds of arguments used by liberal biblical critics aren't all that great. But I'd rather look at the evidence myself and decide what I think, rather than defer to any consensus (or lack thereof) of the scholars.

13. lavalamp says:

lavalamp, if you go back and re-read my dad's comment, I think it will be clear that he neither denies the existence of motivated cognition among atheists, nor is suggesting the non-existence of intellectually honest atheists.

(I think you meant "theists" the first time, right?) I honestly couldn't (and can't) tell. I've met plenty of people that do actually hold that opinion, and that comment pattern-matches with the sorts of things they say. But it is ambiguous, which is why I asked instead of assuming.

As for the effects of motivated cognition on NT debates, since both sides have possible biases, we can't find out who is right just by looking at motivations.

Agreed. Unfortunately, I have finite time, the field of ANE history is very large, and I don't particularly trust the average historian on any "side" to be very rational with the evidence available to them. My working solution to this problem (which applies to other important fields, also) is a series of hacks. "Experts are divided on an issue, therefore it's either debatable, the field is insufficiently constrained by evidence, or something worse is going on" is one such hack.

Due to http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Value_of_information it would seem to be the case that if christianity has good historical evidence (for or against) but it takes 10 years of concentrated effort for me personally to know this, it may still not be worth it for me to become expert enough to decide for myself.

Er, one last thought on this topic, I will say that I especially don't much trust Muslims on Muslim history, Mormons on Mormon history, on . The fact that some people can become experts on Mormon history and remain Mormons makes me reduce the reported likelihood ratios of evidence provided by people in similar epistemic states.

14. lavalamp says:

Ah, that last comment's formatting got strange; "don't much trust Muslims on Muslim history, Mormons on Mormon history, on ." should have ended with "[adherent of X] on [history of X]", but I used angle brackets instead of square brackets and it thought I was trying to type in some bad HTML and ate it.

15. g says:

At earlychristianwritings.com you can find (if I'm understanding correctly) everything that's alleged to be the words of Papias, plus a bunch of things that are merely about him.

Indeed Eusebius says that Papias said he got some information from "John the Elder". I can't see any sign that he quotes actual words allegedly written by Papias to that effect, though. The only thing I can find quoted from Papias that bears on the question is the second paragraph of the first fragment at the link above, which (at least by my reading of it) doesn't even say that Papias ever heard either John or Aristion. Perhaps Eusebius had some other writing of Papias that does make that claim. Or perhaps he was just a bit overzealous in interpreting the words he quoted from Papias.

What I find interesting here is the inflation of claims that takes place even with just a couple of steps. Papias says he took care to find out what Aristion and John had said. Eusebius says (perhaps on the basis of that alone) that Papias had actually heard them. And then you say, on the basis of that (plus some later sources that fairly obviously seem to have no information beyond what's in Eusebius) that Papias is known to have been a disciple of John.

So, anyway. You say that Papias "cites him [sc. John] specifically as his source for the claim about Matthew and Mark". This doesn't appear to be true. He cites "the Elder" (which may very well mean John) for what he says about Mark, but there doesn't appear to be any such citation for what he says about Matthew. Inflation again!

My understanding is that "Plato" and "Aristotle" were both distinctly less common names than "Matthew" or "Mark". However, I don't know quite why I think that's the case, and perhaps (e.g.) I'm being fooled by the fact that Matthew and Mark are commoner names in contemporary anglophone countries than Plato and Aristotle, which is obviously no evidence to speak of. If you have more information on this point, I'd be interested.

I do, for what it's worth, think that "two Matthews" is less likely than both of "anonymous Matthew" and "pseudonymous Matthew". I don't find any of those options anywhere near improbable enough to be ruled out. By the highly scientific process of Rectal Extraction (i.e., pulling numbers out of my arse) I suggest something like 20% for "actually written by the apostle Matthew, or something close enough still to be useful"; 50% for "initially anonymous"; 20% for "pseudonymous"; 10% for "two Matthews". For John I'd say 50%, 25%, 25%, negligible. For Luke and Mark (though maybe not for Acts) I don't think the traditional ascriptions make things much better for Christian apologists; what matter are things like whether whoever-wrote-Mark really did base it on what Peter said, and if so how much Peter said and how accurate it was, whether Luke was as careful as he boasts of having been and whether he was a good enough judge of probabilities for that care to do much good, etc.

(I don't think I have much more to say right now on the other things you said in response to me; rest assured that I did read them!)

16. Aron Wall says:

(My impression of Luke, for what it's worth, is that he is rather too willing to accept whatever nice-sounding stories he was told.)

Does this impression, by any chance, come from the fact that his stories involve miracles? Because if so, that would be double counting the prior probability against Christianity.

I think John-the-person was probably dead when John-the-gospel was completed because the bit about "if it is my will that he remain until I come, what is that to you?" seems like exactly the sort of thing one would write if (1) a tradition had arisen that the Second Coming would take place before John's death but (2) he had recently died, and (3) some people were troubled by this.

If I found out that there was a rumor about me at my church, which said that I was immortal, I think there's at least a 90% chance I would probably try to correct it before I died. Obviously if I believed it was true that would be a different matter, but I don't see why we should assume that John had to have believed this.

do, for what it's worth, think that "two Matthews" is less likely than both of "anonymous Matthew" and "pseudonymous Matthew". I don't find any of those options anywhere near improbable enough to be ruled out. By the highly scientific process of Rectal Extraction (i.e., pulling numbers out of my arse) I suggest something like 20% for "actually written by the apostle Matthew, or something close enough still to be useful"; 50% for "initially anonymous"; 20% for "pseudonymous"; 10% for "two Matthews". For John I'd say 50%, 25%, 25%, negligible.

I assume these are your liklihood ratios based on internal and external evidence, not taking into account the prior probability of Christianity.

Would you give similar figures to other ancient historical works, such as "The Constitution of Athens" by Aristotle (or if you don't like this example, any other random ancient historian)? Is there a 50% chance that this was written by someone other than Aristotle?

If so, then I think you do qualify as a skeptic about ancient history, if any particular source, including the ones which appear to be genuine, have a 50% chance of being pseudonymous and therefore dismissable.

If not, what makes you so much more confident of the reliability of secular historical sources, compared to the gospels? Are you under the impression that if you looked into the authorship of these other sources, you'd find qualitatively superior evidence to what we've seen in the case of the gospels? (Of course, we can compare the writing style to other works by Aristotle, but that assumes that these other works are by him.)

If I doubted the authenticity of this work (or any other work, by any other ancient historian), and asked you to prove it to me, do you have any solid external evidence which I couldn't scoff at as being "very, very thin", using the same sorts of techniques you've used against the gospels? (Remember that I will question the identities of any other author you can find who speaks to the question, and also question whether they are really in a position to know what they speak of.)

Now if you want to say that the prior probability of Christianity is very low, and that as a result you are willing to go with the pseudonymity hypothesis even if it's likelihood ratio were low--say 1%, which I would consider much more reasonable than your 50%--then that could be a perfectly respectable position from a Bayesian viewpoint. But in that case, you can't just shrug off the sorts of historical considerations I'm presenting here. You have to take them seriously as evidence for Christianity, even if (in the end) it doesn't turn out to be enough evidence for you.

For Luke and Mark (though maybe not for Acts) I don't think the traditional ascriptions make things much better for Christian apologists; what matter are things like whether whoever-wrote-Mark really did base it on what Peter said, and if so how much Peter said and how accurate it was, whether Luke was as careful as he boasts of having been and whether he was a good enough judge of probabilities for that care to do much good, etc.

The large majority of ancient (and modern) historical works were written, not by eyewitnesses to the events, but by historians who only had access to the first-hand sources (usually unstated), if even that. Once again, this criterion would require you to be a skeptic about ancient history in general (e.g. the work of Aristotle which I allude to). Again, it would be different if you counted Mark and Luke as significant evidence, but just had even lower prior probabilities for Christianity.

17. lavalamp says:

...historical works were written, not by eyewitnesses to the events, but by historians who only had access to the first-hand sources (usually unstated), if even that. Once again, this criterion would require you to be a skeptic about ancient history in general...

I think the question is more, when this mechanism of evidence production produces a claim for a -90dB event, should we believe it? Can you point to some other -90dB event that you believe occurred based off only historical evidence, or is this the only one? (I tried for like ten minutes just now to think of the least likely thing that I believe based on historical evidence. Best so far: Hitler was bright enough to take over most of Europe yet dumb enough to fight in Russia in winter. That feels like a -20dB event to me. I'm resisting the urge right now to look it up...)

18. g says:

Aron: no, I don't think I'm double-counting the prior probability against Christianity. Trying to defend this claim would mean getting into lots of details and this discussion is unwieldy enough already; let's just say that if you see me actually double-counting things (as opposed to making offhand remarks that make you suspect I might be double-counting something somewhere) you're welcome to point it out.

Those estimates are my all-things-considered current estimates. If your assumption that they're something else is based on thinking that they don't make sense as all-things-considered current estimates, please let me know; I may well be missing something.

(For the avoidance of doubt, though, this doesn't mean that I think they're quite likely pseudonymous or anonymous because if they weren't then Christianity would have to be right. I don't think that's correct.)

Given an ancient text ascribed to a famous person, no strong internal evidence (style etc.) indicating whether the ascription is likely to be genuine, and no special other circumstances, I suppose I'd estimate something like an 80%-90% chance of the ascription being at least basically right. (Before being confident that that estimate is appropriate I'd want to talk to an ancient historian and find out more about pseudonymy in documents of this sort. The answer might well be quite different across cultures and times. And I wouldn't be astonished if extra information led me to adjust my estimate to 60% or to 95%.)

In the particular case of the NT, my probability estimates are lower because we know that there were lots of pseudonymous early Christian documents, because it seems like there are obvious reasons why an early Christian community in possession of a gospel might be anxious to believe it to have been written by someone important and close to the events, because in the case of Matthew there are fairly decent positive arguments for pseudonymy, because one way to explain the very considerable discrepancies in (e.g.) the style of Jesus's utterance between John and the Synoptics is that they don't both derive closely from sources that actually listened to Jesus much in person, and probably for a bunch of reasons that aren't currently on the top of my head.

I don't think "pseudonymous" implies "dismissable". You can't treat a pseudonymous source exactly the same way as if it's euonymous, or whatever the right word is, but that doesn't mean the right thing is to ignore it completely.

I do think that the positive evidence for the authorship of many ancient documents is quite thin. In many cases this doesn't matter very much. (As, e.g., I say it doesn't matter much for Luke.) This is no doubt a disagreeable thing to believe, but that doesn't make it wrong.

I'm not aware that I'm shrugging off anything you say. I just happen to disagree with some of it. If there's some point to which you think I haven't responded properly and should have, let me know and I'll see if there's more I can say.

When you say "this criterion would require you to be a skeptic about ancient history in general", I think you may be assuming some things about my beliefs that aren't true. In particular, I repeat, I do not think that from (say) "Matthew's gospel was not in fact written by the apostle Matthew" one can or should infer "Matthew's gospel should be completely ignored". Nor do I think that from "Matthew's gospel was in fact written by the apostle Matthew" one can infer "Everything in Matthew's gospel is right". Eyewitness testimony is nice but it's far from infallible; non-eyewitnesses' writings can be, like many modern history books, quite reliable; documents written by eyewitnesses can be edited later to say things the original author wouldn't have endorsed; etc., etc., etc. So I think rather less hangs on this question of authorship than you seem to be assuming.

19. Aron Wall says:

I never agreed that $10^{-9}$ is the right prior probability to use for Jesus rising from the dead. Conditional upon the existence of Judaism as a possibly true religion, and Jesus as making a serious pre-Crucifixion claim to be the Jewish Messiah, the odds of him experiencing something like the Resurrection is much greater than that.

Also, if you take into account that fewer than 1 in $10^{7}$ people have the chance to be mega-dictators at all, then the odds of any particular person being like Hitler in the relevant respect is less than $10^{-9}$.

But, you might say, that's not really a fair comparison since maybe we don't actually care whether Adolf in particular did it, we only care whether somebody did it. The background rate of a random person being a mega-dictator isn't relevant, if you're just some poor Pole who doesn't care which particular person absorbs your country. Yes, and for the same reason, the background rate of a random person being resurrected isn't relevant to assessing the likelihood of Christianity.

But if you'd like to find some less probable historical events than Hitler's stupidity, you could try consulting Wikipedia's List of Unusual Deaths. Or how about Ray Sullivan who was struck by lightening 7 different times. Admittedly with a job that made this more likely than usual, but still.

20. lavalamp says:

I never agreed that 10^-9 is the right prior probability to use for Jesus rising from the dead.

I know. I still think it's generous, though.

Conditional upon the existence of Judaism as a possibly true religion, and Jesus as making a serious pre-Crucifixion claim to be the Jewish Messiah, the odds of him experiencing something like the Resurrection is much greater than that.

What does this have to do with the prior? Granted, if the "jesus rose" node in my bayesian inference network goes to "true" then the probability of Judaism will rise, and vs. versa. But currently both nodes have low probability. (Not to mention that not all folks who've weighed in on the matter agree that Judaism expected a rising savior.)

Also, if you take into account that fewer than 1 in 10^7 people have the chance to be mega-dictators at all, then the odds of any particular person being like Hitler in the relevant respect is less than 10^−9.

I (tried to?) condition on Hitler having already risen to power, so that's not what I was computing the odds of.

But, you might say, that's not really a fair comparison since maybe we don't actually care whether Adolf in particular did it, we only care whether somebody did it. The background rate of a random person being a mega-dictator isn't relevant, if you're just some poor Pole who doesn't care which particular person absorbs your country.

Right. I was computing the probability of any individual able to gain so much power doing something so stupid with it. Now that I put it like that, it's really not that improbable at all...

Yes, and for the same reason, the background rate of a random person being resurrected isn't relevant to assessing the likelihood of Christianity.

Disagree. If the background probability of a resurrection is small enough that the historical evidence cannot overcome it, then my belief in a resurrection is not epistemically justifiable. The background probability ought to be small, based on Laplace's rule of succession (which does *not* assume naturalism). Note that, in that spreadsheet I made, I put down that the world religion status of christianity cancels out most of this prior (i.e., if anyone anywhere was ever resurrected, Jesus is a good candidate to be that person). So I'm not sure if this disagreement causes us to actually use significantly different numbers.

But if you'd like to find some less probable historical events than Hitler's stupidity, you could try consulting Wikipedia's List of Unusual Deaths. Or how about Ray Sullivan who was struck by lightening 7 different times. Admittedly with a job that made this more likely than usual, but still.

Ah, that lightening thing is a good example. My estimate is that it's at least a -150dB to -220dB (depending on how you update for his occupation) event if the strikes are independent. Therefore, they weren't independent. :) I'm inclined to believe that he was either consciously or unconsciously doing things that attract lightening, or something weirder like he has a higher than normal salt concentration in his sweat that makes him more conductive than people usually are (to give a random example of this class of hypotheses; note, when I (and probably g) give an example like this it doesn't mean we agree with it--I think this hypothesis is almost certainly false--but I think that there's probably some member of the reference class it belongs to that I personally haven't thought of that is probable). Or this just isn't true. Wikipedia certainly lies on more than 1 out of 10^15 pages. His own reported hypothesis that there's a god that hates him is probably worth considering, also, if nothing else pans out.

21. J. Whelan says:

I'm not sure it is necessary to concede that verse 21:24 was written by someone other than John (though this is possible). It seems to me that the document is intended to be read aloud in a church, it was anticipated that that reader would not be John himself, and that both the reader and the congregation are meant to subscribe to the truth of John's testimony.

I any event, John 21:24-25 explicitly claims that the preceding story was written by the Disciple Whom Jesus Loved. To read it as proving otherwise, is to read into it a meaning contrary to its clear intent, which seems unreasonable. We can speculate, if we wish, that the writer is not telling the truth; but first we should at least acknowledge what he actually meant. And John 21:24 clearly does not mean to say that the Disciple who Jesus Loved did not write this; it means to say that he DID write this. Obviously, the use of the 3rd person, and the reference to a separate "we" , are not meant to contradict this claim. (Regardess if whether "we" means the reader/congregation, or a second author adding a coda or addendum).

22. Aron Wall says:

Thanks for your comment, J. Whelan. However, I wouldn't characterize the non-Johannine authorship of 21:24 as a "concession". From an apologetics standpoint the best case scenario is if 21:24 were the actual testimony of some group of 1st century Christians besides John himself. However, unless the tradition of the Muratorian Canon is accurate, it is no longer possible to determine who these people were.

But I definitely agree with your main point: that John 21:24-25 indicates that the Disciple Whom Jesus Loved is the claimed author of the text. Unless this is a lie, the author was therefore one of Jesus' closest disciples, and St. John the Apostle is by far the best fit. Especially in light of unanimous church tradition, and the fact that the title of the book, as the earliest complete manuscripts, is the "Gospel according to John".

23. E Christopher Reyes says:

“It thus appears that the present titles of the Gospels are not traceable to the Evangelists themselves... They [the New Testament collection] are supplied with titles which, however ancient, do not go back to the respective authors of those writings.” ~Catholic Encyclopedia, Farley ed., vol. vi, pp. 655-6.
“The titles of our Gospels were not intended to indicate authorship,” also adding that, “The headings... Were affixed to them.” ~Catholic Encyclopedia, Farley ed., vol. i, p. 117, vol. vi, pp. 655, 656.
“... The earliest of the extant manuscripts [of the New Testament], it is true, do not date back beyond the middle of the 4th century C.E.” ~Catholic Encyclopedia, op. cit., pp. 656-7.
The Catholic Church admits that the Gospels, “Do not go back to the 1st century of the Christian era.” ~Catholic Encyclopedia, Farley ed., vol. vi, p. 137, pp. 655-6.
“The chronology of the birth of Christ and the subsequent Biblical events is most uncertain.” ~Catholic Encyclopedia, vol. 7, 419.
“The first four historical books of the New Testament are supplied with titles [Gospel According to [Greek: kata] Matthew, According to Mark, etc.] which, however ancient, do not go back to the respective authors of those sacred writings... That, however, they do not go back to the 1st century of the Christian era, or at least that they are not original, is a position generally held at the present day... It thus appears that the titles of the Gospels are not traceable to the Evangelists themselves.” ~Catholic Encyclopedia, vol. vi, p. 655-656.

“The text of the Septuagint was regarded as so unreliable, because of its freedom in rendering, and of the alterations, which had been introduced into it, etc., that, during the 2nd century of our era it was discarded by the Church.” ~The Catholic Encyclopedia, vol., iv, pg. 625.

Quotations taken from "Man's Search For Spirituality" by E Christopher Reyes and available FREE to download at various Internet sites.

24. Aron Wall says:

Dear E Christopher Reyes,
I went back and checked your quotations with the online version of the Catholic Encyclopedia, and several of them seem to be taken out of context in a way that significantly distorts or even reverses the implication. For example (your text is in bold, italics my emphasis):

Many authors have taken it to mean not "written by", but "drawn up according to the conception of", Matthew, Mark, etc. In their eyes, the titles of our Gospels were not intended to indicate authorship, but to state the authority guaranteeing what is related, in about the same way as "the Gospel according to the Hebrews", or "the Gospel according to the Egyptians", does not mean the Gospel written by the Hebrews or the Egyptians, but that peculiar form of Gospel which either the Hebrews or the Egyptians had accepted. Most scholars, however, have preferred to regard the preposition kata as denoting authorship, pretty much in the same way as, in Diodorus Siculus, the History of Herodotus is called He kath Herodoton historia.

or

The ancient manuscripts and translations of the Gospel constitute the first group of evidence. In the titles, tables of contents, signatures, which are usually added to the text of the separate Gospels, John is in every case and without the faintest indication of doubt named as the author of this Gospel. The earliest of the extant manuscripts, it is true, do not date back beyond the middle of the fourth century, but the perfect unanimity of all the codices proves to every critic that the prototypes of these manuscripts, at a much earlier date, must have contained the same indications of authorship. Similar is the testimony of the Gospel translations, of which the Syrian, Coptic, and Old Latin extend back in their earliest forms to the second century.

In the phrase “The chronology of the birth of Christ and the subsequent Biblical events is most uncertain.”, the context suggests that the subsequent events are those of the nativity, not the entire life of Christ.

The phrase “Do not go back to the first century of the Christian era.” refers to the headings of the Gospels, not the Gospels themselves! The earliest manuscipts may be from the 4th century, but almost all scholars date the Gospels themselves to the 1st century!

I agree that the Catholic Encyclopedia argues that the headings were not original, but I'm not particularly persuaded by its argument that this is the case, which I reproduce here:

The first four historical books of the New Testament are supplied with titles (Euangelion kata Matthaion, Euangelion kata Markon, etc.), which, however ancient, do not go back to the respective authors of those sacred writings. The Canon of Muratori, Clement of Alexandria, and St. Irenæus bear distinct witness to the existence of those headings in the latter part of the second century of our era. Indeed, the manner in which Clement (Stromata I.21), and St. Irenæus (Against Heresies III.11.7) employ them implies that, at that early date, our present titles to the Gospels had been in current use for some considerable time. Hence, it may be inferred that they were prefixed to the evangelical narratives as early as the first part of that same century. That, however, they do not go back to the first century of the Christian era, or at least that they are not original, is a position generally held at the present day. It is felt that since they are similar for the four Gospels, although the same Gospels were composed at some interval from each other, those titles were not framed, and consequently not prefixed to each individual narrative, before the collection of the four Gospels was actually made. Besides, as well pointed out by Prof. Bacon, "the historical books of the New Testament differ from its apocalyptic and epistolary literature, as those of the Old Testament differ from its prophecy, in being invariably anonymous, and for the same reason. Prophecies whether in the earlier or in the later sense, and letters, to have authority, must be referable to some individual; the greater his name, the better. But history was regarded as a common possession. Its facts spoke for themselves. Only as the springs of common recollection began to dwindle, and marked differences to appear between the well-informed and accurate Gospels and the untrustworthy . . . did it become worth while for the Christian teacher or apologist to specify whether the given representation of the current tradition was 'according to' this or that special compiler, and to state his qualifications". It thus appears that the present titles of the Gospels are not traceable to the Evangelists themselves.

So basically, after giving a lot of specific evidence for the titles appearing in the same immutable way in all copies and early references, the Encyclopedia concludes otherwise because (a) the Gospels were not written at the exact same time, so how could they coordinate on naming them with the same 3-word-convention? (even though they borrow other signficant portions of text from each other) and (b) some guy Prof. Bacon claiming that the Gospels had to be anonymous because...wait for it...because all of the historical books of the New Testament (all 5 of them?) are anonymous, and this makes sense because Prof. Bacon can psychically channel the motivations for why the early Christians might have thought that was appropriate and then changed their minds. Slightly circular, I think. This sort of thing is why I distrust biblical critics.

Anyway, it is not important to my argument whether the exact phrase Euangelion kata Markon was affixed to the Gospels upon first publication (although this seems fairly plausible), but only whether some indication of authorship was affixed during the period where the original authorship was well-known. That is quite sufficient to prevent the Gospels from being anonymous (and is quite common with other ancient literary and historical works, which are not generally thought of as being anonymous, e.g. the works of Plato).

(Also, while I am not consulting the print version, I think some of your page citation numbers must also be wrong, for example, the phrase "affixed to them" is in the article on Acts of the Apostls, which would be under "A" not "G".)

25. Aron Wall says:

Commenter "gary" is permanently BANNED due to repeated violations of rule 9 of the comments policy, even after a warning.

Leaving the same comment on multiple blogs, without adjusting it in any way to the content of the particular arguments being made, is in poor taste and not conducive to real dialogue. I don't want my readers wasting their time engaging with the arguments of somebody who makes a "drive-by-shooting" on multiple blogs and then doesn't stick around to defend their claims.

26. Scott Church says:

I got a chance to read gary's comment before it was removed... In addition to being banal, it was also a worthless argument. He failed to take into account the Christology of the much earlier Pauline epistles (which differed little in that respect from the later gospels) and the way oral traditions worked in that age--when there were no printing presses, oral as well as written preservation of eyewitness traditions was a careful discipline, and people didn't live their lives through their tweets.

27. wendell says:

You cite examples of other writings which are anonymous as if to compare their anonymity to "Mark's Gospel". So far as I can tell these other books you listed do not threaten you with "hellfire and brimstone" if you do not believe they contain the truth, whole truth and nothing but the truth. So far as I know they do not contain prophecies that were made but which failed to come to pass.

28. Aron Wall says:

wendell,
OK, I'll bite:

1. What do either of those things have to do with the question of whether the Gospel of Mark is anonymous?

2. Where in the Gospel of Mark does it state that people will go to Hell if they do not believe that the Gospel of Mark contains "the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth"? I'd like a specific verse reference please. (Please note that most scholars think that the original version of the Gospel ended at verse 16:8.)

If you are curious about what the Bible actually teaches on this issue, you could read my recent blog post on that subject.

3. The Gospel of Mark contains plenty of examples of Jesus making correct prophecies, such as his own Crucifixion and Resurrection on the third day (multiple times), the destruction of the Temple (which occured in 70 AD), the existence of many false prophets and Messiahs, the persecution of the Church, and the spreading of the gospel message to the whole world. It is true that the Second Coming has not yet occured, but it is explicitly stated in the book that not even Jesus knew when that would happen (13:32).

But perhaps you are concerned about verse 13:29, which seems at first sight to state that the event would occur in a single generation. These verses apparently contradict, but I think the most likely explanation (after comparing to the parallel passages in Matthew and Luke) is that Jesus was asked two separate questions (about the Temple and his Second Coming) which received two different timing answers (both correct) and that the disciples failed to make a clear distinction between these two answers (since neither of them had happened yet). See the discussion here for more details. But there are other possible explanations as well.

29. Jacob Choudhury says:

There's no good reason why a tax collector in Palestine/Israel 2000 years ago would not have known how to write in Greek and how to take shorthand notes. I don't have a time machine to take 12 people in a jury back 2000 years to see "Matthew the tax collector" writing the gospel of Matthew but atheists don't have a time machine either. .The claim that there is no internal evidence Matthew wrote this gospel is nonsense. The fact that it is the longest gospel can be interpreted to indicate that it was written by someone who was good at taking notes. .like a tax collector! The list of the apostles in Matt 10:3 where only Matthew's "job description" is given can be interpreted as supportive of the then well known oral tradition that Matthew wrote this gospel. .There's no good reason why the Christians in Rome in 64 AD and before couldn't have had copies of Matthew's gospel. There's no good reason for believing that individuals who knew Matthew couldnt have travelled to Rome before 64 AD to start house churches.

30. Chavoux Luyt says:

I would also add that IMHO there is internal evidence that our gospel of Matthew was originally written in Hebrew. E.g. the name of "Jesus" (Iesous in the Greek) given by the angel (Matt.1:21) does not mean anything in Greek, but "Yeshua" does mean salvation (or "YHWH saves") in Hebrew. Similarly, the reference to a prophecy that the Messiah would be called "Nazarene" (Matt.2:23) cannot be found in the Greek Old Testament (and does not make any sense in the Greek), but in the Hebrew, the Messiah is called "Netzer" (branch) in Is.11:1, for example.

31. NWR says:

Hi Aron,

I was just curious what specific version of the Bible would you personally recommend reading? I have one I received as a gift from my Grandma on my 13th Birthday, but I'm not positive as to whether it's one that's been more altered or not. I'm looking to read one that's as authentic and true to the original as possible. Thank you.

32. Aron Wall says:

Chavoux,
Jesus grew up in a Jewish family. And his name was given before anyone wrote the Gospel down. So it is hardly surprising that he would have a Jewish name!

As for "Netzer", I don't think that proves that the Gospel of Matthew was originally written in Hebrew. It just proves that whoever wrote the Gospel was familiar with the Hebrew language.

Since Jesus preached in Aramaic, and the Gospels are in Greek, somebody has to have done the translation. But most scholars think that this translation was done by the Evangelists themselves, so that the earliest edition of the Gospels was in Greek.

NWR,
Can you tell me which translation your Grandma gave you?

To a first approximation it doesn't matter very much which Bible you use, since most versions are pretty similar. The most important thing is that you start reading.

If you want the absolute minimum amount of distortion, then you'll need to become an expert in the original languages, Hebrew and koine Greek. But I'm guessing that's too much work for you (it's certainly too much for me, although I know a smattering of ancient Greek). So I'm assuming you're going to go for a translation into English.

There are 2 basic possible sources of distortion: which are called 1) text and 2) translation.

1) Text is about which version of the original manuscripts they use. There's a scholarly field called Textual Criticism where they sort through all the manuscripts and (when there are small differences) try to figure out which version is earliest. Almost every modern translation will be based on the best available modern editions of the original text, and if they are sufficiently scholarly (e.g. the NIV) they will identify with footnotes any verse where there is significant uncertainty about the original text. Most of these are very small changes that don't make much difference. (There are only two long passages which involve major controversies about whether they should be there, namely John 8:1-11 and 16:9-20.)

However, some very old translations like the KJV, and some translations that are based on it (e.g. the NKJV) are based on a significantly worse version called the Textus Receptus. This contains a few verses which most scholars don't think were in the original. However, this is pretty rare, and these extra verses don't really change the overall meaning.

2) Translation is about the choice of how to render it into English. There is no such thing as a perfect translation since there are always trade-offs, but if you want a very literal translation you could go for the KJV, NKJV, or NRSV. However if you find these unreadable, you could try a slightly less literal (but more readable) translation like the NIV or HCSB. Avoid the NLV or the Message, since these are paraphrases.

In my opinion, translation issues will affect you more often than textual issues, so I think on the whole I would lean towards recommending the NKJV for you (unless you like the 400 year old style, in which case go for the KJV, but be aware this could also cause distortion since some words have changed their meaning with time.) The NRSV is based on a better text but I don't like the translation as much.

(You should also be aware that Catholic Bibles contain a few more books in the Old Testament than Protestant ones do, because of a difference of opinion about which books are inspired. But if you're just starting out, I'd suggest you start with the uncontroversial books.)