looking for authorship in the Christian world, pt. 4

When we open the New Testament and read the first chapter of Matthew, we are certainly on different ground than we had been in much of the Hebrew Bible. Yet it bears certain similarities. For one thing, we encounter that tricky word “book” again, which came up in our examinations of Deuteronomy and Jeremiah, and which has proven itself to have a somewhat elastic meaning. In both cases, it seems, the respective Prophets wrote everything down in a “book,” or in Jeremiah’s case possibly a couple of books. But internal evidence makes it clear that a “book” of, say, Jeremiah, in fact refers only to a section within the “Book of Jeremiah” as we know it. And so it is here in Matthew, which opens:

The book of the genealogy of Jesus Christ, the son of David, the son of Abraham.

Matthew does, indeed, follow this statement with a succinct and clear genealogy of Christ through Joseph’s line (which would hardly seem to count, but never mind). But this is only the smallest sliver of the Book he actually intends to write, and immediately after the “book of the genealogy” he is off and running on a narrative so exciting and compelling that the author of the book never really has time to fit in who he is or why he’s writing this story. We cannot even know, from the text itself, that it is Matthew writing it, although we have no particular reason to believe otherwise.

As with Genesis, the problem of authorship is simply never even remotely addressed — the book gives its narrative with no attempt to justify it. There is nothing wrong with this, and indeed we may give Matthew (or “Matthew”) a fair amount of credit for removing his authorial ego and simply putting the story together. Moreover, since the exact circumstances under which the book was written aren’t known to us, there may be very good reasons why he didn’t choose to put his name on it. Two almost opposite possibilities present themselves immediately: either the book was written anonymously, either to avoid persecution or to give it more heft as a sacred/liturgical text (rather than some guy’s “memoir of Jesus”), or else the book was intended for local use, in a community where everyone already knew who wrote it.

Mark starts differently, of course, and there’s nothing wrong with that, either:

The beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.

This is curious, to say the least. First of all, what does he mean by “the beginning of the gospel”? Ideas leap to mind. Perhaps he thought he was the very first person to write such a book (as he may well have been). Perhaps he intended a sequel. Perhaps he was marking, quite literally, the beginning of his book, possibly to discourage later scribes from tacking on, say, Christmas stories at the front. (And why did Mark show so little interest in Christmas? Had he never heard the stories? Or did he not consider them reliable or relevant?)

More curious still is the idea that this is the “gospel of Jesus Christ.” We probably should not take from this that the author of the book is Jesus Christ, for a couple of reasons. First, the word “gospel” (the Greek is “evangelion”) meaning a distinct type of book probably did not exist at the time (especially if Mark was the first), and so we should take its more literal meaning, “good news.” Second, the entire thing is written in the third person. There are no passages which say anything like, “And then I…” or “And God said unto me,” such as we find in first-person narratives in the Old Testament or later in the Revelation of John, and so it does not appear to be claiming to be authored by its central Figure. So we can probably conclude that what Mark meant was that it was “the beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ.” Indeed, newer translations tend to put it exactly this way.

But this linguistic sidetrack must force us to consider another point — if it is not penned by Christ, but by another, presumably ordinary, man, where does he get his information from? We might hope that, like the John of Revelation, he would simply say:

The revelation of Jesus Christ, which God gave him to show to his servants the things that must soon take place. He made it known by sending his angel to his servant John, who bore witness to the word of God and to the testimony of Jesus Christ, even to all that he saw. Blessed is the one who reads aloud the words of this prophecy, and blessed are those who hear, and who keep what is written in it, for the time is near.

Revelation is an inscrutable document, wrapped in an opaque shroud of symbol and allegory, but at least its introduction is a model of clarity. It proves, as well, that even in the time of Christ prophets had not given up the useful practice of letting us know when they were receiving revelations from God.

Luke, that admirable, patient, scientific physician, while not putting his name to the Gospel, at least sets out, very directly, his purposes and his method:

Inasmuch as many have undertaken to compile a narrative of the things that have been accomplished among us, just as those who from the beginning were eyewitnesses and ministers of the word have delivered them to us, it seemed good to me also, having followed all things closely for some time past, to write an orderly account for you, most excellent Theophilus, that you may have certainty concerning the things you have been taught.

Notice how clearly and carefully Luke gives us his meaning. He is “compiling” the narrative — i.e., putting it together from various sources — in order to make an “orderly account.” And what sources? Both “eyewitnesses” and “ministers of the word.” And who is doing the compiling? Someone who has followed all this closely for some time. And why? So that “Theophilus” may have certainty concerning the new Message he’s been taught. The name “Theophilus” means “lover of God,” and so we may feel that even if a specific Theophilus was intended, that Luke is, by means of a little wordplay, writing for all Christians, and indeed all those with a love of God in their hearts.

Luke’s slightly stuffy, avuncular comment may, in one respect, be the most important passage in the whole Christian Bible. Nowhere else do we get such plain and easy insight into the redactor’s thought process. If some of us might have suspected, reading the books of the Old Testament, that many of them were actually compiled and edited by someone, here is undeniable proof of it in the New! And he tells us why he did it, and how! And, most amazingly, he doesn’t mention God at all. No “the Word of the LORD came to me,” nor “this is the Word of the LORD which came to….” On the contrary, Luke seems quite content to give the ordinary reasons of an ordinary, albeit faithful, man.

The fourth Gospel incorporated in the canon is the only one of the four to openly give the identity of its source (though perhaps not, as is often thought, its author/editor). Yet John begins anonymously and, like Job, begins with facts no human being could be privy to:

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things were made through him, and without him was not any thing made that was made. In him was life, and the life was the light of men. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.

This is some of the most powerful writing in the New Testament, bold, eloquent, profound, deeply intellectual. I don’t read Greek, apart from the occasional word, but in English John has always struck me as the most literary of the four Gospel-writers, able to rise above merely giving facts and trying to put them in order, to see the overall structure of his work. He is far more explicit in his use of metaphor than the others, and he expands certain well-known stories (especially the story of John the Baptist) and adds others. He is the only author to give us some of the best-known phrases and ideas in the Bible, including the need to be “born again,” “God so loved the world…,” “the Way, the Truth, and the Life,” and Christ’s famous series of predictions at the Last Supper.

One of John’s literary devices is his running commentary — this beginning is a great example, and so is “God so loved the world…,” but it happens all over the place in John, including most of the rest of the first chapter, and 2:21-22, and 5:18, and 7:39, 11:51-52, and 12:37-43.

So John, more than the authors of the Synoptic Gospels, has his own ideas about what goes on in Jesus’ story, and he’s not afraid to express them; if we were before impressed by Matthew’s humility and authorial invisibility, we may be impressed in a different way by John’s absolute confidence as a commentator. Nonetheless, there is no claim to divine revelation here, and the text leaves us free to speculate whether these comments are merely his own opinion or are based on Christ’s own teaching.

None of the Gospels starts with anything remotely like an attribution, but John ends with one, or at least appears to. Yet John, as I am by no means the first to notice, ends problematically — or rather, it seems to end, then ends again.

Consider John 20, which, with economy and grace, gives four brief stories chronicling the four stages of the Resurrection, and then ends with what is clearly a capping remark:

Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of the disciples, which are not written in this book; but these are written so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name.

Now that is a fine ending, and, as noted by the articles cited above, this is described as being the “conclusion” to the Gospel of John in Tertullian, while Origen places the story of Thomas and his doubt at the “end” of the Gospel, though one can debate the meaning of “end.” But leaving aside the early Fathers, the text itself seems strongly to be wrapping up in that chapter and especially that paragraph.

Yet the Gospel as we have it today continues in 21:

After this Jesus revealed himself again to the disciples by the Sea of Tiberias, and he revealed himself in this way….

and then casually goes on for twenty-four more verses as though the whole thing hadn’t already been summed up the verse before.

This is weird enough, but what really amazes one who has read John up to here is how sloppy the narrative suddenly becomes. Compare the tight, formal construction of John 20 to the haphazard construction of 21. The three stories here feel disconnected, not only from each other, but also as though, with the slightest adjustment, they might appear anywhere within the Gospel. They feel, not like the narrative inevitabilities that all of John’s other scenes seem to be, but like free-floating stories that could live anywhere, and indeed seem to exist well outside the rest of the narrative.

I am using words like “feel” and “seem” here, and indeed arguments based on mere style are never conclusive and rarely compelling, especially when we are dealing with translations. But the stylistic variations are so overwhelming as to be almost obvious. The first story, of the fish, has only a rather arbitrary beginning verse (1) and ending verse (14) to show that it is post-Resurrection at all — nothing in between them really contributes to that impression, apart, perhaps from Peter’s enthusiastic leap into the sea. Indeed, it has been noted that this story bears a remarkable resemblance, in outward form at least, to Luke 5:1-11, which comes at the beginning of Christ’s ministry.

The second story (15-19) is even worse — it could literally appear anywhere. Mirroring, it would seem, Peter’s three betrayals, Jesus asks him three times whether he loves Him, and each time gives Peter a pastoral mission. It foretells Peter’s death, but what distinguishes this from any of the prophecies made at Gethsemane? There is nothing much here that couldn’t have been said before the Crucifixion.

The third story (20-23) concerns the origins of a rumor that the disciple “whom Jesus loved” (traditionally held to be John) would not die. The story is itself so odd and awkward that one cannot help feeling it exists for no reason other than to address that rumor; in any event, nothing in it ties it to a post-Resurrection time, except possibly the explanatory clause in verse 20, “the one who had been reclining at table close to him and had said, ‘Lord, who is it that is going to betray you?'” It seems to put at least the narration some time after chapter 13, but other than that it sheds no light on the Resurrection story.

I point out the “floating” nature of these stories for two reasons — one, to show that they display a narrative awkwardness alien to John, and two, to suggest that they seem to fall outside the Gospel author’s tightly woven narrative and hence may be later add-ons.

Verse 24 immediately follows the three stories, and seems to attribute authorship of the Gospel to John:

This [the disciple whom Jesus loved] is the disciple who is bearing witness about these things, and who has written these things, and we know that his testimony is true.

But a closer examination of this verse in context makes it seem even more likely that this chapter is an add-on. After all, why would John say of himself, “and we know that his testimony is true”? Moreover, “these things” is peculiarly vague; it is impossible to tell whether it refers only to the last story, or to those three stories which follow John’s “first ending,” or to the entire Gospel.

Finally, after this attribution, we reach the very last verse of John, which on its own has a certain poetic ring:

Now there are also many other things that Jesus did. Were every one of them to be written, I suppose that the world itself could not contain the books that would be written.

but which seems positively limp compared to the last verse of chapter 20. The “first ending” of John (see above) manages to convey exactly the sentiment as this one, and in addition tells why the book is being written and gives a promise of salvation, all in approximately the same number of words. Why would John repeat himself, and weakly, when he had already composed such a strong ending?

All these elements together make it seem likely that John 21 was added to a completed book, by someone who wanted to be sure those three stories were included, but who, whether for reasons of conscience or for want of skill, decided not to interpolate them into the story as written. (Some scholars believe that the “Pericope de Adultera,” the story of the adulteress whom Jesus saves in John 7:53-8:11, is in fact just such a skillful interpolation. You can read a vigorous and interesting defense of it here, but some editions of the Bible now go so far as to remove it to the footnotes.)

Evan Powell argues that the last chapter was added on in order to address conflicts between the authority of John and that of Peter. But I would like to propose a simpler, more innocent solution, one that fits, I think, with an idea mentioned in our discussions of Deuteronomy and Jeremiah — namely, the idea that a “Book” of the Bible might encompass a whole and complete book written by a source and also contain additional content. In short, the simplest explanation of the last chapter of John, it seems to me, is that these stories, transmitted in some form and attributed to John, were added to a book believed to be John’s. Verse 24 is not intended to convince us that the Gospel of John was written by John — that much was already taken for granted. Rather, it is intended to assure us that the three stories contained in John 21 are also his, and therefore deserve to be appended to his book. The clumsiness is in trying to force those stories into a post-Resurrection narrative, where they may not, in fact, fit. The idea that these stories were at one time loose fragments, attributed to one of the disciples, is in fact bolstered by the similarity to the story in Luke 5; various versions of the story may have been recorded, and Luke himself admits candidly that he is a compiler of various accounts.

In short, the attribution at the end of John may end up showing us nothing other than that at some point early in church history, the Gospel of John was already attributed to “the disciple whom Jesus loved.”

All of which is only by way of saying that the Gospel writers tended to write anonymously, John very dubiously excepted. None of them claimed divine inspiration. Matthew and Mark don’t name their sources at all; Luke openly tells us he is compiling the stories of others; John up through chapter 20 gives no real indication that he is an eyewitness to all of his stories, and indeed he could not possibly be. Matthew and Mark give no real indication of their motives; Luke’s we have discussed above; while John’s are wrapped up nicely in 20:31 — again, a very human and pedagogical reason, rather than one indicating revelation, is given.

From the texts themselves, then, it is hard to see how some of the more extravagant claims of Christian orthodoxy can be sustained. The idea, for example, that the New Testament is nothing but divinely inspired text from stem to stern hardly seems supported. Where are the affirmations that these are the words of God, received by a specific person (or Person) in a specific place, as we find in Deuteronomy and Isaiah and Ezekiel and Jeremiah and Daniel and Hosea and Joel and Amos and Micah and, not least of all, the Revelation? The Gospels (let alone the epistles) are a different type of beast, and it’s no good pretending they aren’t.

It should not be understood that merely by saying this we are somehow out to undermine the message, mission, or Persons of Christ, Moses, or the Prophets, nor to cast doubt on the authority or truthfulness of the Bible. But if, on the contrary, we are determined to see the Bible and its component parts as our only window on the Will of God and the teachings of His Messengers at the time; as a set of generally truthful documents, which convey to us the Word of God as revealed to His Prophets and Manifestations and in some sense under His protection; and not, as sadly often seems the assumption of modern historians, a collection of legends, superstitions, and doctrines constructed by priests to maintain authority via orthodoxy — then it becomes all the more important for us to take those documents at their word concerning their own nature and the authority of their authors.

We are are concerned here with beginning to find an alternative to the centuries-old method of viewing Scripture, in which doctrines developed by men are then read back into the text, regardless of what the text itself says. And there is arguably no point on which more Christians are asked to “accept it on faith” than the idea of divine authorship of the canonical text. (Or rather, texts, as there are endless versions of the canon and its individual books — but let us lay that aside — it is a distraction.) Yet is it not more just and more reasonable to ask people to read the books in the way they themselves ask to be read, rather than in the light of the doctrine of some church or the personal convictions of some or another preacher?

Is there any indication in the text that He oversaw or supervised the writing of the Gospels, either personally or by spiritual influence? There is not. Do any of the Gospel writers claim a revelation from God? They do not, unless you believe that the author of the Gospel of “John” is also the John of Revelation — but in that case the contrast is all the more pointed, for if both documents are divinely inspired, why is only one labeled as such, and the latter one at that? Do the Gospels even claim to be entirely and literally factual on every point? The question is certainly open to debate, Luke 1:2 and John 21:24 being rather slender evidence on which to hang such a burden.

Given, then, that the books do not ascribe to themselves these kinds of authority, why should we, who are at such great remove from them, do more? In the absence of other evidence, do we not do best to consider them exactly as the Gospel writers describe them, to wit, Luke 1:1-4 and John 20:30-31, quoted above?

To look at the Gospels as they present themselves, rather than as twenty centuries of accumulated theological doctrine paints them, frees us to consider the teachings of Jesus as our primary concern in the New Testament, while enabling us to consider thoughtfully the stories concerning His doings and His Person as a separate historical issue.

For example, we read stories of the Resurrection in the New Testament and find it impossible to accept the idea of a physical resurrection and ascension to the sky, particularly as described in Acts 1:9-11. We may reject it on common sense grounds — if Jesus, reconstituted in the flesh, physically rose into the sky, where did He go? Is the Father in outer space? is heaven? — or we may, in the end, conclude theologically, as Paul did, that “flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God, nor does the perishable inherit the imperishable.” If we considered the Gospels to be, from beginning to end, the Word of God, testifying to a literal and inerrant history, we should be troubled by this.

But if we read the Gospels as narratives compiled by men, which contain the Word of God as spoken by Christ, but which are not entirely composed of the Word of God, then this should not trouble us overly much. We may think that these stories have been given as an allegory for the resurrection of the body of the church, which was in tatters after His crucifixion. Or we may think that the Gospel writers reported these stories because they were trying to give voice to as many credible stories of their Lord as possible, including even those which might have seemed far-fetched. Or we may see the truth somewhere in between: perhaps the Resurrection narratives began as spiritual allegories and over time were given more detailed, and hence more historical-seeming, forms. (This would explain seeming discrepancies; the narrative would have been unified, compact and allegorical at its point of origin — and, indeed, John’s narrative in chapter 20 appears to us this way — but would have lost and gained details in multiple re-tellings.) But whatever we, as readers, conclude, it still does not overly trouble us, because whatever the ultimate facts of His story, His words and teachings remain available to us.

Part 1 of this series.

Part 2.

Part 3.

[Coming next: the Word in the Gospel.]

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One Response to looking for authorship in the Christian world, pt. 4

  1. Pingback: I’ve just got to get these last few ibexes in…. « Fighting Commies For Health Insurance!

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