Who Wrote the Gospel according to Mark?

Basilica di San Marco, Venice

Basilica di San Marco, Venice. Photo credit: Ricardo André Frantz, 2005.

According to the traditional view, the four Gospels in the New Testament—Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John (the “canonical” Gospels)—were written either by eyewitnesses to Jesus’s ministry or by those closely connected with eyewitnesses. For example, on the traditional view the Gospel according to Mark (“Mark” or the “second Gospel”) was written by a personal secretary to the Apostle Peter—one of Jesus’s original disciples.

In Chapter 3 of How Jesus Became God, Bart Ehrman raises doubts about this traditional view. As I noted in my last post, Ehrman argues that the authors of the Gospels were Christians “of a later generation” who wrote after (or almost after) Jesus’s original disciples had died. But, if the authors of the Gospels were not closely connected to Jesus or his disciples in time and space, as Ehrman suggests, then it looks less plausible to attribute the content of the Gospels to the historical Jesus.

In this post I will begin responding to Ehrman’s argument about the authorship of the Gospels by considering who wrote Mark. Continue reading

The Historicity of the Gospels: Bart Ehrman’s Skeptical View

The Four Evangelists, by Jacob Jordaen

The Four Evangelists, by Jacob Jordaens (Louvre Museum)

In Chapter 3 of How Jesus Became God, Bart Ehrman begins with a story from his days as a student at Moody Bible Institute in the 1970s. He tells how, as part of the practical Christian ministry component of his education, he served as a youth pastor at a church in a suburb of Chicago and developed a close mentoring relationship with the senior pastor there.

At that time, Moody was a bastion of Christian Fundamentalism—a late-19th- and 20th-century reaction to liberal currents in Protestant theology. Protestant liberals sought to adapt their theology to developments in the sciences and social sciences, including critical historical analysis of the Bible and evolutionary theory. Fundamentalists rejected this adaptation in favor of biblical literalism and an affirmation of the inerrancy of the Bible.

After his Fundamentalist beginnings, Ehrman pursued advanced degrees at Princeton Theological Seminary. He recounts how, during those studies, he came to doubt some of the central tenets of orthodox Christian theology, including the divinity of Jesus. He was impressed by the fact that Jesus is only rarely referred to as divine in the New Testament, and that Jesus only ever refers to himself as divine in the Gospel of John—the historicity of which is often viewed as dubious.

While wrestling with these doubts, he returned to Chicago to visit his former pastor, in the hope of receiving some guidance. The pastor responded by encouraging him to “hold on to the basics,” and by quoting Jesus’s claim in the Gospel of John, “I am the way, the truth, and the life; no one comes to the Father except through me” (John 14:6). Ehrman responded, “But what if Jesus never said that?” Continue reading

…and then the apostle Paul sent the slave back to his master

Paul writing from prison

Image credit: Dr. Jeffrey and Angie Goh

During the struggle for the abolition of slavery and the slave trade in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, the New Testament letter to Philemon was used by slaveholders and slave traders to justify their wicked practices (Thompson).

Sometime in the middle of the first century, the apostle Paul sent the letter to Philemon, a wealthy Christian slaveholder who hosted a church at his house in Colossae. The occasion for the letter was Paul’s encounter with Philemon’s slave, Onesimus, who had run away from Philemon, found Paul in prison, and become a Christian under Paul’s influence. Paul sent both Onesimus and the letter to Philemon to persuade him to welcome Onesimus generously and not harshly: “welcome him as you would welcome me,” Paul writes in verse 17.

The “Traditional” Reading

In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, those who claimed to be Christians and favored slavery saw in the letter scriptural evidence that Paul did not object to slavery, and thus justification for their continued practice of it. On this “traditional” reading, Paul is concerned that he has been harboring a slave who has done something illegal according to Roman law (running away), and thus Paul is motivated by a legal obligation to send Onesimus back.

If this account is correct, then Paul felt some obligation to uphold the institution of slavery, indicating that he did not see it as wrong. Continue reading

Pope Francis on the Lord’s Prayer: Leading Us into Temptation

Pope Francis

Image credit: Catholic News Agency

Like the rest of the New Testament, the Lord’s Prayer was originally written in Koine Greek (though Jesus likely spoke it in Aramaic). When we read it in English, we are reading a translation. Pope Francis recently argued that scholars should seek a different translation of the line of the Lord’s Prayer traditionally translated, “Lead us not into temptation” (Matthew 6:13 and Luke 11:4, NIV). (Incidentally, Francis expressed this view in a television interview in which he was not speaking ex cathedra. Thus, faithful Roman Catholics need not interpret his view, here, as infallible.)

Francis’s concern is that the traditional translation is theologically suspect, since it seems to imply that God might actively push us or guide us into a situation where we are likely to sin (a state of “temptation”). According to Francis, as a good father God would not do this. “It’s Satan who leads us into temptation — that’s his department” (Los Angeles Times, December 8, 2017).

For this reason, Francis would prefer a translation that implies a more passive role for God, like “Do not let us enter into temptation,” or “Do not let us fall into temptation.” The implication of these alternative translations is that when we find ourselves in temptation, we have led ourselves there; God has merely allowed us to do so.

What should we make of Francis’s call for a revised translation? Continue reading

Aquinas on the Virtues: Wisdom

Wisdom

Image credit: “Information is not Wisdom” | Big Think

The book of Proverbs tells us, “Wisdom cries out in the street; in the squares she raises her voice” (1:20). She cries out that people might heed her teachings and thereby find security and avoid disaster. But, what exactly is wisdom?

I will try to answer that question, here, from the perspective of Thomas Aquinas, one of the great teachers of the church. This is the second in a series of posts about Aquinas’s view of the virtues. If you would like to read from the beginning, last time I started the series with a discussion of the intellectual virtue of understanding.

It will be helpful to start by distinguishing clearly between the ideas of a “means” and an “end.” The “end” of an action is simply the thing that you are going for when you do something—the aim, purpose, or goal for the sake of which you act. The “means” is the thing you do in order to realize the end. The means is often simply the action itself.

For example, in one of my favorite lines of philosophy, Aristotle states, “taking a walk is for the sake of evacuation of the bowels” (Physics, Book II, Part 6). Continue reading

Aquinas on the Virtues: Understanding

Understanding

Image credit: The Clinton Street Theater

Today I begin a series of posts on Thomas Aquinas’s view of the virtues. Most of my focus in this series will be on what are often called the “cardinal” virtues—wisdom (or “prudence”), justice, courage, and temperance—and the “theological” virtues—faith, hope, and love (or “charity”). However, in order for that discussion to make sense, I need to begin with the virtue of understanding.

Understanding is what Aquinas calls an “intellectual” virtue, i.e., an excellent quality of the thinking part of our minds that allows us to think or reason well in a particular sense. As Aquinas puts it, understanding allows us to grasp “self-evident principles both in speculative and in practical matters” (Summa Theologica I-II, Question 58, Article 4). This dense statement needs some unpacking. Continue reading

“Have to” or “Want to”?

Learning grammar...do I have to?

Photo credit: Benny Lewis, Fluent in 3 Months

At the beginning of last school year my daughter made a friend who has had an especially hard childhood. As the year wore on, she learned and told us more of his story. My wife, both of my daughters, and I all began to feel equal measures of compassion for him in his suffering and anger at the injustice he has experienced. Toward the end of the school year and through the summer we began to connect with him regularly as a family and to help him in various ways. As the new school year starts, this process of connecting and helping is only increasing, to the joy of us all.

Recently, he was at our house to help celebrate my daughter’s birthday. He arrived around noon, after the group had eaten breakfast. He had not eaten anything all day. We asked him what he would like to eat, and began getting out some of the copious leftovers to heat up. His response was that we didn’t “have to” do this for him. This is often his response when we try to help him with something. He says this (at least in part) because he doesn’t want to be a burden to us, which is understandable: none of us wants to be a burden. Continue reading

Obedience, Submission, and “Slave Morality”

According to Orlando Patterson, the Roman mime-writer Publilius Syrus wrote, “The height of misery is to live at another’s will” (Patterson, Slavery and Social Death, 77). In this statement, Publilius, a former slave from Syria, had in mind the lot of a Roman slave.

To the Roman mind, living “at another’s will,” in submission and obedience to another, was miserable not because the one obeyed was necessarily harsh or unkind, but because living in this way was itself dishonorable. In effect, the slave had no life of her own; her life was a mere expression of the master’s life. Her actions expressed the master’s desires, and her very existence was dependent on the master. As Patterson puts it, “The dishonor the slave was compelled to experience sprang…from that raw, human sense of debasement inherent in having no being except as an expression of another’s being” (78). In contrast, to be a Roman slaveholder, with others subjected to your will, contributed to one’s honor.

As Patterson notices (78), this Roman view of honor and dishonor is wrapped up in a picture of the good on which power is central. He quotes Friedrich Nietzsche: “What is good? Everything that heightens the feeling of power in man, the will to power, power itself. What is bad? Everything that is born of weakness. What is happiness? The feeling that power is growing, that resistance is overcome” (Nietzsche, The Antichrist). Anachronism aside, I suspect many Romans—slave and free alike—would have endorsed Nietzsche’s idea.

Of course, the Christian picture of the good could not be more different. Continue reading

Aquinas on Christian Joy

I have often felt a tension in my theology when it comes to the concept of joy. On the one hand, in Galatians (5:22) Paul counts joy among the “fruit of the Spirit.” I take it that this means joy is to grow in the life of a Christian under the influence of the Holy Spirit, and that joy is to be something like a steady, stable, even permanent experience of the Christian as she matures. I have often heard pastors describe such Christian joy as something that persists despite negative or difficult circumstances.

On the other hand it seems the Christian is not to be inured to life’s pains and disappointments as a Stoic might be. Indeed, Jesus wept at the death of his friend Lazarus (John 11:28-37), and he fretted at his impending death in the Garden of Gethsemane (Matthew 26:36-46). If Jesus is the Christian’s example (and he is), then it seems appropriate for the Christian to feel the pain and disappointment of life.

Are these two teachings at odds? They have often seemed so to me. Continue reading