Friday, May 29, 2009

A Crappy Argument for the Traditional Authors of the Gospels

According to Christian apologists, it is reasonable to believe that Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John really wrote the canonical gospels because these authors are unlikely to have been invented by the early Church. As Mark Roberts explains:
Two of the biblical gospels were named after relatively inconsequential characters who did not actually know Jesus in the flesh. If you were some second-century Christian wanting to make up an author for a gospel, you'd never choose Mark, even if he was believed to be a companion of Peter. And you'd never choose Luke, because he had no direct connection to Jesus at all. If second-century Christians were fabricating traditional authorship, surely they could have done a better job. Assign the second gospel to Peter himself, for goodness sakes, not Mark! (emphasis in original)
In Lee Strobel’s The Case for Christ, Craig Blomberg argues that Matthew was the last apostle that anyone would invent as the author of a gospel because “as a former hated tax collector, he would have been the most infamous character next to Judas Iscariot.”

One of the problems with most arguments like these is the notion that we can be so sure of how second century Christians felt about particular traditions that we can know which ones are factually true. For example, why should we think that anyone in the early church would have been averse to the idea of a former tax-gatherer authoring a gospel? Paul was the most prolific writer in the early church and he had once been, by his own admission, its most vigorous persecutor. How could we possibly be sure that Matthew’s former profession wasn’t a reason for attributing a gospel to him in order to highlight the life changing power of the gospel? These arguments seem to assume that early Christians were pretty stupid. If Craig Blomberg and Mark Roberts are able to recognize that attributing the gospels to lesser figures is more credible, why should we think that a similar insight was beyond the scope of a second century imagination?

Perhaps the biggest problem with this particular argument is that it works equally well for the apocryphal and heretical writings. As long as a more prominent figure can be posited as the author for any writing, it constitutes evidence for the authenticity of the named author. For example, why would anyone attribute a gospel to Mary Magdalene when they could have attributed it to Mary the Mother of God? About the only time the argument wouldn’t work is if someone claimed a gospel written by Jesus himself.

The apologists’ arguments also ignore some basic historical information:
(1) Interestingly, there was in fact a gospel attributed to Judas Iscariot by the Gnostics. It seems silly to argue that no one would name a hated character as an author when someone did.
(2) There was in fact a gospel attributed to Peter that was accepted in some communities as orthodox. Giving the early church credit for not attributing a second gospel to Peter doesn’t really seem warranted.
(3) Most egregiously ignored is the fact that the prologue to Luke’s gospel makes it clear that its author was not an eyewitness to Jesus’ earthly ministry. Roberts and Blomberg are apparently too stupid to realize that this would have precluded the early church from attributing it to someone with a direct connection to Jesus. Either that or they figure that second century Christians would have been too stupid to figure that out.

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