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The authorship of the Gospels and answering the Christ myth

Rocco P. from Germany writes:

In Lita Cosner’s article The Resurrection and Genesis, at the end there is this statement: "Luke likely used Mark as a source, so this pushes the date for Mark back." This is a common argument used by liberal theologians I discuss with who tout Mark as the earliest gospel. But when I press for verifiable evidence all they can present is their assumption that since Mark is the shortest gospel, it must be the first one which was embellished with legends from the later gospel writers. I don't accept this claim. There are however historical sources which place Matthew first, followed by Luke during Paul's lifetime, with Mark written after Peter's death, who was martyred after Paul.

My question: Can you point me to credible evidence to assume that Mark was written first, or has this just been thoughtlessly acquired from Bible-critical theologians? I am ready to be corrected if solid evidence warrants it.


Lita Cosner, CMI-US, responds:

Dear Rocco,

Thanks for writing in. First, I understand why you attribute this to liberal theologians, and there was a point in time when I was hesitant to use arguments like this, too. But my reasons for stating Luke probably used Mark as a source have nothing to do with liberal theologians. Take a look at Luke's introduction to his Gospel:

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 that here, Luke:

1) recognizes the existence of many narratives like his own already in existence,

2) does not claim to be an eyewitness, but says he has in effect 'researched' everything thoroughly, and

3) sets out to write an 'orderly' account, suggesting that he is focusing more on chronology than his predecessors have (note: this is not accusing the less chronological Gospels of error! There are valid ways of ordering a collection of stories thematically, etc.).

A careful study of the text of Luke using a tool like a synopsis that puts the parallels from the Gospels side by side reveals that Matthew, Mark, and Luke share many of the same stories, often in the same order, and that each author has given details that are relevant for his purpose in telling the story (again, this is not accusing anyone of error! Any newspaper editor does the same thing). But it does seem that Mark is the source for Luke, and not the other way around. And Luke himself says other gospels were written before his. But there are unique elements of Luke's gospel as well, which I think come from his interviewing eyewitnesses (including I believe Mary the mother of Jesus, which explains where he got his information about, for instance, the visit to Elizabeth).

The Church Father Papias said that Matthew wrote a Hebrew version of his Gospel first. However, Matthew's Gospel as we have it now is not a translation from Hebrew. We know this because we know what Hebrew translated into Greek 'looks like', because we have the Septuagint (the Old Testament translated into Greek). Matthew's Gospel does not read like translated Hebrew. There are two options regarding this tradition 1) Someone recognized the 'Jewishness' of Matthew's Gospel and embellished that to say he originally wrote it in Hebrew (because tradition is not inspired, and we know of other places where the church fathers got it wrong) or 2) Matthew wrote an early version in his native Hebrew before composing the final version in Greek. Matthew certainly could have written before Mark, but there is certainly internal evidence (i.e. within the books themselves) of some type of interdependence.

Finally, I have to stress that none of this has to do with theological liberalism, though I can understand why people can become suspicious as many people use these issues as an excuse to disbelieve what is recorded in Scripture. Christians who are enthusiastically inerrantist (as I am) have even more reason to look into these issues because we believe the answers actually matter.

I hope this helps.

Debra H. from the US writes:

Some of the greatest flaw in your article is the fact that Matthew, Mark, Luke and John in the New Testament were not written by those men. The books were named with those names in order to lend credibility to the writings. They did not know the author. Also the historian Josephus was adopted by the family who made up the story of Jesus. The Roman family Flavians were the authors. They wanted everyone to believe in Jesus for their own reasons. The things they attribute to Jesus was also true of a lot of mythical God's and dieties. Things such as 1. Born of a virgin. 2. Walked on water. 3. Healed the sick. 4. Crucified. and many more things were also true of a lot of other dieties from the past. They took all of those attributes and gave them to Jesus to make him believable.

Lita Cosner responds:

Dear Debra,

A useful distinction one can make is between assertion and argumentation. An argument involves presenting evidence in order to make a logical case for your view. What you offered in your message was only a series of assertions with no evidence. Let’s look at them, however, and I’ll show you the difference between your assertions and my arguments:

  1. “Mathew, Mark, Luke and John in the New Testament were not written by those men. The books were named with those names in order to lend credibility to the writings. They did not know the author.”

    Interestingly, the four Gospels are unanimously associated with those names very early, even though all four of them are formally anonymous (i.e. though they’re titled “Kata Matthaion, Kata Markon” etc, the Gospels themselves do not say, “I, John, write this with my own hand”). There’s not a random document in the third century that says, “Actually, Tim the Enchanter wrote the gospel commonly attributed to Mark”. See Can we believe the Gospels? and Gospel dates and reliability.

    Furthermore, Mark and Luke were rather minor characters in the early church, and their names would not have added credibility to the gospels attributed to them. Only John is really open to that accusation, yet attribution of John’s Gospel is extremely strong. And, by the way, our earliest fragment of John comes from before AD 150, so within ~50 years of when it is said to be written.

  2. “Also the historian Josephus was adopted by the family who made up the story of Jesus. The Roman family Flavians were the authors. They wanted everyone to believe in Jesus for their own reasons.”

    Say what? Every single statement is just simply historically verifiably incorrect. Yes, Josephus was adopted by the Flavians, who were a Roman dynasty. But the crackpot theories of Atwill have been refuted at length (by other skeptics, no less!) and there is no need for me to reinvent the wheel here.

  3. “The things they attribute to Jesus were true of a lot of mythical gods and deities.”

    This is the ‘copycat hypothesis’ which we have written about before. But these so-called parallels fall into a few categories: 1) They are the sort of common things that could be true of anyone: “Jesus drank wine, so did Dionysus!”; “The Jews had a harvest festival, so did a lot of ancient religions!” 2) They are false parallels—all claims of pagan virgin births are fake parallels because they are not true virginal conceptions, as anyone who reads the accounts can tell. See Copycat copout for more detail. But to look at your examples one by one:

    1. Born of a virgin: As I mentioned, there is no genuine virginal conception that is parallel to the virginal conception of Christ. You didn’t give a specific instance, and there are too many claimed ones to go through each here.
    2. Walked on water: You provided no documentation, and I actually can’t find a single claimed false god who walked on water.
    3. Healed the sick: This is an example of the ‘common’ type of parallel. Of course there will be false gods who are claimed to have healed sick people!
    4. Crucified: False—no other god is claimed to have been crucified.
  4. “They took all of those attributes and gave them to Jesus to make him believeable.”
    Oh yes, the Romans wanted to fool the masses so they co-opted a Jewish apocalyptic figure (because we all know how well-regarded the Jews were by the Romans!), had him die the most ignominious death possible—a death that Roman citizens were exempt from and which was not discussed in polite company—and then had him experience resurrection which Greco-Roman culture believed was not only impossible but horrific! Their ideal was to escape the physical body, not to exist in one forever! This is precisely the ignorant sort of desperate grasping at straws that even the more rational Christ-deniers laugh at.

A good rule of thumb: when even many atheists reject what you consider to be an argument against Christianity, it might be time to rethink your sources. Why don’t you read the Gospels with an open mind? You may find that God grants you repentance from your error.

Lita Cosner

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Readers’ comments
Greg A., United States, 27 May 2017
Matthew seems written first and also fairly early. He did not mention the Jewish Elders of Capernaum like Luke did (Luke 7:1-10) and so it appears Matthew was protecting those Elders; Matthew was actually from Capernaum and so surely knew the Elders. It seems unlikely he would have been concerned if he wrote his Gospel many years later. In addition, after Pentecost, many new believers (Jews from all over the world) would want some narrative of what had been going the last 3 years-even to take home with them as some surely went home. Also Matthew was the most educated of all the disciples (former tax collector) so would be James and Peter's obvious choice for the job. I once helped a friend by this Bible study-he had a crisis of faith because he thought Luke and Matthew "contradict" each other here. Once I pointed the above facts out to him he could see it was nothing more than a difference of perspectives and certainly no contradiction. It gave me great joy to see these facts line up like this but also to help a friend using the Bible.
Lita Cosner responds
I would agree that all the books were fairly early, Matthew and Mark could have been written as soon as the late 40s or 50s. Luke clearly used both oral and written sources, and he says as much. Several commenters have gotten caught up in whether Matthew or Mark wrote first, but that actually wasn't my focus in the response.
J. L., Canada, 27 May 2017
Great answer!
David G., Australia, 29 May 2017
Further to your comment about 'copy cat' attributions; C S Lewis pointed out that the reports of pagan gods doing similar things to Yeshua lack one important ingredient: in the NT the actions are attributed to a real live individual who got dusty walking on Earth, in the presence of others. The prosaicness of this is never replicated in pagan stories.
Mattschoss G., Australia, 30 May 2017
Hi Lita, Jesus a fabricated deity story? Wow, I'm gob smacked! I would like to know where our 'reader' sourced her information as I know of no other deity that matches anything near Christ, and if there is, it would certainly be a 'man generated' story having taking pieces out of the True example and applied it to their own! Talking about distorting of facts, a friend once told me how he had recently read a book touting that Jesus was illiterate, based on the fact he was a carpenter, and carpenters of that time, allegedly, were regarded as uneducated! I wonder how they manage to build anything at all if they could not read or write! A point worth remembering that Jesus astounded the doctors of the day with his wisdom at 12 years of age!(Luke 2:49.) Regards, Graeme.