What is Missing from a Key New Testament Introduction Text?

Darrell L. Bock's picture

I am currently teaching a special course on issues of New Testament Introduction at Talbot Theological Seminary in La Mirada, California (LA area). Besides the hype that is surrounding the NBA Finals, my time has been spent reading Bart Ehrman's The New Testament: An Historical Introduction for this course. 

This volume is one of the most popular texts for early Christianity classes in the USA, which is why we are discussing it in the class. It is clearly written and engaging. It summarizes many commonly held positions that are held about the Bible and New Testament in some scholarly circles. It is important to know what generations of college students are being taught in the name of knowledge and understanding. I am discovering that it is what Ehrman does not mention that is often important.

For example, in treating the authorship of the gospels (all of them), he does not address any of the external evidence for authorship that comes from sources like Eusebius or Irenaeus or any of the canonical church lists. This is historical evidence and ignoring it prejudices his volume's work, cutting out one of the two key factors one has to address in treating authorship, namely external evidence for a work's authorship. Vincent Taylor and C. E. B. Cranfield regarded such evidence as decisive in treating this question in terms of Mark's gospel.

I am quite aware that many think the internal evidence is against such an authorship claim for Mark (and Ehrman does present those arguments). Those arguments can be addressed. So given a fair debate over the issues that lead one to think about who wrote a gospel, here is a point the claim Mark did not write the gospel has to deal with. What commends Mark as the author, if we are going to simply pick someone to enhance the reputation of a gospel when no one supposedly who knows the author is (which is what the alternative view claims is the situation)? What is Mark's reputation? He failed to survive the first missionary journey and caused a split between Paul and Barnabas according to Acts. So how does randomly attaching his name to the book enhance that gospel's credibility? Such a theory does not work here. Mark's reputation, such as it was, on its own does not enhance the credibility of the work. More than that, the tradition also consistently associated Peter with Mark, so why was this gospel not simply called the Gospel of Peter, if one is free to name any author the church could choose? Given a choice between Peter and Mark on the basis of reputation, Peter would be the obvious choice. Something else must be at work, namely, a tradition careful about who it called an author, naming someone who in this case had an otherwise less than stellar resume. Arguments like the ones I just noted go completely ignored in his volume (and these are fair historical questions). So user beware that if you are being asked to use this text in a college class, some key points are not even being raised.

Comments

Dear Dr. Bock, I want to think Mark wrote the Gospel according to Mark. But for me, I'm pretty much left with a frustrating dilemma if I do. Either I have to think that Mark got his information from Peter and Peter never told Mark that he too walked on water, not just Jesus as Matt 14:23-33 mentions (but not Mark 6:45-52)... or Matthew added (created?) the story about Peter. This is an unfortunate dilemma for me. I honestly can't imagine Peter ever telling the story and leaving out such a detail or Mark knowing that detail and leaving it out. Granted, Mark paints a consistently negative portrait of all the disciples as failures, but that's a pretty amazing and important detail to omit. As Mark tells the story (Mk 6:45-52), Jesus walking on water is a "God thing"... essentially a theophany not unlike the transfiguration... but then Matthew has the stunning extra information that Peter also walked on water (albeit briefly and only halfway successfully). And it's also troubling to me that Matthew includes other significant information about Peter (miraculously catching a fish with a coin in the mouth for temple tax payment in Matt 17:24-27; and the important affirmation of Peter in Matt 16:17-19), and yet Mark never hints at these things. I know this is somewhat of an argument from silence, but it's hard for me to imagine Mark leaving out such information about Peter from his narrative if it's truly based on Peter's account. I'm curious about your thoughts on these matters. Thanks in advance.

Darrell L. Bock's picture

Well, there are lots of things Mark omits that he may well have known but did not include. No infancy stuff at all. No version of the Sermon on the Mount/Plain. The temple tax is easier, since Matthew is a tax collector. No healing of the Centurion's son. This is precisely why arguing from silence is tough to assess. It may be that Peter told these stories in ways that did not draw any excessive attention to himself (since the tradition is that Peter did not feel worthy to be crucified in a manner like Jesus and so was crucified upside down). If this tradition about Peter's death is true, then it shows how Peter came to possess a deep humility when it came to the Lord. All of this shows how hard it is to assess arguments from internal evidence.

Thanks. Yes, Mark doesn't mention quite a bit of other important material known in the other gospels (as you said), but with those other examples, Mark doesn't show much (if any) awareness of that material at all. For example, with the infancy narratives, there's not much of a hint at all that Mark was aware of any kind of miraculous birth of Jesus (except maybe in Mk 6:3 but that seems like quite a stretch). It's likely that those stories as told by Matthew and Luke were just not widely circulated or even known to Mark (due to potential ridicule or scandal). But to me, the curious thing about the walking on water is that Mark clearly knows about the episode and yet doesn't mention Peter walking on the water. That's what creates the dilemma in my mind about how to imagine Mark as the author (and therefore Peter as the source) for the Gospel of Mark.

Thanks Dr. Bock, Seems apparent to me also- that Mark is a much more likely author. And that Mark is quite likely the coward of Mark 14:51. Indeed, quite unlike the Peter of a few verses previous. Since there are different descriptors. Different aspects. And a vastly different demeanor. A man more inclined to flight than fight. A terrified young man. In flight- removed of his linen cloak. A terrified young man- moved by a man- who was removed of a purple cloak. A young man becoming focused on the linen cloak- which clothed a crucified Jesus (Mark's cloak?). A young man becoming focused- on the robe which clothed a "young messenger" (16:5). A young man then focused- on those "terrified women"(v.8). A man giving cause for their saying "nothing to anyone". And his becoming a man revealing Jesus to everyone.

I thought that Mark's exclusion of Peter's failure of faith was an evidence FOR Mark as the original author. Perhaps Peter wanted to downplay his fear and focus his preaching on the divinity of Christ, rather than his own personal fear. The fact is, no one knows, and any attempt to hypothesize the reason why this event was not included is, as so much Biblical scholarship, pure fantasy.

Dr. Bock, Would you consider the absence of this information a form of academic dishonesty? I've dealt with Ehrman before and I really don't think he is honest with some of the information. He counts on the fact that most people are not trained in TC. Often times his debates are not at all academically interesting (except for Wallace's side). If you feel it appropriate, please answer directly to my email. Brett

Darrell L. Bock's picture

Brett:

It is spin. People writing on issues often only present their own side. Good work gives you the full discussion even if it takes sides in the end.

This is interesting stuff. It seems to me that one of the goals of NT introduction (and of OT intro)is to introduce students to not only to one's own view of things, but also to wider discussions, variances of opinion, and different trajectories in scholarship and methodologies. I think scholars across the theological spectrum have a responsibility to present the larger picture in scholarship.

Darrell L. Bock's picture

Simply put. I agree with you, Mike.

I appreciate your posting this about college NT classes and Ehrman's book. I want to stay informed of what our young people are hearing and learning. As for the silence question, I would challenge anyone holding the view that Mark's silence indicates he didn't know about Peter walking on the water to take a little test. Have four friends watch the Lord of the Rings trilogy and write a 10 page report on the movies. One can only imagine how many details will be recounted in one report but not the next, and these from eyewitnesses. John said that the world could not contain the books necessary to recount all that Jesus said and did. So it makes sense that the gospel writers left out many things they knew. Besides, if Mark was Peter's friend he might have chosen not to embarrass Peter further with that part of the story. Or, can you imagine, God Himself directed what Mark was to write and God didn't want him to include that part.

I think it is often not sufficiently appreciated just how weak most arguments from silence are in historical work. Can you imagine an adventurer writing a detailed travel diary of his trip straight across China in the late 13th century and not mentioning the Great Wall? or printed books? or tea? or footbinding? How about a Civil War general publishing two volumes of memoires with day-by-day notes about the events of those tumultuous years and somehow managing to leave out the Emancipation Proclamation? Yet Marco Polo did the former, and Ulysses Grant did the latter. The simple fact is that there are many reasons that authors both ancient and modern leave out things that we, with the perspective of hindsight, cannot imagine ourselves leaving out. Our priorities are often not the same as their priorities, and our incredulity at their omissions is a poor test of the authenticity and authorship of almost any historical work -- certainly of the gospels.

The Gospels were written to four different audiences, to illustrate four perspectives of Jesus. Anyone interested in understanding this should read the book entitled 'Behold the Saviour,' by Warren Henderson. Details included in some books were, for lack of a better word, irrelevant to others. That may sound hard to believe, but if you read the book, you'll understand.

I graduated from a college that regularly assigned his books so I have read many of Ehrman's books. I have also read many other books not by him that all seem to purport the same conclusion. In the beginning, I was very upset by people claiming these sorts of maxims with, what seemed to be very hypothetical postulations based on historical theories. These sorts of things went against everything that I had grown up believing. At some point, however, I began to question why it mattered to me. In the first few centuries when the canon was being discovered in the many writings floating throughout the communities, apostolic tradition was a weapon against heretical doctrine, especially gnosticism. Attaching a name that branched from the apostolic tradition carried significance that helped decipher which vein of tradition and doctrine was true. Those times have come and gone. We now have hermeneutic traditions but the canon is well in place. The truth is, the Bible (canon) is not important to me because of what it is but because of what it does. The story it tells, the hope it speaks of, the compassion it exhorts, and the unbelievable love it describes has meaning to me. The name of the author no longer does. I appreciate the exhaustive work the Early Fathers did to maintain and protect orthodox doctrine, but at the end of the day, if Mark didn't write that gospel and instead Farinius Smith, parishioner in Jerusalem church #4 did, it doesn't change the affect it has had on me, nor the truth I believe it contains. I have faith the Bible has a purpose and is perfect in that purpose, but the validity of the attributed authors matters little to me. I know you are only asking for a fair review (which I greatly appreciate) but the over-arching question still prevails: Why is this important to us? Is faith that God speaks perfectly through a potentially humanized book too much to ask for from us?

Darrell L. Bock's picture

The issue is not a humanized book. Everyone sees the humanity of the sources we have. Many also see a divine involvement in those works. The importance of apostolic roots is precisely that, that the sources we have are connected to people who knew and walked with Jesus. Acts 1 tells us these apostles had been involved with Jesus from the beginning of his ministry. They knew what he was about. This may be part of the reason the contents ring so true and strong as you suggest. It also is important to appreciate that the names tied to these gospels, especially the Synoptics, do not have a deep pedigree otherwise to suggest why those names became attached to them. The common claim that apostolic ties enhance the reputation do not work for Mark and Luke on their own. And we know next to nothing else about Matthew. This suggests to me that these names were attached early on in the tradition for reasons that point to its credibility. In other words, the reason apostolic association was a weapon was because the tradition was rooted in those who knew Jesus. Its emergence out of a Judaism of this period also helps to explain why Gnostic teaching, such as God did not create and the original creation being evil, cannot go back to this earliest phase of the movement Jesus started. These are all important details.

The most powerful proof of the early recognition and obvious source of Mark's gospel and attribution has to be the fact that both Luke and Matthew use it as the basis, and include 90% of its contents, in their own "uber-gospels", at least one of which was not meant to supercede or supplant Mark, but which was merely meant to be the 'official' ecclesiastical gospel (Matt.). It is inconceivable that Luke would copy it in both content and order exactly (minus one section the Lukan Omission (Mark 6:47 - 8:26), inserting his other material in blocks, if he did not greatly revere it as authoritative: ahd how else could it have been so? Matthew likewise gives his own stamp of authenticity on Mark in the very act of 'supplanting' it for his "Topical" church-book version. He also copies it near-verbatum in both content and order, only inserting his unique material in several 'blocks'. This independant use of Mark by two other evangelists screams "Mark" at us, as does the most ancient tradition about the book. We don't have to embrace everything in our current version of Mark as from his pen, but the base shared by three Synoptics must be acknowledged. peace Nazaroo

Imagine Bart in the synagogue standing up and stating, "Hey, you can read from that!  It's not the original autograph!"...

"And he began to say unto them, This day is this scripture fulfilled in your ears." (Lu 4:21)

God can break the chains of doubt in the soul of Bart.

We shall see.

:-)

Are there alternatives to:

Bart Ehrman's The New Testament: An Historical Introductionfor this course?

Darrell L. Bock's picture

Yes, The NT introductions by Carson and Moo and the one by Köstenberger, Kellum, and Quarles.

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