Sometimes, asking a basic question can lead down some surprising paths–questions that lead to more questions and even more questions, after that. Here is one such question:
Why do the gospels in the New Testament only have one name attached?
Ancient practice suggests the use of several was the norm. The most likely reason is that the authors were so well known within their intended audience that a single name would suffice. This being so, the most likely candidates would be those similarly named individuals in the New Testament documents themselves. This then raises the question of reliability: how far back do these associations between document and named author go? Two points are worth noting. The first is that it is highly unlikely that someone would either publish or purchase a book—involving a not inconsequential financial outlay—that lacked some kind of attribution, and this would almost certainly be the case at this very early stage with the four Gospels. Second, it is also highly unlikely that this would be his or her first such purchase. As literate and fairly well off folk, they probably already owned several other volumes, even if this was their first “gospel.” A distinguishing tag noting author and title would have been required from the outset. On this view, the link between author and document goes back to the moment the work was published and paid for.
But this then raises several other interesting questions: why would Matthew, a disciple of Jesus, follow Mark (as is now widely held to be the case), who was not a disciple of Jesus? And from whom did Mark obtain his information? Perhaps Matthew himself provides the key. He alone of all the gospels speaks explicitly of Peter’s priority (Mt 16:18). Matthew follows Mark’s outline and uses much of Mark’s content precisely because he understands that Mark’s gospel derives from Peter, a view widely held in subsequent church tradition, and he respects Peter’s priority in the gospel (cf. Acts 2:22-39; 10:36-43).
This occasions yet another question, but now about the literary shape of Mark itself. Although still a matter of debate, I argued some time ago that Mark’s gospel is primarily structured around one of Israel’s most prominent eschatological expectations (it seems to have dominated first century Synagogue readings of Scripture): the fulfillment of Isaiah’s hope of a new exodus, with which hope he introduces his gospel (Isaiah 40:3 in Mark 1:2-3). If so, one from where did this idea come? It is highly unlikely that such a brilliant theological construct began with Mark. If it did he would have been one of the earliest church’s foremost and therefore prominent theologians, but he is largely unnoticed as one.
And in any case, is it not Peter who stands behind Mark? It is extremely difficult to imagine that Peter preached and taught the good news about Jesus over such a long period without ever himself asking how it all hung together. But if we can imagine Peter doing that, then the next question immediately presses in, why not Jesus himself? Once put in this light, it seems obvious that the truly generative genius behind the larger literary shapes of the gospels is none other than Jesus himself. No other figure comes close to his towering intellect and incisive simplicity. This being so, Jesus not only gave his followers a series of sayings and deeds to record but the equally if not more important ideological framework within which to interpret them.
And, the questions continue. Sometimes, asking a basic question can lead dome some surprising paths. The implications are as significant, fascinating, and often they are far-reaching.
Hear more on these thoughts and questions by Rikk E. Watts on Monday, November 3 at Dordt College in Sioux Center, Iowa. The Andreas Center, the center that hosts In All Things, also sponsors the First Mondays Speakers Series (FMSS) at Dordt College. FMSS brings thinkers, writers, and opinion-leaders to campus to challenge students, faculty, and staff to stretch their imaginations, to grow in understanding, to act boldly, and to re-creatively serve God’s kingdom.
Dr. Watt’s will speak on “Four Voices, Two Vistas, One Person: Why Understanding the Shape of the Gospels is Imperative for Christian Life” at 11:00 am in the BJ Haan Auditorium. In the evening, the lecture will focus on “Jerusalem and Athens Revisited:How Early Christianity Transformed the Ancient and Gave Rise to the Modern World.” This lecture will be in Dordt College’s Science and Technology Center (Room 1606) at 7:30 pm.
First Mondays Speakers Series is free and open to the public. If you live in the area, we’d love to have you join us at both events.