Who Wrote the Gospels? Interview with Gary Greenberg (Part 1)
Gary Greenberg is the author of several popular and controversial books, including 101 Myths of the Bible, The Moses Mystery and The Judas Brief: Who Really Killed Jesus? He is a Fellow of The Jesus Project and is President of the Biblical Archaeology Society of New York. He has also served as a consultant to National Geographic Television’s Science of the Bible series.
Gary has honored Aeon Byte Gnostic Radio on several occasions with his deep knowledge, and you can find the audio interview at the end of this transcript, based on his book Who Wrote the Gospels? Why New Testament Scholars Challenge Church Traditions.
In the first part of the interview, Gary discusses the source texts and movements that became the Canonical Gospels, as well as some startling insights like the reality the early Christian authors attempted to exonerate the Romans and blame the Jews when it came to the death of Jesus.
MC: This is the Aeon Byte interview, and with us we have the pleasure of being joined once again by Gary Greenberg to discuss his new book Who Wrote the Gospels?: Why New Testament Scholars Challenge Church Traditions. How’re you doing today, Gary?
GG: Good, good! How are you all?
MC: We’re all doing what we can! But, once again, thank you very, very much for coming back. So tell us, Gary, why did you decide to write Who Wrote the Gospels?, and what perhaps separates your new book from other scholarly works that deconstruct the four canonical gospels?
GG: Well, the problem, I think, with a lot of this is: for the general lay public who want to understand all these issues, there’s no easy source. Parts of it are in one place, parts of it are in another place, other issues in the book are scattered throughout big, heavy, scholarly tomes. And I wanted to bring together a simplified explanation that not only tells you what scholars believe, but why they believe certain things. You know, they tell you in a summary fashion, and then they don’t really give you any detail – you know, they maybe devote a sentence here or there. But there are a lot of issues across many topics that are all related, and I wanted to bring them all together in one place in a simple, easy-to-understand manner, so that the general lay public would understand what these issues are, because not too many of them are familiar with the scholarly split between what the public knows or believes, and what the scholars believe. So I was hoping to see if I can bridge that gap.
MC: You do a very good job in a short amount of time, pretty much covering all the issues that, like you said, scholars have to deal with. But what exactly are some of the problems that every NT scholar has to deal with when studying the four gospels?
GG: Well, there are two primary issues from a historical standpoint: one is, What is the original text? or, How close to the original text can we get? We have no original gospel manuscript. We don’t have complete gospels for several centuries in manuscripts, and we have an enormous number of contradictory manuscripts. We have thousands of handwritten Greek manuscripts, but every single one is different from every other one in some way – whether it’s typographical errors (or, it would be, scribal errors) when copying, versus deliberate changes. So one issue is, How close to the original text can we get?
The second is, What in the original text is historical, and what isn’t historical? How much has been added? What’s been changed? How reliable are the sources (to the extent we can determine sources)? And so forth. And so, on the historical level, you have those two issues. For theologians, there’s an enormous number of issues that they have to resolve, and as you can tell from modern times, with hundreds if not thousands of Christian sects, groups, divisions and so on, there’s a lot of debate and argument over what the gospels actually say and mean.
MC: Gary, when exactly do we begin hearing about the four gospels in history?
GG: The earliest apparent reference to the existence of gospels? Well, in Luke he makes reference to sources, but he doesn’t tell us what those sources were. By implication, based on the analysis we do here, he knew Mark, maybe knew something that wasn’t one of the four gospels, and some scholars – a very small number – think he may have known Matthew. But he doesn’t say that, and he doesn’t tell us what he’s using – he merely indicates there are sources.
Early in the 2nd century there’s a fellow named Papias who was interested in collecting information about what earlier Church fathers and leaders had said or did. He doesn’t seem to be overly interested in written materials, and he doesn’t seem to know, initially, anything about gospels or even written sources. But he talks to somebody who tells him that they heard about a document written by somebody named Matthew, and a document by someone named Mark. He’s told that Mark may have been something of an interpreter of Peter. From the information – very minimal information, almost nothing – that he provides in the references, we can’t say anything about whether these two documents he’s talking about actually are anything connected to the original Gospel of Mark or the Gospel of Matthew.
It’s a hook that a lot of theologians’ sources hang on to try to make a case, but it turns out that one thing that doesn’t get commented on very much is there was another gospel at about that very same time, in the same area, that Papias is located, called the Gospel of Peter. It was used as Scripture in a number of churches in Syria and elsewhere, and held on for quite a while – for most of the 2nd century – until it was subsequently declared heretical. And it’s very possible that what was described as Mark’s book may have been the Gospel of Peter, rather than the Gospel of Mark. But we have no quotes of any sort to tell us what he’s referring to.
And also Papias, whose writing is only quoted in the 4th century by Eusebius – and he’s our source for this – [Eusebius] doesn’t have a very high opinion of Papias as an intellect. He describes him as not particularly bright. But he [i.e. Eusebius] does have the writings, and so there we have a reference. Towards the end of the 2nd century we start to hear Church fathers writing about what appear to be the gospels, and starting to guess at who may have written them, and assigning names. It’s very likely that Papias was an influence on many of them, and they came to believe that there was a gospel written by Matthew and a gospel written by Mark, who was associated with Peter. And they started using that as an initial reference, and coming to some kind of guesses about John and Luke.
Luke probably came to be thought of as an author, possibly because of the controversial, what they call the “we” passages in Acts, in which, as it appears on the surface the author is talking about “We did this,” and “We did that,” referring to Paul and whoever the other “we” is, it’s not clear that “we” referred to the author, as much as the author quoting a source that said “we”. So there was sort of a theory that there was a Luke who was a companion to Paul, therefore this must be the person who wrote Acts and Luke, and so on. And so we have some guesses. And then there were guesses about John based on theories about who the Beloved Disciple might have been, and so on.
So it’s around the end of the 2nd century that you start getting these guesses. But nobody really knew. They say, “Well, it’s a tradition,” “I stick to the tradition,” but nobody really knew. And these guesses started getting repeated by other writers, and after a while this is just taken for granted. But there were other gospels around, and other books being considered, that didn’t get into the subsequent canon.
MC: Before we get into that, don’t people – especially a lot of fundamentalists, or I guess you might say Jews for Jesus – go back and say that Papias shows that Matthew might have been written first in Aramaic? But obviously it really doesn’t have any weight to it, does it?
GG: Well, it’s almost impossible for that to have been the case, based on the Greek. He’s writing in Greek, copying from Mark a large amount, which is one of the issues that comes up – almost all scholars believe that Matthew copied about half of his Gospel in large part from Mark, adapting, modifying it, and making little changes here and there, and took almost eighty per cent of Mark into his own Gospel. And so you’d have the problem of how he could copy from Mark, in Aramaic (Mark writing in Greek), copying it and writing the Gospel in Aramaic, that then gets translated into Greek, and then so closely follows the Greek Mark! It’s too problematic an issue for that to be the case. It just doesn’t work.
But there was an Aramaic version of Matthew circulating. But it’s secondary. There were Jewish sects – for example, Jewish Christians like the Nazarenes and such – that took Matthew in as their gospel, because it’s probably the most Jewish-oriented gospel of the four, and adopted it. But it looks like the Nazarenes and other Jewish Christian groups used Matthew, edited out the birth stories – they didn’t believe in the birth stories, they believed Jesus was the adopted Son of God, who was an ordinary human, and after he was born God adopted Jesus as his Son – and that was the theory of the Jewish Christian groups that had an Aramaic version of Matthew.
MC: And Gary, do we really know why these gospels – just four among many other Christian gospels that were read by different communities – were chosen in the end? Can we simplify it as simply the vagaries of Irenaeus?
GG: Probably not. The likelihood is these were the four earliest influential ones. Chronologically, while there may have been thirty or more gospels written in the early Christian years, almost all of them post-date these four. The two that come closest as chronological rivals would probably be the Gospel of Peter, which may have been contemporary with John and Luke, but might have been a little later, although some scholars would date it before any of the other four gospels, and similarly with the Gospel of Thomas, which also probably would have been contemporary with John and maybe Luke, and could have been earlier, could have been later; again, that’s an argument that some scholars make, although the consensus is that Peter and Thomas were probably early 2nd-century rather than mid-1st. So on the basis of priority and reputation those are the four gospels that were adopted.
MC: And it’s still very much a consensus that Mark is not only the earliest, but the date of 70 AD has pretty much still stuck?
GG: The consensus among historians is overwhelming that Mark is the first of the four gospels to be written, for reasons I go into in the book. The dating is fluid. The tendency is to move him later rather than earlier. There is a faction that would argue for a pre-Revolt (you know, the Jewish Revolt in 67 or 66) – that it might have been written before, but it’s not believed. There are some clues in Mark – for example, that there might have been issues of Christian persecution under Nero at the time that were in the background of writing – which would move Mark later [or indeed earlier]. The tendency is generally among historians currently to move Mark after the Revolt rather than during. For a while the idea was that he was writing during the Jewish Revolt, but the tendency now is to move him later.
MC: And that’s one of the reasons why people date the Pauline epistles earlier, because Paul had no idea about the Second Temple being destroyed or anything like that.
GG: Right. There doesn’t appear to be anything in Paul that suggests knowledge of the gospels. He even claims that he originated the revelation of the Eucharist in one of his writings. He says, you know, you got that from me. There are some issues that seem to suggest Paul is writing in this earlier period. It’s generally thought that his earliest documents date to around 50.
MC: Gary, what exactly is the Synoptic Problem you write about in your book?
GG: The Synoptic Problem is this: Matthew, Mark, and Luke are called the Synoptic Gospels because, when you put them alongside each other, there seems to be a great amount of material that’s similar. Two kinds of similarities: One is, there’s a lot of similarities – there’s a large number of stories that are the same, and many of these stories use a lot of the same keywords and phrases in all three gospels.
In addition, there’s a large degree of sequential agreement. So that not only do the stories use a lot of the same words and same concepts, but they appear in the same order. Now this isn’t perfectly so throughout all the gospels. For the most part, you find that sometimes there are variations, and when you have variations, as a general rule, in all the important areas, you find either Mark and Matthew agree against Luke, or Mark and Luke agree against Matthew. But you almost never find Matthew and Luke agreeing against Mark. So, for a number of reasons, this leads scholars to believe that Matthew and Luke must have used Mark as a source, because otherwise you would have more agreement between Matthew and Luke against Mark. But overwhelmingly the agreement is usually Mark as the pivot around which things work.
The problem is in part – the reason it’s a theory that’s almost universally accepted, but still a theory – is that there’s a few cases known as the “minor agreements”: there’s a few places, in very minor areas, where Matthew and Luke do seem to agree against Mark. While the solution isn’t considered a perfect solution – that Mark was first, and the other two copied – it’s overwhelmingly accepted that this is the most likely solution, and the most probable solution to the problem. And of course this has consequences if that’s the case, if, for example, it’s alleged in Church circles that Matthew was one of the apostles. But if he was one of the apostles it doesn’t make a lot of sense that he would copy almost eighty per cent of Mark into his own gospel, and that that would make up almost half of his own gospel, and that he would copy maybe another twenty per cent from what is considered to be another source.
And then, if you take away the birth stories, there’s not very much left in Matthew that’s unique to Matthew. There are a few things unique to Matthew, but not a lot – so that undermines the idea, then, that Matthew must have been an apostle.
MC: And this other source is considered Q. Is that still a popular theory?
GG: Yeah. Q is close to universal among scholars, that there was a Q source. Q is a nickname. It’s from a German word, Quelle, meaning “source”: the first letter is a “Q”. The Q Theory is that there are a number of places in Matthew and Luke that share a lot of agreement, much like with the Synoptic Problem in Mark, that don’t appear in Mark. So you have Matthew and Luke having a large amount of material that seems to be similar, much of it in the same order, but not all of it. And the idea is there was an earlier source – what they call a “sayings source” – that mostly consisted, theoretically, of sayings or statements by Jesus, and that this source was used and known by both Matthew and Luke.
There’s a small minority that believe that an alternative explanation is that Luke knew Matthew, and would have copied from Matthew, and that would explain the similarities.
MC: And this Q community doesn’t seem to be interested in the crucifixion of Jesus. They’re more interested in just his wisdom sayings more than anything.
GG: Right – to the extent that Q can be reconstructed from the agreements in Matthew and Luke. There is no Passion account, there’s no Resurrection account – if I remember correctly there may not even be a baptismal section. But, primarily, they don’t seem to be concerned with – at least, the Q source to the extent it’s reconstructed – they don’t seem to be concerned with the death of Jesus. They’re more concerned with what he taught when he was alive.
MC: And it would be pretty radical to say – and there are radical scholars who say – that the Gospel of Thomas might have been closer to Q, or the actual Q.
GG: There seems to be some agreement that Thomas may have known the Q source, or something similar to a Q source, and that there are some parallels in Thomas to Q. And then it becomes an argument as to what that means. If there’s some agreement between Thomas and Q, you raise a priority question: Who came first? And issues of that sort. But generally it’s still thought that Thomas is late, and it’s possible Thomas got his Q material, not from Q, but from one of the other gospels.
MC: And what’s interesting, Gary, is that, if Mark was the first gospel, and scholars pretty much agree that the Resurrection part of Mark is a later addition, that it ends with the woman being silent, and that’s the end of the story – so isn’t that sort of a problem, that Mark is basically saying, “We don’t know what happened to Jesus!”?
GG: Well, the problem is this: the last twelve verses of Mark do not appear to be original to Mark. They are added at a later time, possibly to harmonize Mark with the other gospels. It ends before the Resurrection. It’s pretty much agreed upon by scholars that the last twelve verses aren’t part of the original Mark, and there are problems with the twelve verses in context. So you then have Mark ending abruptly with Mary being told, “Don’t say anything,” and she says nothing to anybody, and then it ends abruptly. The argument then becomes, among scholars: Did Mark intend to end there, or did something happen to keep Mark from finishing? But we have a gospel that ended without the Resurrection story, and that creates a significant issue for theology and history.
MC: Gary, do we know why John is so different from the Synoptics, and is there any evidence that he had any knowledge of them?
GG: There is an argument among Johannine scholars as to how much John may or may not have known about the other gospels, particularly Mark. In the book, I point out that there’s a section of John that seems to have a very close affinity to Mark in parallel stories, and scholars debate whether this means that they knew each other or what, and it’s also argued that if John knew Mark he used him in a very unusual way. There’s a significant theological difference between John and Mark in that in Mark, Jesus’ Messianic reputation is private not public, and nobody knows while he’s alive who he really is.
Jesus goes around, he’s always telling everybody, “Don’t say anything.” He even denounces Peter for not understanding who he was, and getting it wrong, and thinking of him as an earthly Messiah the way most Jews would have thought of the Messiah. So it’s a secret. It’s referred to as the Messianic Secret in Mark. There’s no public claim of any sort that Jesus is the Messiah. In John there’s a very public claim that Jesus is the Messiah. Particularly interesting is – two major things missing from Mark that are in John, or two problems about John versus Mark – is that while Mark and the other Synoptic Gospels have a lot of exorcisms, there are no exorcisms in John. And in John, Jesus is very public about his mission, and there are what they call the “I am” sayings – many sayings in John about “I am this,” “I am that,” and this is a public declaration. And “I am” interestingly is the title of God in Exodus, you know, when Moses asks who you are, he gives the name, “I am.” So basically Jesus is going around using a title associated with the Jewish God in Exodus: “I am”.
And John as a later gospel has got a more advanced Christology than you have in the earlier gospels. There’s a lot of evolution of thinking about who Jesus was, and there’s a lot of debate, even among the inner circles, as to who Jesus was, how do you identify Jesus, in what way. And that was an evolving thing. John is much later in the end result, so represents a more advanced Christological thinking than the earlier gospels do.
MC: And also, don’t you point out in your book, Gary, that the Passion narratives in Luke and John are very similar?
GG: Yes. There seems to be some indication that John and Luke knew a common source for the Passion. Whether John got it from Luke, whether Luke got it from John, or both knew an independent source, there’s clearly many places where there are a lot of parallels between John and Luke on the Passion.
At the same time, Luke knows Mark’s Passion account, and you get, in a sense, when you read Luke’s Passion, that he’s trying to mediate between the version in John and the version in Mark. One interesting example of a real Passion problem between John and Mark moderated by Luke is that, while Mark has an initial night-time trial of Jesus by the Jewish Sanhedrin, such a trial would have been illegal under Jewish law and was not likely to have taken place. John has absolutely no Jewish trial of Jesus. After he’s arrested there is no Jewish trial at all. So there is no night-time trial of Jesus in John. Luke has a trial taking place, but has it the next day during the day, making it consistent with the Jewish law that there cannot be a night-time trial, and so sort of somewhere in between John and Mark on the question of what took place that night.
MC: You also give a very fascinating reconstruction of the conversation, if you would, between Pilate and Jesus. Could you tell us a little bit about that? I thought that was a great section!
GG: Yeah, you have a lot of interesting issues. To start off, Mark has a very simple thing: Pilate just asks him, “Are you the Messiah, and what did you do?” Jesus refuses to answer one question, and denies being the Messiah. And in John you have the same two questions and the same two answers, but not in connection with each other. John has a much longer dialogue between Pilate and Jesus. And so, in trying to get the context together, it looks like things are out of order and things have been moved around, and I try to see what would happen if we tried to reconstruct the dialogue in common with Mark, so that the answers Mark gives for Jesus, in John appear to different questions. And the questions that Mark has Pilate ask Jesus generate different answers in John.
So I sort of try to reconstruct how this might have taken place – what really happened, and what issues would have been there – in order to reconstruct it. One of the problems is that in Mark, which is very brief, Jesus accuses Pilate of making an accusation, and Pilate didn’t make an accusation. In John you get the accusation, Jesus reacting to it. So there are a lot of tricky questions in there, and the information in John looks like it’s out of order, and at the same time the conversation with the Jews looks like it’s out of order: questions and answers have been moved around. So when you start doing that and reconstructing, you see that John must have been using a written source that he has altered. I explain it in more detail in the book; it’s hard to follow in a brief conversation, but I lay it out clearly in the book.
MC: Another great insight you bring in your book Who Wrote the Gospels? – and obviously this happens because all of us have a tendency of just harmonizing the four gospels, you know, like from years of being raised Catholic, it just kind of runs together – but, well, you point out what is pretty amazing is, I believe it’s in Luke and John, it seems to be that Pilate doesn’t hand over Jesus to the Roman guards, but he directly hands him over to the Jews to be sacrificed.
GG: Right. John and Luke are constructed to make Jews the ones who … it’s designed linguistically to give the impression that at the end of the trial, Pilate handed Jesus over to the Jews, which contradicts the whole story of the dialogue between Pilate and the Jews in John, who say they can’t kill anybody, and that’s why Pilate has to do the trial. But it’s linguistically structured so that the reference who he handed Jesus over to looks like the Jews rather than the Roman soldiers. And Luke even has a later point to emphasize that it was the Jews who did this, not the Romans. In
Mark it’s very clear that Jesus was turned over to the Romans, but what Mark does, very interestingly, is he exonerates Pilate from the mocking and taunting of Jesus, while in John and Luke it happens during the interrogation that the Roman soldiers mock Jesus and persecute Jesus, and Pilate is fully aware of this and basically a participant in the proceedings. In Mark Pilate is exonerated; Jesus is handed over to the Romans, Pilate leaves the scene, and it’s at that point that Mark has the Roman soldiers mocking Jesus.
So you have an interesting question now: Which is the more likely story? Is it more likely that Pilate had nothing to do with this, and John and Luke chose to add in all this stuff? Or is it more likely that the persecution and mocking of Jesus occurred during the interrogation with Pilate’s knowledge, and Mark altered the story to exonerate Pilate so that there wouldn’t be any problems with the Romans?
It’s an important and interesting question about the order of events in the story.
MC: But, needless to say, and I think you touch upon this in your book – well, you deal with this in your book The Judas Brief – each of the four evangelists were in a way sort of trying to get the Romans off the hook and, it’s like, trying to blame the Jews for all of Jesus’ travails.
GG: Right. It’s clear from the evolution of Christian writing through the gospels and other sources that Jews were increasingly blamed for the death of Jesus, and the Romans were increasingly exonerated. So I think you can almost use as a historical guide or principle that where there are two versions of a story in the gospels one that shows the Romans more guilty of persecution, or one which shows the Jews less guilty – that those that show the Jews as less guilty or the Romans more guilty – are more likely the original versions of the story, and that the exonerations of the Romans or the enhancement of the insults to the Jews are more likely later editions.
Stay tuned for Part 2!