David Trobisch reminds us in The First Edition of the New Testament that the books of the New Testament canon have been arranged in way that conveys its own message to readers. So editors responsible for the arrangement of the books send a message to readers. This is part of what Trobisch explains is “the editorial concept”.
So we open the New Testament and the first book we see is the Gospel of Matthew. Now the author’s name is nowhere found in the book itself. Someone has added the title and author heading to it. So who is this Matthew? We read the book and see Matthew is one of the Twelve Disciples. So the reader is led to understand that this first book is written by one of the Twelve who were with Jesus.
Next comes the Gospel of Mark, and the reader is left curious as to Mark’s identity. But the editor has collated other books and perhaps even added the odd “incidental” line that leads the reader to learn who he is, too. I’ll return to this later.
Then we read The Gospel of Luke. This work begins with a claim that leads readers to understand many others had attempted to write gospels before this one. The reader has already turned the pages of two of these. Now this Gospel is tied by the preambles to the Book of Acts that soon follows. Now Acts concludes suddenly with an imprisoned Paul preaching in Rome and waiting trial. The reader was expecting to read about the death of Paul. Moreover, some passages in Acts are written in the first person. It is natural, then, for the reader to conclude that Acts was written prior to the death of Paul.
And if Acts was written in the life-time of Paul, then so must have been the Gospel of Luke that precedes Acts. Yet the reader has seen that Luke follows earlier gospels still, such as Matthew and Mark. It is natural, then, for the reader to view these first three gospels as all being composed very early and during the life-time of Paul and other apostles.
The Gospel of John follows. The odd thing about this gospel is that it appears to have two endings. The final chapter appears to have been tagged on with an explanation of what was to happen to the apostles John and Peter. Peter is predicted to die a martyr’s death and John to outlive him. If the gospel is titled The Gospel According to Saint John the final chapter appears to be an editorial addition that looks back on the deaths of John and Peter.
So the editor(s) has arranged the first books of the New Testament collection to appear to be very early writings about the life of Jesus and written either by apostles of Jesus (Matthew and John) or within the life-time of those apostles.
Let’s look a little more closely at the book following those gospels, the Book of Acts. The first chapters of this book tell us of the great works done by the Twelve Apostles and by Peter and John in particular. Then along comes Paul. Paul is depicted as being controversial but mainly as a result of misunderstandings. All of these are sorted out by the great apostle James (the Lord’s brother) in the middle of the book. After that we read of Paul’s mission work. To the very end Paul is misunderstood. He is really teaching the same things as Peter, John and James. The Book of Acts is written to stress the unity of the Jerusalem apostles and Paul. Paul is shown to defer to the authority of those Jerusalem apostles, especially James in Acts 15.
In a very early New Testament canon it appears that the Book of Acts was followed by the “General Epistles”, those of James, Peter, John and Jude — the first three being the leading apostles of Jerusalem. These are followed by the collection of letters by Paul. We find, then, that the letter collection follows the same principles set out in Acts: the Jerusalem apostles take precedence yet Paul sits alongside and following them.
Through this arrangement readers are being predisposed to read Paul’s letters in the context of the gospels, Acts, and the General Epistles of the Jerusalem apostles. The readers do not expect to find anything in Paul that contradicts the preceding teachings. Odd sounding passages will naturally be interpreted in the context of the preceding books.
Accordingly when the reader comes across the Epistle to the Galatians and finds Paul in sharp disagreement with Peter, even condemning him for his wrong approach to the Gospel, he or she finds reasons to believe that this rift was only temporary and the differences were patched up. After all, had not the reader seen what Peter in his later years himself said of Paul in his second letter?
Bear in mind that our Lord’s patience means salvation, just as our dear brother Paul also wrote you with the wisdom that God gave him. He writes the same way in all his letters, speaking in them of these matters. His letters contain some things that are hard to understand, which ignorant and unstable people distort, as they do the other Scriptures, to their own destruction. (2 Peter 3:15-16)
But the editor may well have done more than simply rely upon book order to direct readers to interpret Paul’s writings a certain way. This brings us back to the question of the identity of Mark. So what of the identity of Mark? How is the reader to know who these are?
And I will make every effort to see that after my departure you will always be able to remember these things. . . .
. . . . this is now my second letter to you. I have written both of them as reminders . . . . I want you to recall the words spoken in the past by the holy prophets and the command given by our Lord and Savior through your apostles. . . .
Peter is very anxious that he leaves important memories with his flock. The passage in 1:15 suggests Peter will be making an effort to arrange for others to do what is required to this end. We may be reading here the beginnings of the tradition that Peter did not write a gospel himself but ensured that his memories of Jesus were passed on nonetheless through someone he could trust.
The same letter reminds us that Peter was himself an eyewitness, above all of the Transfiguration:
For we did not follow cleverly devised stories when we told you about the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ in power, but we were eyewitnesses of his majesty.
He received honor and glory from God the Father when the voice came to him from the Majestic Glory, saying, “This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased.” We ourselves heard this voice that came from heaven when we were with him on the sacred mountain. (2 Peter 1:16-18)
Who was close to Peter in his final years whom he might use for such a purpose? The first letter of Peter concludes with this:
She who is in Babylon, chosen together with you, sends you her greetings, and so does my son Mark. (1 Peter 5:13)
And Paul’s own final letters adds further reason to wonder if the rumours are true:
Only Luke is with me. Get Mark and bring him with you, because he is helpful to me in my ministry. I sent Tychicus to Ephesus. When you come, bring the cloak that I left with Carpus at Troas, and my scrolls, especially the parchments. (2 Timothy 4:11-13)
The reader who was pained to see in the Book of Acts the way Barnabas and Paul split over Mark is reassured to see here in this letter of the older Paul that all is mended. Mark was well known to both Peter and Paul.
These little clues in the canonical books support the Church tradition that the Gospel of Mark was written as a memoir of Peter.
This post has just skimmed the surface of the many cross-references within the canonical books that tell their own story of the authors behind the New Testament.
What is important to understand (and this is what Trobisch is emphasizing) is that readers have been guided into these interpretations by the editor/s who selected and arranged the books.
Critical studies inform us that the Gospels were written long after Paul and they were certainly not written by apostles or companions of apostles. (Okay, Bauckham and other naive or confessional conservative scholars are trying to revive the notion of eyewitnesses etc., but I have addressed some of those arguments in other posts.) The letters of James and Peter were certainly not written by the Lord’s brother or leading apostle. And Acts is really a propaganda effort to paper over very real divisions between Peter and Paul.
A hidden voice has hidden these facts from the general reader. That voice belongs to the editor(s) responsible for the selection and arrangement of the New Testament canon.
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