Specialists often assign a date to a text: “This is a fifth century text”, “…dates to the latter part of the second century,” and so on. Subsequently, historians look for contemporaneity and construct histories based largely on such datings.
But what do such datings mean? I would suggest that in a great many cases they have little applicability and, moreover, are often misleading. The problem is that many ancient texts are products of accretion and change over a great length of time. This is especially the case with the Christian writings of late antiquity.
So often, the date given to a text reflects the time of its last major edition. This is the case with the Acts of Mark (AM), which I am in the process of bringing to the attention of readers on this website. The short note in New Testament Apocrypha (II:464–65) regarding this obscure and previously untranslated work classes AM with “later apostolic Acts,” mentions its dependence on the canonical book of Acts and 1 Peter, and its suspected use of the Acts of Barnabas (“V CE”). All these facts are interesting but do they really answer the question: “What is the date of the Acts of Mark?”
No. In fact, the question itself makes little sense. Let me give you an analogy. If we want to find out about the riders on a city bus, we don’t ask “When did this bus start?” Or: “When did the last person get on?” Or even: “When did the first person get on?” The bus is continually taking on passengers and dropping them off. Similarly, many ancient texts were continually being revised by change, accretion, and deletion.
A more intelligent question then becomes: “What did this text look like in [say] the year 250 CE?” This is like asking for a description of a bus’s ridership at a specific point in time. To continue the analogy, when a bus begins its route it may have only a few passengers on board. Yet those same passengers may still be on board at later times, quite indistinguishable among a crowd of newcomers.
A similar case, I submit, obtains with the Acts of Mark. Here we have a text with definite later characteristics—a verbose Patristic Greek style and vocabulary, developed hagiographic material, and dependance on better-known texts (which are, however, themselves subject to dating controversies). Nevertheless, none of these “later characteristics” demand the exclusion of earlier ones which, just like riders on a bus, may still be present from the beginning.
Indeed, it is precisely the possible earlier elements in the Acts of Mark which most interest mythicists such as myself. Tools must be employed to identify these earlier elements, tools that do not uselessly focus on later accretions. Thus, when a scholar notes fifth century CE characteristics, when he quickly concludes “This is late,” and when he then metaphorically chucks the text out the window, I say: “Wait a minute! You’re throwing the baby out with the bathwater!” It is like taking a photo of a bus en route and saying, “This is how the bus was when it left the station.” Wrong!
The only way to get information about which riders were on the bus when it left the station is to (a) have a photo of that bus when it began its route, or (b) interview each and every rider remaining on the bus. Applying the analogy to literary criticism, in many cases we simply don’t have the earliest version of a text (the “photo”). This means that we must revert to plan (b): all the elements in a text must be analyzed separately. The obvious later elements simply mislead the credulous and they must be quickly put aside.
However, the Acts of Mark certainly contains early elements—elements that no later (e.g. fifth century) Christian would have placed in the text. These include a pronounced gnostic outlook and outmoded historical data that had long before been superseded or suppressed (Mark is a disciple of John the Baptist, a Levite, etc). These elements would hardly have been created at a late date. They must be considered independently.
This is what gives an obscure text like the Acts of Mark such interest for mythicists and other investigators of early Christianity. We must learn to look at the wealth of Christian texts with new eyes and with more nuanced methods, culling earlier elements from later ones. If we are able to do this then we will be able to construct a more accurate history of early Christianity, one which probably will have little in common with today’s dominant paradigm.