Randel Helms' "Who Wrote the Gospels": A Critique

Update 10/20: Helms remains a professor of literature but has not published any new books on Biblical subjects since 2006.

The following may be said in summary of Randel Helms' Who Wrote the Gospels? (Millennium Press, 1997). It:

  1. Contains no new arguments;
  2. Contains the same errors of thought, method, and background data that we found in Helms' previous book (reviewed briefly here);
  3. Consists mainly of compilations of, and unquestioning acceptance of, arguments rom liberal/Jesus Seminar Biblical scholarship, with no consideration of opposing views. The only evangelical in the bibliography is Robert Gundry, and he is referred to only once, on a point Helms happens to agree with. Tthe bibliography itself consists of about 70 sources, hardly sufficient for such a broad and important topic that has been the subject of discussions and scholarship for decades.

Thus it is that this evaluation will consist largely of references to other places where we (or someone else) has already answered the arguments at issue. Little else is needed.

In the Introduction to this work, Helms lays out his key premise that the Gosepls are "deliberately, even playfully, anonymous" and naturally argues that all four of the traditional attributions are wrong, and the product of "wishful thinking." He finds this "relatively easy" to prove; we respond with material already provided here, with special attention to the notice of Hengel that the gospels must have received their attributions very early.

Here also Helms declares allegiance to the Bultmaniann thesis of a Sitz im Leben as a determining factor for the content of the Gospels; here we refer the reader to Bauckham's The Gospels for All Christians.

Helms makes much of the alleged bias and (therefore) untrustworthiness of the Gospel authors, a concept refuted by Glenn Miller here; and declares allegiance to the theses of Q and Markan priority, said to be a thesis held by all but "fundamentalists" hiding their heads in the sand." For our refutation of these ideas in process, and proof that opposition to it is not merely the province of "fundamentalists," see here.

Chapter 1 of Helms' book makes use of some of the same erroneous arguments used in Helms' first book, Gospel Fictions.

Chapter 2 closes with a declaration that Matthew and Luke were "unsuccessful efforts to outgrow Mark's failed eschatology." We have shown previously by link that Mark's eschatology did not fail.

With that we move to Chapter 3, which deals with Matthew. Helms once again anachronizes by saying that we can imagine Matthew sitting at his "writing desk" with a copy of Mark open, and a copy of the LXX open, together. No, we cannot: Writing desks did not yet exist at this time; what passed as a "desk" in those days was your own leg, usually, or the floor. Scribes had not yet conceived of using tables as a writing surface. See more on these issues here.

There is the standard dismissal of Papias' testimony about Matthew we have covered here. Then there is a chart setting out "levels of remove" from the historical Jesus (and presumably, according to Helms, levels of reliability):

  1. Personal associates of Jesus.
  2. Oral traditions about Jesus.
  3. Written documents based on #2.
  4. Mark.
  5. Matthew.

Of course those in classes 1-3 are virtually the same: Who does Helms think started and first received the oral traditions? Who does he think wrote it down first? (Matthew was a scribe.) There is no proof in this list, nor in anything Helms argues, that 1-5 are not anything but part of a tightly-knit community, supplemented by the reliable nature of ancient/Jewish oral transmission processes (a point we have faulted Helms for not addressing previously).

Returning to the Q/Markan priority hypothesis, Helms advances as his most detailed "proof" the differences between the accounts of Jesus' baptism in Mark, Matthew, and Luke -- which we have addressed here. Helms only adds the idea that Mark 1:10-11 ("And there came a voice from heaven, saying, Thou art my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased.") "looks like a private revelation to Jesus of information he did not have before," which Matthew, having a birth narrative full of signs whereby Jesus would be informed early of his own divinity, covered by having the voice be general and heard by all.

Such psychological exegesis is unnecessary; Helms must simply presume such ignorance by Jesus based on an argument from silence; and at any rate, Luke certainly had no problem using the "direct address" mode in spite of an early life full of signs.

Another supposed "proof" is the difference between Mark 4:10-12 and Matthew 13:10-15. We are told that Matthew "corrects" Mark, who has supposedly thought that parables were meant to obfuscate, and has only erroneously quoted part of a passage of Isaiah (6:9-10) that would seem to say so; we are told that Matthew "corrected" this deficiency by adding the full quote from Isaiah which makes it clear that parables are for elucidation.

To say that Mark would not know that parables were for elucidation is like saying that someone today would not know that spaceships are in sci-fi movies. Does Helms think Matthew was the only one who recognized this "mistake" in Mark? It is amazing how often these theses such as Helms propounds requires convenient and alternating episodes of incredible error on the one hand and unique intelligence on the other.

Mark's allusion to Isaiah 6 covers the whole of the passage; anyone recognizing it would know (just as Helms supposes Matthew would) that the entire passage is being alluded to. Mark knows well enough that parables are for elucidation; what Helms has missed here is a literary device that allows Mark to lead into the explanation for the parable. (For more, on the authenticity of this explanation, see here.)

Helms offers further psychological theorizing: Matthew changes Mark's "carpenter" to "carpenter's son" because of his snobbery, we are told. How does this make it any more "snobbish"? Is "garbageman" any more or less snobbish than "son of a garbageman"? In fact wouldn't the latter be more snobbish, since one could read unemployment into it? Not that it matters: The father/son relationship in Judaism was such that the association is exactly the same in terms of social status; this is nothing more than we would expect from the normal variations within oral tradition.

This is not to say that such theorizing is always wrong: One may suppose that Matthew omitted the comment by Jesus' family suggesting Christ's insanity because he disliked the implications. Helms is also right to see Mark using a motif of ignorance (not as part of a "Messianic secret" motif, really, but as part of his effort to imitate Greco-Roman dramatic styles); and he is perhaps also right in supposing that Matthew 24:30, which contains a Greek play on words, shows Matthew's editorial hand. (I say maybe -- it is not altogether impossible that Jesus spoke Greek; but even if he didn't, this is hardly to be blasted away as "fiction" unless it can be shown that Jesus did not offer words that were virtually the same message in Aramaic. Editorial freedom does not equate with fictionalizing, especially not in this literary-social context.

What Helms does is take the matter too far and see every shift of verbiage as part of some vast theological conspiracy of rivalry between the gospel authors or the characters, to the point of reading emotions and intent into words and pretending to be able to read minds.

Helms' next two chapters are on Luke, and it is here where he offers his only really original thesis, namely that the author of Luke was a woman. Dismissing the standard arguments for Lucan authorship with merely a wave of the hand, and no critical analysis, Helms argues, in essence, that Luke's portraits of women are so sympathetic, and his portraits of men often so unflattering, that only a woman could have written Luke's gospel.

But this can be found in every gospel, so perhaps what we see there is more a reflection of the unsubtle nature of men than anything else. But what of that only a woman could write so highly of women? Why not also a male physician, a person highly sympathetic to human suffering, much of which was (and still is) inflicted upon women by men? Could not Luke have been a male physician who attended childbirths, addressed plagues, saw the loving care that women bestowed upon others, and came to empathize with them? Can Helms not conceive of such a soul prior to the 20th century?

Nor is there a complete escape from androcentric prejudices, for as Byrskog notes (Story as History, 75) even in Luke's Gospel there is a tendency to "pair women with men, enhancing and legitimizing the female characters, as it appears, by reference to the existence and action of males." Perhaps most ironic is Helms' recourse to feminist Biblical scholarship, some of which reads Luke as pro-woman, some as anti-woman. Helms remarks that this is "a sign of real complexity, of richly nuanced presentation, in the works of this great writer."

On the contrary: It is the sign of mirror-reading the political concerns of the modern century into a 1st century text, and half of them erring as a result.

Hard data as proof of this thesis is rather thin. In favor Helms quotes a feminist historian as noting that a slight change in one letter would turn "Theophilus" into a female name, thus making Luke's patron a woman; but they admit that no textual evidence exists for this idea. In a negative sense, Helms tries to disassociate Luke from Paul by appealing to a number of the standard "Acts vs. Epistles" arguments we have refuted here; the only new one is an idea that 1 Cor. 7:1 ("It is good for a man not to touch a woman," which Helms reads as "have nothing to do with a woman") as "misogny" that the female Luke would not stand for. Helms fails to comprehend the context of this remark, which has to do with maintaining behavioral purity and is thus a polar opposite of "misogyny."

Other than that, there is a standard overreading of Luke's preface as indicating a large number of gospels in circulation. Aas we have noted here, this is actually a literary device, one that cannot be pressed too far. There is an mistaken overreading of Luke 17:11-16, in which Helms asks why a Samaritan would go to a Jewish priest. Note that Jesus never says specifically to the Samaritan, "go to a Jewish priest" -- does Helms think that the Samaritans didn't have religious authorities of their own to go to? But then, how would Jesus know until later that any of the ten lepers was a Samaritan?

Finally there is more of Helms' "gospel fictions" thesis material which we have addressed, conceptually, in our previous article.

Chapter 6 contains Helms' appeals to the Gospel of Thomas, and that document as proof of the existence of Q (see here), the "Secret Gospel of Mark" (see Glenn Miller's essay here amd Carlson's Gospel Hoax), and a Christianity of incredible diversity, of which, it is "not for us to decide" which was the true one (see here).

There is little new here, other than an allegation that the relative rarity of Markan manuscripts suggests that the church was covertly trying to ignore or get rid of it: Helms tells us that while there is only one mss. of Mark as early as the third century, there are 8 of Matthew from the second and third century, and 4 of Luke. Now does this mean that the church also was inclined to get rid of Luke, but not so much as Mark?

Actually, the sparsity of data here is such that no conclusion can be drawn; but rather than envisioning a conspiracy to exterminate Mark, isn't is just as likely that Matthew's more extensive preservation is due to that Gospel's useful structure as a teaching tool, while Luke would be more useful to those of more intellectual interest (and thus less preserved, but still preserved more than Mark, because it has a great deal of unique material), while Mark, being smaller (and as Helms is fond of pointing out, containing little that is not in Matthew), and also being less sophisticated in its writing style, was simply less used? Why do we need some collusion to explain this data when something far more prosaic will suffice?

The final three chapters are concerned with the Gospel of John, and here Helms simply accepts the dictum of Fortna (and a few others) that John is an edited compilation of three sources: a "signs gospel," another editor's work, and a redactor's work. He also seems unknowing of advances in Johnanine scholarship related to the Dead Sea Scrolls, although he does pin authorship for the original document on an Alexandrian community of primitive Jewish Christians.

Actual evidence cited for the divisions in John is fairly thin: Presumably Fortna offers more details, but Helms only alludes to supposed evidence of literary "seams" and alleged contradictions as proof, and offers specifically only two proofs.

First, it is noted that our present John 21 has the decided look of something added after the fact. Actually, this is generally accepted as true, but that in and of itself does not prove more than one author; if a writer today can write a "Preface to the 3rd edition" and years later a "Preface to the 7th edition" then why can an original author not have appended his own Gospel?

In terms of the "gospel fictions" arguments, Helms offers one of the ones he used before, including the story (again, as in the first book) that the Cana water-to-wine miracle was stolen from Dionysus. Again, as we noted, the literary evidence could only point to theft the other way around.

He also claims that the raising of Lazarus was a story stolen from a myth of the Egyptian Osiris. Glenn Miller tells us that: "The reference to this resurrection I cannot find ANYWHERE in the scholarly literature. I have looked under all forms of the name to no avail. The fact that something so striking is not even mentioned in modern works of Egyptology indicates its questionable status."

Helms cites the work of Budge, but the parallels he draws are quite questionable: "Bethany" is the same as "House of Anu," because house = "beth" in Hebrew? That might be worth a look if there weren't an actual Bethany in existence, and it means "house of dates," whereas the Egyptian Anu was one of their gods.

The only real argument for a late date for John is the "synagogue expulsion" argument we have covered here.

Great attention is devoted to the Secret Gospel of Mark, but as noted above the rest of the world of Biblical scholarship doesn't share the same opinion. Helms bases an argument on the thesis that after 70, Christianity was "rapidly becoming a gentile religion," but he should first consult and refute Rodney's Stark's findings inThe Rise of Christianity which strongly indicate that the Jewish mission carried on with some strength even into the time of Bar Kochba (130s AD).

Acts 18:24, which mentions offhand that Apollos was from Alexandria, is magnified into a proof that Alexandria was the home of a primitive community of Christians who were not saddled with things like baptism and speaking in tongues, and Acts 18 is a polemic against them, while the original signs gospel was a polemic against the other church.

There were other subtle polemtics, too. John's gospel was written as a polemic against Peter. For example, the fact that only in John is Judas Iscariot referred to as a "son of Simon" is a polemic against "Simon Peter." I do not suppose the fact that "Simon" was the most common name of Jewish men at this time had anything to do with that.

So is the scene where John outruns Peter to the tomb -- yet Peter is allowed in first? -- and where John is allowed into the house of the high priest while Peter waits outside.

Our conclusion: Helms clearly lacks the discipline, knowledge, or fortitude to write on this subject with authority; the same would be said of any writer who thinks 170 pages and 70 sources is enough to address such a complex issue, and our examples of his errors serve as confirmation of this.