Authroship of Mark's Gospel
[Papias] [Peter's Stamp] [Eyewitness Character] [Alleged Geographical Errors] [Alleged Historical Errors]

In favor of Markan authorship of the Gospel of Mark are the following considerations:

Direct testimony that Mark authored the Gospel that bears his name. Between 110 and 130 AD, the following statement was recorded by Papias, whose words are passed on to us by the church historian Eusebius:

Mark indeed, since he was the interpreter of Peter, wrote accurately, but not in order, the things either said or done by the Lord as much as he remembered. For he neither heard the Lord nor followed Him, but afterwards, as I have said, [heard and followed] Peter, who fitted his discourses to the needs [of his hearers] but not as if making a narrative of the Lord's sayings'; consequently, Mark, writing down some things just as he remembered, erred in nothing; for he was careful of one thing - not to omit anything of the things he heard or to falsify anything in them.

Critics tend to reject this testimony out of hand. Kümmel, in particular, simply says that Papias "had no reliable knowledge of the connection of Mark with Peter" [Kumm.Int, 95], but fails to provide any significant basis for this assertion.

Contrarily, Boyd notes that there "is as yet no convincing reason to doubt the historical accuracy of this statement." That it "predates any concern to artificially give Mark's Gospel apostolic clout," and the "incidental and unpretentious nature" of the statement itself, is testimony to its veracity.

Further testimony may be found in that there was certainly no apologetic value to attaching Mark's name to a Gospel, not just because he betrayed Paul, but also because he was a relative unknown, and not an apostle, and there were much better candidates to choose from (even if one proposes that Mark was chosen precisely because he was low on the totem pole), like those selected for the late apocryphal Gospels.

Even Kümmel agrees the attribution to a non-apostle adds weight to the argument that Mark was the author. [ibid., 97] Reicke also adds [Reic.Root, 165] that Papias' inquiry was undertaken in a time when apostolic dignity was highly esteemed, thus making the ascription to Mark even more unlikely to be fake.

We have noted that such "external evidence" as this is key for secular historians in determining authorship, and it is interesting to note the comments of one such secular scholar, George Kennedy [Walk.RAG, 148ff]. To begin, Kennedy observes that contrary to what many in NT scholarship claim, and in line with typical procedures of composition in ancient times, Papias' remark that Mark wrote "not in order" is not a criticism of Mark's gospel, but a reference to hypomnema, or what we might refer to as notes, on Peter's preaching. Papias is therefore actually stressing Mark's great care in composition: He did not simply grind out a narrative, but carefully wrote up notes based on Peter's preaching as he recalled it, and in the same order as Peter preached (which, being "individual sermons," would not reflect historical order, but the need of each audience and/or the occassion).

Eusebius went on to note that Peter neither approved nor disapproved of these notes; this may be simply have been the expected reaction of someone like Peter for whom literacy was not a central issue -- or else, the resigned reaction of one who recognized these notes as fostering his inevitable "replacement".

Backing up Papias' statement are the following considerations:

Mark's Gospel is constructed around Peter more than any other Gospel. Throughout Mark, Peter is given top billing. He is the first of the disciples to be mentioned; he is portrayed as being in Jesus' inner circle, and there are many instances where Peter is the only individual to stand over and against Jesus. In terms of proportion, Peter in mentioned more times per page in Mark than in Matthew or Luke.

He is also the most "true to life" character in the Gospel other than Jesus: Kelber [Kelb.OWG, 68] observes that in Mark, "Auerbach was certainly right in contending that Peter showed a distinct mark of individuality...As an individual he ranks above all other disciples" and is the most fully developed character, other than Jesus. There are also many personal touches reflecting Peter, including the frequent and incidental mention of his house (5 times in Mark); phrases such as "Simon and his companions" (1:36) and Andrew being identified as Simon's brother (1:16); and the direct address to Simon by Jesus (14:37). Many third-person verses, if shifted to first- or second-person, would fit right in the mouth of Peter. (1:29, 5:1, 5:38, 6:53-4, 8:22, 10:32, 11:1, 14:18, etc. - [Mart.NTF, 212])

Bauckham in Jesus and the Eyewitnesses [179-80] adds to this evidence other special constructions, such as an inclusio (framing device) that indicates Peter as the source of the material; "internal focalization" in the accounts that indicates Peter as their source.

Mark's Gospel has the character of an eyewitness account. As would be expected if the material found its source in an eyewitness, the use of incidental details and characters matches the way an eyewitness account would be composed. Beck notes of the character of Mark's Gospel [Beck.TGJ, 84]:

His vivid language arrests the reader. The Spirit drives Jesus, his followers hunt him out, he sighs deeply. The demoniac hacks himself, the blind man leaps up, the great crowd jostles Jesus or sits like garden plots on the green grass.

And Kelber, although he does not make the connection that Mark's Gospel is based on Peter's preaching, observes [Kelb.OWG, 66]:

The prolific use of the third person plural instead of the passive is in keeping with the popular style of storytelling.

Pritchard [Pritch.Lit, 37-44] offers correspondence with our determination criteria. He points out that a literary analysis of Mark indicating that someone very like Peter (as we conventionally recognize him) was behind it: Mark's Gospel has a limited vocabulary (1330 words) and was written in "man on the street" Koine Greek; the rhetorical devices used are few in number and are the sort that would be used by someone who was uneducated; and, it bears an uncomplicated sentence structure: "Its sentences are made like the speech of the less educated men, upon whom the niceties of logically subordinated ideas are largely wasted." (Nice words about Peter, eh?)

Obviously, one who is determined not to allow Mark to be the author might suggest that all of this could be faked, but this would suggest a literary artistry beyond what the author of the second Gospel evidences otherwise (i.e., faking being uneducated). Further, it has been objected that much of Mark looks like "community tradition" rather than a personal account - although remember that it is not held that ALL of Mark's material came from Peter, and at any rate, the community had to get the material from somewhere! [Mart.NTF, 204-5]

The most parsimonious explanation for the above is not some conspiracy, but that Mark's Gospel was created "essentially on the basis of traditions imparted by Peter" [Reic.Root, 57] and on his preaching - just as Papias indicates.

Objections to Mark's authorship include the following:

Mark is just stealing from Homer. See here for an answer.

Geographical errors in Mark. Kümmel [Kumm.Int, 97] accuses Mark of "numerous" geographical errors, but names only three: Mark 5:1 (the Gerasene swine), 7:31 (having to do with Tyre/Sidon and the Decapolis), and 10:1 (re the region of Judea). He indicates that a lack of knowledge of the geography of Palestine is against Markan authorship. In reply we may note:

The "errors" are a product of the imagination. Let's look at Kümmel's three ("numerous"?) citations, along with a couple of others.

Mark 5:1 They went across the lake to the region of the Gerasenes.

How this qualifies as an "error" is beyond me. It is hardly a definitive statement, referring only to a "region" - as might be expected if the party landed in a countrified area, and if this is from a sermon of Peter to a Roman audience that really did not care where some out-in-the-boondocks locale was precisely located.

The city of Gerasa was about 30 miles southeast of the traditional location of this event; that being so, to speak of being in the "region" is hardly any more erroneous than saying, after landing a boat thirty miles south of Milwaukee, that you have landed in the "region" of Milwaukee. According to The Jesus Legend [449], though, a textual-critical case can also be made for the reading "Gergasenes" which would make possible an identification with the settlement now called Khersa, which is indeed on the Sea of Galilee.

Mark 7:31 Then Jesus left the vicinity of Tyre and went through Sidon, down to the Sea of Galilee and into the region of the Decapolis.

This one is a little more complex, but no more problematic. It has been interpreted to mean that Jesus and His company went through Sidon to GET TO The Sea of Galilee, which would indeed be the wrong way - but what it means is that they had an itinerary of 1) Tyre, 2) Sidon, and THEN 3) the Sea and the Decapolis region. The journey to Sidon is NOT a case of "what they went through to get there," but, "where they went also."

Glenn Miller of the Christian Thinktank has passed on to me this quote from Douglas Edwards, who, in his essay, "The Socio-Economic and Cultural Ethos in the First Century," has noted:

Indeed, even the Jesus movement's travel from Tyre to Sidon to the Decapolis depicted in Mark, which has struck some New Testament interpreters as evidence for an ignorance of Galilean geography, is, in fact, quite plausible. Josephus notes that during the reign of Antipas, while Herod Agrippa I was in Syria, a dispute regarding boundaries arose between Sidon and Damascus, a city of the Decapolis. It is therefore conceivable that the movement headed east toward Damascus and then south through the region of the Decapolis, following major roads linking Damascus with either Caesarea Philippi or Hippos. [GLA:59-60])

One Skeptic adds that he thinks that there was no place known as Decapolis until the time of Nero. No source is cited for this assertion, but he is apparently unaware that the Gospel of Mark was penned by someone who lived during and perhaps after the time of Nero.

Here's one from Anderson [Ander.GM, 31]:

Mark 8:10 he got into the boat with his disciples and went to the region of Dalmanutha.

So what's wrong here? Well, Anderson says that Dalmanutha is not referred to anywhere else in any extant literature. Considering how little literature we DO have from the first century, this is rather an argument from silence. See also here. (Some have regarded this as being the same as the village of Magdala, however.)

Finally, from Kümmel:

Mark 10:1a Jesus then left that place and went into the region of Judea and across the Jordan.

Here again we have a very general statement of a "region" and perhaps what is probably an itinerary: 1) the region of Judea; 2) across the Jordan. Is Mark not being specific enough for Kümmel? Other than that Peter's audience would (again) not care about such minor details, we may add that Mark was a native of Jerusalem (Acts 12:12), and thus an urbanite. As such, we would not expect him to make an exact fix on certain places that were either far from his home or out on the country somewhere. Not even I, acquainted as I am with atlases and road maps as part of my library work, can get more precise than this when referring to rural areas only 100 or so miles from where I live.

Historical errors. I've found only one of these so far. Kümmel [ibid., 98] objects that the death of John the Baptist (Mark 6:17) "contradicts Palestinian custom."

Kümmel does not specify what he means, so I cannot be specific here; but it is wrong to assume that custom had some iron-fisted control that kept Palestinian people from making any variations. The grip of "custom" is no more made of iron today than it was 2000 years ago. For details on this and the passage following, see here.

[Apocalyptic Prediction] [Expectations of Jesus' Return] [Late Tradition Development] [Irenaeus on Peter's Death] [Contemporary References/Material Accuracy/Early Tradition Indicators]

Of course, if the Petrine authority of this Gospel is established, there is very little reason to date it very late; as we have seen, even Mack and Kümmel will allow for a 70 date. Indeed, it is often allowed even among critics that Mark, as an old man, put together he could of Peter's teaching at that time. But is there any reason to date Mark as late as 70?

Apocalyptic Prediction. 70 seems to be a very popular date for Mark (and the other Gospels as well); but why? The answer lies in the "little apocalypse" of Mark 13, where Jesus predicts the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem. This took place in 70 AD, and since it is assumed that predictive prophecy is impossible, skeptics (and even some who are not skeptics) must date the book no earlier than 70, and some after 70. (See [Perr.NTI, 159]; [Spiv.ANT, 62-3]; [Ander.GM, 26]) Other than noting the anti-miraculous bias of this position, we may counter that:

The context of Mark 13 indicates a time before the temple was destroyed. Verses 13:1, 3 and 11 imply that the temple is still standing, referring to it in a very casual way. (In fact, this stands as a reason to date Mark BEFORE AD 70!)

The warning of fleeing to the mountains does not fit the picture. By AD 68, Jerusalem was isolated, and there were Romans and hostile Sicarii in the mountains - people fled INTO Jerusalem, and to forts like Masada and Herodion - NOT from Jerusalem and into the mountains. Christians, according to Eusebius, fled to Pella in the Decapolis [Robin.RNT, 16-7], which is decidedly not where Jesus said to flee. This did not happen in 70 AD or anywhere near then.

A prediction of the destruction of the Temple is hardly unique anyway. First, destruction of the temple (or Jerusalem) would not be too wild a guess, in light of how turbulent relations with the Romans were.

Second, several contemporaries of Jesus made similar predictions; they were a dime a dozen, and seemingly about as common as modern Americans suggesting blowing up the White House. The most familiar of these predictors, mentioned by Josephus, was Jesus the son of Ananias, a bit of a madman who made predictions of the Temple's destruction between 63-70 AD [ibid., 15].

Third, warnings of the Temple being completely torn down - which to a Jewish mind, would have beem the only conceivable method of judgment involving the Temple [Heng.Mark, 15]- are found throughout the OT and in the Book of 2 Maccabees.

Therefore, there is no reason to use this section of Mark 13 as an argument for dating the whole of Mark at 70 or later.

Other attempts to date Mark late focus on the following:

Christians expected Jesus to come back soon; hence they had no reason to preserve a narrative life of Jesus until the apostles passed away, which would be around 70 AD. Some cite Mark 9:1 as reflecting this expectancy, but it seems that Mark saw this as fulfilled in the Transfiguration, since that is the next event he describes. Also, there are a number of Jesus' teachings that set the expectation on a non-imminent return: The instruction on divorce, legal procedings, "when the gospel is preached in the whole world, then shall the end come," etc. - hardly the sort of stuff you prepare people for when the end is imminent.

However, even the apocalyptic Qumran community wrote things down, so this cannot be a reason to date any of the Gospels late. We would add as well that the events of Mark 13 were fulfilled, in entirety, in 70 AD and are not predicting the parousia found in Paul's letters as critics have often assumed. (For more on this, see series here.)

Mark reflects a late development of the Gospel tradition. Kümmel [Kumm.Int, 98] objects to any date earlier than 64 for Mark on these grounds. Of course, this is simply an arbitrary assertion; it is simply assumed that the Gospel tradition could not be this well-developed any earlier. But it is noteworthy that Kümmel allows for as early as 64 here; and we should also note that Mark's theology is nowhere near as sophisticated as that of Paul, who wrote in the 50s. Thus, Streeter [Stree.4G, 495]:

Ecclesiastically, even if it be assigned to AD 65, the Gospel of Mark was already ten years out of date, so to speak, at the time it was written.

This, we may add, applies to a goodly degree to the other Synoptic Gospels as well, and points towards a date contemporaneous with, if not prior to in some cases, that of the letters of Paul.

Ireanaus says that Mark wrote his Gospel after Peter and Paul died. Here is what Ireneaus wrote:

...after their death, Mark, the disciple and interpreter of Peter, transmitted to us in writing what was preached by Peter.

Since Paul and Peter presumably died c. 64-7, this is taken to mean that Mark wrote after this. However:

The reference is not to "writing." Wenham [Wenh.RMML, 139] observes that Ireneaus says that Mark "handed on" (transmitted) the material after the time of the death of these apostles - not necessarily that he WROTE it afterwards. (See also [Heib.Int, 93])

The tradition is not solid. There are other traditions, for example one cited in Clement of Alexandria [Stree.4G, 489], that Mark wrote his Gospel in Rome during Peter's lifetime. The matter is therefore inconclusive.

Now is there any indication that Mark can be dated earlier than 70? Indeed, there is strong evidence to date it earlier:

Contemporary-sounding references. Mark 15:21 refers to Alexander and Rufus, sons of Simon of Cyrene. It would be peculiar to mention these two persons unless they were somehow alive and known to the church - and the later Mark is dated, the more doubtful this becomes. The same may be said of referring to Pilate without mentioning his position as Matthew and Luke do.

Material accuracy. Mark's Gospel reflects well the contours of Palestinian Judaism before the time of the fall of Jerusalem; indeed, "No New Testament author portrays the different groups in Jewish Palestine at the time of Jesus as accurately as Mark" [Heng.Mark, 10].

Since the whole religious landscape was changed by the events of 70, Mark is reflecting either a very accurate memory, or else is writing before 70 when that landscape was still whole - and if we choose the former, we have no basis to reject the sayings of Jesus as inauthentic due to memory loss.

Indications of early tradition. Mark's rare use of the word "apostle," his consistent ordering of the apostles' inner circle (Peter, James, John - as opposed to Luke's Peter, John and James), and his references to "the Twelve" point to an earlier date when these terms were in use.

Our conclusion: the authorship and date of Mark, by the grounds used by secular historians for making the same determinations, we see thus far point strongly to Mark's authorship and significantly towards a pre-70 composition.