Wednesday, May 18, 2016

Who Wrote the Book of . . . Mark?

Who Wrote the Book of . . . Mark?
posted by Clark Bates
May 18, 2016

      As a continuation of the earlier article regarding the authorship of the Gospel of John (here), this article will approach the authorship of the second Gospel, attributed to Mark. Of the four gospels, John stands apart as holding the clearest level of internal evidence to attest to its authorship; we continue to Mark as it is considered the earliest gospel, and the one upon which the rest of the Synoptics draw. It is no surprise that the second gospel falls under intense scrutiny and skepticism, for if doubt can be raised to its authorship or accuracy, that doubt must naturally spread to both Matthew and Luke. While it was stated earlier that the authorship of a biblical text is not a necessary element in demonstrating its truth, it can reinforce the authoritative nature with which it speaks. What follows is in no way an encompassing discussion on the various challenges to traditional authorship, but a survey of the evidence from which we can draw conclusion regarding the most likely, or plausible author.

The Gospel According to Who?

      Just as is the case for the Gospel of John, the Gospel attributed to Mark is formally anonymous. The attestation which all Christians are now familiar stems the formal titles attached to the documents in the second century. “The first reference to the author and circumstances of the second Gospel comes from Papias, bishop of Hierapolis in Asia Minor. . . composed sometime prior to his death in AD 130.”1 The original writing of Papias has long since been lost, but was recorded within the writings of the early church historian, Eusebius, in the fourth century. It is from Eusebius' Ecclesiastical History that much of these earliest works remain extant.

      According to Papias, one who lived during the time of the apostles, as recorded, “Mark became Peter's interpreter and wrote accurately all that he remembered, not, indeed, in order, of the things said or done by the Lord. For Mark had not
heard the Lord, nor had he followed him, but later on, as I said, followed Peter, who used to give teaching as necessity demanded but not making, as it were, an arrangement of the Lord's oracles, so that Mark did nothing wrong in thus writing down single points as he remembered them. For to one thing he gave attention to leave out nothing of what he had heard and to make no false statements in them.”2 If this is, in fact, the case, the gospel of Mark consists of eyewitness accounts from one closest to the Lord. Edwards agrees with this sentiment, writing, “That the Second Gospel was in many respects 'Peter's memoirs' found, as far as we know, unanimous agreement in the early church.”3 4

      By examining the Papias quote, three points are illustrated concerning the author of the second gospel:

      1.  Mark wrote the gospel that, in Eusebius' day, was identified with his name.
      2.  Mark was not an eyewitness but obtained his information from Peter.
      3.  Mark's gospel lacks “order,” reflecting the occasional nature of Peter's preaching.

By no later than the mid 4th century, the second gospel was consistently and unanimously attributed to Mark. While Mark himself was not an eyewitness of Christ, his source for information was, giving the gospel the necessary credentials for canonicity. From our standpoint it might seem odd that Papias would suggest a lack of order to the second gospel, given that it seems orderly in English texts, but what is likely meant by this statement is that it lacks rhetorical or artistic order common in first century compositions, particularly the other gospels.5

Which Mark?

      Given that the name “Mark” is being thrown around in connection to the second gospel with relative ambiguity, it would be helpful to clarify the author in question. The lack of further explanation by Papias or any of the early church when discussing the gospel bearing his name affirms that only one “Mark” could hold such a distinction. He was the son of a prominent Christian woman in the Jerusalem church (Christians gathered in her home during Peter's imprisonment) (Acts 12:12); cousin of Barnabas (Col. 4:10); accompanied Paul and Barnabas on their first missionary journey (Acts 13:5, 13); left the pair before it ended resulting in a separation between Barnabas and Paul on account of the latter not wanting to take Mark on any subsequent journeys (Acts 15:36-40); reconciled to the apostle Paul later and accompanied the apostle during his Roman imprisonment (Philemon 24; Col. 4:10); and traveled with Peter, referred to by the apostle as his “son” possibly suggesting that Mark was converted through Peter's ministry (1 Pet. 5:13).

      In the New Testament this Mark is often referred to by his full name, “John Mark.” It has been speculated that he was the “young man” who “fled naked” from Gethsemane when Jesus was arrested (Mk. 14:51-52) which could be an account added by the author himself. Some have suggested that this would call into question Papias' statement that Mark was not an eyewitness of Christ, and while it is mere speculation, it remains curious that Mark's Gospel contains the only account of this instance.

Difficulties With Traditional Authorship

      For many who doubt the traditional authorship of the second gospel, difficulties abound. Among them is the second gospel author's alleged ignorance of Jewish customs and errors about Palestinian geography. It is claimed that a Jerusalem-bred writer, would not make such mistakes. However, when careful reading is applied to the second gospel, along with careful investigation, these alleged discrepancies or errors, are alleviated. In fact, the narrative of the second gospel corresponds smoothly with all known facts surrounding Jesus' place of ministry.

“I do not know any other work in Greek
which has so many Aramaic
and Hebrew words and formulae in so narrow
a space as does the second gospel.”

      Some have speculated doubt regarding what appears to be Pauline-influenced theology within the second gospel. It is argued that such influence would indicate a later date of authorship and likely indicate an author far removed from the actual events of Christ. Again however, given the aforementioned connection of John Mark with the apostle Paul, this could be an adequate explanation for such influence. In addition, the amount of Hebrew and Aramaic Semitisms found in the Greek of the second gospel match what would be expected from a Jerusalem-bred Christian.6 This led Markan scholar Martin Hengel to exclaim, “I do not know any other work in Greek which has so many Aramaic and Hebrew words and formulae in so narrow a space as does the second gospel.”7

      Mark's connection to the words of the apostle Peter are also in great scrutiny, as many critics view the message of the gospel as a culmination of complex tradition-history developed by a later Christian community. While this approach garners much support, this kind of sweeping promulgation requires considerably more evidence than has been brought to bear. Although, it should be noted that while such hyper-skepticism is largely without warrant, it would not be unacceptable to allow for Mark to have used sources in addition to Peter in the compiling of the second gospel, but the link between the information contained within the second gospel and an eyewitness perspective cannot be easily glossed over. 

       Only in Mark do we find the added description of the grass being green when the five thousand are fed by Christ (Mk. 6:39). Likewise, while the apostles are often presented in critical fashion throughout the gospels, Mark stands out with its vivid characterizations of the twelve. In Mark they are seen as cowardly, spiritually blind, and hard of heart, descriptions reserved for someone that would have known them closely, and only in Mark do we read of Peter “remembering” earlier occurrences (Mk. 11:21; 14:72). Finally, the similar structure of the second gospel and Peter's early sermons (Acts 10:36-41) only further the claim of Papias that Mark recorded the testimony of the apostle.8


      While this evidence is not conclusive, it supports the traditional interpretation of Mark's authorship, and it should be acknowledged that skeptics like Bart Ehrman and others have no positive alternative. Some have suggested the apostle John, others a Pauline community, but common recourse is to simply label the author of the second gospel as “unknown”. In a similar fashion to the fourth gospel, much of the authorship for the Gospel of Mark must be determined indirectly. While this may not be the most desired method, it is all that is available and not uncommon for ancient literature. A sense of skepticism regarding traditional claims can be a healthy and natural response if it causes one to investigate deeper, but when the traditional claims offer the most probable explanation given the available evidence and no positive alternative can be suggested there remains very little reason to persist in doubt.

1James R. Edwards, Pillar New Testament Commentary: The Gospel According to Mark,” (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2002), 3.

2Eusebius, Ecclesiastical History, 3.39.15.

3Edwards, Mark, 4.

4Justin Martyr, Dialogues with Trypho, 106; Jerome, Commentary in Matthew, Prooemium, 6; Eusebius, Ecclesiastical History, 2.15; 5.8.2; (Irenaeus) 6.14.6; (Origen) 6.25.5.

5 In fact this is exactly the position of Pierson Parker's article, “The Authorship of the Second Gospel” that should cause readers to doubt Markan authorship. Pierson, Parker, “The Authorship of the Second Gospel,” Persp-RelStud, 5 (1978), 7.

6D.A. Carson and Douglas J. Moo, An Introduction to the New Testament: Mark, (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2005), 175.

7Martin Hengel, Studies in the Gospel of Mark, (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1985), 46.

8C.H. Dodd, “The Framework of the Gospel Narrative,” ExpTim 43 (1932): 396-400.