Authenticity of the Gospel According to Mark

Introduction

John Mark came from Jerusalem; his mother, Mary, owned property there and her house was a meeting place for the church there (Acts 12:12); thus he would have known many of Jesus’ followers.  He was also a cousin of Barnabas (Col 4:10).  Not only was Mark wealthy, he was educated and was also bilingual, Greek being his second language.  This was not unusual because most Jewish boys were given a basic education, about equivalent to our primary school level; while upper to middle class boys had a higher level education.  So even if Mark only had the minimum education, he was sufficiently equipped to write his Gospel.

It was at Mary’s house that Peter announced his miraculous escape from the prison to the many Christians who were there praying for his release (Acts 12:12-17).  It is likely this connection with his mother’s house, and Peter and the other disciples’ and believers’ frequent congregating there, that there developed an enduring relationship between Peter and Mark, with Peter later affectionately referring to Mark as his son, no doubt due to him being responsible for Mark’s conversion (1 Pet 5:13).

Tradition has it that Mark was the founder of the church at Alexandria, one of the major cities in the Roman Empire, and one of the four major sees of the Church; and Peter anointed and set him apart as its first bishop.

Argument for Markan Authorship

Mark was not a prominent figure in the New Testament church compared to Peter, James, John, Paul, etc.  And his unexpected departure from Paul’s missionary team to Pamphylia (Acts 13:13) and Paul’s subsequent reluctance to take him with him on his next missionary journey (Acts 15:36-41) would make him an unlikely candidate for a fraud or well-meaning bishop or scribe to attach his name to a gospel.  Neither was he an apostle; any self-respecting fraud would want to attribute their writing to an illustrious name which carried authority, and Mark just wouldn’t suit.  And there is nobody else whose name has been attached to this gospel; it has always, and until recently, universally been regarded as having been written by Mark.  Many of the prominent Apostolic Fathers attested to Mark as author of the Gospel which bears his name, such as Irenaeus, Papias, Tertullian, Origen, Jerome, and Clement of Alexandria.

When was Mark’s Gospel Written?

As is usual with each of the gospels, the date of its authorship hovers between varying opinions.  Of course, the differences between scholars depends on various issues, one of them being whether one regards Matthew as having been written first, as the Church has traditionally believed, or whether Matthew used Mark when writing his gospel, as scholars today believe.

Dr Alan Cole dates Mark between 60 and 70 CE.  “Mark’s gospel was probably written quite early, perhaps between AD 60 and 70, i.e. only about 30 years after the death of Christ.  That would put it around the time of the deaths of Paul and Peter, which we think took place about AD 64, and just before the Roman armies destroyed Jerusalem in AD 70.  Although it would not matter if it was written later, this pre-70 date would fit better with what early Christians said about the gospel and also with what the gospel itself says.  For example, in Mk 13 Jesus prophesies the fall of Jerusalem, but there is no hint in the text that the prophecy has been fulfilled by Mark’s time” (Cole, A, p. 946).

Dr. Ann Nyland says: “Note that Mark was closely associated with Peter (who, according to Eusebius, died 64 AD) in Jerusalem in the 40s (Acts 12:12) and the 60s (1 Pet 5:13).However, there is a possibility that the young man in 14:51-52 was Mark himself.  A literary device of the times was for the author to identify themselves by means of a token.  The author would identify themselves by allusion” (“The Source New Testament”, p. 71).

Further comment on Peter being “the man behind the scenes” in this gospel comes from Dr. Alan Cole.  He writes “The early church believed that Mark got many of his facts from Peter, for they knew that Mark himself had not been a disciple of Jesus during his lifetime.  We cannot prove this point, but we do know that both Mark and Peter were together in Rome in later years (1 Pet 5:13).  We also know that Peter was intending before his death to make a permanent record of his memories of Christ (2 Pet 1:5).  Most of the early church fathers believed that Mark’s gospel was this record.  Certainly there are many details in the gospel that are best explained as personal memories of Peter, e.g., descriptions of incidents at which only Peter, James and John were present.  Another possible clue is that the gospel is very uncomplimentary to Peter, pointing out all his faults and failings.  As Peter later became such an important man at Rome, it is hard to see how these could have got into the gospel unless Peter himself had insisted on it” (Cole 2002, p 947).

Dr. Ross Clifford writes: “The book of Mark contains a clue that suggests its authorship.  The tradition of the early church is that it was Mark who wrote this Gospel for Christians in Rome and Italy.  This Gospel alone mentions in detail the healing of the deaf and dumb mute and records Jesus’ actual spoken word ‘Ephphatha’ (chapter 7, verse 34).  The writer translates this Aramaic word as ‘be opened’.

Judge Bennett’s point [continues Clifford] is that this affirms the tradition that Mark was written for non-Jews, as an explanation of the local Aramaic word was necessary.  Therefore, as Bennett implies, if the tradition as to the readership of the Gospel is internally verified, one can rely on the assertion of tradition that Mark is the author.

Peter, in my view, is a more dominant figure in Mark, failures and all, than in the other Gospels, suggesting he was the man behind the scenes.  This is the suggestion that many receive as they read the Gospel.  Further, New Testament scholar C. H. Dodd observed that Peter’s message in Acts 10, verses 34-43 has a similar structure to the chronology of the book of Mark.  This substantiates a reliance by Mark on Peter’s spoken word” (Clifford 1991, p 20).

The Witness of Papias

Papias (70-155 AD), bishop of Hierapolis, says of Mark’s gospel “And the presbyter said this.  Mark having become the interpreter of Peter, wrote down accurately whatsoever he remembered.  It was not, however, in exact order that he related the sayings or deeds of Christ.  For he neither heard the Lord nor accompanied Him.  But afterwards, as I said, he accompanied Peter, who accommodated his instructions to the necessities (of his hearers), but with no intention of giving a regular narrative of the Lord’s sayings.  Wherefore Mark made no mistake in thus writing some things as he remembered them.  For of one thing he took especial care, not to omit anything he had heard, and not to put anything fictitious into his statements” (“Ante Nicene Fathers” Vol 1, “Fragments of Papias” VI, p 155, Hendrickson Publ.).

Professor Bart Ehrman questions Papias’ reliability in his statements about Mark.  The first is that Papias indicates that his information was received third- or fourth- hand.  He then tells us that one of the points Papias makes is certainly wrong because “one of Mark’s two primary goals was to tell everything that he had heard from Peter about Jesus.  There is simply no way that can be true”.  He says that it only takes about two hours to read the whole of Mark’s gospel, and asks if it is feasible that for all the time that Peter spent with Jesus, and all the time that Mark spent with Peter, “are we to imagine that all Mark heard was two hours’ worth of information” (Ehrman 2010, p 109; emphasis his).

Prof. Ehrman has created a paper tiger.  Considering his statement that Papias says Mark’s aim was to tell everything he had heard from Peter about Jesus, the use of superlatives is a common characteristic in speech.  For example, a child comes home from school and says he needs to have a specific brand of shoe because everybody has them.  And in Matthew 8:34, we’re told that “the whole city came out to meet Jesus”.  In the story about the Samaritan woman in John chapter 4, John tells us that many people in the city believed in Jesus because the woman testified “He told me all that I ever did” (Jn 4:39).  And John writes “And there are also many other things which Jesus did, the which, if they should be written every one, I suppose that even the world itself could not contain the books that should be written” (Jn 21:25).

I could go on, but we get the point.  Nobody hears or reads this kind of statement and takes it literally; the point the speaker is making is that the vital things or the most significant things are being spoken of – and we get that.  So Professor Ehrman has made a misleading statement about Papias.  But worse than this, he denigrates evangelical scholars for accepting Papias’ statements about Matthew and Mark, saying “I suspect it is because they want to have support for their own points of view….and have decided to trust Papias when he confirms their views, and not trust him when he does not” (Ehrman 2010, p 110).

By contrast, Dr. Ann Nyland, whose qualifications far exceed Prof. Ehrman’s, accepts not only Papias’ statements but other of the Fathers to the same effect: “Papias and Clement of Alexandria state (although Irenaeus does not) that Mark wrote his Good News in connection with Peter while the latter was still living.  Papias said, ‘Mark became Peter’s interpreter and wrote accurately everything that he remembered, certainly not in the order of the things said and done by the Lord.  For he had not heard the Lord, nor had he followed him, but later on, as I said, followed Peter, who used to teach as necessity demanded, but not making an arrangement of sayings of the Lord, so that Mark did nothing wrong in writing down single points as he remembered them.  He was most careful to leave nothing out of what he had heard and to make no false statement in his writings’.  Note that Mark was closely associated with Peter (who, according to Eusebius, died 64 AD) in Jerusalem in the 40s (Acts 12:12) and the 60s (1 Pet 5:13).However, there is a possibility that the young man in 14:51-52 was Mark himself.  A literary device of the times was for the author to identify themselves by means of a token.  The author would identify themselves by allusion” (“The Source New Testament”, p. 71).

The consensus view (i.e. Catholic, Orthodox, and Protestant) has always been that Papias’ statement is reliable.  If Professor Ehrman is correct, where is his evidence?  Is it not rather Professor Ehrman who wants to remove Papias as a credible witness so there is one less to contradict his false claims and statements? 

It is true, and nobody denies it, that Papias did record some bizarre things; but he only reproduces them as things he had heard, and was passing them on.  That doesn’t negate everything he said.  Besides, we only have fragments of his voluminous writings so we don’t know all that he said, whereas those who recorded and preserved these fragments had access to the five books that Papias wrote.  Therefore, they had a better understanding of Papias than scholars such Professor Ehrman.  It is sheer academic arrogance that so many modern-day Western scholars think they know the past better than those who lived in it.

So, until relatively recently, the Church has always accepted Papias’ statement, not simply because Papias wrote it but because he was recording an already known tradition.  Papias didn’t invent the story that Mark recorded Peter; he reproduced an existing tradition, a tradition of which the Church was already aware.  Eusebius, in whose history this record is found, didn’t question it.  He did express doubt about other things that Papias wrote about, saying: “The same person, moreover, has set down other things as coming to him from unwritten tradition, amongst these some strange parables and instructions of the Saviour, and some other things of a more fabulous nature”; but he has no doubt about the truth of Papias’ statement that Mark’s gospel is a record of Peter’s preaching. 

Mark’s Sources

Unfortunately, most of modern scholarship prefers to find fault with the view that the gospels were written by eyewitnesses.  The view that Mark wrote down Peter does have history and is based on very reasonable grounds.  This modern scholarship view casts doubt on the witness of the Church from the earliest times and robs Mark of its value as a very early witness, with the authority of no less a person than the apostle Peter.  R. T. France calls Mark’s gospel an anthology of stories about Jesus and is no random collection.  He says, “It is rather a carefully constructed whole, with a plot of dramatic intensity, in which various sub-plots are subtly interwoven so that the narrative moves inexorably towards its terrific climax in Jerusalem.  Touches of paradox and flashes of humour keep the audience alert and involved, and enable us to become part of the utterly unique events of Jesus’ ministry, conflict and death, and to share in the triumph of his resurrection.

It is wrong, then, to treat each story or section of teaching in the gospels as if it existed in isolation…..” (France, R. T. 2002, p. 902).

References

Clifford, R, “Leading Lawyers Look at the Resurrection” 1991, Albatross Books, Sutherland, Australia.

Cole, A. “New Bible Commentary 21st Edition: Mark – Introduction”, 2002, p 947, publ. Inter-Varsity Press, Leicester, England.

Ehrman, B, “Jesus, Interrupted: Revealing the Hidden Contradictions in the Bible (and Why We Don’t Know About Them)” 2010, publ. HarperCollins Publishers, NY.

France, R. T. “New Bible Commentary”: ed. Clines, David. J. A. 2000, New Bible Commentary, ed. Carson, D. A., France, R. T., Motyer, J. A., Wenham, G. J., Publ. IVP Leicester, England,  and Downers Grove, Illinois, USA

Nyland, Dr. A, 2007, “The Source New Testament”, Translation and notes by Dr. A. Nyland.  Copyright by Anne Maxwell-Nithsdale Nyland 2004, 2007, publ. Smith and Stirling Publishing, Australia.