GOSPEL OF SAINT MARK
Felt by many to be the most cohesive, the best written, and the most eloquent of the four Gospels. Mark’s narrative style is simple and unadorned, yet compelling and vivid.
Although Mark’s work was the least appreciated of the four Gospels in early Christianity, there is a much greater amount of ancient testimony concerning its authorship, origin, and date of composition than for any of the other three Gospels. The earliest extant reference to the Gospel of Mark was written by Papias, bishop of Hierapolis, in a lost treatise from around 140 and is preserved as a quotation by Eusebius:
This also the Elder said: Mark, who became Peter’s interpreter, wrote accurately, though not in order, all that he remembered of the things said and done by the Lord. For he had neither heard the Lord nor been one of his followers, but afterward, as I said, he had followed Peter, who used to compose his discourses with a view to the needs (of his hearers), but not as if he were composing a systematic account of the Lord’s sayings. So Mark did nothing blameworthy in thus writing some things just as he remembered them; for he was careful of this one thing, to omit none of the things he had heard and to state no untruth therein [Historia ecclesiastica, 3.39].
The anti-Marcionite prologue to Mark, dated by many to the period 160-180, constitutes the next witness:
. . . Mark declared, who is called “stump-fingered,” because he had rather small fingers in comparison with the stature of the rest of his body. He was the interpreter of Peter. After the death of Peter himself he wrote down this same gospel in the regions of Italy [quoted in Lane, 1974, p. 9].
Irenaeus, writing around 175, conveyed the following information about the Gospels:
Matthew composed his Gospel among the Hebrews in their own language, while Peter and Paul proclaimed the Gospel in Rome and founded the community. After their death [hexodon] Mark, the disciple and interpreter of Peter, transmitted his preaching to us in written form. And Luke, who was Paul’s follower, set down in a book the gospel which he preached. Then John, the Lord’s disciple, who had reclined on his breast, himself produced the Gospel when he was staying at Ephesus, in the province of Asia [Against Heresies 3.1.1].
The Muratorian Canon (probably written in the period 170-190), in a badly mutilated section that, as indicated by the context, must refer to Mark, states that “at some things he was present, and so he recorded them” (quoted in Lane, 1974, p. 9).
Three somewhat contradictory statements are found in CLEMENT OF ALEXANDRIA (late second-early third century):
When Peter had publicly preached the word at Rome, and by the Spirit had proclaimed the Gospel, that those present, who were many, exhorted Mark, as one who had followed him for a long time and remembered what had been spoken, to make a record of what was said; and that he did this, and distributed the Gospel among those that asked him. And that when the matter came to Peter’s knowledge he neither strongly forbade it nor urged it forward [quoted in Eusebius, 2.15.2].
So brilliant was the light of piety that shone upon the minds of Peter’s hearers [in Rome], that they were not content to be satisfied with hearing him once and no more, nor with the unwritten teaching of the divine message; but besought with all kinds of entreaties Mark, whose Gospel is extant, a follower of Peter, that he would leave them in writing also a memoir of the teaching they had received by word of mouth; nor did they relax their efforts until they had prevailed upon the man; and thus they became the originators of the book of the Gospel according to Mark, as it is called. Now it is said that when the apostle learnt, by revelation of the Spirit, what was done, he was pleased with the men’s zeal, and authorized the book to be read in the churches [Eusebius, 2.15.1f, quoting Clement, Hypotyposeis 6].
Mark, the follower of Peter, while Peter was preaching publicly the gospel at Rome in the presence of certain of Caesar’s knights and was putting forward many testimonies concerning Christ, being requested by them that they might be able to commit to memory the things which were being spoken, wrote from the things which were spoken by Peter the Gospel which is called according to Mark [Clement, Adumbrationes in priorem 5:13].
The ancient tradition is unanimous in its explicit attribution of the second Gospel to Mark. This testimony gains credibility from the fact that it originated in an era that valued apostolic authorship of the Gospels, and cannot, therefore, be lightly dismissed as either convenient or apologetic. Thus, there is little, if any, reason to doubt that the author of the second Gospel is John Mark, the associate of Peter, the Mark of the Pauline epistles, and the Mark of Acts.
Any attempt to date the Gospel of Saint Mark must begin with the relative wealth of ancient testimony. These sources unanimously report that Mark was with Peter in Rome and heard the apostle preach about the sayings and deeds of Jesus and that it was on the basis of this exposure to Peter’s teaching that Mark wrote his Gospel. However, the tradition is divided on whether the work was composed before or after the death of Peter. Scholars who accept the testimony of the anti-Marcionite prologue and Ire-naeus, as well as the implication in Papias that Mark penned the Gospel after the martyrdom of Peter, tend to date the work to the period 65-70. Tented in this camp are such scholars as Lane (1974), Hengel (1985), and Cranfield (1959). In support of the terminus post quem, they cited the tradition that Peter was killed during the Neronian persecution of 64-65. As further evidence for the view that the Gospel was composed after the death of Peter, Cranfield (1959, p. 8) argued that Mark’s description of Peter’s failures could only have been written after the apostle had died a martyr’s death, for the frankness that would have seemed malicious during Peter’s lifetime was welcomed after his martyrdom as affording encouragement to weak disciples.
To buttress the terminus ante quem, they argued that use of Mark by the later synoptists makes a date after 70 unlikely and that Mark’s complete silence on the events that took place at the end of the Jewish Revolt is explicable only if the work was completed prior to 69-70. Cranfield (p. 8) thought the Gospel was completed in 65 or 66 before the war began. Hengel’s interpretation of Mark 13:6-13 as a response to the Roman political upheaval of 68-69 and to rumors that the hated Nero would return to life led him to conclude that the Gospel was written within the narrow period between the winter of 68-69 and the winter of 69-70 (1985, pp. 1-28). Lane (1974, pp. 12-18) adduced Marcan references to trials and tribulation as evidence that the Gospel was written between 65 and 70 as a product of the Neronian persecution, its purpose being to strengthen the Roman church against outside aggression.
Those who believe the Gospel was written before the death of Peter either ignore as erroneous the witness of Irenaeus and the anti- Marcionite prologue or obviate the difficulty they pose by interpreting them to mean the Gospel was written after the “departure” of Peter (i.e., from Rome), not after his death. Among the proponents of a date prior to the death of Peter are Robinson (1976), Zuntz (1984), Reicke (1972), and Allen (1915). Robinson leveled some of the inconsistencies in the ancient testimony by explaining that (1) the “nonchronological” record to which Papias referred cannot be the cohesive, well-constructed Gospel of Mark known today, but must have been merely a compilation of Jesus’ sayings and deeds, a compilation that he dates to about 45; (2) in the mid-fifties, Mark may have composed a proto-Gospel; and (3) the formal Gospel that was later accepted into the canon and that has survived to the present was written in the late fifties or early sixties.
Allen (1915, pp. 2, 4-6), maintaining that the Gospel of Saint Luke was written around 50 and that it was dependent on Mark’s Gospel, suggested that Mark may have been written between 44 and 49. Reicke (1972, pp. 121-34) argued that the passages in the synoptic Gospels that are commonly accepted by modern scholars as ex eventu prophecies of the destruction of Jerusalem have been misinterpreted. He found no hint in the synoptists of any knowledge of the Jewish Revolt. Accordingly, he concluded that these Gospels must have been written before the war. Then arguing that the abrupt ending of Acts with the events of 62 indicates that the work was completed in that year, he deduced that the three synoptic Gospels, since they antedate Acts, were written prior to 62. Zuntz interpreted Mark 13:14 as a reference to the emperor Caligula’s threat to place his statue in the temple at Jerusalem and dated the Gospel to 40.
If the best solution to the synoptic problem (see below) is the theory that the three synoptic Gospels developed over a period of time, the attempt to establish a fixed date for the composition of each is an endeavor doomed to error. Robinson’s theory does much to harmonize the essential elements of the ancient tradition with the evidence that some portions of the Gospel of Saint Mark were written long before Peter’s death. As Robinson suggested, the Gospel probably began assuming its rudimentary shape in the early forties as a collection of the sayings and deeds of Jesus. After Peter’s death, Mark, realizing that the eyewitnesses of Jesus’ ministry would soon be gone, may have formalized his Gospel and preserved the preaching of Peter for the world. Thus, the Gospel would have reached its final form around the mid-sixties and it would be this form that is mentioned in Irenaeus and in the anti-Marcionite prologue.
On the issue of provenance, the tradition speaks clearly. With the single exception of JOHN CHRYSOSTOM (d. 407), who averred that Mark wrote his Gospel in Egypt (in Matthaeum homiliae 1.3), every ancient source that states the provenance of the Gospel names Rome as its birthplace. Chrysostom’s assertion of Egyptian provenance has garnered little support, since it is believed to have arisen from a misunderstanding of Eusebius’ statement that Mark was in Egypt “preaching the gospel of which he is a compiler” (Historia ecclesiastica 2.16). Though Jerusalem (Allen, 1915, pp. 4-6), Galilee (Marxsen, 1969, pp. 54-95), and Syria (Kee, 1977, pp. 100-105, 176) have all been put forward as the possible provenance of the Gospel, no other theory has been able to discredit the ancient testimony and win a large body of followers. The tradition and the internal suggestions of a Roman origin are simply too convincing. In addition to the evidence adduced by Lane, Cranfield, Zuntz, and Hengel that the Gospel, or significant parts of it, may address various political and social situations in Rome, there is linguistic evidence that it was written for a Roman audience and a theological- historical argument that it had its birth in Rome.
The Gospel contains a great number of Latin technical terms such as legio (5:9), speculator (6:27), denarius (12:15), quadrans (12:42), flagellare (15:15), praetorium (15:16), and centurio (15:39). While it is true that such terminology was in use throughout the Roman empire, the fact that Mark twice uses a Latin word to explain a commonplace Greek expression is telltale. At 12:42 he gives quadrans (a quarter of an as) as a gloss for the widow’s mite (lepta duo) and at 15:16 he offers praetorium as an explanation of “inside the hall” (eso tes aules). These lexical aids would be more descriptive than the Greek phrases that they elucidate only to a speaker of Latin and, since the quadrans was not in circulation in the eastern empire, only to a Latin speaker in the western empire. The use of such words points toward a Roman provenance.
W. Bacon (1919, pp. 34-43) went beyond these linguistic considerations to reason as follows: Mark’s Gospel, since it possesses so little pretense of authority, could not have gained the high standing and wide currency that it must have obtained to be so respected by the later synoptists, Matthew and Luke, and it could not have maintained this respect after the larger Gospel of Matthew, with its higher claims of apostolic authority, came into wide circulation, if it had emanated from some obscure region undistinguished as the seat of an “apostolic” church. Its association with Peter would not have been sufficient to secure for it such eminence. Instead, the cause of its high standing must be sought in its provenance. There is no ancient tradition to link the Gospel to either Antioch or Ephesus, which, in any case, had their own gospels, and a Palestinian provenance is unlikely because a gospel with such small pretensions to apostolicity could not have won in Palestine the place that Mark came to occupy. These arguments, he says, lend support to the established tradition of a Roman provenance for the Gospel.
While the ancient tradition is fairly consistent in its tendency to give the canonical order of the Gospels as their order of composition, a volatile debate rages among modern scholars on the question of priority. Historically, the view that Mark was written first and was a source for Matthew and Luke has been dominant. But opponents have fired numerous destructive, if not crippling, volleys against the bulwark of this “Marcan hypothesis.” At present, if one is to judge from the ferocity of the ongoing debate, no satisfactory solution to the synoptic problem has been proffered.
Those who maintain that the Gospel of Mark was written first employ the following arguments to show that it was copied by the other synoptic Gospels, particularly by Matthew, whose account is most often advanced as Mark’s rival for priority (see Kee, pp. 14-16; Cranfield, pp. 6-7):
(1) The respective accounts of Jesus in Matthew and Luke are completely divergent until they reach the first point of parallel in Mark (Mk. 1:2; Mt. 3:2; Lk. 3:4), and they diverge again after the best text of Mark ends (16:8).
(2) Of 855 sentences in Mark, 709 are reproduced in Matthew and 565 in Luke, and of these, Matthew agrees verbatim with Mark in 136 sentences.
(3) Mark’s style is simple and vivid, but often crude and awkward, while Matthew’s Greek shows a much higher degree of sophistication.
(4) Doublets (pas-sages or sayings that occur twice in the same Gospel) in Matthew and Luke result from the combined use of Mark and another collection of sayings as sources.
(5) Mark contains theological difficulties and stylistic flaws not found in Matthew and Luke.
(6) In Mark, the theological affirmations are weaker and the indications of fulfillment of Scripture are less explicit than in Matthew.
(7) Possibly offensive or perplexing passages in Mark are either omitted or given in a less provocative form in Matthew and/or Luke.
(8) Mark’s Gospel is much shorter and less inclusive than Matthew’s. It does not have the Sermon on the Mount, the birth and infancy stories, the post-Resurrection narrative (if 16:9-20 are non- Marcan), and much of the discourse material found in Matthew.
Opponents of the Marcan hypothesis, most of whom believe Mark to be a conflation of Matthew and Luke, with Matthew being the first written, argue in the following manner (see Farmer, 1976, pp. 159-69):
(1) The Gospel of Saint Mark does not appear in either of the other two Gospels as an intact and continuous narrative. There is no “thread of narration” that is common to the synoptists.
(2) When one Gospel accompanies another, it cannot be determined which accompanies and which is accompanied.
(3) The passages that have been adduced as evidence that Matthew and/or Luke soften or omit offensive Marcan material prove upon closer examination to be capable of other, equally compelling interpretations.
(4) The fact that the Gospel of Saint Mark provides the most unified and consistent account of the three synoptic Gospels proves not that it was written first but that it represents a later development, since Matthew and Luke, if copying Mark, would not have chopped up their source and added disparate material to create a less cohesive whole.
(5) The vividness and freshness of Mark’s account is not proof of its priority, since there is no established principle in literary or intellectual history that clarity of presentation is a measure of the sequence in which literary accounts originated.
(6) Doublets in Matthew and Luke do not indicate Marcan priority, since such doublets occur even in Mark’s Gospel. Furthermore, one of the doublets in Matthew (15:24, 10:5-6) has a textual equivalent in neither Mark nor Luke.
(7) The Petrine origin of Mark’s Gospel—and, hence, its authenticity as a primary historical source for the life of Jesus—is subject to serious doubt, since the work of Mark described by Papias (quoted above) cannot be the Gospel of Saint Mark known today and Peter is not more prominent in Mark than in Matthew or Luke.
(8) One must resort to psychological reasoning that is subjective and unconvincing to show that each time the synoptists diverge it is Matthew and/or Luke who altered the material.
(9) The Marcan hypothesis cannot explain why Matthew and Luke in 180 cases omit extra material found in Mark, why in 35 cases they add exactly the same word to the text of Mark, why in another 35 cases they replace the text of Mark with the same alternate wording, and why in 22 cases they undertake the same small modification of the very same word that they and Mark use.
The proposed solutions to the synoptic problem seem to share the fault of being too simple to resolve adequately the convoluted riddle. The difficulty may lie in the fact that the theories tend to view the writing of each Gospel and its possible use of any other Gospel(s) as a synchronic phenomenon rather than as a diachronic process. It is probably the case that each of the three synoptic Gospels as now known represents the final stage of a developmental process that may have spanned a period of as many as forty years in the middle of the first century. That period began with an oral tradition of the sayings and deeds of Jesus and it ended with the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke as now known. The development of each was parallel to, but not independent of, the others. Along the way, each account may have played both the role of the borrower and the role of source. Strictly speaking, none of the Gospels in its present form can properly be said to be prior to any other, though it may be the case that one preserves the underlying oral tradition more faithfully than the others.
In the Codex Sinaiticus and the Codex Vaticanus, as well as in some manuscripts of the Sinaitic Syriac, Ethiopic, and Georgian versions, the Gospel of Saint Mark ends with the eighth verse of chapter 16. In many other manuscripts, verses 9-20 are marked with asterisks, obeli, or critical notes explaining that their authenticity is suspect. On the basis of its poor manuscript support, Eusebius and Jerome believed this ending to be a later addition to the Gospel. No references to these verses occur in the works of Clement of Alexandria, ORIGEN, Cyprian, and CYRIL OF JERUSALEM. Internal considerations not only cast doubt on Marcan authorship of this ending but also run counter to the theory that it was written later specifically as an addition to Mark’s Gospel. Verse 9 does not continue the narrative of verse 8, but rather introduces a list of Jesus’ post-Resurrection narratives in Matthew, Luke, and John.
Concomitant with this rather abrupt change in the storyline is a jarring change of subject and a sudden formality in referring to Mary of Magdala. Whereas the subject of verse 8 is the women, verse 9 has Jesus as its understood subject, and when Mary is mentioned later in the verse, she is introduced as if for the first time in this narrative, despite the fact that she has been a major participant in the tomb encounter described in the previous eight verses. This stylistically anomalous change of subject and the unnecessarily formal introduction to Mary lead to a suspicion that verses 9-20 were borrowed from another account (perhaps a catechetical summary of Resurrection events) in which Jesus had already been explicitly named as subject and in which Mary had not yet been mentioned. However, the citation of verse 16 in Irenaeus (Against Heresies 3.10.6) and the inclusion of the longer ending in Tatian’s Diatessaron show that these verses had been appended to the Gospel by the middle of the second century.
There is also a shorter ending for the Gospel, which is found in the Codex Bobiensis (fourth-fifth century) and which appears in combination with the longer addition in some uncial manuscripts of the seventh, eighth, and ninth centuries and in some manuscripts of the Harclean Syriac (as a marginal reading), Sahidic, Bohairic, and Ethiopic versions. It can be translated as follows: “But all of the things that had been announced they reported concisely to those in Peter’s circle. Afterward Jesus himself sent out through them from east to west the holy and incorruptible proclamation of eternal salvation. Amen.”
The diction, syntax, and content of this passage mark it as patently spurious. Its obvious intent is to provide a rounder, more complete ending for the Gospel and to show that the women carried out the angelic instruction to report to Peter and the disciples that Jesus would come to them.
If neither of these two endings can legitimately claim to be an original part of Mark’s Gospel, one must assume that Mark intended his account to end with verse 8, that the conclusion of the Gospel has been lost, or that the work was never completed. The second assumption is problematic. For such a loss to have gone unrectified, it must have occurred very early in the transmission of the text, before other copies were in circulation from which the lost material could be restored. But if the mutilation occurred so early, one must ask why Mark himself did not rewrite the lost ending.
The abruptness with which the account would end if verse 8 were Mark’s final statement militates against the theory that the Gospel was intentionally concluded at that point. Attempts to show that verse 8 is not only a satisfactory, but a powerful and effective, ending are not persuasive (e.g., Lane, 1974, pp. 591-92). The theory that Mark never completed his Gospel appears to be the simplest explanation of the facts.
- Allen, W. C. The Gospel According to Saint Mark, with Introduction and Notes. New York, 1915.
- Bacon, B. Is Mark a Roman Gospel? Harvard Theological Studies 7. Cambridge, Mass., 1919.
- Cranfield, E. E. B. The Gospel According to Saint Mark. Cambridge, 1959.
- Farmer, W. R. The Last Twelve Verses of Mark. Cambridge, 1974.
- . The Synoptic Problem: A Critical Analysis. Macon, Ga., 1976.
- Hengel, M. Studies in the Gospel of Mark, trans. J. Bowden. Philadelphia, 1985.
- Kee, H. C. Community of the New Age: Studies in Mark’s Gospel. Philadelphia, 1977.
- Lane, W. L. The Gospel According to Mark: The English Text with Introduction, Exposition and Notes. Grand Rapids, Mich., 1974. Marxsen, W. Mark the Evangelist: Studies on the Redaction History of the Gospel, trans. J. Boyce. Nashville, Tenn., 1969.
- Reicke, B. “Synoptic Prophecies on the Destruction of Jerusalem.” In Studies in New Testament and Early Christian Literature: Essays in Honor of Allen P. Wikgren, ed. D. E. Aune, pp. 121-34. Supplements to Novum Testamentum 33. Leiden, 1972. Robinson, J. A. T. Redating the New Testament. London, 1976. Swete, H. D. The Gospel According to Mark. London, 1902.
- Zuntz, Günther. “Wann wurde das Evangelium Marci geschrieben?” Wissenschaftliche Untersuchungen zum Neuen Testament 33 (1984):47-71.