Who Wrote Gospel of Mark?
Over the coming weeks, I am going to release additional material on the gospel of Mark. We will look at background, themes, theology and and the interesting style of mark’s gospel. This week we will look at the authorship of Mark and the evidence supporting John Mark as the author of the gospel.
Evidence for Authorship
Internal evidence: In the gospel no author is given. It is Anonymous.
External evidence: we have a first-century tradition claiming that John Mark is the author. John Mark was a companion of Paul (4:10) and later of Peter (1 Peter 5:13). Below is a selection of the evidence from the church Fathers. The evidence comes from the writings of the early church Fathers. Two second century sources uphold this position.
The Papias Tradition (c. 100–140)
The most important reference comes from Papias, (c. 100–140). Papias was the “Bishop of Hierapolis” which is near ancient Colossae, in modern day Turkey. The quote below is from Papias’ work, Exposition of the Oracles of the Lord, a commentary on the gospels written by Papias around 110 AD. The complete work has been lost but we have quotes from later church writers.(1) The references to Papias, come by way of Eusebius who quotes him in his work on the history of the church (c. 325).
As to the authorship of Mark Eusebius quotes Papias as teaching:
“The Presbyter used to say this also: “Mark became Peter’s interpreter and wrote down accurately, but not in order, all that he remembered of the things said and done by the Lord. For he had not heard the Lord or been one of his followers, but later, as I said, a follower of Peter. Peter used to teach as the occasion demanded, without giving systematic arrangement to the Lord’s sayings, so that Mark did not err in writing down some things just as he recalled them. For he had one overriding purpose: to omit nothing that he had heard and to make no false statements in his account.” (2)
The importance of Papias’ quote is his connection to the apostolic witness. Eusebius notes the connection.
“Papias thus admits that he learned the words of the apostles from their followers but says that he personally heard Aristion and John the presbyter. He often quotes them by name and includes their traditions in his writings” (3)
Eusebius goes on to shows that though Papias did not himself know the apostles personally, he was in direct contact with those who had sat under them, including Aristion, Polycarp, and the daughters of Philip the Evangelist.
So here We have a first-century tradition claiming that Mark accurately interpreted (or translated) Peter’s eyewitness accounts, turning Peter’s anecdotal stories into a connected narrative, though not necessarily in chronological order.(4)
Anti-Marcionite Prologue (160-180)
A second-century sources also make similar claims. The Anti-Marcionite Prologue to Mark (c. 160 –180) identifies Mark as the author and links him to Peter:
“Mark . . . who was called ‘stump-fingered’ because for the size of the rest of his body he had fingers that were too short. He was Peter’s interpreter. After the departure [or ‘death’] of Peter himself, the same man wrote his Gospel in the regions of Italy.”(5)
Now, the date of the Anti-Marcionite prologues is disputed, with some scholars placing them in the third century but a majority date the writings to around 160-180 AD.
The odd statement about Mark’s ‘Vienna sausage’ like fingers may point to a reliable tradition, for only people who really know you get to call you “stubby fingers” and get away with it. (6) Or looked at another way, We may have here the first instance of a Christian inside joke, given Mark’s Gospel is short and little stubby fingers can only write so long. We get a short gospel (but that’s me just wildly speculating). In ether case, since someone who did not know him is unlikely to have invented let alone written such a solid smack of a remark. An “over share” such as that supports the authenticity of the tradition. The comment points to a reliable tradition given only good friends give nicknames like “stubby fingers” and then affirm the writing.
Next to corroborating the Papias tradition, we also find here are two additional pieces of information: that Mark wrote after Peter’s death and that he wrote from Italy.
If written after Peter’s death, which has traditionally thought to have happened during Nero’s persecution of the church around 67-68 AD. Then the gospel was likely written around 67-69 AD. If it was written from Italy, likely Rome, then it was at the epicenter of persecution during the 60s AD. It can be concluded that it was written during a time of intense persecution. Following this line of thought it is reasonable to assume given time and place that it’s reason for being written involved the preservation of Peter’s apostolic witness and to encourage the church to be faithful disciples in persecution. (ie calling them to follow Jesus, and carry their cross to the end of the line, just like their Lord).
Further Testimony of the early church Fathers
Justin Martyr (ca A.D. 150) makes an indirectly connection to Peter as author of Mark’s Gospel. When he refers to Mark 3:16–17 where Jesus’ naming of Simon as “Peter,” and James and John as “Sons of Thunder” Justin even quotes a part of Mk 3:17 and cites his source as the memoirs of Peter. (Dialogue with Trypho 106).
Irenaeus (A.D. 170) notes Mark recorded some of Peter’s messages after his death. “And after the death of these Mark, the disciple and interpreter of Peter, also transmitted to us in writing the things preached by Peter.” (Against Heresies 3.1.2)
Interestingly to this point, the Content of Mark’s Gospel closely follows the content of Peter’s preaching. Parallels can be found between Peter’s sermon in Acts 10:36-41 and Mark’s Gospel.
Clement of Alexandria writing around, A.D. 180, about the same time as Irenaeus wrote something very similar except he states the Mark wrote before Peter’s death. “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, Eccl. Hist. 4.14.6-7).
Origen (ca. A.D. 200) “Secondly, that according to Mark, who wrote it in accordance with Peter’s instructions, who also Peter acknowledged as his son in the catholic epistle, speaking in these terms: ‘She that is in Babylon, elect together with you, saluteth you; and so doth Mark my son.'” (Eusebius, Eccl. Hist. 6.25.5),
Tertullian (ca. A.D. 200), “That gospel which Mark edited may be affirmed to be of Peter, whose interpreter Mark was.” (Against Marcion 4.5)
Jerome (ca. A.D. 400), “Mark, the interpreter of the apostle Peter, and the first bishop of the church of Alexandria, who himself had not seen the Lord, the very Saviour, ..[Mark] published a gospel; but he narrated those things he had heard his master preaching more in accordance with the trustworthiness of the things performed than in order.” (Jerome, Commentary on Matthew)
The consensus from Papias through Jerome, makes at least five important claims about Mark’s gospel:
1. Mark authored the gospel.
2. Mark was not an eyewitness.
3. Mark’s gospel obtained information from Peter likely his testimony and teachings.
4. Mark wrote after Peter’s death. Thus, sometime after 64 AD.
5. Mark wrote from Italy, likely Rome (during a time of intense persecution).
Conclusion: it is likely Mark in the pen (author) Peter is the eyewitness (Authority), the gospel was written to a persecuted people (audience) to encourage their faith by presenting the good news of their Crucified King enthroned on a cross (application).
1. Sadly his complete work has been lost. Today we only have scant fragments of Papias’s work from quotation made by church fathers. Sidenote: a reconstructed of those fragments has been compiled now called the fragments of papias. See ‘Fragments of Papias,’ in Alexander Roberts and James Donaldson, eds., Ante-Nicene Fathers vol. 1. (1885; repr. Peabody, Mass.: Hendrickson, 2004)
2. Eusebius, Hist. eccl. 3.39.15 (translation from P. Maier, Eusebius: The Church History (Grand Rapids: Kregel, 1999), 129 – 30.
3. Eusebius, Hist. eccl. 3.39.7; trans. Maier, Eusebius, 127, cf. Acts 21:8 – 9)
4. For strong defenses of the authenticity of the Papias tradition, see Robert H. Gundry, Mark: A Commentary on His Apology for the Cross (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1993), 1026-45.
5. Cited by C. Black, Mark: Images of an Apostolic Interpreter (Columbia, SC: University of South Carolina Press, 1994), 119.
6. The same description is found in Hippolytus, Haer. 7.30.1 (see Black, Mark, 115 – 18).
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