Introduction to the Gospel of Mark


Like the other canonical Gospels, the author Mark does not identify himself and makes no claim to be an eyewitness (cf. Luke 1:2; contrast John 21:24). The present titles associated with the four Gospels are not original but were added later (see below). Why the Gospels are anonymous is uncertain. Some have suggested that this may have been due to fear of persecution, but this can be neither proven nor disproven. What is reasonably certain is that this indicates there was no need for the authors to identify themselves. In the case of the second Gospel, which for the sake of convenience I will simply call “Mark,” the author was well known to his original readers and part of the same Christian community (Marcus 2000: 17). The lack of identification may also be due to the fact that Mark and the other Gospel writers did not think that what they wrote was “their Gospel.” Mark is not the Gospel of the “Good News of Mark” but the “Good News of Jesus Christ, the Son of God” (1:1). The later titles associated with the canonical Gospels recognize this, for they do not describe the four Gospels as “The Gospel of Matthew,” “... of Mark,” “... of Luke,” and “... of John,” but rather as “The Gospel according to Matthew,” “... according to Mark,” “... according to Luke,” and “... according to John” (Hengel 2000: 48-53).

Evidence for the Markan authorship of the Second Gospel can be divided into two types, external evidence (tradition) and internal evidence (what we can learn about the author from the text of Mark itself). The evidence of the tradition supporting Markan authorship can be described in general as early, universal, and extensive. The earliest and most important involves the testimony of Papias found in Eusebius (Eccl. Hist. 3.39.1-17). Eusebius, the foremost early church historian, writing in the early fourth century, quotes from Papias’s now lost Interpretation of the Oracles of the Lord.

Mark became Peter’s interpreter [ἑρμηνευτής, hermēneutēs] and wrote accurately all that he remembered, not, indeed, in order, of the things said or 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 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. (Eccl. Hist. 3.39.15)

According to Eusebius, Papias received this information from John the Elder and Aristion (Eccl. Hist. 3.39.4). Since John the Elder died shortly after AD 100 (Hengel 2000: 65-66), the tradition Papias is quoting must date back to the last decades of the first century and near to the time when Mark was written (65-70). This is supported by Eusebius’s statement that Papias became famous during the time of Polycarp (d. ca. 155) and Ignatius (d. ca. 107; Eccl. Hist. 3.36.1-2; cf. also 3.39.1), as well as Papias’s association with Clement of Rome (d. ca. 100; Eccl. Hist. 3.39.1). That Eusebius’s discussion of Papias comes before his discussion of the persecution under Trajan (ca. 110) in Eccl. Hist. 4 also supports a late-first-century date (Yarbrough 1983: 186-90; Orchard 1984: 393-403; Gundry 1993: 1027). Finally, if we acknowledge Papias’s acquaintance with the daughters of “Philip the apostle” (Eccl. Hist. 3.39.9; cf. Acts 21:8-9), this also supports a late-first-century date. Thus the testimony of Papias is early (within thirty years of the writing of the Gospel of Mark) and at most only one generation removed from eyewitness tradition (the apostles—John the Elder and Aristion—Papias) and was probably written down by him in the first decade of the second century.

Other traditions concerning the authorship of Mark include the following:

The Titles of Mark (70-100). The titles of this Gospel found in most Greek MSS involve a longer form (The Gospel according to Mark, εὐαγγέλιον κατὰ Μᾶρκον, euangelion kata Markon; A D L W Θ f13) and a shorter form (According to Mark, κατὰ Μᾶρκον, kata Markon; B). Both these unusual forms consciously avoid the genitive of authorship (“of Mark” [Μᾶρκου, Markou]) to emphasize that what follows is not the Gospel of Mark but the (one and only) Gospel according to Mark’s account (Hengel 1985: 65-66). The unanimity of the κατὰ Μᾶρκον superscription in one form or another argues against a mid-second-century origin, and the Papias quotation (see above) seems to presuppose its existence both for Mark and for Matthew (von Campenhausen 1972: 173n123; Hengel 1985: 69), so that the association of κατὰ Μᾶρκον with the Second Gospel already existed in the late first century. The antiquity of this inscription is also confirmed by its naming a nonapostle, Mark, as its author, for, as the apocryphal Gospels indicate, by the mid-second century it was popular to ascribe apostolic authorship to Gospel-like works. It is furthermore quite unlikely that the original Gospel of Mark simply fell anonymously and unannounced into the hands of its first readers. Therefore some sort of title was probably associated with Mark from the very beginning (Hengel 1985: 74-84; 2000: 50-56; contra Marcus 2000: 17-18).

The Anti-Marcionite Prologue (ca. 150-180). “Mark related, who was called ‘Stumpfinger’ because for the size of the rest of his body he had fingers that were too short. He was the interpreter of Peter. After Peter’s death the same man wrote this gospel in the regions of Italy” (Grant 1946: 92). The negative comment about Mark’s “stumpfingers” has every appearance of being a historically reliable tradition. It is most unlikely that secondary tradition would demean Mark by such a description. Rather, it is more likely that it would have sought to extol the Gospel writer by adding something like “who was called ‘Beautiful Hands,’ for with them he would write ‘the Gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.’”

Justin Martyr (ca. 150). Justin quotes Mark 3:17 (“the sons of Zebedee, to that of Boanerges, which means ‘sons of thunder’ ”) and refers to this being found in the Memoirs of Peter (Dial. 106.3).

Irenaeus (ca. 170). “But after their departure [ἔξοδον, exodon] Mark, the disciple and interpreter [ἑρμηνευτής, hermēneutēs] of Peter, himself also handed over to us, in writing, the things preached by Peter” (Haer. 3.1.1; C. Black 1994: 99-100).

Clement of Alexandria (ca. 180). “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” (Eusebius, Eccl. Hist. 6.14.6-7 LCL). Although Clement of Alexandria refers to Mark writing his Gospel while Peter was still alive, the great majority of early witnesses claim that he wrote it after Peter’s death.

Origen (ca. 200). “Secondly, that according to Mark, who wrote it in accordance with Peter’s instructions, whom 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 LCL).

Tertullian (ca. 200). “That gospel which Mark edited may be affirmed to be of Peter, whose interpreter Mark was” (Against Marcion 4.5; Barclay 1976: 121).

Eusebius (ca. 324). “They say that this Mark was the first to be sent to preach in Egypt the Gospel which he had also put into writing, and was the first to establish churches in Alexandria itself. The number of men and women who were there converted at the first attempt was so great, and their asceticism was so extraordinary philosophic, that Philo thought it right to describe their conduct and assemblies and meals and all the rest of their manner of life. Tradition says that he came to Rome in the time of Claudius to speak to Peter, who was at that time preaching to those there” (Eccl. Hist. 2.16-17.1 LCL).

Jerome (ca. 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, is the second who 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” (Commentary on Matthew, prologue 6; Barclay 1976: 121).

From the above it is evident that the attribution of the authorship of the Second Gospel to John Mark is early and widespread. As for the internal evidence found in the Gospel itself, although it is not able to demonstrate that its author was John Mark, it lends indirect support to the tradition that he was its author and that it was written for the Christian community in Rome. That the author knew Greek (cf. Acts 12:25-13:13; 15:36-39) does not, of course, narrow the field of possible authors a great deal, but that he also knew Hebrew/Aramaic (Mark 3:17, 22; 5:41; 7:11, 34; 9:43; 10:46; 14:36; 15:22, 34) fits well the John Mark of the tradition, whose home was in Jerusalem (Acts 12:12). That he knew Jewish customs and religious groups, though his audience did not (Mark 7:1-4; 14:12; 15:42), also supports the tradition, as does his explanation of all the Semitic expressions, and his knowledge of various Jewish parties and groups (Pharisees, Sadducees, Herodians, scribes, priests, chief priests, high priests, etc.). The presence of various “Latinisms” (see below, “Audience”) also supports the tradition that Mark was the author of the Second Gospel and that he wrote it for the Christian community in Rome (Gundry 1993: 1043-44). In summarizing the internal evidence concerning the authorship of the second Gospel, we can conclude that it fits well the tradition of the early church that it was written by John Mark to the church in Rome.

Critical scholars have raised a number of objections to the above arguments. One involves the reliability of the Papias tradition in claiming that Mark was the “interpreter” of Peter and wrote down in his Gospel what he had heard Peter say. There is no clear evidence that Mark recorded autobiographical stories spoken by the apostle. Yet this argument, which assumes that the well-rounded form of the traditions in Mark could not come from an eyewitness, loses sight of the fact that repeated storytelling even by an eyewitness would become more polished and smooth over time. If the stories spoken by Peter in the 60s had been reported by him for over thirty years (cf. Luke 1:2; Acts 1:21-22; 2:42; 4:2, 13, 19-20; 5:29-32; 6:4; 8:25; 10:22, 33, 39-43; etc.) and he had repeated them once a month, this would mean that he had repeated the same stories over 360 times by the time Mark heard them in the 60s. If he had repeated them only once every six months, he would have repeated them over sixty times. Surely by then they would have become more “rounded” and stereotyped! In addition, if the author of the Second Gospel is the John Mark of Acts 12:12, he would have heard these traditions thirty years earlier and been involved in passing them on in his own ministry (cf. Acts 12:25-13:13; 15:36-39; Col. 4:10; 2 Tim. 4:11; Philem. 24; 1 Pet. 5:13). We should also note that Papias refers to Mark as Peter’s ἑρμηνευτής, or “interpreter,” not as his amanuensis or “secretary” (cf. C. Black 1994: 89-91). Thus it is incorrect to assume that if the Second Gospel stems from “personal reminiscence, we would expect more detail” (Marcus 2000: 23). On the other hand, the amount of material found in Mark concerning Peter (1:16-18, 29-31, 36; 3:16; 5:37-43; 8:29, 31-33; 9:2-8; 10:28-31; 11:21; 13:3-37; 14:27-31, 32-42, 54, 66-72; 16:7) fits well with a tie between the author of the Second Gospel and Petrine testimony.

Another argument raised against Markan authorship involves supposed errors in geography found in the Gospel (Niederwimmer 1967: 178-83; P. Parker 1983: 68-70). The most frequently cited is 7:31, “And having departed from the regions of Tyre, he again came to the Sea of Galilee by way of Sidon and through the middle of the Decapolis.” If one draws a line from Tyre to Sidon to the Sea of Galilee to the Decapolis, this involves a strange journey indeed. A comparable trip (in direction, not distance) would be to travel from Portland to Denver via Seattle and the Great Plains (Marcus 2000: 472). Such a trip envisions leaving Tyre and proceeding 22 miles north to Sidon, then southeast from Sidon to the Decapolis, and then northwest to the Sea of Galilee. This supposedly reveals that the author of Mark was ignorant of Palestinian geography and could not have been the John Mark of Acts 12:12, whose home was Jerusalem and who journeyed with Paul and Barnabas from Jerusalem to Antioch (Acts 12:25-13:4). A similar alleged error in geography is found in Mark 11:1. Here the journey from Jericho (10:46-52) to Jerusalem, Bethphage, and Bethany, if understood as occurring in that order, would be strange indeed, for if one proceeds from Jericho, the order of progression is Bethany (the eastern side of the Mount of Olives), Bethphage (the summit of the Mount of Olives), and Jerusalem (west of the Mount of Olives). The order in both these instances, however, reflects not an ignorance of Palestinian or Judean geography, as some suggest, but rather Mark’s desire to list the ultimate goal of the journey from Tyre (i.e., the Sea of Galilee) and Jericho (i.e., Jerusalem) first and the intervening places next (Sidon and the Decapolis; Bethpage and Bethany; see 7:31 and 11:1). Consequently, these alleged geographical errors found in the Second Gospel are not evidence of Mark’s ignorance of Palestinian geography but rather reflect various critics’ misunderstanding of the Markan style used to describe such journeys.

Still another alleged error on the part of the author of Mark that supposedly prevents him from being the John Mark of Acts 12:12 is his ignorance of Jewish laws and customs (P. Parker 1983: 73-75). In 7:3-4 Mark comments parenthetically, “(For the Pharisees and all the Jews, unless they wash their hands with the fist, do not eat because of holding to the tradition of the elders, and [when they come] from the marketplace unless they wash themselves, they do not eat, and there are many other traditions they have received and observe [lit. ‘received to hold’] [such as] the washings of cups and pitchers and bronze vessels).” This is not literally true, for such washing rites were not universally practiced by all Jews. Consequently, 7:3-4 is not technically correct (Niederwimmer 1967: 183-85). The term “all,” however, is frequently used as an exaggerated adjective for emphasis (Stein 1994a: 134). For the gentile readers of Mark, one of the most distinctive features of the Jewish people was the kosher regulations that pervaded their lives, and no clear distinction would have been made by them between OT regulations and Pharisaic oral traditions (cf. Let. Aris. 305). As a broad generalization, what Mark states in 7:3-4 is correct, and one should not expect from him a statistical analysis of the percentage of Jews who followed the Pharisaic rules of washing. See 7:3-4.

The debate about the authorship of the Second Gospel does not involve the “meaning” of the Gospel (Guelich 1989: xxix). The meaning of the Gospel of Mark involves what its author meant by the words that make up the Gospel. This is true regardless of whether the author’s name was John Mark. The reason why there is vigorous debate about Markan authorship lies elsewhere, and it does not involve a simple, objective pursuit of knowledge. Various presuppositions are often involved that are seldom discussed and at times may not even be consciously recognized but predispose scholars to a particular viewpoint. What is involved in the issue of authorship concerns primarily the “significance” that a person attributes to Mark (Stein 1994a: 43-46). If one brings to the study of Mark naturalistic presuppositions and denies the historicity of much or all of the miracles recorded in Mark, then how can one attribute the authorship of Mark to the John Mark of Acts 12:12 and 1 Pet. 5:13, whose main source for this information was the apostle Peter, an eyewitness of the events? One must conclude either that the author was not John Mark but an anonymous author who believed the fictional accounts created by the anonymous community and incorporated them into his Gospel or that John Mark was an unabashed deceiver who created fictional accounts to deceive or to edify the church. The latter “accommodationist” view had a brief period of popularity during the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries but is generally discredited because it is clear that the Gospel writers believed what they were writing (cf. Luke 1:3-4; John 21:24).

On the other hand, those who believe in the historicity of the miracle accounts in the Second Gospel and/or believe that it was in some way divinely inspired see support for this in the view that the Gospel was written by Mark and that he obtained his information from an eyewitness, the apostle Peter. Thus, just as the former view seeks to discredit the arguments in favor of Markan authorship and supports the various objections raised against it, this view seeks to support the arguments in favor of Markan authorship and attempts to refute the objections raised against it. As a result, although the meaning of the Second Gospel is unaffected by the issue of who wrote it, the issue of authorship is a critical one with respect to the significance or value one attributes to the Gospel. It would seem, however, that the presuppositions of critical scholarship play a more dominant and decisive role with respect to the question of authorship than those of evangelical scholarship. For critical scholarship, the antisupernaturalist presupposition usually associated with this position requires a non—John Mark authorship and a denial that behind the accounts found in Mark stands the eyewitness testimony of the apostle Peter. For evangelical scholarship, Markan authorship in association with the eyewitness testimony of Peter would be nice but is not necessary, for the truthfulness of the miracle accounts in Mark does not require Markan authorship.

For me, the case for Markan authorship is strong and involves the following:

  1. The universal and early tradition ascribing Markan authorship to the Second Gospel. It is highly unlikely that a purely fictional ascription would have named a nonapostle as the author, and especially one with a less-than-exemplary history (Acts 13:13; 15:36-41). One need only compare the attribution of apostolic authorship to the apocryphal Gospels (the Gospels of Philip, Thomas, Bartholomew, Peter, etc.) to see that a fictional attribution of the Second Gospel to a nonapostle is contrary to what one would expect. Furthermore, if we assume that the tie to the apostle Peter was intended to give apostolic sanction to a nonapostolic work, then the tradition from the beginning associated the Second Gospel with Mark.
  2. The negative comment in the Anti-Marcionite Prologue and Hippolytus that attributes authorship of the Second Gospel to John Mark, who is called “Stumpfinger,” has every appearance of being reliable tradition. Why would a completely fictional tradition attribute such a negative comment to the author of one of the sacred Gospels?
  3. It is quite unlikely that the Second Gospel simply fell anonymously, without any knowledge of its origin, into the hands of its first readers. The comment in Mark 15:21 that Simon of Cyrene was “the father of Alexander and Rufus” indicates that the Gospel was written to a church that the author knew and that no doubt knew him. Thus the authorship of the Second Gospel was never unknown to its first hearers.
  4. While internal evidence cannot prove Markan authorship, various aspects of the Gospel support Markan authorship (knowledge of Aramaic; the presence of numerous Latinisms; knowledge of Jewish customs; a more accurate knowledge of “the ‘historical contours’ of Palestinian Judaism before the destruction of the second temple... than the later evangelists” [Hengel 1985: 9]; the distinguishing of various Jewish groups such as the scribes, Pharisees, and Sadducees; etc.).
  5. The negative arguments raised against Markan authorship (lack of knowledge of Palestinian geography and Jewish customs) misunderstand Mark’s style in describing the geography of Jesus’s journeys and his general way of describing Jewish customs for his gentile readers.