The Genius of the Gospel of Mark: Thoughts on Authorship and Date

This is the ninth and final post in a series discussing literary features of the Gospel of Mark. This post is more of an appendix discussing a few thoughts on the authorship and date of the Gospel of Mark. This information should have been presented at the outset of the series. After reading this, you might then continue on through the series. Introduction, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4, Part 5Part 6Part 7and Part 8.

Authorship

It seems a strange question to ask “Who wrote the Gospel of Mark?” The answer is right there in the question. However, the answer is not that easy. When you examine the text, the author never identifies himself[1] within the work. Compare this to the letters of Paul. He often identifies himself in the first few lines of the text itself. Take the intro to the Letter to the Romans, “Paul, a slave of Christ Jesus, called apostle, set apart for the gospel of God.” All of the Pauline letters in the New Testament feature a similar line. Therefore, if you question Pauline authorship, you are questioning the text itself. The case of the Gospels is different. None of the four authors of our canonical Gospels thought it necessary to identify themselves within the body of the text. Therefore, when we debate authorship of the Gospels, we are debating tradition and not the texts themselves. I have referred to the author of the Gospel as Mark throughout this series because it is convenient and I see no compelling reason that the author was not named Mark.

The attribution of the Gospel to Mark is a very early one. We have already in this series seen Eusebius’s quotation of Papias. He connects the Gospel to a man named Mark who was Peter’s interpreter later on in life. The historical consensus seems to be that this Mark is the John Mark mentioned in Acts who accompanied Paul and Barnabas on their first missionary journey. Tension arose between Paul and John Mark and that tension led to Paul and Barnabas going their separate ways. According to the theory that John Mark is Mark the Evangelist, John Mark eventually came into the service of Peter and would record the disciple’s memories of Jesus and his earthly ministry.

There are some who distinguish between the John Mark of Acts and Mark the Evangelist. After all, Mark was a very common name. There were other prominent people named Mark in the early Church. Hippolytus of Rome names three different Marks in his list of the seventy close disciples of Jesus. There is Mark the Evangelist, bishop of Alexandria; Mark, cousin of Barnabas, bishop of Apollonia; and Mark, who is also John, bishop of Bibloupolis.[2]

While there might be some confusion, the general consensus of history has been that the Mark who wrote the Gospel bearing that name was the John Mark also mentioned in Acts. It is possible that some insisted that it be John Mark because he was connected to both Peter and Paul. Apostolicity was an important criterion in the canonization process.[3] Some might argue that John Mark was attached to the Gospel so that the book would be connected to an apostle and thus be accepted. There was a tradition of pseudepigraphy[4] in the Second Temple period, particularly in apocalyptic literature. However, I believe this argument of pseudepigraphy is generally overblown. In apocalyptic literature, people attributed works to ancient worthies like Abraham, Moses, and Enoch. John Mark does not exactly rise to that level of authority. Really, among the four purported Gospel writers, only John has the kind of reputation to merit pseudepigraphal attribution.

As it stands, I see no compelling reason to deny the tradition that the author of the Gospel of Mark is the John Mark mentioned in Acts. I also do not see any reason to deny that he included some accounts from Peter. Some question this because the Gospel is particularly harsh on the primary disciples. This argument ignores that Peter could be humble or very critical of himself. Paul could be hard on himself at times. It is not unheard of. I do not believe that the Gospel is entirely Peter’s recounting. Mark had other sources. Consider his incredible passion narrative. He recounts that Simon of Cyrene carried Jesus’s cross to Golgotha. However, he also mentions that Simon is the father of Alexander and Rufus. Why does he mention Alexander and Rufus? The most probable explanation is that Alexander and Rufus were known to the congregation for whom Mark was composed. Their story was possibly (even probably) a major source for Mark’s passion narrative. Mark is using eyewitnesses. The Gospel is certainly a literary composition, but it is based on eyewitness accounts gathered by John Mark.

Date

We should also briefly examine a date for the Gospel as well. The general range is from the mid-50s to 70 AD. Evidence for an early date depends somewhat on the dating of Matthew and Luke. It is generally thought that both Matthew and Luke used Mark when composing their Gospels. If Luke wrote Acts around the time that Paul was in Rome (it ends with Paul in Rome), then it was composed in the mid-60s. If Luke used Mark, that means that Mark was probably written in the mid-50s. That would allow it time to circulate and gain authority.

Those arguing for a later date closer to 70 AD generally first point to Jesus’s teaching in Mark 13. The situation that Jesus describes closely resembles the events of the First Jewish-Roman War of 66-73 AD. The idea is that Mark is describing a current situation rather than retelling a prophecy of Jesus. The technical term is vaticinium ex eventu, meaning the prophecy is given “after the events.” The central assumption here is that predictive prophecy is not possible. I personally reject that assumption. If Jesus is truly the Son of God, I think all possibilities are on the table.

I have other reasons for being inclined to think that Mark was writing in the later 60s. The argument for an earlier date mentioned above relies on Luke composing Acts (and presumably his Gospel along with it) while Paul is in Rome. This idea presents something of a problem for me. Paul rarely explicitly mentions any sayings or events of Jesus’s earthly ministry in his letters. Presumably, if Luke was his companion and compiling his sources during Paul’s life, Paul would have had access to Luke’s information. I am not here arguing that Paul did not know of or care about Jesus’s earthly sayings and deeds. What I am arguing is that if Mark (and Luke) were already written and circulating in Paul’s day, I find it hard to believe that he would not appeal to that common material explicitly to fortify many of his central points.[5] For example, Jesus showing compassion to non-Jews makes Paul’s emphasis on unity unassailable. This leads me to the inclination that the Gospel of Mark was composed in the later 60s and that pushes the Gospels of Matthew and Luke-Acts into the 70s-80s.

However, for what we have looked at in this series, nothing really changes if Mark was written in 55 AD or 70 AD.

All of the above information is general housekeeping that should have been presented at the beginning of this series on Mark. Forgive me for not doing that. This post is also not meant to be a replacement for a good introduction to Mark found in a commentary or study Bible. I encourage everyone to seek out a good introduction. I only offer this post as a justification for why I refer to author of the Gospel as Mark throughout the series (it was not just for convenience) and my inclinations on when the Gospel was written.

Notes

[1] The author could of course have been a woman, but that is improbable in this historical period. Therefore, I will use male pronouns to avoid a clunkiness in language.

[2] Hippolytus on the Seventy Disciples. Found in Philip Schaff ed., Ante-Nicene Fathers, vol 5 (Grand Rapids, MI: Christian Classics Ethereal Library, 1885), 656-658.

[3] Although, apostolicity was not absolutely required. Even the early Church had no good idea as to who wrote Hebrews. They also had doubts about the genuineness of a few of the general epistles (2 Peter, 2 John, 3 John).

[4] Pseudepigraphy means writing in another’s name.

[5] Some believe that Paul makes many allusions to Jesus’s teachings in his letters. Others argue that Jesus’s earthly teaching forms the invisible foundation of Paul’s gospel. I do not disagree with either point. I am simply saying that if Mark was already circulating in the late 50s and Luke had access to it, I believe it likely Paul would have quoted from Jesus more explicitly just like he quotes the Old Testament explicitly.

3 Comments Add yours

  1. ljhooge says:

    Hey there.

    I agree with you that the John Mark of Acts, the son of Mary, cousin of Barnabus, may well be the authour of the Gospel of Mark. Curious, what do you make of Mark 14:51-52?

    Regarding the date of writing, I’m not opposed to a relative early date. In fact, curiously, my chiasmus may hint at the possibility of an initial early writing that was then later revised with additional information related to 70 AD (Eg., Mark 12:1-12). That being said, it’s difficult to say what ‘later’ means. It could mean days later, weeks later, months later, or years later. Eg., it could mean that a few days after finishing his initial writing, Mark decided to add in, here and there, material related to Jesus’ prophecies regarding the destruction of the temple.

    (As an aside, you may be interested to know that the two ‘blind man healings’ in Mark show ~fairly~ clear signs of being ‘added in later’. At least in terms a compositional history, written in later than the material around them.)

    Anyway, thanks for another post on Mark. I must say, I’m kinda sad it’s the last one. Oh well. *Sigh*.

    🙂

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    1. Regarding Mark 14:51-52, it is certainly a curious passage. I’m not sure we can say anything definite about it. It could have been Mark, but who knows? Much like mentioning Simon’s children, Alexander and Rufus, that person could have been known to the congregation that produced Mark. In other words, it was something of an inside story. But why would Mark include it without explaining anything further about it? I have no answers on that passage.

      Regarding the date, I might could phrase my view as, “Were I a betting man, I would wager that Mark was written sometime between 66-70 AD.” In other words, it’s not something I have really strong feelings on except that I would like to keep it in the 60s. I’m not going to push back on you too much if you want to date it in the early 60s. Any earlier and I get suspicious. That is because the general lack of Jesus tradition in the epistles is somewhat troubling to me. I’m sure there were early oral traditions from the beginning. Did the earthly teaching of Jesus matter to the early church? I like to think that it did, but why did the early epistles not appeal to the teachings of Jesus more? If you push circulating written Gospels into the 50s, the absence of Jesus traditions in the epistles becomes even more problematic to me. Such sources would have constituted a common authority to draw upon. Therefore, I think it is more likely that the Gospels were written after the mid 60s, particularly after Paul’s writing ministry was over. As it is, my theory on dating is based largely on intuition and probability. I’ll leave the intense debate to biblical scholars. My interests are more theological and whether it was written in 55 or 70 AD matters little for theological interpretation.

      The idea of compositional stages is interesting. It is also not a can of worms I wanted to open. The idea of compositional stages also invites an uncomfortable question for my views on the ending of the Gospel. If I am accepting of compositional stages, why do I deny the final addition? I think I can answer that question in a couple of satisfactory ways, but going down that path distracts from my primary purpose.

      This is my last planned post in this series. It has been a lot of fun and I want to thank you for your input. Iron sharpens iron, and you certainly helped sharpen my thinking. I am thinking of compiling the series together and fleshing it out more to make a study for a church discipleship class or book study to use. We’ll see if I ever get around to that. I will continue to post other things here. I will probably write a couple of things dealing with some stuff I’ve recently read in systematic theology. I do plan to do a short series on Jude in the coming months. I read it recently and I know next to nothing about the little epistle. I will have to take some time to acquaint myself with some commentaries and articles. I do think there are some really interesting questions about biblical hermeneutics that come up in Jude. Also, the general tone and language is interesting. I haven’t translated it from the Greek yet, but the NRSV rendition contains some really evocative language. I know you have a special interest in Mark, but I would love your input on further biblical studies material I produce.

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  2. ljhooge says:

    I like you’re arguments in the first 2 paragraphs of your comment above re. 14:51-52, and dating. I’ll just leave it at that. They make sense to me.

    As to a compositional history of Mark, I like to think that such an endeavour is made a little easier when you think Mark might be a chiasmus. Eg., regarding the 2 blind man healing stories, I can see how these 2 stories have been added to 2 matching sections, where the 2 sections are internally matched, and the blind man stories are externally matched. Basically, it suggests – at least to me, lol – that the blind man stories were added on later than the sections themselves. Again, I have no idea whether they were added, eg., hours, days, months, or years later. Similarly, when you have 2 matching stories, you can ask which story came first and which story came second. That is, which story is primary and which is secondary; eg., which story was stronger, or more desired, and which story was then brought in to match it. This sort of questioning helps to produce a kind of compositional history as well.

    Anyway, I agree with you. A compositional history is overall a difficult thing to do. Fairly speculative. A potential ‘can of worms’. It’s probably wise to bypass it.

    I do thank you for your series on Mark. I’ve quite enjoyed it. I do look forward to your new series on Jude. It’s a short book, but appears to be packed with interesting material. … Take care.

    PS. I may still make a comment or 2 on Mark in the future. 🙂

    Like

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