According to the traditional view, the four Gospels in the New Testament—Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John (the “canonical” Gospels)—were written either by eyewitnesses to Jesus’s ministry or by those closely connected with eyewitnesses. For example, on the traditional view the Gospel according to Mark (“Mark” or the “second Gospel”) was written by a personal secretary to the Apostle Peter—one of Jesus’s original disciples.
In Chapter 3 of How Jesus Became God, Bart Ehrman raises doubts about this traditional view. As I noted in my last post, Ehrman argues that the authors of the Gospels were Christians “of a later generation” who wrote after (or almost after) Jesus’s original disciples had died. But, if the authors of the Gospels were not closely connected to Jesus or his disciples in time and space, as Ehrman suggests, then it looks less plausible to attribute the content of the Gospels to the historical Jesus.
In this post I will begin responding to Ehrman’s argument about the authorship of the Gospels by considering who wrote Mark. Mark is especially important among the four canonical Gospels since it is typically understood as the earliest—written in the late 60s or early 70s CE—and since two of the other canonical Gospels, Matthew and Luke, seem to rely on it extensively as a source (more on that in future posts).
In this post, my goal will not be to definitively establish who the author of Mark was; in fact, it is likely impossible to do so given the nature of the evidence. Instead, my aim will simply be to show that the traditional view is sufficiently supported by evidence, and that it is not unreasonable to hold such a view.
As I noted in my last post, all four of the canonical Gospels were anonymously written: in none of the documents does the author identify himself or herself. Thus, if we are to understand who wrote Mark, we will need to rely on evidence external to the Gospel and clues from the style and content of the Gospel. I will focus on external evidence, here, since the arguments based on style and content generally seem speculative and inconclusive to me.
The earliest account of the traditional view of the authorship of Mark is in a lost five-volume work by Papias, bishop of Hieropolis, called Interpretation of the Lord’s Sayings, dated around 120 or 130 CE, 50 to 60 years after Mark was written (Guelich xxvi). We know of Papias’s lost work since it is quoted by Eusebius in his 4th-century history of the church. As quoted by Eusebius, Papias says the following about the author of the second Gospel:
And this is what the Elder said, “Mark who became Peter’s interpreter, accurately wrote, though not in order, as many of the things said and done by the Lord as he had noted. For he neither heard the Lord nor followed him, but afterwards, as I said, he followed Peter who composed his teachings in anecdotes and not as a complete work of the Lord’s sayings. So Mark made no mistake in writing some things just as he had noted them. For he was careful of this one thing, to leave nothing he had heard out and to say nothing falsely.” (Guelich xxvi)
If Papias’s account is accurate, we learn several things about the author of the second Gospel from it: (1) the author’s name was “Mark”; (2) this “Mark” was Peter’s “interpreter,” i.e., someone who tried to give an accurate and complete account of Peter’s anecdotal preaching and teaching about Jesus’s ministry; (2) the author was not an eyewitness of the things he wrote about; (3) the author was a disciple of Peter (“he followed Peter”). In Eusebius’s original Greek, the claim that the author wrote “not in order” seems to mean that he did not aim to arrange the anecdotes in an artistic or aesthetically pleasing order (Guelich xxvii).
Later 2nd-century corroborations of this traditional view (e.g., by Irenaeus and Clement of Alexandria) seem to rely on Papias, and thus are not independent sources (Guelich xxvi). So, the real question is, what should we make of Papias’s account? Predictably, scholars are divided over its historical value: some accept it entirely while others reject it entirely. The most reasonable view seems to be somewhere in between.
The material in Mark does not seem to derive from a single source (Guelich xxvii), so it seems unlikely that Mark is simply a compilation of materials deriving from a single person (e.g., notes on Peter’s preaching). Thus, to that extent, Papias’s account seems incorrect.
But, even if we reject that aspect of Papias’s account, there is good reason to accept the idea that someone named “Mark” compiled the document from several sources. This idea fits with the title, “The Gospel according to Mark,” which shows up on later manuscripts—a piece of evidence that seems to be independent of Papias’s account (Guelich xxvii-xxviii). Thus, two seemingly independent sources tell the same story, which lends the story credibility.
Of course, the fact that Papias’s claim is consistent with the title of later manuscripts does not definitively settle the matter. It could still be that Papias made some sort of mistake, or, worse, that he lied to boost the credibility of the Gospel, and that the second-century Church continued in the error or lie.
However, the conspiracy-theory version of this objection seems pretty unlikely. After all, if you were trying to tell a lie that would boost the credibility of the second Gospel, why would you associate it with a guy named Mark? There is no one especially important named Mark in the New Testament documents; in fact, I will suggest below that the Mark of the New Testament might be a somewhat awkward choice if you were trying to boost the credibility of the Gospel. Yes, Mark’s purported association with Peter would be some help, but if you really wanted to boost credibility, wouldn’t it be much better to choose “Peter” or “Paul,” both of whom were Apostles with a closer association to Jesus?
The New Testament as a Historical Source
Now, if the best story is that someone named “Mark” wrote the second Gospel, who exactly was this person? More specifically, what should we make of Papias’s claim that Mark was a disciple of Peter? The best source of information about the author seems to be other New Testament documents—especially Acts, 1 Peter, Colossians, and Philemon.
But, before jumping into specific passages, it’s important to think about what I’m doing, here, in consulting other parts of the New Testament. The New Testament (and scripture in general) can be thought of in at least two ways. First, we can think of it as divinely inspired. Thought of in that way, we might take the teaching of scripture to be authoritative and infallible (a subject for another time).
However, we can also think of scripture more narrowly as a compilation of old documents that reflect the culture and events of the time in which they were written. Understood in this second way, we can look to scripture as a source of historical information, though perhaps not an infallible one. While I do believe scripture is divinely inspired in the sense described above, in this post I am relying on scripture merely as a source of historical information.
Who Was “Mark”?
Returning to the main thread, then, in Acts we learn about a young man named John, “whose other name was Mark” (Acts 12:12, 12:25). It seems this John-Mark was the son of Mary, a wealthy follower of Jesus who owned a house in Jerusalem where followers of Jesus sometimes met to pray (Acts 12:12). It also seems he was a cousin of Barnabas (one of Paul’s associates) (Colossians 4:10) who joined Paul and Barnabas as an assistant on their first missionary journey to Cyprus and southern Galatia (modern Turkey) around 47 CE (Acts 13:1-5).
Now the awkward part: Apparently John-Mark abandoned their mission after the boat ride from Cyprus to Perga and returned to Jerusalem prematurely (Acts 13:13). His departure became a sore spot between Paul and Barnabas and eventually led to their parting ways on a second missionary journey: Paul took Silas as his partner instead of Barnabas since Barnabas wanted to take John-Mark again (Acts 15:36-41).
(To add to my counter-conspiracy argument above, I ask you: what interest would a conspirator have in attributing the second Gospel to a flighty, unreliable young man who caused the break-up of an all-star missionary team? If I were lying about who wrote the second Gospel to give it more credibility, this is not the guy I’d pick. So, again, if the John-Mark of Acts is Papias’s Mark, his awkward history lends credibility to Papias’s claim that Mark wrote it, since there is little reason to offer it as a lie.)
It seems Paul eventually forgave John-Mark and gave him a second chance, since he later calls him a “fellow worker” (Philemon 24) and gives instructions to the church at Colossae to “welcome him” if he visits (Colossians 4:10).
Finally, the most relevant text for my purpose is 1 Peter 5:13, in which the Apostle Peter writes from Rome (“Babylon”) and refers to Mark as his “son”. Such a reference likely indicates not a biological relationship, but rather a close discipleship relationship of the sort Papias uses to describe Mark’s relationship with Peter. (Beginning with the teachings of Jesus in the Gospels, the New Testament often uses familial metaphors to describe the relationships between followers of Jesus).
Thus, if the “Mark” and “John-Mark” of the New Testament are the same “Mark” mentioned by Papias as the author of the second Gospel, it seems that the New Testament documents corroborate Papias’s claim that the author named Mark was a disciple of Peter.
Of course, we can still doubt all this. Papias’s account may yet be incorrect (though a conspiracy theory seems bunk), and the title later added to the second Gospel (“The Gospel according to Mark”) could simply follow Papias in his error (though the title seems independent, as noted above).
Some (though far from all) scholars have also doubted that the “John-Mark” of the New Testament is the same “Mark” that Papias mentions. After all, “Mark” was a very common Roman name. Finally, some (though, again, far from all) scholars have also doubted that the Apostle Peter really wrote 1 Peter, which, if true, would undermine the support I see for the discipleship relation between Peter and Mark. The fact is, the historical evidence for the traditional view of the authorship of Mark is not copious or bullet-proof.
Nevertheless, there is some decent evidence. There are several seemingly independent historical sources that corroborate the view. Thus, at the very least one would not be irrational to hold the traditional view. It is not obviously false. In fact, it seems quite plausible to me.
Assessing Ehrman’s Claims
On the evidence I have presented, the author of Mark would indeed have been a “second-generation” Christian (i.e., a disciple of one of Jesus’s original disciples), and he likely would have written the Gospel immediately before or soon after Peter’s death, which is thought to have occurred between 64 and 68 CE, during the reign of the Roman Emperor Nero. So, Ehrman would be correct in these claims.
However, I see no reason for these facts alone to impugn the author’s or the Gospel’s credentials. If the author was the Mark of the New Testament who had a close association with Peter, even if he wrote slightly after Peter’s death (e.g., by 70 CE) he would presumably have discussed with Peter the episodes and teachings in the Gospel at length before Peter’s death. Indeed, it seems quite plausible that Peter’s death could have finally convinced Mark to write down all this stuff they’d been discussing for years, so that the memories wouldn’t be lost with Peter.
In short, Ehrman’s thin argument gives us no good reasons to doubt the traditional view of the authorship of the Gospel according to Mark. Indeed, the evidence I have marshaled here makes the traditional view seem quite plausible to me. Thus, contrary to Ehrman, I also see no good reason, here, to doubt that the content of the second Gospel authentically derives from the life and teachings of Jesus.