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The Authorship and Publication of the Gospel of Mark

By Ron Jones, D.D. © The Titus Institute, 2010


 

The historical literary evidence demonstrates that Mark, the close associate of Peter the apostle, wrote the Gospel of Mark from the preaching of Peter and published it first in a private edition for the church at Rome and then in public edition for the church at large.


The Authorship of the Gospel of Mark

The universal testimony of the early church fathers is that Mark, the close associate of Peter wrote the Gospel of Mark.

Carson and Moo explain the significance of this testimony,

“Moreover, no dissenting voice from the early church regarding the authorship of the second gospel is found…While we must not uncritically accept everything that early Christian writers say about the origins of the New Testament, we should not reject what they say without good reason.”1

Over a hundred years earlier, Thomas Horne recognized this writing,

“That Mark was the author of the Gospel which bears his name, is proved by the unanimous testimony of ancient Christians…Saint Peter having publicly preached the Christian religion at Rome, many who were present entreated Mark, as he had for a long time been that apostle's companion, and had a clear understanding of what Peter had delivered, that he would commit the particulars to writing. Accordingly, when Mark had finished his Gospel, he delivered it to the persons who made this request. Such is the unanimous testimony of ancient writers, which is further confirmed by internal evidence, derived from the Gospel itself.”2

Joseph Kelly concurs,

"The patristic tradition is unanimous that Mark wrote Mark's Gospel."3

The following church fathers clearly state this.4

For a list of the early church fathers, who they were and when they lived, mentioned in this article, click here.


Mark wrote down the gospel that Peter preached.

Eusebius in his Church History (3.39.14-15) writes of Papias (c.120 A.D.), an early church father, quoting what he stated about the origin of the Gospel of Mark.

“But now we must add to the words of his, which we have already quoted, the tradition which he gives in regard to Mark, the author of the Gospel. ‘This also the presbyter said: Mark, having become the interpreter of Peter, wrote down accurately, though not in order, whatsoever he remembered of the things said or done by Christ. For he neither heard the Lord nor followed him, but afterward, as I said, he followed Peter, who adapted his teaching to the needs of his hearers, but with no intention of giving a connected account of the Lord’s discourses, so that Mark committed no error while he thus wrote some things as he remembered them. For he was careful of one thing, not to omit any of the things which he had heard, and not to state any of them falsely.’ These things are related by Papias concerning Mark.”

Papias calls Mark Peter’s interpreter and then explains what he means. Mark “wrote down accurately what he remembered that Jesus said and did,” but it was not from his own knowledge of Jesus, but of Peter’s.

David Black comments on what “interpreter” meant,

“The almost invariable use by the fathers of the word hermeneutes (Latin interpret) to describe Mark’s function proclaims that he was not the author in the normal sense, but rather the “go-between” or “interpreter” of Peter…The term hermeneutes signifies someone who passes on the message received from another without alteration or modification, that is, a “go-between” or “recorder.” In its original sense it cannot mean an editor or one who “interprets” in the sense of explaining someone’s message to someone else. Applied to Mark, it means that he was no more than the instrument of communication between Peter and his audience.”5

Papias’ main point is that Mark did not always follow the chronological order of the events of the life of Christ because Peter as he preached did not. Yet Mark’s account is accurate in recounting what he remembered from Peter.

C. Clifton Black further explains,

“To assert that ‘Mark did not miss the mark in thus writing down individual items as he remembered them’ practically presupposes a criticism, prior to Papias and perhaps even prior to John the Presbyter, that Mark indeed had missed the mark. At least as far as Papias is concerned, Mark has been challenged for his report's incompleteness and lack of order. In both respects Mark could be acquitted: Mark had followed and faithfully interpreted not the Lord but, rather Peter, and the latter's teaching had been piecemeal and catch-as-catch can.

Mark, on the other hand, was as comprehensive in his coverage as his primary source would permit: ‘the left] nothing out of what he heard.’ If Mark's account seems lacking or disordered, then that actually redounds to the fidelity of his reporting and attests to a premeditated decision ‘to falsify nothing in [what he had heard].’

Therefore, ‘Mark did not miss the mark in writing down individual items as he remembered them’ (emphasis added). Why? Because ‘[Mark left] out nothing of what he had heard’ (again, my emphasis). For Papias, Mark's very disorganization was the clearest, positive evidence that his literary endeavor had falsified nothing in an oral tradition that was equally disordered…

We may be in slightly better position to say that, for Papias, the primary criterion satisfied by Mark was his faithful recollection, dependable remembrance and conveyance, of dominical traditions that were associated with Peter.”6

Papias’ early comments about Mark being the interpreter of Peter and thus writing down Peter’s gospel was common knowledge in the church and repeated over and over by the early church fathers.

Irenaeus records in his work, Against Heresies (3.1.1),

“Matthew also issued a written Gospel among the Hebrews in their own dialect, while Peter and Paul were preaching at Rome, and laying the foundations of the Church. After their departure, Mark, the disciple and interpreter of Peter, did also hand down to us in writing what had been preached by Peter. Luke also, the companion of Paul, recorded in a book the Gospel preached by him. Afterwards, John, the disciple of the Lord, who also had leaned upon His breast, did himself publish a Gospel during his residence at Ephesus in Asia.”

Tertullian writes in his work, Against Marcion (4.5),

“The same authority of the apostolic churches will afford evidence to the other Gospels also, which we possess equally through their means, and according to their usage--I mean the Gospels of John and Matthew--whilst that which Mark published may be affirmed to be Peter's whose interpreter Mark was. For even Luke's form of the Gospel men unsually ascribe to Paul. And it may well seem that the works which disciples publish belong to their masters.

Eusebius records Origen’s statement in his Commentary on Matthew (in Eusebius Church History 6.25),

“Likewise Origen says of it: ‘The second is that according to Mark who composed it, under the guidance of Peter, who therefore, in his Catholic Epistle acknowledged the evangelist as his son.’"


The Publication of the Gospel of Mark

The early church knew the basic circumstances of the publication of Mark’s gospel. Mark did not write his gospel secretly nor publish it anonymously. When the various testimonies of the early church fathers regarding its publishing are harmonized the picture given below emerges. This historical explanation gives credibility to all the evidence from the written testimony of the early church fathers quoted in this article.

Mark was requested by certain Roman Christians to write down Peter’s testimony of Jesus after Peter had left Rome.

Eusebius records two statements by Clement of Alexandria in his Church History. In the first one, he writes of a false teacher named Simon who came to Rome during the reign of Claudius to spread false doctrine. At first, he achieved great success, but it didn’t last because the apostle Peter was sent by God to defend the truth against Simon. So blessed were the Roman Christians by Peter’s teaching that they asked Mark, Peter’s close associate, to write down Peter’s gospel about Jesus. This, says Eusebius, is recorded by Clement in one of his works, called Hypotyposes (Outlines) and also by Papias.

In Eusebius’ Church History Book 2.15:1-2, he says

“And thus when the divine word [through Peter the apostle] had made its home among them [the Christians at Rome], the power of Simon was quenched and immediately destroyed, together with the man himself. And so greatly did the splendor of piety illumine the minds of Peter’s hearers that they were not satisfied with hearing once only, and were not content with the unwritten teaching of the divine Gospel, but with all sorts of entreaties they besought Mark, a follower of Peter, and the one whose Gospel is extant, that he would leave them a written monument of the doctrine which had been orally communicated to them. Nor did they cease until they had prevailed with the man, and had thus become the occasion of the written Gospel which bears the name of Mark.

And they say that Peter when he had learned, through a revelation of the Spirit, of that which had been done, was pleased with the zeal of the men, and that the work obtained the sanction of his authority for the purpose of being used in the churches.

Clement in the eighth book of his Hypotyposes gives this account, and with him agrees the bishop of Hierapolis named Papias. And Peter makes mention of Mark in his first epistle which they say that he wrote in Rome itself, as is indicated by him, when he calls the city, by a figure, Babylon, as he does in the following words: ‘The church that is at Babylon, elected together with you, saluteth you; and so doth Marcus my son.’”

In the last paragraph of Clement’s statement above, we are told that the Mark who wrote the gospel was none other than the same Mark who was with Peter in Rome and mentioned in Peter’s first epistle. Peter’s mention of “Babylon” refers to the city of Rome according to Clement and Papias.

Eusebius’ second comment and quote from Clement of Alexandria’s Hypotyposes comes in Church History Book 6.14.5-10. In it Eusebius says that Clement repeats the basic circumstances of the publication of Mark’s gospel and directly states he wrote it in Rome.

“Again, in the same books, Clement gives the tradition of the earliest presbyters, as to the order of the Gospels, in the following manner: The Gospels containing the genealogies, he says, were written first. The Gospel according to Mark had this occasion. As Peter had preached the Word publicly at Rome, and declared the Gospel by the Spirit, many who were present requested that Mark, who had followed him for a long time and remembered his sayings, should write them out. And having composed the Gospel he gave it to those who had requested it. When Peter learned of this, he neither directly forbade nor encouraged it.”

There is one more statement by Clement that comes directly from a Latin translation of his Hypotyposes by Cassiodorus (called Adumbrationes in epistolas canonicas in its Latin translation). He is commenting on 1 Peter 5:13 and relates,

“Mark, the follower of Peter, while Peter was publicly preaching the gospel at Rome in the presence of some of Caesar’s knights and uttering many testimonies about Christ, on their asking him to let them have a record of the things that had been said, wrote the gospel that is called the Gospel of Mark from the things said by Peter…”7

Clement of Alexandria has the most detail regarding the origin of Mark. It is not surprising since Clement was bishop of Alexandria. Eusebius records that Mark was the first bishop of Alexandria. Mark most likely spoke about the circumstances surrounding the writing of his gospel and it was handed down to the succeeding bishops, one of which was Clement.

Eusebius in his Church History (2.16.1) records,

“And they say that this Mark was the first that was sent to Egypt, and that he proclaimed the Gospel which he had written, and first established churches in Alexandria.”

Jerome in his Illustrious Men 8 wrote about Mark,

“So, taking the gospel which he himself composed, he went to Egypt and first preaching Christ at Alexandria he formed a church so admirable in doctrine and continence of living that he constrained all followers of Christ to his example.”

Jerome, in his Preface to the Commentary on Matthew, stated,

“The second is Mark, the amanuensis of the Apostle Peter, and first bishop of the Church of Alexandria. He did not himself see our Lord and Saviour, but he related the matter of his Master’s preaching with more regard to minute detail than to historical sequence.”

Epiphanius, in his Panarion 51.6.10.13 wrote,

“And following immediately after Matthew, Mark was entrusted by the holy Peter in Rome to set out the gospel; and when he had written it he was sent by the holy Peter to the region of Egypt.”8

When Mark first wrote his gospel it was a private edition for those in Rome who had requested it.

In the above quotes, the early church fathers make it clear that Mark wrote his gospel at the request of certain Christians at Rome. Clement of Alexandria gives some detail about how it happened. In one quote he mentions who requested it and in another quote he indicates that Mark gave his gospel to those who specifically requested it. These quotes imply that Mark’s gospel was originally a private edition for them and the church at Rome, but not written for the churches at large which Mark gave to those who requested it.9

As seen in the quote above from the Latin translation, Clement of Alexandria writes that Mark was “asked” by “some of Caesar’s knights to…let them have a record of the things that had been said.”

Note: Rome had four classes of people. The lowest class were the slaves. The next class were the plebeians (free common people). The second highest class were the equestrians (knights) who attained that rank by their wealth. The highest class were the patricians (nobles) of Rome who were part of that group by birth.

Certain Roman Christians who were of the equestrian order and thus wealthy requested Mark to write a gospel for them. They most likely funded the necessary papyrus rolls and copies made by scribes for them. This was the normal way author’s works were published in the ancient Roman world. A “patron” or “patrons” funded the publishing of an author’s works. Mark wrote the gospel and then had copies made for them at their expense. It was a private edition for the church at Rome.

David Black comments on Clements’ identification of the social position of the Christians who requested mark to write his gospel,

“Clement of Alexandria gives some idea of the occasion of Peter’s talks when he says that they took place in Rome before an audience of “Caesar’s knights”—members of the Roman Praetorium—and therefore an audience containing a number of high government officials.”10

When Peter heard about the private edition, at first he was neutral, but then by a revelation from God he endorsed it for use among the churches.

In the passage above from Eusebius Church History Book 6.14.5-7, Clement says that “when Peter learned of this, he neither directly forbade nor encouraged it.” This implies that Peter was probably not in Rome at the time of the writing. Otherwise, he would have known about it as it was being written because he and Mark were close associates. When he did learn of it, he was neutral about it. That is, he personally had not asked for it but didn’t have a problem with those who did.

Sometime later, God gave Peter a revelation that this gospel by Mark was important and should be approved by him and distributed to the churches. In Eusebius’s Church History 2.15.2 Eusebius tells us that Clement also wrote, “And they say that Peter when he had learned, through a revelation of the Spirit, of that which had been done, was pleased with the zeal of the men, and that the work obtained the sanction of his authority for the purpose of being used in the churches.”

These two statements by Clement about Peter’s neutral reaction and his approval seem contradictory to many scholars, but in reality a credible and intelligent church leader like Clement is not going to write two contradictory statements in the same work. They are easily reconciled by carefully harmonizing his statements in this way.

Mark then published a public edition circulating it among all the churches.

Clement’s above statement about Peter’s approval demonstrates that Peter’s endorsement was obtained to copy and distribute it to all the churches. This was the publishing of the public edition of his gospel. It is possible that after his revelation, Peter himself suggested that Mark publish his gospel to the churches. Therefore, Mark’s gospel had two publications, one for the private edition and one later for the public edition.


The Order of the Gospels

This is important when it comes to the order of the gospels. In Eusebius’ above quote from Clement (Church History, 6.14.5-7), Clement says that the tradition of the earliest presbyters (the ones who were appointed by the apostles) was that “the Gospels containing the genealogies were written first.” This means that Matthew and Luke were written first. Other church fathers say that Matthew and Mark were written before Luke and John. If there were, in fact, two publications then both statements are true depending on which publishing one is talking about. Mark was published privately before Luke, but published publicly (for all the churches) after Luke. Thus two seemingly contradictory statements can be simply harmonized.

All the evidence taken together demands that Peter was alive when Mark was written and that he was not in Rome with Mark when he first wrote his gospel, but later found out that he wrote it.

As seen above, Irenaeus records in his work, Against Heresies (3.1.1) that “after their departure [Peter and Paul’s], Mark, the disciple and interpreter of Peter, did also hand down to us in writing what had been preached by Peter.”

The word “departure” normally refers to leaving a place. Irenaeus would then be saying that after Peter and Paul left Rome most likely on missionary journeys, Mark wrote his gospel. This harmonizes with Peter not knowing about the private edition of Mark’s gospel until he returned to Rome.

E. Earle Ellis concurs with the meaning of “departure” in Irenaeus as leaving Rome when he writes,

“Irenaeus speaks, then, only of the transmission of Mark's Gospel. He is thinking not of the deaths of Peter and Paul but rather of their departure on further missionary travels after an initial evangelization of Rome, i.e. after Paul's release in c. AD 63 and after an earlier visit and departure of Peter.”

(Ellis, E. Earle, The Making of the New Testament Documents, Brill Academic Publishers, Inc., Boston, 2002, 362

Some scholars believe that the meaning of “departure” in the Greek in Irenaeus refers to their martyrdom. The only other possible evidence that Peter was dead at the time Mark published his gospel is from the Anti-marcionite prologues which uses the Latin word for “departure.” Although “departed” can mean “death” when taken euphemistically. Its regular meaning is “went away” and this meaning fits best with the other evidence.

Even if “departed” means death it can still fit with the evidence. Mark wrote the gospel while Peter was still alive as a private edition. Peter found out about it and at first was neutral. Then Peter had a revelation and endorsed it. Before Mark could copy it and begin circulating it among the churches, Peter was martyred. Therefore, the gospel of Mark was published for the churches after Peter’s (and Paul’s) death.

The Two Endings of Mark

These two editions can also explain the two endings of Mark’s gospel that have come down to us. The shorter ending was probably the one Mark wrote for the private edition, but when Mark published the public edition, he added a longer more explanatory ending.11


Summary

David Black comments on the Mark’s authorship of his gospel,

“Thus Clement, and other ancient witnesses, understood Mark's function to have been simply that of reporting Peter's words with total accuracy. That is, Mark was not the author of the Gospel but simply the agent of its publication, because all of this material came from Peter's own memories of what Jesus had said and done and because what Mark did was to retrieve faithfully, as Peter's amanuensis, what the latter had spoken-on certain special occasions. These are the basic historical facts around which all of the internal evidence will be found to fit exactly.”12


END NOTES:

1. Carson, D.A., Moo, Douglas J., An Introduction to the New Testament, Zondervan, 2005, p.174

2. An Introduction to the Critical Study and Knowledge of the Holy Scriptures, Thomas Hartwell Horne Vol.2, Desilver, Thomas, 1836, p.304-305

3. Joseph F. Kelly ("The Patristic Biography of Mark," Bible Today 21 [1983]: 44)

4. Unless otherwise noted, all quotations are from The Early Church Fathers, ed. Philip Schaff, William B. Eerdman’s Publishing, Reprint 2001 at CCEL Internet Library

5. Black, David Alan, Why Four Gospels?, Kregel Publications, Grand Rapids, MI. 2001, 44

6. Black, C. Clifton, Mark Images of an Apostolic Interpreter, Fortress Press, Minneapolis, 2001, p.92-94

7. Trans. by David Alan Black, Why Four Gospels? Kregel Publications, Michigan, 2001, 38

8. Translated by frank Williams, The Panarion of Epiphanius of Salamis: Book II and III, Trans. By Frank Williams, Brill, 1994, p.30-31

9. David Alan Black sets forth in his book, Why Four Gospels? (Kregel Publications, Grand Rapids, MI. 2001, 45) this view of Mark writing a private edition first, then a public one for the churches.

10. Black, David Alan, Why Four Gospels?, Kregel Publications, Grand Rapids, MI. 2001, 45

11. Compare David Black’s comment on this in Why Four Gospels?, Kregel Publications, Grand Rapids, MI. 2001, 30

12. Black, David Alan Why Four Gospels?, Kregel Publications, Grand Rapids, MI. 2001, 77