The Quest for Mark the Evangelist

Those who have been following my blog for a few years know where I stand on the historicity of the Gospels. Recently, I presented to my class the matter of the authorship of Mark’s Gospel. The question as to “Who wrote Mark?” is rather interesting. On the one hand, Mark is not an Apostle. On the other hand, numerous patristic sources attest that Mark was an associate of Peter the Apostle.

Mark’s Gospel is unique in that we have internal and external evidence suggesting, indirectly, that Mark was as associate of Peter’s in Rome. By internal evidence we mean textual evidence. By external evidence, we mean the commentary of others.

External Evidence

In Mark’s case, the external evidence relies on five different commentators, cited in three separate documents written in three different centuries. It is well-known that Eusebius (263-339) attributes authorship of Mark’s Gospel to John Mark, mentioned in Acts. Based on his understanding of the historical record, Eusebius asserts that Mark heard the preaching of Peter in Rome; that Mark wrote a Gospel based upon the preaching of Peter; and that the “Mark” cited in 1 Peter 13 refers to the author of Mark’s Gospel (see H.E. 2.15.2).

Some scholars have discounted the reliability of Eusebius as a historian. These scholars argue that Eusebius fawned over Constantine in his biography of the emperor. However, post-modern scholarship acknowledges that Eusebius has made a serious contribution to our understanding of the early Christian epoch. Eusebius is often the sole or primary source for events transpiring over the first three centuries of church history. He also reports on disputes within the church (see Inowlocki’s Reconsidering Eusebius, or Barnes’ Constantine and Eusebius). Eusebius also tells us about the early scholarship of Origen (and in Origen’s case, the testimony of Eusebius is treated as reliable). 

Eusebius objectivity is, in this case, irrelevant because his work is corroborated.  The Fathers of the early church are virtually of the same mind on this matter: the author of Mark’s Gospel was an associate of Peter the Apostle. Full stop. According to Eusebius (Historiae Ecclesiasticae 3.39.15), Mark recorded the preaching of Peter, with no consideration for the chronological accuracy of the Gospel. Eusebius, playing the role of historian, quotes Papias in this regard. We are told in the same paragraph that Mark’s Gospel is not in chronological order (at least, the accounts before the Passion) because Mark gave priority to writing down what Peter said in an authentic manner, rather than prioritizing the order of the events.

“Mark Preaching in Alexandria.” Bellini, 1507.

The Dissent

Daniel Harrington, SJ, a biblical scholar over at Boston College, wrote a few decades ago that we can’t be sure about Eusebius’ testimony. Harrington’s essay on Mark, in the New Jerome Biblical Commentary, reflects a “party view” among historical-critical scholars. This very biased view posits that we can never really be sure if the early church Fathers are ever accurate. Their are many scholars who don’t agree with this position: for example, R. T. France, A. Kostenberger, Mary Healey.

Now, I don’t know if Harrington still shares this view. In addition, he does not say “John Mark did not write Mark’s Gospel.” He simply argues in favor of an abundance of caution. More recent commentaries, especially those published in the past ten years, are not as skeptical or cautious. Curtis Mitch and Edward Sri (the latter having a doctorate from the Gregorian University) have pointed out that the tendency to reject the testimony of the Church Fathers based on the internal evidence of the Gospel is problematic.  Fortunately, the academic trend in Scripture Scholarship has shifted away from a total hostility towards patristic sources and towards a more balanced view.

The Other External Evidence

Eusebius cites multiple sources that argues that an associate of Saint Peter wrote the Gospel of Mark in Rome. In  Historiae Ecclesiasticae 6.14.6Eusebius discusses the work of Clement of Alexandria. Clement writes that Mark knew the preaching of Peter the apostle well, and that Mark was asked to record the preaching of Peter by the people of the church. Clement also says that Mark was written after Mathew and Luke. Eusebius does not necessarily agree with Clement on this point, he simply records what Clement wrote.

In Historiae Ecclestiasticae 6.25.5, Eusebius quotes an even more prominent patristic source: Origen. According to Eusebius, Origen was an extremely well-trained Scripture scholar. He was known to track down the most obscure sources in order to enhance his understanding of Scripture.  Origen is one of the earliest writers to assert that Matthew wrote first, Mark second, and Luke third. According to Origen, Mark wrote a Gospel according to the instruction of Peter. Note that both Clement and Origen agree that Mark’s Gospel is rooted in the preaching of Peter. According to Origen, the “Mark” cited in 1 Peter 13, refers to the author of Mark’s Gospel.

Eusebius, Clement and Origen are not the only patristic sources to argue that the author of Mark’s Gospel was an associate of Peter’s. Tertullian (160-225), in Against Marcion 4.5,  also argues that Mark based his Gospel on the preaching of Peter.  Irenaeus concurs in Against Heresies 3.1, stating that Mark “handed down to us what had been preached by Peter.” We can see from several sources that even second-century writers considered Mark’s Gospel to be a) written by an associate of Peter the apostle, and b) part of a four-gospel canon.

The Dilemma Posed by Mark

The challenge for modern scholars is not so much the assertion that Mark knew of Peter’s preaching and recorded it. The difficulty is that two patristic sources – Clement and Origen – argue in favor of the priority of Matthew’s gospel. As Daniel Harrington has suggested, this poses serious difficulties for modern scholars who are invested in the Q hypothesis.

While scholars can argue about whether Mark or Matthew wrote first, the tendency to reject the testimony that Mark recorded Peter’s preaching is foolish. It is a tradition recorded and accepted by Origen, Clement, Eusebius, Tertullian and Irenaeus. Really, what modern scholars should say is that “the modern hypothesis completely disagrees with entirety of patristic testimony” when it comes to the authorship of Mark’s Gospel. I can’t side with the modern thesis on this issue. Far more evidence is required to throw out the highly sensible and logical premise that Mark, the author of the Gospel,  was an associate of Peter.

The Internal Evidence

Mark’s association with Peter in Rome  is further strengthened by the testimony of the Gospel itself. Mark’s Gospel has a high frequency of Latin loan-words, incorporated into the Greek text without a translation. With a tip to Dr. Rod Decker, the Latin loan words identified so far include:

census (κῆνσος, “census tax,” 2778, in verse 12:14), centurio (κεντυρίων, “centurion,” 2760, 15:39, 44, 45), denarius (δηνάριον, a Roman coin, 12:15), herba ( χόρτος, “leaf blade” 5228, 4:28, 6:39), legio (λεγιών, “legion,” 5:9, 15), modius (μόδιος, “peck measure,” 3426, 4:21), praetorium (πραιτώριον, “governor’s official residence,” 15:16), quadrans (κοδράντης, a Roman coin, 2835, 12:42), sextarius (ξέστης, “quart measure,” or “pitcher,” 3582, 7:4), speculator (σπεκουλάτωρ, “executioner,” 6:27), and flagellum (φραγελλόω, “to flog,” 5417, 15:15).

Perhaps of greatest interest to the general reader is that Mark uses western, Roman vocabulary to describe money throughout his Gospel. Mark uses the words quadrans and denarius. Matthew and Luke, by contrast, employ vocabulary more commonly used in the eastern half of the empire. The assarion, for instance, is a Greek corruption of the Latin coin known as an “as.” Mark also uses Latin geographic terms, such as Syro-Phoencian (a Phoenician from Syria) to describe the woman from Canaan in Mark 7:25. Matthew the Apostle simply calls her “a Canaanite.”

Mark is not simply a scribe that Peter hired, either in Greece or Rome, to record the Gospels. He is, on the contrary, a trusted confidant – someone who hailed from Judea. What evidence is there that Mark was himself spoke Aramaic and hailed from Judea?  We might consider the Aramaic terms that Mark uses, and then defines, in his Gospel: “boanerges,” “talitha koum,” “q’rban,” “ephphatha,” “Eloi, Eloi, lama sabachthani.”

The Testimony in Acts and  Paul’s Epistles

Who is this “John Mark” that Eusebius speaks of? He is a Jewish Christian mentioned in Acts 12:12 and 12:25. His mother owned a home in Jerusalem, possibly the place where the Last Supper was held. John Mark was the cousin or nephew of Barnabas (Col 4:10).

A Conclusion

The circumstantial evidence that an assistant to Peter wrote the Gospel of Markis actually quite strong. This testimony comes from Eusebius, Clement, Origen, Tertullian and Irenaeus. In addition, Mark’s Gospel has Latin loan words and deliberate Aramaic phrases. Thus, the Gospel seems to locate itself as being the product of a Judean writer who went to Rome and adapted the account for a gentile audience – by working in Latin loan words and then defining foreign Aramaic terms. This certainly compliments the testimony of Eusebius. Thus we have corroborating historical evidence. No, it is not absolute, but the preponderance of evidence – both external and internal – suggests that an associate of Peter’s, possibly John Mark, wrote Mark’s Gospel.

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