The Christian church teaches that the gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John are accurate historical accounts of the teachings, death, and resurrection of Jesus. According to the church, these documents were written by direct eyewitnesses to the events recorded, or by people who captured the first-hand testimony of eyewitnesses.
Some argue that the gospels are not eyewitness accounts, but were instead compiled by anonymous editors several generations after the fact. However, significant evidence favors the church’s point of view. In this article, we explore the evidence for Mark’s gospel.
Who Was Mark and When Did He Write?
Mark, we are told, was a follower of Peter (a key member of Jesus’ original group of 12 disciples). Mark was a Palestinian Jew from Jerusalem and, according to Acts 12:12, his mother had a house there. He is mentioned a number of times in various New Testament documents, including Acts, Colossians, Philemon, 2 Timothy, and 1 Peter. He was quite close to Peter, assisting him in his evangelical work. In fact, Peter refers to Mark as “my son” in 1 Peter 5:13.
As a brief aside, some scholars dispute Peter’s authorship of 1 Peter because they say its Greek is too well-polished to have been written by a simple fisherman. Many find that argument to be unpersuasive. Peter was more than a simple fisherman by the time he wrote 1 Peter. In addition, in the letter itself, Peter indicates that he used a secretary (Silas) to help write it (1 Peter 5:12). No wonder the Greek was well-polished.
At any rate, as Peter preached the gospel, Mark supposedly wrote down the things that Peter said about Jesus, capturing his direct eyewitness testimony. Mark collected all of that testimony into a document that we now know as The Gospel According to Mark. Church tradition tells us that Mark compiled his gospel in Rome, primarily for a Gentile audience.
Most scholars date the writing of Mark’s gospel between to 60 and 75 A.D.1, only about 25-35 years after Jesus’ life on earth. Some have argued for even earlier dates (the 40s or 50s A.D.).2
The Origin of Belief in Mark’s Authorship
Nowhere in the document’s text does it say “written by Mark, follower of Peter.” That’s one reason why some argue that the gospel of Mark was anonymously written. Further, they add that Mark’s name was not attached to this gospel until the 2nd century when the title, The Gospel According to Mark, seems to have first appeared with the text.
We have addressed both of these issues in detail in other articles (here and here). Suffice it to say here that, given the publishing practices of the first century, it’s most likely that Mark’s name was attached to his gospel from the time it was initially written in the mid-first century, even if not in the text of the document itself. Mark’s gospel was not actually anonymous.
Others have argued that Mark’s name was falsely attached to the gospel later as a means of adding credibility to it. This assertion flies in the face of all available evidence. The early churches did not like pseudoepigraphal (falsely attributed) texts and effectively worked to identify and disavow them.
Additionally, pseudoepigraphal texts didn’t really start to show up in significant numbers until the second century and later. For any document to be considered scripture, it had to have genuine, known apostolic authority. Mark’s gospel carried that authority and its pedigree was well-recognized. Incidentally, we have also addressed this topic in some detail elsewhere.
Besides, if the church was trying to gain credibility by falsely attributing a work to someone, why would it choose a “minor-leaguer” like Mark? It would have made more sense to choose a more well-known leader, such as Peter himself.
In truth, Mark’s gospel was revered early on. It was seen as scripture by various early Christian leaders, who allude to it and/or quote from it in their own writings. For example, the early Church Father, Polycarp, seems to allude to it (and to other New Testament documents, as well) repeatedly in his Letter to the Philippians (ca. 110-135 A.D.). Also, Luke clearly used Mark as a source. This indicates that The Gospel of Mark was viewed as authoritative very soon (perhaps immediately) after it was written, as Luke’s gospel was likely written between 65 and 95 A.D.3, with most scholars arguing for a date on the early end of that range.
The early churches were unanimous in their belief that Mark’s gospel was written by Mark and reflected Peter’s eyewitness accounts. There was never any controversy about the authorship of this document, and there is no competing authorship tradition.
Testimony of Early Church Historians
Early church historians agree that Mark was the author of his gospel. Here’s an overview.
Papias was an early church father and Bishop of Heirapolis who lived from c. 70-163 A.D. The well-known historian Eusebius provides an excerpt of Papias’ writing that refers to Mark. The excerpt comes from Papias’ 5-part work, Interpretation of the Oracles of the Lord, and it cites an even earlier source, known as John the Elder (whom Papias knew, and who some associate with John the Apostle). Interpretation of the Oracles of the Lord, has been lost to history, except as preserved by Eusebius:
“The Elder used to say: Mark, in his capacity as Peter’s interpreter, wrote down accurately as many things as he recalled from memory—though not in an ordered form—of the things either said or done by the Lord. For he neither heard the Lord nor accompanied him, but later, as I said, Peter, who used to give his teachings in the form of chreiai but had no intention of providing an ordered arrangement of the logia [sayings / teachings] of the Lord. Consequently, Mark did nothing wrong when he wrote down some individual items just as he related them from memory. For he made it his one concern not to omit anything he had heard or to falsify anything.”4
This excerpt is thought to refer to the document we now know as Mark’s gospel. It’s consistent with our traditional understanding that Mark wrote down Peter’s testimony about Jesus, though not in strict chronological order. It also brings the testimony about Mark’s authorship back to a very early point indeed, via John the Elder.
The Muratorian Canon
In about the year 170 A.D., a list of authoritative Christian texts was compiled. Known today as the Muratorian Canon, this list refers to four gospels. Part of the manuscript is missing, so it only lists Luke’s and John’s gospels by name, but clearly refers to four. It’s important to note that Luke’s and John’s gospels were written after Mark’s, so if Luke and John were long considered authoritative by the time the Muratorian Canon was compiled, then so was Mark.5
Irenaeus was an early church father and Bishop of Lugdunum (modern Lyon, France) who lived from 130-202 A.D. He wrote that, “…Mark, the disciple and interpreter of Peter, did also hand down to us in writing what had been preached by Peter…”6
Justin Martyr was an early defender of Christianity, who lived from c. 100-165 A.D. In his book, Dialogue with Trypho, he wrote:
“And when it is said that He [Jesus] changed the name of one of the apostles to Peter; and when it is written in the memoirs of Him that this so happened, as well as that He changed the names of other two brothers, the sons of Zebedee, to Boanerges, which means sons of thunder…”7
In this quote, Justin refers to Peter’s “memoirs” and tells us that Jesus called the sons of Zebedee “Sons of Thunder.” As we’ve seen, Mark’s gospel is considered to be the testimony (or “memoirs”) of Peter, and it is the only gospel that mentions Jesus calling James and John (the sons of Zebedee) the “Sons of Thunder.” While the quote doesn’t specifically say that Mark wrote his gospel, it dovetails very nicely with our traditional understanding of Mark’s gospel as the testimony of Peter. Therefore, it provides a useful piece of evidence in support of Markan authorship.
Clement of Alexandria
Clement of Alexandria was a theologian who lived from c. 150-215 A.D. The historian Eusebius, in his Ecclesiastical History, shares with us Clement’s testimony about the origins of the gospels. Regarding Mark, Eusebius shares that:
“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.'”8
Again, we see testimony that Mark, the follower of Peter, wrote down Peter’s eyewitness accounts about Jesus. Clement indicates that his testimony about Mark’s gospel was passed down from the “earliest presbyters,” or church elders.
Tertullian was a Christian author and apologist who lived from c. 155-240 A.D. In his book, Against Marcion, he wrote:
“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— while that which Mark published may be affirmed to be Peter’s whose interpreter Mark was.”9
Again, we see testimony that Mark recorded Peter’s accounts of Jesus, forming the Gospel of Mark. These historians, coupled with the early church’s unanimous recognition of Mark’s gospel as genuine, provide for a powerful testimony.
Some critics have argued that the accounts related above could all be dependent on one source, Papias. However, the acceptance of traditional authorship was fast and early, consistent, and geographically diverse.10 This indicates a basis in fact, rather than a simple “myth” started by Papias.
Now that we’ve taken a brief look at the external testimony regarding Mark’s gospel, let’s turn to the evidence within the document itself.
A number of clues within the Gospel of Mark support Markan authorship. Here, we provide an overview of the major ones:
Non-Literary Greek with Semitic Features
The Gospel of Mark is written in a non-literary form of Greek. It’s an unsophisticated, popular style, similar to the spoken word. In addition, the gospel’s writing contains a number of Semitic syntactical features, including a tendency to place verbs at the beginning of a sentence and the joining of clauses without the use of conjunctions. The Greek used in Mark’s gospel indicates that the writer did not speak Greek as a first language. Instead, it indicates that the author’s primary language was Aramaic. This would be consistent with his being a Palestinian Jew (as Mark was).11
Aramaic Terms Defined & Jewish Traditions Explained
In his gospel, Mark uses a number of Aramaic terms, then defines those terms for his readers. For example, in Mark 5:41, he tells us that Jesus said, “Talitha koum!” to a child, then explains that “Talitha koum!” means “Little girl, I say to you, get up.”
In Mark 15:34, as Jesus is dying, Mark tells us, “And at three in the afternoon Jesus cried out in a loud voice, ‘Eloi, Eloi, lema sabachthani?’ (which means “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?).”
In another example, Mark informs us that Jesus called the sons of Zebedee “Boanerges,” then explained that the term means “Sons of Thunder.”12
There are many more passages in which Mark uses an Aramaic term, then defines it for his audience. In other places, he explains Jewish traditions related to handwashing, the Passover, and so on. Such translations and explanations would not have been needed for a Jewish audience.13
These examples and others indicate that the author was Jewish and knew Aramaic, but was writing for a non-Jewish audience that did not understand that language. This would be consistent with the Church’s tradition that Mark, a Palestinian Jew, had written his gospel in Rome, most likely for a Gentile audience. It’s another piece of circumstantial evidence that helps to support Mark’s authorship.
Knowledge of Local Geography
Critics often allege that Mark’s gospel contains geographical errors that would not have been made by a real Jewish person from Palestine. Instead, they argue, the “errors” indicate that the actual author was not from Palestine at all, and did not really know the geography of the area.
When studying these alleged errors, however, it becomes clear that they are not really errors at all. Instead, they seem to show a relatively deep and nuanced knowledge of the area. We have addressed some of these alleged errors here, here, and here.
In addition, the author provides a high degree of detail in some of his descriptions, which indicate a first-hand knowledge of the places he describes. Again, this provides circumstantial evidence in support of Markan authorship.
The Use of an Inclusio
Biblical scholar, Richard Bauckham, explains that Peter is the first disciple identified in Mark’s gospel, as well as the last disciple mentioned at the end of the text. This “bookend” technique is a literary device known as an inclusio, and its often used to identify the primary source of testimony for a work of history.14 Use of an inclusio involving Peter is consistent with the notion that Mark is based on Peter’s eyewitness testimony.
Peter’s Point of View
There are numerous pieces of evidence within the text that Mark’s gospel is based on Peter’s testimony and written by a close colleague of Peter. Here, we list a few examples just to provide an overview:15
- The author protected Peter’s reputation – Time and again, events in the text that are embarrassing for Peter are told in the best possible light. They are not told untruthfully, but they are either omitted or told in such a way that minimizes embarrassment for Peter. This level of protection is not at all evident in the other gospel accounts.
- Mark includes details that Peter was in the best position to know – Many times, these details are of the type that would likely be shared by an eyewitness, or that bear some special relation to Peter. For example, the text shares that Capernaum was Peter’s home town and that his mother-in-law lived there (Mark 1:29-31).
- Mark used Peter’s rough outline – Many scholars have noted that Peter tended to preach about Jesus’s teachings, death, and resurrection, while omitting details about Jesus’s personal life. It appears that Mark adopted the same approach, which would make sense if he were sharing Peter’s testimony. Mark’s gospel does not include Jesus’s birth narrative or any stories of his childhood.
- Mark’s gospel specifically references Peter more frequently than the other gospels.16
The preceding examples lend support to the idea that Mark recorded the testimony of Peter. When all of the evidence is compiled, we end up with a strong case in support of Markan authorship:
- Mark’s name was likely attached to his gospel from the beginning; It was not anonymous.
- The early apostolic churches were unanimous in their recognition that Mark’s gospel was authoritative; There are no other authorship traditions.
- Early church leaders consistently testify that Mark wrote his gospel based on Peter’s accounts.
- Internal evidence (clues within the grammar and structure of the document itself) indicate that the book was written by a Palestinian Jew and that Peter was the primary source.
While some scholars continue to dispute Markan authorship, it’s important to realize that a great many do not.17 When following the evidence, we can be confident that Mark actually captured the eyewitness testimony of Peter, one of Jesus’s most important original disciples.
- Roberts, Mark D., Can We Trust the Gospels?: Investigating the Reliability of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, Crossway, Wheaton, IL, 2007, p. 58
- Wallace, J. Warner, Cold Case Christianity: A Homicide Detective Investigates the Claims of the Gospels, David Cook, Colorado Springs, CO, 2013, p. 170
- Roberts, p. 58
- Eusebius, Ecclesiastical History, 39.15
- Roberts, p. 42
- Irenaeus, Against Heresies, 3.1.1
- Justin Martyr, Dialogue with Trypho, Chapter 106
- Eusebius, Ecclesiastical History, 6:14:6-7
- Tertullian, Against Marcion, 4:5
- McGrew, Timothy (Professor and Director of Graduate Teaching, Western Michigan University), Who Wrote the Gospels?, Presentation to St. Michael Lutheran Church, MI, 23 January 2012, slide 20-22.
- Crandall University, Intro Course, The Gospel of Mark, 1.1.1 http://www.mycrandall.ca/courses/ntintro/mark.htm
- Ibid, 2.1.1
- Ibid, 2.1.2
- Bauckham, Jesus and the Eyewitnesses: The Gospels as Eyewitness Testimony, William B. Errdmans, Cambridge, UK, 2007, p. 124
- Wallace, pp. 95-96
- Bauckham, p. 155
- France, R.T., The Evidence for Jesus, Regent College Publishing, Vancouver, BC, 1986, 2006, p.122