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Authorship of Mark's Gospel

Authorship of Mark's Gospel

Jesus Christ
Oral and written tradition
The Gospel of Matthew
The Gospel of Mark
The Gospel of Luke
The Gospel of John
The meaning for today

From ‘Notes on the Formation of the Gospels’, by John Wijngaards;
published in Background to the Gospels (Bangalore & Ann Arbor 1981)
and Together in My Name (London 1991).

The Gospel of Mark starts with the brief heading: ‘Beginning of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God’. This title mentions neither the author, nor the time and place of composition. The heading ‘Gospel according to Mark’ was added later. Who composed this Gospel? When and where was it written?

Scholars more or less agree in assigning the Gospel a date between 65 and 75 AD, but they propose different locations depending on clues they perceive in it. Rome is, perhaps, still the most likely location. It is supported by internal evidence and by a robust tradition in the early Church.

Who was the author? We are told a certain Mark who assisted Peter as interpreter in Rome, ‘wrote down carefully, but not in order, all that he remembered of the Lord’s sayings and doings’ (Papias).

Was this Mark the same as the ‘John Mark’ known from the New Testament? The Christian community in Jerusalem used to gather in ‘the house of Mary, the mother of John who is also known as Mark’ (Acts 12,12). This same John Mark came with Paul and Barnabas to Antioch. He joined them when they started on their first missionary journey, but returned to Jerusalem when they reached Perga. Paul was so upset about this (his precise reason is not given) that he refused to take John Mark with him on a later journey.

The name ‘Mark’ also crops up in letters of Paul and Peter, but we cannot be sure he was the same person since ‘Mark’ was a common Hellenistic surname. In short, we cannot be sure that the ‘Mark’ accredited by the early Church with composing the first Gospel was identical to the John Mark of Acts. Neither is this crucial. All we need to know is that one or other disciple, probably called ‘Mark’, put down the traditions of Jesus in a coherent form for a community of converts, possibly in Rome.

For more details, consult the following sections:

The Tradition of Markan authorship

Papias, Bishop of Hierapolis in Phrygia, gives us quite some information about St. Mark’s Gospel:

“The Presbyter said this also: ‘Mark, having been the interpreter of Peter, wrote down carefully, though not in order, all that he remembered, both words and deeds of the Lord! For he had neither heard the Lord, nor followed him, but only at a later date, as I have already said, followed Peter. Peter arranged his instructions according to the needs (of his audience) and not as making (a continuous and exhaustive) arrangement of the Lord’s words. So Mark was not wrong to write down some things as he remembered them, for he took care to omit or falsify nothing which he had heard (from Peter).”

Notice the chain of tradition: Papias who writes in 130 AD, testifies to what the Presbyter (John ) had said, probably in the period from 80-90 A.D. John goes back to St. Mark’s own time: 64 AD.

The tradition notes:

a) the occasion of the edition (to preserve Peter’s teaching);

b) Mark’s source: St Peter, not Jesus himself;

c) Mark’s way of writing: he arranged the material, not in time sequence but in sequence of memory;

d ) Mark’s reliabiliy: he did not omit or falsify anything.

This testimony of Papias is confirmed by the other early Christian writers: Clement of Alexandria (150-215 AD.), Origen (186-254). Tertullian (160-240) and so on. They tell us that St. Mark assisted St. Peter in his preaching at Rome and that the Roman converts requested Mark to write down what Peter was preaching. PAPIAS, Exegesis of the Lord’s Oracles (140 AD); see also JUSTIN, Dialogue with Trypho 106 (150 AD); IRENAEUS, Against Heresies 3,1.1 (180 AD).

Internal evidence from the Gospel itself harmonizes with information from tradition that places the Gospel in Rome. Mark uses Latin loan words (Mark 4,21; 5,9.15; 6,27; 6,37; 7,4; 12,14; 15,39.44; etc.) and adds Latin explanations (Mark 12,42; 15,16; etc.).

The tradition has been challenged by some scholars, esp. K.NIEDERWIMMER, in ‘Johannes Markus und die Frage nach dem Verfasser des zweiten Evangeliums, Zeitschrift für die neutestamentlichen Wissenschaft 58 (1967) pp. 172-188. But M.HENGEL vindicates its reliability in Studies in the Gospel of Mark, Philadelphia 1985, esp. pp.46-53.

In spite of the arguments in favour of Rome as the location, some scholars place the origin of the Gospel in Galilee; see W.MARXSEN, Mark the Evangelist: Studies on the Redaction History of the Gospel, Nashville 1969; W.H.KELBER, The Kingdom of Mark: a New Place and a New Time, Philadelphia 1974.

Mark in the New Testament

We know much about Mark from other New Testament writings. Piecing together all the tit-bits of information provided in these writings, we can make this traditional reconstruction of his life.

John (Acts 13:5) also called John Mark (Acts 12:12; 15:37) was a cousin of Barnabas. (Col 4:10) Like Barnabas he must have been a Levite, i.e. belonging to a priestly family, and his home may have been in Cyprus (Acts 4:36ff.). We can be fairly sure that he received a strictly Jewish education at home and that he learned to speak both the Aramaic of his Jewish parents and the Greek language spoken in Cyprus. Mark’s absence from Palestine during his youth may account for the fact that he had never heard Jesus (see Papias’ testimony).

At some later date, however, the family must have moved to Jerusalem. No doubt, they had some family property there. At all events, it is at Jerusalem that Barnabas accepts the Christian faith. He sells his property and gives it to the Apostles for distribution among the poor (Acts 4:36-37).

38 AD? The Acts of the Apostles do not tell of Mark’s conversion. But we may assume that it must have taken place at about the same time. Mark was converted by St. Peter. This we know from St. Peter’s first letter in which he calls Mark ‘my son’, which in the language of the Apostles indicates a person who received the faith through them (1 Pet 5:13).

From the beginning, the newly converted family proved to be very active followers of Christ. Barnabas was a great help to Paul immediately after his vision of Christ on the way to Damascus (Acts 9:27). And Mark’s mother Mary had offered her house in Jerusalem as a meeting-place. for the early Christian community. After his miraculous escape St. Peter goes straight to this house, knowing that he will find the others there (Acts 12:12-17).

First missionary tour: with Paul and Barnabas

. In the meantime Barnabas and Paul had begun their apostolate in Antioch (north of Palestine ). On one of their trips to Jerusalem, they must have met Mark and requested him to join them in the apostolate. Mark left his mother’s home in Jerusalem and went to Antioch (Acts 12:25).

Paul and Barnabas were ordained bishops (Acts 13:1-3) and went on a missionary tour to the island of Cyprus. We need not be surprised that they took Mark with them: both he and Barnabas must have been well acquainted with conditions there (Acts 13-4-5). After some time they left Cyprus and sailed to Asia Minor. For some unknown reason Mark left them there and travelled back to Jerusalem (Acts 13:13). Had he been disappointed by the difficulties of the apostolic work? Did he receive news about his family which made his return essential? We don’t know.

Second missionary tour: with Barnabas alone

50 AD. Whatever the reason of Mark’s departure may have been, Paul disapproved of it. So, when the planning for another missionary tour began, some argument arose between Paul and Barnabas. Paul, who was very strongwilled, refused to take Mark as companion a second time. Barnabas, however, insisted that Mark should be taken. As a result, two different itineraries were decided upon. Paul and Silas went to Asia Minor. Barnabas and Mark sailed for Cyprus (Acts 15:36-40).

Further missionary tours: with Peter (and with Paul?)

60 AD. From now on much exact information is lacking. All we know is that Mark became Peter’s helper at a later date. In the letter which Peter wrote from Rome to the Christians in Asia Minor, he said: “Your sister Church in Babylon (i.e. Rome), also chosen by God, sends you greetings. And so does my son Mark” (1 Pet 5:13).

61-63 AD. At about the same time Paul was taken to Rome and put in custody on account of the accusations made against him by the Palestinian Pharisees. Mark was a great help to Paul, and it is a joy to see how these two great men remained intimate friends, in spite of their earlier misunderstanding. Paul writes:

“Aristarchus, who is in prison with me, sends you his greetings and so does Mark, the cousin of Barnabas. You have already received instructions about him, to welcome him, if he comes your way” (Col 4:10).

“Epaphras, who is in prison with me for the sake of Christ Jesus, sends you his greetings, and so do my fellow workers Mark, Aristarchus, Demas and Luke.” (Philemon 24).

64 A.D.. During his stay in Rome Mark must have composed his edition of the Gospel. Clement of Alexandria recounts the following tradition:

“This was the occasion of Mark’s Gospel. When Peter had publicly preached the word in Rome, and had taught the Gospel in the Spirit, his numerous hearers are supposed to have asked Mark to write down the things which Peter preached. For he had accompanied Peter for a long time and remembered his words. Mark is said to have agreed to their request, and to have given them the Gospel. When Peter learned of it he neither forbade it, nor encouraged it.”

The last sentence is interesting. For the early Christians, it was the memorized learning of the Gospel that was the most important thing. Peter didn’t mind Mark writing down such memorized traditions, but he would expect Christians to learn the Gospel by heart nonetheless.

66-67 A.D. Probably Peter had been killed under the persecution of Nero. Paul was in Rome, undergoing his second imprisonment. It seems that Mark was away in Asia Minor, probably on some apostolic work.

St. Paul writes to Timothy the Bishop of Ephesus in Asia Minor: “Only Luke is with me. Get Mark and bring him with you, for he can help me in the work.” (2 Timothy 4:11)

This is the last biblical information we have about Mark. According to some (rather shaky) tradition, Mark later became the Bishop of Alexandria in Egypt. His Feast is celebrated on the 25th of April.

John Wijngaards

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