The Authorship of Mark

Mark as a Petrine Gospel?

For most of Christian history, it was assumed that the Gospel was written by the evangelist Mark, the follower and interpreter of Peter, who recorded Peter’s preaching for an audience in Rome.  It was only in the modern period that scholars began to doubt the ecclesial tradition, though one can still find a number of scholars that defend the tradition (see C.H. Turner, Vincent Taylor, Beda Rigaux, Robert Gundry, Martin Hengel, Samuel Byrskog, Richard Bauckham, Michael F. Bird, and certain commentaries on Mark).  Here are the arguments put forward as evidence that the Gospel is Petrine:

  1. The Patristic Tradition is virtually unanimous on the authorship on the Gospel by Mark.  The tradition is recorded as early as 110 CE in the writings of Papias of Hierapolis, with Papias relying on an informant known as John the Elder (occasionally identified by some scholars with either the Apostle John or the “beloved disciple” and “elder” in the Johannine corpus), and is repeated by Justin Martyr, Irenaeus of Lyons, Clement of Alexandria, Origen of Alexandria, Eusebius, Jerome, the Latin Prologues, and so on.  Papias’ comments are remarkably restrained and non-apologetic:  he admits that he only received his information secondhand from followers of the Elder and is somewhat critical of Mark’s lack of order because he was not an eyewitness of the Lord.  Irenaeus likewise only dates the composition or dissemination of the Gospel after Peter’s “departure” (exodos), contrasting with the later trend to date it earlier in Peter’s ministry in Rome.
  2. Peter is mentioned 25 times in Mark, a higher frequency ratio (1:443) in so short a space than Matthew (25 times, 1:722) or Luke (30 times, 1:648).
  3. Peter is the first and last disciple named in the Gospel (1:16; 16:7), forming what Bauckham describes as an inclusio of eyewitness testimony.
  4. C.H. Turner argues that Peter’s first-person testimony can be reconstructed from the sudden shift from a plural verb without a subject to a singular verb/pronoun in reference to Jesus (e.g., “when they came from Bethany, he was hungry”).  Bauckham suggests that Mark’s literary device to provide narrative focalization from Peter’s perspective.
  5. Peter is often the head of the list of the Twelve (3:16) or the Three (9:2) and as the chief spokesperson.  He is also a fairly rounded character:  readers get to see the full range of his successes (his absolute devotion to leave everything to follow Jesus at his call, his confession at Caesarea Philippi) and failures (being called Satan for rebuking Jesus’ passion prediction, denying he knew Jesus).
  6. Given the high regard for the Apostle Peter across the board, only he could have authorized the retelling of embarrassing anecdotes about his ignorance during Jesus’ ministry or his denials.  The reader feels sympathy with Peter’s blunt interjection when he did not know what to say at the Transfiguration or his sorrow after the denials, but these failures are part of Peter’s transformative journey of discipleship and in 16:7 Peter is singled out as forgiven and invited to rejoin the risen Jesus in Galilee.
  7. Mark’s outline conforms to the kerygmatic preaching of Peter in Acts 10:36-41, though speeches of Peter and Paul follow a pattern in Acts and may be Lukan compositions on the basis of the author’s sources (including Mark).

 Mark as an Anti-Petrine Gospel?

On the contrary, other scholars (Joseph TysonJD Crossan, Theodore Weeden, WH Kelber, William Telford, Mary Ann Tolbert, Richard Horsley, etc.) have argued that Mark is highly polemical against Peter, the Twelve, and the family of Jesus – basically against the Jerusalem Pillars (see Gal 2:1-14; 1 Cor 15:5-7).  Peter’s precarious leadership position could make it unlikely that he would authorize some of the negative characterization of him and some of these scholars argue that the silence of the women at 16:8 means that “Peter and the disciples” never received the invitation in 16:7.  Here are a few examples from the NRSV:

οἱ παρ’ αὐτοῦ or “those around him” – either his family (cf. Mk 3:31-34) or, less likely, the disciples (cf. Mk 3:13-19) think Jesus is mad

When his family [hoi par’ autou] heard it, they went out to restrain him, for people were saying, ‘He has gone out of his mind.’  And the scribes who came down from Jerusalem said, ‘He has Beelzebul, and by the ruler of the demons he casts out demons.’…Then his mother and his brothers came; and standing outside, they sent to him and called him.  A crowd was sitting around him; and they said to him, ‘Your mother and your brothers and sisters are outside, asking for you.’  And he replied, ‘Who are my mother and my brothers?’  And looking at those who sat around him, he said, ‘Here are my mother and my brothers!Whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother.’

*Note the sandwich technique in Mark 3:21, 31-35 where Jesus’ family is directly compared with the scribes who accuse Jesus of being demon possessed.  Mark 3:21 is also omitted in parallels Matt 12:24-50, Lk 11:14-28 (cf. 8:19-20)

How The Disciples React to Jesus Walking on Water

But when they saw him walking on the lake, they thought it was a ghost and cried out;for they all saw him and were terrified. But immediately he spoke to them and said, ‘Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid.’Then he got into the boat with them and the wind ceased. And they were utterly astounded,for they did not understand about the loaves, but their hearts were hardened. (Mk 6:49-52)

But when the disciples saw him walking on the lake, they were terrified, saying, ‘It is a ghost!’ And they cried out in fear.But immediately Jesus spoke to them and said, ‘Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid.’ Peter answered him, ‘Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water.’ He said, ‘Come.’ So Peter got out of the boat, started walking on the water, and came towards Jesus.But when he noticed the strong wind, he became frightened, and beginning to sink, he cried out, ‘Lord, save me!’  Jesus immediately reached out his hand and caught him, saying to him, ‘You of little faith, why did you doubt?’  When they got into the boat, the wind ceased. And those in the boat worshiped him, saying, ‘Truly you are the Son of God.’ (Mt 14:26-32)

Omitted as part of Luke’s Great Omission of Mark 6:45-8:26

The Confession at Caesarea Philippi

Jesus went on with his disciples to the villages of Caesarea Philippi; and on the way he asked his disciples, ‘Who do people say that I am?’ And they answered him, ‘John the Baptist; and others, Elijah; and still others, one of the prophets.’He asked them, ‘But who do you say that I am?’ Peter answered him, ‘You are the Messiah.’And he sternly ordered them not to tell anyone about him.  Then he began to teach them that the Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again.  He said all this quite openly. And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him.  But turning and looking at his disciples, he rebuked Peter and said, ‘Get behind me, Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.’ He called the crowd with his disciples, and said to them, ‘If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.’ (Mk 8:28-34)

Now when Jesus came into the district of Caesarea Philippi, he asked his disciples, ‘Who do people say that the Son of Man is?’  And they said, ‘Some say John the Baptist, but others Elijah, and still others Jeremiah or one of the prophets.’He said to them, ‘But who do you say that I am?’  Simon Peter answered, ‘You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.’  And Jesus answered him, ‘Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father in heaven.And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not prevail against it.I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.’  Then he sternly ordered the disciples not to tell anyone that he was the Messiah. From that time on, Jesus began to show his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and undergo great suffering at the hands of the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised.And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him, saying, ‘God forbid it, Lord! This must never happen to you.’  But he turned and said to Peter, ‘Get behind me, Satan! You are a stumbling-block to me; for you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.’ Then Jesus told his disciples, ‘If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.’ (Mt 16:13-24)

Once when Jesus was praying alone, with only the disciples near him, he asked them, ‘Who do the crowds say that I am?’They answered, ‘John the Baptist; but others, Elijah; and still others, that one of the ancient prophets has arisen.’He said to them, ‘But who do you say that I am?’ Peter answered, ‘The Messiah of God.’  He sternly ordered and commanded them not to tell anyone,saying, ‘The Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, chief priests, and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised.’ Then he said to them all, ‘If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me.For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will save it.’ (Lk 9:19-23)

Excusing the Denials

*Peter’s denials are recounted in all four Gospels, but this tradition is unique to Luke 22:31-32:

‘Simon, Simon, listen! Satan has demanded to sift all of you like wheat,but I have prayed for you that your own faith may not fail; and you, when once you have turned back, strengthen your brothers.’

 Mark as a Pauline Gospel?

Alternatively, other scholars have argued that Mark is far more Pauline than Petrine (see Alfred Loisy, G. Volkmar, BW Bacon, JC FentonMichael Goulder, William Telford, DC Sim, and Michael Bird who sees both Pauline and Petrine influences).  The key points are covered in Joel Marcus, “Mark – interpreter of Paul,” New Testament Studies 46 (2000): 473-487.  Marcus takes on the consensus since Martin Werner’s 1923 monograph Der Einfluss paulinischer Theologie im Markusevangelium that severed any relationship between Mark and Paul by arguing that any similarities were based on the common inheritance of Gentile Christianity; Marcus retorts “If Paul was a lonely and contentious figure rather than a universally approved one, it is more remarkable than it would otherwise be that Mark frequently agrees with him” (474).  I list his parallels from pages 475-76 below, but I would counter that some are not exclusively Pauline (apocalyptic eschatology, fulfillment of prophecy, the interpretation of Jesus’ death as vicarious, possibly the noun euangelion if coined before and appropriated by Paul), some I contest (e.g., Adam Christology, Mark’s dismissal of the food laws if James Crossley and Daniel Boyarin are correct), and some overlook big differences between Paul and Mark (on Christology, justification by faith, etc):

  1. The dominant use of the noun euangelion (gospel) in Mark and Paul and how rare the singular neuter form is in the rest of the New Testament and prior Greco-Roman literature (cf. Steve Mason, “Methods and Categories: Judaism and Gospel“).
  2. The significance of the cross as the apocalyptic turning point of history and the atoning function of Jesus’ death (Mark 10:45; Rom 3:25; 5:8).
  3. Jesus victory over demonic powers (Markan exorcisms; Rom 8:38-39; 1 Cor 15:24).
  4. The advent of the age of divine blessings in fulfillment of prophecy (Mark 1:1-14; Rom 3:21-22).
  5. Jesus as the New Adam (Rom 5:12-19; 1 Cor 15:45; Jesus with the wild beasts in Mark 1 as a restoration of a lost Eden and Jesus’ dazzling clothes in the transfiguration).
  6. Importance of faith in Jesus or God and the dualism between the elect who can truly see versus the blind outsiders (Mark 4:10-12; Rom 11:7-10; 1 Cor 2:6-16).  This sectarian worldview encourages a conversionist outreach to the nations (Mark 13:10; Rom 11:35-42).
  7. The priority of Jews before Gentiles (the Syrophoenician woman in Mark 7:27-29; Rom 1:16).
  8. The mission of Jesus to redeem sinners (Mark 2:17; Rom 4:15; 5:18-19).
  9. The polemic against the disciples including Peter (e.g., their misunderstanding of the nature of Jesus’ mission, their hard hearts, Peter’s denials) and Jesus’ family (Mark 3:20-21, 31-35; 8:31-33; Gal 2).
  10. The widening of the divine purpose to incorporate Gentiles was accomplished by an apocalyptic change in the Law (e.g., see the very similar language in Mark 7:19 and Rom 14:20 about the abrogation of the food laws).

I have rebutted some of these points in an article for the Journal for the Study of the New Testament.

 Mark as an Anonymous Gospel

When all the arguments are weighed, the reality is that we may never know who wrote the so-called “Gospel according to Mark” because the author did not sign his/her name, though presumably the original audience knew who wrote it.  In my forthcoming book The Gospel on the Margins: The Reception of Mark in the Second Century (Fortress Press), I evaluate the internal evidence within the Gospel itself and all the external evidence relating to the figure of Mark in the first few centuries to make a judgment on the historicity of the tradition on Mark as the interpreter of Peter.  Some reasons I am not inclined to accept the tradition is that there is no explicit indication that Peter served as the main source of the Gospel in contrast to the pseudonymous ascriptions in some of the non-canonical Gospels and the role of the beloved disciple according to the epilogue of John (John 21:24), the Gospel is fairly harsh towards Peter and the Twelve, the references connecting the figure of Mark seem to be later and perform certain theological functions for the writers making the claim, and there does not seem to me to be any independent lines of transmission for the tradition apart from the one originating in the Elder John and Papias of Hierapolis.  I elaborate on these points and others in the book.  For a rationale about why the Gospel writer chose to stay anonymous, see Armin D. Baum, “Anonymity in the New Testament History Books: A Stylistic Device in the Context of Greco-Roman and Ancient Near Eastern Literature” Novum Testamentum 50 (2008): 120-42.  Baum points out that, in contrast to conventional prologues in Greek and Roman historical works that set out the author and sources at the outset, the anonymity of the Gospels is consistent with the conventions of Ancient Near Eastern historians and the historical books of the Old Testament/Hebrew Bible in which case the subject (in this case “the gospel of Jesus Christ”) is preeminent and the author an insignificant mediator of it.

Comments are closed.

%d bloggers like this: