In contemporary critical scholarship we realise that it is important to understand the authorial intent of a piece of work to be able to get the full meaning of it. It is important to know something of the cultural context into which something was written, what genre it is and what it was trying to achieve. In this essay, I am going to survey modern scholarship’s views of when, where and by whom the gospel of Mark was written.
Turning first to the question of authorship, we find little evidence within the text itself. Unlike the Paulines, there is no claim to authorship within the text. This in itself is not particularly unusual in the gospels, but strangely there is no speculation of it in the manuscripts used in the NA critical apparatus at the beginning or end of the gospel. The only internal evidence for authorship is the title of the gospel, ÎšÎ±Ï„Î± ÎœÎ±Ï?ÎºÎ¿Î½ (“According to Mark”) but this could be a later addition (even if it is in all the known manuscripts that we have). If we set aside this fact for a moment and turn to external evidence, we find in any book about Mark that the only early external reference to authorship is from a Turkish man named Papias. He lived in a remote part of Turkey in about 130AD and was eager to find out about Christianity and its’ origins. He quizzed anyone who came through his village about everything they knew concerning Jesus and the early church. Papias met a man who had been told by “the Elder” (John) that Mark “… having been the interpreter/translator (ÎµÏ?Î¼Î·Î½ÎµÏ…Ï„Î·Ï‚) of Peter, wrote down accurately but not in order (Î¿Ï… Î¼ÎµÎ½Ï„Î¿Î¹ Ï„Î±Î¾ÎµÎ¹), all that he remembered of the Lord’s sayings and doings”. The man added his own comment that Mark “had not heard the Lord, nor been a follower of his, but later (as I said) of Peter; who used to adapt his reading to the needs [of the situation], but not so as to make an orderly account of the Lord’s sayings. So Mark did no wrong in writing down some things just as he recalled them. For he had one purpose only – to omit nothing of what he had heard, and to state nothing falsely” (quotes from Eusebius Ecc. Hist 3.39.15). Now, there is a whole debate as to the reliability of Papias and whether he made this up as an apologetic for there being no internal evidence of authorship in the gospel. One argument says that he was reading Peter’s writings and looking for some friend of Peter’s to attribute this gospel to so that it would seem credible. If this were the case, he would have found Î±ÏƒÏ€Î±Î¶ÎµÏ„Î±Î¹ Ï…Î¼Î±Ï‚ … ÎœÎ±Ï?ÎºÎ¿Ï‚ Î¿ Ï…Î¹Î¿Ï‚ Î¼Î¿Ï… (“My son Mark … sends you greetings”) (1 Peter 5:13). Mark would seem a good choice, as he is mentioned elsewhere in the New Testament (Col 4:10, Phm 24, 2 Tim 4:11, and also several times in Acts although some try to distinguish the John-Mark of Acts/Paulines and the Mark of 1 Peter). However, this argument is quite weak because Peter also greets Silas in the preceeding verse. Silas is mentioned as co-author in several Pauline letters, so someone trying to associate a name with an anonymous gospel would do better to use Silas’. Following on from this thought, why could it not be one of the other apostles? Why was Mark’s gospel not simply attributed to Peter or one of the other well known apostles of Jesus? It seems to me therefore that we should place quite a high credability to the association of a man named Mark to the gospel named after him.
A common objection to this conclusion is that the author’s knowledge of Judean custom and geography is not very good. Many scholars claim that if the gospel were written by a Mark mentioned in the New Testament, he would have displayed a better knowledge of the layout and customs in Judea. To answer this requires some quite deep theological analysis of the relevant texts where a lack of knowledge seems to be shown. Space does not permit us to address these issues here, but Guelich does in his commentary and sees that in most cases where a lack of geographical knowledge is claimed, it is reasonable to interpret the “mistake” as being theological. With regards the Jewish customs and their explanations, this seems to be because Mark’s intended audience is people who are not familiar with Judaism. Comparing Mark with Matthew leads us to see this because whereas Matthew is definitely intended for a Jewish audience (as shown by the fulfilment quotations and so on) and so does not need explanations of Jewish customs, Mark does need to put these explanations in. Therefore, it seems that most of the arguments against Mark as the author can be explained in other ways, whereas most of the ones supporting Mark’s authorship cannot.
This discussion of geography and intended audience leads us on to the question of location: where was Mark’s gospel written from? Again there is little or no internal evidence save for the fact cited above that Mark was not written exclusively for Jews. There are a few latinisms in the text, although these would mostly have been used throughout the empire at the time. The only exception to this is the mention in 12:42 of the poor widow who ÎµÎ²Î±Î»ÎµÎ½ Î»ÎµÏ€Ï„Î± Î´Ï…Î¿ Î¿ ÎµÏƒÏ„Î¹Î½ ÎºÎ¿Î´Ï?Î±Î½Ï„Î·Ï‚ (“Put in two small coins (which is a quadran)”). This type of coinage was of very low value and was only really used in Italy. This seems to disprove any attempts to place the location of authorship (or intended recipients) outside of Italy. There is a claim from Chrysostom (around 390AD) that the gospel was written in Egypt, although in the light of the above, and also evidence from Morton Smith who has found a lost letter from Clement of Alexandria which says that Mark wrote a secret gospel from Alexandria. Another internal fact which points to Rome as the most likely point of authorship is the specification of the woman 7:2 as ÎµÎ»Î»Î·Î½Î¹Ï‚ ÏƒÏ…Ï?Î¿Ï†Î¿Î¹Î½Î¹ÎºÎ¹ÏƒÏƒÎ± Ï„Ï‰ Î³ÎµÎ½ÎµÎ¹ (“a Greek, Syropheinician by birth”). Guelich writes that this “would have made more sense in Rome than in Syria where “Phoenician” would have been clear. In Rome, by contrast, the Carthaginians were called Î›Î¹Î²Ï…Ï†Î¿Î¹Î½ÎºÎµÏ‚ to distinguish them from the Phoenicians (Î¦Î¿Î¹Î½Î¹ÎºÎµÏ‚)” (p. xxx). For these and several similar reasons, including the fact that 1 Peter seems to have been written from “Babylon” (a common codename for Rome) with a greeting from Mark, the majority of modern scholars say that the place of authorship was Rome.
However, having discussed these points of authorship and location, it is wise to ask why the author did not leave his name attached to the work, or say where he was writing from or to. Over the past two centuries, scholars have generally considered Mark a very rudimentary work with very little theological thought in it, but more recently people have started noticing some very deep theological symbolisms in it (see for example the excellent Grove booklet “Mark’s Jesus” by John Proctor). If we accept that Mark is very theological in nature, we can hypothesise that the gospel has no location attached to it because it is intended for all people (rather than just the Palestinian Jews, which would be the expected audience for a gospel because it is the fulfilment of their Messianic expectations and Jesus ministered mainly to them). In addition to this, as Mark clearly views Jesus as being in some way divine and so perhaps by writing with anonymity, he attempts to show that this gospel is from God (in a similar way to the original 5 books of Torah were considered to have been given from God and have no real claims of authorship within them). This would make sense in early Christianity, and we see people claiming to have commands from God (for example Paul’s “I and not the Lord” in 1 Cor 7). However, the best we can do on these matters is to speculate.
We shall now turn to look at the dating of the gospel. Looking at most of the commentaries on Mark is surprising in this respect, because they tend to be in agreement on the dating of Mark, unlike many other NT books. Hooker comes to the conclusion that Mark was written sometime between 65-75, and this is the consensus opinion. The earliest tradition from around 180-200AD says that Mark was written after Peter’s death in Rome (which was under Nero, in 64AD). However, this is not particularly strong as it was probably based on the (now considered mistaken) assumption that Mark was written after Matthew and Luke as a kind of summary of the two, which was a view common in the early church. In 1976, Robinson wrote a book on the dating of the various books in the NT and some associated literature (eg the Didache). Whilst many scholars disagree with his work, there are several good arguments relating to Mark. Firstly, Robinson claims that Acts was written before or during 62AD, because it finishes before Paul’s death and does not mention the death of James in 62. Many scholars would disagree with that, but it does seem that Acts would be quite different in character were it written after the destruction of the temple 70AD. The Palestinian resistance from 66 onwards would probably have also caused strong anti-Jewish feelings in Rome which would also have influenced the book of Acts. If we accept that Mark was written before Luke and Luke was written before Acts, then we can conclude that Mark was written some time before 60AD. Another argument given by Robinson for a pre-62 dating of Mark is that in the gospel, James (who was, until 62, the leader of the Jerusalem church) is mentioned but Symeon, James’ brother who took over the leadership after 62 is not mentioned at all. This is especially strange given Mark also mentions people who have no real relevance in the story, such as Simon of Cyrene and even his children: Alexander and Rufus (Mk 15:21). Why would he mention such people and not the current leader of the church in Jerusalem? From inscriptions and literary evidence, Robinson hypothesises that Peter (and hence probably Mark) was in Rome for long periods of his life and claims Mark’s gospel to have been written probably sometime between 45 and 60AD.
There are many counter-arguments to Robinson of course, but I do think that a dating of 65AD onwards is too late for Mark. Most of these arguments seem to be based on the assumption that Mark and the other gospel writers could not predict the destruction of the temple before the start of the Jewish revolt in 66AD. However, this is to misread history. The situation in Judea in the time between Herod and the Jewish revolt was very heated. Several Messiah-type figures arose, leading people out into the desert and claiming that the walls of Jerusalem would collapse at their command (Theudas and “the Egyptian” were recorded by Josephus; and doubtless there were more figures like these). People tried to remove the golden eagle (the symbol of Roman victory) from the gates of the temple shortly before Herod’s death. Jesus himself stirred up quite a following, and there are several gospel references to people thinking that he was talking about military victory against the Romans. With all this tension in the air, it was not difficult for many people (especially those who believed that the temple had been replaced by something greater; as Paul and other early Christians clearly believed) to see that sooner or later something would spark off rebellion and the Romans would come in and destroy the place. Regardless of what methods we use to date Mark, we should not use arguments based on the assumption that no-one could have predicted the destruction of the temple. When considering the dating of Mark, Guelich wisely writes that the date is not particularly important in any case, because “Mark writes for readers who live subsequent to and distant from the events narrated”.
We have explored the authorship, location and date of Mark’s gospel and discovered that these are very debated areas. Mark is generally reckoned to be the author, writing in Rome at about 50-60AD, although all of these have been questioned, and there is no way to ever be sure of them. However, the important thing to remember when reading this gospel is that, as the author would claim, it was given by God, to all people for all time.
Guelich, Robert A.; Word Biblical Commentary 34a, Mark 1-8:26; 1989, Word Books Inc.
Hooker, Morna D.; The Gospel according to St. Mark; 1991 A&C Black [Black’s New Testament Commentaries]
Robinson, J. A. T; Redating the New Testament; 1976,SCM