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Archive for December, 2011

No one ever said the Bible is always easy to understand, and the subject of the Christmas story is no exception. The history, meaning, and significance of the birth of Jesus have been debated over the centuries by theologians, poets, even scientists. Here is a short video which explains it as well as anything I have heard or read. I know most of you have probably seen it before, but as someone observed, we need to be reminded more than we need to be taught. To everyone who takes the 1 minute and 21 seconds to view this video, may you have a blessed Christmas and a New Year filled with a recognition of the abiding presence of God in your life.

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In my last post we considered the dating of Mark (@ AD 60-65, although some scholars date it to AD 70 or even later) and whether or not it was based on eyewitness testimony. I gave my conclusion that while we cannot say with certainty that Mark was based on eyewitness testimony, it was written early enough that eyewitness testimony was possible. This is all we can say with confidence, so today we must of necessity get into areas of speculation and opinion. Very briefly (which means I am leaving out tons of material) I wish to examine this tradition and the origin of the gospel of Mark.

We talked about a man named Papias, someone who knew both Polycarp and possibly Irenaeus and how Papias wrote during the first half of the second century (AD 100-130), preserving very ancient traditions about early Christianity. Here again is what he said about the gospel of Mark.

Mark, having become Peter’s interpreter, wrote down accurately everything he remembered, though not in order, of the things either said or done by Christ. For he neither heard the Lord nor followed him, but afterward, as I said, followed Peter, who adapted his teachings as needed, but had no intention of giving an ordered account of the Lord’s sayings. Consequently Mark did nothing wrong in writing down some things as he remembered them, for he made it his one concern not to omit anything that he heard or to make any false statement in them. (Holmes, Michael W., ed. The Apostolic Fathers in English).

First of all, Papias says that the author of Mark received his information from Peter. Other ancient writers have supported this view. Irenaeus @ AD 180 adds that the gospel was written in Rome. A second century prologue to the gospel refers to Mark as Peter’s interpreter and says the gospel was written in Italy. So, it appears that at least from the second century on, the second gospel was said to have been written by someone named Mark who derived at least part of his information from Peter.

Is there any evidence that Peter is more prominent in Mark than in the other gospels? Compared to the other synoptic gospels, there is at least some indication that Peter plays a larger role in Mark than he does in Matthew and Luke. First of all, we need to understand that Mark is the shortest of these three gospels. The three synoptic gospels together in Greek contain 49,131 words. As a percentage, Mark is 23% of the total, Matthew is 37%, and Luke is 40%. However, even though Mark contains only 23% of the total words in the synoptic gospels, when we compare the occurrences of Peter or Simon ( when referring to the apostle Peter), we find that the occurrences of the names in Mark comprise 33% of the total references to Peter in all the synoptics. Certainly this is circumstantial, but it does present at least some evidence that Peter may have influenced the gospel of Mark. Since we indicated in the last post that Matthew and Luke probably used Mark as one of their sources, it is interesting that their accounts do not emphasize Peter to the same degree, even though they relied partially on Mark’s gospel.

But what about authorship? Can we say that Mark wrote the gospel which is attributed to him? Well, the first question obviously must be, “Who was Mark?” Unfortunately, that is not an easy question to answer. Mark was an extremely common name, and nowhere are we specifically told who the author was. The most commonly suggested person is John Mark. The first reference to him is in Acts 12.12 when (interestingly enough) Peter goes to his mother’s house. The reference to his mother’s house would indicate that at that time John Mark was very young, possibly a child or a teenager. The last reference to him is in Acts 15, where Paul has an unfavorable impression of Mark, who then becomes associated with Barnabas. One possible final reference is in 2 Timothy 4.11 (authorship of the Pastorals will have to wait for another time). If this is the same Mark, it could indicate that in later years he and Paul resolved their differences, but now we go deeply into the area of speculation.

Trying to put all this together, we have to say that we cannot say with certainty who Mark was or when the gospel attributed to him was written. Conservative scholars tend to date it early; liberal scholars suggest a later date (no surprise in either case). What I keep coming back to is the very ancient testimony that Mark was written by a man named Mark and that he was an associate of Peter.

I want to prepare one final post regarding the gospel of Mark, explaining a little more of my reasoning and dealing with one specific episode in that gospel. At that time, I intend to put all this together, and then move on.

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