Posts Tagged ‘Mark’

Actually, there is good evidence that sometimes scribes making copies of the Bible did deliberately change some words or passages when they were making copies from an older manuscript. This sounds like a dark conspiracy in the DaVinci Code tradition, and you may see some television documentaries suggesting just that. The truth is far less exciting, and we can fairly easily detect textual variants that are the result of deliberate alteration.

The most frequent instances of such deliberate changes are found in the gospels, and they are the result of what textual scholars refer to as “harmonization.” This involves attempts by scribes to make Jesus’s words recorded in one gospel identical to how they are recorded in another gospel.

Let’s look at just one example of how this happens. In the NIV the last part of Matthew 11:19 reads, “But wisdom is proved right by her deeds.” Compare that reading with Luke 7:35 which the NIV translates as “But wisdom is proved right by all her children.”

First, let’s notice that the meaning is not changed with either reading. Both “deeds” and “children” are metaphors to say that wisdom can be tested by the results that it produces. That is the real message no matter which way the passages read (deeds or children).

There are manuscripts of both Matthew and Luke which support both “deeds” and “children.” But when we look at the weight of the manuscripts supporting either reading, we find that the manuscript evidence is better for translating Matthew as “deeds,” and Luke as “children.” Most of the modern translations will show that difference.

So, why do some of the manuscript differ? We cannot say with certainty, but most scholars feel it is likely that Matthew originally wrote the Greek word for “deeds,” and Luke originally wrote the word for “children.” At some point in the copying process, one or more pious scribes may have assumed that both Matthew and Luke should have recorded Jesus’s words identically. Since the manuscript from which he was copying used a word that was different, one of them must have made an error in quoting Jesus. In all good conscience, he may have changed the word in the copy he was making, believing that he was correcting an error in the older manuscript. Then any copies made from his altered copy would perpetuate that change. Over hundreds of years, both manuscripts may have continued to be used to make more copies, so the process continued.

Fortunately, the science of textual criticism described in my last post allows scholars to evaluate each reading on its own. Also, there is the recognition that preserving the two separate readings is more likely to be correct. We can see the logic a copyist may have used to change Jesus’s words in one gospel to agree with His words in another gospel. But there would be no good reason for someone to change a verse to have a different reading for another gospel.

We have looked at just two verses today, but I hope you can see how the process works. And this explains a number of the variants we have in the manuscripts. There is no evidence of a conspiracy to change the message of the gospel; just the normal kinds of changes that we would expect to find in an age when every copy had to be made by hand.

Did the ancient copyists deliberately change some verses? Yes.

Does that indicate some kind of conspiracy to change the original message of the New Testament? No.

Do these variant readings change what Jesus taught? Absolutely not.

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While we can never be certain about the authorship of the gospel of Mark, we can and should consider the evidence and come to a conclusion, even if it is a tentative one.

We can say with some confidence that the gospel was written no later than AD 70 and possibly as early as 60. It is therefore within the lifetime of people who had known Jesus. We also know that in the early second century Papias attributed the authorship to a man named Mark and said that he received his information from the apostle Peter.

I see no compelling reason to deny that someone named Mark wrote the gospel that bears his name. the titles to all four of our gospels go back as far as any of the manuscript evidence we have, and there exists no reason to question that it reflects a tradition older than our manuscripts. None of the ancient writings contest the authors of the gospels. Also, while Mark is a common name, there would seem to be little reason for someone to write the gospel and attach the name of Mark to it. There was no apostle named Mark. Indeed, the name is so obscure that we cannot say for certain to whom it refers. Therefore, it appears reasonable to assume that someone named Mark wrote the gospel attributed to him.

But who was Mark? Ah, that is a question that has fascinated Christians throughout the centuries. My conclusion (as I have already stated) is that we cannot know for certain. While recognizing that limitation, I would like to consider one possibility and the implications for the gospel of Mark if it is true.

The only Mark we know about in the New Testament is a man named John Mark. We talked about him in the previous post. At the time of Jesus’ crucifixion, Mark would probably have been either a child or a teenager. Dating is uncertain, but by the time he has his confrontation with Paul in Acts 15.37-39 he was likely a young man. From what we read in Acts 12, he was living in Jerusalem.

There is a tradition that the Last Supper took place at the home of Mark’s parents. While most traditions having to do with locations should be dismissed as legends, an article some years ago in Biblical Archaeology Review actually supported the traditional location of the site of the Last Supper (although the building there dates from much later). I am setting you up to consider one specific incident in Mark.

The gospel of Mark is noted for being short and lacking in details; however, it contains a story that is found in none of the other gospels. In Mark 14.51-52 we read of a young man in the Garden of Gethsemane who loses his garment in his rush to get away from the soldiers sent to arrest Jesus. Earlier commentaries speculated that this was the gardener, who had come to see what the commotion was about. This seems unlikely. After all, he would have a legitimate reason to be there and should be in no danger. The question arises. What if this is Mark himself? Is it possible that Mark (and only Mark) inserts this story, because it was so important to him?

All this is speculation certainly, but it raises an intriguing possible answer to a question that I have never heard asked. If no one was awake in the Garden of Gethsemane, how do we know what Jesus prayed? Yes, I know He could have revealed that information after His resurrection, but we don’t see Jesus doing that in other respects.

We need to understand that in the ancient world, people did not read silently, nor did they pray silently. So, if Jesus was praying, He was probably praying aloud. What if the young Mark was disturbed when soldiers came to the Upper Room. He might have gone out to warn Jesus. Finding Jesus praying alone, Mark would have heard His words and recorded them for us.

I must admit this is all highly speculative, but it is intriguing to think about it, and it helps bring the story alive in ways that a dry study never could. Did John Mark write the gospel that bears his name? I do not know. I do believe it is possible, and I tend to think so.

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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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Daniel B. Wallace

Executive Director of CSNTM & Senior Research Professor of NT Studies at Dallas Theological Seminary

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