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Posts Tagged ‘Papias’

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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I want to start my series on the authorship of the gospels with the Gospel of Mark. There is somewhat more agreement (“somewhat”), so it will perhaps be a good starting point. Also, Mark is generally agreed to be the earliest of the four gospels to be written. Some conservative scholars date it as early as the AD 50s, although a date @ 60-65 fits the chronology better in some respects, but also presents problems. The difficulty hinges on the authorship of Luke and Acts. If one accepts the traditional author as being Luke, the associate of the apostle Paul, then an early date for Mark is required. It is evident that the authors of both Matthew and Luke used Mark as one of their sources. So if Luke wrote his gospel, Mark must have been written early enough for Luke to use it. Also, since Acts ends before the death of Paul ( traditionally AD 63-64), Acts must date to before AD 64, which means Luke must be earlier and Mark earlier still. If this sounds confusing and problematic it is. It is a complicated issue, and we just have to accept that.

This brings up a significant fact which I am not sure we often recognize. The Gospel of Mark represents the earliest written account we have of Jesus’ life and ministry. For that reason, it must be considered of primary importance. We may speculate about oral traditions and the earliest representations of Jesus’ life and ministry, as well as His death and resurrection, but the reality is that Mark is the earliest account we have. For this reason, the picture Mark presents of Jesus must be taken seriously.

The question I want to consider today is whether or not Mark’s information is based on eyewitnesses who knew Jesus personally, or if it is one or more steps removed from direct contact with Jesus. I am not at this point considering who wrote Mark, merely how close to Jesus the information in Mark reflects.

Even allowing for shorter life spans in the ancient world, Mark’s gospel was written within the lifetime of people who had known Jesus. Eyewitness testimony was a possibility. So the question is whether Mark preserves material older than what he has written. I believe the answer is that he definitely did include earlier material.

The very word “gospel” which Mark uses (for instance Mark 1.1) is older than Mark. Paul (writing @ AD 50-51) uses the same word in 1 Corinthians 15.1-7 to refer to the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus. So it appears that while Mark gives us perhaps the earliest preserved account of these events, they did not originate with him.

In the first half of the second century (AD 100-130) a man named Papias preserved some very early traditions relating to the gospels. Unfortunately, all that remains of his work are fragments that are quoted or referred to by later writers, notably Eusebius in AD 325 (who was somewhat critical of Papias) as well as Irenaeus. At the same time, the fragments of the writings of Papias are intriguing and cannot simply be ignored. Papias has been interpreted as saying that he received teaching directly from some of the apostles, although I do not think that is what he says. What does appear probable is that Papias was in contact either directly or indirectly with the teachings of at least two of the elders who had known the apostles. We know that he knew Polycarp (who had known the apostle John), and apparently he also knew directly the teachings of “John the elder.” Some have equated John the elder with the apostle John, but it likely refers to another person who did know John.

Either way, Papias specifically says this 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).

Papias does not identify who Mark was, and I want to talk about that more in the next post. However, I believe two points are justified. First, as already mentioned, the Gospel of Mark is the most primitive account we have of the life and teachings of Jesus. Any objective study of these issues must take the Gospel of Mark seriously. Also, the writings of Papias represent the most ancient information about the source of Mark’s information, and we are told that it was the apostle Peter. None of this is proof, nor will I pretend that it should be taken as such; however, it is evidence that any honest evaluation must consider. Certainly scholars have contested all of these issues, but I believe the evidence is such that the burden is on the skeptics to show that Mark is not essentially based on eyewitness testimony. Simply characterizing the traditional view as simplistic and naïve will not do. The evidence requires a better response than that.

And so, I leave you with two conclusions, one is certain, the other less so. First of all, it is certain that the Gospel of Mark was written early enough to have been based at least partially on testimony of eyewitnesses, who had known Jesus and been with Him. I believe it is also at least possible that the apostle Peter was Mark’s primary source. If these two conclusions are true, it has huge implications for the picture of Jesus as presented, not only in Mark, but in Matthew and Luke as well.

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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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