Bible scholars piece together details of evidence to build up a full picture of the New Testament authorship and dates. Their work is like that of a detective—picking up a hint here and a scrap of evidence there.
There is an interesting detail about St James which helps date the New Testament accurately. It appears in the work of Justin Martyr. Justin was one of the early Christian writers called the Apostolic Fathers. He lived from 100-160 AD only one hundred years after the death of Jesus. A convert to the church, he wrote various works defending the Christian faith, and is one of the most important of the early fathers of the church not only because of his early date, but also because he writes from the area of Samaria–geographically between Judea and Galilee. He was therefore close both in time and place to the early church.
One of the details he recorded is this:
“It is said that he [Jesus] changed the name of one of the apostles to Peter; and it is written in his memoirs that he changed the names of others, two brothers, the sons of Zebedee, to Boanerges, which means ‘sons of thunder’….”
The sons of Zebedee, remember, are James and John. So James was one of the “sons of thunder.”
What are Peter’s “memoirs”? We know it isn’t the Gospel of Peter–which is a later apocryphal gospel that was written long after Justin Martyr died. The early tradition of the church was that John Mark was the companion, translator and scribe for Peter, and that Mark’s gospel is based on the memories of Peter himself.
Therefore, in the absence of any other writings that might be Peter’s memoirs, we can safely conclude that the “memoirs” to which Justin Martyr refers are Marks’ gospel. What seals the deal is that Mark is the only one of the Evangelists who records that Jesus nicknamed James and John “Boanerges–Sons of Thunder”.
Why does it matter? Because modernist scholars and those who would undermine the historical reliability of the New Testament like to suppose that the gospels were written long after the time of Jesus and the apostles. Go here to read more about their ideas. They suppose that the stories of Jesus were exaggerated and elaborated with later “mythical” elements borrowed from pagan culture. If, however, Justin Martyr knew of Peter’s “memoirs” which recorded a detail only found in Mark then we can be confident that Mark was the companion and secretary of Peter and if that’s true, then his gospel records eyewitness accounts. The detective work of dating the New Testament is important because we believe the stories of Jesus are historical, and if they were not recorded early by eye witnesses then their reliability and credibility decreases.
Furthermore we know that Mark was in Rome with Peter because in his first epistle Peter sends greetings from “Babylon” (which was early Christian code for Rome) and includes greetings from Mark. Another details from Mark’s gospel points to Rome. In the passion narrative Mark records the detail that Simon of Cyrene was “the father of Rufus and Alexander.” (Mk.15.21) Why would he record such a detail unless his readers knew who Rufus and Alexander were? The early traditions say Rufus and Alexander became missionaries and when he is writing to the church at Rome Paul greets a certain Rufus and his mother in Romans 16:13.
What happened to Rufus’ brother Alexander? In 1941 an archeologist discovered first century tombs of Cyrenian Jews in the Kidron Valley near Jerusalem. One of the ossuraries had the Greek inscription: Alexander, son of Simon. The son of “Simon” buried in a first century Cyrenian cemetery? Just a co incidence? Maybe by the time Paul wrote to the Romans, Alexander had died and only Rufus and his mother were still living and had fled to Rome.
Paul’s letter to the Romans was written about 56 AD so all this circumstantial evidence points to the conclusion that Mark’s gospel was not a late invention, but was written before 55 AD–just over twenty years after the crucifixion of Jesus by John Mark, a companion of Peter the Apostle and friend of St James.