Today we celebrate the Feast of the Evangelist St Mark. In seminary we had to study modern Biblical scholarship, and one of my great blessings was that at Bob Jones I learned to be skeptical of the fundamentalists, but at Oxford I learned to be skeptical of the modernists.
The fundamentalists and the modernists seemed to me to be like two madmen strapped back to back. Both the fundamentalists with their total rejection of modern scholarship and the modernists who seemed to scorn every traditional understanding of the Scriptures on principle, were unreasonable.
One of the most commonly held conclusions from modern New Testament scholarship is that the gospels of Mark is the earliest gospel to have been written and that Luke and Matthew draw on Mark (and an earlier supposed document named ‘Q’) for their source material. If you check out Wiki you will see an article that says most scholars believe Mark to have been written in the second half of the first century by an unknown Christian.
However what very few people realize is that this comparatively late date for Mark’s gospel is determined almost entirely by the foundational assumption that Jesus could not have prophesied the future. It works like this: in the gospel Jesus foretells the destruction of the temple in Jerusalem. The temple was indeed destroyed in 70 AD. The scholars read the prediction of the temple being destroyed and assume that it indicates knowledge of the destruction of the temple which took place in 70 AD therefore the document in question could not have been written before 70 AD.
The problem with this is that it assumes that Jesus could not have predicted the future.
If Jesus was who he said he was, then he could have predicted the future along with many other miracles. However, you don’t even have to be the Son of God to accurately predict the future. Jesus could have simply read the signs of the times–seen the Jewish revolt already brewing, seen the impatience of the Romans with the Jews, seen the Jewish longing for their own king and simply seen it coming. Seeing how the Romans worked and sensing that a Jewish revolt was cooking it wouldn’t take much to conclude that the Romans would destroy the center and focus for the rebellion which was Jerusalem and the temple. In other words, predicting the future doesn’t require a person to be the Son of God or even a clairvoyant of some kind.
Insisting that the date for Mark’s gospel is later than 70 AD just because of this one detail is very tenuous. Not only that, but they insist on this detail being the turning point of their later date argument despite much more evidence that is clearer and unambiguous for an earlier date and Marcan authorship. Conservative Christians are often blamed for being biased. Why is it that the modernist critics are assumed to be free of all bias?
We should look at the evidence not only from Mark’s gospel, but from all the evidence we have. Consider a few basic facts first: The most obvious thing to consider when dating Mark’s gospel is its relationship to the other gospels. It is a foundation stone of modern New Testament scholarship that Luke and Matthew used Mark’s gospel as a source. This is something that no one disagrees with. The crunch therefore comes with the gospel of Luke. Scholars agree that Luke and Acts are by the same author–indeed that they are two volumes of a single work. The Book of Acts ends with St Paul still living. We know that Paul died in the Neronian persecutions in 67 AD. Apart from a few dissenting scholars who put forward a tenuous case for a later date for Luke’s gospel, the general conclusion is that Luke-Acts was therefore written before the year 67. If Luke-Acts was written before Paul’s death in the year 67, and Luke used Mark as a source, then Mark must also have been written well before Paul’s death in 67.
The tradition is that Mark was a friend and companion of Peter, and that he recorded Peter’s memories, sermons and teaching–especially his teaching to the church at Rome. We know that Mark (or John Mark) was a friend of Peters from Acts 12:12-14 where Peter escapes from prison and goes to the house of John Mark’s mother, and in his first epistle Peter, writing from Rome, says that Mark is there with him. (I Peter 5:13)
This Biblical evidence for the friendship between Mark and Peter is supported by the tradition of the early church. The earliest and most famous witness to this tradition is Papias, who is quoted by the historian Eusebius. Papias was the Bishop of Hieropolis. His dates were 60-130. Eusebius, writing later quotes Papias, who in turn quotes one of the ‘elders’:
“And the elder used to say this, Mark became Peter’s interpreter and wrote accurately all that he remembered, not, indeed, in order, of the things said and done by the Lord. For he had not heard the Lord, nor had followed him, but later on, followed Peter, who used to give teaching as necessity demanded but not making, as it were, an arrangement of the Lord’s oracles, so that Mark did nothing wrong in thus writing down single points as he remembered them. For to one thing he gave attention, to leave out nothing of what he had heard and to make no false statements in them.”
“Matthew composed his gospel among the Hebrews in their own language, * while Peter and Paul proclaimed the gospel in Rome and founded the community. After their departure, Mark, the disciple and interpreter of Peter, handed on his preaching to us in written form”
It is important to remember how close these writers are to the apostolic tradition. Irenaeus was a student of Polycarp who had been a pupil of the apostle John. Justin Martyr, writing in the year 150 records,
“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’….”
“And so great a joy of light shone upon the minds of the hearers of Peter that they were not satisfied with merely a single hearing or with the unwritten teaching of the divine gospel, but with all sorts of entreaties they besought Mark, who was a follower of Peter and whose gospel is extant, to leave behind with them in writing a record of the teaching passed on to them orally; and they did not cease until they had prevailed upon the man and so became responsible for the Scripture for reading in the churches.”
In addition to these witnesses there is documentary evidence of a similar nature elsewhere in Clement of Alexandria, also from Tertullian, from the Muratorian Fragment, Origen, and the Anti-Marcionite Prologue–all dating from before the year 200 and also bearing witness from around the ancient Roman world–Irenaeus from Gaul, Papias and Clement and Tertullian from North Africa and Justin Martyr from Rome.
Furthermore, there is not a scrap of evidence anywhere from any ancient source that voices any doubt about Mark’s authorship. If there was a problem, why do we not have any evidence of there being doubt about the early date and Mark’s authorship? There was plenty of debate about other early writings. Consider the early documentary evidence, for example, criticizing the authorship of the apocryphal Gospel of Peter.
Finally, the question I have never heard addressed is this: If Mark really was written in the second half of the first century by an anonymous Christian who took the pen name of “Mark” in order to boost his writings’ authority then why would he take the name “Mark” and not that of Peter? Many people think this is what exactly what happened with the second epistle of Peter, and it is most certainly what happened with the apocryphal gospel of Peter. If the anonymous writer wanted to boost his credentials why would he choose a second string character like Mark and not choose the top guy?
So, to summarize, if Luke’s gospel and the Acts of the Apostles were written before St Paul’s death in 67 AD, and if Luke used Mark as a source, then Mark’s gospel must have been written in the 50’s–just twenty years after Jesus’ death and resurrection. The gospels’ historical reliability and dependance on eyewitness accounts is therefore unshakeable. For more detailed evidence and argument on the fact of the gospels being based on eyewitness accounts check out Richard Bauckman’s Jesus and the Eyewitnesses.
*regarding the witness that Matthew wrote his gospel first in the Hebrew language we are faced with a difficulty. Matthew’s gospel as we now have it is written in Greek, and it does seem that it (like Luke’s gospel) is dependent on Mark’s gospel. An increasing number of scholars are coming around to the theory that Matthew’s gospel was indeed written in either Hebrew or Aramaic or a combination and that it was a collection of the sayings and stories about Jesus gathered from the area around Jerusalem within the late 30s and 40s. It could be, therefore, that an earlier Hebrew-Aramaic version of Matthew’s gospel existed. Mark and Luke drew on this as a source, and Luke also drew on Mark’s gospel as a source. Then a Greek edition of Matthew’s gospel was written last (the version we now have) drawing from the very early Hebrew-Aramaic Matthew as well as Luke and Mark. If you are not already confused and are interested in delving deeper into what is called “the synoptic problem” go here. I also discuss this in the opening chapters of my book The Mystery of the Magi.