The Religious A priori



(the lost ending?)
Gospel According to Mark

It's Authorship and Historicity

The Gospel of Mark is presumed to be the first Gospel written. Modern critics, the sort of of Critics who are very critical, take it that Mark was very un Jewish and was written in Syria by a Christian who wanted to expunge the Jewishness, or was merely ignorant of it. Matthew they take to be an attempt to make Mark more accurate. This view is reflected in the work of a comparative literature expert named Randel McCraw Helms, in his work Who Wrote The Gospels? (Millennium Press, 1997).Of course Helms relays heavily upon the Jesus seminar as do all skeptics and even most liberals now days. McCraw's Major reasons for thinking this way are:

Mark (11"2-3)supposedly quotes from Isaiah but really splices in Exodus 23: 20 and part of Malachi 3:1

Mark doesn't seem to know his Geography, he seems to think that going from Jericho to Jerusalem one would come firt to Bethphage and than Bethany, when in reality it would be the other way around.

Mark doesn't seem to know many Jewish things.

Mixing of Hebrew and Greek (LXX) passages in quoting scritpure

Not an historical outline of events.

All of these things speak to the notion that Mark is not using the personal remembrance of Peter but an already written source. Thus Helms concludes that Mark was not Jewish, was written in Syria and was at fourth removal from Jesus' actual life and events.

Given these problems what does Mark have going for it?

But Helms has it all quite wrong in thinking that this robs Mark of any historical significance. It is quite probable that Mark is built on prior source, and it is quite improbable that it was written by the actual John Mark Peter's interpreter or that it bears any first hand Peterian reminiscence of Jesus. But that does not rob it of historical significance. Luke Timothy Johnson states: "Two main preoccupation's characterize the study of Mark's Gospel today. The first takes seriously the ability of Mark's Gospel to reveal something of the historical setting it addressed, and seeks to find within Mark's narrative clues for the deciphering of history." [Luke Timothy Johnson, The New testament Writings, p.148]. In other words, scholars still take it seriously as an historical source. Moreover, Johnson finds that Mark is the most sophisticated of the evangelists. He is depicting many allegorical references to the groups of the day in his treatment of the disciples.

While it is true that Mark is not writing an apocalypse as we know an apocalypse, N.T. Wright believes that Mark's Gospel is an apocalypse in the classical sense, it brings out the importance of the temporal setting in anticipation of the future. Thus while chapter 13 cannot be isolated from its context it forms a bridge between the two parts of the narrative, linking the terce introduction to who Jesus is with the final section about the significance of Jesus for the future. Thus the apocalyptic chapter serves as a lifting of veil that shrouds the whole Gospel in secrecy, the Messianic secret is partially explained in the fact that the whole of the eschatological drama is centered around Jesus. (The New Testament and the People of God, Fortress Press, 1992, P. 394).

That is to say, Helms approaches things as a typical skeptic, expecting literal history and demanding no "mistakes" in historical fact. Upon seeing evidence that the work is not literal history he decides that the whole project of the Gospel is a failure. Even though he doesn't' express this view openly it seems to be the point, and is form many skeptics. But the expectation of literal history is a false one. The Gospel of Mark is not a biography, it doesn't provide enough information to be a biography. Nor is it an attempt at writing a history book. IN fact the Church's claim for the document is that Mark wrote the memories of Peter but he did not record them in order. Rather he records units placed in order by narrow bridge passages which are often rather veg. These units are known as pericopies and they are the point of the work; they are like pearls on a string, placed in a certain order to get across a point. That point is not a literal blow by blow description of what happened in the sense of a literal history book, rather, they are there for the edification of the church. The Gospels are primarily oriented around the needs of the church community and pertain to worship rather than apologetics. (Stephen Neil, The Interpretation of the New Testament 1861-1961, Oxford University Press,1964, PP.234, 258). We should not expect to find that the material is arranged in such a manner as to form a history book. While the mistakes in geography and other aspects of Palestinian Jewish life do indicate that the author is not Jewish, there is also an indication that the "author" is really a redactor. It is not the original source of the material that is not Jewish but the redactor who put it in its present form probably in Syria around A.D. 70. But a much older layer of material stands behind this surface reading, a layer of historical material which does link the Gospel of Mark with he original events and may actually link the work with its namesake and with Peter's Testimony.

The UrMarkus

Neil points out that the study for an "UrMark" the Gospel behind Mark, is really very old, stretching back into the 19th century. But Helmut Koster traces the actual textual criticism to show that there is clearly a Gospel behind the Gospel of Mark. This primary material is much older than the version of Mark as we know it, and there is good reason to believe that it is of great historical significance.

The Gospel of Mark as we know it, draws upon many sources. One such source already mentioned is the Passion Narrative which all the Canonical and the Gospel of Peter draw upon. But Koseter also shows that there was another whole version of Mark that was apparently not known to Matthew and Luke. Whether or not this is the same source as that of the passion narrative we cannot say. In addition to this other version, there are several other sources which can be seen in the Gospel. These may be sources used by the original or they may be those drawn upon by the redactor who put the work into the form in which we know it.

"External evidence for two different versions of Mark circulating at an early date can be derived only from the observation that Luke does not reproduce the section Mark 6:45-8:26. Luke 19: 19= Mark 8:27 follows directly upon Luke 9:17= Mark 6:44. Luke may have used a copy of Mark that had accidentally lost a few pages. However there are some special features which differentiate this particular from the rest of Mark's Gospel. It begins with Jesus going to Bethsaida (Mark 6:45) and ends with the healing of a blind man from Bethsaida (Mark 8:22). Thereafter Jesus goes to Cesaria Philippi and the town of Bethsaida never occurs again the Gospel. This section is also of a number of other doublets of Markan pericopes. 6:44-54 the walking on the water is a variant of the stilling of the tempest (Mark 4:35-41). 8:1-10 the feeding of the 4000 is a secondary elaboration of the feeding of the 5000 (Mark 6:30-44)...The cumulative evidence of these peculiarities may allow the conclusion that an earlier version of Mark, which was used by Luke did not yet contain the Besiada section (Mark 6:45-8:26) whereas Matthew knew the expanded version which must have come into existence very soon after the original composition of the original gospel." (Koester, 285)."

Koester doesn't' argue for a complete UrMarkus a more permeative version of the Gospel, but this evidence does suggest different versions of the same Gospel. While we can't find an UrMarkus, we can see clearly that the redactor who first formed the Gospel used several sources. The passion narrative has been mentioned, moreover, a miracle story source that is compatible with John, two written documents of saying sources are also recognizable. These include a collection of parables and one of apocalyptic material. (p.287)

But does this mean that Mark [the primary redactor] is merely a "cut and paste" which destorts previous sources and collects rumors and legends with no historical value? Where the skeptic sees this aspect, Koester does not. What Koester sees is a faithful copyist who has collected materials known to be of value to the community, and forged them into a certain order for the purposes of edification to the community.

"Mark [the primary redactor] is primarily a faithful collector. In so far as he is also an author he has created an overriding general framework for the incorporation of traditional material but he has still left most of his material intact.His Gospel is therefore a most important witness for an early stage for the formative development of the traditions about Jesus. The world which these traditions describe rarely goes beyond Galilee, Judea and Jerusalem, which is not the world of the author [primary redactor] or the readers for whom the book was intended. Mark's information about Palestine and its people is fairly accurate whenever he leaves his sources intact. But from his redaction of the sources it is clear that the author is not a Jewish Chrstistian and that he does not live in Palestine." (Koester p.289)


These problems with Mark would seem to indicate that the attribution of the work to John Mark, the interpreter of Peter, is just a legend. But there is actually an argument to be made that some of the material behind the present form of the work is actually the account of Peter's teachings left to John Mark in Rome. The overall work as we know it, in its final form cannot be the work of Mark. But the redactor Mark might actually draw upon the account made by John Mark of Peter's reminiscences. The flowing points speak to that possibility.

*Why name a work after Mark?

He's not mentioned in the New Testament, aside from the attribution of this Gospel he would be totally unknown. Most of the time when works were attributed to people who did not write them the true author used the name of some famous figure. Of course the author himself doesn't name who wrote the work in the Gospel itself, but even so, why should church tradition name an unknown if they did not have solid information indicating that he wrote it?

*Most of the Gospel is set in Galilee.

Neil and Write indicate that Galilee is for Mark the world of goodness where honest people seek God, Judea is the world of hate into which the Savior goes to seek and save the lost. Of course Papias the second century church historian tells us that Peter gave Mark the material in his gospel and Mark wrote it out of order (see Koester). Peter was from Galilee as was Jesus. Thus the world of Galilee is pictured as the good realm and most of the reminiscences are set there.

*Geogrphical data accruate.

Koster points out that when the redactor sticks to his sources the information about Galilee and Palestine is fairly accurate. Peter would know Palestine and we should expect that his reminiscences would be fairly accurate.

*Underlying Aramic Statua

There is strata of Aramaic words underlying the Greek of Mark. Peter needed Mark as an interpreter and would have spoken Aramaic in relating his memories of Christ.

*single source passion narrative.

The Passion Narrative is taken from a single source shared by all four canonical and the Gospel of Peter. Why would one preliminary source be so influential that it would inspire and be used by all the major redactors of Gospels? Because it was from a very authoritative source.

Community as Author?

Thus it is a possibility that Mark's account of Peter's reminiscences stands behind the actual redacted gospel that bares his name. But that is only speculation and cannot be proven. What can be proven is that earlier material stands behind the account. Koster and Crosson both see the Passion narrative as coming from the earlier period, probably the middle of the century. Thus we can assume that the community is the author and that the material used has a certain historical validity as it would be produced by a community containing many eye witnesses.

"We are thus brought back to the earliest stage of the formation of the Gospel tradition. Originally the episodes and the accompanying, circulated singly among the believers. At a very early date some of the single traditions may have coalesced, through similarity of subjection or verbal correspondence. For the most part this tradition is oral--the stories pass from mouth to mouth; but quite soon after the death of Jesus the first steps may have been taken. It is not difficult to imagine how self-contained units of Christian teaching came to be hammered out, first orally than witten flysheets or tracts--often in several differing though related shapes, occurring to the contexts in which they were used.When therefore John Mark (for example) sharpened his reed pen and dipped it in ink to write, he had already behind him a considerable tradition of Christian speaking and writing. by Peter and many others--recognized patterns of argument and exhortation, of defense and attack,ofinstruction and challenge--from among which me might select his material and sayings. The earliest Christian writers were probably heirs to an already considerable body of tradition.'

"To what do we owe the preservation of these stories? There can be only one answer, the belong to the history of the community and particularly to its character as a worshiping community."(Neil p.239 quoting C.F.D. Moule).

That this was an effective means of passion on accurate information is clear. There are not a vast plethora of differing Christ legends from the first century. There are not counter traditions which have Jesus dying in other cities, in other ways, or not at all. There are not counter gospels with Jesus not claiming to be the son of God, or setting the action in far off places, change the principle characters. Jesus is always sounded by the 12 Apostles, he is always crucified, and in Jerusalem, and raises form the dead after three days, and so on. The communities that first told the stories would have been filled with eye witnesses and probably told the stories with the witnesses in attendance and probably as the featured story tellers. The stories were set in stone at least in so far as their basic details and passed along in a form that was set from the beginning. This is probably because the whole community saw what happened. The whole community knew that Jesus rose from the dead and told the story and just 19 years latter when the "cross Gospel" or the Passion narrative were written down there were plenty of eye witnesses to keep them stairght. Thus the community may well be the true author of Mark and the community probably did a good job.

Sources: Helms, Randel McCraw. Who Wrote The Gospels? Millennium Press, 1997.

Johnson,Luke Timothy. The New testament Writings,

Koester, Helmut. Ancient Christian Gospels: Their History and Development, Philadelphia: Trinity Press International, 1990.

Stephen Neil, The Interpretation of the New Testament 1861-1961, Oxford University Press,1964

N.T.Wright The New Testament and the People of God, Fortress Press, 1992,

The Religious A priori