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The Gospel of Mark

Authorship: External Evidence

“And the presbyter [or “elder”] would say this: ‘Mark, who had indeed been Peter’s interpreter [hermēneutēs],  accurately wrote as much as he remembered, yet not in order, about that which  was either said or did by the Lord. For he neither heard the Lord nor followed him, but later, as I said, Peter, who would make the teachings anecdotally but not exactly an arrangement of the Lord’s reports, so that Mark did not fail by writing certain things as he recalled. For he had one purpose, not to omit what he heard or falsify them.’” (Papias, in Eusebius Ecclesiastical History 3.39.15)

“… but after their [Peter’s and Paul’s] depar­ture Mark, the disciple and inter­preter of Peter, he too handed what was preached by Peter down to us in writing…” (Irenaeus of Lyons, Against Heresies 3.1.1)

“but Mark had this procedure: when Peter was in Rome preaching in public the word and proclaiming the gospel by the spirit, those present, who were many, entreated Mark, as one who followed him for a long time and remembered what was said, to record what was spoken; but after he composed the gospels, he shared it with anyone who wanted it; when Peter found out about it, he did not actively discourage or encourage it.” (Clement of Alexandria, in Eusebius, Ecclesiastical History 6.14.6-7)

“And so greatly did the splendor of piety illumine the needs of Peter’s hearers that they were not satisfied with hearing once only, and were not content with the unwritten teaching of the divine Gospel, but with all sorts of entreaties they besought Mark, a follower of Peter, and the one whose Gospel is extant, that he would leave them a written monument of the doctrine which had been orally communicated to them. Nor did they cease until they had prevailed with the man, and had thus become the occasion of the written Gospel which bears the name of Mark. And they say that Peter – when he had learned, through a revelation of the Spirit, of that which had been done – was pleased with the zeal of the men, and that the work obtained the sanction of his authority for the purpose of being used in the churches. Clement in the eighth book of his Hypotyposes gives this account… (Clement of Alexandria, in Eusebius Ecclesiastical History 2.15.1-2)

“but second, Mark, who composed as Peter led him, whom he avowed as son in the catholic epistle, saying as follows: ‘She who is in Babylon, chosen together, sends you greetings and so does my son Mark’ [1 Peter 5:13]…” (Origen of Alexandria, in Ecclesiastical History 6.25.5)

“Mark made his assertion, who was also named stubby-fingers, on account that he had in comparison to the length of the rest of his body shorter fingers. He was a disciple and interpreter of Peter, whom he followed just as he heard him report. When he was requested at Rome by the brethren, he briefly wrote this gospel in parts of Italy. When Peter heard this, he approved and affirmed it by his own authority for the reading of the church. Truly, after the departure of Peter, this gospel which he himself put together having been taken up, he went away into Egypt and, ordained as the first bishop of Alexandria, announcing Christ, he constituted a church there.” (Anti-Marcionite Prologue to  Mark)

“And they say that this Mark was the first that was sent to Egypt, and that he proclaimed the Gospel which he had written, and first established churches in Alexandria.” (Eusebius, Ecclesiastical History 2.16.1)

“Mark follows him closely, and looks like his attendant and epitomizer. For in his narrative he gives nothing in concert with John apart from the others: by himself separately, he has little to record; in conjunction with Luke, as distinguished from the rest, he has still less; but in concord with Matthew, he has a very large number of passages.” (Augustine, The Harmony of the Gospels 1.2.4)

Mark too, in Egypt, is said to have done this self-same thing [wrote a Gospel] at the entreaty of the disciples” (John Chrysostom, Homily on Matthew 1.7)

Authorship: Internal Evidence

  • The Gospel is formally anonymous and its opening verse launches right into the subject of the “gospel of Jesus Christ” (Mark 1:1).
  • Peter is an important literary character, mentioned 25 times from his initial call to discipleship to his getting singled out to be the recipient of the good news about the risen Jesus (Mark 1:16; 16:7). In the middle of the narrative, he makes the central confession that Jesus is the Messiah (8:29). Peter was one of the three core disciples of Jesus (i.e. Peter, James, John) and the leading spokesperson of the twelve apostles.
  • Peter is often represented ambivalently or negatively. He made impulsive statements (Mark 9:5; 10:28; 14:29), is rebuked for acting like “Satan” in opposing Jesus’s mission to die (8:32-33), fell asleep during Jesus’s hour of greatest need (14:37), and denied Jesus three times (14:68-71).
  • The narrative outline of Mark’s Gospel from the baptism to the resurrection of Jesus may correspond to a sermon from Peter in Acts 10:36-41, though the speeches of Peter and Paul follow a similar pattern in the book of Acts and there is debate about the extent of Luke’s utilization of sources or authorial creativity. There are also marked similarities and differences between Mark and Paul on subjects such as Christology (doctrine of Christ), soteriology (doctrine of salvation), and eschatology (doctrine about the last things).
  • There is debate over the level of Mark’s knowledge of the geography and customs of Judaea (e.g. Mark 5:1-20; 7:3-4, 31; 11:1) and whether a Jewish missionary from Jerusalem was responsible for this text (cf. Philemon 23; Colossians 4:10; Acts 12:12, 24).


  • An audience in Rome has been supported by the ancient church traditions, the Latinisms in Mark’s Gospel (e.g. the Roman coin “quadrans”), the persecutions which may correspond to what the Christ followers recently suffered under the emperor Nero in Rome, the supposed lack of firsthand acquaintance with the recent events that Palestinian Jews lived through (e.g. the Jewish War) or the geography and culture of the region, and the purported allusions to the imperial victory of the emperor Vespasian.
  • An audience in Syria has been supported by the eastern rural agricultural way of life presupposed in Mark’s Gospel, the audience that may have followed the advice in Mark 13:14 to flee at the onslaught of the Romans’ invasion and desecration of the temple, and the reference to persecution from synagogue authorities and local governors. The imperial allusions and the Latinisms could reflect the impact of Roman imperialism all over the Empire.
  • An audience in Galilee could be supported by all of the arguments for a provenance in Syria, but has the additional support of the preference in Mark’s narrative for the small villages of Galilee over against the capital in Jerusalem and the reference to meeting the risen Jesus in Galilee in Mark 16:7 (a resurrection appearance or the second coming?). Proponents argue that Mark’s comprehension of the geography and customs of Palestine is not lacking, that Greek was commonly used alongside Aramaic, and that there was a mixed association of Jewish and Gentile Christ followers in the region.


  • The earliest manuscript evidence comes from the Chester Beatty papyri (p45) in the 3rd century that contains all four gospels. The recent claims about a fragment of Mark dating to the first-century needs to be subject to critical peer-review and testing (http://www.livescience.com/49489-oldest-known-gospel-mummy-mask.html).
  • Irenaeus has a specific tradition on the evangelist Mark along with the other three evangelists (Against Heresies 3.1.1) and explicitly cites the text of Mark’s Gospel (e.g. 3.10.5; 3.16.3).
  • Justin Martyr cites Mark 3:17 for it alone refers to Zebedee’s sons by the name Boangeres, which is translated by Mark as ‘sons of thunder’ (Dialogue with Trypho the Jew 106.3).
  • The Longer Ending of Mark (16:9-20) is written in the first half of the second century by a scribe dissatisfied with the abrupt ending at Mark 16:8, harmonizing it with the resurrection narratives in the Gospels of Luke and John.
  • In the first quarter of the second century, likely around 110 CE, Papias referred to Mark as “Peter’s interpreter” (see Eusebius, Ecclesiastical History 3.39.15). Papias received his traditions from an earlier source, the followers of the Elder John.
  • The order of events in the Gospel of John and the passion narrative in the Gospel of Peter 50-57 may be indebted to Mark’s Gospel.
  • According to the consensus on Markan priority, Matthew and Luke copied Mark’s Gospel and it must have achieved fairly wide circulation to be used by both authors in different locales. The Didache (8:2; 11:3; 15:3, 4) and Ignatius (Smyrn. 1.1; 6.1; Phil. 2.2; Eph. 5.2; 6.1; Rom. 9.3; Trall. 11.1; Poly. 1.2-3; 2.2) knew Matthew, so Mark must be earlier.
  • The Patristic tradition is divided between the view that Mark was written after Peter died (e.g., Irenaeus, Against Heresies 3.1.1.; the anti-Marcionite Prologue) or while he was still alive (e.g., Clement of Alexandria, quoted in Eusebius Ecclesiastical History 2.15.1-2; 6.14.5-7).
  • The reference in Mark 13:1 to the destruction of the Jerusalem temple (cf. 11:12-14, 20-25; 14:57-59, 15:29) may be a vaticinium ex eventu (“prophecy from the event”) or a genuine prediction (e.g. there is no fire and Mark 13:14 may be interpreted as a future antichrist figure)? Alternatively, Mark 13:14 could be read in reference to the failed plans of emperor Caligula (37-41 CE) to place a statue in the temple.
  • Mark 13 may either reflect the Jewish War or repeat apocalyptic tropes (e.g. wars, famines, natural disasters, persecutions)?
  • How much time is needed for oral or written traditions to be translated from Aramaic to Greek and developed into their present form? What does Mark’s Gospel presuppose about the Torah observance of Christ followers or the Christian mission to the nations (Mark 13:10, 27)?
  • Does Mark believe that Jesus’s generation will be the last one before the coming of the Son of Man and have most, but not all, of Jesus’s disciples passed away (Mark 9:1; 13:30; 14:9)?
  • There is no copy of Mark’s Gospel, or any Christian text, found at Qumran (cf. Daniel Wallace, “7Q5: The Earliest NT Papyrus?“).

Key Themes

  • There is dramatic irony in the narrative of Mark in that, while both the reader and the supernatural characters know the truth about Jesus’ Christological identity, the human characters in the narrative are either ignorant about it or are silenced when they discover it (see more information on the messianic secret below).
  • Jesus’s overwhelming power in the first half of the narrative (e.g. the exorcisms, healings, and nature miracles) is juxtaposed with the increasing focus on Jesus’s plans to suffer and die in the second half of the narrative. However, there are hints about Jesus’s death as early as Mark 2:20 and 3:6 and there are displays of Jesus’s power in the second half of the narrative (e.g. the resurrection and the glorious coming of the Son of Man on the eschatological day of judgment).
  • Jesus models servant-leadership for the power-hungry disciples and exhorts them to take up their crosses and follow him. They are alienated from the temple establishment and, through the path of discipleship and suffering in this age, will be vindicated in the next one.
  • Although Jesus deciphered his parables for the twelve disciples (4:10-20) and commissioned them (6:6-13), they frequently misunderstood Jesus’s message and deserted him in the passion narrative. It is supposed outsiders – a woman suffering from hemorrhages who reached out to touch Jesus, a Syrophoenician woman who had a witty retort for Jesus, an exorcist who was not part of the Twelve, a blind man named Bartimaeus who followed on the way to Jerusalem, a father who barely believed that Jesus could heal his son, a woman who anointed Jesus for burial – that are revealed as true insiders.

Case Study: The Messianic Secret

  • Explicit identifications of Jesus as the Messiah or the Son of God by the narrator (Mark 1:1), God (1:11; 9:7), and (ironically?) by the Roman centurion at the cross (15:37-39). Jesus also answers the high priest’s question in the affirmative (14:61-62; cf. Matthew 26:64/Luke 22:67-70).
  • Whenever humans or demons recognize Jesus’s identity during his ministry, Jesus silences them (1:24-25; 8:29-30; 9:9-10).
  • A closely related theme is when Jesus silences those he heals from spreading the news (e.g. 1:40-45; 5:18-20, 35-43; 7:35-37). However, the characters often disobey and Jesus was then swarmed by the crowds.
  • The parables are also designed to conceal the “mystery of the kingdom” from those outside the inner circle of disciples (4:11-12)
  • William Wrede’s theory was that the theme of the “messianic secret” was an editorial addition introduced by the evangelist and that it was designed to impute the post-Easter belief in Jesus’ messiahship back to Jesus’ pre-Easter ministry.
  • Other theories for the “messianic secret” is that the titles “Christ” and “Son of God” were liable to being misconstrued in this-worldly terms (a would-be political candidate or a Hellenistic miracle-working divine man), that Jesus refused to allow the demons to misuse his name as a way of trying to attain power over him, that the Markan Jesus challenged conventions of honour and shame by refusing to be identified as a powerful benefactor, that Mark presented Jesus as the ideal ruler who does not demand excessive public honors, or that Jesus’s messianic mission cannot be fully grasped apart from his sacrificial death.
  • A short bibliography:
    • William Wrede, The Messianic Secret (translated by J. C. G. Greig; London: Clarke, 1971 [1901]).
    • David Aune, “The Problem of the Messianic Secret” Novum Testamentum 11 (1969): 1-31.
    • J.D.G. Dunn, “The Messianic Secret in Mark” Tyndale Bulletin 21 (1970): 92-117.
    • J. L. Blevins, The Messianic Secret in Markan Research, 1901-1976 (Washington: University Press of America, 1981).
    • C. M. Tuckett, The Messianic Secret (London: SPCK, 1983).
    • Heikki Räisänen, The ‘Messianic Secret’ in Mark’s Gospel (trans. Christopher Tuckett; Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1990).
    • David F. Watson, Honor among Christians: The Cultural Key to the Messianic Secret (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2010).
    • Adam Winn, “Resisting Honor: The Markan Secrecy Motif and Roman Political Ideology” JBL 133 (2014): 583-601.



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