After re-examining the building blocks of my thesis on the reception of the Gospel of Mark that I completed in 2013 and published in 2015, I would like to offer the following reconstruction. In the first decades of the Jesus movement, Christ followers were producing collections of Jesus’s sayings, pronouncement stories, miracle narratives, an oral or written passion narrative, creedal statements, hymns, and letters sent to established congregations. Our earliest extant narrative life of Jesus that I will just refer to as “Mark” for the sake of convenience drew on these earlier oral and written traditions, shaping them to advance theological points about how Jesus’s messianic identity was concealed until it was fully revealed at the cross, how would-be disciples ought to follow him on the path of service and suffering before sharing in his vindication in the coming kingdom, and how Jesus would return on the clouds and judge the priestly establishment sometime after the destruction of the temple. It was written anonymously somewhere in Syria-Palestine (I see Rome as the less likely option) before it spread far and wide, reaching the other Synoptic evangelists who could plausibly be located in Antioch and Ephesus respectively. They accepted that it was a reliable narrative of Jesus’s ministry from the baptism of John to the empty tomb.
Still, there were problems with Mark in the perception of the later evangelists. It appeared to be unfinished, its arrangement of the sayings and deeds of Jesus lacked rhetorical sophistication, and its gaps at the beginning or end or ambiguous statements could be interpreted in support of a lower Christology than what they held. Therefore, they took over its content in their enlarged, revised, published lives of Jesus. Mark continued to be read, though, and Cerinthus in Ephesus based his claim that Jesus was not born of a virgin and was only set apart when the Christ aeon possessed him at his baptism on its pages (cf. Irenaeus, haer. 1.26.1; 3.11.7). In this polemically charged context, other readers dismissed Mark on the grounds of its lack of “order,” whereas the Elder John defended it as a trustworthy account by claiming that its author was the Evangelist Mark and his main source was the Apostle Peter. He was not the first one to associate the figure of Mark with Peter, as a letter had circulated in Asia Minor that identified Mark as Peter’s “son” (cf. 1 Pet 5:13). Papias recorded the Elder John’s tradition around 100 CE, but he also had access to another written life of Jesus that he attributed to Matthew and evaluated its arrangement of the material about Jesus more highly (cf. Eusebius, Eccl. Hist. 3.39.15-16).
Succeeding Patristic intellectuals built on the tradition about Mark recorded by Papias. Thus, Justin regarded this text as Peter’s memoirs (Dial. 103.6), Irenaeus dated the Gospel after Peter’s martyrdom in Rome (Adv. Haer. 3.1.1), and Clement pictures Mark writing his aide memoire for Peter’s hearers in Rome (cf. Eusebius, Hist. Eccl. 2.15.1-2; 6.14.6). Yet many of their comments betray some misgivings about its contents compared to the other three Gospels that were canonized. It was copied infrequently and commented upon rarely. When Mark circulated in Alexandria, Carpocrates used it as the basis for his own Christology that was quite similar to Cerinthus’s and quoted Mark’s reference to a “mystery” (cf. Irenaeus, haer. 1.25.1, 5). Clement documented that Carpocrates’ son Epiphanes rejected the ownership of private property as inconsistent with the natural order of things. We know from Clement’s commentary on the passage about the rich man in Mark 10:17-31 that other Alexandrian Christians may have been taking the command to sell their possessions a little too literally. Perhaps this sheds light on why the Carpocratians allegedly had another edition of Mark’s text in which another rich man abandoned everything except for a garment that was fit for a corpse and was taught the mystery of the kingdom, but it may be problematic to rely too much on the Letter to Theodore as its authenticity remains a contentious issue. Nevertheless, the data on the Carpocratians shows that they relied on a variety of ancient Christian sources. While Irenaeus occasionally describes his theological opponents as seemingly reciting Mark’s distinctive wording, it is also true that they did not use Mark exclusively and that the Valentinians, for instance, drew on Paul and John much more extensively.
Although the traditions about Mark’s authorship and the placement of it in the fourfold Gospel ensured that it was be preserved today, its narrative would largely by neglected by Christian readers on all sides in favour of the other three canonical Gospels. Mark’s individual voice in the canon and contribution to Christian theology was, for the most part, rediscovered in the modern period since the onset of the source-critical study of the Synoptic Gospels. Luckily for us today, it was the Patristic tradition about Mark’s Gospel that enabled it to be preserved in the first place so that its voice can still be heard. This may be as far as the historian can go, but the Christian believer might see the hand of the Holy Spirit involved in its preservation as well. If you are interested in tracing the steps of my argument in more detail, you can check out the following posts:
- Introducing the Gospel of Mark (here)
- The Development of the Traditions about the Evangelist (here, here)
- The Reception of Mark in the Later Gospels (here)
- The Reception of Mark in the Patristic period (here, here, here)
- The “Heretical” Reception of Mark (here)
- Bibliography on the Reception of the Gospels (here)
After Mark’s content was absorbed into the Gospels of Matthew and Luke, why did readers preserve Mark’s text? One article that I engaged in my PhD dissertation was Joanna Dewey’s “The Survival of Mark’s Gospel: A Good Story?” JBL 123.3 (2004): 495-507. While I learned much from Francis Watson’s monograph Gospel Writing: A Canonical Perspective (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2013) on the Patristic reception of the Gospels and am grateful that he showed me an advanced preview of it, I did not have access to his chapter “How Did Mark Survive?” in Matthew and Mark across Perspectives: Essays in Honour of Stephen C. Barton and William R. Telford (eds. Kristian A. Bendoriatis and Nijay K. Gupta; LNTS 538; London: Bloomsbury T&T Clark, 2016), 1-17. I built on my MA advisor Willi Braun’s thesis in “The First Shall be Last: The Gospel of Mark after the First Century,” in Chasing Down Religion: In the Sights of History and the Cognitive Sciences Essays in Honour of Luther H. Martin (eds. Panavotis Pachis and Donald Wiebe; Thessaloniki: Barbounakis, 2010), 41–57 (see also his online lectures here and here). I will compare Braun’s approach to Ian J. Elmer’s chapter “Robbing Paul to Pay Peter: The Papias Notice on Mark” in Paul and Mark. Comparative Essays Part I: Two Authors at the Beginning of Christianity (eds. Oda Wischmeyer, David C. Sim and Ian J. Elmer; BZNW 198; Berlin and Boston: De Gruyter, 671-98.
Dewey begins by asking why Mark’s text did not “go the way of Q”, especially since she agrees with Graham Stanton that Matthew and Luke wrote their Gospels to replace Mark’s (495). Her solution is that “it was a good story, easily learned from hearing it and easily performed, thus easily transmitted orally” (496). She discounts the traditions that Mark was Peter’s interpreter or wrote from Rome, but even if true, she does not think that Mark’s text would have been canonized on this basis alone since other non-canonical Gospels were attributed to apostles (496). She also discounts B. H. Streeter’s theory that each of the four Gospels were popular in different locales (e.g., Mark in Rome) before they were collected together around 150-175 CE (496-7). Her first section examines the oral culture in which the story of Jesus was put into writing and performed (497-500) and the next one argues that around 70 CE Mark recorded his version of an already interconnected oral account of Jesus against the assumptions of the form critics (500-3). This textualized version of the story affected future performances of it, but the text was not yet fixed in the manuscripts and continued to be orally transmitted (503-5). She argues that the lack of manuscript attestation for Mark’s text, along with the greater number of textual variants, is evidence that Mark’s story was orally performed to a greater extent (505-6). Based on Brenda Deen Schildgen’s count of the references to Mark’s Gospel in the Biblia Patristica, she observes that there is a drop from 1,400 citations of it in the second century to 250 in the third when it came to be regarded as just another written Gospel (506-7).
Watson begins by recognizing that the preserved Gospels attained their canonical status via the consensus of eastern and western Christians (1). Mark’s Gospel must have widely circulated to be accessible to Matthew and Luke (1), but they initially treated it “as a work-in-progress which achieved its necessary end-point in their own (rival) works” (2). Like Larsen, he judges that earlier and later editions of the same anonymous text were only differentiated when given the titles “Mark” and “Matthew”, while our “Mark” may have been a revision of a prior version of the same narrative and so on (2). The pre-Markan versions of the story did not survive (3), though traces of them may be preserved in certain non-canonical parallels to Markan passages (4-10). Like Dewey, Watson argues that Mark’s work survived because “a significant number of early Christian communities continued to use Mark even after Matthew became available to them” and it was “too well established in the church’s liturgical and catechetical life to be easily dislodged” (10). In the early second century, Luke regarded these two yet to be named texts as fixed and granted that Theophilus would continue to use them, even if he regarded his own work as superior (10-11; note Watson supports the Farrer Hypothesis which entails that Luke prefers Mark’s order to Matthew’s on p. 12). The Longer Ending was a self-contained appendix that conflates the other three Gospels’ resurrection accounts and ensured that Mark’s work would be valued alongside them by rectifying its perceived deficient ending (13). Papias helped to ensure the survival of Mark’s text as an independent work from Matthew’s text when he assigned them to two different apostolic authorities (i.e. Peter and Matthew respectively), even though he downgraded Mark’s work in comparison to Matthew’s because he recognized that it did not look like what “a Petrine gospel ought to be” (15). Likewise, Clement imagined that others took the initiative to urge Mark to write and that Peter did not endorse the finished product, while Irenaeus dated Mark after Matthew to solidify its secondary status (16).
Braun’s thesis is that the audience that was initially receptive to Mark’s text was judged to on the wrong side of the debate between centrist Christians and radical Paulinists such as Marcion (48, 54, 56). Agreeing with Joel Marcus on the Pauline features of Mark’s Gospel, especially the distinctive focus on the salvatory function of Jesus’s death, the latter group may have been interested in Mark and were repudiated by the addition of the “anti-Marcionite prologue.” Second, a mystery association in Alexandria may have been drawn to Mark’s esotericism in general and reference to a “mystery” in 4:11 in particular (cf. the “Secret Gospel of Mark“). The tradition that associated this Gospel with the Apostle Peter was the first step in confiscating it from the Pauline camp and eventually rendering it safe for use in the centrist Christian canon (53-54). Ironically, it was neglected in that very canon, leading Braun to describe it as functioning like a prestige good without intrinsic value (50). Although too much stock should not be put in the Latin prologue to Mark’s Gospel which may neither date to the second century nor reflect an anti-Marcionite agenda, the editors of the volume Paul and Mark may agree with Braun’s assessment of the Paulinism of Mark’s Gospel. Elmer’s chapter concludes it. Much of the chapter rehearses the issues with determining the accuracy of Eusebius’s citations of Papias, Papias’s dating and sources, and the portrayal of Peter in Mark’s Gospel itself, but he also defends reading Papias’s commendation of the original disciples, silence on Paul, and critique of those who say too much against the voluminous Pauline corpus (687-90). Yet he differs drastically from Braun in arguing that Papias did not rehabilitate a “suspect gospel” by linking it to an apostolic authority, for other apocryphal writings attributed to Peter were rejected, but that “the addition of such a well-established and long-recognized orthodox Gospel [to Peter’s authorial corpus] could only bolster Peter’s status as the chief apostle” (693). The data, on the contrary, may not suggest that Mark’s Gospel was so highly regarded.
In The Gospel on the Margins: The Reception of Mark in the Second Century (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2015), I challenged Dewey’s thesis on the grounds that the infrequently copying of Mark’s text does not alone show that it continued to be widely heard in oral performance and that most specialized studies on the reception of the Gospels would accept far less references to Mark’s Gospel in the second century than is estimated in the Biblia Patristica (12). Instead, I followed Braun’s thesis that, out of concern for how the “wrong side” was using it, Mark’s text was appropriated in the name of the Apostle Peter. Yet I did not judge the second century evidence to suggest that Mark’s text was used to support radically Pauline ideas, but the Christological views of those who believed that Jesus was a mere human, temporarily possessed by a divine spirit from his baptism until his death. The weakness of this thesis, however, is that it does not explain why proto-orthodox Christians bothered with Mark’s Gospel at all rather than rejecting it altogether in favour of Matthew’s Gospel. The solution may be that Dewey and Watson are right that Mark’s Gospel must have achieved such widespread circulation in the latter decades of the first century, and had been popularly regarded as a “good story” even after the publication of further Gospels, that the Elder John and Papias had to deal with it despite their reservations about its order and its use by other interpreters (e.g., Cerinthus). They defended its apostolic orthodoxy by creating the tradition linking it to Peter. This tradition ended up saving Mark for the canon, for the later Patristic intellectuals became much less interested in Mark’s content on its own terms as seen by the fact that it was very infrequently copied and commented upon in the second century and beyond.
In this post, I will refer to the Gospels by their traditional names (i.e. Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John) as a matter of convenience, presuppose the theory of Markan priority (i.e. Matthew and Luke depended on Mark), and bracket out the debate over whether or not John was dependent on Mark. Although the case for why Mark was most likely the source for Matthew and Luke is presented in textbooks introducing the New Testament (see my posts here and here), the question in the title of this post is not always asked. How did Matthew and Luke evaluate their main source when they reproduced around 90 and 65 percent of its content respectively, but edited it along the way and expanded it with material drawn from other sources on Jesus’s miraculous conception, words, deeds, and resurrection appearances.
When working on my dissertation, I was influenced by David Sim’s article “Matthew’s Use of Mark: Did Matthew Intend to Supplement or Replace His Primary Source” NTS 57.2 (2011): 176-92. He observes that Matthew corrected Mark’s grammar, lengthened Mark’s narrative, deleted Markan passages that seemed irrelevant or offensive, edited other Markan passages to support his views, and updated the story of Jesus to be applicable to his own “community” in the late first century (179-81). Sim judges it inconceivable that Matthew’s readers continued to consult Mark once they had a corrected, updated Gospel (182-3). Further, the motive for replacing Mark, Sim infers, was to reject Mark’s “Pauline” stances on the Law of Moses and the leaders of the Jerusalem Church (i.e. the Twelve, the family of Jesus) (185-8). Sim reaches similar conclusions about Luke’s intentions to replace Mark in light of his more drastic editing of Mark (189). Moreover, he follows many commentators in detecting a critique of Luke’s predecessors in Luke 1:1-4, which contrasts the previous attempts to write accounts about Jesus with the evangelist’s orderly narrative (188).
J. Andrew Doole answers this question differently in his book What Was Mark for Matthew (WUNT 2.344; Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2013). Against scholars who infer that Matthew’s primary interest was in the sayings of Jesus that he took over from Q and only integrated into Mark’s narrative framework at the secondary stage, his main aim is to “stress the proximity and loyalty of Matthew to Mark. The proposal is that Matthew is essentially a Markan Christian” (10). Thus, he underscores that Matthew largely produced a new edition of Mark that left its narrative intact, though he supplemented it with material taken from Q, “M” (he does not view this material as deriving from a single written source or reflecting Matthew’s own redactional work), and the Jewish Scriptures, and that there is a lot of continuity between Mark and Matthew in spite of Matthew’s relatively minor re-arranging or editing of his Markan source. I engaged Doole’s thesis in a popular-level review of the book for the Marginalia Review of Books, while Joseph Verheyden wrote an article in response entitled “Matthew’s Building Blocks – Mark and Q: A Critical Look at a Recent Monograph” In Die Skriflig 49.1 (2010): 1-10.
James Barker rejects the dichotomy that the evangelists either intended to supplement or replace their sources in his chapter “Tatian’s Diatessaron and the Proliferation of Gospels” in The Gospel of Tatian: Exploring the Nature and Text of the Diatessaron (London: Bloomsbury, 2019; I am using the pre-publication version here). After noting that manuscript rolls could last for 150 years and surveying how similar kinds of texts proliferated without the new ones replacing the old in antiquity (e.g., supplements to Homer, encomia for Cato the Younger, histories of the Jewish revolt, translations of the Hebrew Scriptures) (3-11), he stresses that it was rare for texts to be replaced in their authors’ lifetime. Rather, a text could be eventually lost if it stopped getting copied over time, revised or expanded in the process of re-editing it, have its content absorbed into a new literary work, or be destroyed by censors (11-4). For Barker, it is better to speak about the absorption of Mark into Matthew as a separate literary work rather that treat the latter as a revised edition of the former, but the author of the latter book did not expect that Mark would stop circulating just as the Chronicler did not expect that people would stop reading the books of Samuel-Kings (15). Likewise, he agrees with Loveday Alexander that there was no polemical intent behind the Lukan prologue, for Luke’s comment that it seemed good to him to write as well was a way to claim that his work was equal to his predecessors (16; he allows some one-upmanship or, in Chris Keith’s terminology, “competitive textualization” in the boast to have written the orderly account on p. 29). Other Gospels, such as John or the Infancy Gospels, presupposed knowledge of and supplement the Synoptic Gospels (17-19). Some readers valued the New Testament and Nag Hammadi Gospels (19), while other readers like Marcion used only one Gospel (20). Mark still received attention after it was absorbed into Matthew and Luke, for Tatian reproduced its unparalleled material in his Diatessaron (26-7). His key contention is that the Diatessaron was not composed to replace the “fourfold gospel” and shows that later interpreters read these texts alongside each other (23-5).
Finally, Matthew D. C. Larsen has re-conceptualized the Synoptic Problem in his book Gospels before the Book (New York: Oxford University Press, 2018). He denies that the “Synoptic Gospels” were considered distinct literary works by ancient readers before Irenaeus, arguing instead that the best analogue for them is the unfinished, open-ended, pre-literary memorial writings known as hypomnēmata, apomnēmoneumata, or commentarii (11-36). The huge amount of overlap between them may not suggest that they were separate literary works, but enlarged revisions of the same textualized story of Jesus, and Mark’s incompleteness may be why it was subject to continual editing beginning with the new edition of “Mark” that we call “Matthew” and continuing with the scribes who appended new endings to it (100-20). For instance, in his reading of the Papias’s tradition (87-93, 107), Mark recorded what he “remembered” (apemnēmoneusen) of Peter’s preaching on Jesus’s words and deeds, but his work lacked “order” (taxis), whereas professional historians prepare their rough drafts for publication by adding taxis and lexis (“style”) to their notes (cf. Lucian, Quom. Hist. conscr. 6, 48). Further, Matthew simply re-arranged Mark’s logia (“oracles”) in revising the same text. Larsen’s thesis also sheds light on the terminology that Justin Martyr, Clement of Alexandria, and Origen of Alexandria used to describe the Gospel texts.
I agree with Doole that the latter evangelists regarded Mark’s historical outline as fundamentally reliable and am open to Barker’s case that some Gospel writers supplemented or expanded upon their sources without imagining that they were thereby displacing them. Yet I think that Larsen provides a model for why there may have been an expectation that Mark’s notes would cease to be copied once they were “completed” by Matthew and Luke. I am still inclined to view these latter Gospels as separate literary works, but their authors may have judged Mark’s notes to be in a rough and unfinished state as they improved their grammar, style, and rhetorical arrangement. They conformed Mark’s life of Jesus to the typical bibliographical format starting with their subject’s genealogy and birth. Like Larsen, I pointed to Eusebius’s paraphrases (cf. Eccl. Hist. 2.15.1-2; 6.14.5-7) of Clement’s traditions that Mark drafted his hypomnēma to help select Roman Christians recall Peter’s preaching, while Matthew and Luke published their works openly for widespread circulation (The Gospel on the Margins, pp. 210-11; cf. Carlson’s translation). I think Sim was on the right track about how some readers had concerns about Mark, though I have challenged its allegedly Pauline features, and highlighted why the later evangelists edited certain Christological statements that were liable to getting misconstrued (e.g., Mark 6:5/Matt 13:58; Mark 10:18/Matt 19:17; Mark 15:34/Luke 23:46) and rehabilitated the disciples (e.g., Matt 16:16-19; Luke 22:31-32). Mark Goodacre’s chapter “The Orthodox Redaction of Mark” in “To Recover What Has Been Lost: Essays on Eschatology, Intertextuality, and Reception History in Honor of Dale C. Allison Jr. (eds. Tucker S. Ferda, Daniel Frayer-Griggs, and Nathan C. Johnson; Leiden: Brill, 2021), 319-35 similarly observes that Matthew clarified Jesus’s sinless nature (e.g., 3:14-15), Davidic descent (e.g., 1:1), birth in David’s hometown (e.g., 2:5-6), ability to heal (e.g., 13:58), and post-mortem appearances (e.g., 28:9-10, 16-20).
Based on the evidence that I reviewed in the last post that suggested that the Gospel of Mark was widely neglected during the Patristic period, I commented that “[given] Mark’s lackluster reception in the patristic period, it is astounding that it survived at all once its contents were almost completely reabsorbed in Matthew and Luke” (The Gospel on the Margins: The Reception of Mark in the Second Century [Minneapolis: Fortress, 2015], 11). My friend James Barker made the following counterargument:
“Michael Kok observes the numerical fact that Mark’s was the least cited of the eventual fourfold gospel. Yet it is fallacious for Kok to leap from ‘limited use’ to ‘poor reception.’ In the early second century, Ignatius attests Matthew, Luke, and John, but not Mark. For the next century and a half, however, Mark is clearly attested by Justin Martyr, Tatian, Irenaeus, Tertullian, Clement of Alexandria, and Origen. In other words, the very church fathers whose fewer citations reveal Mark’s ‘limited use’ cannot, without contradiction, concomitantly show Mark’s ‘poor reception.’ Kok finds it ‘astounding that (Mark) survived at all,’ but the language of survival connotes a threat of extinction, and extant evidence shows no such threat in the case of Mark’s Gospel.” (James Barker, “Tatian’s Diatessaron and the Proliferation of Gospels” in The Gospel of Tatian: Exploring the Nature and Text of the Diatessaron [London: Bloomsbury, 2019], 127-28).
Barker grants the numerical fact that Mark’s text was the least cited Gospel of the four that were canonized and I would add that it is also the least represented in the manuscript evidence as well as in Patristic and Medieval commentaries and liturgies. But I would point to evidence for its “poor reception,” at least in certain quarters, in the statements made by the Patristic commentators themselves. Papias records the Elder John’s admission that Mark’s material was not arranged in “order” (cf. Eusebius, Eccl. Hist. 3.39.15). Irenaeus dates the publication of Mark’s Gospel only after the publication of Matthew’s Gospel and Peter’s death (cf. Adv. Haer. 3.1.1). Clement claims that Mark drafted his notes about Peter’s preaching for the Romans without Peter’s knowledge or official endorsement (at least in one of Eusebius’s paraphrases in Eccl. Hist. 6.14.5-7; cf. 2.15.1-2). The epithet “stump-fingered” became attached to the evangelist (cf. Hippolytus [?], Ref. 7.20.1; the Latin prologues to Mark’s Gospel). The canonical order privileges Matthew’s Gospel and the western order Mathew’s and John’s Gospels over Mark’s. Augustine treats Mark as Matthew’s mere abbreviator.
There must be a reason why Mark’s text survived after it was incorporated into the narratives of Matthew and Luke, when pre-Markan sources did not survive after they were incorporated into Mark’s narrative. To nuance my point about the “poor reception” of Mark’s Gospel, the initial reception of Mark must have been fairly positive and widespread as it was engaged by multiple evangelists in different locations, so perhaps not everyone was inclined to discard it even after these newer Gospels circulated. However, I still think that what saved Mark’s text from oblivion in the long run, and lead to its eventual canonization, was the emergence of the tradition that linked its author to Peter, the leading apostle. In the next posts, I want to further explore what other scholars (including Barker) have written about what the later evangelists thought they were doing when they edited and expanded upon Mark’s narrative and why Mark’s Gospel ultimately survived to contribute to Christian theology today. However, I will conclude this post on the note that the Patristic writers listed above still rarely cited Mark’s text, but the reason they did so at all is because they had become convinced that it was Peter’s memoir (cf. Justin, Dial. 103.6) or it had taken its place in the fourfold gospel canon.
When I began my PhD, the question that I attempted to answer was why the Gospel that was widely attributed to the interpreter of Peter, the pre-eminent apostle, was so unpopular during the Patristic period. I was building on some earlier important studies on the reception of the Gospel of Mark.
Brenda Deen Schildgen’s Power and Prejudice: The Reception of the Gospel of Mark (Detroit: Wayne University State Press, 1998) is the best overview of the reception of this Gospel over the last two thousand years. She shows how changing ideological interests and interpretive methods affected how this text was received. For instance, for a Patristic or Medieval author who was interested in harmonizing the Gospels or drawing on them to develop a Christian systematic theology or ethical compendium, Mark seemed to not contribute as much as the other Gospels (especially John and Matthew). The historical critic has especially been interested in the Gospel of Mark after the discovery that it was the first one to be written and the literary critic may find Mark to be a great narrative, filled with fast-paced action, dramatic irony, and the central paradox that the powerful Son of God chose the way of service and suffering and calls his disciples to do the same.
Schildgen highlighted the tension between Papias’s tradition that Mark was Peter’s interpreter and Augustine’s tradition that Mark was Matthew’s abbreviator (35-36). I was indebted to her point about “Mark’s absence and presence, for the gospel was present in the canon but essentially absent from attention” (36). Her statistics seem to back this up. She lists several commentators (e.g., Origen, Hilary of Poitiers, Titus of Bostra, Ambrose of Milan, Jerome, Cyril of Alexandria, John Chrysostom, Theodore of Mopsuestia, Augustine) who left no extant commentaries specifically on Mark’s Gospel, though Jerome produced ten sermons on it and Victor of Antioch compiled a catena on it (39-40). As for citations, her estimates drawn from the Biblia Patristica show a drastically lower count of possible references to Mark’s text compared to the other Gospels, especially from the third century onwards (40-41). She writes that “Mark is quoted by both the Greek and Latin Fathers about one time for every seven to ten or more of Matthew and John” (41). She adds that “Although these lectionary sequences are incomplete and somewhat hypothetically reconstructed, the evidence is persuasive that Matthew and John were the gospels most frequently read and that Mark—with the exception of Mark 16, which had a prominent place in the Easter reading cycle of the western rites—was for the most part ignored” (41). I would even contest the exception that she made for the liturgical reading of Mark’s text in Alexandria, though she notes that Mark’s Gospel does feature in the later Coptic and Orthodox rites during lent (41).
Peter Head’s chapter “The Early Text of Mark” in The Early Text of the New Testament (eds. Charles E. Hill and Michael J. Kruger; Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012) supplemented Schildgen’s observations. While the use of Mark’s Gospel by two Synoptic evangelists and possibly by the fourth one may suggest “early and widespread knowledge and respect for Mark as a written text and a resource for information about Jesus; at the same time it signals the desire of others to improve and supplement the Markan record” (110). He highlights the lack of strong evidence for the use of Mark’s text among the Apostolic Fathers (110). Scribes found Mark’s ending to be unsatisfactory enough to supply new endings to it (110-11). There is further evidence of improving Mark’s text or harmonizing it with other Gospels in the longer ending of Mark 16:9-20, Justin Martyr’s Dialogue, Tatian’s Diatessaron, and Irenaeus’s Against Heresies and some possible evidence of its “Gnostic” use (cf. Irenaeus, haer. 1.3.3; 21.2; 3.11.7) (111). As for Irenaeus, he explicitly cites Mark’s text merely three times and one of his citations is erroneous (e.g., 3.10.5 cites Mark 1:1/16:19 and 4.6.1 cites Matt 11:27/Luke 10:22), while other possible citations are listed in a footnote (112, 112n14). Clement’s extensive commentary on the Markan account of the rich man is a rare instance where he focuses on Mark’s (harmonized) text (112). He comments, “the paucity of homilies and commentaries in the patristic era is notable” (113). He concludes with the lack of early manuscript attestation for Mark’s Gospel, noting that P45 provided the only pre-fourth century manuscript evidence, and that Mark’s text is better represented in the majascule manuscripts because it was copied as part of the fourfold gospel (114). I repeated this last point in my book, though I noted that there was talk about the discovery of a first-century copy of Mark’s Gospel that had “yet to be verified” (6n.18), but it has now been published (P.Oxy. 83.5345) and assigned a date to the second or third century.
This is one of the reasons for why my book is entitled The Gospel on the Margins, because, despite the traditions developing about the Evangelist Mark, Mark’s actual test did not really capture the attention of the educated Patristic authorities who were copying and commenting on the Gospels. In the next post, I will respond to a critique of my position on the general neglect of Mark’s text and nuance this conclusion.
I have recently interacted with a few scholars who engaged my thesis about the traditions about the Evangelist Mark, the interpreter of the Apostle Peter, and the reception of the Gospel that was attributed to him. For a succinct summary of my thesis, see my article “Why Did the Gospel of Mark Survive?” at the Bible and Interpretation website. Of course, as noted in the posts above, my views continue to evolve as I continue to research the Patristic reception of the Gospels and interact with my fellow scholars. For instance, I have a chapter in my forthcoming book on Matthew that will return to the topic of the developing traditions about Mark and how Papias’s Elder John evaluated Mark’s work. Basically, I want to start a new series that summarizes some of the scholarly monographs on the reception of the Gospel of Mark that influenced my own work and some that were published after my book was written.
Fortress Press has posted my book Tax Collector to Gospel Writer: Patristic Traditions about the Evangelist Matthew on their website. The publication date is February 7, 2023. The endorsements have not yet been posted, but there is a great description of the contents of the book on the post. I will share more about it in due course, but if you are interested in the topic it is available for pre-order.