Home » Blog posts » Was the Gospel of Mark Unpopular during the Patristic Era? Part 1

Was the Gospel of Mark Unpopular during the Patristic Era? Part 1

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.

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