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How Was Mark’s Gospel Saved for Posterity?

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.

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