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)