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Who Wrote the Gospel of Mark?

The four Gospels are were anonymously written, strictly speaking. None name their authors. Luke and John come closest: Luke with its first person introductory prologue in Luke 1:1–4, and John with its comments about "the disciple whom Jesus loved" (21:24; 21:20).

Neither Matthew nor Mark has any self-reference. Why? 

Maybe because these works are not the possession of any individual, but the common gospel proclaimed by the church — “the good news  about Jesus the Messiah” (Mark 1:1), not the gospel of Mark, Matthew, or Luke. 

This seems to be the point of the ancient titles, which appear in our manuscripts either as “The Gospel according to Mark” or simply, “According to Mark”. These titles were probably not original, since such specificity would not have been necessary until the Gospels began to circulate together. Yet they appear in our oldest manuscripts as titles and/or as postscripts, and so testify both to the antiquity of the traditional authorship and to the recognition that there is one gospel, being narrated by four Evangelists.¹ 

In this post from Mark L. Strauss, adapted from Mark in the Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament, we'll take a look at how the church has thought about Markan authorship; who Mark really was; and whether he wrote the book that bears his name.

The earliest tradition on Mark’s authorship

Despite this anonymity, there is strong and early tradition identifying the author of the Third Gospel as John Mark, part-time associate of both Paul and Peter. The earliest tradition is reported by the church historian Eusebius (c. AD 263 – 339), who quotes Papias, bishop of Hierapolis, in the latter’s five-volume work known as Interpretation of the Sayings of the Lord (Λογίων κυριακῶν ἑξήγησις). Papias, likely writing around AD 95 – 110,37 quotes John “the Elder” concerning the authorship of the Second Gospel: 

The Presbyter used to say this also: “Mark became Peter’s interpreter and wrote down accurately, but not in order, all that he remembered of the things said and done by the Lord. For he had not heard the Lord or been one of his followers, but later, as I said, a follower of Peter. Peter used to teach as the occasion demanded, without giving systematic arrangement to the Lord’s sayings, so that Mark did not err in writing down some things just as he recalled them. For he had one overriding purpose: to omit nothing that he had heard and to make no false statements in his account.”²

Eusebius points out that though Papias did not himself know the apostles, he was in direct contact with those who had heard them, including John the Elder, Aristion, Polycarp, and the daughters of Philip the Evangelist (Eusebius, Hist. eccl. 3.39.1 – 9; cf. Acts 21:8 – 9).³ We thus have a first-century tradition claiming that Mark accurately interpreted (or translated) Peter’s eyewitness accounts, turning Peter’s anecdotal stories into a connected narrative, though not necessarily in chronological order.⁴

Mark’s authorship in the second century 

Second-century sources make similar claims. The Anti-Marcionite Prologue to Mark (c. 160 – 180) identifies Mark as the author and links him to Peter: “Mark . . . who was called ‘stump-fingered’ because for the size of the rest of his body he had fingers that were too short. He was Peter’s interpreter. After the departure [or ‘death’] of Peter himself, the same man wrote his Gospel in the regions of Italy.”⁵ The odd statement about Mark’s disfigured fingers may point to a reliable tradition, since the church is unlikely to have invented such a disparaging remark.⁶ We find here two additional pieces of information: that Mark wrote after Peter’s death and that he wrote in Italy. 

Irenaeus (c. 180), referring to Peter and Paul, similarly asserts, “Now Matthew published a written Gospel among the Hebrews in their own tongue, while Peter and Paul were evangelizing and founding the church in Rome. But after their departure [ἔξοδος; death?], Mark, the disciple and interpreter of Peter, himself also handed over to us, in writing, the things preached by Peter.”⁷ The implication is that Mark is writing from Rome after the deaths of Peter and Paul.

Clement of Alexandria (c. 180) specifically refers to Rome: “When, by the Spirit, Peter had publicly proclaimed the Gospel in Rome, his many hearers urged Mark, as one who had followed him for years and remembered what was said, to put it all in writing. This he did and gave copies to all who asked. When Peter learned of it, he neither objected nor promoted it.”⁸ Peter’s apparent indifference to Mark’s work suggests that this statement was not created as an apologetic defense of the Petrine tradition, since, if that were the case, one would expect a much more positive affirmation by Peter. Other early church writers, including Tertullian (Marc. 4.5), Origen (Eusebius, Hist. eccl. 6.25.5), and Jerome (Comm. Matt., prologue 6), affirm Mark’s role as author and that he was dependent on the eyewitness accounts of Peter. 

How many of these early witnesses are dependent on one another is not known. Yet their unanimity is impressive. No competing claims to authorship are found in the early church. Since John Mark was a relatively obscure figure, it seems unlikely that a gospel would have been attributed to him if he had not in fact written it. We could add to this the evidence of the titles to the Gospels, which, as noted above, appear in nearly all of our extant manuscripts. 

Internal evidence for Markan authorship

Although internal evidence does not provide direct evidence for authorship, it can be used to help corroborate the external claims. (1) The author’s many Aramaisms (Mark 3:17; 5:41; 7:11, 34; 10:45; 14:36) are compatible with a Palestinian Jew like John Mark (cf. Acts 12:12). (2) The large number of Latinisms would also fit a Roman provenance (place of origin). (3) The identification of Rufus and Alexander as sons of Simon of Cyrene (15:21) is also significant, since it confirms that the author was known to his readers. It seems unlikely that the title “according to Mark” (κατὰ Μάρκον) could have been attached to the gospel so early if the original readers knew it came from someone else. Furthermore, if this Rufus is the same one mentioned in Rom 16:13, we have incidental confirmation of a Roman provenance. 

Challenges to the authorship of Mark 

At the same time, there are challenges to Markan authorship. The author’s understanding of Jewish traditions is sometimes said to be deficient, rendering it unlikely that the gospel was composed by a Jerusalem Jew.⁹ For example, Mark 7:3 – 4 says that “the Pharisees and all the Jews” practice ceremonial washing, when in fact this was a distinctly Pharisaic ritual, not practiced by all Jews. Similarly, Mark’s geographical references at times seem confused, as when he says in 7:31 that Jesus left “the region of Tyre [and] went through Sidon to the Sea of Galilee.” Since Sidon is twenty miles north of Tyre and Galilee thirty miles southeast, this is a circuitous route indeed.

Yet none of these alleged errors are decisive. Although Mark’s statement about hand washing is certainly hyperbolic, ritual washings were widely practiced among the Jews and were viewed by Gentiles as one of their distinctive practices. Even a Jewish work like the Letter of Aristeas (305) uses language similar to Mark: “Following the custom of all the Jews, they washed their hands in the sea in the course of their prayers to God” (see further comments on 7:3). Similarly, Mark’s geography in 7:31 is muddled only if we interpret this as a straight-line journey, rather than a general report of Gentile sites visited during this phase of his ministry. It is the fact that Jesus is foraying into Gentile lands rather than his precise itinerary that is Mark’s concern. These and similar alleged discrepancies have plausible explanations, which will be discussed in the commentary. 

Who was Mark? 

Although the Papias tradition of Markan authorship is not a question of orthodoxy, nor does it affect the message of the gospel, there seems no good reason to doubt its veracity. But who was this Mark? Although the name (Latin: Marcus; Greek: Μάρκος) was a common name in antiquity, the most likely candidate is the John Mark of biblical tradition.¹⁰ John Mark first appears in Acts 12, where we learn his mother, Mary, owned a house in Jerusalem used as a meeting place for the church. It was there that Peter returned after his late-night release from jail by an angel (12:12). According to Paul, Mark was Barnabas’s cousin (Col 4:10). Luke reports that Mark accompanied Barnabas and Saul back to Antioch after the two had brought famine relief to Jerusalem (Acts 12:25). Mark then accompanied the two on their first missionary journey as a “helper” or “assistant” (ὑπηρέτης; 13:5), but then left them suddenly at Perga in Pamphylia and returned to Jerusalem (13:13). When the two later discussed returning to visit the churches started on their earlier journey, Barnabas wanted to take John Mark again, but Paul refused because of the latter’s previous desertion. After what Luke calls a “sharp disagreement” (παροξυσμός), the two eventually parted ways, with Paul returning to Galatia and Barnabas taking John Mark with him to Cyprus (15:36 – 39). 

Although this is the last we learn of Mark in Acts, the later Pauline letters suggest that the two eventually reconciled. In Col 4:10, Paul sends the Colossian church greetings from Mark and says, “You have received instructions about him; if he comes to you, welcome him.” Philemon 24 also mentions similar greetings from Mark and other associates of Paul. 

Finally, Paul, languishing in prison shortly before his execution, tells Timothy, “Get Mark and bring him with you, because he is helpful to me in my ministry” (2 Tim 4:11). Mark’s association with Peter appears not only in the Papias tradition, but also in 1 Pet 5:13, where the author writes, “She who is in Babylon, chosen together with you, sends you her greetings, and so does my son Mark.” If “Babylon” is a cryptic reference to Rome, as seems likely, this would provide additional evidence both for the Petrine connection to Mark’s gospel and its Roman provenance. 

Some scholars, while acknowledging that the author of the Second Gospel was likely named Mark, deny he was the John Mark of the Pauline traditions.¹¹ Others accept that he was likely John Mark, but reject the Papias tradition and the association with Peter and with Rome.¹² Yet there seems no good reason to disregard either. First Peter 5:12 – 13, with its references to “Babylon” and Silvanus (Silas), another of Paul’s companions, provides incidental confirmation to Mark’s association with both Paul and Rome. When this is combined with Paul’s own statements (likely from Rome) in Col 4:10 and Phlm 24, the circumstantial case appears even stronger. While the possibility remains that an unknown person or a different Mark wrote the gospel, the traditional identification with John Mark remains the most likely conclusion.

Learn more in Mark L. Strauss's Mark video lecture series and in his commentary on Mark.

  1.  See Martin Hengel, “The Titles of the Gospels,” in Studies in the Gospel of Mark (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1985), 64 – 84, esp. 65 – 66. 
  2. Eusebius, Hist. eccl. 3.39.15 (translation from P. Maier,  Eusebius: The Church History (Grand Rapids: Kregel, 1999), 129 – 30. 
  3. “Papias thus admits that he learned the words of the apostles from their followers but says that he personally heard Aristion and John the presbyter. He often quotes them by name and includes their traditions in his writings” (Eusebius, Hist. eccl. 3.39.7; trans. Maier, Eusebius, 127). 
  4. The connection to Peter is also indirectly made by Justin Martyr (c. AD 150), who refers to Mark 3:16 – 17 ( Jesus’ naming of Simon as “Peter,” and James and John as “Sons of Thunder”) as coming from the memoirs of Peter (Dial. 106). For strong defenses of the authenticity of the Papias tradition, see Hengel, Studies, 47 – 53; Robert H. Gundry, Mark: A Commentary on His Apology for the Cross (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1993), 1026 – 45.
  5. Cited by C. Black, Mark: Images of an Apostolic Interpreter (Columbia, SC: University of South Carolina Press, 1994), 119. The date of the Anti-Marcionite prologues is disputed, with some scholars placing them in the third century.
  6. The same description is found in Hippolytus, Haer. 7.30.1 (see Black, Mark, 115 – 18). 
  7. Ireneaus, Haer. 3.1.1; translation from Black, Mark, 99 – 100. 
  8. Cited by Eusebius, Hist. eccl. 6.14.6 – 7 (trans. Maier, Eusebius, 218). 
  9. Joel Marcus, Mark 1 – 8 (AB 27; New York: Doubleday, 2000), 19 – 21; K. Niederwinner, “Johannes Markus und die Frage nach dem Verfasser des zweiten Evangeliums,” ZNW 58 (1967): 172 – 88. 
  10. For a comprehensive discussion of John Mark in biblical and postbiblical tradition (through the fourth century AD), see Black, Mark. Black’s cautious investigation reaches mostly agnostic conclusions concerning whether John Mark was the author.
  11. R. Pesch, Das Markusevangelium (HTKNT 2/1 – 2; Freiburg: Herder, 1977), 1:9 – 11, thinks that the gospel writer was an unknown Mark, perhaps a Palestinian Jewish Chris tian in Rome, who later came to be associated with the John Mark of Acts.
  12. Marcus, Mark 1 – 8, 24, concludes the author was likely named Mark, and perhaps the John Mark of Acts, but is unlikely to have had any connection with Peter.
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