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Markan Authorship

The author of the gospel of Mark, according to tradition, was supposed to be John Mark. New Testament sources described John Mark as both a native of Palestine and a close confidante of Peter. A closer examination of the gospel, however, will show that the traditional attribution of authorship to John Mark is false.

  • He made mistakes about Palestinian geography that no native of Palestine would make.
  • He did not seem to know some Palestinian customs which would be impossible for a native of that region not to be aware of.
  • These mistakes also rule out the idea that he could have obtained information from Peter.
  • Internal evidence shows that Mark's sources were isolated, self contained community anecdotes about Jesus which he strung together like beads into the gospel.

Traditional Attribution of Markan Authorship

We have seen earlier that Papias around 130 CE, on the authority of one John the Presbyter, claimed that the author of the gospel of Mark was Peter's interpreter. Tradition have further tied this Mark to the John Mark mentioned in the Acts of the Apostles (Acts:12:12;13:5,13;15:37,39), the epistles of Paul (Colossians 4:10;II Timothy 4:11; Philemon 24:1) and the first epistle of Peter (I Peter 5:13).

We note in Acts that it was to Mark's house in Jerusalem that Peter went after his escape from prison (Acts 12:12). Mark also joined Paul and Barnabas on their mission to Cyprus (Acts 12:25;13:15,13). Mark was also the center of disagreement between Paul and Barnabas; Paul not liking the fact that Mark deserted them in their mission in Cyprus earlier. Paul and Barnabas parted company with Mark going to Barnabas on another mission to Cyprus (Acts 15:37-39).

We have shown elsewhere that I Peter was a late document and was not written by the apostle of that name. Yet by the time of its writing, the tradition of the connection between Peter and John Mark was already so strong that Peter was made to call Mark his "son" (I Peter 5:13). [1]

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Geographical Mistakes in Mark

There are several instances of geographical mistakes in Mark.

The first example is from Jesus' itinerary in Phoenicia and Galilee:

Mark 7:31
Then he [Jesus] return from the region of Tyre, and went through Sidon to the Sea of Galilee.[a]

There is no hint here of any prolonged tour. The passage above suggest that Sidon is between the road from Tyre to the Sea of Galilee. However look at the map of Palestine below. The Sea of Galilee is to the southeast of Tyre while Sidon is to the north of the city. As David Barr, Professor of Religion at Wright State University remarked: "the itinerary sketched in 7:31 would be a little like going from New York to Washinton, D.C. by way of Boston"! It is simply not possible to go through Sidon from Tyre to reach the Sea of Galilee. What is worse, it is a known historical fact that there was no direct road from Sidon to the Sea of Galilee during the first century CE. There was, however, one from Tyre to the Sea of Galilee. There are thus two geographical errors in the above passage:

  • Firstly, the author obviously did not know the relative positions of Sidon, Tyre and the Sea of Galilee.
  • Secondly, he did not know that there was no direct road between Sidon and the Sea of Galilee during the time of Jesus.

Such a widely travelled native of Palestine such as John Mark (as our New Testament sources assure us that he was) could not have made such blatant mistakes about Palestinian geography. [b][2]

map of palestine
Palestine during the time of Jesus

Another mistake occurred in the episode on the healing of the demoniac. This incident occurred in the region of the Gerasenes, or Gerasa. Mark 5:1 makes Jesus cross the Sea of Galilee to reach Gerasa, implying that Gerasa was a city close to the lake:

Mark 5:1
They went across the lake to the region of the Gerasenes.[c]

Similarly in Mark 5:13 Jesus allowed the demons to leave the man and enter the herd of pigs nearby which then rushed headlong over a precipice into the lake:

Mark 5:13
He [Jesus] gave them permission, and the evil spirits came out and went into the pigs. The herd, about two thousand in number, rushed down the steep bank into the lake and were drowned.

From these readings it is obvious that Mark meant Gerasa to be a town situated near the Sea of Galilee. However look at the map again. Gerasa is more than fifty kilometers to the southeast of the Sea of Galilee!! There is not even a hint of any lake nearby.[d] As the Biblical scholars of Jesus Seminar so deliciously remarked:

Gerasa is located approximately thirty miles to the southeast of the Sea of Galilee, not exactly a convenient location for the drowning of the pigs. Matthew relocates the demoniac to Gadara, which is only six miles from the lakeshore. Later scribes tried other remedies to accomodate the pigs.[7]

Again such a basic mistake in Palestinian geography could not have been committed by a well travelled native such as John Mark. [8]

Enough geography! [e]

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Mistakes Regarding Palestinian Customs

Apart from geographical errors the author of Mark made a few rather glaring errors with respect to Jewish customs in Palestine during the time of Jesus.

Given below is an excerpt from Mark where Jesus is quoted as making some pronouncements on divorce:

Mark 10:11-12
He [Jesus] answered, "Anyone who divorces his wife and marries another woman commits adultery against her. And if she divorces her husband and marries another man, she commits adultery."

Jesus last sentence implies that women had the right to divorce her husband. But according to Jewish Law a woman had no right of divorce whatsoever. [f] In Roman law, of course, a woman had that right. The author of Mark had simply and mistakenly assumed that this was so for Jewish Law as well. Again the author of Mark shows an ignorance of the conditions of Palestine which is really impossible for a native of the country to make. [11]

Another example of Mark's ignorance is from the explanation he included for his readers regarding ritual cleansing:

Mark 7:3-4
For the Pharisees and all the Jews, do not eat unless they thoroughly wash their hands, thus observing the tradition of their elders; and they do not eat anything from the market unless they wash it; and there are also many other traditions that they observe, the washing of cups, pots, and bronze kettles.

This passage by Mark has been the subject of considerable debate among Jewish and Christian scholars. Basically Jewish scholars have pointed out, based on the evidence of the Talmuds, that the washing of hands before meals was obligatory only on priests and not on lay people like the Pharisees and scribes. While it may be possible that some, or even many, Pharisees submitted to this ritual voluntarily, it is certainly cannot be said that all the Jews were following this. Thus Mark had made a mistake in generalizing a custom that was simply not practiced by all during the time of Jesus.[12]

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The Author of Mark Could Not Have Acquired His Information from Peter

The above evidence should rule out John Mark as the author of Mark. It also rules out Papias story of the author's close relation with Peter and that he wrote down what Peter said. Peter could hardly had made the mistakes we had seen above. Furthermore, as Udo Schnelle points out in The History and Theology of New Testament Writings, there is no distinctive Petrine theology that can be traced in Mark, nor was there any additional role for Peter beyond what is already available in the pre-Markan tradition.

In short, like so many books in the Bible, we do not know the author of Mark. As early as Papias' time (early second century) the real author was no longer known. Of course the author could have been named Mark, as it was an exceedingly common name in those days. But we know nothing of him. [13]

The best summary on what we know of the author of Mark would be from Kummel's classic Introduction to the New Testament:

[T]he considerations against this assumption [that John Mark, companion of Peter, wrote the gospel of Mark-Tobin] carry weight. The author obviously has no personal knowledge of Palestinian geography, as the numerous geographical errors show. He writes for Gentile Christians, with sharp polemic against the unbelieving Jews. He does not know the account of the death of the Baptist (6:17 ff) contradicts Palestinian customs. Could a Jewish Christian from Jerusalem miss the fact that 6:35 ff and 8:1 ff are two variants of the same feeding story? The tradition that Mk was written by John Mark is therefore scarcely reliable. The reference to I Pet 5:13 ("The elect of Babylon and my son Mark also greets you") does not account for the tradition, but only the subsequent linking up of the author of Mk with the preaching of Peter. Accordingly, the author of Mk is unknown to us.[14]

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How Mark Got His Material

If the author of Mark was not an eyewitness nor a follower of an eyewitness, how did he get his material? In fact, the structure of the gospel actually reveals to us how he got his material. With a few exceptions, the episodes or pericopae in Mark seems to be completely independent units.

In fact we see in Mark that the different episodes are attached together by link passages that are normally one or two sentences long. We see for example in chapter three of the gospel, the five episodes are completely detached and independent from one another. In the first episode, Jesus healed a man with a shrivelled hand. This part was introduced with the simple sentence:

Mark 3:1
Another time he went into the synagogue...

After relating the incident, another link passage appears:

Mark 3:7
Jesus withdrew with his disciples to the lake and a large crowd from Galilee followed.

The second episode relates Jesus healing many people in the crowd. After this there again follows:

Mark 3:13
Jesus went up the hills and call to him those he wanted...

Now the author relates the appointment of the twelve apostles. After this another link passage appears:

Mark 3:20
Then Jesus entered a house, and again a large crowd gathered...

Here Jesus answers the teachers of the law with a parable and finally we have:

Mark 3:31
Then Jesus' mother and brothers arrived...

The final section relates how Jesus renounced his mother and brothers.

The one noticeable thing from a reading of chapter three is how isolated each individual episode was from one another. The order of the episodes could easily be interchanged without doing any damage to the narrative as a whole. There is no organic connection between the separate incidents. They are almost like snapshots placed side by side in a photo album.

This very strongly suggests that the stories relating to Jesus came to Mark in isolated anecdotes from separate sources. Where could these stories come from? It is very probable that most of these stories were circulated orally among the followers of Jesus. Some of the episodes were probably even used in the worship of the early Christians and were probably written down earlier. The gospel of Mark therefore is, more likely than not, the compilation of the early Christian community tradition about Jesus. [15]

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Notes

a.Modern translations such as the New Revised Standard Version (NRSV), the Good News Bible and even the fundamentalist New International Version (NIV) accurately translates the Greek as meaning Jesus went through Sidon. However older versions of the Bible such as the King James Version (KJV) and the New King James Version have the passage translated thus:
Mark 7:31
And again, departing from the coasts of Tyre and Sidon
, he came unto the sea of Galilee...
With this reading the geographical error is eliminated. Unfortunately this reading is not supported by textual evidence. We have seen earlier that the Greek text on which the King James Version was based, the Textus Receptus, was inaccurate in many places and is no longer used today as the underlying Greek text for modern translations.
b.Fundamentalists, when they do not try to argue for the King James reading mentioned in the above note, have largely resorted to "argument from authority" to salvage their beloved doctrine of biblical inerrancy. In other words, "experts (read: fundamentalist apologists) have studied these and found no error" and, presumably, that should be enough for believers.
One example is Lee Strobel's fundamentalist bestseller The Case for Christ. In recounting his interview with John McRay, when the issue of Mark 7:31 was raised, all Strobel could muster to defend Biblical inerrancy here was simply to note that McRay "pulled a Greek version of Mark off his shelf" and opened "large maps of ancient Palestine" and then:
Reading the text in the original language, taking into accounts the mountainous terrain and probable roads in the region...McRay traced a logical route on the map corresponding precisely with Mark's description.
"When everything is put into the appropriate context," he concluded, "there's no problem with Mark's account."[3]
And that's it! Without explaining how the route was "logical" and exactly what "Greek text" McRay read, this is supposed to convince readers that the problem is resolved! Needless to say this "argument" fails to convince skeptics.
c.The textual evidence supports Gerasenes as the original text. Probably due to the error in geography, some later biblical texts have these changed to either Gadara or Gergesa. Gadara is about 10 km from the sea (and was Matthew's [8:28] attempt at correcting this Markan error), while Gergesa cannot be identified with any certainty.[4]
d.Again fundamentalists have tried to rescue this. They point to an archaelogical find. The ruins of a small town called Khersa (or Kursa or Kersa) , on the east coast of the Sea of Galilee, that according to Craig Blomberg (quoted in Strobel's Case for Christ [5]) could be the origin of the use of the name Gerasa. This explanation has two problems. Firstly there are no cliffs overhanging the lake in this small town! This would be required for the pigs to jump down from. Secondly as there was a town called Gerasa during the time of Jesus', Mark's use of this term, even if he had meant Khursa, would still imply that he was ignorant of Palestinian geography.[6]
e.For those of you that need more of this, there are a few further examples of geographical errors in Mark:
  • Mark 8:22-26: The pericopae of the healing of the blind man was mentioned by Mark to have occured at Bethsaida, which he referred to as a "village". But it is well known that Bethsaida during the time of Jesus was a large and prosperous town.[9]
  • Mark 10:1: Jesus is supposed to have gone from Capernaum to the territory of Judea and "across the Jordan" river. As the reader can see by looking at the map, the statement by Mark is geographically problematic. Firstly, none of Judea is to the east of Jordan (which would be what "across the Jordan" from Capernaum would mean). Secondly, to get from Capernaum to Judea, Jesus would have had to cross the Jordon twice (avoiding the traditionally antagonistic Samaritans) or not at all (directly southwards through Samaria). The passage implies a single crossing, leading him nowhere.[10]
  • Mark 11:1: The passage has Jesus travelling from Jericho (Mark 10:46) via Bethpage and Bethany when it should have been in reverse order. We treat this particular error in more detail elsewhere.
f.It is pointless to say that Jesus was instituting divorce for women as his whole pronouncement is one that is geared against divorces in general.

References

1.Martin, New Testament Foundations I: p212
2.Nineham, Saint Mark: p203
Wilson, Jesus: The Evidence: p34
Barr, New Testament Story: p240
3.Strobel, The Case for Christ: p134
4.Nineham, Saint Mark: p153
5.Strobel, The Case for Christ: p60
6.Nineham, Saint Mark: p153
7.Funk, et.al. The Acts of Jesus: p79
8.Kummel, Introduction to the New Testament: p97
Nineham, Saint Mark: p153
Wilson, Jesus: The Evidence: p34
9.Nineham, Saint Mark: p219
10.Funk, et.al. The Acts of Jesus: p111
Nineham, Saint Mark: p63
11.Funk, et.al. The Acts of Jesus: p88
Nineham, Saint Mark: p266
Wilson, Jesus: The Evidence: p34
12.Nineham, Saint Mark: p193
13.Martin, New Testament Foundations I: p213
Schnelle, History and Theology of The New Testament Writings: p200
14.Kummel, Introduction to the New Testament: p97
15.Nineham, Saint Mark: p27-28

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