Mark and Peter: Origins of the First Gospel
In a field as fractious as the history of the Gospels, it is always noteworthy when scholars reach consensus on a question. Such a consensus has emerged concerning the priority of the gospel of Mark: just about everyone agrees that it was the first of the New Testament gospels to be written. This consensus rests mainly on the fact that the gospels of Matthew and Luke each contains almost all of Mark, strongly suggesting that the authors of these gospels used Mark as a source for their texts.
There is also broad agreement about the date that Mark was written: around the year 70 A.D., when the Romans took Jerusalem at the end of the first Roman-Jewish War and destroyed Herod’s Temple. This date is based on Jesus’ prediction of the destruction of the Temple in Mark 13 and the gospel’s sense of impending persecution, which might refer to Nero’s persecution of Christians.
Finally, there is agreement, though not as widespread, that the account handed down by the church fathers concerning the origins of Mark is essentially true: Mark was a disciple of Peter’s in Rome, and he based his gospel on the recollections and teachings of Peter.
But some scholars disagree. They place the author of Mark in Syria in about 70 A.D.; they see Palestinian as well as Roman influences in the gospel. And there are other, more perplexing reasons to question this gospel’s origins:
1) The author of Mark may have been more familiar with the geography of Palestine than is usually supposed. Two often cited geographical errors in Mark’s gospel (and there are others) apparently indicate that the author was unfamiliar with Palestine. One occurs after the story of the Syro-Phoenician woman–Jesus is supposed to have returned from Tyre via Sidon to Galilee. But Sidon lay to the north of Tyre, in the wrong direction. By way of explanation, one can say that Jesus may have had work to do in Sidon before returning to Galilee, and the story of his time in Sidon has been edited out. More mysterious is Mark’s claim that Jesus, on his way from Jericho to Jerusalem, passed through first Bethphage and then Bethany–when he would actually have passed through Bethany and then Bethphage. If Matthew was able to spot the error and correct it in his gospel, why weren’t people other than Mark (and above all, Peter) able to correct the error at the time of the gospel’s composition? Could it be that Mark used sources other than Peter for his gospel?
2) A gospel that claims to be Peter’s own report has been discovered. In the late 19th century, a copy of the lost Gospel of Peter was found in a monk’s grave in Egypt. Though the first half of the gospel is missing, the second half is intact (the ending is also missing) and gives an account of Jesus’ death quite different in certain respects from the one contained in Mark’s gospel. (GPtr is told in the first person, from Peter’s point of view.) Which version of the Passion might have originated with Peter in Rome? Did either?
3) The early church did not accept Mark’s gospel. The clearest indication of this is the incorporation of almost all of Mark in the gospels of Matthew and Luke. The intent here seems to have been to remove Mark’s gospel from circulation and replace it with the true version.
Another indication is the fact that the end of the gospel of Mark is missing. Two endings, one long, one short, were subsequently crafted to provide a powerful close, but the original text seems to be lost. Why would the early church reject Peter’s account of the gospel, even to the point of removing the story’s dramatic conclusion?
4) Recently, a letter by the church father Clement, which claims to record “secret” passages from the Gospel of Mark that were removed from the gospel’s “public” version, has been discovered. In 1958, a handwritten copy of this letter was discovered by Morton Smith on the end papers of a 17th century book while Smith was doing research at the Monastery of Mar Saba. The book has not been available for examination for many years and may be lost, raising the possibility of a hoax. But many scholars, basing their opinion on photographs of the letter and handwriting analysis, believe the copy of the letter in the endpapers to be genuine. As if this were not enough, Clement’s letter claims that there was a third version of Mark’s gospel in circulation. Which of these versions originated with Mark? Were there yet other emended copies?
It might look like these questions will never be answered. But the slow, patient, and sometimes courageous work of scholars over decades and even centuries is helping us answer them.
Related RT Posts: 1) Oxyrhynchus–Trash and Treasures.
Photographer: H.B. Swete, 1893. WikiCmns; Public Domain.