How Early Was Mark’s Gospel Written?

Many of my blog posts begin life as answers to my students’ questions. This one is no different. A student asked a good question about how we know Mark wasn’t written much earlier than AD 65 or so. Here is my (lightly edited) reply.

The starting point for dating Mark is that our earliest church tradition says Mark wrote in Rome after Peter’s death. That’s in the “anti-Marcionite prologue” to Mark (which is likely 2nd century) and in Irenaeus, Adv. Haer. 3.1.1 (written around 180). Peter probably died in Nero’s persecution of 64-65. So a date earlier than 65 is unlikely. Some later Patristic tradition says that Mark wrote before Peter’s death (Clement of Alexandria, Eusebius) but the emphasis there falls on markPeter having seen and approved of Mark’s Gospel. Most historians think it likely that this is a symptom of later church fathers wanting to strengthen the apostolic authority of the book by having Peter actually authorize it. I think that’s a more likely scenario than the alternative: that some earlier leaders accidentally distanced Peter from the Gospel by wrongly suggesting it was written after Peter’s death.

When they talk about the date of Mark, scholars will often mention Mark 13:14 where Jesus seems to predict Jerusalem’s fall and the “abomination of desolation” standing in the temple. This verse really is not helpful in deciding whether Mark could have been written earlier than 65. It is more helpful in thinking about how much later it can be pushed. When Mark mentions the “abomination” in the temple, he offers an aside, “let the reader understand.” This is the equivalent of a wink and a nudge, prompting the reader to put together for themselves the significance of Jesus’ prediction. Some think this indicates that Mark is writing after the fall of Jerusalem has happened. That would require a date for Mark in or after 70, when Titus took the city. I think, though, it is equally possible that Mark’s aside is written earlier in the war (which started in 67) and he is encouraging the audience to infer that Jesus’ words will be fulfilled by the Roman campaign in Judea. In fact, recent research has suggested that Jesus’ (highly allusive) prediction doesn’t include the kind of tell-tale details we would expect if Mark were writing after the fact. On balance, this suggests a date for Mark some time around 67-69, during the Jewish war. In any case, the upper end of Mark’s date can’t be pushed later than the early 70’s if Mark was used by Matthew and Luke. Both of them wrote well before the end of the first century.

In other words, if we take the earliest church tradition seriously, we can be fairly confident that Mark was written between 65 and 72 or so. If 13:14 isn’t referring to Jerusalem’s fall after the fact, that narrows the gap to about 65-69, with 67-69 perhaps being more likely.

Given the standard models of Gospel relationships, this would mean that Matthew and Luke have to be written after 75 (and possibly as late as 85). Some people object that Matthew and/or Luke couldn’t have been written so late. If Matthew and Luke used Mark, and they are writing after Jerusalem’s fall, why don’t they make a bigger deal of Jesus having predicted the temple’s fall? We don’t know. But we have to be careful about drawing conclusions from what a writer does not say. Both Matthew and Luke let much of their theology be inferred indirectly through allusions and symbolism. So they may just have thought the fulfillment of Jesus’ words was so obvious they didn’t need to emphasize it further. In any case, I think it’s easier to imagine why Matthew and Luke would be low-key on this point than it is to explain away the 2nd century testimony about Mark’s composition.

If Luke wrote Acts after 75, more than a decade after Paul was executed, why does Acts end before Paul’s death? We have to remember that Acts is not a biography of Paul. In fact, Paul doesn’t appear until well into the story. The “main character” of Acts is really Christ himself, present through the Spirit. In Acts 1:8 we are given an outline of the book’s plot: “But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” The narrative then shows how the message of Christ is carried by people empowered by the Spirit, moving outward from Jerusalem to Samaria and other outlying areas, and finally all the way to Rome. Once the message reaches Rome it has arrived symbolically at “the ends of the earth.” So the story is over. The Spirit has done what Jesus promised.

How does Paul know some of Jesus’ teaching if he was writing before the Gospels were written? He has access to the same tradition of eyewitness memory that the evangelists did. We know that Paul spent 15 days in Jerusalem with Peter early on (Gal 1:18), and that later on Peter was staying in Antioch at the same time as Paul (Gal 2:11-14). There is certainly evidence that Paul knew some of Jesus’ teaching in places like 1 Cor 7:10-11 (Jesus’ saying on divorce) and 1 Cor 11:23-26 (the institution of the Lord’s Supper). Since we know, though, that local teachers were repeating Jesus’ sayings on a regular basis in the churches, it shouldn’t surprise us that Paul knows some of these sayings or that the version Paul knows resembles the version that showed up later in the Gospels. Notice that the closest verbatim connection (the institution of the Lord’s Supper) is in a saying that would have been part of the church’s Eucharistic liturgy every week. That is the kind of tradition that we would expect to be very stable. Actually, though, when Paul uses Jesus’ teaching it’s usually through indirect allusions that don’t really tell us what form of tradition Paul had available to him. Indirectly, then, what Paul provides is some evidence for a reliable oral tradition of teaching behind the Synoptic Gospels.

People have sometimes objected that in 2 Cor 8:18 Paul refers to a brother whose has received praise “in the gospel” (ἐν τῷ εὐαγγελίῳ). But in the many places where Paul uses the term “gospel” it never refers to a book. It refers to oral preaching, or to the contents of that message. For Paul the “gospel” is not even teaching about the life of the earthly Jesus. It is the message about Jesus’ significance for human beings now and in the future. In fact, there’s no evidence of “gospel” being used to refer to a book before Justin Martyr in the mid-2nd century. Exactly what the phrase means here is a bit tricky because the grammar of the sentence is awkward. But Paul seems to mean that this brother’s “praise” is for activity “in the sphere of the gospel.” This is likely activity in preaching and spreading the gospel message. (Note that “in the Lord” is used similarly in 2 Cor 2:12.)

I should add, by the way, that while 65 (or 67) can sometimes seem like a late date for Mark’s composition, from the standpoint of historical sources it’s extremely early. Mark was written well within the lifetime of the eyewitnesses to Jesus’ earthly career. Yes, we do have to think about how that memory was preserved for 35 years or so between Easter and Mark’s writing. But if (as is probable) Mark was formulating and recording Peter’s oral teaching, just after Peter’s death, that makes Mark an extremely good historical source on Jesus.

Advertisements