Thursday, December 28, 2006

When Was the Gospel of Mark Written?

Let me start by stating the obvious: I am not a biblical scholar and I'm far from being qualified to contribute anything worth while on this subject... But when has that ever stopped me before?

In my previous post, I touched very briefly on the dating of Mark's gospel. The big question is, was it written before or after the destruction of the temple in 70AD? Every liberal source I've seen tries to suggest a post-70 AD date for the book. I (like most scholars) believe that it was certainly written before 70 AD. There have even been some who suggest that it was written only a few years after the ressurrection of Christ. Although there is some decent discussion there on the subject, many of the arguments from commenters are faulty when you assume that Mark was not an eye witness to most (or any) of the events.

In the link above, some were arguing that because Mark's details aren't exactly the same as other gospels & other historical sources that it couldn't have been written so close to the event. This is not a very convincing argument as we all know people can and do tend to get details badly confused even days after an event took place. Add in many hundreds of days along with not being an eye witness to at least most of the accounts and it makes very easy work out of explaining the discrepancies. Now I'm not saying that I necessarily believe that it was written within a few years but I wouldn't have a problem with a date as early as 42 AD (when St. Peter traditionally came to Rome).

Like I said in my previous post, I think St. Mark probably came to Rome sometime closer to 50 AD and I think that is a more reasonable date. I don't think its too terribly unlikely that he wrote it very shortly after St. Peter's martyrdom in 64-67 AD either (as St. Irenaeus also implies). But I would certainly draw the line at 70 AD. The typical argument is made that since Mark made no direct referrence to the destruction of the temple in Jerusalem (while other gospel authors did), his gospel most likely was written before it happened. (Otherwise, he would have made a bigger deal about Christ's prophecy since it had already been fulfilled).

After St. Peter died, there may have arisen a sort of urgency within the Christian community in Rome to put these things in writing. Before, they were very fortunate to have with them an eyewitness to the events but now with both St. Paul & the bishop St. Peter dead, they had no further eye witnesses. St. Mark was very likely a Palestenian who was at least alive and of some decent age during the ministry of Christ. As explained, it is most likely (from various Church sources) that he had little or no interaction with Christ himself but that he was very familiar with the details because of his extensive association over the years with the apostles (namely Paul & Peter).

Being Peter's personal interpreter (according to St. Papias), he would have had the story of Christ handed directly to him from Peter's perspective. If the community at the time did indeed rise up in a frantic shortly after Peter's martyrdom and request that Mark write down the words that he had been preaching all these years, it would fit very nicely with the manner in which it was written and the surrounding historical events.

It is therefore my (albeit not formally educated) opinion that the gospel of Mark was written between the years of 63 & 68 AD. Although traditionally it was dictacted by St. Peter himself, I find this hard to believe for a couple of reasons.

First there are several times where significant people in the story go unnamed (such as Mary Magdelene (as according to Church tradition it was her) when she poured the expensive perfume over Jesus' head) and St. Peter would have remembered their names and who was doing what I think had he been right there while it was being written.

Second, it is known from other gospel accounts that Peter was the one doing certain things such as in Luke 8:45 when Peter makes the comment about the crowd pressing against Jesus whereas in Mark it is merely an anonymous joint effort by the disciples. Now that particular instance is certainly weak evidence. It's not truly important to know who asked that question. It's remarkable to even remember such a question that many years later. But there are a few other examples like that and the best of which is that Mark records that "one of those standing near" drew his sword and cut of the servant of the high priest's ear while we know from other gospel accounts that it was in fact Peter who did it. Had Peter been dictacting, would he have failed to mention this? There is no reasonable way to suggest that Peter could have forgotten that it was himsef. One more interesting thing on this subject is that Mark's gospel (along with John's) fails to mention that in the account of Christ walking on the lake, Peter also got out of the boat and walked as well. Now this particular issue is not much easier to explain even if Peter had been absent at the time of the writing since (being such a huge part of the story) it would have in all liklihood been included had the author been aware of it. Had he merely been unsure of who it was (which even that would be a bit strange) he has shown elsewhere that he had no qualms about assigning the task to an anonymous disciple. The entire incident is strange to say the least and I don't really know the answer.

Now all this goes without saying, Mark may have started the gospel before the marytrydom of Peter and didn't finish until later (maybe even a couple years later). It is reasonable to assume that if (as St. Clement wrote some 30 years later) 'the greatest and most righteous pillars of the church' (Peter & Paul) were just recently martyred in their very midst, the remaining Christians at the time must have been very cautious and activities such as writing a gospel may have been by necessity put on hold for a while. So the theory that he started before Peter's death and finished within a year or two would reconcile both my personal opinions stated above and (at least somewhat so) the Church tradition that the gospel was dictacted by St. Peter since some of it may well have been.

And now for my arguments from silence. Many historians and students of history have big problems with "arguments from silence" calling them very weak (and in many cases they are). But you cant just discount an argument simply because it belongs to a category of arguments that are sometimes (even often) found to be faulty. (Since some certainly have been true).

With this in mind I want to bring up why I believe in Markan priority (that Mark was written first among the gospels). Some of Matthew's inconsistencies can be readily explained by Markan Priority. Again, most scholars hold the opinion of Markan priority although some have suggested a Lukan priority and others a Matthean priority. There is also the theory of the unknown gospel which we no longer have called "Q" which all three borrowed from. I don't think many scholars today still give that theory much credibility.

I find both Matthean & Lukan priority unreasonable mainly because of Mark's silence on several things that either Matthew, Luke or both Matthew and Luke write. It is clear, that if Matthew and or Luke existed before Mark, Mark certainly used the other(s) as sources since the similarity is so great (both in theme and in actual text). It's hard to believe that Mark borrowed from them because 1, his Greek is the worst of the three according to Greek scholars & 2 he omits details which would be extremely important.

Matthew & Luke both mention the virgin birth. Neither Mark nor John (nor any other of the authors of Scripture) do. That is significant. You cannot say "silence doesn't imply ignorance" for this type of writing. Paul's writings are understandably silent on the miracles of Christ and the virgin birth. But if Mark had known about the virgin birth, he most certainly would have written about it. He also leaves out the account of Jesus raising the widow's son in Nain (mentioned only by Luke) for example and the raising of Lazarus (mentioned only by John). Again, I see this as evidence for ignorance and therefore of Markan priority. If you're writing an apologetic gospel to the gentiles (which he was), you're not going to leave out three (or at least two) of the most incredible parts of the story: miraculous virgin birth and two seperate accounts of Him raising others from the dead.

So, I know controversial opinions are more fun but I'm gonna have to go with the majority on this one and say Mark was written first (among the gospels) and probably around 66 AD give or take 3 years. I wouldn't find it terribly hard to believe though, that Mark could have been written as early as 42 AD or so.

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