The authorship of the Gospels is a matter of considerable debate amongst skeptics and critics of the New Testament canon. Mark’s Gospel is an early record of Jesus’ life, ministry, death and resurrection, but Mark isn’t mentioned as an eyewitness in any of the Gospel accounts. How did Mark get his information about Jesus? There are several historical clues:
Papias said Mark scribed Peter’s teachings
Bishop Papias of Hierapolis (60-130AD) repeated the testimony of the old presbyters (disciples of the Apostles) who claimed Mark wrote his Gospel in Rome as he scribed the preaching of Peter (Ecclesiastical History Book 2 Chapter 15, Book 3 Chapter 30 and Book 6 Chapter 14). Papias wrote a five volume work entitled, “Interpretation of the Oracles of the Lord”. In this treatise (which no longer exists), he quoted someone he identified as ‘the elder’, (most likely John the elder), a man who held considerable authority in Asia:
“And the elder used to say this, Mark became Peter’s interpreter and wrote accurately all that he remembered, not, indeed, in order, of the things said and done by the Lord. For he had not heard the Lord, nor had followed him, but later on, followed Peter, who used to give teaching as necessity demanded but not making, as it were, an arrangement of the Lord’s oracles, so that Mark did nothing wrong in thus writing down single points as he remembered them. For to one thing he gave attention, to leave out nothing of what he had heard and to make no false statements in them.”
Irenaeus said Mark wrote his Gospel from Peter’s teaching
In his book, “Against Heresies” (Book 3 Chapter 1), Irenaeus (130-200AD) also reported Mark penned his Gospel as a scribe for Peter, adding the following detail:
“Matthew composed his gospel among the Hebrews in their own language, while Peter and Paul proclaimed the gospel in Rome and founded the community. After their departure, Mark, the disciple and interpreter of Peter, handed on his preaching to us in written form”
Justin identified Mark’s Gospel with Peter
Early Christian apologist, Justin Martyr, wrote “Dialogue with Trypho” (approximately 150AD) and included this interesting passage:
“It is said that he [Jesus] changed the name of one of the apostles to Peter; and it is written in his memoirs that he changed the names of others, two brothers, the sons of Zebedee, to Boanerges, which means ‘sons of thunder’….”
Justin, therefore, identified a particular Gospel as the ‘memoir’ of Peter and said this memoir described the sons of Zebedee as the ‘sons of thunder’. Only Mark’s Gospel describes John and James in this way, so it is reasonable to assume that the Gospel of Mark is the memoir of Peter.
Clement said Mark recorded Peter’s Roman preaching
Clement of Alexandria (150-215AD) wrote a book entitled “Hypotyposeis” (Ecclesiastical History Book 2 Chapter 15). In this ancient book, Clement refers to a tradition handed down from the “elders from the beginning”:
“And so great a joy of light shone upon the minds of the hearers of Peter that they were not satisfied with merely a single hearing or with the unwritten teaching of the divine gospel, but with all sorts of entreaties they besought Mark, who was a follower of Peter and whose gospel is extant, to leave behind with them in writing a record of the teaching passed on to them orally; and they did not cease until they had prevailed upon the man and so became responsible for the Scripture for reading in the churches.”
Eusebius also wrote an additional detail (Ecclesiastical History Book 6 Chapter 14) related to Mark’s work with Peter:
“The Gospel according to Mark had this occasion. As Peter had preached the Word publicly at Rome, and declared the Gospel by the Spirit, many who were present requested that Mark, who had followed him for a long time and remembered his sayings, should write them out. And having composed the Gospel he gave it to those who had requested it. When Peter learned of this, he neither directly forbade nor encouraged it.”
This additional piece of information related to Peter’s reaction to Mark’s work is important, because it demonstrates that Clement is not simply repeating the information first established by Papias, but seems to have an additional source that provided him with something more, and something slightly different than Papias.
Tertullian affirmed Peter’s influence on the Gospel of Mark
Early Christian theologian and apologist, Tertullian (160-225AD), wrote a book that refuted the theology and authority of Marcion. The book was appropriately called, “Against Marcion” and in Book 4 Chapter 5, he described the Gospel of Mark:
“While that [gospel] which Mark published may be affirmed to be Peter’s whose interpreter Mark was.”
The Muratorian Fragment confirmed Mark’s relationship to Peter
The Muratorian Fragment is the oldest known list of New Testament books. Commonly dated to approximately 170AD, the first line reads:
“But he was present among them, and so he put [the facts down in his Gospel]”
This appears to be a reference to Mark’s presence at Peter’s talks and sermons in Rome, and the fact that he then recorded these messages then became the Gospel of Mark.
Origen attributed Mark’s Gospel to Peter
Eusebius (Ecclesiastical History Book 6 Chapter 25) quoted a Gospel Commentary written by Origen (an early church father and theologian who lived 185-254AD) that explains the origin of the Gospels. This commentary also attributes the Gospel of Mark to Peter:
“In his first book on Matthew’s Gospel, maintaining the Canon of the Church, he testifies that he knows only four Gospels, writing as follows: Among the four Gospels, which are the only indisputable ones in the Church of God under heaven, I have learned by tradition that the first was written by Matthew, who was once a publican, but afterwards an apostle of Jesus Christ, and it was prepared for the converts from Judaism, and published in the Hebrew language. The second is by Mark, who composed it according to the instructions of Peter, who in his Catholic epistle acknowledges him as a son, saying, ‘The church that is at Babylon elected together with you, salutes you, and so does Marcus, my son.’ 1 Peter 5:13 And the third by Luke, the Gospel commended by Paul, and composed for Gentile converts. Last of all that by John.”
An Anti-Marcionite Prologue affirmed Peter’s connection to Mark
There are three Gospel ‘prologues’ that appear in many Latin Bibles from antiquity. Known as the “Anti-Marcionite Prologues”, they date to the 4th century or earlier. The prologue for the Gospel of Mark is particularly interesting:
“Mark declared, who is called ‘stump-fingered,’ because he had rather small fingers in comparison with the stature of the rest of his body. He was the interpreter of Peter. After the death of Peter himself he wrote down this same gospel in the regions of Italy.”
Now, it can be argued that Papias’ description of Mark’s collaboration with Peter in Rome is the earliest description available to us. In fact, skeptics have tried to argue that later Church sources are simply parroting Papias when they connect Mark to Peter. But there is no evidence to suggest that Papias is the sole source of information related to Peter and Mark, particularly when considering the slight variations in the subsequent attributions (such as Clement’s version). The subtle differences suggest that the claims came from different original sources. In addition, Justin Martyr’s tangential reference to the ‘sons of thunder’ strengthens the support for Peter’s involvement coming from a source other than Papias (who never makes this connection). In essence, a claim of dependency on Papias lacks specific evidence, and even if this were the case, there is no reason to doubt the accuracy of Papias’ original claim in the first place. The consistent record of history identifies Mark’s Gospel as a memoir of Peter’s life with Jesus.