How old is Mark?

The way I figure it, if you’ve written a paper on when the gospel of Mark was written, and you have a blog, well then…

THE DATE OF THE GOSPEL OF MARK

While it is impossible to determine precisely or with certainty the date the gospel of Mark was written, there is sufficient evidence, both internal and external, upon which reasonable theories may be supported.  The external evidence consistently favors a date prior to the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 C.E.  Until recently, analysts and commentators relying on internal evidence have favored a date following the destruction of the Temple.  Contemporary scholarship has, however, called seriously into question the conclusion that internal evidence suggests a later date.  Although precise dating of the gospel remains impossible, this paper will argue that the greater weight of the evidence supports the conclusion that the gospel was composed before the destruction of the Temple.

The External Evidence.  

The gospel of Mark includes no specific reference to its date of composition, nor any explicit suggestion of that date.  In the absence of any such specific or conclusive “internal evidence” (evidence internal to the text itself), it seems reasonable to begin the search for an answer by reviewing the extant “external evidence.” 

The earliest relevant external evidence is from the Second Century, and places the date of authorship just prior to, or immediately following, the death of Peter.  The earliest is the Anti-Marcionite prologue, which was written in approximately 160 C.E. and specifically states that the gospel was written prior to Peter’s death, by Mark, Peter’s interpreter.Irenaeus, writing during approximately the same period, also identified Mark as the interpreter of Peter, and indicated that gospel was written shortly after Peter’s death.2  Other early external evidence insists that the gospel was written while Peter was still alive, and would therefore place the date even earlier.  Clement of Alexandria, Eusebius and Origen each report that the gospel was created during Peter’s lifetime, although Clement contended that a second version was also written after Peter’s death.3 

Tradition uniformly holds that Peter was executed in Rome during Nero’s persecution of the church, between 64 and 68.  Thus, the evidence of these early writings would set authorship of Mark no earlier than the mid to late 60’s.

Thus, while the early external evidence is imprecise, it all points to a date shortly before or after the martyrdom of Peter.   “It is no longer possible to judge which of these two traditions is correct, but combined external evidence, at any rate, locates the composition of Mark toward the end of Peter’s life or shortly thereafter…External evidence thus suggests a date for Mark in the mid to late 60s of the first century.”4

Internal Evidence Suggesting a Post-70 Date.

Relying on “internal evidence” that suggests a date of authorship, many scholars have concluded that the gospel was written after the Roman destruction of the Second Temple in 70.  Their argument rests principally on the contention that Chapter 13 refers to the destruction of the temple by the Romans and reveals that the author had knowledge of that event. 

In 66 C.E. a rebellion against Roman authority began in Judea, which eventually escalated into a full-blown war, culminating with the Roman siege and eventual of destruction of Jerusalem.  The destruction the Temple, which embodied the Jewish religious and national identity, was a profound shock to the Jewish people, the ramifications of which are still being felt nearly 2000 years later.

In Mark 13:1-2 Jesus predicts the destruction of the Temple. When asked when the catastrophe would occur, he describes, in apocalyptic language, a series of events that end with “the Son of Man coming in clouds with great power and glory.”   An indication that these events are underway is to be “the abomination that causes desolation standing where it does not belong.”  Mark 13: 3-27.

Most academic scholarship disregards the possibility that Jesus could have accurately foretold future events.  Rather, if the gospel reports that Jesus predicted the destruction of the Temple, an event that did not occur until over thirty years after Jesus’ death, then most scholars would conclude simply that the author of the gospel must have invented the prediction, or at least must have conformed the actual words of Jesus to the events that later occurred.   Thus, because Mark includes a prediction of the destruction of the Temple, an event that occurred in 70, then, the reasoning goes, the gospel must have been written after 70.     

The reference to the impending destruction of the Temple in Mark 3:1-2 has therefore led many scholars to date the gospel after 70.   A majority of modern commentators have taken this position.

Internal Evidence for a Date Before 70.

In the absence of any internal evidence of a date before 70, it might seem that the scales should tip in favor of the post-70 date, assuming no credit is given to the possibility that Jesus could foresee the future.  While the early external evidence suggests a pre-70 date, there is no way to verify the accuracy of the tradition represented in the early writings.  Further, the early external evidence is not consistent with respect to whether the gospel was written before or after Peter’s death.  Moreover, tradition is the only evidence of the date of Peter’s death.   Finally, a date after Peter’s death would not necessarily preclude a date after the destruction of the Temple.  Balanced against such evidently flimsy evidence is the fact that the Temple was indeed destroyed in 70, and Mark 13:1-2 does indeed predict that destruction.  Leaving aside the possibility of supernaturality, if Mark was written before the destruction occurred, then this prediction would have been nothing more than a lucky guess.  Thus, the most rational explanation would seem to be a post-70 authorship.

In fact, however, there is considerable internal evidence that supports a pre-70 date, and that rebuts the notion that Mark 13 was written with the events of 70 in mind.  This evidence, in my judgment, tips the scales in favor of a pre-70 date, even if no credit is given to the possibility of an accurate recordation of a prophecy that was later fulfilled.

James Crossley, building upon scholarship begun by his mentor Maurice Casey, argues that the Jesus depicted in Mark was Torah-observant, leading Crossley to conclude that the gospel was written before Paul’s successful evangelism to Gentiles.  Crossley argues that while Matthew and Luke depict Jesus in controversy with Jewish authorities over the observance of the Law, Mark does not, therefore suggesting that Mark was written before the evangelism to Gentiles caused the controversies over observance of ritual law to arise.  Crossley concludes that Mark was written in the mid-30s to mid-40s.5

After considering the internal evidence, Ben Witherington concludes, based upon Mark’s emphasis on persevering during persecution, and its apparent intended audience of both Jews and Gentiles, that it was written between 66 and 70:

It seems likely to me that Mark’s gospel must have been written at a time when Christians (and Jews) were in danger of persecution and at a time when a large part of the audience Mark was addressing were Gentile Christians. This best suits the period after the missionary work of Paul had had considerable success.  In short it bests suits a period at least a couple of decades after AD 40.  No period better suits the evidence internal and external than that of the Jewish war against Rome which led to the destruction of the temple in Jerusalem.  Thus we must date this work from 66 to 70, and probably closer to the latter.6

            Gerd Theissen dates the gospel around 39-40, based upon his conclusion that the apocalypse of Chapter 13 was a response to Caligula’s attempt to have a statue of himself placed in the temple during the late 30s.7 

            John Kloppenborg argues that Mark 13:2 “presupposes awareness of Roman siege tactics and, in particular, the ritual of evocatio and the separation of an enemy from its protective deity preliminary to the razing of a town and its temples.”8  Thus, the writer need only have anticipated the eventual battle with the Romans to record the prediction.

            Among the circumstantial internal evidence suggesting an early date is the fact that Mark, unlike Matthew and Luke (which are generally regarded as having used Mark as a source), presupposes the reader’s awareness of “the religious topography of Judea,” and as well as personages of the era.  This is suggestive of an early date, at which the audience would have been expected to have an awareness of contemporary matters.9 

            James Edwards cites several arguments for a pre-70 date, based upon internal evidence.  The emphasis on suffering discipleship leads him to conclude that the gospel was likely written during a time of Christian persecution.  This, he concludes, suggests a date coinciding with Nero’s persecution that began shortly after 64.  Edwards argues that the reference to Jesus’ temptation having occurred among “wild animals” (1:13),  “is a veiled reference to the Neronian persecution.”10  “Given the above arguments for the Neronian persecution as a backdrop of Mark, it is not implausible that Mark includes a reference to wild beasts in the temptation account of Jesus in order to encourage Roman Christians undergoing Nero’s atrocities that Jesus himself faced wild beasts—and in so doing was ministered to by angels.”11  Edwards concludes that “a combination of external and internal data appears to point to a composition of the Gospel of Mark in Rome between the great fire in 64 and the siege and destruction of Jerusalem by Titus in 70, that is, about the year 65.”12

The most compelling internal evidence in opposition to the post-70 date, however, is that which relates to very event upon which the post-70 adherents generally rely—Chapter 13 and the destruction of the Temple.  Because the gospel’s description of the destruction of the Temple, and the events surrounding it, are not true to history, then one can reasonably conclude that the author did not invent the prophecy after the fact.  Obviously it would make no sense to create a prediction post-facto that is incorrect on important details.  The fact that the prediction and apocalypse of chapter 13 do not truly match the historical detail is compelling evidence therefore, that Mark was written before the events described in Chapter 13, rather than after them. 

As Robert Guelich puts it:

A detailed analysis of Mark 13:14 set against the historical background of the war in 67-70 shows that the events described in much of the current scholarship with the fall of Jerusalem and the destruction of the Temple simply do not fit with this verse that contains both a reference to the “abomination of desolation” and the note about fleeing “into the hills.13

Kloppenborg collects and cites much of the scholarship that details inconsistencies between the events of 70 and the descriptions in Mark 13.  These include the fact that anyone familiar with the Roman siege of Jerusalem would have known that flight to the mountains (as urged in verse 14) would have been impossible, and pointless in any event, given that the Romans occupied the surrounding mountains.  Further, the verb tense used in the text with regard to the “abomination” suggests “a permanent state of affairs associated with a specific person,” yet Titus (the presumed “abomination”) was only briefly in the Temple area.  Moreover, only the Roman troops in the vicinity would have been able to “see” him.  Likewise, if the author knew the details of the destruction of the Temple, which occurred in August, it would make little sense to urge readers to “pray that this will not take place in winter.”  Further, although the Temple was destroyed, it was not literally left with no stone standing on another, as predicted in verse one.   Perhaps most tellingly, the author makes no reference to the fire which destroyed the Temple during the siege, a fact that would have been well-known to a late first century audience.  Kloppenborg concludes, “Thus, it seems unlikely that Mark 13:14 was specifically formulated with Titus’s desecration of the temple area in mind, since it so poorly fits the details.”14  Edwards reaches a similar conclusion:  “If Mark knew of the fall of Jerusalem, one would expect a more obvious correlation with the Roman siege, as is apparent in Luke 21:20, 24, for example.  The evidence related to Mark 13:14 thus suggests a time prior to the fall of Jerusalem in 70.”15

Conclusion.

Any ultimate conclusion regarding the date of Mark can only be made with guarded confidence.  There simply is no evidence, singularly or collectively, that compels a definitive conclusion to the exclusion of any other. 

The greater weight of the evidence, however, falls with those who advocate a date prior to 70.  The fact that the internal evidence is more suggestive of a pre-70 date, and the fact that the early external evidence favors a pre-70 date, leads to the conclusion that unless and until some new information is discovered, the safest conclusion is that the gospel was written prior to the Roman destruction of the Second Temple.

NOTES

1.  The “Anti-Marcionite prologues” appear in some ancient Vulgate Bibles.  The prologue to Mark reads:  Mark made his assertion, who was also named stubby-fingers, on account that he had in comparison to the length of the rest of his body shorter fingers. He was a disciple and interpreter of Peter, whom he followed just as he heard him report. When he was requested at Rome by the brethren, he briefly wrote this gospel in parts of Italy. When Peter heard this, he approved and affirmed it by his own authority for the reading of the church. Truly, after the departure of Peter, this gospel which he himself put together having been taken up, he went away into Egypt and, ordained as the first bishop of Alexandria, announcing Christ, he constituted a church there. It was of such teaching and continence of life that it compels all followers of Christ to imitate its example.  See http://www.textexcavation.com/latinprologues.html

2.  Edwards, James R., The Gospel According to Mark (Wm.B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2002), p.6.  “And after the death of these (Peter and Paul) Mark the disciple and interpreter of Peter, also handed down to us in writing the things preached by Peter.” Adv. Haer. 3. 1. 2 in H.E. 5.8.2-4.

Quoted in http://www.abu.nb.ca/courses/NTIntro/Mark.htm

3.  Edwards, p.6.   “When Peter had preached the gospel publicly in Rome…those who were present…besought Mark, since he had followed him (Peter) for a long time and remembered the things that had been spoken, to write out the things that had been said; and when he had done this he gave the gospel to those who asked him. When Peter learned of it later, he neither obstructed nor commended”.  Quoted in http://www.abu.nb.ca/courses/NTIntro/Mark.htm

4.  Edwards, p.7.  Some have attempted to argue that there were fragments of Mark among the scrolls found at Qumran, dated paleographically to 50 C.E.  The evidence is unconvincing and generally unaccepted.  See Lane, William F., The Gospel According to Mark (Grand Rapids:  William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1974), pp. 18-21.

5.  Crossley, James G., The Date of Mark’s Gospel:  Insight from the Law in Earliest Christianity (London:  T&T Clark, 2004).

6.   Witherington, Ben, The Gospel of Mark:  A Socio-Rhetorical Commentary (Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing, 2001).

 

7.   Theissen, Gerd, The Gospels in Context (Edinburgh:  T&T Clark, 1992), p. 161.

8.  Kloppenborg, John S., “Evocatio Deorum and the Date of Mark, Journal of Biblical Literature,” Vol. 124/3, p. 450.

9.  See Ibid, pp. 421-22. 

10.  Edwards, p. 8.

 11.  Ibid

12.  Ibid., p. 9 

13.  Guelich, World Biblical Commentary Vol. 34 A:  Mark 1-8:26 (Dallas:  Word Books, 1989).

14.  Kloppenborg, p. 424.  Crossley also argues extensively that Mark 13 does not place the gospel’s date after the destruction of the Temple. 

15.  Edwards, p. 8.

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