Is the gospel of Mark early? Is it based on eyewitness testimony?

Investigation in progress
Investigation in progress

Sean McDowell tweeted this interesting article from BeThinking.org, written by New Testament historian Peter J. Williams. It contains reasons why Mark is early, eyewitness testimony. I want to focus on the criterion of embarrassment, which says that if a passage contains embarrassing information about the author or the author’s cause, then it’s likely to be historical.

Excerpt:

If it were not for Mark’s Gospel, Mark would be a very minor figure indeed in the beginnings of Christianity. He is certainly not someone you would ascribe Mark’s Gospel to in order to give it more authority, because according to the book of Acts (Acts 13:13 and 15:37) he abandoned Paul, one of the early Christian leaders, during a mission. We can take it therefore that the Gospel is ascribed to him because it genuinely is by him. If it is by him then it has to be written within the lifespan of someone who was an active adult in the 50s and 60s of the first century AD.

Yeah, if you’re going to make up a gospel, and you want people to believe it, then you pick an author who is more famous, like Peter.

More:

Though the Gospel makes extraordinary claims about Jesus’ miraculous activities, it seems to make no attempt to cover up the failures of the early Christian leaders. The disciples are said to misunderstand (8:14–217), argue about who is the greatest (9:34), get angry with two of the leading disciples (10:41), and ultimately abandon Jesus (14:50). The leading disciple, Peter, denied Jesus three times (14:66–72). The most unusual claim that it makes is that someone who underwent a shameful execution designed by the Romans to show that he was a loser, was in fact the Son of God.

It is not just the narrative which tells embarrassing stories, the things said by Jesus could also be profoundly embarrassing. According to 15:34 Jesus died asking why God had forsaken him. It is not likely that people would make up such a saying if it hadn’t really occurred. According to 7:27, Jesus told a non-Jewish woman (a Gentile) that it was not right to take that which belonged to the Jews and throw it to ‘dogs’, meaning Gentiles. This is not something you would make up if you were writing a Gospel and wanted gentiles to become Christians.

Although Williams is right to say that Mark is typically dated to the early 60s, the atheist historian James Crossley dates it 37-43 in his book about the gospel of Mark.

There is a podcast by J. Warner Wallace that has some more interesting information about the gospel of Mark.

The M4A file is here.

Details:

In this blast from the past, J. Warner examines the Gospel of Mark for signs of Peter’s influence. Papias, the early church bishop, claimed Mark’s Gospel was written as he sat at the feet of Peter in Rome. According to Papias, Mark scribed Peter’s sermons and created the narrative we now have in our Bible. In this audio podcast, J. Warner applies Forensic Statement Analysis to Mark’s text to see if Peter’s fingerprints are present.

You can also read a post on some of what is in the podcast, if you don’t want to listen to the podcast.

Here is the part I thought was most interesting:

The Omissions of the Gospel Are Consistent With Peter’s Influence

There are many details in the Gospel of Mark consistent with Peter’s special input and influence, including omissions related to events involving Peter. How can Mark be a memoir of Peter if, in fact, the book contains so many omissions of events involving Peter specifically? It’s important to evaluate the entire catalogue of omissions pertaining to Peter to understand the answer here. The vast majority of these omissions involve incidents in which Peter did or said something rash or embarrassing. It’s not surprising these details were omitted by the author who wanted to protect Peter’s standing in the Christian community. Mark was quite discreet in his retelling of the narrative (other Gospel writers who were present at the time do, however, provide details of Peters ‘indiscretions’ in their own accounts). Here are some examples of Petrine Omissions grounded in an effort to minimize embarrassment to Peter (see Cold-Case Christianity for a more detailed explanation of the events summarized here):

Peter’s shame at the “Miraculous Catch”
(Mark 1:16-120 compared to Luke 5:1-11)

Peter’s foolish statement at the crowded healing
(Mark 5:21-34 compared to Luke 8:42-48)

Peter’s lack of understanding related to the parable
(Mark 7:14-19 compared to Matthew 15:10-18 and Acts 10:9-16)

Peter’s lack of faith on the lake
(Mark 6:45 compared to Matthew 14:22-33)

Peter’s rash statement to Jesus
(Mark 8:31-33 compared to Matthew 16:21-23)

Peter’s statement related to money
(Mark 10:23-31 compared to Matthew 19:23-30)

Jesus’ prediction of Peter’s denial
(Mark 14:27-31 compared to Luke 22:31-34 and John 13:34-38)

Peter’s behavior at the foot-washing
(Mark 14:22-26 compared to John 13:2-9)

Peter’s denial and Jesus’ direct stare
(Mark 14:66-72 compared to Luke 22:54-62)

There are a number of places in the Gospel of Mark where details related specifically to the words and actions of Peter have been omitted in what appears to be an effort to protect Peter from embarrassment. This doesn’t mean Peter failed to talk about these things. He may very well have included them in his sermons and teachings. But Mark, his scribe and close friend, simply chose to omit these details related to Peter, either at Peter’s request or on his own initiative.

Mark doesn’t want to annoy his source, Peter, by calling him out for making mistakes. He has to include the embarrassing stories, but it’s less harsh than in other gospels.

Here’s another blog post from Cold Case Christianity on the same topic.

By the way, when you read the Bible, you should definitely try to put the character of Jesus into practice. My pastor has just been doing sermons on John 21 and he made a big deal out of the way that Jesus reconciles with Peter. What does Jesus do? Well, there is a charcoal fire nearby at the triple denial of Jesus scene. And when Jesus makes Peter and the others breakfast, there is a charcoal fire and a triple affirmation of Jesus. My pastor says that there are no other charcoal fires anywhere in the gospel. Jesus decided to make the restoration of Peter memorable for Peter.

So, when you have a chance to get someone back on board with a worthy mission, you should be thoughtful about how they gave it up, and take them back in a way that makes them feel that the past mistakes were canceled out.

2 thoughts on “Is the gospel of Mark early? Is it based on eyewitness testimony?”

  1. Posts like this and many of the apologetics ones are ones I like here the most. They are often commented on the least because other than an ability to like or say amen there is little to add

    Like

  2. Not many writings outside of the bible believe in having the embarrassing moments.

    To a Christian these moments are both a tool of apologetics, and also an example of grace working through a believer. God choosing to use flawed people to do his work and a promise that anyone that honestly believes and follows God in truth not just based upon feelings can be used.

    Mistakes will come but God forgives those that truly repent.

    There is a real depth to how the philosophy and practical use of the bible works in the world

    Like

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