Author of Mark's Gospel

By Mary Jane Chaignot

Categories: Acts, Gospel of Mark


When Peter escaped from prison (see Acts 12) he went to the home of "Mary, mother of John also called Mark, where many people were praying." Is this the same Mark who wrote the Gospel of Mark?


Like so many other books of the Bible, the author of Mark remains anonymous. That has not stopped scholars from speculating about his identity. The ascription, "The Gospel According to Mark" was probably attached to the Gospel in about the middle of the second century. The first discussion of authorship dates back to the time of Papias, the Bishop of Hierapolis, whose writings date from 110-130 CE. Papias wrote an Exegesis of the Lord's Oracles, in which he states, "Mark became Peter's interpreter and wrote accurately all that he remembered, not, indeed, in order, of the things said or done by the Lord. For Mark had not heard the Lord, nor had he followed him, but later on, as I said, he followed Peter, who used to give teaching as necessity demanded but not making, as it were, an arrangement of the Lord's oracles." This quote has been preserved in Eusebius' History of the Church (ca 320s). This suggests that the author of Mark was one of Peter's followers. That relationship is affirmed by Irenaeus of Lyons (ca 180 CE), Clement of Alexandria (ca 200 CE), Tetullian (ca 210 CE), Origen (ca 250 CE), and even some heretical documents. So most scholars accept that the author was someone named Mark.

Was he the John Mark mentioned in Acts? From Acts, we know that John Mark was the nephew of Barnabas. His mother was a wealthy woman with a house large enough to hold meetings for early Christians (Acts 12:12). He traveled with Paul and Barnabas to Jerusalem from Syrian Antioch (12:25). From there, they went to Cyprus (13:5). Mark left them in Perga (13:13) for unknown reasons, and Paul refused to take him back after that. It resulted in a split between Paul and Barnabas, who left Paul and accompanied Mark back to Cyprus (15:37-39).

The rift between Mark and Paul appears to have been resolved at some point. Paul mentions that Mark was with him in Colossians 4:10 and Philemon 24. In 2 Timothy 4:11 he requests that Mark come to him in Rome. That would conveniently place Mark with Paul and in Rome. Yet, Pauline authorship of two of these books is doubtful, so it doesn't help much. On the other hand, 1 Peter places Mark with Peter in Rome (see 5:13). Later traditions claim that Mark was a bishop in Alexandria at some point. Hippolytus described him as being "stump fingered." A later document claims he was martyred.

There is nothing from the two traditions that would prohibit John Mark from being the author of Mark's Gospel, but scholars are reluctant to make the connection with absolute certainty. One of the arguments comes from the Greek syntax and diction of Mark's Gospel. It is the Greek of a native speaker, though not one particularly sophisticated, so he would have been uneducated. The word that Papias uses in saying that Mark was Peter's "interpreter," could also mean "translator." Presumably Peter needed a translator when speaking to Greek audiences. But would John Mark have been a native Greek speaker if he had grown up Jewish? Most scholars think his native language would have been Aramaic because of this. Likewise, he just doesn't seem very "Jewish" because his Old Testament quotes mostly come from the Greek version as opposed to the Hebrew text. Nor does he seem to have a great knowledge of customs and geography. Some scholars wonder whether Papias connected Mark with Peter on the basis of what had been written in 1 Peter.

Lastly, there were many people named Mark in the first century. It's definitely possible that two (or more) people by this name were involved in the early Christian community. Though it's possible, the tradition can neither be affirmed nor denied. And perhaps, that is as it should be. Mark stays in the background so that Jesus can be in the foreground. We don't know his name because that is exactly how he wanted it to be.

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