Studying the Bible, obviously
The Historical Reliability of Mark's Gospel
- Peter Williams is Warden of Tyndale House, Cambridge; he was previously senior lecturer in New Testament at Aberdeen University. View all resources by Peter Williams
It is impossible
to prove that an ancient account is fully reliable, and the very fact
that Mark’s Gospel records miracles is enough for some people to reject it as a
reliable record. However, provided one is prepared to be open minded about the
possibility of miracles, there are a number of arguments that, I believe,
combine to indicate the historical reliability of Mark’s Gospel.
The name Mark
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 (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.
Mark’s Gospel is held by most scholars to
be the earliest gospel. According to Papias, writing in the early second
century, it was composed in Rome, based on information provided by the Apostle
Peter. In other words it is not written by an eyewitness, but its author was
provided with information by an eyewitness. It was probably written some time
during the 60s of the first century.
The range of languages in Mark
Mark’s Gospel is
written in Greek, yet its language fits well with the idea that it was written
in Rome. The Latin word speculator is used for the executioner (6:27)
and the Latin word centurio occurs rather than the Greek word for
centurion (15:39, 44, 45). A Latin name is also given for a coin, the quadrans
(12:42). Yet at the same time, the author knows Palestine sufficiently
can quote a number of words in Aramaic, which was spoken there. These
5:41; 7:11, 34; 14:36; 15:22, 34. He even knows that speech is
different parts of that country. Latin was hardly used in Palestine
the Roman military) and Aramaic was hardly used in Rome. The range of
knowledge displayed by the author fits well with the traditional
the Gospel was written in Rome on the basis of information given by a
Palestine. It would have been very hard for anyone who had not spent
time in Palestine or at least been with some from Palestine to have
composed this narrative.
No attempt to cover embarrassments
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 (8:14–21), 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.
Lack of embellishment
The Gospel is written in a simple,
straightforward style. Even when miraculous events are reported, the accounts
are generally brief and without a fanfare. In fact the miraculous events are
not the object of focus in themselves, but are used to highlight the question
of the identity of Jesus.
Hallmarks of the teacher
Mark contains three major sections of
teaching by Jesus (chapters 4, 7, and 13) as well as shorter accounts of
teaching. Various features of what is attributed to Jesus suggest that Jesus’
teachings were not invented by Christians, since they use forms of speech and
expressions either not found or rarely attested among early Christians, and they
do not show many of the features of early Christian discourse. For instance,
positively, Jesus regularly referred to himself regularly as the Son of Man, a
phrase not common amongst early Christians, amongst whom he was called the
Christ, Lord, or the Son of God. Or again, Jesus used parables, though these
were not common amongst early Christians either. Negatively, Jesus’ teachings do
not use the titles that were later used of Jesus. Nor do they explicitly cover
many of the issues that early Christians spent time discussing such as the
relationship between Jews and Gentiles, whether or not Christians could eat
food that had been sacrificed to idols, or how churches should be organized.
The manuscript evidence for Mark’s Gospel
is far better than that of most classical works, even though there are fewer
early copies of Mark’s Gospel than of the other Gospels (Matthew, Luke, and
John). The earliest extensive copy of Mark’s Gospel is probably the manuscript
of all four Gospels known as P45 and held in Dublin. It is generally dated to
around AD 225. The gap between the time of composition of a piece of classical
Latin or Greek literature and the earliest extensive copy is usually much
greater than for Mark, and yet classical scholars accept the basic reliability
of the text as transmitted in later manuscripts. However, there are also
indications that Mark’s Gospel was in continuous use among Christians from the
time it was written to the time of our earliest copy.
We have just reviewed a few of a number of
converging lines of argument supporting the view that it is reasonable to take
Mark’s Gospel as historical. The evidence is actually stronger than for many of
the works upon which Greek or Roman history is founded. If it were not for the
extraordinary subject matter of Mark’s Gospel, it is conceivable that there
would not even be debate among historians as to whether or not it is reliable.
© Peter J. Williams 2008