Did Mark Get his Gospel from Peter?

Did Mark Get his Gospel from Peter? July 5, 2015

I doubt the tradition that John Mark got the information for his Gospel of Mark in the New Testament (NT) from listening to the Apostle Peter. Several church fathers attest to this in their writings, but they all may have gotten it from Clement. If so, it could be regarded as flimsy evidence.

I doubt this because most people who state this tradition do not examine the Gospel of Mark itself to see if it could corroborate or perhaps oppose this patristic tradition that Mark got his gospel from Peter. Let’s first consider this patrisic testimony to this tradition and then examine Mark’s gospel.

Fourth century, preeminent church historian Eusebius tells about it by saying in his Ecclesiastical History, Book II, Chapter XV, that Peter’s hearers did

solicit Mark, as the companion of Peter, and whose gospel we have, that he should leave them a monument of the doctrine thus orally communicated, in writing. Nor did they cease their solicitations until they had prevailed with the man, and thus become the means of that history which is called the Gospel according to Mark. They say also, that the apostle (Peter), having ascertained what was done by the revelation of the spirit, was delighted with the zealous ardour expressed by these men, and that the history obtained his authority for the purpose of being read in the churches. This account is given by Clement, in the sixth book of his Institutions, whose testimony is corroborated also by that of Papias, bishop of Hierapolis. But Peter makes mention of Mark in the first epistle, which he is also said to have composed at the same city of Rome, and that he shows this fact, by calling the city by an unusual trope, Babylon; thus, “The church at Babylon, elected together with you, saluteth you, as also my son Marcus.” 1 Pet v. 13.

Now, as to Mark’s authorship of the Second Gospel, none of the authors of the four NT gospels identify themselves. Patristic tradition says John Mark wrote it. He is mentioned three times in the book of Acts. First, an angel freed the imprisoned Apostle Peter (Acts 12.3-11), and “he went to the house of Mary, the mother of John whose other name was Mark” (v. 12 NRSV here and throughout unless otherwise noted). Tradition also says the Last Supper and first gathering of the disciples on Easter evening, when the risen Jesus first appeared to them, all occurred in an Upper Room in a house in Jerusalem that was owned by John Mark’s mother. Second, “Barnabas and Saul [Paul] returned to Jerusalem and brought with them John, whose other name was Mark” (Acts 12.25). Third, Paul and Barnabas disagreed and went their separate ways in ministry, all due to John Mark (Acts 15.36-39).

Maybe this John Mark wrote the Gospel of Mark. But did he get his information in it primarily from listening to the Apostle Peter? I think certain portions of this gospel suggest that he did not.

First, the most pivotal event in Jesus’ public ministry was surely what enabled it–his receiving of the Holy Spirit when his cousin John baptized him in the Jordan River–and the second most pivotal event in Jesus’ public ministry was when he took his apostles to Caesarea Philippi and asked them who he was. According to Matthew Peter replied, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God” (Matt 16.16 NIV). Mark says Peter said, “You are the Christ” (Mark 8.29 NIV). Luke says Peter said, “The Christ of God” (Luke 9.20 NIV). Some versions, such as the NRSV, render it “Messiah” rather than “Christ,” but the two are equivalent. The Jewish Bible predicted that the Messiah, meaning “anointed one,” would come to deliver Israel from its enemies and make it a great nation. Matthew then records that, apparently because Peter spoke up and affirmed Jesus’ true identity, Jesus then made a most profound pronouncement about Peter, yet Mark and Luke surprisingly do not record it.

Matthew then says of Peter, “And Jesus answered him, ‘Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father in heaven. And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not prevail against it. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven'” (Matt 16.17-19). Jesus afterwards told them not to tell anyone that he was the Christ. He did not mean to deny he was the Christ, but that he had important reasons for keeping it quiet until the proper time. Scholars call it “the Messianic Secret.”

This promise of Jesus to give Peter the keys of the kingdom of heaven is important to keep in mind when reading the first ten chapters of the book Acts since much of it is about the activities of Peter as leader of the church. But due to this single omission in the Gospel of Mark, about Jesus promising Peter the keys, I seriously doubt that John Mark got most of his information in this gospel from Peter. I think as it turned out, this promise and later actualization were the most important things that ever happened to Peter regarding his Christian ministry.

But there are other glaring omissions in Mark’s gospel about Peter. Another regards the incident about someone cutting off a person’s ear when Judas betrayed Jesus and then the authorities arrested Jesus. All four NT gospels record this incident. Mark says of Judas and Jesus, “So when he came, he went up to him at once and said, ‘Rabbi!’ and kissed him. Then they laid hands on him and arrested him. But one of those who stood near drew his sword and struck the slave of the high priest, cutting off his ear” (Mark 14.45-47).

Mark then quotes a remark Jesus made to the authorities and then says of the disciples, “All of them deserted him and fled. A certain young man was following him, wearing nothing but a linen cloth. They caught hold of him, but he left the linen cloth and ran off naked” (vv. 51-52). Tradition says this guy was John Mark. And some critics have had a heyday accusing him of being homosexual due to only wearing a linen cloth. But we don’t know the circumstances. He could have been asleep wearing this garment as bed clothing when he was awakened just before this alarming event.

Now, Matthew, Mark, and Luke all record verbatim that someone drew his sword and “struck the slave of the high priest, and cut off his ear.” Only Luke adds concerning Jesus, “he touched his ear and healed him” (Luke 22.51). It is so remarkable that Mark doesn’t say this or identify who cut the man’s ear off because of what the Fourth Gospel says about this entire incident. It says, “Then Simon Peter, who had a sword, drew it, struck the high priest’s slave, and cut off his ear. The slave’s name was Malchus. Jesus said to Peter, ‘Put your sword back into its sheath. Am I not to drink the cup that the Father has given me?'” (John 18.10-11).

This act of Peter was now a second critical moment in Jesus’ pre-Easter career when Peter said or did something unknowingly that seemingly could have led to the thwarting of God’s main mission for Jesus–of going to the cross to die for our sins. The other time was right after Jesus promised Peter the kingdom keys. Jesus then unambiguously and privately told his apostles for the first time that he would be killed by the religious authorities and rise from the dead on the third day (Matt 16.21; Mark 8.31; Luke 9.22). Then Matthew and Mark report, “Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him,” as if Peter was Jesus’ manager (Mark 8.32). Mark continues concerning Jesus, “But turning and looking at his disciples, he rebuked Peter and said, ‘Get behind me, Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things'” (v. 33). Was Jesus talking to Peter or Satan or both? The word in the Greek text here translated “Satan” is satana, a noun that means “accuser.” Peter was accusing Jesus of having wrong intentions. How so? Peter had just identified Jesus as Israel’s promised Messiah, and Jesus obviously accepted this identification. Jews certainly did not believe the Messiah, as their promised deliverer, was going to be killed. But they got it wrong because they did not understand that the cross must come before the crown and therefore there will be two comings of King-Messiah Jesus.

Why does a certain NT gospel sometimes provide information that the others do not, such as John here? I think sometimes it is because Matthew and John were among the twelve apostles and therefore would have been eyewitnesses, whereas Mark and Luke were not. Thus, the Gospel of John probably identifies Peter as the one who cut off the slave’s ear because John was an eyewitness. And he may have provided the man’s name because he knew the high priest, others in his family, and perhaps some servants. Why? According to tradition, John and his brother James owned a house in Jerusalem where they came and stayed periodically to sell their salted fish to many in Jerusalem due to their fishing business in partnership with brothers Andrew and Peter (Matt 4.18-22; Luke 5.10).

There are other omissions in the Gospel of Mark, such as the information in the Gospel of John about Peter and John being the first apostles to discover Jesus’ tomb emtpy.

Eusebius, quoted above, and many others claim John Mark was Peter’s associate based on 1 Peter 5.13, suggesting he might have been Peter’s amaneunsis (literary secretary). This text has been variously translated due to difficulty with the Greek word suneklekte as to whether it means an actual woman or church congregation. The NRSV has, “Your sister church in Babylon, chosen together with you, sends you greetings, and so does my son Mark.” But the NIV translates it “She.” If correct, it may refer to Peter’s wife (cf. 1 Corinthians 9.5), so that “Mark” likely would refer to Peter’s actual son. Now, almost all scholars agree with Eusebius’ identification of “Babylon” in this text as a code word for “Rome.” I heartily disagree. Peter was the prime apostle to the Jews. This letter is written “To the [Jewish] exiles of the Dispersion in Pontus, Galatia, Cappadocia, Asia, and Bithynia” (1 Peter 1.1). These places were in present Turkey, thus a few hundred miles north-northwest of the ruins of the great, ancient city of Babylon in present central Iraq. At this time a sizeable Jewish population was known to have existed at this Babylon. And knowing Peter, it is unlikely he would have used a code word for Rome. Paul didn’t.

Regardless of such minor details, I think the above two omissions in the Gospel of Mark are sufficient to give us pause and thus doubt that the patristic testimony is correct, that Peter contributed most of the information in the Gospel of Mark.

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  • Keefa

    Hi Kermit Zarley. Where do you think Mark perhaps retrieved his information from, who provided him with the eyewitness accounts? Nice point about Babylon, I don’t think Mark was using Babylon as a code word for “Rome’

    • kzarley

      Goog question that I didn’t address in the post because I don’t have any clue. At least the synoptic gospels originated from oral tradition more than we have thought.

  • James Chappell

    Kermit, I have just started following you because I am interested in your views on the Trinity and have set aside some time to read your papers on it.

    Regarding this issue, I started reading Baukham’s Jesus and the Eyewitnesses some time ago but got sidetracked, and am wondering whether this article refers to Bauckham’s proposal that Mark got his information from Peter? I admit I am not exactly an expert on this, but I found Bauckham’s proposal to be at least a possibility.

    Is this a direct response to Bauckham? I may have to go back and re-read if so, because you seem to have a good case here.

    • kzarley

      The view that Peter evangelized Italy, Mark was his translator there, and he wrote his Gospel of Mark based on his reminences of what Peter said, originates with early church father Papias. But whether or not that is correct has nothing to do with my book The Restitution of Jesus Christ and thus my non-Trinitarian views or Bauckham’s viewpoint on the origin of G of Mark.

      • James Chappell

        I am actually referring to the post on which I commented, not your published works. I was only mentioning your series of papers regarding the Trinity because of how they brought your work to my attention. I am sorry if I was unclear.

        I am having some concerns about exactly why I believe in the Trinity and your series of 51 papers are bringing to light a whole bunch of concerns. I’m reading a bunch of books both Trinitarian and Unitarian in an attempt to come to a more concrete position on the issue.

        • kzarley

          I wish you well in your quest. Pray Matt. 7.7-11.