Mark's Gospel

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Authorship and Dating of Mark's Gospel

The earliest reference we have to the authorship of Mark's Gospel comes the Church historian Eusebius, Bishop of Caesarea (c. 320 AD). He quotes Papias, Bishop of Hierapolis (c. 130 AD), who recorded a tradition which he claimed was handed down by an elder, that Mark was a companion of Peter. Papias also records that Mark wrote down accurately Peter's account of the sayings and doings of Jesus, though 'not in order'. Further information comes from Irenaeus, Bishop of Lyon (c. 178 AD). He had been at Rome and states that after the deaths of Peter and Paul, Mark, the disciple and interpreter of Peter, handed down in writing the preaching of Peter. It is likely that Irenaeus is bearing witness to a local Roman tradition. These two pieces of evidence suggest that the author of the earliest written Gospel was Mark and that the place of origin was Rome.

Mark's Gospel was written at a time when the Church was first experiencing great persecution. Rome had been destroyed by fire in 64 AD. According to the Roman historian Tacitus, the blame for starting the fire was attributed to the Emperor Nero himself. In order to avoid the consequences of his crime, Nero made the Christians the scapegoats. They were arrested in hundreds and put to death with every refinement of cruelty. Some were crucified, others were sent to the amphitheatre to be killed by wild animals, whilst others were dipped in tar, tied to stakes and burnt alive in order to light up Nero's garden parties. Many of the leaders of the Church in Rome were killed, including eyewitnesses of the ministry of Jesus. Tradition has it that Peter himself was killed during this persecution; when it came to him being crucified he asked to be hung upside down as he was not worthy of dying in the same way as his master. It became apparent to Mark that it was essential to commit the tradition to writing before it was lost or distorted. It is possible therefore to date Mark's Gospel with some accuracy to c.66-68 AD.

There is a strong tradition that Mark is the John Mark of Jerusalem whose mother's house became the meeting place of the leaders of the Church after Pentecost (Acts 12:12). This may have been the house where the Last Supper was held. Some scholars think that it is possible that Mark may have been the 'young man wearing nothing but a linen cloth in the garden of Gethsemane who, leaving his garment in the clutches of the soldiers, ran away naked to escape arrest (Mark 14:51). It is difficult to account for this quite irrelevant detail in the middle of a highly dramatic story, unless it is a personal reminiscence - a way of saying 'I was there.'

The Acts of the Apostles tells us later that Mark accompanied Paul and Barnabas on the first missionary journey. Paul refused to take him on the second journey because he had deserted them in Pamphylia (Acts 15:38). This quarrel must have been healed because, years later, we find Mark serving Paul during the Apostle's imprisonment in Rome (1 Tim 4:11). The main purpose of Mark's Gospel was to encourage and strengthen a Church faced with destruction at the hand of tyranny.

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