The Authorship of Mark's Gospel, and Why It Matters

The traditional attribution of the four canonical gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke and John) has come under immense fire today from higher critical scholarship. Bart Ehrman, a well known New Testament textual critic at the University of Chapel Hill, North Carolina, has for a long time been a favourite skeptic of Muslims around the world. In his popular-level book Jesus Interrupted, Ehrman writes (page 101),

"There were some books, such as the Gospels, that had been written anonymously, only later to be ascribed to certain authors who probably did not write them (apostles and friends of the apostles)." 

The Muslim is committed to this view. If the gospels really were written by the individuals whose names they now bear, this presents a problem for Islam. Why? The Qur'an, in Surah 3:52 and 61:14, claims that Jesus' disciples were Muslims. If the gospels were indeed written by their canonical authors, then two of those (Matthew and John) were prominent disciples, and the other two (Mark and Luke) were approved by apostles. In this article, I am going to focus only on the gospel of Mark.

There are at least four reasons to think that this gospel was indeed written by Mark and that it communicates the teachings of the apostle Peter.

Reason 1: The attestation to its authorship is geographically widespread.

Reason 2: Justin Martyr refers to the “memoirs of Peter”.

Reason 3: John Mark is an unlikely choice for a false attribution of authorship.

Reason 4: There are internal indications of Peter’s influence on Mark’s gospel.

The case is overwhelming. Let’s look at one after the other.

Reason 1: The attestation to its authorship is geographically widespread. Here are three sources from around A.D. 190.

Tertullian of Carthage (Against Marcion, Book 4, Chapter 5), in North Africa, tells us that,

"...that which Mark published may be affirmed to be Peter's whose interpreter Mark was."

Clement of Alexandria (quoted by Eusebius' Ecclesiastical History Book 2, Chapter 15), in Egypt, tells us that those who heard Peter's teaching... 

"...were not satisfied with merely a single hearing or with the unwritten teaching of the divine Gospel, but with all sorts of entreaties they besought Mark, who was a follower of Peter and whose Gospel is extant, to leave behind with them in writing a record of the teaching passed on to them orally."

Irenaeus of Lyons (Against Heresies Book 3 Chapter 3) -- who himself was a disciple of Polycarp, a companion of the apostles and in particular John -- in France, tells us that,

"Mark, the disciple and interpreter of Peter, did also hand down to us in writing what had been preached by Peter."

Moreover, according to Eusebius (Ecclesiastical History Book 5, Chapter 8), Papias of Hierapolis (writing around 125 A.D.), in Asia Minor, tells us,

"Mark, having become the interpreter of Peter, wrote down accurately, though not indeed in order, whatsoever he remembered of the things said or done by Christ."

There is no evidence of any competing authorship tradition, either for Mark or any of the three other gospels. The geographical spread and unanimity of the traditions suggests an early origin. Given that the gospels are quoted by authors in the first part of the second century without being named (in a similar way to how the Old Testament Scriptures are often quoted) suggests that these authors assume their audience to be acquainted with these documents and that they consider them to be authoritative. If there was controversy and debate about the authorship of these gospels in the first part of the second century, it stands to reason that we should expect this to be reflected when names begin to be associated with these documents. Instead, we see unanimity. 

Reason 2: Justin Martyr tells us that the apostles themselves composed "memoirs" which are "called Gospels" (e.g. First Apology, chapter 66). In chapter 106 of his Dialogue with Trypho (dated around 160 A.D.), he writes,

“And when it is said that He changed the name of one of the apostles to Peter; and when it is written in the memoirs of him that this so happened, as well as that He changed the names of other two brothers, the sons of Zebedee, to Boanerges, which means sons of thunder.”

Justin says that in these "memoirs of him" it is written that Jesus changed the name of one of the apostles to Peter and also changed the name of the sons of Zebedee to Boanerges, meaning sons of thunder. Neither of these is found in the extant portion we have of the so-called Gospel of Peter, but both of them are included in the Gospel of Mark. The statement about calling the sons of Zebedee “sons of thunder” is found only in Mark (3:17). Since Papias also tells us that Mark was the interpreter of Peter, this suggests that the Mark being referred to by Papias is indeed our canonical Mark.

Reason 3: Mark is an unlikely choice for a false attribution of authorship. The apocryphal forgeries routinely attribute their gospels to high-profile figures such as Peter, James and Thomas. John Mark is best known for having caused a sharp fallout between Paul and Barnabas over having withdrawn from them in Pamphylia. Since the early church believed Mark’s gospel to convey the teachings of Peter, it seems likely that it would have been attributed to Peter had the early church not felt constrained by the fact that Mark really did write the gospel that bears his name.

Reason 4: As New Testament scholar Richard Bauckham has shown in his landmark book, Jesus and the Eyewitnesses, there are internal indications of Peter’s influence on the gospel of Mark. In brief, here are a few of those internal evidences:

  • The frequent mention of Peter in Mark's gospel. Mark refers to Peter a total of 26 times, whereas Matthew mentions Peter only three additional times, despite the fact that Matthew's gospel is about double the length of Mark's gospel.
  • Mark is the only gospel author who does not use "Simon Peter" when talking about Peter, instead using either "Simon" or "Peter". Simon was a very common name in Palestine, but Mark does not give distinguish him from other Simons This suggests familiarity.
  • Mark's gospel is book-ended with the disciple Peter (he is the first and last disciple mentioned). This is a phenomenon that has been identified in other ancient texts where a source is attributed to a particular eyewitness. 

See Richard Bauckham's Jesus and the Eyewitnesses for more information and further detail regarding this.

Why Does This Matter for Islam?

Given that Mark was a companion, disciple, and interpreter of the apostle Peter, this presents a problem for Islam. Mark most certainly was no Muslim. Besides his narrative concerning the crucifixion (expressly denied by Surah 4:157-158), Mark also affirms the deity of Christ and even the Trinity. The Trinity can be demonstrated from the first three chapters alone. Mark 1:1-3 presents the deity of Christ:

“The beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God. As it is written in Isaiah the prophet, “Behold, I send my messenger before your face, who will prepare your way, the voice of one crying in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight,’”

This of course is a reference to Isaiah 40:3, a prophecy which is obviously in reference to Yahweh. . Now, remember: this is the first paragraph, of the first gospel, and what does Mark do? He takes an Old Testament prophecy that applies to Yahweh and applies it to Jesus. (In Isaiah 40, the way is prepared and Yahweh comes down it; in Mark 1, the way is prepared and Jesus comes down it). Some have suggested that this text is referring not to the way being prepared for Yahweh himself, but rather Yahweh's representative or messenger. Is this the best reading of the text though? The text goes on:

"John appeared, baptizing in the wilderness and proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. And all the country of Judea and all Jerusalem were going out to him and were being baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins. Now John was clothed with camel's hair and wore a leather belt around his waist and ate locusts and wild honey. And he preached, saying, “After me comes he who is mightier than I, the strap of whose sandals I am not worthy to stoop down and untie. I have baptized you with water, but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.”

The context, therefore, seems to portray John the baptist self-identifying as the one who is preparing the way for the person of Jesus. Furthermore, the Old Testament parallel to Isaiah 40:3 is Malachi 3:1, in which we are told that the forerunning messenger was preparing the way for Ha Adon (i.e. Yahweh) is literally coming in person to His temple. This text is cited among the Q material by Jesus Himself in reference to John the Baptist preparing the way for the ministry of Jesus (Matthew 11:10/Luke 7:27). 

In verses 9-11 of chapter 1, we have all three persons of the Trinity mentioned and distinguished from one another:

“In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. And when he came up out of the water, immediately he saw the heavens being torn open and the Spirit descending on him like a dove. And a voice came from heaven, “You are my beloved Son; with you I am well pleased.”

In Mark 3:29 we also learn that it is possible to blaspheme the Holy Spirit. But how can something that is not both divine and personal be blasphemed against?

Are there any other indicators in Mark's gospel regarding Jesus' status? Mark 13:32 identifies Jesus as the unique divine Son of God who is superior to human and angelic beings. That doesn't sound very compatible with the Qur'an.

In Mark 2:5-7, we read,

And when Jesus saw their faith, he said to the paralytic, “Son, your sins are forgiven.” Now some of the scribes were sitting there, questioning in their hearts, “Why does this man speak like that? He is blaspheming! Who can forgive sins but God alone?”

And indeed who can forgive sins but God alone? The sins that Jesus claimed authority to forgive were not sins that had been committed against him. Only God has authority to forgive in that way. The scribes understood the significance to Jesus’ claim to authority to forgive sins. Note that Jesus does claims to be forgiving sins on his own authority. In verses 10 and 11, he says:

"But that you may know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins”—he said to the paralytic— “I say to you, rise, pick up your bed, and go home."

In Mark 2:27-28, when Jesus is accused by the Pharisees of doing what is not lawful on the Sabbath, Jesus replied,

"The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath. So the Son of Man is lord even of the Sabbath."

How could anyone who is not God declare himself to be “Lord even of the Sabbath”?

Twice in the gospel of Mark we read of Jesus calming the sea (4:39-41; 6:50-51), which recalls occasions in the Psalms where Yahweh is described as doing this (e.g. Psalm 89:9; 104:7; 107:29). The latter of those occasions on which Jesus calmed the sea involves Jesus also walking on water, something that Yahweh is spoken of as doing in Job 9:8 and 36:16.

In Mark 8:38, we read the words of Jesus:

"For whoever is ashamed of me and of my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, of him will the Son of Man also be ashamed when he comes in the glory of his Father with the holy angels."

Could these words really have been uttered by someone who was merely a man?

Mark 9 narrates the transfiguration of Jesus, which bears some striking parallels to Yahweh’s appearance to Moses on Mount Sinai. For one thing, the event takes place on top of a high mountain. Mark takes three companions with him (Exodus 24:1-9) and likewise is radiant (Exodus 34:29-35). The two figures who appear with Jesus — Moses and Elijah — are also of significance, for they are the two individuals in the Old Testament who sought to “see” God. Both of their encounters with God, however, are veiled. While Moses hides in a cleft in a rock that he might only see God’s back (Exodus 33:22-23), Elijah experiences only signs (1 Kings 19:11-12). In Mark 9, Moses and Elijah are no longer hiding, but freely conversing with Jesus.

In Mark 11:12-14, we read of Jesus cursing the fig tree:

"On the following day, when they came from Bethany, he was hungry. And seeing in the distance a fig tree in leaf, he went to see if he could find anything on it. When he came to it, he found nothing but leaves, for it was not the season for figs. And he said to it, “May no one ever eat fruit from you again.” And his disciples heard it."

Again, this incident recalls certain Old Testament texts where the withering of a fig tree, brought about by God, is a frequently employed image (e.g. Isaiah 1:30; Isaiah 34:2-4; Jeremiah 8:13; Hosea 2:14; Hosea 9:10,15-16). For example, in Jeremiah 8:13, we read:

"When I would gather them, declares the Lord, there are no grapes on the vine, nor figs on the fig tree; even the leaves are withered, and what I gave them has passed away from them."

By far Jesus’ favorite self-designation throughout the gospels is the title “Son of Man”, and this is a title used many times in Mark. Perhaps most notably, in Mark 14:61-64, we read the account of Jesus’ interrogation:

"Again the high priest asked him, “Are you the Christ, the Son of the Blessed?” And Jesus said, “I am, and you will see the Son of Man seated at the right hand of Power, and coming with the clouds of heaven.” And the high priest tore his garments and said, “What further witnesses do we need? You have heard his blasphemy. What is your decision?” And they all condemned him as deserving death."

Besides the claim to share Yahweh's throne and that he will be seated on Yahweh's right hand (which reminds us of Psalm 110:1, where the one seated at Yahweh's right hand is identified as Adonai), the Son of Man, in connection with “coming with the clouds of heaven”, is a clear reference back to Daniel 7:13-14 in which we read of Daniel’s vision:

"I saw in the night visions, and behold, with the clouds of heaven there came one like a son of man, and he came to the Ancient of Days and was presented before him. And to him was given dominion and glory and a kingdom, that all peoples, nations, and languages should worship him; his dominion is an everlasting dominion, which shall not pass away, and his kingdom one that shall not be destroyed." 

This divine-human figure seen by Daniel is said to receive worship from all nations (the Septuagint uses the Greek word for the very highest form of worship) — who but God is fit to receive worship? Indeed, the High Priest knew exactly what Jesus meant — and it resulted in him tearing his clothes and declaring Jesus a blasphemer.

To conclude, there is a cumulative case, spanning both internal and external evidence, for understanding Mark's gospel to be heavily influenced by the eyewitness testimony of the apostle Peter. Mark's gospel, however, has a decidedly non-Islamic view of the person of Jesus. This adds to the several lines of evidence that compel me to reject the Qur'an's claim that Jesus' original disciples were Muslims.