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The Gospel according to Mark: A Noteworthy Text

April 25, 2019

In the ecclesiastical calendar, today (25 April) commemorates St. Mark, the traditional author of the Gospel according to Mark (hereafter GMark).  Whoever its author, GMark is a noteworthy text.  Apparently, the pioneering written narrative account of Jesus’ career, presented in a “bios” type form, it then seems to have prompted the authors of the other canonical Gospels to compose their own accounts.  That these authors did so suggests that they sought to offer different, perhaps superior, accounts.  But, more obviously the case with GMatthew and GLuke, their dependence on GMark suggests also that this text set the crucial precedent for them, and so was regarded as a valuable source.

I think that most scholars estimate that GMark was composed sometime around 70 AD/CE, and that GMatthew and GLuke appeared within a decade or two thereafter, and GJohn late in the same rough time-span.  So there was something of a burst of literary production of written narrative accounts of Jesus in the period roughly 70-100 AD/CE.  But GMark seems to have triggered it all.

It wasn’t novel to give accounts of Jesus of Nazareth.  But it was apparently a novel literary step to produce a full written narrative shaped like a “bios.”  The opening words of GMark are probably the author’s intended title and an expression of his purpose:  “the beginning [arche] of the gospel of Jesus Christ.”  That is, the GMark itself gives the “beginning” of the gospel message that the author and Christian readers know and disseminate (as referred to, e.g., in 13:10; 14:9).  This means that the story of Jesus’ own activities, his preaching, teaching, exorcisms, healings, and final events of crucifixion and resurrection, are gathered up in a continuous narrative that comprises the “arche” (beginning, foundation) of the proclamation that was taken up in the Jesus-movement of the author’s day.  In this view, GMark is closely connected to the dissemination of the gospel-message.

On the other hand, the choice to write a “bios”-type account suggests also that the author may have had the additional intention/hope of presenting the figure of Jesus to a wider readership, putting this account of Jesus before anyone interested in learning more about the person at the core of the gospel message.

The authors of GMatthew and GLuke, however, apparently thought that they could produce accounts that either gave an enhanced version of Jesus’ ministry, or that targeted somewhat distinguishable readers and made somewhat different emphases.  One of my former PhD students, Chris Keith, has referred to these authors as engaging in “competitive textuality.”  This might suggest more of an adversarial stance than some others of us would see; but it seems obvious that the authors of the other Gospels thought that their own works were needed, meaning that GMark wasn’t sufficient for their purposes.

But, whatever the case, the other Gospel authors must have seen GMark as both inspiration and, at least in the case of GMatthew and GLuke, as the major resource.  By most analyses, GMatthew includes some 90% of GMark, and GLuke includes about 60% of GMark, each of them adding a generous amount of additional material as well.  So, GMark provided for them not only the precedent-setting example, but also the core narrative framework.

Scholars remain somewhat divided over how to see GJohn’s relationship to GMark, but in recent years there has been a growing number who posit some kind of literary relationship, or at least a knowledge of GMark by the author of GJohn.

Once the other Gospels were in circulation, it appears that some early Christians regarded GMark as inferior.  Unlike GMatthew (which seems to have been heavily favored) and GLuke, GMark had no birth narrative, and no resurrection appearances.  Also, although GMark emphasizes Jesus’ role as teacher, it lacks the large body of teaching/sayings material contained in GMatthew and GLuke.

Most scholars (little is unanimously agreed in NT studies) think that the ending of GMark (at 16:8) in particular seemed unsatisfactory when compared to the endings of the other Gospels, and so early readers made various attempts to help that situation.  The most well-known effort is the so-called “long ending” of GMark (16:9-20), which seems to most of us to draw upon and reflect the endings of the other Gospels.  See, e.g., James A. Kelhoffer, Miracle and Mission: The Authentication of Missionaries and Their Message in the Longer Ending of Mark, WUNT, 2/112 (Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2000).

And yet, despite the appearance of the more substantial accounts of Jesus in GMatthew and GLuke, and the “spiritual” account in GJohn, the GMark continued to be copied, disseminated and read (although, it seems, not as frequently as the other Gospels).  Unlike some other texts, GMark survived, and early on (at least by the mid-second century) was included in the emerging “fourfold Gospel” collection that became part of the NT canon.  It’s all a remarkable story of one of the most influential texts ever written.

For more on the Gospel of Mark, see my posting on the remarkable survival of the text here.


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  1. John Mitrosky permalink

    I don’t think “obviously dependent” is that cut and dry. Sure Thomas may be beholden to the synoptics, as Matt and Luke are to Mark, but there could also be other authentic sources he used too. A primitive early layer in Thomas is possible, just as a proto-Q is possible and Luke has primitive sources that he turns to sometimes, even though Luke may also know Matt, as Goodacre and others suggest and even Kloppenborg admits could be true. Kloppenborg respects Goodacre. He just thinks his case against Q and Thomas is not that cut and dry. But everyone accepts Markan priority for narrative, and genius narrative at that!

    • John: This blog posting is about GMark, not theories about the GThomas. Enough!!

  2. John Mitrosky permalink

    Sorry Larry. I just finished reading your posts on Secret Mark. My only comment to share is that the young man in the linen cloth seems out of place in canonical Mark, that is, he seems imported from somewhere else, though I too doubt Secret Mark is an authentic source for canonical Mark.

    • The young man doesn’t seem “imported” to me. He was likely known to the readers and so needed no introduction.

      • John Mitrosky permalink

        Thank you Larry. This is a great for all to consider provocative insight into the Gospel of Mark, to suggest the young man in the cloth/robe, needs no introduction, because he is known to Mark’s readers. Mark has his first “readers” in mind! I agree totally! Mark is engaged with real history more than historical fantasy! I do enjoy and take my reading of Gathercole seriously on Thomas, as I do Goodacre, Gathercole seems a less social person and more of a theory person than you Larry, or Goodacre, or Kloppenborg, or Desjardins, or S.L. Davies, or Arnal, etc., but I still care about Gathercole’s theories a deep deal. I have tried to engage Gathercole in conversation, but have had no luck yet, unlike you and some of the others listed above.

  3. Harley P.W. permalink

    Hello Professor Hurtado,
    I am a big fan and am reading destroyer of the gods and enjoying it very much.
    I would like to ask what the extent to which a priori beliefs have on the impact of dating of GMark. I have heard that most scholars feel the need to date it after the destruction of the second temple because it contains a prophecy in which Jesus predicts the destruction of the temple. If somebody believed that Jesus had actually predicted the destruction of the temple, could someone date the Gospel earlier?

    • Some have dated GMark earlier, e.g., James Crossley & Maurice Casey. They put it a few decades earlier.

      • John Mitrosky permalink

        Which works by Crossley and Casey make the best case for an earlier Mark? I often get carried myself into this realm of thought, especially as it relates to Kloppenborg’s Q1 theory, coupled with his Thomas parallels theory, where some Thomas sayings match his Q1, but independently. Kloppenborg leaves the apocalyptic/eschatological “the Son of man” sayings as “imported from somewhere else (unknown, into Q2)”. In this scenario, Q2 may import them from Mark, but Thomas does not know the Q2 sayings. The issue for me then becomes, how early is the “the Son of man” theology in the Gospel of Mark?

      • James G. Crossley, , The Date of Mark’s Gospel: Insight From the Law in Earliest Christianity, JSNTSup, no. 266 (London: T&T Clark, 2004)
        I, uh, don’t buy K’s statigraphy of Q, and GThomas is no indication of early, pre-Markan material, as it’s obviously dependent on the canonical gospels. See, esp. now Gathercole’s commentary.

  4. John Mitrosky permalink

    I was noticing that when you quote above, “the beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ.” (period), you have omitted the phrase “the Son of God” (Mark 1:1). Is this because you wonder, or are at least open to the question of whether or not the phrase “Son of God” is a later addition to a possible, unknown Proto-Mark, that never contained that phrase originally, either in Mark 1:1, or elsewhere in the Gospel of Mark?

    • The words “son of God” are not secure. I simply quoted the undisputed opening words, which were sufficient for my purpose. I don’t buy a “proto-Mark” theory. Evidence is essential for my own views.

      • John Mitrosky permalink

        Thank you Larry. Mark Goodacre agrees with you that there is no evidence for a “proto-Mark”. I often wonder about that, but I guess wondering is not the same as evidence. It seems to me logical that one of the first narratives some first Christians would construct is a passion narrative! The presence of specific historical events intertwined with ideas about scripture fulfilled is hard to escape notice. Even Goodacre contradicts himself a little in this way of thinking about at least a first passion narrative. A passion narrative may have began as liturgical, but that it continued liturgically only for 40 years, before being written down as a narrative seems incredulous. No?

      • Many scholars posit passion narratives, miracle collections, collections of Jesus’ sayings in written and oral forms across the decades between roughly 30-70 AD. So, there were accounts of, and traditions about, Jesus in these years. But it appears that GMark was the first connected, and bios-shaped written account, its literary genre suggesting a wide and ambitious aim.

  5. Mike Grondin permalink

    I know Chris Keith is good, but “Christ”, no.

  6. Professor Hurtado,

    Thank you . That was a really interesting post. I note in your earlier post, to which you provide a link, you refer to the importance of ‘the early association of GMark with the Apostle Peter’ and Professor Bauckham comments on your earlier post, referring to other early references that reinforce such an association. In his book Jesus and the Eyewitnesses, I note Professor Bauckham seems to my rather rather untutored eyes to make a strong case that ‘Mark’s Gospel not only by its use of the inclusio of eyewitness testimony claims Peter as its main eyewitness source; it also tells the story predominantly (but by no means exclusively) from Peter’s perspective’. Would you broadly tend to agree with Professor Bauckham’s views in that respect?

    • I only can say with confidence that GMark was early on associated with Peter, and with no other authority posited behind it.

  7. Ron Baerg permalink

    You (and your student) note favorably the “competitive textuality” of Mark and its relationship with the other gospels and conclude that, finally, Mark came to have its place among the four gospels. To clarify the status of GMark looking ahead, how was it regarded by the church fathers? How often do they cite GMark and in what contexts? Do they use it more or less favorably than the other gospels?

    • Mark is less frequently cited in early church writings, and there are many more extant copies of GMatthew and GJohn by far. On the other hand, there are also early references to GMark that associate it with Peter. On the whole it seems to have been seen as less . . . useful than GMatthew and GJohn. See, e.g., C. Clifton Black, Mark: Images of an Apostolic Interpreter (Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1994).

  8. Claude Pavur permalink

    This first gospel is endlessly fascinating. Thank you, Larry, for marking the occasion.

    I would not stress the bios-category as so many do today because I think the revelational quality and essence of the text, its source in the Word of God, in Jesus himself, is the primary thing. Using the bios-category makes it sound like a composer painting a subject. It is rather the subject itself speaking to us.

    This is an interesting and relevant verse: Mark 14:9 Truly “I tell you, wherever the gospel is preached throughout the world, what she has done will also be told, in memory of her.” Jesus here seems to be the one who “constructs” the gospel, inserting into it this narrative of the woman’s anointing of himself. Jesus himself can be understood to be the auctor if not the scriptor.

    The gospel of Jesus… not as much *about* Jesus as *belonging to* Jesus…his Word which lasts eternally (Mark 14:31 Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will never pass away.)

    • But, Claude, to recognize human authors with purposes, emphases, and occasions, and with literary environments as well, is not to deny the meaning of texts for faith. And to hold them as “revelatory” doesn’t work against recognizing the historically-conditioned nature of the texts. Granted, the quasi-biographical nature of the GMatthew and GLuke is more obvious, with their respective birth narratives, etc. But GMark is a consecutive account of Jesus’ activities as well. And each of them rather obviously reflects the individual emphases and purposes of the authors.

      • Claude Pavur permalink

        Oh, thank you. I am not saying that the text is not historically conditioned but that the conditioning comes especially through what Mark would have taken as revelatory writings more or rather than through what he would have taken through ancient biographical ones. The issues is: does Mark himself think of his text as something “of Jesus” (from Jesus) or “about him”?

      • Hmm. I’d say the latter.

      • If one wants an ahistorical, ‘Delphic Oracle’ type Jesus, one can find him among the so-called Gnostic writings. There seems to be a kind of ‘Gnostic impulse’ among some Christians, I’ve noticed (mostly Protestant-derived, ‘non-denominational’ types), who seem to want to bypass messy history (which would be to botch the Incarnation).

  9. Alec Dunn permalink

    Professor Hurtado, on the dating of GMark could you comment on the view of the late Maurice Casey in his “Jesus of Nazareth” that it could have been as early as c.40 AD? Thank you

    • With the great majority of NT scholars, I don’t find Casey’s view (which was argued by his student, James Crossley) persuasive.

  10. Dr. Griffin Gaddie permalink

    Thank you for this useful summary; with its subtle but also useful concerns for differences between the various authors.

    I was about to ask about the connection between Mark, and any possible earlier “sayings.” When it occurred to me that your previous post might help offer a new and useful perspective on that.

    Following an earlier comment, I’ve been trying to make out the semantic nuances of “doxi “. Which I propose, might be translated as stated beliefs, doctrines, or “sayings “. Sayings eventually taken as “glory”ous (3rd cent. BC ff.?).

    In that case, the evolution of the word Doxi, might help trace a shift in Greek opinion. On what were regarded by some as mere Jewish beliefs, and then the mere “sayings” of Jesus. Greek writers taking them as more and more glorious, as time went on.

    • Dr. Gaddie: I’m afraid that you’re a bit confused about some matters. First the Greek word is “doxa” (not “doxi”). Second, the sense of the word takes on the coloring of the Hebrew “kavod” in the LXX and subsequent Jewish and Christian usage, not in general Greek usage.
      Third, this shift has nothing to do with the words/sayings of Jesus, or with the sense of “opinion”. And in any case, this is not related to the topic of the post, which concerns the historical significance of GMark.

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