Position. Mark is the oldest of the Gospels. The simplest arguments for that position are the Trajectory Arguments for all four Gospels (in their present canonical state), which establish the sequence Mk > Mt > Lk > Jn. This position appears to be impregnable; at any rate, no convincing counterargument has even been presented. It has been claimed that some individual passages show a Matthew > Mark or a Luke > Mark directionality. In the interest of thoroughness, we have examined some of these proposals, and find them unconvincing:
- The Sanders List (1969)
Ending. At some point, the ending of Mark was lost. The last clause in Mark as we have it reads this way: "for they [the women at the Tomb] were afraid." The Greek word gar "for" is the last word in this clause (see the Vaticanus facsimile of the last page of Mark, above, bottom of the lefthand column - the righthand column is a showthrough from the other side). Many have labored to show that ending a story with gar is grammatically possible and literarily suitable, but a decisive argument to the contrary was given by Knox in 1942, and the whole position has been definitively summarized in Gundry (p1009f). The Gospel has thus been artificially truncated. Why? It obviously meant to end by narrating the appearance of Jesus to his disciples in Galilee. Since in the next two Gospels (Matthew and Luke), the first appearance of the risen Jesus occurs instead in Jerusalem, Mark's purely Galilean ending may indeed have been intentionally suppressed. The shift of Gospel focus from Galilee to Jerusalem is one of the consistent tendencies of the successive Gospels; see again the Trajectory Arguments.
Later Changes. Mark was clearly the authority text for the area in which Matthew and Luke wrote, since both of them incorporate virtually all of it. But the changes both large and small which they make in Mark, and the tendency of the material which they add to Mark, reveal an intention to replace Mark with their own updated versions of the life and meaning of Jesus. Among the additions is a passage (Mt 11:20-214 / Lk 10:13-15), part of the Jerusalem Trajectory, in which "Jesus" curses the Galilean towns, including Capernaum, in which most of Jesus's lifetime ministry had been spent. As with all literary developments, the beginning of the sequence, and not the end, is the likely historical fact. Then Jesus' actual ministry was probably located where Mark locates it: in Galilee and points north. This is already a historical result of some importance. The cursing of Galilee is an aspect of what we have called the Jerusalemizing trajectory, a reflection of the actual move of most of the Jesus movement administrative staff to Jerusalem, not too long after the death of Jesus.
Early and Late Mark. Still more valuable for the history of Christianity is the fact that Mark is itself a stratified text, consisting of late material overlaid on early material. The late material is best detected in the first instance by the fact that representative parts of it are interpolated into the early material. Various interpolations have been noticed at various times. Vincent Taylor (p636-644) found that the End of the World predictions in Mk 13 are actually a stack of four different predictions, with each one modifying the previous one, as the previous one failed to come true, or as some new and ominous event attracted people's attention; for Taylor's Mk 13 reconstruction, click here. Many have noticed that the two passages in which Jesus predicts his appearance to his disciples in Galilee (Mk 14:28 and 16:7) are interpolated; that is, they are a related pair of later additions together forming a layer. It is points like these that assure us that Mark intended to narrate that event, and not to break off in the middle of a sentence before doing so. More recently, Adela Yarbro Collins (p819) found that the present Markan Passion Narrative had an earlier and much simpler state, which ended with the Rending of the Veil (Mk 15:38), and did not include the burial and resurrection of Jesus at all; for that reconstruction, click here. A similar conclusion was earlier reached by Peter Kirby. This discovery shows that the first Christian account of Jesus did not include his resurrection, but ended with his death and symbolic vindication. (The Rending of the Veil, Mk 15:38, is most easily interpreted as God's desacralizing of the Temple, thus declaring Jesus the victor in his dispute with the scribes and the Temple priests about the Law). This shows the original Mark to be an Alpha text: an understanding of Jesus which centers on his teaching, and not on his death.
The work of separating the different strata of Mark is still progressing as of this writing, but the large outlines seem clear. The table below, which follows archaeological convention in picturing the earliest layers at the bottom, will give a general idea:
- (7) Atonement Doctrine (which was held by Paul among others; Mk 10:45 and 14:24)
- (6) Prediction of the Death of James (and possibly also John) Zebedee by Agrippa I in c44 (Mk 10:38-39)
- (5) Prediction of the Last Days as occurring with the desecration of the Temple by Caligula, threatened in 40 (Mk 13:14)
- (4) Prediction of the Resurrection: the Empty Tomb extension (Mk 15:39-16:7); perhaps related to the recent dominance of Jerusalem
- (3) The Twelve as authoritative preachers (Mk 3:13-19a and associated passages)
- (2) Divinization of Jesus (exorcisms, nature miracles; Mk 1:23-27 and several other interpolated passages) plus advice to the early church
- (1) The Davidic Jesus (the national Messiah predicted in Daniel 7:13-14 and in much traditional Jewish literature)
The earliest layer, the Davidic Messiah layer, is the only one which forms a complete narrative by itself. It was probably the whole content of Mark as first written. Everything else was added at various later times, in response to new inspirations as to the meaning of Jesus, or new problems faced by the early Christians. It will be obvious that if the top layers refer to events in the early and middle 40's, everything below them, which amounts to most of the text, must be from the 30's. That is, it must have begun at a time very close to the death of Jesus. The closer we get to the death of Jesus, the more the leading question about Jesus among his followers is likely to have been, Why did Jesus die? Some scholars, among them Ropes, have found that this is indeed the chief question asked and answered by Mark. The present results agree with that opinion. Mark's answer to the question, as is obvious if we read only the original text (the lowest layer shown above) is that Jesus's opponents, the Pharisees and the Temple authorities, brought about his death, though in the process they lost the doctrinal war. The original story of Mark ended with God ruling (symbolically) that they had no religious authority
There is external evidence for this picture. The original Jesus (the first Markan layer) plus the idea of divinization (the second layer), but without the Resurrection doctrine (the fourth layer) is exactly what is preached in the great majority of the Apostolic literature (corresponding the the third or Twelve layer). That view of Jesus, divinized but without the Resurrection doctrine, is the Jesus who is described in the hymn embedded in Philippians 2. The prayers in the Didache, including the Eucharist prayers which might be expected to reflect any Resurrection doctrine which then existed, conspicuously do not refer to that doctrine.
We conclude that Mark was written, and successively augmented, over the period c30-c45. It was considered to be authoritative in the Palestine-Syria region, and was available to both Luke and Matthew, who in different ways sought to replace it as the definitive account of Jesus. The copies Luke and Matthew saw were identical except that Luke's had a few pages missing from the middle. The original from which those and all other copies were made lacked its final page.
- Commentary on some individual passages in Mark
- Peter Kirby's article against the Empty Tomb
- Sample argument for interpolated passages and layers in Mark: Judas and the Twelve
- Reconstructed text of the Core Markan Narrative (Layers 1 and 2 only, version of 2012)
- John Mark as the author of the text (this seeming legend, except for its Rome element, turns out to make a lot of sense)
3 Mar 2012 / Contact The Project / Exit to Alpha Page