Were the Gospel Writers Eyewitnesses? Mark

This post is part of an ongoing series examining whether or not the writers of the canonical gospels were eyewitnesses to the life of Jesus.

The Gospel of MarkWe begin our examination of the question “Were the Gospel writers eyewitnesses?” with consideration of may have been the earliest written record of Jesus’ life, that narrative referred to as the Gospel According to Mark. Many modern scholars believe that Mark’s gospel was written between 50-70 CE,[1] placing its composition within one generation of the life and death of the historical Jesus of Nazareth.  Mark’s Gospel does not explicitly profess to have been written by an eyewitness to Jesus, though some traditions and interpreters have understood Mark’s account to have been based primarily upon the theology and understandings of the Apostle Peter (who would have been an eyewitness to the accounts recorded therein).

If this was in fact the case with the composition of the gospel, while Mark himself was not an eyewitness to the gospel events, his gospel could be understood as within the category of scribal writing, much like the Petrine epistles. Several factors indicate this form of authorship, namely the abrupt fashion in which Mark seems to have been written, including generally poor Greek grammar, a fairly narrow vocabulary (especially compared to Luke), and the abruptness with which the earliest manuscripts read and end.[2] Additionally, Mark’s gospel has a rather low view of the understanding of the disciples, a factor that come point to as an indicator of variant Christianities or inauthenticity, but more likely the indication of a truly humble (and perhaps somewhat embarrassed) apostle.

Alternative/Early Dating NT/EC Timeline

Early Dating NT/EC Timeline

While some have argued that Mark’s length and style indicate early written Jesus-myth, a better explanation for content and its character stems from the early use of gospel narrative, chiefly, as a written record of common communal knowledge or record of apostolic teaching about the life of Jesus of Nazareth. Thus, while we cannot confirm with 100% certainty that Mark’s gospel was written by an eyewitness, there seems to be evidence suggesting that the materials employed derived from an eyewitness source. Additionally, an early dating of Mark would suggest the author’s general proximity to, if not direct knowledge of, the life of Jesus Christ, thereby only increasing the likelihood of the writings historical reliability.


 

[1] Though some argue for a later date based upon the datum inferring the destruction of the Second Jewish Temple.

[2] See Mark 16.8 in any critical edition of the New Testament

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3 thoughts on “Were the Gospel Writers Eyewitnesses? Mark

  1. Two of the biggest assumptions that many Christians make regarding the truth claims of Christianity is that, one, eyewitnesses wrote the four gospels. The problem is, however, that the majority of scholars today do not believe this is true. The second big assumption many Christians make is that it would have been impossible for whoever wrote these four books to have invented details in their books, especially in regards to the Empty Tomb and the Resurrection appearances, due to the fact that eyewitnesses to these events would have still been alive when the gospels were written and distributed.

    But consider this, dear Reader: Most scholars date the writing of the first gospel, Mark, as circa 70 AD. Who of the eyewitnesses to the death of Jesus and the alleged events after his death were still alive in 70 AD? That is four decades after Jesus’ death. During that time period, tens of thousands of people living in Palestine were killed in the Jewish-Roman wars of the mid and late 60’s, culminating in the destruction of Jerusalem.

    How do we know that any eyewitness to the death of Jesus in circa 30 AD was still alive when the first gospel was written and distributed in circa 70 AD? How do we know that any eyewitness to the death of Jesus ever had the opportunity to read the Gospel of Mark and proof read it for accuracy?

    I challenge Christians to list the name of even ONE eyewitness to the death of Jesus who was still alive in 70 AD along with the evidence to support your claim.

    If you can’t list any names, dear Christian, how can you be sure that details such as the Empty Tomb, the detailed resurrection appearances, and the Ascension ever really occurred? How can you be sure that these details were not simply theological hyperbole…or…the exaggerations and embellishments of superstitious, first century, mostly uneducated people, who had retold these stories thousands of times, between thousands of people, from one language to another, from one country to another, over a period of many decades?

    • Hi nonsupernaturalist,
      My apologies for not responding to this earlier–for some reason WP put your comment in my spam folder, although you don’t appear to be spam! To quickly respond to your point (which, I must admit, seems a bit more like a general question than a response to this post):

      A) I’m always wary of appeals to the “majority” of scholars, not only for logical reasons, but also because (especially in NT/EC studies) the “majority” agree on very little. As I outline in this series, talking about “eyewitnesses” is often really shorthand for “reliable” and “trustworthy” writers. So there are two issues embedded in this conversation: were the gospel writers eyewitnesses? (and many respected scholars say there is plausible case for eyewitness accounts behind ALL four of the canonical gospels.) And were the gospel writers reliable in a manner that we can use in the 21st century to adjudicate the historicity of claims about Jesus? (A question fraught with diverse opinions, to be sure; but again, many respected scholars have concluded that, yes, we can trust the message of the gospel accounts–at least on big picture details–to be historical useful sources.)

      B) Almost no one thinks Mark was written in 70 CE (post destruction of Jerusalem). The latest date you’ll see for Mark is ~65 CE, BEFORE the Jewish Revolt. So the concern with post-war trauma is a bit off the mark (pun intended?). Furthermore, the rapid spread of Christianity (attested to by Roman historians and politicians as well as archaeological, cultural, and literary evidence) problematizes concerns about the message not getting out. Personally, I find concerns that interpretations of Jesus were modified a bit perplexing, given the relatively narrow range of early interpretations we come across.

      C) I’m hoping to run a series in the near future on the connections between ancient oral culture and ancient literature, which would address your erroneous concern with the “40-year” time frame between Jesus and Mark. Oral cultures with limited textual worlds remember and transmit information far differently than our own. We have to wade through several layers of context before we can begin to worry about ‘losing information’ (i.e., forgetting) like moderns do. Also, ask anyone over 50-years old what they remember about 1976: almost everyone will be able to tell you some of the highlights of the bicentennial celebration, even though a) it wasn’t religiously important for them and b) they’ve consumed far (far) more information since then (including much in more memorable formats) than an ancient would have.

      Thanks for your comments. Best, JJP

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