Who was Mark, and how did his published account of the Gospel story become so influential in the early church?
First, let’s address the elephant in the book. It is anonymous from the direct perspective of the book, meaning that it never directly identifies its author. There is no signature appended to the end of the book, as we find in some of Paul’s letters stating, “I Mark write this with my hand.” However, while the traditional title affixed as the heading to the book, “The Gospel according to Mark,” is likely not original, scholars tend to conclude that it was added pretty early in the by the church. Furthermore, church tradition has further identified this Mark as the work associate of the apostle’s Peter.
The most substantial and earliest direct external evidence (evidence outside of the Biblical text itself) that identifies Mark, the associate of Peter, as the author comes down to us in a passage from the early church historian, Eusebius, who wrote in 325 AD included a citation from an earlier church leader, Papias, who served as a bishop of Hierapolis in Phrygia of Asia Minor around the year 130 AD. The original document authored by Papias was titled “Expositions of the Lord’s Sayings” and is no longer available, which is why the citation included in Eusebius’s church history is so valuable! The quotation from Papias included in Eusebius’s church history reads as follows:
“And the presbyter used to say this, ‘Mark became Peter’s interpreter and wrote accurately all he remembered, not indeed, in order of the things said or done by the Lord. For he had not heard the Lord, nor had he followed him, but later one, as I said, followed Peter, who used to give teaching as necessity demanded but not making, as it were an arrangement of the Lord’s oracles, so that Mark did nothing wrong in writing down single points as he remembered them. For to one thing he gave attention, to leave out nothing of what he had heard and to make no false statements in them.” (Eusebius, Ecclesiastical History, 3.39.15)
This quote continues some insightful information that enables us to address the question of authorship with greater clarity. First, the passage reveals that Papias learned this information from a person identified as “the presbyter,” who most scholars and tradition identify as John the Apostle. Secondly, this quote explains the acceptance of Mark’s writing as authoritative in the early church. Primarily, though Mark never heard nor knew the Lord during his earthly ministry, he did know Peter. Furthermore, he knew Peter well, serving as his ‘interpreter’ and mentioned by Peter in 1 Peter 5:13 as “my son.” In addition to Peter’s reference and the external evidence from Papias, the book of Acts mentions a John Mark at numerous points that put him in contact with the ministries of Paul and Barnabas, yet not always in a positive light. Lastly, Papias hands down information concerning the source of material for Mark’s book as directly connected with his role as Peter’s interpreter. Additionally, as RT France has observed, the quote from Papias also explains Mark’s ability to grip an audience when read aloud (which leads him to conclude that Mark initially intended to be read aloud in a congregation as an oral narrative rather than read quietly in private study). In commenting on the short and vivid episode-like style of writing Mark that likely reflects Peter’s preaching style, France concludes, “Mark tells a good story because Peter must have been worth listening to.”
So, perhaps Peter shared his preaching notes with John-Mark, his interpreter, who, after Peter’s martyrdom in Rome, decided to publish them to encourage a bewildered church pastorally. Or, it could have been that Mark took the notes he had gleaned from years of the Apostle Peter’s sermons, whether as a person in the pew or while serving as his translator. Ultimately, the evidence, both internally and externally, provides the present church with ample support to conclude that John-Mark wrote the book that now bears his name. He did so by drawing from Peter’s influence. In the end, there is good reason to trust that the material we have in the Gospel according to Mark is authentic, authoritative, and directly handed down from apostolic influence—perhaps being the preaching notes of Saint Peter!
A Select Library of the Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers of the Christian Church. Second series. Volume 1. New York, NY: Christian Literature Company, 1890, Book 3.
Carson, D. A. and Moo, Douglas J., An Introduction to The New Testament. Second Edition. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2005, 169-195.
France, R. T. The Gospel of Mark. NIGTC. Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2002, 1-45.
Köstenberger, Andreas J., Kellum, Scott K., and Quarles, Charles L. The Cradle, The Cross, and The Crown. Second Edition. Nashville, TN: B&H Academic, 2016, 274-301.