When Were the Gospels Written? A Response to Bart Ehrman, Part 2

In Part I of this series, we discussed the inferences from Scripture indicating that the gospels were written before 70 AD.  Based upon the fact that Luke wrote his gospel before he wrote Acts, and that Acts was written in 62 AD, we know that Luke’s gospel predates 62 AD.  Based upon the fact that Luke appears to have been quoted in First Corinthians, which was written ca 53-56 AD, we know that Luke was written in the early 50s, at the latest.  And based upon the fact that Matthew and Mark pre-date Luke, we would expect them to have been written possibly in the 40s. 

To further pin down a date for the writing of Mark, we are going to follow a chain of evidence that is based largely upon church tradition.


Origins of the Gospel of Mark

Although there is no way to rigorously prove it, conservative scholars generally agree that Mark the evangelist (or gospel-writer) is the “John Mark” mentioned several times in Acts (Acts 12:12, 25; 13:5, 13; 15:37-40).  Luke tells us that John Mark’s mother was named Mary, and that the Jerusalem Christians would meet at her house (Acts 12:12).  Peter went to her house after angels released him from Herod’s prison (Acts 12:1-18).  Paul tells us that Mark was a cousin of Barnabas (Col. 4:10), which helps explain why Barnabas wanted to take Mark on a missionary journey, whereas Paul, recalling Mark’s abandonment of him on a previous trip (Acts 12:25; 13:13), did not want to take him.  So Barnabas and Mark journeyed separately from Paul and Silas (Acts 13:37-41).  Paul and Mark were later reconciled, and Paul states that Mark was “a help to him in his ministry” (2 Tim. 4:11).

Early church tradition connects Mark’s Gospel with the Apostle Peter, and holds that Mark was a traveling companion, helper and translator for Peter.  According to several of the church fathers, including Papias of Hierapolis (ca 70-163 AD), Irenæus (died AD 202), Clement of Alexandria (ca. 150-215), Tertullian (155-240 AD), and Origen (ca 185-254), Mark wrote his gospel based largely upon what he had heard from Peter.  Irenæus reports that, "Mark, the disciple and interpreter of Peter, handed on Peter’s preaching to us in written form." (Against Heresies [ca. 180 AD] Book III, Ch. 1, and III.10.6). Eusebius of Caesarea (ca. 260-340 AD), in his multi-volume work “Church History,”:

“And so greatly did the splendor of piety illumine the minds of Peter's hearers that they were not satisfied with hearing once only, and were not content with the unwritten teaching of the divine Gospel, but with all sorts of entreaties they besought Mark, a follower of Peter, and the one whose Gospel is extant, that he would leave them a written monument of the doctrine which had been orally communicated to them. Nor did they cease until they had prevailed with the man, and had thus become the occasion of the written Gospel which bears the name of Mark.”  Eusebius, Church History, Book 2, Chapter 15.

Are these early sources correct?  Was Peter’s oral preaching the source of the Gospel of Mark?  Let’s look at the evidence.


Evidence that Peter was the Source of Mark’s Gospel

The first piece of biblical evidence that supports a close connection between Peter and Mark is that in First Peter, Peter refers to Mark as “my son.”  1 Peter 5:13. Obviously there was a close relationship between Peter and Mark. 

Second, there are several places where details recorded in other gospels about Peter—details that might have been awkward or embarrassing for Peter—were not included in Mark’s gospel. These include Peter’s reaction to the miraculous catch (Mark 1:16-20; Luke 5:1-11), Peter’s derisive response to Jesus’ question “who touched me?” (Mark 5:21-34; Luke 8:42-48), Peter walking on water with Jesus (Mark 6:45; Mat. 14:22-33), Peter’s statement that he had “left everything to follow” Christ (Mark 10:23-31; Mat. 19:23-30), and that Peter was the disciple who drew his sword and cut off Malchus’ ear in the Garden of Gethsemane (Mark 14:47; John 18:10). 

I hasten to add that not all facts embarrassing to Peter have been omitted.  Mark includes what we might call the Big Two: “Get thee behind me, Satan” (Mark 8:31-33), and, “before the cock crows twice, you will disown me thrice” (Mark 14:27-31).  Indeed, there is more detail in the story of Peter denying Christ in Mark than in the two other synoptic gospels. 

There are also passages in Mark that show Peter’s role in some events, such as that Peter led a search for Jesus (Mark 1:35-37), that Peter and Andrew owned the house in which Jesus stayed in Capernaum—so naturally Peter remembered that a hole was cut in the roof of his house (Mark 1:21, 29-31; 2:1-5 compared to Mat. 4:13-16), that Peter pointed out the fig tree that withered in fulfilment of Jesus’ prophecy (Mark 11:20-21; Mat. 21:18-19), and that Peter was one of the disciples that asked Jesus when the temple would be destroyed. (Mark 13:1-4; Mat. 24:1-3)

So there is good reason to trust Eusebius and other early church sources when they tell us that Mark’s gospel reflects the eye-witness testimony of Peter, the most prominent of the twelve disciples, a man who was with Jesus almost every day during Jesus’ three years of earthly ministry.   


Mark’s Gospel was Written in Rome for the Roman Readers

The same early church writers who say that Peter was the source of Mark’s gospel also say that it was written in Rome for a Roman readership.  In a different volume of “Church History,” Eusebius quotes Clement of Alexandria (AD 150-215) as saying this:

Again, in the same books, Clement gives the tradition of the earliest elders, as to the order of the Gospels, in the following manner:  . . . The Gospel according to Mark had this occasion: As Peter had preached the Word publicly at Rome, and declared the Gospel by the Spirit, many who were present requested that Mark, who had followed him for a long time and remembered his sayings, should write them out. And having composed the Gospel he gave it to those who had requested it.  (Eusebius, Church History, Book 6, ch. 14)

So the same early church tradition that holds that Peter was the source of the stories in the Gospel of Mark also tells us that Mark was written in Rome at the behest of Peter’s Roman congregation.  What is the evidence that supports the idea that Mark was written in Rome for the gentile, Roman Christians?


Evidence that Mark was Written in Rome for the Romans

There is scriptural evidence that Peter and Mark were in Rome together.  Peter wrote in 1 Peter 5:13, “The church in Babylon [figurative Rome], chosen together with you, sends you greetings, as does my son Mark.”  So here we have Peter writing that the church in Rome, as well as Mark, who by implication was with Peter, send their greetings. 

There are also many things about Mark that indicate that this gospel was written for gentiles, not Jews.  First, Mark supplies no genealogy, nor is there a nativity story.  Instead, Mark begins with John’s baptism of Jesus.  The genealogies provided by both Matthew and Luke were critically important for showing the Jews how Jesus fulfilled Old Testament prophecies regarding the ancestry of the Messiah (1 Chron. 17:11-14; Isa. 9:6-7), and the nativity story also showed how Jesus fulfilled Old Testament prophecies (Mat. 1:22-23, compared to Isa. 7:14; Mat. 2:6 compared to Micah 5:2, etc.).  But the genealogy and the nativity story would have had little significance to Mark’s gentile Roman readers. 

Second, Mark explains Jewish customs that would have needed no explanation had his intended audience been Jewish (e.g., 7:3, 11; 14:12; 15:42-43).  Aramaic expressions are translated into Greek (e.g., 3:17; 5:41; 7:34; 9:43; 14:36; 15:22, 34), indicating that the intended audience was not the Aramaic-speaking Jews of the Levant. Mark refers to four watches of the night (6:48; 13:35), a Roman system that contrasts with the Jewish system of three night watches. 

Instead of finding a Greek equivalent, Mark transliterates Latin terms into Greek, by which I mean that he spells out the Latin word phonetically using Greek letters. Mark does this with military terms (legion in 5:9; speculatores [an army scout or spy] in 6:27; praetorium in 15:16; centurion in 15:39) and commercial terms (denarius in 12:15; quadrans [a quarter] in 12:42) among others. 

It is obvious from these examples that Mark, a native speaker of Aramaic, is trying to communicate with the Romans, whose native tongue was Latin, through their shared second language of Greek. 


When was Mark Written?

To summarize the foregoing, we have shown that there is ample evidence to support church tradition that Peter was the source of Mark’s gospel, and that it was written in Rome for a Roman audience.  Acts was likely written in 62 AD, and Luke before Acts.  Luke was likely written before First Corinthians (53-56 AD)—because of the quotation of Luke in that epistle—and because most scholars believe that Mark was written before Luke, we should be looking for Mark to have been written in the forties.

Accordingly, Peter’s final, fatal visit to Rome in the 60s—Peter was martyred in Rome, almost certainly sometime between 64 and 68 AD—is much too late to be the occasion for the writing of Mark’s gospel. Peter must have made a previous missionary journey to Rome.  The Book of Acts does not record such a journey, but it is silent about Peter for approximately six to eight years during the 40s.  Acts records Peter’s miraculous escape from the prison of Herod Agrippa (Acts 12:1-19), circa 42 AD, and then notes that Peter was present at the Jerusalem Council, which was held circa 48 - 50 AD. It is difficult to believe that Peter would have been idle during this entire time.  For the first two years, until the death of Herod Agrippa in 44 AD, Peter would have been a fugitive, and ill-advised to stay around Judea, where Agrippa ruled. 

When Peter spoke at the Jerusalem Council, he stated that he had been chosen as the apostle to the gentiles:  “Brothers, you know that some time ago God made a choice among you that the Gentiles might hear from my lips the message of the gospel and believe.” (Acts 15:7) The implication is that Peter had been preaching to the gentiles during time between his escape from Herod Agrippa and the meeting of the Jerusalem Council.  

Another biblical clue is in Paul's letter to the Romans, where Paul says he prefers to preach the Gospel to those who have never heard it, so that he "would not be building on someone else's foundation" (Rom. 15:20-24).  Conservative scholars believe Paul's epistle to the Romans was written in the 50s, probably between 51 and early 57.  So the foundation for the church in Rome had been laid before then, probably in the 40s. 

Who laid that foundation for the Roman Christians?  Eusebius tells us that during the reign of Claudius (r. 41 to 54 AD), Peter made a missionary journey to Rome, and that it was during this trip that the Romans asked Mark to write down the gospel they were hearing from Peter.  Eusebius, Church History, (2.14.6 through 15.2). 

Eusebius’ work "Chronology" places the writing of Mark’s gospel in the third year of Claudius, and since Claudius became emperor after the assassination of Caligula in late January, 41, his third year was 43 to early 44 AD.  It would be better if we could prove this date by chronological markers contained in Scripture.  But it was also Eusebius who reported the tradition that Peter was the source of Mark’s gospel, and that Mark was writing for a Roman audience, and both of these assertions are correct based upon internal scriptural evidence from the Gospel of Mark itself.    

Moreover, there appears to be corroboration for this early date among the Dead Sea Scrolls. 


Fragment 7Q5—Is it part of Mark’s Gospel?

Everyone has heard of the Dead Sea Scrolls, the ancient documents found in a cluster of caves at Qumran, near the Dead Sea, about 13 miles east of Jerusalem.  Fragments of Greek writing were found in Cave 7, and based upon paleography—the science of dating manuscripts according to the form, or morphology, of the letters they contain—scholars concluded that these Greek fragments were written during a one-century window between 50 BC and 50 AD.  This paleographic analysis was done before anyone had a theory as to the identity of any of these fragments.

One of these fragments is known as 7Q5, the fifth fragment from the 7th cave at Qumran.  There is only one complete Greek word in the fragment, kai (“and”).  The fragment looked like this:


In 1971, a scholar at the University of Barcelona, Fr. Jose O’Callaghan Martinez (1922-2001), began studying the fragment.  The combination “NNES” interested him because it is a rare combination in Greek.  At first he thought it might be EGENNESAN, a verbal cognate of “beget,” but he could not find any ancient Greek passages where that word would fit the other letters in fragment 7Q5.  Then he remembered the biblical name GENNESARET, an alternate name for the Sea of Galilee used in Matthew 14:34 and Mark 6:53.  Assuming that Gennesaret was the word, O’Callaghan found that the fragment would fit Mark 6:52-53.  Translated into English, the fragment would look like this, with letters appearing on 7Q5 in bold and supplied letters in brackets:


O’Callaghan’s identification remains controversial, but in later years it was championed by the German scholar Carsten Peter Thiede (1952-2004).  Thiede not only agreed with O’Callaghan about the fragment being from the Gospel of Mark, he pointed out another piece of evidence that supports that identification. 

Thiede noted that in the 1950s French archeologists excavating Cave 7 had found, very close to where fragment 7Q5 was found, a pottery jar designed to hold papyrus scrolls.  This jar was engraved in Hebrew with the word “Rome.” If you’ve come with me this far, you can appreciate how a jar designed to store scrolls, and labeled “Rome,” corroborates that 7Q5 is a fragment of Mark’s gospel: early church tradition insists that Mark’s gospel was written in Rome.  So what we have is a scroll-storage jar labeled “Rome” found next to a fragment of a scroll bearing a passage from Mark’s gospel, which was written in Rome. 

Recall that long before O’Callaghan had identified 7Q5 as a fragment of Mark’s gospel the Greek letters had been paleographically dated to no later than 50 AD.  Eusebius said that Mark wrote his gospel in Rome during the third year of the reign of Claudius, 43-44 AD. 


The Evidence Adds Up

So Eusebius tells us that Mark was written in the 40s in Rome.  A fragment found in a cave in Qumran near a jar labeled “Rome” is paleographically dated to no later than 50 AD.  Later, that fragment is shown to be from the Gospel of Mark.  It all adds up.  The pieces fit together logically and harmoniously. 

Mark was written only 14 years after the death of Christ.  Hundreds of witnesses to the life, teaching, death, and Resurrection of Jesus would still have been alive in 44 AD.  Is there really any point in worrying about the frailty of oral transmission, when the period of oral transmission was less than 20 years?

The Bible is an anvil that has worn out many hammers, and Bart Ehrman’s hammer will be no exception.