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Why Did the Gospel of Mark Survive?

In spite of the virtually unanimous ecclesiastical tradition that the evangelist Mark was the interpreter of Peter, the most prestigious leader among the Apostles in Christian memory, the Gospel of Mark was mostly neglected in the Patristic period. Moreover, the explicit Patristic comments about the evangelist Mark reveal some ambivalence about the Gospel’s literary and theological value. This paper will explore the reasons why some later Christian intellectuals were hesitant to embrace Mark, especially highlighting their concerns that Mark could be read as amenable to the theological views of their opponents.

See Also: The Gospel on the Margins: The Reception of Mark in the Second Century (Fortress Press, 2015).

By Dr. Michael Kok
February 2015

In searching for an apt analogy for how the second canonical Gospel has been received over the course of two millennia, one could look to movies that had a poor debut at the box office or television shows that suffered in the ratings yet later developed a significant cult following. Likewise, one could think of books that initially did not find a receptive audience, but eventually came to be regarded as part of the canon of great literature. The influential reception theory scholar Hans Robert Jauss points out that the assessments of a text as pleasing or alienating by its initial readership may have no bearing on the aesthetic experience of future readers (1982, 25-27).

Today, the “Gospel according to Mark” commands a great deal of scholarly and popular attention,[1] partly because the vast majority of biblical scholars consider it to be the earliest extant narrative life (bios) of Jesus and partly because many readers are captivated by its fast-paced literary style and use of dramatic irony. This was not always the case. For ancient Christians invested in the project of constructing normative boundaries around a certain set of beliefs and practices, Mark had limited appeal. In her study of Mark’s reception history, Brenda Deen Schildgen contends, “The virtual absence of Mark in the first centuries of Christian writing demonstrates that despite the gospel’s presence in the canon, it was not treated equally with the others, let alone with any special deference” (1999, 41).

Schildgen’s statement can be substantiated by a survey of how often the New Testament Gospels are cited in the Patristic period. Based on the first three volumes of the Biblia Patristica,[2] she estimates that there are roughly 1,400 references to Mark in comparison to 3,900 references to Matthew, 3,300 to Luke and 2,000 to John from the earliest period until late second century theologians such as Irenaeus of Lyons and Clement of Alexandria. Excluding the numerous biblical citations of Origen of Alexandria, the number of references to Mark drops sharply to about 250 in the third century, in contrast to the 3,600 to Matthew, 1,000 to Luke, and 1,600 of John. Factoring Origen’s writings back in, she calculates that there are approximately 8,000 references to Matthew, 5,000 to John, 3,000 to Luke, and 650 to Mark (1999, 40-41). Correspondingly, Peter Head counts the pages in the same volumes: the first volume devotes 70 pages for Matthew, 26 for Mark, 59 for Luke and 36 for John. The second volume has 64 pages for Matthew, 5 for Mark, 18 for Luke and 31 for John while the third volume has 57 pages for Matthew, 5 for Mark, 23 for Luke and 38 for John (2012, 113n.22).

It is clear from these numbers that Mark was the odd one out, but the statistics gathered in the Biblia Patristica may be open to question. The first three “Synoptic” Gospels repeat much of the same content, so it is tricky to be certain whether a Christian writer was referring to Matthew, Mark or Luke when discussing an episode in the life of Jesus that occurs in all three. Further, it is likely that all of the evangelists who composed the Gospels drew on a variety of oral and written traditions, traditions that may have survived well into the second century CE. For this reason, Helmut Koester argues that scholars cannot be sure that one of the New Testament Gospels is being cited in a second century text unless the author of that text reproduces the “redactional” or editorial touches of a particular Gospel writer (1994, 297). For example, an allusion to the baptism of Jesus could be to any number of sources, but a Christian writer is likely relying on Matthew if he or she quotes Jesus’ line about the necessity of undergoing baptism to fulfill all righteousness that is distinct to Matthew’s revision of Mark’s account (cf. Matt 3:15). With this strict method in place, Helmut Koester (1990, 274) accepts only a single reference to Mark in the period before Irenaeus in the work of Justin Martyr (cf. Dialogue 106.3), though other scholars allow for a few more references to survive Koester’s scalpel (cf. Collins 2007, 103-4).

Not only did Mark fail to have much of an impact in the early centuries, the explicit Patristic comments on the origins of this Gospel suggest that they did not quite know what to make of it. Although Papias of Hierapolis is adamant that the evangelist Mark did nothing wrong in recording what the Apostle Peter had preached on the words and deeds of Jesus, he concedes that the evangelist was not able to arrange the material at his disposal in the proper “order” (taxis) since he was not an eyewitness of Jesus but a second-hand follower and interpreter of Peter (cf. Eusebius, Ecclesiastical History 3.39.15). Irenaeus indicates that the Gospel of Mark was not handed down until after the “departure” (exodos) of Peter (cf. Adversus Haereses 3.1.2; Eusebius, Eccl. Hist. 5.8.3),[3] whereas Clement recounts how the evangelist composed the Gospel while Peter was still alive yet without his knowledge. Upon learning that the evangelist had disseminated Peter’s preaching in written form for a select Roman audience, Peter reacts fairly apathetically, according to Clement, in neither energetically preventing it nor urging it forward (cf. Eusebius, Eccl. Hist. 6.14.6-7). In this way, both Irenaeus and Clement subtly distance the Apostle from his protégé. Finally, Hippolytus of Rome (Refutation of All Heresies 7.18) and the Latin prologues attached to Mark disclose that the evangelist bore the deprecating epithet “stump-fingered” (colobodaktylus), a slight originally directed either towards the evangelist himself or to the text of the Gospel as cut off (cf. North 1977; Black 2001, 118).

What are the reasons for the extreme neglect of Mark? Aside from its grammatical and stylistic deficiencies, Mark may have been judged to be incomplete in lacking stories about Jesus’ birth and post-mortem appearances as well as his ethical teachings in the Sermon of the Mount or Plains that have become familiar from the other Gospels. Indeed, Matthew reproduces over 90 percent of Mark’s content, but also inserts a wealth of additional material and revises or omits a number of passages that may have become theologically problematic (Mark 2:21; 3:19b-20; 6:5; 7:19b, 32-35; 7:33-34; 8:22-26; 10:18). Luke’s procedure is similar, though Luke’s omissions are more extensive (e.g., Mark 6:45-8:26) and ends up reproducing just 51 percent of Mark’s content. David C. Sim infers that the author of Matthew intended to compose a new and improved life of Jesus, rendering the former biography of Jesus, Mark, redundant (2011, 178-83). The author of Luke, too, stresses how his orderly account supersedes the many previous attempts (Luke 1:1-4). It is surprising that Mark was preserved even after Matthew and Luke took over most of its content!

Willi Braun (2010) and the present author (2015) have explored another reason why the Patristic authorities may have been hesitant to embrace Mark: they may have feared that rival Christian factions were taking up Mark in support of theological views that they abhorred. According to Irenaeus, Mark was especially privileged by readers who separated Jesus from the Christ and denied that the heavenly Christ could suffer (Adv. Haer. 3.11.7). What Irenaeus means by this is that some of his theological opponents entertained a “separationist” Christology in which a divine being possessed the human Jesus during his baptism and left him before he died (cf. Ehrman 1993, 119). Mark’s narrative outline may have been perceived by these second century readers as amenable to their theological system as it opens with the Spirit’s descent “into” (eis) Jesus at the baptism along with the accompanying announcement of Jesus’ divine sonship (Mark 1:10-11) and Jesus’ final cry on the cross is his lament of divine abandonment on the cross (15:34; cf. Matthew 27:46). Matthew and Luke were less vulnerable to this reading as they announce Jesus’ Christological identity from his miraculous conception and go on to narrate explicit appearances of the resurrected Jesus. Perhaps some of the scribal amendments to Mark’s text (e.g., 1:1, 10; 15:34; 16:9-20) can be explained as efforts to edit passages that were seen as liable to be misconstrued (cf. Ehrman 1993, 75, 166, 168-71, 272). Mark’s esoteric themes may have also been attractive to so-called “gnostic” groups such as the Carpocratians who equated the “mystery” of the kingdom (Mark 4:11; cf. Matt 13:11; Luke 8:10; Gos. Thom. 62) with their own secret teachings that they transmitted to those worthy to hear them (Adv. Haer. 1.25.5).

How was this marginalized Gospel saved for posterity when other ancient Christian writings were confined to the dustbin of antiquity? Beginning with Papias, the Patristic tradition is nearly unanimous in attributing the Gospel to the apostolic authority of Peter. Whatever qualms they had about Mark’s literary or theological merits, the patristic writers defended it as a basically trustworthy account of Jesus that was rooted in the memories of Jesus’ chief disciple Peter. In this way, they provided this Gospel with their official endorsement and sanctioned its reading in the churches. To illuminate what is behind all this rhetoric about the legitimate authorship of Mark, Michel Foucault explains that the “author function” is really a discourse about the proper classification and ownership of a text (2000, 211-14). Further, Mark came to be read alongside and in concert with the other three New Testament Gospels. Irenaeus, for instance, insists that a canon of four Gospels is as natural as the four zones of the world or the four principal winds. Correlating each of the four Gospels with one of the four living creatures of Ezekiel 1:5-14 and Revelation 4:6-8, Irenaeus advances that Mark is an indispensable part of the fourfold gospel canon in that it expresses its prophetic character (Adv. Haer. 3.11.8). Francis Watson asserts, “[T]he fourfold gospel may itself be seen as an act of gospel production, marking the defining moment in the reception-history of the individual texts it contains while also establishing a new, composite text which generates a more comprehensive reception-history of its own” (2013, 7). The absences at the beginning and end of Mark, and some of the difficult verses in the middle, may be less threatening when they are cross-referenced with another Gospel (e.g., compare Mark 6:5-6 to Matthew 13:58 or Mark 10:17-18 with Matthew 19:16-17).

By attaching Mark to a venerable apostolic authority and placing it within the fourfold gospel canon, the text of Mark was thereby rendered safe for Christian use. If these moves had not been made, it is unlikely that Mark would have survived at all, let alone become included within the canon of Christian Scripture! Historians interested in the origins and development of the gospel tradition, and Christians who continue to be theologically nourished by Mark’s proclamation of good news, may be grateful that the Patristic writers chose to rescue the Gospel of Mark from the margins.


Black, C. Clifton. 2001. Mark: Images of an Apostolic Interpreter. Second Edition. Minneapolis: Fortress Press.

Braun, Willi. 2010. “The First Shall be Last: The Gospel of Mark after the First Century.” In Chasing Down Religion: In the Sights of History and the Cognitive Sciences Essays in Honour of Luther H. Martin, edited by Panavotis Pachis and Donald Wiebe, 41–57. Thessaloniki: Barbounakis.

Collins, Adela. 2007. Mark: A Commentary. Hermeneia. Minneapolis: Fortress Press.

Crossley, James. 2004. The Date of Mark’s Gospel: Insight from the Law in Earliest Christianity. JSNTSup 266. London: T & T Clark.

Ehrman, Bart D. 1993. The Orthodox Corruption of Scripture: The Effect of Early Christological Controversies on the Text of the New Testament. New York: Oxford University Press.

Ellis, E. Earle. 1999. The Making of the New Testament Documents. Leiden: Brill.

Head, Peter M. 2012. “The Early Text of Mark.” In The Early Text of the New Testament, edited by Charles E. Hill, and Michael J. Kruger, 208–20. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Jauss, Hans Robert. 1982. Towards an Aesthetic of Reception. Translated by Timothy Bahti. Brighton: Harvester.

Koester, Helmut. 1990. Ancient Christian Gospels: Their History and Development. London: SCM.

Koester, Helmut. 1994. “Written Gospel or Oral Tradition?” Journal of Biblical Literature 113: 293-297.

Kok, Michael. 2015. The Gospel on the Margins: The Reception of Mark in the Second Century. Minneapolis: Fortress Press.

North, J. L. 1977. “MARKOS HO KOLOBODAKTYLOS: Hippolytus, Elenchus, VII.30. Journal of Theological Studies 29: 498–507.

Schildgen, Brenda Deen. 1999. Power and Prejudice: The Reception of the Gospel of Mark. Detroit: Wayne State University Press.

Sim, David C. 2011. “Matthew’s Use of Mark: Did Matthew Intend to Supplement or to Replace His Primary Source?” New Testament Studies 57: 176–92.

Watson, Francis. 2013. Gospel Writing: A Canonical Perspective. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans.

Winn, Adam. 2008. The Purpose of Mark’s Gospel: An Early Christian Response to Roman Imperialism. WUNT 2.245. Tubingen: Mohr Siebeck.


[1] Although the Gospels are technically anonymous, I will refer to the four canonical Gospels by the traditional names of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John for the sake of convenience. When referring to the alleged authors of these texts, I will either preface the name with “evangelist” (e.g., the evangelist Mark) or the context will make it clear.

[2] For a bare list of possible references to the New Testament books in later Patristic literature, one can consult the multi-volume Biblia Patristica: Index des citations et allusions bibliques dans la litterature patristique, 6 vols. (Paris: CNRS Editions, 1975–1995).

[3] While E. Earle Ellis (2002, 362-63) understands Irenaeus to be implying that the evangelist handed down a written record of Peter’s preaching after Peter departed from the city of Rome, James Crossley (2004, 7-8) and Adam Winn (2008, 44-45) make a strong case that Irenaeus is speaking euphemistically about Peter’s death.

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