Gospel of Mark

James Keith Elliott

in Biblical Studies

ISBN: 9780195393361
Published online September 2010 | | DOI:
Gospel of Mark

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Of the four canonical gospels, Mark seems to have been neglected in Antiquity, despite the tradition of Papias that its existence was due to its author’s having been Peter’s interpreter, which implies that this gospel writer was privy to the prime apostle’s reminiscences. Instead, attention was focused on Matthew’s gospel, because another tradition, this one going back to Augustine, claimed that Matthew’s was the first of the four to have been composed. As a consequence, Mark was seen merely as an “abbreviator” of Matthew. No patristic commentaries on Mark exist before Victor of Antioch’s commentary in the 5th–6th centuries, and there are very few thereafter until Bede’s commentary in the 8th century and Sedulius Scottus’s in the 9th. Very few manuscript fragments of Mark are extant from the first three centuries, although parts of other New Testament books have survived, some relatively profusely, from the earliest Christian centuries. Most of Mark’s gospel may be found in either Matthew or Luke (or both); it is estimated that some six hundred of Mark’s 661 verses are repeated to a greater or lesser extent in these other gospels. Thus, there was little incentive until recent times for readers to consult Mark, although readings from Mark were obviously included in the churches’ lectionary systems. What changed was the recognition that Matthew’s gospel was unlikely to have been the first gospel written, and that instead Mark’s gospel—allegedly because of its relative simplicity of language, style, and theology—was prior to Matthew (and to Luke); it can be shown that Matthew and Luke, in using and copying from Mark, improved upon his simple work. The consensus of scholarly opinion is that Mark’s gospel was composed either in the mid-60s or shortly after 70 CE, in Rome or in Syria. The recognition that Mark’s was the first gospel arose from the quests for the historical Jesus. Those arguments were first made by German scholars from the 19th century onward, notably by K. Lachmann and his followers. Thereafter the spotlight was centered on Mark, especially as this gospel may have pioneered this distinctively Christian genre. Its priority over the other canonical gospels made it a worthy candidate for a long overdue study, and B. H. Streeter’s The Four Gospels in 1924 popularized the solution to the problem of the interrelationship of the synoptic gospels, generally referred to as the two- or four-document hypothesis. That theory held sway for fifty years, until W. R. Farmer, in resurrecting the Griesbach solution (which claimed Mark’s as the third of the four canonical gospels to have been composed as an epitome of the two earlier writings, Matthew and Luke), encouraged reassessments of Streeter’s theory. Aside from the questions of the literary and compositional interrelationship of the gospels, W. Wrede’s thesis that Mark had a unique insight into the way Jesus’ position was only gradually revealed (in his Das Messiasgeheimnis in den Evangelien, 1901) also demonstrated the worth of exploring the distinctive insights that an exegetical study of Mark may reveal. Thereafter, Markan theology and Christology became legitimate areas of study in their own right, and redaction criticism from the middle of the 20th century onward increasingly encouraged analysis of this gospel.

Article.  9260 words. 

Subjects: Biblical Studies

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