The second edition of my book The Ending of Mark’s Gospel: The Key to Understanding the Gospels and Christianity was published in 2020, and in it I described a paradigm shift in my thinking about this gospel. Also I argued that Mark wrote his gospel in Rome in about 52 AD. Such an early date is very much a minority view these days, but the more I investigated the matter the more convinced I became. The date is important because if Mark wrote only about twenty years after Jesus’ crucifixion it supports the essential truthfulness of his account. As I explained in my book, although the text was subsequently interfered with in several places the original author (or authors) was genuinely trying to relate what he or she knew and believed.
In Mark 13:2 Jesus predicts the demolition of the temple in Jerusalem, and scholars have assumed that the gospel was written after 70 AD when the temple was destroyed. But in 1952 the British biblical scholar Vincent Taylor explained in his commentary that in prophesying the destruction of the temple Jesus stood in line with the prophets Micah and Jeremiah, and he went on to say, ‘In point of fact the temple was destroyed by fire, and of this there is no hint in the saying, a difference which cannot lightly be dismissed.’ After the destruction of the temple Josephus wrote in Jewish War 4:388 that there was ‘a certain ancient oracle’ that the city would be taken and the temple burnt. D.R. Carson and Douglas Moo in An Introduction to the New Testament published in 2005 state that Jesus’ predictions in Mark 13 ‘reflect stock Old Testament and Jewish imagery having to do with the besieging of cities rather than the specific circumstances of the siege of Jerusalem.’ However, for other reasons Vincent Taylor concluded that ‘the weight of evidence favours a date after Peter’s martyrdom rather than during his lifetime.’ (According to tradition Peter was martyred in Rome during or after the persecution of Christians in 64 AD.) Taylor considered that Mark writing ‘during Peter’s lifetime is improbable in the light of the testimony of Irenaeus and the Anti-Marcionite Prologue.’
Concerning the prologue to Mark’s gospel, Bernard Orchard and Harold Riley examined it in detail in a section of their book The Order of the Synoptics Why Three Synoptic Gospels? published in 1987. They considered that even if its composition was as late as the second half of the fourth century it reflected second-century traditions. They explained that there are two recensions of the prologue. In the first there is a sentence stating that ‘after the demise of Peter’ Mark published his gospel. In the second, before these words are repeated, there is another sentence which states that ‘when Peter heard about it’ he approved it. Orchard and Riley concluded that ‘there is no discrepancy between them, but merely the clarification that a later situation allowed to be brought out and which the compiler of recension I did not include.’ Orchard and Riley thought that the recensions simply reflected the statement of Clement of Alexandria who wrote in about 200 AD that when Peter knew of Mark’s gospel ‘he neither actively prevented nor encouraged the undertaking.’
The testimony of Irenaeus has been a big obstacle to an early date for Mark’s gospel because in the late second century he stated that Mark wrote after the departure of Peter and Paul. Here the word ‘departure’ means death. The full text is as follows: ‘Matthew also issued a written gospel among the Hebrews in their own dialect, while Peter and Paul were preaching at Rome, and laying the foundations of the Church. After their departure, Mark, the disciple and interpreter of Peter, did also hand down to us in writing what had been preached by Peter. Luke also, the companion of Paul, recorded in a book the Gospel preached by him. Afterwards, John, the disciple of the Lord, who also had leaned upon his breast, did himself publish a gospel during his residence at Ephesus in Asia.’ Rudolf Von Harnack, following J.W. Chapman, was convinced that ‘Irenaeus simply wished to prove that the teaching of the four chief apostles did not perish with their death, but that it came down to us in writing.’ Harnack was Professor of Church History at the University of Berlin, and in his book The Date of the Acts and of the Synoptic Gospels published in 1911 he argued that this meaning becomes clear when Irenaeus’ text is carefully examined. So according to Harnack, ‘Irenaeus does not mean to say that the gospel of St Matthew was composed at the time when St Peter and St Paul were preaching in Rome, nor that the second gospel was not written until after the death of the two chief apostles. He had no further information concerning the origin of the two gospels than what could be read in Papias, upon whose words his own are based.’ In the early second century Papias had written that Mark, having become the interpreter of Peter, wrote down accurately all that he remembered of the things said and done by the Lord.
A multitude of scholars have written about the date of Mark’s gospel and given various opinions. Harnack argued that it was written in the 50s because he believed that Luke read it before writing The Acts of the Apostles, which he finished in about 62 AD. As I explained in my book, I think Luke wrote during or after the period 64 to 70 AD when the temple was destroyed. Luke showed that he knew what happened in the Jewish war because he changed Jesus’ prediction that the abomination that causes desolation would be set up in the temple (Mark 13:14) to ‘When you see Jerusalem being surrounded by armies, you will know that its desolation is near.’ (Luke 21:20) Luke knew that Jesus’ prediction recorded by Mark never happened. All things considered, I believe that Mark wrote his gospel in about 52 AD.
Progressive Christians should try to think independently in regard to biblical studies and be wary of majority opinions. It is so easy to jump on a bandwagon and be carried away. John Shelby Spong in his book Unbelievable published in 2018 wrote on page 183, ‘Biblical scholarship is quite certain that the earliest copies of Mark ended with verse 8 of chapter 16 – that is, with the women, having heard the resurrection message, fleeing in fear and saying nothing to anyone. . . . The great majority of New Testament scholars now accept the fact that Mark ended his gospel exactly as we find it at 16:8.’ Readers of my book about the ending of Mark’s gospel know that the great majority are probably wrong.
Peter E. Lewis