By Mikel Del Rosario| Was the Gospel of Mark really just an old forgery? That’s something you might hear liberal scholars say about a lot of books in the New Testament. For example, Timothy Freke and Peter Gandy wrote this in a book called the Jesus Mysteries:
In the first four centuries, every single [New Testament] document was at some time or other branded as heretical or forged! (p.224).
In a more popular book called Forged, Bart Ehrman said that “the vast majority of these apostolic books were in fact forged” (p.218). For example, he says The Gospel of Mark really wasn’t written by Mark, but that later scribes just added Mark’s name to the book to make it seem more important. But what about this?
Is the gospel of Mark really just a forged document that somehow made its way into our Bibles? In this post, you’ll learn how to respond to the idea that Mark’s Gospel is nothing but an ancient forgery.
Who Wrote the Gospel of Mark?
Most people never even think to ask this question–especially since Mark’s name has been at home in our Bibles as long as we can remember. But that’s why it’s important to expose Christian students and their parents to these challenges in the safety of the local church, so they aren’t taken aback when they encounter these ideas in college, online, in best-selling books or in the popular culture.
Still, Ehrman’s got one thing right about Mark and the rest of the New Testament gospels: These documents didn’t originally mention the names of their authors. Of course, that’s different than being anonymous. For example, some rap or hip hop artists like to mention their names in their songs. Others don’t. But does that mean the ones that don’t include the author’s names in the lyrics are anonymous? Nope.
So, here’s the thing. There was a time when people of a certain area only had one gospel account, so it didn’t really even need to be called by the author’s name. That might sound a bit odd to us in the 21st century, since we’ve got names and model numbers for almost everything we own. But maybe this illustration will help.
Just Take the Car
Right now, my wife and I only have one car. If things stay that way until our son can drive by himself, I might tell him, “Just take the car” if he asks to go somewhere. But if we happen to have two cars at that point and he asks to go somewhere, I might tell him, “Just take mom’s car.”
My point is that as soon as more than one car comes into play, we’ll probably start calling the new one, “Mom’s car.” I assume “Dad’s car” will be the older one.
In a similar way, the gospels according to Matthew, Mark, Luke and John needed to be distinguished from each other as each of them started showing up in different areas that used to only have one known gospel account.
Bottom line: Nobody in the ancient world ever thought the New Testament gospels were written by anyone else besides each of their traditional authors: Matthew, Mark, Luke and John.
But let’s get back the Gospel according to Mark. Is there any evidence at all that Mark wrote the gospel we think he wrote?
Was Mark’s Gospel Forged?
The Gospel of Mark is no forgery. According to Papius, an early writer who lived in the first century, Mark wrote the gospel that’s got his name on it in your Bible. And Mark wrote it using material he got directly from Peter (Fragments of Papius, 3.15). And absolutely none of the church fathers thought Papius got this fact wrong. In fact, I don’t know of any ancient source contesting Mark’s authorship.
But still, some skeptics insist the ancient church was really into attributing their sacred writings to big, important religious figures in order to make the writings seem authoritative. So how likely is it that this kind of dishonesty is really behind the naming of Mark’s gospel?
Pretty unlikely. Why? Because Mark’s not really the kind of guy you’d pick if you just wanted to slap an important name on a gospel account.
Think about it: He’s kind of a bit-player in the New Testament and he doesn’t exactly come off as the perfect disciple either. He never even finished his first missionary journey with Paul and Barnabas. In fact, he bailed on them and went back home! But even more than that, he’s responsible for causing a rift between them because he wanted to join them on a second mission trip. How well does this scenario fit the theory that church leaders slapped Mark’s name on a gospel to “up” its status?
Testing the Theory
In 2013, we at the Hendricks Center for Christian Leadership and Cultural Engagement launched an annual event called The Table Conference which helped Christians think through issues like this.
At that event, my mentor Darrell Bock, and my Greek professor Dan Wallace, discussed the question of forgeries in the New Testament, focusing on Mark’s Gospel. Imagine this: You’re a leader of the ancient Christian church. You don’t know who wrote a certain gospel and you’ve decided to just plain slap an important name on this book. Who are you going to pick? Check out his comments in this short video clip:
You have a choice between Peter and Mark. Who are you gonna pick? You’re gonna pick Peter at the drop of a hat! And yet the tradition is consistent that Mark is the author of this gospel–even though they had the availability of connecting it to Peter…
the tradition is actually very careful about how it handles the naming of its authors.”
So if Mark got his stuff from Peter, why didn’t the ancient church leaders just go ahead and call it The Gospel According to Peter? If these early Christians were supposedly so eager to slap the name of well-respected religious figure on their sacred books, why didn’t they do it for this gospel?
As Dan Wallace says, they didn’t give in to any temptation to call it anything besides Mark because they placed a huge value on the truth:
“To call this The Gospel According to Mark is something that the church was committed to because it was true.”
Mark Wasn’t Forged
So, how can we respond to the challenge that Mark’s Gospel was forged? By pointing to the positive evidence for Mark’s authorship provided by Papius and considering the unlikelihood that anyone would choose the name of a minor, somewhat embarrassing figure like Mark to enhance the authority of an anonymous report—especially when they had the chance to put Peter’s name on it instead.