Mark’s Gospel: The Case for a Peter-Driven Memoir

The Gospels’ authors are a topic of debate for those questioning the New Testament. Mark’s Gospel, early and rich in Jesus’ life story, lacks an eyewitness tag. How did Mark learn about Jesus?

The church fathers largely agree that Mark served as a scribe or interpreter for Peter while he preached in Rome. In this post I’ll explore this evidence and see if it matches up with some internal clues.

A couple of weak arguments against Petrine influence

Before we move forward, let’s address a couple of common objections. Some people say that because Mark never explicitly says he got his information from Peter, it means he probably didn’t. After all, that’s a pretty big omission. But this is an argument from silence.

This kind of argument is flawed because it relies on what’s not said in historical records or texts, rather than what is. For example, Marco Polo didn’t mention the Great Wall of China in his writings, but that doesn’t mean it didn’t exist or that he didn’t see it. It just wasn’t the main focus of his story. Similarly, Grafton’s Chronicles, which covers medieval England and the reign of King John, doesn’t talk about the Magna Carta, but that doesn’t mean he didn’t know about it. The primary ancient Greek historians, such as Herodotus and Thucydides, surprisingly never mentioned Rome or the Romans. This omission is notably pointed out by Josephus in his work Against Apion 1.12. Thucydides, in his History, also didn’t include Socrates, even though we consider him a significant figure in Athens during the period covered. What’s interesting is that the works of Thucydides are absent from the surviving writings of Aristotle and Xenophon. It took about two and a half centuries for a historian named Polybius to be the first to acknowledge Thucydides.

So when it comes to Mark’s Gospel and its link to Peter, not mentioning Peter doesn’t automatically mean there’s no connection. We need to look at the bigger picture and not rely solely on what’s not said to draw conclusions.

Some scholars suggest Mark’s portrayal might be a critique of Peter given how much it highlights his failures, but Mark maintains sympathy for Peter. Instances of misunderstanding are followed by Peter’s recognition of Jesus as the Messiah. Mark attributes Peter’s actions to his fear and not knowing what to say, highlighting their good intentions. After Peter’s denial of Jesus, he expresses remorse.

The presence of the story of Peter’s denials in all four Gospels suggests it serves a transformative purpose, purging Peter’s false self-confidence to make room for a deeper faith, similar to Paul’s transformation (1 Corinthians 15:9-10).

On the other hand, Mark appears to cover some of Peter’s foibles compared to the other Gospel writers. For instance, in Luke 8:45, it’s Peter who corrects Jesus after the woman with the issue with blood was healed. It reads: “Peter said, “Master, the crowds are surrounding you and pressing against you!” However, in Mark 5:31, it is simply attributed to “his disciples”: His disciples said to him, “You see the crowd pressing against you and you say, ‘Who touched me?’”

Similarly, when Jesus told a parable about eating unclean foods, Matthew 15:15 records Peter’s request for an explanation. But Mark 7:17 attributes it to “the disciples.” In the Gospel of Mark, several instances omit details related to Peter’s words and actions. This omission seems to protect Peter from potential embarrassment. With these objections out of the way, let’s look at some of the positive evidence.

External evidence: The early church fathers

Papias of Hierapolis (60-130 AD) relayed the testimony of early followers of the Apostles who said Mark wrote his Gospel in Rome based on Peter’s preaching. Papias authored a five-volume work called Exposition of the Oracles of the Lord, of which we only have fragments. He quoted someone he referred to as ‘the elder,’ probably John the elder. It reads:

“And the elder used to say this, Mark became Peter’s interpreter and wrote accurately all that he remembered, not, indeed, in order, of the things said and done by the Lord. For he had not heard the Lord, nor had followed him, but later on, followed Peter, who used to give teaching as necessity demanded but not making, as it were, an arrangement of the Lord’s oracles, so that Mark did nothing wrong in thus writing down single points as he remembered them. For to one thing he gave attention, to leave out nothing of what he had heard and to make no false statements in them.”

In his work Against Heresies (3:1), Irenaeus (130-200 AD) confirmed that Mark wrote his Gospel as Peter’s scribe. He provided an additional detail.

“Matthew composed his gospel among the Hebrews in their own language, while Peter and Paul proclaimed the gospel in Rome and founded the community. After their departure, Mark, the disciple and interpreter of Peter, handed on his preaching to us in written form”

Irenaeus was aware of Papias’ writings and so admittedly, he could be echoing his words. So let’s look further.

Clement of Alexandria (150-215 AD) authored a book called Hypotyposeis. In this ancient work, Clement mentions a tradition passed down by the “elders from the beginning.”

“And so great a joy of light shone upon the minds of the hearers of Peter that they were not satisfied with merely a single hearing or with the unwritten teaching of the divine gospel, but with all sorts of entreaties they besought Mark, who was a follower of Peter and whose gospel is extant, to leave behind with them in writing a record of the teaching passed on to them orally; and they did not cease until they had prevailed upon the man and so became responsible for the Scripture for reading in the churches.” (Ecclesiastical History Book 2 Chapter 15)

Justin Martyr, in his work Dialogue with Trypho (around 150 AD), included this intriguing passage:

“It is said that he [Jesus] changed the name of one of the apostles to Peter; and it is written in his memoirs that he changed the names of others, two brothers, the sons of Zebedee, to Boanerges, which means ‘sons of thunder’….” (106)

Furthermore, Justin elsewhere calls the Gospels ““he memoirs which I say were drawn up by [Jesus’] apostles and those who followed them…” (ibid, 103) This all suggests he’s talking about the Gospel of Mark. What’s surprising is that he independently calls it Peter’s memoirs. Given this, it’s unlikely (if Mark didn’t write it) that the second gospel would change from being called “Peter’s Gospel” to “Mark’s Gospel,” especially when many believed it contained Peter’s account (as Papias, Irenaeus, and Clement of Alexandria mentioned).

In contrast, apocryphal gospels are often linked to famous figures like Peter and Thomas. However, Mark is a relatively unknown character in the New Testament. He’s mentioned briefly in Acts (12:25, 15:37-39) and is most famous for leaving Paul during a journey, causing a significant dispute between Paul and Barnabas. So, it’s surprising that someone would falsely attribute authorship to Mark.

The Muratorian Fragment, the earliest known New Testament book list dating back to around 170 AD, provides confirmation of Mark’s connection to Peter. The first line reads:

“But he was present among them, and so he put [the facts down in his Gospel]”

This seems to indicate that Mark was with Peter during his teachings in Rome and recorded them, eventually forming the Gospel of Mark.

The early Christian theologian and apologist Tertullian (160-225 AD) described Mark’s Gospel in his apologetic Against Marcion. (4.5)

“While that [gospel] which Mark published may be affirmed to be Peter’s whose interpreter Mark was.”

Some argue that Papias’ account of Mark’s collaboration with Peter in Rome is the earliest source. Critics claim that later church sources are merely repeating Papias. However, the variations in subsequent accounts, like Clement’s, suggest different original sources. Justin Martyr’s reference to the ‘sons of thunder’ also points to Peter’s involvement from a different source than Papias. The consistent historical record supports Mark’s Gospel as Peter’s memoir of life with Jesus.

Internal evidence for PEtrine influence

For internal evidence, I am referencing Paul Barnett’s book Is the New Testament Reliable?, Richard Bauckham’s Jesus and the Eyewitnesses, and Lydia McGrew’s Testimonies to the Truth.

Vivid and unnecessary details and unexplained allusions

The Gospel of Mark is filled with vivid details. Barnett raises the interesting question regarding where these details originate from? Are they products of the author’s creative imagination, or do they stem from his memories of impactful events? While extensive descriptive passages might suggest imagination, it’s the small, specific details that likely emerge from his recollection of remarkable and colorful events. Let’s examine a few examples:

  1. Mark 4:35-38 – On that day, when evening came, Jesus said to his disciples, “Let’s go across to the other side of the lake.” So after leaving the crowd, they took him along, just as he was, in the boat, and other boats were with him. Now a great windstorm developed and the waves were breaking into the boat, so that the boat was nearly swamped. But he was in the stern, sleeping on a cushion. They woke him up and said to him, “Teacher, don’t you care that we are about to die?”

This passage vividly conveys the disciples’ emotions of horror and fear as they realized Jesus was peacefully asleep while their boat filled with water. In the account of Jesus calming the storm, Mark specifically vividly notes that he was asleep on a cushion in the stern of the boat.

  1. Mark 5:38-41 – They came to the house of the synagogue leader where he saw noisy confusion and people weeping and wailing loudly. When he entered he said to them, “Why are you distressed and weeping? The child is not dead but asleep!” And they began making fun of him. But he forced them all outside, and he took the child’s father and mother and his own companions and went into the room where the child was. Then, gently taking the child by the hand, he said to her, “Talitha koum,” which means, “Little girl, I say to you, get up.”

The Aramaic words used by Jesus stand out in memory, contrasting with the sounds of wailing and mocking laughter.

  1. Mark 6:39-40 – Then he directed them all to sit down in groups on the green grass. So they reclined in groups of hundreds and fifties.

This is like a photo: people sit in groups, their colorful robes making them look like flowers on green grass. Mark casually says they sat on green grass (Mark 6.39), and this is confirmed by John 6:4, mentioning it happened during Passover when the grass is green.

  1. Mark 10:49-51 – Jesus stopped and said, “Call him.” So they called the blind man and said to him, “Have courage! Get up! He is calling you.” He threw off his cloak, jumped up, and came to Jesus. Then Jesus said to him, “What do you want me to do for you?” The blind man replied, “Rabbi, let me see again.”

As Jesus approaches his death, we encounter the story of the healing of blind Bartimaeus in Jericho. In this account, Mark stands out with a distinct and vivid detail. Mark is the only evangelist to mention Bartimaeus’s name. When they called him to come to Jesus, the physical actions of Bartimaeus are striking. He “threw his cloak aside, jumped up, and came to Jesus” (Mark 10.50).

  1. Mark 11:1-4 – Now as they approached Jerusalem, near Bethphage and Bethany, at the Mount of Olives, Jesus sent two of his disciples and said to them, “Go to the village ahead of you. As soon as you enter it, you will find a colt tied there that has never been ridden. Untie it and bring it here. If anyone says to you, ‘Why are you doing this?’ say, ‘The Lord needs it and will send it back here soon.’” So they went and found a colt tied at a door, outside in the street, and untied it.

As we approach the preparation for Jesus’ Triumphal Entry into Jerusalem, Mark includes some unique and seemingly unnecessary details about where they found the colt. He mentions that when they followed Jesus’ instructions, they discovered the colt “at the door outside in the street.” While it’s natural for the donkey to be outside, there appears to be no particular reason to mention this detail, let alone specify that it was tied at a door in the street. In contrast, Matthew and Luke provide less specific information about the exact location where the colt was tied, with Matthew adding that its mother was also brought to Jesus (Matt. 21:2).

But there’s more. The Greek words for “basket” in these accounts are different (Mark 6:43, 8:8). McGrew points out that the word used in the feeding of the four thousand likely refers to a larger basket, as it’s the same word used in Acts 9:25 for the basket used to lower Paul over the walls of Damascus to escape his enemies. This aligns with the fact that twelve smaller baskets of fragments were collected after the feeding of the five thousand, while seven larger baskets were collected after the feeding of the four thousand.

Furthermore, in Mark 3:17, while listing the names of Jesus’ disciples, Mark mentions that Jesus gave the sons of Zebedee, James and John, the nickname “Boanerges,” meaning “the sons of thunder.” It’s a brief comment with no further explanation. Mark doesn’t elaborate on why Jesus called them by this nickname, and it’s presented as a parenthetical remark, often set in parentheses in translations. If Mark had been making up parts of his Gospel, McGrew argues that one might expect an origin story explaining the nickname’s significance. However, there’s no such story in Mark’s account. He simply includes this detail casually in the list of the twelve disciples.

In all of these instances, it’s the small but striking details that point to the author’s recollection of actual events rather than a product of his imagination. Now you might say, “Erik, we know that liars also add unnecessary details to their stories.” But why do they do this? It’s because these unnecessary details make their accounts seem more convincing. This, in itself, is an acknowledgment that such details can make a story appear truthful.

Now, when we consider the fact that the Gospels include these details along with other evidence of truth and the authors’ sincerity, the most straightforward explanation is that when an evangelist mentions, for example, that the grass was green (Mark 6:39), it’s because the grass was indeed green, not because they are fabricating it.

The Gospels repeatedly present themselves as truthful, both implicitly in the narratives and sometimes explicitly. For instance, in Luke 1:1-4, Luke assures Theophilus, to whom he’s sending the book, that he has diligently followed the events from the beginning and aims to provide an accurate account. Additionally, Luke utilizes Mark as a reliable historical source because he likely had good reasons to think that it was one.

Furthermore, it’s well-documented that the earliest church fathers regarded the Gospels as historically accurate and were keen on obtaining historical facts.

The emotions of Jesus

But there’s more. In Mark’s Gospel, Barnett argues that we find striking details in Jesus’ emotional and personal reactions in specific situations. Barnett asks how can we explain these moments in the Gospel. Are they products of the author’s imagination or his memory? The author doesn’t elaborate on them systematically, and there’s no indication of them being artificially created. Instead, these details are briefly mentioned in the narrative.

We encounter moments where Jesus was “moved with compassion” (1:41, 6:34), “angered, grieved at the hardness of their heart” (3:5), “indignant” (10:14), “loved him” (10:21), and “greatly distressed and troubled” (14:33-34). Jesus also feels forsaken on the cross when he cries, “Eli Eli Lama Sabachthani?” (15:34)

How can we explain the references to Jesus’ deeply human and emotional responses, such as his compassion, anger, concern for others, indignation, love, dread, abandonment, other than as reactions that deeply affected someone present at the time? It seems unlikely that these references emerged solely from the author’s imagination.

Furthermore, on five occasions, this author mentions that Jesus “looked around” in a circular manner: in the synagogue when people watched if he would heal on the Sabbath (3:5); in the house in Capernaum with his mother and brothers outside (3:34); at the crowd to identify the person who touched him (5:32); at the disciples when he spoke about the difficulty for the wealthy to enter the kingdom of God (10:23); and upon his arrival in the temple (11:11). This act of “looking” during these dramatic moments is not recorded by Matthew and is only mentioned once by Luke.

Beneath Mark’s account lies the memory of someone who witnessed and was profoundly moved by the way Jesus “looked around” during these intense and pivotal moments.

The “They” passages.

In 1928, C. H. Turner, in his commentary on Mark, observed that the second Evangelist (Mark) often used “they” in his narrative when referring to the disciples. In contrast, Matthew and Luke frequently omit the term “they,” focusing only on Jesus and the other person in the story.

Given Papias’ statement that Mark wrote what he heard from Peter, Turner proposed that Peter likely used “we” in his teachings, speaking on behalf of himself and the other disciples present with Jesus. Since Mark wasn’t present with Peter and the disciples, he wrote “they.” When Matthew and Luke incorporated Mark’s material, the word “they” was often omitted, and only “he,” referring to Jesus, remained. So, according to Turner’s theory, the process evolved like this:

  1. Peter’s teaching of component stories
  2. Mark’s writing of component stories
  3. Matthew and Luke supplementing and adapting Mark

For instance, many of Mark’s stories might originally have featured “we” in Peter’s retelling, which later became “they” in Mark’s Gospel, and then “he” when adapted by Matthew and Luke.

Many of Mark’s stories could easily have started with “we” when Peter originally shared them. For example:

  • And immediately he left the synagogue and entered the house of Simon and Andrew, with James and John. … Simon’s [my] mother-in- law lay sick with a fever, and immediately they [we] told him of her. And he came and took her by the hand. (Mk 1:29-31).

Barnett points out that Matthew 8:14-15 removed all plurals, and in Luke 4:38-39, two of the three plurals were altered. Other examples in Mark’s Gospel include:

  • And they [we] came to Bethsaida. And some people brought to him a blind man. (8:22)
  • They [we] went on from there and passed through Galilee. And he would not have any one know it. (9:30)
  • And they [we] came to Jerusalem. And he entered the temple. (11:15)

While it’s not possible to demonstrably prove Papias’ statement that Mark was the “interpreter of Peter” (a statement agreed upon by many second-century writers discussing the authorship of the second Gospel, as we already discussed), the internal evidence aligns well with this idea.

The Petrine inclusio

Richard Bauckham makes an argument regarding the authoritative eyewitnesses of Jesus’ life. He contends that the most reliable witnesses are those who were present from the very inception of Jesus’ ministry, starting with John the Baptist, and continuing through to the pivotal event of the resurrection.

Bauckham points out that the Gospels employ a literary device known as the inclusio of eyewitnesses. This device, also utilized in two Greek biographies, is a narrative technique where a character in the story is strategically placed at the beginning and the end of the narrative. This framing device serves to emphasize that this character is one of the primary sources of information and a central figure in the account.

In the case of Mark’s gospel, for instance, this inclusio is applied to Peter. We see Peter mentioned both at the early stages of the narrative (Mark 1:16-18) and at the conclusion (Mark 16:7). This deliberate structure suggests that Peter played a significant role as an eyewitness and a key informant for the Gospel of Mark, thus enhancing the credibility of the Gospel’s content. I’m not entirely convinced of this device, but it’s at least worth noting.

Details of time and place

The Gospel of Mark dedicates six of its sixteen chapters to events in Jerusalem, approximately one-third of the text. These chapters are remarkably detailed regarding time, place, and people. Mark specifically names individuals, including Barabbas, Simon of Cyrene (father of Alexander and Rufus), Mary Magdalene, Mary (mother of James the younger and of Joses), Salome, and Joseph of Arimathea.

Details of TimeDetails of Place
And he entered Jerusalem, and went into the temple… it was already late. (Mk 11:11)They drew near to Jerusalem, to Bethpage and Bethany, at the Mount of Olives. (Mk 11:1; cf. 11:15, 27; 14:16)
On the following day… (11:12)As they passed by in the morning… (11:20)
It was now two days before the Passover. (14:1)And they came again to Jerusalem… (11:27)
On the first day of Unleavened Bread… (14:12)And as he came out of the Temple… (13:1)
And as he sat on the Mount of Olives opposite the temple… (13:3; cf. 14:26)And they went to a place which was called Gethsemane… (14:32)
And Peter had followed him at a distance, right into the courtyard of the high priest… (14:54)And when it was evening… (14:17)
And as soon as it was morning… (15:1)And when the sixth hour had come… (15:33)
And it was the third hour… (15:25)And the soldiers led him away inside the palace (that is, the praetorium)… (15:16)
And when evening had come… (15:42)And they brought him to the place called Golgotha… And they crucified him… (15:22, 24; 16:1)
And when the sabbath was past… (16:1)And he [Joseph of Arimathea]… laid him in a [his] tomb which had been hewn out of the rock… (15:46)
Barnett, Is the New Testament Reliable?, p 87

External confirmations

Mark also displays remarkable familiarity with the events he describe, often revealing specialized details that would be challenging to know without close temporal and geographic proximity. These details make sense if Mark is from directly acquainted with Palestine himself, or is recording what someone from Palestine is saying, or both. Here are some examples:

In Mark 10:2-12, Jesus discusses divorce and remarriage: “Then He arose from there and came to the region of Judea by the other side of the Jordan. And multitudes gathered to Him again, and as He was accustomed, He taught them again. The Pharisees came and asked Him, “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife?” testing Him. And He answered and said to them, “What did Moses command you?” They said, “Moses permitted a man to write a certificate of divorce, and to dismiss her.” And Jesus answered and said to them, “Because of the hardness of your heart he wrote you this precept. But from the beginning of the creation, God ‘made them male and female.’ ‘For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh’; so then they are no longer two, but one flesh. Therefore what God has joined together, let not man separate.” In the house His disciples also asked Him again about the same matter. So He said to them, “Whoever divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery against her. And if a woman divorces her husband and marries another, she commits adultery.

Some question Mark’s accuracy because Jesus addresses women divorcing, which was unusual in Jewish law. However, Josephus’ account of Herodias divorcing her husband, Philip, to marry Herod Antipas sheds light on the context. Josephus writes in Antiquities of the Jews: “Herodias took upon her to confound the laws of our country, and divorce herself from her husband [that is, Philip] while he was alive, and was married to Herod [Antipas], her husband’s brother by the father’s side; he was tetrarch of Galilee.” (Book 18, Chapter 5, Section 4)

This passage from Josephus illustrates Herodias divorcing her husband, Philip, while he was alive to marry Herod Antipas, providing historical context that aligns with the surprising nature of Jesus’ teaching in Mark 10:11-12 regarding divorce and remarriage. Jesus was teaching in Galilee, and this rebuke might have been relevant to the people. The surprising nature of Jesus’ teaching in Mark 10:11-12, considering Jewish law, along with Josephus’ insight, supports the credibility of Mark’s narrative.

Here’s another example: In Mark 6, the story of John the Baptist’s death unfolds as Herodias’ daughter, after performing a dance for Herod’s banquet guests, asks for anything she desires. She requests the head of John the Baptist. According to Mark 6:27-28: “And immediately the king sent an executioner with orders to bring John’s head. He went and beheaded him in the prison and brought his head on a platter and gave it to the girl, and the girl gave it to her mother.”

  • Immediately, King Herod sent a military officer, known as a “σπεκουλάτορα,” instead of the typical civil executioner (δήμιος). This term “σπεκουλάτορα” referred to a rank of military officer, akin to a “scout” or “courier,” who also served as the Roman emperor’s bodyguard. These officers occasionally acted as executioners, although it wasn’t their primary role.
  • This choice aligns with Josephus’ account of the event, confirming that John the Baptist was imprisoned in Herod’s fortress, Macherus, due to Herod’s suspicions. It was at Macherus that he met his end, highlighting Herod’s absence from his Galilee palace as he was engaged in a military campaign against his former father-in-law, Aretas IV, the Nabatean king. Josephus writes: “[John] was sent a prisoner, out of Herod’s suspicious temper, to Macherus, the castle I before mentioned, and was there put to death.” (Antiquities 18.119). 

The use of a military officer for the execution, rather than a civil executioner, provides historical support for the narrative’s authenticity.

Finally, Mark 7:31 contains a peculiar statement: “[Jesus] returned from the region of Tyre and went through Sidon to the Sea of Galilee, in the region of the Decapolis.” This may seem odd initially, as Sidon is northeast of Tyre, while the Sea of Galilee is southeast of Tyre, leading to questions about why Jesus would travel north to go south.

Some critical scholars argue that this suggests the evangelist’s lack of direct knowledge of Palestine, or that Mark wanted Jesus to take a specific route. However, a closer look at the topography reveals Mount Meron, a three-quarter-mile-high mountain lying between Tyre and the Sea of Galilee. There is a pass from Sidon through these mountains to the Jordan River valley, which would provide freshwater for travelers to Galilee. This detail, far from showing ignorance, actually demonstrates the author’s intimate knowledge of Palestinian geography. Take a look at this topographical map, and you’ll see for yourself:

There are plenty of other external confirmations that suggest Mark knew his stuff, regularly told the truth, and was accurate. While these don’t prove Mark was influenced by Peter, they match up with that possibility.

Mark was likely Peter’s memoir

The evidence, both inside and outside the Gospel of Mark, strongly supports Peter’s role in its composition. Mark’s storytelling and portrayal of Peter align with this notion. The vividness of the numerous details in Mark’s Gospel further suggests proximity to the events, as well as the external knowledge that we can cross-check. Early Christian writings by figures such as Papias, Justin Martyr, Clement of Alexandria, and Irenaeus bolster this connection.

This may fall short of a demonstration, of course, but all historical evidence falls short of mathematical demonstration. And the absence of explicit mention of Peter’s involvement should not diminish this well-supported conclusion. There’s no compelling reason to dismiss the witness of the early church. Furthermore, if Mark’s Gospel is indeed a memoir of the Apostle Peter, it provides a good reason why the other Synoptics would also make use of it.

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