Was Mark’s gospel an ancient forgery?
That’s the idea that liberal scholars sometimes express about many of the New Testament documents. For example, Timothy Freke and Peter Gandy wrote: “In the first four centuries, every single document was at some time or other branded as heretical or forged!” (The Jesus Mysteries, p.224). In a more popular book about the New Testament, Bart Ehrman claimed that “the vast majority of these apostolic books were in fact forged” (Forged, p.218). How should we respond to claims like this that challenge trustworthiness of the Bible?
At the very first Table Conference, Darrell Bock and Dan Wallace discussed this popular challenge, focusing on the allegation that The Gospel According to Mark was a forged writing accepted into the canon of the New Testament. In this post, you’ll learn how to respond to the challenge that Mark’s Gospel is an ancient forgery.
While it’s true that the New Testament gospels were originally anonymous, each of these accounts needed to be distinguished from each other as each of them became known to a wider audience. Historically, the New Testament gospels were never attributed to anyone else besides each of their traditional authors: Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. But what evidence do we have that Mark wrote the account attributed to him?
According to Papius, Mark wrote the gospel which bears his name using material he learned directly from Peter (Fragments of Papius, 3.15). The church fathers seem to agree, as there is not one dissenting voice among them. Still, some insist that the ancient church often attributed writings to important religious figures, making the writings seem authoritative. How likely is it that this kind of dishonesty is really behind the naming of Mark’s gospel?
Consider that fact that Mark is a fairly minor character in the New Testament and somewhat discredited as a faithful disciple—He never completed his first missionary journey with Paul and Barnabas but left them to return home. More than that, he caused a sharp division between these major figures by his desire to join them on a second mission trip. How well does this fact fit the theory that church leaders chose Mark’s name to enhance the status of a written report?
Imagine you are a leader of the ancient Christian church and you didn’t know who wrote a particular gospel and you are brainstorming with your team to find the name of an important religious figure to attribute to this account:
You have a choice between Peter and Mark. Who are you gonna pick? You’re gonna pick Peter in 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.
Indeed, if Mark learned material for his account from Peter, why isn’t his account known as The Gospel According to Peter? If early Christians were so eager to attribute their sacred documents to well-respected religious figures, why didn’t they do it for this gospel?
As Dr. Wallace says, the ancient church resisted any temptation to attribute this account to anyone besides Mark for the sake of the truth: “To call this The Gospel According to Mark is something that the church was committed to because it was true.”
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 when they had the chance to put Peter’s name on it instead.
Learn how to respond to more challenges like this in Dr. Wallace’s talk: Forgeries in the New Testament? A Response to Critical Claims presented at the very first Table Conference.
About the Contributors
Mikel Del Rosario (ThM, 2016; PhD, 2022) is Associate Professor of Bible and Theology at Moody Bible Institute. While at DTS, he served as project manager for cultural engagement at the Hendricks Center, producing and hosting The Table podcast. You can find him online at ApologeticsGuy.com, the Apologetics Guy YouTube channel, and The Apologetics Guy Show podcast.