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More on Mark and Peter

In answering the question about why it appears that Mark did not serve as the scribe/secretary for Peter, writing down Peter’s (Aramaic) recollections of his time with Jesus and putting them in narrative form in Greek, I already discussed the slender record of that being the origin of Mark’s Gospel, based on the discussion in Papias. Now in this post I want to discuss the direct evidence that suggests that this is not how Mark’s Gospel came into being. Here I will make three points.

First – this will not seem overly convincing to some readers, but then again it’s not really my main point – there is in fact nothing in Mark’s Gospel to make anyone think that it is Peter’s version, any more, than, say the Gospel of Matthew or the Gospel of John. There is no first-person narrative, no recollection about what “Jesus said to me” and so on. Peter is one of the main figures – yes indeed. But the Gospel is not told from his perspective.


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Mark and the Resurrection
Mark as Peter’s Scribe



  1. Avatar
    hwl  June 3, 2013

    1) How do we know 1st C Palestinian Jews in general did not have this hand-washing custom?
    2) Surely the Dead Sea Scrolls included works composed, or at least copied, in 1st century Palestine?
    3) Surely 4 Ezra and later sections of Book of Enoch date to 1st century Palestine?
    4) When the Church Fathers attributed the gospels to the apostles or companions of the apostles, how come it never occurred to them the implausibility of lower-class Palestinian peasants being able to compose literary works?
    5) Given his literacy and training in Greek philosophy, would Paul be viewed as a towering intellectual by Jesus’ illiterate followers and disciples?

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  June 4, 2013

      1) because there were arguments about it. You might look at the references in Joel Marcus’s commentary on Mark
      2) and 3) Yes, when Hezser says that we know of two authors in first century Palestine, she means by name. There certainly were others who could write. That’s why the literacy rate is 3% rather than .03%, or something like that. Her point is that writing was not widely practiced, at all.
      4) Great question. Probably because they thought they were inspired.
      5) I should think so!

  2. Avatar
    RonaldTaska  June 4, 2013

    A good, well reasoned argument which makes sense to me. Thanks.

  3. Avatar
    toddfrederick  June 4, 2013

    I want to expand on this a bit and then ask a simple question:

    There is a great deal of written material about Jesus that became a part of the canonical gospels. Mark was not the only Gospel. There was Matthew and Luke (and Acts, possibly written by the author of Luke). Then the Gospel of John. In addition, there was also the letters. This included those written by Paul and some written by a person(s) after Paul. There is some question if Paul actually wrote the letters or that he dictated them. Then we have James and John and others including Revelations (John of Patmos).

    Besides Josephus and Justus of Tiberias, there were persons who had the skill to write in Greek within 100 years after Jesus’ death. In other words, there were persons who did write these gospels. There were more than just two writers of these issues.

    In my mind, the question arises: How were they written…what was the context. Luke says he studied manuscripts to get the best information for the mysterious Theopholus. That is a testimony that there were documents at that time.

    I have long been interested in the nature of the “Q” document…not so much about its contents but about how it came about and what happened to it.

    Then there are all of the documents that were rejected by the church in the 4th century. There were many and there were many writers.

    Bottom line….there were a good number of educated people involved in the Christian movement who knew how to write in Greek and other languages, most likely, in addition to Josephus and Justus.

    A while back, when you asked for questions I mentioned the Library of Alexandria, that became a center for Christian studies towards it end. The current Egyptian Coptic Church has a substantial library and roots in early Christianity. There are other non-Hellenistic churches, in India and Assyria and Ethiopia and elsewhere.

    It would seem to be obvious that no one followed Jesus around with a steno notebook…..the earliest information about Jesus was oral traditions and possibly an early “Q” written document of “teachings” (Thomas?)….coming from the context of the early communities, including the writings of Paul among the earliest.

    You mentioned in a response to a question I wrote about Paul’s sources (visions of Jesus, stories told by the apostles, or perhaps documents in the early churches he served).

    At the least, Paul said that the information he is passing on is what was “handed to him.”

    *** Question***

    I am very interested in the transmission of these stories. Where can I find out more about this?

    Also, I think this might be a good subject for a trade book (which I know you have in mind)…but…to be placed on a priority list of books to write. I think you can contribute some significant original research on this issue to the general public. Maybe even a book that is a bit controversial (^O^)

    Blessings, Todd

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  June 4, 2013

      Yes, it’s high on my list of books I very much want to write as well. Off hand, I don’t know of anything that takes the line that these stories were necessarily changed — except books that I and others like me write about the historical Jesus. If you want to read books claiming that the traditions were NOT very much changed, you might look at Richard Bauckham’s Jesus and the Eyewitnesses.

      • Avatar
        toddfrederick  June 4, 2013

        Actually I don’t know which way to go on this issue. I look to you for guidance. However, I do take the position that scripture is *human documents* (not divinely dictated) and see the whole of scripture as a human telling of a people’s encounter with the infinite within the context of the times in which they lived.

  4. Avatar
    reedm60  June 4, 2013

    Fascinating as always Dr Ehrman. Thanks for posting!!

  5. Avatar
    gavm  June 4, 2013

    Very well argued Prof Ehrman.
    speaking of Josephus what r your veiws on his Christian references and the likelihood that they r interpolations?

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  June 4, 2013

      My view is that the statement in book 20 is authentic, and that the parts in book 18 that are not blatantly Christian are as well.

  6. Avatar
    tooronga  June 4, 2013

    Another person who lacked confidence with the Greek language is, according to Suetonius, the Emperor Augustus. Apparently he would not compose in Greek, preferring to use Latin and rely on translators, despite having some degree of proficiency with Greek.

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  June 4, 2013

      Yes indeed, writing in a second language was (and is) very difficult, and not for the faint of heart.

  7. talitakum
    talitakum  June 4, 2013

    I agree on the fact that there is a large consensus among scholars on the fact that “Mark John” is not the author of the Gospel and that the author didn’t write down Peter’s recollections of his time. Also, he was writing with a Gentile audience in mind.
    However, I think there is not any conclusive argument yet to conclude that the author was a Gentile writer. Can you confirm that this is still a debated issue?
    Personally, I see that also Josephus (who was actually a Jew) refers to Jews as “the Jews” rather than “we Jews” or “our Jewish traditions”.. and his Greek is far better than Mark’s Greek!

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  June 4, 2013

      Yes indeed — everything is debated!

      Good point on Josephus. That’s why I didn’t put that forward as a particularly strong argument….

  8. Avatar
    James Dowden  June 4, 2013

    How about the argument that goes that in Mark, the Disciples are villains (and this is something softened in Matthew and Luke, and read back into Mark by moderns), a picture that one would more expect from someone who looked up to Paul, rather than to Peter or James? Clearly Mark is a very different sort of post-Pauline literature from the Deuteros — it seems to play up precisely those themes that 2 Thessalonians would have played down.

    And is the John Mark of Acts really historical, or just recycling the personalia of Colossians (4.10) — which themselves seem to be pseudonymous riffing on the personalia of Philemon — into story form? We don’t really learn much about John Mark from Acts apart from his mother’s being yet another Mary and his having something to do with Barnabas. Tychicus, Aristarchus, and Justus seem to have followed a similar trajectory. Is this just the author of Acts’ modus operandi?

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  June 4, 2013

      Yup, lots of scholarly debates about Mark’s portrayal of the disciples *and* about his relationship to Paul’s writings. And yes, the evidence for John Mark is a bit thin, though on balance I think most critical scholars assumed that he at least existed (since both Acts and the pseudonymous author of Colossians know of him, independently of one another).

  9. Avatar
    SJB  June 4, 2013

    Prof Ehrman

    I got the impression from somewhere that Mark’s Greek was very poor and would be just the sort of Greek used by someone for whom it was a second language imperfectly understood. I was raised in a very conservative environment and this could have been absorbed as a polemical point in an attempt to hold onto the idea that Mark actually wrote the gospel. Of course I have no Greek and the people making this claim probably didn’t either. So can you clarify? What is the quality of the Greek in Mark?


    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  June 4, 2013

      Well, his Greek would not have been satisfying to one of the literary elites who was highly trained in the rhetorical tradition. But it does not appear to be a second language for him. His book in Greek reads far better than a book in English by your next door neighbor would read; most people can’t write books at all, and being able to do so is quite a skill, even if you’re not Faulkner.

  10. Avatar
    Elisabeth Strout  June 4, 2013

    So I’m sure this question would warrant a book in itself – but what evidence do we have (if any) that this anonymous “gentile (non-Jewish) Christian living *outside* of Palestine who was highly educated in Greek” had any idea what he was talking about, i.e. that Jesus said/did any of the things mentioned in that gospel? How did he compose his narrative – simply by gathering traditions circulating at the time, or is there any evidence he had contact with disciples of Jesus?

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  June 4, 2013

      Yes, I want to write a book on that. Short story: they had heard stories about Jesus that had been in circulation for many years before they wrote them down, some of which probably preserve historical recollections, others of which are clearly exaggerated, others of which have been flat-out made up. The trick is figuring out which is which.

      • Avatar
        Elisabeth Strout  June 4, 2013

        Indeed it is – hehe so many books to write, so little time. I wish there were a way to completely, authoritatively weed out the authentic statements/events from the exaggerated/invented ones, but alas, that doesn’t seem to be entirely within reach. Thanks for the answer.

  11. Avatar
    Peter  June 4, 2013


    Thank you for that very comprehensive answer.

  12. Avatar
    lbehrendt  June 4, 2013

    Bart, I agree with everything you’ve said here, but this still gives us only a dim picture of how the Gospels came to be written. If there were (say) 50,000 Christians by the time Mark was composed, this would give us roughly 1,000 Christians able to read and write, and fewer still (maybe a few dozen?) who could compose a Gospel — and that’s assuming that the “very upper crust” was represented in early Christian society. Four members of this handful of Christians composed the Gospels we have, and we can safely assume that others of this handful composed Gospels that became apocryphal or are lost to us. That seems like a lot of literary activity for this handful of potential authors! How did these authors come to write their Gospels? Was it a private decision by each author, or were they commissioned in some sense by the churches they belonged to? Were these Gospels written as historical texts, like the works of Josephus, or were they created for liturgical purposes? I don’t think we know the answers to these questions, but perhaps you could speculate?

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  June 4, 2013

      Yes indeed, there have been lots of speculations, and lots written onthese questions. For starters, I would be *amazed* if there were 50,000 Christians when Mark was writing. I’d be more inclined to think there were, like, 2000. You only need one person able to read in each community to make it a “literary” community. But still, it’s hard to get one’s mind around.

  13. Avatar
    bobnaumann  June 7, 2013

    Something that has always puzzled me is given how proud the Romans seemed to be of their language,, why was Greek the skosen language of the intellengensia through centuries of the Common Era?

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  June 7, 2013

      Many of the lands they conquered had previously used Greek, and so it became much simpler to use it than to impose a whole new language on people.

  14. Avatar
    jogon  April 17, 2018

    Hi Bart I’ve often heard that Mark makes geographical mistakes in his gospel, showing his lack of familiarity with the area,is this correct?

    • Bart
      Bart  April 17, 2018

      It’s been so long since I’ve looked at or thought about this that I can’t think of any examples off the top of my head!

  15. Avatar
    jogon  April 18, 2018

    Mark 7:31 (RSV)92 Then he [Jesus] returned from the region of Tyre, and went through Sidon to the Sea of Galilee, through the region of the Decapolis.

    Apparently Sidon is not en route from Tyre to the SoG

    • Bart
      Bart  April 18, 2018

      Ah, right, that’s it!

      • Avatar
        pbethala  January 18, 2019

        I don’t think this is a good example since Jesus might have had a reason for going to Sidon not recorded in the text. Moreover, there’s apparently a mountain (Mt. Meron) between Tyre and the Sea of Galilee that would have made a direct route more difficult and dangerous due to a lack of access to fresh water. By contrast, there is a pass from Sidon to the Sea through the Jordan River Valley that would have given travelers access to fresh water.

  16. Robert
    Robert  January 28, 2019

    ““For the Pharisees, and all the Jews, do not eat unless they thoroughly wash their hands, thus observing the tradition of the elders.” … In my judgment, there is no way a Jew would have written this statement.”

    To whom it may concern, Bart has retracted this element of his argument. See here: https://ehrmanblog.org/dont-trust-what-you-read/

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