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The Gospel of Mark: What does the Gospel indicate about its author?

Sea of Galilee

Excerpted from The Gospel according to Mark, by Julie M. Smith.

The Gospel of Mark is formally anonymous, meaning that the name of the author does not occur within the text (contrast Rev. 1:1). The writer may not have felt any need to include his or her name, being well known to the community or may have omitted a name for rhetorical reasons, perhaps to focus the text on Jesus Christ instead.[1] The author does not claim to be a follower of Jesus, an eyewitness to his ministry, or to have any specific personal connection to the people in the Gospel.[2] Nothing indicates how the author learned the stories that are in the Gospel. Apparently, the author did not think that the reader needed to know his or her name or connection to Jesus’ life. This has not stopped scholars from trying to figure out as much as possible about who wrote the Gospel.

The first clue is the title. The Gospel was likely originally without title since “in ancient book production and publication, the title belonged more to the stage of reception than to that of production.”[3] Perhaps the Gospels were initially without titles because the titles would have been obvious to all readers, because the authors hoped to avoid persecution from having their names associated with Christian writings, or because they did not consider the text their unique creation but rather a communal project. It may have been that a title was only added after other Gospels were written and it became necessary to distinguish them. Or a title may not have been necessary until the Gospel circulated beyond its original location.[4]

The title of Mark’s Gospel is very old, but it is not attached to all ancient manuscripts. It was most likely added in the late first century or early second century, although there were some copies even in the fourth century that did not have a title.[5] The oldest manuscript of the second Gospel does not have a title, although many other manuscripts from that era do contain titles.[6] The title is likely to date from before the mid-second century because by then Gospels were normally attributed to apostles to increase their authority and prestige. Presumably, had a title-less Gospel of Mark been circulating and someone had decided to give it a title at that point, it would have been given the name of an apostle.

Because the title appears at the beginning, the end, the side, or both the beginning and the end, depending on the manuscript, it seems that the title was not there originally but was added later and thus placed in a variety of locations. The fact that the only author associated with this text is Mark is an indication of the accuracy of the attribution; by contrast, Galen, a second-century physician, had an untitled work that was later given more than one title, which is precisely what one would expect to happen if many different hands were generating a title for a book.

There is a curious situation regarding the title of this Gospel in the Joseph Smith Translation: while Latter-day Saint Bibles indicate in the footnotes that the JST titles the book “The Testimony of St. Mark,” this is apparently an error; the JST does change the titles of Matthew and John from “The Gospel of ” to “The Testimony of,” but apparently the titles of Mark and Luke were not changed. Some Latter-day Saint scholars conclude that the title change, limited to Matthew and John, reflects their apostolic status.[7]

So there is very good—but not airtight—evidence that the author of this Gospel was named Mark. Unfortunately, “Mark” was one of the most common male names in the Roman Empire.[8] (It was, however, rare for Jews.[9]) What else can be known about him? Some characteristics of the author can be deduced from the text, although most of these conclusions are not without counterpoint:

  1. Latinisms. Mark’s use of Latin terms[10] suggests that (some of) the audience was more familiar with Latin than Greek, especially since there are two occasions when Greek words are explained in Latin terms.[11]
  2. Aramaic Words and Phrases. Mark’s Gospel contains a surprisingly high number of Aramaic terms[12] for a text of its length. In all cases, these are translated into Greek, leading to the conclusion that the author, but not (all of ) the audience, knew Aramaic.
  3. Geographical Descriptions. Some scholars find errors in Mark’s descriptions of geography,[13] which might indicate a lack of familiarity with Palestine. (Other scholars point out that ancient people would not have known their own geography nearly as well as those who have access to maps.[14]) On the other hand, it is likely that Mark is more concerned with theology than geography and therefore adapts the physical setting to fit the rhetorical needs.
  4. Understanding of Judaism. Mark explains some Jewish customs. Traditionally, it was assumed that this was because Mark (but not the audience) was familiar with them.[15] Alternatively, some scholars feel that these descriptions show a limited understanding of Judaism,[16] perhaps implying that Mark was not Jewish, but this is disputed,[17] especially since Mark contains many biblical allusions. It is also possible that these descriptions are provided for dramatic effect and not because they provide new information to the audience.[18]
  5. System of Timekeeping. In 6:48 and 13:35, Mark uses the Roman system of four watches per night, instead of the Jewish reckoning of three watches per night, to delineate time, perhaps serving as further evidence for a Roman setting of the Gospel. But it is also possible that Mark used Roman time either in order to make the text understandable to gentile audience members, or because he or she was not being precise, or perhaps because Jews used the Roman system as well.
  6. Writing Style. Mark’s Gospel is written in very poor Greek.[19] For example, in 16:6, the word “behold” is in the singular form despite the fact that more than one person is being addressed. It can be difficult to evaluate what some of this evidence implies about Mark, and scholars draw opposite conclusions from it. Perhaps it is safe to say that the data suggests that the author knew (at least some) Aramaic, knew Greek (but wrote it poorly), was likely to have been a Jew, and is associated with Rome.

[1] It is theoretically possible that the author of Mark was female, but given the extremely low rates of female literacy in the ancient world, this is unlikely.

[2] Older scholarship often associated the author of the Gospel with the young man who flees when Jesus is arrested in 14:51, but this is unlikely. The association probably stemmed from a desire to explain the function of the young man in the narrative, but there are now better readings of this enigmatic character. See the Notes on that verse for more information.

[3] Collins, Mark, 129.

[4] For a general discussion of Gospel authorship from a Latter-day Saint perspective, see Frank F. Judd Jr., “Who Really Wrote the Gospels? A Study of Traditional Authorship,” in How the New Testament Came To Be: The Thirty-fifth Annual Sidney B. Sperry Symposium, ed. Kent P. Jackson and Frank F. Judd Jr. (Provo, Utah: Religious Studies Center; Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 2006), 129–30.

[5] Marcus, Mark 1–8, 17.

[6] Collins, Mark, 3.

[7] Barney, “Joseph Smith Translation,” 88.

[8] Marcus, Mark 1–8, 17.

[9] David E. Garland, A Theology of Mark’s Gospel: Good News about Jesus the Messiah, the Son of God, ed. Andreas J. Köstenberger (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Zondervan, 2015), 50.

[10] Latinisms in Mark’s Gospel include legion (5:9, 15), speculator (KJV: “executioner”; 6:27), denarius (KJV: “penny”; 6:37; 12:15; 14:5), quadrans (KJV: “mite”; 12:42), flagellare (KJV: “scourge”; 15:15), praetorium (15:16), and centurion (15:39, 44, 45). See also Stein, Mark, 11–12.

[11] “Two mites, which make a farthing” (12:42); “the hall, called Praetorium” (15:16).

[12] “Boanerges, which is, The sons of thunder” (3:17), “Talitha cumi; which is, being interpreted, Damsel, I say unto thee, arise” (5:41), “Corban, that is to say, a gift” (7:11), “Ephphatha, that is, Be opened” (7:34), “hell, into the fire that never shall be quenched” (9:43), “Bartimaeus, the son of Timaeus” (10:46), “Abba, Father” (14:36), “Golgotha, which is, being interpreted, The place of a skull” (15:22), “Eloi, Eloi, lama sabachthani? which is, being interpreted, My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?” (15:34).

[13] In 5:1, the earliest texts of the Gospel have the pigs running 35 miles (!) to “Gerasa.” Later texts read “Gadara,” but that area has no cliffs (Stein, Mark, 250). In 7:31, the journey from Tyre to the Sea of Galilee by way of Sidon is an unnecessary detour (Stein, Mark, 357). In 11:1, a similar “detour” is described (Stein, Mark, 503).

[14] Collins, Mark, 8.

[15] For example, washing customs of Pharisees (7:3), explanation of the Passover (14:12), and preparation for the Sabbath (15:42).

[16] Mark 15:42 can be read to suggest that Mark did not understand that the Sabbath began at sundown, therefore preparation for the Sabbath would not have occurred during the evening as that would have already been considered the Sabbath; Luke 23:56 may be a commentary on this (see Marcus, Mark 1–8, 20). Mark 1:2 (which ascribes quotations from Isaiah and Malachi to Isaiah only) and 2:26 (which names Abiathar as the high priest when the high priest was Ahimelech [see 1 Sam. 21]) may show a lack of familiarity with Jewish scripture (although there are other explanations for these “mistakes”; see the Notes on each verse).

[17] For example, 7:3–4 (washing customs of the Pharisees) is widely regarded to be erroneous, but some disagree with this assessment. Marcus, Mark 1–8, 20.

[18] For example, the description of Judas as one of the Twelve in 14:10 does not provide the audience with new information but rather serves to emphasize Judas’ treachery. Similarly, the description of Jewish custom in 7:3–4 may not be new information to the audience but rather serve to emphasize the reliance on the tradition on the elders and the absurdity of washing dining couches.

[19] To the extent that the KJV translation sounds refined and elegant to modern ears, it does not represent Mark’s writing style.

Interview with Julie Smith on “The Gospel according to Mark” on Interpreter Radio

On December 9, Julie Smith was interviewed regarding her new publication, The Gospel according to Mark. The book will be available from BYU Studies in early January 2019.

Here is the link to the broadcast:

The interview starts at 15:40 and continues to 46:15. Thanks to Terry Hutchinson, Dan Peterson, John Gee, and Kevin Christiansen and to Interpreter Radio for this interview!

Jesus on Forgiveness: Looking at Luke 23:34

A reading to accompany New Testament 2019: Come, Follow Me—For Individuals and Families, December 31-January 6. “We are responsible for our own learning: To truly learn from the Savior, I must accept His invitation, ‘Come, follow me.'” 

Excerpted from The Testimony of Luke, New Testament Commentary, by S. Kent Brown, pages 1077, 1081, 316, 338-39.

Let’s look in depth at the text of Luke 23:34: “Then said Jesus, Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do” (KJV).


23:34 Then said Jesus: The earliest text (75) and many other manuscripts omit the first part of this verse, leaving only the portion that begins with “And they parted his raiment.” Such evidence seemingly points away from the following saying as originally belonging to Luke’s record. But the saying fits Luke’s language. And Stephen’s prayer in Acts 7:60 seems to draw its inspiration from the words of Jesus reported here, thus buttressing its genuineness as a saying of Jesus, whether or not it originally stands in Luke’s record. Significantly, the imperfect tense of the verb implies that Jesus repeats his request again and again, pleading with his Father to forgive these unknowing men. Incidentally, the Joseph Smith Translation preserves these words, with a clarifying insertion.

Father, forgive them: The placement of Jesus’ words directly after writing about the crucifixion (see 23:33) may signal that Luke is stressing, first, Jesus’ control of the whole situation, though his enemies do not know it, and second, Jesus’ control of his pain-filled body. Jesus addresses God as “Father” previously. Here he plainly makes intercession for others.

they know not: Jesus’ expression about his executioners’ ignorance mirrors Peter’s later remark about the Jewish rulers’ “ignorance” (Acts 3:17; see JST 13:27), thus pointing to the genuineness of Jesus’ prayer. The Joseph Smith Translation adds a surprising, clarifying explanation of Jesus’ meaning: “they know not what they do. (Meaning the soldiers who crucified him,)” (JST 23:35). Hence, Jesus’ forgiveness extends to the soldiers alone, not yet to “the rulers” (Luke 23:35; compare Acts 3:14–19; 7:60). Continue reading

BYU NTC Conference Saturday, January 26, 2019

“In the Beginning Were the Words: A Closer Look at Key New Testament Terms”

The BYU New Testament Commentary committee announces that on Saturday, January 26, 2019, they will present a conference at the Gordon B. Hinckley Alumni Center at BYU in Provo, Utah. The conference is free and open to the public and will be held from 9 am until 4 pm. No registration is required. A video will be made of the presentations and posted on this website. Parking is available in the lot across the street to the east.

9:00 Welcome by Virginia Pearce Cowley, conducting the conference.

9:15 Eric D. Huntsman, Disciplemathētēs (μαθητής) Mathētēs is a word that John appeals to much more often than do the Synoptic Gospels. In particular, I will be stressing how John uses it for a much wider group than the Twelve, and how the different characters represent different walks of faith and different types of discipleship.

9:45 Julie M. Smith, Wayhodos (ὁδός) One of the earliest designations for the community of those who followed Jesus was “The Way.” The Greek word translated as “way,” hodos, exhibits a rich, multi-layered presence in the New Testament. In this presentation, we’ll examine the literal and figurative interplay of this word in order to gain insight into Jesus’ ministry and message.

10:15 John W. Welch, Blessed, Happymakarios (μακάριος)  Building on the treatment of the adored Beatitudes in chapter 3 of my book titled The Sermon on the Mount in the Light of the Temple (Ashgate, 2009), I shall examine how this term played a perhaps unsung but indispensable role in the Gospel of John, the book of Acts, Paul’s epistles to the Romans, Corinthians, and Galatians, as well as in Revelation and elsewhere.

10:45 Break

11:00 Brent Schmidt, Gracecharis (χάρις) My earlier study of the term grace, published under the title Relational Grace, demonstrated that the original field of meaning was distorted as soon as it fell into the hands of the Christian fathers of the third and fourth centuries AD. Rather than describing a reciprocal relationship between God and believers that was undergirded by covenants, it became “cheap grace” that only depended on a passive, neo-Platonic and mysterious belief.

11:30 Richard D. Draper, Loveagapē (ἀγάπη) Of the words discussed today, the term agapē may be the most important. On it, Jesus affirmed, “hang all the law and the prophets” (Matthew 22:40). In his turn, Paul treated this intriguing term in the moving, beloved hymn to Charity (1 Corinthians 13). We shall probe these sources and more.

12:00 Lunch on your own, available at the Cannon Center at Helaman Halls or the food court at the Wilkinson Student Center

1:00 John Gee, Scribegrammateus (γραμμματεύς) Scribes were one of the major groups opposing Jesus during his mortal ministry. Unlike the Pharisees, however, the dogmas that they held are not clearly defined. We will explore who the scribes were and why they hated Jesus.

1:30 Michael D. Rhodes, Mysterymystērion (μυστήριον)  A word that is found 28 times in the New Testament, the overall general sense is “secret knowledge revealed by God.” The term  mystērion occurs in a single significant setting in the synoptic Gospels when Christ explains to his disciples why he taught in parables. The remaining 25 occurrences are in the book of Revelation and the writings of Paul. I will examine the various nuanced meanings found in all 28 cases.

2:00 Brent Schmidt, Faith — pistis (πίστις) The earliest occurrences of the word “faith” embrace meanings such as knowledge, faithfulness, trust, and loyalty to covenants, all concepts that involve action on the part of the possessor. But in the third century AD, all this changed. From that point on, faith was seen as an inner, passive acceptance of whatever the early church taught termed “the Rule of Faith,” which later became the authoritative and solitary sola fide. This topic will be presented in detail in a forthcoming publication.

2:30 Break

2:45 Kent Brown, Inheritance: Who Owns All That Land? — klēronomia (κληρονομία)  One of the most important terms in scripture that dates from Abraham’s era, the word “inheritance” and associated terms underwent an important change in New Testament times, moving from a transfer of real estate and other property to the reception of a spiritual home in heaven.

3:15 Panel discussion on Mark’s Gospel and Julie M. Smith’s new commentary. Panelists are today’s presenters joined by Tom Roberts.

4:00 Closing


S. Kent Brown Interview

S. Kent Brown was recently interviewed by Kurt Manwaring about his publications on the period between the Old and New Testaments.

Read the full interview here:

When Kurt asked how his research affected his feelings about the Savior, Dr. Brown replied, “I gained a deeper appreciation for what challenges Jesus was facing when trying to bring gospel truth to his hearers because I came to a firmer grasp of the often misguided traditions of his people and how those traditions gripped them.”


Los Angeles presentations October 2017

There will be two events in the Los Angeles area:

Friday, October 27, 7 pm, Saugus Building, 27405 Bouquet Canyon Rd., Saugus, CA 91350. There will be a lecture by two of our BYU New Testament Commentary committee. Richard Draper will present “Paul’s Testimony of the Living Christ.” Dr Draper is a co-author of our newest volume, Paul’s First Epistle to the Corinthians. John Welch will present “Chiasmus in Scripture.”

Sunday, October 29, 7 pm, Los Angeles Temple visitors center, Richard Draper will give the same presentation, “Paul’s Testimony of the Living Christ.” 


Review of The Revelation of John the Apostle

We were pleased to receive this review by Duane S. Crowther, author of many books delving into LDS scriptures. You can find Crowther’s books on his website, Horizon Publishers.  

The Revelation of John the Apostle, by Richard D. Draper and Michael D. Rhodes, is an excellently prepared work, written and produced at a very high level of professionalism and scholarship. The 918-page book is comprehensive—it covers all the key themes of the biblical book of Revelation phrase by phrase, and when necessary, word by word. It also treats numerous pertinent details with careful explanations. The documentation is extensive, thorough and precise. Of particular value is the incorporation of pertinent historical information that adds meaning and aids the reader’s understanding of what the apostle John has written. While presenting numerous additional insights which have been made known to Latter-day Saints, the book also points out the viewpoints, finding and alternate interpretations of scholars from other faiths.

After providing the Greek text for each chapter or section of Revelation being considered, the authors cite the King James Translation and then add a “New Rendition” of each passage which restates the King James Version with additional clarity. The meaningful “Translation Notes and Comments” provide historical clues and explanations which help the reader grasp the passages’ backgrounds and allusions. Each subsection ends with an “Analysis and Summary” that clarifies what has been written from an overall perspective.

The Revelation of John the Apostle, one of the Brigham Young University’s New Testament Commentary series, is more than equal to almost all other treatises on the book of Revelation available. It’s a masterful work which deserves a place in libraries and scholars’ bookshelves worldwide.

Open House to celebrate the arrival of our First Corinthians volume

On Wednesday, Aug. 23, from 5:30 to 7:00 pm, come visit with New Testament Commentary authors Richard Draper, Michael Rhodes, Julie Smith, John Welch, S. Kent Brown, and Eric Huntsman. Help us celebrate the arrival of our latest volume, Paul’s First Epistle to the Corinthians, by Richard Draper and Michael Rhodes. Location: the Joseph F. Smith Building (JFSB) in the Education in Zion Gallery, ground floor lobby on the east side of the building, by the spiral staircase. Light refreshments. For parking, this map shows several lots that are open to the public starting at 4 pm: [select “Parking”]. We recommend the lot close by at the N. Eldon Tanner Building, Lots 40A and 40G. You do not need to be registered for Education Week to attend the open house. Authors Eric Huntsman, Julie Smith, and Richard Draper will be present Education Week classes on their books. Visit the Class Schedule for times and locations.