Was Peter a major source for Mark’s Gospel?

By Julie M. Smith

The Gospel of Mark was widely thought to be an abbreviated version of Matthew’s Gospel and therefore virtually ignored until the 19th century, when a closer examination of the Gospels suggested that Mark was written first and that Matthew and Luke used it as a main source. Since that time, attention to Mark’s Gospel has expanded exponentially. There is much discussion about Peter as a source for Mark, and the evidence for such an association is as follows:

  1. Both Mark 1:16 and Mark 16:7 call unusual levels of attention to Peter’s name, thus book-ending the Gospel with references to Peter indicating that he was an eyewitness source to the events included in the Gospel.[1]
  2. Simon Peter’s name is mentioned far more frequently (relative to overall length) in the Gospel of Mark than in the other Gospels, indicating that Peter is given special prominence in the Gospel and therefore was likely to have been its source.[2]
  3. Mark may feature a pattern called the “plural to singular narrative device.”[3] This means that a passage begins with a plural verb with no specific subject given and is followed by a singular noun or pronoun. (For example, in Mark 5:1-2: “And they came over unto the other side of the sea . . . and when he [=Jesus] was come out of the ship . . .”) This pattern occurs about two dozen times in Mark. It is so awkward that it frequently resulted in scribal alterations to “fix” the text. But the pattern is easy to explain if the text is Mark’s adaptation of Peter’s reminisces: if Peter had said, “And we came over unto the other side of the sea . . . and when he [=Jesus] was come out of the ship . . .” it is easy to imagine Mark changing the “we” to “they,” resulting in the current reading of Mark 5:1-2, despite how awkward it sounds in English (and sounded in Greek).
  4. There is ancient evidence in addition to Papias’ statement for associating Peter with Mark’s Gospel: Clement in Alexandria and Irenaeus in Gaul also attest to an association between Mark and Peter.[4]
  5. There is also an independent witness to the idea that Mark was the interpreter of Peter, found in the Anti-Marcionite Prologue (ca. 160-180CE). This prologue to the Gospel adds the detail that Mark was stump-fingered, as his fingers were disproportionately short compared to the rest of his body.[5] This tradition is likely to be historically accurate, because no one would have fabricated a story about the author of the Gospel being “stump-fingered”[6] to bolster its credibility!
  6. Despite the fact that more than 90% of Mark’s text is in Matthew, the second Gospel stayed in the canon. Why keep a copy? The only likely reason is that the work was tied to the authority of Peter. (Of course, belief in the link to Peter’s authority may be an entirely separate issues from the Gospel actually having had Peter’s authority.)
  7. The Gospel contains many passages that are quite critical of Peter[7] and it may be easier to imagine these stories coming from Peter himself than from any other source.

On the other hand, many scholars think that there is no association between Peter and Mark’s Gospel. They find the above evidence unsatisfactory. This position is represented by Joel Marcus: “The truth is that, were it not for Papias, one would never suspect that the Second Gospel was particularly Petrine.”[8] They also point to the follow evidence:

  1. It is hard to understand the absence of the many stories about Peter[9] from Mark’s Gospel if Peter were the main information source.
  2. What would have been Mark’s source for the stories where Peter would not have been an eyewitness?[10] (At the very least, we need to question the idea that Peter is the sole source for this Gospel.)
  3. Had the Gospel of Mark been regarded as the record of the lead apostle, it is difficult to understand why it was neglected throughout Christian history in favor of Matthew’s Gospel, which does not claim a special tie to the lead apostles.

So the evidence is contradictory and difficult to evaluate. From an LDS perspective, the fact that the JST leaves the title as “gospel” and does not change it to “testimony” (as the JST does for Matthew and John) may be evidence for a lack of association with Peter, or at least enough of a lack of association that Mark isn’t just a mechanical scribe or translator; otherwise we might have expected the title to be changed to “The Testimony of St. Peter.”

[1] See Richard Bauckham, Jesus and the Eyewitnesses: The Gospels as Eyewitness Testimony (Kindle edition; location 1939).

[2] See Richard Bauckham, Jesus and the Eyewitnesses: The Gospels as Eyewitness Testimony (Kindle edition; location 1954).

[3] See Richard Bauckham, Jesus and the Eyewitnesses: The Gospels as Eyewitness Testimony (Kindle edition; location 2413).

[4] See Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture: Mark, edited by Thomas C. Oden and Christopher A. Hall (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1998), xxv.

[5] William L. Lane, The Gospel According to Mark (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1974), 9.

[6] Robert H. Stein, Mark (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2008), 3.

[7] See Mark 8:14-18 (the disciples do not understand Jesus), Mark 8:33 (Jesus says to Peter, “get thee behind me Satan”), and Mark 14:66-72 (after proclaiming his loyalty in Mark 14:29, Peter denies that he knows Jesus).

[8] See Joel Marcus, Mark 1-8 (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2000), 24.

[9] See Matt 14:28-31; 16:17-19; 17:24-27; Luke 8:45; 12:41; 22:8 and 31; and 24:12-35, as well as the Aramaic form of Peter’s name (“Cephas”). One has to wonder how Matthew and Luke knew about these stories but Mark did not, especially if Mark wrote down, as Eusebius indicates, everything that Peter said. Similarly, one might have expected a little more elaboration on the stories that do involve Peter: if this were Peter’s recollections, then wouldn’t Mark 1:16–18, for example, be a little more developed, perhaps explaining why Peter would have wanted to follow Jesus?

[10] See Mark 1:1-15 and Mark 14:53-16:8. See also Joel Marcus, Mark 1-8 (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2000), 23.