When was the Gospel of Mark written?

By Julie M. Smith

Mark’s Gospel does not contain any specific dates for its contents or writing.[1] It is possible that Mark was written in stages (either because Mark himself wrote the Gospel over a number of years or because he incorporated passages that were written by someone else at an earlier time, or both). There is a high degree of scholarly consensus that the Gospel of Mark was written in the 60s. Generally, efforts to date Mark rely heavily on analyzing Mark 13 (which contains predictions of travails that will come in the future) in light of then-current events to date the entire text. Scholars think that one of two events might have been the special focus of the Gospel and therefore help us date Mark:

1.     In 64 CE, Christians were persecuted by Nero[2] when he attempted to blame Christians for a fire that leveled Rome. In this context, the Gospel of Mark is seen as an aid to understanding the role of suffering and martyrdom in Christian life, with not only Mark 13 but also passages such as Mark 8:34 (where the disciples’ suffering is prophesied) and Mark 4:17-19 (where the betrayal of close friends is prophesied) taking on deeper meaning. If the author is John Mark, then according to 1 Peter 5:13, he would have been in Rome at the time Christians were being blamed for the fire and, presumably, would have personally known some of those who were tortured and killed.[3] But other scholars note that persecution was present at many times in early Christianity, including, obviously, in the life of Jesus himself, which means that Mark may not have been specifically written as a response to the persecution in Rome.[4]

2.          The second event to which Mark 13 is linked is the Jewish War of 66-73CE,[5] which included the destruction of the Temple. Scholars point to several ties between the Gospel and the setting of the Jewish War. For example, the reference to “thieves” in Mark 11:17 uses a Greek word that is also used by Josephus to describe the would-be Jewish revolutionaries who encouraged conflict with Rome, so “if Mark understands the term similarly, then the Markan Jesus’ reproach exactly fits what happened early in the Jewish revolt: in the winter of 67-68 C.E. a group of revolutionary ‘brigands’ or Zealots moved into Jerusalem under the leadership of Eleazar son of Simon and set up their headquarters in the inner Temple itself, remaining there until the fall of the city in 70 C.E.”[6] In this reading, the leaders of the attempted revolution are the “abomination of desolation” (Mark 13:14) in the temple. So perhaps Mark was composed near Palestine, at the time of the Jewish War, perhaps in Syria, then a Roman province and a mostly Gentile area. As one scholar describes the situation: “Most scholars have concluded that [Mark 13] reflects some knowledge or even experience of the first Jewish war with Rome.”[7] Note that “Christians would have been even more vulnerable in Rome in the late 60s because Nero appears to have been the first Roman ruler to actually distinguish Jews from Christians when he singled them out and blamed them for the fire. Christians were no longer associated with a religion of long standing which at least officially was not prohibited or banned by Roman law.”[8]

Note that there is an interplay between the dating of Mark and the location of its writing and first audience: if the Gospel was written in response to the fire in Rome in the mid-60s, then it probably has a Roman setting; if it was written in response to the Jewish War in the later 60s, then it may have a Syrian setting. Unfortunately, neither date is without problems.

One issue for LDS readers is that both scenarios tend to assume not that Mark 13 contains Jesus’ prophecies but rather that it contains ex post facto prophecies (written by Mark and attributed to Jesus) that are applicable to then-current events. If we assume that Jesus was speaking prophetically, Mark 13 could be addressing the circumstances of 64CE or 70CE, but could have been spoken in 30CE and written down any time thereafter. And there are additional problems with this approach as well: one is that if the data can be said to fit both the context of the mid-60s and the late-60s, then it must be admitted that the data can not determine the date. The prophecies in Mark 13 are general enough that they can be applied to a wide variety of situations, making their use in dating the Gospel tenuous at best. Also, one would think that if this were an ex post facto description of the destruction of Jerusalem, the author would have mentioned the fire in Jerusalem as well.[9] As one scholar described it, “the use of Mark 13 to date Mark is highly questionable.”[10]

On the other hand, two specific items in Mark 13 may point to a date for the Gospel. The reference to the “abomination of desolation” (Mark 13:14) in the temple is thought to refer to the fear that the next (or: current, after 63 CE) Roman war would bring another effort, like the one in c. 40 CE, to put the statue of a Roman emperor or god into the temple.[11] The fact that this did not happen during the Roman war that led to the destruction of the temple in 70CE might imply that the Gospel was written before that time. And one other item from Mark 13 might be pressed into service: in Mark 13:2, Jesus prophesies that there will not be one stone of the temple left upon another after the temple is destroyed. The temple was destroyed in 70 CE, but some of the stones remain stacked to this day.[12] Given that the prophecy was not literally fulfilled, some scholars have concluded that the Gospel must have been written before the Temple was destroyed or the author would not have portrayed Jesus as making what could appear to be a false prophecy.[13] While this viewpoint is widespread, it assumes that a very literal interpretation of Jesus’ words was intended, which may not have been the case.[14]

One other data point sometimes used to date Mark’s Gospel is the death of Peter, which was probably related to Nero’s persecution in 64CE.[15] Unfortunately, the ancient sources vary as to whether Mark was written before or after Peter died; most ancient sources have Mark write the Gospel after the death of Peter, although others disagree.[16] If we accept the idea that Mark wrote near or after the end of Peter’s life, then the Gospel was not written before the mid 60s.[17]

We can also attempt to date Mark based on its textual history. If we assume, as most scholars do, that Mark was a written source used by Matthew and Luke, then it must also predate those Gospels. We don’t have indisputable dates for Matthew or Luke either, but their Gospels are normally dated to the late 70s or 80s. Mark was included in a harmony of the four gospels that dates to about 175 CE, and the oldest fragments of the Gospel of Mark are dated to the first half of the third century.[18] On the basis of these dates, we must date Mark before, say, 75 CE, but cannot get more specific than that.

Unfortunately, this leaves us with very little to go on when trying to establish when the Gospel was written. Fortunately, the answer to this question is not crucial to the interpretation of the text.


[1] Contrast Ezekiel 1:2.

[2] See William L. Lane, The Gospel According to Mark (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1974), 13-14.

[3] See Lane, The Gospel According to Mark, 21.

[4] See Robert H. Stein, Mark (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2008), 4.

[5] See Joel Marcus, Mark 1-8 (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2000), 33-37.

[6] Marcus, Mark 1-8, 35.

[7] Adela Yarbro Collins, Mark: A Commentary (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2007), 11.

[8] Ben Witherington III, The Gospel of Mark: A Socio-Rhetorical Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 2001), 34.

[9] See Robert H. Stein, Mark (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2008), 15.

[10] See Stein, Mark, 15.

[11] Adela Yarbro Collins, Mark: A Commentary (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2007), 13-14.

[12] Josephus, The Wars of the Jews, 7.1.1. These “stacked stones” are now called the Western Wall.

[13] See Marcus, Mark 1-8, 38.

[14] See the discussion on Mark 13:2.

[15] Marcus, Mark 1-8, 30.

[16] See Stein, Mark, 13.

[17] Witherington, The Gospel of Mark, 30.

[18] Collins, Mark, 103.