The Gospel according to Mark & John the Presbyter

بِسۡمِ ٱللهِ ٱلرَّحۡمَـٰنِ ٱلرَّحِيمِ

The Gospel according to Mark is the second book of the New Testament.  It is a canonical account of the life of Jesus (a.s.) and is one of the three synoptic gospels.  It was thought to be an epitome, accounting for its place as the second gospel in the Bible.  Most contemporary Biblical scholars regard it as the earliest of the canonical gospels.  The Gospel according to Mark narrates the mission of Jesus (a.s.) from his baptism by John the Baptist (a.s.) to his death and alleged resurrection.  It focuses particularly on the last week of his life in Jerusalem.

According to tradition and some early church writers, the authorship is attributed to Mark the Evangelist, the companion of Peter (r.a.).  The gospel appears to rely on several underlying sources, varying in form and in theology, and which contradicts the tradition that the gospel was based on Peter’s (r.a.) preaching.  Various elements within the gospel, including the importance of the authority of Peter (r.a.) and its basic theology suggest the author wrote in Syria or Palestine for a non-Jewish Christian audience which had earlier absorbed the influence of pre-Pauline beliefs and then developed them further independent of Paul.

Bishop Papias of Hierapolis, writing in the early 2nd century, attributed this gospel to a John Mark, the companion of Paul in Rome.  Other early writers such as Irenaeus agree.  The gospel was likely written in Syria by an unknown Christian no earlier than 70 CE, using various sources including a passion narrative, collections of oral miracles stories, apocalyptic traditions  and disputations and didactic rulings.  Some of the material in the Gospel according to Mark goes back much further than 70 CE.

The Gospel according to Mark was written primarily for an audience of gentile Greek-speaking residents of the Eastern portion of the Roman Empire.  Jewish traditions are explained, clearly for the benefit of non-Jews and Aramaic words and phrases are expanded upon by the author.  Use of the Old Testament in the Gospel according to Mark is from the Septuagint, the Greek translation of the Old Testament.  Most scholars believe that the Gospel according to Mark was the first of the canonical gospels, and was available when the Gospels according to Matthew and Luke were written.  Great importance is attached to this gospel because there is widespread belief that the Gospel according to Mark and probably the ‘Q’ document were the basis of the Synoptic Gospels.  I myself am not wholly convinced that there was a ‘Q’ document.

Catholics and most Christians believe Mark is thought to have based his gospel on what he learned as the companion of Peter (r.a.).  It is traditionally held that Mark wrote his gospel based on information he learned from Peter, after having been his travelling companion.  We know that Mark was a travelling companion of Peter (r.a.), because Peter (r.a.) mentioned the fact in his First Epistle:

1 Peter 5:13
13 The church that is in Babylon, elected together with you, salutes you.  And so does my son, Mark.

It is also gathered that Mark was a travelling companion of other apostles, including Paul and Barnabas, which was discussed in Acts of the Apostles.  Christians believe Mark may have been an eyewitness of part of Jesus’ (a.s.) ministry.  Christian tradition holds that Mark refers to himself, anonymously, in his own gospel, as the man carrying a jug of water on his head or as the man who slips out of his clothes and runs away naked on the night Jesus (a.s.) is arrested.  Luke, traditionally held to be the author of Acts of the Apostles, mentioned in the Acts, Mark’s mother was prominent in the early Christian community, which at times met at their house in Jerusalem.

It is claimed by the Christians that Mark got the information for his gospel from Peter in particular.  The claim is found today in the writings of Bishop Eusebius of Caesarea, a prominent advocate of Arianism.  Specifically, it is found in his multi-book set of “Ecclesiastical History”.  Since he was on the losing of side of the argument with the Pauline Christians, the Church did much to ensure that his writings have largely been lost.  Eusebius of Caesarea did not believe that Jesus (a.s.) was the Son of God.  Like most Arians, he held that he was, at most, a prophet.

Eusebius wrote this work just before the First Council of Nicaea, 325 CE.  He finished it about 324 CE.  The claim concerning Mark’s Gospel is earlier than that because in the relevant passage of “Ecclesiastical History”, Eusebius quoted the earlier writer, Papias of Hierapolis.  Papias was a second century figure.  Hierapolis was a town in the Lycus valley in Phrygia, Asia Minor, near Laodicea.  It is modern Pamukkale in Turkey.  It is not to be confused with the Hierapolis in Syria.

Papias was known for having conducted a series of interviews with people who allegedly knew Jesus (a.s.) and his immediate disciples, thinking he could learn more by doing so than just by reading books alone.  He recorded his thoughts in a multi-volume work called “Interpretations of the Sayings of the Lord”.  This work is now lost but parts of it survive in quotations in other authors, including Eusebius.  He is thought to have written the Interpretations of the Sayings of the Lord from around 120 to 130 CE or perhaps earlier.  That carries our tradition about Mark's connection to Peter (r.a.) back to the early second century.  Papias himself based his book on earlier traditions.  Here is the relevant passage from Eusebius's Ecclesiastical History, 3:39:14-15.

Eusebius: “But now we must add to the words of his which we have already quoted the tradition which he gives in regard to Mark, the author of the Gospel.”

Papias: “This also, the Presbyter said, ‘Mark, having become the interpreter of Peter, wrote down accurately, though not in order, whatsoever he remembered of the things said or done by Christ.  For he neither heard the Lord nor followed him, but afterward, as I said, he followed Peter, who adapted his teaching to the needs of his hearers, but with no intention of giving a connected account of the Lord’s discourses, so that Mark committed no error while he thus wrote some things as he remembered them.  For he was careful of one thing, not to omit any of the things which he had heard, and not to state any of them falsely.’”

Eusebius: “These things are related by Papias concerning Mark.”

Eusebius quoted Papias and Papias in turn quoted a person known as the Presbyter.  “The Presbyter” is identified by Eusebius in the sentence immediately before the ones quoted, where Eusebius wrote, Papias gives also in his own work other accounts of the words of the Lord on the authority of Aristion, who was mentioned above, and traditions as handed down by the presbyter, John, to which we refer those who are fond of learning.  This individual known as John the Presbyter or John the Elder is identified by Papias as a disciple of Jesus (a.s.) who was apparently distinct from John the Apostle.  The Greek word ‘presbuteros’ can be translated both ways: presbyter or elder.  He has often been conflated with John the Apostle (r.a.), for several reasons.  One is that they were both, apparently, disciples of Jesus (a.s.), though the presbyter was not appointed an apostle.  Another is that, in later years, they both apparently lived at Ephesus.

Eusebius, in his “Ecclesiastical History”, 3:39:4, quoted another passage from Papias, in which he explained his interview method, “If, then, any one came, who had been a follower of the elders, I questioned him in regard to the words of the elders — what Andrew or what Peter said, or what was said by Philip, or by Thomas, or by James, or by John, or by Matthew, or by any other of the disciples of the Lord, and what things Aristion and the presbyter John, the disciples of the Lord, say.  For I did not think that what was to be gotten from the books would profit me as much as what came from the living and abiding voice.”

Papias identified John the Presbyter as a disciple of Jesus (a.s.) distinct from the previously-mentioned apostles, including John the Apostle (r.a.).  Papias wrote circa 120 to 130 CE or earlier, but he quoted the earlier source, John the Presbyter.  That pushes the date of the tradition regarding the origin of Mark's Gospel into the first century.  John the Presbyter and Aristion were, apparently, people who knew Jesus (a.s.) but were not appointed as apostles.  They were companions of apostles, just as Mark and Luke were.  And thus it is speculated that John the Presbyter, a contemporary of Mark, would have information about how Mark’s Gospel came to be.

Christians believe there is some reason to think that John the Presbyter may have been one of those companions of the apostles who ended up playing a role in writing the letters and epistles that ended up as canon in the New Testament.  The 2nd and 3rd Epistles of John are both addressed as being from “the Presbyter” or “the Elder”:

2 John 1
1 The Elder to the lady elect and her children, whom I love in the truth: and not I only, but also all they that have known the truth,

3 John 1
1 The Elder, to the dearly beloved Gaius, whom I love in truth.

Jerome of Stridon reported, “He wrote also one Epistle which begins as follows: ‘That which was from the beginning, that which we have heard, that which we have seen with our eyes and our hands handled concerning the word of life,’ which is esteemed of by all men who are interested in the church or in learning.  The other two of which the first is, ‘The elder to the elect lady and her children’ and the other, ‘The elder unto Gaius the beloved whom I love in truth,’ are said to be the work of John the Presbyter to the memory of whom another sepulcher is shown at Ephesus to the present day, though some think that there are two memorials of this same John the Evangelist.”

Over the centuries, the distinction between John the Apostle (r.a.) and John the Presbyter was obscured.  When combined with related evidence, it suggests that in Ephesus there was a school, which traced its origins to Jesus’ (a.s.) favourite disciple, John the Apostle (r.a.), but a certain John the Presbyter presided as an authority.  This John the Presbyter appears as the sender and author of the 2nd and 3rd Epistles of John.  He is evidently not the same person as John the Apostle (r.a.).  In the canonical text, we encounter expressly the mysterious figure of the presbyter.

John the Presbyter must have been closely connected with the John the Apostle (r.a.); but it is only speculation he had even been acquainted with Jesus (a.s.) himself since like most things to do with the canon there is little corroborating evidence.  After the death of John the Apostle (r.a.), John the Presbyter was identified as the bearer of the former’s teachings, and in the collective memory, the two figures were merged.

In any case, the link is tenuous.  John the Presbyter was supposedly a follower of Jesus (a.s.) and the author of two epistles of the New Testament.  He was supposedly the inheritor of the knowledge of John the Apostle (r.a.) and directly influenced the Gospel according to Mark.  And yet we have no definitive proof that Mark the Evangelist was a companion of Peter (r.a.) for an extended period or that he even wrote the gospel, let alone be influenced to write it.  In any case, there is no independent biography of John the Presbyter or Mark the Evangelist.  What the Pauline Christians have is actually from the discredited work of a Christian heretic who rejected the Trinitarian god that Pauline Christians eventually adopted.  From an Islamic point of view, if a hadits of the Prophet (s.a.w.) had such a weak chain of transmission, it would have been rejected.  And yet, the Christians seek to build their creed on flimsy proof.


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