Tuesday, April 25, 2006

When Was the Gospel of Mark Written?

Since today is the feast day of St. Mark the Evangelist, I hearby announce, in his honor, that almost every scholarly discussion of the date of Mark's Gospel is wrong. I would like to state — with only a soup├žon of exaggeration — that Mark was written within one year after the resurrection.

This statement cannot be proved wrong without assuming (a) that the Gospel makes widespread use of vaticinium ex eventu, that is, history disguised as prophecy; and (b) that the evangelist relied on a chain of oral tradition, whose crystallization requires "a long time". I submit that both of these assumptions are arbitrary. Assumption (a) imports a philosophical premise (prophecy cannot happen) into a literary argument; and assumption (b) assumes, usually without argument, that Christian tradition was immediately oral and only secondarily written (instead of, as is more probable, a mixture of both).

Obviously I am taking an extreme position to make a point. But can anyone point to indications within the Gospel that point to a date ca. 65 CE or later (the usual date given) without relying on the above assumptions?

13 comments:

Ken Penner said...

What role should external evidence play? Would we not expect Paul to know of it?

EMC said...

In this game, no external evidence is allowed.

Smolk said...

Was it not Robinson who, in Redating the New Testament, argued that the whole of NT was written before 70? I seem to recall that his main argument is the lack of a clear reference to the destruction of the Second Temple. This still makes sense in my opinion. More to the point, the "latest" gospel, that of John, is firmly rooted in the first century CE in terms of its world outlook. It's far removed from later Christian gnosis. If the terminus ante quem of this gospel is 70 C, following Robinson, it stands to reason that other gospels are much earlier.
Unless the dissimilarity of John to the synoptics is not explained in chronological terms.

I agree with you about the interface of oral and written forms of textual transmission.

However, your claim that "argument (a) imports a philosophical premise (prophecy cannot happen) into a literary argument" is less convincing than it seems, first of all because it is a bulk argument, second because it requires to forego scepsis, which is an accepted scholarly attitude. It's the kind of argument you'll find in dogma speculation, but not in non-religious literary studies.

Son2 said...

But what sort of evidence could there be in the text itself that would convince you that it was written earlier? Are you thinking of linguistic evidence? Some expressions in Mark that were common in 30CE, but not so much in 70?

There are valid arguments why the early Christian tradition didn't need to be written down until 70 or so...

EMC said...

An example of the kind I'm asking for (but don't expect anyone to be able to find) would be a historical reference by the evangelist himself to something that happened (say) in the 50's, 60's, or 70's. Or a circumstantial anachronism (not found in an apocalyptic passage). I am trying to get people to realize how fragile and theory-laden the foundations of the consensus are.

Ken Penner said...

I wonder who Mark's audience would be if he was writing in 34CE in Greek.

EMC said...

Ken, are you under the impression that Greek was not spoken in Palestine in 34 CE? Don't the Greek names of some disciples (Andrew, Philip) suggest the multilingual character of the earliest Christian community?

Kevin P. Edgecomb said...

E. Earle Ellis has long held that each of the four gospels was associated with a particular early Church leader and mission center, and that these gospels reflect the character of those missions, being designed for that purpose. Matthew was associated with James and Jerusalem, Mark with Peter and Rome, Luke of course with Paul and Rome (I think Rome, but that doesn't sound right), and John with John and Ephesus. Each reflects the particular "flavor" of the mission based in those centers. As I recall, he suggests that the Synoptics were written all quite early, with Matthew in the 40s, Luke/Acts in 61 or 62 (right after the last event recorded in Acts), and Mark just after that, after Peter and Paul were executed, circa 64. John was later, but I don't recall him placing John as late as the nineties, though he may have. It's an interesting and well-buttressed scenario, eminently logical, presented primarily in his The Making of the New Testament Documents (Brill, 1999) and in less detail in History and Interpretation in New Testament Perspective (Brill, 2001), both in paperback now.

Weekend Fisher said...

I could make a probability-based argument "probably not within 1 year" based on the amount of time it would typically take to complete a project of that size before word processors existed.

Also ... how "external" is external? I could make a reasonable argument that Matthew and Mark shared a prior written source (which seems more likely, based on the textual details, than Matthew using Mark based on comparison of the two). But is GMatt "external"? Is "internal" only copies of GMark?

Kevin Snapp said...

Ed, you acknowledge your position is “extreme,” and I don't understand your point. If you are saying that objective scholarship shouldn't exclude the possibility of prophecy a priori, I follow you (but see below). But a search for truth has to include external evidence. To say that if one accepts that Mark contains prophecy it can’t be proved to be from 65 or later isn't saying that much. If you accept that Dante was a prophet, I doubt you could prove the Divine Comedy was written after 1300. But although not proving Mark appeared after 65, I think there are good reasons to believe Mark didn’t appear only a few years after the events it describes.

I'm not a scholar, but I see a fudginess that doesn't square with composition immediately after the fact. For example, at the crucifixion is "Mary, mother of James the Less and Joses" (Mk.15:40) Jesus's mother or not? Why doesn't Mark give the women's husbands' names (as John does with "Mary, wife of Clopas") and not just their sons’ names? It sounds as if the author had a tradition that disciple X remembered that his mother was there, but now people aren't sure of X's full name and nobody remembers who X's father was. That doesn't happen with last year's events. Maybe that doesn’t prove that Mark wasn’t written within a year, but it sure doesn’t look like it.

You say you would accept as evidence an anachronism, a reference to something that happened later than your proposed date. What about something that didn't happen? Mark reports that on Good Friday there was darkness over the whole land from the sixth hour until the ninth. A total eclipse lasts only a few minutes, so this would have been a novel, inexplicable and terrifying event. If you told me there was an eclipse last year, well, OK, maybe I missed it. You wouldn't try to tell me there was a three-hour blackout last year at Passover. But if I were an unsophisticated first-century guy under 45 (as most were), you could get away with telling me it happened forty years ago. Proof Mark was written after 65? No. Proof it wasn’t written by, say, 35? I think so.

Then there is editing. Comparing accounts of Jesus's baptism recently, I happened to notice a blooper. Mark has the Spirit, in the form of a dove, descend "into" (eis) Jesus instead of upon (epi) him, indicating that originally the Spirit "entered into" Jesus and the dove was added later without changing the preposition, suggesting Jesus ingested the dove. Evidence of editing makes it probable that Mark as we have it took at least a few years to evolve, though I grant not nearly until 65.

You say you are "trying to get people to realize how fragile and theory-laden the foundations of the consensus are." I'll buy that we shouldn't assume any great length of time before traditions are collected, sorted and written down. But particularly since writing and copying involved much more labor and expense than they do today, isn't it legitimate to ask at what point there would have arisen a need to preserve traditions in writing and an audience for the Gospels?

What is so “fragile” about the following? When the apostles with first-hand memory of Jesus were alive and there were a limited number of churches, Gospels weren’t really needed. Memories would inevitably conflict. Sorting out everyone's precious memories of Jesus, choosing among them, and smoothing the resulting ruffled feathers would take a lot of time better spent spreading the Gospel. It also appears that (a) many if not most Christians were expecting Jesus to return shortly, and (b) many if not most Christians focused on the experience of Christ, individually and communally, not the life and teachings of Jesus.

It is relevant that Paul not only didn’t know the Gospel of Mark, but -- correct me -- never indicated any interest in having a Gospel written. Did he not claim that his relationship to the risen Christ gave him authority fully equal to that of any disciple who had known Jesus in the flesh? Given Paul’s sentiments, he might have opposed writing of an account of Jesus’s life, lest neo-Pharisees spin new laws out of it. All this "proves" nothing, but it gives reasons to accept the consensus that the Gospels were written a generation or more after Jesus.

Probably a major impetus for Gospel-writing was the defeat, or imminent defeat, of the Jewish rebellion. With nationalist hopes dashed and the priestly/Temple establishment irrelevant, it looked like the Christian movement might inherit Judaism after all, not just Jewish scripture. The Christians’ main competitors were the only ones left standing, the Pharisees, who were probably not very popular. I suspect the prominence of the Pharisees as Jesus's opponents in the Gospels reflects the post-70 situation rather than that of the time of Jesus's ministry. The Gospels say nothing about Jewish nationalism or revolutionary messianism, presumably because they didn't need to. Again, not proof, but argument for the plausibility of the accepted dating.

As for presuming vaticinium ex eventu, all you can reasonably ask is that the presumption be rebuttable. Because I don't claim an exhaustive understanding of the universe I wouldn't say prophecy never happens,and because I don't think anyone else has an exhaustive understanding either, I think it amounts to prejudice to reject the possibility of prophecy outright. That doesn't mean it isn't reasonable to put a heavy burden of proof on anyone who claims it happened, just as with anything else rare or improbable. If Mk.13:2 refers to the destruction of the Temple in 70- what else? - it is reasonable to believe that at least that portion of Mark was composed after that date, absent persuasive evidence to the contrary. (Is there any?) What's fragile or theoretical about that?

Andrew Criddle said...

One could argue that the statements about some of Jesus' listeners not tasting death till the coming of the Kingdom, are a/ unlikely to be the literal words of Jesus and b/ more likely come from a time when a large fraction but not all of Jesus' followers had passed away.

(In terms of refuting the claim that Mark was written a year or so after the resurrection one could argue that the discrepancies between Josephus and Mark about John the Baptist and the Herod family make unlikely a date within a few years of the events.)

Ralph Hitchens said...

I'm strongly persuaded by Donald Akenson's argument that because the "headquarters" of the Christian movement perished with the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 CE, a significant amount of first-hand knowledge was wiped out and the evangelical churches outside Palestine had to reconstruct their movement's past as best they could. Hence the sketchy and conflicting gospels, with likely dates of composition after 70 CE.

James Crossley said...

I can't see a single thing in the gospels that necessarily point to a 65-75 date including Mk 13. We know people predicted the fall of the Temple before it fell. Also, why couldn't Mark 13 be a reflection of (say) the Caligula crisis. I see nothing in the gospel that necessarily points to the conventional date. Mistakes, miraculous etc. show nothing. In terms of miraculous we should not confuse our concepts of truth with ancient ones. Some of the reasons given here seems vague: disputes between Jewish groups happened before and after the time of Jesus so conflict with the Pharisees in the tradition proves nothing about date. In fact I think some of the responses to the challenge show just how vague arguments concerning the dating of Mark are.