Chapter 2: The Origin of the Gospel of Mark
The earliest ecclesiastical tradition regarding the origin of the Gospel of Mark is that given by Papias of Hierapolis, who lived in the first half of the second century. This tradition is preserved in Eusebius’ Ecclesiastical History 3. 39. 15. According to Eusebius, Papias wrote as follows:
This also the presbyter used to say: "Mark, indeed, who became the interpreter of Peter, wrote accurately, as far as he remembered them, the things said or done by the Lord, but not however in order." For he [Mark] had neither heard the Lord nor been his personal follower, but at a later stage, as I said, he had followed Peter, who used to adapt the teachings to the needs of the moment, but not as though he were drawing up a connected account of the oracles of the Lord: so that Mark committed no error in writing certain matters just as he remembered them. For he had only one object in view, namely to leave out nothing of the things which he had heard, and to include no false statement among them.(See my The Growth of the Gospels (1933), pp. 98 ff.; also the article by my son, Robert M. Grant, "The Oldest Gospel Prologues," Anglican Theological Review, 23:231-45.)
With this "testimony" of Papias -- or of the elder whose words he is quoting and commenting upon -- tallies the oft-quoted statement of Irenacus, about AD. 180:
After the deaths [of Peter and Paul, Mark, the disciple and interpreter of Peter, himself also handed down to us in writing the things which Peter had proclaimed.(Against Heresies 3. 1. 1; cf. Eusebius Eccl. Hist. 5. 8. 3.)
The other, later, church fathers do little more than repeat or echo Papias or Irenaeus -- as perhaps Irenaeus himself echoes Papias. They may accordingly be ignored in this brief discussion.
It is clear that the words of Papias -- and certainly those of the "presbyter" -- are meant to defend the Gospel of Mark against the double charge of inaccuracy and lack of order. Perhaps the inaccuracy was an inference from the lack of order: at least its accuracy is affirmed, though its lack of order is conceded. Upon what basis Mark’s lack of order was maintained we can only surmise. Most students assume that it was by comparison with the Gospel of John, or perhaps with that of Matthew -- where everything is strictly "in order," for didactic purposes.(In an article "Papias and the Gospels," Anglican, Theological Review, April, 1943, Robert M. Grant argues that Papias was contrasting Mark with Luke.) What the presbyter affirms is that Mark’s lack of "order" does not militate against his accuracy; what Papias adds is that this lack of order is easily explained -- he was the "interpreter" of Peter. And certainly Peter did not go about giving a historical lecture on the life and teaching of Jesus. He was a preacher, a missionary, a martyr, not a scholar; and perhaps he did not even speak Greek, if that is what the office of "interpreter" implies. This is the defense that Papias elaborates, upon the basis of the presbyter’s words, though he takes up the question of Mark’s order first, and then deals with his accuracy -- which Papias understands to involve complete recording as well as true. "For he had only one object in view, namely to leave out nothing of the things which he had heard, and to include no false statement among them."
The question now arises, How accurate was -- not Mark but -- the presbyter? Professor Lake, in his recent Introduction to the New Testament (1937), has set this query before all the statements in the church fathers regarding the origin of the New Testament books: How far are these statements merely inferences from the books themselves? Some of them are undoubtedly inferences -- or rather guesses -- some of them perhaps inspired, some certainly uninspired, for example Augustine’s view of Mark as an abridgement of Matthew, or the popular idea that the Gospel of Matthew was originally written in Hebrew! In the case of the words of the presbyter regarding the origin of the Gospel of Mark, however, it is out of the question to describe this as an inference from the contents of the book, for there is nothing in the Gospel to suggest that Peter is responsible for its contents. It is true, of course, that when the hypothesis is applied, some passages at once fit in with the Petrine theory, especially in chapter 1; but others definitely do not, and surely no one with only this Gospel before him would ever suspect that it was a mélange of Peter s reminiscences he was reading. Hence we conclude that the presbyter is reporting a genuine tradition, namely of "Mark’s" association with Peter and his recollection and writing down of certain things Peter had said in his preaching; and this is all the more probable in that (a) the presbyter uses the tradition to meet a current objection, and (b) he presses it a little too far -- though not so far as Papias does -- in meeting the objection.
The soundness of the underlying tradition has been questioned by certain modern writers who object, quite properly, to the weight it has been forced to bear, not only by Papias in the second century but by many exegetes and interpreters since. For example, "the fresh and vivid style of Mark" has been explained as the result of Peter’s vivid personal recollections -- forgetting that people did not usually write that way in ancient times, but far more prosaically, far less romantically; the exploitation of literary personality is a very modern innovation. Again, the otherwise unexplained features in the story, for example the flight of a young man from the garden, or the proceedings in the high priest’s house, have been explained as incidents in Peter’s own biography -- or even in Mark’s ! -- forgetting that ancient religious writers, unlike scholarly historians, did not as a rule feel it incumbent upon them to give, in a footnote or otherwise, their source for every anecdote or event, or to anticipate the modern reader’s constant query, "How can we know that what you say is true, in every detail ?"(Of course Mark does give a suggestion of the source of the testimony at the end: the women viewing the crucifixion, the centurion, and so on. But the Gospel never hints that Peter is the authority for any of its narratives.) Again, the very frank admissions of weakness or stupidity or lack of faith or downright blindness and disloyalty on the part of the disciples are sometimes explained as due to Peter’s lifelong penitent self-accusation: he could not recall incidents from the life of his Master without breaking into tears once more, as once he did outside the high priest’s house in Jerusalem. But this explanation entirely overlooks two facts of great importance: (1) One of the themes of the Gospel of Mark, destined later to be elaborated quite differently by Matthew and by John, is the hiding of the divine revelation -- it was "hid from the eyes" not only of the "Jews" but to some extent even of the apostles. Then (2) historically the disciples during Jesus’ earthly ministry did not yet possess the fully formed faith which sprang from his resurrection; the judgment upon their prior faith, at first crude and but slowly developed, could be made only in the light of the fuller experience which came later. (Cf. John 2:22.) Hence the pathetic, personal interpretation, so appealing to a number of modern writers, is really quite out of touch with historical probability, and often verges close upon the abyss of sentimentality.
On the other hand there is an interpretation which not only gives due weight to the old tradition underlying the presbyter’s words, but also maintains full contact with historical probability: it is the interpretation made possible by what is called form criticism.(Instead of an author in search of a book, the Gospel of Mark illustrates the opposite situation -- a book in search of an author! The gospel material had to be written down, sooner or later, and one person almost as well as another might have written it.) The basic assumption and starting point of this type of investigation is the fact that oral tradition circulates, not in long consecutive narratives, but in brief, rounded units, each more or less complete in itself. What form criticism undertakes is to get back behind the written Gospels and their sources to the oral tradition as it circulated prior to the writing down of any account of the "mighty works," the sayings, the parables, or the discourses of Jesus. Its first tool is the scientific one of classification. Upon examination, the gospel traditions appear to fall into five or six main groups: anecdotes, parables, sayings, miracle tales, legends.(See Martin Dibelius, From Tradition to Gospel : Rudolf Bultmann, Die Geschichte der synoptischen Tradition [2nd ed., 1931]; and also Karl Ludwig Schmidt, Der Rahmen der Geschichte Jesu ; Burton Scott Easton, The Gospel Before the Gospels ; Kendrick Grobel, Form-geschichte und synoptische Quellenanalyse ; E. Basil Redlich, Form Criticism: Its Value and Limitations ; Thomas S. Kepler, "The Jesus, of Formgeschichte’" in New Testament,: Studies, ed. Edwin Prince Booth ). And each of these types, it appears, is probably subject to certain "laws of form" governing its oral transmission -- factors affecting the modification, expansion, elaboration, and even the simplification of tradition -- though we are not prepared, as yet, to formulate these "laws" with precision. Moreover, each of these types had its place in the preaching, worship, and teaching of the early Christian communities.
A better name for this type of investigation would be "tradition criticism"; but the movement began, over twenty years ago, as the study of the "forms" in which the tradition was handed down; and although it has swept into its orbit other studies and evaluations of the early Christian tradition, some of them older than itself, it has retained its original name. The chief pioneer of the movement is Martin Dibelius of Heidelberg, several of whose books have been translated into English; with him must also be named Rudolf Bultmann and Karl Ludwig Schmidt, the one a remarkable combination of acute skepticism and ardent Barthianism, the other an almost rigidly orthodox Reformed theologian. Dibelius’ position is more moderate and "central" than that held by either of the others: warmer and richer in appreciation of the religious values and motives enshrined in the tradition; firmer and surer, it seems to me, in its contact with historical probability. Bultmann is more inclined to attribute certain sayings to the creative activity of the primitive community -- and therefore not to the historical Jesus -- while Schmidt is more interested in the final theological interpretation of the whole process of revelation and redemption reflected in the New Testament.
Form criticism is a method of historical research, that is, of investigation of historical sources, namely traditions. It is compatible with complete orthodoxy -- certainly with Barthian orthodoxy! -- as we see from Schmidt’s theology; and it is not necessarily to be identified with "skepticism" as we see from the contrast between Bultmann on one hand and Schmidt and Dibelius on the other. There are, it is true, conservative scholars who view the method with distrust, or even openly oppose it. But this can be explained partly by the extremity of the conclusions drawn by some advocates of form criticism, for example by Professor R. H. Lightfoot in his Bampton Lectures;( History and Interpretation in the Gospels ) and partly by the ultraconservatism of men who are incapable of altering their views in later life. In spite of such opposition, it is probable that form criticism has come to stay. For it has behind it the momentum of all modern historical research in the field of the biblical literature -- Old Testament as well as New. (In truth, form criticism first made its appearance in the Old Testament field; Gunkel and Wellhausen had a good deal to do with its first appearance.) More and more zealously, during the past fifty years, historical criticism has pressed on toward the investigation of the traditions underlying the sources. Source criticism, the recovery or reconstruction of the sources of the Gospels and of the Book of Acts, was a far advance in this direction, but it did not go the whole way. Now that the existence of sources underlying the Gospels is fairly assured, and also their extent and contents -- whether as written documents or as cycles of tradition -- the next step is to investigate the quality and character of the traditions they contain, and the value of these traditions for historical purposes. It was maintained by some critics, a decade ago, that form criticism had nothing to do with the historicity of events whose purported records had been handed down orally, but only with the outward form of the tradition; but this was an impossible view. All literary criticism of the New Testament is ultimately historical criticism: literary criticism, in the sense of aesthetic appreciation and evaluation, finds much to engage its attention in the New Testament, but it is not the main interest of modern biblical study.
If the oral tradition of Jesus’ life and teaching, prior to the writing of the Gospels or their sources, circulated in brief, detached, independent units -- and this is not only the first assumption of form criticism; it is also assumed by almost all modern New Testament criticism of whatever school -- then we must read the Gospels with this fact in mind. We must ignore, for the time being, the editorial introductions, transitions, conclusions, and inferences or interpretations which have been added to the separate units, as also the order in which they are given, and the presumed bearing of one upon another. The chronological sequence disappears, but this is not much of a loss. It has always been an insoluble problem for harmonists and writers of the life of Christ; and it is clear from the way Matthew -- and perhaps John -- and even Luke used the materials of the Gospel of Mark that they, who were its earliest editors and commentators, did not view the Marcan order as chronological or final and unalterable -- save in one section, the passion narrative, though even here they did not hesitate to make some changes in order. But not only the chronological order -- some of the interpretative comments or explanations added to the original pericopes must also be set aside: for example, the slaughter of the rebels in Luke’s version of the parable of the talents, (Luke 19:27.) and the moral, "Make to yourselves friends by means of the mammon of unrighteousness," appended to the parable of the unjust steward.(Luke 16:9.) Whether these interpretative "morals" were added by the authors -- or editors -- of the Gospels or represent accretions to the narratives in the oral period does not greatly matter; what we want is the original parable or saying as it came from the lips of Jesus.
Now some authors, like Principal H. D. A. Major in his recent joint work, The Mission and Message of Jesus, (1938), holds this analysis of the tradition to be more loss than gain. Dr. Major refers to it as "unstringing the beads," assuming, apparently, that once unstrung they can never be put together again. But it may be pointed out that (1) no one has ever "unstrung" the Marcan sequence more completely than the author of Matthew did in revising and reorganizing the Gospel of Mark for his special purposes: the book is taken apart and put together again in a new order, combined with the "Sayings Source" (Q) and with other materials, and arranged apparently for didactic use -- as a manual, one might say, for the religious educators of the early Syrian church! And in the next place, (2) the circulation and transmission of separate units of tradition is precisely what the presbyter is describing in Eusebius’ quotation from Papias: "Mark, . . . . who became the interpreter of Peter, wrote accurately, as far as he remembered them, the things said or done by the Lord, but not however in order." The presbyter implies that Mark’s information was derived from Peter, but he does not say so explicitly; that is Papias’ inference. The wording of the presbyter’s remark leaves open the question of Mark’s use of other sources than Peter, whose "interpreter" he was: sources, or traditions, in circulation among the Christians in Rome no doubt from the first founding of the church in that community, long before Paul’s arrival and perhaps some time before Peter’s coming; and also, no doubt, traditions that were added to the common stock by every believer who came to Rome from Palestine. Papias’ further inference from the presbyter’s words is doubtless a correct one: Mark was not a disciple of Jesus, and had in fact never heard him -- this rules out his identification with the young man in the garden! -- but later on followed Peter and became his interpreter; and Peter "used to adapt the teachings to the needs of the moment, but not as though he were drawing up a connected account of the oracles of the Lord," so that Mark was perfectly justified in setting them down "just as he remembered them." In fact, his whole procedure was praiseworthy -- he aimed only to omit nothing and to misrepresent nothing. Could we have a better account of what, according to form criticism, was the normal process of transmission of the gospel tradition in its oral period? The parables, sayings, and anecdotes from the life of Jesus were used as "paradigms," illustrations, exempla in the early Christian preaching and teaching, rather than as quotations from a finished and complete biography, based perhaps upon the memoir of an apostle. Finally, (3) this is precisely the kind of record we might antecedently expect. For early Christianity was in its origin a Jewish movement, and the records of the lives and teachings of Jewish religious leaders in that period were invariably preserved in the form of scattered sayings, parables, and anecdotes, handed down by their disciples, quoted and requoted in the schools, and not committed to writing until long after. The materials that we possess for reconstructing the life and teaching of even the greatest of them -- Hillel, for example, or Gamaliel II -- fill less than a dozen pages, and must be collected from the most varied sources.(See W. Bacher, Agada der Tannaiten, referred to above. The Christian tradition is in a far better state of preservation: Christianity early became a religious movement in the Greek world, and became literary within a generation; it was the possession of a church, not of a school of legal study; and it was from the first a sacred tradition, in an even higher sense than were the floating records of Hillel, Gamaliel, Jochanan ben Zakkai, or Akiba. But it never wholly escaped the limitations of its origin as a body of Jewish tradition, circulated and handed down orally from the first. Even in the second century, a hundred years and more after the time of Jesus, there were doubtless still in circulation oral accounts of incidents in his life and quotations of his teachings which had not until then been committed to writing. In the preface to his five books on The Interpretation of the Oracles of the Lord, Papias referred to "the living and abiding voice" of tradition, which he even preferred to written records.(Eusebius, Eccl. Hist. 3. 39. 4.) He was referring, I believe, to interpretations of the Lord’s teachings; but the existence of the agrapha -- the "unwritten sayings" of the Lord -- and the composition of the older apocryphal Gospels both testify to the continuance of the oral tradition at least beyond the time of Papias.
On the other hand, it will be urged, there must have been some record of the general outline of Jesus’ life. Peter, for example, would not fail to give some kind of sequence to his recollections, some hint or other as to the location of the incidents he related within the general framework of at least the public career of the Master. The speeches in Acts, to go no further, (E.g., Acts 10:37-43.) give at least an outline of Jesus’ career "in the land of the Jews." In spite of Papias -- or the presbyter -- who appears to assume the contrary, there must have been some principle of order observed from the first in narrating the life of Jesus. It is antecedently probable that those who remembered the sayings and parables of Jesus would also remember the general course of his ministry; and what conceivable order is more probable than that which Mark gives us! This view has been advocated with great skill by Professor C. H. Dodd, first in an article entitled "The Framework of the Gospel Narrative," published in The Expository Times (June, 1932), and then in his books, The Apostolic Preaching (1936) and History and the Gospel (1938). He examines the speeches in Acts and also the editorial skeleton in Mark, and he finds that they follow a more or less common pattern: the ministry began with the "baptism" of John, that is, his message of repentance and work as a baptizer; following John’s arrest, Jesus began his own ministry in Galilee, and there "went about doing good," and "healing all that were possessed by the devil"; then he came up to Jerusalem, where the rulers put him to death by crucifixion; on the third day he rose again, and appeared to his disciples, who were now "witnesses" to the truth of these reported events, namely to his resurrection from the dead. It is obvious at once that the "pattern" in the speeches is approximately that of the Gospel of Mark. We have, therefore, more than the outline of Mark to rely upon; it is supplemented and confirmed by the tradition recorded in the speeches of Acts -- themselves perhaps embedded in old Judean, Jerusalem, or Caesarean sources, oral or written, which had come down from the primitive community and were incorporated by the author of Acts in his volume.
But the great objection to the argument advanced by Dr. Dodd is (1) the probability that Luke -- that is, the author of Acts -- had seen and used the Gospel of Mark before writing these early chapters of his "second volume"; if so, he would naturally have the pattern of Mark still in mind. How important he thought it to be is clearly recognized by the Proto-Luke theory,("See B. H. Streeter, The Four Gospels [1924; 4th ed. 1930]. chap. viii; Vincent Taylor, Behind the Third Gospel ; also, his The First Draft of St. Luke’s Gospel , and my The Growth of the Gospels, , pp. 157 ff. and Note E, p. 174.) according to which his first account of the teaching of Jesus was later expanded to include the Gospel of Mark, when at last he came upon it -- incorporating that work within his own in seven great "blocks" or sections, but keeping it, for the most part, in its own order. In the next place, (2) it is still a question if the speeches in the Book of Acts are really derived from earlier sources, and not composed by the author -- though most of us may grant the source hypothesis. They sound primitive, but we had best not assume the hypothesis as proved and make it the basis of further argument or additional hypothesis. It was the custom of ancient historians to compose appropriate speeches for historic personages and occasions. From Thucydides down, they all try to write speeches that fit the character of the speaker and the situation; it gave life and color to their narratives, and no one questioned the practice. Sometimes they gave the "substance" of what was said; often they composed freely -- but appropriately. In the absence of stenographic records of speeches, no other course was open; and, I repeat, no one questioned the practice -- but no one was deceived by it, or took the speeches as verbatim records. Even Tacitus, who had access to an abundance of sources, including the speeches of the emperors and many other memoirs -- of consuls, generals, and civil officials -- does not hesitate to compose a speech "in character" when the occasion demands it; in fact, he often writes two or more speeches. setting forth the views and arguments of both sides in a given situation. Fortunately, the writing of history was still an art, not a science; as one ancient author observed,("For history has a certain affinity to poetry and may be regarded as a kind of prose poem, while it is written for the purpose of narrative, not of proof, and designed from beginning to end not for immediate effect or the instant necessities of forensic strife, but to record events for the benefit of posterity and to win glory for its author -- Quintilian x. 1. 31 (tr. H. E. Butler). This does not, of course, sum up the classical ideal of historical writing; there were writers who viewed their task forensically, and many who looked to history either for exempla or for light on their own troubled times. But most ancient historians, from Herodotus and Thucydides down, recognized the literary nature of their craft.) it was closely allied to poetry -- especially to dramatic poetry, which gives in six lines of a chorus or a speech more than ten pages of "scientific" prose can convey. And if Luke, as many modern scholars suppose, was writing a history -- or an apology for Christianity in the form of an account of its origin and expansion -- he had every reason to follow the finest precedents of ancient historiography in composing speeches "in character" and placing them upon the lips of the persons in his narrative.
And yet, although we cannot accept without hesitation the evidence thus adduced for this view, it may be that the view itself is sound. And I think that as a matter of fact it is sound. For not only (1) is it perfectly natural and consistent with all the data in the Gospels to assume the existence of some such general pattern; but also (2) if the pattern had been wrong on any major point, there must have been traditions still in circulation by which to correct or discredit it. For example, had Jesus been a Gentile -- as certain fantastic modern theories assume (See now The Nazi Christ by Eugene S. Tanner of the University of Tulsa (1942), a detailed criticism of these views.) -- let us say an Aryan, a Hindu, a Greek, or a member of the Roman proletariat, something would surely be found to betray this fact in the diversified gospel tradition we possess; or if, say, he had had no connection with John the Baptist, or had not criticized the scribes, or had been stoned to death rather than crucified. Instead, the later evangelists one and all use Mark, and take for granted the general outline -- though not the detailed order -- of his account of Jesus’ ministry. The "Marcan hypothesis," as Bishop Rawlinson insists in his Commentary, is no longer tenable -- the hypothesis, namely, that Mark’s order and point of view are infallible and must be adhered to in every case -- and yet the general outline of the ministry, as given by Mark, is not only the earliest outline we have, but commends itself upon grounds of probability. Briefly stated, that outline or "pattern" is this:
1. Jesus’ ministry began when he left the group of John’s disciples and returned to Galilee.
2. His work consisted chiefly in teaching and healing; the healings were, for the most part, exorcisms of demons.
3. Both as teacher and as healer he roused the opposition of the scribes, the official and accredited teachers of the Law, and of their lay adherents and supporters, the Pharisees,
4. After a time he withdrew from his public ministry and went into retirement.
5. Meanwhile, like other teachers, he had gathered about him a band of close disciples, whom he sent out, occasionally, to teach and to heal.
6. As Passover drew near, he journeyed to Jerusalem to keep the festival, accompanied by his disciples and other followers.
7. The opposition of his enemies broke out here with renewed force, the temple priesthood joining with them to destroy him after his prophetic demonstration in the "cleansing" of the temple.
8. He was seized by the temple authorities and handed over to the Roman governor as a dangerous insurrectionist and disturber of public order.
9. After a brief and half-hearted effort to ascertain the truth of the charges against him, Pilate ordered him to be scourged and crucified -- one more disturber of the peace of this rebellious people thus put out of the way.
10. After only the briefest interval -- so Mark implies all along -- ; his followers were convinced that he had risen from the dead -- not as one more resuscitated Israelite, like the daughter of Jairus, nor as a saint who had entered glory, like Moses or Elijah, but as no one less than the transcendent, heavenly Messiah, the "Son of Man" who was to come on the clouds of heaven and hold the last judgment upon all mankind.
This "pattern," I say, not only is our earliest outline of the public career of Jesus, but has in it every feature of probability.(This outline appears in expanded form if Chap. iv of my The Gospel of the Kingdom ) So far as we know anything whatever about the life of Jesus of Nazareth, it agrees with this genera! outline; and the whole of the early Christian tradition, in Epistles, Gospels, the Book of Acts, and such of it as survives in the noncanonical writings, fits in with it -- or rather, contains almost nothing that disagrees with it. Even the outline of the Gospel of John is in fundamental agreement. The fact may be explained by saying that everything goes back to, or rests upon, the Gospel of Mark; but I think we cannot assume that this Gospel would have been accepted if upon any major point its general outline had been found to be faulty or inaccurate by those who were in touch with the primitive tradition handed down in the churches in Palestine.
Thus form criticism, and modern New Testament criticism in general, far from undermining the authority of the earliest Gospel, really support it; at the same time form criticism provides a more satisfactory approach to its contents than was provided in the old-fashioned view according to which Mark’s Gospel was really the Gospel according to Peter, and Mark was only that apostle’s amanuensis or secretary -- a view only one step removed from that which made the apostles themselves the amanuenses or secretaries of the Holy Spirit.
But have we not lost something? What has become of the familiar figure we knew as the nephew of Barnabas, the son of Mary of Jerusalem, the companion of Paul and Barnabas on the first missionary journey, the young man who lost heart and returned home, and whom Paul refused to take along a second time, but who later proved useful to Peter? So far as I know, he has not disappeared! But he never was the unquestioned author of the earliest Gospel, save in the same sense that Hebrews was assigned to Paul, Revelation to John, the Johannine Epistles to the Elder John, and so on -- that is, by inference, and by hypothesis.(See the chapter in H.J. Holtzmann, Lehrbuch der Neutestamentlichen Theologue [2nd ed., 1911], I, 491-97; also Johannes Weiss, Das alteste Evangelium , Pt. III, esp.§ 8.) It is to be noted that Papias does not even pause to consider the possibility that Mark, the author of the Gospel, was the "follower" of Paul and Barnabas, the young man whose story is reported in the Book of Acts. He moves at once from the fact that "Mark" had not been a follower or hearer of the Lord to the fact that he followed Peter. It is of course a question if Papias knew and used Luke-Acts. His "testimony" relates to the origins of Mark and Matthew. It is Matthew, perhaps, with which he contrasts the order of Mark. And it is perhaps Matthew whose collection of oracles in five "books" he commented upon. Was Luke-Acts either unknown or little known in Hierapolis in his time? (But see the article by Robert M Grant. already referred to, "Papias and the Gospels," Anglican Theological Review, April, 1943; also his article. "The Oldest Gospel Prologues, Anglican Theological Review, 23:231-45.)
The Gospel nowhere claims to be written by Mark! And even if it had made this claim, we should probably not be able to tell which "Mark" was meant. Everyone recognizes the way in which several "Marys" in the gospel story are combined into one composite figure -- even including other figures, for example the sinful woman in Luke 7:37. Similarly the Johns have been identified, and the Jameses -- James the Apostle (or Apostles) and James the Lord’s brother. This is a commonplace of oral tradition; but tradition is no worse, probably not so bad, as later popular exegesis and romance. And in the early Christian community at Rome, Marcus was no doubt as common a name as Jochanan or Jacob or Miriam had been in Palestine.
Positive evidence have we none -- or at most very little -- but we may conclude with a fantasy, for once tossing free the reins of the historical imagination. Perhaps the author of the earliest Gospel is best thought of as a young clerk in one of the Roman mercantile establishments, located, in the sixties of the first century, in the old business district now known as the Trastevere, down near the Tiber and partly surrounded by the bend in the river. He belonged to the Christian church in that city -- a church still meeting in the house of one of the great families,( See F. V. Filson, "The Significance of the Early House Churches," Journal of Biblical Literature 58: 105-12.) and not yet possessing a building of its own; in fact, it would be several generations before this new eastern sect had any buildings for public worship. Day by day young Marcus went through his routine tasks at the office of the firm, posting accounts, checking the long bills of lading; for he certainly could read and write, and was thus in touch with the outside world of trade. Not all of his fellow believers enjoyed this advantage, for many of them were slaves in the great familiae or households of the neighborhood. Marcus could read and write -- though he could not write well, and had no inclinations to authorship, even in that publishing center of the western Mediterranean in the days of Nero -- and so, as one of the few in the local congregation of Christians who could both read and write, he was commissioned to put together in his free time -- probably late evenings, after the assembly of the Christians had broken up -- the fragmentary translations of narratives from the story of Jesus and his teaching which were in circulation in the Roman church.
What was wanted was a consecutive, accurate, inclusive account of the ministry and death of the Messiah Jesus, who had lived in Galilee, had died and risen again at Jerusalem, and was soon to come again, in glory, to judge the world and inaugurate the Kingdom of God. The old Aramaic traditions had already been translated into Greek; Marcus’ task was not to translate, but to arrange and to edit. Of course he was no literary artist, but only a humble clerk, not very familiar with Judaism or with the Old Testament; perhaps he had never seen Palestine in his life, but he had a good memory, and he had heard a great deal about that land, or rather about the Master who had lived and taught there. His style was crude -- but so were the translations from the oral Aramaic. His theological theories, as far as he had any, were somewhat rigid and even, on one or two points, perverse; and yet he was capable of dealing fairly, in the main, with his material.
This tradition was certainly easier to handle than the somewhat abstruse letter of Paul to the Romans, which for twenty years the church had treasured and pondered, and read now and then along with the Law and the Prophets which Paul had expounded -- though his spoken words had been far simpler than his dictated letter! Some of Paul’s ideas Marcus had grasped, though he was not sure he could state them clearly, or even that he understood them fully. One thing he did understand from Paul or from other teachers: the Jewish authorities had crucified Jesus out of ignorance and disobedience, in blind zeal for their own false interpretation of the sacred Law; but God had turned evil to good, and had triumphed over their sin by accepting Jesus’ death as a sacrifice or a ransom for many, Gentiles as well as Jews. That was an idea a Roman could grasp, and it certainly threw light upon the mystery of the Messiah’s death, otherwise the blindest act of fate in all human experience. But for the most part Marcus preferred the preaching of Peter -- simple and straightforward, stories and anecdotes rather than theological theories. And Peter he not only had often heard, but had even helped with his Greek; for Marcus knew a little Aramaic, and Peter spoke considerable Greek, but not always in good form and sometimes without finding the right word for what he wanted to say.
Most important of all, Marcus had to write in haste, and in the midst of danger. For the church was threatened with martyrdom; it had, in fact, only recently experienced the blood purge which resulted in the deaths of Peter and Paul. A few patrons of Christianity might possibly be found in the court: the wife of a general who had returned a few years before from Britain was said to be interested in the Christians, though she now lived in retirement.(Pomponia Graecina, the wife of Plautius -- Tacitus, Annals 13. 32.) But little help could be expected from that quarter at best; for Nero was himself at last, brutal, vindictive, merciless, and the massacre of Christians had become his latest diabolical diversion. Antichrist sat upon the throne; the last days had arrived -- and yet the end might not come for a long time. True, the persecution had now relaxed, and some thought that it was over; there could be no complete extermination of the Christians, not at present; and news had come from other churches, elsewhere, that they were at peace -- though the news from Palestine was ominous. It was in Rome alone that the Emperor’s fury had thus far expended itself. There were Jews in Rome; but their own position at the moment was not sufficiently secure to enable them to persecute the followers of Jesus, had they wished to do so (we are thinking of the point of view of Marcus and his readers). Earlier emperors, Tiberius and Claudius, had driven the Jews from Rome; perhaps Nero would some day do the same. Nor did it occur to Marcus to write his book for Jewish readers anyway; what he put together was a narrative of the mighty works and death of Jesus -- a book largely devoted to explaining why Jesus had died -- and he wrote it, not for Jews, but for Gentile converts and "listeners to the word." The Jews might be blind, and deaf to the message; but the Gentiles, as Paul had said -- "they will listen."