When the Gospel of Mark Was Written

Contents


Introduction

It is taken for granted that the Gospels in the New Testament are arranged in the order they were written, and are named for their authors: the apostle Matthew, Peter’s companion John Mark, Paul’s companion Luke, and the apostle John the son of Zebedee.

Most scholars now doubt both this authorship and order of all four Gospels. None of the Gospels name their authors; the traditional identifications first appear in the last quarter of the second century. (Papias, a Christian in the early second century, does mention texts written by Matthew and Mark, but his description of these texts does not match the canonical Gospels with those names.) Today, the immense majority of scholars agree that Mark was written first, and that Matthew and Luke were not written independently, but directly copied, modified, and expanded Mark.

The Gospel of Mark is typically dated between 40 and 60 CE by conservative Christians, while many scholars push that back to around 66–69 CE. It is believed (by the theologically conservative group) that dating the book anytime after 70 CE harms the credibility of Jesus’ predictions about the destruction of Jerusalem’s temple, which took place in that year. This reasoning was integral to John Robinson’s argument that every New Testament book was written before 70 CE:

One of the oddest facts about the New Testament is that what on any showing would appear to be the single most datable and climactic event of the period — the fall of Jerusalem in AD 70, and with it the collapse of institutional Judaism based on the temple — is never once mentioned as a past fact. It is, of course, predicted; and these predictions are, in some cases at least, assumed to be written (or written up) after the event.1

Robinson’s argument — that 70 CE is ‘never once mentioned as a past fact’ in any New Testament text — is demonstrably false.

First Peter 5.13 sends greetings from Christians in ‘Babylon’. During the first century, the actual city Babylon was in ruins. One of the chief enemies in the Revelation of John is called ‘Babylon’ and described as ‘the great city’ seated on ‘seven hills’. The seven hills of Rome were famous throughout the empire at the time.2 When the Romans destroyed Jerusalem and its temple in 70 CE, apocalyptic Judeans began referring to the capital city of the empire with the cipher ‘Babylon’. They were equating the two cities because the Babylonians had likewise destroyed Jerusalem and its temple about six centuries earlier. By identifying Rome as ‘Babylon’, both texts necessarily come after 70 CE.3 First Thess 2.13–16 forcefully condemns ‘the Judeans’ who are ‘in Judah’, announcing that ‘God’s wrath has come upon them utterly’. This paragraph may be an interpolation, written by someone looking back on 70 CE as a past demonstration that God had effectively disowned Israel.4 Heb 8.13 may also allude to 70 CE as something of the author’s recent past. There is also a very strong tell in John 11.48–52, where the self-aware irony of the dialogue is palpable.

Robinson’s book didn’t gain much traction among scholars because his argumentation was so flawed. He strained to reject long-accepted ideas about New Testament texts without providing strong enough grounds for his alternate interpretations.

Let’s turn to the Gospel of Mark, and see how the fall of Jerusalem is actually very relevant for determining when the book was written.


The Temple’s Role in the Narrative

Jesus’ initial entry into Jerusalem is marked by a crowd expressing their hope that he is the long-awaited messiah (Mark 11.1–10). This is punctuated by him surveying the temple (11.11). Soon after, Jesus enters the temple to flip the money tables over and push out everyone in the courtyard (11.15–19). However, this outburst is nested inside a story of Jesus cursing a fig tree for failing to produce fruit out of season (11.12–14), and the fig tree subsequently dying (11.20–24). This act is widely interpreted as a symbolic prediction of the temple’s destruction.

After a brief exchange with the religious leaders of Jerusalem, Jesus tells them a parable: a master leases his vineyard to tenants, but when the master sends his slaves and his son, the tenants murder them; the only conclusion to this story is for the master to avenge his servants and son by killing all of the tenants (12.1–11). The Gospel narrator tells us directly that the parable was about Jerusalem’s religious leaders (12.12). Jesus was predicting their violent deaths.

After more interactions with the religious leaders and some people in the city, Jesus’ disciples marvel at the temple’s grandeur. In response, Jesus predicts the temple’s total destruction (13.1–2). When the disciples ask Jesus to elaborate on this prediction, asking him when it would occur, he lays out a series of events for them to watch for (13.3–8), including their own persecution (13.9–13). This will be followed by the ‘abomination of desolation’, which will be the signal to escape Judah (13.14–23). When all this has happened, the son of man will come on the clouds and he will gather the elect (13.24–27). All of this, Jesus insists, will take place before that generation has died out (13.28–31).

This leads into the Passover meal in Jerusalem (14.1–31), the arrest at night in the garden (14.32–52), his interrogation by the high priest (14.53–72), his trial before Pilate (15.1–15), and finally his crucifixion (15.16–41), burial (15.42–47), and the empty tomb (16.1–8). Even amid this final sequence of events, the temple’s destruction is foreshadowed again: Jesus is falsely accused of plotting to destroy the temple (14.57–58), and the temple’s curtain spontaneously rips in half the moment Jesus dies (15.37–39).

The temple’s destruction permeates the second half of Mark. This is a deliberate thematic choice of the author. The simplest explanation for this is that the author wrote his book after 70 CE and purposely shaped his material around his knowledge of Jerusalem’s destruction.


‘Let the Reader Understand’

In Mark 13.14, Jesus predicts the ‘abomination of desolation’. This item is borrowed from the Book of Daniel, which was written during the Maccabean Revolt in the second century BCE. Daniel predicts a sequence of four kingdoms: Babylon, Media, Persia, then Greece. Originally, the ‘abomination of desolation’ referred to the establishment of an altar to Zeus in Jerusalem’s temple, followed by a sacrifice to the pagan god. This act was ordered by Antiochus Epiphanes, who was considered a king of the fourth kingdom, the Greeks.

However, the Book of Daniel predicted the resurrection of the dead and the elevation of Israel would occur just after Antiochus’ death. After this prediction failed, Dan 7’s original sequence of four kingdoms was reinterpreted to extend the book’s timeline. By the first century CE, the fourth kingdom was widely identified with the Roman Empire.5 The prophecy in Mark 13 is plainly about Rome’s destruction of Jerusalem in 70 CE, so for Jesus to invoke the ‘abomination of desolation’ here shows Jesus was in line with his contemporaries in identifying Rome as part of the Book of Daniel’s prophecies.

In writing about Jesus’ prediction, however, the author tips his hand by inserting a parenthetical note: ‘Let the reader understand’. Mark’s author is addressing his audience directly, telling them to identify in Jesus’ words something they are already aware of. While debate rages over what precisely the ‘abomination of desolation’ referred to,6 it is evident the author expected his readers to recognize something they already had knowledge about.7 He is not asking them to understand an abstract idea, but something concrete and historical, something in their past.


Signs Preceding the End

Another weighty point is the form of the ‘signs’ in Mark 13.

Mark 13.5–8 Then Jesus began to say to them, ‘Beware that no one leads you astray. Many will come in my name and say, “I am he!” and they will lead many astray. When you hear of wars and rumours of wars, do not be alarmed; this must take place, but the end is still to come. For nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom; there will be earthquakes in various places; there will be famines. This is but the beginning of the birth pangs.’

Jesus outlines these things to demonstrate the increasingly chaotic era that will precede the downfall of Jerusalem and the subsequent appearance of the son of man, yet he breezes through them without much concern for the particulars. He doesn’t say where wars will occur, nor which nations and kingdoms will be involved, nor where earthquakes will happen.

Both 4 Ezra and 2 Baruch ‘predict’ the rise of the Roman Empire before laying out a series of signs that will precede the empire’s imminent defeat by the messiah (which was to take place soon after either book was written).

4 Ezra 9.1–5 He answered me and said, ‘Measure carefully in your mind, and when you see that some of the predicted signs have occurred, then you will know that it is the very time when the Most High is about to visit the world that he has made. So when there shall appear in the world earthquakes, tumult of peoples, intrigues of nations, wavering of leaders, confusion of princes, then you will know that it was of these that the Most High spoke from the days that were of old, from the beginning.’
4 Ezra 13.29–31 ‘The days are coming when the Most High will deliver those who are on the earth. And bewilderment of mind shall come over those who inhabit the earth. They shall plan to make war against one another, city against city, place against place, people against people, and kingdom against kingdom.’
2 Bar 70.1–10 ‘They shall hate one another, and provoke one another to fight. The base shall rule over the honorable. The lowly shall be praised above the eminent. The many shall be delivered to the few. Those who were nothing shall rule over the strong. The poor shall have more than the rich. The impious shall exalt themselves above the brave. The wise shall be silent, and the foolish shall speak. The thought of men will not be confirmed then, nor the counsel of the mighty, nor shall the hope of those who hope be confirmed. When those things which were predicted have come to pass, then confusion shall fall upon all men, and some of them shall fall in war, and some of them shall perish in anguish, and some of them shall be destroyed by their own.’

Because the literary style of Mark 13.5–27 departs so drastically from the rest of the book (and, in fact, never answers the question that prompted it in 13.3–4), some scholars have even theorized the section is from an apocalyptic source unrelated to Jesus.8 Whether Mark has written this material himself, or is incorporating a preexisting source, he invests the ‘signs’ with the same function found in other apocalypses: to claim the world has become worse; society is upside-down, morals are in decay, and violence is prevalent. The mode by which Jesus conveys these signs — flatly listing them out before moving on to the heavier issues of persecution or the conquest of Judah — is at home in the genre of apocalyptic ‘predictions’ written after-the-fact.


Evocation of Deity

By the first century CE, it was a common and widespread practice for Romans to perform the ritual evocatio when warring upon a city. Unlike the Judean nation, the Romans freely assumed the existence of many deities. When preparing to conquer a city the Romans would carry out the evocatio, summoning the city’s patron god to side with the Romans, thus permitting their conquest (and looting of the city’s holy sites) without risking divine condemnation.

This concept that a city’s destruction meant the people’s god had abandoned them was not unique to Roman culture. The participation of deities in earthly warfare was a universal concept. The Trojan War takes so long partly because the gods were split between supporting the invading Greeks and the defending Trojans. The destruction of Jerusalem by the Babylonians in 587 BCE was believed to have occurred because God abandoned his temple there (Ezek 10).

Josephus, a Judean who initially fought against the Romans but was then recruited to their side, wrote that the Roman emperor’s son Titus attempted to stop his forces from desecrating Jerusalem’s temple.9 This is so unlikely that it is accepted Josephus invented the story to excuse what actually happened: that Titus, as the general overseeing the siege of Jerusalem, was himself the one who carried out the evocatio and led the Romans in destroying the temple.

To justify the conquest of his people’s capital city and most holy site, Josephus reports that in the few years before the war a series of omens signaled its imminent destruction. One of these omens was the temple’s gates opening themselves and a divine voice announcing his departure.10 Omens preceding a city’s overthrow, and the residents failing to recognize the omens for what they were, was a stock motif in Roman stories of conquest.

Because Jesus speaks with such absolute certainty in Mark 13.1–2 that the temple will be totally and completely destroyed, it conveys the idea that Jesus is aware that God has abandoned Jerusalem (which is stated outright in Matt 23.38; Luke 13.35a), despite how anachronistic it would be forty years in advance. Evocatio — the divine permission of a city’s conquest — is taken as a certainty by Mark’s author.11


Give to Caesar What Is Caesar’s

One of the strongest hints at the Gospel’s post-war origin is when Jesus is asked about taxes.

‘Latinisms’ — Latin words written in Greek — are abundant in Mark. Two such Latinisms occur in this passage: census (κῆνσος) and denarius (δηνάριον).

Mark 12.13–17 Then they sent to him some Pharisees and some Herodians to trap him in what he said. And they came and said to him, ‘Teacher, we know that you are sincere, and show deference to no one; for you do not regard people with partiality, but teach the way of God in accordance with truth. Is it lawful to give census to Caesar, or not? Should we give, or should we not give?’ But knowing their hypocrisy, he said to them, ‘Why are you putting me to the test? Bring me a denarius and let me see it.’ And they brought one. Then he said to them, ‘Whose head is this, and whose title?’ They answered, ‘Caesar’s.’ Jesus said to them, ‘Give to Caesar’s the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.’ And they were utterly amazed at him.

The presence of these two specific Latinisms is a red flag.

First, the denarius was extremely rare in the region before 70 CE.12 As a frontier land of the Roman Empire, Judah had been allowed for decades to operate semi-independently as client kingdom. Only one denarius minted before 69 CE has been found in the region, but seventy-five minted between 69 and 135 CE have been found. It cannot be argued that Mark only used the word denarius loosely for just any coin; Jesus’ answer depends on the coin being a denarius because the story specifies it had Caesar’s face on it.

Second, the census is recognized as a tax payment. Yet, taxes in Judah before 70 CE rarely took the form of monetary payments. Instead, taxes were usually collected in the form of produce.13 Yet, just as in modern English, the Latin word census referred to a population’s head count. Mark does not identify a payment to Caesar as a tax in any general sense, but as a specific tax based on the number of people.

The only relevant tax that fits these three details — (1) a denarius (2) paid to Caesar (3) for a census tax — was the Fiscus Iudaicus, the ‘Judean Tax’. This tax, per the name, was only exacted on Judeans throughout the Roman Empire, as a penalty for the Judean revolt against Rome. The Fiscus Iudaicus would have prompted a major theological debate, because it had one express purpose: to take the approximate value of the tax the Judean people normally paid for the Jerusalem temple (one didrachma or one half-shekel)14 and redirect it to fund the Temple of Jupiter Optimus Maximus in Rome (two denarii). By paying this tax, Judeans were directly funding idolatry. Could they pay this tax guilt-free, or would they be sinning against God if they paid it? Jesus’ answer alleviates the problem of the census tax: Judeans may pay the tax because they’re simply returning to Caesar his own money.15

The story in Mark 12.13–17 requires a context after 70 CE.


The Demon Named ‘Legion’

The final item we’ll look at is when Jesus encounters the Gerasene demoniac.

Mark 5.1–13 They came to the other side of the sea, to the land of the Gerasenes. And when he had stepped out of the boat, immediately a man out of the tombs with an unclean spirit met him. He lived among the tombs; and no one could restrain him anymore, even with a chain; for he had often been restrained with shackles and chains, but the chains he wrenched apart, and the shackles he broke in pieces; and no one had the strength to subdue him. Night and day among the tombs and on the mountains he was always howling and bruising himself with stones. When he saw Jesus from a distance, he ran and bowed down before him; and he shouted at the top of his voice, ‘What have you to do with me, Jesus, son of the Most High God? I adjure you by God, do not torment me.’ For he had said to him, ‘Come out of the man, you unclean spirit!’ Then Jesus asked him, ‘What is your name?’ He replied, ‘My name is Legion; for we are many.’ He begged him earnestly not to send them out of the country. Now there on the hillside a great herd of swine was feeding; and the unclean spirits begged him, ‘Send us into the swine; let us enter them.’ So he gave them permission. And the unclean spirits came out and entered the swine; and the herd, numbering about two thousand, rushed down the steep bank into the sea, and were drowned in the sea.

In no other Gospel story does Jesus ask a demon for its name. Rather than having in mind a generic ‘crowd’ or ‘army’ of demons, the word legio (λεγιὼν) is another Latinism. Mark’s inclusion of this detail points to the name’s importance beyond unnecessary trivia.

There is the additional problem of this story’s setting. Jesus and the disciples have just crossed the Sea of Galilee. Yet, upon exiting the boat, Jesus is ‘immediately’ confronted by a Gerasene man. When Jesus exorcises Legion into a herd of pigs, they run into the Sea of Galilee and drown. The dilemma is that Gerasa was not ‘immediately’ next to the Sea of Galilee. It was about thirty miles away.16

Before the Judean-Roman War, the only forces Rome stationed in the region were auxiliaries.17 When revolt broke out in 66 CE, the Twelfth Legion Fulminata was sent to suppress the revolutionaries. When the conflict only grew worse, General Vespasian arrived in 67 CE with the Tenth Legion Fretensis and the Fifth Legion Macedonica, and he was joined by his son Titus with the Fifteenth Legion Apollinaris. By August of 70 CE they conquered Jerusalem and destroyed the temple. After Jerusalem fell, the Tenth Legion remained in the area to deal with smaller, more isolated battles. The legion used Jerusalem as a base while it maintained Roman power in the region.18 One of the symbols used to represent the Tenth Legion was a boar, which is found on the pottery they made and money they used, as well as their standards (flag banners).19

It has been suggested some of the verbage used in the exorcism story normally carry military connotations,20 heightening this connection.21 The demons’ request not to be sent ‘out of the country’, followed by their drowning in the sea, may reflect a desire to exile the Tenth Legion from Judah via the Mediterranean Sea,22 or it may reflect a desire for revenge of the Roman drowning of Galilean revolutionaries in the Sea of Galilee.23

While it is possible, even likely, this story of Jesus healing a Gerasene man of demonic possession originated within traditions about Jesus as an exorcist, the story as we have it has been shaped as an anti-Roman response to the outcome of the war, including the Tenth Legion’s continuing presence in the area.24


Conclusion

While the six points above may individually find resistance from interpreters, their cumulative weight is hard to ignore. Together they point to the Gospel of Mark as originating after 70 CE, probably as late as 75 CE. A few scholars believe Mark’s author used Josephus’ book The Judean War as a resource.

Pushing Mark beyond 70 CE — more than four decades after Jesus’ day — demands an even later origin for both Matthew and Luke, well into the late 80s or early 90s at the earliest, since they each are dependent on Mark.


Footnotes

1 John Robinson, Redating the New Testament, 13.

2 David Aune, Revelation 1–5, lxi.

3 Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza, 1 Peter, 22–24.

4 Birger Pearson, ‘1 Thessalonians 2:13–16: A Deutero-Pauline Interpolation’, HTR 64.1, 79–94; cf. Jeffrey Lamp, ‘Is Paul Anti-Jewish?’, CBQ 65.3, 408–427.

5 E.g. Josephus, Judean Antiquities 10.11.7; Fourth Ezra 12.11; Second Baruch 36–40; Revelation 13.1–2.

6 James Edwards, The Gospel According to Mark, 396–398.

7 Robert Fowler, Let the Reader Understand, 84.

8 Marcello Del Verme, Didache and Judaism, 254ff, lists several eschatological expectations that are shared by (but not wholly congruent between) Mark, Matthew, 2 Thessalonians, the Didache, and the Revelation. These parallels could be explained by a hypothetical ‘Jewish apocalyptic source’ that was originally concerned with Caligula’s attempt to convert Jerusalem’s temple to Roman religion.

9 Josephus, Judean War 6.4.1–3.

10 Josephus, Judean War 6.5.3; cf. Tacitus, Histories 5.13.

11 John Kloppenborg, ‘Evocatio Deorum and the Date of Mark’, JBL 124.3, 419–450.

12 Cf. Kenneth Lönnqvist, ‘The Date of Introduction of Denarii to Roman Judaea and the Decapolis Region’, ARAM 23, 307–318. Based on the available evidence, Lönnqvist concludes the denarius likely entered the region no earlier than 60 CE.

13 Josephus, Judean Antiquities 18.1.1; 18.8.4.

14 Exodus 30.11–16; Josephus, Judean Antiquities 3.8.2.

15 Christopher Zeichmann, ‘The Date of Mark’s Gospel apart from the Temple and Rumors of War’, CBQ 79.3, 422–437.

16 This geographical contradiction was so obvious to the author of Matthew that he changed Gerasa to Gadara (Matt 8.28), a different village that was closer to the Sea of Galilee (but still about ten miles away).

17 Mark Chancey, Greco-Roman Culture and the Galilee of Jesus, 61.

18 Edward Dąbrowa, Legio X Fretensis, 13–14.

19 Ibid., 208.

20 E.g. ἀγέλη, ‘herd’, sometimes referred to a military ‘company’, cf. Jean Ducat, Spartan Education, 24 and 78; Hans Leander, Discourses of Empire, 206.

21 Shane Wood, The Alter-Imperial Paradigm, 34 fn17.

22 Richard Dormandy, ‘The Expulsion of Legion’, The Expository Times 111.10, 335.

23 Josephus, Judean War 3.10.9.

24 Paul Winter, On the Trial of Jesus, 129.

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