The Late Origin of the Gospel of Mark

Before getting into the actual topic, it’s probably necessary to lay out a few of the basic facts I take for granted that readers may not be completely aware about.

First, of course, is that the Gospels in the New Testament are arranged in the order they were written, and are named for their authors: the apostle Matthew, John Mark, Luke, and the apostle John the son of Zebedee. The second and third Gospels, though not written by apostles themselves, were written by the companions of apostles (Peter and Paul). And though none of the Gospels actually identify their authors, the association between each text and their now-traditional authors became established by the mid to late second century.

Second, academia (outside the most conservative sides of scholarship, at least) now doubts both the traditional order and authorship of all four Gospels. Matthew did not come first, nor was Luke written independently, for they both incorporated Mark and made alterations to parts of it. Similarly, the tradition that the apostle John wrote all five books normally attributed to him (the Gospel, the three letters, and the Revelation) is undermined by the radically different theology of the former books from the latter, as well as the extremely different writing styles. How the four Gospel books came to be attributed to these four men is not fully known, but the traditions were beginning to form by AD 100 at the latest.

Third, the Gospel of Mark, now accepted as the earliest of the four, is typically dated no later than AD 70 by Christian scholarship, with some claiming it was written as early as AD 40, just ten years after Jesus’ crucifixion. To suggest the book was written after AD 70 is seen as damaging to the credibility of Jesus’ predictions about the destruction of Jerusalem’s temple, which took place that year. This was integral to John Robinson’s argument that all the New Testament books were written before AD 70:

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

First Peter 5.13 sends greetings from Christians in ‘Babylon’. During the first century, the actual city Babylon was in ruins; why would Christians seeking to convert the Roman Empire camp out in a desolate city within the land of Rome’s enemies? However, after the Romans destroyed Jerusalem and its temple in AD 70, apocalyptic Judeans began referring to the capital city of the empire with the cipher ‘Babylon’, because the Babylonians had likewise destroyed Jerusalem and its temple about six centuries earlier. ‘Babylon’ in 1 Pet 5.13 refers to Rome.2 One of the chief enemies in the Revelation is ‘Babylon’, which is described as ‘the great city’ seated on ‘seven hills’. The seven hills of Rome were famous throughout the empire.3 By calling Rome ‘Babylon’, both texts must come after AD 70.

First Thessalonians 2.13-16 forcefully condemns ‘the Judeans’ who are ‘in Judea’. The author of this passage claims that because ‘the Judeans’ are the enemies of God and all humanity, they have been punished with extreme prejudice: ‘God’s wrath has come upon them utterly’. This paragraph is seen as an interpolation, written by someone looking back on AD 70 as a past demonstration that God had effectively disowned Israel.4

Heb 8.13 may also allude to AD 70 as something of the author’s recent past. There is also a very strong tell in John 11.48-52, where the irony of the dialogue is hardly accidental.

Robinson’s primary argument, that AD 70 is ‘never once mentioned as a past fact’, is demonstrably false for at least three texts, and possibly two more. His book never gained much traction among scholarship, not because of some a priori opposition to his conclusions, but because his methodology was so flawed, straining to reject long-accepted ideas about New Testament texts without providing strong enough ground for his reinterpretations.

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

Jesus’ initial entry into Jerusalem is marked by a crowd strongly suggesting their belief that he is the long-awaited messiah (Mark 11.1-10). This is punctuated by him surveying the temple (11.11). Next, Jesus enters the temple to flip the money tables over and push out everyone in the courtyard (11.15-19). This outburst is bracketed by 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), an act widely understood as a symbolic prediction the temple will be destroyed because it has become ‘a den of robbers’.

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 kill all of the tenants (12.1-11). The parable, the Gospel narrator tells us, is about the religious leaders (12.12); they are the murderous tenants of the vineyard.

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 later ask Jesus to elaborate on this prediction, asking him when it would occur, he lays out a series of events for them to watch out 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 Judea (13.14-23). When all this has happened, then 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. All things being equal — that is, without circularly assuming a prophecy’s legitimacy in order to explain its accuracy — the Occam’s Razor explanation is the author wrote his book after AD 70 and purposely wrote his material around his knowledge of the event.

‘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 BC. 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 outlook. By the first century AD, 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 AD 70, 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 of this part of 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. Again, the prophecy is plainly about Rome’s destruction of Jerusalem. This means AD 70 was in the past.

Signs Preceding the End

Another weighty point is the nature of 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).

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 9.1-5

‘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.’

—4 Ezra 13.29-31

‘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.’

—2 Baruch 70.1-10

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. Yet nothing specific can be pointed out. 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 Judea — is at home in apocalyptic ‘predictions’ written after-the-fact.

Evocation of Deity

By the first century AD, it was a common and widespread practice for Romans to perform a certain ritual when warring upon a city: evocatio. Unlike the Judean nation, the Romans were freely polytheistic, assuming and respecting the existence of myriad deities. When preparing to destroy a city the Romans would carry out the evocatio, summoning the patron god to abandon the city and side with the Romans, thus permitting the Romans to destroy the city (and loot its 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 BC was believed to have occurred because God abandoned his temple there (Ezek 10).

Josephus also claims that the emperor’s son Titus attempted to stop his forces from desecrating the temple.9 This is so unlikely, 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. 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 the 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 is simply taken for granted by Mark’s author.11

Give to Caesar What Is Caesar’s

One of the strongest cases for the Gospel’s late origin is Mark 12.13-17. The dialogue hinges on the Judean economy having already experienced gigantic shifts after the fall of Jerusalem.

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

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 Latinisms presents a huge problem.

First, the denarius was extremely rare in the region before AD 70.12 As a frontier land of the Roman Empire, Judea had been allowed to operate semi-independently for decades. Only one denarius minted before AD 69 has been found in the region, but seventy-five minted between AD 69 and 135 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 it had Caesar’s face on it.

Second, the census is recognized as a tax payment. Yet, taxes in Judea before AD 70 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 census tax.

The only 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, mandated by Emperor Vespasian after the temple in Jerusalem was destroyed, only applied to Judeans in the empire. The tax 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). Jesus’ answer alleviates the problem of the census tax: Judeans may pay the tax because they’re simply returning to Caesar what was made by him.15

The details in Mark 12.13-17 require a context after AD 70, which renders the entire episode an anachronistic invention.

The Demon Named ‘Legion’

The final item we’ll look at is the story in Mark 5.1-13, when Jesus encounters the Gerasene demoniac.

They came to the other side of the lake, to the country 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 lake, and were drowned in the lake.

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

Before the Judean-Roman War, the only forces Rome stationed in the region were auxiliaries.16 When revolt broke out in AD 66, the Twelfth Legion Fulminata was sent to suppress the revolutionaries. When the conflict only grew worse, General Vespasian arrived in AD 67 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 AD 70 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.17 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).18

It has been suggested some of the verbage used in the exorcism story normally carry military connotations,19 heightening this connection.20 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 Judea via the Mediterranean Sea.21 While it is possible the story of Jesus healing a Gerasene man of demonic possession originated within traditions about Jesus, 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 Judea.22

Conclusion

While the six points above may individually find resistance by interpreters, their cumulative weight is hard to ignore. Together they point to the Gospel of Mark as originating after AD 70, though perhaps not more than a few years. Pushing Mark beyond AD 70 demands an even later origin for both Matthew and Luke, since each used Mark.


1 John Robinson, Redating the New Testament, 13.

2 Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza, 1 Peter, 22-24.

3 David Aune, Revelation 1-5, lxi.

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 AD 60.

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

17 Edward Dąbrowa, Legio X Fretensis, 13-14.

18 Ibid., 208.

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

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

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

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