The Historical Reliability of Mark’s Gospel

by Peter J. Williams

It is impossible to prove that an ancient account is fully reliable, and the very fact that Mark’s Gospel records miracles is enough for some people to reject it as a reliable record. However, provided one is prepared to be open minded about the possibility of miracles, there are a number of arguments that, I believe, combine to indicate the historical reliability of Mark’s Gospel.

The name Mark

If it were not for Mark’s Gospel, Mark would be a very minor figure indeed in the beginnings of Christianity. He is certainly not someone you would ascribe Mark’s Gospel to in order to give it more authority, because according to the book of Acts (Acts 13:13 and 15:37) he abandoned Paul, one of the early Christian leaders, during a mission. We can take it therefore that the Gospel is ascribed to him because it genuinely is by him. If it is by him then it has to be written within the lifespan of someone who was an active adult in the 50s and 60s of the first century AD.

Mark’s Gospel is held by most scholars to be the earliest gospel. According to Papias, writing in the early second century, it was composed in Rome, based on information provided by the Apostle Peter. In other words it is not written by an eyewitness, but its author was provided with information by an eyewitness. It was probably written some time during the 60s of the first century.

The range of languages in Mark

Mark’s Gospel is written in Greek, yet its language fits well with the idea that it was written in Rome. The Latin word speculator is used for the executioner (6:27) and the Latin word centurio occurs rather than the Greek word for centurion (Mark 15:39, 44, 45). A Latin name is also given for a coin, the quadrans (12:42).

It would have been very hard for anyone who had not spent time in Palestine…to have composed this narrative

Yet at the same time, the author knows Palestine sufficiently that he can quote a number of words in Aramaic, which was spoken there. These appear in 5:41; 7:11, 34; 14:36; 15:22, 34. He even knows that speech is different in different parts of that country. Latin was hardly used in Palestine (except by the Roman military) and Aramaic was hardly used in Rome.

The range of language knowledge displayed by the author fits well with the traditional account that the Gospel was written in Rome on the basis of information given by a native of Palestine. It would have been very hard for anyone who had not spent time in Palestine or at least been with someone from Palestine to have composed this narrative…

The Historical Reliability of Mark’s Gospel