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We have a variety of questions on when New Testament texts were composed, such as:

Is there sufficient historical/textual information to estimate when the Gospel of Mark was composed?

What assumptions are necessary to make this estimation?

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1 Answer 1

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Executive Summary

The Gospel of Mark was probably composed in Rome shortly after the death of Emperor Claudius (died AD 54). I will use the writings of Clement of Alexandria & Paul's epistle to the Romans to argue for an upper-bound for Mark's composition approx. AD 56; I will use the Book of Acts, Roman history, and the Synoptic Problem to argue for a lower bound approx. AD 541.

Thus, I will estimate the date of Mark's composition at AD 55.



Clement of Alexandria

If Clement of Alexandria is a reliable historical source, he provides 5 data points that allow us to estimate the date of Mark's Gospel with a surprisingly high degree of precision (for something that happened ~2 millennia ago):

  1. Mark's Gospel was written in/near Rome, at the request of prominent Romans ("Caesar's knights")2
  2. Mark's Gospel was written by Mark based on Peter's preaching in Rome3
  3. Peter went to Rome on this occasion in response to the strife created by Simon Magus during the reign of Emperor Claudius4
  4. Peter was no longer in the area when the Gospel of Mark was published5
  5. Peter was still alive when the Gospel of Mark was published5

The Roman provenance (#1 above) is attested by every early source that speaks on the matter--there is no competing historical account of any weight or early date. The Petrine testimony behind Mark (#2) is independently attested by Papias of Hieropolis6.

Clement of Alexandria7 was born in the mid-second century, studied under multiple prominent, well-informed Christian leaders (esp. Pantaneus), led the illustrious Christian school of Alexandria, was more well-read than almost any other Christian of his era, personally taught the great Origen of Alexandria, is repeatedly corroborated by other writers, is considered weighty & authoritative by the subsequent generations of Christian historians, and was unafraid to opine on doctrinal gray-areas, taboo topics, or to disagree with his prominent Christian contemporaries. I suggest Clement is one of the very most reliable sources of early Christian history.

Clement's role in the church of Alexandria & his study under Alexandrian theologians makes him all the more a significant source for history about Mark, who was believed to have founded the church in Alexandria8. Furthermore, Clement was a descendant in the faith of Mark (e.g. Mark > Justus > Pantaneus > Clement)9. Clement's willingness to speak on uncomfortable matters and to disagree with his contemporaries makes it quite clear that any modern conspiracy that suggests that Irenaeus of Lyons & Clement of Alexandria were in on a conspiracy to rewrite Christian history ought to be diluted with a Malaccamax10 tanker of skepticism.

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The evidence from Paul's epistle to the Romans

Paul wrote Romans while wintering in Corinth on his 3rd missionary journey--this is likely the winter of AD 56-57.

In chapter 16, Paul greets numerous Christians in Rome (even for Paul, this is a very long list of greetings). He makes no salutation to Peter or to Mark, strongly implying that neither of them were in Rome at the time. Peter was the (mortal) leader of the church; Mark was Paul's former traveling companion. Whatever difficulties they may have had in prior years11, Paul & Mark were clearly reconciled later12.

By the end of AD 56, Peter & Mark are not in Rome.

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When was Peter in Rome?

This is a difficult question that has vexed many historians; there are large periods of time where we know very little about Peter's travels. It is generally not disputed that Peter died in Rome during the reign of Emperor Nero13, sometime between AD 64 & AD 68.

However, there is considerable testimony suggesting that Peter was in Rome at least once--very possibly more than once--prior to his final, fatal trip. This is explored in detail by John Wenham14, who suggests based on the writings of Jerome and others that Peter went to Rome in approx. AD 42, after the events recorded in Acts 12:17.

The other prominent possibility is that Peter was in this part of the world in the mid-50s. Paul, who founded the church in Corinth circa AD 5015, wrote 1 Corinthians circa AD 54-55, and indicates that Peter has recently been there16. If Peter made a trip west in the early-to-mid 50s, Rome & Corinth are very plausible stops on his itinerary. A number of scholars suggest a trip by Peter to Rome in the mid-50s is likely17.

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Elucidating an Upper-Bound

Emperor Claudius died in October of AD 5418; any voyages Peter made to Rome in later years are not relevant. The latest possible year for Simon Magus, (who would be followed by Simon Peter) to go to Rome, would be AD 54.

Based on the history preserved by Clement, the Gospel of Mark was composed after Peter left Rome, after having confronted Simon Magus, who came to Rome during the reign of Claudius (ended in AD 54). As established above in the discussion of Paul's epistle to the Romans, Peter & Mark were not in Rome by the end of AD 56.

Therefore, the composition of the Gospel of Mark occurred no later than AD 56.

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The Expulsion of the Jews from Rome

We know from Dio Cassius that Claudius expelled the Jews from Rome19--or at least gave an edict to that effect, even if it was not thoroughly enforced. Dio Cassius does not provide a date, but Orosius, writing of the same event, dates it to AD 4920. The Book of Acts, relating Paul's first encounter with Aquila & Priscilla in AD 49-50, speaks of Claudius' expulsion as a recent event21.

The combined testimony of these 3 sources suggests that the expulsion occurred around AD 49, and was leniently enforced--more likely than not, it was prominent Jews (and Christians--most of whom were Jews at this time) who were made to leave. There is no indication that the expulsion edict lapsed prior to the death of Claudius in AD 54.

This leads to 2 significant results relative to the dating of the Gospel of Mark:

  • Simon Peter, a very prominent Christian Jew, is very likely not in Rome from AD 49 until the death of Claudius in AD 54, but could return upon Claudius' death
  • With Jewish & Christian leaders removed from the scene, AD 49 to AD 54 would be a golden opportunity for a usurper such as Simon Magus to come to Rome and lead the flock astray

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The Synoptic Problem

I have argued elsewhere that there are significant difficulties attendant to the popular view that Mark was the first of the Synoptic Gospels to be written ("Markan Priority"), and that the popularity of this hypothesis has far more to do with the politics of scholarship than it does with literary or historical evidence.

On my channel, I present arguments for Markan Posteriority (Mark was written after Matthew & Luke), on the basis of:

I won't use this post to re-argue the case for Markan Posteriority, but I do suggest that Mark's editorial procedure (at both the macro & micro level) is non-sensical unless he's working with--or at least familiar with--both Matthew & Luke as sources.

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Estimating a Lower-Bound

The analysis of the Synoptic Problem is highly relevant to the chronology because the Gospel of Luke is very deliberately written to a Gentile audience. All early sources that speak of Luke's provenance indicate that it was written for the Pauline mission. This is implicit in Irenaeus22 & the Muratorian Canon23, and is explicit in the Anti-Marcionite Prologue to Luke24, which even reports that Luke's Gospel was composed in Achaia.

It was the Jerusalem Council of AD 49 that defined the place of Gentiles in the church and would have provided air-cover for someone to write a document like the Gospel of Luke. Additionally, AD 49 is the first known time that Paul & Luke traveled together25. On this basis I suggest there is strong reason to believe the Gospel of Luke could not have been published prior to AD 49 (Paul & Luke's travel together in AD 49-50 would have afforded the perfect opportunity for Paul, fresh from his first mission among Gentiles & his participation in the Jerusalem Council, to discuss with Luke the need for a Gospel that was more Gentile-oriented than the extremely Jewish Gospel of Matthew).

If Luke was written no earlier than AD 49, and Mark was written after Luke, Mark was written no earlier than AD 49--and probably a few years later than that, to give the authors time to do their work. But if Peter (and presumably Mark) were not in Rome from AD 49-54, the death of Claudius in AD 54 is the earliest possible date for the Gospel of Mark to be composed.

AD 49-54 are further ruled out by Clement (see above), because prominent Romans ("Caesar's knights") would not be in a position to beg the missionary companion of the leader of the Christian movement to write an extensive Christian composition for them in Rome, while Emperor Claudius was actively persecuting Jews (and therefore Christians as well, who were still seen by Rome as a subset of Judaism) and expelling the prominent ones from Rome.

This gives us a lower-bound of AD 54.

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Response to Competing Views

Neronian persecution

The Neronian persecution (which began AD 64 or 65, after the fire in July of 64) is sometimes suggested as a plausible time for Mark to have been composed. As noted above with respect to Claudius, prominent Romans would not be in a position to solicit the composition of this Gospel in Rome while Nero was burning Christians alive. The history preserved by Clement demands a time period in which the Roman state was not actively persecuting Christians.

Since Clement also tells us Peter was still alive when the Gospel of Mark was written, and Peter died before Nero, this leaves only two plausible intervals: before AD 49, and AD 54-64. The Neronian persecution, or anytime thereafter, cannot be reconciled with the excellent history preserved by Clement.

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During the Roman-Jewish War of 66-73

This interval is just as bad for prominent Romans to be throwing in their hat with the Christians--still a subset of Judaism in the Roman mind, while the Jews in Judea are in full-scale rebellion against Rome. Additionally, any time after the death of Nero (AD 68) was already ruled out in the previous section.

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The Olivet discourse

The most popular argument (in skeptical circles) is that the Gospel of Mark was written around AD 70 (when Jerusalem was destroyed by Titus), because Mark preserves Jesus' warning, in the Olivet Discourse, of the impending destruction. In the reasoning of naturalism, nobody could have known this in advance, therefore the document could not have been written before this time (or at least not before the war began and it was painfully obvious how it would end).

As I discussed further in this post, this argument is untenable, and can only survive in a bubble where naturalism is a dogma that cannot be challenged.

Presuppositions about prophecy

The Bible is a book that purports to be full of prophecy from beginning to end. In order to objectively evaluate a book about prophecy we cannot start out with the a priori assumption that all prophecy is real, or that all prophecy is fake, because doing so restricts the possible solutions we can discover. We would only ever be able to find ideas that align with our worldview; anything outside that universe would remain forever invisible to us.

To make an a priori assumption on the very topic under evaluation is to arbitrarily select a solution without even evaluating the evidence (not very scientific!). If we start with the premise that this book is a fraud, of course we’ll end up with a conclusion that this book is a fraud—it’s one of our premises! But that’s not an argument, it’s circular reasoning.

These are not the anachronisms you're looking for

It is possible to account for the Gospel passages on the destruction of the temple without appealing to prophecy. This isn’t to take a position on prophecy, rather, this is to point out that even in the absence of a belief in prophecy, it is possible to rationally believe that these documents were written before 70.

The language employed is not, as some have asserted, inconceivable pre-70; rather, it is drawn from the Old Testament and 1 Maccabees26. There’s nothing anachronistic about Jews citing the Old Testament and 1 Maccabees before AD 70. Furthermore, Josephus also tells us of another prediction—pre 70—that the temple was going to be destroyed27.

Might observers have realized in advance that the tensions between the Jews and the Romans were not going to end well?

A common interpretation of the Olivet discourse is that Jesus is saying that the temple will be destroyed and He will return in glory within the lifetime of some who are present. That doesn’t make for a very impressive after-the-fact prophecy since He did not return in glory at that time. So either:

  • We are misinterpreting the prophecy OR
  • The Gospels recording this information were written before 70 OR
  • Both

I discuss this topic further on my channel here.



Conclusion

The Gospel of Mark was probably composed in Rome circa AD 55.

A fairly firm upper-bound can be established in AD 56, and a soft lower-bound in AD 54 (earlier is possible depending on one's solution to the Synoptic Problem). This is amply supported by good historical sources; the only substantive obstacle against this view is the philosophical presupposition that any prophecy that is clearly fulfilled must be a prophecy that was invented after the fact.

Since this philosophical objection relies upon circular reasoning, and Clement of Alexandria is a credible source, AD 55 is the clearest interpretation of the historical evidence.



Footnotes

1 Those holding to the Priority of the Gospel of Mark (I do not) could conceivably move this lower bound several years earlier

2 Clement Adumbrations, on 1 Peter 5.13, see also Eusebius Historia Ecclesiastica 2.15.1

3 Eusebius Historia Ecclesiastica 6.14.6

4 ibid 2.14.6, 2.15.1 -- note that the specific data point that Simon Magus was in Rome during the reign of Claudius may or may not be a quote by Eusebius from Clement; either way it is attested by both Eusebius & Justin that Magus was in Rome at this time

5 ibid 6.14.7

6 ibid 3.39.15

7 https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Clement_of_Alexandria

8 Jerome De Viris Illustribus, ch. viii

9 Wallace Cold-Case Christianity pp. 226-227

10 https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Malaccamax

11 Acts 15:37-40

12 e.g. Philemon 24

13 1 Clement 5 (note that this Clement is Clement of Rome, not Clement of Alexandria)

14 Wenham Redating Matthew, Mark & Luke pp. 147-149

15 Acts 18:1-5

16 1 Corinthians 1:12

17 Wenham Redating Matthew, Mark & Luke p.276, note 3

18 https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Claudius

19 Dio Cassius Roman History 60.6.6-7

20 Paulus Orosius Historiae adversum paganos 7.6.15-16

21 Acts 18:2

22 Irenaeus Against Heresies 3.1.1

23 http://www.earlychristianwritings.com/text/muratorian-metzger.html

24 https://www.tertullian.org/fathers/anti_marcionite_prologues.htm

25 Acts 16:10; for those who immediately reject any argument favoring Lukan authorship of Luke, consider that if the upper bound already established for Mark & the analysis of the Synoptic Problem are correct, then the Gospel of Luke was written during the lifetime of Luke (and Paul)--eliminating the popular objection that Luke couldn't have written the Gospel of Luke because it was written long after his death.

26 Robinson Redating the New Testament p.18

27 Josephus Wars 6.5.3

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  • This is a very compelling argument. But what about Origen who writes that Luke wrote after Mark? (Eusebius, Ecclesiastical History 6.25)
    – Jess
    Jul 7 at 22:58
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    @Jess thanks! Great question; this is actually one of the points I address in my theory on the Synoptic problem. In short, I contend that Clement documented the order in which the Gospels were composed, whereas Origen documented the order in which the Gospels were catalogued in the influential church in Rome. My chronology has Luke written only about 4 years before Mark, but Luke was written in Greece & Mark in Rome. By the time Paul & Luke got to Rome in AD 60 (bringing the Gospel of Luke with them), Mark's had already been in circulation for several years. Jul 8 at 0:23

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