Lectionary Calendar
Saturday, December 2nd, 2023
the Week of Christ the King / Proper 29 / Ordinary 34
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Bible Commentaries

Benson's Commentary of the Old and New TestamentsBenson's Commentary

- Mark

by Joseph Benson



It is generally supposed by commentators, on the authority of ancient writers, that the person whom St. Peter speaks of, 1 Peter 5:13, and terms, “Marcus his son,” was the author of this gospel; and that it was the second gospel that was written in order of time. Papias’s testimony on the former of these points, preserved by Eusebius, (Hist. Eccl., lib. 3. cap. 39,) is very important; and, as he is the oldest witness, ought first to be produced. “This is what is related by the elder;” (that is, John, not the apostle, but a disciple of Jesus;) “Mark, being Peter’s interpreter, wrote exactly whatever he remembered, not indeed in the order wherein things were spoken and done by the Lord; for he was not himself a hearer of our Lord, but he afterward, as I said, followed Peter, who gave instructions as suited the occasions, but not as a regular history of our Lord’s teaching. Mark, however, committed no mistake in writing such things as occurred to his memory; for of this one thing he was careful, to omit nothing which he had heard, and to insert no falsehood in his narrative.” Such is the testimony of Papias, which is the more to be regarded, as he assigns his authority, namely, John the elder, or presbyter, a disciple of Jesus, and companion of the apostles, by whom he had been intrusted with a ministry in the church. Now, what is advanced by Papias, on the authority of John, is contradicted by none. On the contrary, it is confirmed by all who take occasion to mention the subject. But it will be sufficient to insert here the account given by Irenæus, (Adv. Hær., lib. 3. cap. 1,) which is the rather subjoined to that of Papias, because it serves to ascertain another circumstance, namely, that the publication of Mark’s gospel soon followed that of Matthew. After telling us that Matthew published his gospel while Peter and Paul were preaching at Rome, he adds, “After their departure, ( εξοδον ,) Mark also, the disciple and interpreter of Peter, delivered us in writing the things which had been preached by Peter.” The Greek word rendered “departure,” in this sentence, like the English word by which it is so translated, may either denote death, or a departure out of the city. It is here probably used in the latter of these senses, because, according to the accounts given by some others, Mark’s gospel was published in Peter’s life-time, and had his approbation. But, not to insist on this, which cannot be now ascertained, it is sufficient for us that we know by whom this gospel was written, and whence the writer drew his information. Indeed this latter point has, from the earliest times, been considered as so well authenticated, that some have not scrupled to denominate this, “The Gospel according to Peter.” Not that they intended thereby to dispute Mark’s title to be esteemed the writer, but to express, in a stronger manner, that every thing here advanced had the sanction of that apostle’s testimony, than whom no disciple more closely attended our Lord’s ministry, from its commencement to its consummation.

Some have thought that the writer of this gospel was the person of whom mention is several times made in the Acts and some of Paul’s epistles, called “John, whose surname is Mark,” and whose mother’s name was Mary, (Acts 12:12,) of whom we are likewise told, (Colossians 4:10,) that he was sister’s son to Barnabas. But, from the little that we are able to collect out of the apostolical writings, this appears rather improbable. Of John, surnamed Mark, one of the first things we learn is, that he attended Paul and Barnabas in their apostolical journeys, when these two travelled together, Acts 12:25; Acts 13:5. And when afterward there arose a dispute between them concerning him, insomuch that they separated, Mark accompanied his uncle Barnabas, and Silas attended Paul. When Paul was reconciled to Mark, which was probably soon after, we find him again employing Mark’s assistance, recommending him, and giving him a very honourable testimony, Colossians 4:10; 2 Timothy 4:11; Philemon 1:24. But we hear not a syllable of his attending Peter as his minister, or assisting him in any capacity. This account is so different from that which the most ancient writers give of the Evangelist Mark, that, though they cannot be said to contradict each other, they can hardly be understood as spoken of the same individual. To the above may be added, that no ancient author, in speaking of this evangelist, ever calls him “John,” (the name given to the nephew of Barnabas,) but always “Mark.” In brief, the accounts given of Paul’s attendant, and those of Peter’s interpreter, concur in nothing but the name “Mark,” or “Marcus;” too slight a circumstance from which to conclude the sameness of the person, especially when we consider how common the name was at Rome, and how customary it was for the Jews in that age to assume some Roman name when they went thither. That Mark wrote his gospel in Greek, is as evidently conformable to the testimony of antiquity, as that Matthew wrote his in Hebrew. “Cardinal Baronius,” says Dr. Campbell, “is the only person who has strenuously maintained the contrary, affirming that this evangelist published his work in Latin. I know no argument, worthy the name of argument, but one, that he produces in favour of his opinion. ‘This gospel,’ says he, ‘was published at Rome for the benefit of the Romans. Can we then suppose it would be written in any other than the language of the place?’ I shall admit that this gospel was published at Rome; though that is not universally believed, some rather supposing it to have been at Alexandria, after Mark had been intrusted with the superintendence of that church. But though the design of the publication had been the benefit of those residing at Rome, it would not have been exclusively intended for the natives. Let it be observed, that the ministry of Peter, to whom Paul tells us, Galatians 2:7, the gospel of the circumcision was committed, was chiefly employed in converting and instructing his countrymen the Jews, who abounded at that time in the imperial city. Now, it was customary with such of the Jews as went abroad, (I may say, generally with travellers of all nations, especially from the East,) to make themselves masters of the Greek tongue, which was become a kind of universal language, and was more used by strangers at Rome, than the language of the place. It was with such that the first Christian missionaries were principally concerned. The Apostle Paul, accordingly, wrote to them in Greek, and not in Latin, which would not have been done, if the former language had not then been better understood in the Christian congregation than the latter. Now, if there was no impropriety in Paul’s writing them a very long epistle in Greek, neither was there any in Mark’s giving them his gospel in that language.

“From this gospel, as well as from the former, we should readily conclude that the author was by birth and education a Jew. The Hebraisms in the style, or examples of what has been called the idiom of the synagogue, are very evident throughout the whole. At the same time, as some critics have observed, there are several expressions here used which clearly indicate that the writer had been accustomed for some time to live among the Latins. Not only does he use the Latin words which are to be found in the other gospels, and seem to have been current in Judea, as, λεγεων , ‘legion,’ and δηναριον , ‘a denarius;’ but he employs some which are peculiar to himself, as κεντυριον , ‘centurion,’ and σπεκουλατωρ , ‘sentinel.’ These have been pleaded as evidences that the original was Latin; but, in fact, they are much stronger marks of a Greek writer who had lived some years among the Latins, and had been accustomed to use such names of offices as were familiarly known in the place.

“Augustine considers this evangelist as the abridger of Matthew: Marcus Matthæum subsecutus tanquam pedissequus et breviator ejus videtur. It is indeed true that Mark sometimes copies the very expressions used by Matthew. That he is not, however, to be considered as an abridger, may be evinced by the following reasons: First, he omits altogether several things related by Matthew, our Lord’s pedigree, his birth, the visit of the Magians, Joseph’s flight into Egypt, the cruelty of Herod. As his intention appears to have been to give, in brief, the history of our Lord’s ministry, he begins very properly with the preaching of the Baptist. Again: there are some other things in Matthew, whereof, though they fall within the time to which Mark had confined himself, he has taken no notice; and some things are mentioned by Mark which had been overlooked by Matthew. Further: he has not always followed the same arrangement with his predecessor; and his relation of some facts, so far from being an abridgment of Matthew’s, is the more circumstantial of the two. His style, in general, instead of being more concise, is more diffuse. That he had read Matthew’s gospel, cannot be doubted. For their exact conformity in expression in several places, Grotius has an ingenious manner of accounting. He supposes that Mark had carefully read Matthew’s gospel in the original Hebrew, before it was translated into Greek; and that he had the particulars fresh in his memory, when he was occupied in writing his gospel. Again: he supposes that the translator of Matthew into Greek has thought it safest to adopt the expressions of Mark, wherever they would suit the Hebrew, from which he was translating. But this, it must be confessed, though not implausible, is mere conjecture. It is generally our Lord’s discourses which are abridged by Mark. As to his miracles, he has rather more fully related them. The additional circumstances and incidents recorded in his gospel appear to rest upon the authority of the apostles, but principally on that of Peter.”

As to the travels and labours of this evangelist, it is said that for some time he preached the gospel, in conjunction with St. Peter, in Italy and at Rome. Afterward, he was sent by him into Egypt, fixing his chief residence at Alexandria, and the places thereabouts; where he was so successful in his ministry, that he converted multitudes, both men and women, to the Christian faith. He afterward removed westward, toward the parts of Lybia, going through the countries of Marmorica, Pentapolis, and others thereabouts, where, notwithstanding the barbarity and idolatry of the inhabitants, he planted the gospel. Upon his return to Alexandria, he ordered the affairs of the church, and there suffered martyrdom in the following manner: About Easter, at the time the solemnities of Serapis were celebrated, the idolatrous people, being excited to vindicate the honour of their deity, seized St. Mark, when engaged in the solemn celebration of divine worship; and, binding his feet with cords, dragged him through the streets and most craggy places to the Bucelus, a precipice near the sea, and then for that night shut him up in prison, where he had the comfort of a divine vision. Early the next morning the tragedy began again: they dragged him about in the same manner, till, his flesh being raked off, and his blood run out, his spirits failed, and he expired. Some add that they burned his body, and that the Christians decently interred his bones and ashes near the place where he used to preach. This is supposed to have happened A.D. 68. Some writers assert, that the remains of St. Mark were afterward, with great pomp, translated from Alexandria to Venice. However, he is the tutelary patron of that republic, and has a very rich and stately church erected to his memory. See the Encyclopædia Britannica.

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