Modified from original published on September 10, 2009
As we continue to look at the history of the early church to learn what we can about the gospel of Mark, we next can look at the works of a man named Irenaeus. His information regarding the book is ultimately tied to the same sources that Papias had since Irenaeus knew about Papias’ works (Ad Haer 5.33.4) and both he and Papias knew Polycarp (Ad Haer 3.3.4; 5.33.4). Polycarp,bishop of Smyrna, is said to have learned about the Christian faith from the apostles (Ad Haer 3.3.4).
Irenaeus was an apologist defending the Christian faith against the Gnostic heresies writing 5 books (Against Heresies) dealing with them. He also wrote a book Demonstration of the Apostolic Preaching, describing Christian teaching. All of these works are available to us today. In Against Heresies Book 3 (circa 180), Irenaeus describes how the gospel message was handed down from the apostles first through preaching, then by writing the Scriptures all with the power of the Holy Spirit.
We have learned from none others the plan of our salvation, than from those through whom the Gospel has come down to us, which they did at one time proclaim in public, and, at a later period, by the will of God, handed down to us in the Scriptures, to be the ground and pillar of our faith. For it is unlawful to assert that they preached before they possessed “perfect knowledge,” as some do even venture to say, boasting themselves as improvers of the apostles. For, after our Lord rose from the dead, [the apostles] were invested with power from on high when the Holy Spirit came down [upon them], were filled from all [His gifts], and had perfect knowledge: they departed to the ends of the earth, preaching the glad tidings of the good things [sent] from God to us, and proclaiming the peace of heaven to men, who indeed do all equally and individually possess the Gospel of God. Matthew also issued a written Gospel among the Hebrews in their own dialect, while Peter and Paul were preaching at Rome, and laying the foundations of the Church. After their departure, Mark, the disciple and interpreter of Peter, did also hand down to us in writing what had been preached by Peter. Luke also, the companion of Paul, recorded in a book the Gospel preached by him. Afterwards, John, the disciple of the Lord, who also had leaned upon His breast, did himself publish a Gospel during his residence at Ephesus in Asia.
(Ad Haer 3.1.1)
From this passage we learn the following regarding the Gospel of Mark:
- Mark, the disciple of Peter, wrote what Peter preached.
- Mark wrote after Peter and Paul were martyred in Rome.
- The Gospel of Matthew was written while Peter and Paul were preaching, and therefore was written before the Gospel of Mark.
How do we know the document Irenaeus attributed to Mark is the same one that we have today?
It can be shown that Irenaeus possessed the text of Mark that we have today because he lists it as one of the four gospels and quotes from both the beginning and the end of the text (Ad Haer 3.10). Since Papias and Irenaeus rely on similar sources of information it is reasonable to conclude that Papias had the same Markan text that we have as well.
Wherefore also Mark, the interpreter and follower of Peter, does thus commence his Gospel narrative: “The beginning of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God; as it is written in the prophets, Behold, I send My messenger before Thy face, which shall prepare Thy way. The voice of one crying in the wilderness, Prepare ye the way of the Lord, make the paths straight before our God.” Plainly does the commencement of the Gospel quote the words of the holy prophets, and point out Him at once, whom they confessed as God and Lord; Him, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who had also made promise to Him, that He would send His messenger before His face, who was John, crying in the wilderness, in “the spirit and power of Elias,” …
Also, towards the conclusion of his Gospel, Mark says: “So then, after the Lord Jesus had spoken to them, He was received up into heaven, and sitteth on the right hand of God;” confirming what had been spoken by the prophet: “The Lord said to my Lord, Sit Thou on My right hand, until I make Thy foes Thy footstool.”
It also helps us start to give us a range of dating for Mark as between 65-69 AD (at least until we consider additional information). This is based on the fact that Peter and Paul were martyred around 65-67 AD. The end of the range is based on the fact that Mark does not note the destruction of the temple in Jerusalem in the book. Most consider that this would have been mentioned to bolster the account in Mark 13.
Now as Jesus was going out of the temple courts, one of his disciples said to him, “Teacher, look at these tremendous stones and buildings!” Jesus said to him, “Do you see these great buildings? Not one stone will be left on another. All will be torn down!” So while he was sitting on the Mount of Olives opposite the temple, Peter, James, John, and Andrew asked him privately,“Tell us, when will these things happen? And what will be the sign that all these things are about to take place?” (Mark 13:1-4 NET)
Irenaeus’ testimony lines up with the account that Papias gave us (70 years earlier) and helps us answer the question of when the text was written.
[Continue reading through the series: part 3]