Musings on Mark: Another Reason to Doubt Peter Was Behind Mark’s Gospel

In addition to my regular Bible reading schedule and my verse-by-verse translating of the Gospel of Mark, I’ve also been reading a Markan pericope a day each weekday. Today I was in Mark 14:43-52 and something struck me as really odd.

Jesus is in Gethsemane (14:32-42) with a few of his sleepy disciples when Judas and the gang approach. After the traitor calls Jesus “Rabbi” and kisses him, the guards move on him to arrest him. Then we read this:

But one of those who stood near drew his sword and struck the slave of the high priest, cutting off his ear (14:47, NRSV).

Imagine for a moment that the Gospel of Mark was all you ever had. You could probably conclude from this passage that the phrase “one of those who stood near” is probably one of the disciples. And you might even deduce from 14:33 that it is likely that it is Peter, James, or John who was swinging their sword. But beyond that you probably couldn’t say for certain that it was this or that disciple.

Of course, the Gospel of Mark is not the only Gospel we have. The other two Synoptic Gospels – Matthew and Luke – both agree with Mark in making the identity of the one who lobbed off the ear of the slave indefinite (see Matthew 26:51 and Luke 22:50). But then we come to the Gospel of John.

Then Simon Peter, who had a sword, drew it, struck the high priest’s slave, and cut off his right ear. The slave’s name was Malchus. Jesus said to Peter, “Put your sword back into its sheath. Am I not to drink the cup that the Father has given men?” (John 18:10-11)

So whereas in the Synoptics the identity of the sword-slinger is indefinite, in John’s Gospel it is explicitly Simon Peter. Herein lies the problem:

If you want to believe that Peter stands behind the Markan Gospel, your options aren’t very good. Either 1) Peter forgot that he was the one who cut off the guy’s ear in which case Peter’s memory may be less than reliable (I mean, I’d remember if I cut off a guy’s ear) and thus making Mark’s Gospel less than reliable, or 2) Peter deliberately omitted that information in which case Peter is trying to save face and thus calls into question his reliability and thus the reliability of the Markan Gospel, or 3) Peter did tell Mark but Mark chose to omit it in which case we can call into question the Markan Gospel’s reliability, or 4) John got it wrong in which case we can call into question the reliability of John’s Gospel.

So yeah, I have my doubts Peter was behind the Gospel of Mark.

7 thoughts on “Musings on Mark: Another Reason to Doubt Peter Was Behind Mark’s Gospel

  1. I have a massive problem with the story of the disciples resisting and that is how the Johannine text describes the soldiers coming to arrest Jesus, a cohors (cohort). That would definitely be a multitude as described in the other gospels because it is pretty specific number commonly 350 (a cohors equitata) to over 500. The description of the weaponry staves and swords would also be typical when they were doing police duties (compare Pilate’s infiltration of crowd protesting the aqueduct Pilate was funding from the temple coffers and the subsequent deaths).

    Now if a suspected revolutionary follower had done that then, at the very least, the perpetrator would have been beaten arrested and fined because it was only a slave; though as it was a high priests slave the penalty could have been greater. Another point is that, given the problems of controlling auxiliary troops at night, a massacre would have been a very likely outcome.

    More questions can be asked:
    why so many troops when a century (60-90 men) or a maniple would have been plenty?
    would Pilate have let the high priest wander round at night with a “multitude” of armed men?
    what the hell was the high priest (or any priest) doing leaving Jerusalem at night during Passover or the Day of Preparation?

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Great points. And some scholars have said the Johannine Gospel is more “historical” than the rest. Please!


  2. The 3rd’s conclusion is completely unwarranted, no more than omitting the High priest’s name is to be considered to make an account “unreliable”.

    I’m unsure of the details/accuracy, but I have read elsewhere that it is was probably to protect the man’s identity – a hint of pre-AD 70 & while the man was alive, and that John, writing after both has passed, had no reason to protect him, since the pursuing authorities have weakened & Peter has already died.
    Either way, not something to call their reliability into question.


    1. That’s an interesting idea: that Peter’s name was omitted to protect him from the possible repercussions.


  3. Good point (and totally novel as far as I know).

    This really appears to be a case where the tradition never knew whodunit. John’s (later) indetification of the perpetrator as Peter harmonizes too well with the fourth evangelist’s pitting of Peter against the Beloved disciple. The Beloved disciple knows and believes in what Christ is doing beforehand; Peter doesn’t get it and acts accordingly.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. That’s a good point. Peter is still even in the Johannine Gospel the de facto leader of the Twelve but he is still a bit slow on the uptake. Whoever the Beloved disciple is seems to exemplify what a disciple is to be (and suggests a conflict between camps in the period following Jesus’ death).


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