Sleuthing with St. James the Greater

All the circumstantial evidence points to the conclusion that Mark’s gospel was not a late invention, but was written by a follower of Jesus Christ and friend of St. James.

Guido Reni, “Saint James the Greater,” c. 1637
Guido Reni, “Saint James the Greater,” c. 1637 (photo: Public Domain)

Everybody likes a good mystery, and we like to watch as the sleuth sifts the clues, eliminates false leads, tracks down the culprit and gets his man.

I enjoyed putting pieces of the puzzle together when I was writing my book The Mystery of the Magi: The Quest to Identify the Three Wise Men. It was intriguing to find scraps of evidence here, an archeological discovery or detail from an ancient text there, and see how the geography, politics and economics of the time converged to a solution.

Bible scholars go through a similar process when they attempt to date the New Testament. Modernist scholars undermine the historical reliability of the New Testament by supposing the gospels were written long after the time of Jesus and the apostles. (Go here to read more about their erroneous ideas.) They teach that the stories of Jesus were exaggerated and elaborated with later “mythical” elements borrowed from pagan culture.

This is one of the reasons why careful analysis of the evidence is necessary. Instead of mythical theories and academic speculation, we can gather the scraps of evidence and draw logical conclusions.

Not only do we look to the text of the Bible itself, but also to other ancient writings and historical evidence. This is where a detail about St. James the Great sheds light on the dating on the New Testament.

St. Justin Martyr was one of the earliest Christian writers after the age of the apostles. He lived from 100-160, only one hundred years after the death of Jesus. An important detail is that he lived in Samaria — a region where gospel events took place. He was therefore in touch with the next generation of Christians right there in the Holy Land. 

One of the details Justin Martyr recorded is this:

It is said that he [Jesus] changed the name of one of the apostles to Peter; and it is written in his memoirs that he changed the names of others, two brothers, the sons of Zebedee, to Boanerges, which means ‘sons of thunder’….

This is curious! To what is he referring when he mentions “memoirs”? There is a Gospel of Peter, but it can’t be that, because it is a later apocryphal gospel falsely ascribed to Peter that was written long after Justin Martyr’s death. 

All the early traditions assert that John Mark was the companion, translator and scribe for Peter, and that Mark’s gospel is based on the memories of Peter himself.

Therefore, in the absence of any other writings that might be “Peter’s memoirs” we can safely conclude that the “memoirs” to which Justin Martyr refers are either Marks’ gospel or a collection of Peter’s memories collected by Mark before the actual gospel was compiled.

Why might those “memoirs” be the same document as Mark’s gospel? Because Mark is the only one of the Evangelists who records the detail that Jesus nicknamed James and John “Boanerges,” or “Sons of Thunder.”

Why does it matter? Because If, however, Justin Martyr knew of Peter’s “memoirs” which recorded a detail only found in Mark, we can be confident that Mark was the companion and secretary of Peter. If that’s true, then his gospel records eyewitness accounts.

James and John being called “Sons of Thunder” is important for another reason. In his seminal work Jesus and the Eyewitnesses, the British scholar Richard Bauckham goes into detail on the use of nicknames for the various characters in the gospels. The record of nicknames for the apostles is a strong sign that the gospels were based in eyewitness accounts.

The detective work of dating the New Testament is important because we believe the stories of Jesus are historical, and if they were not recorded early by eyewitnesses then their reliability and credibility decreases.

There is more evidence that connects Mark with Peter. We know Mark was in Rome with Peter because in his first epistle Peter sends greetings from “Babylon” (which was an early Christian code name for Rome) and includes greetings from “my son Mark.” 

Want another scrap of evidence revealing Mark’s presence in Rome? In the passion narrative Mark records the detail that Simon of Cyrene was “the father of Rufus and Alexander.” (Mark15:21) Why would he record such a detail unless his readers knew who Rufus and Alexander were? Then we read in St. Paul’s letter to the Romans (16:13) that he greets a certain “Rufus and his mother.”

What happened to Rufus’ brother Alexander? In 1941 an archeologist discovered first century tombs of Cyrenian Jews in the Kidron Valley near Jerusalem. One of the boxes of bones had the Greek inscription: Alexander, son of Simon. The son of “Simon” buried in a first-century Cyrenian cemetery? Just a coincidence?  Maybe by the time Paul wrote to the Romans, Alexander had died and only Rufus and his mother were still living and had fled to Rome.

Paul’s letter to the Romans was written about A.D. 56. If the Rufus in Paul’s letter is the same man mentioned in Mark’s gospel who was the son of Simon of Cyrene, then Mark’s gospel must have been written before A.D. 56.

All this circumstantial evidence points to the conclusion that Mark’s gospel was not a late invention, but was written by John Mark, a companion of Peter the Apostle and friend of St. James, before A.D. 55 — barely 20 years after the crucifixion of Jesus.

That doubters proposed that the gospels were made up fables or fantasy tales is nothing new. St. Peter himself insisted that they had experienced firsthand the events they preached about. He wrote in his second epistle (2 Peter 1:16), “For we did not follow cleverly devised stories when we told you about the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ in power, but we were eyewitnesses of his majesty.”

James and John, Sons of Thunder, would have whole heartedly agreed.

To read more about determining the early date of Mark’s gospel go here.