Book Write-Up: The Gospel on the Margins, by Michael J. Kok

Michael J. Kok.  The Gospel on the Margins: The Reception of Mark in the Second Century.  Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2015.  See here to purchase the book.

The second century figure, Papias, has been significant in scholarly, apologetic, and counter-apologetic discussions about the historical reliability of the biblical Gospels.  Eusebius (fourth century C.E.), in Ecclesiastical History 3.39, states that Papias received information from eyewitnesses to the apostles.  According to Eusebius, Papias heard from John the Elder that the Gospel of Mark was based on the testimony of the apostle Peter.  Many Christian apologists and conservative scholars have argued, on the basis of Papias, that the Gospel of Mark reflects eyewitness testimony to Jesus Christ, which enhances its reliability as a historical document.

Michael J. Kok, in The Gospel on the Margins, evaluates these claims, and he also aims to address a perplexing puzzle: considering that the Gospel of Mark was believed to reflect the eyewitness testimony of Peter, why was it such a marginal Gospel, one that was rarely cited in patristic sources?  Would not one expect a Gospel thought to be based on the testimony of such a high-ranking apostle as Peter to be more popular and widely-used?

While scholars have debated the reliability of Papias and what Papias says about the Gospel of Mark, Kok explores a topic that he believes has been neglected in such discussions: the “ideological function” of the patristic traditions about the Gospel of Mark “in Mark’s reception history” (page 9, Adobe Digital Edition).  For Kok, the attribution of the Gospel of Mark to Mark, as well as the claim that the Gospel of Mark contained Peter’s eyewitness testimony, served an ideological purpose in second century Christian debates.

In the Introduction, Kok offers evidence that the Gospel of Mark was marginal in terms of second century patristic interaction with it.  Kok also briefly mentions a scholarly debate about Papias’ statement about the Gospel of Mark: was Papias correct on this, or did Papias spin “the whole tale out of an erroneous inference from 1 Peter 5:13,” which presents Mark as a close associate of Peter?  I Peter 5:13 will be significant in Kok’s overall discussion.  Kok also refers to a difference of opinion between Papias and Augustine: Papias regarded Mark as a preserver of Peter’s testimony, whereas Augustine viewed Mark merely as one who abbreviated Matthew’s Gospel.  This difference of opinion highlights the tensions that Kok will explore.  On the one hand, Mark’s Gospel was regarded as significant enough to include in the canon.  On the other hand, Mark’s Gospel was marginal and often overshadowed by the Gospel of Matthew, which has a lot of what Mark’s Gospel has, and more.

Chapter 1, “The Decline of the Patristic Consensus,” interacts with twentieth-century scholars who disputed that the Gospel of Mark was by John Mark, the one who knew apostles.  In turn, they also disputed that the Gospel of Mark contained Peter’s testimony.  To quote from page 33, Kok engages “the form critical replacement of Peter with the anonymous community (Dennis Nineham), the redaction or narrative critical portrayals of Peter as a villain in Mark’s drama (Theodore Weeden, Richard Horsley), and the historical critical objections to the authorship of the second canonical Gospel by a first-century Palestinian Jew (Kurt Niederwimmer, Pierson Parker).”  Kok weighs these objections and identifies what he believes are their strengths and weaknesses, but he does not think that they by themselves successfully exclude the possibility that Peter played some role in the Gospel of Mark’s content.  Kok also concludes that a first century Palestinian Jew could have written the Gospel of Mark.  One interesting question with which Kok wrestles in this chapter is this: Why would Jesus in Mark 7 criticize some of the Pharisees for violating the Torah, only to go on and nullify the Torah’s dietary laws?

In Chapter 2, “The Re-Emergence of the Patristic Tradition,” Kok engages scholars who maintain that Papias is reliable in what Papias says about the Gospel of Mark.  These scholars include Robert Gundry, Martin Hengel, Samuel Byrskog, Richard Bauckham, and Michael Bird.  It is in this chapter that Kok offers his own view on the reliability of Papias, and his conclusion is that Papias is rather wanting in terms of reliability.  Kok agrees with Eusebius that Papias is drawing from John the Elder rather than John the apostle (whereas Irenaeus equated the two), and Kok calls John the Elder “elusive.”  Kok doubts that John the Elder was an eyewitness to Jesus, since “the likelihood of [a personal student] of Jesus living into the second century is low” (page 82).  Kok also contends that Papias may have been naive and uncritical in his acceptance of traditions.  Also in this chapter, Kok evaluates whether the Gospel of Mark contains Peter’s testimony.  Kok is doubtful of this, one reason being that the Gospel of Mark is highly critical of the apostles.  Kok engages the question of whether the Gospel of Mark could have been written by someone associated with Paul, a Paulinist, and, while Kok believes some arguments for this have merit, he ultimately concludes that Paul and the Gospel of Mark are too different in terms of their ideologies, emphases, and themes.  For Kok, the author of the Gospel of Mark was probably a late first century Jew (writing for Jewish and Gentile Christians) who was alienated from the political and religious establishment and was hoping for the return of the Son of Man, and he encouraged his fellow Christians to suffer faithfully.  According to Kok, this Gospel was anonymous to highlight the importance of its message rather than its author.

In Chapter 3, “From Paul’s Fellow Worker to Peter’s Interpreter,” Kok offers one model for how the Gospel of Mark came to be attributed to Mark, and, in turn, to Peter.  According to Kok, Mark in parts of the New Testament is presented as a companion to Paul, but Mark comes to be associated with Peter, too (Acts 12:5; I Peter 5:13), in an attempt to present a centrist Christianity and to bring together different factions.  I Peter 5:13 was influential in Asia Minor, where John the Elder, the man who influenced Papias, was.  Kok believes that the Papian prologues influenced Luke-Acts rather than vice-versa, and that Luke-Acts itself may refer to the idea that Mark wrote the Gospel of Mark.  Kok thinks that Acts 13:5 may present John Mark as a repository of Christian tradition for Paul, who was not himself an eyewitness to the historical Jesus, and that the negative portrayal of Mark in Acts may serve to uphold Luke’s “orderly” Gospel at the expense of the Gospel of Mark.  Also noteworthy in this chapter is that Kok addresses the argument that Mark wrote the Gospel of Mark, for why would church fathers attribute the Gospel of Mark to an insignificant person such as Mark, unless Mark actually wrote it?  If the church fathers wanted to attach a name to a Gospel, why not the name of an actual apostle, such as Peter?  Kok notes that “apocryphal Gospels were attributed to all sorts of names, apostolic or not, such as Thomas, Matthias, Mary, Bartholomew, Nicodemus, or Gamaliel” (page 143).  Kok goes on to say that “‘Mark’ may have been an ideal candidate as a figure of some repute via his association with the apostles and as an intermediary who could bear the blame for the shortcomings of the Gospel instead of Peter himself.”  Another topic that Kok explores in this chapter is how Papias’ view on the Gospel of Mark influenced Justin Martyr (second century C.E.), Irenaeus (second century C.E.), and Clement of Alexandria (second century C.E.).

In Chapter 4, “Toward a Theory of the Patristic Reception of Mark,” Kok sets the stage to address possible ideological reasons that the Gospel of Mark was attributed to Mark, and, in turn, to Peter.  In the second century, there were debates within Christianity.  Both the factions that became “orthodox” and the factions later deemed “heretical” claimed apostolic succession and attributed their Gospels to apostles, as a way to buttress their own authority and claims to possess authentic Christianity.  Kok raises the question of whether the same thing that happened to the Gospel of John happened to the Gospel of Mark.  According to Kok, there was some avoidance of the Gospel of John in the second century, as the “orthodox” noted that the “heretics” used it; some even disputed that John wrote it, attributing it instead to Cerinthus.  Yet, the “orthodox” came to co-opt the Gospel of John, as it reinforced their belief that Jesus pre-existed and was God.  Could Mark’s Gospel, likewise, have been co-opted by the “orthodox,” after being used by “heretics”?

In Chapter 5, “The Gospel on the Margins of the Canon,” Kok narrates how Papias, Irenaeus, and Clement essentially apologize for the Gospel of Mark, offering different traditions on the Gospel’s relationship with Peter.  They want to uphold the Gospel of Mark as somehow related to Peter, but they also want to distance Peter from the Gospel of Mark’s apparent deficiencies.  According to Kok, Papias’ problem with the Gospel of Mark was its lack of literary refinement and its dearth of important details about Jesus’ life, such as Jesus’ birth.  Papias says that Peter relayed details to Mark, but blames Mark for the Gospel of Mark’s deficiencies.  Irenaeus’ solution was that Mark wrote after Peter died.  Clement (as discussed by Eusebius) offered other possibilities, one being that Peter was still alive when Mark wrote the Gospel, but was indifferent as Mark released the Gospel to a limited circle of Christian leaders, perhaps as unrefined notes.  Also in this chapter, Kok disputes that the Gospel of Mark was used in an Alexandrian baptismal lectionary.

Chapter 6, “The Clash of Rival Interpreters,” concerns the theological and religious problems that the “orthodox” had with the Gospel of Mark, or its usage by “heretics.”  Adoptionists appealed to the Gospel of Mark to argue that the divine possessed the man Jesus at Jesus’ baptism and later left Jesus at the passion.  Clement was concerned about how the Gospel of Mark was used by ascetics to encourage people to give up all their wealth, as Jesus told the rich young ruler; Clement had a more moderate stance on how Christians should perceive wealth.  Kok argues that the “orthodox” (my term, not Kok’s) co-opted the Gospel of Mark because it “was too dangerous to be left in the wrong hands” (page 322).  They attributed it to Mark, and in turn, to Peter, as a way to legitimize its usage in Christian churches, while controlling how it was used.  Yet, the Gospel of Mark “hardly captured their excitement” and was thus marginal (page 338).

An Appendix, “The Carpocratians and the Mystic Gospel of Mark,” concerns the controversial Mystic Gospel of Mark.  Kok disputes that the Mystic Gospel of Mark was a forgery by the twentieth century scholar Morton Smith, and Kok also disagrees with the idea that the Mystic Gospel existed prior to the Gospel of Mark.  For Kok, the Mystic Gospel of Mark is an example of how a group of second century Christians deemed heretical (by the “orthodox”) used Mark and Mark’s Gospel for their own purposes, while promoting the asceticism that Clement criticized.  Interestingly, the Mystic Gospel of Mark may be an attempt to continue the story of the rich young ruler who turned Jesus down in Mark 10 out of love for his own possessions: either the ruler in Mystic Mark later converted and gave up his possessions (which seems to be Robert Grant’s view), or another rich person gave up his possessions, after Jesus was disappointed that the first rich person failed to do so (Kok’s view on Mystic Mark).

This book has a lot of assets.  It interacts with scholarly views and addresses different patristic traditions.  Those interested in what scholars have said about Papias will find this book a valuable resource.  The book was often a maze and required intense concentration to follow Kok’s engagement with different scholarly ideas, but Kok did well to offer a lucid summary of his arguments and conclusions at the end of each chapter.

In terms of Kok’s argument, his models are possible.  They may be speculative, on some level, but they do incorporate plausible details.  His belief that I Peter 5:13 attempts to bring together different factions and appeals to Mark to do so is rather speculative.  Yet, one can make a plausible case that there were differences in early Christianity about Gentiles and the Torah among key figures (Paul and James, or James’ party; see Galatians 2), and that Acts seems to be a later attempt to present Peter, Paul, and James as united rather than divided on this issue, and others.  Could the depiction of Mark play a role in this development?  Moreover, Kok never definitively proves that the “orthodox” Christians attributed the Gospel of Mark to Mark, and, in turn, to Peter to score points in controversies, but he does present an effective case that there was concern about the Gospel of Mark in the second century.

In terms of slight critiques, I have a problem with how Kok presents John the Elder as somewhat of a nobody (which may be an extreme characterization of Kok’s view, on my part, but it was the impression that I got).  Why would Papias value what John the Elder had to say, if that were the case?  Also, I was puzzled about how paleographic experts could date a copy of the Mystic Gospel of Mark to the eighteenth century.  Kok dates it to the second century, whereas those who see it as a forgery by Morton Smith would presumably date it to the twentieth century.  How does the conclusion of the paleographic experts fit into all that?  Kok should have addressed that, at least to clear up misunderstandings that some readers (like yours truly) might have.

I received a complimentary copy of this book from the publisher through Edelweiss.  My review is honest!

About jamesbradfordpate

My name is James Pate. This blog is about my journey. I read books. I watch movies and TV shows. I go to church. I try to find meaning. And, when I can’t do that, I just talk about stuff that I find interesting. I have degrees in fields of religious studies. I have an M.Phil. in the History of Biblical Interpretation from Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati, Ohio. I also have an M.A. in Hebrew Bible from Jewish Theological Seminary, an M.Div. from Harvard Divinity School, and a B.A. from DePauw University.
This entry was posted in Apologetics, Religion. Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Book Write-Up: The Gospel on the Margins, by Michael J. Kok

  1. Thanks for the helpful, fair review! It was densely packed as a revised PhD thesis, but you followed the twists of the maze well. You caught my main theory that the Church Fathers’ traditions about the (indirect) apostolic authorship of Mark’s Gospel was an effort to sanction the reading of it for their churches and control who was reading it, even if their apologies show that they felt somewhat ambivalent about Mark’s Gospel themselves. I want to share some feedback.

    – I think 1 Peter unifies diverse streams of traditions because it features Jewish-Christian and Pauline parallels. Thus, I think that it associates Paul’s historical co-workers (Mark, Silvanus) with Peter to show unity and 1 Peter’s circulation in Asia Minor lead to traditions about Mark and Peter.
    – I do not think that Acts is directly dependent on Papias, but both share common oral traditions in Asia Minor in the late 1st century. Thus, both know traditions about Peter/Mark, Judas’s death, Philip’s prophetic daughters, Justus Barsabbas, Jesus pardoning a sinful woman, and the death of James (if Papias wrote about the death of James/John).
    – Fair point on the Elder John. I am working on a second, more accessible book about him. 🙂
    – The Letter to Theodore containing “Secret Mark” (or “Mystic Mark”) was copied on the back pages of a book that Morton Smith found in the monastery of Mar Saba. A letter from Clement of Alexandria (ca. 150-215 CE, not first century Clement of Rome) was supposedly lying dormant there for centuries and an 18th century monk re-copied it onto the book. The alternative is that Smith forged it by imitating eighteenth century Greek writing and Clement’s third century style.

    Thanks again for the review. I am glad you found that I offered some plausible details and made an effective case about some of the 2nd century concerns, even if you were not persuaded by it.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Pingback: Other Reviews of my Book « The Apostles' Memoirs

Comments are closed.