Most scholars believe Mark is the earliest biography of Jesus. (Paul's writings and perhaps one or two other New Testament letters are earlier, but they include very little biographical material about Jesus.) Assuming Jesus died sometime between AD 29 and AD 36, a date near the beginning of the AD 65–80 range would mean the gap between the events of Jesus' life and the first biography is as little as 29 years. A late date would make the gap as large as 51 years, which means the stories had already passed through one generation.*

A quick look at the scholarship surrounding the date of Mark shows that the critical question is whether the Olivet discourse (chapter 13) refers to the destruction of the Temple in AD 70 and further whether the chapter was composed in response to the First Roman-Jewish War or in anticipation of it. In other words, the dating of the book depends on which particular interpretation you assume of its content. (And often the interpretation of Mark is informed by the assumed date.)

Can we break out of this cycle? Is there a way to estimate the date of Mark without first interpreting chapter 13?


* Assuming an eyewitness to Jesus' life could be as young as 15, the early date would put him at age 45 or so when Mark was written. That's well within the adult life expectancy of the time. Even if the people who followed Jesus were closer to 25, they could have been eyewitness sources for Mark. But the late date would mean that an eyewitness would be 65 or older, which seems a stretch in those days.

  • This question was inspired by a blog post by Ben Witherington, who is one of my favorite New Testament scholars. It also is an example of a question that meets this week's challenge. – Jon Ericson Dec 13 '11 at 20:05
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    As a note: historically, if someone survived childhood, it was quite probable that the person would make it to 50. 65 was unlikely, but it would not have been unheard of. If we take the Church's tradition into account at all, John the Apostle died at least 60 years after Christ died on the cross. – cwallenpoole Dec 13 '11 at 21:22
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    Many ancient people lived what we would consider a full lifespan. The second century martyr Polycarp claimed before he died that he had served Christ for 86 years. The Greek philosopher Socrates was 70 when he was sentenced to death. – Bruce Alderman Dec 14 '11 at 6:18
  • @Bruce: That's true, but you can't count on the men who followed Jesus being the lucky ones. Historically, many of his closest followers were martyred. I picked the adult life expectancy since it's the age we can reasonably expect the average person to life to. If we can avoid relying on outliers, that would be best for the argument. ;-) – Jon Ericson Dec 14 '11 at 20:04
  • @cwallenpoole: I agree. My suggestion was based on the idea that we can't count on the eyewitnesses living exceptionally long lives. We're lucky John lived such a long life, but it's even better if Mark wrote while many eyewitnesses could have corroborated (or disputed) his accounts of Jesus. – Jon Ericson Dec 14 '11 at 20:08

Mark 13 is not critical to dating this gospel, but can help corroborate external evidence, and perhaps help improve our precision in dating it.

External Evidence

The earliest external evidence we have, from a second century bishop named Papias, says Mark was based on Peter's preaching:

Mark having become the interpreter of Peter, wrote down accurately whatsoever he remembered. It was not, however, in exact order that he related the sayings or deeds of Christ. For he neither heard the Lord nor accompanied Him. But afterwards, as I said, he accompanied Peter, who accommodated his instructions to the necessities [of his hearers], but with no intention of giving a regular narrative of the Lord's sayings. Wherefore Mark made no mistake in thus writing some things as he remembered them. For of one thing he took especial care, not to omit anything he had heard, and not to put anything fictitious into the statements.

Irenaeus, writing in the late 2nd century, explained how the written gospels were a continuation of the apostles' teaching:

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.

(Irenaeus seems convinced that Matthew was the first gospel to be written, which is problematic for modern scholars, who agree that Mark was written first. But he also says this gospel was written in Hebrew, which would not be the Greek gospel of Matthew we have in the New Testament.)

However, if Papias' and Irenaeus' statements about Mark are correct, that Mark wrote it all down after the deaths of Peter and Paul, then we have a firm lower limit of around 65 AD.

Beyond this, we don't have many external clues to the dating of Mark's gospel, other than the fact that material from it is quoted verbatim—and sometimes expanded—in Matthew and Luke. This has led most scholars to conclude that Mark was written first.

However, we can work backwards to get an estimate of the latest possible date for Mark.

A letter written by Clement, Bishop of Rome, quotes extensively from the gospel of Matthew. If we can estimate the date of 1 Clement, we can establish an upper limit for Matthew.

Clement opens with a reference to:

the sudden and repeated calamities and reverses which are befalling us

He later refers to Christians who had been persecuted in the past, including Peter and Paul. If Paul and Peter died during the Neronian persecution (64-68 AD), then the "sudden and repeated calamities" of 1 Clement belong to a later persecution, most likely that by Domitian around 95-96 AD. (The book of Revelation was also likely written during this time.)

If 1 Clement was written in 96 AD, his quoting from the gospel of Matthew implies that Matthew was written prior to that. If Mark was written before Matthew, then we have a firm upper limit for when it could have been written.

Most scholars slice at least 10 years off that upper limit, to give the gospel enough time to be copied and circulated to Palestine, where Matthew's gospel was written, and then for Matthew's gospel to be copied and circulate to Rome, where Clement quoted from it. So the external evidence points to somewhere between 65 and 85 for Mark's gospel.

Internal Evidence

The only event mentioned in Mark which happened between 65 and 85 is the destruction of the temple. Jesus refers to it as a future event:

Do you see these great buildings? Not one stone will be left here upon another; all will be thrown down. —Mark 13:2

But the question is, was it still a future event for Mark? The gospel writer adds a parenthetical remark in verse 14 that indicates he knows what Jesus is talking about, and expects the readers also to be familiar with it:

But when you see the desolating sacrilege set up where it ought not to be (let the reader understand), then those in Judea must flee to the mountains… —Mark 13:14

Luke, in his version, paraphrases this as:

When you see Jerusalem surrounded by armies, then know that its desolation has come near. Then those in Judea must flee to the mountains… —Luke 21:20-21a

This happened during the siege of Jerusalem in 70 AD. So the "desolating sacrilege" was likely understood by the gospel writers as a reference to this event.

Mark expected his readers either to know the siege as a current or recent event, or to know that it was imminent. The war between Judea and Rome lasted from 66 to 73 AD. It is likely, based on Mark 13:14, that this gospel was written during the war or shortly after it.

  • Excellent summary. Dr. Witherington responded to my comment on the topic, with a thumbnail sketch of the same argument. I'm not sure why I didn't think to interpret Mark 13:14 as a direct warning to some of Mark's readers. It wouldn't do much good to warn them after the legions had surrounded the city and occupied the towns of Judea. – Jon Ericson Dec 14 '11 at 20:00
  • "—and sometimes expanded—" by this are you implying 'added to' or that the more summary accounts characterized by more brevity? There is a world of difference between the two. – Sola Gratia Dec 5 '18 at 20:23
  • @SolaGratia Both. A good example is found in Mark 2:23-28 || Matthew 12:1-8. While Mark begins with, "One sabbath he was going through the grainfields; and as they made their way his disciples began to pluck heads of grain," Matthew clarifies that they were not merely plucking the grain for later: "At that time Jesus went through the grainfields on the sabbath; his disciples were hungry, and they began to pluck heads of grain and to eat." – Bruce Alderman Dec 12 '18 at 18:12
  • Then Jesus tells the story of David eating the bread in the temple, and Mark concludes with, "Then he said to them, 'The sabbath was made for humankind, and not humankind for the sabbath; so the Son of Man is lord even of the sabbath.'” But in Matthew, Jesus continues, "Or have you not read in the law that on the sabbath the priests in the temple break the sabbath and yet are guiltless? I tell you, something greater than the temple is here. But if you had known what this means, ‘I desire mercy and not sacrifice,’ you would not have condemned the guiltless," before reaching his conclusion. – Bruce Alderman Dec 12 '18 at 18:18
  • Mark 2:23-28 biblegateway.com/passage/… Matthew 12:1-8 biblegateway.com/passage/… – Bruce Alderman Dec 12 '18 at 18:19

Can we date Mark without first committing to an interpretation of the Olivet Discourse?
If Clement of Alexandria is a reliable source, we probably can.

Clement's evidence

Clement was a noteworthy instructor at the catechetical school of Alexandria in the late 2nd century, and an extremely well-read philosopher and theologian. He provides a number of details regarding the Gospel of Mark:

  • Mark's Gospel was written to provide a record of preaching by Peter in Rome. This particular visit to Rome occurred either during or shortly after (depending on your interpretation, see pp.86-87 here) the reign of Claudius, who died in AD 54
  • Peter was still alive when the Gospel of Mark was written (see p. 87 here)
  • Peter was not present when the Gospel of Mark was written (see p. 87 here)
  • Clement also notes that it was “Caesar’s knights”, presumably members of the equestrian order, who begged Mark for a written account of Peter’s preaching (see p. 101 here). Prominent Romans were unlikely to wish to associate themselves with Christian leaders whilst Nero was burning Christians for “hatred against mankind” (per Tacitus, see here) in the mid-to-late 60s.

Combining these pieces of evidence suggests the Gospel of Mark was written no later than the early part of Nero’s reign, and perhaps a number of years before that. Note that Clement was not only a very well-informed scholar, but he was a prominent figure in the church claimed to have been founded by Mark. Clement’s connection to Mark through Alexandria and through Clement’s own teacher Pantaneus suggest Clement is well-placed to know historical facts about Mark.

John Wenham explores the travels of Peter in detail in “Redating Matthew Mark and Luke: A Fresh Assault on the Synoptic Problem”, in an effort to determine when Peter may have been in Rome.


The Olivet Discourse

Some have suggested that the Olivet discourse demands that Matthew, Mark, and Luke are writing about the destruction of the temple after the fact (and/or Mark is writing right around the time it happened). If we assume nobody could have known this in advance, that puts them post-70, right?

There are some fundamental problems with this assertion.

Presuppositions about prophecy

The Bible is a book that purports to be full of prophecy from beginning to end. In order to objectively evaluate a book about prophecy we cannot start out with the a priori assumption that all prophecy is real, or all prophecy is fake, because doing so restricts the possible solutions we can discover. We would only ever be able to find ideas that align with our worldview; anything outside that bubble would remain forever invisible to us.

To make an a priori assumption on the very topic under evaluation is to arbitrarily select a solution without even evaluating the evidence (not very scientific!). If we start with the premise that this book is a fraud, of course we’ll end up with a conclusion that this book is a fraud—it’s one of our premises! But that’s not an argument, it’s circular reasoning.

These are not the anachronisms you're looking for

It is possible to account for the Gospel passages on the destruction of the temple without appealing to prophecy. This isn’t to take a position on prophecy, rather, this is to point out that even in the absence of a belief in prophecy, it is possible to rationally believe that these documents were written before 70.

The language employed is not, as some have asserted, inconceivable pre-70; rather, it is drawn from the Old Testament and 1 Maccabees (see p.18 here). There’s nothing anachronistic about Jews citing the Old Testament and 1 Maccabees before AD 70. Furthermore, Josephus (Wars 6.5.3) also tells us of another prediction—pre 70—that the temple was going to be destroyed.

Might observers have realized in advance that the tensions between the Jews and the Romans were not going to end well?

Burning cities isn't as rare as you think

Many have suggested that the parable of the marriage of king’s son in Matthew 22 includes an allusion to the destruction of Jerusalem.

“The king was enraged. He sent his army and destroyed those murderers and burned their city”

This assertion would only work if Jerusalem in AD 70 was the only time in history a city was burned. If Matthew was written after the fact and made to look prophetic, the glaring absence of specific details of AD 70 is inexplicable.

Oops I got the prophecy wrong

A common interpretation of the Olivet discourse is that Jesus is saying that the temple will be destroyed and He will return in glory within the lifetime of some who are present. That doesn’t make for a very impressive after-the-fact prophecy since He did not return in glory at that time. So either:

  • We are misinterpreting the prophecy OR
  • The Gospels recording this information were written before 70 OR
  • Both


Dating the Gospels post 70 via the Olivet discourse is a circular argument. At the very least, Clement's evidence represents the testimony of one of the most scholarly Christians of the 2nd century. His testimony is early--and his sources are even earlier.

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