John Mark may have wrote Mark’s gospel, but Mark’s inspiration was almost certainly the Apostle Peter. The early church fathers universally agree that what we know as ‘Mark’ is drawing on the preaching of the once fiery fisherman. Bishop Papias (60-130AD) for example wrote that…
“Mark became Peter’s interpreter and wrote accurately all that he remembered, not, indeed, in order, of the things said and done by the Lord. For he had not heard the Lord, nor had followed him, but later on, followed Peter, who used to give teaching as necessity demanded but not making, as it were, an arrangement of the Lord’s oracles, so that Mark did nothing wrong in thus writing down single points as he remembered them. For to one thing he gave attention, to leave out nothing of what he had heard and to make no false statements in them.” (Papias, Ecclesiastical History)
If we also examine Peter’s preaching (Acts 10:36-43) we see that the way he tells the gospel story is remarkably similar to Mark’s outline.
So what difference might this make? Why should we care if Peter inspired Mark?
For a book to be accepted as part of the New Testament ‘canon’ (ie. the 27 books comprise our New Testament), it had to be either written by, or have associations with, an apostle of Christ. Knowing that Peter is influencing Mark’s writing gives this gospel a high level of credibility. Further, the amount of historical detail found in this gospel bears all the hallmarks of eyewitness testimony. Incidental details like “the other boats” (Mark 4:34 in the calming of the storm story) , or Peter’s “remembering” what Jesus had said about the fig tree (Mark 11:21) clearly come from an eye witness.
Among the major threads running through Mark is the theme of suffering. To follow the Suffering Servant is a costly business. When you realise that Peter inspired Mark’s gospel, you start to notice the parallels to 1st Peter, the other major document that Peter contributed to the New Testament. Guess what the major theme of 1st Peter is? Suffering as a disciple. In the same way that we often see the themes of Luke’s gospel and Acts tying together, we should see the connection between Mark and 1st Peter.
Its quite striking that Mark provides with less detail of the apostle Peter’s most embarrasing moments. For instance, his failure in walking on the water (Matthew 14:22-33), or Peter’s words to Jesus to depart from him (Luke 5:1-11), don’t find a space in Mark’s gospel. This doesn’t mean that Mark omits all of Peter’s faults (Mark 14:66-72) but it does seem that he takes a certain care in not parading them. Friends will confront us with our faults, they will even call them out publically when absolutely necessary. But part of their care for us is that they do not joy to parade our faults before others.
Peter’s inspiration of Mark’s gospel is is not something you must be aware of. You could be unaware, and you would still be thrilled by this gospel. But this extra detail adds another layer of richness for us to enjoy.