Perhaps I should say Mark is clearly incorrect in at least two places, and that fact has been known since the late second century. Jerome (4th/5th century) in a letter (57.9) cites the writings of early critics of Christianity (Celsus, On the True Doctrine [late 2nd century], Porphyry, Against the Christians [3rd/4th century], and Julian, Against the Galilaeans [fourth century] ) on a number of errors, which according to Jerome these critics of Mark called "falsifications." Probably many of my readers will be unfamiliar with the two errors I describe here, but they are well known to most historians of Christian origins.
Jerome calls Celsus, Porphyry, and Julian "impious men," but he does not deny the errors. One well known error is Mark's citation (Mark 1:1-3) of a passage supposedly from Isaiah, but which turns out to be a collage of Malachi 3:1 and Isaiah 40:3. A second error is even more glaring. In Mark 2:25-26 Jesus cites the actions of David who "entered the house of God when Abiathar was High Priest." When this event happened, however, actually Ahimelech was high priest (1 Samuel 21:1-6); Abiathar was his son and met David only after the bread incident in the house of God (1 Samuel 22:20-23).
Jerome in response to the first error simply solicits the indulgence of the reader for Mark's error, and for the second he argued that the evangelists were more concerned with the sense of Old Testament passages than with giving the literal words (Letter 57.9). Matthew and Luke correct Mark's errors in the following ways: Matthew (3:3) and Luke (3:4-6) correct Mark by eliminating the words of Malachi and then the reference to Isaiah (40:3) is correct—Luke also adds more material (40:3-5) to the Isaiah quotation. Both Matthew and Luke also correct Mark's historical error in naming the wrong high priest by simply eliminating Mark's erroneous phrase: "when Abiathar was high priest" (Matt 12:4; Luke 6:3).
Strictly speaking, the ascription of Mark 1:1-3 to Isaiah is wrong, for the passage contains statements from both Malachi and Isaiah. Strictly speaking, David took the dedicated bread from the altar when Ahimelech was high priest; so Mark was wrong when he says the incident took place when Abiathar was high priest.
What do these obvious errors suggest about Mark's reporting of his narrative of the public career of Jesus? Perhaps nothing! But since we have no way of verifying his narrative and its details, we should take it very seriously when we catch him in an error. These obvious errors suggest that we should read the gospel closely and not give Mark a pass when other questionable statements are reported in his account. For example, Mark egregiously exaggerates in reporting that John, the baptizer, baptized "all the county of Judea and all the people of Jerusalem" (Mark 1:5) and exaggerates again at Mark 1:33 in reporting that the "whole city was gathered at the door." Mark is simply not reporting responsibly in these instances. Accuracy in historical detail is not in itself a signature of historical narrative, but inaccuracy in historical detail is a clear warning of the possible historical unreliability of the narrative.
Questions can also be raised about some of the sources of the narratives Mark reports—specifically with respect to how Mark knows about things he reports. Here are two narratives that are clearly challengeable as historical narration. How does Mark know the precise words of the conversation he reports in the story of Jesus in the high priest's home (Mark 14:53-72)? His only likely source is Peter who was not present, but was out in the courtyard of the high priest's home, and not privy to what was happening inside the house (Mark 14:54, 66).
In Mark's story about the beheading of John the Baptist (Mark 6:14-29) Mark has used the narrative technique of time compression to create the fanciful story about the dance of Herodias' daughter and her dramatic request for the head of the Baptist in front of Herod's guests (Mark 6:24-25). Mark situates the narrative in the Galilee area (Mark 6:1, 14, 21, 45); so the banquet for "his courtiers, officers, and leading men of Galilee" took place at his palace in Tiberias. According to Josephus (Antiquities 18.5.2), however, John the Baptist was imprisoned and beheaded in the fortress at Machaerus located in modern Jordan (at that time Nabatea) a number of miles east of the Dead Sea and at a level near its mid-point. Mark's compression of time (6:25-27: "with haste," "at once," "immediately") forces the reader to understand that John the Baptist was near at hand, and hence his beheading takes place while the dinner party was continuing—a much more dramatic story than sending a soldier of the guard on a long trip to Machaerus for the head! And, of course, there is always the question of how Mark knew the precise words of the conversations during the party—was it actually oral tradition or simply Mark's imaginative recreation, or simply whole cloth invention?
Such problems suggest that Mark is not early Christian history; rather it has all the earmarks of historical fiction—that is to say, much of the gospel is due to Mark's imagination and inventive recreation.
What are your thoughts?
Charles W. Hedrick
Missouri State University