The encounter with Pilate is reported in the four Gospel accounts of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. Whatever position you adopt as to the overall authenticity and integrity of these texts, careful historical scrutiny should confirm that all four texts were authored and completed within 80 years or so of the lifetime of Jesus.
The earliest account is commonly held to be that of Mark, dated 65–75AD, and just over 20 years from the rule of Pontius Pilate. Given its importance as the first Gospel text, it’s worth taking a closer look at both the author and the account.
The narrative of Mark is fairly abrupt. The language is at times particularly poor. The words used betray a distinctly Roman approach to Palestinian geography and expressions. It reads like an awkward, unfinished biography. By any standards, it is as unconvincing a religious text as you could imagine.
We know a little bit more about Mark from a near contemporary author called Papias, who documented in the early 2nd Century:
Mark, having become the interpreter of Peter, wrote down accurately, though not in order, whatsoever he remembered of the things said or done by Christ.
“For he neither heard the Lord nor followed Him, but afterward, as I said, he followed Peter, who adapted his teaching to the needs of his hearers, but with no intention of giving a connected account the Lord’s discourses, so that Mark committed no error while he thus wrote some things as he remembered them. For he was careful of one thing, not to omit any of the things he had heard, and not to state any of them falsely.”
Rather unkindly, Mark is nicknamed Stumpfinger elsewhere in early church history, in the so-called Anti-Marcionite Prologues which were appended to some versions of the gospels in the late 2nd century. Not the most impressive of pseudonyms for the author of a book which has led many to faith and continues to inspire people around the world today!
From Papias, we learn something helpful about Mark. We know he is not a first hand eye-witness to Jesus. He didn’t actually see Jesus in the flesh. All he can do is relate what he’s heard from others. But we also know his major source of information is one of Jesus’ disciples and closest companions — Peter.
For the closing years of his life, before being martyred around 65AD, Peter was teaching in Rome. Being an apparently uneducated Galilean fisherman, he may well have needed some assistance with locally spoken Latin. So Mark was taken on to work alongside Peter as he shared his witness account with the citizens of Rome. He is probably referred to in a letter written by Peter, “She who is at Babylon, who likewise is chosen, sends you greetings, and so does Mark, my son.”
Or take another great example. In Mark 9 we are told that Jesus said to his disciples, “Truly, I say to you, there are some standing here who will not taste death until they see the kingdom of God after it has come with power” and then, six days later, the Transfiguration on a mountain witnessed only by Peter, James and John is described, which ends with a cloud overshadowing them and a voice declaring, “This is my beloved Son; listen to him.”
This correlates with what Peter himself describes in his 2nd letter:
“For we did not follow cleverly devised myths when we made known to you the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, but we were eyewitnesses of his majesty. For when he received honour and glory from God the Father, and the voice was borne to him by the Majestic Glory, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased”, we ourselves heard this very voice born from heaven, for we were with him on the holy mountain.”
2 Peter 1:16-18
It’s not just the similarity of both narratives and that, aside from Peter, only two other witnesses were possible sources for this account; it is the way that both texts link what was seen and heard, with the power and coming of Jesus — as if Mark had heard and remembered Peter connect these details this during his lifetime.
If anyone was best placed to shadow write Peter’s biography about Jesus, it was Mark. Not only had he repeated the Apostle’s words over and over again, and knew the integrity and the heart of the man who spoke them, he had also mastered Greek – universal in usage and the English equivalent of its day. I say mastered – coped is probably a better word. Modern renditions of Mark tend to cast a translation gloss over the simplistic and unsophisticated language used by our friend Stumpfinger.
If these words appear unduly critical, it is only fair to counter them by saying this: It is exactly the unfussy, down to earth nature of Mark’s Gospel that makes him so trustworthy an author. Divinely inspired maybe, but Mark’s account is also refreshingly honest and true to the character of the writer. It doesn’t pretend to be a carefully designed religious text.
It is the credibility of this account – the knowledge that Mark acted as scribe for Peter, Jesus’ right hand man and leader of the early Church, which led to his Gospel being incorporated almost entirely into the works of both Matthew and Luke. These two authors largely performed a cut and paste job of Mark’s Gospel, padding it with additional source material and occasionally rearranging the sequence to create their own narratives.
Faced with the authority and primacy of Mark’s account, Matthew and Luke had no alternative but to include it in their own editions. To leave it out, or alter it in any material way, would undermine the essential witness testimony of Peter. With a copy of Mark in their hand, for Matthew and Luke to ignore or fail to reproduce its contents would have been disingenous, even if in certain aspects they rearranged material to fit their understanding of chronology — which Mark did not claim to have the precise command of.
This should lead us to the honest, if difficult, conclusion that because Matthew and Luke are heavily dependent upon Mark’s version of events when describing Jesus’ encounter with Pilate, they are of limited historical significance; in much the same way that less value is placed on a witness who can only repeat verbatim what another witness has already described. That said, we should equally sit up and take notice when they depart from Mark’s account and provide additional details not found elsewhere in his Gospel.