Latin Loan Words and Phrases in the Gospel of Mark


The early church attributed the gospel of Mark to Peter’s “secretary,” Mark, who transcribed Peter’s words as Peter preached in Rome. While the church fathers provide ample support for this claim, Mark’s Roman origins have been supplanted of a Syrian-Palestinian provenance due to Mark’s themes and settings. Because Mark’s subject matter better addresses a pastoral community like Syria or Galilee, it must have been written in countryside north of Judea. Students of the New Testament face the choice to accept the testimony of the early church concerning Mark’s background, or embrace the hermeneutical methods of modern scholarship that often contradict the biblical text.

So, if one jettisons the external evidence concerning Mark’s origins and relies on internal evidence alone, could a semantic study of Mark identify a location in which the author of Mark composed his work, whether Rome or Syria? Could the author, hereafter identified as Mark, have utilized vocabulary that betrays a city or region of origin? This paper will investigate the origin and setting of Mark’s gospel by analyzing certain Latin loanwords or Latinisms that appear in Mark’s text, which have often been used to support a Roman provenance. In order to address these issues, this paper will look at the arguments for Roman and Syrian provenance, investigate the appearance of Latinisms in their context, compare these passages, when possible, with the Greek terminology found in Matthew and Luke, and identify possible influence Mark’s Latinisms may have had on later Latin translations such as the Vetus Latina manuscripts and the Vulgate.

By examining the Latin loanwords found in Mark across the other gospels and Latin translations of the NT, this paper hopes to identify a region of origin between Syria-Palestine and Rome for Mark. For instance, if Latin loanwords appear in Matthew and Luke as much as in Mark, then it is possible Mark composed his gospel in regions outside of Italy, but if these Latinisms display a familiarity with Latin, then perhaps Mark did compose his gospel in Rome. While it is beyond the scope of human historical or exegetical endeavors to discover the mind of an author beyond what authors themselves recorded (cf. John 20:30-31; 1 Tim 3:14-15), this paper hopes to understand better the appearance of Latinisms in relation to the region and country of origin for Mark. By studying the appearance of Latinisms in Mark, parallel passages in other gospels, and translations of Mark in the Vetus Latina, this paper hopes to demonstrate that Mark possessed an intimacy with Latin that he could only have obtained in Rome. As a result, this paper hopes to prove that these Latin loanwords support the city of Rome as the place of origin for Mark, which satisfies the criteria demanded by modern scholarship. 

Roman and Galilean Authorship

The church historian Eusebius preserves a number of quotations concerning the life and ministry of Mark, the companion of Paul, Peter, and Barnabas (Acts 15:36-41; 1 Pet 5:12-14), who “wrote down accurately . . . as much as [Peter] remembered of the words and deeds of the Lord.” Eusebius records that Mark had been persuaded by Peter’s Roman audience to “leave them in writing a summary of the instruction they had received by word of mouth,” which was published with Peter’s approval. Mark includes numerous passing but vivid details from the life of Jesus omitted in Matthew and Luke, such as the “green grass” at the feeding of the 5,000 (6:39; cf. 4:38). These observations supports the evidence accumulated by the early church that Mark composed his gospel based off of Peter’s speeches, a process that, according to tradition, occurred in Rome.

Perhaps as a result of the united witness of church fathers, the first significant challenge to Mark’s Roman origins does not appear until Willi Marxsen’s study, Mark the Evangelist. Marxsen argues that the Markan text arose in Galilee because of the theological significance of Galilee within the gospel, questioning the “old churchly tradition that allows the Gospel was written in Rome” based on the “isolated pieces” of Mark that highlight the significance of Galilee as its region of origin. The support for the gospel of Mark arising out of Syria or Galilee is based on Mark’s settings, themes such as persecution and apocalypticism, and its agricultural language that, in the opinions of scholars such as Willi Marxsen, Gerd Thiessen, and Richard Rohrbaugh, strongly point to Palestine and Syria as Mark’s region of origin, rather than an urban center like Rome that would have led Mark to focus on Jesus’ ministry in Jerusalem.

However, as this paper intends to demonstrate, one cannot simply read back into the worldview and personality of the author by subjecting their work to form criticism. While Mark’s Latinisms cannot identify, beyond a reasonable doubt, Rome as the city of origin for Mark, this paper hopes to provide evidence that Mark’s Latinisms are best explained by a Roman provenance for the gospel.   

The Vetus Latina Manuscripts

Despite its proximity to the epicenter of Roman hyper-pluralism, Rome had a large church (Acts 28:14-16, 30-31) that would eventually need teaching material in Latin, even if Roman Christians understood Koine Greek. As such, Latin-speaking Christians began producing translations of the Greek NT in Latin known as the Vetus Latina, or “Old Latin,” manuscripts. These manuscripts have been categorized by the Vetus Latina Institut, Beuron since the early 20th century, who date these manuscripts from the 4th c. AD onwards, and locate them in geographically scattered areas from North Africa to Syria-Palestine.  These manuscripts reflect readings that predate Jerome’s 4th c. translation of Bible. As such, these texts provide considerable support to the textual integrity of the NT canon and elucidate the manner in which the NT was preserved and spread throughout the Roman world. If Mark composed his gospel in Rome and adopted his Greek text to suit a Latin-speaking audience, then perhaps Mark’s Latinisms are reflected in these Old Latin manuscripts. To ascertain the likelihood of Mark composing his gospel in Rome and the influence it may have had on Old Latin texts, this paper will focus on the codices Vercellensis, Bezae, and, when possible, Palatinus.

The extent of Latinism loanwords in Mark derives largely from economic, financial, and military terminology Mark utilizes in his Greek text. At first glance, the notion of Latin loanwords derived from military parlance is not helpful for our study, because such words would have been forced on Syrian population by Roman legions stationed in the provinces. Mark could have been exposed to such vocabulary in Syria-Palestine without ever having visited Rome, or having edited together elements of Latin, Jewish, and Hellenistic traditions. This paper hopes to determine the likelihood that Mark could have learned this vocabulary in Syria-Palestine, or if he possessed such an intimacy with Latin that writing in Rome best explains Mark’s usage of Latin loanwords.   

Latin Loanwords: Military Language

Such Latin loanwords derived from Roman military language include σπεκουλάτωρ (6:27; executioner), λεγεών (5:9, 15; legion), κεντυρίων (15:39, 44, 45; centurion), πραιτώριον (15:16; praetorium), and φραγελλώσας (15:15; flog). These words referred to Rome’s military garrisoning Judea, so prima facie they may not help determine a region for Mark. For instance, Mark refers to the governor’s headquarters as the πραιτώριον, but so do Matthew and John in their gospels, as πραιτώριον was a common way of referring to the headquarters of high-ranking Roman officials. Other terms like λεγεών would have inspired fear in Judea, even as they inspired patriotic fervor amidst Roman soldiers, but Luke cites λεγεών as the demon’s name (8:30). This particular demon may have introduced himself as λεγεών, and so its usage does not fit our criteria to help establish a region of origin for Mark.

Mark’s usage of φραγελλώσας (15:15), κεντυρίων (15:39, 44, 45; centurion), and σπεκουλάτωρ provides far more interesting uses of Latinisms. The verb φραγελλόω bears a passing similarity to its Roman counterpart, flagellum, used in the Vetus Latina. Luke and John use the word μαστίζω and μαστιγόω, respectively, when describing floggings, while Mark and Matthew use φραγελλόω to describe Jesus’ scourging. To account for this without referring to Markan or Matthean priority, φραγελλόω could have been learned by both writers, as tax collector Matthew may have been heard φραγελλόω more often than μαστίζω, and Mark, possibly, from his time in Rome.

Meanwhile, the widely attested κεντυρίων, a Roman military officer, Mark is the only evangelist to use the word κεντυρίων. Matthew and Luke consistently refer to this office as ἑκατοντάρχης, or literally as a “commander of hundreds” rather than using the Roman term centurion. The Vulgate and codices Bezae and Vercellensis employ centurion not only in their translations of Mark, but also of their renderings of Matthew and Luke. As a result, Mark’s word choice raises the question that if Matthew, Mark and Luke all composed their gospels in the same region, why didn’t Mark use a word seemingly more appropriate like ἑκατοντάρχης? If centurion is the natural word to use for Latin speakers and ἑκατοντάρχης for Hellenized speakers, then it follows that Mark could have written his gospel for a Latin-speaking congregation based on his use of κεντυρίων.  

Moreover, the appearance of σπεκουλάτωρ, the “executioner” of John the Baptist, provides a helpful contrast between Matthew, Luke and the Vetus Latina. In their accounts of the death of John the Baptist, neither Matthew (Matt 14:1-12) nor Luke (9:7-9) references an executioner, much less σπεκουλάτωρ Mark uses in 6:27. Codices Vercellensis and Bezae and the Vulgate, employ speculator in their description of Herod ordering the execution of John the Baptist in place of other common words for an executioner (carnifex, tortor, quaestiōnārius), even though these words may have been better to use than the Latin speculator for their pathological effect on a Roman audience. Speculatores were minor officials in the Roman army that served as scouts or bodyguards whose duties could include executions for their commanders. Mark’s usage, wherein Herod sends palace guards to execute John the Baptist, necessitates σπεκουλάτωρ rather than another Greek word like δήμιος, because the story describes a “member of [his] body-guard” beheading John the Baptist at Herod’s request. Mark’s usage, subsequently, betrays an intimacy with Latin reflected in the Vetus Latina manuscripts that suggest Mark may indeed have spent time in Rome while writing. 

Latin Loanwords: Financial and Commercial Terms

Loanwords derived from Roman commercial language appear in a wide array of Greek and rabbinical sources of 1st c. AD.  These include δηνάριον (6:37; 12:15; 14:5; a coin for a day’s wage), κῆνσον (12:14, tax), and κοδράντης (12:42; a Roman coin of little value). Subsequently, Mark could have absorbed this vocabulary anywhere in the Mediterranean world that Rome’s economic presence was felt. For instance, Mark refers to the commonly used denarius coin, but Matthew (18:28; 20:2, 9, 13; 22:19), Luke (7:41; 10:35; 20:4), and John (6:7; 12:5) consistently use δηνάριον in their gospels, as do codices Vercellensis and Bezae. It seems that authors used δηνάριον as commonly as 1st c. merchants traded with denarii coins and, as a result, Mark’s use of δηνάριον does not help identify a region of origin for his gospel.

The word κῆνσος (Markk 12:14) appears in rabbinical quotations as early as the 1st c. BC and in the gospel of Matthew (17:25; 22:17), so that Mark could have learned the word without having spent time in Rome. Both Matthew and Mark use κῆνσος to refer to a tax levied on the heads of one’s household, but census in Latin refers to a count of all the individuals living in a given region. Mark’s usage indicates a Greek understanding of κῆνσος rather than its Latin meaning, which is reflected in the Vetus Latina manuscripts where translators used tributum in place of census. While Matthew and Mark employed κῆνσος, Latin translators did not feel required to use Markan word choice and chose words better suited for their readers. Unfortunately for our study, κῆνσος suggests a relative lack of familiarity with Latin on behalf of the author.

While δηνάριον and κῆνσος are inconclusive, Mark’s use of κοδράντης (12:42), a transliteration of the Roman coin quadrans, supports Roman origin. In Mark 12:42, Mark provides the parenthetical note that the λεπτὰ of the widow’s offering equaled one κοδράντης: λεπτὰ δύο ὅ ἐστιν κοδράντης. Matthew, as a tax collector, would have known the value of the κοδράντης he refences (5:26), but he does not explain the value of one small coin (λεπτόν) for one whose value his audience recognized. As Mark correlates the λεπτόν to the Roman quadrans, this may suggest he had a Latin-speaking audience in mind whilst writing. If one remembers the oral nature of Mark’s gospel, as the early church records that Peter addressed a congregation in Rome and Mark wrote down his sermons, and provided supplementary details. Herein, Peter identified λεπτόν with the quadrans coin his audience would understand. If the speaker or author intended to address a Syrian speaking audience, he would have compared a λεπτόν to a local Syrian coin, perhaps the Syrian challcous, since “a wide variety of coinages were produced for local or regional use.” Such explanation would be necessary since “circulation between the two regions [of Caesara, in Palestina, and Syria] occurred little, if at all” and thereby may make identifying a κοδράντης more difficult. If, as Marxsen and others maintain, that the internal evidence supports a Syrian-Palestinian provenance for Mark, then its author would have correlated a Greek coin with a Syrian coin instead of a Roman one.


The goal of identifying the region of origin for Mark’s gospel is an endeavor that should be taken with humility, given the limitations of uncovering the mind of an ancient author. While geographical locations referenced in Mark may suggest a Syrian origin, the Latinisms in Mark raise questions as to where Mark could have attained such a familiarity with Latin if not in Rome itself. The idea that Mark used Latinisms because these military and commercial terms spread throughout the Empire explains the appearance of some Latinisms he could have learned in other regions of the Empire, but this phenomenon does not explain all of the Latinisms in Mark. While Mark employed certain Latinisms because of Roman power and prestige, other words like σπεκουλάτωρ, κεντυρίων, and κοδράντης betray an intimacy with Latin that would have been difficult to develop anywhere outside of Rome. With this evidence in mind, the internal evidence of Mark, based on Latin loanwords, provides some support to the testimony of the early church that Mark wrote his work whilst residing in Rome. If Mark wrote his work in a region such as Syria-Palestine, it would be hard to imagine how he possessed a nuanced understanding of certain Latin loanwords found in his text. As a result, the internal evidence of Mark’s provides consistent, albeit inconclusive, support that Mark composed his work whilst living in the very heart of the imperial capital, Rome.

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