Saturday, December 9, 2023

The Gospel According to Mark


MARK:   Story of the Messiah in Action 

As users of the Revised Common Lectionary know, Year B (2018, 2021, etc.) is the year of Mark’s Gospel.  From Advent 2020 to Advent 2021 there will be 30 Sundays with Gospel readings from Mark, and in other years, with different dates for Easter, there can be as many as 37 readings from Mark.  Thus, a little introduction to this Gospel as we enter Year B may be in place.

As indicated below, compared to the other Gospels, Mark emphasizes Jesus’ actions more than Jesus’ teachings.  However, many of the actions that tend to reveal who Jesus is he tries to keep secret.  Thus, the reputation of Mark’s Gospel is that it presents Jesus as the Secret Messiah in Action.  

[A note on terminology.  The words “Jew,” “Jews,” and “Jewish” are avoided here when the subject is the people referred to in the New Testament.  These words are later translations into European languages of the Greek word ’IoudaĆ­os, which, more literally translated, is “Judean” and “Judeans.”  This is a respectful reminder that there are no “Jews” in the New Testament; only “Judeans” and peoples of the nations (“gentiles”).] 

Contents of this Essay:  
About Mark
Hearing Mark (Contents)
The Meaning of Mark 

About Mark

Basic Data about the Gospel According to Mark

1.  Mark is the shortest of the four Gospels. 

Matthew                          1,070 verses.

Mark                                  678 verses.
Luke                                1,151 verses.
John                                  879 verses. 
(These counts are from the “Received Text” and include later additions to original texts, such as the 2nd century ending added to Mark [Mark 16:9-20].) 

2.  Mark is more about the Action of Jesus than the Teaching of Jesus.

Jesus speech in Matthew                            647 verses.           60%     

Jesus speech in Mark                                  288 verses.           42%
Jesus speech in Luke                                  591 verses.           51% 
Jesus speech in John                                   436 verses.           50% 

(The quantities of Jesus speech are based on the red-letter printing in The King James Study Bible, Thomas Nelson, copyright Liberty University, 1988.  The verses are the same in both English and Greek.) 

3.  Mark is a “synoptic” Gospel. 

·        The first three Gospels (Matthew, Mark, and Luke) share a basic story line, though with major variations in the two larger Gospels.  (Older tradition, from the second century on, viewed Matthew as the earliest Gospel, the others supplementing or abbreviating it.) 

·        West European scholars, beginning in the eighteenth century, became interested in the “history” of these works, how and why they have common materials but are still quite different (eventually called “the Synoptic Problem”). 

·        To advance this study, they created the Synopsis (meaning “view together”), which printed the three Gospels in parallel columns, with the similar (sometimes identical) passages side-by-side. 

·        The Synopsis showed that some passages (with small variations) appear in all three Gospels; some passages appear in only two Gospels (mostly Matthew and Luke), and some passages appear in only one Gospel (many in Matthew or Luke; very few in Mark only). 

·        Close study of the Synopsis gradually convinced scholars that Mark was the earliest Gospel, not Matthew.  The details of the parallel passages make most sense if Matthew and Luke took over material from Mark, rather than the reverse. 

4.  Mark has no Author.

All of the Gospels in the New Testament are anonymous.  (The title "According to Mark" was added in the second century when the four Gospel scrolls began to be copied into a single codex, "book.")  None of the Gospels says who the speaker or writer is.  The speaker in Luke does come out on stage to tell what he is about, speaking to his sponsor, but he does not tell us who HE is (Luke 1:1-4). 

It is clear that in the first Christian century, people did not care about “authorship” of Gospels.  Gospels began to be written only after the first generation of disciples had died off.  They are second generation works.  Each Gospel speaks to and for a considerable body of believers in its metropolitan region, presenting the accumulated tradition about the Messiah who brought them deliverance from the coming judgment of God. 

5.  Later Christians thought the Gospel was written by (John) Mark in Rome.

In the second century, Christians decided they had four and only four real Gospels.   Only “apostolic” writings were authoritative, and each Gospel was assigned an origin that was apostolic, in their view.  Matthew was from the apostle Levi; John was from the aged "beloved disciple" in Ephesus.  Luke was not an apostle, but he had been a long-term companion of Paul (Acts 16-28) and his Gospel was Paul’s.  An early tradition reported that a man named “Mark” had been the interpreter/assistant of Peter in Rome, and the Gospel according to Mark was in fact Peter’s Gospel. 

Luke’s work, Acts of the Apostles, mentioned a "John whose other name was Mark."  The mother of this John/Mark had a well-to-do house church in Jerusalem where Peter was prominent (Acts 12).  This Mark was a cousin of Barnabas, sponsor of and co-worker with Paul.  Mark accompanied them in their work, and when Barnabas and Paul separated he went with Barnabas (Acts 15:36-39).  Paul occasionally mentioned the valuable help of a “Mark” in his later letters (Philemon 24 and Colossians 4:10), which could be a reference to the same man. 

The letter of I Peter, probably not by the “true” Peter, has the comment, “Your sister church in Babylon [Rome]…sends you greetings; and so does my son Mark.”  This locates “Mark” in Rome and definitely associates him with Peter, whenever this was written. 

About 180 of the Christian Era, the churchman Ireneas wrote:  “So Matthew among the Hebrews issued a Writing of the gospel in their own tongue, while Peter and Paul were preaching the gospel at Rome and founding the Church.  After their decease Mark, the disciple and interpreter of Peter, also handed down to us in writing what Peter had preached.”  (Against Heresies, III, 1, trans. Edward Rochie Hardy, in Early Christian Writers, vol. 1, Westminster, 1953, p. 370.) 

That remained the view of the origin of the Gospel According to Mark until the nineteenth century. 

6.      My Conclusion. 

The Gospel was dictated by an experienced reciter of the oral lore to a (professional) scribe in Rome, sometime after the death of Peter (64 to 70 CE).  It was an essentially Galilean-oriented presentation, though it had come to Rome (as had both Paul and Peter in the early 60’s) and become authoritative there, with perhaps a few adaptations to the new setting.  It circulated early, on written scrolls, to other Christian centers, where Matthew (Syria) and Luke (Greece) knew it.  It was probably preserved after the other Gospels became more popular, and held its place as one of the four, precisely because it was the Gospel of Rome.

 Hearing Mark (Contents)

A recent commentator on Mark begins his work this way: 

The Gospel of Mark is a written text to be read aloud, all at once… Before proceeding, the reader is advised to cease and desist from reading all secondary literature (including this commentary) and to read the Markan narrative itself as a whole—or better yet, to listen as the story is read aloud by someone else.  (M. Eugene Boring, Mark. A Commentary, “The New Testament Library,” Westminster John Knox Press, 2006, page 1.) 

Hearing rather then reading.  This recommendation comes from the recognition – finally – that the Biblical world was an ORAL world.  Throughout the 20th century, study of the Gospels was mostly caught in the “Gutenberg Galaxy,” the mass of unconscious assumptions imprinted on Western scholars by constant exposure to the printed page.  Scholars talked constantly – and only – about "writing," “authors,” and “books.”  (If they were going to be historically accurate they would have spoken of reciters rather than writers and they would have banned the word “book” and spoken only of scrolls.) 

The ancient world was ORAL; few could read; most people listened – and many were good listeners!  The scrolls, besides being rare, required practiced readers who could turn unvocalized (Hebrew) and unpunctuated (Greek) texts into intelligible oral performances. That’s how the Scriptures lived for early Christians.  (Among many resent writings on this topic, see especially Antoinette Clark WireThe Case for Mark Composed in [Oral] Performance (Cascade Books, Wipf & Stock, 2011). 

Contents.  The above is a preface to hearing Mark, but we still need to address the question, what do we find when we look into and listen to this Gospel?  

Elizabeth Struthers Malbon, teacher at Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University, published Hearing Mark: A Listener’s Guide (Trinity Press International, 2002).  She describes a project she did with community churches (Protestant and Catholic), which concluded with a “performance” of Mark.  There were four sessions, each devoted to listening to a large hunk of Mark:  Kingdom (Mark 1-4:34), Community (Mark 4:35-8:26), Discipleship (Mark 8:22-10:52), and Suffering (Mark 11:1-16:8). 

That is one way of identifying major themes in the successive sections of the Gospel. 

While scholars divide Mark in many ways, most recognize that, whatever else is true, Mark has two major sections, following a theme-setting introduction. 

  1. Mark 1:1-13 is a succinct introduction.  John the Baptist is introduced, baptizes Jesus, who is empowered by God’s spirit and certified by the heavenly voice as God’s son.  Jesus is then tempted, setting up the cosmic struggle between God’s Spirit and Satan that is the real drama behind what follows. 
  2. Mark 1:14-8:30 presents Jesus active in Galilee.  He proclaims that God’s kingdom is at hand, and acts accordingly.  He recruits disciples, exorcises unclean spirits, forgives sins, and in general exercises divine authority in ways people have not seen before.  They flock to him, hear his parables, and receive his healing, feeding, and compassion.  In all this, the demons know he is really the Son of God who will destroy them, and the scribes and Pharisees criticize and oppose him.  Jesus urges people to keep his divine powers secret; he is a Messiah, but a secret one.  This section concludes when Jesus elicits from the disciples their recognition that he is indeed the Messiah (8:27-30). 
    • Mark 1:14-5:43 is a cycle of disciples, healings, controversies, and teaching around Galilee.  Jesus calms a storm to save the disciples' boat.  
    • Mark 6:1-8:30 has Jesus rejected in Nazareth, then sending out disciples, and a wider cycle of healings, controversies, and teaching -- this time with marvelous feeding of the multitudes.  Jesus walks on the stormy lake to reach the disciples' boat.  By the end the inner circle knows Jesus is the Messiah.  
  3. Mark 8:31-16:8 presents Jesus going to Jerusalem to die as the Suffering Servant.  Jesus tells the disciples three times that he will suffer and die but also rise on the third day.  In one key statement Jesus says, “For the Son of Man came… to give his life as a ransom for many” (10:45).  The disciples do not (cannot ?) hear this – either the death or the rising again.  The cost of following Jesus is heavily emphasized.  One who gives up one’s life for Jesus will in fact save it.  Jesus makes a royal show entering Jerusalem, holds public debates with the authorities who oppose him, blesses his little group with a final supper, and is betrayed to the powers, both Judean and Roman, finally confessing to the high priest that he is indeed the Messiah and Son of Man.  They crucify him, thereby carrying out God’s will, as Jesus recognized in his prayer in the Garden.  The Gospel ends with an empty tomb; the women who find it tell no one, but a heavenly messenger informs them that everything goes back to Galilee (Mark 16:7).  
    • Mark 8:31-10:52 has Jesus say the Messiah must die, but three disciples get a glimpse of the glory beyond the passion -- a forecast of the risen Jesus.  On the way to Jerusalem there are controversies, now about marriage, children, wealth, and leadership (in the coming church).  Jesus gives sight to a man who calls him "son of David."  
    • Mark 11:1-13:37 has Jesus come to Jerusalem as king, clear the temple of merchants, condemn the current leaders of Israel, and deliver a long discourse about the coming end of the world.  
    • Mark 14:1-15:41 presents in powerful detail the death of the Suffering Servant.  Jesus is anointed, betrayed, and abandoned -- but not before he has given his followers a solemn meal to keep his presence with them.  A Judean court finds a way to condemn him and a Roman governor, against his better judgment, has him crucified.  The crucifixion is remembered more for the mocking by the onlookers than for any intense suffering.  However, the cosmos is darkened in recognition of who has died, and an awe-struck Roman officer says, "Truly this man was the Son of God!" (15:39, NRSV).  
    • Mark 15:42-16:8 introduces a previously unknown follower, with wealth and status.  This Joseph of Arimathea gets Jesus buried in an upper-class tomb, with a stone closing it in.  Two days later, however, three women find no body in the tomb but are told by a heavenly messenger that Jesus is risen from the dead, and will continue his mission with them back in Galilee.  The women are terrified and tell no one.  

    The Meaning of Mark

    Here are the things I conclude are most important about this Gospel.  

    1. The supernatural status of Jesus is essential to Mark’s presentation of the gospel.  In Mark’s terms, Jesus’ baptism and temptation open a cosmic-level conflict between the Spirit and Satan which is then carried on on the human level in Jesus’ exorcisms, healings, and disputes with authorities. 

    2. Mark presents the apocalyptic Jesus.  Jesus told people the judgment of God is at hand, is actually beginning in his work.  Good news for some, bad news for others.  He said the final reckoning would come in his generation.  

    “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand” (1:15, NRSV margin).  

    “And he said to them, ‘Truly I tell you, there are some standing here who will not taste death until they see that the kingdom of God has come with power’” (9:1).  “Truly I tell you, this generation will not pass away until all these things have taken place” (13:30).

    These last two sayings are not convincing as creations of the early church (as many have argued) rather than as coming from Jesus.  Jesus was a disciple of John the Baptist and shared his message that the reign of God was about to overwhelm the current world.  Jesus insisted, even through his own death, that the Kingdom of God (Reign of God) had its preliminary start in his presence and person.  The longest discourse in Mark is about the coming -- and not coming -- of the Son of Man in power (chapter 13).  The post-Markan churches gradually found ways around the embarrassment of the unfulfilled prophecies.  (Luke evolved the Kingdom into the Church by writing Acts – but without giving up the expectation that the Son of Man would indeed soon come in power.) 

    However, these hard sayings were not simply eliminated from the tradition or the Gospels.  They were accommodated to the faith that a new life option had appeared as an alternative to the worldly ways of the “present age” that is passing.

    3.  Community and Discipleship are an alternative life option.  (Elizabeth Malbon’s emphases were correct.) 

    After Jesus was rejected by his own people at Nazareth, he began shaping his disciples into an alternative community.  A new wider circuit of activity (chapters 6-8) was initiated by the sending out of the disciples, and new topics appeared with the feedings of the multitudes (intimating communal living in the care of the disciples).  And after Jesus heads toward Jerusalem, topics of communal life are the focus:  marriage, children, wealth, and true greatness (chapter 10). 

    Mark’s Gospel prepares people for a new manner of communal life in Jesus’s name. 

    After Jesus announces clearly that he must go to Jerusalem to die, the requirements of following Jesus (Discipleship) are stated in stark terms.  “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me.  For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake and the gospel’s will save it” (8:34-35, ESV translation).  As Mark presents them, the disciples are not usually up to expectations, but their limitations are pretty clearly designed to show how relatively ordinary people can in fact become Jesus’ true followers and disciples!  

    4. The Passion Narrative is the fundamental core of this Gospel.  (The subscript, deepest-level message, of this narrative is that, “God suffers!”  See the discussion of the Passion Narrative in the Good Friday Lectionary readings for 2024, and later.) 

    The divine necessity of Jesus’ rejection, suffering, and death is announced in unmistakable terms.  “ ‘The Son of Man must undergo great suffering... and be killed, and after three days rise again.’  He said all this quite plainly…. But they did not understand the saying, and they were afraid to ask him” (8:31-32 and 9:32).  The narrative from Palm Sunday to the Empty Tomb (chapters 11-16) is about one-third of the Gospel, and the earlier parts of the Gospel serve as preface and explanation of the passion. 

    The earlier parts make sure we understand who it is that suffers, dies, and is exalted to heavenly power. 

    5. The Structure of the Gospel shapes the message.

    (1) The Spirit-empowered mighty acts of the Galilean period (chapters 1-8:30) culminate in the disciples recognition of Jesus as the Messiah (finally catching on to what the demoniacs—and the hearers of the Gospel—knew from the beginning).  

    (2) The Jerusalem-oriented period of divinely-ordained rejection, suffering, and death of Jesus (8:31-16:8) is the real message about the Messiah ("Christ" = Messiah).  The relatively amazing episode of the Transfiguration on a mountain in Galilee (9:2-10) is Mark’s (only) presentation of the Risen Jesus.  There is no appearance in Jerusalem.  There Jesus’ followers know only the death of the Messiah and an empty tomb.  The sequel will take them back to Galilee (16:7).  (This is an outcome radically rejected by Luke and John, who were deeply invested in a Jerusalem-based Christianity.)

    6. The narrative detail in Mark is compelling.  Compared to Matthew’s and Luke’s treatments of the same narratives Mark has more color and vigor (for example, the Gerasene Demoniac, Mark 5:1-20, and the epileptic boy in Mark 9:14-27).  One should read the passages found in all three Gospels in a Synopsis -- for example, Gospel Parallels, Burton H. Throckmorton, Jr (Nelson, 1979 and 1992).  It is hard to avoid the view that Mark is closest to a real human Jesus (as classic commentators like A.B. Bruce and Henry Swete, 1898, believed).


    For eighteen hundred years Mark was the neglected one among the four Gospels.  In modern times, the last has become first!  Mark has been recognized as the earliest of the written Gospels, and perhaps the most original testimony to the activity of the Messiah.   The special message of Mark is that the impending Reign of God leads to – and beyond – the cross in Jerusalem.