The Gospel According to Mark

Occasion/Purpose

The title of this Gospel (1:1), together with the contents that follow help us sense what its purpose is. The title, “The beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God,” reveals that the author wants to communicate that the story of Jesus Christ, the Son of God, is really good news, but that is not all. It’s the beginning of the good news. Jesus introduces his message, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand.” (1:15) and leads us to realize that He himself is the fulfillment of God’s ruling, his reign. The wisdom of his teaching and the power of his deeds reveal that with Jesus the kingdom of God is breaking in. But it does not stop with the ministry of Jesus. He calls people to follow him, and through those disciples, he would continue ruling, exercising his authority, bestowing his blessings, and leading people to experience what it means for God to be the Lord/king of their lives. This Gospel is about discipleship–and leads the reader to know what it means to have Jesus as the Messiah, the Son of God, one’s Lord. It’s a call to follow Him, which extends to today. It’s the beginning of the good news which enables us to keep the relay of that good news going in our time.

 

Author/Date

When was the Gospel written and who wrote it? The Gospel itself does not directly tell us the answer to these two questions. Tradition has it that John Mark is the author. The earliest statement to this effect comes from Papias, bishop of Hierapolis in the first half of the second century who quoted the Elder (John) that “Mark, who became Peter’s interpreter, wrote accurately, though not in order, all that he remembered of the things said and done by the Lord.” (Archibald Hunter, Introducing the New Testament, Third Revised Edition, Westminster Press, 1972, p. 38) Since Mark was not one of the twelve apostles and tradition of the entire second century unanimously names him as the author, there is really no solid reason to doubt his authorship. His mother Mary’s involvement with the Christian movement, Acts 12:12; his own involvement with Barnabas and Saul [Paul], Acts 12:25; 13:5,13; 15:37,39; Col. 4:10;; Philemon 24; II Tim. 4:11; and also with Peter (I Peter 45:13), suggest that he would have known the record of Jesus’ ministry, suffering, death, and resurrection. He would be well qualified to write such an account, as we have it in the second Gospel.

 

Any number of scholars, on the basis of their analysis of the relationships between the three synoptic Gospels posit that Mark was the first Gospel written, that Matthew and Luke drew on it together with other source material to write their Gospels. These relationships, however, cannot be proven and rest on a number of presuppositions and conjectures. Is it possible–in a time when only a small percentage of the people could read–that the authors of the synoptic Gospels may have drawn on a fixed oral tradition which people had committed to memory?

 

Regardless of the relationships that may or may not exist among the Gospels, careful study of each of the Gospels teaches one that they are well organized, structured and written in such a way that they are not just biographical sketches of Jesus, or reporting that chronicles Jesus’ words and works, but they are history told and interpreted theologically. They communicate the goodness of Jesus Christ and seek to evoke and strengthen our faith in Him. We should read and study them with our eyes open to this divine goodness and discover how each of the Gospels contributes to enriching and deepening our faith in Jesus Christ, the Son of God!

 

As far as the date for writing Mark’s Gospel is concerned, Dr. Franzmann suggests about 60; Dr. Hunter 65 -67. Jesus’ apocalyptic discourse in Mark 13 suggests that the Gospel was likely written before the destruction of Jerusalem which occurred as the result of the Jewish War with Rome, 66-70, and the temple’s destruction in the last year of that war.

 

In terms of the people for whom Mark wrote, Dr. Franzmann suggests that the ancient tradition that he “wrote . . . for Gentiles, specifically at the request of Roman Christians,” is confirmed by the gospel itself. Hebrew and Aramaic expressions are elucidated (3:17; 5:41; 7:11; 15:22), and Jewish customs are explained (7:2-4; 15:42). The evangelist himself quotes the Old Testament explicitly but once (1:2), although his narrative shows by allusion and echo that the narrator is conscious of the Old Testament background of the gospel story (e.g. 9:2-8: cf. Ex. 24:12ff.; 12:1-12, cf. Is. 5:1ff.). Mark reduces Greek money to terms of Roman currency (12:42) and explains an unfamiliar Greek term by means of a Latin one (15:16, praetorium); and Latinisms, that is, the direct taking over of Latin terms into the Greek, are more frequent in Mark’s language than in that of the other evangelists.” (CSSC, NT, 45)

 

Integrity of the Gospel

The Gospel of Mark runs from Mark 1:1-16:8. Manuscript and internal evidence suggest that the verses following 16:8 are not part of the original text. They have a different style, reflect a different character than the rest of the Gospel, and actually summarize the resurrection appearances in the other Gospels. The manuscripts Sinaiticus and Vaticanus (two significant early witnesses) do not include the longer ending to the gospel of Mark. Such exclusion is unlikely unless they either did not have the additional text or had good reason to recognize that the text was not original. In addition to such significant omissions, the inclusion of the additional text seems to be an act of discomfort with the ending at Mark 16:8. Ending with the fear of the women rather than the joy of the resurrection does not seem to be the natural/desired ending of a gospel. Nonetheless, the structure of the gospel suggests that such an ending works well with the gospel’s purpose and meaning. We will see this dynamic as we consider the characteristics and outline of the gospel.

 

Characteristics

Approaching the Gospel of Mark, it is good to recognize several key attributes of the structure and content of the gospel. [We know that the gospel originated, regardless of the specific date attributed to it, during a time when such writings were intended to be heard. Literacy levels were low (perhaps less than 15%) and books were expensive and thus difficult to acquire. Even if people had access to books and could read, they generally read out loud–even when they were reading to themselves. In this oral culture of the gospel, literary devices were incorporated into the literature to help the reader present the material to the people and for the people to hear it well.] The Gospel of Mark uses repetition, stock characters, and themes to help its hearers to hear and see the call of discipleship and the good news that Jesus completed the journey of discipleship perfectly and guides and empowers them on their journey too.

 

Before we take a look at a basic outline of the Gospel of Mark, it is beneficial to expand on these three basic features:

 

Repetition

Mark repeats several words and themes. In the first section of the gospel (1:1-6:29) we see the lake/sea (1:16; 2:13; 3:7; 4:1,41; 5:1,21) used in transitional passages at strategic times even when the setting of the sea plays little bearing on the account; the word lake/sea is also omitted in several transitional passages in the gospel where the setting of the lake/sea is integral to the story (4:35; 6:45; 8:10,13,14). These appearances mark subunits of this first section and help us (along with other forms of internal repetition) see three distinct subunits in this first section; it also helps us see each subunit divided in two parts. Structurally significant repetition is also used in the accounts of Jesus casting out demons (1:21-28; 3:7-12; and 5:1-20) and calling the disciples (1:16-20; 3:13-19; and 6:7-13). Finally, the unit begins and ends with the account of John the Baptist (1:2-8; 6:14-29).

 

Repetition also marks the second and third sections. Accounts of Jesus feeding a multitude followed by instructional time with the disciples in the boat bracket Mark 6:30-8:21. The healing of blind men at Mark 8:22-26 and 10:46-52 as well as three passion predictions by Jesus (8:31; 9:31; 10:33-34) guide us through Mark 8:22-10:52.

 

In the final section of Mark (11:1-16:8) we see repetition as well, but the repetition is not as neatly packaged. Undoubtedly, the author of the Gospel of Mark had less flexibility in dealing with such a compact and well told period of time. The audience would have been well aware of the time of Jesus’ passion and expected a certain presentation of the events. Nonetheless, the use of groups of religious leaders in transitional verses increases greatly during this unit and helps us recognize the different subunits in this section (Mark 11:27; 14:1-2, 43, 53; 15:1). The temple is also accented throughout this section (Mark 11:12-25; 13:1-4 (really all of 13); 14:48; 15:29-30, 38).

 

Characters

Other than the chief character, Jesus, there are three major character groupings in the Gospel of Mark. Each character grouping receives special attention in a subunit of the first and last sections in the gospel. The religious leaders are the primary opposition to Jesus. They are featured in the first subunit of the first and last sections of the gospel (1:21-3:6 (especially 2:15-3:6) and 11:27-12:44). The disciples are called to be with Jesus and learn from him. But the disciples are marked by failure to understand and require repeated teaching and explanation from Jesus. The key for the disciples is that they are supposed to find their understanding in Jesus. They are the focus of the second main subunits in the first and last sections of the gospel (3:7-4:41 and 13:1-14:52). The final major character grouping is the unclean. This group includes those who are ritually unclean and also the lowly members of society; the unclean are the ‘nobodies’ of society. They are the prominent in the final subunits of the first and last sections (5:1-43 and 15:1-47).

 

In addition to the impact the characters play in the gospel’s structure, they serve a greater function in the gospel. The hearer is expected to connect with them. The religious leaders help the hearer realize their need for repentance as the hearer struggles with Jesus’ identity and what it means for his life of faith. The disciples help the believer be humble as it accents the continual need to be forgiven, taught, and led by Jesus in the life of faith; the disciple only ‘gets it’ when they see and hear Jesus. The unclean characters remind the hearer of the joy of the gospel. Namely, the believer’s identity is entirely in Jesus. When the hearer recognizes their ‘nothingness’ in themselves, they are able to rejoice in our ‘everythingness’ in Jesus and the reign of God.

 

The final major character in the gospel is Jesus. He is the consummate disciple. He lives according to the reign of God fully and completely. As such he brings us into that reign and calls us to follow him. Jesus follows in the line of the prophets and John the Baptist (consider the parallels between John and Jesus at 1:4-8 and 3:7-12 and even more so at 6:14-29 and 15:1-52); he continues that line with the call of disciples (1:16-20; 2:14). Indeed Jesus is not only one of the line, but the center and focal point of the good news of the reign of God. Such an emphasis is clear in Mark 11:1-11 where Jesus enters into Jerusalem to suffer and die and the hearer finds the people going before him and following after him. Jesus is the center of the story (see also the discussion on the theme of following below).

 

Themes

Two major themes help us understand the Gospel of Mark: the theme of “hearing and seeing” and the theme of “following.”

 

Hearing and Seeing

The theme of hearing and seeing is joined most explicitly in Mark 4:12 and 8:18. This theme divides the gospel in half nicely. Hearing is the focus of the first half. Hearing is the key activity in the first extended discourse by Jesus in the gospel (Mark 4) and is then accented also by the healing activity at Mark 7:31-37. Seeing highlights the second half as blind men receive sight (8:22-26; 10:46-52) and Jesus repeats the call to see in his second (and only other) extended discourse in the Gospel of Mark (Mark 13).

 

These instructions to hear and see focus on the task of understanding the reign of God. Specifically, the call is to go to Jesus for understanding. In the parables, Jesus explains that he tells the parables so that the people do not perceive and understand; but Jesus then proceeds to explain to the disciples the parables. The point is ultimately not the people’s inability to see and understand, but the goal is that the people, disciples included, would go to Jesus for their understanding.

 

In a similar way, Jesus uses seeing to accent his teaching in the second half. In the first healing of a blind man, Jesus heals the man only partially. He asks if he can see, but his sight is clearly skewed. It is better, but the man needs to be healed again. Jesus then heals him a second time. This account corresponds to the third section of the gospel where Jesus helps the disciples ‘see’ better who he is. He repeatedly explains to the disciples that he must go to the cross and suffer and die. It also corresponds to the account of Peter (at the head of this section alongside of the healing of the blind man) who proclaims Jesus as the Christ, but then rebukes Jesus because he did not see clearly what it means for Jesus to be the Christ.

 

The theme continues in chapter 13 when Jesus directs the disciples away from their concern for the temple and directs them to look to Jesus. The chapter begins with the comment on the greatness of the temple. Jesus responds with a call to see/watch (the Greek word is the same as is used earlier in the gospel for the “seeing” theme). He highlights that the temple will be destroyed (13:3-23) and that ultimately the Son of Man (Jesus, cf. Mark 2:28) will come in victory (13:24-27). This victory then is understood with respect to Jesus’ death as the fig tree (the account of the fig tree marked the end of the time of the temple in Mark 11:12-25) is again referenced (13:28-31) and as Jesus returns to the call to watch in Mark 13:32-37. Here in Mark 13:32-37 the verb to watch shifts to a different verb at Mark 13:34-37; this verb parallels the call of Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane at Mark 14:34, 38. In these verses we also see the watches of the night in which the disciples are to be alert but are not; these are the same watches through which Jesus remains alert in his passion. Mark 13 calls the disciples not to focus on the temple, but rather to see Jesus and his cross so that they would understand him and the good news of the reign of God.

 

Following

The other major theme that helps us understand the Gospel of Mark is the theme of following. The theme comes up repeatedly as terms such as ‘going before’, ‘follow’, ‘come after’, etc. are used in the gospel (note references under the discussion of Jesus’ character above). This theme helps us see that Jesus brings the reign of God in his person because he lives under God’s reign. He follows the Father’s will all the way to the cross. In doing and proclaiming the reign of God, Jesus enters a long line of discipleship extending from the prophets to John the Baptist and calls that line to continue in the disciples. Yet Jesus is more than just one in the long line; for Jesus fully does the reign of God and thus becomes the center of history and the key to our discipleship. Jesus’ life and death, his fulfillment of the reign of God, brings the reign of God to all believers (and those that preceded) so that the gospel of Mark can be titled The beginning of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Jesus is the beginning of the good news because the kingdom of God continues in believers through him.

 

The theme of following perhaps finds its greatest significance when the hearer gets to the resurrection account of Mark. Here, in the women’s fear, the young man clothed in a white robe (16:5)(symbolically providing a word of forgiveness contrasted to the young man who lost his garment (14:51-52)) tells them that Jesus goes ahead of the disciples, even Peter, into Galilee (compare promise of 14:28). Here the hearer is encouraged to know that there is forgiveness in the cross, that Jesus has not abandoned them, and that he still leads them forward. Death was not the end; the believer goes forward in discipleship in confidence of the one who leads and in the certainty of the resurrection.

 

In this way the ending at 16:8 fits well with the structure and characteristics of the Gospel of Mark. In this verse, the unclean characters/those characters with no social standing (in which the woman would have been included) fail. These characters are the only ones to provide a consistently faithful response to Jesus. Yet here, even the women fail in their discipleship. Lest there be any confusion with the character groupings presented in Mark, the Gospel of Mark makes clear that all of us need to follow in the shadow of Jesus forgiveness and continue on in his faithfulness. Jesus alone is our hope and salvation; Jesus alone is the key to our journey of discipleship.

 

From these characteristics we can map out a simple outline of the Gospel of Mark:

 

Section I: Who is Jesus and what does it mean to follow him? 1:1-6:29

1:1 Title

1:2-15 Jesus enters the picture in the line of discipleship. He is the true Son of God who is the one who will fully do what God’s reign calls him to do. As John the Baptist is put in prison, Jesus follows and proclaims that in him the reign of God is at hand.

Subsection 1: 1:16-3:6 Jesus is identified as one with authority proclaiming, living, and bringing the reign of God to the people through healing, proclamation, casting out demons, and forgiveness. The religious leaders are threatened by Jesus because his claims to authority call into question their sense of identity and place in the world.

Subsection 2: 3:7-43:41 Jesus defines what it means to be a disciple (to be with him) and teaches the disciples to listen to him.

Subsection 3: 5:1-43 Jesus engages the unclean and finds positive responses of faith in the lowliest of people.

6:1-29 The section wraps up with a declaration that Jesus is son of Mary (contrasting to 1:2-15), a sending out of the disciples to be about the work of the kingdom, and the death of John the Baptist that highlights the cost of discipleship.

 

Section II: 6:30-8:21 Jesus feeds five thousand and then four thousand. In this section we find that the good news of the kingdom extends to the nations as Jewish feeding leads to a Gentile feeding and as Jesus travels into Gentile territory and finds faith in Jesus. The Syrophoenician woman recognizes what Jesus teaches his disciples: there is enough bread/Jesus for all people. In contrast, the disciples do not recognize the sufficiency of Jesus’ ‘bread’; they need help to hear and see who Jesus truly is.

 

Section III: 8:22-10:52 Jesus heals people of their blindness. Specifically, Jesus helps the disciples understand what it means that Jesus is the Christ, the cost of discipleship, and their journey to Jerusalem.

 

Section IV: 11:1-16:8 Jesus enters Jerusalem and brings an end to the temple. He is the centerpiece of all history and fulfills the reign of God by his faithful and complete obedience. While all fall away, Jesus does not.

11:1-11 Jesus enters Jerusalem and is defined as the centerpiece of all history.

11:12-25 The time of the temple is over.

Subsection 1: 11:27-12:44 Jesus silences the religious authorities as he accents the will of God in the recognition of the whole law.

Subsection 2: 13:1-14:52 Jesus directs the disciples to look to him as they approach Jesus’ death. He shows them that he is the faithful one. In contrast, the disciples (note Judas designation no longer as the one who would betray Jesus but rather as one of the twelve) categorically fail Jesus. All will fall away.

Subsection 3: 14:53-72 Jesus’ faithfulness is contrasted to the failure of the disciples and the leaders of the Jews.

Subsection 4: 15:1-47 Jesus goes to the cross and suffers and dies. Here even the foreigners and unclean fail Jesus. Only Jesus hangs faithful on the cross.

16:1-8 Jesus has risen from the dead just as he has said. He is faithful to his word and calls the believer to follow after him as he leads the believer in a life of discipleship as the believer begins back in Galilee. It is now the believers’ turn to go the way of the cross!