The shortest of the four Gospels, and consequently the easiest to read through at a sitting.
Tradition identifies the author as John Mark, nephew of Barnabas. John was his Jewish name and Mark his Roman name. He is referred to in Acts 12:12,25; 13:5,13; 15:36-40; Col 4:10; Phm 24; 2 Tim 4:11; 1 Pet 5:13. Tradition adds that he founded the church in Alexandria, was engaged in ministry in North Africa, and was martyred in Alexandria in about AD 68.
Mark is believed to have based his account on the testimony of Peter. The reporting of an eyewitness is seen in the reference to the gestures of the Lord, Mk 1:41; 3:5; 5:30; 7:33,34; 8:12,23, to the time of day, Mk 1:32,35; 4:35, to personal names, Mk 1:30; 3:16,17; 6:16, and to place names, Mk 2:13; 6:32; 11:4. See also Mk 6:39. His is generally considered to be the earliest of the four Gospels, written some time after AD 50.
Eusebius cites Papias (c.AD 60-130), who in turn quotes the elder John: ‘Mark, having become the interpreter of Peter, wrote down accurately everything that he remembered, without however recording in order what was either said or done by Christ.’
Much modern critical scholarship maintains that the internal evidence ‘hardly suggests, far less supports’ the traditional attribution. (Telford, A Dictionary of Biblical Interpretation). We find this unduly sceptical, to say the least.
This Gospel is regarded as having been written particularly for a Roman readership. It reflects the Roman preference for action rather than words. Accordingly, the longer discourses of Jesus are omitted or abbreviated, whereas the Saviours deeds are described with vividness and a feeling of energy. Consisted, too, with a mainly Gentile readership is Mark’s care in explaining Aramaic expressions, Mk 3:17; 5:41; 7:11; 9:43; 10:46; 14:36; 15:22,34, and in explaining Jewish customs, Mk 7:2-4,11; 14:12; 15:6,42.
Mark has fewer OT references than Matthew or Luke. Nevertheless, there is a strong sense that Jesus fulfills the OT expectations of a Messiah.
Relationship to Matthew and Luke
The view supported by Augustine, and long held in the church, was that Mark was an abridgement of Matthew. Recent scholarship, however, has reversed this opinion, and maintains that Mark was used as a source by Matthew and Luke.
Mark is now generally held to be the first of the four Gospels to have been written. Matthew and Luke, while having much in common with Mark, share additional material (often referred to as a putative document called ‘Q’) that is not found in Mark.
Cranfield asserts a high degree of historical reliability on the part of Mark, for the following reasons:-
1. The presence in Mark of a number of features liable to perplex or offend, which are smoothed out or omitted by Matthew and Luke. [Williams gives as examples: ‘According to Mk 15:34 Jesus died asking why God had forsaken him. It is not likely that people would make up such a saying if it hadn’t really occurred. According to Mk 7:27, Jesus told a non-Jewish woman (a Gentile) that it was not right to take that which belonged to the Jews and throw it to ‘dogs’, meaning Gentiles.’]
2. The fact that the Church’s use of the title ‘Lord’ with reference to Jesus is not reflected in this Gospel as it is in Matthew and Luke.
3. The striking contrast between the presence of vivid detail in passages which may plausibly be traced back to Peter and the absence of this detail elsewhere suggests that when Mark did not find such detail in his sources, he did not presume to invent it.
4. A similar restraint in linking between various sections. When Mark received an isolated tradition-unit, he refrained from creating an artificial context for it, but simply introduced it with kai.
5. Further restraint is shown by Mark’s willingness to leave material arranged in topical order, as it came in his sources, rather than put it into some supposed chronological order.
Peter Williams adds the following considerations:-
1. Mark was a relatively obscure person, and there would have been no reason for his name to be attached to the Gospel unless he was actually the author.
2. The Gospel has traces both of Latin (supporting the idea that it was written by someone living in Rome) and of Aramaic (supporting the idea that it was based on the information given by a native of Palestine. ‘The Latin word speculator is used for the executioner (Mk 6:27) and the Latin word centurio occurs rather than the Greek word for centurion (Mk 15:39, 44, 45). A Latin name is also given for a coin, the quadrans (Mk 12:42). Yet at the same time, the author knows Palestine sufficiently that he can quote a number of words in Aramaic, which was spoken there. These appear in Mk 5:41; 7:11, 34; 14:36; 15:22, 34.’
3. Hallmarks of Jesus’ teaching. Mark ascribes to Jesus forms of speech and methods of teaching that were not current in early Christian discourse, strongly suggesting that these were not invented by the early church, but rather emanate from Jesus himself. Examples; referring to himself as ‘Son of Man’; use of parables, avoidance of applying to himself titles that were later used of him; avoidance of topics (such as the relationship between Jews and Gentiles, how the churches should be organised) that became of interest to the early Christians).
3. The manuscript evidence for Mark’s Gospel is far better than for most classical works. The earliest extensive manuscript dates from around AD 225.
Influence of Peter
Writing in Rome in the middle of the 2nd century AD, Justin Martyr writes:-
“It is said that he [Jesus] changed the name of one of the apostles to Peter, and it is written in his memoirs that he changed the names of others, two brothers, the sons of Zebedee, to Boanerges, which means ‘sons of thunder’ ”
Now, Justin always refers to the Gospels as ‘memoirs’, and the only Gospel which refers to the sons of Zebedee as ‘Boanerges’ (‘sons of thunder’) is Mark’s (Mk 3:17). Therefore, if by ‘his memoirs’ Justin means ‘Peter’s memoirs’ (and not ‘Jesus’ memoirs’) then we have clear evidence that Mark’s Gospel is, in effect ‘Peter’s Gospel’.
(See the relevant article by N. Perrin in DJG, 2nd ed).
Richard Bauckham (Jesus and the Eyewitnesses) notes that in Mark’s portrayal of Peter, there is no indication of his later pre-eminent role, such as we find in Matt 16:13-19; Luke 22:31-32; and John 21:4-19. This fact suggests that the future pre-eminence of Peter among the apostles does not explain his prominence in Mark’s Gospel. This prominence can best be explained by the hypothesis that Peter’s preaching was one of the sources (quite possibly the main source) for Mark’s Gospel.
Some critics have doubted that Peter’s testimony could lie behind Mark’s Gospel on the ground that Mark includes so few personal reminiscences of Peter. Peter is always aligned with the other disciples, never appears alone with Jesus, and is rarely spoken to individually by him. But, says Bauckham, we should not think of an aged Peter reminiscing to Mark about his time with Jesus. Rather, we should think of an apostle fulfilling his commission to preach the gospel, re-telling the stories of Jesus that he had been telling throughout his life as an apostle. We should also bear in mind the role of Mark, who has clearly been quite selective in choosing material for this, the shortest Gospel.
Under close examination, Mark’s Gospel shows the viewpoint of someone close to Peter. Compared with the other Gospel writers, Mark is more inclined to play down or overlook some of the foolish things Peter did. In the story of Jesus walking on the water, Mark, like John but unlike Matthew, neglects to tell us that Peter tried the same feat and fell in. (Mt 14:25-31; Mk 6:45-51; Jn 6:16-21) In the Garden of Gethsemane, Peter inflicted one minor casualty in a swashbuckling but ineffectual attempt to defend Jesus with a sword. He tried to split Malchus’s head, but cut off his ear instead. Mark, like the other Synoptic writers but unlike John, leaves the perpetrator of this deed unnamed. (Mt 26:51; Mk 14:47; Lk 22:50; Jn 18:10) Mark, like Luke but unlike Matthew, attaches a weak excuse for the stupid irrelevancies blurted by Peter during the Transfiguration. (Mt 17:4; Mk 9:6; Lk 9:33) When Jesus on one occasion desired to know who touched His garment, Peter rebuked Him by pointing out that He was surrounded by people. (Lk 8:45) Mark, the only writer besides Luke to record the insolent reply, assigns it to the disciples collectively. (Mk 5:31)
According to tradition, this Gospel was written at the urgent request of believers in Rome. However, there are indications that it was intended not only for them. See Mk 1:37; 10:45; 12:9; 13:10; 16:15 (acknowledging that the last reference is disputed).
Hendriksen: ‘That it was composed for a non-Jewish public would seem to follow from the fact that such Semitic terms and expressions as boanerges (Mk 3:17), talitha cumi (Mk 5:41), corban (Mk 7:11), ephphatha (Mk 7:34), and Abba (Mk 14:36) are by Mark translated into Greek. Moreover, the author explains Jewish customs (Mk 7:3, 4; 14:12; 15:42). And as to this Gospel’s origin in Rome note that at times Mark renders Greek into Latin. He mentions that the two lepta (‘copper coins’) which the poor widow cast into the offering box amounted to one Roman quadrans (‘penny’, Mk 12:42), and that the aule (‘palace’) into which the soldiers led Jesus was the praetorium (the governor’s official residence, Mk 15:16).’
Presentation of Jesus
‘Mark is…the most ready of the four Evangelists to portray the humanness of Jesus, including his sorrow (Mk 14:34), disappointment (Mk 8:12), displeasure (Mk 10:14), anger (Mk 11:15–17), amazement (Mk 6:6), fatigue (Mk 4:38), and even ignorance (Mk 13:32).’ (Edwards)
Hendriksen: ‘The Christology implied throughout in Mark’s Gospel is that, to begin with, Jesus is thoroughly human. He eats (Mk 2:16) and drinks (Mk 15:36). He becomes hungry (Mk 11:12). He touches people (Mk 1:41) and is touched by them (Mk 5:27). He becomes grieved (Mk 3:5) and indignant (Mk 10:14). He falls asleep from fatigue and is awakened (4:38, 39). He asks that a boat be provided for him, so that he may not be crushed (Mk 3:9). He (for a while) plies a trade; he has a mother, brothers and sisters (Mk 6:3). Viewed as a man, his knowledge is limited (Mk 13:32), so that he turns around to see who has touched him (Mk 5:30), and walks up to a fig tree to see whether it has edible fruit (Mk 11:13). He has a human body (Mk 15:43) and a human spirit (Mk 2:8). He even dies (Mk 15:37)!’
However, as Hendriksen remarks, the Jesus of Mark’s Gospel ‘is thoroughly divine’:
‘The ‘Son of man’ (Mk 2:10, 28; etc.) is also ‘Son of God’ (Mk 1:1; 3:11; etc.). The One whom Mark describes reigns supreme in the realm of disease, demons, and death. As such he heals diseases of every variety, casts out demons (Mk 1:32-34), cures the blind, the deaf, etc. (Mk 8:22-26; 1:46-52), cleanses the leper (Mk 1:40-45), and even raises the dead (5:21-24, 35-43). He exercises power over the domain of nature in general; for he stills winds and waves (Mk 4:35-41), walks on water (6:48), causes a fig tree to wither (11:13, 14, 20), and multiplies a few rolls so that they suffice to satisfy the hunger of thousands (6:30-44; 8:1-10). His knowledge of the future is so detailed and comprehensive that he predicts what will happen to Jerusalem, to the world, to his disciples (chapter 13), and to himself (Mk 8:31; 9:9, 21; 10:32-34; 14:17-21). He knows what is in men’s hearts (Mk 2:8; 12:15), and knows their circumstances (Mk 12:44). His authority is so outstanding that he pronounces pardon in a manner befitting God and no one else (Mk 2:1-12, especially verses 5 and 6). The climax of his majesty is revealed in this that when he is put to death he rises again (Mk 16:6)!’
Mk 1:1 – 8:30 deals primarily with the person of Christ, ending with Peter’s confession: “You are the Christ.”
Mk 8:31 – end focuses on the work of Christ, beginning with the words, ‘He then began to teach them that the Son of Man must suffer may things…and that he must be killed and after three days rise again.’
What to look out for in Mark’s Gospel
Tim Chester has written a short piece on ‘What to look out for in Mark’s Gospel’. What follows is a précis.
The big question in Mark’s Gospel is ‘Who is this?’ (Mk 4:41). Who is Jesus and what has he come to do?
1. The King who must die
Right at the beginning, Mark introduces us to Jesus as the Messiah and Son of God (Mk 1:1). Messiah (Christ) means ‘anointed one’, and this reminds us that the kings of Israel were anointed with oil. Jesus is the promised King. The first half of Mark’s Gospel is full of evidence of Jesus’ God-given, kingly authority. Then comes the climax in Mk 8:29 – ‘You are the Messiah’.
Immediately, however, Jesus says he must die. This was not at all what his hearers expected. A Messiah was expected to overthrow the Romans and restore the nation of Israel. So chapters 9-16 are about the necessity of Jesus’ death and what it means to follow him. And the second half of the Gospel finishes where the first half started – with a confession of Jesus as the Son of God (Mk 15:39).
2. Secrets and silences
At the beginning of the Gospel, Jesus seems to fit the expectation of God’s king and God’s kingdom coming in power. But soon opposition starts the mount. Can he really be Israel’s king? The parables recorded in Mk 4 explore themes of acceptance and rejection, power and peace, truth revealed and truth concealed.
Surprisingly, Jesus often told people not to talk about who he is (Mk 1:25; 3:12; 8:30; 9:9). The point is that he does not want them to proclaim him as king until they realise what sort of king he is – not a king who will conquer the Romans, but rather a king who must die.
3. Sight and insight
Mark often refers to physical sight or blindness as pictures of their spiritual equivalents. Not everyone ‘sees’ the kingdom for what it is, Mk 4:11-12. He refers to those who ‘have eyes but fail to see, and ears but fail to hear?’ (Mk 8:18). His healings of blind people illustrate what he can do for those who are spiritually blind, Mk 8:17-29; 10:35-52).
4. Fear and faith
Mark often refers to fear and faith as two alternative responses to Jesus. See, for example, Mk 4:40 and Mk 16:8 (probably the original ending of the Gospel).
5. Who is this?
It’s all about Jesus. So, as you read Mark’s Gospel, keep asking:-
- Who is Jesus?
- What has Jesus come to do?
- How do people respond to him?
- How do I respond to him?