The Gospel According to Mark is the second book of the New Testament and one of the three synoptic gospels in the Bible. Rather than beginning with Jesus’ birth, the Gospel tells of the ministry of Jesus from his baptism to his death and resurrection. Mark keeps Christ’s messianic nature secret, hence no miraculous birth, yet portrays Jesus as a man of action, a miracle worker, a healer and an exorcist. Authorship of the Gospel is unknown, however, it has been dated to around AD 65 - 75, making it the earliest of the four canonical gospels. Originally, scholars attributed the work to Mark the Evangelist, the founder of the Church of Alexandria, who appears in 2 Timothy as Paul’s companion. Another suggestion was John Mark, Paul’s assistant in the Acts of the Apostles. These theories have since been rejected in favour of an anonymous authoritative figure.
The Gospel of Mark was written in Greek for a Gentile audience and contains much of the same contents as the Gospels of Matthew and Luke. Since Mark was written first, it is likely the other Gospel writers were influenced by Mark. Whilst there are many similarities between the synoptic gospels, there are also several differences. Mark’s intention was to reveal a message, although it is also considered to be a historical report.
At the time of writing, there were Jewish-Christians, i.e. Jews who had converted, and new Christians, i.e. Gentiles who had come to believe that Jesus was the Son of God. All four gospels were written with the intent to strengthen the faith of those who already believed rather than to convert non-believers, therefore, Mark did not need to express to his readers Jesus’ divinity, but rather emphasise Christ’s suffering for Man.
There is no obvious structure to the Gospel According to Mark, however, it is generally agreed that it consists of three parts: Galilean Ministry (1-9), Journey to Jerusalem (10) and Events in Jerusalem (11-16). A few contemporary scholars suggest the Gospel is characteristic of a three-act play, perhaps influenced by the structure of a Greek tragedy.
Chapter one opens with prophecies written by Malachi and Isaiah that state, “I will send my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way” (Malachi 1) “a voice of one calling in the wilderness, ‘Prepare the way for the Lord, make straight paths for him.’” (Isaiah 40:3) Although the Gospel is essentially about the life of Jesus, Mark begins by focusing on John the Baptist who had been preaching in the wilderness long before Jesus began his ministry. After this introduction, Jesus appeared and was baptised in the Jordan. (1:9-11) This was followed by a brief account of the testing of Jesus by the Devil (1:12-13). Unlike Matthew who went into some detail about these events, Mark glossed over them, not feeling the need to focus on Jesus’ divine status.
Mark records Jesus calling his disciples, beginning with Peter and Andrew in chapter 1:16-20 and ending with Matthew in chapter 2:13-17. Once Jesus had called most of the disciples together, he began to teach about healing and driving out demons. Before Jesus had called Matthew to be his disciple, he had already performed an exorcism (1:32-34), cured a leper (1:35-45) and healed a paralytic (2:1-12).
In chapters two and three, Jesus’ actions began to anger the Jewish lawmakers, who wanted to know why he was “doing what is unlawful on the Sabbath”. This particular verse comes from chapter 2:23-28 when Jesus and the disciples were seen picking heads of grain on the Sabbath, a day of rest. Jesus reminded them that "The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath”, however, this did not appease them for long. Looking for a reason to accuse Jesus of a crime, the Pharisees pounced when Jesus healed a man’s hand on the Sabbath. Once again, Jesus gave reasoning for his actions, asking, “Which is lawful on the Sabbath: to do good or to do evil, to save life or to kill?” (3:4) After this, the Pharisees began to plot Jesus’ death with the Herodians.
Chapter 4 records a long discourse in parables that Jesus delivered to a crowd of people. Parables include the Parable of the Sower (4:1-9), Lamp under a Bushel (4:21-23), the Mote and the Beam (4:24-25) and the Parable of the Mustard Seed (4:26-32). Although Jesus tried to explain the purpose of the Parables to the disciples, they, according to Mark, failed to understand Jesus’ true identity. Even at the end of the chapter when Jesus calmed a storm by saying to the wind “Quiet! Be still!”, the disciples still did not recognise Jesus as the Son of God. “Who is this? Even the wind and the waves obey him!” (4:35-41)
Acts of healing continue until chapter nine, which marks the end of Jesus’ Galilean ministry. Three miracles occur one after the other in chapter five, beginning with restoring a demon-possessed man. Whilst an exorcism was not new for Jesus, this instance was different from others because the demon spoke saying, “My name is Legion, for we are many.” (5:10) and begged not to be sent out the area. The demon suggested Jesus send them into a heard of pigs instead and Jesus obliged, however, the pigs, unable to cope with the demons inside them, rushed into a lake and were drowned.
Two miracles immediately follow the restoration of the demon-possessed man, which demonstrate the power of faith. A synagogue leader named Jairus specifically sought out Jesus because his daughter was dying. Whilst Jesus was on his way to see the daughter, a woman who had bled for twelve years reached out and touched Jesus’ cloak, believing it would make her well. Jesus told her, “Daughter, your faith has healed you. Go in peace and be freed from your suffering.” (5:34) Meanwhile, Jairus’ daughter had died but Jesus commanded, “Talitha koum!” (5:41; which means “Little girl, I say to you, get up!”), and she did. Only Peter, James and John witnessed this resurrection and Jesus gave them strict orders not to tell anyone.
Miracles continued throughout chapter six, including feeding the 5000 (6:30-44), walking on water (6:45-52), and healing many who touched the fringe of Jesus’ coat (6:53-56). Miracles also took place in chapter seven after a discourse on defilement during which Jesus tells the crowd, “Nothing outside a person can defile them by going into them. Rather, it is what comes out of a person that defiles the.” (7:1-23). Jesus performed another exorcism (7:24-30), healed a deaf-mute (7:31-37), and fed 4000 people (8:1-9).
The narrative of Mark’s Gospel changes during chapter eight when the disciple Peter finally realises that Jesus is the Messiah (8:27-30). Jesus asked Peter not to tell anyone but began to prepare the disciples for his upcoming death. Not having the insight that Peter had, the other disciples did not understand what Jesus meant. Mark records the Transfiguration in chapter nine, which only Peter, James and John witnessed. According to Mark, Jesus told them not to tell anyone until the “Son of Man had risen from the dead”. The disciples did not comprehend what was going to happen and discussed amongst themselves what “rising from the dead” meant.
The unofficial second section of the Gospel According to Mark starts in chapter 10 with the journey to Jerusalem. Along the way, Jesus taught the crowds about divorce (10:2-12), blessed many children (10:13-16), and answered the question “what must I do to inherit eternal life?” (10:17). Arriving in Jerusalem, Jesus was hailed as one “who comes in the name of the Lord!” (11:9-10). Notice Mark does not make reference to Jesus being the Son of God, even Jesus does not refer to himself as such. After Jesus had cleared the Temple courts (11:15-19) and given his famous discourse about the Greatest Commandment (12:28-34) Jesus suggested the Messiah was not the Son of David but did not let on that he was the Messiah.
The Olivet Discourse or Sermon on the Mount - although Mark does not refer to it as such - is contained in chapter 13. Jesus informed his disciples about the destruction of the Temple and the end of times, warning them to “Be on guard! Be alert!” (13:33) Straight after preparing the disciples for the end of the world, Jesus started to prepare himself for his crucifixion, beginning with a meal at the house of Simon the Leper. During the meal, a woman anointed Jesus’ head with a jar of expensive perfume. Jesus told his indignant disciples that this act prepared his body for burial. Judas, on the other hand, could only think about the cost of the perfume and was delighted when the chief priests offered him money to betray Jesus. (14:1-10)
Unlike in the Gospel of Matthew, Mark’s account of the Last Supper does not mention the name of the disciple that is going to betray Jesus, although it is already specified earlier in the chapter. “Truly I tell you, one of you will betray me—one who is eating with me.” (14:18) After the meal, Jesus and his disciples went to a place called Gethsemane to pray. While they were there, Judas arrived with “a crowd armed with swords and clubs” (14:43) who arrested Jesus and took him to the Sanhedrin. Here, Jesus confessed to being the Messiah, however, according to Mark, he continued to refer to himself as the Son of Man, rather than the Son of God. (14:53-65)
When Jesus was questioned by Pilate, Jesus refused to answer the question, “Are you the king of the Jews?” His only response was “You have said so.” With nothing to charge him with, Pilate asked the crowd that had gathered whether he should release Jesus or release a different prisoner, Barabbas. It was customary at Passover to release a prisoner whom the people requested; they chose Barabbas and ordered Jesus to be crucified. (15:1-15) A man from Cyrene called “Simon, the father of Alexander and Rufus” was ordered to carry the cross and Jesus was crucified under the banner “the King of the Jews”. (15:21-37)
Watching in the distance on the day Jesus was crucified were some women. This is where Mark’s account of Jesus’ death differs from Matthew’s. Mark records “Among them were Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James the younger and of Joseph, and Salome.” (15:40) Matthew, on the other hand, sites the names “Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James and Joseph, and the mother of Zebedee’s sons.” (Matthew 27:56) This has led to many debates amongst scholars as to the names of Jesus’ brothers, i.e. James and Joseph. Mark 6:3 had already suggested he had brothers called James, Joseph, Judas and Simon, as well as some unnamed sisters. Mark also records that Jesus was buried by Joseph of Arimathea, a prominent member of the Council and “Mary Magdalene and Mary the mother of Joseph saw where he was laid.” (15:42-47)
Chapter 16 records Mary Magdalene, Mary, the mother of James, and Salome discovering Jesus’ body is no longer in the tomb. A “young man dressed in a white robe sitting on the right side” told them Jesus the Nazarene had risen and sent them to tell Peter, however, they were afraid and told no one. Again, this differs from Matthew’s angel whose “appearance was like lightning, and his clothes were white as snow.” (Matthew 28:3)
Early manuscripts of the Gospel According to Mark ended at chapter 16:8. Since then, an additional 11 verses have been added to cover Jesus’ resurrection, the commissioning of the disciples, and his ascension. It is generally accepted that a different author penned these verses since the style is different from the rest of the Gospel. It was likely added to provide a more satisfactory ending to the book. This ending reveals Jesus rose on the first day of the week and met Mary Magdalene in the garden. Although Mary told the disciples that Jesus had risen, they refused to believe her and were subsequently rebuked by Jesus for having little faith. After Jesus commissioned the eleven to go out and preach the gospel to all creation, “he was taken up into heaven and he sat at the right hand of God.” (16:19).
Although Mark was the earliest Gospel, there are many differences in the way the life of Jesus is told. The disciples, for instance, show very little understanding of Jesus’ purpose and suffering, and yet, when things came to pass as Jesus had said, they ran away in denial. There is debate amongst scholars as to if Mark was attacking the Jewish branch of Christianity for their lack of faith. Others say Mark’s purpose was to emphasise Jesus as the “Suffering Messiah”, suffering alone for the world.
Despite Mark’s secrecy about Jesus being the Messiah, almost a third of the Gospel focuses on Jesus’ miracles, which is proportionally more than any of the other gospels. Most of these twenty parables feature in the other Synoptic Gospels, however, the Parable of the Growing Seed (4:26-29) is unique to Mark. The aforementioned verse "The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath” (2:27) appears in neither Matthew nor Luke and Pilates position was never mentioned - other gospels reveal he was Governor. Interestingly, there is no mention of Samaritans, who feature in both Matthew and Luke.
The Gospel According to Mark is the only Gospel that retains the original Aramaic commands Jesus used during acts of healing. Talitha koum, as already mentioned, was used during the raising of Jairus’ daughter. The other Aramaic phrase is “Ephphatha!” (7:34, which means “Be opened!”) said during the healing of a deaf-mute man.
The biggest difference between Mark and the other gospels is, of course, his reluctance to portray Jesus as a “divine man”. Ultimately, Mark did not want Jesus to be mistaken for a Hercules-like figure; Jesus’ mission was one of suffering and pain rather than glory and conquest. Whereas the later gospels record Jesus’ death as victorious, Mark, on the other hand, emphasises the despair and agony. It is potentially for this reason that Mark originally ended at chapter 16:8 rather than rejoicing that Jesus was alive. Christ’s suffering was a fulfilment of the divine plan.
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Rev'd Martin Wheadon