Mark's Gospel leads readers through a series of events, with little interpretation, apparently in the hope that the readers will gradually form their own opinions of who Jesus is, as did the people who were there are the time. Mark 4:41 indicates the question that Mark hopes we will ask ourselves in response to what Jesus said and did: "What manner of man is this?" The demons recognised Jesus at once; the common people were open-minded and regarded him as a prophet; the powerful rejected him. Thus human power and faith appear to be in tension. Mark's Gospel has traditionally been associated with a lion (one of the four living creatures in Ezekiel 1:4–28 and Revelation chapters 4–6) which represents Jesus "rushing and roaring around Galilee, fighting against evil, until eventually he becomes passive in Jeruslaem, where he suffers and dies horribly alone" [19 p.7].
The disciples make many misguided remarks and questions; it is possible that these are rhetorical, giving context to responses by Jesus that reveal information that we would otherwise lack.
This Gospel is brief yet tells us more tiny details than other contemporary records, showing that it is based on eye-witness testimony. The recollection of Jesus saying the word "Ephphatha" in Mark 7:34 is accompanied by a translation, indicating that the Gospel was written for an audience that did not understand Aramaic. These details show that healing is not a magic wand being waved and all being well immediately, but a process involving struggle. But this is only a hint at a deeper problem, the struggle to proclaim the gospel. In the early chapters of the book, Jesus acquires a reputation for healing which obstructs his freedom to teach. He counters this by appointing disciples (Mark 1:16f), whose task is to learn from him, and forbidding those who have been healed from publicising the fact (Mark 1:44).
The disciples are called (Mark 1:16f), chosen (Mark 3:13f) and sent (Mark 6:7f)—"classic steps in discipleship"; but Jesus shows increasing frustration at the disciples' failure to understand, in Mark 4:13, Mark 6:52, Mark 7:18, and Mark 8:17–18 [2 p.45–46]. Mark might emphasise the disciples' failures in order to goad the reader into trying to understand better than they did. This book announces in the first verse that Jesus is the Son of God, but never explains what that means or what difference it makes. The struggle is laid before every reader.
The author only seems interested in accurately portraying when things happened during Holy Week (p53). He reports John the Baptist's death (Mark 6:14) before Jesus had healed blindness for the first time (Mark 8:23), which John asked about from prison (Matthew 11:5). Others disagree, saying that its apparent simplicity is actually carefully crafted.
Jesus announces the Good News as "the kingdom of God has come near". Both Jesus's teaching (the first half of the book) and passion (the second half) enable us to be reconciled to God.
This Gospel was attributed in antiquity to John Mark (as in Acts 12:12f) by Papias, who added that it included Peter's recollections, though this cannot be confirmed[37 p.300]. The same connection between Mark and Peter appears in Iranaeus's later document Against Heresies; he may have relied on Papias.
The gospel according to Mark is now reckoned by many to be the earliest account, and is thought by some to have been influenced by St Peter. Its factual content is therefore held to be most reliable, but the interpretation of the facts is primitive. For example, when the women visited the tomb early on Easter Sunday, they found "a young man" according to Mark, whereas Matthew's Gospel is quite definite that they saw angels rather than humans. The other Gospel writers are thought to have had Mark's Gospel before them when they wrote, so it is instructive to examine the differences and consider why they were made. See comment on Mark 13:4.
The style of writing implies that the author thought in Aramaic[2 p.39]. He emphasises suddeness, using the word "immediately" frequently, as if he was keen to show that Jesus fulfilled Malachi 3:1–5.
Some theologians say that Mark's was the first Gospel to be written (ignoring Paul's fragment in 1 Corinthians 11). Mark gives no instructions about Christian worship: he omits the Lord's Prayer, the command to repeat communion, and the command to baptise is limited to the missions of the twelve and seventy. Perhaps Mark wrote when Christians were still worshipping with the Jews in the synagogues.
Fowke says that the author was a "focussed" person of the type who lives very much in the present and is keenly observant, as shown by his mention of the grass being green at the time of the feeding of the 5,000 (Mark 6:39).
The first eight chapters have a different emphasis from the last eight; at first Jesus is portrayed as a dynamic leader who teaches the general public and performs miracles, but later he seems more passive and things are done to him, witnessed only by his followers, who hear his explanation. The change occurs at the Transfiguration in chapter 9, which is something that happens to Jesus rather than his own action.
Jesus only performs two healing miracles (9:20 and 10:46) in the second half of the gospel, compared with 22 recorded and many more hinted at in the first half. These miracles are dominated by various kinds of healing of individuals. In many cases it is possible to discern that the miracle not only confirms Jesus's power and authority, but also symbolises something that is happening. So for example the crowds of 5000 (6:38) and 4000 (8:1) stay listening to Jesus long enough to become hungry, because they give priority to their hunger for God; the feeding of the multitude (6:38) and subsequent walking on water (6:49) both fulfilled Old Testament expectations of God; the cursing of the unfruitful fig-tree (11:14) parallels the cleansing of the temple, and the healing of Blind Bartimaeus (10:46) illustrates the blindness of the audience.
Chapter 1 sets a scene of expectation arising from the Old Testament and the words of John the Baptist; chapters 2–7 show Jesus in a dynamic ministry, demonstrating increasing power (from curing a fever to raising the dead, and from calming a storm to walking on water) until he is recognised; the focus then shifts to suffering, and Jesus becomes less in control and increasingly manipulated. Finally the resurrection is announced, leaving us in what Mark saw as the present age.
© David Billin 2002–2023