In August the vestry started reading the Gospel together at the start of our meetings. I divided the first chapter into parts and each person took a part to read; narrator, John the Baptist, Jesus, Pharisees, crowd, leper, etc. When we got done reading, Patrick Getlein turned to me and asked if I’d edited or abbreviated the Gospel when I broke it into parts. When I told him that we read it exactly as it was written and translated in to English according the New Revised Standard Version, he said, “Wow, it’s really choppy.” Another person chimed in, “and fast.” In just one chapter, Jesus has been baptized, fled to the desert, called his disciples, cast out demons, left on his own to go pray, and healed Peter’s mother and a leper. Everything does happens fast in this Gospel, and in fact, the word “immediately” appears at least 5 times in some form in the first chapter. Immediately, immediately, immediately. It is the shortest and most concise of the three Gospels. Jesus is, according to the author of Mark, a man of action.
Megan Limburg who teaches the Gospel of Mark to her elementary students and tells them to imagine the author of Mark writing while running as a way to remember this characteristic Mark. Another person remarked that, through the author of Mark, Jesus was perhaps the first person to tweet. These are fun and helpful ways to remember this characteristic, as well as the circumstances in which this Gospel was written and for whom it was written.
When was the Gospel of Mark written? Mark was the first of the Gospels to be written, but it was not the earliest of the writings we have in the New Testament. Written somewhere between 65 and 75 CE, Mark was compiled after every single one of Paul’s letters to the early Christian Churches were written and circulating, sometime in the fifties. Until that time, the stories of Jesus were told orally and had not been compiled together as a whole. While Paul’s letters were written to specific Christian communities to address specific issues, the author of the Gospel of Mark was the first to the compile the story of Jesus’ life and ministry in “sequential order with a beginning, a middle and an end,” about 40 years after the historical life of Jesus. “When the books first words ring out, ‘The beginning of the Gospel of Jesus Christ,’ they also mark the beginning of the Gospels – the first full story about Jesus.”
As the first Gospel, Mark provides significant source material for two other of the four Gospels, Matthew and Luke, which were written a decade or so later. Consequently, about 90% of Mark is also in Matthew and about two-thirds of Mark is in Luke. In other words, Matthew and Luke significantly expand on Mark based on the message those authors were seeking to convey and possibly using another source that is no longer in existence. For this reason, Matthew, Mark and Luke are referred to as the “Synoptic” Gospels (to be seen together), and the parallel stories can be studied side by side.
Who was the author of the Gospel of Mark? When it was written, the gospel had no title; it simply began, “The beginning of the good news…” The titles were not given to the Gospels until sometime in the 2nd century, based on the tradition that had developed in the early church. There are two second century documents that point to someone named Mark as the author, though some scholars don’t find a lot of evidence to support a Jewish author. The Mark of tradition is John Mark, the son of a Christian woman from a Jerusalem house church referenced in Acts and who became a co-worker of Barnabus and Paul.
What was happening at the time it was written? I mentioned that Megan Limburg teaches her students to imagine the author of Mark as writing on the run as a way to remember the characteristics and context of the Gospel. It’s important to remember that many of the earliest Christians were Jewish. Christianity was, initially, a movement within the Jewish community, and it wasn’t until the late part of the first century that the Christian movement broke from the Jewish religion.
Mark’s audience probably included both Christian Jews and Christian Gentiles because it includes some basic explanations of Jewish practices that wouldn’t have been necessary if the entire audience were Jewish.
We know from the Gospels and other ancient documents that the Jewish people living under Roman occupation had a very fractious relationship with their occupiers. By the time of the writing of Mark, Jews living in Rome, one of the possible locations of the writing of the Gospel, had been evicted three times and then allowed to return. Then in the 60s, a great fire swept through Rome, completely destroying much of the city. The emperor Nero was suspected of setting the fire so that he could begin a massive building project. To deflect attention from himself, he began looking for scapegoats, which he found among the Christian Jews. Soldiers went from door to door demanding that Christians be handed over. Anyone who professed to be a Christian or who was accused of being a Christian was seized and publicly executed, and the Roman community of Christian Jews was utterly destroyed, including the two great leaders of Christianity, Peter and Paul.
Not long after that, there was another Jewish revolt against the Roman regime and this time the Romans responded by “re-conquoring Galilee in the north and then making their way south to Judea and Jerusalem. In 70, they re-conquered Jerusalem, destroyed the city, and demolished the temple that had been rebuilt after its destruction by the Babylonian Empire about six centuries earlier.
At the time of the writing of the Gospel of Mark, Jews, Christian Jews, and Christian Gentiles throughout the Roman Empire were utterly surrounded by death and destruction. For this reason, Mark has been referred to as “a war time Gospel.”
What are the significant themes in Mark? As a result of this context, there are a couple of significant themes that run through the Gospel of Mark.
Suffering and Hope: Mark begins by declaring that this writing is “good news,” and it is meant to be exactly that. However, while Mark portrays Jesus as speaking the good news of forgiveness and love and inclusion, it’s clear that being a Christian is not easy. It’s about suffering as well. Mark presents Jesus as the suffering servant and those who follow Jesus must follow in his footsteps of self-denial. It is said that Detrich Bonhoeffer’s famous saying could well have been planted by Mark: “When Christ calls a man, he bids him come and die.”
Consequently Mark uses a lot of metaphors that speak to suffering, fear, estrangement, challenge and uncharted territory, including many references to the wilderness, the desert, and bodies of water. These references, however, are always coupled with hope because Mark’s gospel is what it claims to be “good news!”
Jesus as Teacher: I noted that Mark’s Jesus is a man of action, in this Gospel we don’t find some of Jesus’ most familiar teachings. There is no Sermon on the Mount, no Lord’s Prayer, and no parable of the Good Samaritan and the Prodigal Son. Nevertheless, Mark refers to Jesus as a teacher nearly 40 times in the Gospel, so he is clearly considered a “remarkable teacher.” Perhaps for Mark, Jesus is a teacher who teaches by doing and those who learn do so by following.
Messianic Secret: Another theme is how Jesus’ role as the Messiah is portrayed throughout the Gospel. Mark tends to “shroud this role in secrecy, waiting for the final weeks of Jesus life to announce his identity as the Christ.” In fact Jesus is not portrayed as proclaiming his identity as Messiah as part of his public message. The few affirmations of Jesus as the Messiah in Mark occur in private, but not part of Jesus’ public teaching about himself.
Who was the audience? I’ve already noted several times that Mark starts with the statement, “The beginning of the Good News of Jesus Christ, son of God.” Unlike Matthew and Luke, there is no birth narrative and not one reference to Jesus’ life prior to his baptism by John in the Jordan. Perhaps even more intriguing, Mark does not include any post-resurrection appearances by Jesus to his disciples. He simply ends with the empty tomb. Perhaps more than any other Gospel, Mark invites the reader to be the primary audience of the story of Jesus’ life. The beginning of the good news implies that this story – Jesus’ historical life and ministry – was only the beginning of the Good News that Jesus would bring to people. It’s ongoing, and continues to unfold in our lives today. We can understand the conclusion with the empty tomb similarly. It is up to all of us to know Jesus’ resurrection through the experience of the risen Lord in our lives. This is what makes the Gospel of Mark such a great Gospel to really read and enjoy and inwardly digest. It makes it a great example of the “true and lively Word” of God. The imagined audience is, ultimately, you and me. So “read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest” the Gospel of Mark. Receive the Good News of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.
- Borg, Marcus J. Conversations with Scripture: The Gospel of Mark. Harrisonburg-New York: Morehouse Publishing, 2009.
- Schwenk, Robert. Focus on Mark: A Study Guide for Groups and Individuals (Revised Edition). Denver CO: Church Publishing Incorporated, 2006
- Shaia, Alexander J. and Gaugy, Michelle. The Hidden Power of the Gospels: Four Questions, Four Paths, One Journey. New York, NY: Harper Collins Publishers, 2010.
- Yale Divinity School Bible Study. The Gospel of Mark: General Introduction. New Canaan, CT: 2010. http://www.godsacre.org/adult_education.htm