A REVIEW OF THE GOSPEL OF MARK
Often regarded as the earliest of the four Gospels, the Book of Mark was written within perhaps thirty years of the time of Christ’s death and alleged resurrection. Although it is an anonymous book, meaning that the true author is unknown and that the title of Mark was added at a later date, ancient tradition ascribes this Gospel to one John Mark, a disciple of both Peter and Paul, who is said to have completed it at Rome as a summary of Peter’s preaching. The text shows considerable knowledge of Palestine and the Aramaic language (i.e. that spoken by Jesus Christ) with occasional Latin references which suggest the influence of Roman culture.
Originally written in Koine, being the traditional language of the Greeks, the Gospel of Mark is the least polished of the four Gospels, although the author reveals a talent for quite graphic description. The narrative opens not with the birth of Jesus in Bethlehem but with the preaching of John the Baptist who represents the fulfillment of Old Testament prophecy. Following the baptism and temptation of Jesus, Mark relates his messianic ministry and then quickly takes the reader to the climax, being the week of Jesus’ passion at Jerusalem which culminates in the crucifixion.
According to a number of theologians and scholars, the purpose and arrangement of the Gospel of Mark is primarily historical and “aims to trace a genuine sequence of historical cause and effect. . . with material arranged to illustrate different aspects of Christian truth” (Peterson 189). Other scholars, such as A.E.J. Rawlinson, consider the emphasis in the Gospel of Mark as being focused on “the passion of the Christ and the disciple’s suffering with him and purely directed toward those who might expect to suffer martyrdom at Rome” (Peterson 190); J.H. Ropes posits the question, “is the Gospel of Mark a simple, artless work in which it is fruitless to try to find any pattern or is it a highly theological work to be classed with the Gospel of John?” (Barclay 67). Thus, it is evident from the diversity of scholarly opinion that the author has inserted much mystery and secrecy into the text in association with the telling of the teachings, acts and person of Jesus Christ.
As to the intended audience in relation to the Gospel of Mark, it remains unclear whether or not the author’s aim was to influence his fellow Christians or to simply tell the story of Jesus Christ as an historical event. Since the author was obviously inspired by his mentors, being Peter and Paul, the Gospel of Mark is a “renewal of prophecy in Israel through the Spirit which encompasses the hallmark of the earthly ministry of Jesus” (Barclay 178) which, in essence, provides a message to all Christians filled with hope, faith and reverence for God’s works on Earth.
Generally speaking, the Gospel of Mark is a very appropriate theological work for those who adhere to the principles of Christianity, for it presents the story of Jesus almost from a first-hand account; however, it is clear that the author has based this book on the accounts of other individuals, such as Paul and Peter, which makes it a chronicle of historical events based on subjectivity. Yet the Gospel of Mark, at least for Christians, serves as additional support for the life and times of Jesus Christ, especially when it is placed in the context of the other Gospels, such as John, Matthew and Luke.
According to J. Macrory, writing for the Catholic Encyclopedia, the contents of the Gospel of Mark “deals chiefly with the Galilean ministry of Christ and the events of the last week at Jerusalem.” At the beginning, the author briefly relates the baptism and temptation of Jesus, and then proceeds to describe his “ministry, passion, death and resurrection,” followed by a summary on “some appearances of the risen Lord” and some references to “the ascension and the universal preaching of the Gospel” (”Gospel of Saint Mark,” Internet). Obviously, the author of this Gospel is “much more concerned with Christ’s acts than with his discourses” and seems to be fascinated with the miracles ascribed to Jesus which comprise almost a quarter of the entire book. The objective appears to be “a desire to impress the readers from the outset with Christ’s almighty power and dominion over all nature” (”Gospel of Saint Mark,” Internet).
As to the writing style of the author of the Gospel of Mark, William Barclay notes that this book “is well-known for its lack of high quality in style which resembles colloquial speech as it was used during the writer’s time.” The style is also very monotonous, due in part to the writer’s “failure to supply connecting links between sentences and a number of paragraphs” (256). However, the style itself is quite effective in its use of persuasion through example, meaning that the author provides stories on Jesus that are meant to sway the reader into accepting what he is saying as the “gospel” truth.
The use of the persuasion through example style greatly supports the overall theme found in the Gospel of Mark, namely, that Jesus Christ was the Son of God and was sent to Earth as man’s savior against sin and corruption. The title of this book, besides the obvious “Gospel According to St. Mark” as referenced in the King James Version of the New Testament, is actually “The beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God” (1:1) which conveys the suggestion that what follows is the message of salvation through faith in Jesus Christ, being the fulfillment of the prophecy quoted in the Book of Isaiah in the Old Testament which Mark quotes also (”As it is written in the prophets, Behold I send my messenger before thy face which shall prepare thy way before thee,” 1:2). Thus, the title or the opening verse “provides insight into the author’s purpose to relate how the doctrine of salvation through faith in Jesus Christ came into being through the ministries of John the Baptist and Jesus himself” (Peterson 167).
In verse 1:3, the author introduces John the Baptist as “The voice of one crying out in the wilderness” who “prepares ye the way of the Lord, (to) make his path straight.” John the Baptist is further described as baptizing “in the wilderness” and preaching “the baptism of repentance for the remission of sins” (1:4). And in 1:7, John the Baptist declares that “There cometh one mightier than I after me, the latchet of whose shoes I am not worthy to stoop down and unloose.” All of this greatly strengthens what follows, for it places Jesus in the position of deliverer, especially when he comes “from Nazareth of Galilee” and is baptized “by John in (the River) Jordan” (1:9).
From this point on, John the Baptist disappears from the story and is replaced by Jesus who occupies the remainder of the text. In verse 1:10, the reader is given the first indication that Jesus is under the spell of the Holy Spirit, for after rising from the waters of the River Jordan, he sees “the heavens opened and the Spirit like a dove descending upon him.” A voice then declares “Thou art my beloved Son, in whom I am well-pleased” (1:11). Afterwards, Jesus is ordered into the desert by God to experience the temptations of Satan, God’s arch-enemy and fallen angel. These two verses unify the conception of human salvation via the declaration that Jesus is the Son of God and that Satan shall be conquered by God and His Son.
The actual ministry of Jesus Christ commences with verses 14 and 15, which mentions that John the Baptist has been put in prison by Herod Antipas and that Jesus is to begin his preaching of the gospel “of the kingdom of God” by stating “the time is fulfilled and the kingdom of God is at hand: repent ye, and believe the gospel.” But the ministry of Jesus truly begins when he meets up with Simon and Andrew and says to them, “Come ye after me, and I will make you to become fishers of men” (1:17), meaning that Simon and Andrew are to be the first of Jesus’ disciplines. This is yet another strong point in the text, for it supports the suggestion that Jesus has the power of God within him which allows others to be enlisted in his quest to save mankind from corruption and sin.
When at Caesarea Philippi, Jesus’ identity is questioned, and the author thus provides some background as to this question. First, when Jesus enters the synagogue at Capernaum, those in attendance are “astonished by his doctrine, for he taught them as one that had authority and not as the scribes” (1:22). In verse 28, as a result of Jesus’ teachings in the synagogue, “immediately, his fame spread abroad throughout all the region round about Galilee.” Once again, the strength of these verses illustrates that Jesus is a power to be reckoned with, due to his knowledge and God’s proclamation that he is the only Son of God.
Jesus then recruits other disciples, such as James and John, and decides to spread the Word of God to other parts of the region while doing good deeds, like miraculously healing the sick and the blind. As a symbol of his personality, Jesus does not accept the role of prophet and then forbids his disciples to spread the idea that he is the messiah, due to “the contemporary messianic ideals of the Jews which he rejected” (Barclay 234). For the first time, this appears to be a weakness in the text, for after all of the exposition on Jesus as the Son of God, the “expected One,” the author throws the reader into a contradictory quandary, for how could Jesus be prophetized as the Son of God while not acknowledging his role as the Messiah?
However, in Chapter 8, verse 31, Jesus clears up any questions concerning his role as the Messiah, for he states that “the Son of Man must suffer many things, and be rejected of the elders, and of the chief priests, and scribes, and be killed. . .,” an indication that Jesus will die at the hands of his enemies. The disciples find this rather hard to accept, possibly because they realize that their involvement as one of Jesus’ disciples might contribute to their master’s death and suffering. Yet in Chapter 9, verses 2 thru 8, we find the so-called “transformation” event in which Jesus takes Peter, James and John up into the mountains where Jesus is “transformed” (”his raiment became shining, exceeding white as snow,” verse 3) and where Elias and Moses miraculously appear before them. Soon after, there appears a cloud “that overshadowed them, and a voice came out of the cloud, saying, this is my beloved Son: hear him” (verse 7).
All of this occurs in the second half of the Gospel of Mark which up until its conclusion focuses on “the teachings of Jesus and several miracle stories, such as the possessed boy, the blind Bartimaeus, and the withering of the fig tree” (Peterson 256). The seeming contradiction in Chapter 8 concerning Jesus as the Messiah is thus overcome by this “transformation” event which by its very nature symbolizes the true position of Jesus as the savior of mankind, due to being “transformed” by God his Father.
One of the most important areas in the Gospel of Mark is the passion narrative which begins with the priests plotting the death of Jesus and concludes with the crucifixion. First of all, the prophesies associated with the passion commence with Jesus’ anointing at Bethany (”There came a woman having an alabaster box of ointment. . . she brake the box and poured it on his (Jesus’) head” (14:3), then proceeds through the betrayal of Judas Iscariot who “went unto the chief priests to betray (Jesus) unto them” (14:10), the words of Jesus at the Last Supper (the “Eucharist”)—”Jesus took bread, and blessed, and brake it, and gave it unto them, and said, Take, eat: this is my body. . . And he took the cup. . . he gave it to them, and they all drank from it. . . This is my blood of the new testament” (verses 22, 23, 24), and the arrest of Jesus (”cometh Judas. . .and with him a great multitude with swords and staves,” verse 43).
Another important aspect of this passion narrative is Peter’s denial of Jesus. In verse 28, Jesus says, “But after that I am risen, I will go before you into Galilee;” Peter responds with “Although all shall be offended, yet will not I,” whereby Jesus replies, “Verily I say unto thee, that this day, even in this night, before the cock crow twice, thou shalt deny me thrice” (verses 29,30). This event is yet another strong piece of evidence for the otherworldly personality of Jesus Christ, for this shows that, along with being able to heal the sick, he can also foretell the future.
In Chapter 15, verses 24 thru 26, the author of the Gospel of Mark relates that “And when they had crucified him, they parted his garments, casting lots upon them, what every man should take/And it was the third hour, and they crucified him/And the superscription of his accusation was written over (his head)—THE KING OF THE JEWS.” Although Jesus was by birth Jewish, the fact that he went against the priests of the temple and condemned them for practicing their “new religion” which contradicted the laws of Moses, makes it appear unusual that his executors would place a sign above him reading “King of the Jews.”
The passion narrative then reaches its conclusion when the Roman centurion, standing beside the cross on Golgotha, observes “Truly, this man was the Son of God” (15:39). This statement is cleverly placed, for it takes the reader all the way back to the beginning of the gospel which “recalls the title and expresses the Christian faith in the pure value of the death of Jesus as a redemptive act” (Barclay 312).
The completeness of the Gospel of Mark lies in its continuity or the progression of its various segments that put together relate an entire story with a beginning, a middle and an end. Thus, its argument is very persuasive, due to the fact that within this gospel, one can find a literary structure made up of somewhat brief but clear sections of material based on eye-witness accounts and historical myth.
In some of these sections, one can find chronological time frames; in others, there are single broad themes, such as Jesus being the Son of God and his attitude toward Jewish custom and religious ritual. However, the author of this gospel has not presented his argument consistently, for he profoundly focuses upon certain themes and events while allowing others to fall to the wayside which might be explained by “the absence of an attempt to achieve a level of unity within the text of the gospel” (Peterson 356).
In regard to the author’s neglect of facts and evidence in the Gospel of Mark, it is difficult to ascertain such things in a work of this nature, due to its adherence on faith as the guiding principle for accepting what the author has written. However, early Biblical scholars, such as Origen and Hilary of Poitiers, realized that paying close attention to the precise wording in the text could bring about new spiritual meaning.
Also, they assumed that “without indulging in allegory,” they could “read a much more precise meaning into the words than the author had ever intended when he first sat down to write his gospel” (Peterson 378). According to Origen, the Book of Matthew concerns the genesis of Jesus Christ, the Book of Mark describes his gospel as the beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ and the Book of Luke describes his gospel as concerned with all that Jesus began both to do and to teach (Barclay 337).
But more important than searching for the lack of evidence in this gospel is the interpretation of the text itself which, by pure accident, may reveal inconsistencies. In the case of Origen, he had convinced himself that in producing an allegorical interpretation of even the smallest details of the text that he was not placing his own meaning on it. For the Christian, this is very essential, for “Just as man must read God’s handwriting in the natural order of things, so he must read the intended meaning of God’s carefully chosen words as they appear in the scriptures” (Barclay 389).
In such a work as the Gospel of Mark, evidence actually means nothing, for it is, in essence, a representative example of subjectivity, meaning that the author has inserted his own subjective viewpoint into the text. Also, since this gospel is a religious text, the use of evidence is not necessary, for the reader must depend on his/her own faith in order to appreciate what the author has written.
And since this gospel is so far removed from the present, the insertion of alleged historical incidents is also irrelevant, for the reader cannot possibly know whether or not these incidents actually happened, due to the fact that the reader was not present at the time of the occurrence and the lack of substantial archeological proof.
In summation, the Gospel of Mark contains a very powerful message to the Christian and to those that study and appreciate Biblical scholarship. The strengths within the text have much to do with the descriptions of Jesus and his disciples, the various miracles, the Eucharist, Peter’s denial, the Last Supper, the betrayal of Judas Iscariot and finally the crucifixion itself and the final words of the Roman centurion (”Truly, this was the Son of God”). Compared to some of the other gospels in the New Testament, being Matthew, John and Luke, that of Mark is somewhat weak in its literary structure, especially in how it moves from one event to another without actually providing any in-depth analysis or detail.
Clearly, the overall purpose of this gospel is as a teaching tool, for the author does not create any new religious views on the person and role of Jesus Christ but in truth goes along quite beautifully with the other gospels. Yet there appears to be some lacking in the way the author describes or relates certain persons and events, yet he does clearly outline the importance of the twelve disciples and their mission on Earth. One additional weakness lies in what is known as Christology, being the theological interpretation of the person and work of Christ. Most scholars question exactly what the author means by the term “Son of Man,” yet it has been agreed upon that the author “incorporated this term as he had found it within tradition” and that “the role of Jesus as the suffering Son of Man was to be capstoned by his resurrection” (Barclay 389).
As for the Gospel of Mark’s audience, most of the readers of this text are clearly Christian-oriented or are Biblical scholars in search of meaning and truth. For Christians, its usefulness is obvious, for it strengthens their faith and provides spiritual sustenance; for the scholar, it provides food for thought and forces one to delve deeper into the mysteries of Jesus Christ. But of course, the Gospel of Mark serves a truly vast audience, for it relays philosophical tenets that can be easily recognized by any human being regardless of their race, religion or even the lack of it.
Barclay, William. The Gospel of Mark. UK: Westminster Press, 1975.
Macrory, J. “Gospel of Saint Mark.” New Advent. Internet. Taken from The Catholic Encyclopedia, 1910 ed. Robert Appleton Company. http://www.newadvent.org/
Peterson, Hugh R. A Study of the Gospel of Mark. Nashville, TN: Convention Press, 1958.
The New w Layman’s Parallel Bible: New Testament
. King James Version. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishing House, 1981.