When we approach a gospel like that of Mark, we tend to have some basic views about the book and its writer which will influence the way in which we interpret it. Some of these views we may see as certain; some are only probable; all are at least possible. Some will be taken directly from what the early church said about the book, while others will be drawn from the material found in the book itself. If the evidence of the early church and the evidence of the book agree, then we can be fairly certain that the ideas are right.
The suggestions made below seem to make the greatest sense, and make it easier to apply Mark’s message to our own circumstances today. That is why we read his gospel. We are not merely interested to find out when or where or to whom or by whom it was written. We want to find out what God is saying to us today through the gospel. If we can understand Mark’s situation and find that in any way it was like our own, then it is easier to apply the message to ourselves.
The article ‘Reading the gospels’ earlier in this book covers many general points and the reasons for believing them, so there is no need for detailed repetition here. It is worth, however, going over some of these general principles briefly, as they will help us to understand the gospel better.
The first gospel
Mark was probably the first of the four gospels, and it may have been the first true gospel ever to be written. Mark may then have invented the form of book that we call a gospel; there does not seem to have been anything quite like it before in the ancient world. It seems likely, however, that all the other gospel writers knew of Mark, and Matthew and Luke are generally thought to have used his gospel when writing theirs (of course, they also added material from other sources). The ‘good news’ had certainly been preached by word of mouth long before it was written down. There were, therefore, probably many short collections of the sayings and doings of Jesus which had been made before Mark was written. Maybe, for instance, there was a written account of the last week of Jesus’ life, including the story of the cross, since that was so important. Mark’s gospel was probably the first time that so many of these stories about Jesus had been brought together, and this may explain why the gospel seems a little ‘rough and ready’ to some. Others, however, discern a skilful arrangement of material by the author and explain the apparent ‘roughness’ by saying that Mark reproduced much early material without making many changes.
Mark’s gospel was probably written quite early, perhaps between ad 60 and 70, i.e. only about thirty years after the death of Christ. That would put it around the time of the deaths of Paul and Peter, which we think took place about ad 64, and just before the Roman armies destroyed Jerusalem in ad 70. Although it would not matter if it was written later, this pre-70 date would fit better with what early Christians said about the gospel and also with what the gospel itself says. For example, in Mk. 13 Jesus prophesies the fall of Jerusalem, but there is no hint in the text that the prophecy has been fulfilled by Mark’s time.
The book was probably written by the John Mark of whom we read several times in the NT (e.g. Acts 12:12). We have to say ‘probably’ because, as in so many other cases, we cannot be certain. Although the gospel itself nowhere says that it was written by Mark (the heading at the beginning is not part of the gospel but only its ‘title page’), the early Christians had no doubts about it. John Mark was not a famous figure like Paul or Peter, so there does not seem to have been any good reason for his name being given as author unless it was so. He was a younger co-worker at different times with Paul, Barnabas (his relative; Col. 4:10) and Peter. This last link may be important. John Mark probably lived in Jerusalem, where he would have known many of Jesus’ followers, (though he was too young at the time to have been a follower himself). If the church in Jerusalem met in his mother’s house (see Acts 12:12), it is possible that the Last Supper was held there. However, even without this, John Mark would have been a very valuable early witness to what Jesus said and did, especially during his last week.
The influence of Peter
The early church believed that Mark got many of his facts from Peter, for they knew that Mark himself had not been a disciple of Jesus during his lifetime. We cannot prove this point, but we do know that both Mark and Peter were together in Rome in later years (1 Pet. 5:13). We also know that Peter was intending before his death to make a permanent record of his memories of Christ (2 Pet. 1:15). Most of the early church fathers believed that Mark’s gospel was this record. Certainly there are many details in the gospel that are best explained as personal memories of Peter, e.g. descriptions of incidents at which only Peter, James and John were present. Another possible clue is that the gospel is very uncomplimentary to Peter, pointing out all his faults and failings. As Peter later became such an important man at Rome, it is hard to see how these could have got into the gospel unless Peter himself had insisted on it.
Place of origin
If Peter was the source for the gospel, it is very likely that it was produced in Rome, where Peter was almost certainly martyred in ad 64. Most of the early records suggest Rome, or at least Italy, as the place of origin, though some suggest Alexandria. Rome was a sprawling city with a population of several millions. It had all our familiar problems of slums, pollution and communications. Mark’s background was very close to ours: that makes his book even more relevant today.
Purpose of the gospel
It would seem that Mark had more than one purpose in mind when he wrote his gospel.
1. To make the good news accessible to Gentiles. Rome was a Gentile city, though naturally there were many Jews there as well, drawn by trade and business. To judge from Paul’s letter to the Roman Christians, the church there contained both Gentiles and Jews, and feelings probably ran high between them at times. A gospel produced in and for such a ‘mixed’ church would have to explain carefully Jewish words and customs, so that the non-Jewish readers could understand. That is exactly what Mark’s gospel does and in that sense it is a gospel for the non-Jew, the Gentile, the outsider. This also explains why Mark does not quote nearly as much from the OT as Matthew does. Mark’s Gentile Christians would not have known the OT as well as Jewish Christians, nor indeed would they have had the same interest in it.
Mark seems to have been written with a missionary purpose, to spread the good news to the outsiders, the non-Jewish world. Naturally it had a teaching purpose as well (all the gospels were written partly to tell Christians who already believed in Jesus more about him; see Lk. 1:4). However, if we bear in mind this missionary thrust of Mark’s gospel, it will help to explain a lot. For instance, it gives yet another reason why Mark avoids using ‘insider’ language. It also explains why he leaves out much that is true and valuable in order to concentrate on what he considers to be vital for his readers. In all these things we can learn much from Mark today. This making himself one with the people that he was trying to reach is all the more remarkable when we remember that he was just as much a Jew as Matthew was. Had he learned as a ‘junior missionary’ with Paul how to become like an ‘outsider’ in order to win ‘outsiders’ for Christ? (1 Cor. 9:20). This is a lesson that Christians today need to learn too: ‘insider’ language only confuses the ‘outsider’.
2. To encourage those facing persecution. Rome, being the imperial capital and therefore directly under the eye of central government, was the very place where persecution was most likely to occur. We know both from the NT (Acts 18:2) and from Roman history that Jews had suffered persecution at Rome even before Christians had. We also know from Roman writers of the great persecution of Christians at Rome under Nero about ad 64. Many Christians, probably including Paul and Peter, died for their faith at this time. Mark’s gospel, with its probable background in Rome, seems to have been aimed at preparing Christians, whether at Rome or elsewhere, for future persecution. It does this by telling of Christ’s suffering and of how he had foretold similar suffering for his followers. In other words, it was written to encourage a minority church in a hostile environment, and because of this it speaks to and encourages many today.
3. To defend the faith. Mark could be described as an apologist for the Christian faith. Like Luke in Acts he wanted to show that Christians were good citizens of the Roman Empire, not revolutionaries, and that any fair-minded Roman official would see this at once, as would ordinary people, not blinded by prejudice. Mark makes clear that in the case of Jesus, the charges that he was a rebel against Rome were trumped up and completely false. Marks wants to explain the true nature of Christianity and remove false ideas about it that might hinder evangelism. This too is an important task before the church today, both in countries where other great organized religions co-exist (and Christians are sometimes at risk from jealous ‘fundamentalist’ religious leaders) and in so-called ‘Christian’ lands, where there is pagan ignorance and indifference.
4. To explain the significance of the cross. Mark is anxious to avoid not only political but also religious misunderstanding, which was a far more serious hindrance when preaching the gospel, his great task. He makes it clear that the death of Jesus was not a tragic accident but part of God’s plan from the start, and that Jesus not only knew this but also told his disciples of it. True, Mark shows the disciples as being blind to this until after Jesus’ death and resurrection, but that is another matter. Mark, unlike Paul, does not explain in detail, except for one or two places, why Jesus had to die. He is, however, clear that the cross was God’s age-old plan of salvation, even if he does not quote as much from the OT as the other gospel writers do, to prove the point. That God’s way for the establishment of his rule on earth should involve the death of the Messiah, his chosen one, was a hidden and mysterious plan, and none but Jesus saw it at first. That seems to be the meaning of the phrase ‘the mystery of the kingdom of God’ in Mk. 4:11. Even people who admired Jesus as a miracle-worker or even saw him as a prophet could not see this. That God should choose to bring in his kingdom through the shameful death of his chosen servant was a great stumbling-block to many, both Jews and Gentiles, who listened to the preaching of the early church. Today it is still a problem for some. For example, Muslims find it a great stumbling-block that God should have allowed such a good man, and indeed such a prophet, to die such a terrible death.
Mark points out in his gospel that Jesus was not merely a good man or even a prophet: he was the Son of God. He proves this, not by telling the story of the virgin birth (which he must have known) but by showing how God himself proclaimed Jesus as his Son at his baptism and later at the transfiguration.
Jesus never told anyone directly that he was God’s Son or the Messiah; he did not even admit it publicly until his trial before the high priest. This silence of Jesus is what we mean by the ‘Messianic Secret’: he waited until God revealed it to others. For example, Peter came to realize that Jesus was the Messiah and acknowledged him as such, but the idea of a suffering Messiah was still very far from his mind (Mk. 8:29). Jesus accepted the title when it was given to him, but not if the witness was given by demons.
Part of the reason for Jesus’ reluctance to reveal his true identity was that he did not wish to be known as a mere wonder-worker. Perhaps this is a word of warning for us today, in the midst of times of spiritual renewal in which we all rejoice, for such times bring their own danger. Jesus saw his task rather as that of bringing the good news about God and his rule, and that is why he warned healed people not to tell of their healing. It also explains why he escaped from the crowds when there was a danger of his mission becoming a mere ‘healing campaign’ and no more.
The secret became plain at the cross. The words of the Roman officer (15:39) were, for Mark, a clear confession that Jesus was the Son of God, whatever the centurion himself may have meant at the time. The second proof was the empty tomb and the message of the angel on the resurrection morning: the Son of God had conquered death and his identity need no longer be a secret.
The gospel’s abrupt ending
One of the puzzling features of Mark’s gospel is the way that it ends so suddenly, without a full account of all the times that Jesus appeared to his disciples after the resurrection. The other gospels give a much fuller picture of Jesus’ post-resurrection appearances. The longer ending of Mark’s gospel (which is separated from the rest in the niv) is not in the earliest manuscripts, and was almost certainly not written by Mark himself, but added by the early Christians to ‘round off’ the book. Some say that Mark’s original ending was lost. Others suggest that perhaps Mark was martyred before he could finish his book, but this is not likely. It is more likely that Mark meant his gospel to end in this way. It was not, as some have suggested, that he wanted to leave the question of the resurrection open, but that, in his day, evidence for the resurrection would be given by word of mouth by the living witnesses. That would be much more real and exciting; it would be like an actor appearing in person at the end of a play.
The apostles were first and foremost witnesses of the resurrection (Acts 10:41). The other gospels were probably written after the deaths of the apostles and so had to contain a full account in writing of the resurrection appearances. This probably also explains why Mark does not have as full an account of the teaching of Jesus as the other gospels do. He expected it to be given by word of mouth, as it still is in many parts of the world today.
The structure of the gospel
Mark’s gospel is not just a collection of sayings and doings of Jesus with no particular plan or connection. If you read Mark through at one sitting, you will see this. It has a definite plan and outline, and the commentary shows how the different parts fit together. In the first part Jesus has a wide ministry in which he does many miracles. In the second section, he deliberately restricts himself to his own followers and teaches them. The last part (a third of the book) deals with the final week in Jerusalem, including Jesus’ trial, death and resurrection.
Much of Jesus’ teaching centred on the kingdom of God. There is also a strong element of kingship in Jesus’ teaching about himself as it emerges gradually until we find him tacitly accepting the title ‘King of the Jews’ from Pontius Pilate. In the commentary on Mark, therefore, hindsight has sometimes been used to present Jesus as king, inaugurating his Father’s kingdom in a royal manner. This is one way of interpreting the unfolding story.
The last week of Jesus’ life was obviously of great importance to Mark. In a sense, all that goes before it can be seen as preparation. This tells us that Mark’s theology is a theology of the cross. Mark lived and wrote after Pentecost, and of course he knew of and had experienced the Holy Spirit, but in his gospel he speaks little of the Spirit, and when he does it is always in connection with Jesus. This is because he was writing of a period before Pentecost, when the disciples had experienced the Spirit only in the person of Jesus. He knew well that Jesus was to give the Spirit to all believers, and that is why he put the words of the Baptist at the beginning of his book (1:8). Mark, however, never makes the mistake of putting Pentecost rather than Calvary at the centre of his faith, and he never isolates the Spirit from Jesus. This is a danger which we may face today in our glad rediscovery of the person and gifts of the Spirit. We need to remember that it is the task of the Spirit to bear witness to Christ.
If we bear in mind what has been said above, we shall see as we go along how all the parts of the gospel fit in, though of course we must not try to tie everything down too tightly to a pattern. Indeed, if the gospel was intended both as a missionary gospel and as a teaching guide for new Gentile Christians, then Mark may have worked it out gradually over a period. There may even have been several earlier versions before the final one that we have before us today. That is what scholars mean by a ‘fluid situation’. Also, we must not think in terms of Mark being published in the modern sense of the word. There was probably only one copy of the gospel at first, or maybe one copy of each of the earlier versions of it. Then other copies would have been made by hand and sent to churches which asked for them. In this way the gospel would gradually circulate. That is, we think, how Matthew and Luke (and possibly even John) would have been able to see Mark and use it in writing their own gospels later. Only rich Christians would have been able to make a copy for their own use, although in recent years the Christians in China have shown us how even ordinary folk can copy out the scriptures for themselves in times of need or shortage.
We shall divide the gospel into the three main sections mentioned above i.e. roughly chs. 1–8, chs. 9–10 and chs. 11–16. We should remember, however, that Mark did not use chapters or verses, he just wrote straight on, and sometimes it is helpful to read the gospel in this way.
D. English, The Message of Mark, BST (IVP, 1992).
R. A. Cole, Mark, TNTC (IVP/UK/Eerdmans, 1989).
W. L. Lane, The Gospel according to Mark, NICNT (Eerdmans, 1974).
M. D. Hooker, The Gospel according to St Mark, BNTC (A. and C. Black, 1991).
niv New International Version
BST The Bible Speaks Today
TNTC Tyndale New Testament Commentary
NICNT The New International Commentary on the New Testament
BNTC Black’s New Testament Commentaries
Carson, D. A. (1994). New Bible commentary : 21st century edition. Rev. ed. of: The new Bible commentary. 3rd ed. / edited by D. Guthrie, J.A. Motyer. 1970. (4th ed.) (Mr 1.1). Leicester, England; Downers Grove, Ill., USA: Inter-Varsity Press.