Introduction to Mark’s Gospel

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By Bishop Michael Rinehart

Image result for the gospel of mark

The Gospel according to Mark is the shortest, and probably the earliest of the gospels. This proto-gospel begins with a prologue, followed by Jesus’ ministry in Galilee, the journey to Jerusalem, and his ministry in Jerusalem. The gospel culminates in Jesus’ passion and resurrection.

Luther Seminary professor emeritus Paul Berge points out that the first sentence of this gospel has no verb. The missing verb clues us in that this is the real title of his gospel:

“The Beginning of the Good News of Jesus Christ, the Son of God”

From the inscription, we learn that this is “the good news about Jesus Christ, the Son of God.” This is a political statement. This will not be a gospel of innocuous stories designed to help us have happy, successful lives. In an economy where the coins proclaim Caesar as the son of God, this document and its contents are seditious.

Kingsbury says “Son of God” is the thread that brings Mark together. Jesus refers to himself as Son of Man. Son of God is rarely used. It appears in the inscription. Then it is announced to Jesus privately at his baptism (a quote of Psalm 2:7 and Isaiah 42:1) and to Peter, James and John at the Transfiguration. Other than that only the unclean spirits refer to Jesus as the Son of God. None of the characters in Mark’s gospel get it, not even the disciples. There is only one exception. It is mentioned by only one person publicly, at the end of the gospel, only after Jesus is lifted up on the cross, and only by a Gentile, the Roman Centurion.

The Roman centurion at the cross, after witnessing, overseeing the crucifixion of a gentle, humble, innocent man – after seeing how he died – the Roman centurion, is the only one who finally realizes who Jesus is: “Truly this man was the Son of God…” Not just king of the Jews, as the authorities had posted above his head, as a sign of his insurrection, but Son of God.

That Jesus is the Son of God is the point of Mark’s gospel. Son of God, and Son of Man. This is a clear statement of the theology of the church from a very early gospel. Jesus is truly human, truly divine. He is the second Adam, who sets creation right by not succumbing to temptation.

I strongly recommend, if you are teaching or preaching on this gospel this year, sit down and read it straight through from beginning to end in one sitting. One feels more clearly the scope and content of the gospel. This is how it was meant to be read anyway.

A few interesting things about Mark’s gospel

  • Mark uses what is referred to as the “Secrecy Motif.” That is, he doesn’t want people (or demons) to reveal who he is (1;34 e.g.). The reader knows Jesus is the Son of God from the inscription, but the characters in the story don’t. Matthias Henze (Rice University), in  Mind the Gap: How the Jewish Writings Between the Old and New Testament Help Us, sees the messianic secret as a literary/rhetorical device that drives the plot. Healings and exorcisms aren’t enough to reveal Jesus’ identity, which is only revealed in the cross.
  • Another motif is the “Stupid Disciples” motif. Of the four canonical gospels, Mark casts the disciples in the least favorable light. They never get who Jesus is, even though they are closest to events.
  • Mark uses the phrase “and immediately” (εὐθὺς) 42 times. The word appears 11 times in chapter 1, and at least once in every chapter of Mark except 12 and 13. This drives the energy and pace of the gospel.
  • Mark has over 11,000 words, compared to Matthew’s 18,000+ and Luke’s 19,000+ (which nearly exceeded the limits of a scroll).
  • Mark never uses the word “law.”
  • Only mark gives the healing phrases of Jesus in the original Aramaic: talitha cum and ephphatha.
  • Mark uses Greek, Latin, Hebrew and Aramaic in his gospel.
  • In Mark, Jesus is a carpenter (6:3). In Matthew he is the carpenter’s son.
  • In Mark (6:3) Jesus names his brothers and mentions his sisters.
  • In Mark, the disciples can carry a staff and sandals. In Matthew and Luke they cannot.
  • Jewish customs are explained for an apparently Gentile audience.
  • Jesus declares all foods clean (7:19)

Genre

Image result for the gospel of mark a socio-rhetoricalBen Witherington III, in his book, The Gospel of Mark: A Socio-Rhetorical Commentary, reminds us that the way we read a document depends on its intent. One does not read a novel and a will in the same way. After wrestling with several genres (the gospel is not a play, a tract or a speech; it neither reads like a comedy or a tragedy), he lands on an ancient biography as the closest genre. Not like modern biographies, which focus on the historical, but more like Plutarch’s popular bios, which were hortatory, that is, meant to instruct the reading in virtue. Mark sought to answer the questions, “Who is Jesus, what was he like and why would one write about him?” Paetus, in The Life of Cato, sought to portray a hero’s patient suffering and death.

This is supported by many questions asked in Mark’s gospel:

  • Is this a new teaching, with authority? (Crowd, 1:27)
  • Who can forgive sins but God (Scribes, 2:7)
  • Why does he eat with sinners? (Scribes 2:16)
  • Why are they doing what is not lawful? (Pharisees, 2:24)
  • Who is this that even the wind and water obey? (Disciples, 4:41)
  • Where did this man get this wisdom? (Hometown people, 6:2)
  • Why do your disciples not live by tradition? (Pharisees, 7:5)

The focus is clearly on who this Jesus is.

Unlike Matthew, Mark does not narrate or teach much. He lets Jesus’ words and actions speak for themselves. The first half of the gospel consists of miracles. These are short, character-revealing anecdotes. The second half consists of Jesus’ martyrdom. The shortness and simplicity of Greek made it readable – a sort of Reader’s Digest version of the gospel.

The many healing stories are striking in an age when we are quite embroiled in conversations about health care. Mark’s Jesus devotes his life selflessly to caring for the sick, apparently for nothing more than food and a place to stay.

The book must be read in its apocalyptic context: Second Temple Judaism.

“Apocalyptic” does not just refer to a mindset that believes the world is about to come to an end. Is a much broader concept that sees the course of human events in this world as a manifestation of hidden forces, like the battle between good and evil, God and Satan. Certain people, seers, grasp these truths hidden forces or mysteries, not because they are any smarter than anyone else, but because, for some incomprehensible reason, it has been revealed to them.

Image result for mind the gap henzeThis apocalyptic mindset grew during the intertestamental period: the fourth century BC until the first century. Rice University professor and director of the Jewish Studies department, Matthias Henze (a Lutheran from Hanover, Germany and spouse of Christ the King Pastor Karin Liebster) points out in his new book, Mind the Gap: How the Jewish Writings Between the Old and New Testament Help Us, that to understand Jesus, we must understand first century Judaism, which is half a millennium from the ancient religion of Israel. Henze points out how many Jewish realities in the New Testament don’t appear in the Old Testament: rabbis, synagogues, unclean spirits, Pharisees and messiahs. His 200-page book is written for a general audience. It brings to life the rich Judaism of the first century.

Date and Authorship

This may be a bit simplistic, but an easy-to-teach dating of the gospels may go like this:

Mark: 70 A.D.
Matthew: 80 A.D.
Luke: 90 A.D.
John: 100-120 A.D.

Image result for introducing the new testamentSome have argued for a much earlier date for this gospel, but clearly Mark is writing for a non-Jewish audience. Where would one find a non-Jewish Christian audience in the 40’s? And external sources say Mark is writing the memoirs of Peter, which would mean a date in the 60’s at the earliest. Mark Allan Powell, in Introducing the New Testament (p. 128), proposes a date range of 65-73.

The Gospel of Mark is an anonymous document. From the standpoint of internal evidence, the author is not identified.  No copies of this gospel identify Mark as the author.

Externally though, there is plenty of support. Markan authorship was suggested beginning early in the 2nd century. The first person to suggest Mark was the author of this gospel was Papias in 130 A.D. Then it is mentioned by Irenaeus, Clement of Alexandria, Tertullian, Origen, and Jerome. Papias says that Mark is writing down Peter’s recollections, though he says they are not in chronological order. Justin says basically the same, that Mark is writing Peter’s memoirs. Irenaeus calls Mark a “disciples and hermenutes of Peter.” Hermeneutes? Interpreter? Perhaps Mark was Peter’s translator into Greek?

This tradition of Markan authorship is plausible. What evidence do we have to the contrary? There is nothing in this gospel that precludes Markan authorship. There would be no motive to assign authorship to Mark. If they were going to make something up, they would have ascribed this gospel to Peter directly, or one of the other apostles, to give it authority. As it turns out, there actually is a gospel assigned to Peter. More on that below.

The author’s Greek is not the best in the New Testament. The grammar is problematic. Some believe that Greek is not the author’s first language. He’s no stuff though. He uses Greek, Latin, Hebrew and Aramaic in his gospel.

It will be fun to preach from Mark this year imagining that we are perhaps hearing Peter’s memoirs. If these are the recollections of the dying chief apostle, from where are they written? The popular view is Rome. Irenaeus says Mark is written in Rome, but some suggest this is guesswork on Irenaeus’ part, based on 1 Peter 5:13: “Your sister church in Babylon, chosen with you, sends you greetings, and so does my son Mark.”

If Rome, why is the gospel written in Greek and not Latin? Additionally, the Gospel of Mark reflects Palestinian concerns. Some scholars prefer Antioch for provenance. The date of 70 A.D. is preferred because Mark mentions events in the siege of Jerusalem (66-70 A.D.), most notably in Mark’s “Little Apocalypse” in chapter 13.

Whatever else we may say, Mark is clearly the oldest and shortest of the four canonical gospels. Mark presents Jesus as a healer and exorcist, who is also the “Son of God.” (Mark 1:1)

Other gospels

Image result for From Jesus to the Gospels: Interpreting the New Testament in it’s Context,Matthew is not mentioned until Justin in 150 A.D. Irenaeus is the first to know all four of our canonical gospels. Helmut Koester (a student of Rudolph Bultmann), in his book, From Jesus to the Gospels: Interpreting the New Testament in it’s Context, one of my favorite reads, reminds us that the sayings of Jesus on the oldest manuscripts of Ignatius (110 A.D.), Papias (130 A.D.), Polycarp, Marcion (140 A.D.), and Justin Martyr (150 A.D.) are technically older than the quotes on manuscripts of the canonical gospels we have.

The apocryphal gospels complicate things even more. Here are some of the other gospels:

  • Gospel of Peter
  • Gospel of Thomas
  • Infancy Gospel of Thomas
  • Gospel of the Egyptians
  • Gospel of the Hebrews (Mentioned by Clement of Alexandria)
  • Secret Gospel of Mark
  • Gospel of the Nazoreans
  • Gospel of the Ebionites (Irenaeus says the Ebionites used Matthew)
  • Protevangelium Jacobi
  • Gospel of Mary (disc 1896, pub 1955, 2nd C. Fragmentary)
  • Gospel of Truth (quotes Matt.)

There are more. All in all there are about two dozen gospels, that we know of. These above are just the eleven that are mentioned or quoted in the second century.

Koester ups the ante, stretching us: In The Gospel of Thomas 17, Jesus says, “I shall give you what no eye has seen and what no ear has heard and what no hand has touched and what has never occurred to the human mind.” Paul clearly quotes this in 1 Corinthians 2:9, indicating to his readers that it is scripture. What is Paul quoting? Does Paul have The Gospel of Thomas? Is Paul quoting Thomas? It is doubtful, since most scholars date The Gospel of Thomas much later than Paul. Does Paul have a copy of Q (a collection of Jesus’ sayings that we know existed but is now lost)? Are Thomas and Paul quoting from the same source (Q?)? Do they consider it Scripture with a capital “S”? Or is Thomas quoting Paul? Or are they both writing down some oral tradition?

The Gospel of Thomas also has quotes strikingly familiar: “Come unto me, for my yoke is easy, and my lordship is mild, and you will find rest for yourselves.” (Gospel of Thomas 90) Since most scholars date Thomas before John, it appears John is either quoting Thomas’ gospel as authoritative, or more likely, they are both copying another source we no longer have.

A previously unknown gospel was discovered in 1935, Papyrus Egerton 2. It has sayings of Jesus that are similar to the canonical gospels but clearly not quoted from them. This gives us a window into the mysterious pre-canonical sources for Jesus’ sayings that Matthew, Luke and John seem also to be quoting. There may be more than one source. Koester calls them the “free sayings of Jesus.”

I have always thought of the gospel writers’ quoting Jesus as more authoritative than Paul’s quoting Jesus. Paul, however, is temporally closer to the events than the gospel writers who are penning things decades later.

Matthew, Mark and Luke are known by Polycarp and Papias in Asia minor and Greece. John is not mentioned until the end of the second century (Melito of Sardis). Irenaeus (also from Asia Minor) knows all 4 canonical gospels by the end of the second century. Justin knows and quotes the apocryphal gospels. Egypt knows John, Thomas, Egyptians, Hebrews, Secret Mark, Protevangelium Jacobi.

The Gospel of Thomas has been known to exist for centuries, because it was mentioned and quoted so often, but we had no copy until in 1945 some farmers discovered 13 Coptic books buried in an earthenware jar in Nag Hammadi, a town half way down the Nile in Egypt. Scholars wept to have the first (and still the only) complete copy of Thomas. After looking it over, scholars realized for the first time that we had fragments of Thomas all along. They were known as “Fragments of an unknown gospel.”

Of the 660 verses in Mark’s gospel, 600 are copied into to Matthew or Luke. Matthew and Luke have their own points to make of course, and use the stories differently than Mark.

We have no originals of any of the gospels. We only have copies. Our earliest complete copy of any gospel is dated 150 A.D. Or later. Ironically, the oldest fragment we have is of John. It is a scrap about 2.5 x 3.5 inches discovered in the Egyptian market in 1920. It has a few Greek words from John 18:31-33. The words can barely be made out. On this oldest copy of a gospel, hauntingly, Pilate asks, “What is truth?”

But enough digression.

Outlining Mark’s Gospel

Here is a simple outline of Mark’s Gospel:

Introduction (1:1-13)
Jesus in Galilee (1:16-8:26)
Journey Galilee to Jerusalem (8:27-10:52)
Jesus in Jerusalem (11:1-13:37)
Passion and Resurrection (14-16:18)

There are many outlines of Mark out there. Some are very long and detailed, allowing the reader little organizational perspective on the whole. Some draw the lines in different places. For example, some outlines place 1:14-15 in the first section, as a summary of the preface. Others place 1:14-15 in the second section, as an introduction to Jesus’ Galilean ministry. At the end of the day, it really doesn’t matter. The goal is simply to “see” the scope of the gospel: its plot and movement, which is deliberate, chronological and geopraphical.

The value of an outline is the ability to see the sweep of the entire book. In Mark, that sweep moves us gracefully from Jesus’ ministry up north in Galilee, to his Judean ministry, then crucifixion and resurrection.

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Another Outline of Mark

  1. Introduction (1:1-13)

The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.

  1. The beginning of the Good News: Forerunner John the Baptist (1:1-8)
    B. Jesus’ Baptism (1:9-11)
    C. Jesus’ Temptation (1:12-13)
  2. The Ministry of the Hidden Messiah in Galilee (1:16-8:26)

Now after John was arrested, Jesus came to Galilee…

  1. The beginning of the Galilean ministry (1:14-15)
    B. The Call of the Four (1:16-20)
    C. Exorcisms and Healings in Capernaum
    D. More Healing, and Conflict Stories (2:1-3:6)
    E. Parables (4)
    F. More Healing Miracles (5 and 7)
    G. Double Tradition:

6:30-7:37 8:1-26

Feeding 5,000 Feeding 4,000
Crossing the Lake Crossing the Lake (8:10)
Debate with Pharisees Debate with Pharisees
Healing Healing

III. Journey to Jerusalem (8:27-10:52)

Jesus went on with his disciples to the villages of Caesarea Philippi…

  1. Gradual Revelation of Suffering (Predictions: 8:31, 9:31, 10:32-34)
    B. Pattern 3x
    Prediction
    Response
    Instructions
    C. Complementary Material
  2. Hidden Messiah to Jerusalem (11:1-13:37)

When they were approaching Jerusalem…

  1. Judgment in Action (11:1-26)
    B. Judgment in Words (11:27-12:37)
    C. The Little Apocalypse (13:1-37)
  2. Passion and Resurrection (14-16:18)

It was two days before the Passover and the festival of Unleavened Bread.

  1. Jesus Prepares for His Departure (14:1-42)
    B. Jesus’ Arrest and Trial (14:43-15:20)
    C. Jesus Crucifixion and Burial (15:21-47)
    D. Jesus’ Resurrection, Appearances and Ascension (16:1-8, alternative ending)

Continue reading: Contents of Mark’s Gospel