For a long time, the Gospel of Mark was the least popular of the Gospels, both among scholars and general readers. Mark’s literary style is somewhat dull—for example, he begins a great number of sentences with the word “then.” Luke and Matthew both contain the same story of Jesus’s life, but in more sophisticated prose. Mark also leaves out accounts of Jesus’s birth, the Sermon on the Mount, and several of the most well known parables. Mark became more popular, however, when biblical scholars discovered it was the earliest written of the four Gospels, and was probably the primary source of information for the writers of Luke and Matthew. Moreover, because neither Jesus nor his original disciples left any writings behind, the Gospel of Mark is the closest document to an original source on Jesus’s life that currently exists. The presumed author of the Gospel of Mark, John Mark, was familiar with Peter, Jesus’s closest disciple. Indeed, Mark is the New Testament historian who comes closest to witnessing the actual life of Jesus. Though Mark’s Gospel certainly comes to us through his own personal lens, scholars are fairly confident that Mark is a reliable source of information for understanding Jesus’s life, ministry, and crucifixion. As a result of its proximity to original sources, the Gospel of Mark has transformed from a book disregarded for its lowly prose to one of the most important books in the New Testament. Its historical importance has affected its evaluation by literary scholars as well. Though crude and terse, the Gospel of Mark is vivid and concrete. Action dominates. A dramatic sense of urgency is present, and Mark has a developed sense of irony that permeates the Gospel.
The Gospel According to Mark has no story of Jesus’s birth. Instead, Mark’s story begins by describing Jesus’s adult life, introducing it with the words, “The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God” (1:1). Mark tells of John the Baptist, who predicts the coming of a man more powerful than himself. After John baptizes Jesus with water, the Holy Spirit of God recognizes Jesus as his son, saying, “You are my Son, the Beloved” (1:11). Jesus goes to the wilderness, where Satan tests him for forty days, and Jesus emerges triumphant.
Jesus travels to Galilee, the northern region of Israel. He gathers his first disciples, Simon and Andrew, two Jewish brothers who are both fishermen. Jesus asks them to follow him, saying that he will show them how to fish for people rather than for fish. Simon and Andrew, as well as James and John, drop their nets and follow him. Jesus exhibits his authority in Galilee, where he cleanses a leper (1:40–45). Mark reports that Jesus heals a paralytic, Simon’s sick mother-in-law, and a man with a withered hand. The miracles cause the crowds that gather to watch Jesus to become bewildered, fearful, and antagonistic. The Pharisees and followers of Herod begin plotting to kill Jesus. Jesus stays focused on his ministry.
Jesus’s ministry attracts many followers. The miracle stories become increasingly longer and more elaborate, emphasizing the supernatural power of Jesus’s authority. Mark says that “even wind and sea obey him” (4:35–41). Simultaneously, Jesus becomes increasingly misunderstood and rejected, even by his own apostles. Jesus notes his disciples’ frequent misunderstandings of his message. Jesus’s power continues to reveal itself in his control over nature: he calms a storm, cures a man possessed by a demon, and revives a dead young girl. Despite his successes, however, he continues to be reviled in his own hometown of Nazareth.
The story of Jesus’s ministry reaches King Herod Antipas, the ruler of Galilee who beheaded John the Baptist. Jesus disperses the apostles, charging them with the responsibility to spread the Gospel and to heal the sick. When the apostles rejoin Jesus, they are once again swarmed with people eager to hear Jesus’s message. Through a miracle, Jesus divides five loaves of bread and two fish and feeds all 5,000 people. His disciples, however, seem not to understand the magnitude of his miracle: when he walks on water, they are shocked. The Pharisees, who are upset at Jesus’s abandonment of the traditional Jewish laws, question Jesus. He responds by pointing out that it is important to obey the spirit of the law rather than simply going through the technical actions that the law proscribes. Jesus preaches that human intention, not behavior, determines righteousness.
Jesus travels again through northern Palestine. He heals a deaf man and the child of a Gentile, and works a second miracle in which he multiplies a small amount of bread and fish to feed 4,000 people. His disciples, however, continue to misunderstand the significance of his actions. Peter, the foremost of the disciples, seems to be the only one who recognizes Jesus’s divine nature. Jesus begins to foresee his own crucifixion and resurrection. He continues to travel across Galilee, but shifts his emphasis to preaching rather than working miracles. He appears to some of his disciples to be transfigured, made brilliantly white. Jesus explains that John the Baptist served as his Elijah, predicting his arrival. He preaches against divorce and remarriage. He announces that young children, in their innocence, are models for righteous behavior, and that the rich will have great difficulty entering the kingdom of God. He teaches, despite the sacrifices necessary to enter the kingdom, it will be worth it: “Many who are first will be last, and the last, first” (10:31).
Finally, Jesus journeys to Jerusalem, where he drives the money changers from the temple and begins preaching his Gospel. He is well received by the common people but hated by the priests and the scribes. However, he successfully defends himself against the priests’ verbal attacks. He teaches that obedience to Caesar is important, that the dead will be resurrected, that loving one’s neighbor is the greatest commandment, and that the End of Days will soon come, bringing God’s retribution on the unjust and the return of the Son of man.
Eventually, Jesus allows himself to succumb to the conspiracy against him. At the Passover Seder, Jesus institutes the Christian sacrament of the Eucharist, telling his followers to eat and drink his symbolic body and blood. At the dinner, Jesus says that one of his disciples will betray him. The disciples are surprised, each asking, “Surely, not I?” (14:19). After dinner, Jesus goes to a garden called Gethsemane and prays while Peter, James, and John wait nearby. The three disciples fall asleep three times, though Jesus returns each time and asks them to stay awake with him as he prays. Jesus prays to God that, if possible, he might avoid his imminent suffering.
Jesus is leaving the garden with Peter, James, and John when Judas Iscariot, one of the apostles, arrives with the city’s chief priests and a crowd carrying swords and clubs. Judas kisses Jesus, indicating to the priests Jesus’s identity. The priests arrest Jesus and take him to the court of the high priest. There, Jesus publicly claims that he is “the Messiah, the Son of the Blessed One,” and the Jews deliver him to Pontius Pilate, the Roman governor, who agrees to crucify him (14:61). On the cross, Jesus cries out, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (15:34). He dies and is buried by Joseph of Arimathea, a righteous Jew. When Mary Magdalene and other women come to Jesus’s grave on the third day after the crucifixion, however, they find it empty. A young man tells them that Jesus has risen from the grave. Jesus then appears in resurrected form to Mary, Mary Magdalene, and the apostles.
Mark’s Gospel is often disconnected, and at times difficult to read as a logically progressing narrative. This Gospel is brief and concise, reading almost like an outline, with little effort made to connect the roughly chronological list of incidents. Mark’s Gospel also tends to interrupt itself by introducing information of marginal relevance. For example, Mark interrupts the story of the dispersal of the apostles and their return with the anecdote about Herod Antipas and John the Baptist. The Gospels of Matthew and Luke rely on Mark for much of their information, and they flesh out the bare-bones outline, adding additional information and employing a more fluid and elaborate style. The relationship between these first three Gospels is extremely complex. They are often approached as a group because of their strong similarities, and because of the way in which they appear to have been influenced by each other or by common sources. Because of their interconnectedness, they are called “synoptic,” meaning that they can be looked at “with one glance.”
The Gospel of Mark does show some evidence of tight, purposeful construction. Mark can be divided into two sections. The first, from 1:1 to 8:26, concerns itself with Jesus’s ministry in Galilee, beginning with John the Baptist’s prophecy proclaiming the advent of the Messiah. The second, from 8:27 to 16:20, tells the story of Jesus’s prediction of his own suffering, crucifixion, and resurrection.
Mark’s Gospel constantly presumes that the end of the world is imminent. Therefore, when the end of time never came, early Christian communities had difficulty interpreting passages such as the thirteenth chapter of Mark, whose apocalyptic vision is urgent, striking, and confident. Another prominent motif of Mark is secrecy. Mark writes that the kingdom is near, the time has come, but only a few are privy to any knowledge of it. This motif is known as the Messianic Secret. For example, Mark refers to secrecy in relation to the kingdom of God in 4:11-12:
And he said to them, “To you has been given the secret of the kingdom of God, but for those outside everything comes in parables, in order that / ‘they may indeed look but not perceive.’”
For Mark, Jesus’s parables are riddles meant to be understood only by a select few. However, as the Gospel unfolds, the disciples do not maintain their privileged position.
As Mark tells his story, the twelve disciples persistently, even increasingly, fail to understand Jesus. Ultimately, two of them betray him, the rest abandon him, and at the end he is crucified alone until two of his bravest disciples, Mary Magdalene and Mary, return and find his tomb empty. If anyone is loyal in this Gospel, it is the Galilean women who look on Jesus’s crucifixion from a distance and come to bury him. The Gospel of Mark is brutal on the disciples; some scholars suggest that Mark is trying to express his theme that when one follows Christ, one must be prepared for the experiences of misunderstanding and even persecution. Mark’s model of discipleship includes the experiences of failure and doubt as part of the process of coming to understand the full meaning of Jesus. For Mark, discipleship means debating, questioning, stumbling, and learning. It involves suffering, service to others, poverty, and faithfulness despite persecution. It is strange that the Gospel of Mark ends so abruptly; scholars generally agree that the Gospel of Mark ends with verse 16:8, and that verses 16:9–20 were a later addition to the manuscript. The ending at 16:8 is confusing: Jesus’s body is gone, and in his place an angel appears to Mary Magdalene and others, charging them to tell Peter of Jesus’s resurrection. The women fail to fulfill this command: “So they went out and fled from the tomb, for the terror and amazement had seized them; and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid” (16:8). This ending is hardly triumphant, and verses 16:9–20 preserve Mark’s original message. Jesus appears to his apostles, and victory seems assured: “And they went out and proclaimed the good news everywhere, while the Lord worked with them and confirmed the message by the signs that accompanied it” (16:20).
This is a great place to start in the bible!
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