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).