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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
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
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,
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
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).