The Gospel of Mark
MARK – INTRODUCTION
The Synoptic Gospels
Matthew, Mark, and Luke are usually known as the Synoptic Gospels. Synoptic comes from two Greek words, which mean to “to see together”, and literally means “able to be seen together”. (William Barclay – Daily Study Bible, Matthew, page 1)
These three gospels have many similarities. In fact, many of the passages in them are word-for-word identical. Each has its particular emphasis and some unique sayings and events, but overall their similarity far overshadows their differences.
When looking at the three synoptic gospels closely, Bible scholars note that there seem to be two main sources of material:
Most Bible scholars believe that Matthew and Luke used material from both the Markan and Q sources. Matthew, for example, reproduces 606 of Mark’s 661 verses…and Luke reproduces 320 of the 661. In addition, however, there are more than 200 verses that are common to both Matthew and Luke that appear nowhere in Mark. These verses – mostly SAYINGS of Jesus – are probably from the Q source.
We need to understand that the gospel writers were basically editorialists. Each wanted to tell the story of Jesus, but from their own unique perspectives and with the purpose of emphasizing the aspects of Jesus’ ministry that they felt were most important. Using the Markan and Q traditions, plus some occasional other stories and sayings, each synoptic gospel writer wrote a gospel that has its own special outlook.
The Gospel According to Mark
Until the past century, Mark’s Gospel (often called the Second Gospel because of its frequent listing after Matthew) was not held to be of great value among Biblical scholars. It was viewed as being a “bare-bones” summary of the seemingly more detailed gospels such as Matthew and Luke (Mark is only 16 chapters long as compared to the 28 chapters in Matthew and 24 chapters in Luke) . According to John Donahue and Daniel Harrington in their commentary on the Gospel of Mark, St. Augustine (354-430 A.D.) believed Mark “to be primarily a follower, lackey, and digester of Matthew” – and that this opinion shaped opinion on Mark well into the nineteenth century. Since more than ninety percent of Mark appears in Matthew, most scholars did not see much need to independently comment on Mark.
During the past century, however, scholars have come to understand Mark as being a Gospel of supreme importance. It is now almost universally held to be the earliest of the four canonical gospels – being written during the period of 60-70 A.D. Indeed, it is now understood as being the SOURCE of much of what later appears in Matthew and Luke.
Of the three synoptic gospels, Mark has the greatest aura of “authenticity” concerning some of the actions and sayings of Jesus and of the disciples. Mark, for instance, records some of the actual Aramaic words that Jesus spoke – such as when he said “Talitha cum” when he bid the daughter of Jairus to rise (Mk. 5:41). He also describes some of Jesus’ emotions that Matthew and Luke “tone down” in their Gospels. Finally, Mark sometimes shows the disciples in a “negative light”, whereas Matthew and Luke again “tone down” that kind of portrayal of them.
In terms of literary style, Mark – more than any other gospel – portrays a sense of rapid movement and urgency. As Donahue/Harrington state in their commentary, the Markan Jesus appears as a person in a hurry, moving somewhat breathlessly from place to place.
Another theme of Mark’s gospel is that of the “Messianic secret” – where Jesus constantly tells his disciples not to reveal who he is. Perhaps this reflects the situation that Mark’s original readers found themselves in. Many biblical scholars believe that this Gospel’s original audience was the church at Rome – whose members (both of Jewish and Gentile background) were suffering persecution under the Emperor Nero.
Who is Mark?
Although this gospel is anonymous, the earliest traditions ascribed it to John Mark (mentioned in Acts 12:12; 15:37). John Mark was the son of a well-to-do lady of Jerusalem whose name was Mary, and whose house was a rallying-point and meeting place of the early church (Acts 12:12). He was the nephew of Barnabas – Paul’s partner in his first missionary journey. He also apparently was a close companion of Simon Peter (1Peter 5:13).
Mark was also like Peter in that he had a tremendous failure in his Christian life. Peter of course had denied Jesus three times on the night of his arrest and trial. Likewise, Mark when accompanying Paul and Barnabas on their first missionary journey, had left them and returned to Jerusalem (Acts 13:13). Paul was so upset about this that it later caused a great quarrel between him and Barnabas and led to them splitting up (Acts 15:37-39). Later, however, it appears that Paul and Mark were reconciled (Col. 4:10, 2 Tim. 4:11, Philemon 24).
As mentioned above, it is possible that Mark was a close companion of Simon Peter – and that much of what is in his gospel are Peter’s “eye-witness” accounts. Indeed, according to tradition Mark composed this gospel at Rome – while it was undergoing persecutions – as a summary of Peter’s preaching and teaching. Many modern day Bible commentators agree with this.
Summary – In many ways, Mark’s Gospel is perhaps the most important one of all. In many aspects, it seems to contain “first hand” accounts of Jesus’ ministry that become the source of much of what later appears in the gospels of Matthew and Luke. It also stresses the “human side” of Jesus – a man who has emotions like you and me – a man whom we can relate to. Finally, through Mark as in no other gospel we receive insights as to how Jesus was understood and perceived by Christians who actually lived when Jesus had his earthly ministry – some of whom perhaps actually knew him personally!
George R. Karres,
Pella Lutheran Church
418 W. Main Street
Sidney, MT 59270