The bishop Papias (c. 60-130) ascribes this gospel to Mark, the companion and interpreter of the apostle Peter, in his (now lost) work, Exposition of the Sayings of the Lord:
“The Elder [Note: most likely the Apostle John] used to say: Mark, in his capacity as Peter’s interpreter, wrote down accurately as many things as he recalled from memory—though not in an ordered form—of the things either said or done by the Lord. For he neither heard the Lord nor accompanied him, but later, as I said, Peter, who used to give his teachings in the form of chreiai, [Note: brief anecdotes that tended to be wise, useful, or solemn] but had no intention of providing an ordered arrangement of the logia of the Lord. Consequently Mark did nothing wrong when he wrote down some individual items just as he related them from memory. For he made it his one concern not to omit anything he had heard or to falsify anything.”
Another early church father, Clement of Alexandria (150 – c. 215), said about Mark that: “As Peter had preached the Word publicly at Rome, and declared the Gospel by the Spirit, many who were present requested that Mark, who had followed him for a long time and remembered well what he had said, should write them out. And having composed the Gospel he gave it to those who had requested it. When Peter learned of this, he neither directly hindered nor encouraged it.” (Fragments of Clement, Eusebius CH 6.14.5-7)
Of note in these early testimonies are a few things to note about the composition of the Gospel:
- Peter was Mark’s primary source of information
- Peter preached in anecdotes about Jesus, likely combining them to make his point
- Mark did not write in “ordered form” i.e. not necessarily chronologically
- Mark wrote for a Roman audience
The author of Mark is most likely John Mark whose mother hosted the disciples in their house after Jesus’ death (Acts 12:12), cousin of Barnabas (Col 4:10; Phlm 1:24) and companion of Barnabas and Saul (Paul) on their first missionary (Acts 13:5,13), a companion of Paul during his imprisonment in Rome and Paul’s delegate in Asia Minor (Philemon 24; Col. 4:10, 2 Tim. 4:11), and a close companion of Peter while he was in Rome (1 Peter 5:13)
Mark is also sometimes identified as the man who carried water to the house where the Last Supper took place (Mark 14:13) and/or as the young man who ran away naked when Jesus was arrested (Mark 14:51–52).
Mark’s authorship is often considered genuine because it is unlikely that the early church would have assigned the creation of a Gospel to a person of secondary status. John Mark was neither an apostle, nor a person of high prominence in the early church.
It is generally assumed that the book was written for Gentile/Greek Christians in Rome for the following reasons:
- Jewish customs are explained (7:3-4; 14:12; 15:42)
- Mark assumes that the very earliest audience may recognize the names Alexander and Rufus as the sons of Simon of Cyrene, who carried Jesus’ cross (Mark 15:21). Rufus is mentioned as a leader in the church in Rome by Paul (Rom. 16:13).
- Mark does not include a genealogy (something of importance to a Jewish audience)
- Mark interprets Aramaic words and expressions (3:17; 5:41; 7:11,34; 9:43; 10:46; 14:36; 15:22,34)
- Mark uses Roman time rather than Hebrew time (6:48; 13:35)
- Latin terms are used rather than Greek equivalents (5:9; 6:27; 12:15,42; 15:16,39)
- Mark explains Palestinian locations and places
- Few Old Testament quotations or references to fulfilled prophecy are used
The book was probably written in 60-68 AD, during Nero’s persecution of the Christians in Rome or the Jewish revolt, as suggested by internal references to war in Judea and to persecution.
Until the 19th century, Matthew was assumed to be the first gospel (which accounts for it’s place in the Bible), but research on the similarities of the gospels of Mark, Luke and Matthew have lead most people to believe that Mark was the first gospel and was used as a source by both Matthew and Luke. The strongest argument for this is the fact that Matthew and Luke only agree with each other in their sequence of stories and events when they also agree with Mark. (Wikipedia)
Mark states his own purpose in the introduction (and likely title) of his book: “The beginning of the good news about Jesus the Messiah, the Son of God”
Mark writes to an audience of believers to help them better understand Jesus as the one anointed by God who came to usher in the new age, the rule of God, the kingdom of heaven—the messiah. Note that Mark is not making a case to non-believers to convince them that Jesus is the Christ, rather he is writing to strengthen the faith of a community of first century, persecuted Gentile Christians.
Mark confirms Jesus’ true messianic identity by showing that though he was (1) a genuine miracle worker above other miracle workers (and not a magician or crazy person as his enemies charged); (2) the true Son of God (not just a “divine man” but also God’s appointed enthroned ruler); (3) the prophetic Son of Man, both in a humble sense (as in Ezekiel) and eschatological sense (as in Daniel); (4) that all these titles/identities can only be seen clearly understood through the lens of the cross.
The Gospel as Literature:
The Gospels are not biographies
The Gospels are essentially the memoirs of the apostles and disciples of Jesus. They recall the facts about Jesus, the teaching of Jesus and are meant to be a witness to Jesus (Fee), but they are not a full account of Jesus’ life. Gospels are not biographies. They are biographical, but they are not biographies in the modern sense.
The Gospels are purposeful
The Gospels were written to meet the needs of a particular community of believers. The authors of the Gospels were selective and adaptive in their style. They focused in on the narratives and teachings that best suited their purposes.
Many sayings of Jesus were passed around for years as stories (pericopes) without much context. Therefore the primary saying, or point, of the story was what was preserved, not necessarily the full context of the saying. For instance, Paul quotes Jesus talking about his body and blood being represented by the bread and the wine as a sign of the new covenant in his letter to the Corinthians (likely written before or concurrent with the Gospels) without much context. There’s only the mention of “on the night he was betrayed” (1 Cor. 11:23) but no mention of the upper room, the disciples present, the timing of the Passover feast, etc. Paul used this saying in a new context to correct the Corinthians in how they conducted themselves while eating the Lord’s supper. The Gospel writers likely did the same thing; used a saying of Jesus without much context to make a point to their readers. This may account for discrepancies in the usage of a saying, chronology of an event, or even repetition of an event/saying among the Gospels.
The Gospels provide a perspective of Jesus as the messiah
The Gospels are focused on explaining the messiahship of Jesus and the coming of the kingdom of God, as opposed to, say, Jesus being a carpenter, teacher or friend. The facts and stories they tell of Jesus all are meant to legitimize his claim to be the anointed one of God.
The Gospels are essentially eschatological in nature. All of them show how Jesus inaugurated the new age (the kingdom of God)—which would be a time when God would rule, righteousness (Is. 11:4), peace (Is. 2:2) and the fullness of the Spirit (Joel 2:28) would prevail, God would start of a new covenant (Jer. 31:31), and sin and sickness would be eliminated (Zech. 13:1)—first by performing signs and wonders indicative of the kingdom at work (casting out demons, healing the sick), then by being crucified and raising from the dead. (Fee)
Overall, the identity of Jesus (as ultimately understood by his death and resurrection) is the focal point of Mark’s narrative. Peter’s confession of Jesus as the messiah midway through the gospel (Mark 8:27–30) is the turning point of the book anyway you look at it.
With over 1/3 of the content focused on Jesus’ last week, it has been often said that Mark is a passion narrative with an extended introduction.
Yet, there are several theories as to how Mark structured his gospel. We’ll cover only a few here:
A Geographical Narrative
A reading of Mark through this lens would emphasize Jesus’ call to his disciples to “follow me” (1:17) first by accepting his power (as shown by miracles), his authority (as shown by conflicts with the Pharisees and Teachers of the Law), then his identity as messiah (even if not fully understood), then as willing participants to take up the cross and follow him.
1:1-13 – Introduction
1:14-8:26 – Ministry in Galilee
827-10:52 – Journey to Jerusalem
11:1-13:37 – Jerusalem Ministry
14:1-16:8 – Journey to the Cross
A structure of this type of would also serve to de-emphasizes Jerusalem as the center of Christianity as Jesus tells the women after his resurrection to tell the disciples “He is going ahead of you to Galilee”. In other words, Jesus is going to continue working elsewhere.
Some have noted that Mark follows the dramatic structure common to Roman/Greek plays at the time. The structure of the play was as follows:
- First Act: action builds until a point of crisis.
- Second Act: the tension would be diffused as conflicting parties put their individual plans into action.
- Third Act: the clash of the plans produced an overturning of the situation that prevailed in favor of a new one.
These types of dramas also characteristically ended without resolution and often with a tragic or shocking event that prevents closure. (Wikipedia)
Mark’s drama centers around the identity of Jesus. “Who is this man?” Is a common question asked by everyone he encounters.
First Act – 1:16-8:30
- Jesus teaches and heals the crowds
- Jesus is at conflict with the established leadership
- The disciples struggle to understand who Jesus is
Second Act – 8:31 – 14:42
- Jesus and his disciples travel to Jerusalem
- Jesus teaches in the temple and clashes with established leadership
Third Act – 14:43 – 16:8
- Jewish leaders have Jesus arrested and crucified
- God overturns their deeds and raises Jesus to life
This structure emphasizes the identity of Jesus as the Suffering Servant, and that God vindicates injustice done to his faithful followers with the promise of resurrection and victory. (NT40)
A Series of Chiastic Teachings
The word chiasmus (ky-as-mus) is derived from the Greek letter χ (chi) which is indicative of a cross. Chiasmus literally means “placing crosswise, diagonal arrangement.” Each chiasm is a structured repetition of themes starting at the outside and moving to the center. (Clarke)
The reason for this literary technique is to emphasis the midpoint, or the high point of the chiasm. In a pattern of A, B, C, B1, A1, — C would be the main point of the narrative. Take the following illustration from Mark:
A — Jesus sees a fig tree “in leaf” and curses it for having no fruit
B — Jesus and his disciples enter the temple and Jesus drives out those who are buying and selling there
C — Jesus taught them saying, “Is it not written: ‘My house will be called a house of prayer for all nations’ ?
C 1 — “But you have made it ‘a den of robbers.’ ”
B1 — Jesus and his disciples leave the temple
A1 — Peter notices that the fig tree is withered
Here the point of the story of the fig tree is to emphasize and illustrate of the fruitlessness of Israel’s worship practices.
Another example: Mark 1:2-12
A — Isaiah promises a messenger (Greek: agellos or angel) will come in the wilderness to prepare the way
B — John the Baptist comes along baptizing people in the Jordan
C — John teaches that “I baptize with water,”
C1 — but that the one who comes after him “will baptize with the Holy Spirit.”
B1 — Jesus is baptized by John in the Jordan
A1 — Jesus goes into the wilderness where he is tempted and angels (literally translated: messengers) minister to him
Many such chiastic structures can be found throughout Mark, and some have suggested that the entire book of Mark is a chiasm (the center point being either Jesus telling his disciples that the “Son of Man must suffer and die and after three days rise again” in 8:31, or Jesus’ transfiguration in 8:7 – depending on your break down of events)
This type of structure is helpful in determining what Mark may have intended the point of his narrative to be, particularly those stories that are “sandwiched” or “dovetailed” together (ex. the healing of Jarius’ daughter/the woman with the issue of blood – 8:40-56)
Mark tends to group events in threes (three healings after calling Peter and John as disciples, three events challenging the Sabbath after calling Matthew, etc.).
The most notable grouping of threes may be Mark’s retelling of Jesus’ death and resurrection:
- Mark starts the Passion “when it was evening”, or approximately 6 pm.
- The traditional duration of the Passover meal was three hours, So Jesus left for the Mount of Olives around 9 p.m.
- In the garden, the disciples were not able to remain awake. “Could you not watch one hour?” Jesus asks them three times.
- Judas’ betrayal, therefore, would’ve occurred at midnight.
- The watch of the night between 3 am and 6 am was called cockcrow. During this time, Peter denied Jesus three times
- Jesus was taken to Pilate “as soon as it was morning” likely 6 am.
- Jesus was crucified on “the third hour,” or 9 am.
- When “the sixth hour had come” (12 noon), darkness covered the whole earth for 3 hours
- Jesus was taken down from the cross before 6 pm, before the sun went down.
Son of God
Mark starts his gospel by explicitly stating that Jesus is the Son of God. In the Old Testament, the Son of God often meant Israel (corporately) as God’s people, or the king of Israel (individually) at his enthronement—the moment when the king was adopted by God as his son, thereby legitimizing his rule over Israel. To the Greeks and Romans, the Son of God meant a “divine man”, or a supernatural being. Roman Emperor Augustus, in reference to his relationship with the recently deified Julius Caesar, called himself the “son of a god.” Emperor Domitian would later try to do the same thing. (Wikipedia)
The Son of Man
The title of Son of Man has its roots in the Old Testament, in particular: Ezekiel, the Book of Enoch, (a popular Jewish apocalyptic work of the period), and Daniel (7:13–14).
In most cases in the Old Testament, the moniker of Son of Man (literally”ben adam” ) denotes mankind generally in contrast to God. It is used as a reference to human weakness and frailty in the face of God’s glory and infinite power (see Job 25:6; Psalms 8:4; Psalms 144:3; Psalms 146:3; Isaiah 51:12, etc.). Often the use of Son of Man is as a formal substitute for a personal pronoun. God addresses Ezekiel ninety-three times as “son of man.” (Wikipedia)
In the book of Daniel the term is used apocalyptically to designate the one who comes “with the clouds of heaven” and who approaches “the Ancient of Days.” He receives a kingdom unlimited by race or nationality, time or space. Jesus himself used this particular reference to designate himself when questioned by the high priest. Usage of the term Son of Man in this context would help Jesus clarify his mission as a spiritual one as opposed to the political-nationalistic overtones of the contemporary use of “Messiah.” (Barnes)
Thus, the title Son of Man uniquely defines Jesus’ ministry in terms of both majesty and humility. (Barnes)
It has been suggested that Jesus used the term Son of Man to define himself as a counterpart to the designation of Son of God. The title of Son of God affirms the divinity of Jesus. The use of term Son of man affirms his humanity.
The Messiah as a Suffering Servant
A strong theme in Mark is of Jesus as the “suffering just one” portrayed in many of the books of the Old Testament (Jeremiah, Job, the Psalms, and especially in the “Suffering Servant” passages of Isaiah). This is in contrast to the Jewish expectation that the messiah was to conquer God’s enemies through military might. The messiah was not supposed to die. He was supposed to reign, as a literal king, forever from the temple.
Note how in the arc of Mark’s gospel narrative Jesus goes from being surrounded by massive, pressing crowds astounded by all he does and says, to dying alone, cursed and derided, on a cross.
The Failure of the Disciples
Over and over again in Mark’s account the disciples fail to understand what Jesus is teaching or doing.
This pattern of God’s followers failing to understand him reflects the Old Testament theme of God’s love being met by infidelity and failure, only to be renewed by God. In the historical context in which the gospel was written, the persecutions of the Christians of Rome under Nero, the failure of the disciples and Jesus’ denial by Peter himself would have been powerful symbols of faith, hope and reconciliation.
To exemplify this, the pivot point of Mark’s gospel—the moment in which Peter confesses that Jesus is the Messiah—is preceded by the story of the healing of a blind man who needs to be twice touched to truly see (8:22). Thematically, Mark implies discipleship requires a second touch (i.e. Jesus’ death and resurrection) for understanding. Experiencing the Christ through miracles isn’t enough. One must also experience his suffering to truly understand Jesus. Note in this same passage how a disciple’s success (Peter’s confession) is followed by his failure (Jesus rebuking him as Satan) when he says that Jesus doesn’t need to suffer and die. Peter, in what Mark indicates to be mere moments, goes from acknowledging Jesus as the Savior to being accused of working against God.
To Mark, the cross is key to discipleship, both as a filter for understanding Jesus, but also as a way of life.
The Messianic Secret
Throughout Mark, Jesus continually tells people (in particular people he’s healed, or the demons he’s healed them from) not to tell anyone who he is.
William Wrede called this the “Messianic secret” – Jesus’ secrecy about his identity as the messiah.
Mark most likely emphasized this to communicate that the true messiahship of Jesus cannot be recognized in his miracles. The messianic secret of Jesus is that he is the humble Son of Man who has come to suffer and not the Messiah who is going to do great miracles. It is only the story of the suffering and the death of Jesus reveals that the secret of who Jesus really is. (Frontline)
Additional theories have been proposed, e.g. that Jesus issued the commands in order not to become a “celebrity” and be able to move about with ease. (Wikipedia)
Outsiders Understand Better Than Insiders
In Mark, it is the marginal characters who often recognize Jesus for who he truly s first. It is the demons, the women, the pagan Romans who are most likely to call Jesus the Son of God.
A few examples:
- The first ones (and most persistent ones) to declare Jesus as the Son of God are the demons (1:24)
- The woman who anoints Jesus’ feet is honored for recognizing his impeding death and the disciples are rebuked for criticizing her (14:8)
- The Roman guard standing at the foot of the cross is the only one who sees how Jesus’ death makes him the Son of God (15:39)
- Unlike Matthew and Luke, but like John, Mark expressly identifies Jesus’s origins as being “out of Galilee.” Mark makes no mention of Jesus’s birth, his father, ancestors, or any connection to Bethlehem.
- Mark emphasizes Jesus’ action more than his teaching (18 miracles, and 4 parables). The word “immediately” occurs 39 times.
- The earliest complete manuscripts of Mark – Sinaiticus, Vaticanus, and, with gaps, Alexandrinus – which date from the 4th century, end at Mark 16:8, with the women fleeing in fear from the empty tomb. Most scholars believe this to be the original ending, (Wikipedia)
- How do we view discipleship? Just as the blind man needed Jesus to touch him twice to see clearly, what “second touch” do we need to see Jesus clearly?
- What notions of Jesus do we bring to the text? How’s does Mark’s portrayal of Jesus challenge us?
- What did Mark leave out of his gospel that we wish we knew? Why?
- Wikipedia: Gospel of Mark
- Barnes Theological Dictionary
- Gordon Fee and Douglas Stuart: How to Read the Bible for All Its Worth
- Frontline: The Gospel of Mark
- Introduction to Mark
- Gospel of Mark Introduction: The Chapel
- NT40: Introduction to Mark
- Understanding Chiasms: Clarke
Post Discussion Follow-Up
Rather than talk through the logistics of what a gospel is and how Mark may have written his, I created a group activity to illustrate 1) how purposeful storytelling from different points of views are created, 2) how those stories can be listened to by the audience to determine the author’s intent, and 3) to show that multiple perspectives/interpretations on one subject can provide a richer experience than one definitive “biography.”
I used Walt Disney’s life as our fact base because he is familiar yet not well known. Also, he died within recent history (so little context is needed), and his impact on our culture is well known and understood. A link to the activity is below: