The shortest canonical gospel is the only one that introduces itself as such
The Greek term εὐαγγέλιον ("good news") was generally used to
announce an occasion for celebration. In the
Septuagint translation of the
book of Isaiah it refers to proclaiming the liberation of Jerusalem (Isa
40:9, 52:7). First century Romans used it to promote celebration of the
birthday of the emperor Augustus as the divine savior who brought an era of
world peace. It was Paul who gave this term a distinctively
Christian connotation by co-opting it to characterize the proclamation of a
resurrected Jesus (Rom 1:1-6, 1 Cor 15:1-4). But it is Mark who, using εὐαγγέλιον
more than other synoptic authors, made it synonymous with an
account of Jesus' own mission and message (cf.
Allusions and Manuscript
The earliest reference to the gospel of Mark is Papias' early 2nd c.
report of a tradition of "the elder" who claimed it was a posthumous record
of the preaching of Peter. Both Irenaeus of
Lyons and Clement of Alexandria present
variations on Papias' testimony in their defense of a four gospel canon.
Tatian used Mark for compiling his gospel
harmony entitled Diatesseron ("According
to the Four"). Tatian's martyred teacher, Justin, also knew it
since, like Mark 3:17, he refers to
Jesus calling James and John Boanerges: "sons of thunder"
106:2-3). Yet, surprisingly, despite Mark's alleged transcription of
the testimony of Peter, there are no clear quotations of passages from this gospel
in 2nd century patristic texts.
The oldest extant physical evidence of this gospel is a small fragment now known as
which was found at Oxyrhynchus,
Egypt in 1903. For more than a century after its discovery this fragment was
overlooked but was finally identified as a fragment of the first chapter of
written in the late 2nd or early 3rd c. CE.
About half of the Markan narrative--from 4:36
(Jesus stills a storm) to 12:28 (the great commandment)--is
preserved on 6 fragile pages of a
written early in the 3rd c. CE,
the oldest known manuscript to contain all four
canonical gospels. An early 4th c. papyrus fragment (P88)
presents most of Mark 2. The complete text of Mark, however, is found only
in parchment codices, like
after the council of Nicaea (325 CE).
Yet even such scant documentation proves early scribes exercised considerable freedom in
emending the contents of Mark's gospel. The scribe who penned P137
apparently forgot to identify the speaker in Mark 1:17 as Jesus. The scribe who produced
condensed passages, omitting words found in most mss. Likewise,
at several points the original text of Mark in codex Sinaiticus lacked
wording that was added in the margins by later correctors. Scribes who
produced other codices extended
Mark's abrupt ending by appending scenes
that echo Matthew, on the one hand, or
Luke and John, on the other.
Style, structure and motifs
Several elements in Mark invite editing.
The more notable are the following:
Mark reads like a rough draft or oral report. It is filled with simple clauses linked by
the common conjunction καὶ
("and") often followed by the adjective εὐθὺς
("straight") used adverbially (24x, 8 in the first chapter alone).
Mark was also prone to mixing tenses,
especially when reporting dialogue, switching from simple past to present
and back again (e.g.,
stylistic slips are rare in the other synoptic gospels. Even modern translators tend to
Mark opens by citing scripture which he credits to the prophet Isaiah.
In reality, however, the quote is a pastiche using catchwords to fuse
Mal 3:1 with Exod 23:20 in introducing Isa 40:3. In the former two texts YHWH promises to "send a messenger" while the latter two seek to
"prepare the way." All gospels, including John (1:23), identify Isa
40:3's "voice crying in the wilderness"
with John the Baptist. Both Matthew and
Luke credit Jesus himself
with later applying the paraphrase of the other texts to the Baptist (Matt
11:11//Luke 7:27). But only Mark fuses all
three, wrongly presenting the hybrid text as written (γέγραπται)
Ambivalent baptism. Before introducing Jesus, Mark presents John preaching
a "baptism of repentance for forgiveness of sins" and all who
respond to him as "confessing their sins" (Mark
1:4f). While he presents Jesus right after John predicts a successor who
baptizes "with a holy spirit" (Mark
1:8), Jesus is depicted as agent of the spirit only after he
is baptized by John (Mark
1:10), leaving the suspicion that he came to John for the same
reason as others: repenting sins. This is problematic for
representing him as the greater successor John predicted.
The terms that Mark uses to describe
sojourn after his baptism invoke incidents in Israel's spiritual
history without providing any precise parallel. Like Elijah and Moses
before him, Jesus makes a 40 day wilderness retreat (cf. 1 Kings 19:8 &
Exod 24:18). But they went to seek God, while he goes for testing. This
suggests that Jesus faced a microcosm of the ordeals that Israel faced
in the wilderness after its exodus from Egypt (cf. Deut 8:2f). Yet while
Israel was tested by God himself, Mark characterizes Jesus' examiner
as Satan. Moreover, by failing to report the details or the
results of the test, Mark leaves Jesus' performance uncertain.
Mark describes Jesus as teaching on his own authority, unlike the
scribes (Mark 1:22).
Since scribes were trained to decipher written texts, they were
generally regarded as experts in interpreting scripture. Mark's
description of Jesus' teaching method, therefore, implies that he relied
not on sacred texts but rather on his own original insights. Mark
stresses the novelty of this approach by reporting the reaction of those
in the synagogue. When Jesus has to calm a disturbed man, others exclaim
in amazement: "What is this? A new teaching, with authority he
commands even unclean spirits..." (Mark
1:27). Though this brands Jesus as exceptional, Mark's emphasis on the
novelty of his message makes representing him as the Messiah harder. For
Jews usually expected the Messiah to restore the Mosaic covenant.
The main motif that runs through the gospel of Mark is the question of
Jesus' true identity.
informs readers that Jesus is God's "Anointed" (Greek:
Christos = Aramaic: Messiah). And at his baptism Jesus is
reported to hear God say in the words of a messianic psalm: "You are my
son" (Mark 1:11;
cf. Ps 2:7). But Mark portrays Jesus as repeatedly trying to keep this
from becoming public knowledge before his arrest. As Mark tells it, only
"unclean spirits" proclaim Jesus son of God; but
even they are soon silenced by him (cf.
5:1ff). This leaves others
free to characterize him on the basis of his behavior. Since most of the
incidents Mark records show Jesus ignoring traditional Jewish taboos
(e.g., Mark 1:41,
religious experts conclude he is
driven by a demon
and even his own relatives consider him
rumors circulating that he is
some type of prophet (cf. Mark 6:14ff)
Jesus finally asks his disciples who they think he is. But when Peter
proclaims him the Messiah, Jesus warns them not to tell anyone (Mark
8:27ff). Even after the disciples themselves hear God identify Jesus
as "my son," Jesus instructs them to tell no one before he is
raised from the dead (Mark
9:7ff). Such a persistent emphasis on secrecy during Jesus'
lifetime, however, makes messianic claims after his crucifixion
questionable. This led
William Wrede to conclude
that the "messianic secret" was a Markan fiction.
- Dense disciples. Mark repeatedly presents Jesus' disciples in a negative light.
First they do not get the point of his parables (Mark
4:13), then they fail to grasp the significance of his deeds (Mark
8:17ff). But the sharpest criticism comes just after Peter
proclaims Jesus the Messiah. When Peter refuses to accept the idea that Jesus
will be rejected and killed, Jesus erupts,
calling him "Satan" and accusing him of not thinking like God (Mark
8:33). Mark's comment that Peter did not know what to say when he
saw Jesus transfigured (Mark
9:5f) adds to the impression that the disciples did not really
understand him. And the attention given to Peter's denial after Jesus'
arrest--"I do not know this man" (Mark
14:71)--is hardly designed to create confidence in his testimony.
Such a consistently negative portrait makes patristic
claims that Mark records Peter's own preaching dubious.
- Cryptic conclusion.
Unlike other canonical gospels, Mark does not report any resurrection
appearances. Instead he leaves his audience in suspense. After Jesus'
crucifixion all his disciples disappear. Three women who come to anoint
his body find the tomb open and see an unnamed "youth sitting on the
right" who tells them to tell Peter and the disciples that they will see
Jesus if they go to Galilee. But instead of doing as
instructed the women run away in fear and tell "nothing to no one"
16:1-8). This leaves readers guessing how anyone learned what
the women saw and what happened next. Such an ending is hardly
designed to convince a skeptical audience that Jesus was really
resurrected. Rather it leaves believers with a choice: whether to remain
silent like these women or to dare to proclaim Jesus' resurrection.
Genre, times and intended audience
When viewed as a biographical essay to inform the general public of past events the gospel of Mark is full
of problems. But when read as
a sermon designed to prepare a Christian community to face an ominous
future, it is a masterful composition. Like many a sermon it begins by
citing scripture (Mark
1:2-3), which it then proceeds to address to the audience's own
situation. Isaiah's clarion call to "prepare the way of the Lord" (Isa 40:3)
is introduced by the LORD's own promise of a messenger "to prepare your
way" (Exod 23:20). While John the Baptist may be the voice that introduces
Jesus, Jesus himself becomes the messenger who prepares others. His opening
words--"The time (καίρος) is complete!
God's kingdom is close!" (Mark
1:15)--create a sense of eschatological urgency for an audience familiar
with Jewish scripture. Graphic predictions of the end time in the book of
Daniel conclude with the scribe being told to have the book sealed and kept
secret "until the completion of time" (Dan 12:4
LXX: ἕως καιροῦ
Even clearer echoes
of Daniel are triggered when Jesus' awestruck disciples marvel at the
grandeur of the temple complex built by Herod the Great (Mark
13:1). When Jesus startles them by predicting its complete destruction,
they press him to tell them when, setting the stage for the longest speech
Mark ascribes to Jesus. Scholars generally call this chapter-long speech the
"little apocalypse" because of its similarity to apocalyptic books like Daniel and
Revelation. Like Dan 9:26f, Mark's Jesus links the temple's
destruction to installation of an "abomination of desolations"
ἐρημώσεων), which the narrator
highlights with his own aside: "Let
the reader understand!" (Mark
13:14). The author of Daniel used the cryptic phrase as a
veiled allusion to the desecration of the Jewish temple by the Syrian king,
Antiochus IV Epiphanes, in 167
BCE (Dan 11:31; cf.
1 Macc 1:54).
In Mark, Jesus warns disciples that
such desecration is the sign for all in Judea to head to the hills without any delay. For
it would be followed by a time of unprecedented suffering and the shaking of
all cosmic powers, culminating with "the Son of Man coming in clouds"
(Mark 13:26). The
latter is a clear allusion to Dan 7:13, which is the heart of a vision of
the last judgment when God finally defeats the king who ravages his holy
people and grants them an everlasting kingdom (cf. Dan 7:27).
Mark concludes this eschatological warning with two clues that indicate the short time frame he
has in mind. First Jesus predicts that "this generation will not pass
away" before "all these
things have taken place" (Mark
13:30). Then he presents a parable about a homeowner who returns without
warning and concludes by telling everybody: "Wake up!" (Mark
13:37). The former makes it unlikely that Mark was written more than
forty years after Jesus' death, or readers would doubt the accuracy of
Jesus' prediction. The latter was clearly designed to alert Mark's own
readers to current events that herald Jesus' return.
There were only two incidents where the temple in Jerusalem faced desecration within a
generation of Jesus' crucifixion. The first came in 39 CE
when Caligula ordered a statue of himself erected there (Antiquities
18.261). While this brought Jews to the brink of revolt, the crisis was
averted when Rome abandoned the project after Caligula's assassination (43 CE). Yet,
Tacitus reports Jews
continued to fear that a later emperor might try the same thing (Annals
12.343). Finally in 70 CE, when Roman soldiers
breached the walls of Jerusalem after a long siege,
Josephus reports that they planted their standards--which bore the emperor's
image--in the temple and offered sacrifices to him (Jewish
War 6.316). The fact that Mark presents Jesus as predicting the temple's
desecration and destruction after a warning about "wars and rumors of wars"
(Mark 13:7) leads
most scholars to conclude that this gospel was probably written near the
climax of this revolt against Rome (66-73 CE) when many Jews in fact fled Jerusalem
(cf. Jewish War 6.316).
Making sense of Mark as "gospel"
Mark clearly addresses his
message not to Jews in general but to those who already believed Jesus was the
Messiah. While most other Jews considered the temple's desecration and
destruction an unmitigated disaster, for Judean Christians it must have
seemed a sign of relief and vindication. For decades they had suffered
suppression by temple authorities (cf. Acts 4:1ff, 5:17, 8:1; 1 Thess
2:14ff; cf. Mark 13:9).
The Sadducean chief priests played a leading role in the arrest and
execution of not only Jesus (Mark 14:1,
53f; John 11:47ff) but also his brother
20.199ff). Other Jews, like the Hellenized Pharisee Paul, had joined
in trying to destroy the Jewish Christian community (Acts 9:1f; Gal 2:13f; 2 Cor 11:24f). So, the end of the temple and its
hierarchy would certainly be "good news" to one like Mark, who
viewed it as prelude to "the son of Man's" elevation to power (Mark
13:26). Then, as Daniel had seen (7:27), all God's chosen would
share in his everlasting kingdom. In this context Jesus'
inaugural message (Mark
1:15) is not just an echo from the past but a clarion call to Mark's own readers: the time is
ripe; all conditions have been fulfilled (πεπλήρωται); God
himself is finally taking charge; his kingdom so close it is almost tangible!
But Mark knows the aftermath of the temple's
desecration meant unprecedented distress for all in Judea (Mark
13:19). Josephus reports the Romans crucified any who left Jerusalem
during the siege of the city (Jewish
War 5.446-451). If that was so before the fall of the temple, what
fate might await them afterwards? Thus, to get his intended audience to
believe that God's kingdom was really near when circumstances only
seemed to get worse, Mark has to remind them that Jesus was himself
executed. He did not come as the conquering messianic hero like
David that Jews traditionally expected. Any who thought he did were
bound to desert him when he was arrested and crucified (Mark 14:27,
50). Mark illustrates
this by repeatedly stressing the tension between Jesus and disciples who
cannot accept the implications of his death (Mark
10:32f). Not only
does Jesus insist that he must die, he warns any would-be
follower to be ready to carry his own cross. For only those who
risk losing their life for the sake of the "good news" can hope to save
it (Mark 8:34f).
Such a call to martyrdom might seem like a death warrant. But Mark turns
it into really good news by concluding with Jesus' solemn oath that "some
of those standing here" would live to see God's kingdom come with power
Since many, or even most, of Jesus' original disciples--as well as
leaders of the early Judean church like James--died before the
destruction of Jerusalem's temple, Mark clearly intended Jesus' pledge
to assure the remnants of that first generation of Christians that God's
kingdom was close indeed. Then all would finally see the "Son of Man" as
God's Messiah, enthroned "at the right hand of Power and coming with the
clouds of heaven" (Mark
The time for testimony
Mark did not write to tell readers what happened in a distant past or predict what will happen
in some distant future. Rather, he wrote to warn a Jewish Christian
community what they must do in a current crisis that was
destroying their familiar world and putting their lives in jeopardy. In
such a chaotic time there was a real danger of them being misled by
messianic pretenders (Mark
Other Jews might be looking for one who would restore the kingdom of
David (Mark 11:10).
But, only a blind man would think Jesus fit that mold (Mark
10:47f). Instead of trying to make Jesus fit popular messianic
typology, Mark has Jesus himself challenge those who identify the Messiah
as a "son of David" (Mark 12:35ff).
Rather, he argues the Messiah is one sitting at the right of
God, whom David himself called "my lord" (cf. Ps 110:1). Mark insists
that Jesus himself did not claim to be the Messiah before his
arrest. But when brought before the Sanhedrin (Greek: συνέδριον) and
asked by the high priest, "Are you the Messiah, the son of the Blessed?,"
Jesus responds, "I am," adding: "you
(plural!) will see the Son of Man sitting at the right of Power and
coming with the clouds of heaven" (Mark 14:61f).
Mark's description of this
scene is clearly designed as a paradigm for his own readers rather than as a
transcript of Jesus' testimony decades earlier.
Caiaphas and other members of the Sanhedrin in 30 CE did not live to see the
fall of the temple, much less the triumph of Christianity. But Mark assures
readers that they would. They should be prepared to be arrested and
testify before councils (συνέδρια) like Jesus (Mark
13:9ff). Those who endure disgrace and suffering for the sake of his
name are assured salvation (Mark
13:14); but those who are ashamed of him can only expect to be shamed when he
is revealed as the the true son of God (Mark 8:38).
The choice is theirs. Mark lets readers decide for themselves whether they
will listen to Jesus and proclaim him as the son of God (Mark
9:7) or deny knowing him like Peter (Mark
Mark emphasizes that choice by the way he concludes his narrative. Assuming his audience already
believes that Jesus is God's anointed who has been raised from the dead,
he does not recall past resurrection appearances but rather promises a
future vision. When
women come to embalm Jesus' body they find an open tomb and see a young
man in white sitting at the right. Mark's description of
the youth suggests the promised vision of the Messiah as God's reigning
right hand man (cf. Ps 110:1;
But the figure remains anonymous and is not recognized by the women.
Instead the youth instructs them to tell Peter and other (male)
disciples that they will see Jesus if they go to Galilee.
But the women flee and tell no one "for they were terrified" (ἐφοβοῦντο
γάρ; Mark 16:8).
Such an abrupt, startling conclusion leaves Mark's readers to ponder
what would happen if all Jesus' followers were afraid to tell anyone
that the crucified Jesus was exalted to the status of Messiah. And the symbolic youth's promise--"There
you will see him, just as he told you" (Mark
16:7)--challenges them to tell others.