Κατα Mαρκον    According to Mark  

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  detail of folio 6 recto of Chester Beatty papyrus 1 (P45) containing part of Mark 8:10-18
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The shortest canonical gospel is the only one that introduces itself as such (Mark 1:1). 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. Mark 1:14f, 10:29, 13:10, 14:9).

Allusions and Manuscript Evidence 

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" (Dialog 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 P137, 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 Mark (1:7-9,16-18) 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 papyrus codex (P45) 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 Sinaiticus and Vaticanus, produced 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 P45 regularly 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:

  • Sloppy syntax. 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., Mark 1:35-39, 40-45). Such stylistic slips are rare in the other synoptic gospels. Even modern translators tend to emend them.

  • Confused quotation. 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) in Isaiah.

  • Spotty background check. Mark introduces Jesus leaving Nazareth in Galilee to be baptized by John in the Jordan (Mark 1:9). The only other glimpse of Jesus' background that Mark offers the reader is in the form of skeptical comments by neighbors when Jesus finally returns to his hometown (Mark 6:1-3). They have trouble accepting his teaching because they know him as "the carpenter" (τέκτων) and "son of Mary" and are familiar with his brothers and sisters. Such details hardly introduce him as a prime candidate to fit Jewish expectations of a Messiah.

  • 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.

  • Unclear testing. The terms that Mark uses to describe Jesus' desert 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.

  • Novel teaching. 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.

  • Secret identity. The main motif that runs through the gospel of Mark is the question of Jesus' true identity. Mark 1:1 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. Mark 1:23f, 34; 3:11f; 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, 2:5-6, 2:16, 2:24), religious experts conclude he is driven by a demon and even his own relatives consider him insane. With 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" (Mark 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 συντελείας).

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" (βδέλυγμα τῶν 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 James (Antiquities 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 8:31ff, 9:30ff, 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 (Mark 9:1). 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 14:62).

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 14:5f, 21f). 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 14:71).

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; Mark 12:36, 14:62).  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.

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last revised 28 February 2023

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