An Introduction to the Gospel of Mark

In the three-year cycle of Gospels read at Mass, Year B is Mark, the shortest of the four gospels. The liturgy does not follow the gospel in order, so I urge everyone to read it as a whole to get a sense of its full message. Paradoxically, this Gospel seems to call for two kinds of reading: going once straight through it from beginning to end – which can be done in an hour or two. Then reading slowly, perhaps over the full year, section by section, and noting the places where Mark seems to call for a pause to reflect. (Sometimes this is by an unanswered question.) During the previous Year B, I found it helpful to write my reflections in a journal, which showed how events in my life or the world around interacted with the text. In this way, the scripture becomes part of one’s days, showing why Pope Francis calls on us to see the Bible as a basis of Christian life.

When you read the gospel as a whole, it soon becomes clear that Mark keeps an intense focus on the person Jesus the Christ, on what he does more than what he teaches. When we read Mark, we ourselves meet Jesus and hear his words calling us into relationship. We are not just reading a book, we are brought to the presence of our Lord.

Modern scholars mostly agree that Mark was the first Gospel written, although it comes second in the New Testament order. The date is estimated as around 60-70 AD; and with many warnings about persecutions, it fits well into the period of Nero and the martyrdom of Christians. The author must be someone named Mark/Marcus, although the gospels all come to us with no named author – our titles added later. Since ‘Marcus’ was one of the most common names in the Roman Empire, this is not much of an identification. Some look for other Marks in the New Testament, and often settle on the ‘John Mark’ in Acts. The Letter of Peter refers to ‘Mark my son’ and there is an early tradition that Mark preserves the preaching of Peter. The reader will find the many places in this Gospel where Peter is shown as close to Jesus at significant times. Mark the author makes no claim to have known Jesus during his ministry and he does not tell us how he came by his knowledge.

Like all the New Testament, it is written in the simplified Greek (‘koine’) that was the common language of the Roman Empire. Mark writes in a rough version of this with many expressions called ‘Semitic’ indicating that Greek was not the first language of the writer. The various but related Semitic languages had been spoken in the Middle East areas, and they include the Hebrew of the Bible, and Aramaic which had taken over as the everyday language of Palestine. Mark’s less-than-smooth style is covered up by most translations, which want to sound like good, even elegant, English. This obscures some points that are useful for appreciating Mark, and my weekly notes will point out when they occur in the liturgy.

Although the wording does not seem sophisticated, the theology is profound. As James M. Robinson puts it, Mark is ‘theologically understood history’. Edward Schweizer, describes the way it is constructed as both ‘horizontal’ – going back to show the fulfilment of the Old Testament in Jesus, and ‘vertical’ which is a new ‘in-breaking of God’s heavenly realm on earth.’ This is seen right away in the first verses of the Gospel.

It often seems Mark is more like a story teller than writer, with the constant use of the connecting word ‘and’ and much is in the present tense as people do in conversation. Over 40 times there is a Greek word which can be translated as ‘immediately, ‘right away’, straightaway’ to the point where they seem just his way of moving ahead. There are, however, a number of techniques that show a thoughtful author. There are some literary styles of that time which are not common in ours, like the end echoing the opening and thus marking the closing off a section. He also uses a lot of what can be called ‘sandwiches’ by breaking an account in half and putting another story in the centre. This may allow a passage of time but it is worth looking for what light the middle story casts about the outer layer – or vice versa.

Mark sometimes gives us the words of Jesus in Aramaic which brings us close to the original situation and thus to Jesus himself. Mark occasionally quotes the Jewish scriptures, but much else of what he writes has this as a background. Some of these are subtle and easily missed by modern readers, but Mark seems to expect his listeners to remember what they had heard before.

Although Mark often speaks of Jesus ‘teaching’, there is less content (discourses or parables) than the other gospels. He shows Jesus almost constantly in action, and always in relationship to those who listen and respond, but also to those who refuse his call and eventually plot his death. Mark, more than the other evangelists, pictures Jesus in his full humanity, with a wide range of emotions, including being angry, tired, and not knowing everything. Yet he stresses his divine sonship from the opening words ‘Son of God’ as a title, until he comes to the climax at Jesus’ trial before the high priest when claims to be the Messiah (or Christ) and son of the Blessed One’.

Mark does not try to explain everything and often leaves us to draw our own conclusions. At times he has an unanswered question, for example 4:41: ‘What kind of human is this that the wind and sea obey him?’ That technique leaves the reader to think of how the question might be answered.

Mark also depicts the humanity of the disciples and apostles, showing them struggling to understand but misunderstanding, too sleepy to stay awake and watch with Jesus when he asks them to, fleeing when he is arrested. But he also notes their immediate commitment when Jesus calls them to follow. Mark stresses how Jesus taught them a new kind of leadership of service and how he predicted they would have to suffer as he himself would. This makes for a sombre note to much of the Gospel, though it is based on promises of ultimate joy.

Mark’s gospel ends abruptly at the empty tomb, with the message Jesus has risen and gone to Galilee. To many, because it lacks any appearance of the risen Lord, it seems unfinished. (Catholic Bibles often include an ending written by another writer, summarizing the appearances of the risen Jesus, but it clearly is not in Mark’s style of writing.) Scholars debate whether that was where Mark intended to end, or was something lost, or was an intent to show the appearances of Jesus in Galilee not written down for an unknown reason. The early manuscripts supplied three different endings, so at that time the copyists seemed to expect more. The modern tendency is to think that is where Mark intended to end, and to reflect on what that tells us about the writer and the Gospel.

In the weekly notes on the Mass readings, I will bring in some of the background from the number of studies I have at hand and which are pertinent to each gospel selection. If you want to do more study on the gospel, there is a wide range of guides available, from short ones for beginners to long scholarly commentaries. Many can be found on the internet, useful when it is hard to visit a bookstore, some book sites allow you to ‘Look inside’ which can indicate whether a commentary suits you.

One I would highly recommend is a short book which focuses on the deep meaning of Mark: Rowan Williams, Meeting God in Mark. It also has a good summary of what kind of person ‘Mark’ probably was, and what the Roman Empire was like at the time. It includes a reading guide to use as a Lenten project. Another short one calls on the reader to take the Gospel as something fresh and challenging: Nicholas King, SJ, The Strangest Gospel.

With or without other study sources, read Mark for what it tells you about ‘The good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God’.

Joan Griffith

Postscript from Gwen
When I was studying theology in university, my New Testament professor described Mark’s language and style as ‘no-speaka-da-lingo Greek’. It is true that he is rough and ready! She also compared his style to a child eagerly telling you a story, where every sentence begins breathlessly with ‘And then – And then – And then – ’

And Mark’s Gospel is certainly all about the action; without the long discourses we see in John, and lacking some favourite stories (like Christmas!) so familiar from Matthew and Luke.

But for all his lack of polish, Mark is more subtle in making meaning arise from Jesus’ actions words, and events – or in encouraging you to explore that meaning for yourself.

One technique he uses you might like to observe for yourself and see what you make of it. Mark often makes his point by juxtaposition – by how he places things next to each other, or sometimes two things bracketing or sandwiching a nugget in the middle, and let them explain or interpret each other.

An early example is 1:21-28:

They went as far as Capernaum, and as soon as the sabbath came he went to the synagogue and began to teach.21 And his teaching made a deep impression on them because, unlike the scribes, he taught them with authority.22

In their synagogue just then there was a man possessed by an unclean spirit and it shouted,23 ‘What do you want with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are: the Holy One of God.’24 But Jesus said sharply, ‘Be quiet! Come out of him!’25 And the unclean spirit threw the man into convulsions and with a loud cry went out of him.26

The people were so astonished that they started asking each other what it all meant. ‘Here is a teaching that is new’ they said ‘and with authority behind it: he gives orders even to unclean spirits and they obey him.’27 And his reputation rapidly spread everywhere, through all the surrounding Galilean countryside.28

In verse 22, Jesus is described as impressing people in the synagogue because he taught with authority. And in v. 27 again they exclaim that he teaches with authority. (These two comments about his authority are the ‘bread’ in the sandwich.) In between, the ‘filling’ describes a man who is possessed by a demon appearing in the synagogue. The demon cries out that it knows who Jesus is – the Holy One of God – and Jesus orders it to be silent and casts it out from the man. Here, Mark shows us in action what ‘authority’ really means!

One interesting juxtaposition comes with Jesus healing a blind man in 8:22-26. Some people might privately find this story odd; because unlike most of Jesus’ healings, it doesn’t completely work the first time and apparently the man only gains his sight in stages when Jesus tries again.

They came to Bethsaida, and some people brought to him a blind man whom they begged him to touch. He took the blind man by the hand and led him outside the village. Then putting spittle on his eyes and laying his hands on him, he asked, ‘Can you see anything?’ The man, who was beginning to see, replied, ‘I can see people; they look like trees to me, but they are walking about’. Then he laid his hands on the man’s eyes again and he saw clearly; he was cured, and he could see everything plainly and distinctly. And Jesus sent him home, saying, ‘Do not even go into the village’.

But Mark may have a reason to depict Jesus having to keep trying to give sight [insight] to people, who do not see clearly at first.

Just before the story of the blind man – in the verse just before – an exasperated Jesus is responding to his disciples’ failure to understand the implications of who Jesus is, and he says: ‘Are you still without perception?’ – Then follows the story of the blind man regaining his sight; and immediately after this healing of the blind man in stages, from v. 27, Peter and the disciples move from blindness to [in]sight in stages – when it comes to understanding who Jesus is.

After healing the blind man, Jesus asks his disciples in private who people say he is; and who do they say he is. Peter sees that Jesus is the Messiah, the Christ (v. 29); but he only sees unclearly what this means. For immediately on Peter saying; ’You are the Christ’, Jesus starts telling them this means he was destined to suffer, be rejected by the religious authorities and be put to death. Peter cannot ‘see’ the truth of what it means for Jesus to be the ‘Messiah’, and starts arguing with him about it. (v. 31-33). Jesus has to have several rounds of teaching this hard truth to his disciples: that unlike the usual Jewish expectations of the time, the Messiah would not be an all-powerful political leader but would have to suffer and be vanquished and killed by his enemies. Only gradually do Peter and the apostles gain their [in]sight.

You can see this passage as part of a giant ‘sandwich’, with the second piece of bread being a second healing of a blind man at the end of chapter 10. In between, the filling of the sandwich, is a theme of Jesus’ identity and glory, including the Transfiguration, being increasingly revealed; but Jesus immediately after predicting the Passion and death and insisting that this ministry is one of service. This is even repeated with the disciples (twice) themselves wanting power and glory as his followers and being told, yet again, that this they should instead be the servant of all (9:30-37), and suffering themselves (10:35-40). James and John want to sit on the right and left of Jesus in his glory; the others become indignant with them, and Jesus has to remind them all about service – and right after this extended episode, they again encounter a blind man asking Jesus for healing. (10:46-52). ‘And immediately his sight returned and he followed him along the road.’

At the end of this big ‘sandwich’ of blindness and sight, both literal and symbolic, [chapters 8-10] the next verse tells us they are arriving in Jerusalem – and the events that lead to Jesus’ Passion begin. [chapter 11:1].