Mark, Lesson 1: Introduction

By Pr Rich Futrell

Overview

With the events in his Gospel, Mark makes no attempt to link them to the historical events taking place within Judea or the Roman Empire.  Neither does Mark bother to explain the links between the various events he covers, the exception being what takes place during Christ’s passion. 

Rather, his Gospel sharpens down to a singular person—Jesus.  Rare is the time when Jesus is not the center of attention, with only a diversion about Herod in Chapter 6.  Over 44 percent of the verbs in Mark’s Gospel have Jesus or His teaching as the subject.  No matter where we are in Mark’s Gospel, Jesus is either the center of attention, the topic of discussion, and never far from the central focus.

Mark seeks to ask and answer, “Who is Jesus, what is He like, and why is He worth writing about?”

The Author: Mark

The title “The Gospel of Mark” was not part of the original work but a later added by the Church.  Neither does the Gospel’s author identify himself.  However, we do have several early sources stating Mark is the author.

  • Papias (bishop of Hierapolis, near Colossae and Laodicea) and his views on Mark are mentioned in Eusebius’ Church History 3.39.14-15.
    • When Mark became Peter’s interpreter, he wrote down accurately, though by no means in order, as much as he remembered of the words and deeds of the Lord; for he had neither heard the Lord nor been in his company, but subsequently joined Peter.
  • Irenaeus (AD 130-202) says much the same thing in his Against Heresies 3.1.1.
  • Clement of Alexandria (150-215):
    • 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. (quoted in Eusebius, Church History 6.14.5-7).
  • Tertullian (AD 160-220) in his Against Marcion 4.5.

Scripture also mentions this Mark several times in Acts and the letters of Paul and Peter.  In Acts 12:12, Mark receives his first mention when Peter goes to the house of Mark’s mother in Jerusalem after his miraculous release from prison.  

St. Peter mentions Mark and calls him “my son” (1 Peter 5:13).  Though this may refer to him as a “spiritual father,” the eastern and African traditions of the Church teach that Peter and Mark were related, with Peter’s wife being a cousin of Mark’s father.

If so, this helps explain why, as passed down in the western tradition of the Church, Mark later served with Peter in Rome and why Peter was Mark’s primary source for his Gospel.  We also learn that Mark went by the name of John (his Hebrew name) and is sometimes referred to as “John Mark.”

When was Mark Written?

Most scholars today say Mark is the first Gospel written because it is the shortest.  They base this on higher-critical thinking, which assumes the shortest Gospel came first because of a shorter oral tradition behind it.  However, Irenaeus in his Against Heresies 3.1.1 and Fragments of Origen, quoted in Eusebius’ Church History 6.25.4-5 affirm Matthew as the first-written Gospel.  The early Church document, the Didache, only quotes from Matthew, most likely because the other Gospels were not yet written.

The text of Mark reflects a fearful community (4:40, 6:51, 9:32, 10:32, 16:8), which implies some persecution had taken place.  This leads us to a date after, or during, the Neronian persecutions (64-67 AD).  However, in Mark 13, Jesus prophesied the destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple, which took place in 70 AD.  Mark makes no mention of this, which a writer would probably do since it affirms the prophecy of Jesus.  So, this leads us to a likely date between 67-70 AD.

A second-century document, called the Anti-Marcionite Prologue, and Irenaeus both state that Mark wrote the Gospel soon after Peter’s martyrdom (64-67 AD).  This dates Mark’s Gospel in the late 60s.

Mark’s Use of the Old Testament

Unconcerned about exact quotations, Mark had no problem combining Old-Testament passages together.  The first combination of texts takes place at the start of his Gospel where he combines Malachi 3:1, Exodus 23:20, and Isaiah 40:3 in Mark 1:2-3. Some others are:

  • Mark 1:11 (Isaiah 42:1, Psalm 2:7),
  • 11:1-11 (Zechariah 9:9; Psalm 118:25-26),
  • 11:17 (Isaiah 56:7; Jeremiah 7:11),
  • 12:1-12 (Isaiah 5:1-2; Psalm 118:22-23), and
  • 14:62 (Daniel 7:13; Psalm 110:1).

Daniel

Though only quoted three times, Mark taps into Daniel more than any other Old-Testament prophetic book.  This is more for its apocalyptic imagery than any direct references.

Isaiah

Isaiah is the only prophet whom Mark mentions by name (1:1, 7:6).  Mark directly quotes this prophet more than any other, some eight times:

  • Mark 1:2-3, Isaiah 40:3
  • Mark 4:12, Isaiah 6:9-10
  • Mark 7:6-7, Isaiah 29:13
  • Mark 9:48, Isaiah 66:24
  • Mark 11:17, Isaiah 56:7
  • Mark 12:32, Isaiah 45:21
  • Mark 13:24, Isaiah 13:10
  • Mark 13:25, Isaiah 34:4

Mark uses Isaiah to emphasize the story of the Exodus, describing a new event in which God, in the New Covenant, rescues, restores, and transforms His people.  The story of Jesus through the lenses of Isaiah helped show that God’s rule and reign has already begun to impact the present and will soon break through in its fullness at the end of time.

Wisdom

Marks also references the apocrypha book of Wisdom, especially chapter 2.  He folds its themes into his text as a scaffold, which also helps shape his Gospel.  The actions of Wisdom, as described in the book of Wisdom, are the actions of a righteous man and wise king.  Tapping into Wisdom’s themes, Mark presents Jesus as the righteous Man and Wise King.  

  • Like the righteous man in Wisdom 2:16, Jesus opposes the actions of the ungodly (Mark 8:15; 11:27-28; 12:1-12, 38-40). 
  • As Wisdom and her representatives offer blessings, Jesus travels within Israel, blessing others through His miracles (Mark 1: 32-34, 38-39; 3:7, 10). 
  • These blessings not only bring about physical well-being in this life (Mark 7:31, 37) but also promise blessings in the Kingdom of God and eternal life (Mark 4:20, 10:29-30).

In other words, Mark shows us how the Apocrypha book of Wisdom is also a messianic prophecy fulfilled by Christ.

The Structure of Mark

In His Gospel, Mark brings out how Jesus brings His people into the “new” Exodus, not into a nation for a time but as a people for all eternity.  He lays out his structure as such:

The Old-Covenant Exodus The Christ-Created Exodus
Exodus 1:1-15: Moses, God’s liberator arrives Mark 1:1-8:27: Jesus, God’s Liberator arrives
Exodus 16-40, Numbers, Deuteronomy: The journey to the Promised Land Mark 8:22-10:52 (5 verses overlap): The way to Jerusalem
Joshua: The conquest of Zion Mark 11:1-16:8: The conquest in Jerusalem

Mark also uses repetition to reinforce truths about Jesus.

Mark 1:1-4:34 Mark 8:27-13:37
Mark 1:1: Jesus is the Messiah Mark 8:29-30: Jesus is the Messiah
Mark 1:9-11: Baptism, “You are my Son” Mark 9:2-8: Transfiguration, “You are my Son”
Mark 2:1-3:6: Discussions revolving around five questions Mark 1127-12:37: Discussions revolving around five questions
Mark 4:1-34: Teaching about the reign (kingdom) of God Mark 13:1-37: Teaching about the reign (kingdom) of God

Chiasms

Mark’s use of chiasm is nothing new, which most New-Testament writers also used.  A chiasm lists several items and then reverses the order, with the emphasized point being in its center.  For example, in Mark 2:27, Jesus said, “The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath.”  The chiasm looks like this:

In fact, the entire book of Mark is a giant chiasm!  It begins by identifying Jesus as the Son of God, finishing with Him confirmed as God’s Son of God by his resurrection.  The central point unfolds in Mark 8:27-10:45, where Jesus Reveals the “Secret” of the Kingdom.

We will discover many others as we make our way through Mark’s text.

Mark’s Writing Style

Mark’s writing style is closer to an oral style, as if he is telling a story to someone.  So, he writes his text to be heard, most likely in a congregational setting.  In Mark 13:14, he quotes Jesus, “Let those with two good ears, hear,” hitting home when people are listening to his Gospel read to them.

Mark’s narrative style is the most vivid of the Gospels, using euthys, “immediately,” over 40 times.  Matthew used euthys six times; Luke, once.  This, and Mark’s consistent use of the present tense to describe past events, gives Mark’s narrative a fast pace.  He also used kai, “and,” as a connector, with his 89 of 105 passages (in the Greek) beginning with “kai.”

The People to Whom Mark Writes

Mark’s audience was familiar with the Old Testament, the Septuagint, not the Masoretic Text, which is the basis of our Old Testament translations.  They knew:

  • the Law of Moses (1:44; 7:10; 9:4-5; 10:3-5; 12:19, 26),
  • who King David was and that the prophesied Messiah is his Descendant (2:25, 10:47-48, 11:10, 12:35-37), and
  • what synagogues are (1:21, 23, 29, 39; 3:1; 5:22, 35-38; 6:2; 12:39)

They believed angels (1:13; 8:38; 12:25; 13:27, 32) and Satan (1:13; 3:23, 26; 4:15; 8:33) to be real.  They were familiar with the Jewish Sabbath (1:21; 2:23-24, 27-28; 3:2, 4; 6:2; 16:1), and knew of Jerusalem and its Temple (1:5; 3:8, 22; 7:1; 10:32; 11:1, 11-16, 27; 12:35, 41; 13:1, 3; 14:58; 15:29, 38, 41).

However, they needed clarification for Aramaic expressions (5:41; 7:11, 34; 14:36; 15:22, 34) and certain Jewish practices and beliefs, especially those pertaining to the Pharisees and Sadducees (7:3-4, 11; 12:18; 14:12; 15:42).  When Mark does include Aramaic or Hebrew words and phrases, he translates them for his recipients.  He also takes the time to explain Jewish religious culture (7:2, 7:19, and 15:42).

This tells us his audience was not made up entirely of Jews because Mark considered it necessary to explain those Jewish practices (7:3-4, 11).  So, his recipients are either Gentiles, who know no Aramaic, or a congregation of mixed ethnicity.

Still, his text reveals more when he included several Latin words and phrases.  These words go beyond military, economic, or judicial terms, which were well-used throughout the empire.  We find transliterated Latin terms: quadrans (a Roman unit of currency), krabattos (a cot), modios (a measure of grain), xestes (a liquid measurement), spekoulator (an executioner), and phragelloo (to flagellate).

Mark also combined Greek words for a Latin idiom, ixanon poiasai for satisfacere alicui but retained the Latin word order, despite its awkwardness in the Greek.  Normally, the verb (poiasai, “to do”) would precede the adjective (ixanon, “sufficient”), translated as “to satisfy” (15:15).  In the next verse, Mark clarifies what he meant by “the palace” (aulas) using the Latin word praetorium, translated as “governor’s headquarters.”  

A couple of times, Mark explains Greek expressions meant by using Latin ones.  This means the receivers of his Gospel were more familiar with the Latin term than the Greek, which is why Mark explains the worth of two leptons (used in the eastern Empire, not the west) as equal to a quadrans, translated as “penny” (12:42).  (See image to the right.)

What does all this tell us?  The original receivers of Mark’s Gospel are in a Roman setting where Latin as the dominant language, not Greek.  Mark could even be writing to the church at Rome.

Outline

Following Mark’s own chiastic structure for his Gospel, we outline the book as he organized it.

  1. Opening: Jesus is identified as Son of God 1:1-15
    1. Jesus’ earliest followers: 1: 16-20 
  2. Jesus is opposed: 1: 21–3:6
    1. Jesus, His disciples, and mission: 3: 7-19
  3. The response to Jesus and Judgment: 3:20-6:6a
    1. John the Baptizer dies: 6:6b-29
  4. Jesus Comes to Israel as its true Teacher: 6: 30– 8:21
    1. Jesus heals a blind man: 8:22-26
  5. Jesus Reveals the “Secret” of the Kingdom: 8: 27-10:45
    1. Jesus heals a blind man: 10: 46-52
  6. Jesus Comes to Israel as its Lord: 11: 1-12: 40
    1. A widow gives all she has: 12:41-44
  7. Discipleship and judgment: 13:1-37
    1. Jesus’ departure and discipleship: 14:1-9
  8. Jesus’ betrayal, rejection, and death: 14:10-15:39
    1. Jesus’ later followers: 15:40-47
  9. Closing: Jesus is confirmed as the Son of God by His resurrection
  1. Appendix: Mark 16:9-20

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