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The Catholic Study Bible A special version of the New American Bible, with a wealth of background information useful to Catholics.

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Donald Senior

Pheme Perkins

Before Beginning …

As the introduction in the text suggests (see p. 1317 ), Mark's Gospel was probably the first Gospel to be written. Mark can take credit for shaping the Christian message into its most effective and moving form, that of a story about Jesus. The evangelist knitted together sayings of Jesus and stories about his ministry into a single dynamic narrative, tracing the life of Jesus from his first encounter with John the Baptist at the Jordan to his dynamic mission in Galilee, and on to his death and resurrection in Jerusalem. Mark's purpose was not simply to preserve the church's memory about Jesus but to make that memory take on new force in the lives of his readers.

Although we cannot be sure of the date, Mark probably wrote for Roman Christians, shortly after the persecutions of Nero (AD 64), when the community was still reeling from that tyrant's cruelty. Some Christians had reacted to Nero's attacks with heroic martyrdom, but others had betrayed the community or slipped away in fear. Mark's story of the crucified Jesus and his disciples who struggled to remain faithful would have been a powerful lesson for this early Christian church.

Characteristics of Mark's Gospel

There are some typical features and motifs, or themes, of Mark's Gospel that the reader should be alert to.

A Theology in Narrative

One of the most obvious features of Mark's Gospel, but one that should not be overlooked, is the fact that it is a narrative, a “story,” about Jesus. Mark proclaims to his readers the good news of salvation (the literal meaning of the term gospel), but he does it not by a series of abstract statements or propositions but through a dynamic story that grips the reader with its force and emotion.

Some of the characteristics of Mark's narrative style reveal his theological message. The pace of the story is urgent. Jesus moves rapidly from place to place; there is little wasted motion and a minimum of verbiage. The dynamism and urgency of the Gospel coincide with Mark's conviction that the mission of Jesus is compelling and one must respond to it without hesitation. The Gospel is also filled with conflicts between Jesus and his opponents and between Jesus and the demons; the climactic passion story dominates the whole Gospel. Here, too, Mark's theological perspective is at work: because the message of Jesus calls for radical change and challenges the powers of this world, it is not surprising that conflict and suffering have such a major role to play in Mark's story.


The central and guiding question of Mark's Gospel is posed in 8, 29 : “Who do you say that I am?” Understanding the mystery of Jesus' identity and responding to it with faith are the major concerns of the Gospel. Mark proclaims that Jesus is the Son of God and the Messiah, typical convictions of the entire New Testament, but the evangelist proclaims this fundamental faith by means of his story. Jesus' healings, his parables, his instruction of the disciples, his encounters with demons, his conflicts with opponents, and, above all, his death and resurrection reveal the profound mystery of Christ. Jesus' dynamic ministry of healing and exorcisms demonstrates that, through him, God's liberating rule was now breaking into history and freeing people from the grip of death.

For Mark, however, the most important means of revealing Jesus' identity was the cross. The cross becomes the touchstone of all authentic faith in Jesus; in his death for others Jesus reveals the heart of his mission. All of the other titles and images applied to Jesus such as “Messiah” (Christ), or “Son of Man,” or healer, take on their true meaning when seen in the context of Jesus' redemptive death. Throughout Mark's narrative we will see this focus on Jesus at work.


Mark's Gospel is also concerned with what it means to follow Jesus; the disciples of Jesus play an important role in Mark's story. Jesus commissions them to follow him early in his ministry ( 1, 16–20 ), and they are present for almost every scene. One of the intriguing features of Mark's portrayal is that the disciples have a hard time understanding Jesus. As the Gospel drama unfolds and as the Passion of Jesus approaches, the disciples begin openly to misunderstand Jesus and eventually fail him. The Gospel will end, however, on a note of reconciliation and renewal: the heavenly messenger at the tomb tells the women to instruct the “disciples and Peter”—all of whom were absent at the crucifixion—to go to Galilee where they will once again encounter Jesus ( 16, 7 ).

There is little doubt that Mark sees the disciples not simply as historical figures from the past but as representative of the Christians of his own time. The instruction Jesus gives his followers, the difficulty they encounter in understanding who Jesus truly was, and Jesus' unbreakable bonds with them despite their failures are all meant as a challenge and consolation to the Christians who read the Gospel.

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