The Gospel According to Mark - Introduction
Modern readers often hear this Gospel as a story of Christian discipleship, but it is much more than that. Mark is a story of multiple conflicts, exciting to read with a compelling message. In the dominant conflict that builds to a climax throughout the Gospel, Jesus’ challenge to the Jewish religious leaders and their Roman overlords escalates from his preaching and practice of the kingdom of God in the village gatherings of Galilee to his dramatic demonstration against the Temple and confrontation with the rulers in Jerusalem. That results in his torturous death by crucifixion at the hands of the Romans as an insurrectionary. In Jesus’ exorcisms, moreover, God is winning the struggle with Satan and the demonic “unclean spirits” ( 1.27; 5.10–12 ) that have taken possession of the people like an occupying Roman legion. Surprisingly, a conflict between Jesus and the very disciples he designates as representative of the renewed people of Israel also develops in the course of the story. Although Jesus teaches them the mystery of the kingdom, they persistently fail to understand what he is teaching and doing, and at the end they betray, deny, and desert him. By contrast with the misunderstanding and faithless disciples, women, who play an increasingly prominent role in Mark's story, serve as models of faithfulness until they flee from the empty tomb.
Although the Gospel is anonymous, an ancient tradition ascribes it to John Mark (mentioned in Acts 12.12; 15.37 ), who is supposed to have composed it at Rome as a summary of Peter's preaching (see 1 Pet 5.13 ). Modern scholars find little first‐century CE evidence to support this tradition. Mark is the shortest of the four canonical Gospels, is thought to be the earliest, and to have been used in the composition of Matthew and Luke. The vague references to the destruction of Jerusalem in Mark 13 (contrast Mt 22.7; Lk 19.43 ) could be clues that the Gospel was composed just prior to the Jewish revolt that began in 66 CE and the Roman reconquest and destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple in 70 CE. The language is that of popular spoken Greek. Its style features rapid sequences of brief and vivid concrete episodes linked simply by “and” or “and immediately,” frequently omitted in translation for less awkward reading in English. The narrative often shifts from the past tense into the present tense, enlivening the action. The content of the Gospel consists mostly of stories about Jesus’ actions and disputes with scribes and Pharisees, including some of Jesus’ sayings, with two speeches (one mostly of parables) interrupting the rapid flow of episodes. Mark appears to have drawn upon a rich variety of oral traditions of Jesus’ actions and teachings, including chains of miracle stories, sets of parables, and stories of controversies with the Pharisees. Some scholars think that the gospel may have been a text that was still performed orally by Christian storytellers. The overall narrative weaves sequences of episodes together into a complex plot with several interrelated themes and conflicts. In the earliest manuscripts, Mark ends abruptly at 16.8 . This (apparently original) open ending invites the reader to continue the story of Jesus and the kingdom. In some later manuscripts Mark's story was “completed” with resurrection appearances of amalgamated elements from the other canonical Gospels, to make it conform to their common pattern.
The Gospel of Mark presents Jesus’ preaching and manifestation of the kingdom of God as a decisive new development in the history of Israel, not as the beginning of a new religion. Indeed, in this story religion is inseparable from the social, political, economic, even the physiological aspects of life. Throughout the Gospel, Jesus is portrayed in terms of popular Israelite memories of the great prophets, especially Moses, who had led Israel's Exodus from subjection to alien rule in Egypt; Elijah, who had led the renewal of Israel in resistance to oppressive monarchs; and Jeremiah, who had proclaimed God's judgment on the Temple and the rulers based there. At the beginning, in the middle, and especially toward the end, Mark also presents Jesus as a specially designated son of God, or king. Jesus, however, turns out to be a messiah (anointed one) who is a martyr, in contrast to the disciples’ expectations that Jesus would be invested with political power in Jerusalem. And Jesus’ role as both prophet and martyr‐messiah is pointedly distinguished from the expectations of the Jewish elite, such as the scribes (see esp. 9.11–13; 12.35–37 ).
The Gospel story unfolds in an escalating series of steps. After Jesus’ baptism by John, he proclaims the kingdom of God and manifests its miraculous power in rural Galilee as the renewal of Israel, over against the Jerusalem priestly establishment and its representatives, the scribes and Pharisees (chs 1–3 ). In the first long speech of the Gospel, Jesus then teaches the mysterious plan of the kingdom in parables to large audiences and especially to his disciples ( 4.1–34 ). Jesus continues his program of the renewal of Israel in a sustained program of sea crossings, exorcisms, healings, and wilderness feedings reminiscent of the activities of Moses and Elijah (the great prophets of the past who, respectively, founded and renewed Israel), along with continuing disputes with the scribes and Pharisees ( 4.35–8.21 ). In the next step of the story, one framed by healings of blind men that highlights the disciples’ misunderstanding, Jesus repeatedly makes clear that, besides being a new prophet equal in significance to Moses and Elijah in his restoration of covenantal Israel, it is necessary that he carry out the agenda of a martyr‐messiah of Israel who must be condemned by the rulers, be killed, and rise again ( 8.22–10.52 ). After his dramatic messianic entry into Jerusalem and his provocative prophetic condemnation of the Temple, Jesus confronts the Jerusalem priestly establishment and its representatives (chs 11–12 ). In a second major speech, Jesus warns the disciples about fanatical misinterpretation of the coming political struggles (ch 13 ). In the final section of the Gospel, following Jesus’ last meal with the disciples and his betrayal and arrest by the rulers’ posse, he is accused of treason, blasphemy, and insurrection, condemned, and turned over to Pilate, the Roman governor, who orders him executed by crucifixion (chs 14–15 ). The Gospel then ends abruptly with the story of the empty tomb and the women's fear ( 16.1–8 ). Because the Gospel presents a sustained narrative of escalating conflicts, it should be read as a whole so components are understood in their connection with the overall story—a story that did not end at the tomb, as the prophecy of a new encounter between Jesus and his disciples reminds the audience ( 14:27–28; 16:7 ).