Mark is the shortest of the four canonical Gospels and was almost certainly the first to be written. Although the use of narrative to record God's salvation of Israel is common in the Hebrew Bible and although there is an obvious correspondence between the story told by Mark and the very brief summaries of the gospel found elsewhere in the New Testament (e.g., Acts 2.22–24), there are no parallels to this precise literary form before early Christianity. In all probability, therefore, the author of this book was responsible for creating the literary genre we know as “gospel.”

Contents.

Attempts to analyze this gospel run the risk of imposing our interpretation on it. In explicating a text, it is natural to look for an overall pattern, but Mark's story was almost certainly intended to be read aloud, and the impact it made on its first hearers is more likely to be discerned by noting connections between one paragraph and the next rather than by analyzing it in sections, which may obscure such links. This gospel has been built up out of many short units, and one of the features of Mark's arrangement is the frequent sandwiching together of incidents (e.g., 11.11–25). Notable also is the way in which he builds up evidence by a series of stories (e.g., about outsiders, 1.40–2.17; uncleanness, 7.1–30) or by repetition (three passion predictions, 8.31; 9.31; 10.33; two blind men healed, 8.22–26; 10.46–52; two feeding miracles, 6.31–44; 8.1–10; cf. 8.14–21; three summaries of Jesus' activity, 1.32–4; 3.7–12; 6.56). All these devices would help to convey the significance of the story as it was read.

For convenience, the following brief summary is set out in a geographical scheme, but this was not necessarily of particular importance to Mark himself.

The first thirteen verses, which establish Jesus' identity, are set in the wilderness. In 1.14 Jesus moves into Galilee, where he proclaims the kingdom, calls disciples, teaches, exorcises evil spirits, and heals (1.15–4.34); his activity brings him into conflict with the religious authorities. A series of notable miracles follows, as Jesus moves back and forth across the lake, but they are met with unbelief (4.35–8.26). In 8.27–30 Jesus reaches Caesarea Philippi in the far north, where Peter declares him to be the Messiah. As he moves south, Jesus three times foretells his death and resurrection and explains the meaning of discipleship (8.31–10.52). He reaches Jerusalem and the Temple (chaps. 11–13), and the passion narrative unfolds (chaps. 14–15). In the final paragraph (16.1–8), women find the tomb empty. Chap. 16.9–20 and the alternative ending given in the NRSV footnote represent attempts by later writers to “complete” the gospel.

Author and Date.

The ascription of the gospel of Mark goes back at least to Papias, Bishop of Hierapolis, who in about 130 CE reported that he had been told that it was written by Mark “the interpreter of Peter”; this is presumably the Mark referred to in 1 Pet. 5.13 as “my son Mark.” Traditionally, he has been identified with the John Mark mentioned in Acts 12.12, but the latter was associated with Paul and Barnabas, not Peter (Acts 12.25; 15.37, 39; Col. 4.10; 2 Tim. 4.11), and the name “Mark” was one of the most common in the ancient world.

This gospel is usually dated between 65 and 75 CE. The first of these dates is set by Irenaeus (late second century CE), who said that Mark wrote after Peter's death. If we accept Marcan priority, then we must allow time between the composition of Mark and that of Matthew and Luke, which suggests a date before about 75 CE. The only clue in the gospel itself is chap. 13, which predicts the destruction of the Temple; many commentators contrast the vague references to the fate of Jerusalem in Mark 13 with the clear reference to the siege of the city in Luke 21.20 and suggest that this indicates that Mark was written before 70 CE. But Mark 13 is concerned to separate the disasters that are going to overwhelm Judea from the supernatural chaos at the end, and it is arguable that it was written in the period following the former to explain why the end was “still to come” (13.7). The gospel of Mark was probably written, therefore, either immediately before or immediately after the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 CE.

Tradition at least as early as Irenaeus held that it was composed in Rome, but this may have been a deduction from the association with Peter. Support for a Roman origin is sometimes found in Mark's use of Latinisms (e.g., quadrans, a coin, 12.42), but these were probably familiar throughout the Roman empire. Explanations of Jewish words and customs, together with a poor knowledge of Palestinian geography, suggest that Mark was writing for gentiles living outside Palestine, but they do not point to any particular place. The emphasis on the inevitability of suffering for Jesus' followers could well be explained if this gospel were written for a community that was suffering for its faith: although the Roman church was persecuted in the time of Nero, it was by no means alone, since persecution of Christians was common at the time.

Sources.

Mark's gospel contains very little material that is not included by Matthew, and the earliest explanation, given by Augustine, was that it was an abbreviation of Matthew's gospel. But Luke has to be taken into account also, since he, too, includes a great deal of this material. According to the most commonly held solution to the synoptic problem, Mark's gospel was used as a major source by Matthew and Luke. This solution is not without problems, and the suggestion that they used an earlier version of Mark (Urmarkus) is an attempt to explain some of the differences from Mark that Matthew and Luke have in common. An alternative theory (known as the Griesbach hypothesis) argues that Mark used both Matthew and Luke as sources, but careful study of the parallels suggests that the Marcan version was probably the earliest.

The belief that Mark's gospel was a record of Peter's reminiscences was challenged by the work of form critics who argued that it was based on short units of oral tradition that had been handed down to the Christian communities and had been shaped by their situations and beliefs. C. H. Dodd suggested that Mark had fitted these units into a chronological outline of the ministry of Jesus, but the supposed outline proved too vague to be of value. It is possible that some of the material used by Mark, such as the conflict stories in 2.1–3.6, had already been gathered together at the oral stage, and it is commonly believed that the *passion narrative had already been written down as a continuous narrative. The rise of redaction criticism, however, with its emphasis on the evangelists as authors rather than as mere collectors, has led to the realization that Mark himself may have been responsible for almost all the arrangement of the material and that his only sources may have been the individual units of tradition.

Readers.

Mark probably wrote his gospel for one specific Christian community, and the problems and situation of that community will have governed the way in which he has set out the story; but these can only be deduced from the book itself. The way in which the passion narrative dominates the story suggests that the nature of Jesus' death caused Mark's readers difficulty: Mark's answer to the scandal of the crucifixion is seen in the paradoxical revelation of Jesus as Messiah and Son of God through his death. The suggestion that Mark was concerned to attack a “false Christology” is an anachronistic notion; we should think rather of a community that had not yet come to terms with the idea of a crucified Messiah. Similarly, the teaching about discipleship may indicate that its members had not grasped what this entailed: warnings that it involved following in the steps of Jesus suggest that persecution was either an imminent danger or had already taken them by surprise, while those warnings in Mark 13 that the end is “still to come” and that suffering will continue, suggest that the community was puzzled by the delay in the promised arrival of the kingdom.

The portrait of the twelve as slow to comprehend the truth about Jesus has been interpreted as an attack on the church leaders in Mark's day, but it should probably be understood in relation to the “messianic secret” (see below).

Interpretation.

For many centuries Mark was the least used of the gospels, being overshadowed by the longer synoptics, but the theory of Marcan priority, linked with the Petrine tradition, led to the belief that this gospel was the most reliable historically and so brought Mark into the forefront of critical study toward the end of the nineteenth century. In 1901, Wilhelm Wrede challenged this assumption in his study of the secrecy motif in the Gospels and argued that Mark was a theological presentation, not a historical record (see Messianic Secret). In the 1920s, the development of form criticism strengthened the realization that Mark could not be treated as an eyewitness account of Jesus' ministry; attention came to be focused on the beliefs of the community that had shaped the tradition collected by the evangelist. The subsequent growth of redaction criticism shifted scholarly interest to Mark himself and to his role in the final shaping and arranging of the material; the evangelist was now acknowledged to be a theologian rather than a historian or a collector‐editor. This led in the 1970s to the recognition that Mark's gospel had to be considered in relation to the community in which Mark lived, since he was influenced by that community and sought to influence it; we may thus hope to learn about the situation and beliefs of the community through him.

In studying this book, therefore, we need to ask questions at several historical levels. We can ask, first, about the way in which Mark understood the gospel and about the circumstances of the community for whom he wrote. Moving backward, we may ask about the traditions he inherited, and about the beliefs of the earliest Christians. Only then should we move to the final stage and raise questions about what Jesus himself may have said and done.

The historical problems are so complex that some commentators have abandoned them altogether and looked for other ways of interpreting Mark. Literary analysts insist that the text itself has a meaning, and some, such as structuralists, have no concern for the original intention of the author; since, however, the meaning discovered differs from one interpretation to another, it would seem that it is imposed by the reader rather than found in the text. In fact, all interpretation involves a large subjective element, since all readers of Mark's gospel (or any other text) inevitably interpret it in terms of their own experiences, but when historical criticism is abandoned there is no control over the process.

Mark's Presentation of the Gospel.

Mark begins by setting out the identity of Jesus: he is the Messiah (1.1); his coming fulfills scripture (1.2–3), since he is the mighty one announced by John the Baptist, the messenger of the Lord (1.4–8); he is proclaimed by God as his Son, and the Spirit of God is with him (1.9–11); in the power of the Spirit he confronts Satan in the wilderness (1.12–13).

These first thirteen verses provide vital information that enables us to understand the rest of the story. From this point on, however, the truth about Jesus is stated only rarely, and then obscurely, until the very last chapters. If we compare these opening verses with the prologue of a Greek drama, we will realize that in reading them we have been privileged to receive information that is hidden from the characters of the story, who are bewildered by the events that follow. Although Jesus' identity is known to unclean spirits (1.24) and confirmed again from heaven (9.7), it remains hidden from the religious authorities, the crowds, and even the disciples, who only half comprehend. This is partly because of human obtuseness (8.18), but Mark also depicts Jesus as silencing anyone who comes near the truth (1.25, 34; 3.12; 8.30).

The messianic secret can no longer be explained as historical reporting; nor is it, as Wrede suggested, the result of imposing a messianic interpretation on a nonmessianic tradition. Rather, from the standpoint of Christian faith the significance of Jesus' words and deeds seem clear, and the failure of his contemporaries to recognize him as Messiah needs explanation. Mark's solution is that the truth was concealed from them, partly by divine purpose, partly by their own obstinacy; but to those with eyes to see and ears to hear, all is now plain: Mark's story is thus concerned with messianic revelation as much as messianic secrecy.

Miracles play an important role in Mark's gospel, and he makes clear in editorial summaries that there were in fact many more healings and exorcisms than those he describes. The miracles are greeted by onlookers with amazement and incomprehension, though their significance is recognized by unclean spirits (1.24; 3.11; 5.7) and implied by Jesus in 3.22–30: through the power of the Holy Spirit he has defeated Satan and is saving men and women from his clutches. Jesus' authority to heal encompasses not only the exorcism of unclean spirits, but restoration of all kinds: cleansing a leper (1.40–45), forgiving sins (2.1–10), raising the dead and giving new life (5.21–43). His power extends over nature, so that he is able to control the sea (4.35–41; 6.45–52) and give the people bread (6.31–44; 8.1–10), both manifestations of divine power reminiscent of the Exodus; yet the scribes accuse him of working under Satan (3.22), his family think he is mad (3.21), he meets with disbelief in his hometown (6.1–6), the Pharisees demand a sign from him (8.11–13), and his own disciples are unable to grasp the significance of what they have seen (8.14–21). To Mark's readers, however, the miracles demonstrate Jesus' authority, since they know the answer to the disciples' bewildered question, “Who then is this?” (4.41).

It is only those with faith who can receive healing (5.34, 36; 6.5–6; 7.29; 9.14–24), and the stories themselves become paradigms for the meaning of faith. The man who has ears but cannot hear until Jesus touches them (7.31–37), the blind man who has eyes but cannot see, and who receives his sight gradually (8.22–26), the man who cries, “I believe; help my unbelief” (9.24), and the beggar who receives his sight and follows Jesus on the way to Jerusalem (10.46–52) all tell us something of what belief in Jesus means.

Mark emphasizes also Jesus' role as teacher and makes use of a considerable amount of teaching, though less is included than in Matthew and Luke. According to Mark 1.14–15, the gospel announced by Jesus concerned the kingdom of God. Yet by his arrangement of the material, Mark makes it plain that the gospel is about Jesus himself: the kingdom is given to those who become his disciples. By their response to Jesus, men and women are divided into those who belong to his community and those who remain “outside” (4.11; cf. 3.31–35). Much of the teaching is thus appropriate only to those who are disciples and even they find it difficult to understand. As with the miracles, however, the significance of the teaching is plain to those readers of Mark's gospel who have eyes and ears to understand.

The major block of teaching occurs in chap. 4, in which Jesus teaches the crowd in parables. Mark believes the teaching to be deliberately enigmatic: the disciples should have understood, yet they require an explanation (4.10–12). In 8.31–10.52, Jesus teaches the disciples about his own destiny as the Son of man, together with the understanding of discipleship that necessarily follows, but they are unable to comprehend. The final section of teaching (chap. 13), addressed to four disciples, warns them of future judgment on Jerusalem and of persecution for themselves.

Other sayings occur in conflict stories and are thus addressed to Jesus' opponents. Notable examples are the debates about purity (7.1–23) and divorce (10.1–12), where Jesus challenges the Pharisees' interpretation of Mosaic teaching, and the parable of the vineyard (12.1–12). All demonstrate Jesus' authority, and because his opponents reject it, they are naturally outraged by this teaching.

Jesus acts with authority, but makes no direct claims for himself; when referring to himself he uses the enigmatic phrase “the Son of man.” It is others who, with varying degrees of understanding, declare his identity. The truth is partly grasped by the disciples at Caesarea Philippi: in contrast to outsiders, who regard Jesus as some great prophet figure (8.28; cf. 6.14–16), Peter acknowledges him to be the Messiah; but the need for Jesus to suffer and die cannot yet be understood at this stage (8.27–33), and for Mark, the identity of Jesus is revealed fully only through his death and resurrection (9.9). The great irony of his story is that when we come to the passion narrative, those responsible for Jesus' death unknowingly identify Jesus. The high priest announces the truth when he asks whether he is “the Messiah, the Son of the Blessed One” (14.61); Pilate executes him on the charge of being “King of the Jews” (15.2, 9, 12, 18, 26, 32); and when he dies, his executioner proclaims him “God's Son” (Mark 15.39). Since this title earlier came from heaven (1.11; 9.7), it may be assumed that Mark believed it to be the fullest expression of the truth about Jesus. In the mouth of the Roman centurion, the phrase is remarkable: Mark appears to be affirming that through the crucifixion Jesus is fully revealed and faith is born. For Mark, the death and resurrection of Jesus provide the key to the whole story. The cross is thus no accident, but part of the divine plan.

The declaration of faith (as Mark interprets it) by a gentile brings to a climax another of Mark's important themes. Jesus proclaims the kingdom to Israel, but he is rejected by his own people—by family (3.21–35), hometown (6.1–6), religious leaders (14.1–2), one of his disciples (14.10–11), and finally by the crowd (15.6–15). He pronounces judgment on the nation's religious leaders (3.28–30; 7.6–13; 11.11–20; 12.1–12, 38–40), and foretells destruction for Jerusalem (13). His ministry appears to end in failure. Yet he dies as “a ransom for many” (10.45; cf. 14.24) and promises future vindication for his disciples (8.35; 13.27). Who, then, are the “many”? The word probably refers to all those who belong to the people of God, and for Mark that means those men and women who have responded to Jesus. There are occasional hints that gentiles will be included: in 7.24–30, a gentile woman receives help because of her faith; in 13.10 we are told that the gospel must be preached “to all nations” (cf. also 14.9); moreover, Mark is clearly writing for gentiles (7.3). The centurion's confession, together with the rending of the Temple curtain, confirms that the vineyard has been taken away from the original tenants and given to others (12.9).

The gospel of Mark ends abruptly, at 16.8, and early attempts to add an ending show that it was felt to be incomplete. It is possible that the book was never finished or that it was damaged at an early stage. Yet it may be our knowledge of the other Gospels that makes us expect this one to end with appearances of the risen Lord. Certainly, it ends in an appropriate way for Mark—with fear, human failure, and the call to discipleship: it is those who respond and who follow the risen Lord who will see him.

Morna D. Hooker