Introduction to St. Mark's Gospel

Introduction to the Gospel of St. Mark

Relevance of the Introduction

Though there are four gospels presenting the life and teachings of Jesus, they have different approaches from diverse angles. A study of the author, his purpose, his audience, the religious and political background when it was drafted, and his specialties or style of approach different from the other gospels help us to understand the differences in the presentation. They also help us to interpret the message in our situation.

Mark, the Author

Mark was a Jew born in the tribe of Levi and later became a follower of Jesus. Though he had seen Jesus, he was not one among the 12 apostles of Jesus. Some believe that he was one among the 70 disciples of Jesus. He was born in the region of Aberyatolos, a small village in Libya, North Africa. He was from a wealthy family and received good education. So he could handle different languages that made him fit to be an Evangelist. When he was young, his family moved to Palestine because of the Barbarian attacks in Libya.

As in the case of other gospel writers, the author does not give his name because the gospel writers wanted to give focus to Jesus rather than to themselves. However, the readers in the early church knew the authors. The gospel of Mark is traditionally believed to be authored by John Mark. John was his Hebrew name which means “God is gracious.” When he received the Holy Spirit, he was known by a Roman name, Mark, that means a hammer. Hammer has been used to strike the red hot metal to a desired shape. Like a hammer, Mark strikes with frequent incidents from the life of Jesus in his gospel to shape his readers.

The following are some of the traditional believes and Biblical references on St. Mark:

1. There is a tradition that Mark was present at the wedding of Cana when Jesus performed his first miracle to reveal his glory (John 2:1-12). He is considered as one of the servants who filled the jars with water. In that case, he was a witness of that miracle.

2. It is believed that the Last Supper of Jesus was at Mark’s house because his mother Mary was devoted to Jesus and was hospitable to him and the disciples. In preparation for the Last Supper, the disciples asked Jesus: “Where do you want us to go and prepare for you to eat the Passover?” Jesus sent two of his disciples saying: “Go into the city and a man will meet you, carrying a jar of water. Follow him. Wherever he enters, say to the master of the house, ‘The Teacher says, “Where is my guest room where I may eat the Passover with my disciples?”’ (Mark 14:12-16). It is believed that the man who carried the jar of water was Mark and the master of the house was his father Aristopolos.

3. According to tradition, Mark was the young man who after witnessing the betrayal of Jesus by Judas Iscariot followed Jesus while the apostles fled from the scene. He was “wearing nothing but a linen cloth about his body. They seized him, but he left the cloth behind and ran off naked.” (Mark 14:51-52). The name of this young man is not given. Probably the author did not want to highlight his name as John the Evangelist also did in his gospel whenever he was involved in an event.

4. The traditional belief is that the early Christians assembled in the upper room of Mark’s mother, Mary’s house at Jerusalem on the day of Pentecost and the disciples received the Holy Spirit there (Acts 2:1-4).

5. When the angel of the Lord released Peter from prison, he went to this house to meet other disciples of Jesus who were gathered in prayer. (Acts 12:12).

6. Mark had accompanied Barnabas and Paul on a missionary trip (Acts 12:25).

7. Mark (John) left Paul at Perga in Pamphylia during Paul’s missionary journey and returned to Jerusalem for some unknown reason (Acts 13:13).

8. Mark traveled with Barnabas to Cyprus (Acts 15:9).

9. Mark was a cousin of Barnabas (Col. 4:10).

10. Paul asked Timothy to bring Mark with him to Rome (2 Timothy 4:11) 

11. Paul sent his greeting from prison to Mark along with others (Philemon 1:24).

12. Mark was a missionary companion of Peter who called him his "son" (1 Peter 5:13)

Mark was greatly influenced by St. Peter’s preaching. This gospel was written shortly before 70 A.D. in Rome before the fall of Jerusalem to the Roman army.

Purpose of Mark

As Peter was advancing in age and his life was in danger, the early Christian community in Rome might have asked Mark to document the preaching of Peter on Jesus. Mark was a companion and assistant of Peter and interpreter for him in Rome because Mark knew Latin and Peter did not.

Another purpose of Mark’s gospel was to empower the early Christians to remain faithful to Jesus in the midst of imminent persecutions (Mark 13:9–13).

Mark presented his gospel to the Gentile audience to communicate that the mission of Jesus was for them and for all nations. (Mark 13:10, 14:9).

The audience of Mark

Like Luke, Mark was addressing his gospel to the Gentile Christians in Rome. That was why he had to explain the Jewish traditions (Mark 7:3-4) and meaning of words (Mark 7:11) that are familiar to Jews and unknown to the Gentiles.

Religious and Political Background

The date of the gospel writing is unknown. It is believed to be between A.D 64 and 70. The year A.D. 64 was the time when Emperor Nero started the persecution of Christians and the crucifixion of Peter also happened in the same year.

The early church was facing rejection by Jews and their synagogues, and persecution from the civil authorities, especially from the Roman Emperor Nero. So Mark’s gospel empowers the readers to remain faithful in the midst of religious persecutions. (Mark 13:9–13).

Though one-third of Mark’s Gospel narrates Jesus’ actions and teachings, he gives much importance to the suffering Son of Man. Mark and his mentor Peter were witnesses to some of them. The triumph of Jesus over the torture and crucifixion by his resurrection is a lesson that Mark wanted to share with the suffering early Christians. Their endurance of persecution, while keeping up their faith, would lead to ultimate success in the future.

Specialties of Mark’s gospel

Mark’s gospel is also known as “Peter’s gospel” because, Mark based his narrative on the preaching of Peter. It is believed that Mark’s father was a cousin of Peter’s wife. Peter had considered Mark as his “son” after the death of Mark’s father. Mark was a companion and assistant of Peter. So Mark had heard the preaching of Peter several times. Following the “hammer” style of Peter, Mark has a fast phase in his presentation. So, his gospel has the vivid style of presenting the activities of Jesus arranged one after another with the use of the term “immediately.” He uses the word “immediately” (euthus) 40 times in the gospel as a word of transition from one event to another. There are no long discourses in Mark as it was the style of Peter.

Mark reveals the weaknesses of the apostles during the public ministry of Jesus. They had difficulty in understanding the teachings of Jesus. Jesus also rebuked them for their lack of understanding (Mark 4:13, 7:18). As a spokesperson of Peter, Mark even exposes the shortcomings of Peter. When Peter discouraged Jesus from taking up the sufferings, Jesus rebuked Peter calling him Satan (Mark 8:31-33). Mark also gives Peter’s denial of Jesus three times (Mark  14:27-31, 66-72). Peter might have been confessing these during his preaching. However, Mark skips Jesus naming Peter, the rock and promising that he would build his church upon that rock as given by Matthew (Matthew 16:13-19). Mark also skips the opportunity that Jesus gave to Peter to express his love for Jesus three times followed by his privilege to feed Jesus’ sheep. (John 21:15-19). Because of his humility, Peter might have excluded these in his preaching.

Mark does not give the infancy or childhood narrative of Jesus. Peter was not aware of the early life of Jesus prior to the introduction of Jesus to him by John the Baptist. So, the background of Jesus’ birth was not a theme of Peter’s preaching especially in his preaching to the Gentiles in Rome.

Mark’s gospel is believed to be the first gospel written. Matthew and Luke had used Mark’s gospel as a source book and mentioned most of what he has written with their additions.

Mark’s is the shortest of the four gospels. Matthew has 28 chapters, Luke 24, John 21 and Mark has only 16.

Mark gives importance to what Jesus did than what he said. Whereas, Matthew and Luke give more teachings and parables of Jesus. John was concentrating on who Jesus was. Mark presents more miracles and less parables than other Evangelists. Some miracles are more descriptive in Mark than in others. Examples are the healing of the Gerasene demoniac (Mark 5:1–20) and the healing of a boy with a demon. (9:14–29).

The messianic secret is a predominant theme in Mark. Jesus kept his messiahship as a secret from the public. Though the demons declared in public about Jesus, “You are the Son of God.” (Mark 3:11), “He warned them sternly not to make him known.” (Mark 3:12). When he healed the sick, he warned them to keep it secret. (Mark 1:40-45). When Jesus asked his disciples at Caesarea Philippi, “Who do you say that I am?” Peter replied, “You are the Messiah.” Then also, Jesus warned the disciples not to tell anyone about him. (Mark 8:27-30). The messianic secret reaches its peak with the confession of the centurion at the foot of the cross stating, “Truly this man was the Son of God!” (Mark 15:39). So, according to Mark, the Messiahship was something that Jesus was not proclaiming himself, but a truth that people were realizing from their interaction with Jesus.

Overview of the Gospel

The structural format of Mark’s gospel can be seen as Jesus’ journey from the lowest point of the earth, Jordan to Galilee for his public ministry. After that, he goes with his disciples to Caesarea Philippi where he assured that his disciples knew him as the Messiah. From there he fulfills his role of Messiahship by going to Jerusalem for his self-sacrifice. The culmination is the resurrection of Jesus.

Mark’s gospel can be divided as follows:
The preparation for the public ministry of Jesus (1:1–13)
The mystery of Jesus (1:14–8:26)
Revelation of the mystery of Jesus begins (8:27–9:32)
The full revelation of the mystery of Jesus (9:33–16:8)
The post resurrection events (16:9–20)