A brief introduction to the Gospel of Mark, its history and structure

The New Testament includes four gospel accounts: Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. The first three are categorized as ‘synoptic’ gospels, meaning to “see together.” ‘Synoptic’ is a compound of the Greek preposition sun (“together”) and optikos (“to see”), hence “to see together.”

The three synoptic gospels present similar accounts of the life and teachings of Jesus, having much literary material in common. Because Matthew, Mark, and Luke have passages in common they can be compared side-by-side, which is the real sense of the term ‘synoptic.’ In some cases, in the Greek text, the common material between Matthew and the Gospel of Mark is almost an exact match.

In contrast to the three synoptic versions, much of the material in the Gospel of John is unique; however, each of the four gospel accounts also includes at least some unique information.

The gospel according to Mark is the shortest of the four gospels and is probably the oldest. The common material found in Matthew and Luke was most likely derived from Mark’s earlier work, or possibly all three utilized a common source.

Who Wrote the Gospel of Mark? 

The name ‘Mark’ is an anglicized version of the Latin name Marcus, a common enough name during the Roman period. No one named ‘Mark’ is ever identified in the gospel attributed to him. In Greek texts, the “official” title of the gospel is the gospel according to Mark, a designation assigned to it in the second century (and, thus, not part of the original text), and one based on church tradition.

Ancient testimony identified ‘Mark’ as the author of the Gospel. Of especial interest is the testimony of Papias, a Bishop of Hierapolis in Asia Minor during the early second century. Reportedly, Papias described the origins of this gospel and assigned it to ‘Mark’ in his now lost writing, Exegesis of the Lord’s Oracles (approximately A.D. 125).

The church historian Eusebius of Caesarea was familiar with at least some of the writings of Papias and preserved the following comments from him:

  • “Mark became Peter’s interpreter and wrote accurately all that he remembered, not, indeed, in order of the things said or done by the Lord. For Mark had not heard the Lord, nor had he followed him, but later on, as I said, followed Peter, who used to give teaching as necessity demanded but not making, as it were, an arrangement of the Lord’s oracles, so that Mark did nothing wrong in thus writing down single points as he remembered them. For to one thing he gave attention, to leave out nothing of what he had heard and to make no false statements in them” (Ecclesiastical History. 3.39.15. See also Hist. Eccl. II.15).

The remarks of Eusebius describe the man named ‘Mark’ as Peter’s “interpreter” who recorded the memories of the Apostle. ‘Mark’ was not himself a direct disciple of Jesus and, presumably, became a disciple after his death. According to Papias, ‘Mark’ endeavored to record accurately the stories and recollections of Peter.

Eusebius provided further information about ‘Mark’ which he attributed to Clement of Alexandria:

  • “When Peter had publicly preached the word at Rome, and by the Spirit had proclaimed the Gospel, that those present, who were many, exhorted Mark, as one who had followed Peter for a long time and remembered what had been spoken, to make a record of what was said; and that he did this, and distributed the Gospel among those that asked him” (Ecclesiastical History. 6.14.6-7).

The church Father, Irenaeus of Lyon (circa A.D. 175), corroborates this information: “Mark, the disciple and the interpreter of Peter, also himself handed on in writing the things that had been preached by Peter” (Adv. Haer. 3.1.1).

Other patristic sources that attest to the authorship of ‘Mark’ include Justin Martyr (approximately A.D. 150), Tertullian (A.D. 207), Origen of Alexandria (A.D, 240), Eusebius of Caesarea (A.D. 325), Epiphanius of Cyprus (A.D. 350), and Jerome around A.D. 350, the original translator of the Latin Vulgate.

No early church tradition attributes this gospel to anyone other than ‘Mark.’ The testimony from patristic sources is virtually unanimous – ‘Mark’ composed it based on the recollections of Peter. The content of the Gospel of Mark makes this scenario plausible. Numerous passages bear evidence of eyewitness accounts, and in one of the later books of the New Testament, the man named ‘Mark’ is found working with Peter in Rome (“She who is in Babylon”):

(1 Peter 5:12-14) – “By Silvanus, the faithful brother, as I account him, have I briefly written unto you, exhorting and adding testimony — that this is the true favour of God— within which stand ye fast! She who in Babylon is co-elect, and Mark my son, salute you: Salute ye one another with a kiss of love. Peace unto you all who are in Christ” – (The Emphasized Bible).

‘Mark’ was not one of the Twelve Apostles. As far as can be ascertained, he did not have direct contact with Jesus during his earthly ministry. Some traditions claim the “Last Supper” was held in the home of this man’s mother.

One tradition identifies ‘Mark’ as “John, also called Mark,” or the ‘John Mark’ mentioned in the book of Acts.  Paul refers to a companion named ‘Mark’ in his second letter to Timothy who may be the same ‘Mark’ mentioned in Acts, although ‘Mark’ or Marcus was a common Latin name – (Acts 12:12, 12:25, 15:37-39, 2 Timothy 4:11).

‘Mark’ was probably of Jewish origins or, perhaps, a Gentile convert to Judaism. This is suggested by his familiarity with Jewish customs and the Old Testament (primarily, the Septuagint Greek version). One tradition claims he was from a priestly family. His gospel account demonstrates his familiarity with the geography of Palestine.

The Historical Setting

Church tradition holds that ‘Mark’ wrote his gospel for Christians living in the city of Rome during a time of growing pressure and, possibly, persecution. Most Christians in Rome by that time were Gentiles, not Jews. Ancient sources are unanimous that this gospel was first composed and disseminated in Rome.

The gospel of Mark frequently explains the meaning of Aramaic terms, something he would be unlikely to do if his original readers were Jewish believers in Jesus. Likewise, it also explains Jewish customs for its readers, again, an endeavor that would be unnecessary if it was written for Jewish audiences – (Mark 3:17, 5:41, 7:3-11, 7:34, 10:46, 12:18, 14:36, 15:34-42).

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This gospel transliterated several Latin terms into Greek letters. For example, denarius, census, and praetorium. While it transliterated Latin terms into Greek letters, this account did not explain their meanings for its readers. This suggests it was designed for an audience familiar with the Latin language and the Roman culture, something to be expected for a document sent to any group living in the city of Rome – (Mark 6:37, 12:14, 15:16).

‘Mark’ as the editor of his gospel quotes from the Old Testament only infrequently. Most of his citations are found on the lips of Jesus, not from the editor’s pen. Again, this may reflect his original Gentile audience. Typically, Gentile believers would have been unfamiliar with the Scriptures in their original Hebrew form.

All indicators are that ‘Mark’ wrote in Greek for a Greek-speaking audience, but he was also acquainted with the Latin language. His Gospel was intended for Gentile believers residing in or near Rome. The testimony of the early Church Fathers places ‘Mark’ alongside Peter in the city of Rome.

When Was Mark Written?

The gospel of Mark provides no historical information that can be used to establish a date for its composition. The testimony of the early Church Fathers is split between a composition date before or after the death of Peter; however, it was written most likely shortly before or after the death of Peter.

Early tradition is unanimous that Peter died during the last years of the reign of Emperor Nero (reigned A.D. 54-68); very likely, in the aftermath of the great fire that destroyed much of the city in A.D. 64. To divert blame for the conflagration, Nero blamed it on the Christians of Rome and launched a short but vicious campaign of persecution.

The lack of any mention of the destruction of Jerusalem in A.D. 70 suggests that the Gospel of Mark was composed prior to that event. It is not unreasonable to assume that it would have attempted to correlate the prediction of the Temple’s destruction by Jesus with actual events, just as Luke did – (Mark 13:14, Luke 19:41-44, 21:20-24).

Based on Church tradition, the date of Nero’s death, the association of ‘Mark’ with Peter, and the date of Peter’s death, as well as the events of A.D. 66-70, the best estimate gives a date range for the composition of Mark between A.D. 63 and 69.

The Contents of Mark

While the gospels of Matthew and Luke contain much of the same material found in the Gospel of Mark, the latter includes stories peculiar to it, including:

  • (Mark 4:26-29) – The secretly growing seed.
  • (Mark 7:32-37) – The story of the deaf and mute man.
  • (Mark 8:22-26) – The blind man.
  • (Mark 13:33-37) – The parable of the householder.
  • (Mark 14:51) – The young man who escaped naked.

The gospel of Mark is shorter in length than either the gospels of Matthew or Luke, primarily, because Mark includes fewer stories. However, it often provides fuller versions of stories than either Luke or Matthew. For example, its versions of the death of John the Baptist, the controversy about eating with unwashed hands, and the deliverance of the demonized boy – (Mark 6:14-29, 7:1-23, 9:14-29).

The gospel of Mark makes frequent use of irony as a literary technique. For example, the religious leaders of Israel were always confounded by Jesus. In contrast, the poor Syro-Phoenician woman (Gentile) was commended by him for her faith – (Mark 7:24-31).

The use of the Old Testament by ‘Mark’ is like that of the gospels of Matthew and Luke; they all share the same source material. By one count, the Gospel of Mark has fifty-eight (58) Old Testament citations. It includes three Old Testament passages not found in Matthew or Luke – (Mark 9:48, 10:19, 12:32).

Most of his quotations follow the Greek Septuagint text, not the original Hebrew text. The major literary themes of the Gospel of Mark include discipleship, faith, openness to Gentiles, the command to silence about the identity of Jesus, and the image of his being “on the way” to Jerusalem.

The Literary Structure 

The gospel of Mark can be divided into two halves of roughly equal length:

  • The ministry in Galilee (Mark 1:1-8:26).
  • The Journey to Jerusalem and the Death of Jesus (Mark 8:27-16:8).

The gospel of Mark begins with a Prologue, followed by thirteen stories about Christ’s ministry in Galilee. Chapter 4 presents several parables about the kingdom, then the ministry in Galilee continues with teaching, exorcisms, and healings. The time in Galilee is characterized by enthusiastic reception by the masses but, also, opposition from the Jewish religious leaders – (Mark 1:1-13, 1:16-3:25).

The second half begins with the confession of Peter that Jesus is the Christ. This is followed by the revelation that Jesus is to die in Jerusalem, and by his Transfiguration. Thereafter, Christ is resolutely “on the way” to Jerusalem and his inevitable death. Chapters 11-16 focus on his last week in Jerusalem and culminate in his arrest, trial, and death – (Mark 8:27-9:1).

Basic Outline 

In Galilee – (1:1-8:26):

  1. Prologue – [1:1-13]
  2. Ministry & Opposition in Galilee – [1:14-3:6]
  3. Parables & Miracles in Galilee – [3:7-6:6]
  4. Opposition, Disputes & Faithlessness – [6:7-8:26]

Journey to Jerusalem and Death – (8:27-16:8):

  1. On the “Way” to the Cross – [8:27-10:52]
  2. Arrival & Reception in Jerusalem – [11:1-13:37]
  3. The Death of the Messiah – [14:1-15:47]
  4. The Resurrection – [16:1-8]

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