A brief introduction to, and outline of, the gospel of Mark, its history, contents, and literary structure.
The New Testament includes four gospel accounts, the gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. The first three are categorized as ‘synoptic’ gospels, meaning “to see together.” The term 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, the real sense of the term ‘synoptic.’ In many sections, the Greek text behind the material shared by Matthew and the Gospel of Mark is almost an exact match, therefore, many commentators postulate both gospels were derived from a single source (the so-called “Q” text – from the German word for “source,” Quelle).
In contrast to the three synoptic versions, much of the material in the gospel of John is unique; however, each gospel account also includes unique information.
The gospel According to Mark is the shortest of the four gospels, and probably the oldest. Possibly, the passages common to all three synoptic gospels derived originally from Mark’s efforts, or, possibly, all three gospels utilized a common source that has since been lost.
The name ‘Mark’ is an anglicized version of the Latin name Marcus, a common enough name from the Roman period. No one named ‘Mark’ is ever identified in the gospel that is attributed to him. In the Greek text, the “official” title of the gospel is the Gospel according to Mark, a designation assigned to it in the second century based on church tradition (and, thus, not part of the original text).
Ancient testimony identified ‘Mark’ as the author. Of especial interest is the testimony of Papias, a bishop of Hierapolis in Asia Minor during the second century. Reportedly, he described the origins of this gospel and assigned it to ‘Mark’. Unfortunately, the text in which this claim was made was lost over the centuries, the 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 his following comments:
- “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).
Thus, Eusebius describes 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 believer after his resurrection. According to Papias, ‘Mark’ endeavored to record “accurately” the 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).
Irenaeus of Lyon (circa A.D. 175) corroborates this information:
- “Mark, the disciple and 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 assigns this gospel to anyone other than ‘Mark.’ The patristic testimony is virtually unanimous – ‘Mark’ compiled it from 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).
As far as can be ascertained, Mark did not have direct contact with Jesus during his earthly ministry. Some traditions claim the “Last Supper” was held in the home of his mother, although no evidence survives either to confirm or to disprove this tradition.
Another tradition identifies ‘Mark’ as “John, also called Mark,” that is, the same ‘John Mark’ mentioned in the book of Acts. Paul refers to a companion named ‘Mark’ in his second letter to Timothy, who may or may not be the same ‘Mark’ recorded in Acts; after all, Marcus was a common Latin name – (Acts 12:12, 12:25, 15:37-39, 2 Timothy 4:11).
‘Mark’ was probably Jewish, 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 also demonstrates familiarity with the geography of Palestine.
Church tradition holds ‘Mark’ wrote his gospel for Christians who were living in the city of Rome in a time of growing pressure, possibly, even persecution. Most Christians in Rome were Gentiles, not Jews. Ancient sources are unanimous that this gospel was composed in Rome.
The gospel of Mark often explains the meaning of Aramaic terms, something the Author would be unlikely to do if his original readers were Jewish Christians. Likewise, he also explains Jewish customs for his readers; again, an unnecessary effort 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).
The gospel transliterates several Latin terms into Greek letters. For example, denarius, census, and praetorium. While it transliterates Latin terms into Greek letters, it does not explain their meanings. This suggests the first audience of the gospel of Mark was familiar with the Latin language and the Roman culture, something that would be true of any group living in Rome – Gentile or Jewish – (Mark 6:37, 12:14, 15:16).
As the editor, ‘Mark’ cites the Old Testament infrequently. Most of his citations are placed on the lips of Jesus. When he does so, most often he uses the Greek version of the Old Testament, the Septuagint, not the Hebrew Bible. This suggests further an original Gentile and Greek-speaking audience. As a rule, Gentile believers would have been unfamiliar with the Old Testament in the original Hebrew and incapable of understanding that language.
All indications 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 sometime in the 60s of the first century A.D.
WHEN WAS IT WRITTEN?
The gospel of Mark provides no historical information useful for establishing a date for its composition. The testimony of the early Church Fathers is split between a date before or after the death of Peter. However, most likely it was written shortly before or after his death, presumably in or shortly after A.D. 64 and the so-called Neronian Persecution.
Early tradition is unanimous – Purportedly, Peter died during the final years of the reign of Emperor Nero (A.D. 54-68); probably in the aftermath of the great fire that destroyed much of the city in A.D. 64. To divert blame for the conflagration, Nero held the Christians of Rome responsible and began a short but vicious persecution of the Roman church.
The lack of any reference to the destruction of Jerusalem in A.D. 70 suggests Mark was composed prior to the event. It is not unreasonable to assume Mark would have correlated the prediction of the Temple’s destruction by Jesus with the 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 probable 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.
While the gospels of Matthew and Luke contain much of the same material as 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 than either Matthew or Luke, primarily, because it includes fewer stories and less teaching material. However, it often provides fuller versions of the same stories recorded in Luke and Matthew. For example, regarding the death of John the Baptist, the controversy about eating with unwashed hands, and the deliverance of a demonized boy – (Mark 6:14-29, 7:1-23, 9:14-29).
Mark makes frequent use of irony. For example, the religious leaders of Israel were always confounded by Jesus; in contrast, the poor and very Gentile Syro-Phoenician woman was commended for her great faith – (Mark 7:24-31).
The use of the Old Testament by ‘Mark’ is like that 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 does include three Old Testament passages not found in either Matthew or Luke. Most of the Old Testament citations follow the Greek Septuagint translation, not the original Hebrew – (Mark 9:48, 10:19, 12:32).
The major literary themes 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 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).
Mark begins with a prologue, which is followed by thirteen stories about the ministry of Jesus in Galilee. Chapter 4 presents several parables about the kingdom, then the ministry in Galilee continues with teaching, exorcisms, and healings, which is characterized by the enthusiastic reception of Jesus by the crowds, but also by growing opposition from the Jewish religious leaders.
The second half begins with the confession of Peter that Jesus is the “Christ,” followed by the disclosure that Jesus would die in Jerusalem. Thereafter, he is resolutely “on the way” to Jerusalem and his inevitable death on a Roman cross, having been “delivered over” by the Temple authorities – (Mark 8:27-9:1).
Chapters 11 through 16 focus on the last week of Jesus in Jerusalem with a focus on his final teaching sessions given in or near the Temple, then culminating in his arrest, trial, and death.
I. In Galilee – (1:1-8:26):
- A. Prologue – [1:1-13]
- B. Ministry and Opposition in Galilee – [1:14-3:6]
- C. Parables and Miracles in Galilee – [3:7-6:6]
- D. Opposition, Disputes and Faithlessness – [6:7-8:26]
II. Journey to Jerusalem and Death – (8:27-16:8):
- A. On the “Way” to the Cross – [8:27-10:52]
- B. Arrival and Reception in Jerusalem – [11:1-13:37]
- C. The Death of the Messiah – [14:1-15:47]
- D. The Resurrection – [16:1-8]