By Dr Oliver Tearle (Loughborough University)
The Gospel of Mark is the earliest, the shortest, and in many ways, the most mysterious of the four gospels in the New Testament. Thought to have been written some time after AD 64 (when Nero began persecuting Christians following the great fire of Rome), Mark’s gospel shows the hallmarks of having been written for a Jewish audience, but in such a way as to be accessible to those who are not well-versed in biblical scripture.
But there are some curious details in Mark’s gospel. Does Jesus play down his messianic role in this gospel? And why does he tell his disciples that his parables are not meant to help people to understand his teachings? There are clearly many surprising aspects to Mark’s gospel, so let’s take a closer look at the text.
Gospel of Mark: summary
Mark’s gospel doesn’t mention anything about the virgin birth of Jesus in Bethlehem, or of Jesus’ supposed descent from David. Instead, after beginning his gospel by focusing on John the Baptist and his baptism of Jesus, as well as John’s acknowledgment of his role as forerunner to Jesus, Mark exclusively focuses on Jesus’ life as an adult.
Mark then describes Jesus’ ministry throughout Galilee, his gathering of the first disciples, and his many miracles, including his healing of those possessed by demons. He asserts that the Kingdom of God is at hand.
Once he has gathered his twelve apostles, Jesus performs still greater miracles to the multitudes who follow him, including the famous feeding of the five thousand. He demands all of his followers to give up everything and follow him completely. He arrives in Jerusalem, throws the moneylenders from the temple, holds the Last Supper with the apostles, and is betrayed in the Garden of Gethsemane, arrested, and crucified.
His body is taken down from the Cross and buried, but Mark’s gospel concludes with an account of the subsequent Resurrection.
Gospel of Mark: analysis
If the other gospels had not been subsequently written, the picture of Jesus that we would now have would be of a man with no royal pretensions who had been born in Nazareth (not Bethlehem) in the usual way, because nothing in Mark suggests otherwise.
Consequently, Christianity would undoubtedly have developed in a very different fashion – assuming it would have developed at all. It’s thanks to the other gospels, especially Matthew (who was obsessed with matching details of Jesus’ life to Old Testament prophecies, even when they made little sense), that these details were added.
But as it’s the earliest of the gospels to be written, Mark’s account of Jesus’ life has particular value, especially as it’s been speculated that the book’s author was present during some of the events he recounts.
The author of the Gospel of Mark was actually named John – at least, this is the leading theory concerning the author’s identity. Despite the Latin name by which he is known (Marcus, or Mark), this appears to have been appended to the author’s given Jewish name, John, or Johanan. Peter, of the apostles, mentions a younger associate of his, whom he refers to as ‘Marcus my son’ in his first epistle (1 Peter 5:13).
It’s been speculated that this Marcus/Mark, real name John, is the same young man who, upon seeing Jesus on the cross, fled naked, leaving his linen cloth behind (Mark 14:52), though we cannot say for sure.
Indeed, scholars who have undertaken close analysis of the peculiarities of language in Mark’s gospel are generally of the view that, although the author was writing in Greek, he was thinking in Aramaic, the language spoken by Jesus and his followers. Does this strengthen the idea that ‘Mark’ really was an eyewitness to the events of Jesus’ adult life? Perhaps, though it’s hardly conclusive, and it’s only legend and tradition which declare that Mark was the naked boy at the Crucifixion.
The Gospel of Mark has none of the literary polish of the other gospels, but its plain and more direct manner has made it one of the more popular accounts of Jesus’ life and teachings. Yet there are many aspects of Mark’s gospel which are enigmatic and even baffling, not least of which is the abrupt ending to his account of the Resurrection.
But before we get to those aspects, it’s worth analysing the distinctive focus of Mark’s gospel, which is not on the royal ancestry or unusual conception of Jesus (which Matthew, in particular, would place centre-stage in his account), but on Jesus’ messianic powers over nature, among other things.
By beginning with Jesus’ ministry in Galilee, we very quickly – after the framing of Jesus’ importance by John the Baptist – arrive at Jesus’ various miracles, which often involve chasing demons out of people: we are told that ‘when Jesus was risen early the first day of the week, he appeared first to Mary Magdalene, out of whom he had cast seven devils’ (Mark 16:9). The very first miracle Jesus performs in Mark is an exorcism (1:21).
Or there is the famous miracle of the feeding of the five thousand – except that Mark also offers us the feeding of the four thousand, a separate but more or less identical miracle involving loaves and fishes (this second bread-and-fish miracle appears only in Matthew 15:32-39 and Mark 8:1-9). Because it’s much shorter than Matthew, a sizeable percentage of the Gospel of Mark focuses on Jesus casting away spirits and exorcising people of demons, or else performing vast miracles to the multitudes.
Then there is Mark’s curious approach to Jesus’ parables. Whereas Matthew and Luke tend to refer to God as ‘Lord’, Mark’s preferred term is ‘Rabbi’ or ‘teacher’, so there is a great deal of focus on Jesus’ teachings, to complement the miracle-working.
But here it is worth noting something surprising and curious. Mark explicitly tells us – or rather, has Jesus tell his disciples, in Mark 4:11-12 – that not everyone is meant to ‘perceive’ the meaning of his preachments, and that he actually doesn’t want everyone to be converted and have their sins forgiven:
And he said unto them, Unto you it is given to know the mystery of the kingdom of God: but until them that are without, all these things are done in parables:
That seeing they may see, and not perceive; and hearing they may hear, and not understand; lest at any time they should be converted, and their sins should be forgiven them.
In other words, Jesus doesn’t want everyone to follow him because that would mean they would all be forgiven for their sins; and he uses parables as a way of concealing the truth from people (or, at best, only partially revealing it), rather than using parables to help them understand. They ‘may hear’, but ‘not understand’: that is his intention.
This idea is taken up in Matthew 13:10-16, where Jesus offers a similar explanation for his use of parables: it is to avoid inspiring everyone else to convert, when they are not meant to ‘understand’ the meaning of Jesus’ teaching. They are meant to ‘see’ but not to ‘perceive’.
What is the purpose of this? The paradox at the heart of the Gospel of Mark seems to be that, whilst Jesus repeatedly demonstrates his supernatural powers – all of that demon-vanquishing and miracle-working – Jesus continually plays down his role as Messiah. This helps to explain why he confides to the disciples that they are privy to the truth, but that the full truth is not to be revealed to everyone else.
What’s more, at numerous points in Mark, Jesus can be perceived as silencing demons which recognise him: see 1:23-24, where a ‘man with an unclean spirit’ cries out: ‘Let us alone; what have we to do with thee, thou Jesus of Nazareth? art thou come to destroy us? I know thee who thou art, the Holy One of God.’ It is as if the great secret of his true identity must be concealed, rather than spread as far and wide as possible.
Then there’s the question of how the Gospel of Mark ends. The verses 16:9-20 are usually included in translations of the Bible, but two of the most reliable Greek manuscripts omit them, and instead Mark ends abruptly. 16:8 ends Mark on a rather strange and sudden note:
And they went out quickly, and fled from the sepulchre; for they trembled and were amazed: neither said they any thing to any man; for they were afraid.
Yes, you read the right: the three women who see the empty tomb from which Jesus’ body has disappeared – Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, and Salome – all leave the tomb and don’t mention what’s happened to anyone because they’re so frightened by the implication of what they have witnessed. Yet again, we have a refusal to spread the good news. And yet the news spread anyway.
In this – the true conclusion to Mark – we have another paradox and mystery: that, whilst Mark is at pains to highlight Jesus’ divine powers, he downplays the impact of the Resurrection on the spreading of Jesus’ true identity.
In this gospel we first find Peter’s famous confession to Jesus, ‘Thou art the Christ’ (8:29), yet one of the most intriguing things about the Gospel of Mark, in the last analysis, is how often the narrative seems simultaneously to assert Jesus’ special significance while also sweeping its impact to one side.