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Introduction to the Gospel According to Mark

Table of Contents

General Info

The book’s title comes from the name of the author, John Mark, although it could easily have been called "the Gospel According to Peter".  Mark was a close associate of the Apostle Peter, from who he received an account of the actions and teachings of Jesus.  According to the early church fathers, Mark accurately preserved the preaching and teaching of Peter, then arranged and shaped this material to form the Gospel under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit.  Thus, the book receives its apostolic authority from its Petrine origin.

Mark’s Gospel is a concise, straightforward, action-oriented account of the life of Jesus the Messiah.  It focuses more on what Jesus did than on what he taught.  Because of Mark’s focus on the account of Jesus’ passion (his suffering, death, and resurrection), his Gospel has been called "a passion narrative with an extended introduction".   This book was probably the first canonical Gospel written (approximately 30 years after the death and resurrection of the Christ) and possibly served as a source for the Gospels of Matthew and Luke.  See our Introduction to the Gospels for additional information on its relationship with the other synoptic books.

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Brief Survey

The Gospel of Mark is a fast-paced story of selected teachings and activities in the life of Jesus the Messiah with emphasis on His actions.  Mark skips Jesus’ genealogy and begins with His ministry in Galilee, which includes His baptism, temptation, calling of his disciples, teachings, and miracles to authenticate His authority (ch 1-3).  Even at this early stage, there arose controversies and opposition to His ministry.  The next few chapters chronicle additional teachings and miracles, along with growing antagonism, resulting in His departure from Galilee.

The turning point comes in chapter 8 and 9, with the Transformation and Peter’s confession at Caesarea Philippi that Jesus is the Messiah. J esus and the disciples then travel to Jerusalem, in and around which the events throughout the remainder of the book takes place.  During the Passion Week, we witness Jesus Triumphal Entry, His teachings and activities associated with Jerusalem including the failure by the majority of Israel to recognize Jesus as their Messiah, escalating controversies with the Jewish leaders, and concluding with the prediction of Jerusalem’s destruction and the second coming of the Son of Man (ch 11-13).  In the final section, Mark narrates the trial, death, resurrection and ascension of Jesus (ch 14-16).

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Key Verses

The beginning of the gospel about Jesus Christ, the Son of God. (1:1)

At that time Jesus came from Nazareth in Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan.  As Jesus was coming up out of the water, he saw heaven being torn open and the Spirit descending on him like a dove.  And a voice came from heaven: "You are my Son, whom I love; with you I am well pleased." (1:0-11)

"Come, follow me," Jesus said, "and I will make you fishers of men."  At once they left their nets and followed him. (1:17-18)

Then he [Jesus] called the crowd to him along with his disciples and said: "If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross and follow me.  For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for me and for the gospel will save it.  What good is it for a man to gain the whole world, yet forfeit his soul? (8:34-36)

People were bringing little children to Jesus to have him touch them, but the disciples rebuked them.  When Jesus saw this, he was indignant.  He said to them, "Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of God belongs to such as these.  I tell you the truth, anyone who will not receive the kingdom of God like a little child will never enter it." (10:13-15)

"The most important one [Commandment]," answered Jesus, "is this: 'Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one.  Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.'  The second is this: 'Love your neighbor as yourself.'  There is no commandment greater than these." (12:29-31)

But when they looked up, they saw that the stone, which was very large, had been rolled away.  As they entered the tomb, they saw a young man dressed in a white robe sitting on the right side, and they were alarmed.  Don't be alarmed," he said.  "You are looking for Jesus the Nazarene, who was crucified.  He has risen!  He is not here.  See the place where they laid him. (16:4-6)

He [Jesus] said to them, "Go into all the world and preach the good news to all creation.  Whoever believes and is baptized will be saved, but whoever does not believe will be condemned. (16:15-16)

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Author, Date and Recipients

Author

In most Bibles, all four Gospels are introduced by the title, "The Gospel According to …" which assigns them to a specific author; however, these titles are not part of the original manuscripts.  Thus, although the Gospel of Mark contains no direct internal evidence concerning its author, early church references unanimously attributed its writing to John Mark.  John Mark is not to be confused with the Apostle John, but the John who was also called Mark (Ac 12:12,25, 15:37) and was the cousin of Barnabas (Col 4:10).  The earliest known reference comes from Papias, Bishop of Hierapolis (c 120-140 AD), who quotes earlier sources testifying that Mark was a close associate of the Apostle Peter, from whom he received the events and teaching of Jesus, accurately preserved the material, and composed the book.  These statements are also confirmed by the early church historian Eusebius in his Ecclesiastical History.  Internal evidence does confirm the author to be Jewish and bilingual since he explains Jewish customs to his Gentile readers and intersperses several Aramaic phrases within the Greek text.  John Mark was a Jew who was raised in Jerusalem (Ac 12:12), so he would certainly know Aramaic (the common native language) and the Jewish customs.

John Mark accompanied Paul and Barnabas on the first missionary journey, but deserted them and returned home to Jerusalem, causing a rift between himself and Paul.  Mark later regained Paul’s favor and confidence, becoming a valued companion toward the end of Paul’s life (2Ti 4:11).

Date and Location

The suggested date for the writing of Mark’s Gospel varies from the early 50s to the late 60s AD.  Scholars are primarily divided into two camps, those arguing for an early date of the mid to late 50s or possibly early 60s, and those contending for a later date in the mid to late 60s.  A major factor in the debate is whether or not Mark was written first, then used as a source by Matthew and Luke in the writing of their gospels. 

Luke probably wrote Acts during Paul’s first Roman imprisonment about 62 AD, so Luke’s gospel would have been written before that (Ac 1:1), placing the Gospel of Mark even earlier, probably in the mid to late 50s.  This date is consistent with the early church tradition that places Peter in Rome in the early to mid 50s.  Eusebius in his Ecclesiastical History (c 325 AD) that, "in the same reign of Claudius [Roman Emperor who died in 54 AD] the Providence of the universe... guided to Rome the great and mighty Peter... preaching the gospel" Eusebius also records that Peter’s audience sought out Peter’s follower Mark, and exhorted him to leave them a written statement of his verbal teaching..; "nor did they cease until they had persuaded him, and so became the cause of the Scripture called the Gospel of Mark".  Eusebius also quotes Clement of Alexandria, who lived in the late 2nd century, making similar statements.  In addition, the Anti-Marcionite Prologue to Mark (also late 2nd century) places the writing during Peter's lifetime, stating that Mark "wrote this gospel in parts of Italy.  When Peter heard this, he approved and affirmed it by his own authority for the reading of the church."

Scholars who propose a mid to late 60s date for Mark’s gospel maintain either a later date for Luke and Acts, or that Luke was written independently from Mark.  Support for this position is found in a statement from the writings of the late 2nd century church father Irenaeus (Against Heresies) that, "After their [Peter and Paul's] departure, Mark, the disciple and interpreter of Peter, did also hand down to us in writing what had been preached by Peter".  According to tradition, Peter was martyred about 64 AD, so if Peter's "departure" refers to his death, then according to Irenaeus, the Gospel of Mark would have been written after 64, the year Peter died.  Then again, "hand down to us" may not refer to the actual writing of mark’s gospel, but to when it was received by the church.  Likewise, "their departure" could simply be speaking of Peter and Paul's departure from Rome, instead of their death.

Our conclusion is that the earlier dates are the most likely, but the later dates are certainly possible.  See the  "Author and Date" and "Synoptics" chapters of Introduction to the  Gospels for additional information.

Recipients

According to tradition, the Gospel of Mark was written to the church at Rome.  Internal evidence such as explanation of Jewish customs, translation of Aramaic words, and a special interest in persecution suggest an audience of Roman believers, or at least Gentile believers.  Perhaps the strongest evidence is Mark’s use of some Latin words rather than the equivalent Greek words used by Matthew and Luke.

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Historical Background

See the Historical Background for the Gospels.

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Timeline

Mark’s gospel spans the time period from the beginning of John the Baptist’s ministry (~28-30 AD) though His post resurrection appearances (30 or 33 AD).

~ 6-4 BC Birth of Jesus
~ 26 AD Beginning of John the Baptist's ministry
~ 28 AD Jesus baptized by John the Baptist and begins His ministry
30 or 33 (1) Last Supper (Passover), Passion Week, Jesus’ Crucifixion and Resurrection
~ 35 Paul's Conversion
~ 46-48 Mark accompanies Paul and Barnabas on their first missionary journey
~ 49-50 The Council at Jerusalem
~ 49-51 Barnabas takes Mark on his Cypress  missionary journey
~ 51-55 Mark meets with Peter in Rome
~ 55-60 Gospel of Mark written
~ 60-62 Mark serves as Paul's delegate to Asia while Paul is imprisoned in Rome
~ 60-63 Peter writes his First Epistle, Mark is with him
~ 64-67 Peter martyred in Rome
~ 65-69 Gospel of Mark written (late date theory)
70 Destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem

(1)  These dates are either one or the other (Nisan 14 Passover falling between Thursday sundown to Friday sundown on the Jewish calendar).  The earlier date is the most popular, but there are good evidences and arguments to support either date.

~ Dates are approximated.

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Themes, Purpose and Theology

Prior to the writing of the Gospels, the traditions were circulated orally and safeguarded under the supervision of the eyewitnesses and ministers of the word of God (Lk 1:2).  As these eyewitnesses began to die, it became important to record the gospel traditions in writing to accurately preserve the accounts of Jesus’ life and teachings for succeeding generations.  According to tradition, Mark penned Peter’s depiction of these truths at the request of the church in Rome.

The main purpose and theme is stated in the opening verse of the Gospel, that is, to tell the story of Jesus of Nazareth as the Son of God, the Suffering Servant and the promised Messiah.  These promises occurred throughout the Hebrew Scriptures (our Old Testament), as both the prophets and the angels intensely looked forward and longed to see the Messiah, the God-Man (1Pe 1:10-12), and now Mark records their fulfillment.  He also explains many Jewish customs so that his Gentile readers may have a better understanding that the coming of Jesus is the result of God’s promises to Israel and, by extension, the entire world.  In addition to the author, many other witnesses to Jesus’ divine status are included, such as the demons (1:34, 3:11, 5:7), the Roman centurion at the cross (15:39), Jesus Himself (12:6, 13:32, 14:61-62) and even God the Father (1:11, 9:7).

A related major theme in Mark is the "Mystery of the Kingdom", on which he places a much greater emphasis than the other Gospel authors.  The arrival of God’s Kingdom in accordance with the OT promises is central to Jesus’ message that people need to repent and believe the gospel (1:14-15).  Yet, in His early ministry, we constantly see Jesus telling those He healed or raised from the dead not to reveal His true identity as the Messiah.  This would have prompted undue excitement among the populous and provoked a swift response from the Roman authorities before His appointed time to die.  The greatness of Jesus however, could not be hidden.  Those who experienced his healing could not help but proclaim what he had done.  Thus, later in His ministry, Jesus often had to go into seclusion in order to instruct and prepare His disciples for the events to come.

Passion Week, which includes the death and resurrection of Jesus, is the main focus of the latter part of the book, and is indeed, the focal point of Christianity itself.  Due to the author’s attention to these events, the Gospel of Mark has often been called "a passion narrative with an extended introduction".  Mark points out that the death of Jesus was a necessary part of God’s plan (8:31, 9:12, 14:21-49), that Jesus came into the world to save sinners by giving His life as a ransom for many (10:45) by vicariously and sacrificially pouring out His blood to establish the new covenant (14:24).

Finally, because of what has been done for us, Mark emphasizes the importance of Christian discipleship (1:12-13, 3:22,30, 8:34-38, 10:33-34,45, 13:8-13) through our relationship with Jesus.  In humble service, we are to take up our cross and follow Jesus, which will often result in self-denial and suffering (8:34-38, 9:35-37, 10:35-45), but we are also promised salvation (13:13) and spiritual blessings (10:29-30).

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Interpretation Hints and Challenges

All Scripture within Mark’s Gospel should be interpreted within the context of the opening verse, in which Mark provides us with the main key to understanding his Gospel, that it is all about the gospel [good news] of Jesus Christ, the Son of God (1:1).  This does not mean that there isn’t much to learn about other topics such as John the Baptist, the disciples, salvation and other doctrines, but each of these subjects must be understood in light of Jesus’ true identity, the Son of God who is fully God and fully man.

The Gospel of Mark should also be interpreted in the context of the other Gospels, then within the primary themes of the New Testament as a whole which, in turn, must be understood as emerging from the OT background of God’s dealing with mankind, and many of His promises being fulfilled.  When reading Mark (or any other book of the Bible), we should seek first the intent of the author by careful investigation of the context, and the historical and cultural background of his writing, keeping in mind that there is both a human author and divine Author of Scripture.

Mark’s Gospel has been called a "docudrama", consisting of certain events, conversations, sermons and events which are either representative of Jesus’ life and teachings, or unique events such as the crucifixion and resurrection.  Mark also adds his own introductions, explanations, comments and summaries to the mix.  His material was purposely selected to present the mission and ministry of Jesus within God’s ultimate plan, rather than to portray biographical data about Jesus in the modern sense.

For the most part, Mark should be interpreted according to the rules of genre governing gospels and narratives.  The author often uses the Greek present tense to give a sense of immediacy to the narratives.  The book is a very fast-paced narrative containing stories of heroism, controversies, testimonies, miracles, crowd reactions, parables, proverbs and much more.  In addition, Mark frequently sandwiches one story within another story.  In most of these cases, he reveals meaningful connections between separate events, so we should consider the surrounding story when interpreting the interior one.  In chapter 11 for example, we interpret the cleansing of the Temple as a symbolic act of judgment in light of the surrounding story of the cursing of the fig tree.  Finally, we can identify with many of the characters in the narratives and often even imagine ourselves as participating in some of the stories.

See Interpretation Hints for the Gospels for more information.

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Outline

The overall structure of Mark is divided geographically.  The first nine chapters narrate events of Jesus’ ministry in Galilee and the surrounding areas.  In chapter 10, Jesus and the disciples travel from Galilee to Jerusalem, where the last chapters of the book (11–16) take place.

1:1 - 1:13 The Beginning of Jesus' Ministry; His Baptism & Temptation
1:14 - 2:12 Jesus' Early Galilean Ministry; Calling of First Disciples; First Miracles (Demonstration of His Authority)
2:13 - 3:35 Initial Opposition and Controversies to the Ministry
4:1 - 4:34 Parables of the Kingdom
4:35 - 5:43 Additional Miracles
6:1 - 8:26 Growing Opposition to Jesus' Ministry; Execution of John the Baptist; Jesus Walks on Water; Feeding of the Five Thousand and other Miracles; Withdrawal from Galilee
8:27 - 9:32 Peter's Confession of the Messiah; The Transfiguration; Jesus Foretells His Death
9:33 - 10:52 Jesus Teaches and Prepares His Disciples
11:1 - 15:47 The Passion of the Christ (the Last Week); The Triumphal Entry; Clearing of the Temple; Final Controversies with Jewish Leaders; Signs of the End of the Age; Passover; Institution of the Lord's Supper; Peter's Denial; The Arrest, Trial, Crucifixion and Burial of Jesus
16:1 - 16:20 The Resurrection, Appearances and Ascension of Jesus

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