Most contemporary biblical scholars suggest that what we call Mark’s Gospel was composed around 70 CE but probably after the Roman destruction of Jerusalem and its temple in the year 70. The biblical scholar Raymond Brown (1928 – 1998) saw an unambiguous reference to the destruction of the temple in Mark 13:2, when Jesus says “You see these great buildings ? Not a single stone will be left on another. Everything will be destroyed.”
Mark was written for Gentile-Christians in Rome, suffering Roman persecution as well as discrimination from Hebrew-Christians, who felt superior to Gentile converts. Up until the nineteenth century, and in some circles even later, the general understanding was that the author of Mark’s Gospel was “John Mark” mentioned in Acts of Apostles (Acts 12:12). Contemporary scholars, however, reject that thesis and generally agree that the final author of Mark remains anonymous.
Although it is the oldest of the four, Mark’s Gospel is also much shorter than the other gospels, with just 16 chapters compared to Matthew’s 28, Luke’s 24, and John’s 21. It is interesting to note that of the Synoptic Gospels, only Mark’s starts with the Greek word for “good news” euaggelion from which we get the Latin word evangelium and the English word evangelical. “The beginning of the good news of Jesus, the Son of God.” (Mark 1:1) Our English word gospel comes from an earlier English word gōdspel (gōd “good” + spel “news”).
As part of the vocabulary of early Christians, the “good news” did not refer to a specific type of literature nor to a book. The term had a more dynamic meaning. It was a proclamation of an event of major importance. For first century Christians, the Good News (Gospel) designated God’s saving actions in and through the person of Jesus.
Mark’s Gospel narration begins with John the Baptizer. John was an itinerant preacher, “a voice crying in the wilderness,” (Mark 1:3) preparing the way for the Messiah. Baptism had a long tradition among Hebrew religious people. Being baptized by John demonstrated a desire for spiritual cleansing and a commitment to follow God’s law in anticipation of the Messiah’s arrival. Some scholars suggest that John belonged to the Essenes, a semi-ascetic Hebrew group who practiced ritual baptism.
John the Baptizer had many followers and it appears, from Mark’s Gospel, that Jesus from Nazareth was one of them. We know as well from New Testament accounts that some of Jesus’ early followers had also been followers of John. See for example John 1:36–40. But John the Baptizer says that Jesus is far greater than he: “I am not fit to kneel down and undo the strap of his sandals.” (Mark 1:8) When John baptizes Jesus in the Jordan, a voice from the heavens speaks to Jesus: “You are my son, the Beloved. My favor rests on you.” (Mark 1:11) Note, the Spirit is speaking directly to Jesus. It is his call to public ministry moving far beyond that of John the Baptizer.
Throughout his life, Jesus comes to a gradual realization of who he is: the Human One (“Son of Man”) and Son of God. His disciples come as well to a gradual realization of who he is. Just like people today, who are called to grow in faith, wisdom, and understanding. We grow in our understanding and appreciation. Human life is a big discovery journey.
Mark’s Gospel has no account of either Jesus’ virgin birth or his infancy. The focus is on the adult Jesus as Messiah. The gospel does mention that Jesus had brothers and sisters in Mark 6:3.
In the fourth century human sexuality became problematic for many Christians, thanks especially to Augustine the North African bishop of Hippo (354 – 430). There is much wisdom in Augustine’s vast array of writings, but his later neoplatonic negativity about human sexuality became very problematic, reflecting images of moral disorder and sinful corruption. Thanks to Augustine, virginity became a higher calling and a Christian life ideal. And so in the fourth century Christian bishops established the doctrine of Mary’s perpetual virginity, that she was a virgin before, during, and after the birth of Jesus. The biblical text in Mark 6:3 about Jesus’ brothers and sisters therefore became problematic. Virginity-oriented church authorities began to explain Jesus’ “brothers and sisters” as either children of Joseph from a previous marriage or actually “cousins” of Jesus.
In Mark 8, the author stresses that the person who wants to be Jesus’ disciple must pick up his or her cross and follow Jesus. People living in Nero’s Rome and post-Nero Rome had a very good understanding of the way of the cross. The first persecution of Christians, organized by the Roman government within the city of Rome, began in 64 CE under Emperor Nero (37 – 68 CE) after the Great Fire of Rome which burned and destroyed two thirds of Rome. Nero laid blame for the fire on the Christian community in Rome. He had Christians arrested, covered with the hides of wild beasts and torn apart by dogs, or them nailed to crosses, or set them on fire. Today historians really suspect that Nero himself had ordered the fire to remake Rome the way he wanted it and to clear space for his new palace, the Domus Aurea, his “Golden House.”
Mark is clearly a gospel of the suffering Messiah and of suffering and fearful discipleship.
In the eighth chapter of Mark, following Peter’s confession that Jesus is the Messiah, Jesus changes his speaking style. He speaks with a new urgency. He starts to talk about his upcoming death. Peter tries to rebuke him, but Jesus says: “away from me Satan” (Mark 8:33). Mark 8:31–33 is the tipping point of the Gospel of Mark. Jesus now sees his own painful death on the horizon and fears having to experience it. On the night he was betrayed, Jesus goes to the garden of Gethsemane to pray. A sudden fear comes over him and he is in great distress. Like a loving but fearful child he speaks to his father: “Abba everything is possible for you. Take this cup away from me….” (Mark 14:35-36). Abba is Aramaic for father.
Jesus’ own disciple, Judas, betrayed him. The other disciples abandoned him. People spit on Jesus. He is blindfolded and beaten. Even Peter rejects him three times. (Mark 14:53-65).
Mark’s Gospel also has a rather abrupt ending. Like the other three gospels, Mark does report the visit of Mary the Magdalene and her companions to the tomb of Jesus early Sunday morning. When they arrive at the tomb, however, they find the entrance stone removed and a young man (not an angel) tells them: “’Do not be alarmed. You seek Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified. He has risen. He is not here. See the place where they laid him. But go, tell his disciples and Peter that he is going before you to Galilee. There you will see him, just as he told you.’ And they went out and fled from the tomb, for trembling and astonishment had seized them, and they said nothing, because they were afraid.” (Mark 16:6-8). And there Mark’s Gospel simply ends!
Many scholars today really believe that the Gospel of Mark originally ended with Mark 16:8. Yet some scholars contend there was in fact a lost ending. Already in antiquity editors and copyists, uncomfortable with such an abrupt ending, provided three different endings for the Gospel of Mark to correct the abruptness of 16:8. The most favored of these added endings is Mark 16:9-19, called the Markan Appendix, or the Longer Ending. It records three appearances of Jesus raised from the dead: to Mary the Magdalene, to two disciples, and to the eleven. It mentions Jesus’ ascension into heaven and his sitting at God’s right hand.
Not everything about Mark’s Gospel can be summarized in this week’s reflection. Rereading Mark’s Gospel this past week, however, two thoughts struck me: (1) Jesus in Mark’s Gospel is a rejected and suffering Son of God. (2) Following Jesus is a discipleship of the cross.
Life is not always easy. Many people still live, as did Mark’s congregation, in fearful and threatening times. Ukraine today and the earthquakes in Turkey are just two current examples in news headlines. Thousands of other sufferers never make the headlines.
Mark’s Gospel is a narrative that was crafted and constructed to engage and encourage people to have faith and hope. Fear and uncertainty, if one allows them to take control, can disable, blind, and paralyze people. But Christianity is not a religion of fear.
We are challenged to be alert and faithful to the Good News. In Mark 8:18-21 Jesus reprimands his disciples: “Do you not yet understand? Have you no perception? Are your minds closed? Have you eyes that do not see, and ears that do not hear?”
Well our contemporary challenge from the Gospel of Mark is twofold: To keep our minds, eyes, and ears open to the call of the Sacred today. But then to also be a source of faith and hope for the people who are weighed down under fear, uncertainty, and absolute misery.