Chapter 7: The Gospel of Mark

An Introduction to the New Testament
by Richard Heard

Chapter 7: The Gospel of Mark

The Earliest Canonical Gospel

One of the greatest achievements of New Testament criticism in the last century has been to establish beyond reasonable doubt that the gospel of Mark formed one of the principal sources used both by Matthew and Luke, and that it is both the earliest and in some ways the most important of our gospels. For centuries Mark had been the least read and regarded of the four gospels for the very reason that both Matthew and Luke contained most of its material, and had the further advantages of better styles and much additional information on the teaching and life of Jesus. We can now see that the main framework of the ministry of Jesus in Matthew and, to a lesser extent, in Luke is dependent on information supplied by Mark, and that in Mark we have an earlier and clearer picture of the course of Jesus’ ministry, even if it has to be supplemented from the other gospels, especially John.

This fundamental solution of the relationship of the Synoptic gospels, as the first three gospels are called because of their common view of the life of Jesus (Gr. synoptikos = seeing together), has only been reached after the prolonged testing of every possible view, e.g. that Mark is an abbreviation of Matthew, that Mark and Matthew both used Luke, that all three gospels derive from a comparatively fixed oral tradition. Years of patient study have made it certain that the degree of verbal resemblance between the three gospels is too great for explanation on the basis of common oral sources only, and that the one theory which does full justice to the resemblances of language is that both Matthew and Luke used Mark. It is possible that they used Mark in a rather different form to that in which we possess it, or even in two different forms, but the simplest explanation, that they both used substantially our gospel of Mark, is by far the most probable, and is now generally accepted.

The arguments on which this solution is based are worked out in great detail in many books, but their force can be sufficiently expressed in a few brief statistics. Of Mark’s 661 verses, some 430 are substantially reproduced in both Matthew and Luke. Of the remaining 231 verses 176 occur in Matthew and the substance of 25 in Luke. Only 30 verses in Mark do not appear in some form in either Matthew or Luke. Moreover, both Matthew and Luke normally follow Mark’s order of events, but, when one departs from the Marcan sequence, the other supports Mark’s order.

The question of John’s use of Mark is a disputed one, but even those who deny that Mark was known to or used by John admit that Mark is the earlier of the two gospels.

The Connection of The Gospel with John Mark

The gospel of Mark is traditionally connected with Peter’s preaching. Papias (c. A.D. 120) has recorded the following passage about Mark, which, although not explicitly connected with the gospel of Mark, was taken by later authors as referring to the gospel:

‘And the Elder said this also: Mark, having become the interpreter of Peter, wrote down accurately everything that he remembered, without, however, recording in order what was either said or done by Christ. For neither did he hear the Lord, nor did he follow him; but afterwards, as I said, (attended) Peter, who adapted his instructions to the needs (of his hearers) but had no design of giving a connected account of the Lord’s oracles. So then Mark made no mistake, while he thus wrote down some things as he remembered them; for he made it his one care not to omit anything that he heard, or to set down any false statement therein. (Eusebius, Hist. Eccl. III 39. How far the second and third sentences represent what the Elder said, or Papias’ own comments, we have no means of knowing.)

Just as Papias’ statement on Matthew’s oracles (cf. p. 64) is not a good description of our first gospel, the statement of the Elder hardly fits our second gospel. This gospel is precisely a recording of what was said and done by Christ ‘in order’, and the Marcan ‘order’ of events is generally agreed to be clear and intelligible. Attempts have been made to force the meaning of the Greek in the passage, and to explain it as meaning that the Elder preferred the order of the fourth gospel, and was criticising Mark’s gospel as not giving events in the right order. This is a desperate remedy, and does not touch the problem of the internal evidence of the second gospel, which contains some things which are hard to reconcile with Marcan authorship, much less with Peter’s teaching.

While there is much in the gospel that has a strong claim to rest on Peter’s account of events, there is also much that can hardly be attributed to him. In Mk. 14:12,16 it is indicated that the Last Supper was the Passover Meal; this identification raises great difficulties, as it places the arrest, the meeting of the Sanhedrin at night, the trial, and the crucifixion, during the feast (the Jewish day began at sunset), when all business was normally suspended. The fourth gospel gives a different account, in which the Last Supper is not the Passover Meal (13:1-2), and the Trial and Crucifixion take place before the feast begins (18:28, 29:31); this dating of events would appear much the more likely. There can be no certainty here, but, if John’s version is right, it is hard to see how Mark, whose home was in Jerusalem (Acts 12:12), could have made such a mistake.

There are other puzzling passages in the gospel, such as the description of Jesus’ journey (7:31) from Tyre to Galilee ‘through the midst of the borders of Decapolis’ (S.E. of the Sea of Galilee, and on the other side from both Tyre and Galilee itself), and the highly-coloured account of John the Baptist’s death, which bristles with improbabilities; these errors are unlikely to come from the pen of Mark, who was presumably familiar with Palestinian conditions. But the most serious objection against Marcan authorship of the gospel as it stands lies in the ‘developed’ nature of many of the stories about Jesus and of some of the teaching attributed to him. Thus in Mk. 6:34-8:26 two parallel cycles of events can be traced, each of which contains, in the same sequence, a miraculous feeding of a crowd, a voyage by boat, a conflict with Pharisees, and a healing. It is difficult not to think that these are variant accounts of the same events (to which Jn. 6 offers an instructive parallel), and difficult to ascribe both accounts to Peter or to Mark’s misunderstanding of his words. Again the apocalyptic teaching of Mk.13 far beyond that which might be expected of Peter.

It must be admitted that there are grave obstacles in the way of accepting the second gospel, in its present form, as the work of Mark, although there is much in the gospel which clearly comes ultimately from Peter. On the other hand there is no good reason for doubting the general accuracy of the Elder’s statement, as far as it goes. To account for the tradition there are two alternatives. Either the author of the gospel has used Marks notes, and what the Elder said about these has been later applied to the whole gospel, or the Elder’s statement was originally made about a document not used in this gospel, (It is noteworthy that Q seems to have fulfilled some of the necessary conditions. It was ‘not in order’, it was suited to the needs of early converts, and it carried the authentic ring of genuine reminiscence; on the other hand there is little specifically ‘Petrine’ about it.) but the gospel itself was recognised as containing much-of Peter’s teaching and was wrongly attributed to Mark, who was known to have been Peter’s ‘interpreter’. The meaning of this last word is much disputed, and amongst those suggested are that Mark was literally an interpreter who translated Peter’s Aramaic into Greek, that Mark was Peter’s ‘dragoman’ (cf. Acts 13:5), and that Mark ‘interpreted’ Peter’s teaching by handing it on and explaining it (Papias speaks of himself as handing on what he had learnt from the elders ‘with my interpretations’). In any case it must be remembered that many people besides Mark had heard Peter teach, and that his words would be preserved, at least orally, through many channels.

The Sources of The Gospel

Many attempts have been made to trace in the gospel a definite written source which can be identified with Mark’s record of Peter’s preaching, but none of these attempts has gained general approval. Peter may well have been present at most of the scenes recorded in the gospel, and much of the narrative is probably derived ultimately from him. Thus Mk. 1:6-38 represents the beginning of Peter’s new life (cf. p. 35), and a number of incidents where only the ‘inner circle’of disciples were present are recorded, including the healing of Jairus’ daughter, the Transfiguration (followed by a description of the healing of the Epileptic Boy from the standpoint of one of the three named disciples, cf. Mk. 9:14), the forecast of the destruction of the Temple, the agony in Gethsemane. The story of Peter’s confession at Caesarea Philippi, and of his denial of Jesus must have formed part of his own teaching. Yet some of these Petrine incidents are told so baldly, e.g. the Call of Peter 1:16-18 (cf. Lk. 5:1-9), or have acquired so many accretions, e.g. the apocalyptic discourse of 42, that it is impossible to be certain that all these stories came direct from Peter, and have not in some cases passed from mouth to mouth.

While the question of a direct Petrine source, therefore, can never be fully answered, there are a number of signs that the author of the gospel put together a mass of material, some of which was already in small collections, whether written or oral. It has already been suggested (cf. pp. 35 ff.) that he had, in addition to a more or less fixed form of Passion-narrative, collections of controversies, e.g. 2:1-3:6, 11:27-33 and 12:13-40, and cycles of narratives, e.g. 6:34 7:37, 8:1-26; it is possible that the bulk of the apocalyptic discourse in xiii also lay before him in written form (cf. 13:14), and the sayings of 9:39-50 may have acquired their connection before his time (cf. p. 44). Besides these possible ‘larger’ sources he incorporated a number of single incidents, parables, and sayings, which probably circulated orally as examples of Jesus’ actions and words.

Plan of The Gospel

The part of the final author of the gospel was to give to his sources a narrative framework and to make of his fragments of material a connected whole. He seems to have been the first person to attempt to construct in writing a sketch of the whole ministry of Jesus, although he must have worked on the basis of an oral account such as the skeleton speeches in Acts suggest formed part of Peter’s preaching (e.g. Acts 10:37-42). His sources of information were limited, and he shows no sign of knowing, for example, that Jesus’ ministry had extended to Judaea and Jerusalem even before its close, as John makes clear. The insertion of incidents and pieces of teaching from his sources into his framework seems often to have been made for their suitability to the situation, and not because the author of the gospel knew that they were actually connected with the particular historical situation.

Yet the main plan of the gospel is simple and straightforward, and contains a number of consecutive historical developments which have a good claim to rest upon a true tradition. The key to the understanding of this plan is the author’s conviction that Jesus was from the first, and knew himself to be, the Son of God, but that he chose to reveal the full implications of this by stages. The gospel falls into two main parts, the Ministry in and around Galilee (1-9), and the Last Week in Jerusalem (11-16), which are joined by a short account of the Journey to Jerusalem (10).

The preparation for the ministry is provided by the teaching of John the Baptist that a mightier than he is coming after him, by Jesus’ baptism, and by the temptation in the wilderness. After John had been imprisoned by Herod, Jesus comes into Galilee, proclaiming that the time is fulfilled, the kingdom of God is at hand, and men must repent and believe in the good news. Little is said about the details of Jesus’ preaching, but its success is described, and attributed in large measure to Jesus’ healing powers. These are the inevitable consequences of Jesus’ Sonship, as is recognised by the evil spirits, but Jesus does not suffer the spirits to speak and tries as far as possible to prevent news of his healings from spreading abroad. These healings arouse opposition from some of the scribes when Jesus claims the power to forgive sins (2:6-7), and when he heals on the Sabbath the Pharisees and Herodians take counsel to destroy him (3:6); later, scribes from Jerusalem ascribe his powers to possession of Beelzebub (3:22). Meanwhile Jesus has from the first been gathering disciples, to whom he imparts fuller instruction about the parabolic teaching which he gives to the multitudes; he tells them that the purpose of this method of teaching is to hide its real meaning from them that are without (4:11-12) but that to the disciples is given the mystery of the kingdom of God.

Jesus’ apparent success continues, except in ‘his own country’ (6:1), and the training of the Twelve advances sufficiently far for him to send them out two by two to exorcise evil spirits, to heal the sick, and to call men to repent. At this stage Herod himself hears of Jesus, and of the rumours that he is Elijah, who was supposed to return to earth to herald ‘the great and terrible day of the Lord’ (Malachi 4:5), or a prophet, although Herod himself thinks that he is John the Baptist risen from the dead. On the return of the Twelve from their mission Jesus brings them for rest and quiet to a desert place, but the crowds follow them, and Jesus out of compassion teaches them and feeds them by a miracle. Mark does not give to this feeding, or to the parallel account of the feeding of the four thousand, the special significance that it has in the fourth gospel (Jn. 6:15), where the motive for Jesus’ withdrawal afterwards is to prevent the crowd taking him by force ‘to make him king’; yet it marks the height of his popular success in Galilee (cf. 6:53-56).

Between his two parallel sequences of feeding, voyage, controversy with Pharisees, and healing (cf. p. 36) Mark inserts the departure of Jesus to the borders of Tyre and Sidon (7:24), and his return ‘through Sidon unto the sea of Galilee, through the midst of the borders of Decapolis’ (7:31). This journey has been made the basis of a theory that Jesus deliberately left Galilee to avoid trouble with the authorities, now alarmed at his popular success, and that he deliberately skirted round Galilean territory on his return. But such a motive is not hinted at by the evangelist, who pictures Jesus’ withdrawals as being for the purpose of training the disciples in private, and the geographical puzzles presented by his mention of ‘the country of the Gerasenes’ (5:1) and ‘the parts of Dalmanutha’ (8:10) suggest that the reference to Decapolis in 7:31 is an error caused by his unfamiliarity with the geography of Northern Palestine.

After the two ‘feeding’ cycles is introduced Jesus’ question to his disciples on the way to Caesarea Philippi, ‘Who say ye what I am ?’,and Peter’s reply, ‘Thou art the Christ’ Jesus warns them to keep this secret, and explains that he is ‘ the Son of Man’. but that he has to die and rise again; to the multitudes he speaks less explicitly, warning them that to reject him is to be rejected by the Son of Man when he comes in glory (8:38). To the inner circle of disciples is vouchsafed the vision of the Transfiguration and the heavenly assurance that Jesus is the Son of God. Even so the disciples continue to misunderstand the nature of the Kingdom of God (9:33 ff., 10:35 ff.), and fail to comprehend his repeated references to his death and resurrection (9:32, 10:32 ff.)

Jesus’ movements from the Confession at Gaesarea Philippi take him through Galilee (9:30,33), into the borders of Judaea and beyond Jordan (10:1), and so to Jericho and Jerusalem. At Jericho he is hailed by Bartimaeus with the Messianic title ‘Son of David’, and his entry into Jerusalem is the scene of a ‘Messianic’ ovation from his supporters (11:7-10). At Jerusalem Jesus is heard gladly by the people (12:37), but is involved in a series of controversies with Scribes, Pharisees, Sadducees, and the Chief Priests. His opponents plot to get rid of him before the feast (14:1-2), and Judas agrees to betray him. Jesus is represented as conscious of all this (14:18, 27-30), and prophesies that all his disciples will forsake him, but that he will rise again and go before them to Galilee. He is arrested, condemned by the high priest, on his own admission that he is the Christ, the Son of Man, who is to come with the clouds of heaven, and again condemned as ‘King of the Jews’ by Pilate, is crucified, and dies. Thirty-six hours later his tomb is found empty, and a young man in a white robe tells the women to inform the Twelve and Peter that Jesus goes before them to Galilee. The women are too frightened to obey.

The value of this narrative framework can be challenged on a number of points, e.g. the significance given by Jesus to his teaching in parables, the uncertainty that surrounds some of the miraculous events, the length of time between the Confession of Caesarea Philippi and the Passion; yet the honesty of the writer in leaving vague most of the temporal connections in the narrative gives an added importance to the consistency of his general picture. The gradual unfolding of the Messianic secret, in particular, and Jesus’ lack of immediate success in instructing his disciples as to the true nature of the Kingdom, have an inherent probability that is confirmed by the later history of the misinterpretation of his teaching in the New Testament Church. The second gospel furnishes only an incomplete and at times a confused record of Jesus’ ministry, but its account is sufficient to establish the main lines on which Jesus conducted the major part of his ministry with some degree of certainty.

To discredit completely the Marcan framework would not only leave us in the dark as to the main features of Jesus’ ministry --that is an alternative which the honest historian must face -- but would also leave inexplicable the fact that one who taught of himself and the Kingdom in such terms as Q, for example, relates, was also crucified as a false Messiah.

The Ending of The Gospel

The MS. evidence makes it clear that ‘the longer ending’ found in most Bibles (Mk. 16:9-20) is in fact an early addition to bring Mark into line with the other gospels in recording Resurrection appearances of Jesus. It is probable that both Matthew and Luke used Mark in a form which broke off at 16:8, and this ending, though abrupt and awkward, may well be original. A number of theories, however, have been advanced to account for the loss of a supposed original ending which included Resurrection appearances in Galilee (cf. 16:7). It is possible that the gospel was not finished, or that the original copy was accidentally mutilated, and it has even been suggested that an account of Jesus’ appearance in Galilee has been suppressed in view of the alternative tradition (witnessed by Luke 24) that the appearances of the risen Christ were in the neighbourhood of Jerusalem.

Date and Place of Writing

The use of Mark by Luke and Matthew makes it difficult to date this gospel later than A.D. 70. On the other hand the present form of the apocalypse of Mark 42 is held by some scholars to indicate its composition in the late fifties, and the emergence of the earliest gospel is widely held to have been most probable at a time when the first generation of Christian teachers was beginning to die out, c. A.D. 60-70. Such a date would account most satisfactorily for the combination of much valuable and primitive tradition with other less historical material, which we find in Mark, and would allow time for the development of those collections of material whose use in the gospel has been seen to be probable.

The place of writing is more difficult to fix. Traditionally the gospel is associated with Rome, but the tradition may well be due to that which connected Mark and Peter with Rome. The few ‘latinisms’ of the gospel are of a kind that would naturally arise in popular Greek wherever Roman influence had been at work, e.g. legion (5:9), scourge (15:15), centurion (15:29). The style is rough and such as might be expected of a Jew who thought in Aramaic, but wrote in Greek. He is careful, however, to supply a translation whenever he gives Jesus’ words in their original Aramaic, e.g. 5:31, 7:38, and to explain Jewish customs, e.g. 7: 3-4. He does not appear, as we have seen, to have himself a good knowledge of Palestinian conditions. If he wrote in Syria, the use of his gospel by Matthew and Luke would be perhaps easiest to explain, but this can only be a conjecture.