Chapter 8: The Gospel According to Mark

The Story of the New Testament
by Edgar J. Goodspeed

Chapter 8: The Gospel According to Mark

Peter was dead. The impulsive apostle who had followed Jesus about Galilee had lived to share in the world-wide gentile mission and had met his death in Rome. With him the chief link the Roman church had had with the earthly ministry of Jesus was gone. Western Christianity had lost its one great human document for the life of Jesus.

The familiar stories and reminiscences of Jesus, words and doings would no longer be heard from the lips of the chief apostle. East and west alike had heard them, but in the restless activity of the gentile mission, and especially in the general expectation of Jesus’ speedy return, no one had thought to take them down. And so with Peter a priceless treasure of memorabilia of Jesus passed forever from the world.

But there still lived in Rome a younger man who had for some time attended the old apostle, and who, when Peter preached in his native Aramaic to little companies of Roman Christians, had stood at his side to translate his words into the Greek speech of his hearers. His name was Mark. In his youth he had gone with Paul and Barnabas on their first missionary journey to Cyprus, but had disappointed and even offended Paul by withdrawing from the party when they had landed in Pamphylia and proposed to push on into the very center of Asia Minor. He had afterward gone a second time to Cyprus with Barnabas, to whom he was closely related. Through the years that had passed since then he had probably kept in close touch with the Christian leaders at Antioch and at Jerusalem, where his mother’s house had been from the first a center for the Christian community. It was probably as Peter’s companion that he had made his way at length to Rome, and there until Peter’s martyrdom had served the old apostle as his interpreter.

Mark saw at once the great loss the churches would sustain if Peter’s recollections of Jesus perished, and at the same time he saw a way to preserve at least the best part of them for the comfort and instruction of the Roman believers. He had become so familiar with Peter’s preaching, through his practice of translating it, that it was possible for him to remember and write down much that Peter had been wont to tell about his walks and talks with Jesus in Galilee and Jerusalem, more than thirty years before.

In this way Mark came to write what we call the Gospel of Mark. But Mark did not call it his Gospel; indeed it is not certain that he called it a gospel at all; and if he had thought of naming its author he would quite certainly have called it Peter’s work rather than his own. But the order and the Greek dress of the Gospel are the work of Mark, however much he is indebted to his memory of Peter’s sermons for the facts that he reports.

In the selection of what he should record, Mark was doubtless often influenced by the conditions and needs of the Roman Christians for whom he wrote. But it is Peter’s picture of Jesus that he preserves, not of course just as Peter would have drawn it, yet with an oriental skill in story-telling which may be Peter’s own. We see Jesus drawn by John’s preaching from his home among the hills of Galilee, and accepting baptism at John’s hands, and then immediately possessed with the Spirit of God and filled with a divine sense of his commission as God’s anointed to establish God’s Kingdom in the world. Yet he is silent until John’s arrest and imprisonment, and only when John’s work is thus cut short does he begin preaching in Galilee. Marvelous cures accompany his preaching, and the Galileans soon throng about him wherever he goes. His freedom in dealing not only with Pharisaic tradition but also with the precepts of the law itself soon brings him into conflict with the Pharisees and their increasing opposition before long threatens his life. After two or three withdrawals from Galilee in search of security or leisure to plan his course, Jesus at length declares to his disciples his purpose of going up to Jerusalem to the springtime feast of the Passover. He warns them that the movement will cost him his life, but declares that God will after all save him and raise him up. Bewildered and alarmed they follow him through Peraea up to Jerusalem, which he enters in triumph, now for the first time declaring himself the Messiah by riding into the city in the way in which Zechariah had said the Messiah would enter it. Jesus boldly enters the temple and drives out of its courts the privileged dealers in sacrificial victims who had made it their market-place. The Sadducees, who control the temple and profit by these abuses, on the night of the Passover have him arrested, and after hasty examinations before Jewish and Roman authorities hurry him the next morning to execution. Up to the very hour of his arrest, Jesus does not give up all hope of succeeding in Jerusalem and winning the nation to his teaching of the presence of the Kingdom of God on the earth. The book more than once predicts his resurrection; and in its complete form it doubtless contained a brief account of his appearance to the two Marys and Salome after his burial; but it had by the beginning of the second century lost its original ending, and while two conclusions have been used in different manuscripts to complete it, the original one, probably only ten or twelve lines long, has never been certainly restored.

Informal and unambitious as Mark’s gospel narrative is, and lightly as it was esteemed in the ancient church, in comparison with the richer works of Matthew and Luke, no more convincing or dramatic account has been written of the sublime and heroic effort of Jesus to execute the greatest task ever conceived by man -- to set up the Kingdom of God on earth.