Chapter 8: The Gospel Of Mark

A Historical Introduction to the New Testament
by Robert M. Grant

Chapter 8: The Gospel Of Mark

The idea that Mark wrote a gospel is attested by Papias, early in the second century; he says that Mark never encountered Jesus but later became the disciple and ‘interpreter’ of Peter. On the basis of Peter’s teaching about the words and deeds of Jesus, he drew up an account which was accurate but not ‘in order’ (Eusebius, H.E. 3, 39, 15). Papias seems to be contrasting Mark’s work with a gospel ‘in order’ and apostolic; probably he has John in mind. A view like that of Papias is expressed by Justin, about 150; he refers to a passage in Mark’s gospel as derived from Peter. The Petrine origin of Mark is also attested by Irenaeus and Clement of Alexandria, though Clement adds the statement that Peter neither commended nor disapproved of Mark’s work.

Clement’s caution may be due to the fact that in the second century Gnostics were especially fond of the gospel. The Carpocratians liked it because of its emphasis on secret teaching; followers of Basilides apparently used it to show that Simon of Cyrene, not Jesus, was crucified (reading Mark 15:21-4 with severe literalism). According to a letter of Clement discovered by Morton Smith, the Carpocratians had their own version of the gospel, while the church of Alexandria used not only the ordinary version but also an esoteric document based upon it.

It is obvious that neither Matthew nor Luke regarded the gospel as fully satisfactory, for while they incorporated most of it in their own writings they did not hesitate to improve its style, its arrangement and its theological ideas. Clement of Alexandria himself quoted from Mark in his lost, early Hypotyposes and in his sermon on wealth (of uncertain date), but he made no use of it in his major writings.

The textual problems of the Gospel of Mark occur primarily at the beginning and at the end, although throughout the gospel scribes have made additions in order to bring the book into closer conformity with Matthew and Luke. Indeed, it has been argued that some of these additions point towards the existence of two early editions of Mark’s work -- one the original version, usually reflected in the Alexandrian text, the other the version used by Matthew and Luke and often reflected in the text of Caesarea. This theory has the advantage of explaining how Matthew and Luke can agree against the Alexandrian text of Mark at points where they are using Mark as a source. The existence of various versions at Alexandria neither supports nor discredits this theory; but it remains only a possibility.

We have discussed the problems related to the beginning and the end in our chapter on textual criticism (Chapter 2). Here we should add only that the expression ‘beginning of the gospel’ has well been compared by A. P. Wikgren (Journal of Biblical Literature 61 [1942], 11-20. with Hebrews 5:12 -- ‘the elements of the beginning of the oracles of God’ -- and with a third-century papyrus which speaks of a ‘catechumen in the beginning of the gospel’. This comparison suggests that Mark 1:1 is the title of the book, which is a simple treatment of the gospel for converts. In Mark’s view the gospel is both what Jesus proclaimed (1:14-15; 8:35; 10:29) and what was proclaimed about him (13:10; 14:9). As for the end, a Greek sentence could be terminated with the word ‘for’, but a book would hardly conclude in this way -- especially since two predictions of resurrection appearances in Galilee (14:28; 16:7) are still unfulfilled. It must be that the original ending is lost; perhaps it underlies Matthew 28:9 -10 and 16-20.

The most distinctive feature of Mark’s vocabulary, syntax and style is its almost complete lack of distinction. Mark uses 1,270 words and has all but 79 of them in common with other New Testament writers; of these 79 words, 41 also occur in the Septuagint. He is fairly fond of using diminutives and words of Latin origin; both kinds of words are typical of colloquial speech. Similarly, he uses the verb ‘to be’, especially in the imperfect tense, with a participle, instead of other verbs in the imperfect; his usage thus resembles the English ‘he was going’ rather than the best Greek. He likes to crowd a sentence with participles, and he enjoys double negatives. Examples of the historical present occur 151 times, seventy-two of them with the verb ‘he says’ or ‘they say’. This usage gives his work a certain vividness, enhanced by twenty-six examples of ‘he began to’ or ‘they began to’. For connecting his sentences he usually contents himself with a simple ‘and’, although in forty-two instances he uses the word ‘euthus’, which can be translated as ‘immediately’, but may mean little more than ‘then’.

Both in his paragraph structure, such as it is, and even within sentences he is accustomed to write parenthetically. This is to say that he combines two thoughts or even narratives simply by placing one within the other.

Some features of his style can be explained as reflections of Aramaic tradition or thinking; in general, however, his manner of writing seems to be due to (1) his intention to report rather than to create, and (2) his training, or lack of it, which results in a style colloquial or ‘oral’ rather than literary.(An excellent summary in V. Taylor, The Gospel According to St. Mark [London, 1952]).

Most of the gospel consists of materials, apparently derived from, oral tradition, concerning what Jesus did and said. To some extent they are bound together by summaries which reflect the evangelist’s own view of these materials. In these summaries we find emphasis laid on preaching by Jesus (1:14-15; 39) and the twelve (6:12), on the work of healing and exorcism (1:34, 39; 3:10-11; 6:13, 56), and on the general reception of the gospel (1:45; 3:7-8, 11; 7:37). There is also a contrasting emphasis upon secrecy (1:34; 3:12; 4:33-4; 7:36) and on the future death and victory of Jesus (8:31-2; 9:30-1; 10:32-4).

No problem is created by the summaries of the first kind; they seem to be based directly upon the materials which Mark supplies. On the other hand, scholars have often regarded the summaries of the second kind as due either to Mark himself or to the tradition just prior to him. This view seems to be based upon the presupposition that Jesus’ work and teaching must have been entirely public; in addition, he cannot have anticipated his death and resurrection.

The motif of secrecy in Mark is a rather complex one. (1) It involves silence on the part of exorcised demons (1:25, 34; 3:12) and of men who have been cured (1:43-5; 5:43; 7:36, 8:26), as well as of the disciples themselves, who are to tell no one about Jesus as Messiah (8:30) or about the transfiguration 9:9 or even about his presence in Tyre (7:24) or his journey through Galilee (9:30). (2) It also involves ‘the secret of the kingdom of God’ (4:10-12) and secret or ‘private’ explanations of parables (4:34) and miracles (9:28), as well as revelations of the person of Jesus (9:2) and of things to come (13:3). To a considerable extent the full revelation is given only to the four disciples who were the first to be called (1:16-20, 29; 5:37; 9:2; 13:3; 14:33). Teaching about the passion and resurrection is given only ‘on the road’ apart from the multitudes (8:27; 9:33; 10:32).

Yet in spite of the fact that the disciples were given secret teaching, they failed to understand the intention of Jesus. They did not understand the parable of the sower (4:13, followed by an allegorical explanation; cf. 7:18); they did not know that Jesus could still a storm (4:40) or walk on the sea (6:49-51). They did not understand about the loaves in the feeding miracles (6:51; 8:14-21). They did not understand the predictions of death and resurrection; indeed, they did not even know what ‘resurrection’ was (9:10). They could not see how the rich could be saved (10:24, 26). Such ignorance was present not only among the disciples in general but also among the inner circle. Peter did not understand the passion prediction (8:32); James and John mistakenly asked for seats at the right and left of Jesus in his ‘glory’ (10:35-7).

This combination of revelation and ignorance must mean that, whatever Jesus’ disciples did or did not understand, Mark himself now does understand. He knows that they did not fully recognize who Jesus was or what he was doing and teaching. He does not explain how he himself received further illumination; but it seems fairly clear that it was the result of the resurrection. It may be suggested that he can emphasize the ignorance of the apostles only if he assumes that they have later come to understand. His emphasis upon the weakness and ignorance of Peter may be due to what Peter himself later said.

What Mark is trying to say is that the full meaning of Jesus was not understood during his ministry, and that some disciples understood him better than others did. He is also indicating that not all of Jesus’ teaching was intended for the public. It would be rash to suppose that Mark’s ideas are not in harmony with the actual historical situation.

It can hardly be denied, however, that Mark has imposed a certain measure of arrangement upon his materials. Our starting point for analysing this arrangement must be the central section of his book, where a singular parallelism exists.

6.33-7.37 8.1-26

five loaves, two fishes (6.38) seven loaves, a few fishes


twelve baskets full (6.43) seven baskets full (8.8)

5,000 fed (6.44) 4,000 fed (8.9)

in a boat to Bethsaida (6.45) in a boat to ‘Dalmanutha’

(8.10; the word may mean

‘of his own house’)

controversy with Pharisees controversy with Pharisees

(7.1-23) (8.11-12)

question of children’s bread; question of bread;

exorcism of demon (7.24-30) meaning of feedings

(8.13-2 i)

‘through Sidon’ (7.32; the to Bethsaida (8.22)

words may reflect ‘Bethsaida’)

healing of deaf and dumb healing of blind man

man by material means by material means (8.22-5)


injunction to secrecy (7.36) injunction to secrecy (8.26)

allusion to Isaiah 35.5-6 (no allusion, but ‘blind’ is

(7:37) in Is. 35.5)


In view of Mark’s explicit reference to the hidden meaning of the two feedings (8:17-21) we can hardly doubt that his arrangement is intentional. What does it mean? The two cycles of stories lead up to Peter’s recognition of Jesus as the Christ and to the story of the transfiguration which is the divine confirmation of this recognition (8:27- 9:1; 9:2-13; both accounts contain passion motifs). It must be that in Mark’s view the double sequence from feeding to restoration of hearing/speech and sight was ‘fulfilled’ in Peter’s recognition of Jesus. But like the blind man Peter did not gain clear vision immediately; he recognized the Christ but not the suffering of the Christ.

Once more, however, we should not maintain that everything about the arrangement is due to Mark’s literary work. A similar pattern, almost certainly independent of Mark, occurs in John. There the feeding of the five thousand (6:1-13) is followed by the people’s hailing Jesus as prophet and wanting to make him king (6:14-15), and after the discourse on the feeding Peter says, ‘We have believed and know that you are the Holy One of God’ (6:69). We conclude that the sequence feeding-recognition is traditional but that the careful way in which Mark has developed it is his own.

Mark has a definite tendency to tell similar stories in similar ways: he seems to avoid variation, probably because of the influence of oral tradition and because of the use, in preaching and teaching, of what was transmitted. Two synagogue scenes are practically identical (1:21-7; 6:1-2); the style of some of the exorcism stories is practically uniform (1:23-7; 5:2-20; cf. 4:39-41). Preparation for the triumphal entry (11:1-4, 6) is much the same as that for the paschal meal (14:13-14, 16).

Indeed, Austin Farrer has gone so far as to claim that Mark’s gospel consists of five ‘cycles’ in which we find (1) apostolic calling, (2) a healing miracle, (3) private teaching, and (4) public teaching -- though sometimes private teaching is replaced by enacted proclamation, or private and public teaching are reversed. The arrangement he recovers is as follows:

I. Mark 1.1-2.12, reiterated in a ‘little gospel’

2.15-3.12 foreshadowing

the great one;

II. Mark 3.13-6.6, reiterated in eight healings


III. Mark 7.1-37, reiterated in a continuation;


(8.27-9.!, an epilogue) three healings

IV. Mark 9.2-10.31, reiterated in the fulfilment of

10.32-13.2 the little gospel;

V. Mark 13.3-14.31, reiterated three healings

in 14.32-16.8


He finds the key to the gospel in the call of the apostles (though this is absent in 7:1). Farrer’s theory may be somewhat forced, but it represents an attempt to recognize the fact that as Mark compiled his materials he did not simply transmit them in a random pattern.

It may be, however, in view of the emphasis which Mark lays upon ‘secret epiphanies’ (Dibelius) or the revelation of the hidden God, that more should be made of the passage which Farrer treats as an epilogue to his third section. This passage (8:27 - 9:1) begins with a significant parallel to the account of the death of John the Baptist -- a story which, whatever its origin may be, is used by Mark as a prefiguration of the death of Jesus (8:27-8; 6:14-16). And it is in this passage that the meaning of Jesus’ mission first becomes clear. Peter acknowledges Jesus as the Christ, but the disciples are ordered not to tell anyone; instead, ‘he began to teach them that the Son of Man must suffer many things. . .’ This is not precisely an epilogue. Instead, it resembles what Aristotle (Poetics 11, 1-10) viewed as essential for the ‘middle’ of a tragedy. There should be a scene in which recognition of the hero results in the friendship of those destined for good fortune and the enmity of those destined for ill; ideally, there should also be a reversal of the hero’s circumstances and the story should go onward to his ‘passion’ or suffering. Obviously the gospel account does not exactly correspond with Aristotle’s analysis, and there is no reason to suppose that Mark had ever seen the Poetics. But the literary doctrine had powerfully influenced the popular storytelling of his time, and whether by chance or by intention Mark’s outline does combine recognition with reversal, at least as far as the disciples are concerned.

Very generally, we may proceed to use this scene as the fulcrum of the gospel and divide it into four main sections, with some subdivisions.

I. The Gospel of the Kingdom (1:1-4:34)

A. The proclamation of the gospel (1:1-45)

B. The reception of the gospel (2:1-3:35)

C. Teaching about the reception of the gospel (4:1-34)

II. The Inauguration of the Kingdom (4:35-8:26)

A. The incipient presence of the kingdom (4:35-5:43)

B. The rejection of the kingdom (6:1-29)

C. The kingdom anticipated (6:30-7:37; 8:1-26)

III. The Recognition of Jesus as the Christ (8:27-9:13)

IV. Through Death to Victory (9:14-16:8)

A. The way of the cross (9:14-10:52)

B. The Christ in Jerusalem (11-13)

C. The passion (14-15)

D. The resurrection (16:1-8)

This outline, we should claim, reflects Mark’s basic understanding of the mission of Jesus.

We should probably try to say something about the date of Mark’s gospel. The oldest clear evidence we possess on this subject comes from Irenaeus (Adv. haer. 3, 1, 1): ‘after their death [that of Peter and Paul], Mark, the disciple and interpreter of Peter, transmitted to us in writing what was preached by Peter.’ We are probably justified, then, in placing the gospel in the seventh decade of the first century.