The Modern Reader's Guide to the Gospels
by William Hamilton


In the winter of A.D. 64-65 a great fire broke out in Rome, and the emperor Nero looked around for someone to blame. He decided to accuse the Christians who were generally unpopular and were thought to harbor revolutionary ideas. A reign of terror followed; Peter and Paul were probably among the victims.

Shortly after this a little book appeared in Rome bearing the title "The Gospel of Jesus Christ." It was what we know as Mark's gospel, and we can guess at the motives which led to its appearance. Christians under persecution needed to be reminded of their Master and of the sufferings he had undergone. Especially now that the older generation who had known him was dying off, the remembered facts about Jesus needed to be set down.

Let us look at the historical situation at the time. Palestine is under Roman military and civil occupation. A priestly aristocracy (the Sadducees) is chiefly concerned to maintain its own privileged position under the Romans. The religious leaders (the Pharisees) have largely ceased to give an effective lead, and have become more and more absorbed in pious practices at the cost of the "weightier matters of the Law." The common people are neglected and depressed. Political agitators and religious fanatics are preaching violence. There are wild hopes in the air of revolution or of an approaching miraculous deliverance associated with the name of the coming Messiah or Christ. Forty years later, indeed, these pressures were to erupt into a disastrous war which would finish the Jewish state. At the time of which we are speaking, they are brewing.

 Into this scene Jesus entered. His answers to the question about the tax to Caesar (12:17) probably bothered the nationalists. His act of clearing the temple of money-changers upset the priests. His attitude to the Sabbath laws disturbed the pious Very few understood his association with the people outside the Jewish law-the publicans and sinners. Since he offended nearly everyone, it is not surprising that the Jewish authorities were able to agree to have him put out of the way.

As you read through The Gospel according to Mark, you will note that it is in the form of a series of episodes, loosely strung together. An episode may be told with a good deal of picturesque detail, but then the author is likely to pass on to something else quite abruptly with only a bare summary to show the interconnection. There is little in Mark that can be called continuous biographical narrative.

There is one exception. In Chapters 14 and 15-the so-called Passion story -- we find a continuous narrative, telling in detail how Jesus was seized by his enemies, tried and put to death. At first reading this Passion narrative seems simply to be the story of a good man, denied and deserted by his followers, trapped by religious leaders, condemned by a timid judge, and put to an ignominious death.

A second glance, however, at these critical chapters reveals that there is something more here than a tale of martyrdom. There is a mysterious undercurrent. For example, after the homely details of the preparation of the last supper with the disciples, we read the strange words, "this is my body," "this is my blood ... poured out for many." The death to come is said to be like a sacrifice, re-establishing a new set of relations between God and man. Again, in the garden of Gethsemane, Jesus says that God wants this execution to take place. Before the high priest, Jesus apparently declares that he is the Messiah, the Son of God, and adds something about the Son of man returning to the right hand of God. Finally, at the end, the "curtain of the temple was torn in two, from top to bottom." This curtain was what hid the presence of God from the people in the Jewish worship and Mark is apparently suggesting that in the death of Jesus there was something that removed the curtain and made God more accessible. Something deeper and more mysterious is going on, something to do with God's access to men and the deepest issues of human destiny.

Over and over again we hear of a "secret" that must be kept until the right time comes, a secret that seems to have something to do with God's rule over the world. The mystery of the kingdom of God, Mark calls it. It is also the secret of who Jesus really is. Teacher, prophet, reformer, leader? Yes, but what else? The question is put by Jesus himself to his disciples (8:27) in a scene which is evidently intended to be one of the highlights of the picture. The disciples partly understand and partly do not.

Jesus moves throughout this story almost incognito. He is always something more than appears. But although the actors in the story are barely half aware whom they are dealing with, Mark has already taken his readers into his confidence in the opening verses of the gospel. Here Jesus is contrasted with John the Baptist, here his "secret" is spoken by a divine voice which he alone hears. He is the supernatural Son of God. And soon we stumble upon his works of healing, done with a strange authority. Later we read words, scarcely understood at all by the disciples at the time, about the Son of man having to suffer and die, and be raised again. Who was this man, and what was happening through him? This is the question of the gospel, and to it we must now turn.