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So today I would like to talk the Gospel of Mark. Mark’s been popping up in various books I’ve been reading, from Cold Case Christianity to Reading Mark In Context: Jesus and Second Temple Judaism. And it features significantly on the NT Pod, a fantastic podcast I’ve found that explores the New Testament texts and historical Jesus. For all of these resources, 10/10 would recommend.
Anyway, to Mark.
It’s a strange little book. Most scholars agree it was the earliest gospel, appearing somewhere in the 50 years after Jesus died. Most likely, the writers of Matthew and Luke read and were familiar with Mark, and decided to paint a more complete picture with their own gospels (possibly with the help of another document.)
It has no birth narrative — Jesus just jumps on the scene & is baptized, something that both Matthew and Luke take 3 chapters to lead up to. By the end of Mark chapter 1, Jesus already has a thriving preaching ministry, along with healings and demon-casting.
In Mark, Jesus’s overarching characteristic is he’s the authoritative Christ. But before he lifts a single finger, notice that in the 1st half of Mark 1, the writer sets up Jesus’s reputation by some very important people: First, prophecy from the OT identifies and gives authority to John, then John speaks about how Jesus is greater than him, then when Jesus is being baptized, God himself speaks. Jesus ran on the scene in Mark’s gospel, but he doesn’t actually speak until verse 15.
Mark spends most of the rest of his gospel detailing Jesus’ confrontations with the Pharisees and performing miracles and healings, setting up the idea that’s he’s come to establish a totally new, better thing that what the Pharisees were doing. And he means to prove it by miracles. Lots of miracles.
Know what he doesn’t do a whole lot of? Actual teaching.
Don’t get me wrong. There’s some. But there’s not NEARLY as much as in Matthew or Luke. Check out Mark 6: the narrative just recalls the account of feeding the 5 thousand without detailing any of the teachings Jesus taught in this marathon sermon.
By chapter 13, Mark has covered Jesus’s ministry and the focus turns to the crucifixion narrative. Chapters 14-16 cover the death and resurrection of Jesus.
Here’s where Mark falls more in line with the other gospels: If we take the Plot to Kill Jesus as our starting place, Mark uses 3 chapters to tell the crucifixion & resurrection events. Luke uses 3 chapters, too. Matthew uses…hey guess what, 3 chapters. John is off doing his own thing but he mostly uses 4 chapters.
If you consider that Matthew & Luke are over 24 chapters, and Mark only 16, that’s a much greater percentage of Mark’s gospel that’s being used for the crucifixion and resurrection narrative. This means Mark really, really wants us to pay attention to this part in Jesus’s life and message.
Mark’s Jesus is active, authoritative, and crucified.
But then let’s check out the end Mark. In this post, I covered how a bunch of different bibles covered the problem of Mark 16.
Basically, you have 3 different endings of Mark in old manuscripts. The oldest manuscripts and some important Greek translations only have up to verse 8. What’s covered in those 8 verses, you ask? The women enter the tomb to see an angel, who tells them to go tell Peter that Jesus said to meet him in Galilee. What do the women do? They flee and say nothing to anyone, and the book closes with “for they were afraid.” No ascension narrative at all, no great commission, not even any male disciples.
A tad…underwhelming, many think. And obviously someone thought it enough that some translations have additional endings which were probably later additions. Here’s an ending from an early manuscript:
Then they quickly reported all these instructions to those around Peter. After this, Jesus himself also sent out through them from east to west the sacred and imperishable proclamation of eternal salvation. Amen.
And then there’s the longer ending, probably the one in your bible, that details Jesus appearing to the disciples and commanding them to go out and preach the gospel, then going up to sit at the right hand of God.
It’s pretty understood the fuller narrative was a later addition, probably to bring it more in line with Matthew and Luke, but one of the questions I’ve been wondering is why did the original writer feel that ending of Mark was sufficient? It’s probably a silly question because, Matthew and Luke not being written til later, of course the original audience HAD to settle for what they got, because the longer (eh, better?) endings hadn’t been written yet. Ok, so maybe the better question is, how did Mark want us to feel at the end of Mark? What did he want us to understand, learn, do with the information given?
Probably by the time Mark was written, the fledgling Christian church was experiencing some major persecution at the hands of the Romans. The Jewish faith was protected by Rome, and for a while Christianity was seen as a sect within Judaism, which meant it was offered the same protections. But eventually people started to consider Christianity outside of Judaism and that left it unprotected & subject to some major persecution. There’s no wonder, then, that Mark’s Jesus both rebels against the Jewish authorities and suffers tremendously. Perhaps the conclusion of Mark is not focusing on our everlasting hope, but on the much more physical need that Jesus is a full person who suffered extreme persecution, just like you. The powers of hell thought they had won, just like in your own life, maybe. But don’t worry, by Sunday, that grave was empty.
Maybe I’ll chat more about this if you find it interesting; let me know in the comments.