This calendar year, I’m reading through the Bible and taking informal notes on the readings. Since we so often read verses and passages and passages of the Bible without appreciating context, I’m especially focusing on the overall narrative and connections among passages.
This week I’m studying Mark. Back in the fall of 1981, I was a grad assistant for a lecture course on Mark at Albertus Magnus College, a women’s college at the time. The margins of my old Bible are filled with interesting insights that the professor offered during that course.
I had not thought of Mark, for instance, as a rather “dark” gospel. The story is framed by two declarations of Jesus as the (or a) Son of God, the first verse, and … the regretful declaration of the centurion who watched Jesus die (15:39). If you knew nothing about Jesus, you might ask, What kind of “good news” (1:1) is this?
Furthermore, Jesus’ identity is a matter of some mystery. Very early in the account, the powers that be want to destroy him (3:6), and his own friends and family consistently fail to understand him. Those who are on the “outside” (the demon-possessed, other Gentiles like that Roman soldier) do understand him. Some would like to proclaim Jesus, but he tells them to stay quiet (3:12), reflecting a theme of what scholars have called “the Messianic secret” in Mark (1:25, 34, 44, 3:12, 5:19, 43, 7:36, 8:30, 9:9, 16:7). Nearly from the beginning of the Gospel, Jesus creates misunderstanding and confusion.
At the end, Jesus’ own followers let him down. “And they all forsook him, and fled,” reads 15:50. (During that 1981 class, I wrote in the margin, “Now they understand!” That is, they realized that following Jesus would indeed involve suffering and possibly death, and at this stage they fled such a prospect.) Like the other gospels, Jesus’ women friends and relatives are most loyal to him (15:40). But the gospel ends with them, too, running away in fear (16:8). The somewhat abrupt beginning of Mark is framed with an abrupt ending.
Of course, we know now that the risen Jesus did appear to his followers and friends, male and female, and they gained new faith and courage. But if you just read Mark “cold” for the first time, you might scratch your head at the gospel’s sadness and irony. In her book The Reluctant Parting, Julie Galambush suggests that Mark's community may have been in a crisis situation during the dark times of the revolt against Rome in 67-73 CE.
As I wrote a few posts ago, a favorite book from my college religion courses was Gospel Parallels, which lays out the Synoptic Gospels—Mathew, Mark, and Luke—in order to show textual similarities and differences. Over 90% of Mark’s gospel is also found in Matthew and Luke, and the latter two gospels have material in common that is not found in Mark: the so-called “Q” material (likely meaning “Quelle,” the German word for “source”). Matthew and Luke also have material unique to their own gospels, implying other sources that they used.
A basic outline of Mark:
The beginning of Jesus’ story, John the Baptist, Jesus’ baptism, and the wilderness temptation (1:1-13). There are no “Christmas stories” here.
Jesus’ ministry in Galilee (1:14-9:50)
Jesus’ miracles of healing
His teaching about the Sabbath, fasting, his true kindred
His parables (chapter 5)
Other miracles like the thousands fed, the walk upon the sea, the healing of the Gentile woman’s daughter, and others
The Transfiguration, and Jesus’ teachings about his death and resurrection
Jesus and his group journey to Jerusalem (10:1-52)
Jesus’ final week (11:1-16:8)
The Palm Sunday entry
The cursed fig tree
The temple incident
Disputes with Sadducees and Pharisees
The Apocalyptic Discourse
The Last Supper and Gethsemane
Jesus’ arrest, trial, execution, death, and resurrection
A later addition to Mark’s gospel, including extra teaching to the disciples by the risen Jesus (16:9-20)
In his Writings of the New Testament, Luke T. Johnson points out that we don’t really know Mark’s identity's community, and the reasons why he wrote (p. 148). While we an figure out that Mark was the major source for Matthew and Luke, we don’t know Mark’s sources (p. 149). My old Harper’s Study Bible suggests the traditional idea that Peter the disciple who informed Mark, and that Mark may have been the young man strangely referred to in 14:50-51.
Johnson (I keep wanting to call him “Luke,” because that’s what all of us students of his call him) notes that Mark has an triadic “architectonic principle”: things appear in threes, like the three seed parables (4:3-32), three sets of public opinion (6:14-15, 8:27-28), three predictions of Jesus’ suffering (8:31, 9:31, 10:33-34), and of course Peter’s three details (14:66-72) (p. 151).
Johnson discusses several aspects of Mark’s structure (pp. 151-153). But one very key turning point is the declaration of Jesus’ identity by Peter (8:27-30), followed by the Transfiguration (9:1-7). At this point in the story, the assurance that Jesus is the Son of God connects with the opening verse, the centurion’s realization, and also Jesus’ own declaration in 14:62 (pp. 152-153).
The original ending of Mark seems to be 16:8, attested to by the earliest manuscripts. The longer ending of 16:9-20 does give us a famous verse about snake-handling.
I like Johnson’s ideas about Mark’s gospel: “Mark’s readers would naturally, as we still do, identify themselves with the disciples. Mark therefore uses that relationship to teach his readers. The message is mainly one of warning against smugness and self-assurance. He seems to be saying ‘If you think you are an insider, you may not be; if you think you understand the mystery of the kingdom and even control it, watch out; it remains alive and fearful beyond your comprehension. If you think discipleship consists in power because of the presence of God, beware; you are called to follow the one who suffered and died. Your discipleship is defined by his messiahship, in terms of obedience and service’” (p. 158).
A wonderful, always timely warning and reminder.