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Article Info:
published: 3/17/04
updated: 8/14/14

The Gospel of Mark

Facts on the Book of Mark

St. Mark's symbol is the winged lion.

The Book of Mark is the 2nd book in the Christian New Testament and is one of the four gospels. It is traditionally held that John Mark wrote the gospel using the Simon Peter's eye-witness accounts, since Mark likely a young man during the life and ministry of Jesus Christ and was not an apostle.

The gospel is 16 chapters long and is considered by many to be the first of the four gospels written, commonly dated to the mid 50's AD, but it is sometimes dated more generally to any time before 70 AD.

Mark was likely written from Rome and written to Romans, but more broadly, Gentiles. The purpose of the gospel is to present Jesus Christ to Gentiles and to encourage believers to endure and persevere in the face of persecution and perhaps even martyrdom.

The emphasis of Mark revolves around significant event in the life of Christ, such as his crucifixion and suffering. Jesus as teacher and his followers as disciples are also key to the gospel's message.

Characteristics of Mark

Mark is a short, succinct and fast-moving narrative, often using words like "immediately." Mark's narrative has 16 chapters and begins not at Jesus' birth, as in the book of Matthew and and the book of Luke, but at Jesus' baptism as an adult. Mark's central themes are the death of Jesus, discipleship, Jesus as teacher, Jesus as the Son of God and the "messianic secret."

Although the Gospel of Mark was circulated under the name kata markon ("According to Mark") at a relatively early date, the first sentence of the gospel may well have been intended as its title. Mark 1:1 is an incomplete sentence that sounds much like a title: "The beginning of the gospel about Jesus Christ." Because a similar phrase is found in Hebrews 5:12 ("the elements of the beginning of the oracles of God") and in a third-century papyrus which speaks of a "catechumen in the beginning of the gospel," it is possible that Mark was intended as a simple introduction to Jesus' life and sayings for new converts. {1}

As he was most likely the first gospel writer, "Mark is really the one that sets the stage for all the later Christian gospel writings." {2} So where did the author of Mark get the idea for the "gospel" genre? The gospels were written in Greek, so one probably answer is that the popular Greek biographical romance had an influence on the gospel writers.

However, it also has been suggested that Mark was primarily influenced by the narrative cycles in 1 and 2 Kings in the Old Testament: "It is a striking fact that almost everything Jesus is reported as doing in Mark has parallels in these cycles, which it is plain had a great influence on the writer. Indeed, the shadow of Elijah or Elisha falls on almost every page of the Gospel of Mark." {3}

Content and Themes of the Book of Mark

The messianic secret is one of the most notable themes of the Gospel According to Mark. Mark's Jesus is a secretive and mysterious figure. He teaches his disciples in secret, he commands those he has healed not to tell anyone, he commands demons to be quiet when they begin to announce his identity, and his disciples seem to rarely understand what Jesus is talking about.

We can only speculate what led the author of the book of Mark to emphasize this theme, but one possibility is that he wished to correct current misunderstandings about Jesus, especially in light of the Jewish Revolt of 66-70 AD and the destruction of the Temple. "Why had it all happened? What had gone wrong? Why was Jerusalem destroyed? Mark tells the story in such a way to make sense out of that." {4}

Another reason Mark may have emphasized the messianic secret is to demonstrate that the messiah must suffer and die, which was contrary to the expectations of the vast majority of Jesus' followers. In Mark, Jesus' disciples witness his miracles and listen to his wisdom and correctly identify him as the messiah, but they never expect him to be executed at a young age. So now that Jesus has died, Mark may be trying to show that this fact is not so incongruous as it seems. With this interpretation, "the messianic secret of Jesus is that he is the son of man who has come to suffer and not the Messiah who is going to do great miracles." {5}

Another major emphasis of Mark is the death of Jesus. Of course, all four gospel writers devote significant time to the last days of Jesus. In Mark, though, Jesus' death seems to be absolutely central to the entire gospel.

Indeed, the gospel of Mark is really about the death of Jesus and the hope of his return when God brings an end to the present evil age. {6}

Finally, it is interesting to note that Mark's gospel does not include an account of the resurrection. It does include a sighting of the empty tomb, but ends on a rather disconcerting note. "Two women enter the tomb, and they see a young man dressed in white. He explains that Jesus has been raised, and he instructs the women to tell Peter and the other disciples. The women flee in terror." {7} In the earliest manuscripts, Mark's narrative ends there. The more upbeat ending that now appears in the New Testament was added by a later editor.

St. Mark writes his gospelAuthor of the Book of Mark

Early Christian authors, including Papias, Irenaeus, the author of the Muratorian Canon, Clement of Alexandria, Tertullian, Origen, and Jerome, were unanimous in attributing this gospel to a "Mark" who was a close associate of the Apostle Peter. {8}

The most complete external evidence for Mark's authorship and his association with Peter comes in the church historian Eusebius, who quotes Papias (c. 60-130 AD), a bishop of Hierapolis in Asia Minor, as writing:

Mark, having become the interpreter of Peter, wrote down accurately whatsoever he remembered. It was not, however, in exact order that he related the sayings or deeds of Christ. For he neither heard the Lord nor accompanied Him. But afterwards, as I said, he accompanied Peter, who accommodated his instructions to the necessities [of his hearers], but with no intention of giving a regular narrative of the Lord's sayings. Wherefore Mark made no mistake in thus writing some things as he remembered them. For of one thing he took especial care, not to omit anything he had heard, and not to put anything fictitious into the statements. {9}

In addition, Justin Martyr quotes a passage from the book of Mark that he attributes to "the memoirs of Peter," {10} and in Acts 10:34-40, Peter's speech reflects the Gospel of Mark in "beginning in Galilee after the baptism that John preached."

It is significant that although Mark's gospel has always been associated with the Apostle Peter, there does not seem to have been any tendency to call the work the "Gospel According to Peter." (The same is true for Luke's connection with the Apostle Paul.) This increases the likelihood that Mark was actually the author, as "it is unlikely that the early church would have assigned a gospel to a minor figure like John Mark unless he were in fact its author, since the books of the New Testament normally required authorship by an apostle to qualify for acceptance in the canon." {11}

It is generally agreed that this Mark is the same person as the John Mark mentioned in Acts (see 12:12, 12:25, 13:5, 13:13, 15:36). Traditionally, Mark's gospel is based on Peter's preaching, which was tailored to address the needs of various Christian communities and therefore not in narrative form. {12} This may be why Papias notes that Mark did not write down the events of Jesus' life "in exact order." Mark probably also used extant collections of miracle stories and sayings of Jesus to weave together his gospel.

The Book of Mark's Date of Composition

Most scholars date the Gospel of Mark to sometime between 60 AD and 80 AD. It was probably the earliest of the four gospels and a source used by Matthew and Luke. The oldest clear evidence we have on regarding the date comes from Irenaeus of Lyons, who wrote in the second century:

.after their death [Peter and Paul], Mark, the disciple and interpreter of Peter, transmitted to us in writing what was preached by Peter." {13}

Peter probably died around 65 AD, so if Irenaeus is right, then Mark was written after this time. {14} If Irenaeus was not correct, it may not have been composed much earlier because oral tradition would have had to develop. {15}

An additional consideration is that Mark 13 may reflect the Jewish War and the resulting destruction of the temple, which occurred in 70 AD. Many scholars conclude from this that Mark had to have been written after 70 AD:

.there is a consensus about when he wrote: he probably composed his work in or about the year 70 CE, after the failure of the First Jewish Revolt and the destruction of the Jerusalem Temple at the hands of the Romans. That destruction shapes how Mark tells his story. {16}

Of course, this argument would not be convincing to Christians who believe in the divine aspect of Jesus' teachings and the inspiration of the New Testament. For such believers, Jesus could have predicted an event that had not yet occurred, so Mark could be dated earlier than 70 AD.

An alternative non-supernatural explanation is that Mark's apocalyptic events and emphasis on suffering refer to the persecutions under Nero from 64-67. {17} If one accepts the theory that Matthew and Luke used Mark as a source for their gospels, then the latest date Mark could have been written in about 80 AD, as the other gospels are generally dated to the last decades of the first century.

The Book of Mark's Place of Origin

Since it often explains Jewish customs and translates Aramaic words, Mark's Gospel was probably written for a Gentile audience. More specifically, it is likely that it was intended for Rome and occasioned by Nero's persecutions of 64-67 AD. Suffering and radical discipleship are major themes in Mark's Gospel. {18}

Mark is generally thought to have been written in Rome, for several reasons:

  • The intended audience is clearly Gentile, as Mark often explains Jewish terms and customs (e.g., 7:3f., 11:13, 12:42)
  • The intended audience seems to have been experiencing persecution (see 8:34-38, 10:38f., 13:9-13)
  • Peter is believed to have spent the last part of his life in Rome
  • The Anti-Marcionite Prologue, Irenaeus and Clement of Alexandria all state that Mark was written in Rome. {19}
  • Other New Testament books place John Mark in Rome at the same time (e.g. 2 Timothy 4:11). {20}
  • The author of Mark apparently had no first-hand knowledge of Palestine (7:31 and 11:1 are geographical errors) {21}
  • Association with the Roman church would explain its authoritative position in the early church {22}

However, others have suggested a different provenance for Mark, such as Antioch, Syria {23} or Alexandria, Egypt.

The Book of Mark's Style

"The most distinctive feature of Mark's vocabulary, syntax and style is its almost complete lack of distinction." {24} All but 79 of the words used in Mark are used elsewhere in the New Testament and the author's Greek is not impressive. However, there are some distinguishing characteristics in the author's style that may be of interest:

  • Regular use of dimunitives and words of Latin origin (common in colloquial speech)
  • Prefers to use the imperfect tense of the verb "to be" with a participle rather than the imperfect tense of verbs (e.g., "he was going")
  • Regular use of double negatives
  • The historical present is used 151 times
  • Uses "he began to" or "they began to" 26 times
  • Most sentences start with the word "and," but the Greek word translated as "immediately" or "then" is used 46 times. {25}

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  1. Robert M. Grant, "The Gospel of Mark." A Historical Introduction to the New Testament (Harper & Row, 1963), citing A. P. Wikgren, Journal of Biblical Literature 61 (1942), 11-20.
  2. L. Michael White, "The Gospel of Mark: A Story of Secrecy and Misunderstanding." From Jesus to Christ: The Story of the Storytellers. PBS Frontline, 1998.
  3. Edgar Goods peed, "The Gospel of Mark."
  4. White, op. cit.
  5. Helmut Koester, "Jesus in Mark: The Messianic Secret." From Jesus to Christ: The Story of the Storytellers. PBS Frontline, 1998.
  6. Marilyn Mellowes, "The Gospel of Mark." From Jesus to Christ: The Story of the Storytellers. PBS Frontline, 1998.
  7. Ibid.
  8. Unknown.
  9. Ecclesiastical History, 3.39.
  10. Dialogue with Trypho, 106.3.
  11. Ronald F. Youngblood, ed., "Mark, Gospel of." Nelson's New Illustrated Bible Dictionary (Thomas Nelson Publishers, 1995), p. 800.
  12. Kenneth Barker, ed., "Mark." NIV Study Bible (Zondervan, 1985), p. 1490.
  13. Against Heresies 3.1.1.
  14. "We are probably justified, then, in placing the gospel in the seventh decade of the first century." Grant, op. cit.
  15. Nineham, 41.
  16. Marilyn Mellowes, "The Gospel of Mark." Frontline.
  17. "Mark." NIV Study Bible (Zondervan, 1995), p. 1490.
  18. Ibid.
  19. Ibid.
  20. "The Synoptic Gospels," NIV Study Bible (Zondervan, 1995), p. 1437.
  21. Dennis Nineham, St. Mark, p. 43.
  22. Ibid.
  23. Reginald Fuller, A Critical Introduction to the New Testament, p. 107.
  24. Grant, op. cit.
  25. Ibid.
Books on the Gospel of Mark

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