Glossary of Terms

The Gospel according to Mark



Harper’s Bible Dictionary

edited by Paul J. Achtemier (San Francisco: Harper and Row, 1985)

Mark, the Gospel According to, the Bible book believed by most (not all) scholars to be the earliest of the four nt Gospels. Thus, it was probably one of the sources used by the author of the Gospel of Luke (Luke 1:1) and was also used by the author of Matthew. Although the author remains unidentified in the Gospel itself, early tradition assigned it to Mark, a companion of the disciple Peter, who reportedly wrote down, in Rome, what he had heard Peter preach. The nature of the material in Mark, however, points to a period when it was circulated in oral form before the author collected it and wrote it down, so it is doubtful that Mark simply wrote down what he had heard Peter preach. Another early tradition identifies Alexandria in Egypt as the place of origin. Attempts to identify this Mark with person(s) who bore the name in other nt writings (Acts 12:12, 25; 15:37, 39; Col. 4:10; 2 Tim. 4:11; Philem. 24; 1 Pet. 5:13) are rendered less sure by the popularity of that name in Roman culture.


The Gospel According to Mark

Date and Origin: Because of reference to the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem (Mark 13:2), the date of composition may be around the time this event occurred, a.d. 70. Because it was written in Greek and interprets phrases in Aramaic (5:41; 7:34; 15:34), the language of Palestine, the original readers were not Palestinians. Explanation of Jewish customs (7:3-4) makes it equally likely that the original readers were Gentiles. Mark’s faulty knowledge of Palestinian geography (7:31) puts the place of origin outside Palestine as well. Beyond that, it is difficult to be precise about the origins of the Gospel. By failing to include any self-identification in the text, the author indicated that such information was unnecessary to understand the story contained in it.

The impetus that caused the author to assemble and order the individual traditions about Jesus for the first time may have been furnished by the (imminent) fall of Jerusalem, which some interpreted wrongly as signaling the return of Christ (13:6, 22). Increasing opposition to believers may also have played a role in prompting its composition (8:34-38; 13:9-13). Misinterpretation of individual traditions about what Jesus said and did, something which did occur in Paul’s congregations (see 1 Cor. 11:17-27), as well as popular misinterpretation of Jesus as head of a group of magicians (Mark 9:38; Acts 8:9-19) or of philosophers (Acts 17:16-20), may also have shown the need to place those traditions within an interpretative framework.

Jesus’ Identity: Whatever the motivation was for composing this Gospel, the author shaped the traditions in such a way that they told the story of a Jesus who could only be recognized for what he truly was, God’s own Son, after he had died on the cross. While the reader is informed of Jesus’ identity at the very outset of the narrative (1:1), an identity confirmed by a voice from Heaven (1:11; 9:7) and the outcry of demons (1:24; 5:7), that identity is kept secret until the moment of Jesus’ death. The crowds, the religious authorities, and even the disciples fail to comprehend Jesus’ true identity during his earthly career, despite the preaching and teaching he did and the miracles he performed. While Mark includes many traditions of miracles of Jesus, surprisingly enough they have little effect in leading people to a correct judgment about him. While trust in Jesus caused some to seek his miraculous help (5:23, 28; 10:47, 52), there is no indication that anyone was led to see Jesus as Son of God because of his miracles. The crowds, despite their enthusiasm for his miracles (1:33; 3:7-8) and teaching (4:1; 6:34), failed to identify him correctly, seeing in him a prophet (6:15) or a miracle worker (9:38) rather than God’s Son, the Messiah (Christ). The religious authorities, despite their acquaintance with the religious traditions that allowed them to comprehend the meaning of what Jesus did and said (12:1-12, esp. v. 12) and thus to identify correctly who he was (14:61), nevertheless refused to accept their own conclusions as valid and saw in Jesus rather a blasphemer deserving of death (14:63-64). The disciples, who accompanied Jesus, heard him teach, and saw his mighty acts, in the end failed to understand who Jesus was and, despite occasional flashes of insight (8:29) and pledges of undying loyalty (14:29-31), in the end deserted and actively denied him (14:50, 66-72), thus leaving him to face the taunts of his enemies (14:65; 15:29-32) and his painful death (15:34, 37) alone and deserted.

Because it is this death and the ensuing resurrection, however, that provide the key to understanding Jesus, the inability to understand who he is prior to those events is not accidental in the view of the author of Mark. To those apart from his twelve disciples and others who followed him closely, things occur in riddles, which they are unable to comprehend, despite what they see and hear (4:10-12). Those who have known Jesus from his youth—his family and close acquaintances—are similarly unable to understand him. His family regards him as unbalanced (3:21), and those with whom he grew up take offense at him (6:3). Religious authorities, whose murderous intent is clear from the outset (3:6), oppose him at every turn, thus demonstrating the religious system they represent to be unfruitful (11:13). If lack of understanding from such quarters might ordinarily be expected and hence would not prove divine intent, one would not expect it from the disciples; yet it was precisely the disciples who not only do not understand (4:13; 8:21; 9:6), but who are prevented from understanding (6:52; 8:17-18). Before his death on the cross, therefore, even those who are in daily association with Jesus are unable to comprehend him. Indeed, even their apparently correct confession is demonically tainted and does not share the divine intent for Jesus (8:29, 32-33). Only after his death on the cross can a human being understand Jesus as the Son of God (15:39). Only after his resurrection will the disciples finally understand Jesus against the background of his divine glory (see 9:9 in relation to 9:2-8).

All of this means that for Mark’s understanding of Jesus, the death on the cross was not a historical accident, but the direct will of God. Thus Jesus predicts three times the divine destiny that awaits him (‘the Son of man must suffer’) as well as the divine vindication (‘and after three days rise again’; 8:31; 9:31; 10:33-34). Therefore despite the lack of any record in Mark of appearances of the risen Jesus (16:9-20, absent from the oldest manuscripts, is a later addition compiled from information in the other Gospels), it is clear that Jesus’ prediction of his resurrection, like his predictions of his death, would surely be fulfilled (cf. 14:28; 16:7). Perhaps the absence of appearances of the risen Christ is Mark’s way of saying that until the return of Christ in glory (13:26-27; 14:62), an event that will come only after cosmic imbalances have occurred (13:24-25—hence the impossibility of predicting its occurrence on the basis of human events, even for Jesus himself; 13:32), life will continue to be marked by persecutions and suffering for Jesus’ followers (13:9-13), causing some to fall away (4:16-17).

Cross and Resurrection: Since for Mark the key to making sense of Jesus is his destiny of cross and resurrection, Mark’s Christology (i.e., his understanding of Jesus) is shaped by that same key point. While Jesus is clearly the royal Son whom God anointed (‘Christ’ means ‘anointed’) to be King (1:1, 11; 9:7; cf. Ps. 2:2-9), such titles cannot be understood apart from Jesus’ destiny in the cross and resurrection. Rather, the title the author has Jesus use to describe himself in terms of his destiny in this narrative is ‘Son of man.’ This title, which also has royal overtones (see Dan. 7:13-14), is nevertheless defined in Mark as being tied to Jesus’ destiny on the cross. It is used when Jesus predicts his Passion (8:31; 9:31; 10:33-34), his coming glory (14:62), and the purpose of his life (10:45). Because no human being can understand Jesus in that way before his crucifixion, no one uses the title except Jesus himself. While true estimates of Jesus may be given, they are not intended in an accurate sense by those who give them (Peter in 8:29-33; Pilate’s inscription in 15:26; the religious authorities in 15:32). Only after the cross, which for Mark is Jesus’ enthronement (the chief priests’ acknowledgment in 15:32 is ironic; they speak the truth without intending to), is it possible to recognize in him the Son of God (15:39). Thus Mark’s Christology stands also under the same interpretative rubric of cross and resurrection as does the rest of his narrative.

The author of Mark thus created a theologically rich narrative by combining earlier traditions about Jesus into a story for which he provided occasional summary statements (1:32-34; 3:7-12; 6:53-56). Sometimes the author placed similar traditions together (conflict stories, 2:1-3:6; parables, 4:1-34), sometimes he sandwiched one inside another (5:21-43; 11:12-25), and sometimes he combined them into repeated cycles (8:31-9:8; 9:30-41; 10:33-52, which contain a prediction of Jesus’ fate, the failure of disciples to understand, instructions on discipleship, and a proof of Jesus’ exceptional nature). In that way, the author made his points more by the way in which he positioned the earlier traditions than by writing his own narrative material. Perhaps he felt constrained to use the earlier traditions in such a way that his readers would recognize in his narrative familiar elements of the career of Jesus and so would be more inclined to accept this narrative. The result nevertheless shows the composer to have been a person of powerful theological understanding who told the story of Jesus in the light of Jesus’ fate in the cross and resurrection.

Bibliography Achtemeier, Paul J. Mark. Proclamation Commentaries. Edited by G. Krodel. Philadelphia: Fortress, 1975. Eusebius. The Ecclesiastical History. Translated by K. Lake. Loeb Classical Library. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1965 (see index for references to ‘Mark’). Kingsbury, Jack D. The Christology of Mark’s Gospel. Philadelphia: Fortress, 1983.

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