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 An introduction to Mark's Gospel

 Peter Williams

What is a Gospel?
Who was Mark?
When was Mark written?
Whom was Mark aimed at?
How reliable is Mark’s account?
How reliable are the copies we possess?
Why was Mark written?
Who is Jesus according to Mark?
Why does Mark say Jesus came?
What does Jesus’ death mean according to Mark?
What does Jesus’ resurrection mean according to Mark?

What is a Gospel?

Though the word gospel meant ‘good news’ and referred to the content of the Christian message, the word very quickly also came to be used for narratives of Jesus’ life. The four gospels, Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, all contain a selective account of Jesus’ life, focussing on the events surrounding his crucifixion and the empty tomb.

Who was Mark?

Mark or, to give him his full name, John Mark was a Jew who possessed both a Jewish name, John, and a Roman name, Mark. He lived in Jerusalem by around AD 42. His mother was called Mary (the commonest name for Jewish women), and his cousin was the early Christian leader Barnabas, who had lived in Cyprus. As a young man Mark accompanied Barnabas and the apostle Paul on a mission trip, but appears to have dropped out. However, in later life he continued to work with Paul and with Peter. He was the apostle Peter’s interpreter in Rome in the early 60s of the first century and thereafter went to Alexandria in Egypt. He is best known through the Gospel he wrote.

When was Mark written?

Mark was probably written in the mid-60s. Early sources suggest that he was writing it while Peter (who was martyred by AD 67) was in Rome and this timescale fits well with what is known of Mark’s own career. Later dates in the 70s are sometimes given, and one scholar, the atheist James Crossley of Sheffield University, puts the writing of Mark’s Gospel between 35 and 45.

Whom was Mark aimed at?

Mark assumes that the very earliest audience may recognize the names Alexander and Rufus as the sons of Simon of Cyrene, who carried Jesus’ cross (15:21). Thus Mark is probably writing for people about one generation after the events. From the fact that he needs to explain Jewish customs and points of the language of Palestine we also find out that he is writing for non-Jews outside Palestine.

How reliable is Mark's account?

Mark’s account is based on eyewitness testimony and possesses many of the hallmarks of a reliable account: it tells the story of the early Christians ‘warts and all’, not covering over the failures of the disciples, or the embarrassment and shame of the crucifixion of their leader. The place names, personal names, knowledge of local language, customs, and geography all support the view that this is a reliable account. For further details click here.

How reliable are the copies we possess?

The earliest substantial copy of Mark’s Gospel that we possess is kept in Dublin and dates from around AD 225. The earliest complete copy is from around a century later and is in London. Images of the whole of Mark’s Gospel are available at: http://www.codexsinaiticus.org. The gap between either of these manuscripts and the writing of Mark’s Gospel is considerably less than the gap between most Greek and Latin works and the earliest copy we possess. Christianity spread widely in a short time and consequently copies of Christian books were made in many locations and the ancient copies we now possess have come from many countries through many different routes. This, combined with the fact that by the end of the second and early third centuries Mark was being translated into other languages (Latin, Syriac, and Coptic), makes it difficult to envisage a time when someone could have conspired to change the Gospel without leaving traces of their work to modern scholars. The two earliest complete Greek copies and the earliest translations end at 16:8, but many copies have a further twelve verses after that. The majority of scholars believe that the Gospel concluded at 16:8 and that the twelve-verse section after that was added before the middle of the second century AD. The pattern of manuscripts and translations including or excluding this twelve-verse section is sufficiently complex as to demonstrate that no similar textual disturbance has happened elsewhere in Mark’s Gospel and that the outline of the Gospel has remained unchanged since the first century.

Why was Mark written?

Mark was written to inform people about Jesus: his teaching, his deeds, and, especially, his identity. Although Mark informs readers of the identity of Jesus in the first verse of his Gospel, he also recounts how it took the disciples and others a long time to realize who Jesus was. In fact he specifically emphasizes how Jesus was secretive about his own mission and identity, though he revealed more to his inner circle of friends (the disciples). This is often called the Messianic Secret. Each of his actions and sayings carefully revealed more about him, until half way through the Gospel, Peter realizes that Jesus is the Messiah. It then takes the rest of the Gospel to explain that the Messiah is not a victorious conqueror in the way that people expected, but someone who was going to save people by dying a shameful death.

Who is Jesus according to Mark?

Jesus is God’s son and the long awaited saviour, called Messiah by the Jews. Messiah, translated into Greek, gives us the word Christ. God’s son could not be understood by Jews to mean a lesser god, since they knew there was only one God—God’s son is in fact God himself. That’s why Jesus can forgive sins, when only God can do that (2:7). It is also why Mark can quote prophecies about a messenger being sent in front of God and apply them to a messenger being sent in front of Jesus (1:2–3). Jesus is Messiah because he is the one that people have had to wait for, and he is the only one who can rescue humans. However, Jesus’ identity as God’s son and as Messiah would be so liable to misunderstanding if they were revealed at once, that Jesus deliberately keeps his identity secret, seeking to minimize the publicity given to miracles while he focuses on teaching the twelve disciples.

Why does Mark say Jesus came?

Mark’s Gospel tells us that Jesus did not come to help people who think they are good, but to help people who do bad things (2:17). Jesus describes himself as a doctor, who, of course, spends time with ill people, not ones who are well. Jesus then explains that he came to give up his life (10:45).

What does Jesus’ death mean according to Mark?

Jesus’ death is the focal point in Mark’s Gospel. When Jesus gave up his life, he paid the price (in blood; 14:24) to buy many people back to God (10:45). Jesus came to die to save people who do bad things, by paying the punishment of suffering and death which they deserve for the bad things they have done.

What does Jesus’ resurrection mean according to Mark?

His death looks like defeat, but in fact is the way to victory, as is shown by the fact that three days later he rises from the dead (16:6). The resurrection shows that Jesus did pay fully the penalty for the sins of the bad people he came to rescue. This means that they do not have to be punished for their sins, but can be forgiven.

© Peter J. Williams 2008
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