Bible Study Guide: Mark

What makes Mark unique?

There are several characteristics that make the Gospel of Mark unique. Too often, these special characteristics are overlooked because Mark is read in light of the other synoptic gospels (Matthew and Luke), or John, or even the letters of Paul.

  • Although still debated by some, the consensus among the majority of biblical scholars is that the Gospel of Mark was the first of the canonical Gospels to appear. Consequently, it served as a source for the authors of Matthew and Luke when they wrote their Gospels. Moreover, although the Gospel of Mark was probably not the first Christian text to be labeled as "gospel," it is likely the first gospel to utilize a narrative structure (versus, for example, a "sayings" gospel).

  • The author of Mark places sharp emphasis on the humanity of Jesus. This is best seen perhaps with respect to Jesus' suffering. In fact, the suffering of Jesus is the key to understanding Jesus' true identity as the Messiah, Son of God, and Son of Man (see e.g., 8:31-33; 9:30-31; and 10:33-34, et al.).

  • In Mark, faith is a gift of God; characters in the narrative either have it or they don't. Furthermore, miracles do not lead to faith (compare the Gospel According to John), but rather, faith is required in order that miracles can take place (see e.g., 6:1-6).
  • Many readers of Mark have recognized for a long time the negative manner in which Mark portrays the disciples (including the authors of Matthew and Luke who "corrected" Mark's treatment in various ways). The disciples in Mark come across as dimwitted, misguided, and selfish, rather than as Jesus' privileged associates and great apostles of the church. There are a number of ways to interpret this. For instance, perhaps Mark meant to depict them as "fallible followers" and thus give his readers hope when they struggle to understand and follow Jesus. On the other hand, the author of Mark may well have had an axe to grind with the leaders of the church in his day.

  • Readers of Mark have also noticed Jesus' frequent commands to silence and his efforts to hide his identity. This motif has often been referred to as the "Messianic secret." Whether it is a historical representation or a literary construction of the author is a matter of debate. Regardless of which position one takes, however, the theme poses interesting challenges for interpretation. One important outcome of the Messianic secret in Mark is that it allows for a provocative use of irony on the part of the author. Since the reader does, in fact, know who Jesus really is, she/he can immediately grasp the ironic twist when, for instance, Jesus is identified on the cross as the "King of the Jews."

Why was Mark written?

The author of Mark likely wrote this Gospel for a community of Christians who was experiencing persecution and suffering (see e.g., 4:16-17; 8:34-38; 9:42-48; 10:17-31, 38-39; and 13:9-13). The Christology of the Gospel According to Mark is corrective insofar as it aims to demonstrate the necessity of Jesus' suffering, as well as that of the community itself. "Jesus is presented as a paradigm of the way in which his disciples, including the Markan audience, should endure suffering" (Marcus, 29). Whereas so many people of the period were anticipating a powerful and victorious warrior-Messiah who would overthrow the Roman Empire, Mark presents Jesus as the Son of God whose destiny it was to suffer the fate of the Son of Man, i.e., to die. However, Jesus suffers innocently and is therefore vindicated by God. Likewise, although believers suffer unfairly at the hands of their oppressors, God will vindicate them as well.

What's the story behind the scene?

Mark was written anonymously either just before or very shortly after the fall of Jerusalem and the destruction of the temple in 70 CE. The earliest surviving statement regarding the authorship of this Gospel comes from Papias in 140 CE, who said it was written by someone named Mark, who was not himself an eyewitness of Jesus, but had been the "interpreter" of the apostle Peter (cf. 1 Peter 5:13; Acts 12:12). The problem with this notion is that it begs the question of why Peter would be depicted so negatively throughout the gospel narrative. Given the date of origin, it is important to remember that Chapter 13 (Mark's "Little Apocalypse") is not simply a collection of vague predictions about some distant future event, but rather a reflection of very real turmoil in the midst of the revolt of the Jews living in Palestine against the Roman imperialist occupation in 66-73 CE, also known as the Jewish War. Mark's Gospel is full of apocalyptic overtones, but these are juxtaposed to a message of suffering discipleship.

How is Mark constructed?

When thinking about the structure of Mark, it is absolutely essential to keep in mind that it is a story. In other words, although there is an argument being made in Mark, the author does so by means of a plot rather than through a series of propositions. As a result, there is a significant amount of overlap as themes and motifs are interwoven throughout the narrative. With that in mind, it is nevertheless clear that, aside from the prologue (1:1-13), Mark can be easily divided into two halves (1:14 - 8:30 and 8:31 - 16:8), which pivot on Peter's confession (8:27-30). Prior to the confession, Jesus is a mighty miracle worker performing healings and exorcisms and teaching with profound authority. After the confession, the mood and tone of the Gospel shifts significantly. It is in the second half that we find all three of Jesus' predictions regarding his imminent death (8:31-33; 9:30-31; and 10:33-34). In light of this transition, and with respect to the disciples "inability to fully grasp Jesus" teaching and identity, there are a number of scholars who interpret the episode of Jesus healing the unidentified blind man in Bethsaida (8:22-26) as having a double function: on one hand, it illustrates how Jesus differs from so many other healers of the period; on the other hand, and perhaps more significantly, it suggests that the "blind" disciples (8:18) are on their way to gaining "full sight."