The Gospel of Mark–2nd book of the New Testament—A.D. 50-68
Optional Yearly Reading Schedule–February 4
19. Who Is John Mark?
The saga of John Mark is one of the great “success stories” that runs as a continuous sub-plot through the entire New Testament. It is a story of personal transformation and faithfulness with remarkably contemporary themes.
Here is a young man, raised in a “Christian home,” who grows into young adulthood as a “second generation” Christian in the shadow of the big names of Christendom—Peter, Barnabas, and Paul. As he grows, he becomes part of the Christian movement himself. But he is still a young man. Perhaps he has “issues”—though we don’t know. A crisis comes in his life. He fails his first test. His attempts to redeem himself are rebuffed by none other Paul himself, who considers him a washout and flake. What will he do? Will he turn his back on the faith of his childhood?
No. Mark perseveres. Eventually he rises into mature manhood to take his place at the very highest level in the gallery of first century men and women responsible for sending the news about Jesus Christ out into the world.
What is known about John Mark himself comes from ten passages of Scripture and later church tradition. Many of these scriptures have already been noted. They are: Acts 12:12, Acts 12:24, Acts 13:5, Acts 13:13, Acts 15:36-39, Col. 4:10, 2 Tim 4:11, Philemon 24, 1 Peter 5:13.
The home of Mark’s mother Mary was large enough to hold substantial numbers of people. She had means enough and a house large enough to require servants. Thus her house was the primary meeting place for the young and growing church in Jerusalem. Even after the murder of the apostle James (John’s brother, son of Zebedee) when Peter was put in prison, she was courageous enough to continue opening her home to believers during Herod’s persecution. Released from prison , Peter has no doubt where he will find the Christians gathered—at Mary’s house. This account is related by Luke in Acts 12. Barnabas was also one of the household. Col. 4:10 calls him Mark’s “cousin,” translated in the King James as “sister’s son.” Mary and Barnabas were therefore either brother and sister, or otherwise closely related.
Barnabas is first mentioned by name in Acts 4:36. He is called a Levite of Cyprian birth. We are told that he owned a tract of land which he sold, and then gave the money to the disciples.
The fourth century church historian Eusebius identifies Barnabas as one of the seventy sent out in Luke 10. Both Barnabas and his sister Mary were well-known and deeply involved with the early believers from the very opening drama of Acts. It seems more than possible that their family had been followers of Jesus for some time, in all likelihood during his lifetime. The gospels make no mention of any quarters or family home in the Jerusalem area that Jesus visited other than at Bethany. Yet a home centrally located in the heart of Jerusalem is more than plausible. Jesus twice sent disciples into the city ahead of him to rendezvous with “a certain man” who obviously knew Jesus and his needs well. The family of Mary and Barnabas, therefore, might well have been long-time family friends.
A whole family involved from the beginning
Piecing together such clues, many scholars conjecture that Mark’s family was intimately involved at the very heart of gospel events, making Mark an eyewitness to far more than we may realize. This theory begins with the last week of Jesus’ life, and Mark’s family arranging for the donkey for the triumphal entry into Jerusalem. It goes on with the possibility that the last supper was held in their home, with either Mark’s father or Barnabas being the unnamed “owner of the house” of Mark 14:14.
And why not? The last supper was clearly held where Jesus had prior connections and relationships, and no other home in Jerusalem is ever mentioned. Could Mark himself, therefore, as a boy or teenager, actually have been one of those, along with the servants and possibly Mary and Barnabas, who helped make preparations for that eventful meal?
Was Mark present in Gethsamane?
The most tantalizing of all possibilities concerning Mark’s involvement in these events is based on the common practice of authors, when writing anonymously, to implant a hint of their identity into the text. We are familiar with John’s doing so, referring to himself five times as “the disciple whom Jesus loved.” Most readers are not aware, however, of the curious two verses in Mark (Mark 14:51-52), coming just after Jesus is arrested on the Mount of Olives, which may be exactly such an intrusion by author Mark.
“And a young man followed him, with nothing but a linen cloth about his body; and they seized him, but he left the linen cloth and ran away naked.”
These are such curious verses! What possible reason do they have for being there? They are not found in the other gospels. It seems impossible to imagine them written by anything other than an eyewitness. All the disciples had already run away and fled. There was nobody left to witness the strange moment when a soldier tried to grab the last youthful member of the group, who had only a sheet around him…but the “young man” himself.
When you analyze the thing in depth, this “young man” has to be the author of the gospel. What we are left with is the almost unmistakable conclusion that the writer of Mark’s gospel was an eyewitness to the arrest of Jesus…and possibly much more besides.
It is a gospel detail so fraught with interest and intrigue, based on the assumption that the last supper was held at John Mark’s home, that many commentators have recast the incident in dramatic fashion.
E.M. Blaiklock imagines events unfolding this way: “Perhaps we see [Mark] first as a teenage boy, the lad who was present at the arrest in Gethsemane. Imagination must aid the terseness and obscurity of the text, but was this the untold story?…In the long room on the roof of the house of Mary, the rich widow lady of Jerusalem, the Lord and his band met for what was to be the Last Supper. In his room below, awake and alert, for he sensed the danger which lurked about the house, lay Mary’s son, John Mark. He heard the hurried steps of Judas on the stairway without, and listened with sharper care. And then the noise of the feet, and the rest depart.
“On a sudden impulse the boy seizes a linen sheet from his bed, wraps it round his body and follows. He watches under olive trees, sure that some crisis is at hand. A flare of torches, and the betrayer is there. With a boy’s reckless loyalty, he shouts some protest, and angry hands lay hold of him. Slipping out of his sheet, Mark escapes. Perhaps he bore a cruel and mutilating sword-slash across his fingers, for an old tradition says that in the early church Mark was called ‘the stumpfingered.’ Shall imagination be followed a little further? Did the savage blow and the cry of his young friend stir Peter to draw his long fisherman’s blade and slash back at the offender?” (In the Image of Peter, Moody Press, 1967)
William Barclay poses the additional possibility that, disciples all asleep, that it was Mark himself, stealing quietly on tiptoe through the night into the very depths of Gethsemane, who heard the Lord’s timeless Not my will prayer, thus enabling him to preserve for all time the holy exchange between Jesus and his Father that no other human ears ever heard.
Whether such conjectures are based on fact, or partial fact, we are left to wonder. It is possible that some of the disciples went to the same home where they had just partaken of the memorable supper to seek refuge during the days between the arrest and the resurrection. What we can be sure of is that shortly after the crucifixion, John Mark and his family were involved in everything that was going on in Jerusalem.
Perhaps it was during these days that Peter and Mark began to form the lifelong bond that would cement them together for the rest of their lives.
Could Mark’s mother have been one of the several “Marys” who followed Jesus, one of the Marys of Mark 16, or “the other Mary” of Matthew 28, or one of “the other women” of Luke 24 who first witnessed the empty tomb?
Some point to Mark’s home as the location of the Easter Sunday evening appearance of Jesus to his disciples, as well as the place where the disciples returned to wait for the power Jesus promised: “Then they returned to Jerusalem…when they arrived, they went upstairs to the room where they were staying.” (Acts 1:12-13) Could it also have been in the same home where the Spirit was poured out on Pentecost?
An ancient inscription in the basement of the Church of St. Mark in Jerusalem identifies the site as the original home of John Mark and his mother Mary, and also the site of the last supper and the gathering on Pentecost. This fact is included merely for interest and to attest to the longstanding tradition associating Mark with the church’s earliest days in the city. It must be admitted, however, that there are churches built over every holy site imaginable in Jerusalem. One must preserve a healthy skepticism with regard to their authenticity.
Mark becomes a participant in the growth of the church
Mark was without doubt an eyewitness to many unbelievable events throughout his life. Growing up in a wealthy home, he studied and learned the languages then current in the stream of the city—Aramaic, Hebrew, Greek, and Latin—and was thus being prepared for his later work.
As the church exploded in the decade of the 30s, Mark remained at home, growing and maturing, possibly gradually emerging into leadership. By then Barnabas was one of the major leaders of the church and became the one to vouch for Saul after his conversion. Did he bring Saul home to stay with them too, as Jesus and his disciples perhaps had when visiting the city earlier? By the early 40s, Barnabas was head of the church in Antioch. In Acts 12:25, he invited his nephew John Mark, by then probably in his mid-twenties, to join him and return to Antioch to be part of the work there.
After several years in Antioch, Mark then participated with Barnabas and Saul in their first missionary trip. He was by this time a recognized leader and valuable servant. Some say that he accompanied them as an aide, attendant, possibly a teacher, or an assistant to help make arrangements for details of travel. He accompanied them through Cyprus and across to Perga on the mainland of Asia Minor, where, for unknown reasons, he decided to return to Jerusalem.
When Paul and Barnabas were making plans for their second trip in 50, as recounted in Acts 15, their dispute over whether Mark should again accompany them resulted, as we have discussed, in the separation of the two leaders. Mark and Barnabas set out together (Acts 15:39) and both are lost to view. The decade of the 50s is the missing decade in Mark’s life.
Mark again appears in the early 60s, mentioned in the letters of Paul and Peter. He is working alongside both men. The differences with Paul have been so thoroughly patched up that Paul repeatedly speaks of Mark’s value to his ministry.
At some unknown point Mark’s gospel begins to circulate in the church. When and under what circumstances it was written (from the early 50s when Mark is lost sight of, or in the mid-60s from Rome just prior to or just after the deaths of Peter and Paul), forever remains a mystery.
Mark’s later life
Barnabas is mentioned in passing but once more in the New Testament, in 1 Cor. 9:6. There Paul interestingly refers to Peter and James traveling and ministering with their wives, inferring that Barnabas, like him, is unmarried.
The apocryphal “Acts of Barnabas,” supposedly written by Mark about their travels on Cyprus but of unknown authenticity, tells of Barnabas being stoned to death by the Jews in Salamis shortly after giving Mark instructions to seek out Paul in order to heal the rift between them.
That Mark was later one of Paul’s companions over an extended period of time, from 60 (Col. 4:10) to 64-66 (2 Tim. 4:11), and that Peter speaks of Mark also being with him in Rome (1 Peter 5:13), raises the intriguing question how closely Peter’s and Paul’s work may have dovetailed at this time. Mark seems to have been working intimately with both men at basically the same time and in the same place. By the time Paul wrote his second letter to Timothy, Mark was away, possibly on a journey with Timothy shortly before Paul’s death, and Paul summons them both to return to him.
After the death of Peter and Paul and the wave of persecution and the destruction of Jerusalem, nothing more is known for certain of Mark’s life. Tradition says that Peter sent him on a mission to Egypt where he founded the church in Alexandria and became its first elder or bishop. Traditions and apocryphal writings of Mark’s activities in Alexandria, including details of his death are fairly detailed. A tradition conflicting with that of Rome claims that he wrote his gospel in Alexandria, before being eventually martyred there (some say as early as 68), and that his remains were taken to Venice in the ninth century where a great cathedral still stands in his honor.
It must always be with some caution that we regard the traditions surrounding the movements of the apostles and fathers of the early church, including those concerning Mark’s activities in Alexandria. Traditions originate somewhere, and thus many may be based on truth. At the same time, wild apocryphal fantasy writers about well-known biblical characters was commonplace.
In this light, some of the traditions about Mark in Alexandria do indeed ring with the exaggeration and embellishment so common to ancient hagiography. It is, however, chronicled in the book A History of Eastern Christianity by Aziz Atiya, and quoted at length in William Steuart McBirnie’s The Search for the Twelve Apostles. As an act of reconciliation between Catholicism and Orthodoxy about fifty years ago, Pope Paul VI restored parts supposedly of the body of Mark from St. Mark’s Cathedral in Venice to the Coptic church in Alexandria. Apparently now both churches can legitimately claim to possess a tomb containing Mark’s bones.
John Mark of Jerusalem, later of Antioch, Rome, and Alexandria, is truly one of the most fascinating of all New Testament characters. To contemplate his life, even from a mere ten brief scriptural glimpses, is to observe a life uniquely connected to a host of different elements within the growing church.
Mark was part of everything. His life spans three “generations” in the life of the church—the life and ministry of Jesus, the apostolic age (30-70), and probably the years following the Roman persecution and destruction of Jerusalem. The same can obviously be said also of Matthew and John. Not a word of them is mentioned, however, throughout Acts. Neither was involved in the great missionary work spreading out from Antioch, or involved in the tumultuous and historic events of the early Christians in Rome. Mark is perhaps not completely unique in this. But he happens to be the one we know most about. The lives of few other men of the first century span so diverse a spectrum and offer such a panoramic perspective of the development of the early Christian church.
It is Mark who is witness to it all—from Gethsemane to Rome…and perhaps beyond.
20. A New Literary Form
The thing that Mark called a “gospel” was a new and previously unknown literary style. No realistic biographies existed at the time—except what partial ones were found in histories like the Old Testament. The lives of historical figures were exaggerated by heroic myths and embellished accounts that were often comprised more of fantasy than reality.
The early development of biography as a literary form is usually said to begin with the first century Greek philosopher and essayist Plutarch (46 ad—c.124 ad). His book, simply entitled Lives, is comprised of character studies of fifty distinguished Greek and Roman personalities, is considered one of the classics of Western culture. It is the first attempt to tell realistic biography.
It is clear that the first three gospels, possibly even the fourth, were already in widespread circulation by the time Plutarch conceived his project. It may well be that he knew of the gospels and patterned his work after them. In all probability, therefore, the gospels of Mark, Matthew, and Luke were the first biographies ever written, paving the way for a format that would be one of the most important literary methods for telling history. Looking back on them now, many scholars and critics argue that the gospels are not true biography given their evangelistic motive. But set in the context of their time, the Gospel of Luke especially must arguably rank among the greatest biographies ever written.
In the years of the middle ages, heavy with Catholic influence, what are called hagiographic biographies came into vogue—idealized, worshipful lives of the saints. These were usually written by monks anxious to promote a beloved personality into the lofty realm of sainthood in the public consciousness.
Volumes such as The Life of Saint Columba, written approximately 695 ad, and The Little Flowers of St. Francis, written approximately 1330 ad, were so embellished with fancy and myth that their historic value is minimal. They are still widely read. I have copies of both in my library. But they are essentially works of fiction loosely based on sporadic known facts in such men’s lives. This does not discount their devotional value. But when every moment of every day is imbued with the glow of the miraculous, sheer common sense forces a questioning of the historicity of such accounts.
There was no halo in the manger, but a real human baby. The Lord himself had dusty feet, and shall a servant be greater than his master?
Even with its obvious historical limitations, however, glorified hagiography was for centuries the accepted biographical form. Even as late as the 18th and 19th centuries, biographical language continued to embellish real life with a gloss of unreality.
Gradually the modern form of scholarly researched biography came to the literary world. One of the giants of the modern biographical form, still very readable, appeared in 1791—James Boswell’s The Life of Samuel Johnson. It set a standard for detail and research that is still unrivaled. Over two centuries later it is still considered a supreme example of the biographical form and the first true modern biography. However, even in its excellence, Boswell’s Life runs to the extreme. In the original, this monumental classic work was nearly 1500 pages in length, explaining why many editions over the years have been highly edited and condensed.
And notwithstanding Boswell’s towering example, embellished biography continued. In approximately the year 1850, great French “historian” Michelet wrote of Joan of Arc in such terms as one wonders whether she, like Columba and St. Francis before her, actually touched the ground as she walked.
Modernism’s passion to debunk
In more recent times, the trend away from hero-worship has gone far overboard in the other direction. The “debunking” style of contemporary biography is now in vogue in our time among the intelligentsia. Every former hero must be toppled from his pedestal.
The bias of modernism to pick apart and critique has made true objectivity almost as difficult to find in works of modernism as it was in times past. Yet we must be as skeptical of the modern biographer as we are of the medieval hagiographer. In spite of all the factual research possible today, prejudice may be just as prevalent, and, because it masquerades as objectivity, it is actually more destructive to truth.
Whereas the bias before was to glorify, now the bias is to condemn. Obviously if a man has a wart on the end of his nose, it does the cause of truth no good to say that his nose was perfect and without blemish or imperfection—hagiography. But neither does it represent the truth of objectivity to devote an entire chapter to the wart and ignore the rest of his physical features altogether—the debunking of modernism.
This brief history of the biographical form illustrates just how remarkable the biblical gospels truly are. They simply have no parallel in the history of literature. Neither the flaws of hagiography or debunking is apparent. In the gospels we discover reality. This is not to say there is no bias. A favorable bias toward Jesus is obviously present in all four cases. But what biographer who ever took up pen to tell a man or woman’s story wasn’t biased to some degree? The question is: How has he controlled and marshaled his bias to tell an objective story?
“Biography” as a literary form has progressed through the years, from Plutarch’s Lives, to spiritualized hagiography, to realistic accounts of ponderous detail, to the debunkers of recent years. Yet none of these methods or styles, in tens of thousands of biographies that have been written, perhaps hundreds of thousands, quite so succinctly and powerfully capture the essence of their subject as do Mark, Matthew, and Luke. As the first of that triad, Mark can truly be said to have invented the form.
On the basis of his own remembrances, in addition to Peter’s preaching—which Mark knew inside and out from his role as Peter’s “interpreter” during their missionary travels together—Mark penned the account from which the word gospel originated. From Mark’s formative work, the other more extensive gospels of Matthew, Luke, and John later followed.
What we encounter in the Gospel of Mark is an astonishingly contemporary and riveting account. That Mark as an author was able to achieve such an effect so long ago, when biographical writing was in its infancy—he was inventing it as he went!—strikes me as, well…nothing short of miraculous. Mark reads like a 3rd millennium thriller. It possesses neither the flaw of hagiography nor its hypercritical opposite, nor does it suffer from excessive length.
How curious that the world’s first biography should, all these years later, still be one of the best ever written. It is his style that distinguishes Mark. He is the kind of writer New York agents are looking for. Appearing today for the first time, it would surely win a Pulitzer Prize and top the Times Best Seller list.
The reason Mark suffers from almost none of the faults so common in biography is this: Its author knew he had to tell a factual, realistic living account.
Neither St. Francis nor Columba emerge off the pages of their biographies as real and living men. Their halos are so bright that the reality of the men themselves has vanished. I have read three books on Columba in research for some of my Scottish work. But I do not know him. Amid a hundred accounts of miracles said to have flowed from his hand, the real man has disappeared from history.
But I do know Peter, Jesus, and Pilate! This is what convinces me that I am reading the real thing, as it happened the moment I turn to Mark. People jump off the page. Its immediacy validates factuality.
Tradition regarding the writing of Mark
Tradition about the writing of Mark—in the absence of clear self-identification by its author—comes primarily from a Christian man by the name of Papias.
This Papias represents the next generation (after Mark’s) in Christianity. We will have occasion as we continue to speak of many of these “church fathers,” as they are called, who were leaders of the Christian movement in the years after the apostles and their immediate counterparts were gone. These first, second, and third century church fathers are pivotally important in the development of Christianity because, unlike most of the first century Christian leaders (with the exception of a few men like Luke and Mark and John and Paul), they were writers. Some of them wrote voluminously, and their writings tell us much about how Christianity grew and changed and developed. These writings of the second and third centuries are doubly interesting in that many of these men had links and connections to the apostles themselves. Some, it is believed, were actually mentored in the faith by their teaching. So they represent significant and in some cases unbroken connections to the very first days of the Christian faith.
Yet because Christianity was expanding through the Mediterranean world so rapidly, many of the church fathers of these following generations had Greek names that sound strange to our ears. They are not personalities we have grown up knowing about, nor are their names so familiar as those of John, Peter, Mark, Paul, Timothy, Andrew, James, and Luke. Even Barnabas’s real name was Joseph.
The earliest of these fathers were three men by the name of Ignatius (born in the mid first century and bishop of Antioch), Clement of Rome (born in the mid first century and bishop of the church at Rome in the 90s), and Polycarp (born approximately 70 and bishop of Smyrna). These three are sometimes called the “Apostolic Fathers” because they were believed to have had direct contact with the apostles themselves. From the dates of their lives it is clear that they possessed first hand knowledge of these times.
Following these early fathers come yet later generations of equally important Christian writers who were second and third generation witnesses to the birth of Christianity itself. These include Justin Martyr (born about 100, Christian writer and apologist), Irenaeus (born in the early to mid 100s, bishop of Lyons), Clement of Alexandria (born about 155, considered the first great Christian intellectual scholar), Tertullian (born about 160, a prolific writer and Christian apologist and theologian), and Origen (born about 185, theologian from Alexandria).
These are all names for you to keep your eye on. We will encounter them again and again in our attempt to understand the facts and traditions surrounding the New Testament writings.
Though he is not generally included among the earliest “Apostolic Fathers,” Papias was certainly of their generation. He was born about the year 60, was said to have heard the apostle John personally and was a companion of Polycarp. He eventually became bishop of Hierapolis in Asia Minor and died in about 130.
Papias wrote, “Mark, who was Peter’s interpreter, wrote down accurately, though not in order, all that he recollected of what Christ had said or done. For he was not a hearer of the Lord or a follower of His. He followed Peter, as I have said, at a later date, and Peter adapted his instruction to practical needs, without any attempt to give the Lord’s words systematically. So that Mark was not wrong in writing down some things in this way from memory, for his one concern was neither to omit nor to falsify anything that he had heard.”
Here is an example where the antiquity of the source would seem to make the “tradition” reliable. According to Irenaeus writing fifty or so years after Papias’ death, Papias had personally heard the disciple John. This places Papias literally “on the scene” in the late first century. There is therefore every reason to trust his statement completely.
What to make of Papias’ comment that Mark was not a follower of the Lord himself admittedly may contradict the conflicting tradition that he was a boy during the final events of Jesus’ life. It seems that we must take this to mean that he was not an active adult disciple at the time. That Mark was old enough and mature enough as a Christian to accompany Barnabas and Paul on the first missionary journey in the mid 40s, certainly places him alive during Jesus’ lifetime. And he clearly became a “follower” in his own right soon enough. What Papias meant by “not in order” has also been widely debated. What is not in question is Mark’s authorship of the gospel and that Peter was his primary source.
Several of the other early church fathers just mentioned add their own confirmation to the same tradition.
Writing around 150, Justin Martyr (c. 100-165) quotes portions of Mark as from “Peter’s Memoirs.”
Irenaeus (c. 120-192) says that Mark was written “when Peter and Paul were preaching the gospel in Rome and founding the church there.” Irenaeus goes on, “After their departure, Mark, the disciple and interpreter of Peter, himself delivered to us in writing what had been preached by Peter.”
Clement of Alexandria (150-217) both enlarges and blurs the tradition concerning Mark, conflicting somewhat with the testimony of Papias. Clement writes: “When Peter had preached the word publicly in Rome, and declared the Gospel under the influence of the Spirit; as there were a great number present, they requested Mark, since he had followed him for a long time and remembered the things that had been spoken, to write out the things that had been said; and when he had done this he gave the Gospel to those who asked him. When Peter learned of it later, he neither hindered nor encouraged it.” How much of this is reliable testimony, we cannot know. But it is intriguing to recall the close traditional association of Mark to Alexandria after the deaths of Peter and Paul. Thus, it is possible that some tradition may have survived in Alexandria to which Clement, being from that city, alluded that may not have been known by Papias.
A late second century prologue to the Gospel of Mark said that the author “was called stumpy-fingered because his fingers were short in relation to the rest of his body.” Whether this is factual, or whether this legend resulted from confusion over his name—Markus and the Latin adjective mancus (“maimed”)—we are left to wonder.
One additional point of interest. The original ending of Mark’s gospel has been lost. The verses from Mark 16:9-20 are not found in any of the earliest manuscripts and were obviously added later. Their style and content is dramatically different, hyper-spiritual with its emphasis on signs and wonders. Yet no one imagines that Mark intended to stop at the eighth verse. Some conjecture that the last portion of scroll of what was perhaps the original or one of very few copies was torn off, possibly in the Roman catacombs in haste to escape a party of soldiers during the intense persecution of the 60s.
— A Window into Reading the Bible for the Big Picture —
At first glance, it may seem that a quote from, say, Justin or Irenaeus in the mid second century, and even more a quote from Tertullian or Origen in the early third century, about events that took place when Christianity was in its infancy, would not be very reliable. With the passage of 100, even 150 years, how could such testimony possibly be close enough to be considered a “personal remembrance?”
As we continue through the New Testament, we will encounter this principle many times—having to determine how much we can trust statements made later (even a hundred or more years later) about the events and writings and situations we are investigating.
How many of us today, for example, can speak with first hand knowledge about the American civil war of 150 years ago? When we read civil war histories, how much of it do we trust as truthful?
This is something like what it was like for those Christians writing in the second and third centuries as they looked back to the era when Christianity began and its early documents were written.
As I contemplated this matter in relation to the above testimonies about Mark written between 80 and 150 years after the fact, it occurred to me to wonder, “How far back in time can an eyewitness account be considered ‘first hand’ and reliable?” I tried to place the question into the context, not of the events of the first century, but of my own life experience.
I reflected on the life of my own grandmother, born in 1880, the only one of my four grandparents I knew personally. She lived until I was 35. If she told me something she remembered hearing her grandmother or grandfather describe as having seen with their own eyes, that would give me the first hand knowledge of a eyewitness account of an event that might have taken place as long ago as the 1820’s (her grandmother was born in 1818 and lived until 1908.) In other words, it is not impossible to imagine (eyewitness to granddaughter to me) my being told, just one person removed, about something that happened in the 1820s! I then could pass it on to one of my grandchildren, and we are now in the realm where the report of an actual eyewitness could still be reported accurately 250 years later! It is an amazing thought.
Unfortunately I cannot relate having heard an eyewitness report from the 1820s. I only make the above conjecture as what is possible.
I do, however, remember being told by my grandmother about the exploits of our explorer relative Leonodis Hubbard, a contemporary and cousin of hers who wrote a book about the exploration of Labrador. This takes my “witness” of an “eyewitness” who knew Leonodis Hubbard back approximately 110 years. My telling one of my grandchildren would extend that eyewitness to witness to witness progression easily to 150 years.
The above reflections prompted me to conduct an experiment. I spoke with my mother-in-law Cherokee, who is living with us. Both her ancestors and my own father were from Oklahoma. Cherokee’s mother lived on the Cherokee reservation before Oklahoma was a state. I asked her about those times on the Cherokee reservation and how far back her memories of prior eyewitness accounts could reach. She never knew any of her grandparents, however, so could only rely on the memories of her mother. The earliest event she could immediately remember being told about was the Oklahoma land rush of 1889.
Even without relying on a grandparent’s witness, just two days ago my mother-in-law and I were talking about an eyewitness account of a significant event in American history from 120 years ago!
I mentioned the civil war a moment ago, and how impossibly distant it seems from our vantage point. Yet in a box in our home containing material from Judy’s and my family ancestries, we have letters in our possession which we have read with our own eyes written home during the civil war from soldiers involved in the conflict.
Perhaps 150 years isn’t so far removed from an eyewitness after all. A century or two is a relatively short time
The point is that when we speak of “eyewitness accounts” and reliable “sources” of information, 100 or 150…even as much as 200 years can go by and the authenticity of an original witness be preserved with remarkably accuracy.
This is not to say that distortions might not creep in. Of course that happens. Yet it remains astounding how long an eyewitness account can remain reliable and be passed along through a relatively minimal number of tellings. A two hundred year old event can potentially be told through as few as two non-eyewitnesses.
The above traditions about Mark are well within the scope of time when eyewitness accounts can be strongly depended on. Imagine it, in the same way that in my lifetime I might have been able to hear eyewitness accounts from before the civil war, people alive in 200 a.d. could still have been circulating remembrances going all the way back to those who heard Jesus with their own ears.
The above traditions about Mark are therefore close enough to the first century to be considered but one step removed from actual eyewitness sources. Papias, born in the 60s, could have been passing along information he heard from Mark himself, or one of Mark’s close associates.
In summary, I will leave us to ponder the following quote from William Barclay: “It would be possible to argue that…Mark’s gospel is the most important book in the world…the first life of Jesus that has come down to us…Mark is the nearest approach we will ever posses to an eye-witness account of the life of Jesus.” (The Gospel of Mark, p. ?)
A story is told of an isolated village in a remote corner of the world whose inhabitants chanced upon an abandoned portion of Mark’s gospel that had been translated into a language similar to their own dialect.
Those among them who could read pieced together fragments of the account. They re-read it many times trying to grasp the meaning of the fascinating story. Gradually they passed on what they discovered to the rest of the natives concerning the remarkable Man who was the central figure of the astonishing tale. In time, the entire village, in the words of Jesus himself through Mark’s pen, came to believe in the gospel.
Stop and ponder for a moment what an incredible thing this is. An entire native population converted from paganism to Jesus Christ with no one leading them into faith, explaining it, telling them what to do…without any contact with the civilized world—without a single missionary, without a single tract, without a single book, without a single New Testament, without a single radio or television message, without a single altar call. Nothing at all…except a handwritten copy—not even complete—of the Gospel of Mark.
It is a book whose power to illuminate the person and character of Jesus Christ is self-contained. As evidenced by the above testimony, it needs no outside help. The power of this first biographical account of Jesus exists within its own pages.
Its power, however, in our time, in our “civilized” culture, and to our refined and knowledgeable sensibilities, has become diluted. We read the familiar drama but are not incredulous, breathless, amazed, bowled over by it. Its very familiarity prevents our socks being knocked off as we read. We pass over the words, memorize, recite, quote, and study them, but somehow never see what those natives saw—that if this fantastic, incredible account is true…everything changes.
The Creator of the universe has walked among us!
Reading the gospels as if we have never heard of a man called Jesus
I would like to recommend to you for a fresh reading the world’s first gospel, the Gospel of Mark.
Some of you will have read it many times. Some of you who are not necessarily professing Christians are probably familiar enough with its contents to make it seem as though you have read it in its entirety whether you actually have or not. Despite modernism’s attempt to deny it, western civilization is founded in almost every way upon the culture of Christianity, and thus knows more than it may realize about the gospel of Christ. Its very familiarity, however, usually obscures its astonishing power.
When I first immersed myself in a study of Mark’s gospel, my entire outlook on the Bible began to change. Its truths came alive with new reality. I felt it. I smelled the green grass, heard the crowd, was caught up in the clamor, the arguments, the dawning revelations of those people fortunate enough to have witnessed the unfolding of the world’s salvation with their own eyes.
Remarkably, however, throughout history, the Gospel of Mark has been the most overlooked of the four gospels. Many have assumed, from its brevity and that nearly all its material is found elsewhere, that it is almost superfluous, even unnecessary. Yet the multitude of details found in Mark that do not exist in the other accounts illuminate the life of Jesus with a freshness and immediacy found nowhere else in the New Testament.
Can we approach this most unusual and shocking biography exactly as those natives did—with a blank mental slate? Can we throw out our preconceptions, our theologies, our mental images of who and what Jesus is like? Can we come to this account as if discovering it for the first time? Can we take the text by itself, unencumbered by what we have learned and been taught—with no footnotes, no commentaries, putting aside what we think we know—and just read it as an ancient biography of a man we know nothing about? Can we put ourselves back in the first century Roman world when this biography first appeared?
Let’s assume you and I have never heard the term Son of God and haven’t a clue what such a phrase means? Whatever our personal beliefs, can we pretend that we are not believers in anything, that we don’t even know what a Christian is? The word is meaningless to our ears. We have heard rumblings in recent years, however, of a wild, bold, fearless new religion with roots somewhere in the eastern Mediterranean that has spread to the north and west and has now infiltrated Rome itself, causing no little stir within the Empire.
So we have decided to read this biography of its founder for ourselves, and see what the thing is all about. That’s pretty much how things stood when the Gospel of Mark initially hit the scrollshelves in first century Rome and Ephesus and Corinth somewhere between the years 50 and 68. Never had a movement grown with such explosive speed as this new religion made up of the followers of someone they called the Christ.
Jesus had only been gone some thirty years. Already his followers were everywhere. By the time they began to flood Rome in the late 50s and early 60s, interest and curiosity was so high that some kind of account was needed of the One whom these Christians called their Lord. A brief source containing certain “sayings” of Jesus was in circulation, though most in Rome had never seen it. Something more complete was desperately needed to tell the story in writing of the remarkable man called Jesus that everyone was talking about.
The man called John Mark who had trained as a scribe—who had known Jesus as a boy, who was intrinsically involved in the growth of the infant church in Jerusalem in the 30s, who traveled as an assistant with both Paul and Peter listening to first-hand accounts—was the most likely candidate to take on the task of writing that important work.
Paul’s letters were essentially private documents to believers within the churches of various cities. For some time, therefore, Mark’s gospel was the only written document the Greek and Roman world possessed about this new phenomenon called Christianity. We cannot know for sure, as the dates of authorship are uncertain, but it is possible that Mark’s gospel existed for as long as a decade or two, as the only account of Jesus’ life. A whole generation of young believers may have come into the faith on the basis of Mark’s gospel alone.
Upon this book the Christian canon was eventually built. It is pivotal and foundational. It could be argued that the Gospel of Mark originally established the basis and remains the literary foundation stone for the entire New Testament, and indeed the entire Christian movement.
Like the village natives, those who read Mark’s gospel in ancient Rome had nothing but Mark’s words to go on—no tracts, no broadcasts, no theology, no preconceptions, few other writings. For many of those in the first century who encountered Mark’s account, this was all they possessed upon which to base their own personal evaluation of the man Jesus…and who and what he was.
What did they discover when they read this remarkable book for the first time? If we can clean the cobwebs from our own theological attics…perhaps we can find out.
Traveling with the Apostle Peter, John Mark probably arrived in Rome in the early 60s a.d., perhaps from Corinth in Achaia (Greece). Whether they had been here before in the 50s is unknown, but now they came to the center of the empire again, following by a year or two another of Mark’s missionary and evangelistic comrades, the Apostle Paul, who was already in Rome under house arrest.
Mark—the brief account
We do not know the exact date or circumstances when Mark first began his gospel. All tradition points to a writing in the city of Rome in the 60s, probably after Peter’s death (c. 64) but before the destruction of Jerusalem in 70. Mark does not refer to the Jewish War (66-70) which ended with the march of Titus on Jerusalem. Most estimates—notwithstanding that some scholars place it much earlier and that we are considering it earlier in our chronology because of the influence of Q—point to a completion date between 64 and 67.
Neither do we know Mark’s method. Were there multiple drafts? Did he work on it over a period of years? Had he already begun during his travels with Peter, and bring it to completion in Rome? To what extent did he make use of or incorporate the “sayings” document that was in circulation into his text? How was the writing similar to a book any author might write—going through several drafts maybe over several years? Or did Mark sit down and simply write it out from start to finish? When completed, did he revise and edit and add and rewrite? Because of the masterful literature represented, these questions with regard to all four of the gospels must surely fascinate any student of the New Testament.
In the first century or two of the Church, especially before the other gospels appeared, Mark was widely distributed and copied and had an extensive influence on early Christian thought. The very distinguishing characteristics which insured its acceptance and influence in the Gentile world were the same factors which caused Christendom largely to disregard Mark’s gospel in later years.
Chief among those distinctive characteristics were brevity, immediacy, factuality, and detail.
Brevity was necessary for all writers of the first century. Papyrus rolls beyond thirty feet in length were heavy, bulky, and impractical. If a writer wanted his work to be easily copied and reproduced, as well as widely circulated and read, he had to keep his work within that practical limit. Had the four gospel scribes been recording the life of Jesus today, we can only imagine how much more might have been included. Books of four or five hundred pages now weigh less than a pound. There would have been no limit to the stories and recollections, parables and teachings that could have been included. But first century writers had no alternative but to be highly selective. Thus the gospels have come down to us as they have—Matthew and Luke each comprising almost exactly thirty feet of papyrus in handwritten Greek, Mark about seventeen. In Luke’s case, to complete his account (Acts 1:1) he began a new “book,” Acts, which ran to about twenty-seven feet of scroll.
Mark prized brevity for another reason. He wanted to write a fast-paced account. Today we would call Mark’s gospel a page-turner.
Four distinct literary methods
Compare the four gospel openings.
Matthew: Matthew starts with an extensive genealogy. Of his first 200 words, there are more than 35 begats and more than 80 names. He was writing for a Jewish audience and attempting to demonstrate Jesus’ genealogical linkage to the house of David. His approach was understandable and effective given his purpose. For Jews in Palestine, and new Christian believers, this was absolutely vital to understand how Jesus emerged out of an ancient Hebrew culture in fulfillment of its prophetic writings. But it’s not exactly riveting stuff. The sophisticated Greek or skeptical Roman, on encountering Matthew’s account, might have thought he was reading gibberish. It would make no sense whatever to his worldly frame of reference. He wouldn’t have cared less who begat whom among Hebrew nomads living thousands of years before. When Matthew finally does get Jesus on the scene four chapters later, after quoting from the Old Testament seven times, almost immediately we confront a lengthy passage of teaching—Matthew 5-7 known as “the sermon on the mount.” There is no action, no dialogue.
Luke: Luke takes a different approach, also slow-paced. A physician by trade, Luke was what we might call a journalistic historian. He researched and investigated everything about Jesus’ life (Luke 1:3) and then set out to write what he calls an “orderly account.” In other words, Luke wants to give an accurate and thorough history. He does so, starting at Luke 1 about a year prior to Jesus’ birth. He then writes a more or less continuous account up into the early 60s ad, where the book of Acts ends. Luke’s painstaking research and written chronicle provide a historical framework into which to place the events of the first century, and is the closest of the four gospels to true “biography.” Along with the remarkable documentation of the earth’s earliest ages in the book of Genesis, Luke’s two-book account represents one of the most significant works of history ever written. Without Luke’s and Mark’s three combined books, there may have been no New Testament at all.
As interesting as the opening of Luke may be to us, however, with its history and lengthy poetic prayers and prophecies, it would have made tedious reading for the average first century Gentile.
The difficulty of dating the first three gospels can be appreciated from the following facts: Both Matthew and Luke are generally recognized to be dependent upon, and therefore to have been written after Mark. Luke, therefore, is usually dated, as Matthew, between the late 60s and 90. However, Luke’s singular omission of any reference to the final events of Paul’s life (63-67) following his first imprisonment at Rome (61-63), Nero’s persecution (64-65), and the destruction of Jerusalem in his book of Acts, which followed his gospel, would seem almost certainly to place the writing of Luke’s gospel in the early 60s.
The dating of the first three gospels, therefore, remains a mystery of biblical scholarship that has puzzled historians for almost two millennia.
The conclusion of the matter is simply that, whatever the actual dates, Mark was in all probability the first gospel to be written, and that Matthew and Luke, both depending upon Mark for the general outline of their material, came later.
John: John, writing at the close of the first century, probably in the 90s, approaches the writing of his gospel from yet another perspective—theology. Immediately he plunges into depths that Christian theologians have been unable to get entirely to the bottom of in two thousand years. If Matthew’s begats were gibberish in Greek and Roman ears, imagine what difficulty they would have had understanding what John was talking about!
The gospels of Matthew, Luke, and John all serve unique purposes. These multiple perspectives complete and give depth to the image of Jesus Christ.
Mark: But Mark’s purpose was neither genealogical, historical, nor theological. Mark was a highly educated scribe. Along with Paul and Luke, Mark was doubtless one of the most literate leaders of the young Church. Traveling with Peter (1 Peter 5:13) he would have known the story of Jesus’ birth. Traveling with fellow writers Paul and Luke (2 Timothy 4:11; Philemon 24) he might well have discussed various methods of conveying truth by the written word. He would have been well familiar with Paul’s theology.
But Mark chose to open his gospel quickly, with Jesus as a grown man. Why?
Because he wanted to grab his readers, especially Gentiles, with an account they couldn’t put down, the account of a Man whose magnetism drew them into the story with compelling urgency. He wanted that dynamic force to pull them along as they read. He wanted to keep them on the edges of their seats until they could not help but eventually ask themselves:
“Who is this astonishing man! Is he really… but how could such a thing happen be true…is this man actually…God!”
22. God Steps Onto the Planet!
Scholars are divided on whether the original title of Mark’s work—The beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ—actually included the final words, “the Son of God.” Many early manuscripts, do not contain those four significant words. It is generally thought that they were added later by a later copyist, probably thinking that Mark’s title needed a little extra boost of authority.
The reason those four words may not have been penned by the original author is a simple one. It offers an important clue into Mark’s motives for writing: self discovery.
Mark wanted people to figure things out for themselves. His purpose was to urge readers to confront Jesus Christ and ask who he is. It is doubtful that he would have given away the punch line in his opening sentence. And with the words the Son of God omitted from the opening (though slipped in later in the first chapter), the triumphant climax of Mark 8:29 takes on such added power. That is the mid-point moment of revelation Mark has spent half his gospel preparing for.
Having written my own books as well as edited those of other writers, writing itself intrigues me. I am always looking behind the words, or between the lines—whichever analogy you prefer.
Far from being the simplest of the gospels, therefore, I find Mark the most subtle and intriguingly complex. As the masterful writer he is, throughout his gospel Mark continually forces self-discovery. He wants readers to draw the conclusion about Jesus’ eternal identity for themselves. If he is actually God himself come among the men of his own creation…Mark wants his readers to draw that conclusion, along with the disciples, for themselves.
Furthermore, as a biographer Mark is reluctant to intrude into the narrative. Mark is a literary photographer, not a commentator.
Compare Mark’s approach with John’s.
“On the last and greatest day of the Feast,” John writes, “Jesus stood and said in a loud voice, ‘If a man is thirsty, let him come to me and drink. Whoever believes in me, as the Scripture has said, streams of living water will flow from within him.’ By this he meant the Spirit, whom those who believed in him were later to receive. Up to that time the Spirit had not been given, since Jesus had not yet been glorified.” [John 7:37-39, NIV, italics mine.]
There is John in the last sentence sticking his two cents worth in with a bit of editorializing.
But that wasn’t Mark’s style. Mark wrote as a journalist—recount the events and let them stand. Self-discovery by the reader was his overriding priority as an author.
(There is one intriguing moment where Mark “interprets.” You will read it in Mark 7:19. But between the lines I hear the echo of Peter in Mark’s words, referring back to his vision of the descending sheet. Therefore, I wonder if Mark included this parenthetical reference in trying to be a faithful witness to Peter’s recollections.)
I have written two lengthy biographies myself. Both required a great amount of research. Both were on well known personalities. But the tasks confronting me as a biographer were very different. In one case I adopted John’s style, because I felt the life I was telling required interpretive analysis along the way in order that it be seen in its proper perspective. In the other case, I adopted Mark’s style and kept myself out of the story completely. Sometimes a biographer has to do both. They represent different styles of telling history. They speak to distinct needs facing the biographer.
It is Mark’s example I am attempting to follow in this self-discovery guide to the New Testament. With an occasional bit of John-like editorializing about the conflict in Antioch or Paul’s apostleship, it is nevertheless not my intent to examine the verse-by-verse content of the New Testament telling you how you should interpret that content. That is your job, as I have emphasized before. Once we have discussed the backgrounds of these documents, you have to read them for yourselves and draw your own conclusions. I am merely attempting to stimulate your thoughts in many directions so that those conclusions will be well-founded and intelligent conclusions.
I believe such was Mark’s method too. Though I may occasionally ask you to consider various possibilities with, “Is it possible that this means…?” neither Mark nor I will add John’s definitive words to the text, “By this he meant…”
Recognizing that the words of identification that appear in the opening line of his gospel probably did not come from Mark’s pen wonderfully illuminates much that follows. That fact reveals Mark’s purpose by allowing the climax toward Mark 8:29 to build slowly and powerfully within the mind and heart of each reader. It parallels precisely the progression followed by the understanding of the disciples.
I think it likely that Mark simply wrote, “Here is the good news about a man named Jesus,” adding by implication, “I am going to show you the evidence of his life. You will have to decide for yourself who Jesus Christ is when you are faced with the question, Who do you say that I am? Then you will have to decide what the astonishing conclusion means.”
A Son of God!
Whether Mark originally added the words the Son of God to his opening line is almost beside the point. All contemporary translations of the Bible contain them. Therefore those four words demand a response. Our modern ears ought to stand on end immediately at this incredible phrase. What can it mean? How can God possibly have a son?
We mustn’t gloss over those words because we are so accustomed to them, without pausing to reflect on the unbelievable claim they make. Trying to figure out if this man of whom Mark is writing can actually be the Son of God is what the gospel of Mark is all about.
To the first century Greek, those opening words may not have been as astonishing as they ought to be to us. The lower case gods of their mythologies possessed all sorts of seemingly “human” attributes. “God” having a “son” presents no difficulty when you’re dealing with myth. No doubt as most first century Greeks and Romans began reading this account, their first response would have been, “Ah, a new myth about a being known as Jesus Christ.” Interesting…but hardly revolutionary.
One thing about myths, however—they never intersect with real life. Nobody ever had lunch with Zeus or Mars. Immediately Mark then plunges us into new realms by suddenly establishing the irrefutable historicity of his account.
Mark will demonstrate soon enough that his account is about a man people did have lunch with—people who were still alive and who could testify to it. There are eyewitnesses!
This is no myth. This is true-life biography…the biography of a man who actually lived…a biography based on nothing less than living accounts and first-hand interviews. The biography of a man…a very unique man who may also be the Son of God.
Suddenly we are in new territory, never before seen in the history of the world.
Real places, real people, down-to-earth situations
How is the historicity of Mark’s account established? By linking the incredible claims he will eventually make about Jesus to known individuals, known times and places, and to facts that living people could attest to.
John did not appear on some mythological mountaintop but right there in the Judean countryside at the Jordan River. These events occurred in space-time history—at a definite place and a documentable moment of time.
People saw him, heard him, and were baptized by him, all validated by the tiny details—clothing of camel’s hair, a leather belt, locusts and wild honey. Only an eyewitness could supply such trivia! Who would make up a man eating locusts? Right from the beginning, Mark’s account has the unmistakable ring of eyewitness fact.
And what distinguishes John’s message, exactly as foretold by Isaiah, was its emphasis on someone else. John was not trying to gather a following but to prepare his listeners for one that would follow him.
Then Jesus came. Like many others, he was baptized by John in the Jordan. As he came out of the water, a voice spoke from heaven, saying, “You are my Son…”
Now comes the astonishing claim for certain, whether it was found in the first line or not—that God has a Son…and that almighty God actually spoke audibly such that those standing at the river’s edge heard his voice.
No one in 2000 years has been able to satisfactorily explain what Son of God means to the human intellect. John opened his gospel with a brief attempt to do so. Theologians have been continuing that attempt ever since.
But not Mark. He simply states the facts: Jesus came…Jesus was baptized…the heavens opened…a voice spoke…this is what the voice said.
No interpretation. Just the facts.
If the claim poses a theological conundrum of staggering proportions that will lead years later to the doctrine of the trinity, Mark does not pause to dwell on it. He lets events tell the tale.
Mark is noticeably more terse, direct, and realistic that the other gospels. It is fresh and robust in the language of the people without abstractions into theology.
The vivid, eyewitness nature of Mark is seen in his use of exact names, times, locations, numbers, colors. He paints the picture of the looks and gestures of Jesus. He alone used the Greek word prasia (used only once in the entire Bible, in Mark 6:40) to describe how the multitudes sat down to be fed. It is usually simply translated as “groups,” but this misses the vivid imagery of the word. It is the word used for the rows of vegetables or flowers in a garden. In other word, they sat down arranged like flower beds! Mark is also the only one of the first three gospelists who supplies the detail that they sat down on the green grass.
Everywhere there are such details: During the storm (4:38,) Jesus was asleep on the cushion. He takes the little children in his arms. He raises Jairus’ daughter taking her by the hand. He looked at the Pharisees in anger.
Only in Mark are we told that Jesus was a carpenter, that during his temptation he was with the wild beasts, that on the mount of transfiguration his clothes became radiant and exceedingly white as no launderer on earth could whiten them, that on their way to Jerusaslem they were amazed, and they that followed were afraid, that the angel at the empty tomb gave the message, go tell his disciples and Peter.
None of these little visual eyewitness details are found in Matthew and Luke. This is an amazing puzzle. If Matthew and Luke used Mark as their foundational source, why do these details drop out?
Some of the changes Matthew and Luke make are editorial. They improve on Mark’s style. Mark’s grammar is rough, colloquial, blunt. Matthew and Luke soften their accounts as the reverential aura surrounding Jesus and the disciples grows through the years.
Mark says, “He could do no mighty work there,” while Matthew modifies it to He did not do many… Mark has Jesus healing many, Matthew and Luke regularly change it to all.
Mark has the request by James and John to sit beside him in his glory so blatant that their selfish ambition is there for all to see, making the other disciples furious. Matthew has the request come from their mother.
There are many such examples where little word changes modify the realism of Mark.
The first four point sermon
Not only is Mark brief, the account he gives of Jesus’ words and teachings is usually the most concise of the four gospels.
For example, the miracles of the feeding of the 5,000 (Mark 6) and the 4,000 (Mark 8 ) are recounted. John tells of the feeding of the 5,000 in his sixth chapter. As John’s chronology is notably imprecise—he was writing essentially a theological document rather than a biographical one—it is likely a composite of both incidents.
Compare the two treatments of the discussion that follow the miracle. John takes thirty-four verses—a full page in most Bibles—and the discussion is dense and complex.
How does Mark handle the same exchange between Jesus and the Pharisees: “The Pharisees came and began to question Jesus. To test him, they asked him for a sign from heaven. He sighed deeply and said, ‘Why does this generation ask for a miraculous sign? I tell you the truth, no sign will be given to it.’ Then he left them, got back into the boat and crossed to the other side.” [Mark 8:11-13, NIV]
That’s Mark! Three verses and he’s done with it. Keep it simple was Mark’s motto. He had to. He was writing for God’s people, but the first to see it would necessarily be Roman Christians. He wanted to interest non-Christians as well. He couldn’t afford to bog his story down and lose them.
Mark sets this brevity in motion right from the start of the remarkable story with the first words we hear from Jesus’ mouth.
Imagine—God become a man! The thing is too incredible. Think of all Jesus had to tell the world! Think of all that must have been building within him to utter. He had been waiting for thirty years to tell the world what he had been sent to proclaim. Jesus must have been bursting with things to say!
No doubt he said much of it too. We are told of many instances when he “taught them.” What would it have been like to hear that first teaching he gave in the synagogue!
Yet his first sermon as recorded by Mark consists of a mere seventeen words and four brief points: It is time…the kingdom has arrived. You need to respond. Here’s how: Repent…and believe.
Was this brevity a mistake or sloppy research on Mark’s part? This isn’t generally the way most preachers and writers and expositors and evangelists do things. They say everything they have to say…and more besides.
But Mark had the wisdom to let Jesus’ opening words exercise their inherent power without trying to embellish them. So there they stand. Seventeen words. How many sermons from how many pulpits would be improved if more priests and pastors followed Jesus’ example!
And immediately things started to happen.
23. And Immediately…
When I first began what turned into a lifetime’s study of Mark’s gospel, I was puzzled by the frequency with which sentences, especially early in the book, began with the word And. I knew any of my own editors would red-pen straight through such openings, reminding me not to run my sentences together. Was Mark a sloppy writer without benefit of good editing?
“And the whole Judean countryside…And they were being baptized…And he said…And Jesus came…”
And then Mark repeated the word immediately everywhere you looked. Didn’t he know the cardinal sin that destroys good writing—repeating the same word over and over?
The two words of the twelfth verse in the first chapter set the tone for the frenetic pace of the opening phase of Christ’s public ministry: And immediately…And immediately the Spirit…And they immediately left their nets…And immediately he called them…And they went into Capernaum. And immediately on the Sabbath…And immediately the news about him…”
An unrelenting pace
Gradually Mark began to get through to me. I came to realize that these repetitions were not accidental at all. As I would later see, nothing in this gospel is accidental. Every word serves a purpose. Mark’s repetition of words and phrases in close proximity is his method, as an author behind the scenes, of telling us, “Pay attention. This is important. I am emphasizing a point here. This is significant. I will repeat it…I might even say it a third time.”
…who shall prepare…Prepare the way…After me…
…in the wilderness…in the wilderness…wild honey…
And they were astonished…They were all amazed…they were all amazed and glorified God…they were all amazed…his fame spread everywhere throughout all the surrounding region…they brought to him all who were sick…the whole city was gathered…he healed many…Everyone is searching for you…people came to him from everywhere.
And immediately…and immediately… and immediately…and immediately… and immediately…and immediately…and immediately…and immediately!
I began to see And immediately as but one of Mark’s ingenious devices to hook readers and pull them through the narrative with a pace so reckless they had to keep unrolling the scroll as they read. This is a fast-paced story based on action.
Mark uses the Greek eutheos, from “directly” and translated at once, soon, immediately, straightaway, or forthwith, 41 times—more than in all the other New Testament books combined. He begins 485 sentences with And… giving the sense of continuous action without a break.
There is no breathing room. The book moves rapidly from start to finish.
The activity of Mark is breathless, discourses short, conversations direct and to the point.
The waves beat on the boat, people sit on the green grass…you are there.
Mark is trying to convey something very important about what is going on. Maybe we are even catching a glimpse of his boyhood memory of this time—when the action and pace and color and drama were heightened to the senses of a wide-eyed impressionable youngster.
Once Jesus began to preach, things started moving fast! Wherever this remarkable man went, things happened. They happened immediately. They happened now.
This constant immediacy conveys a sense of urgency. It implies closeness, being nearby rather than far away. Right in front of you.
In Mark’s gospel we see few quotes from the Old Testament, no lengthy historical discourses, no meandering historical prologues to introduce a new character. If Mark wants to bring a man onstage, he does so without fanfare: “There was a man…”
Immediacy. Uninterrupted. Urgent. Quick. No tangents. No delays. Every incident moves right into the next.
Part of this effect is achieved simply by Mark’s grammar. He is the only gospel writer to make extensive use of the historical present tense or the imperfect tense. In Greek this tense pictures action in progress and adds to the sense of action. To its original readers Mark would have read conversationally— “He says to her, and then she says to him…”
This feature is mostly invisible to us now because English translators have converted Mark’s presents into pasts. In so doing, they have actually obscured Mark’s intent. In the original Greek, Mark would have had a significantly distinctive sound from Matthew and Luke. (Of the 151 instances in the original where Mark uses the historic present, Matthew uses only 21, and Luke uses the tense only once.)
Matthew and Luke were trying to turn Mark’s homespun style into more literary prose. The changes of Matthew and Luke and subsequent Bible translators, however, do nothing to alter the rapidity and immediacy which so clearly characterize Mark’s writing. In your face with the macro close-up lens.
Men and women as they are.
Events snapped quickly before people can comb their hair and put on a smile.
Pharisees caught with their guards down and their hypocrisy up in full view of the camera.
The disciples blurting out statements of unbelief without a chance to stop and realize how foolish they look.
At first glance this almost makes Mark look less polished and skilled. His book feels bumpy and uneven in spots. Perhaps it is this aspect of Mark’s style that caused it to be considered for so many years an abridgment of Matthew’s gospel.
The effect of this quick-march pace is to move the camera in close to the action. The talking head approach has become a feature of television journalism that takes the “up close and personal” technique first developed by sports commentators to a new level. Now the camera zooms in so that the entire screen is filled with half a face, from eyebrows to chin, every bead of perspiration, every facial glance immediately visible for all to see.
It was Mark who invented the technique. That was his method over 1900 years ago.
Peter in the spotlight
And who do we see in front of the camera more than anyone else?
Two men: Jesus, shown intimately and unvarnished and unscripted. And Peter, sweating under the glare of the lights.
This is, after all, Peter’s gospel as told by his interpreter and friend and spiritual protégé and son Mark. It is almost as if we are getting a self-portrait of Peter, in the same way that he told his stories about Jesus to listening crowds, humbly opening his own immaturity to the public gaze.
Mark’s account begins at the point where Peter became a disciple. There is no nativity account. The Galilean ministry is prominent, centering especially in and around Peter’s home region of Capernaum and Bethsaida. Many vivid touches suggest first-hand knowledge by Peter—mention of Andrew (1:29, 13:3), the fact that Jesus was praying when Peter found him (1:35), details such as Peter would have been aware of (1:16-20, 1:29, 9:5, 14:54 14:72, 16:7).
The emotions and characteristics of Jesus are revealed though the eyes of one who knew him well (1:41, 3:5, 6:34, 8:2, 10,14, 14:33-34).
Peter is prominent throughout the book. He is present at nearly all the scenes described. For some he was one of very few who were present (5:37, 9:2, 14:33, 14:66-72).
Most interesting I find to be certain stark omissions where the other gospel writers show Peter in a favorable light. In Peter’s own version of the story (Mark), these are downplayed. Mark does not include Jesus praying for Peter individually (Luke 22:32), or addressing him as the Rock (Matthew 16:18). On some occasions where Matthew and Luke use Peter’s name, Mark does not (compare Mark 7:17 and Mt. 15:15, and Mark 14:13 and Luke 22:8).
On the other hand, events that show Peter’s human side, such as the denial, are related with exceptional fullness. Mark does not soften the disciples’ thick-headedness or Peter’s weakness.
If this truly is the gospel from Peter’s perspective, we certainly get a picture of a humble man. Can we not imagine Peter saying to Mark in later years, “Mark, my son, when you write, you must show me as I was. There was so much we didn’t understand. Do not gloss over it. You must convey how dense we were in grasping who the Lord was.”
Curiously, though Matthew and Mark both record the incident of Jesus walking on the water and getting into the boat with the frightened disciples (Mark 6:48-50, Matthew 14:27-31), Mark does not add Peter’s leaping out and walking briefly over the water to meet him. How intriguing to consider all those years Mark spent traveling with Peter throughout Asia Minor and eventually to Rome listening to his version of the account. Matthew, on the other hand, seems to have remained in Palestine, traveling later in his life, according to legend, to Ethiopia and Persia. If these legends are true, it is entirely possible that Mark and Matthew quite literally never crossed paths again after the first days of the church.
Might we conjecture that Mark himself did not even knew of Peter’s walking on the water? Despite his eventual sinking into the sea from doubt, is it possible, not wanting to show himself in a light that could have been construed as having more faith than the other disciples, that Peter had never spoken of it. And then when Matthew came to write his version of the incident involving Peter, he included what Mark had not because he had actually witnessed Peter’s great, though momentary, expression of faith.
Indeed, one of the reasons Mark is usually dated after Peter’s death (c. 64) points to this very feature of Mark’s portrayal of Peter’s humanity.
The close-immediacy of Mark’s camera catches Jesus in full humanity, even in anger and frustration, without the gloss that Matthew and Luke occasionally added later to make him sound less abrupt, more gentle and Savior-like.
Mark records the healing of the man with the withered hand, saying, “And he said to them, ‘Is it lawful on the Sabbath to do good or to do harm, to save life or to kill?’ But they were silent. And he looked around at them with anger, grieved at their hardness of heart, and he said to the man, ‘Stretch out your hand.’” (Mark 3:4-5, RSV)
Both Matthew and Luke soften Jesus’ emotions by omitting the reference to Jesus’ anger. Matthew writes: “’So it is lawful to do good on the Sabbath.’ Then he said to the man, ‘Stretch out your hand.’” (Matthew 12:12-13, RSV). And Luke: “And Jesus said to them, ‘I ask you, is it lawful on the Sabbath to do good or to do harm, to save life or to destroy it?’ And he looked around on them all, and said to him, ‘Stretch out your hand.’” (Luke 6:9-10, RSV).
Mark simply calls Jesus “the carpenter.” Matthew and Luke, however, hesitant to refer to the Lord as a common village tradesman, change it to “the carpenter’s son.” (Mark 6:3, Matthew 13:55, Luke 4:22)
An incredible scene is portrayed in Mark 3:19-21 where Jesus’ family and friends think him mad. The NIV captures it graphically: “Then Jesus entered a house, and again a crowd gathered, so that he and his disciples were not even able to eat. When his family heard about this, they went to take charge of him, for they said, ‘He is out of his mind.’”
Were Mary and James and others of those closest to him actually thinking of “taking charge” of him…committing him, as we would say…sending him to the funny farm? However you look at it, this is simply an incredible statement! Mary the saint in the eyes of so many…James the future head of the church…both thought Jesus insane!
But notice, when you get to Matthew and Luke—it is positively too hot for them to handle. So they leave it out entirely. They cannot portray their Savior as a lunatic, or his mother and brother so unaware of what is going on. It makes Jesus, Mary, and James far too human for their sensibilities. So they omit the reference.
Likewise, Matthew significantly changes Jesus’ response to the rich young ruler to avoid the stark words coming out of Jesus’ mouth that might be construed to question his divinity, “Why do you call me good?” as Mark writes in chapter 10, verse 18.
So Matthew, in 19:17, changes it to, “Why do you ask me about what is good?”
Mark is never reluctant to speak of the emotions of Jesus—anger, indignation, sorrow. Matthew and Luke are much less willing to show Jesus in the grip of his human feelings.
Not only do the emotions of the Lord come across in Mark’s account, so too does earthiness and realism. Mark is not afraid to show Jesus involved with the gutsy realities of life.
In Mark 4:38, when an evening storm arises on the Sea of Galilee and the boat of the disciples was in serious danger of capsizing, we are told that Jesus was asleep “on a cushion.” It is such a tiny detail. What a touching insight to realize first, that Jesus simply got tired like the rest of us after an exhausting day, and secondly, that he was not opposed to small human comforts, and could sleep better on a cushion than on bare wood. It is a wonderful tiny glimpse of reality embedded in Mark’s gospel. However, the cushion is nowhere to be found in either Matthew or Luke.
Similarly, Mark records two healings (7:32-37 and 8:22-26) which appear nowhere else in the gospels. In both cases, spittle was used in the healing, a common medical practice at the time. Are Jesus’ methods both too commonplace, too graphic, and earthy for the other gospel writers? Did they feel the accounts somehow demeaning to his Saviorhood?
You all know how we would react today if we saw this with our own eyes. We would say, “That’s gross!”
Not so for Mark. He wasn’t afraid to tell it like it was: “Then he spit and touched the man’s tongue…” (7:33, NIV) “When he had spit on the man’s eyes and put his hands on him…” (8:23, NIV)
Mark does nothing to remove the humanity of Jesus, Mary, or the twelve. This opens a wonderful window into the humility of Peter, but it also reveals Peter’s keen insight into the humanity of the man who was not only his Savior and Lord, but also his friend.
The comparison between the two storm scenes of Mark 6 and Matthew 14 reveals vividly the difference between the two writer’s method.
In Matthew’s version, twenty or thirty years later when the halo mentality has set in, we read: “When the disciples saw him walking on the sea, they were terrified, saying, ‘It is a ghost!’ And they cried out for fear…And when they got into the boat, the wind ceased. And those in the boat worshipped him, saying, ‘Truly you are the Son of God.’” (Matthew 14:26-33)
Mark, however, through Peter’s eyes, tells the story differently. Here the disciples are terrified, confused, and clueless. “When they saw him walking on the sea they thought it was a ghost, and cried out; for they all saw him and were terrified…And he got into the boat with them and the wind ceased. And they were utterly astounded, for they did not understand about the loaves, but their hearts were hardened.” (Mark 6:49-52)
Not only are the accounts utterly different, so too are Matthew’s self-portrait and Peter’s. Matthew’s picture is of a company of worshiping disciples who completely understand the divinity of Jesus. Mark’s is of a band of dull-witted fishermen with unwilling minds and hard hearts.
Just the facts, Ma’am
When you add factuality and detail to Mark’s rapid-paced, up-close-and-personal account, it becomes obvious why the story contains such power.
All three of the first gospels record the healing of Peter’s mother in law. But only one of the three men was there watching it from beside the bed. This incident occurs in Mark’s first chapter and Matthew’s eighth. But it is not until Mark 2 and Matthew 9 that Matthew himself is called by Jesus.
Matthew wasn’t there. So notice the three accounts of this healing. They are almost identical. (Mark 1:31, Matthew 8:15, Luke 4:39) But not quite. Only Mark records a certain tiny detail, touching in the glimpse it offers of the Lord’s gentleness, his courtesy, his humanity.
Luke’s account makes him appear as a prophet of doom: “And he stood over her and rebuked the fever, and it left her.” (RSV) Matthew adds slight detail, yet still minimizes the human contact between Jesus and this woman whom he must have known and loved: “He touched her, and the fever left her.” (RSV)
But Mark reveals to us Jesus the gentleman: “He came forward, took her by the hand, and helped her to her feet. The fever left her.” (NEB)
Who but an eyewitness would have known such a detail? Someone standing near the bed alongside his concerned wife, a man who loved the woman lying there because he was her son-in-law. Peter himself!
Mark doesn’t pause to wax philosophic about what events mean, or the historical setting in which they are placed. He simply records them as an eyewitness—telling the facts, giving supporting detail. It’s the closest thing we have to an on-site contemporary newspaper account, made all the more immediate and reliable in that it comes through the eyes and perspective of Jesus’ first disciple, Peter, his best friend on earth.
I think Mark wrote in this fact-based newspaper fashion very purposefully. He realized that such was exactly Jesus’ method with the twelve disciples. In the opening stages of his ministry, Jesus didn’t allow his disciples to talk about who he was or what things meant. Events and teaching dominated their early days.
Mark reveals Jesus moving steadily toward the eternally climactic question
But soon in his gospel, Mark is doing much more than merely record events. If we have eyes to see it, he begins to reveal Jesus moving his disciples toward the eternally climactic question that is the pivotal fulcrum of the entire New Testament. All the gospels deal with this same question. But Mark’s progression toward it is the most steady and dramatic.
The subtleties come rapidly, almost as rapidly as the pace of the action. Before he is through with Chapter 1, there are so many clues on that papyrus sheet that we can hardly keep up with them.
All along Mark is building to the climax of his eighth chapter. He begins immediately with progressive hints pointing toward the question of identity. If you look for the hints and foreshadowings of it, you will see this theme from the very beginning, though it will not climax until Jesus looks his disciples in the eye and puts to them the eternal question:
Who do you say that I am?
To get the most out of Mark’s book, we have to think like a detective, sniffing out the clues he has placed there—the way in which he says things, phrases he uses, odd details, repetitions, things he doesn’t say, and the order of events as he relates them.
Mark is a masterful storyteller. Find out why.
It is as if Jesus was saying to the twelve, in the same way that Mark is saying to us, “Watch and observe what I do and say. Pay attention to what happens. In time you will have to ask yourselves why these events are happening, why they occur in this particular order, and what they all mean.
“Eventually, when you apprehend the deeper meaning of these events, you will face the all important question of this gospel…and what you intend to do about it.”
That question is: “Who is this remarkable man!”