The Gospel of Mark is arguably the most influential book in the world, serving as the primary written source for both Matthew’s and Luke’s Gospels. Whether directly or indirectly, it thus shaped the course of Christian development, the development of the Western World, and in the past few centuries of the entire world. Yet after a brief period of influence, Mark virtually went into eclipse for most of church history. Misidentified by several church fathers as an “abbreviation of Matthew’s Gospel,” it was virtually ignored until its priority was reestablished in the 19th Century. Early Anabaptists virtually ignored Mark, as did most other Christian traditions at the time. How unfortunate, for this Gospel contains numerous texts and themes of special interest to Anabaptists and it is important for the church as a whole.
The rehabilitation of Mark began when scholars (rightly) concluded that Mark provided the earliest written witness to the life of Jesus, but (wrongly) combined this with the unfortunate prevailing view that Mark was a less skillful writer and theologian than the other Gospel writers. This combination convinced critical scholarship that Mark was the most valuable available source for authentic traditions going back to Jesus. The other Gospels they judged to be both later and more heavily motivated by theological concerns, and thus considered them less reliable as sources of historical facts.
Today Mark’s Gospel is still widely considered to be the first Gospel written, but in addition is now valued by New Testament interpreters as a skillfully composed (even if the Greek itself is not polished) and theologically rich portrait of Jesus.
Some scholars, including myself, are convinced that the earliest traditions of the church were correct: Mark, the nephew of Barnabas wrote this Gospel, basing the content heavily on information gained from the apostle Peter. There are some clear indications in the text itself that Peter is a primary source. Several texts read as lightly edited third-person accounts of versions that sound far smoother if turned (back!) into first-person accounts coming from Peter (e.g. Mark 1:29; 1:36). In a Gospel that highlights the failures of the disciples, Peter is often portrayed as surpassing the others in this regard (e.g. 9:5,6; 14:29; 14:66-72). In the end, the messenger from heaven announces that forgiveness and restoration are available to all who fail Jesus–even Peter (16:7). This strong theme in Mark is probably a mirror of what actually transpired, not only in the life of Peter, but of Mark himself, the missionary who failed in his calling and was given a second chance (Acts 13:13; 15:39). Mark probably wrote this Gospel in Rome just before 70 AD (see ADB article on The Eschatology of Mark 13.
In terms of its form and rhetoric, Mark is emphatically not an inept compiler of traditions, as earlier interpreters claimed. Mark is a skillful author with profound theological convictions and a literary style that continues to challenge and amaze contemporary interpreters who are finding more and more of the subtleties Mark embedded in the text. In Mark, Jesus’ recurring challenge to the disciples is that they have “ears that hear” and “eyes that see” so that they can discern more than is obvious in the events they experience. It turns out that Mark has been challenging the readers in the same ways. Statements with more than one intended meaning, themes developed through textual patterns (even if never made explicit), subtle and effective irony, allusions to Old Testament texts and themes – these and many other strategies shape our interpretation of Mark. Mark hints at far more depth of meaning than is obvious on the surface of the text.
Leaving the most important for last, here is a brief account of Mark’s major themes:
The Kingdom of God
Mark’s unique approach to this theme is to make clear from the outset that the announcement of the kingdom’s nearness/arrival (Mark is deliberately ambiguous!) is the central theme of Jesus’ teaching in Galilee (1:15). Then Mark narrates the entire Galilean ministry (1:16 – 8:27) without ever again using the expression “kingdom of God,” except in the parable chapter. In that chapter the kingdom is compared to a secretly growing seed that guarantees a spectacular harvest some day, even though it starts small, faces numerous obstacles along the way and provides no indication about how it will get from “here” to “there.” Moreover the “secret of the kingdom” seems to be the fact that when the kingdom comes, it will come secretly, at least for now. Only those with eyes to see and ears to hear will be aware that in Jesus’ life, death and resurrection, God in Jesus will have become king! (see ADB article The Kingdom of God in Mark)
As already indicated, Mark highlights the disciples’ inability to understand, clarifying that their problem is not with physical perceptions and memory (8:18-20). Their problem is that their deaf ears and blind eyes make them unable to discern what it all means. The good news is that Jesus can heal deaf ears and blind eyes, even in particularly challenging cases (7:31-37; 8:21-26).
The focus on discipleship failure in Mark is not the author’s device for discrediting the earliest apostles (or contemporary opponents in his own congregation), as some scholars have argued. Rather it serves to highlight the challenges of faithful discipleship and the wonderful promise that God can and will eventually open our ears and eyes to see. In the light of the resurrection Jesus does, in fact, renew the invitation to discipleship and mission (14:28; 16:7). Disciples who fail are always given second chances. Both Peter (the source) and Mark (the author) knew that personally.
Passion of Jesus
Jesus’ passion is alluded to directly as early as 2:20 and 3:6, but indirectly in subtle Markan allusions to the Old Testament already in the first chapter. Mark has justly been called a passion narrative with a long introduction. The second half of Mark features a journey towards the cross, followed by a detailed day-by-day and “watch” by “watch” account of Jesus’ last week and last twenty-four hours. The good news of the resurrection is announced clearly and unambiguously, but Mark provocatively ends his Gospel with a call for readers to experience it for themselves, rather than by providing multiple accounts of how other people did. (I assume, with most interpreters, that the Gospel originally ended at 16:8.)
Breaking Down Barriers
In Mark, Jesus seems always to be identifying barriers to be broken down. He then break down those barriers in sometimes shocking ways. He is fully capable of healing from a distance but chooses to touch a leper to heal him (1:41). He publicizes the fact that an unclean woman has touched him (5:32,33). He touches a corpse (5:41). Every time Jesus has the opportunity to be in contact with or to avoid uncleanness, he chooses contact. And every time, the power to heal and restore and give new life proves stronger than the power to exclude and divide.
The main theme of each Gospel is “Christology.” Who is Jesus and what did he come to say and do? Mark’s unique emphasis is that the two key confessions “Jesus is the Christ” (8:29) and “Jesus is the Son of God” (15:39) are false confessions if they are not understood in light of the journey to the cross. As Morna Hooker once wrote, “The crucial divide is not between those who acknowledge Jesus as the Messiah and those who do not, but between those disciples who are prepared to follow him on the way of suffering and those who are not” (1991: 208). (See the ADB article The Discipleship Journey in Mark.)
It is now becoming clear that Mark also contains a subtle “Yahweh Christology”; it is not only later theological developments that have claimed Jesus was “God having come in the flesh” (e.g., John 1:1, 14 and the early Christian creeds). Mark already presents Jesus as not only “the one whom God sent” (Son of God, Messiah, Son of Man, etc.) but also as “God showing up in person,” just as Yahweh had promised in the Old Testament to do. Jesus is rarely called “Lord” in Mark. But over and over again Mark presents Jesus as doing what only God can do (2:7-10), as being what only God can be (10:18), and as fulfilling prophecies that promise what God will do (1:3). Literally dozens of texts could be cited, none explicitly linking the coming of Jesus with the arrival on earth of Yahweh God, but all of them hinting that this is Mark’s viewpoint.
Finally the same texts that subtly point to Jesus as “Lord” serve not only to link Jesus with Israel’s God, but also to challenge the claims of an Empire that confesses “Caesar is Lord.” These are not separate themes. The Lordship of Yahweh in the Old Testament is a lordship over Israel and all the nations. Jesus comes to announce a kingdom that will bring this Lordship to a reality through the self-sacrifice of Jesus on the cross and through the life-giving power that inaugurated the new creation by resurrecting Jesus.
Texts Especially Rich with Typical Anabaptist Emphases
Mark’s Gospel is a treasure house of themes that have been emphasized by Anabaptists. The strong focus on the importance and the challenges of discipleship as well as the announcement of a kingdom truly taking root on earth, even though earthly kingdoms still wield power, come quickly to mind.
Jesus’ baptism is accompanied by a heavenly voice (Mark 1:11) that combines three Old Testament texts: Psalm 2:6, with its promise of present conflict but ultimate victory for God’s kingdom; Genesis 22:2, with its portrayal of a “beloved son” destined to be sacrificed; and Isaiah 42:2, with its announcement that the Spirit empowers God’s Servant to carry out humble healing ministries. So also Christian baptism not only declares us to be beloved by God, but also commissions us to join the costly service and sacrifice that Jesus’ life and death modeled.
The call of the first disciples (Mark 1:16-20) makes clear that Christian conversion is not merely “accepting Jesus.” It is responding to an invitation to abandon old lifestyles and allegiances in order to follow Jesus and invest one’s life in the mission of God.
The healing of the leper (Mark 1:40-45) and many similar acts of compassion remind us that the Gospel is not only the proclamation of salvation; it is involves identification with a needy world and ministries of healing and restoration.
The parable discourse (Mark 4:1-34) reminds us that God’s kingdom is guaranteed to be ultimately victorious. However, it does not depose earthly kingdoms through superior use of the world’s weapons. Rather it quietly grows from tiny seeds, guaranteeing an eventual harvest out of all proportion to its obscure and vulnerable beginning.
The discourse on cross bearing (Mark 8:34 – 9:1) challenges those who gladly confess Jesus but are not willing to “take up the cross” or walk the sometimes hard road of discipleship. Yet to see a dark cloud here but no silver lining is to miss Mark’s main point. As I wrote elsewhere: “Mark 8:34-38 is not finally about losing one's life, forfeiting the world, and unashamedly joining the Son of Man's rejection. It is finally about saving one’s life, gaining one’s soul, and seeing the kingdom (T. Geddert, 1989: 153). (See the ADB article on Bearing One's Cross.)
Various texts in Mark call for humble, faithful following, even as a style of leadership (9:33-35; 10:31; 10:42-45). Those who clamor for power and prestige are critiqued in the strongest of terms (esp. 12:38-40). The self-sacrificial life of Jesus, culminating on the cross, is not only a means of substitutionary sacrifice (a theme symbolically enacted in the Barabbas story [15:6-15]), and not only a model for discipleship (see 8:34); it is also a model for leadership in the community of believers (10:42-45).
Finally (though this list could be far longer), the discourse on “Paying Taxes to Caesar” (12:13-17) does not teach that some parts of our lives belong to “Caesar” and the other parts belong to “God.” Rather it teaches that all claims to authority that come from Caesar (be it in terms of taxation or any of the things that our taxes might symbolize or support—in Mark’s day mostly the military), must be tested in light of the absolute authority of God over all of life. Caesar may stamp his image on money and lay claim to it; God has put the divine image on our very being and demands all of us!
Mark’s Gospel is still in the process of coming to its own in the Christian canon. More and more interpreters are recognizing its profound message embedded in a provocative and subtle text. The commentary I wrote in the Believers Church Bible Commentary series was my attempt to probe the depths of this unendingly fascinating and challenging text. I am more convinced today than ever before that there is an inexhaustible treasure of insights yet to be gained from this, the shortest but perhaps deepest, of the four Gospels.
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