This article is part of the series A Journey Through Mark
Setting the scene
Before we begin our study of Mark’s Gospel, it will be helpful to pause for a moment and consider the following question: How and why were details about Jesus’ life and ministry recorded? In the first century, there were no cameras or tape recorders, and writing materials were costly and relatively scarce. Further, as far as we know, Jesus didn’t keep a diary or a journal, and neither did those who became his closest followers. Galilee, the location for much of Jesus’ life, was an oral culture with information communicated primarily by the spoken rather than the written word. Of course, there were exceptions, for example, material considered particularly authoritative and important for community life such as the sacred texts of Scripture; but Jesus wasn’t considered in this light at the outset.
As you would expect, members of communities depending heavily on the spoken word evolve good retentive memories and cultivate the art of remembering through story telling and the like. Initially, therefore, stories about Jesus will have been committed to memory and subsequently communicated through repeated recitation and reminiscing.
But memories are always selective, for we tend to remember details that are particularly memorable or significant for us. Clearly, much of Jesus’ ministry was striking or profound and, being an effective teacher, he used illustrations and forms of speech that were easily retained. As they were committed to memory and recalled by others, details of Jesus’ ministry were communicated beyond those who encountered him personally. As part of this process of transmission, stories about Jesus will have been edited, modified and re-interpreted as hearers interacted with what Jesus did and said, and discovered his relevance for themselves.
Before long, collections of stories about Jesus started to be assembled. The earliest of these were not written down and consisted of groups of miracles or sayings or details relating to Jesus’ final days. A number of factors, however, led to the eventual committal of these memories to writing and with this a fixing of their form.
Firstly, those who had known Jesus personally and who had, to some extent, acted as both a source and a control for the developing traditions about him started to die, making it necessary to have an authoritative account. This was particularly important given the number of false or incomplete interpretations of Jesus in existence. Secondly, the belief that God was going to intervene dramatically and bring the current era of history to a close started to decline and this, in turn, made the memory of Jesus even more precious and worthy of preservation. Thirdly, as the importance of Jesus for faith in God continued to grow, he became venerated to the extent that his words and actions were given the same status and authority as Scripture; indeed, they became Scripture for his followers.
And, as far as we know, Mark’s Gospel represents the earliest attempt to commit the memory of Jesus to writing in biographical form. It may come as a surprise to discover that we know precious little about who Mark was or when and for whom he wrote. The author is not identified in the text and doesn’t appear to have been one of Jesus’ disciples, although Christian tradition claims that Peter is the authority behind the Gospel. Most scholars think that Mark was written around the time of destruction of the Jerusalem Temple in A.D. 70, an event alluded to in the text (Mark 13:2). The Gospel was written in Greek and, given Aramaic was used by Jesus and throughout Palestine, probably originated outside this country.
With these preliminary comments in mind, let us turn to the text and allow Mark to speak for himself. Unless otherwise indicated, these notes are based on The New Revised Standard Version (NRSV) of the bible.
The advent of Jesus
Read Mark 1:1-11
Mark introduces Jesus by placing him within the story of salvation of God’s chosen people, Israel. He emerges from the convictions of a faithful group of Jews, led by John the Baptist, who believed that God would save his people once again through the agency of an anointed one or Messiah. Scriptural prophesies (cf. Isaiah 40:3; Malachi 3:1) give substance to John’s vision and galvanise response as fellow Jews repent (literally ‘turn’) by making public confession of their sins and undergoing baptism.
‘Passing through the waters’ was, of course, at the heart of God’s first great act of salvation at the Exodus when the people of Israel were delivered from slavery through the Red Sea. Water baptism, which would become central for Christianity, was already recognised as a rite of initiation. It formed part of proselyte conversion, whereby Gentiles embraced the Jewish faith, and was required of those joining the Jewish sect based at Qumran (on the north-east shore of the Dead Sea). In addition to drawing on well-established scriptural links between water and spiritual cleansing (e.g. Ezekiel 36:25; Zechariah 13:1), John considered baptism to be a means of entry into a remnant of faithful Jews.
John’s repentance movement represents one expression of the Jewish faith practised in first century Palestine. Later on, Mark introduces us to others (e.g. the Scribes, Pharisees, Sadducees and Zealots), although he fails to mention the group closest to the Baptist, namely, the Essenes. In all likelihood, the community based at Qumran was Essene and we know from their writings (the Dead Sea Scrolls) that they too had withdrawn to prepare for God’s coming.
Jesus, then, was born and grew up in the midst of many competing and conflicting interpretations of what it meant to be a faithful Jew. It is possible that Jesus was himself a follower of John for a period; certainly, his own vocation emerges from John’s vision and practice. This is something Mark underlines in two ways: firstly, by recording how the one who will baptize and minister in the power of the Holy Spirit (v. 8) is himself empowered for ministry through the Spirit as he is baptized by John. And, secondly, by noting how it is at this time that God breaks his prolonged and seemingly impenetrable silence (v. 11) to establish Jesus’ special relationship to himself and function within the dawning of God’s salvation.
Jesus – God’s good news!
Read Mark 1:12-20
Although Mark locates Jesus in time and place by introducing him onto the stage of first century Palestine, he also wishes to emphasise that his ministry has wider implications for humanity’s relation to God. As we shall see, this is achieved in many ways, but one of the most profound is the technique whereby he draws the camera back, so to speak, and allows us to see Jesus from a broader perspective. In this case, within the purposes of God and the struggle between good and evil. A fine example of this came at the end of the previous section where Jesus receives affirmation and empowerment from God through the divine voice and the gift of the Spirit. Jesus’ ordeal in the wilderness furnishes another example as he is tempted by Satan – the figure who in Jewish thought came to symbolize not simply that which tests our resolve to follow in God’s ways, but a discrete power that opposes God and his ministers.
The 40 days of Jesus’ temptation, reminiscent of the 40 years of Israel’s wilderness experience, is meant to be taken figuratively. We know from the rest of Mark’s Gospel that Jesus’ conflict with the forces of evil continues throughout; it is, rather, the arrest of John the Baptist (cf. Mark 6:14-29) that signals the commencement of his ministry. And right at the outset, Mark records what we would now refer to as Jesus’ ‘mission statement’ (v. 15) – the central conviction informing his entire ministry and providing us with a lens through which to interpret all that follows.
We shall consider later terms such as ‘kingdom of God’, ‘repent’ and ‘believe’, but let us take a moment to reflect on what is meant by the ‘good news’, which can also be rendered ‘gospel’ or ‘evangel’ (hence ‘evangelist’, etc.). The word is found in both secular and sacred contexts, including the prophetic oracles of the Hebrew Scriptures where it refers to the good tidings of God’s coming salvation (e.g. Isaiah 40:9; 61:1). Mark, who has already alluded to Isaiah (v. 4), clearly wishes to present Jesus as the fulfilment of these prophecies.
In the first verse, Mark tells us that this good news is intimately related to Jesus (cf. ‘the good news of Jesus Christ’) and from what follows it is apparent that he sees Jesus as not only the messenger, but also the message! In Mark’s assessment, Jesus is the gospel or evangel of God. He embodies or incarnates what God wishes to communicate and share with his people. He is God’s gift of salvation.
First impressions of Jesus
Read Mark 1:21-45
No sooner have we heard of Jesus than Mark invites us to join the first disciples (cf. vv. 16-20). Like Simon, Andrew, James and John, we are not challenged initially to pledge allegiance to Jesus or to reach a judgement about him; we are simply asked to follow and experience. Mark proceeds to narrate a number of characteristic scenes from Jesus’ ministry.
We follow him into the synagogue at Capernaum (vv. 21-8), a town on the north-west shore of the Sea of Galilee that served as the centre for his ministry in the region. Initially, it is a typical scene of worship on the Sabbath with Jesus, taking advantage of the prerogative enjoyed by Jewish men, expounding the Scriptures. Yet his manner of teaching is considered extraordinary. The contrast with the scribes (v. 22) suggests his ‘authority’ was rooted in first-hand experience of God, rather than through the interpretative traditions of his forebears.
Suddenly, the service is interrupted by the cries of one possessed by an unclean spirit. Notice that the source of this person’s dis-ease is the bearer of authentic testimony to Jesus, ‘the Holy One of God’ (v. 24), reminding us that his ministry is intimately linked with the divine will and the drama of salvation. It is striking how at a number of points on the journey of discipleship clues to Jesus’ true identity are given by those ‘out of their minds’. We can interpret this as evidence of the supernatural knowledge available to those able to access the spirit world or as a literary device by which the author encourages his readers to reflect on Jesus’ identity.
As the rest of the chapter makes clear, Jesus’ healing abilities made him an attractive figure and guaranteed him an audience. But his motivations should not be negatively construed as those of an opportunist; rather, medical provision at that time was extremely restricted and all healing was thought to originate from God (cf. Ecclesiasticus 38). By ministering to people’s needs, therefore, Jesus was able to root God’s loving concern and liberating presence in human experience. God was once again working amongst his people, making a tangible impact upon their quality of life. Such a happening could only kindle faith and raise horizons.
The gospel of forgiveness
Read Mark 2:1-17
The experience of release – of liberating people from whatever prevented them from encountering or responding to God – was central to Jesus’ ministry (cf. Isaiah 61.1-2; Luke 4.16-21). It is this conviction that Mark underlines here. The first story describes how Jesus ministers God’s forgiveness in two areas thought to be intimately related – sin and disease. It was a widespread belief in Jesus’ time that disease resulted from sin, whether as a consequence of sinful action or as a punishment from God (cf. Luke 13:10-17; John 9:1-3). In consequence, recovery from illness required release from sin or, as one later Jewish source explains, ‘No one gets up from his sick-bed until all his sins are forgiven.’ (Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Nedarim, 41a)
Mark doesn’t tell us whether the paralytic was a notorious sinner, but the following story underlines that Jesus did minister among those on the margins of Jewish community life – ‘Why does he eat with tax collectors and sinners?’ (v. 16) ‘Tax collectors’ were ostracised not only because of their association with the Roman overlords, but also because they had a reputation for extortion. ‘Sinners’ may have been a technical term relating to those who knowingly and wilfully ‘sinned with a high hand’ by ignoring God’s commandments (cf. Numbers 15.30-31).
What is striking about Jesus’ conduct throughout this section is that he ministers God’s release independently of the existing Jewish provision for securing atonement. Further, it seems that he communicated the experience of forgiveness – whether from the constraints of sin or disease – prior to and in order to enable response to God. Here we come close to one of the distinguishing characteristics of Jesus’ faith.
If Jesus successfully managed to call known perpetrators of evil to repent and observe the will of God encapsulated in the Torah (i.e. the Jewish law), he would have been congratulated as a national hero! However, if he preached forgiveness and rooted the experience of release in the lives of unrepentant sinners and those reaping the just deserts for ungodliness in the form of illness, he would have met with considerable opposition. And if he maintained that such acts of divine grace provided the motivation for repentance and turning to God, then knowingly or unknowingly he was setting himself on a collision course with leaders committed to maintaining the distinctness of the Jewish faith.
Disputes and controversies
Read Mark 2:18-3:6
First century Judaism was in a state of flux. As we noted earlier, there were a number of interpretations current of what it meant to be a faithful Jew. One component common to many was the importance of defining a pattern of life that was identifiably Jewish. A set of rituals and practices to be undertaken at particular times and in particular ways, together with a code of rules governing social intercourse.
This is the background to the stories narrated in this section. Firstly, we find Jesus’ disciples departing from the practice of corporate and ritualised fasting. Although Jesus encouraged others to see fasting as a private act of devotion known to God alone, he discouraged public exhibitions (Matthew 6.16-18; cf. 4:2). Here he echoes the concern of the Old Testament prophetic tradition that extrovert manifestations of religiosity can replace, rather than give expression to, genuine response to God (e.g. Isaiah 58:1-9). However, Jesus’ attitude to fasting is principally informed by another conviction, namely, that the kingly rule of God was breaking into the experience of his people, liberating them from bondage and inviting them to celebrate his saving presence. Within such a vision, there could be no place for penitential rites that sought to catch God’s attention and ‘encourage’ him to intervene.
Another area where Jesus departed from the mainstream of Jewish thought was with respect to Sabbath observance. Unlike the Christian Sunday, which celebrates God’s mighty act of resurrection, the Jewish Sabbath draws its significance from the God who rested on the seventh day from the work of creation. For Jews, then, the Sabbath was a day of rest and there was a growing interpretative tradition of what could and could not be undertaken (cf. Exodus 20:8-11; Deuteronomy 5:12-15).
Jesus finds himself in controversy with the Pharisees over two areas of Sabbath observance: plucking grain (2:23-28) and healing sickness (3:1-6). In a style characteristic of disputes relating to matters of Jewish law, Jesus responds to his opponents with a counter-question drawing on scriptural precedent (vv. 25-26; cf. 1 Samuel 21:1-6) or by citing a ‘weightier’ scriptural principle giving authority to his behaviour (v. 4). The import of Jesus’ conduct is clear: through his ministry, God is disclosing his sovereign presence and saving will in a way that goes beyond the limits of current theological understanding and experience.
Read Mark 3:7-19 & 6:6b-13
Having narrated a number of encounters with Jesus in some detail, Mark assesses the initial impact of his ministry by offering a summary (vv. 7-13). The overall impression is that of the attractiveness of Jesus, informed by a reputation for being a healer and exorcist, drawing needy people from afar in search of wholeness. His ministry would be described today as charismatic in the sense that God’s Spirit, bestowed at baptism, empowered him to perform such miracles. It should be remembered, however, that whilst Jesus’ healing powers would have been considered extraordinary they were by no means unique. We know from Jewish and Greek sources of figures such as Hanina ben Dosa and Apollonius of Tyana who apparently performed similar acts of compassion in the service of humanity and to the glory of God.
Although Jesus started recruiting followers from the outset (cf. Mark 1:16-20), at some juncture he appointed twelve men from a larger group of disciples to perform a particular task. It seems likely that the exclusively male constitution of the Twelve owes more to cultural norms than to theological principle; certainly, the testimony of women lacked status at that time (cf. Luke 24:11) and this would undermine their ministry. We should also note that the number of apostles, one for each of the tribes of Israel, may well prescribe the ‘mission field’ as envisaged by Jesus, namely, to the Jews alone (cf. Matthew 15:24).
This now seems strange in the light of Christianity’s emergence and subsequent separation from Judaism, but these events of the latter part of the first century should not cloud the fact that initially Jesus understood his ministry as a reform movement within the Jewish faith.
The strategic significance of this act of commissioning is underlined by the location (v. 13). Mountains were associated with divine presence and it can be no coincidence that as the people of Israel were formed into a nation through the forging of a covenant on Mount Sinai (Exodus 19-20), so the seeds for its re-formation are sown in a similar venue. Two reasons are given for the appointment of the Twelve (v. 14). Firstly, to be with Jesus, presumably, for support and friendship; and, secondly, to assist him in communicating by word and deed the good news of God’s salvation (cf. Mark 1:15). In the light of the centrality of Jesus within Christianity, it is significant that Mark records him commissioning others to share his ministry; interestingly, however, Jesus doesn’t include himself within the Twelve, but remains discrete.
Pause for thought
It is almost impossible to read the opening chapters of Mark’s Gospel and not capture something of the impact generated by Jesus. Like many of those who encountered him in the flesh, Jesus emerges from obscurity and demands our attention. Stories of a public anointing with God’s Spirit, testimonies to miraculous healings, controversies with religious leaders, fresh insights into God’s presence and purpose. Rumours abound as a reputation starts to take shape. Our worlds are disturbed and we are left with questions: Who is this man? Is there any truth in these reports? What has all this to do with me?
And although the odd clue is given, the only persuasive answer comes in the form of an invitation, ‘Follow me’. Here we draw close to why Mark created the gospel genre to communicate the significance of Jesus. Unlike Paul’s more abstracted approach, where Jesus’ identity and importance are discussed in terms of titles (e.g. ‘Lord’) and theological propositions (e.g. ‘… Christ died for the ungodly…’), Mark maintains that the meaning of Jesus for faith in God only emerges when one undertakes a particular journey. That is to say, Jesus’ identity is the ‘destination’ reached after responding to his invitation to discipleship and having participated in his vocation and vision in a similar way to his first recruits.
In his gospel, then, Mark is not simply offering us an entertaining read or information about Jesus; he is, rather, on behalf of Jesus, inviting us to follow – to become part of a trajectory of faith which started with the first disciples, gathered momentum through the resurrection, and now spans across nearly 2000 years. Through the pages of his gospel, Mark encourages us to reflect on the testimonies of transformation of those who encountered Jesus, to engage with Jesus’ teaching and parables, to participate in the discussions and controversies, to evaluate his extraordinary charismatic presence and gifting, to take our place within his company and inner circle, and to travel with him beyond the ‘homeland’ of Galilee to Jerusalem and there to witness his execution. For it is only after we have completed this journey and, along the way, given Jesus permission to inform and influence our own needs, experience, understanding and faith, that we are in a position to decide who he truly is.
This article continues in: A Journey Through Mark – Part II