Imagine for a moment that you are standing in the garden of Gethsemane with Jesus on that fateful Thursday night when He was arrested and tried. You see Jesus, distressed and troubled, praying fervently. You see the disciples asleep. Finally, Jesus stands up and returns to the disciples and prepares to leave when all of a sudden a mob shows up led by none other than Judas Iscariot. All of a sudden one of the disciples grabs his sword and swings it violently, cutting the ear of one of the men. Then you see Jesus reach down and pick up the ear and place it back on the side of the man’s head. There is more talking and then they lead Jesus away. As they do, all of Jesus’ disciples run away. But there is one young man who intends to follow. Before they get too far, one of the mob tries to grab him, but he wrestles free and runs away too…naked. Early church history tells us that this man is the author of the second gospel, The Gospel According to 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. (Mark 14:51-52)
Why do I start with this story? I begin here because in this brief story we see three key themes within The Gospel According to Mark. First, we see the action-packed nature of the gospel. Men with clubs, wildly swinging swords, and a naked man running from the scene. The Gospel According to Mark is “action oriented.” One of the key words of the gospel is ‘immediately.’ It is used 42 times throughout the gospel. Second, we see the suffering and abandonment of Jesus. This story kicks off the crucifixion narrative where Jesus will be brutally beaten and ultimately killed. And all the disciples fled. Third, we also see the mysterious nature of the gospel. Not mysterious as in mystical, but mysterious as in unanswered questions. Who is this man who runs away naked? Why is this story included in the gospel? While The Gospel According to Mark is easy to read and understand, there are many questions left unanswered for the reader.
The following is my attempt to answers some of these questions and provide a brief overview of The Gospel According to Mark. I will use the outline I learned early in my grade school career, the 5 W’s: who, when, where, why, and what.
The who question can be broken down into two further questions: (1) who is the writer? and (2) who is the audience? We’ll begin with the writer. The gospel itself is anonymous; however, church tradition tells us the the writer of the second gospel was John Mark. Early church history provides ample evidence dating back to around A.D. 140 for John Mark as the author and there has not been enough evidence to the contrary to abandon church tradition on this point. This same tradition also informs us that John Mark is essentially writing the life and teachings of Jesus according to what he learned from the Apostle Peter. Our first and last references to John Mark in the Bible are related to Peter. The first explicit appearance of John Mark is found in Acts 12 when Peter, after being brought out of prison by the angel goes to “the house of Mary, the mother of John whose other name was Mark.” The last reference is found in the first epistle of Peter, “She who is at Babylon, who is likewise chosen, sends you greetings, and so does Mark, my son (5:13).” We see then that it is highly likely that John Mark spent a significant amount of time with Peter. Church history once again tells us that after Peter was killed, John Mark preserved Peter’s teachings about the life and ministry of Jesus in his gospel.
Mark, having become the interpreter of Peter, wrote down accurately…whatsoever he remembered of the things said or done by Christ.
-Papias (ca. A.D. 140)
Who, then, is the audience? Once again, the gospel itself is silent as to its audience. If only the gospels were written as the epistles, “Paul and Timothy, servants of Christ Jesus, to all the saints in Christ Jesus who are at Philippi, with the overseers and deacons.” However, once again, church history offers an answer: Gentile Christians in Rome. If the reference in 1 Peter 5:13 to Babylon is to be identified with Rome, as is likely, then we know that John Mark was in Rome. Church history tells us that John Mark was in Rome when he wrote and therefore the most likely audience was the Christians in that city. Mark’s explanations of Aramaic expressions and Jewish customs (as in Mark 7:3-4) point us toward a primarily Gentile audience, which also makes sense if Mark is writing to Christians in Rome.
The question of when the gospel was written is more mysterious than the questions of authorship and audience. Scholars date the gospel of Mark between the early A.D. 40’s to mid- to late- A.D. 70’s. The questions concerning the date primarily center on three issues: (1) the accuracy of church history regarding John Mark writing after Peter’s death and when Peter’s death occurred, (2) whether the reference in Mark 13:14 is speaking of the destruction of the temple in A.D. 70, and (3) the order and priority of the synoptic gospels (Matthew, Mark, & Luke). The issues are multi-faceted and it is wise not to advocate too strongly to any date; however, without a clearly compelling reason to abandon the early church testimony, I hold to a date sometime in the A.D. 60’s.
[John Mark] was the interpreter of Peter. After the death of Peter himself, the same man wrote this gospel in the parts of Italy.
-Anti-Marcionite Prologue (ca. A.D. 150-255)
Again, early church historians tell us that John Mark wrote his gospel while in Rome. The anonymous prologue to the Anti-Marcionite canon tells us he “wrote this gospel in parts Italy.” Clement of Alexandria wrote in the early second century, “The Gospel according to Mark had this occasion. As Peter had preached the Word publicly at Rome, and declared the Gospel by the Spirit, many who were present requested that Mark, who had followed him for a long time and remembered his sayings, should write them out. And having composed the Gospel he gave it to those who had requested it.” Ireneus wrote in the second half of the second century wrote, “…while Peter and Paul were preaching at Rome, and laying the foundations of the Church. After their departure, Mark, the disciple and interpreter of Peter, did also hand down to us in writing what had been preached by Peter.” While none of these prove that John Mark wrote his gospel from Rome it does require significant evidence to prove otherwise, which has not yet manifested itself.
While certianty is impossible, a Roman provenance is the best alternative, granted the strength of the early tradition and the lack of any evidence from within the New Testament to the contrary.
-Carson, Moo, & Morris
The stated purpose of The Gospel According to Mark was to communicate the “gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God (1:1).” This is further emphasized by Peter’s confession that marks the center of the book, “You are the Christ,” in Mark 8:27-30. But many scholars have also detected a purpose behind the communication of the gospel; namely, to encourage persecuted believers by proclaiming the persecuted Christ. If the above analysis is correct, then this is highly probable. The Roman emperor during the time frame of the writing of The Gospel According to Mark was the emperor Nero. After a good start to his rule, Nero became harsh and reckless. After the fire in A.D. 64, Nero began a public campaign against the Christians, blaming them for the fire. From this point forward Christians in the Roman empire faced significant persecution and opposition. William Lane comments, “On this understanding, Mark’s task was the projection of Christian faith in a context of suffering and martyrdom.” Lane continues by noting that almost half of Mark is devoted to the suffering, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Whether this embedded theme was intentional by John Mark or not, if read through the suffering lens, it certainly encourages us to follow Jesus Christ through our own suffering and persecution.
[The Gospel of Mark is] a passion narrative with an extended introduction.
Lastly, we must consider the content of The Gospel According to Mark. There is much that could be said and many ways the gospel could be broken down into bite-sized chunks. For a more in-depth summary I would encourage you to watch The Bible Project’s overview of The Gospel According to Mark. For our purpose here, I will point out the three act drama that unfolds throughout the gospel of Mark.
Act 1. The first act shows Jesus’ ministry in Galilee (1:1-8:21). The narrative focuses more on Jesus’ miracles and actions than His teaching. The attentive reader will also notice a growing opposition to Jesus that will finally culminate in his crucifixion.
Act 2. The second act is transitory in many ways as Jesus begins his journey to Jerusalem (8:22-10:52).
And he asked them, “But who do you say that I am?” Peter answered him, “You are the Christ.”
Act 3. The third act is set in Jerusalem and climaxes with the crucifixion (11:1-16:8). It is here were we see the persecuted Savior and find encouragement to endure persecution ourselves.
Now at this point, you may be wondering, what about Mark 16:9-20? I will reserve discussion of this question for a later blog post.
I invite you to read and study through The Gospel According to Mark with me this spring. The following outlines my plan for studying and teaching through the gospel.
January 7-13 — Mark 1:1-45
January 14-20 — Mark 2:1-3:6
January 21-27 — Mark 3:7-35
Jan. 28-Feb. 3 — Mark 4:1-34
February 4-10 — Mark 4:35-5:43
February 11-17 — Mark 6:1-56
February 18-24 — Mark 7:1-37
Feb. 25-Mar. 3 — Mark 8:1-30
March 4-10 — Mark 8:31-9:29
March 11-17 — Mark 9:30-50
March 18-24 — Mark 10:1-52
Mar. 25-31 — Mark 11:1-33
April 1-7 — Mark 12:1-44
April 8-14 — Mark 13:1-37
April 15-21 — Mark 14:1-31
April 22-28 — Mark 14:32-72
Apr. 29-May 5 — Mark 15:1-32
May 6-12 — Mark 15:33-16:8
May 13-19 — Mark 16:9-20
An Introduction to the New Testament by D.A. Carson and Douglas Moo
How to Read the Bible Book by Book by Gordon Fee and Douglas Stuart
Mark: The Humanity of Christ (Bible Study Guide) by John MacArthur
The Gospel of Mark (NICNT) by William Lane
Mark: An Exegetical and Theological Exposition of Holy Scripture (NAC) by James Brooks