The Gospel of Mark 4

A study course by The Reverend Christopher Cooke

This coming session looks at Some Special Characteristics of Mark’s Gospel.

Normally, I suggest that folk study the questions before reading my comments. However, when it comes to Mark’s treatment of Peter and the Twelve, you may want to refer to my comments below, because I have had the Parallels in Matthew and Luke in front of me. They were often embarrassed and confused by Mark’s treatment of Mary, Peter and the Apostles and this is one of the areas where they changed the earlier Gospel considerably.

Chapter 5:21-43: A Girl Restored to Life and a Woman Healed.

The two healings are linked by faith. Morna Hooker thinks there may be a connection between the many years that the woman has suffered and the life of the young girl. We know the woman had been suffering for twelve years and perhaps that was the age of the child as well.

Jairus is one of the rulers of the synagogue and he asks Jesus to lay his hands on his dying girl. Normally, the Jewish religious leaders are shown in a very poor light in Mark’s Gospel but Jairus is shown in a much more positive way. This is the first time in the Gospel that laying on of hands on the sick is specifically recorded. He touches the leper but specifically laying on of hands happens here first and then to the sick (6:5), a deaf mute (7:32) and a blind man (8:23-25). This was to become a feature of the infant Church. Jesus also lays his hands on the children but that was a form of blessing.

Jesus’ progress to Jairus’ house is interrupted by the actions of the suffering woman. Whereas, Jairus has formally asked Jesus for help, the woman secretly touches Jesus’ clothes. Elsewhere, in the Gospels, people touch Jesus’ clothing for healing and in this Gospel at 6:56. In Acts, we are told that people brought the sick out so that Peter’s shadow may fall upon them (Acts 5:15). The woman does not immediately own up to her actions because touching someone else whilst one was impure would have been very offensive (almost as bad as a leper trying to touch someone). She was, like them, an outsider. It would have made the other person impure as well. However, she does pluck up courage to admit what she has done. She receives no rebuke from Jesus, and he says to her: “Daughter, your faith has made you well; go in peace and be healed of your disease”.

Meanwhile, Jairus must have been experiencing torment at the delay in what was his last hope. And then the message comes that his daughter has died. Jesus has words for Jairus at this point: “Do not fear, only believe”. Seeing the woman healed through her faith, Jairus should have faith that his daughter will also be well. When Jesus arrives at Jairus’ home, the mourners are already lamenting the girl’s death. Jesus’ assertion that the girl is only sleeping, strikes the mourners as profoundly silly. As far as they are concerned, nothing can be done now that she is dead but mourn. Jesus speaks to the girl in Aramaic, their shared native tongue. She is not only brought to life, but she brought back to full health.

The command that the family is to keep silent about this is, of course, impractical. Craig Evans thinks this was just long enough so that Jesus could slip away and not be caught up in the melee. There may also be a hint here of the “Messianic Secret”. Jesus was anxious that people did not jump to the wrong ideas about what sort of Messiah he was going to be. It may also be part of Mark’s explanation why the Jewish people had not turned to Jesus and become Christians in greater numbers.

We should also note that this, in some ways, is rather like the raising of Lazarus in John’s Gospel. It prefigures the resurrection of Jesus and, indeed, the hoped-for resurrection of the Christians who first heard Mark’s Gospel. [We must bear this in mind when we consider the rather truncated Easter account in Mark’s Gospel]. Gentile Christians would also have identified with the woman because like her, they were once outsiders.

“Both stories would have brought reassurance of the new life and salvation which came to believers through the power of Jesus”. Morna Hooker.

A Thread Running Throughout the Gospel.

Leslie Houldenstressed the importance of Bread in Mark’s Gospel.

I am reading Carol Meyers’ “Rediscovering Eve” currently. In this book, she examines Eve in refreshing ways. She also examines what life would be like for ordinary women during Old Testament times. She points out that the heartland of Israel in the hill country provided a livelihood that could be undermined by water shortages, pestilence and illness. Wheat and other grains were the main subsistence crops and nearly all meals involved bread. It may have been dipped in olive oil if that was available. To “break bread” was synonymous with having a meal. Obviously, wealthier people would have a better diet and the diet was more varied in cities such as Jerusalem. On the shores of Lake Galilee, this diet was supplemented with fish. Wine was the staple drink.

Mark 6:30-44 concerns the return of the Twelve from their mission and the Feeding of the Five Thousand. So, we have the staple foods for an area around Lake Galilee. It is a famous passage. Lying behind this, and the other Feeding, is the God’s provision for the Israelites escaping from Egypt. God provided manna in the desert (Exodus 16 and Numbers 11). Jesus views the crowd as like sheep without a shepherd. This is also full of Old Testament imagery: Jesus says that the people of Israel, in his day, are leaderless and have no guide. The Feeding is linked to Jesus’ ministry of teaching. We notice everyone was satisfied. Jesus feeds those who are God’s people and Morna Hooker remarks on the amount of bread and fish left over. This was more than enough for those who were not there including Mark and those who first heard his Gospel. Some commentators think that the numbers are significant for the Israelites. Five thousand men and five fishes may have echoes of the five books attributed to Moses (Genesis to Deuteronomy) which were the bedrock of the Jewish scriptures. There were twelve baskets left over which might echo the twelve tribes of Israel (and, indeed, the twelve disciples).

Mark 8:1-10 is the Feeding of the Four Thousand. Some scholars believe this is a duplicate of the earlier feeding. It is certainly interesting that the disciples show the same incredulity as before. The fish come into the story a little later and they are of some indeterminate number. That there are fewer people than the previous occasion might seem to be a slight anti-climax. In the previous feeding, we are told the crowd were following Jesus’ movements. There are fewer Old Testament references, but we are told that some had come from a great distance. There were seven baskets of leftovers. Seven is an important number throughout the Middle East of the time and relevant to many peoples. This has led some scholars to suggest that this Feeding was in those parts of the shores of Galilee which were in Gentile occupation. The last geographical reference in the Gospel was to the Decapolis which was Gentile. This may be Mark’s understanding, but Morna Hooker thinks that Mark found a Feeding narrative in two different sources. She thinks that it is the leftovers that fill the Gentiles.

Mark 7:27-28 is part of the Jesus’ discussion with the Syro-Phoenician woman where she elegantly demonstrates her wit and faith by saying “even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs”. This rather underlines Morna Hooker’s point that there are plenty of leftovers for the Gentiles. This passage also demonstrates that people who only appear once in Mark’s Gospel are shown in a good light (see below).

Mark 8:14-21 is a discussion about Bread. It is a passage which shows the Twelve in a poor light (see below). Here, as elsewhere, they get the wrong end of the stick entirely. They are roundly rebuked by Jesus. When Matthew uses this passage in his own Gospel, he rather softens Jesus’ words. Jesus feels that having witnessed these miracles, the Twelve should have more faith. It follows the Feeding of the Four Thousand and a debate with the Pharisees about following ritual cleaning rules when eating. This is more characteristic of the Jesus found in John’s Gospel who takes an image and discusses it. We have some sympathy with the Twelve for not understanding Jesus at this point. The point Jesus is making seems to have been lost in its transmission. Mark does not make this clear. What is clear is that Jesus uses bread for teaching purposes.

Mark 14:12-25 is one of the most important episodes in the whole Gospel. It concerns preparations for the Passover and the institution of the Last Supper. The Last Supper is Jesus’ reinterpretation of the Passover for his followers. It was to be the central way that his followers worshipped him across the Mediterranean world, and it is central to our worship today. Jesus uses the staple food, bread, and the staple drink, wine, to inaugurate a new relationship between his followers and Jesus and, indeed, God. This is the oldest account in the Gospels which Matthew and Luke use. There is an even older account in the New Testament in Paul’s Letters: 1 Corinthians 11:23-34. There is a remarkable similarity between the two accounts. Morna Hooker points out that this is a brief account “and almost certainly reflects the form of wording used at the celebration of the eucharist in [Mark’s] own church”. The meal is a Passover which celebrates Israel’s escape from Egypt. Jesus’ conversation at the meal concerns his imminent betrayal and death. Matthew largely follows Mark’s account in his Gospel (as he does throughout the whole Passion Narrative). Luke tries to combine Mark’s version with Paul’s. Leslie Houlden said that the eucharist speaks of God’s freedom, faithfulness and mysteriousness. Its importance is both once for all and something to be perpetuated time and time again. And at the very heart of all this are bread and wine.

Mark’s Treatment of his Characters.

Mary and Jesus’ Family.

There are no birth stories in Mark’s Gospel which means references to his family are very limited. I have found only one reference by name to ‘Mary’ his mother: 6:3. One of the reasons for Jesus’ rejection in the Nazareth Synagogue is: “Is not this the carpenter, the son of Mary and brother of James and Joses and Judas and Simon…”

15:40, 15:47 and 16:1: Although, we see at 6:3 that Mary was also the mother of James, Joses and Simon as well as Jesus. However, most commentators (including the more conservative C.E.B. Cranfield), do not argue that these are references to Mary, the mother of Jesus. Both Cranfield and Hooker believe these people were known in the early Church. The women may have died by the writing of the Gospel but their sons were living witnesses.

15:21 is also relevant here. Simon of Cyrene was compelled to carry Jesus’ cross. Mark describes him as “the father of Alexander and Rufus”. Matthew and Luke omit this detail because, presumably, they do not see its relevance. Most commentators believe that Alexander and Rufus were again known in the early Church either in person or by name.

3:21, 31-35 is a profoundly disturbing passage as Tom Wright and Dick France state. The Greek word translated “brothers” can include cousins and both sexes. In verse 21, we read that people were saying that Jesus was out of his mind and his family are concerned for him. There does appear to be an estrangement between Jesus and his family. Luke is embarrassed by this and omits this section. As Craig Evans writes, we must take into account that Jesus often used hyperbole and exaggeration in his teaching. Jesus defines his true family. His kinsmen are not those who are related to him by blood but those people who do the will of God.

“Has he literally rejected his family? Probably not, for his family will come to believe in him, and his brother James becomes an apostle and one of the ‘pillars’ of the church (Galatians 1:9, 2:9). But his language indicates the seriousness of his message and the need to commit to it”. Craig Evans.

The Disciples and Peter.

We have already seen that the Twelve are slow to understand the Parables which Jesus then explains to them. On the other hand, we have seen the enthusiastic response of Peter, Andrew, James and John (the Fishermen) to become his disciples. This is also true of Levi/Matthew (2:13-15). Jesus appoints The Twelve in 3:13-19 and sends them out on Mission in 6:1-6.

8:27-33 is an interesting passage particularly as it concerns Peter. It begins well for Peter who has one of his flashes of insight: Jesus is the Messiah, the Christ. Again, it is followed by the command to secrecy. However, it then all goes wrong. Jesus teaches that he must suffer and die. Peter, not unnaturally, wants to protect him. He gets the rebuff: “Get behind me, Satan!” In the Gospels, Satan is the prosecution counsel (and the Holy Spirit is the defence counsel). These harsh words may betray a real temptation. Matthew adapts this passage with Jesus extolling Peter and giving him the keys of heaven. Luke leaves out the second part concerning Satan.

9:17-19 and 9:28-29 is an occasion when the disciples fail in a healing and Jesus accuses them of a lack of faith. When they ask him about this later, Jesus says some rather puzzling words. Presumably, the disciples had already been praying when trying to heal the boy. It may reflect two sources which Mark has put together rather clumsily. However, the overall message is clear: Jesus thinks that the disciples have not come up to the mark.

9:33-37 is an even more disturbing passage. The Twelve are arguing about who was the greatest. We know this is all too common of most institutions but here we find it amongst the Twelve! Luke shortens his account and Matthew omits entirely the verses about the Twelve arguing about who was the greatest.

10:13-16 is the famous passage where the disciples are trying to protect Jesus from the attentions of children. Jesus rebukes them and says that the children should be allowed to come to him. Matthew and Luke do not alter this very much. Children, at that time, held the lowest position in Jewish society and the disciples are viewing them as of less worth than other people.

10:23-27 also contains a passage where the disciples’ attitude is wrong. There was a long Jewish tradition that those people who were wealthy had been blessed by God. This is very typical of the wisdom literature and traditions of the Old Testament. The Book of Proverbs often asserts this while the Book of Job questions it. Both Matthew and Luke remove the verses where the disciples express incredulity.

10:28-31 shows Peter in a better light. He points out that the Twelve have left so much behind so that they can follow Jesus. Jesus says they will be rewarded. However, it is followed by the challenging saying that the first will be last and the last will be first. Again, there are no gradations of service.

10:35-45 is another extremely shocking passage. The apostles James and John ask to sit on Jesus’ right and left in heaven. This infuriates the other ten. Of course, it leads into profound teaching from Jesus. Matthew and Luke were very uneasy about this. Luke omits all of the first section and so it becomes rather like 9:33-37. Matthew puts the request on the lips of James and John’s mother!

Then we come to the Passion account.

14:26-31 is set immediately after the celebration of the Last Supper and contains Jesus’ prophetic words that the Twelve will deny him. Peter is adamant that he will not let Jesus down and the rest of the Twelve agree in backing Jesus to the last. Luke leaves out this prophecy and replaces it with special words about Peter. All the Gospels include Peter and the Twelve’s promise.

“Throughout the Gospel, Mark has stressed the failure of the disciples to comprehend, but they have at least followed him. Now they will fail to do even that”. Morna Hooker.

Verse 28 is important for understanding Mark’s view of Jesus. He will be raised and go before them into Galilee.

14:37-42 is immediately afterwards in the Garden of Gethsemane. Jesus takes Peter, James and John with him. Despite the tense situation, they are unable to stay awake with Jesus. Luke omits the sections where the three apostles are sleeping on the job.

14:43-50 concerns Judas Iscariot’s betrayal of Jesus and Jesus’ arrest. In contrast to elsewhere in the Gospels, Matthew and Luke lengthen this section and there is a corresponding tendency to amplify the heinousness of Judas’ actions. As Leslie Houlden says, there is no further mention of Judas in the Gospel. Why did Judas do it? I am very unpersuaded by John’s argument that it was for the money. ‘Iscariot’ may be a reference to swords. Some scholars think that Judas was in favour of a revolution. Whether this is right or not, it would seem that Judas was trying to force Jesus’ hand. He seems to have had his own agenda. I would like to agree with Leslie Houlden that even Judas could have received Jesus’ forgiveness after the resurrection as Peter did. Matthew 27:3-6 says that Judas was filled with remorse, tried to return the money and then hung himself. Luke in Acts 1:16-19 argues that he died because his “he burst open in the middle and all his bowels gushed out”. John, like Mark, has nothing to say about the fate of Judas. In all probability, he did die and quite possibly by suicide (hanging or falling on a dagger). Otherwise, the infant Church would not have been able to elect Matthias in his place.

14:66-72 is Peter’s denial of Jesus. Matthew and Luke also include the denials although Luke changes the order of events somewhat. In Mark, the three denials match the three times Peter falls asleep in the Garden of Gethsemane. There is a general moral decline in Peter’s denials. First, he denies Jesus to one girl. Then he does so again when bystanders are present. The third denial is accompanied by curses and oaths. This is the very opposite of sharing the Gospel.

“The story of Peter and his testing stands in sharp contrast to that of Jesus before the Sanhedrin, and Mark draws attention to this by interleaving the two stories… The story may have been a timely reminder to Mark’s readers that following Jesus was by no means an easy thing: when persecution threatened, it was all too easy to be ashamed of Jesus and his words”. Morna Hooker.

It is a nuanced picture of fallible men!

Why does Mark give us such a complex picture of the founding apostles of the Church?

Normally, we build up the saints and the apostles so that they can be role models. We use role models in many other aspects of life as well.

  • Hugh Anderson supports the view of A.E.J. Rawlinson (who was writing as early as 1927). The utter frankness of Mark’s portrait of Peter makes sense now that Peter has been recently martyred. Peter’s loyalty unto death after previous failures would have been very encouraging to a church facing its own problems and, perhaps, persecution.
  • Leslie Houlden suggests that all disciples are failures and all need forgiveness. There are no gradations in Mark or Paul on this matter. We all rely upon Jesus Christ.
  • Ernest Best argues that the Twelve act as a foil to Jesus. They often fall short but Jesus is the supreme figure who is always right and good.
  • The great Canadian spiritual writer, Henri Nouwen, described Jesus as the “wounded healer”. There is a great tradition that Jesus saves just because of his weaknesses. Perhaps, Mark is offering the very mature viewpoint that the apostles are our role models just because of their weaknesses and fallibility. Morna Hooker’s quote above seems to suggest this.

People who appear once in the Gospel.

7:24-30 describes how the Syrophoenician Woman displays comprehension and wit when dealing with Jesus which contrasts with the lack of understanding of the Twelve. Jesus’ words are rather shocking, but we do not know whether his facial expression was less off-putting than his words. As Craig Evans writes that “the apparent harshness and insensitivity argue strongly against the invention of this story in an increasingly Gentile church. On the contrary, Jesus’ disposition reflects genuine tradition in which Israel enjoyed priority”.

We have already looked at 9:21-24 when considering the limitations of the Twelve. Surely, the climax of the story is the wonderful words of the Father of the boy.It is a sentiment that might be said to sum up much of the intent of Mark’s Gospel: “I believe; help my unbelief!”

10:46-52 concerns Blind Bartimaeus. He refuses to be put off by the people trying to quiet him. He addresses Jesus as ‘my teacher’ and asks for his sight back. However, before that he has been calling out “Jesus, son of David, have mercy on me!” That has a definite messianic ring to it. So, Bartimaeus has already acclaimed Jesus to be the Messiah and the Christ. This is not much longer after Peter’s similar acclamation and Bartimaeus has not had the benefit of Jesus’ teaching or experienced the Transfiguration. Jesus says, “Go, your faith has made you well”. Immediately, he regains his sight “and followed him on the way”. “The way” was the first description for being a Christian. In other words, Bartimaeus becomes a believer and a disciple. His earlier acclamation prepares for Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem.

12:41-44 is about the Widow’s Offering. It follows on from Jesus’ argument with the scribes where he accuses the scribes of devouring the estates of widows. Traditionally, we have seen her as a model of sacrificial giving. We also stress that her gift is proportionately more than the ostentatious gifts of those who had great wealth. Craig Evans points out that the widow cannot afford her tiny gift. He writes that the “example of the widow’s mite is a tragic example of the exploitation of a temple establishment that has become oppressive, not generous and protective”. Morna Hooker writes, the “story is a reminder to Mark’s readers that the humblest and the poorest of them can make a worthy offering to God”.

14:3-9 describes the Woman who Anointed Jesus with expensive ointment and shocked those who saw it. Olive oil would have done but she uses pure nard. The money could have been used for good causes. Craig Evans points out that money would be necessary if Jesus were to set up an alternative government as some hoped. This, of course, occurs after Jesus triumphal entry into Jerusalem. There was also a tradition of giving alms during the Passover festival. Morna Hooker sees this as a pair with the Widow’s offering because this woman also spent much more than she should. Jesus links her actions with his coming burial and so, here is another foreshadowing of his death. Jesus’ words are the highest accolade: “Truly, I tell you, wherever the good news is proclaimed in the whole world, what she has done will be told in remembrance of her”.

15:21 describes how Simon of Cyrene was compelled to help carry Jesus ’cross. We might have expected that such assistance would have been given by Simon Peter! This passage would have been most relevant if Simon and his family then became Christians (see above).

15:39 isprobably the climax of the Gospel when the Centurion makes the great acclamation: “Truly this man was God’s son”. Up to now, it has been the unclean spirits that have acclaimed Jesus as such. God has done so at the Baptism and the Transfiguration. Even Peter’s acclamation “You are the Messiah” does not go as far. During his trials, Jesus has been taunted and ridiculed by both the Jewish religious leaders and the Roman soldiers. The Centurion was a servant of Caesar and the Emperors acclaimed themselves as “son of God”. By the time, Mark had written his Gospel, Caligula and Nero had claimed themselves to be gods.

14:51-52 concerns the young man running away. Morna Hooker thinks these two verses are a total enigma. However, because we cannot find an obvious theological point being made, she suggests this may be part of a genuine historical tradition.

Morna Hooker and Craig Evans see a connection with Amos 2:16. Morna Hooker tends to think the connection is too tenuous (and I rather agree with her). In Amos 2:16, the prophet foresees that even Israel’s stalwart defenders will flee away naked. Craig Evans argues that in rejecting the Messiah, Israel has brought upon itself the judgement described by Amos.

Hugh Anderson makes a good point here. The previous verse is: “All of them deserted him and fled”. This refers to The Twelve. And this young man also flees. In contrast, Jesus makes no attempt to escape and he calmly accepts his destiny. This is the essence of Mark’s Passion account as my teacher, Christopher Evans, stressed. In the Passion, Jesus is largely passive and he rarely speaks. The main actors are everyone else and we will look at this in our final two sessions.

Questions

Some Special Characteristics

We will look at three things:

  1. There is a device that Mark uses in his construction. As we have seen, Mark’s Gospel is not very literary. Partly, this was because it was written to be spoken.
  2. In the Retreat, Leslie Houlden led at Cuddesdon, he drew attention to a theme running through Mark’s Gospel which perhaps has not had the attention it deserves.
  3. Then there is the much-discussed subject of how Mark treats his characters and particularly Mary, Peter and the apostles.

Chapter 5:21-43: A Girl Restored to Life and a Woman Healed.

Mark uses a ‘sandwich device’ from time to time. This is usually taken over by Matthew and Luke when they write their Gospels using Mark as a major source. This shows that Mark does possess more skill than some scholars give him credit. The most celebrated example of this is Chapter 5:21-43. Luke shortens the account to sixteen verses and Matthew reduces it to eight verses, but they keep the same pattern. We have already looked at miracles and so we will be more concerned about the pattern and the interruption.

It may well have come to Mark this way (either through tradition or from St Peter) but the temptation would have been to separate out the two distinct narrative lines:

  • The Healing of Jairus’ daughter in verses 21-24 and 35-43, and
  • The Healing of the woman with haemorrhages in verses 24-34.

Indeed, Dick France and Tom Wright consider them separately in their Commentaries.

The healing of Jairus’ daughter is rather similar in form to other healings we considered in Chapter 1. However, the healing of the woman with haemorrhages is atypical.

Do you think that Mark’s way of telling these events is effective?

Or is Mark muddying the waters?

Does this capture how it must have been like for Jesus juggling many requests?

What is Jairus feeling as the hoped-for prompt response from Jesus is delayed?

Does this heighten the tension?

In most of the healing miracles, the afflicted person or their friends and family ask Jesus for help.

What happens with this woman?

Notice, again, the use of the word “IMMEDIATELY”.

What is the result of the secret touch?

  • For the woman?
  • For Jesus?

How do the disciples respond?

What does the woman do when she realizes Jesus knows?

What is Jesus’ response?

Then the dreadful news arrives from Jairus’ house.

What are Jairus’ feelings now?

How is Jesus welcomed by the mourners at the house?

What are Jesus’ instructions after the healing?

Do these two stories shed light on each other?

Does this tell us something about how we are to deal with interruptions to our plans?

A Thread Running Throughout the Gospel.

Look at the following passages and references and see if you can pick up Leslie Houlden’s theme?

Mark 6:30-44Mark 7:27-28
Mark 8:1-10Mark 8:14-21
Mark 14:12-25

Mark’s Treatment of his Characters.

We have already seen Jesus’ clashes with the Jewish religious leaders when considering the Parable of the Vineyard and the Tenants last week. Mark portrays them in a bad light, and this becomes even more obvious in the Passion Story. Matthew and Luke largely follow this presentation.

We now consider Mark’s portrayal of:

  • Mary and Jesus’ Family.
  • The Disciples and Peter.

Here, Matthew and Luke do give us a rather different picture than Mark does. They sometimes change Mark’s Gospel when they write their versions of his episodes. They also included a lot more material from other sources (which Mark presumably did not have). We get the impression that Mark was writing with urgency whilst Matthew and Luke writing a little later, take the opportunity of doing more research and incorporating more material.

Mary and Jesus’ Family.

There are no birth stories in Mark’s Gospel which means references to his family are very limited.

I have found only one reference by name to ‘Mary’ his mother: 6:3.

One of the reasons for Jesus’ rejection in the Nazareth Synagogue is: “Is not this the carpenter, the son of Mary and brother of James and Joses and Judas and Simon…”

Later, in the Passion and Burial accounts, there are references to Marys but is this the Mary, the mother of Jesus? If so, it is a strange way of referring to her!

Look at 15:40, 15:47 and 16:1.

What do you think?

3:21, 31-35 is the main passage that refers to Mary and Jesus’ family.

Try to read it as if you are hearing it for the first time! (And without the knowledge of what appears in the other Gospels).

This is part of another of Mark’s sandwiches.

Jewish society put the greatest emphasis possible on family relationships.

Elsewhere in this Gospel, Jesus insists we must honour our mother and father (7:9-13).

So, what does Jesus mean here?

What does it say about his mother and family?

What do you think they felt when Jesus’ response was relayed to them?

Does this suggest that Mary and the family were not part of the new movement?

Are we part of a new family as Christians?

How does that relate to our other family responsibilities?

“Unless you read verses 34 and 35 as deeply shocking, you haven’t got the message”. Tom Wright.
“As long as Jesus’ family are unable to join that movement, the blood relationship must take second place to the new family which is coming into being through Jesus’ ministry”.
Dick France.

Most scholars believe that Mary and Jesus’ family play no further part in Mark’s Gospel!

Do you find that shocking?

No wonder, Matthew and, particularly Luke and John present a very different picture. Luke in Acts and Paul in his Letters have Jesus’ brother James leading the Jerusalem Church. We have seen a lot of correspondences between Mark and Paul, but this is a point on which they diverge.

The Disciples and Peter.

Mark’s description of The Twelve is also very interesting. Matthew and Luke often tone down and even alter Mark’s picture. Luke writes a second volume ‘Acts’ where Peter is a prime figure as well as Paul and James the brother of Jesus.

We have seen that Mark’s Gospel was probably written in response to the martyrdoms of Peter and Paul during Nero’s persecution. They were not the first martyrs. Stephen had been stoned to death by outraged Jews. James (the brother of John) had been martyred by Herod Agrippa. It seems that James the brother of Jesus also lost his life in the turbulent period that led up to the Jewish Revolt.

The normal reaction is to build up the reputation of such figures and this is a concern for Matthew and Luke. But we must remember that Mark, like Paul, thinks that the Second Coming of Jesus is about to happen and there is urgency to all Christians do. 9:1 is an example of this expectation.

What is Mark’s view of the The Twelve?

We have already seen that they are slow to understand the Parables which Jesus then explains to them. On the other hand, we have seen the enthusiastic response of Peter, Andrew, James and John (the Fishermen) to become his disciples. This is also true of Levi/Matthew (2:13-15).

Jesus appoints The Twelve in 3:13-19 and sends them out on Mission in 6:1-6.

Briefly, look at the following passages and consider what this sounded like for those who first heard Mark’s Gospel.

8:27-33.9:17-19 and 9:28-29.
9:33-37.10:13-16.
10:23-27.10:28-31.
10:35-45.14:26-31.
14:37-42.14:43-50.
14:66-72.

It is a nuanced picture of fallible men!

Why does Mark give us such a complex picture of the founding apostles of the Church?

Unlike Matthew’s Gospel and Luke’s Acts, Judas Iscariot is not mentioned again. There is no reference to his death (and replacement). Leslie Houlden suggests that if we just had Mark’s Gospel, we might assume that Judas, like Peter, was forgiven by Jesus and remained one of The Twelve.

What do you make of this?

People who appear once in the Gospel.

We look briefly at these passages.

What do you think of these individuals?

7:24-30 – The Syrophoenician Woman.

9:21-24 – The Father of the Boy with a Spirit.

10:46-52 – Blind Bartimaeus.

12:41-44 – The Widow’s Offering.

14:3-9 – The Woman who Anointed Jesus.

15:39 – The Centurion.

Here we see some wonderful instances of faith.

The accolades that Jesus applies to the Widow and the Anointing Woman are reminiscent of how Luke later treats Mary the mother of Jesus.

The climatic words that sum up the Gospel are given to the Centurion rather than to Peter and the disciples.

One final enigma is 14:51-52.

Who is the young man? Matthew and Luke omit him when they write their versions of the Passion account.

The author of the Gospel? This was favoured at one time but less so these days.

A Source of the Passion Account?

Is he related to the young man found in the Empty Tomb in 16:5?

As Leslie Houlden says:

We too are disciples. The first disciples failed, and we fail.

The one-offs cheer us, and they are the best of us by the sheer gift of God which comes through Jesus.

Mark does not grade failures. In this he is like Paul. All have sinned and are lost and are ready to be saved.

  • There is no acceptance of second best.
  • But there is no despair at failure.

The Gospel of Mark 3

A study course by The Reverend Christopher Cooke

Parables

Parables play an important part in Mark’s Gospel. The Parables he includes are usually taken up by Matthew and Luke. However, both Matthew and Luke contain parables not found in Mark.
Mark’s Parables are mainly grouped into two sections.

  • Mark 4: 1-34.
  • Mark 12:1-12.

Most of them are very short. They are almost aphorisms or perhaps sermon illustrations. There are only two longer Parables in Mark’s Gospel:

  • The Parable of the Sower in Mark 4:1-9 which has an explanation in 4:10-20.
  • The Parable of the Wicked Tenants in Mark 12:1-12 concludes with Scripture.

At one time, scholarly thought was that an explanation could not be from Jesus’ own mouth because that would be something akin to explaining a joke. Therefore, the explanation was the addition of the infant Church as apostles and preachers commented on Jesus’ parables. I am not so sure that is correct now.

This is in part because of the variety of parables and stories that Jesus told. In the other Gospels, there are some quite long Parables rather different to those found in Mark’s Gospel. To name the most obvious:

  • The Ten Maidens or Bridesmaids in Matthew’s Gospel.
  • The Sheep and the Goats in Matthew’s Gospel.
  • The Prodigal Son (or better The Loving Father) in Luke’s Gospel.
  • The Good Samaritan in Luke’s Gospel.

The sheer variety of Parables may well allow for an explanation of an important one.

In Mark’s Gospel, the two longer Parables have pivotal roles:

  • The Chapter 4 Parables seem to sum up Jesus’ ministry and put down guidelines for the ministry of his followers.
  • The Chapter 12 Parable introduces the Passion and death of Jesus.

Dick France, I think, expresses the meanings of parables well:

“A parabole is a striking pronouncement, short or long, which leaves the hearers to work out for themselves what it was all about. It is likely to leave them stimulated, exhilarated, challenged, perhaps puzzled, but it will not spoonfeed them with a simple prosaic statement. And this means that the same parable may have a very different effect on different people… Parables have been usefully compared with political cartoons in a newspaper… how much you get out of a cartoon depends on how much you bring to it, in terms of knowledge of what is going on in the world…” Dick France.

Chapter 4. Questions

Verses 1-9: The Parable of the Sower.

If we hadn’t already supplied a title for this parable, could it have had a better name?

  • The Parable of the Seeds?
  • The Parable of the type of the Soil?

Do you understand this parable?

If you do, why didn’t the Disciples understand?

Jesus is often described as the greatest of teachers, so what does this say about his teaching methods?

What is this parable telling us?
Try to do this without remembering the explanation!

What do you think about the ending? [Thirty, sixty, a hundredfold…] Compare this with Matthew’s version at Matthew 13:8.

Verses 10-12: The Purpose of Parables.

Here we are presented with another awkward question:
Would this parable have meant one thing to the Disciples and something different to the crowds?

Is the greatest teacher withholding some of his teaching from the crowds?
We notice that the Disciples (the Twelve and others) seem bemused and confused about the Parable.

Do verses 10-12 suggest that there are insiders and outsiders as regards Jesus’ teaching?

Is this fair?

Or does the explanation come to those who ask?

Were the crowds more interested in the spectacle than in understanding?

Is this reflecting the conditions of the soil?

Verses 13-20: An Explanation of the Parable.

Is this explanation helpful?
The seed needs to be sown but the soil needs to be in a condition to receive it:

  • What condition were the Disciples in?
  • What condition were the Crowd in?
  • What condition are we in?

In the end, is it up to each one of us to understand the meaning of this parable and fit it to our own questions and situation?

Does this help us with our understanding of other parables?

Verses 21-25: A Lamp under a Bushel Basket.

There are two little sayings here. The first is well-known and straight forward. Or is it?

What do we do with sources of light?

What do we do with the light that comes from us?

How does this fit in with Jesus’ teaching above that some things are still hidden or unexplained to the crowds?

Or is he looking a little into the future? What is, at present, unclear will soon be clear to everyone?

Rowan Williams sees this as having both a promise and a warning. Do you agree?

It is followed by an even more cryptic saying. What is the measure that is given and got?

Does this point to our responsibility in the process?

Verses 26-29: The Parable of the Growing Seed.

This parable begins: The kingdom/kingship of God is… Dick France paraphrases: This is how God works out his purpose in the world.

Here we have an illustration of arable farming. This is something we celebrate with Rogation-tide and Harvest.

What does God do here?

What does the farmer do?

Tom Wright points out that the word used ‘rise’ night and day is the same word that is used for the resurrection.

Is that relevant?

Do we take pride in a good crop?

Verses 30-32: The Parable of the Mustard Seed.

This is not our mustard and cress, but a bush that can grow to nine feet tall.

So what is this parable about?

Verses 33-34: The Use of Parables.

These verses round off this section of parables.

Does the second part of verse 33, help us understand why Jesus used parables?

Chapter 12.

Verses 1-12: The Parable of the Wicked Tenants.

We notice this follows important events in the previous chapter:

  • Jesus’ Triumphal Entry into Jerusalem (11:1-11).
  • Jesus Cleanses the Temple (11:15-19).
  • Jesus’ Authority is Questioned (11:27-33).

Do these events inform how we read this Parable?

A vineyard is often used as an image for Israel (Isaiah 5:1-7).

“Of course, there is an element of exaggeration, even of burlesque, in the violence with which the tenants treated the messengers, and still more in the naïve assumption that if they killed the son and heir they would somehow gain a right to property. But this is not the depiction of real life, but a story meant to convey a message”. Dick France.

Is the meaning of this parable obscure or transparent?

If Israel is the vineyard:

  • Who is the owner of the vineyard?
  • Who are the messengers?
  • Who is the son?

Why was his audience so cross (verse 12)?

The quote comes from Psalm 118. This psalm was well-known because it was used for pilgrims going up to Jerusalem to worship in the Temple.

What is rejected?

What is the cornerstone?

The Gospel of Mark 2

A study course by The Reverend Christopher Cooke

THE GOSPEL OF MARK

A Personal Reflection and the Sources of the Study.

In 1977, the actor Alec McCowen, began to give his performances of Mark’s Gospel (King James Version) and Jane and I went to see him do this in a London Theatre. It was transfixing and it is still available on DVD.

When I was studying for my Oxford degree (1979-1981), the understanding of the Gospel of Mark was in a state of flux. I felt more confident about the other Gospels. It was clearer what the other Gospel writers were about – even the more mysterious Gospel of John seemed more approachable (and was very well served by commentators).

In contrast, a greater consensus was growing around the Gospels of Matthew and Luke which were written a little later. I felt more at ease with them. If we can assume that Matthew and Luke used Mark’s Gospel, then:

  • Matthew’s Gospel was written after the fall of Jerusalem in AD70 and the Jewish religious leaders were formulating their Scriptures (what we call the Old Testament). The Temple had been destroyed and the Synagogue came to more prominence with the emphasis on Moses. Matthew portrays Jesus as a great Teacher and as a new and greater Moses. There are five main blocks of teaching mirroring the Books of Moses (Genesis to Deuteronomy).
  • Luke’s Gospel contains many more of the famous parables. There is a second volume: The Acts of the Apostles. The journeying element is very important. It tells how the Gospel starts in Galilee and climaxes in Jerusalem and (in Acts) moves from Jerusalem across the Mediterranean until it reaches Rome. In so doing, Luke is demonstrating that Christians are not a threat and are good Roman citizens. And I was taught by an expert on Luke’s Gospel! (Professor Christopher Evans in retirement).

I had read Anthony E. Harvey’s excellent short Introduction to the New Testament (“Something Overheard”) before going to Theological College. He wrote that Mark’s Gospel was full of mysteries and that it mystified him.

The commentaries of Vincent Taylor (1952) and C.E.B. Cranfield (1959 and continually updated until 1972) argued a traditional position. The Gospel was written in Rome by John Mark shortly after the martyrdom of Peter and contained Peter’s recollections of Jesus’ life. This helped explain why Peter was shown in a very poor light in Mark’s Gospel. It is true that Peter would have needed an interpreter if the Aramaic speaking fisherman was to address the Christians of Rome. However, this has been found to be over-simplistic.

The Pelican Commentaries were important for our studies. John Fenton’s Matthew, John Marsh’s John and G.B. Caird’s (rather short) Luke were excellent. [Christopher Evans’ huge Luke has now replaced G.B. Caird’s commentary]. Dennis Nineham’s Mark (1963) was, I felt, the least approachable. Dennis Nineham’s commentary was more academic and stronger on saying what the Gospel of Mark was not about and in combating the traditionalists above. He approached the Gospel as a ‘form critic’ and argued that it had all been processed by the infant Church and represented the Church’s worship and beliefs.

There was, however, a growing feeling that neither of these positions did full justice to Mark as an innovator, pastor and theologian.

Hugh Anderson’s New Century Mark (1976) was very recent and did not get into softback until I had finished my degree. It is a very well-balanced approach but he is again hesitant in claiming too much about Mark’s Gospel. I used a library copy and then my mother gave me the softback version as an ordination present!

There were also ‘The Introductions’ often written by German scholars. These were very scholarly and exceedingly dry. W.G. Kummel’s “Introduction to the New Testament” (1975) is very sound for reference.

The American Norman Perrin offered a very different and very accessible Introduction (1974). He is particularly good on Matthew, Paul and John. He argued that Chapter 13 was the key to understanding Mark’s Gospel and he entitled his chapter on Mark “The Apocalyptic Drama”. He found links with the Book of Revelation (The Apocalypse of John). I have to say that I was unconvinced then and I still remain unconvinced. There are so many imponderables about Chapter 13. I feel it is a shame that the Gospel set for St Mark’s Day is Chapter 13. It should be what we have studied: the excellent Chapter 1!

At least, Norman Perrin took the Mark seriously and saw that his Gospel was ground-breaking in so many ways. My tutor, Christopher Evans, also wrote a book about the Resurrection (1970) which has a section on Mark’s Gospel and in 1975 he gave some open lectures of the subject of the Passion which were later published.

I tried to keep up with studies during my ministry. There have been some notable contributions since then. Ernest Best wrote “Mark: The Gospel as Story” in 1983 and I think this contains some wonderful insights. William Telford edited some articles on “The Interpretation of Mark” in 1985. His opening introductory chapter is very good.

We had to wait over twenty years (nearly as long as we waited for Christopher Evans’ Luke) for Morna Hooker to produce her extremely good commentary on Mark of 1991.

In 2000, I had the privilege of attending a Retreat at my old Theological College when the addresses were given by Leslie (J.L.) Houlden on aspects of Mark’s Gospel. Reading my notes from this brings back great joy. They were wonderful. In 2003, Eerdmans produced a one volume Commentary of the Bible rather like Peake’s which now seems rather dated. Craig A. Evans provided a very good commentary on Mark’s Gospel. [He is no relation to Christopher Evans].

My ministry in the Lichfield Diocese was blessed by the contribution of two New Testament theologians. Bishop John Davies was Bishop of Shrewsbury from 1987 to 1994 and he remains a friend. [My course on Galatians owes a lot to him]. Tom Wright was Dean of Lichfield from 1994 to 1999. He spent time going round the Diocese teaching. He was Bishop of Durham from 2003 to 2010 but then went back to academia. He has written a huge amount of books under two heads. When he uses “Tom” these are easily accessible works for the laity and the clergy. When he uses “N.T.” he produces very serious academic works which stretch me to the limits.

As far as studies of Jesus are concerned, two influential works were: Gunther Bornkamm’s “Jesus of Nazareth” (1960) and C.H. Dodd’s “The Founder of Christianity” (1970).

There has been great scepticism since then about whether we can write books about Jesus’ life and ministry and some of those which have come out have not been well-received.

Since retiring I have been tackling N.T. Wright’s huge scholarly works that form his series on “Christian Origins and The Question of God”. I am midway through the third volume. The second volume “Jesus and The Victory of God” (1996) provides the most convincing picture of Jesus that I have read recently. Tom Wright sees Jesus, surely correctly, as in the prophetic tradition. As well as being the new and greater Moses, he is also the new and great Prophet who sums up his predecessors and transforms them. I cannot recommend this for the general reader but under “Tom” Wright he published in the same year: “The Original Jesus: The Life and Vision of a Revolutionary”.

In introducing the Bible Studies, I have also found very helpful the new translation of the New Testament by Nicholas King with his short comments and questions. Then there are the two very approachable and recommendable commentaries by Dick (R.T.) France and Tom Wright.

The BRF (Bible Reading Fellowship) has produced a daily commentary for Bible readers on each Book of the Bible. The advantage is that you get two pages of commentary a day. A slight disadvantage may be that different people provide commentaries for different Books of the Bible. Tom Wright has produced “For Everyone” Commentaries for each Book of the New Testament (although some Books get two volumes – but not Mark). They are published by SPCK. These are the books to go to if you want to explore more. Perhaps, Tom Wright just edges it.

  • R.T. France “Mark” BRF.
  • Tom Wright “Mark for Everyone” SPCK.
  • Tom Wright “The Original Jesus” Lion.

Questions

Chapter 1: 1-45

Is there a Prologue?

There is some debate whether Mark’s Gospel has a Prologue. The two most recent commentators think so but Morna Hooker figures it to be verses 1 to 13 but for Craig Evans, it is just verses 1 to 8. Prologues and overtures usually preface operas.

Personally, I think Mark’s Gospel begins with a bang and there is continuous forward movement from the start. This reminds me of some symphonies like Beethoven’s Fifth or Nielsen’s Fourth (The Inextinguishable).

What do you think?

Nicholas King in his translation of Mark’s Gospel suggests that we should always have two thoughts in mind as we study Mark’s Gospel:

  1. Who is Jesus?
  2. What must Jesus’ disciples be like?

Does the Gospel have a title?

There is some debate about this but the first verse of Mark’s Gospel is crucial.

Verse 1: The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.

Does ‘beginning’ remind you of other such uses in the Bible?

What is this “good news” (Gospel)?

What does the term “Christ” mean to you?

How do you feel about Mark describing him as “the Son of God”?

Compare this with what must be the climax of the Passion account: Mark 15:31.

Who else was using “the Son of God” as a title?

Verses 2-8: The Proclamation of John the Baptist.

All four Gospels before describing Jesus’ proclamation and ministry describe that of John the Baptist.

What does John make you feel?

If John were to preach amongst us now, who would respond?

How should we treat the Old Testament? Do we ignore it?

Verses 9-11: The Baptism of Jesus.

All four Gospels make some reference to Jesus’ Baptism although this obviously caused the early Christians some problems. Just because of that, this is therefore likely to be a very genuine event.

Why was Jesus baptized?

Why was this needed when he was the ‘Son of God’?

What does it mean to call Jesus as God’s beloved son?

Verses 12-13: The Temptation of Jesus.

We are far more familiar with the accounts of Matthew (4:1-11) and Luke (4:1-13).

Are you missing something?

How often is there an element of urgency in this chapter?

Verses 14-15: The Beginning of the Galilean Ministry.

When is the proclamation to take place?

What do you think “Good News” means here?

Verses 16-20: Jesus Calls the First Disciples.

Does Jesus matter enough for us to take risks for him?

Who is Jesus?

What must Jesus’ disciples be like?

Verses 21-28: The Man with an Unclean Spirit.

Jesus is in the Capernaum Synagogue. What is Jesus doing?

What is the impact does Jesus make?

What causes Jesus to act in the way he does?

Verses 29-35: Jesus Heals Many at Simon’s House.

Why does Jesus heal the mother-in-law?

How does she respond?

Why does Jesus command silence about his healings?

Verses 35-39: A Preaching Tour in Galilee.

What does Jesus do the first thing next morning?

What about Simon Peter’s actions?

What is Jesus’ plan?

Verses 40-45: Jesus Cleanses a Leper.

Jesus comes into contact with someone who may have a highly contagious disease.

Would you be brave enough to touch a leper?

Does this remind you of anyone else in more recent centuries?

And so Chapter 1 comes to an end!

Are you out of breath?

What do you make of Jesus so far?

What do you make of his ministry so far?

“You are sound asleep and dreaming, when suddenly the door bursts open and a bright light shines full in your face. A voice, breaking in on your dream-world, shouts, ‘Wake up! Get up! You’ll be late!’ And without more ado, the speaker splashes your face with cold water to make the point. Time to stop dreaming and face the most important day of your life. That’s what the opening of Mark’s Gospel is like”. Tom Wright.

Comment

THE GOSPEL OF MARK

Chapter 1: 1-20

Is there a Prologue?

There is some debate whether Mark’s Gospel has a Prologue. The two most recent commentators think so, but Morna Hooker figures it to be verses 1 to 13 but for Craig Evans, it is just verses 1 to 8. Prologues and overtures usually introduce operas.

Personally, I think Mark’s Gospel begins with a bang and there is continuous forward movement from the start. This reminds me of some symphonies like Beethoven’s Fifth or Nielsen’s Fourth (The Inextinguishable).

What do you think?

Nicholas King in his translation of Mark’s Gospel suggests that we should always have two thoughts in mind as we study Mark’s Gospel:

  1. Who is Jesus?
  2. What must Jesus’ disciples be like?

Does the Gospel have a title?

There is some debate about this, but the first verse of Mark’s Gospel is crucial.

Verse 1: The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.

Does ‘beginning’ remind you of other such uses in the Bible?

The Book of Genesis – the first book of the Old Testament and of Jews most holy Torah starts: “In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth…”

The slightly later Gospel of John starts: “In the beginning was the Word…”

What is this “good news” (Gospel)?

There is some debate about whether Mark’s Gospel is a unique new creation. I think it is fair to say that there was nothing like a “Gospel” before. There were secular biographies around in the Roman world and this might have been one inspiration. The other inspiration was surely the Old Testament with its many stories of great figures including Moses, David, Elijah and Elisha. Indeed, the stories of Elijah and Elisha are probably very significant here. Although it is an oxymoron, perhaps we can say that Mark’s Gospel is pretty unique.

The entire story of Jesus’ ministry, including his death, is “good news”. This good news is clarified by the Jewish scriptures. We find the term used particularly by the Second Isaiah (40-55) who proclaimed during the devastating days following the destruction of Jerusalem and the captivity in Babylonian prison camps. There it is the salvation that God is sending at any moment.

What does the term “Christ” mean to you?

Christos is the Greek for Messiah and it means ‘anointed’. It is really a title and not a name. We might say “Jesus the Christ” but it is almost used as a name here. After this, Mark will tend to refer to ‘Jesus’ and the use of ‘Christ/Messiah’ is used on two very important occasions. The first is Peter’s Declaration at Caesarea Philippi. The second time is when he is asked if he is the Messiah during his Jewish trial before the Sanhedrin. Many Jews had been waiting for the Messiah but there were disagreements about what this would be like.

How do you feel about Mark describing him as “the Son of God”?

This seems to be a crucial part of Mark’s view of Jesus (although the doctrine of the Trinity was not to be fully developed for three hundred years). Here Mark is very close to the thinking and theology of Paul.

Compare this with what must be the climax of the Passion account: Mark 15:31.

Who else was using “the Son of God” as a title?

Craig Evans is surely right in seeing a parallel here with how the Roman Emperors saw themselves. Mark’s opening words are directly challenging the Roman Emperor cult. And this is underlined when the climatic words of the Passion are put on the lips of a Roman Centurion.

Verses 2-8: The Proclamation of John the Baptist.

All four Gospels before describing Jesus’ proclamation and ministry describe that of John the Baptist. The baptisms carried out by John are again “quite unique”. There were lustrations for Jews who had become contaminated. There were lustrations for Gentiles who were becoming Jews. Men would also have to be circumcised but this was the only rite for women. However, these lustrations (rather like Naaman’s lustration at the command of Elisha) were self-administered. John seems to have been administering baptism to other people including Jews. This was transforming one thing into something quite different.

What does John make you feel?

John was an uncompromising figure. We are told what he wore and what he ate, and both of these facts would make ordinary people uncomfortable. These details suggest that he was a prophet and particularly a figure like Elijah. His message is about confronting sin and that too is uncomfortable. Repentance involves a deliberate turning around and turning to God.

If John were to preach amongst us now, who would respond?

If John were preaching today, he might get some strange stares. Yet, in his time, people came flocking to him to hear his message. Billy Graham’s mission had a similar impact in the States and in our country.

How should we treat the Old Testament? Do we ignore it?

Mark obviously knew the Scriptures but perhaps in their Greek translation. The passage quoted is only in part attributable to Isaiah. The first phrase comes from Malachi and/or Exodus before moving on to the Second Isaiah who proclaimed during the bleak times of the Babylonian captivity. Matthew and Luke clear up this confusion.

One would not normally call the Jordan valley the wilderness, but John’s is a lone voice as if he were in the wilderness. He may well have come out of the wilderness where Jesus is shortly to go. The wilderness also points to the time when the People of Israel were wandering there after their escape from Egypt. This was a time when God was especially close to them.

John’s proclamation is also to someone who is more powerful who will baptize with the Holy Spirit. John is not worthy to deal with his footwear which is the role of a slave. Certainly, the early Church and the Church ever since combines the baptism in water with the coming of the Holy Spirit. The Church for which Mark writes would have known about what happened on that Pentecost which is recorded by Luke in the Acts of the Apostles.

Verses 9-11: The Baptism of Jesus.

All four Gospels make some reference to Jesus’ Baptism although this obviously caused the early Christians some problems. Just because of that, this is therefore likely to be a very genuine event.

Why was Jesus baptized?

Why was this needed when he was the ‘Son of God’?

The other Gospel writers realized there was a problem here. Neither Luke nor John writes that John baptized Jesus. There is that inference, but they shy away from writing it in black and white. Matthew inserts 3:14-15 beginning “John would have prevented him…”

In Mark, there is no hint that John was expecting anything special when his cousin appeared for baptism. At that point, John did not know Jesus was the “powerful one”.

What does it mean to call Jesus as God’s beloved son?

This is the revelation that Jesus is the expected “powerful one”. God speaks, referencing words from the Old Testament. God does so again at the Transfiguration on the mountain (Chapter 9). On that occasion, Moses and Elijah appear to the closest disciples.

Verses 12-13: The Temptation of Jesus.

We are far more familiar with the accounts of Matthew (4:1-11) and Luke (4:1-13). Quite abruptly, we are told that the Spirit drove Jesus into the wilderness for forty days. This is where we get the word “quarantine”. It was not uncommon for people who were atoning for some sin or asking for some healing or preparing for some mission to go into quarantine in the wilderness. Some would have gone a little way in but where they could still be provisioned by their family and friends. It appears that Jesus went further in and was almost completely quarantined. Later, the Desert Father monks would seek a similar experience following the footsteps of Jesus.

Are you missing something?

We do not have the specific temptations that Matthew and Luke give us.

We are told that Jesus was with the wild animals. He was tempted by Satan and ministered to by angels. Satan is a term found in the law courts. He is the prosecution counsel and we see him in this role at the beginning of the Book of Job. Angels are God’s messengers and servants. They are not fully human. But with their help, Jesus survives the natural and supernatural testing. Similarly, Elijah was sustained by God in the wilderness.

How often is there an element of urgency in this chapter?

“And just as” (verse 10), “Immediately (verse 12), “Now” (verse 14), “Immediately” (verses 18 & 20), “Just then” (verse 23), “As soon as” (verse 29). This continues throughout the Gospel of Mark.

Verses 14-15: The Beginning of the Galilean Ministry.

When is the proclamation to take place?

Mark and Luke stress that Jesus’ ministry takes full flight only once John’s ministry is circumscribed by being imprisoned. We notice once again the urgency. This ministry is set in Galilee.

What do you think “Good News” means here?

There are similarities here with John’s proclamation. Like John, Jesus calls for repentance i.e. for people to turn their lives around and turn to God. We notice that Jesus does not proclaim himself as in John’s Gospel but the Kingdom of God. There has been much discussion about this because s sometimes it seems as if this is something in the future but other times, it appears to be very near. It is a key theme of Mark’s Gospel. It could be translated as Kingship of God. This translation helps our thinking. In the life and ministry of Jesus, the Kingship of God has appeared on earth. After his death and resurrection, we still await the time when that Kingship really rules the world.

As Morna Hooker remarks, this passage begins a series of paragraphs that mark out typical features of Jesus’ ministry. Some suggest this is meant to be a typical day in the life of Jesus.

We notice that we are told a minimal amount of information about John the Baptist (what he is wearing) but we are told absolutely nothing about Jesus himself. We would expect to find such basic information in a biography and most stories today.

Verses 16-20: Jesus Calls the First Disciples.

This episode is by the Sea of Galilee. We will see that when Galilee or the Sea of Galilee is mentioned, then something important is happening in Mark’s Gospel.

(While, I generally admire the NRSV translation, I think ‘fish for people’ is crass! “Fishers of people” is better even if ‘fishers’ is rather archaic. “Anglers of people” has a rather more sinister tone). We may have difficulty translating the expression, but it is undoubtedly a very clever turn-of-phrase and probably goes right back to Jesus. They are to catch people for the kingship of God. Hence, there is a great appropriateness in the fish symbol. [The Greek word for fish could also be turned into mnemonic = Jesus Christ God’s son (and) saviour Ιχθυς].

Three little things that we often miss:

  1. Andrew is a Greek name. This highlights the fact that Galilee was a mixed area with Jewish and Greek names. (Jesus is the Greek version of Jeshua/Joshua which is what Jesus would have been called).
  2. James and John may come from a bigger fishing operation because their father Zebedee and the staff are left behind. The fishing business was quite a big one. All four were busy men who left their good prospects behind.
  3. They are not called ‘disciples’ until the next chapter.

Both sets of brothers immediately follow him. Mark may be stressing Jesus’ authority when the brothers obey at once.

Does Jesus matter enough for us to take risks for him?

Who is Jesus?

What must Jesus’ disciples be like?

The immediacy of the two sets of brothers’ actions is striking. Luke introduces the call by a miraculous catch of fish. John’s Gospel tells us that Andrew was a follower of John the Baptist. The Baptist points Andrew towards Jesus. Andrew then brings his brother, Simon Peter, to Jesus.

Verses 21-28: The Man with an Unclean Spirit.

Jesus is in the Capernaum Synagogue. What is Jesus doing?

Capernaum was an important fishing village in Galilee. This is probably where Peter, Andrew, James and John resided. Jesus is teaching in the Synagogue. Teaching is an important in Mark’s understanding of Jesus, although there is more teaching material in the longer Gospels of Matthew and Luke.

What is the impact does Jesus make?

Jesus’ teaching has an immediate impact upon those there. They were astounded because Jesus teaches with ‘authority’. This is another important concept in Mark’s Gospel. He teaches with authority, but he is the opposite of authoritarian. Jesus is contrasted with scribes who will form some of the opposition to Jesus.

What causes Jesus to act in the way he does?

Jesus was not there to perform a miracle, but he is moved by the situation of this man. Miracles play a very important part in Mark’s Gospel and they make up a significant part of this the shortest Gospel.

  • If Jesus’ teaching demonstrates authority, these miracles demonstrate Jesus’ power as someone who is in tune with God.
  • In John’s Gospel, they are called signs. Similarly, what is important for Mark is what these miracles point to: Jesus’ relationship with God and his kingship.
  • Jesus never performs a miracle to show off. Later, in the Gospel, he refuses the Jewish religious leaders who demand a miracle to order.
  • Jesus can only perform miracles if there is faith involved. Later, Mark writes that Jesus could not perform miracles in Nazareth because his hometown had no faith in him.
  • Jesus sees his mission as primarily to the people of Israel, but Gentiles can receive a miracle if they profess faith. The Syrophoenician woman is one such example. Jesus is rude to her but because she demonstrates that she has faith, her daughter is cured.

On this occasion, the unclean spirit recognizes who Jesus is. God acclaims Jesus as his beloved son but so do the unclean spirits which Jesus scolds. Those who witness the healing are again astonished. Other exorcists use incantations, but Jesus commands and it happens. For Mark, this is the main point of the story: Recognized by God and empowered by the Spirit, Jesus possesses authority not previously witnessed.

Verses 29-35: Jesus Heals Many at Simon’s House.

Why does Jesus heal the mother-in-law?

Jesus retires from public view, but his ministry continues. Again, there is the need which causes Jesus’ healing. He touches a woman (and one who could be near death) and therefore, breaks conventions.

How does she respond?

She is able to do ‘service’ to others. We have already seen angels serving Jesus in the wilderness and we see Jesus doing ‘service’ as will his disciples.

Why does Jesus command silence about his healings?

Once the Sabbath is over at sunset, Jesus’ fame means countless people come for healing. Jesus will not let the demons speak because they know his true identity. This is part of Mark’s Messianic Secret.

  • Some of this may go back to Jesus. Jesus does not want people to get false simplistic ideas about his ministry.
  • Mark probably uses this to explain why the majority of Jews did not accept Jesus’ message and ministry.

Verses 35-39: A Preaching Tour in Galilee.

What does Jesus do the first thing next morning?

We see that Jesus gets up early and goes to a deserted place where he prayed. This seems to be a hallmark of Jesus’ ministry and Luke’s Gospel underlines this feature on several occasions.

What about Simon Peter’s actions?

Simon and his companions ‘hunted’ for Jesus. We see that Simon already seems to have a role of leadership. They do not appreciate that Jesus needs time alone with God. However, Jesus does not scold them for breaking into his precious time of prayer.

What is Jesus’ plan?

Perhaps, this quiet time has revealed to Jesus his plan of action. Jesus goes throughout Galilee, his home country, proclaiming the message and casting out demons. We notice that this is centred on the synagogues (as was the apostles’ mission in Acts). The message must spread out from Capernaum to other towns and villages.

Verses 40-45: Jesus Cleanses a Leper.

Jesus touches someone who may have a highly contagious disease.

Would you be brave enough to touch a leper?

This is particularly pertinent at this time of Coronavirus when we are meant to avoid touching other people. There was a great stigma associated with skin diseases and these were often thought to result from God’s judgement. The leper was expected to keep his distance and not come into the centre of a town or village. They were outcasts. Again, we see Jesus is moved to pity. Some scholars translate the word as ‘anger’ but, if so, it is anger at the leper’s situation. Again, Jesus tells him not to tell anyone but to present himself to the priest and obtain his bill of cleansing. The leper spreads the news anyway.

Does this remind you of anyone else in more recent centuries?

Very many people, and indeed saints, have followed in the footsteps of Jesus. Diana, Princess of Wales, was a complicated character but she did immense good with regard to land mines. Here, I am reminded how she touched AIDs patients during that epidemic. This really changed people’s attitude to those suffering from AIDs. They were no longer ‘untouchables’.

And so, Chapter 1 comes to an end!

Are you out of breath?

What do you make of Jesus so far?

What do you make of his ministry so far?

The Gospel of Mark 1

A study course by Reverend Christopher Cooke

THE HISTORY AND THE TIMES

St mark – Often depicted with a lion

Perhaps it is useful to have a survey of the political situation during the life of Jesus the Christ and the subsequent decades when the Letters of Paul were written and the Gospel of Mark was created.

It had been a long time since the Jewish people ran their own country. On King Solomon’s death, his kingdom was divided. His son, Rehoboam, became King of Judah with Jerusalem as its capital. Jeroboam I was chosen king of the larger northern Kingdom of Israel which included Samaria and Galilee. The Kingdom of Israel fell to the Assyrian Empire in 722BC and ceased to exist as an entity. The Kingdom of Judah survived although only as a vassal of Egypt for a period. However, in 597BC, Jerusalem surrendered to the Babylonian Empire. They put in a puppet king, Zedekiah, but he rebelled. This led to the recapture of Jerusalem in 586BC and the accompanying destruction of the Temple, of Jerusalem and its walls, and the leading people were taken away to Babylonian prison camps.

The Babylonian Empire was itself defeated by Cyrus II of Persia in 539BC. Some Jews were allowed to resettle in Jerusalem but this was a process that took a hundred years to fully take place. Under Darius I, the Jerusalem Temple was rebuilt (520-515BC). It would seem that the Jews had a limited amount of self-control under Governors.

Floor mosaic from the House of the Faun in Pompeii, showing Alexander fighting King Darius III of Persia in the Battle of Issus

In 334BC, Alexander the Great invaded the Persian Empire. However, Alexander died in 323BC and his Empire was divided between his generals and for many years, the land of Palestine, was a bone of contention between the Ptolemies and the Seleucids. The real nadir was the reign of Antiochus IV of 175-163BC which included the desecration of the Temple in 168/167BC. This, in turn, led to revolt of Judas Maccabaeus. He and his successors ruled for some years and Jewish independence was granted in 142AD.

1st-century AD bust of Pompey, after an original from c.55–50 BC

In 63BC Pompey captured Jerusalem for Rome and Judah was added to the Roman Province of Syria.
The Roman Emperors were:
• Augustus 27BC-14AD.
• Tiberius 14-37AD.
• Caligula 37-41AD.
• Claudius 41-54AD.
• Nero 54-68AD.
• Galba 68-69AD.
• Otho 69AD.
• Vitellius 69AD.
• Vespasian 69-79AD.
• Titus 79-81AD.
All of these were ruthless men but Caligula and Nero were particularly unhinged and thought themselves to be gods.

The Romans did allow puppet kings. The most (in)famous of these was Herod the Great. He became Governor of Galilee from 47-37BC and King of the Jews from 37-4BC. He had ten wives and there was rivalry between sons from different wives. After Herod’s death in 4BC, two of his sons (Antipas and Archelaus) went to Rome to argue their cases. In the end, the Emperor gave Archelaus Judea, Samaria and Idumea (to the south of Judea) with the title of ethnarch. He appointed Antipas tetrarch of Galilee and Perea (a strip of land east of the Jordan). He appointed Philip tetrarch of Gaulanitis etc. which included the north-eastern shores of Lake Galilee and stretched eastwards.

This situation did not last for long because Archelaus quickly lost his lands and they were then governed by Roman Procurators including Pontius Pilate.

The northern area, including Galilee, remained the most fractured politically. The shores of the Sea of Galilee were divided into three entities. Galilee on the western shore, including Nazareth and Capernaum, was part of the tetrarchy of (Herod) Antipas who imprisons John the Baptist and causes his death. The north eastern shores were part of Gaulanitis and part of the tetrarchy of Philip. Bethsaida and Caesarea Philippi, which appear in the Gospel accounts, are part of his domain. The south eastern shores were part of the Decapolis (Ten Towns) which was always rather separate from the rest of Palestine. It had fared rather well under Greek rule and embraced Pompey and Roman rule. It usually sided with the Romans.

Jesus’ ministry is set amongst the strained relations between the Jews and the Roman occupiers and his death occurs partly because of the confusing cross-currents in the politics of the time. Jesus’ trial is complicated because of the involvement of (Herod) Antipas who ruled Galilee where Jesus was born and where his early ministry was set. Antipas was in Jerusalem at the time because of the Passover celebrations. Jerusalem and Judea were under the jurisdiction of the Roman Procurator: Pontius Pilate. He ruled from 26AD to 36AD under Emperor Tiberius with the seeming support of the Jewish Sanhedrin (religious rulers). His rule came to an end after his brutal tactics against the Samaritans which caused him to lose the support of the Sanhedrin. Having caused uproar in Jerusalem and Samaria, the Governor of Syria had to intervene. He dismissed Caiaphas as High Priest and had Pilate recalled to Rome and replaced.

Bust of Caligula from Palazzo Massimo in Rome

Meanwhile, when Philip died in 34AD, Emperor Tiberius annexed his territories to Syria. When Caligula became Emperor in 37AD, he gave his lands and those of Antipas to his friend King Agrippa I (although Antipas did not die until 39AD). Agrippa ruled from 37-44AD. Caligula died in 37AD and was succeeded by Emperor Claudius who confirmed Agrippa’s position and also gave him Judea and Samaria. Of the Herodian Kings, Agrippa I was the most liked by the Jews and according to Acts, he was a persecutor of the early Christians which resulted in the death of the apostle James son of Zebedee. His son was only seventeen when he died, so his territories became a Roman province. In 50AD, Emperor Claudius made this son Agrippa II a puppet king and in 54AD under Emperor Nero, he acquired part of Galilee.

There is some confusion about Procurators after Pilate. However, Felix was Procurator in 52AD. He was married to a Herodian princess. Felix arrested Paul and detained him for two years. Felix was renowned for his cruelty and for taking bribes. Levels of crime increased greatly in Jerusalem. Felix was recalled to Rome (around 59AD) and replaced by Festus. It was Festus who sent Paul to Rome for trial at Paul’s request.

Bust of Nero at the Musei Capitolini, Rome

In Rome, Nero’s reign is infamous and culminated in the burning of Rome. He instigated a persecution of the early Christians. In this persecution both Peter and Paul are killed in Rome in 64AD.
Meanwhile, in Jerusalem, there were anti-taxation protests and attacks by Jews on Romans. Festus and Agrippa II were losing control of the situation. Agrippa II and The Decapolis supported the Romans in the subsequent Jewish-Roman War of 66-70AD. The Roman Garrison was overwhelmed. The Syrian Governor sent an army which resulted in the Battle of Beth Horon when six thousand Romans were massacred. Nero gave Vespasian the task of suppressing the Jewish insurrection. He and his son, Titus, took over Galilee in 67AD. There was a lull in the campaign following Nero’s suicide in 68AD. There was civil war in Rome and 69AD was the year of Four Emperors. Vespasian left for Rome where he became Emperor. His son, Titus, was in charge in Palestine.

The Siege and Destruction of Jerusalem, by David Roberts (1850)

The Roman siege of Jerusalem began at Passover 70AD while internecine warfare raged in the city. All of Jerusalem was in the hands of Roman legions by late August. By order of Titus, Jerusalem was levelled to the ground apart from the three great towers but including the Temple. Titus suppressed the Jewish people bloodily and then he sailed to Rome with the captured Jewish leaders and the treasures of the Temple. Massada held out against the Romans for a little while. Titus succeeded Vespasian as Emperor, the first time the throne passed from father to son. Jerusalem was transformed into the Roman city of Aelia Capitolina by Emperor Hadrian (117-138AD) which then led to the Bar Khoba Revolt of 132-136AD.

These are the bare outlines of the tumultuous years which saw the ministry and death of Jesus the Christ and the birth of the early Church.

The earliest writings that we possess in the New Testament are set against this backdrop:
1. The Letters of Paul. Apart from Romans, these were occasional Letters. We must be grateful that someone decided to collect and preserve them.
2. The Gospel of Mark. As Morna Hooker writes it is also a little miracle that this Gospel survived. After all, nearly all its content can be found in the later Gospels of Matthew and Luke. Mark could have been dispensed with. Indeed, for centuries it was overshadowed by the others and overlooked. In the Twentieth Century, its importance was at last appreciated.

Week 1: INTRODUCING THE GOSPEL

Questions

When you were growing up, how often did you hear passages from the Gospel of Mark read?

What length are the four Gospels? You can compare chapters or number of pages.

How does the Gospel of Mark start? (We shall be studying this more closely next week, so just the broad outlines for now).

We compare this with the other Gospels.
How does the Gospel of John start?
How does the Gospel of Matthew start?
How does the Gospel of Luke start?

Taking the Entry into Jerusalem as our guide, we can compare the length of each Gospel before we enter the Last Week:

Mark 11:1-10
Matthew 21:1-9
Luke 19:28-38

Chapters uptoChapters left
Mark106
Matthew208
Luke19½

Do you have any initial thoughts about the make-up of Mark’s Gospel?

We can place many passages of Mark, Matthew and Luke side by side in parallel in what is often called a synopsis.

Look at the table. Do you have any initial comments?

Matthew 8:14-17Mark 1:29-34Luke 4:38-41
When Jesus entered Peter’s house, he saw his mother-in-law lying in bed with a fever; he touched her hand, and the fever left her, and she got up and began to serve him. That evening they brought to him many who were possessed by demons; and he cast out the spirits with a word, and cured all who were sick. This was to fulfil what had been spoken through the prophet Isaiah, ‘He took our infirmities and bore our diseases.’
As soon as they left the synagogue, they entered the house of Simon and Andrew, with James and John. Now Simon’s mother-in-law was in bed with a fever, and they told him about her at once. He came and took her by the hand and lifted her up. Then the fever left her, and she began to serve them. That evening, at sunset, they brought to him all who were sick or possessed with demons. And the whole city was gathered around the door. And he cured many who were sick with various diseases, and cast out many demons; and he would not permit the demons to speak, because they knew him.





After leaving the synagogue he entered Simon’s house. Now Simon’s mother-in-law was suffering from a high fever, and they asked him about her. Then he stood over her and rebuked the fever, and it left her. Immediately she got up and began to serve them. As the sun was setting, all those who had any who were sick with various kinds of diseases brought them to him; and he laid his hands on each of them and cured them. Demons also came out of many, shouting, ‘You are the Son of God!’ But he rebuked them and would not allow them to speak, because they knew that he was the Messiah.




Matthew 8:1-4Mark 1:40-45Luke 5:12-16
When Jesus had come down from the mountain, great crowds followed him; and there was a leper who came to him and knelt before him, saying, ‘Lord, if you choose, you can make me clean.’ He stretched out his hand and touched him, saying, ‘I do choose. Be made clean!’ Immediately his leprosy was cleansed. Then Jesus said to him, ‘See that you say nothing to anyone; but go, show yourself to the priest, and offer the gift that Moses commanded, as a testimony to them.’
A leper came to him begging him, and kneeling he said to him, ‘If you choose, you can make me clean.’ Moved with pity, Jesus stretched out his hand and touched him, and said to him, ‘I do choose. Be made clean!’ Immediately the leprosy left him, and he was made clean. After sternly warning him he sent him away at once, saying to him, ‘See that you say nothing to anyone; but go, show yourself to the priest, and offer for your cleansing what Moses commanded, as a testimony to them.’ But he went out and began to proclaim it freely, and to spread the word, so that Jesus could no longer go into a town openly, but stayed out in the country; and people came to him from every quarter.



Once, when he was in one of the cities, there was a man covered with leprosy. When he saw Jesus, he bowed with his face to the ground and begged him, ‘Lord, if you choose, you can make me clean.’ Then Jesus stretched out his hand, touched him, and said, ‘I do choose. Be made clean.’ Immediately the leprosy left him. And he ordered him to tell no one. ‘Go’, he said, ‘and show yourself to the priest, and, as Moses commanded, make an offering for your cleansing, for a testimony to them.’ But now more than ever the word about Jesus spread abroad; many crowds would gather to hear him and to be cured of their diseases. But he would withdraw to deserted places and pray.



Matthew 17:22-23Mark 9:30-32Luke 5:12-16
As they were gathering in Galilee, Jesus said to them, ‘The Son of Man is going to be betrayed into human hands, and they will kill him, and on the third day he will be raised.’ And they were greatly distressed.



They went on from there and passed through Galilee. He did not want anyone to know it; for he was teaching his disciples, saying to them, ‘The Son of Man is to be betrayed into human hands, and they will kill him, and three days after being killed, he will rise again.’ But they did not understand what he was saying and were afraid to ask him. While everyone was amazed at all that he was doing, he said to his disciples, ‘Let these words sink into your ears: The Son of Man is going to be betrayed into human hands.’ But they did not understand this saying; its meaning was concealed from them, so that they could not perceive it. And they were afraid to ask him about this saying.



Matthew 24:1-3Mark 13:1-4Luke 21:5-7
Jesus came out of the temple and was going away, his disciples came to point out to him the buildings of the temple. Then he asked them, ‘You see all these, do you not? Truly I tell you, not one stone will be left here upon another; all will be thrown down.’ When he was sitting on the Mount of Olives, the disciples came to him privately, saying, ‘Tell us, when will this be, and what will be the sign of your coming and of the end of the age?’
As he came out of the temple, one of his disciples said to him, ‘Look, Teacher, what large stones and what large buildings!’ Then Jesus asked him, ‘Do you see these great buildings? Not one stone will be left here upon another; all will be thrown down.’ When he was sitting on the Mount of Olives opposite the temple, Peter, James, John, and Andrew asked him privately, ‘Tell us, when will this be, and what will be the sign that all these things are about to be accomplished?’









When some were speaking about the temple, how it was adorned with beautiful stones and gifts dedicated to God, he said, ‘As for these things that you see, the days will come when not one stone will be left upon another; all will be thrown down.’ They asked him, ‘Teacher, when will this be, and what will be the sign that this is about to take place?’














There are other places where you can put Mark and Matthew side by side and Mark and Luke side by side. There are also passages where Matthew and Luke can be put side by side.

The interesting thing is that nearly all of Mark appears in either or both of Matthew and Luke’s Gospels.

It is difficult for us to gauge the quality of a foreign language. So here are two quotes:

“Mark’s Gospel is the shortest. It is also the most austere, the least polished – almost uncouth, in fact – compared with the others.” (Anthony Harvey).
“Mark’s is the shortest Gospel, and it is probably the first to be written.
So Mark may be said to have invented the Gospel form, which gives him a
special claim for our attention. His Greek is vigorous, but not always
very grammatical…” (Nicholas King).

In my background paper, I recall the impact of Alec McCowen reciting Mark’s entire Gospel in a theatre. Almost certainly, like Paul’s Letters, Mark’s Gospel was first read out loud to a congregation. Ernest Best and Morna Hooker both underline this point.

Commentary by Reverend Christopher Cooke

Week 1: INTRODUCING THE GOSPEL

When you were growing up, how often did you hear passages from the Gospel of Mark read?

It is very possible that you did not hear readings from the Gospel of Mark very often in Church at all. Both the Book of Common Prayer and the Roman Catholic Church used Matthew’s Gospel most often. This was supplemented by readings from Luke and John’s Gospels but rarely from Mark’s Gospel. Even St Mark’s Day according to the Book of Common Prayer had a reading from John’s Gospel!

Virtually all Mark’s content was found in either or both of Matthew’s and Luke’s Gospels. As Morna Hooker writes it is a bit of a miracle that Mark’s Gospel survived at all. This was probably because tradition linked Mark’s Gospel with Peter before his martyrdom in Rome.

Even in the Alternative Service Book readings of 1980, the Gospel of Mark was used far less often than the other Gospels.

Our current three year cycle of Readings has redressed the balance. Matthew, Luke and John appear every Christmas season. John appears every year and particularly at festivals.

  • Year A focusses on Matthew’s Gospel (this year).
  • Year B focusses on Mark’s Gospel with more of John’s Gospel (next year).
  • Year C focusses on Luke’s Gospel.

What length are the four Gospels?

Mark has 16 chaptersLuke has 24 chapters
Matthew has 28 chaptersJohn has 21 chapters

In the NRSV

Mark has 23 pagesLuke has 37 pages
Matthew has 36 pagesJohn has 27 pages

Mark’sGospel is significantly shorter than either Matthew or Luke’s and somewhat shorter than John’s.

How does the Gospel of Mark start?

It begins with the stirring words “The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God”. Good news means the same thing as Gospel. It is the only one of the four to claim it is a Gospel.

We are then in The Proclamation of John the Baptist and then The Baptism of Jesus. All four Gospels agree about this pattern but in Matthew and Luke, this has to wait until their third chapters.

Then there is The Beginning of the Galilean Ministry and Jesus Calls the First Disciples.

Some scholars refer to this, or part of it, as the Marcan Prologue.

We compare this with the other Gospels.

John’s Gospel begins with the wonderful Johannine Prologue which we usually hear at Christmas. “In the beginning was the Word… There was a man sent from God, whose name was John… And the Word became flesh and lived among us…”

Matthew’s Gospel has two chapters of preparation. The Genealogy of Jesus the Messiah; The Birth of Jesus the Messiah; The Visit of the Wise Men; The Escape to Egypt, The Massacre of the Infants, the Return from Egypt.

Luke’s Gospel similarly has two chapters of preparation. Dedication to Theophilus; The Birth of John the Baptist Foretold; The Birth of Jesus Foretold (Archangel Gabriel); Mary visits Elizabeth; Mary’s Song of Praise (the Magnificat); The Birth of John the Baptist; Zechariah’s Prophecy; The Birth of Jesus; The Shepherds and the Angels; Jesus is Named; Jesus is Presented in the Temple; The Return to Nazareth; The Boy Jesus in the Temple. (A genealogy of Jesus appears in Chapter 3).

We see that there are no birth stories in Mark’s Gospel and his Gospel begins with the Ministry of the adult John the Baptist and the adult Jesus. It is as if John and Jesus burst on the scene out of nowhere.

Taking the Entry into Jerusalem as our guide, we can compare the length of each Gospel before we enter the Last Week:

Mark 11:1-10
Matthew 21:1-9
Luke 19:28-38


Chapters up to thisChapters after this
Mark106
Matthew208
Luke19½

Do you have any initial thoughts about the make-up of Mark’s Gospel?

The Last Week accounts for 38% of Mark’s Gospel. When we consider that the Easter account is very short together with the premonitions of his death at various points in the Gospel, Jesus’ death looms very large indeed. Mark’s Passion account is very dominant in the structure of the whole Gospel.

The corresponding percentages for Matthew and Luke’s Gospels including their much longer Easter accounts are 29% and 23% respectively. As wells as their first two chapters, Matthew and Luke contain far more of Jesus’ teaching and parables than Mark.

This led Martin Kahler in 1892 to describe Mark’s Gospel as a Passion with an Introduction. This is overstating the case somewhat but he was making a point. After all, the first ten chapters of Mark’s Gospel are very important. Although I do not agree with all Willi Marxsen has to say about Mark’s Gospel, he also had a point when he wrote just after the Second World War, that Mark probably wrote the Passion first and then wrote the rest of his Gospel.

The earliest writings of the New Testament are found in Paul’s Letters. Paul has very little to say about the life of Jesus but his message centres upon the importance of the death and resurrection of Jesus which is life-transforming.

There are other connections between Paul and Mark.

  • They were both theologians and pastors.
  • They both thought Jesus would return shortly.
  • They were both troubled that the Jews had not universally accepted Jesus’ message.

We can place many passages of Mark, Matthew and Luke side by side in parallel in what is often called a synopsis. Look at the Table above. Do you have any initial comments?

We notice that there is a close similarity between the three Gospels. Mark, Matthew and Luke’s Gospel are called the Synoptic Gospels because they look at the Gospel in a very similar way (syn=with + optic=eye). They present the same pattern of events in roughly the same order. John’s Gospel is rather different in the order of events and in what is included. Jesus also speaks with a rather different voice (see below).

As we can see from the parallels, although Mark’s Gospel is the shortest, individual units are often more wordy and convoluted than the parallel passages in Matthew and Luke.

Virtually all the material that is found in Mark’s Gospel, is also found in either or both of Matthew and Luke’s Gospels. The few very short passages that are not so included are therefore very significant.

In addition, there are verbal correspondences between Mark’s, Matthew’s and Luke’s Gospels. This is significant because Jesus almost certainly proclaimed his teaching in Aramaic and the earliest Christians most likely preserved it orally in Aramaic. However, the Gospels were written in Greek. A general rule of thumb is that when you arrange the three Gospels side by side in a synopsis, Mark and Matthew can agree against Luke, and Mark and Luke can agree against Matthew but Matthew and Luke do not agree against Mark (except when they are tidying up his Greek).

The general consensus is that Mark’s Gospel was the first to be written and that it circulated fairly widely very quickly. Matthew and Luke (and even possibly John) knew Mark’s Gospel and added to it with material they had acquired.

This seems far more likely than Mark roughing up the Greek of Matthew’s Gospel for some reason and, at the same time, omitting the Birth stories, much of Jesus’ Teaching and the Resurrection appearances.

It is difficult for us to gauge the quality of a foreign language. So here are two quotes:

“Mark’s Gospel is the shortest. It is also the most austere, the least polished –almost uncouth, in fact – compared with the others.” (Anthony Harvey).
“Mark’s is the shortest Gospel, and it is probably the first to be written. So Mark may be said to have invented the Gospel form, which gives him a special claim for our attention. His Greek is vigorous, but not always very grammatical…” (Nicholas King).

In my background paper, I recall the impact of Alec McCowen reciting Mark’s entire Gospel in a theatre. Almost certainly, like Paul’s Letters, Mark’s Gospel was first read out loud to a congregation. Ernest Best and Morna Hooker both underline this point. Therefore, some of the character of the Gospel might be understood as spoken Greek rather than written Greek. It was written to be heard aloud and so certain phrases are repeated and there are recaps of what has happened so far. The other Gospels are written documents and better written at that.

Ernest Best makes the very important point that individual sections of Mark’s Gospel may be rather clumsy and less effective than the parallels in the more polished Matthew and Luke, but the whole is very satisfactory and satisfying. He draws a parallel to a composer who creates a new symphony but uses traditional elements (such as well-known and folk tunes) in doing so. Hugh Anderson argues that the success of Mark’s Gospel lies in its restless movement.

For dramatic effect, Mark saved everything that occurred in Jerusalem for the last week of Jesus’ life. Matthew and Luke follow him in this respect. John’s Gospel records several visits to Jerusalem in Jesus’ adult life. This is far more likely. A faithful Jew would attend several Passovers in Jerusalem if he could. Another consideration pointing this way is that Jesus seems to know his way around Jerusalem and he has close friends in Mary, Martha and Lazarus who live at Bethany near Jerusalem.

One further task for now:

Compare Mark 9:30-32 (part of the Synoptic table above) with John 11:25-27 or, indeed, any of the “I am” sayings in John’s Gospel.

In Mark:

  • Jesus seems to be somewhat secretive about his intentions
    • This may well represent Jesus’ concern that his Messiahship is not misunderstood. He is not going to be a fighting liberator.
    • Mark may use this device to help explain why the Jews in general have not turned to Christ. Paul wrestles with this problem as well.
  • Jesus refers to himself as ‘The Son of Man’. The titles in the Gospels tend to be somewhat fluid but he is clearly referring to himself in a slightly roundabout way.
  • The Disciples are shown to misunderstand Jesus and are also fearful to ask him for an explanation.
  • Jesus proclaims about the kingdom of God but not himself.

In John:

  • Jesus is far more open and direct in his teaching. He says “I am” numerous times (the good shepherd, the light of the world, from above, the true vine etc.)
  • He engages with Martha about being “the resurrection and the light”. Philip and Thomas are bold enough to ask him questions.