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.

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