The shortest of the gospels and by nearly universal agreement the first to be written, and later used as a principal source by Matthew and Luke. Traditionally it has been ascribed to John Mark, companion of Peter (1 Pet. 5: 13) in Rome. An early bishop, Papias of Hierapolis, in 130 CE even mentions having been told that Mark wrote down ‘accurately but not in order’ Peter’s recollections of Jesus’ sayings and deeds. And in favour of this testimony it has been held that there are signs of Peter’s recollections in Mark’s interchange of plurals and singulars in his narrative (what ‘we’ did and ‘he’ did) as well as those scenes where Peter is singled out. So close a connection with Peter’s recollections is, however, unlikely, since before Mark put pen to parchment individual stories about and sayings of Jesus (‘pericopae’) had been circulating in Church groups by word of mouth, and what Mark did was to select, arrange, adapt, and interpret what he had learnt. His Greek lacks literary elegance; e.g. he prefers parataxis to syntaxis—that is, he uses short sentences in parallel, instead of a main sentence followed by a subordinate clause. But Mark’s pioneering work is evidence of a sophisticated and intelligent author, determined to answer some of the problems which beset the Roman Christians about 65–67 CE. If the gospel was indeed written in Rome (which cannot be regarded as definitely established), the kind of questions that might have been asked were: ‘How was it that Jesus, regarded as a good man, died the death of a criminal and a disturber of the Roman peace?’ ‘What did Paul mean when he had written to the Church some years previously (Rom. 14) that “none of us are living to ourselves or dying to ourselves: if we live, we live to the Lord, and if we die we die to the Lord”?’ ‘Why does Paul explain Christian fellowship in terms of death and resurrection, of humiliation and glorification?’
Mark has written a ‘gospel’ (1: 1), a narrative about Jesus’ presentation of the saving message. It is not a biography in the modern sense of a chronological account and appraisal of its main character, though it does have features not dissimilar to well-known Graeco-Roman biographies in the ancient world—as by Tacitus, who wrote of his father-in-law Agricola who died in 93 CE.
Mark’s theme therefore is of the suffering Messiah who aroused anger by reason of apparent claims, and the shadow of the cross lies over the whole gospel. Jesus is the mysterious Son of God—ultimately triumphant, but only because he presses on towards a tragic culmination in Jerusalem through which alone that triumph could be won. Mark explains the quarrel between Jesus and his enemies by relating only the essential facts, beginning at 2: 7 after the baptism and temptation. There is no infancy narrative, such as Matthew and Luke were to provide, but the final days are anticipated—as when the prediction of the Passion in Mark 8: 31 is followed by the Transfiguration ‘after six days’ (Mark 9: 2). Each of the three Passion predictions is followed by a summons to the disciples to share his ‘baptism’ (of suffering; Mark 10: 35–45). Mark’s gospel is surely intended to strengthen the community in the face of persecution. The pastoral concern of the evangelist is demonstrated by the accounts of Jesus’ healings: he is the Lord who cares, but also the Son of Man who came not to be served but to serve, and as such the model to be imitated by his disciple (1: 17).
Mark also has an important secondary theme, of the Church as the rightful successor to Israel in the providence of God, and this may account for his repeated use of ‘twelve’ (following the twelve tribes of Israel): twelve disciples are chosen, the woman with menorrhagia had suffered for twelve years, a girl aged twelve was raised to life, twelve baskets of broken bread were taken up after the Feeding of the 5,000.
There is an irony in Mark’s narrative: the readers know (from 1: 1) who Jesus is, but the dramatis personae discover the truth only gradually. Peter himself is rebuked (8: 33) whereas the blind man at Bethsaida had seen ‘everything clearly’ (8: 25). The disciples are failures (7: 18; 8: 17; 8: 29–33), which may have been a warning to members of Mark’s own Church that even leaders might falter under the threat of persecution. But Jesus’ teaching and miracles have signalled the coming of the Kingdom of God, and the readers’ faith will be met with the forgiveness of sins by Jesus who has assumed the power of God to do that (2: 1–12).
Mark’s themes are clearer than his travelogue: his description of Jesus’ itineraries has been likened to ‘the meanderings of an intoxicated fly’. Indeed the uncertainty about Palestinian geography has led some exacting readers to doubt whether the attribution to the Mark who lived in Jerusalem (Acts 12: 12) is reliable. At the conclusion there is puzzling and sinister depth with the cry of dereliction (15: 34), the unexpected darkness (15: 33), and the astonishing, abrupt ending (16: 8) with the fear of the women, and their disobedient silence. The existence of the Church and this gospel implies that they were not silent for ever, and Mark’s sentence that the tomb was empty (16: 6) does show his belief in Jesus’ vindication.
The reason for Mark’s ending at 16: 8 has fascinated readers, as do the unfinished Eighth Symphony of Schubert or the Borodin quartet, and early attempts to supply what was thought to be an appropriate conclusion are represented by the ‘shorter ending’ of a few late Greek MSS and by 16: 9–20, the ‘longer ending’, probably written early in the 2nd cent. and known to Tatian and Irenaeus. A possible explanation of the abrupt ending at 16: 8 lies in this gospel’s unfavourable depiction of the disciples who constantly fail to understand Jesus (e.g. 8: 17) and are sternly rebuked in the person of the spokesman Peter (8: 33). If Mark was influenced by Paul, then he would discern in the disciples the leaders of the Jerusalem Church who were Paul’s adversaries. The gospel understands the significance of the death of Jesus as the disciples did not. So it is of a piece that Mark offers no appearance of the risen Lord to any of them. Just three women see the empty tomb, and flee.