from jesus to christ - the first christians

The Gospel of Mark

The first attempt to tell the story of the life and the death of Jesus, this narrative began the gospel tradition.

by Marilyn Mellowes


The gospel of Mark is the second to appear in the New Testament, but most scholars now agree that it was composed first. While the work is attributed to "Mark," we will probably never know the author's true identity, for it was common practice in the ancient world to enhance the importance of written works by attributing them to famous people. Whoever he was, Mark's gospel was the first to attempt to tell the story of the life and the death of Jesus. He probably drew on written collections of miracle stories, on parables, and perhaps on a written account of Jesus' death. Mark combined these disparate elements with other traditions passed on by word-of-mouth to create a new narrative that began the gospel tradition.

Whether Mark himself was a gentile or a Jew remains a subject of scholarly debate. So, too, does the place of his composition; some scholars think that he wrote his work in Rome, others that he wrote in Alexandria, still others suggest Syria. The way Mark tells the story suggests that his audience lived outside the homeland, spoke Greek rather than Aramaic, and was not familiar with Jewish customs. While there is disagreement about where Mark wrote, there is a consensus about when he wrote: he probably composed his work in or about the year 70 CE, after the failure of the First Jewish Revolt and the destruction of the Jerusalem Temple at the hands of the Romans. That destruction shapes how Mark tells his story.

Many Christians thought that the Revolt would inaugurate the eschatological event that would establish the new Kingdom on earth and herald the triumphant return of the Messiah. Jesus himself was remembered for proclaiming that the Kingdom would come, maybe within their lifetimes: "Some of you standing here will not taste death until you see the Kingdom come with power." (MK 9:1.20). But these expectations were not fulfilled. And the author of Mark seems to want to recast traditional images of Jesus to make sense of the events that occurred, or did not occur, after he died

Those images include Jesus as a miracle worker. In keeping with the tradition that he inherited, Mark depicts Jesus as performing an impressive array of healing miracles: the man with the unclean spirit, the leper, the paralytic, the man with a withered hand, the woman with an issue of blood, and the daughter of Jairus. He seems to rush from one miracle to another; in Mark, the word "immediately" occurs 39 times.

Although the author of Mark seems to be saying that Jesus is more than a just a miracle worker, his real identity remains something of a mystery. Only demons, women and other socially marginal characters seem to understand who he really is, and Jesus warns them to remains silent.

Jesus himself reveals and conceals his identity. Mark depicts Jesus as speaking in parables, yet his insights are offered only to a select few. Addressing his disciples, Jesus says: "To you has been given the secret of the kingdom of God, but for those outside, everything comes in parables, in order that 'they may indeed look, but not perceive, and may indeed listen, but not understand . . . " (MK 4:11-12)

The disciples appear as Jesus' inner circle, but even they do not fully understand who he is. On the road to Caesarea Philippi, Jesus asks his disciples "Who do people say that I am?" And they answer, "John the Baptist" or "Elijah." Turning to Peter, he repeats the question. To which Peter responds, 'You are the Messiah." But when Jesus predicts his own passion, Peter rebukes him, prompting Jesus to call him "Satan." When Jesus is arrested, Peter denies knowing him, and all the apostles desert him.

The clue to Jesus' identity is what scholars call the "Messianic secret." Jesus is the Messiah, and he alone fully understands what he must do: he must suffer and he must die. Indeed, the gospel of Mark is really about the death of Jesus and the hope of his return when God brings an end to the present evil age.

As Jesus moves toward his final fate, he is questioned by the High Priest, who asks: "are you the Christ, the son of the Blessed?" Jesus answers: "I am and you will see the Son of Man seated at the right hand of power and coming with the clouds of heaven." In Mark's story, the High Priest dispatches Jesus to Pilate, who sentences him to death. And it is only his death that reveals his true identity. With deliberate irony, the figure who recognizes that identity is a Roman soldier, who exclaims: "Truly, this man was God's son." (MK 15:39)

In Mark's story, Jesus is buried in a tomb. Mark's original ending of the gospel does not contain an account of the resurrection; that ending, now contained in the gospel of the New Testament, was added by a later author. Mark ended his work on a stark note. Two women enter the tomb, and they see a young man dressed in white. He explains that Jesus has been raised, and he instructs the women to tell Peter and the other disciples. The women flee in terror.

What message did Mark intend to send to his audience? Scholars do not agree. Some argue that Mark deliberately constructs a bleak and frightening picture because that was the experience of the people for whom Mark composed his work. Elaine Pagels offers a different interpretation: "And the last words of the original gospel are 'and they were terrified.' It would be very bad news if it weren't that underneath this rather dark story is an enormous hope . . . that this very promising story and its terrible anguished ending is nevertheless not the ending. That there's a mystery in it, a divine mystery of God's revelation that will happen yet. And I think it's that sense of hope that is deeply appealing."

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published april 1998

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