Meeting Jesus in Mark – from open heaven to open tomb
I begin by asking if you know why we have four different gospels?
It’s like four newspapers: imagine an account of one event as reported in The Sun, The Guardian, The Daily Telegraph, and The Spectator. All of them would report some of the details the same, and some of the details would be different in each publication. Despite that you can have confidence that the event happened, and although each reporter has written their material in a particular style for a particular audience. Now combine those different accounts for dozens of different events, and you have the makings of four gospels.
None of the gospels was written down until long after the events they tell. Mark AD 70, Matthew and Luke in the 70s or 80s, and John as late as after AD 100. So, they were writing down stories from a couple of generations ago which had, until then, been passed on by word of mouth.
Mark, Matthew, and Luke are what we call the Synoptic Gospels, which is to say that they each tell the stories of Jesus, yes with their own emphasis and focus, but telling the story in a broadly similar way, hence synoptic. John, though, is quite different. It was written down much later and attempts not so much to tell a story as narrative of historical events, but rather as a commentary upon what they mean and their significance. Hence my illusion to newspapers included three dailies and one periodical.
It’s Mark that we’re focussing upon today. Why? The church year begins on Advent Sunday each year. Don’t ask me why when the academic year, the calendar year, and the financial year are all different, that’s for another day. For whatever reason, the Church year begins on Advent Sunday. At the moment we follow a cycle of readings called a lectionary, so that we read a good spread of the Bible, not always focussing on the same few stories. There are many faults with lectionaries in general, and with our current one, but it’s better than the Good Samaritan every week for three months.
The current lectionary that we follow runs in a three year cycle, with a year each focussing upon Mark, Matthew, and Luke; and John is thrown in liberally across all three years. If you like, three pizzas each have a different cheese on them: one mozerella, one cheddar, one ricotta; and each has a bit of mushroom sprinkled on it. This year is the year of Mark, so we look at Mark’s gospel in particular.
What do you know about Mark?
Mark is the shortest of the gospels. It was probably the first of the four to be written, and an important source of material for Matthew and Luke.
Overview of Mark’s Gospel
Why does Mark matter?
Despite Mark’s importance as the earliest gospel, it has been relatively neglected in the life of the church for much of Christian history. Until a few decades ago, Mark did not often appear in the readings assigned for Sunday mornings. Only recently has Mark received its own year in the three-year cycle of Sunday gospel readings. Because of this relative neglect, the distinctive features of Mark’s gospel have not until recently been part of common Christian understandings of Jesus and the gospels.
Mark has a number of distinctive features that make its study not only important but surprising. Given that Mark is the first to put the story of Jesus into written form, he surprises us by what he does not include. Mark does not begin with stories of the birth of Jesus, as Matthew and Luke do. Instead, he begins with Jesus as an adult going to John the Baptizer in the Wilderness. Mark does not contain some of the most familiar teachings of Jesus: the Sermon on the Mount, the Lord’s Prayer, and well-known parables like the Good Samaritan and the Prodigal Son. Mark does not portray Jesus as proclaiming his identity as Son of God and Messiah. Of course, Mark affirms that Jesus is both, but not as part of the message of Jesus himself – the few such affirmations in Mark occur “in private” – they were not part of Jesus’ public teaching. Mark does not have any stories of the risen Jesus appearing to his followers. Appearance stories are found only in the other gospels. Instead, Mark ends with the story of the empty tomb. I mention these features not for the sake of casting doubts on Mark, but to emphasize that studying Mark involves seeing the distinctiveness of this gospel.
Why is Mark different from the other gospels?
In a sentence, Mark is seen by mainstream scholars as the product of developing early Christian traditions about Jesus and it combines memory, interpretation, and metaphor. Seeing Mark as the product of a developing tradition means something very simple. As mentioned earlier, Mark is the earliest gospel, written around forty years after the historical life of Jesus. During those four decades, the traditions about Jesus developed. It is clear from the gospels themselves that the followers of Jesus understood him more fully after Easter than they did before Easter. Their conviction that God had raised Jesus and that he continued to be known affected their understanding of his significance decisively. They also adapted and applied the traditions about Jesus. Here are three examples of the way the Christian tradition developed:
- Peter’s declaration on Jesus’ identity in Mark 8:27-30. In this story, Jesus asks the disciples, “Who do you say that I am?” Peter answers, “You are the Messiah” or “the Christ,” which means the same thing. As Matthew takes this story over from Mark a few years later, he adds to it in two ways. To Peter’s affirmation that Jesus is the Messiah, Matthew 16:16 adds “the Son of the Living God.” In the next two verses, 16:17-19, Matthew adds that Jesus responds to Peter: “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah [Peter’s name, before it became Peter]. For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father in heaven. And I tell you, you are Peter [the name means “rock”], and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades shall not prevail against it. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.
- Jesus’ teaching about divorce and re-marriage. Mark 10:11-12 forbids re-marriage after divorce: “Whoever divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery against her; and if she divorces her husband and marries another, she commits adultery.” Matthew 19:9 changes Mark’s absolute statement by adding an exception clause: “Whoever divorces his wife, except for unchastity, and marries another commits adultery.”
- Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem. In Mark 11:1-10, Jesus rides into the city on a colt. As Matthew incorporates this story into his gospel in 21:1-11, he adds another, so that Jesus rides into Jerusalem on two animals, a donkey and a colt. Matthew adds the second animal to make the story conform to his reading of a passage from Zechariah 9:9 in the Jewish Bible, which he quotes in 21:5.
There are multiple examples of such development as Matthew and Luke use Mark to write their own stories of Jesus.
The point: if development of the story of Jesus happened in the relatively short time between the writing of Mark and the writing of Matthew and Luke, then it is reasonable to assume that the story also developed before Mark was written. As the product of a developing tradition, Mark and the other gospels contain the testimony of early Christians to the meaning and the significance that Jesus had come to have in their lives in the decades since his historical life. And Mark and the other gospels also adapt and apply the traditions about Jesus to their communities in their time and place.
Is it all literally true, or is “just a story”?
Mark also use metaphor, as do the other gospels, and biblical narratives generally. In its broad sense, the metaphorical meaning of language is its more than literal, more than factual, meaning. I emphasize “more than” because of a common assumption in modern Western culture that metaphorical language is “less than” factual language. Many of us have heard people say when they hear that a biblical story might be metaphorical, “you mean it’s only metaphorical, only symbolic?” The question reflects the way our culture equated truth with facts. But metaphorical language is not inferior to factual language. Rather, metaphor is about meaning. Parables of Jesus are all metaphorical narratives; their purpose is not to report an event that actually happened. But nobody dismisses them because they’re not as factual as newspaper articles. Everybody recognizes that the parables are about meaning, and the same is true of metaphorical narratives in general.
Who wrote it?
So what do we know or what can we reasonably surmise about the author? None of the gospels originally mentioned its author. Whoever wrote Mark did not begin by writing “The Gospel According to Mark” at the top of the first page. Instead, the names of the gospels were added in the second century when early Christian communities began to need to differentiate the gospels from each other. Some (perhaps many) of these communities would have known of only one or two gospels until at least the end of the first century and probably later. Yet it is likely that the gospel was written by a person named Mark. Markus (in Greek), or Marcus (in Latin), was a fairly common name in the first-century Mediterranean world, not only among Greeks and Romans but also among Jews. But none of the disciples or other prominent early Christians was named Mark. Thus there is no obvious reason why Christians in the second century would name this gospel “Mark” unless somebody named Mark had written it.
What was the context?
The year 70 was of momentous significance for Judaism and early Christianity. In that year, Jerusalem and the temple were destroyed by the Roman Empire. The destruction was the climax of a major Jewish revolt against Rome that began in the year 66. Rome had ruled the Jewish homeland for about 130 years, beginning in 63 BC. Like empires in general, Rome was politically oppressive and economically exploitative, and imposed its rule through violence and the threat of violence. Importantly, like many empires, it legitimated its rule with religious claims. Roman imperial theology not only justified its domination of the world as the will of God, but proclaimed the emperor to be divine: God, Son of God, Lord, Saviour of the world, and the one who brought peace on earth. This language is very familiar to Christians, of course, but it is important to realize that it was used for the Roman Caesar before Jesus was born. Indeed, the greatest of Rome’s emperors, Caesar Augustus (ruled from 31 BC to AD 14) was said to have been the product of a divine conception, the son of the god Apollo and a human mother. The Jewish revolt of 66 was thus not simply a political revolt, though it was that. It was also a rejection of Roman imperial theology and an affirmation of a Jewish theology grounded in the affirmation that the God of Israel was the true lord and Rome was not. It was not the first Jewish revolt against Rome. Another massive revolt had occurred in 4 BC after the death of Herod the Great, the Rome-appointed ruler of the Jewish homeland, soon after Jesus was born. Rome responded with great brutality, destroying cities that refused to surrender and crucifying two thousand Jewish defenders of Jerusalem. Now it was happening again. This time, Roman legions stationed in Syria began responding to the Jewish revolt by re-conquering Galilee in the north and then making their way south to Judea and Jerusalem. Four years later, in 70, they re-conquered Jerusalem, destroyed the city, and demolished the temple. It was the greatest catastrophe in the history of ancient Judaism, rivalled only by the destruction of Jerusalem and its temple by the Babylonian Empire about six centuries earlier. The catastrophe was not only about devastation and death. It was intensified by the religious significance of Jerusalem’s temple. According to temple theology, God was especially present in it, and God had promised to protect Jerusalem and the temple forever. In addition, the temple was the only place where sacrifices to God could be offered. But in 70, temple and sacrifice came to an end. The war years brought massive death and suffering. Rome was not gentle. Ancient sources suggest that hundreds of thousands of Jews were killed. For Christian Jews in or near the Jewish homeland, it was a difficult time. By the Romans they were seen as Jews and risked suffering the same brutality as other Jews. And because they were committed to non-violence (as Christians were until the fourth century), they were seen by some Jews as disloyal in a time of war against a despised empire. This is the historical context of Mark. It is “a Wartime gospel”. The author of Mark wrote from within an early Jesus community within Judaism within the Roman Empire near the time of the great Jewish revolt and its aftermath.
Mark is a sandwich-maker. Several times he abandons an intriguing storyline and diverts into something fresh, then goes back a little later to pick up where he left off. The technique is not careless; it is purposeful and potent. An example is 5.21-43. As Jesus hurries to Jairus’ house, he is delayed by a woman in the crowd. His encounter with her interrupts his response to Jairus, and only when she is healed does Jesus go on. Will he be too late for Jairus’ daughter? In the event he brings the girl back to life. But for a moment it seemed that one miracle had got in the way of another. Only when we pause and let the two stories tug at the hem of our own thoughts do we notice how the correspondences and contrasts between them help us
to attend better to both. The figure ‘twelve years’ seems to bracket the two together (5.25, 42). The girl has been growing for twelve years towards the threshold of adult life; the other has spent those years grieving for the healthy womanhood she has lost. She was edged out of society by her illness and impurity and Jesus speaks publicly of her healing, as if to attest that she belongs and that no-one should exclude her again. By contrast the girl belongs to a home at the very centre of the community – her father is leader of the synagogue (5.22) – and Jesus deals privately and discreetly with the situation. There is nothing that anyone need know about her healing, save that she is well again. Both incidents are delineated more strongly because they stand beside each other. The various layers of the sandwich sharpen one another’s flavours.
Writing to be heard
If we hear the Bible read to us, that is usually a little at a time in church. But many of Mark’s first recipients would hear the whole of the gospel read aloud to them. Fewer people could read than now and books were costly. So Mark is not only written – it is written to be spoken. And the oral medium has to be graphic and concrete. Two features of his writing lend themselves to reading aloud. The first is the presence of echoes in the text – passages that make you think, ’I’ve heard something like this before.’ The two blind-healings are one example (8.22-26; 10.46-52). They reinforce each other, as well as being subtly different. The second feature of Mark’s writing to mention here is his sustained notes, places where a theme or a mood runs for a while through the text. Repetition makes for emphasis. For example, a handful of controversy stories come in quick succession in Mark 2.1-3.6. Mark has underlined at this early stage in the gospel the theme of escalating controversy.
Jesus told many parables. In Mark’s gospel most of them are very compact. These deliver a message, not just through what they say but also because of where they stand. They fit and interpret the action around. The gospel story provides a context in which the parables speak; and going on around them.
The Story behind the Story
Mark does not use the Old Testament as heavily as some gospel-writers. But it matters to him. There are many obvious quotations. For Mark, God works in patterns. Characters and ideas from the Old Testament help him to make sense of Jesus’ ministry.
Jesus the Traveller
Mark is a gospel of journeys. In Galilee Jesus constantly travels about. Five times he crosses Lake Galilee. Once he leaves Galilee proper and follows a great arc around its edge. Half way through the gospel he goes north to Caesarea Philippi, before taking the long road south to Jerusalem and crucifixion. But this is not just a travelogue. The journeys seem to have a meaning. The sea voyages have been linked to mission. The south-eastern shore of the lake belonged to the Gentile Decapolis, while the north and west were Jewish lands. The lake was a significant boundary and to cross it involved a culture change. No wonder, say some, that Jesus encountered storms. He would be kicking up a storm himself, to break the boundary around Israel and talk of God’s kingdom to Gentile people. So, real as these storms may have been, in Mark’s gospel they have a symbolic value as well. They remind Mark’s audience of the need to cross cultural barriers with the gospel, of the difficulty this has sometimes caused, and of how Jesus can help his people to handle the turbulence that results. Mark’s account of Jesus’ great journey to Jerusalem has a symbolic meaning too. The phrase ‘on the way’ comes seven times over. This is the ‘way of the Lord’ proclaimed by John at the very start of the gospel, looking back to Isaiah, to God’s prophecies of homecoming for the Jewish exiles in Babylon; the ancient promise was coming to life. And for Mark’s reader John’s word looks forward too, through the first eight chapters of the gospel where the word ‘way’ rarely occurs, to the way that Jesus will take from Caesarea Philippi to Jerusalem.
Disciples in Mark
Jesus’ road to Jerusalem is also a road for disciples to follow. Each time that he speaks of his death, he teaches his followers about their lifestyle and commitment. They like him, are to ‘take up the cross.’ Yet the twelve are strangely obtuse. They find Jesus’ example and teaching hard to heed. They cannot understand and accept what he says about suffering. They argue about greatness. They want to stop a man’s ministry of exorcism, because he does not belong to their group. They follow the road, but miss the way.
Women in Mark
To discuss the twelve is to talk of twelve men. It is difficult to know how else Jesus might have chosen his closest followers, within the constraints of that society. But Mark’s gospel also shows many women of faith. In a society less equal than ours, Jesus crossed the gender boundary in both the company he kept and the commitment he inspired.
Mark is a gospel about perception. How do you recognize who Jesus is? Heaven acclaims him at his baptism, and the demons know him, but human response is more varied, tentative and partial. There are people who ‘look and never see’. Parables are meant to reveal, but they conceal too, because they require a response of questing faith. Even the disciples have to travel through a fog of frustration and misunderstanding before light starts to dawn. Jesus is a difficult person to get hold of. He is seen with full clarity only as he dies. Indeed the difficulty people have in recognizing Jesus sometimes seems to be deliberate on his part. There are times when he actively seeks to hide his identity. He silences the demons that know him. He seeks privacy for some of his healings, and tells those he heals not to let anyone know. Mark must have had a reason, it is said, for drawing attention to these things. There was a reserve about Jesus. Only with care did he make himself known. The title Son of Man, by which he referred to himself, was deliciously elusive. Jesus wanted to avoid the wrong sort of responses. He wanted room to explore and develop his own particular take on messiahship.
Son of God
‘Son of God’ is the most prominent title for Jesus in Mark’s gospel. It appears at the very start. Then at his baptism Jesus is greeted as God’s son. So this is God’s point of view about who Jesus is.
A tour through the gospel picking up selected passages
Mark’s gospel divides into two halves: eight chapters of light and mission, and eight chapters of darkness and passion.
It can them be divided further: the first half has a beginning – a prelude – and the second half has a postlude. Two halves, one with a beginning and one with an end.
Then, each half can be divided into three, so we get a prelude, a half in three parts, another half in three parts, and a postlude.
Prelude – 1:1-1:13
First Half – 1:14-8:26
Three parts 1:14-3:6 – followers and foes
3:7-6:6 – drawing and dividing
6:7-8:26 – mission and menace
Second Half – 8:27-15:47
Three parts 8:27-10:52 – walking towards the darkness
11:1-13:37 – clouds of evening
14:1–15:47 – gathered into the night
Postlude – 16:1-18
Now, we’ll look at some of those passages. How many we get through depends upon how much you want to talk about them!
What strikes you about the passage? Is it a familiar story? Is it quite as you remember it, or is it different? Is there something extra, or something missing? What truth might it tell us?
A challenge to take home
Read the whole of mark’s gospel, preferably in one go. Or failing that in as big a chunks as you can. If you just read a few verses at a time, you miss the impact of the whole thing. I dare you to try reading the whole gospel in go – it will take you far less than one afternoon or evening!
I acknowledge the use of many commentaries and sources, but especially highlight books by John Proctor, Marcus Borg, and Rowan Williams, to which this unoriginal Bible Study is greatly indebted.