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What is the Gospel According to Mark?

Background of Mark’s Gospel


Codex Argenteus of Mark

Codex Argenteus of Mark

The Gospel According to Mark is anonymous, undated, and has no direct information about the historical, social, or political context in which it was written. Because specific and direct information about where this gospel comes from is absent, scholars have had to act like detectives in order to figure out what, if anything, might be said about it with some authority.

Everything claimed has been inferred and interpreted by comparing what we know of the early Christian communities generally against the text itself. Such research is not an exact science, and as a consequence, there is no perfect consensus on anything — neither authorship, dating, nor the intended audience. There are, however, broad lines of agreement on quite a few matters based upon clues found both in the text and in references to this gospel found in other texts.

The shortest of the four canonical gospels, most biblical scholars regard Mark as the oldest of the four and a primary source for much of the material contained in Luke and Matthew. For a long time Christians tended to ignore Mark in favor of the longer, more detailed texts of Matthew and Luke. After it was identified as the oldest and thus presumably most historically accurate, Mark has gained in popularity.

Mark is not, however, a "primitive" gospel despite its age and length. It also isn’t simply a collection of earlier stories and traditions, even though the narrative style reflects popular storytelling techniques. The Gospel According to Mark is a theologically complex document that interweaves a number of important themes in a manner that communicates its theology in both overt and subtle ways.

The material in the text must have been passed down, retold, and rearranged by multiple people, but in the end someone put it into a final written form, something close to what we currently have, which bears the imprint of their own literary skills. The author of Mark likes to use, for example, repetition to highlight important ideas and a “sandwiching” technique that interweaves two different stories together in a manner that allows each to interpret and explain the other.

Understanding any literary text requires an understanding of the genre it belongs to — you can’t interpret a novel in the same way that you interpret a play. Identifying the genre of the gospels has, however, proven difficult. The word “gospel” comes from Greek and means the “good news” of some important event (like a birth or a victory). It appears often in Paul’s letters in reference to the significance of the person, life, and ministry of Jesus.

As a literary form, the gospel has many similarities to martyrologies, lives of philosophers, and even the aretologies of heroic figures. Mythic biographies of various sorts were common to the world at the time and so one doesn’t have to search far in order to find a plethora of possible models or influences. Ready-made vocabularies, tropes, and events were at hand for anyone who wanted to use them.

Ultimately, though, Mark represents the introduction of a new type of literature because nothing quite like it can be identified before early Christianity. It is very different from the collections of saying that can be found in other early Christian literature — for example, the collections of sayings that were likely the contents of the Q document or the theological reflections in Paul.

Mark is not meant to be a historical record of past events; instead, it is a series of events — some possibly historical, some not — structured in a manner to serve specific theological and political goals. Any resemblance to historical events or figures is, as they say, purely coincidental.

It is also likely that Mark was intended to be read aloud rather than carefully studied in written form like a philosophy text. This makes interpretation difficult because theological analyses tend to be done on the written text and typically attempt to identify large patterns or structures. For a text that is read aloud, however, what matters most are the connections that listeners make from one passage to the next.

There were evidently never any debates about the status of Mark as a canonical text, even though there have been debates about the validity of Mark’s ending. Mark is included in the most authoritative fourth-century manuscripts (Vaticanus, Alexandrinus) and it is frequently referenced by early Church fathers.


Material found only in Mark:

1:1 - Introduction
3:19-21 - Jesus' family tries to restrain him
4:26-29 - Parable of the seed growing on its own
7:31-37 - Jesus heals a deaf man at Decapolis
8:22-26 - Jesus heals a blind man at Bethsaida
14:51-52 - Naked young man flees after Jesus' arrest
16:14-18 - Commissioning of the eleven

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