Historical Commentary on the Gospel of Mark
Introduction to the Gospel of Mark

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Introduction
Author of Mark
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Place of Composition
Sources of Mark
Interpreting Mark

Introduction to the Gospel of Mark


The Gospel of Mark is one of the four Gospels canonized by the early Church. Throughout most of antiquity it was disparaged by commentators, who held that it was merely a condensed version of Matthew. Not until the development of modern critical New Testament scholarship was the importance of Mark recognized.

The text of the Gospel of Mark is not impressive on its face. The Greek is often appears awkward and was smoothed out by later writers who used Mark as a source text. Events occur without apparent reason, in fulfillment of a design not clearly expressed in the text. Characters pop into existence for a verse or two, then fade away. Many Markan locations do not appear to have existed at the time the Gospel was written, and the travels of Jesus in Mark sometimes seem to run counter to common sense. All this is enhanced by the numerous emendations made to the text by scribes who tried to alter what they perceived as Markan errors and misunderstandings. The writer of Mark manages to combine ambiguity, plainness, dynamism, inevitability, pathos, and irony in a way that has spawned numerous scholarly interpretations of his Gospel, none of which have managed to attract a very large following.

Despite this, the brief Gospel of Mark, just 16 short chapters accounting for 25 or so pages in English, is perhaps the single greatest piece of literature ever written. The other canonical gospel writers all incorporated the Gospel of Mark into their own works, giving it tremendous influence over the subsequent history of the West, and later, of the world. In our own era the Jesus of Mark appears in many writings, from science fiction novels like The Stars My Destination to literary works like Slaughterhouse-5. Over the last two centuries, as scholars began to recognize the importance of the Gospel of Mark to the development of the Christian canon, scholarly interest in the Gospel has grown exponentially. Exegetes have come to realize the brilliance and complexity of its composition while at the same time puzzling over the many enigmas it poses.

It is important to realize as you read the Gospel of Mark that the text you read is a translation of a Greek text into English. The Gospel of Mark, like all the New Testament writings, was originally composed in Koine Greek, the lingua franca of the eastern portion of the Roman Empire in the first and second centuries. Scholars are fond of saying that until you read Mark in Greek, you haven't read Mark. I hope the Notes in the Commentary make clear some of the problems of interpretation posed by the process of translation. Further, the Greek text of Mark is a reconstruction that scholars put together by viewing many different manuscripts of the Gospel, as well as the writings of scholars and commentators of antiquity, and evolving criteria to determine which reading is best. In other words, the Greek text of the Gospel of Mark is not found in any single manuscript from antiquity, and some of its readings still divide scholars. For a good survey of the issues involved in reconstructing the text of the New Testament, see Bruce Metzger's The Text of the New Testament: Its Transmission, Corruption, and Restoration.  I have tried to give the flavor of some of the debates in the notes on certain passages.

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Author of Mark


The author of Mark has traditionally been identified with the early disciple John Mark, based on a citation of the writer Papias in Eusebius. The citation is usually dated around 125 CE, though some have moved it back to 100 CE. Eusebius writes:


"For information on these points, we can merely refer our readers to the books themselves; but now, to the extracts already made, we shall add, as being a matter of primary importance, a tradition regarding Mark who wrote the Gospel, which he [Papias] has given in the following words]: And the presbyter said this. Mark having become the interpreter of Peter, wrote down accurately whatsoever he remembered. It was not, however, in exact order that he related the sayings or deeds of Christ. For he neither heard the Lord nor accompanied Him. But afterwards, as I said, he accompanied Peter, who accommodated his instructions to the necessities [of his hearers], but with no intention of giving a regular narrative of the Lord's sayings. Wherefore Mark made no mistake in thus writing some things as he remembered them. For of one thing he took especial care, not to omit anything he had heard, and not to put anything fictitious into the statements." (Papias, ECW)

This view is adhered to only by conservative exegetes today, as it has been clear for a couple of centuries that the Gospel we know as Mark cannot possibly be the Gospel Papias is referring to, even assuming that the citation itself is genuine and not a later forgery either made or discovered by Eusebius. As you read the Gospel, the complexity of its references, allusions, and constructions off the Old Testament, its attitude toward the disciples, its use of Cynic sayings and constructions, its familiarity with Greek literary conventions, and other factors will make it clear to you why few scholars today accept the traditional view. For a vigorous defense of the traditional view, see Robert Gundry's Mark.

The reality is that today no one can say who wrote the Gospel of Mark. Not even the writer's gender is known, though traditionally it is ascribed to a man. However, John D. Crossan (1991, p416) has pointed out that verse 14:9: And truly, I say to you, wherever the gospel is preached in the whole world, what she has done will be told in memory of her" may well be a slyly ironic reference to the author herself. Additionally, a number of exegetes have felt that the mysterious young man of Mark 14:51-52 is actually the author of Mark. Whatever the case, given the low taste for high irony of the writer of Mark, it is perhaps fitting that the writer of one of the great pieces of world literature has gone anonymously into history.

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Date of Composition

The Gospel of Mark is generally ascribed to the period between 65 and 75 CE. Exegetes base this conclusion primarily on the prophecy of Jesus in Mark 13 that appears to refer to events of First Jewish Revolt in 66-70, in which Roman troops leveled the Temple in Jerusalem. For the vast majority of interpreters these passage indicates that the writer is aware that the Temple in Jerusalem either has been destroyed, or is about to be destroyed. Additional support for this may be derived from the focus on plundered and destroyed Temples in the Old Testament hypertexts the writer incorporated into the Gospel. Numerous exegetes have pointed out that Mark 13:9-13 refers to events that would take place long after Jesus' time:


9: "But take heed to yourselves; for they will deliver you up to councils; and you will be beaten in synagogues; and you will stand before governors and kings for my sake, to bear testimony before them. 10: And the gospel must first be preached to all nations. 11: And when they bring you to trial and deliver you up, do not be anxious beforehand what you are to say; but say whatever is given you in that hour, for it is not you who speak, but the Holy Spirit. 12: And brother will deliver up brother to death, and the father his child, and children will rise against parents and have them put to death; 13: and you will be hated by all for my name's sake. But he who endures to the end will be saved. (RSV)

Mark 13:13 even refers to "my name's sake" which is a clear anachronism, for the term "Christian" to describe Jesus' followers dates from long after this time. Early Christians referred to themselves as "the Saints" or "the Elect," as the authentic letters of Paul demonstrate. Exegetes also see verse 11:17 as referring to the occupation of the Temple by Jewish insurgents during the Jewish War of 66-77. Joel Marcus (1992) has argued that the situation presupposed in Mark 12:9 echoes the situation in northern Palestine during the opening phases of the war, when Syrians and Jews massacred each other in great numbers, according to Josephus.

The following verse, Mark 13:14 is one of the most famous verses in the Gospel:


14: "But when you see the desolating sacrilege set up where it ought not to be (let the reader understand), then let those who are in Judea flee to the mountains; (RSV)

This is the famous "Abomination of Desolation" that the writer derived from Daniel 9:27. The majority of scholars hold that it refers to the occupation of the Temple in Jerusalem in 70 by Roman troops, who "worshipped" their standards there, according to Josephus. The reference to "false Christs" in 13:21-22 may well be a reference to messianic pretenders like Simon Bar Giora, a key Jewish leader of that war, which would also put the Gospel of Mark after 70. The "Legion" of the demoniac of  Mark 5:1-20 that was sent into pigs may be a reference to Legio X Fretensis, which occupied the Temple after 70 and among whose legionnary standards was a boar.

However, a handful of exegetes see Mark 13 as referring not to the revolt of 70 but to the later revolt of 135, in which the Jewish nation was not only defeated but eliminated. The Jews were evicted from Palestine, the Temple area occupied by a Roman Temple, and Jerusalem renamed. Even the name "Judea" disappeared as Hadrian renamed the area "Syria Palestina" to deliberately blot it out.

The later revolt also fits the descriptions in Mark, in some ways slightly better. The catalyst for the Jewish Revolt of 135 was Hadrian's erection of not merely a statue of himself, but a statue of Jupiter and a Roman Temple on the site of the Jerusalem Temple. Construction began during the Emperor's visit to the area. When he left in 132 the rebellion began to swell as Jews fortified villages and occupied strongholds all over Palestine. A savage war ensued whose devastation far exceeded the affray of 70. Units or subunits of twelve Roman legions were brought in, some from as far away as Britain. The enormous number of Jews participating in the revolt forced the Roman leader, Julius Severus, to follow a policy of scorched earth and starvation rather than open confrontation. These events may also be seen in Mark 13, particularly since Hadrian persecuted both Christians and Jews, and animosity between the two groups grew throughout the second century. Since Legio X Fretensis remained in Palestine and occupied Jerusalem in the second century, the possible reference to it in Mark 5 is also supported, perhaps even enhanced.

There are other indicators of a date after 70 at least. There is another reference to persecution in Mark 4:1-20. That same pericope also contains vocabulary common in Christian writings of a later date (Ludemann 2001, p 27). There are several references to synagogues that suggest that the writer lives in the Jewish diaspora, for he appears to conceive of them as large and containing many rulers, like diaspora synagogues. This may also indicate a later date, for Jesus is pictured performing miracles and upbraiding the Jewish authorities in these large synagogues, whereas the early Christians thought of themselves as Jews and were accepted at many synagogues into the second century. In Mark 9 Peter is depicted as asking that Jesus stay put and set up booths, which may be a veiled reference to an established Church. Perhaps a stronger indicator of a late date is that the Crucifixion scene in which Jesus lives, while those on his right and left hand die, is strongly reminiscent of a similar scene in Josephus' Life, which dates from at least after 95, and more probably 110.

This possible reliance on Josephus highlights another problem: it is dangerous to read the presentation in Mark 13 as taking place in the writer's own time. To do this is to confuse the writer's point of view with the writer himself, an elementary mistake in analysis. In Mark 13 the writer of Mark has clearly arranged events so that Jesus' prophecies point to the destruction of the Temple in 70 CE, or at least, that is how the passage was understood in antiquity (see, for example, the discussion in Eusebius). The fact that the passage points to 70, however, tells us nothing about the time it was written. The sad reality is that the events outlined in Mark 13 and elsewhere in Mark are compatible with several dating schemes.

All of the canonical Gospel writers engage in polemics against the Jews to varying degrees. Although the majority of scholars hold that the Markan polemic against the Jews is not as strong as that of John or Matthew, certain evidence indicates that may not be the case. In the sequence that the writer builds out of the Elijah-Elisha Cycle in Mark 12 and 13, the Jewish authorities are paralleled by the Priests of Ba'al. That is a powerful polemic, which may indicate a date when Jews and Christians had greater mutual animosity, well after 75. Against this, the writer may simply be heightening his portrayal of the evil of the Jewish ruling classes, and on the whole, the writer often portrays Jews with great sympathy. One problem that confounds all attempts to date the Gospel of Mark is that it contains a great deal of fiction, and thus the items that look like historical information to one exegete look like Markan storytelling to another.

Another possible factor to be weighed in dating Mark is the gospel's attitude toward Peter. Perhaps as early as 1 Clement, usually dated around 95, and certainly after the middle of the second century, stories began to appear in which Peter had been executed in Rome, and was the first pope. The writer of Mark does not appear to be familiar with those tales. Although Peter is prominent, the writer never clearly presents Peter as a person holding a formal title, nor does he appear to be aware of the stories of Peter's martyrdom.

Perhaps the final factor to be considered in dating is that Mark is generally considered the first Gospel written, and is treated so in this Commentary. Further, it is clear that Matt and Luke, as well as John, all knew and used, even copied, the Gospel of Mark. Thus, whatever date the reader assigns to those Gospels is the latest possible date of the Gospel of Mark. Conversely, the date of Mark is the earliest possible date for the other writings, such as the canonical Gospels, and extracanonical writings like the Gospel of Thomas and the Gospel of Peter, that in all probability depend on Mark one way or another. The date of Mark in many ways has a profound effect on how the history of early Christianity must be seen.

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Place of Composition

The place of composition is unknown. Due to Papias, who had the disciple John Mark composing the Gospel of Mark in Rome, for many years exegetes located the Gospel in Rome. Other traditions point to Alexandria. A number of modern scholars, such as Ched Myers, Ted Weeden, and Burton Mack, locate the Gospel in northern Palestine or southern Syria. The fact is that the Gospel of Mark could have been composed anywhere in the Roman Empire that the writer could have had access to a primary education, which is more or less the entire Empire.

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Sources of Mark

The Gospel of Mark has many sources, but pre-eminent among them is the Tanakh, what Christians have appropriated and called the "Old Testament." By some counts there are over 150 direct citations, allusions, and references to it in the Gospel of Mark  This does not begin to take into account the use of the story of Elijah and Elisha in 1 and 2 Kings as a key structural element that controls the Gospel up to Mark 14, nor the presence of other stories such as 2 Sam 15-17 or Daniel 6, as story frameworks. The Tanakh is present at every level of the Gospel, and its author was intimately familiar with that collection of texts. The use of the Old Testament (OT) has generated an enormous controversy among scholars. Does the writer of Mark use the OT to interpret the history of Jesus, or to create it? If the answer to either is "sometimes," when does he do which, and how do we know?

The writer's Old Testament was not a Hebrew one, however, but a Greek translation called the Septuagint (LXX), after the seventy Jewish elders who allegedly translated it in Egypt a couple of centuries prior to the time of the writer of Mark. The writer's citations of the Old Testament generally follow this translation. Paula Fredriksen (1988) writes:


"At least since the sixth century BCE, a large community had thrived in Bablyon, speaking Aramaic, the Semitic language of its captors, but preserving its national and religious identity. But in the Western Diaspora, the Jews of the Mediterranean territories -- though eventually those in all the lands Alexander had conquered, including Babylon and Palestine itself -- faced a very different cultural situation. The first language of this Western Jewish community became an Indo-European tongue, Greek. By the third century BCE familiarity with Hebrew had faded to such a degree that anonymous Jewish translators in Alexandria produced a written Greek version of the five books of Moses, the Torah (Teaching), so that the scriptures would be accessible during public worship. The Greek version of the entire Bible, the Septuagint (Seventy, hence the academic shorthand LXX), was available by the end of the second century BCE..."(p13)

Scholars such as Craig Evans have vigorously argued that the author also knew some Aramaic targums, translations of the Hebrew Tanakh into Aramaic.

The writer also seems familiar with Jewish lore and traditions, and with the Jewish apocryphal writings, and perhaps with Aramaic and Hebrew. The writer preserves some Aramiac words in his Gospel, and there is an apparent pun in Hebrew in Mark 12:10. The use of Psalm 110 (Mark 12:36), which spells out Simon Maccabaeus' name as an acrostic in Hebrew, also tends to support the writer's knowledge of Hebrew. The Book of Esther appears in Mark 6:14-29, but in a vastly expanded form that seems to take in popular traditions and expansions of the Esther story. The writer may also have been familiar with Jewish writings such as 1 Enoch, and texts such as the Testaments of the Twelve Patriarchs that Christians either invented on Jewish patterns or Christianized from Jewish originals.

In addition to the writings of the Jews, the author of Mark was also intimately familiar with one of the predominant philosophies of the Roman Empire, various forms of Cynicism. Scholars have recently come to believe that Mark incorporates numerous Cynic arguments and argument structures in his Gospel, often masking the arguments with great skill. F. Gerald Downing has produced several books on the influence of Cynicism on the New Testament writing and thinking. The writer of Mark was also familiar with the conventions of Hellenistic literary composition, including its dramatic and argumentative techniques.

The majority of scholars argue that a source for the Gospel of Mark was a collection of sayings generally referred to as "Q" from the German Quelle, or source. The idea of Q was developed by German scholars in the 19th century to explain how Matthew and Luke could have so many verses with close or identical wording, while at the same time the vast differences between the two appeared to indicate that Luke did not know Matthew. A written source, now designated Q, was postulated to explain this. Later scholars came to believe that the writer of Mark used these sayings as a source for certain parts of his gospel. This source has never been found, and may not exist. I am among the minority that does not accept the existence of Q, and believes that Luke knew and used Matthew, and so have not incorporated Q into the sources used in this Commentary. For more information on why I do not accept the existence of Q, see the Excursus on the Mark-Q Overlaps at the end of Chapter 3. Exclusion of Q as a possible source does not appear to have affected the Commentary. For a review of the pro-Q arguments, see Peter Kirby's summary here. Mark Goodacre has a summary of the problems with Q at his Case Against Q website.

In lower order of probability, the writer also may be familiar with the works of the Jewish historian Josephus. A number of scholars have seen affinities with the Pauline letters, especially Romans, 1 Corinthians, and Galatians, but these affinities are not widely accepted among exegetes and are met with intense opposition in some quarters.  Dennis MacDonald, who appears to have unearthed many links between the works of Homer and the early Christian writings, argues that the Gospel of Mark closely parallels the Homeric Epics. While I find MacDonald's ideas fascinating, I do not accept his thesis and thus have generally not incorporated it into this Commentary.

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Interpreting the Gospel of Mark

Interpretations of Mark are like noses: everyone has one. I won't bore you with mine. Scholars have long struggled to explain many of the enigmas of Mark. Why are the disciples so strongly criticized? Why is Jesus pictured as constantly suppressing attempts to reveal his identity, but at the same time being followed around by crowds? What is the role of women in the Gospel? Why does Jesus take his mission to social outcasts and low status individuals such as lepers and women? Why did the writer wait until Mark 15 to introduce female followers? What is the meaning of all the irony? Who is the young man of Mark 14:51-2? Why do demons recognize Jesus when his disciples do not? Why does Jesus have two trials? Why does the Gospel end at 16:8? What is the relationship between Jesus and John the Baptist? What are the larger structures of Mark? What is the function of geography and place in Mark? What is the writer's attitude toward Judaism? What are the major themes of the Gospel? What is the writer's attitude toward Roman rule? What, if any, are the political issues the Gospel portrays? What is the attitude of the writer toward the Christianity of his time? What is the meaning of Jesus' death in the Gospel of Mark? How does the writer see Jesus in relation to God? What do phrases like "Son of Man" and "Kingdom of God" mean? How does Jesus see his own death? What is the writer's idea of Jesus' messiahship? What is the relationship between the Kingdom of God and the Crucifixion?

The questions generated by the Gospel of Mark are endless. And the answers are all in your head.

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Notes

A few terms used throughout the Commentary may cause confusion. An "exegete" is simply someone who attempts to understand the meaning of the text; I use it to refer to those scholars and other interested individuals who work on New Testament and related texts. "OT" stands for "Old Testament;" "NT" represents "New Testament." "LXX" designates the Septuagint, the Greek translation of the Hebrew scriptures. The scholarly convention of CE for AD and BCE for BC is followed in this Commentary. A "pericope" is a section of a gospel that most exegetes consider a complete unit in and of itself. Pericoping is generally traditional, though it varies slightly from Bible to Bible and scholar to scholar. The term Passion, or Passion Narrative, refers to the arrest, trial, and death of Jesus. viagra price india viagra street price generic viagra good name brand cialis sales online australia viagra cost without insurance viagra online without prescriptionBecause of Mark's close affinities with Luke and Matthew, these three gospels together are generally referred to as the "Synoptic Gospels." Various forgeries associated with the Gospel of Mark, including the so-called Secret Gospel of Mark and the several spurious endings of Mark, will not be evaluated in this Commentary. In certain citations I have added italics to non-English words.

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Introduction
Author of Mark
Date of Composition
Place of Composition
Sources of Mark
Interpreting Mark

Home Topical Index Chapter 1 of Mark