“The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the son of God.”
And so the great drama begins: John the Baptizer in the desert wilderness, drenching the throngs in the River Jordan. Jesus, grown fully as an adult, comes to the river, he is baptized, and a voice from heaven declares:
“You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”This is the Gospel of Mark, the first of the four canonical gospels to be written, the shortest of the gospels, and in many ways, the most dramatic.
This coming year we will be exploring the Gospel of Mark in our Sunday Lectionary Cycle Year B. We will hear of the dramatic events in the River this coming Sunday with these opening stanzas of Mark 1:1-8 above, and from here we will go deeper into the Gospel of Mark in successive Sundays.
At the end of this post, I will give you some suggestions for further opportunities to explore Mark that I hope will enrich your experience in reading and hearing this gospel.
I am sometimes asked how to read the Bible, and by that, people often mean they are struggling to get started and they’ve gotten lost before getting very far into Genesis, the first book of the Bible.
Here is my advice: Start with the Gospel of Mark. You will find in nestled between Matthew and Luke, symbolically appropriate because the two later gospels draw heavily from Mark.
The Gospel of Mark will take you other places into the Bible, drawing on the images of the Garden of Eden, the wilderness of Sinai and Moses, the prophets of the Jewish tradition and their predictions of the hope to come. If you immerse yourself in the Gospel of Mark you will also be immersed in the Hebrew Scriptures, or as Christians call it, the Old Testament.
Try reading Mark in one sitting – it has plot and pacing, and it is not that long. Read it as a stage play. Mark is meant to be heard as story and drama.
Let me give you a little background about the Gospel of Mark:
Mark is the first gospel written, probably authored by an urban Christian in about 60 to 70 A.D., written during the persecutions of Nero. Mark is the gospel upon which two other gospels – Matthew and Luke – draw most heavily.
If you can mine Mark you will be well on the path to understanding Matthew and Luke, which borrow wholesale about two-thirds of Mark. Scholars call these three gospels the “Synoptic Gospels,” a Greek word meaning “together,” because the three books should be considered together. The Gospel of John is so different from the other three in style and structure (the events of the life of Jesus are in a different order) that it needs to be considered separately.
There is a tendency in our age of movies and television to blend the gospels together into a single harmonious biographical life of Jesus. But let me urge you to not do that when reading the gospels. Each stands on its own, each author has a unique theological perspective, and each is underlining particular viewpoints they have about the meaning of Jesus. The adventure in reading the gospels is finding the viewpoints of each author and drinking deeply of them.
The first thing to notice about Mark is that there is no birth story. Jesus arrives on the scene a fully-grown adult, ready to begin his ministry. There is no manger, no Virgin Mary, no wise men or shepherds in the field, no swaddling clothes or Star of Bethlehem, no Christmas story. Instead it begins at the baptism of Jesus, and this declaration from God (Mark 1:9-11):
“You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”If anything, Jesus is portrayed in Mark as having a tense relationship with his mother and siblings who think he has gone off the deep end (and, yes, Jesus has siblings). If we only had Mark to go on, we would not even be sure of his mother’s name (Mark 3:31-35):
Then his mother and his brothers came; and standing outside, they sent to him and called him. A crowd was sitting around him; and they said to him, “Your mother and your brothers and sisters are outside, asking for you.” And he replied, “Who are my mother and my brothers?” And looking at those who sat around him, he said, “Here are my mother and my brothers! Whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother.”For centuries, the Church was not quite sure what to make of Mark. The book felt too barebones, and it seemed to support a heretical Christology known as Adoptionism, the idea that Jesus was not born as the Son of God but was “adopted” at his baptism as the Son of God. The Christmas stories of Matthew and Luke may have been written to correct this perceived deficiency in Mark.
Some thought Mark was a crude summary of Matthew and Luke. Mark is written in a common Greek, kind of a “street Greek.” The Church was prone to dismissing Mark because it did not seem to have the theological content of John, or the erudite literary quality of Luke, or the loud prophetic Jewish declarations of Matthew.
Scholars now agree that Mark was anything but Cliff Notes. The Gospel of Mark likely reflects the earliest (and perhaps most accurate) recorded memories of Rabbi Jesus of Nazareth. One theory holds that Mark is based on the preaching of the disciple Peter, or more likely, the recollection of someone who heard Peter preach and wrote it down. The gospel is named in honor of Mark, an early follower of Paul, and many legends abound about its authorship. Truthfully, we know almost nothing about the author of the gospel.
There is a curious line in the gospel that might be a clue about the author of Mark; it comes toward the end of the gospel after Jesus is arrested and led away by soldiers (Mark 14:51-52):
“A certain young man was following him, wearing nothing but a linen cloth. They caught hold of him but he left the linen cloth and ran off naked.”Was the “certain young man” the author of Mark? Possibly. Pre-eminent biblical scholar Raymond E. Brown dismisses the theory as conjecture, but I rather like it.
Mark has many other intriguing puzzles for the listener: Whenever someone says Jesus is "the Messiah, Son of God," Jesus tells them to be quiet, to tell no one, to hush up. Of course, they tell everyone. This has become known as “the messianic secret” and many have speculated why Mark emphasized this so strongly. I have my theory, but I leave it to you to figure it out for yourself and bring it to conversation.
Notice the ending in Mark. There are actually three endings, and not all of them appear in every Bible translation. The last is known as the “longer ending” (Mark 16:9-19) with Resurrection appearances and a strange line about how the followers of Jesus “will speak in new tongues; they will pick up snakes in their hands…” (Mark 16:17-18).
There is another ending, called the “shorter ending” which has the Risen Christ going forth “from east to west, the sacred and the imperishable proclamation of eternal salvation…” (Mark 16, verse following 9, before 10).
Most biblical scholars will tell you that the Early Church tacked on the longer and shorter endings because the bishops were not satisfied with the original ending of Mark. It was too open-ended (more on that in a moment). The style of Greek in the short and long endings is much different than in the rest of the text, and the parts about snakes are quintessentially weird early church stuff. The language about “imperishable proclamation” is also pure Early Church.
So where does Mark really end?
The original ending (Mark 16:1-8), found in the earliest of manuscripts, has the women coming to the empty tomb and finding a white robed man who tells them Jesus “has been raised” and to “not be alarmed.”
But the women are very afraid, and they flee “and they said nothing to anyone.”
Mark ends abruptly right there. Nothing more is said. The end.
It is dramatic, wide open, and leaves us to write our own ending. We get to fill-in what comes next, and that is the beauty of Mark. Get that, and you get Mark.
Welcome to an amazing year ahead exploring this extraordinary gospel.
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Opportunities to explore Mark
The best way to discover the wonders of Mark, besides reading it for yourself, is to read and discuss it with a group. We have several opportunities for that at St. Paul’s. Our ministry intern, Joe Lenow, is leading a lectionary discussion group on Sundays at 11:30 am in the Library. Joe is a graduate student in theological philosophy at the University of Virginia.
The Men’s Group is also reading Mark on Wednesdays at 7:30 am, led by Tim Rambo and Andy Guffey, who is finishing his PhD in Religious Studies at the University of Virginia.
At Community Night on Dec. 14 at 7 pm, we will show the film Mark’s Gospel, with actor Max McLean, who performs the Gospel of Mark as a one-actor play. He uses minimal stage props, and has memorized the gospel in its entirety. This is how Mark should be heard, and it takes about two hours to view the entire film of his stage performance.
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Resources to go further
First, let me suggest you begin by reading Mark all the way through, and try to do it in one sitting.
Then, read the passage of Mark for Sunday ahead of time. You can find the readings for each Sunday on the calendar for Lectionary Year B by clicking HERE.
Sit with the passage awhile. What is puzzling to you? What is new and different that you’ve never noticed before? What are the hard parts? Read it several times. What does it mean to you? If you were going to preach a sermon on the passage, what would you say?
HarperCollins Study Bible, and you can get a copy on-line for $26.
To go deeper, I suggest reading a short book by Bonnie Thurston, who has spoken at St. Paul’s many times. Her recent reflection on Mark is excellent: The Spiritual Landscape of Mark, published in 2008.
Another very good book is Mark As Story, by David M. Rhodes. The book has its own translation, and Rhodes approaches Mark as dramatic story.
There are many Bible commentary series on the market, and some are better than others. Among the best is the Sacra Pagina series, and the updated volume on Mark is excellent, written by John R. Donahue, who was one of my professors at the General Theological Union in Berkeley (he is a Jesuit).
Finally, I heartily recommend you get a copy of Raymond E. Brown’s An Introduction to the New Testament. He gives a synopsis of each of the books of the New Testament and summarizes the interpretations and scholarship for each. It is a good book to have handy as you are reading any of the books of the New Testament.
Enjoy Mark this year, and bring your eyes to see and ears to hear its wonders and mysteries.