The Gospel according to St Mark
Good news is worth telling and is worth listening to, sharing and remembering. Sadly though, it often seems that there is just not enough of it around! It is probably with this in mind that a few years ago an old priest, whose high regard for the scriptures rubbed off on me in my early Christian days, urged me to read the gospels and to become familiar with their contents, their richness, and to meditate on their treasures. He felt that there was much to be gained from reading a whole gospel through at one sitting - it seemed a good idea (albeit a daunting one) so I was pleased when he suggested that I try it with Mark's gospel. It is of course the shortest of the four, and so I set about my task.
The gospel of Mark is a lovely book and gets to grips with the good news instantly - unlike Matthew and Luke (the other synoptic gospels) Mark begins with the arrival of the adult Jesus breaking in on the realm of human affairs and activities, without reference to the birth narratives. Straight away we are confronted with Jesus joining the crowds who sought the ministry of John the Baptist, and this event prefaced with the Old Testament scriptures which were fulfilled by Christ's baptism. Jesus is for the Christian community a break from the past and a vision for the future. Mark, as a member of that community, was keen to share his experience with others. Jesus was for him Good News, and it was news that was to be recorded so that others in future generations could come and share it also. His gospel is full of colour and excitement, there is a sense of realism and vividness about Mark's writing which isn't found in the other gospels - but who was Mark? As we begin a very brief explanation of this gospel, this should be our first question.
Who was Mark?
There is a Mark who finds mention in other parts of the New Testament writings, whom scholars feel confident in identifying as the author of this gospel. We read in the Acts of the Apostles of Peter's miraculous escape from prison (chapter 12) and that he straightway went to the home of a Mary who was the mother of John, also called Mark. Again he features in the credits of Paul's letter to the Colossians (chapter 4) where he is referred to as the cousin of Barnabas. Paul appeals for the companionship and ministry of Mark in his second letter to Philemon. Mark is known to have angered Paul during his first missionary journey when he chose to return home leaving the apostle to continue alone. If the author was the Mark mentioned here he was likely to have been a companion of Peter and it is thought that he may not have known the person of Jesus himself, nor to have experienced his ministry or heard his teaching. But, being attentive to the words of Peter, he subsequently wrote down the things he heard of him which Peter spoke of with such conviction.
A graphic account...
The gospel is a graphic account of the life of Jesus which describes much of the detail about Christ's ministry. Mark goes to length to note the anger of Jesus, for instance, and the deep distress he felt over the fuss made as he healed the man with the withered hand (chapter 3). He sensitively captures the scene as a young child is drawn from among the company of the disciples (chapter 9) and note is made of Jesus' affection, indeed love, for the rich young man who went to the Lord looking for the secret of eternal life.
...for a non-Jewish audience
We find attention to detail when it comes to Jewish customs and traditions, and this would perhaps give an indication as to where the gospel was written and who it was written for. Clearly the author would not have gone to such detail for the benefit of his fellow Jews, so it might be assumed that it was targeted at a non-Jewish, Gentile audience. This would seem reasonable bearing in mind Mark's closeness to the two great missionary champions Peter and Paul, the latter of course being the one to take the good news to the gentile world beyond Palestine. The assumption is justified, too, because it is thought that Mark wrote his gospel while in Rome, possibly with Paul, where the need would be great for the oral tradition to be committed to written form.
Mark's gospel is regarded as highly important in the development of the written gospels, firstly because it is thought to be the earliest of the four - possibly written about 65-70AD and maybe even earlier. Because of this the material to be found in it provides a source for the other two synoptic gospels - indeed very little of the gospel story is peculiar to Mark alone, most of the Marcan story is to be found also in either or both of Matthew and Luke.
It is important to note that Mark, along with the other gospel writers, did not simply write down those snippets of the life of Christ which they had collected in some arbitrary form, just for the sake of having them written down. In the same way that St Paul's writings tease out issues of faith and develop theological arguments, so we see some sense in the way the gospel is constructed and the use of the material to hand. In Mark's case we see a strong emphasis on the sufferings of Christ through to when his exaltation and glory would be manifested, and the kingdom of God come in power. Half way through Mark we find Jesus speaking to his disciples about his passion and death, and at other points prior to this we can see Jesus speaking and acting in a confrontational manner, all predicting in a way the great confrontation, the conflict which would see Jesus facing death. Because of the early date of writing, Mark's preoccupation with suffering was understandable. Being a Christian in the middle of the first century was not easy; persecution and suffering were the experience of many. Mark was consequently concerned to promote Christ and his way to a growing company of followers whose experience was just that. His message is clear and is one to encourage those who had taken up the faith, and to appeal to the prospective converts - Christ is the glory of God in human form, but glory which could only be known by sharing in human frailty and suffering.
A document of faith
It is perhaps appropriate during the season of Lent to have a closer look at this lovely book which takes a central and unique place among the gospels. Lent is the time of reflection on our own path of faith and, as it culminates in the passion of the Lord, Mark's gospel may help us as we enter the suffering of Christ and, in that, consider the conflicts in our own life. We have briefly looked at some of the issues which scholars consider when appraising such a document, but as Christian people we need to move on from those issues and recognise it as a document of faith. In recognising this we may find ourselves touching the glory of Christ, of which Mark's gospel speaks.