The Mystery of Mark


1. Making a beginning - and an end

Mark is the most mysterious of the gospels. If you have never done so, read Mark through, preferably in a sitting or two, and imagine what your Christian life would be like with only this gospel; no birth stories or resurrection appearances, little of the content of Jesus' teaching, no sermon on the Mount or Lord's prayer. Did Mark not know these or deliberately miss them out?

We have a pattern of Jesus' ministry in our minds; a kind of gospel springtime in Galilee with things growing steadily darker, lonelier and more conflict ridden as he moves towards a last week in Jerusalem culminating in the Crucifixion. But this is a pattern Mark imposed on his source material for dramatic or other purposes. Our ready acceptance is a mark of his success, we forget that the John's gospel has a totally different pattern with a ministry of at least three years rather than Mark's months or even weeks!

However, so far these are only consequences of Mark's likely position as the first gospel to be written. More significant is the general air of mystery in Mark's gospel. Supernatural beings are silenced about Jesus' person, people cured by him are not allowed to explain it, the disciples must not reveal revelations from God, they are repeatedly given secret instruction regarding Jesus' person and work which they, his family and friends, fail to comprehend despite repetition, the purpose of his teaching is to mystify not to enlighten and Jesus himself frequently withdraws from the scene, conceals himself and refuses to explain himself to his opponents.

What can we make of this? Mark is clearly calling us to some decision. In this series I can only make a few suggestions to stimulate you to go further. To make a start why not read...

Mark 1:1
The beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.

In Mark's day there were few books, he wrote his gospel to be heard, to be listened to rather than read or analysed. His audience, Christian community, congregation would know something of the Jesus story as isolated incidents. Now a full written gospel makes a dramatic appeal to our imagination, drawing us in by use of the present tense - not usually reflected in modern translations - and calling for a response. The opening words are important serving as a combined title and contents page.

Beginning: Mark means two things here. Although this is both the beginning of the book and of Jesus' story, it is also the whole gospel that is just the beginning of things, as will become clearer when we look at its ending. The word translated gospel (good news) originally signified the good news of victory in battle or some other cause of celebration. In the Greek Old Testament it is the good news of God's salvation. Mark, like Paul, uses this noun to mean the good news about Jesus, at the same time bearing in mind the good news brought by Jesus of God's kingdom. It may also be the case that Mark is using 'gospel' as a descriptive term for what he has written. If so, we must understand gospel to be a proclamation to convince and convict rather than 'a book about Jesus'. Mark's good news is about Jesus Christ (Messiah) the Son of God. Even by Mark's day Christ had become a kind of surname for Jesus rather than a title - the Messiah, God's anointed - that meant little to non-Jews. Mark knows that Jesus is the Messiah but is uneasy about the title, Jesus never uses it of himself, it is used always with some qualification. Does Mark find Messiahship irrelevant or inadequate? Certainly he prefers the title Son of God. It is used by Jesus himself and twice by the voice of God, while other supernatural powers also use it. Son of God does not, as in later Christian belief, mean a being of divine origin but one whose coming is a sign of the coming of God; a mixture of a royal figure (Psalm 2:7), servant (Isaiah 42:1), the nation (Hosea 11:1), with a unique relationship with God like Abraham and Isaac (Genesis 22:2). Mark may not have written 'Son of God' but he believed it to be so.

So in his opening sentence Mark has told us more than anyone in the gospels ever knows or understands especially the disciples. And this aspect of things comes to the fore in Mark's strange ending.

Mark 16:8
...and they said nothing to anyone for they were afraid.

Although this is certainly the original ending of Mark it was thought so strange that others added to it. In Greek it ends abruptly with a preposition meaning 'for' and this is so unusual that some have speculated that the writer was unable to resume or that a longer ending was lost. But simply as it stands 16:8 makes an appropriate, adequate and encouraging ending to the gospel.

This mysterious ending is in keeping with the gospel's air of mystery. Jesus is not physically available, nonetheless he can be seen (i.e. perceived) if we disciples follow him to Galilee. Galilee is the place of mission, specifically Gentile mission - see Isaiah 9:1 - if the disciples just do not get the message in an atmosphere of fear that is also in keeping with the rest of the gospel. It seems that the women must have told someone some time because the church exists and the gospel is written. So Mark implies that we can constantly overcome fear and failure and make a new start by following Jesus into Galilee, which is wherever mission is going on; we do not have to take Jesus there, he is there before us, to be discerned by us in the work he is already doing unseen. This I think is Mark's message for us but he himself has an additional concern.

We need a reason for Mark's hostility to the disciples and to Jesus' family (3:31-35), for the lack of appearances to the disciples or any commissioning of them, by the risen Jesus, to any authority in the post resurrection church. One possible conclusion is that Mark, like Paul, had his differences with the Jewish Christian church and its claims to authority over 'open' Gentile churches. We know from the New Testament that the apostles, including Peter, and Jesus' brother James were leaders in the Jerusalem church and from later church historians, the relatives of Jesus - two great nephews and a cousin - claimed to exercise 'dynastic' authority well into the first century. Mark's ending underlines what he suggests in his gospel that no closeness to Jesus, however superficially intimate, based on family descent or succession matters. To be really related to Jesus means to follow him into mission, anything else is secondary; a warning indeed.

2. The turning point - steps forward or back?

It has long been recognised that the incident at Caesarea Philippi(Mark 8:27 onwards) centring round the question of Jesus' identity is a turning point in Mark's gospel. Before this point, emphasis is on Jesus as a worker of mighty acts - healing and exorcism - his teaching is mentioned but only part of chapter 4 contains any significant examples. After chapter 8 there are only two acts of power and much emphasis on teaching, especially for the disciples, that suffering and death are a necessary part of Jesus' mission.

Continued lack of understanding on the part of the disciples is something that we shall have to look at more closely next time. For now we can suggest that the second half of the gospel corrects any impression given in the first that Jesus' authority as 'Messiah and Son of God' comes from his wonder-working abilities, or that those who follow him are engaged in a life of signs and miracles. Knowing and following Jesus does lead to marvellous things but only for those that follow Jesus the whole way through the crucifixion; anything less is superficial. Mark wants us to understand that the right way to see Jesus is through the lens of the cross and like the disciples we find this difficult to accept.

If we look at the central section of the gospel (8:22-10:52) we can see how this works out in practice; you will probably need to follow in your Bibles as I sketch in the outline of the narrative. We begin, and end, with the healing of the blind man (8:22-26). In the gospels blindness is equivalent to lack of insight; Mark may want us to understand that the disciples can grow from darkness to imperfect understanding to clarity. The sequel shows that such hopes are misplaced.

Peter, speaking for all the disciples, shows progress beyond that what most people believe Jesus to be(8:27-30) but his response to Jesus'' teaching about what this really means (8:31-33) shows that he/they are still half blind. He needs to 'get behind' - be a true follower - repudiating his 'satanic' inclinations. The next section (8:34-38) might be read as ironic commentary on Peter's future conduct; denying Jesus to save himself. How we respond to Jesus now affects our fate at the judgement.

His thought provides the link to the introduction to the next section (9:1-11). In the transfiguration story, three disciples, leaders in the early church, are given insight into the coming of the kingdom with power; Peter, gropingly, understands this but can go no further. Even the voice from heaven testifying to Jesus' uniqueness - he is left alone (9:8) - leaves them baffled. The only result (9:9-13) is to dispute about resurrection and raise the coming of Elijah with Jesus who tries to develop their insight again. Elijah (in the person of John the Baptist) has come and preceded Jesus in the way he must go.

Meanwhile the failure of the disciples to heal the epileptic boy (9:14-29) in spite of their authority (6:7-13), emphasises that recognition of dependence on God (9:29), however imperfect (9:24) counts more than formal power. For a third time Jesus raises the question of his passion, including a hint of betrayal, but the disciples are no further on in wishing to understand(9:30-32). Ignoring what their place might be in Jesus' way of the cross, they prefer to argue their place in the church's hierarchy (9:33-34). Place is about humility and lack of 'place' (9:35-37), discipleship is not exclusive (9:38-41). No sacrifice is too great for the kingdom, it is not for the perfect, purity for the kingdom involves the scouring and reserving qualities of salt not rivalry in power (9:42-50)

Jesus' teaching about divorce and remarriage (10:1-12), significantly adapted to a gentile situation (10:11-12) points both to God's original intention and his provision for human weakness. The following story of blessing the children emphasises the disciples inability to learn from previous teaching about status and exclusivity (9: 35-41) The rich man (10:17-22) can keep the social and pastoral commandments but is prevented from keeping the first and greatest; only God can overcome some barriers to discipleship (10:23-27). Jesus reply to the disciples' true but self righteous claim (10:28-30) indicates that eternal life only comes after a life with new family, and other, ties and consequences: coming out on top is the point (10:310).

Mark manages to convey an ideal picture of Jesus hurrying to meet his fate followed by fear and amazement (10:32-34); the only urgency among the disciples is the continuing search for greatness (10:35-40). This matter is out of their hands because it is out of Jesus' hands; so jealous indignation is misplaced, priority in the kingdom depends on imitation of Jesus (10:41-45) Finally the blind man Bartimaeus shows true discipleship (10: 46-52). Unlike Peter he not only has insight into Jesus is (10:47) but shows persistence rather than fear (10:48), responding to Jesus' call asks not for greatness but for vision and shows that he sees clearly by following Jesus(10:52). Precisely he follows Jesus in the way, the way to Jerusalem and the cross.

So in this central section, Mark has arranged his material to explore the necessities and the dangers of discipleship. The latter are chiefly the result of the half blindness that recognises who Jesus is but cannot draw the right consequences from the insight. Rather than look to Jesus as a source of power the true disciple follows in the way of the cross. This has practical consequences in the life of the church, new priorities in family relationships and regarding possessions, the will of God before all things, status within, or with the outside, the Church is presently irrelevant and inconsequential for the future.

The persistent ignorance of the disciples, and their inability to learn, needs our closer attention. The challenge is all too clear; the recognition of and attachment to Jesus are not the same as commitment to him, but may be a disguise for commitment and our own interests.

3. Enemies and "friends"

On reading Mark’s gospel it becomes clear that one of its main themes is conflict between Jesus and a variety of opponents among his Jewish contemporaries. Although Jesus was undoubtedly executed by the Roman authorities, Mark almost completely exonerates them and points the finger of blame towards a ‘Jewish’ conspiracy. This distorted bias probably already existed to a degree in Mark’s raw material of stories about Jesus, some of which will already have had a fixed form, written or oral. As we saw when looking at Matthew’s gospel last year, the growing distance between the early Christian communities and their Jewish origins was a painful and unhappy business, leading the gospel writers to project their own situation in respect of Judaism back into the time of Jesus. Distortion was an effect of this application of the ‘Jesus story’ to changing times. The subsequent results for Jewish-Christian relations have ranged from the unfortunate to the disastrous. We for our part have to acknowledge this fault-line in the New Testament and seek, so far as we can, to correct it.

Mark mentions six groups as formal opponents of Jesus: Pharisees, Sadducees, Herodians, chief priests, scribes and elders. The Pharisees are the group about which we know most. They were the one group that survived the destruction of the Temple in 70 C.E., after which they became very influential in a way they were not in the time of Jesus; all surviving forma of Judaism descend from Pharasaic teaching. Pharisees were a progressive, largely lay, movement, concerned to apply the Torah (Law) for the average Jew to keep rather than a priestly elite. Mark mentions them eleven times mostly in the first half of the gospel, always with hostility, not after 12:13; and they play no pert in the passion story. It is quite likely that Jesus disputed points of the Law with individual Pharisees or small groups, but very doubtful if they confronted him as a party, as Mark seems to imply. Even more in question is the possibility of the Pharisees plotting Jesus’s death (3:6, 12:13); they lacked the necessary influence.

Sadducees who appear only once in Mark (12:18) and play no part in Jesus’s death, were a priestly conservative group who rejected the doctrinal speculations of the Pharisees such as resurrection and angels.

It is difficult to know what to make of the Herodians, whom Mark mentions two or three times. Matthew and Luke had the same problem and dropped all reference to them in their gospels.

The chief priests, which may mean the leading members of the priestly families of Jerusalem, are mentioned thirteen times, always in Jerusalem and in the second half of the gospel, taking the lead in the trial and death of Jesus.

The scribes are mentioned most frequently, twenty one times, mostly in the second half of the gospel usually with one of the other groups and heavily implicated with the death of Jesus. As are the elders, five or six times, a shadowy group who never operate alone.

The disputes of these groups with Jesus are diverse – divorce, relations with the state, authority, Sabbath, defilement, fasting, resurrection etc. – and have been edited by Mark with the church practice of his day in mind. As usually it is the disciples’ conduct which is brought into question with a saying from Jesus initiating what had become Christian practice: fasting, food laws and so on. From early in the gospel Mark points towards the passion and apportions blame (3:6) so that the gospel becomes a passion narrative with an extended, polemical introduction, explaining Jesus’s death as the obvious result of Jewish blindness, antagonism and rejection. The Jewish groups, whatever their actual differences, are depicted as one flat character of destructive opposition: vindictive, stealthy and devious.

Moreover, Jesus’s close associates are bracketed with the scribes (3:21-2), his family are those outside his true relations (3:31-5) and his fellow townspeople hinder his mission as unbelievers (6:1-6).

As we have seen in previous articles the disciples are as great a threat to a right understanding as any of his formal opponents. Although Mark uses many expressions to denote Jesus’s followers he has a special liking for ‘the twelve’ which he uses more often than any other New Testament book. I have mentioned before that in Mark, although given authority (1:16-20, 3:14-15, 6:7-13), the disciples are shown to be failures in exercising it, are given no standing by the risen Jesus but bicker among themselves about it. Despite repeated teaching about both passion and resurrection they are continually obtuse in their comprehension to the point of betrayal, denial and flight. Peter claims that they have left all to follow Jesus (10:28), but now one disciple sacrifices everything including his dignity to get away from him (14:51 cf. Amos 2:16).

Mark’s doubts, even hostility, regarding the disciples, are undoubtedly his contribution. Matthew heightens the disciples’ understanding of Jesus; Luke softens Mark’s harshness. It cannot be historical that the disciples are as unperceptive at the beginning as at the end without change, development or progress; rejecting both suffering and glory. The disciples’ failures are a warning from Mark not to confuse following Jesus with having the right connections by birth, contact, or by the church hierarchy (cf. John 20:29); to understand Jesus and follow him is to stand in the shadow, and walk in the way, of the cross.

Markers from Mark

You may have heard that Mark’s gospel is a kind of ‘ghosted’ memoirs of Peter as told to Mark; by implication the John Mark of Acts who is also the Mark of the letters (Col.4:10, 2 Tim.4:11, Philmn.24 and 1 Peter 5:13).

This suggestion as to the authorship of the gospel depends on a remark by a second century bishop, but only as recorded by a fourth century historian; and the bishop was relaying what he had been told by his teacher. In fact what the bishop says is that Mark ‘wrote accurately but not in order, “making an arrangement” of what he had heard’. So there is no claim to historical accuracy here and the author provides the shape of the gospel. What is more, the New Testament itself associates Mark with Paul rather than Peter; and theologically Mark is near to Paul in emphasising the death of Jesus and its quality as a ransom. It is Matthew with its Jewish Christian emphasis and special stories of Peter that could claim Peter’s influence. In addition Mark was the most common Roman name; even if we could be sure our gospel was written by someone called Mark, there must have been many early Christian Marks: are all New Testament Marks the same? Better to regard the gospel as written by an anonymous Gentile Christian from a Gentile background.

4. Mark's portrait of Jesus

As I proposed at the beginning of the series, Mark’s gospel far from being a straightforward historical account of Jesus’ life and ministry is a puzzle, a mystery. I again recommend that you read Mark through in a sitting and see if you do not agree. In particular the question of “who Jesus is” is for the bulk of the gospel hedged about and shrouded with mystery, though disclosed to readers in the very first sentence.

Jesus is referred to as teacher some twelve times and Mark uses the verb ‘to teach’ more frequently than any other New Testament book. At the same time, with the significant exception of teaching about the passion in the second half of the gospel, Mark says comparatively little about the content of Jesus’ teaching. Similarly Jesus is only a prophet in the general estimate of those who heard him and those who reject his teaching (6: 3-4 and 15). Peter’s estimate of Jesus as Messiah seems more adequate (8:27-29).

If we postpone discussing Mark’s view of Jesus as Messiah for the time being we can move swiftly over Jesus the Son of Man. Although it is notoriously difficult to decide what “Son of Man” may have meant to the historical Jesus, for Mark it is a way for Jesus to talk indirectly about himself. It has two aspects - the one who suffers, indeed must suffer, on earth is also the one who shall come in triumph from heaven.

Mark much prefers the title Son of God. None of the gospels mean by this that Jesus was God in the sense of the later Trinitarian theology, still less that Jesus was some sort of divine/human hybrid. In Paul Jesus becomes Son of God by resurrection (Rom 1:4). Mark’s Jesus is similarly designated at his baptism (1:11) reinforced at the transfiguration (9:7). Matthew’s and Luke’s accounts of a virginal conception and John’s pre-existent Word push the matter further back. All are attempts to depict rather than explain Jesus’ particular status and standing before God. For Mark it is in some sense the truest designation of Jesus - it comes from God, is known only to the supernatural world (3:11) until the crucifixion. We can see the events at the very end of Jesus’ life (15:37-39) as a mirror image of his baptism. There the heavens are torn, the spirit of God descends and a voice is heard pointing to the Son of God (1:9-11). In the crucifixion God is absent (15:34), the veil of the Temple is torn as God departs from his people, and the voice of confirmation is given not by God, a fellow Jew or a disciple but by a gentile centurion, one of the crucifiers. This is an epiphany, the heavenly truth disclosed to readers of the gospel only becomes earthly truth in the suffering and death of the Son of God.

5. The mystery of the Messiah and his message

The air of mystery that we find in Mark is not our invention but an integral part of the gospel itself. Not only does Jesus command secrecy about his person from the spirit world (e.g. 3:12) and from his disciples (e.g. 8:30, 9:9) but also, unrealistically, from those cured by him (e.g. 5:43, 7:36). He gives secret and repeated teaching to the disciples, which they do not cannot or will not understand. Even his own teaching is alleged to be deliberately obscure and misleading (4:12 quoting Isaiah 6:9-10). In addition he often conceals himself, and refuses to account for his actions.

Does any of this go back to the historical Jesus? Some scholars have claimed so. Broadly speaking this view claims that Jesus urges secrecy to prevent a Messianic misunderstanding - Jesus is Messiah (i.e. God’s anointed agent) but not a revolutionary or a conquering king. I find this implausible. Firstly it gives Jesus a motive not evident in the gospel. Secondly if Jesus wished to repudiate any expectation about him he could have given clear and unambiguous teaching on the matter. Thirdly the secrecy motif extends beyond the question of Messiahship. Fourthly it assumes a too simple view of expectations in Jesus’ own day. Most Jews were probably more interested in having enough seed for next spring or getting the blankets out of pawn for winter than in the Messiah. We have only one pre-Christian text, a song written about 63 BCE, that depicts a Davidic ruler purging Jerusalem. But even he does not trust in ‘horse rider and bow, nor... gold and silver for war. Nor [hopes] in a multitude.’ The Essenes of the Dead Sea believed in a coming conflict against evil but the Davidic king has no part in it - priests blow trumpets and give orders and angels do the fighting. Finally, in spite of the warnings, publicity about Jesus does get out and at least once he accepts a Messianic ovation without criticizing the disciples (11:7-10).

Earlier in the series I have dealt extensively with the disciples. It is just impossible,if they had been given the extensive and precise teaching that the gospel suggests, that Jesus’ arrest and death could take them by surprise. Teaching given in parables is meant to enlighten, not hide the message. Can we find a motive for Mark to cloak his gospel in such mystery?

6. Moving beyond the mystery

In Mark 4:11 Jesus tells the disciples that they have been given the secret or mystery of God’s kingdom. In Matt. 13: 11 and Luke 8:10 this is a matter of knowledge; for Mark the kingdom itself is a mystery, if it were not Jesus' own people would not have rejected him and his message. The disciples have been given the secret of the kingdom in Jesus and they have responded to his call but without growth in knowledge or understanding. Peter is right to call Jesus “Messiah” but wrong to reject the way of the cross (8:29-33). When Bartimaeus is blind he calls Jesus ‘Son of David’, once he can see (i.e. gain insight) he follows Jesus along that way (10:46-52). There is correction of misunderstanding here but it comes from Mark. Jesus is the Messiah, the anointed agent of the Kingdom, which he proclaims in words of authority and deeds of power, but who can only be proclaimed openly to the world through death in total abandonment. Jesus is himself the secret of the kingdom and it is a secret given and sometimes received, not understood.

R.H. Lightfoot (1883-1953) a scholar of an earlier generation whose work has positively influenced my own thinking about Mark, remarks that the gospel is ‘a book of simplicity and mystery combined.’ Again he says ‘the form of the earthly no less than the heavenly Christ is for the most part hidden from us... the gospels yields us little more than a whisper of his voice; we trace in them but the outskirts of his ways’. To demand certainties of Jesus is to ask too much.

Clarence Rickards
© St Peter's Church, Nottingham
Last revised 7th March 2004