With only 16 chapters, Mark is the shortest of the four Gospels. But by no means does it lack in richness of narrative or lessons about Christ, his life and its meaning for those who believe in him.
This Gospel is believed by many scholars to be the first written, the foundation on which Matthew and Luke based their more detailed, extensive biographical Gospels.
In focusing on Jesus’ ministry and the events leading up to his Passion, the Gospel of Mark hones in with knife-like precision on the importance of his death on the cross. Readers don’t get the detailed genealogies or birth narratives offered by Matthew and Luke, and there is none of the mysticism and lyrical writing offered in the Gospel of John.
Where the language and style of these Gospels could be compared in literary terms to epic novels or drama, Mark instead has many of the elements of a classic short story: no extraneous words or episodes, every sentence and paragraph focused on the central purpose of the plot.
“In Mark, we don’t get a lot of detail or very large blocks of teaching,” said Stephen Miletic, a professor of Scripture and catechetics at Franciscan University of Steubenville in Ohio. “Compared to the other Gospels, it’s more of an action-packed story about Jesus, if you will, than it is a detailed outline of the foundation of his teachings.”
Miletic said Mark was often considered the “poor cousin” of the Gospels by early scholars, and its true richness wasn’t appreciated until the past 40 years or so, when scholars versed in literary criticism approached the Gospel by studying its narrative style and story structure.
“They found Mark to be extremely carefully composed,” he said. “Mark seems to be more focused on a demonstration of power. It’s a rapid flow narrative that focuses on Jesus as a guy who has come as the Son of God, who brings amazing power with him, and then his teachings unfold from that.”
Who was Mark?
Mark is no different from the other three in the fact that scholars over the ages have disagreed over who the author was, when he lived and why he wrote.
Mark is believed by many to be the same as John Mark, who is mentioned several times in the Acts of Apostles, said Msgr. Stuart W. Swetland, S.T.D., associate professor of Christian ethics at Mount St. Mary’s University in Emmitsburg, Md.
“John Mark goes with Paul on his first missionary journey, he is cousin to Barnabas, and his mother’s household was the center for the early Church as mentioned in Acts 12:12,” he said.
John Mark and Paul go their separate ways, but Mark is mentioned again by the apostle in Colossians 4:10, 2 Timothy 4:11, and in his letter to Philemon.
Many church historians and Scripture commentators believe Mark was the first Gospel to be written, and date it around 65-70 A.D. Other scholars speculate it dates from as early as 55-65 A.D.
“The reason they think it’s the first is that Luke and Matthew are very similar but longer, and they use much of the material from Mark verbatim,” Msgr. Swetland said.
The other three Gospels quote all but 31 verses of Mark, and Mark also records more of Jesus’ miracles than the other three.
Most scholars agree that Mark was written in Rome, although some have speculated its location was Antioch in Syria.
Servant and miracle worker
One of the most powerful verses in Mark describes the special nature of Jesus’ role: “For the Son of Man did not come to be served but to serve and to give his life as a ransom for many” (Mk 10:45).
He is the Son of God on Earth, but he does not present himself to the world as an all-powerful deity who must be worshipped. Instead, he takes on a life of seemingly endless giving, until the final sacrifice of his life.
Much of Mark’s narrative focuses on Jesus’ constant service to others as he travels.
He heals the sick and the disabled, feeds the hungry, drives out demons, forgives sins and saves his disciples from the fury of a storm.
Jesus’ works, however, are also designed to show his true divine nature to those who are willing to believe.
“We see that Jesus is on his way to the cross, hasting to do what he was sent to do,” Miletic said. “Mark brings across that Jesus makes the kingdom of God present on Earth. He shows the world the presence of and reality of the Father.”
The power of the cross
The necessity for Jesus to be crucified in order to save humanity from sin is evoked throughout Mark’s Gospel.
“The major theme of Mark is why there is a suffering Christ, and why we must suffer in imitation of him,” said Spiritan Father Sean Kealy, professor of Scripture in the theology department at Duquesne University in Pittsburgh.
What some scholars call Mark’s “Theology of the Cross” is revealed throughout, especially in the section between Mark 8:22 and 10:52.
Jesus predicts his own suffering, and tries to describe why he must suffer and die to his disciples, although they do not comprehend the full nature of his mission.
Indeed, one of the few people to first see Jesus as he really is, and the necessity of his suffering, is not one of the disciples, but a centurion standing beneath the cross as Jesus dies: “Surely this man was the Son of God!” (Jn 15:39).
“The full revelation of Jesus as Messiah comes not in the forgiveness of sins, not in healings or deliverances or in exorcism,” Miletic said. “All of those activities are part of the kingdom of God, but we don’t get the full picture until Jesus dies on the cross. That’s the core of the messianic age, an age of redemption. That’s the full, final exodus from sin.”
The Evangelist Series
Learning about St. Luke the Evangelist
The Gospel of Matthew: Jesus is the fulfillment of the Old Testament
The Gospel of John: Bridging the human and the devine