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An Introduction to the Gospel of Mark

Can you remember your first job? As a young person, you probably had a paper route or a babysitting job. But when you got your first job with a company, things were quite different. After being offered the job, you were probably required to go through some training. The trainer explained how things worked, who you reported to, and what their expectations were. While training may have seemed pointless at first, its value became visible when you started your first day.

This morning, we will be starting a new series in the Gospel of Mark. While we could simply jump into our first paragraph, it would be much better if we knew what we were getting ourselves into. That way you would know what to expect. With this introduction, we will answer questions like who, when, where, and what? Having a bit of background information in mind will help us to understand why certain things were written and the purpose behind the book.

  1. Who wrote it?

    The Gospel of Mark does not mention the name of the author. However, there are some internal and external clues about the person who wrote it.

    Internal Clues

    The writer knew the geography of Israel.

    Mark 5:1 – the country of the Gadarenes
    Mark 6:53 – the land of Gennesaret
    Mark 8:10 – the region of Dalmanutha
    Mark 11:1 – the places near Jerusalem
    Mark 13:3 – that the Mount of Olives was opposite the temple

    The writer knew Aramaic and Hebrew.9

    Mark 5:41 – He translated talitha cumi, Jesus’ words to the girl he raised.
    Mark 7:11 – He translated the word corban (Hebrew).
    Mark 7:34 – He translated the word ephphatha spoken to the deaf-mute.
    Mark 14:36 – He translated the word Abba.

    The writer knew about Jewish customs.

    Mark 1:21 – He knew about synagogue teaching on the Sabbath day.
    Mark 2:14 – He knew about tax collecting.
    Mark 2:16 – He knew the scribes and Pharisee’s aversion to eating with sinners.
    Mark 2:18 – He knew about the religious practice of fasting.

    The writer seems to have known Peter.

    Mark 1:16-20 – He knew about Peter’s call to be a disciple.
    Mark 1:29-31 – He knew about Peter’s family (his brother and mother-in-law).
    Mark 1:35-38 – He mentions Peter searching for Jesus.
    Mark 5:37 – He mentions Peter as one of three who were close to Jesus.
    Mark 8:29 – He mentions Peter affirming that Jesus was the Christ.
    Mark 9:5-6 – He knew the details of Peter’s response at the Transfiguration.
    Mark 14:33, 37 – He mentions Peter with him during his prayer in the garden.
    Mark 16:7 – The angels told the women to especially tell Peter about Jesus’ resurrection.
    Acts 10:34-43 – The Gospel of Mark is similar to Peter’s sermon in Caesarea.

    The internal cues point to someone who lived during the first century with a knowledge of the geography, language, and customs of Israel. But he also seemed to be someone who knew Peter especially well. Who could this have been?

    External Clues

    Your Bible may have the title “The Gospel According to Mark” at the top of the first page. Although the Gospel of Mark never mentions the writer’s name, it must have been someone who was familiar with someone who knew Jesus—maybe even Peter. Who could that have been? Many early Christian writers, including Papias (AD 110), Justin Martyr (AD 160), Irenaeus (AD 180), Tertullian (AD 200), Clement of Alexandria (AD 195), and Origen (AD 230), say that Mark wrote it.1

    For instance, Clement of Alexandria is recorded as having said this: “Peter having publicly preached the word at Rome, and spoken forth the Gospel by the Spirit, many of those present exhorted Mark, as having long been a follower of his, and remembering what he had said, to write what had been spoken; and that having prepared the Gospel, he delivered it to those who had asked for it.”3

    But does this fit with what we know about the John Mark mentioned in the New Testament? I think that it does.

    John Mark was familiar with Paul, Barnabas, and Peter.

    Acts 12:12 – The people were praying for imprisoned Peter at Mark’s mother’s house.
    Acts 12:25; 13:5 – John Mark traveled with Paul and Barnabas.
    Acts 13:13 – John left them during a missionary trip.
    Acts 15:37-39 – Paul didn’t trust John Mark because he left them earlier.
    Col. 4:10 – He was the cousin of Barnabas
    2 Tim. 4:11 – Paul later considered him to be useful in ministry.
    Phil. 24 – He was with Paul when Philemon was written.
    1 Pet. 5:13 – Peter refers to Mark as his son (probably his son in the faith2 3 4).

    When you couple together the internal and external evidence, it seems safe to say that John Mark is a likely candidate for the writer of the Gospel of Mark. His knowledge of the early Church culture and experience with early Christian leaders make him someone who could have written such a book.

  2. When was it written?

    The New Testament doesn’t tell us when the Gospel of Mark was written, but there are several reasons to believe that it was written some time before AD 70.

    There is no mention of the destruction of the temple.

    The Romans destroyed the temple in AD 70. While Mark records Jesus’ prophecy that the temple would be destroyed, he never mentions that it happened. That certainly would have been something to have mentioned as it would affirm what Jesus had prophesied.

    The early Church writers differ as to when Mark wrote his gospel.

    Irenaeus said that Mark wrote after the death of Paul and Peter.1 Clement of Alexandria wrote that Mark’s gospel was written “during Peter’s lifetime stating, in fact, that Peter participated in its production and ratified its use in the church.”1

    If Mark wrote the gospel before Peter’s death, it would have been written sometime around AD 57-59.3 It could have been written while John Mark was with Peter (1 Pet. 5:13) in Rome. If written after Peter’s death, the date would be around ten years later and just before the destruction of the temple. However, three early church writers (Eusebius, Epiphanius, and Jerome) say that “Mark went from Rome to Alexandria, in Egypt, where he planted a church, and died in the eighth year of the reign of Nero, 64 AD.” So, it seems plausible that Mark wrote the gospel while in Rome with Peter.

  3. Where did he get his information?

    Since John Mark traveled with Peter, it should come as no surprise that he had first-hand knowledge of what was written about Jesus. Peter was one of the three disciples who were closest to Jesus. Peter’s knowledge of what happened during those years would have been an eye-witness testimony to what Jesus said and did during his ministry. This agrees with a quotation of Papias by Eusebius:

    “When Mark became Peter’s interpreter, he wrote down accurately, although not in order, whatever he remembered of what was said or done by the Lord. For he had not heard the Lord nor had he followed him, but later, as I said, he followed Peter….”7

    I find that compelling. If Mark spent time with Peter and got his information from him, the gospel would probably show evidence of this. Hendriksen notes that “Peter’s sins and weaknesses are recorded faithfully, but the praise which he received elsewhere (for example in Matt. 16:17) is omitted from Mark. … [Also] Mark’s Gospel … is characterized by a certain vividness, rapidity of movement, and attention to detail which characteristics are easily associated with active, vivacious, enthusiastic Peter.”8 Isn’t that interesting? As we read through the gospel let’s keep this in mind and see if we notice this.

  4. What is it about?

    Characteristics of the Gospel of Mark

    It was written for Gentiles.

    The Gospel of Mark seems to have been written for non-Jewish people. “That it was not for Jews but Gentiles, is evident from the great number of explanations of Jewish usages, opinions, and places, which to a Jew would at that time have been superfluous but were highly needful to a Gentile.”3

    It emphasizes Jesus’ actions more than his teaching.

    “Mark recorded 18 of Jesus’ miracles but only four of His parables and one major discourse (13:3-37). Repeatedly Mark wrote that Jesus taught without recording His teaching. Most of the teaching he did include came out of Jesus’ controversies with the Jewish religious leaders.”

    It acknowledges but hides the fact that Jesus was the Messiah.

    In Mark, Jesus is recognized as the Son of God (1:1, 11; 3:11; 15:39) but his true identity was not to be announced.

    1:24-25 – The demons were told to be quiet about this.
    1:44 – The healed leper was told to be quiet about what Jesus had done.
    5:40-43 – The family of the raised girl were to be quiet.

    Why was this? Jesus did this because the people were expecting a Messiah who would deliver them from the Romans instead of someone who would call them to repent of their sins and trust in his death on the cross. “He did not want His identity declared openly till He had made clear to His followers the kind of Messiah He was and the character of His mission.”1

    It pushes the reader from Jesus’ ministry toward the cross and resurrection.

    The first half of the gospel deals with Jesus’ ministry while the last half deals with his journey to the cross. While Mark covers many events in Jesus’ earthly ministry, his goal is to get each reader to consider what Jesus accomplished through His death on the cross. The following outline is loosely based on Grassmick’s outline1 and shows this progression toward the cross.

    a. Jesus’ Preparation for Ministry (1:1-13)
    b. Jesus’ Ministry in Various Places (1:14-8:30)
    c. Jesus’ Journey to Jerusalem (8:31-13:37)
    d. Jesus’ Death and Resurrection (15-16)

    Purpose of the Gospel of Mark

    Several of the Bible commentaries mentioned the fact that Mark races through his story of Jesus. He recounts event after event showing what Jesus did for others. He healed the sick, cast out demons, and raised the dead. He was always doing good for others—even those who were outcasts or foreigners. With such care for people outside of the Jewish community, the Gospel of Mark is “eminently suited for Gentiles.”6

    “Mark’s supreme object was to show the Gentile world the active love of God in Jesus the Christ, serving needy men, seeking after sinners and saving all who trusted Him. If one had no other part of Scripture but this brief Gospel, there is enough in it to show to any troubled heart and conscience the way of life and peace.”5

    The other gospels may have been more understandable for Jewish people with multiple references to the Old Testament prophecies. But the Gospel of Mark was written for those who were not as familiar with the Old Testament Scriptures and Jewish customs. He only quotes from the Old Testament one time. It seems that Mark’s purpose was to direct the attention of “the rest of the world” to the One who loved them and gave Himself for them so that they could repent of their sins and trust Jesus.

Conclusion

As we study the Gospel of Mark, we will be able to test the ideas mentioned in today’s study. It is not that I doubt the veracity of anything covered so far. But we haven’t read through the book yet. As we read through it, try to remember what we have studied today and let it enhance your understanding of this inspired record of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection. As we continue through our study, we will see Mark’s personality (and Peter’s), as well as God’s purpose for giving us this gospel. We will see what Jesus said and did. We will see what He accomplished for us on the cross. We will also see why Jesus left us here on earth—to faithfully proclaim the gospel to others. I look forward to our study together of this special book.

Footnotes

1 Grassmick
2 Raymer
3 Brown
4 Barnes
5 Ironside 11-12.
6 Hiebert 14.
7 Hendriksen 12.
8 Hendriksen 13.
9 Hiebert says that 3 of the 4 words are Aramaic. The word in Mark 7:11 is Hebrew.

Bibliography

Barnes, Albert, “Mark” in Barnes’ Notes on the Bible, as viewed in the PocketBible app.

Brown, David, “Mark” in Classic Bible Commentary, as viewed in the PocketBible app.

Grassmick, John D., “Mark” in The Bible Knowledge Commentary New Testament, as viewed in the PocketBible app.

Hendriksen, William, Mark, Grand Rapids: Baker, 2004.

Hiebert, D. Edmond, The Gospel of Mark, Greenville: Bob Jones University Press, 1994.

Ironside, H. A., Expository Notes on the Gospel of Mark, Neptune: Loizeaux Brothers, 1948.

Raymer, Roger M., “1 Peter” in The Bible Knowledge Commentary New Testament, as viewed in the PocketBible app.