Mark’s Gospel – a bit of background

Over the next couple of months I’m going to be working through Mark’s Gospel here. This coincides with a teaching series that our church are doing on the book but I also hope that the resources will be helpful to others seeking to read or teach through the book. Often it is impossible to cover every detail in a Sunday sermon so my aim is to give a bit extra of that detail here.

The presumed author is Jon Mark.  This is the young man who was present in the Garden of Gethsemane and flees. He also accompanied Paul and Barnabas on their first missionary journey but did not last the course and turned back.  This led to Paul and Barnabas arguing with Barnabas wishing to replace Mark on the next journey.  Barnabas stuck with Mark and this seems to have paid off in terms of long term discipleship with Paul later writing favourably about Jon Mark and with him being used to write this Gospel. Tradition holds that Mark based his Gospel on Peter’s memories and sermons and wrote from Rome.[1] This would also fit with primarily a Gentile target audience. [2]

Matthew was traditionally considered to be the first of the Gospels written. However, modern scholarship considers Mark earlier. This is because the first three Gospels, Matthew Mark and Luke show strong relationships to each other. It’s not just that they cover the same issues but seem to borrow significant passages from each other – hence they are called “The synoptic Gospels” meaning they should be read together.

We can trace priority because Matthew and Luke both contain sections that seem to be drawn from Mark along with additional common source material (sometimes referred to as Q) and their own unique material. This can make things sound as though Q existed as a collection of sayings in its own right as a proto-Gospel however, there is no evidence that such a manuscript existed. It may also tempt us to think in terms of the Gospel’s being written many years later relying on second hand documents. This has been the liberal view of Scripture with scholars claiming that the Gospels were not written by eye-witness disciples but over 100 years later by people using the names of Biblical characters as pseudonyms.

Again, there is no evidence for such claims apart from the reluctance of some to believe in the inspiration of Scripture and the truth of the accounts describing Christ’s incarnation, miracles, death and resurrection. It is more reasonable to assume that the Gospels were written by eye witnesses who knew each other and so interacted with each other and each other’s work.  Just as you would expect the preachers at church to be talking to each other and reading one another’s sermons as they prepare.

We believe that Mark was written somewhere in the late AD50s with the other two Gospels written a little later, probably in the 60s.[3] We have good evidence that all the Gospels were written prior to AD70 and we find that evidence in Mark 13. There, Jesus prophecies the destruction of the temple.  This happened in AD70. Now, it is normal in scripture that when a fulfilment has taken place that an author will draw attention to that to prove the truth of the prophecy. AD70 was within the lifetime of the Gospel writers and so it would have been reasonable for them to mention this fulfilment if their Gospels were written later. However, they do not which suggests that when they wrote, the Temple and Jerusalem were still standing. [4]

The style of the Gospel gives a feel of pace and punchiness. This is created through three means. First there is the length of the Gospel. It is the shortest and it is possible to read it in 1 hour. Infact it would have been read aloud to listeners.  It is primarily narrative with the extended dialogue and commentary found in other Gospels missing. Secondly, the sentence structure is simple with frequent use of the word “and” so the pattern is “and then …. and then … and then ….” Thirdly, Mark uses a grammatical tense sometimes referred to as “the historic present tense.” This means that he talks about events in the past but uses present tense verbs to give an sense of immediacy and nowness.

There is one disputed section. At the end of the Gospel, the oldest manuscripts concludes with Mark 16:8.  This does leave the ending abrupt finishing with fear and confusion rather than clarity and hope. However, it also means that the Gospel concludes by pointing us back to Galilee, perhaps an invitation to retrace the events of the early part of the Gospel with eyes opened by the resurrection.

Verses 9-20 are now generally presumed to have been added later due to their absence from early manuscripts and differences in terms of style. Though at what stage is uncertain.  I guess it is possible that Mark himself wrote a later epilogue which was not included in all copies of the Gospel that circulated in the early days.[5] 

There is a similar challenge with the account of the woman caught in adultery in John 8. However, these challenges should not undermine our confidence in the infallibility of Scripture. First, when we say that Scripture is without error we are referring to the original manuscripts. We know that people throughout history may have made mistakes. Secondly, we can see here that there are in fact very few questions of this type and where they do exist there is openness. This gives us great confidence that we can rely on the word of God that we find in our Bibles today.

[1] Carson, Moo, Morris, An Introduction to the New Testament, 95.

[2] Carson, Moo, Morris, An Introduction to the New Testament, 95.

[3] Carson, Moo, Morris, An Introduction to the New Testament, 99. Though the dating is uncertain and contested. Lane dates it in the 60s and associates its tracing of a suffering theme to Nero and the fire in London which caused persecution. See Lane, , 18.

[4] See JAT Robinson, Redating The New Testament, 13-30.

[5] For more detail see Lane, Mark 593-605. See also, France, Mark, 685-688.

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