Understanding St. Mark

Scholars are hard-pressed to come up with answers to historical questions about the writer of the narrative we call the Gospel of Mark. Sure, there are traditions about a certain (John) Mark, a name that appears (differently) in a couple of places in the New Testament. However, none of them link up with all the evidence we have from the Gospel itself, especially the Evangelist’s unfamiliarity with local geography and certain Jewish customs. In fact, the ancient writers are probably telling and retelling the same tradition about someone called John Mark in order to assure believers of the Second Gospel’s apostolic origin.

It is the inscriptio of the document, the title added at the beginning of most manuscripts, that announces the author, “according to Mark” or “(the) Gospel according to Mark.” But this is most probably not original, because it shows up so differently in the various manuscripts. The original title of Mark is probably, “The Beginning of the Gospel of Jesus Christ the Son of God,” actually the first verse of the Gospel text as it appears in most manuscripts. Since there is no verb in the phrase, it is not a complete sentence, and that means that it acts as the title of the writing, a grammatical phenomenon found in other ancient texts.

Having sifted the evidence myself over long years of teaching, I can only agree with noted researcher C. Clifton Black that it is simply “impossible” to retrieve “that personage’s biography” (“Mark: Images of an Apostolic Interpreter,” Fortress Press, $25). While one can read up on the tenets and problems of the (John) Mark tradition in almost any good commentary, it is much more interesting to look at the text of Mark itself to determine the intentions of the ancient writer. For this reflection, we’ll use the traditional name, Mark, for our anonymous Evangelist (and the corresponding masculine pronoun), and our concern is to appreciate his literary skill and to contemplate the beauty of his faith.

Following St. Mark

There has been much appreciation recently of the ability of our Evangelist as a dramatist, but not much has been written yet on his deep spirituality. We can start off with some of Mark’s purposeful ambiguity, his engaging misdirection, already in the incipit of the text: The words “beginning of the Gospel” may refer to the first story that follows, and that would mean that Jesus’ baptism in the Jordan is the start of the Good News. Or “beginning of the Gospel” could mean that the whole narrative that follows, the entire Gospel of Mark, is to be seen as only the beginning of the Gospel story that goes on and on even up to the present day.

Before Mark’s great innovation in writing down the life of Jesus, the term “Gospel” referred to the “Good News” of salvation in the preaching of the early disciples of Jesus Christ. For example, 20 years earlier, in the mid-first century, Paul says, “I am eager to preach the Gospel” (Rom 1:15). In his decision to write down the stories of Jesus’ life leading up to his death and resurrection, Mark has become the very first writer of a “Gospel.” He has made a groundbreaking advance in the mission of the Church by actively depicting the life of Jesus, who brought us into God’s plan for salvation and modeled for us the true acceptance of the kingdom of God. The Good News is that we, too, can please God by committing to do God’s will following in the footsteps of Jesus Christ in a life for others.

Mark, first of all, had to gather together a great deal of information, about 90 paragraphs of fairly self-contained snippets of events and sayings, only a few of which were previously related to one another. They told mostly of Jesus’ actions and people’s reactions to them as narrated orally in the first communities. Mark put them together to make a coherent story of the public life of Jesus that led up to and makes sense of his death and burial. We can see that Mark selected the stories he wanted and assembled them in a certain order, using parallels, setting up themes, foreshadowing later developments, intercalating one story into the middle of another, giving “insider” knowledge to the reader and even employing misdirection to gradually unfold his understanding of who Jesus was.

Mark layers and develops his Christology, only gradually revealing Jesus’ full identity to those in the story. Along the way, he shows us what the kingdom of God is, what faith should be and how we must learn to be disciples. As we page through Mark’s Gospel now, we can recognize some facets of Mark’s ingenuity, dramatic sense and deep belief in Jesus Christ.

The Evangelist’s Faith

Already in the first chapter Mark shows us that Jesus is the Son of God by letting us in on the profound spiritual experience that Jesus had after his baptism in the Jordan River. Mark orchestrates the scene with theophanic effects from Isaiah and lets us hear God’s clarification to Jesus: “You are my beloved son; with you I am well pleased” (Mk 1:11) — statements deeply resonant of Old Testament prophecy. In his re-creation of this most intimate moment in Jesus’ life, Mark is teaching us! The one with whom God “is well pleased” is the Suffering Servant of Isaiah who “bore the sins of many” (Is 53:12). The “beloved son” in the Old Testament is Isaac, whose life was to be sacrificed by his father. The Christological thickness of this text is nothing short of genius!

While we see the closeness of Jesus to his Father at the beginning of the story, we are tempted to think that God has abandoned him near the end. Jesus on the cross bewails the seeming absence of God, crying out in his own language — but his cry is a prayer, part of Psalm 2. Indeed, presence seems like absence more than once in Mark. When the disciples are buffeted in their boat (a clear symbol of the Church!) by the primeval chaos of the sea (a clear symbol of evil), it is their faith in Jesus that causes them to turn to him to save them (4:38). Even though they were not as strong as Jesus thought they should be, they relied on his presence, and they were saved. Just so, Mark is teaching us we must be patient until the power of God reveals itself. So for Mark the opposite of faith is not unbelief but fear!

“Faith,” as used in this Gospel, is not belief in creedal statements about God but always means confidence that Jesus is able to save the situation, no matter how dire it may be. Jesus says, “This is the time of fulfillment. The kingdom is at hand” (1:15), even though the kingdom is not very visible apart from faith. Without faith, Jesus cannot freely perform miracles: “He could do no mighty deed there [his hometown]… he was amazed at their lack of faith” (6:5-6). Yet even with a father’s halting faith, Jesus’ power to save can rid the epileptic boy of his demon and restore him to his family (9:27). The Syrophoenician woman has the desperate faith of a mother at wits’ end. Yet her faith — and her wit! — move Jesus to change his tactics regarding those outside Israel (7:24-30).

Translating Christ’s Message

Mark presents Jesus as interacting with the religious leaders in ways that confuse them and challenge their hold over the people. We could almost not blame them because of Jesus’ enigmatic behavior. How can this man proclaim God’s forgiveness of sins without the prescribed Temple sacrifices (2:5-7)? When they ask, “Why does he eat with tax collectors and sinners?” he answers them, “I did not come to call the righteous but sinners” (2:16-17). When they challenge his healing activity as against the Sabbath Law, he confounds them (3:4). When they attribute his power to heal to Beelzebul, he confounds them again. He charges them with sinning against the Holy Spirit, and says even God can’t forgive them for that (3:29)! No wonder Mark tells us already then and there that they “took counsel ... against him to put him to death” (3:6).

Bishop and Martyr
St. Mark accompanied Sts. Paul and Barnabas to Antioch (in modern Turkey) in A.D. 44 and then to Cyprus. He was a companion of St. Paul on his first missionary journey but returned to Jerusalem (Acts 13:13). An early tradition states that Mark was the first bishop of Alexandria, Egypt.

Mark’s Jesus teaches in parables, even when asked to explain those parables. This is because the Kingdom can only be understood by those who are “with” Jesus (3:14). They must learn how to use the power of the Kingdom. Jesus tells the disciples that they are insiders because “the mystery of the kingdom of God has been granted to you” (4:11), but they can’t fully “get it” until after Jesus makes the supreme sacrifice of the Cross for them. Before the Resurrection, they run away because fear and doubt make cowards of them. Even the women at the empty tomb are flummoxed by the angel’s report of the Resurrection and, “seized with trembling and bewilderment, they said nothing to anyone, for they were terrified” (16:8).

The so-called “Messianic Secret” is a misnomer. Not only doesn’t anyone understand the identity of Jesus as the Messiah, the Kingdom itself is a mystery as small as a mustard seed and yet a light bright enough for all to see. God’s plan demands us to suspend our normal ways of thinking. God’s way is surprising. It’s thinking outside the box: There’s plenty to eat if everybody shares what they have.

Convincing Storyteller

Mark pulls no punches when teaching us how difficult it is to participate in the Kingdom. The hardest part of the suffering required is not knowing what God is up to but having to trust that God will do as Jesus has affirmed in God’s own time and God’s own way. Surely the Crucifixion was an unpredictable way to show God’s tender love, but Mark portrays it as Jesus’ finest hour, his complete gift of himself for others. Hear the irony in his enemies’ taunt: “He saved others; he cannot save himself” (15:31). In an ultimate stroke of irony, the first human to acknowledge that Jesus is the Son of God is a Roman centurion (15:39)!

Mark knew there would be difficulties for believers in every age, for the persecution of the early Church was the beginning “of the labor pains” (13:8), since “the Gospel must first be preached to all nations” (13:10). He has given us a moving story of how God works in mysterious ways and shown us in the actions of Jesus how to be patient in our faith even in the most troubling circumstances, for “he is going before you to Galilee; there you will see him as he told you” (16:7). This narrative could only have been created by someone who himself knew suffering, the pain of unfulfilled hopes and the sorrow of untimely death. His faith made him write about it. His hope makes it so convincing!

BROTHER ELLIOTT C. MALONEY, OSB, is a monk and professor of New Testament and biblical languages at St. Vincent Seminary in Latrobe, Pennsylvania.