Mark, the Action Gospel Writer
ARE you always in a hurry? With little time for reading? And yet, would you like to grasp the essentials of Christ’s life and teaching quickly, without being bogged down in theology or philosophy? In other words, would you like the Christian message in a nutshell? Then take a Bible and read the book of Mark. We say “book” though it occupies only about 25 pages of a standard Bible. And why do we say Mark, rather than the other Gospel writers Matthew, Luke and John? Because Mark’s is the most concise and action-packed of the four Gospels or “good news” biographies of Jesus Christ.
The spirit of Mark’s Gospel is evident in the very first chapter where he uses the Greek word euthús, “at once” or “immediately,” 11 times. He constantly transmits a sense of immediacy and urgency to Christ’s activity by using that word 42 times throughout his written record.
Early in Mr 1 the first chapter Mark’s account has Jesus baptized by his cousin John in the river Jordan. By Mr 1 verses 16 to 21, Christ is choosing the four disciples who accompany him in his first preaching tour of Galilee. Of the first two, Simon and Andrew, who were fishermen, we read: “And at once [euthús] they abandoned their nets and followed him.” Then Jesus picked out James and John, who were mending their nets with their father, “and without delay [euthús] he called them.”—Mark 1:10-43.
Mark’s distinctive action-style is further illustrated by the account in chapters nine and ten where he describes the crowd as “running up” to Jesus and, later, “running together upon them.” The inquiring rich young ruler “ran up and fell upon his knees” before Christ. Only Mark, of the synoptic Gospel writers (Matthew, Mark and Luke), mentions the running in these cases.*—Mark 9:15, 25; 10:17; compare Matthew 19:16 and Luke 18:18.
Who Was Mark?
Now you might be asking: Who was Mark? Was he an eyewitness to the events he describes? Or did he have some other sources of information?
Evidently Mark’s mother, Mary, was a believer and allowed her home to be used for Christian gatherings. We also know from the book of Acts of Apostles that he went out into the missionary field as a companion of his cousin Barnabas and the apostle Paul. He was not an apostle or an eyewitness to many of the events he relates. Possibly, he was a disciple at the time Jesus was arrested, some scholars identifying him as the “certain young man” who “got away naked” on that occasion.—Acts 12:6-17, 25; 15:36-41; Mark 14:51, 52.
“John who was surnamed Mark” is named for the first time in the Bible record in connection with the apostle Peter’s miraculous release from prison in the year 44 C.E. Peter presented himself by night at Mark’s home to inform the Christians meeting there of his release. (Acts 12:12, 18) Little did Mark realize then the influence that this visitor would have on him in later years. How so? Because at a later date he became an intimate associate of Peter, who, in his first inspired letter, even called him “Mark my son.” (1 Peter 5:13) Although Mark had access to other sources, without a doubt his Gospel reflects to a great degree Peter’s familiarity with the life and ministry of Jesus. What evidence is there for stating that? A simple example will illustrate the point.
Some time after the Passover feast of 31 C.E., Jesus was on his second preaching tour of Galilee, accompanied by the 12 apostles. He decided to cross the Sea of Galilee by boat. It is interesting to compare how Matthew and Mark tell the story. First, Matthew:
“Now, look! a great agitation arose in the sea, so that the boat was being covered by the waves; he [Jesus], however, was sleeping.”—Matthew 8:24.
Although this communicates the idea of a storm, it does not especially highlight the action or stir the emotions. How did Mark describe the same event?
“Now a great violent windstorm broke out, and the waves kept dashing into the boat, so that the boat was close to being swamped. But he [Jesus] was in the stern, sleeping upon a pillow.”—Mark 4:37, 38.
Mark was not present. So how could he present such a graphic description? His obvious communicant was the fisherman Peter. Did you notice the vivid description of the storm and its effect on the boat? And the detail “in the stern” that the landsman tax collector Matthew did not include, even though he had been present in the boat? And what a retentive eye and memory Peter must have had to recall the fact that Jesus was “sleeping upon a pillow.”—See also Luke 8:23.
It is easy to understand why some Bible scholars describe Mark as Peter’s interpreter. But does that mean Mark’s Gospel should really be called the Gospel according to Peter? Not at all. In many matters the story gives evidence of Peter’s powers of observation and attention to detail. But the vivid fast-moving vernacular style that communicates the idea of almost breathless action is clearly Mark’s.
Another vital factor to take into account is that “all Scripture is inspired of God” and that “no prophecy of Scripture springs from any private interpretation . . . but men spoke from God as they were borne along by holy spirit.” Thus we have a happy combination of Peter’s perceptive narration and Mark’s concise quick-action writing. Mark was, indeed, one of those guided, or “borne along,” by God’s holy spirit, or active force.—2 Timothy 3:16; 2 Peter 1:20, 21.
For Whom Did Mark Write?
It is evident that each Gospel writer had a different kind of reader in mind. Matthew wrote primarily for the Jew, as is shown by his many references to the Hebrew Scriptures and his concern for Jesus’ genealogy to establish his legal descent from Abraham. Luke wrote for the benefit of the “most excellent Theophilus” and people of all the nations, with a genealogy that goes right back to Adam. (Luke 1:1-4; 2:14; 3:23-38) Thus each one has a different style, emphasis and focus. For whom did Mark write mainly?
It is most likely that he wrote from Rome and with the Roman believers in mind. His simple, popular form of Greek is peppered with Latin transliterations, which would be a very natural tendency for a Greek-speaking person living in Rome. He uses at least nine Latin words on 18 occasions, including speculator (Greek, spekoulátora, “body guardsman”), praetorium (Greek, praitórion, “governor’s palace”) and centurio (Greek, kenturíon, “army officer,” or centurion).—Mark 6:27; 15:16, 39.
Another evidence that Mark wrote mainly for the Gentile is the fact that he mentions nothing of Jesus’ birth or his genealogy. In fact, in his opening words he plunges straightaway into John the Baptizer’s ministry and his announcement of the Messiah. All the early biographical information about Jesus was in any case unnecessary, since it had been covered adequately in the earlier Gospels of Matthew and Luke. Why repeat their testimony for the benefit of the non-Jews? This, incidentally, contradicts the many modern Bible scholars who hold that Mark was the first Gospel writer, even though the most ancient authorities agree that Matthew was the earliest.
Christ as a Person
What kind of picture of Christ does Mark paint? We find ourselves trying to keep up with a fast-moving miracle worker who every few verses seems to be off somewhere else. We follow him through some 19 miracles performed in at least 10 different places around Galilee and Judea.* And yet at the same time we are helped to see the compassionate Jesus. Details are brought into focus as in no other Gospel, and Jesus’ emotional reactions stand out clearly. For example:
“Now people began bringing him young children for him to touch these; but the disciples reprimanded them. At seeing this Jesus was indignant and said to them: ‘Let the young children come to me’ . . . And he took the children into his arms and began blessing them.”—Mark 10:13-16.
Can you picture that scene in your mind’s eye? How often have we said or heard the expression “Children should be seen but not heard”! Here the disciples were manifesting the same attitude. How did the Master react? He was “indignant.” Peter, the eyewitness, evidently recalled Jesus’ righteous emotional reaction. Then Jesus said: “Let the young children come to me; do not try to stop them.” At this point Mark introduces a very human touch that the writers Matthew and Luke do not mention. It is as if he used a zoom lens to get in closer and highlight a detail when he wrote: “And he took the children into his arms.” Here are action and compassion at the same time. We are really seeing Jesus through the very human and humane eyes of Peter. Happily for us, the holy spirit moved Mark to include that little brushstroke that adds color and warmth to the picture.
If you are approaching the Bible or Christianity for the first time, you might well start by reading this crisp, pithy “good news” story of the man of action, Jesus Christ. Shut out the world and its distractions for an hour or two and get involved in Mark’s thrilling story, “The beginning of the good news about Jesus Christ.” (Mark 1:1) And why not do so “immediately,” “at once”!
“Synoptic” signifies “taking the same or common view.”
[Picture on page 29]
Who gave the more vivid description—Matthew or Mark?