Sunday, August 20, 2006

Background Study: The Gospel of Mark


That the Gospel of Mark is an early and authentic piece of New Testament Scripture is nowhere in doubt. External testimony to this Gospel is both early and abundant. It is cited in Tatian’s Diatessaron, an early harmony of the four Gospels compiled around 170 AD. However, few of the early Christian writers quoted from Mark, owing most likely to the assumption that it was a condensed version of Matthew. The first detailed commentary on Mark does not surface until Victor of Antioch’s work in the fifth century. Indeed, there is little unique information in this Gospel. According to Westcott, there are only 7 peculiar incidents compared to 93 which are shared by Luke and Matthew. Excluding 16:9-20 (discussed later in this introductory study), there are only 30 verses of unique material in Mark.


Admittedly, the Gospel of Mark is an anonymous document in that it does not specify its author internally. However, external evidence is abundant, early, and widespread that the John Mark found some ten other times in the New Testament was its author, relying heavily on the influence of the Apostle Peter. Universal acknowledgement of Mark’s reliance upon Peter gave the Gospel the eyewitness credibility and apostolic authority necessary for its inclusion in the Canon.

The earliest known testimony to Mark’s authorship and Peter’s influence on this gospel dates to 140 in a quotation of Papias, extant to us only through the history of Eusebius (written in 326). Papias is described by Irenaeus (also in Eusebius) as “John’s hearer and the associate of Polycarp.”[1] The “John” mentioned by Irenaeus may be the Apostle (Polycarp was a close disciple of his), but Eusebius prefers the view that this is a later (but not much later) John (distinguished as “John the Presbyter”).[2] Concerning the Gospel of Mark, Eusebius records Papias’s words as follows:

And John the Presbyter also said this, Mark being the interpreter of Peter whatsoever he recorded he wrote with great accuracy but not however, in the order in which it was spoken or done by our Lord, for he neither heard nor followed our Lord, but as before said, he was in company with Peter, who gave him such instruction as was necessary, but not to give a history of our Lord’s discourses: wherefore Mark has not erred in any thing, by writing some things as he has recorded them; for he was carefully attentive to one thing, not to pass by any thing that he heard, or to state any thing falsely in these accounts.[3]

This testimony tells us several important facts about the authorship of this Gospel. First, by 140, the tradition of Markan authorship was well-established. Second, Mark was interpreting the account of Peter (though the exact nature of his role as interpreter is subject to debate: Was he translating a written Petrine document? Was he transcribing or translating Peter’s actual sermons or teachings? Or was he recounting the stories that he had learned from Peter? Third, Mark did not write in chronological order, so where his order differs from Matthew, Luke, and/or John, we need not insist on the Markan order. Fourth, Mark did not claim to be an eyewitness, but claimed to receive his information from Peter. Indeed, his name is never recorded in the gospels, though the young man of Mark 14:51-52 may be a cameo appearance (some also speculate that he may have been the young man to whom Jesus referred in Mark 14:13-15 may have been Mark as well). Fifth, within the lifetime of other eyewitnesses, his account was widely recognized as inerrant. Sixth, this tradition was alive and well nearly 200 years after Papias’s statement, for Eusebius records it in 326.

Acknowledgement of Markan authorship and Petrine influence is found in the writings of Irenaues of Lyons (180), the Muratorian Canon (200), Tertullian (c. 160-250), Clement of Alexandria (c. 155-220), Origen (c. 185-254), and Jerome (c. 347-420), spreading the acceptance of this view to Hieropolis, Rome, Lyons, and North Africa within the first century and a half of the Christian era.

The question arises of how we know that the “Mark” accredited with this gospel is the same “John Mark” of other New Testament passages. It is perhaps the case that Luke’s interest in Mark in the book of Acts is owing to his awareness of his authorship of this gospel (assuming Mark wrote before Luke). In addition it seems unlikely that the church would ascribe authorship to a person of secondary importance in the biblical record such as Mark (or a person of lesser significance if it is a different “Mark”) if there were not strong support for it early in church tradition.

Assuming that the author of this Gospel is the Mark of New Testament notoriety, we know much about him in spite of his invisibility in the Gospel records. He is introduced to us in the book of Acts as John Mark. John was a common Hebrew name, while Mark or Marcus was a common Latin name (this practice was common among Hellenistic Jews).[4]We know from Acts 12 that his mother’s home in Jerusalem was a meeting place for early Christians, and the place to which Peter came after being miraculously released from prison. Some have even speculated that this home was the location of Jesus’ Last Supper, and that young man to whom Jesus directed His disciples in Mark 14:13-15 was Mark. We also know that Mark was a cousin to Barnabas (Colossians 4:10). Mark accompanied Barnabas and Paul from Jerusalem to Antioch (Acts 12:25), and then onto their first missionary journey (13:5). However, during that journey, Mark deserted the missionary effort (13:13), for reasons unknown to us, but presumably so severe that Paul refused to take him on the subsequent journey (c. 50 AD), leading to a split in which Paul took Silas, and Baranabas took Mark (15:36-40). From Paul’s own hand, we learn that the he and Mark were later reconciled (Col 4:10, Philemon 24), and that Paul desired his company and deemed him useful (2 Timothy 4:11). The reference to Mark in 1 Peter 5:13 informs us that he was present with Peter in Rome (it is nearly universally acknowledged that Babylon is here a cryptic reference to Rome), and that Peter had a relational fondness to Mark. His reference to Mark as “my son,” may suggest that Mark came to faith in Christ under Peter’s influence. That he is not referred to as “John Mark” after Acts 15:37 indicates that he may have only worked among Gentiles thereafter. Many have speculated that the account of the unnamed young man in Mark 14:51-52 was included as a personal reminiscence of the author. According to early church traditions, Mark went on to work in Egypt, establishing churches there characterized by asceticism and philosophical study, later becoming the first bishop of Alexandria.[5] The seventh century document known as the Paschal Chronicle says that Mark died as a martyr.

Evidence of Petrine influence is manifold. We know from Acts 12:12 and 1 Peter 5:13 that the two were well-aquainted. It has been noted that Mark’s gospel is an expansion of the summary of Peter’s preaching found in Acts 10:34-43. Peter is often characterized as forthright, intense, impulsive, and energetic: qualities which are also true of this gospel. Also, the inclusion of Peter’s name in 16:7 may be a personal remembrance of Peter to which the other Gospel writers were not privy. In the middle of the second century, Justyn Martyr made use of Mark 3:17 in his Dialogue with Trypho (chapter 106), citing it as from the “memoirs of Peter.” There are certain incidents found in other gospels which honor Peter, but which are lacking in Mark, perhaps due to the apostle’s humility. In addition, the account of Peter’s denial of Christ is told most thoroughly in Mark, owing perhaps to his own detailed recounting of the event to Mark (maybe as an encouragement to him following his own failure on the first missionary journey), and included here for encouragement to the readers who were faced with daily threats of persecution.

Markan Priority

Within scholarly circles, one of the biggest issues in New Testament studies is that of the “Synoptic Problem.” The Synoptic Gospels are Matthew, Mark and Luke, and they are so-called because they cover so much of the same material. The word “synoptic” breaks down to mean “seeing together.” For example, only three pericopes are unique to the Gospel of Mark among they Synoptics (4:26-29; 7:31-37; 8:22-26). While many have speculated about the nature of a common oral tradition that may have influenced all three synoptic writers, Professor R. H. Stein cites a number of reasons why this is an unsatisfactory explanation for the synoptic problem. Chief among them are the similarities in wording and order, biblical quotations, as well as the inclusion of common parenthetical material in the Gospels. A common oral tradition fails to explain these occurrences. It seems more likely that written sources would be more influential, and therefore the “Synoptic Problem” is fed by the issue of which Gospel writer(s) benefited from the work of the other(s).[6]

Prior to the nineteenth century, the prevailing opinion was (under the influence of Augustine, et al.) that Mark was a condensed summary of the work of Matthew and/or Luke (or both). This view was turned on its head in the nineteenth century in favor of the view that Mark was the first of our received Gospels to be penned. This view is known as Markan priority. Its first known proponent was C. G. Wilke (1826), but it was Lachmann’s work of 1835 that popularized the idea. On this view, Mark wrote first (though some postulate a forerunner to Mark called ur-Markus), and Matthew and Luke used him as a source, with many also advocating that the latter two evangelists also drew from a collection of sayings of Jesus which has been labeled Q (from the Latin quele, meaning “source.”

Q is alleged to be the source of material common to Matthew and Luke that is not found in Mark. This material, consisting of about 235 verses, is said to require a secondary outside source. While there are some plausible reasons to adopt the existence of Q, it is by no means a requirement. It should be stated that no record of Q’s existence has ever surfaced beyond the speculative hypothesis of critical scholars. In addition to Q, some scholars have postulated the existence of M and L, written sources containing the material unique to Matthew and Luke respectively. It seems more likely that these hypotheses are offered in support of certain presuppositions held by the scholars advancing them than by the text or textual tradition. Emphasis on oral histories and hypothetical documents minimize the influence of eyewitness credibility of the Gospels themselves. This is a necessary step for those who wish to cast a shadow of doubt on the historicity of the Gospels. Therefore, it seems best to avoid speculation on the existence of hypothetical documents and focus on the extant texts we have and behind which is much textual history.

With or without hypothetical other sources, there is much evidence supporting Markan priority. The principle question to answer in text criticism is that when there is a variation, which reading best explains the origin of the other? This question is asked in slightly modified form of the three Synoptic Gospels. “The fact that Matthew and Luke are considerably larger than Mark is more easily explained by Matthew and Luke’s adding material to their Gospels than Mark’s having eliminated material.”[7] Somewhere between ninety to ninety-five percent of Mark’s Gospel is paralleled in Matthew and/or Luke, begging the question of why it would have been written in the first place if so much of its content was readily available in other sources. The ancient view of Mark being an abridgment of Matthew and/or Luke fails to explain why Mark goes into greater detail of the accounts that are common to the Synoptics.

It is also more likely that Matthew and Luke would have smoothed out the rough literary style and theological laxity of Mark than vice versa. Mark’s dexterity with the Greek language is noticeably inferior to Matthew and especially Luke. It is highly more likely that they would have improved upon his style than that he would have modified theirs. On some occasions, Mark’s word choices or sentence structure may have left room for diverse theological opinions to surface by the time of Matthew and Luke’s writing. Therefore, it seems plausible that they would have tightened up the wording a bit to narrow the possibilities of misunderstanding, rather than Mark obscuring their very clear wordings.

Another bit of evidence supporting Markan priority might be labeled as “the disagreement of the two against the one.” When the Synoptics record the same event, there are frequent occurrences of Matthew and Mark agreeing together against some detail included or omitted in Luke. There are also numerous occurrences of Luke and Mark agreeing contra Matthew. However, there are relatively few accounts of Matthew and Luke agreeing against Mark, giving rise to the opinion that where Matthew and Luke vary from one another, one or the other of them is giving preference to Mark. The most prevalent anti-Markan-priority view (the Griesbach Hypothesis) makes much of the disagreements of Matthew and Luke against Mark, but there are many more cases of disagreement the other way – an obstacle that Griesbach contenders fail to deal with justly. Also, when variances occur in the Synoptics, it is usually easy to explain how Matthew is modifying Mark to appeal to his Jewish audience, or Luke is modifying for his audience than that Mark would be modifying for his.

Nonetheless, a number of scholars still hold to Matthean priority (as it is advanced in the Griesbach hypothesis), and the most influential one of recent generations is W. R. Farmer. The Griesbach hypothesis is named for Johann Jakob Griesbach (1745-1812) who is credited with coining the term “Synoptic Gospels.” His 1783 hypothesis states that Matthew was written first among the Synoptics and was used as a primary source by Luke, and that Mark made use of both of them. Farmer articulates the hypothesis in a series of steps, beginning with the very plain realization that the similarities between the Synoptics is close enough to demand that there is some literary dependency between them. Given the agreements of any two against the third, Farmer claims that there are only six viable hypotheses for ordering the Synoptic Gospels. In these six cases, the second writer copied the first, and the third made use of both the first and second. On Farmer’s view, the agreement of order and content, and the agreements of Matthew and Luke against Mark are best explained with Mark writing third than with either of the other Synoptists writing third. Specifically, Farmer says, “Mark tends to agree more closely with Matthew when these two evangelists follow an order different from Luke, but more closely with Luke when they follow an order different from Matthew.”[8]

Important to Farmer’s hypothesis is the external evidence which he claims is weighty against the theory that Matthew wrote after Mark. Included in this is nearly unanimous testimony of the church fathers that Matthew was written before Mark and/or Luke. Farmer claims that it would be more likely for a unanimous tradition to arise which recognized Matthew as a Judaized version of the Gospel in the Gentile-dominated church unless there was strong and early evidence available to them to suggest otherwise. The recognition of Matthean priority among the fathers, and it place of primacy in the canon suggests (at least to Farmer) that they had such evidence. The earliest statement of order among the Gospels is from Clement of Alexandria who wrote in the late second to early third centuries that the Gospels containing genealogies were written prior to the ones without them. Farmer roots Clement’s observation in a tradition that precedes his writing by nearly a century.

It is the recent tradition and scholastic authority behind Markan priority that Farmer attributes to its prominence still today, to the lack of any sound argumentation.[9] However, as has been seen in the brief overview here, this is simply not the case. Simply put, Markan priority answers more questions than it raises – a fact that cannot be substantiated on the Matthean priority view. However, it should be acknowledged that the case is by no means closed on this discussion, and for either view to be recognized as universally conclusive, more work remains to be done. For now, it seems most prudent in this study to assume Markan priority based on the evidences outlined briefly above – chiefly the argument that the reading of Mark best explains the origin of the readings found in Matthew and Luke. Until Griesbach proponents can satisfactorily answer this claim, Markan priority will likely maintain its strong influence in academia.

Contrary to the opinions of many New Testament scholars, it seems that very little hangs in the balance on which view one prefers in this argument. However, there are certain sticking points where this does come into play, namely in those areas where Matthew, Mark, and Luke have details that vary from one another in accounts of the same events. If Mark was written first, then “it ought to be interpreted with a minimum of references to the other synoptics,”[10] while Matthew and Luke ought to be handled with a view toward Mark as one of their informing sources. Two very important assumptions will guide the student of the word through these situations.[11] One is the doctrine of the inspiration of Scripture. On this conviction, we have confidence that the word of God is true, and does not contradict itself. Therefore, when details vary, we should view them as complements, not contradictions. The second is that the Gospels are dependent upon eyewitness testimony. Therefore it is only natural that some of the accounts will contain details that are and are not similar to the other accounts. We accept this as one of the values of having four Gospels, not as a strike against them.


External evidence to the date of Mark’s gospel is divided, with some early sources claiming he wrote before Peter’s death and others claiming he wrote after. There is no doubt concerning the tradition that Peter was martyred during Nero’s violent persecution of Christians following the great fire of Rome in 64, and extending until the end of his reign. This would date Peter’s death between 64 and 68.

In the Anti-Marcionite Prologue (160-180 AD), we read, “… Mark declared, who is called ‘Stump-fingered’ because he had short fingers in comparison with the size of the rest of his body. He was Peter’s interpreter. After the death of Peter himself, he [Mark] wrote down this same Gospel in the regions of Italy.”[12] The first portion of that statement (prior to the ellipsis) has been lost, but what remains tells us something of the origin of Mark’s Gospel. Irenaeus, in Against Heresies (3:1:1, c. 185), writes, “Now after the exodus of these [i.e., Peter and Paul], Mark, the disciple and the interpreter of Peter, himself also transmitted to us in writing the things preached by Peter.”[13] Most scholars understand exodus to mean death, as it does in many early Christian writings, however others have preferred to render it as departure, indicating Peter and Paul had left Rome. Even if Ireneaus is correct, and if he means “death,” it is not necessary to understand him to mean that Mark wrote after Peter’s death; only that his writing gained influence after Peter’s death.

Later in the second century, Clement of Alexandria (c. 195) presents a different view in a work called Hypotyposes. Eusebius indicates that his testimony was derived from the oldest presbyters and preserves his testimony as follows:

When Peter had proclaimed the word publicly at Rome, and declared the gospel under the influence of the spirit; as there was a great number present, they requested Mark, who had followed him from afar, and remembered well what he had said, to reduce these things to writing, and that after composing the gospel he gave it to those who requested it of him. Which, when Peter understood, he directly neither hindered nor encouraged it.[14]

A quotation from Clement’s Institutions found in Eusebius 2:15 agrees with this testimony, adding, “when the apostle (Peter), having ascertained what was done by the revelation of the Spirit, was delighted with the zealous ardor expressed by these men and that the history obtained his authority for the purpose of being read in the churches.” So, if these testimonies of Clement are accurate, the we ascertain that Peter was not directly involved in the composition of the Gospel, but that he approved of the finished product and endorsed it as authoritative scripture for the Church. A saying of Origen (c. 230) also preserved in Eusebius (6:25) has been understood by some to mean that Peter was involved in the writing of the gospel in a hands-on way. According to Origen, Mark “composed it, as Peter explained it to him.” This does not require the interpretation that Peter was dictating or collaborating with Mark; only that Mark was writing the account as he had received it from Peter. Donald Guthrie has attempted to reconcile the conflicting testimonies of the fathers by with the position that “Mark began his Gospel before (Peter’s death) and completed it after Peter’s death.”[15]

Those who place the date of writing after 70 AD do so only the basis of an anti-supernatural presupposition that would deny Jesus the ability to predict the destruction of the Jerusalem temple (13:2). Apart from such a bias, there is no reason to date the gospel later than the mid-60s, with some suggesting a date of even the mid-40s as a possibility.

This much we can know with relative certainty. It is likely that Luke completed the book of Acts while Paul was still under house-arrest in Rome (where he had been for two years), placing that writing around 62 AD. This in turn would mean that the gospel of Luke had been written earlier (on the basis of Acts 1:1), but not necessarily much earlier. On the assumption of Markan priority, the Gospel of Mark would have to predate the Gospel of Luke, placing it no later than the late 50s or very early 60s. However, this would necessitate it being written prior to Peter’s death. With roughly half of the external evidence stipulating that this was in fact the case, it does not seem problematic to adopt this dating for the Gospel of Mark.


The earliest traditions almost unanimously place the writing of Mark’s Gospel in Rome. First Peter 5:13 locates Mark in Rome with Peter. All of the Synoptic Gospels make mention of Simon of Cyrene bearing the cross of Jesus, but Mark alone mentions that he was the father of Alexander and Rufus. The inclusion of this fact is hard to understand unless Mark’s readers or immediate companions would have deemed these sons of Simon as being significant. We do know that there was a prominent Rufus in the church at Rome (Romans 16:13), whom Paul greeted along with his mother (Paul calls her “his mother and mine,” indicating that she had some impact on his spiritual development). Another factor lending itself to a Roman provenance for this Gospel is the number of “Latinisms” used by Mark. These are uses of a Latin term or concept to make sense of something in the Greek. Examples in Mark are found in 12:42 and 15:16.

While some have placed the writing in Palestine and others in North Africa, the internal and external evidence supports Rome as the place of writing.


Mark’s intended readership is most certainly Gentile, perhaps Roman in particular. We can deduce this from his explanation of Jewish customs (7:2-4; 15:42), his translation of Aramaic words (3:17; 5:41; 7:11, 34; 15:22), Latinisms and loan words (12:42; 15:16). Additionally, Gentiles and people of diverse ethnicity figure large in Mark’s narrative (11:17; 13:10; 14:9).


The Gospel of Mark is a brief and vivid account of the life and ministry of Jesus Christ with special focus on His passion (approximately forty percent of the Gospel is devoted to His sufferings). In 1:1, Mark states that the purpose of his writing is to set forth “the Gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.” It seems that Mark is writing to give an apologetic for who Jesus is by focusing on what Jesus did. It is a “gospel of action,” wherein the main character is constantly on the move in His ministry of servanthood. Mark devotes much attention to the miracles of Jesus, and though he refers often to the teaching ministry of Jesus (1:21, 39; 2:2, 13; 6:2, 6, 34; 10:1; 12:35), he omits the lengthy teaching passages found in Matthew and Luke. Some have labled Mark as the “go Gospel.”[16]

Mark 10:45 has been identified by numerous scholars as the most important verse in the book: “For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give His life a ransom for many.” The greatness of Jesus is seen, not in His overt power to conquer, as many expected of the Messiah, but in His willingness to serve, to suffer, and to sacrifice Himself for the salvation of many. In setting forth Jesus in this way, Mark challenges the unbeliever to make the same realization that the Roman centurion does in 15:39 – “Truly this man was the Son of God.” He also encourages the early followers of Christ to endure the suffering and hardship that they faced for Christ’s sake, knowing that in so doing they are most like their Master.

Mark paints for the reader a very vivid portrait of Jesus. While some scholars have emphasized Mark’s very human Christ, and others his very divine Christ, it seems that he may present the best balanced Christology of the evangelists. He describes Christ’s human emotions, such as compassion (1:41; 6:34; 8:2), indignation (3:5; 8:2; 10:14); distress or sorrow (14:33-34; 7:34; 8:12). One of the most intriguing features of Mark is his interest in the hands of Jesus. Yet, the deity of Christ is inescapable. He is lauded with divine titles by the Gospel writer (1:1); the Heavenly Father (1:11; 9:17); demons (3:11; 5:7); Himself (13:32; 14:61); and a Roman centurion (15:39). So, even without a birth narrative, Mark succeeds in picturing for the reader the humble condescension of the incarnation by making it clear that this very human Jesus is very God as well.

Another interesting feature of Mark is his treatment of the disciples and the subject of discipleship. Frequently the disciples are found misunderstanding and failing the Lord (5:31; 9:10; 10:13; 14:27-30), but nonetheless, they are taught in intimate proximity with the Lord (4:14-20; 7:17-23), and promised great blessing (14:28; 16:7).

Much has been made over the so-called “Messianic Secret” in the Gospel of Mark. In the first half of the Gospel, Jesus cautions those whom He healed, His disciples, and the demons to be silent about his identity (1:25, 34, 44; 3:12; 5:43; 7:36; 8:26, 30; 9:9). It seems that Jesus is cautious about accepting the label of “Christ” or allowing premature enthusiasm about his identity to circulate while there was still such an abundance of misunderstanding about the role of the Messiah. The first-century Jews envisioned a Davidic military conquerer who would liberate them by force from the occupation of the Romans. However, Jesus came on a greater mission – to liberate people from the bondage of sin by His suffering and death. Misconceptions might have short-circuited His ministry and His journey to the cross. Mark’s purpose seems to be to guide his readers through a progressive unveiling of Jesus’ identity” and convince them that, although Jesus experienced rejection, suffering, and ultimately death on a Roman cross, He was nonetheless the Christ, the Messiah of Israel and Savior of the world.[17] “Only at Golgotha can Jesus be rightly known as God incognito who reveals Himself to those who are willing to deny themselves and follow Him in costly discipleship.”[18]

Craig Evans has gone to great lengths to demonstrate that the presentation of Jesus in the Gospel of Mark is an overt contrast to the Roman perception of the Caesar, beginning with Julius Caesar and extending beyond Mark’s likely date to Vespasian (Nero’s successor). The points Evans raises which parallel the Gospel of Jesus Christ with the veneration of the Caesar include the following: (1) That the accession of the Caesar was announced as a euaggelion (“gospel” or “good news”; (2) That the accession of the Caesar was often accompanied by or preceded by omens and prophecies; (3)That the Caesar’s reign and victories were often celebrated as “triumphs”; (4) That the Caesar was hailed in terms of deity; (5) That the Caesar was hailed as “Lord,” leading to the persecution and martyrdom of countless Jews and Christians who refused to honor him with the title; (6) That the Caesar was able to effect healing to those who sought it of him; (7) That the Caesar was envisioned as seated or standing at the right hand of God; (8) That libations and ceremonies were observed in honor of the Caesar; (9)That the Caesar’s reign was referred to as a parousia (or advent), and bore the promise of a new world order; (10) That after the Caesar’s death, he was exalted and deified. According to Evans, Mark

presents Jesus as the true Son of God and in doing so deliberately presents Jesus in opposition to Rome’s candidates for a suitable emperor, savior, and lord… Despite rejection at the hands of his own people (and the most important people, as importance would have been measured at that time) and a shameful death at the hands of the most powerful people, Jesus was indeed the Son of God, humanity’s true Savior and Lord. In every way, Jesus cuts an impressive figure, a figure who had announced the impending rule of God. Implicitly Mark invites his readers to consider this rule.[19]


Mark’s usage of the Greek language is rough and ungrammatical. He uses broken sentences (2:10; 11:32). He uses 1270 different Greek words (excluding proper names), eighty of which are unique to him in the New Testament. At least ten times, he transliterates Latin terms into Greek, and bears the obvious impress of fluency in Aramaic. He uses the historical present tense (present tense verbs used to describe past activity) over 150 times (compared to seventy-eight in Matthew and only four in Luke), and the Greek word euthus (typically rendered “immediately” in most English versions) forty-two times (compared with seven times in Matthew and only once in Luke). Twelve chapters begin with the Greek conjunction kai, often translated “and.” That active conjunction occurs 1100 times in Mark. These grammatical features give the Gospel of Mark that sense of constant action.

The Gospel of Mark is known for its brevity. This led some early Christians to assume that it was a condensed version of Matthew. Augustine (c. 354-430), for instance, stated, “Mark imitated Matthew like a lackey (Lat. pedisequus) and is regarded as his abbreviator.”[20] However, one must wonder why, if Mark was condensing a longer gospel, his accounts are more graphic and detailed in the stories which are shared by the other Synoptics. His brevity is not owing to a minimization of detail in these accounts, but rather by the omission of lengthy teaching passages and background information found in the other Synoptics. Chrysostom (c. 354-407) noted that Mark’s brevity is likely to be attributed to his reliance on Peter, who was a man of few words.

A unique feature of Mark’s style has come to be known as the Markan Sandwich. Frequently, Mark interrupts a narrative by inserting another account which may seem unrelated into the middle of it. This may appear to the reader to be “scatter-brained” on the part of the author, but in each case, there is a theological purpose behind it. The intervening (“middle”) part of the narrative functions “as the theological key to the flanking halves … to underscore the major themes of the Gospel.”[21] These Markan Sandwiches occur 9 times, at 3:20-35; 4:1-20; 5:21-43; 6:7-30; 11:12-21; 14:1-11; 14:17-31; 14:53-72; 15:40-16:8.


The Gospel of Mark cannot rightly be called a biography because, even though it is biographical, it lacks so many of the details which are necessary for the telling of one’s life story. For instance, there is no record here of Jesus’ birth, or childhood, or any experience prior to His baptism. Every pericope, with the exception of two in the Gospel of Mark are about Jesus (the exceptions are about John the Baptist, 1:2-8; 6:14-29). With nearly forty percent of the Gospel being devoted to the final week of His earthly life, there is little space devoted to the remainder of his life. It seems that with the words of Mark 1:1, an entirely new genre is invented – the Gospel. Mark may have been the first to use this term to describe the story of Jesus. While the term “Gospel” speaks more to the content than the technical form of writing, it appears that the early Christians began to reserve the term for the stories of Jesus life, ministry and death, as composed by the four canonical evangelists. The early church used the term “Gospel” most frequently in the singular and only rarely in the plural, “indicating that it conceived of the Gospel tradition as a unity, that is, the one Gospel in four versions.”[22] Early Christian understanding of the term “gospel” is undoubtedly influenced by the statements of Isaiah the prophet in Isaiah 40:9, 52:7, and 61:1. It is used in the Gospels to describe the content of Christ’s preaching, but here it is expanded to include the events of His life, death, and resurrection as well. The term “gospel” is used seven times in Mark, compared to four in Matthew, and none in either Luke or John.

The name Jesus Christ, the Son of God (1:1), sets the framework for the entire Gospel of Mark. The book climaxes at 8:29 when Peter claims that Jesus is the Christ, and culminates at 15:39 with the centurion saying, “Truly this man was the Son of God.” Jesus stood before the high priest, who asked Him in Mark 14:61: “Are you the Christ, the Son of the Blessed One (a Jewish idiom for “God”)?” Jesus answer was direct and powerful. With the words of the divine name of God revealed to Moses in the Old Testament, Jesus said, “I AM.” This Christological framework (or Christological inclusio) is similar to Matthew’s Gospel, which begins by referring to Jesus as “Immanuel: God with us,” (1:23) and ends with His promise “I am with you always even to the end of the age” (28:20). John’s gospel has similar framework, referring to Jesus in 1:1, “The Word was God,” and concluding with the testimony of Thomas who worships Jesus saying, “My Lord and my God” (20:28).

The End, Or Is It?

In most English Bibles, a footnote or critical apparatus makes the reader aware that there is some question among scholars as to where the Gospel of Mark should end. Some claim that the best manuscript evidence supports 16:8 as the final verse of the book, while others claim that there is good reason to accept verses 9 through 20 as original and authentic. A third group claim that the original ending was a shorter ending which is found in some manuscripts alone, and in others joined together with the longer ending. This ending continues from verse 8, saying, “They reported briefly to those around Peter all that they had been commanded. After these things, Jesus himself sent out through them, from the east to the west, the holy and imperishable preaching of eternal salvation. Amen.” This third view is the least popular among scholars in our day. The other two differ as to which textual tradition is to be preferred. The majority of manuscripts available today support the inclusion of verses 9 through 20 in the original work. However, two of the most respected manuscripts, Vaticanus and Sinaiticus, have the ending at verse 8.

Opinions of the church fathers are divided on the issue. Justin Martyr (c. 100-165), Irenaeus (c. 135-202), and Tatian (c. 120-173) all prefer the longer ending, while later Christian scholars such as Eusebius of Caesarea (c. 265-339) and Jerome (c. 345-419) opt to end the text at verse 8. In fact, Jerome only knew of a few manuscripts that contained the longer ending. Looking within the Gospel of Mark itself, it is evident that nearly thirty-five percent of the words used in verses 9 through 20 are not found elsewhere in Mark, and the style of these verses is much different than the preceding text. Added to this is the somewhat difficult theology encountered at verses 15 through 18. Yet, if the text was intended to conclude at verse 8, we are left with a very abrupt ending. This could have been the author’s intention, or it could be that he died or was interrupted before it was completed. It may also be the case that the final leaf of the Gospel was lost, though this could be used to support either position.

When all the evidence is considered together, it seems best that we not speculate on what Mark’s intended ending was, since it seems we are nowhere near being able to answer with certainty. It seems prudent to handle verses 9 through 20 with care. There is too much support for them for us to dismiss them outright, however, there is enough evidence against them to caution us against over-emphasis. These verses should not become the basis for any theological positions (i.e. on baptismal regeneration or sign gifts), apart from consideration of other, more clear and certain texts in the New Testament.

[1] Eusebius, Ecclesiastical History, translated by C. F. Cruse (Peabody, Mass.: Hendrickson, 1998 [reprint]), 3:39:1.

[2] Ibid., 3:39:4-5.

[3] Ibid., 3:39:15.

[4] D. Edmond Hiebert, The Gospel of Mark: An Expositional Commentary (Greenville, SC: Bob Jones University Press, 1994), 5.

[5] Eusebius, Ecclesiastical History, 2:16.

[6] Robert H. Stein, “Interpreting the Synoptic Gospels,” in David Alan Black and David Dockery eds., Interpreting the New Testament: Essays on Methods and Issues (Nashville: Broadman & Holman, 2001), 337-338.

[7] Stein, 338-339.

[8] William R. Farmer, “The Case for the Two-Gospel Hypothesis,” in David Alan Black and David Beck eds., Rethinking the Synoptic Problem (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2001), 111.

[9] Farmer, 134.

[10] James A. Brooks, The New American Commentary: Mark (Nashville: Broadman, 1991), 25.

[11] The word “assumption” here should not be understood to mean “blind faith,” but rather that these are matters which have been well established elsewhere, and for which it is not justifiable to devote space in this study.

[12] Cited in C. E. B. Cranfield, The Cambridge Greek Testament Commentary: The Gospel According to St. Mark (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1966), 3.

[13] Ibid.

[14] Eusebius, 6:14:6-7

[15] Donald Guthrie, New Testament Introduction, 3rd ed., 73, cited in Hiebert, 9.

[16] e.g. Manford G. Gutzke, cited in Hiebert, 12.

[17] Craig A. Evans, Word Biblical Commentary [Volume 34B]: Mark 8:27-16:20 (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2001), lxvi, lxxi.

[18] Evans, 19.

[19] Evans, lxxxii-xciii.

[20] Augustine, De Consensu Evangeliorum, 1.2.4, cited in James D. Edwards, The Pillar New Testament Commentary: The Gospel According to Mark (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2002), 2.

[21] Edwards, 11-12.

[22] Edwards, 3.

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