A clear, concise, and respectful presentation of Mark’s Gospel—and what Jesus’ suffering means for us
Daniel J. Harrington, SJ, is well known for his superb New Testament scholarship, but he is also highly regarded for his exceptional ability to bridge the gap between modern biblical scholarship and authentic Christian spirituality. In Meeting St. Mark Today, the final book in this series on the Gospels, Harrington
has provided another straightforward, practical resource for lay Catholics who want a better understanding of this
The book begins with background information on the Evangelist and his Gospel. It moves quickly into a concise but complete narrative analysis of the Gospel, which clearly demonstrates the human side of Jesus. Part Three of the book explains how Mark’s Gospel provides answers to two essential questions: What did Jesus suffer?, and Why did Jesus suffer? It also proposes answers to the universal question, Why do people suffer? The book’s final section includes five meditations on suffering, based on lectionary readings from Year B (St. Mark) in the Sunday lectionary cycle.
Each chapter concludes with questions for reflection and discussion, making Meeting St. Mark Today an ideal resource for individual Scripture study or group Bible study. The readings from Mark’s Gospel for all Sundays and Feasts in Cycle B are listed at the end of the book.
Ultimately, Meeting St. Mark Today opens the theological treasure chest of this easily overlooked Gospel, enabling us to see how Jesus’ suffering and the mystery of the cross can reshape our faith and our lives.
About the Author
Daniel J. Harrington, SJ, is professor of New Testament at the Boston College School of Theology and Ministry. He has served as the general editor of New Testament Abstracts since 1972, and he is the author of more than 50 books and hundreds of articles on various biblical topics.
Read an Excerpt
A Year Dedicated to St. Mark: The Gospel of Suffering
Mark’s Gospel is now generally regarded as the earliest Gospel. It presents a stark and challenging portrait of Jesus’ public ministry, which leads into a dramatic account of his passion and death. It has often been described as a passion narrative with a long introduction. Mark presents Jesus as a wise teacher and a powerful and compassionate healer. But he also insists that this Jesus can be properly understood only when we confront the mystery of the cross and Jesus’ identity as a suffering Messiah. For this reason Mark’s work is sometimes called the Gospel of Suffering. As we study and pray through this text, we will have to face the suffering of Jesus the Son of God and the suffering that is part of our lives as individuals and as citizens of the world.
In the Year B (2012, 2015, 2018, 2021, 2024, etc.) in the Catholic Church’s lectionary of Scripture readings for Mass, the Gospel passage almost every Sunday is taken from St. Mark’s Gospel. In the New Testament we meet St. Mark mainly through the Gospel that bears his name. Throughout the centuries and especially in the church’s lectionary before Vatican II, Mark’s Gospel was badly neglected. For much of Christian history (due largely to the influence of St. Augustine), Mark was considered a poor imitation of Matthew and Luke. However, in the nineteenth century, biblical scholars began to recognize that in fact Matthew and Luke were revised and expanded versions of Mark, and that Mark’s Gospel had been composed earlier than the other two. In the twentieth century, biblical scholars and literary critics came to appreciate better the artistry of Mark’s Gospel and the literary skill of the Evangelist behind it. In recent years, Mark’s Gospel has become the testing ground for applying new literary, historical, and social-scientific methods to biblical and other ancient texts.
After an introduction to what we know with some certainty about the author of Mark’s Gospel and its major theological themes, this book provides
Chapters 2–7: a narrative analysis of the entire Gospel. These chapters focus on the Gospel’s key words and images, characters, plot, literary forms, indications of time and place, and theological message.
Chapters 8–9: a focus first on how Mark portrays the suffering of Jesus and then on the various approaches to suffering found throughout the Bible.
Chapter 10: reflections on the biblical theme of suffering in which Mark is the lead text.
Questions for reflection and discussion are provided in each chapter, and this book can be used easily by Bible study groups.
For a much fuller treatment of Mark’s Gospel and related topics, I suggest consulting the major commentary by John R. Donahue and myself entitled The Gospel of Mark in the Sacra Pagina series published by the Liturgical Press (2002), and reprinted in a paperback edition with an updated bibliography (2005). I am grateful to Loyola Press for the invitation to synthesize my views on Mark’s Gospel and to present them to a wider audience.
Meeting St. Mark
In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. And just as he was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart and the spirit descending like a dove on him. And a voice came from heaven, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”
The Evangelist and His Gospel
What we call the Gospel of Mark is technically an anonymous composition—as are the other Gospels. The Evangelist never identifies himself by name or claims to have been a participant in or an eyewitness to the events he describes. The traditional title “According to Mark” seems not to have been part of the original text but rather a later addition made in keeping with the early church’s custom of attributing this Gospel to “Mark.”
But who was this Mark? In the early Christian tradition someone named Mark has close ties to both Paul and Peter. The Pauline epistles mention a person named Mark (a common name in the Greco-Roman world) three different times. There is a reference to Mark in the list of Paul’s coworkers in Philemon 24. Colossians 4:10 refers to “Mark the cousin of Barnabas.” And in 2 Timothy 4:11 Paul urges Timothy to “get Mark and bring him with you, for he is useful in my ministry.”
In the Acts of the Apostles there are three more mentions of someone named Mark. According to Acts 12:12, the “house of Mary, the mother of John whose other name was Mark” was a center for the early Christian community in Jerusalem. According to Acts 12:25, “John, whose other name was Mark” returned to Jerusalem with Paul and Barnabas after completing their apostolic mission in Antioch. And Acts 15:37–39 describes a disagreement between Paul and Barnabas over “John called Mark.” Paul refused to take John Mark along on their next apostolic mission because he “had deserted them in Pamphylia and had not accompanied them in the work” (15:38). The result was that Barnabas and Mark went off to Cyprus, and Paul and Silas went through Syria and Cilicia.
In 1 Peter 5:13 there is another reference to someone named Mark: “Your sister church in Babylon . . . sends you greetings; and so does my son Mark.” Bible scholars generally acknowledge that here (and in Revelation), “Babylon” is a code name for Rome. Thus, 1 Peter 5:13 links Mark with Peter and Rome. The earliest evidence from the church regarding the authorship of this Gospel comes from “the Elder” as quoted by Papias (in the early second century) as quoted by Eusebius (in his Ecclesiastical History 3.39.15): “Mark, having become the interpreter of Peter, wrote down accurately whatever he remembered of what was said or done by the Lord, but not in order.” While this statement raises many questions, it does connect Mark and his Gospel to Peter and Rome. This tradition is repeated by many other writers of the early church.
The identity of Mark and the authorship of the Gospel that now bears his name are complicated issues. For our purposes the name “Mark” will be used to refer to the early Christian writer who put this Gospel into its final form (that is, something much like what has come down to us in the Christian Bible). It is through the Gospel of Mark that we can best meet St. Mark today. Keep in mind that this book is not a biography of Mark; it is an examination of Mark’s “biography” of Jesus.
Christians in Rome
The oldest and best tradition relates Mark’s Gospel to the Roman Christian community that suffered persecution in the wake of Emperor Nero’s efforts to blame the Christians for
the great fire of a.d. 64. The material in Mark’s Gospel fits well with the tradition presented by the Roman historian Tacitus in Annales 15.44. Tacitus describes the procedure used in arresting the Christians at that time: “First, then, the confessed members of the sect were arrested; next, on evidence furnished by them a huge multitude was convicted not so much on the count of arson as hatred of the human race.” Tacitus goes on to recount the horrible punishments inflicted on them: “They were covered with wild beasts’ skins and torn to death by dogs; or they were fastened on crosses, and when daylight failed were burned to serve as lamps by night.”
In my view, the original audience for Mark’s Gospel was the Roman Christian community made up of both Jewish and Gentile Christians. By this time (around a.d. 70), it was very likely that most of the Christians in Rome were Gentiles. So, the Evangelist feels obliged to explain certain Jewish customs and practices, most famously in 7:3–4 about washing cups and dishes as well as hands. But the Evangelist himself seems to have been a Jew. Though he makes some mistakes about Scripture texts and concludes that Jesus declared all foods clean in Mark 7:19 (a point Matthew “corrected” by omitting it in Matthew 15), he knows a good deal about Judaism and is committed to presenting Jesus within the context of first-century Palestinian Judaism. The traditions that relate Mark to Peter and to Paul also appear to assume that Mark was a Jew. And so I read Mark as a Gospel written by a Jewish Christian author about Jesus the Jew, for a mixed Jewish and Gentile Christian audience in Rome around a.d. 70.
However, a recent trend among some biblical scholars is to place the composition of Mark’s Gospel in the eastern part of the Mediterranean world (in Syria or Galilee), and to relate it to events connected with the Jewish Revolt in Palestine and the destruction of the Jerusalem temple in a.d. 70. I still prefer the Roman tradition. In either case (Rome or Syria-Palestine), Mark’s Gospel seems to have circulated rather quickly around the Mediterranean world, and it was revised and expanded independently by the Evangelists we know as Matthew and Luke some ten to fifteen years later. Both writers included far more teaching material than Mark did, from sources not available to Mark.
Given this history, it appears that Mark’s Gospel is the oldest complete Gospel in the Christian Scriptures, and that in a real sense Mark invented the literary genre we call Gospel—that is, a connected narrative about Jesus of Nazareth that describes his activities and his teachings in Galilee and Judea, as well as his passion, death, and resurrection in Jerusalem around a.d. 30. Mark had access to various written and oral traditions about Jesus (controversies, parables, aphorisms, miracle stories, and so forth) that had circulated in early Christian communities for some forty years. Thus, Mark was very much a transmitter and arranger of traditional materials.
At the same time, Mark was an interpreter of traditions and an author in his own right. As the narrative analysis that follows will show, Mark put his distinctive stylistic stamp on the material. For example, he liked the word immediately, used double time expressions, included vivid details, and changed scenes rapidly. He frequently employed the literary technique in which he begins one story, interrupts it with another story, and returns to the first story. The effect is that the two narratives interpret one another. This device, known to scholars as intercalation, is sometimes called Mark’s “sandwich” technique.
In presenting his story of Jesus, Mark followed a geographical outline. In the first half of the Gospel he describes Jesus’ activities and teachings in Galilee and the areas surrounding it. Next there is a journey from northern Galilee to Jerusalem. Then Jesus arrives in Jerusalem, exercises a brief teaching ministry, and there he is arrested, executed, and is raised from the dead. The result is what looks like a biography of Jesus, at least with regard to his public ministry and his passion and death.
Mark wrote his Gospel in order to inform and encourage followers of Jesus. After some forty years of missionary activity, the time was ripe for someone to bring together the various traditions about Jesus and situate them in the context of Jesus’ public ministry. Not only that, the Christians for whom Mark originally wrote were undergoing persecution, or at least the threat of persecution. They needed Jesus’ own good example of fidelity to bolster their spirits and help them stay faithful to their beliefs.
Also, Mark sought to shed light on some difficult questions that all early Christians had to face. How could Jesus be the Son of God if he had died a criminal’s death, crucified on the Roman instrument of execution—what we now refer to simply as “the cross”? If he really was the Messiah of Jewish expectations, why did he not claim it openly and do what the Messiah was expected to do? What was the relationship between Jesus’ teachings and Jewish speculations about the end of the world? And what was the relationship between Jesus’ followers and members of other Jewish religious movements?
Mark’s Gospel presents Jesus as fulfilling the hopes of God’s people expressed in the Old Testament and carrying on his ministry in the land of Israel around a.d. 30. Mark tells Jesus’ story in terms of names and titles intelligible only within Judaism, in the framework of Jewish beliefs about the end-times, and in conflict with other Jewish movements and the temple establishment but in sympathy with certain other Jews.
Mark’s Use of the Old Testament
At many pivotal points in his story of Jesus, Mark appeals to Old Testament texts and appears to assume that his readers know these texts and regard them as authoritative. That Mark respected the Jewish Scriptures is clear from Mark 1:2–3, where he uses a quotation from “the prophet Isaiah” to explain the relationship between John the Baptist (“the voice”) and Jesus (“the Lord”). His failure to note that the first part of this quotation came not from Isaiah but from Exodus 23:20 and Malachi 3:1 suggests that here Mark may have had access to a collection of biblical proof texts, or testimonia, or at least that he was not as conversant with the Old Testament as Matthew was. Matthew used only the Isaiah part in Matthew 3:3 and shifted the Exodus 23:20/Malachi 3:1 part to Matthew 11:10. Another mistake in Mark’s use of the Old Testament occurs at 2:26, where he says that Abiathar (rather than Ahimelech) was the priest when David demanded the bread of the presence (see 1 Samuel 21:1–6).
There are an impressive number of explicit Old Testament quotations in Mark’s account of Jesus’ public ministry, especially from Isaiah, Psalms, and Daniel. Jesus appeals to Isaiah 6:9–10 (“they may indeed look, but not perceive”) to explain why outsiders (4:12) and even his own disciples (8:18) fail to understand his preaching about God’s kingdom. In his critique of the Pharisees’ traditions about ritual defilement (7:6–7), Jesus quotes Isaiah 29:13: “Because these people draw near with their mouths and honor me with their lips, while their hearts are far from me, and their worship of me is a human commandment learned by rote.” The crowd’s acclamation of Jesus in 7:37 (“He has done everything well; he even makes the deaf to hear and the mute to speak”) is an echo of Isaiah 35:5–6.
In Mark 11:9–10, when Jesus enters Jerusalem, he is greeted with words from Psalm 118:26: “Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord.” In Mark 11:17, his symbolic action in “cleansing” the temple is justified by an appeal to the combination of Isaiah 56:7 and Jeremiah 7:11: “My house shall be called a house of prayer for all the nations. But you have made it a den of robbers.” His parable of the wicked tenants (12:1–12) ends with a quotation of Psalm 118:22–23: “The stone that the builders rejected has become the chief cornerstone.” In 12:35–37 he presents an interpretation of Psalm 110:1 (“the Lord says to my Lord”) designed to show the superiority of the title “Lord” to “Messiah” and “Son of David.” When Jesus speaks of end-times in Mark 13, many of the major terms and concepts—the great tribulation, the abomination of desolation, the glorious Son of Man, and the resurrection of the dead—come from the book of Daniel.
One of the great themes of Mark’s passion narrative is expressed by Jesus in 14:49: “Let the scriptures be fulfilled.” On the Mount of Olives (14:27), Jesus quotes Zechariah 13:7 (“I will strike the shepherd, and the sheep will be scattered”) as a prophecy that his disciples would soon desert him. At his trial before the Sanhedrin (14:62), Jesus identifies himself as the glorious Son of Man with words taken from Daniel 7:13. And in chapter 15 there are enough quotations and allusions to Isaiah 53 and Psalm 22 to describe Jesus as the personification of the Suffering Servant and the Suffering Righteous One (see also Wisdom 2:12–20).
Mark’s Theological Geography
Mark’s Gospel is a story mainly about Jesus of Nazareth. It is set in the land of Israel and follows a theological-geographical outline.
Galilee functions as the place where Jesus’ authority is revealed.
The journey from Galilee to Judea is the occasion for Jesus to teach about his identity and discipleship.
Jerusalem is the place of his rejection and death.
The prologue: 1:1–13
Mark tells the reader that John the Baptist prepared the way for Jesus (thus fulfilling Old Testament prophecies), that a voice from heaven declared Jesus to be “my Son, the Beloved,” and that Jesus withstood testing by Satan. The prologue has the effect of identifying Jesus as the Son of God and placing him and his public ministry in a cosmic battle with Satan.
First major section: 1:14—8:21
Mark describes how Jesus the anointed Son of God proclaims in the Galilee region the imminence of God’s reign through his teachings and actions. At the same time, Mark shows that Jesus encounters misunderstanding and opposition from many groups. The scene of Jesus’ activity is Galilee and the surrounding area, which in Mark’s theological geography is the place for the revelation or manifestation of Jesus as a powerful teacher and healer. The summary statement places everything that Jesus says and does in the context of his proclamation of God’s kingdom: “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near” (1:15).
Second major section: 8:22—10:52
This part of the story concerns the journey from Galilee to Jerusalem. Mark introduces and concludes this section with stories in which blind men come to see. Throughout the journey from Caesarea Philippi in northern Galilee to Jerusalem, the Jesus of Mark’s Gospel instructs his disciples (and Mark’s readers) about his identity as the Son of Man who must suffer, die, and rise from the dead, and about what it means to follow him.
Third major section: 11:1—16:8
Jerusalem is the primary place in which Jesus is rejected. After his provocative symbolic actions in entering the city and cleansing the temple, Jesus debates various Jewish groups. When asked about the destruction of the Jerusalem temple, Jesus takes the conversation to the cosmic level and looks forward to the coming of the Son of Man in glory as the sign of the fullness of God’s kingdom.
In the events leading up to Jesus’ arrest, he remains very much in command (even though the Gethsemane episode shows that he struggles to accept death on the cross as his Father’s will), in that he knows what is going to happen and is confident that the Scriptures are being fulfilled. In the trials before the Sanhedrin and Pilate, Jesus appears as Messiah/Son of God and as the Suffering Servant of Isaiah 53.
In the crucifixion story, Jesus is the embodiment of Psalm 22, the psalm of the suffering righteous person. The confession by the Roman centurion at the moment of Jesus’ death (“Truly this man was God’s Son!”) is the first recognition by a human in Mark’s Gospel (and by a Gentile no less!) about Jesus’ real identity—something that Mark’s readers have known since the beginning of the story.
The women disciples, who are introduced only at 15:40–41, witness the death of Jesus and his burial. And they discover his tomb to be empty on Easter Sunday morning. The explanation offered by the young man at the tomb is that “he has been raised.” Jesus, the suffering Son of Man, who personifies the Suffering Righteous One of Psalm 22 and the Suffering Servant of Isaiah 53, has been vindicated in his resurrection from the dead.
Names and Titles of Jesus
The major titles that Mark applies to Jesus—Son of God, Messiah, and Son of Man—were already traditional among early Christians when Mark wrote his Gospel. Nevertheless, if the first readers were to understand these titles properly, they needed to be familiar with Judaism and the Old Testament. Mark used the titles to situate Jesus in a Jewish environment.
Son of God
In the Old Testament the title “Son of God” is applied to
Israel as God’s people (Hosea 11:1)
the king at his coronation (Psalm 2:7)
the angels (Job 38:7)
and the suffering righteous person (Wisdom 2:18).
In Mark’s Gospel, “Son of God” is a very prominent title for Jesus.
1:1 (in most manuscripts). “The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.”
1:11. At Jesus’ baptism a voice from heaven proclaims: “You are my Son, the Beloved.”
3:11. Demons, or “unclean spirits,” recognize Jesus as “the Son of God.”
5:7. Demons recognize Jesus as the “Son of the Most High God.”
9:7. At Jesus’ transfiguration a voice from heaven proclaims, “This is my Son, the Beloved.”
12:1–12. In the parable of the vineyard, it is hard to escape the implication that the son is Jesus (“a beloved son . . . my son”).
13:32. In claiming that only the Father knows “that day or hour,” Jesus seems to refer to himself as the Son of God.
14:61–62. When at the Sanhedrin trial the chief priest asks whether Jesus is “the Son of the Blessed One,” Jesus answers, “I am.”
15:39. Finally at the moment of Jesus’ death on the cross, the Roman centurion proclaims, “Truly this man was God’s Son!” In Mark’s narrative, the first time a human (who happens to be a Gentile) recognizes Jesus’ true identity as the Son of God is at the time of his death!
The Hebrew word for “anointed one” is mashiah. The Greek translation is christos. Priests, prophets, and kings in Judaism’s early history (the Old Testament) were anointed to signify that God had chosen them for specific roles and services. In New Testament times there was no single Jewish concept of Messiah, and much depends on the context in which the term appears. Mark employs the Greek word christos (“anointed”) for the Hebrew mashiah.
1:1. Mark uses “Christ” as a surname for Jesus (“the good news of Jesus Christ”), a practice that was common by the time the letters of Paul were written.
9:41. Jesus speaks about one who bears “the name of Christ.”
12:35–37. Jesus relates “Messiah” and “son of David.”
13:21. Jesus warns about those who might say, “Look! Here is the Messiah.”
The most distinctive and theologically important occurrences of christos in Mark’s Gospel appear during Jesus’ suffering and death.
8:29, 31. When Peter confesses that Jesus is the Messiah/Christ, almost immediately Jesus utters his first passion prediction that “the Son of Man must undergo great suffering.”
14:61–62. At the trial before the Sanhedrin, the high priest asks Jesus, “Are you the Messiah/Christ . . . ?” and Jesus answers, “I am.”
15:32. And as Jesus is lifted up on the cross, the chief priests and scribes taunt him: “Let the Messiah/Christ, the King of Israel, come down.”
The appearance of the title “Messiah/Christ” in the context of Jesus’ suffering and death—in some of the most significant passages in the Gospel—suggests that Mark is deliberately redefining the title with reference to Jesus. Mark’s point seems to be that Jesus’ messiahship involves suffering, and that Jesus cannot be understood as the Messiah/Christ apart from the mystery of the cross.
Two variants of Messiah/Christ are “Son of David” and “King of the Jews.” The former title is used twice by Bartimaeus in 10:47–48: “Son of David, have mercy on me!” The name “Son of David” also appears in the controversy about the interpretation of Psalm 110:1, when Jesus asks, in 12:35, “How can the scribes say that the Messiah/Christ is the Son of David?” The “King of the Jews” is the “outsider” Roman translation of “Messiah/Christ,” and it occurs exclusively in chapter 15 (verses 2, 9, 12, 18, 26).
In Mark’s Gospel, Jesus keeps his identity hidden until the proper time, an aspect of the story scholars have referred to as the “messianic secret.” The clearest and most important example of this comes immediately after Peter’s confession of Jesus as the Messiah/Christ. There Mark adds in 8:30: “And he sternly ordered them not to tell anyone about him.” This is the only case in which there is a direct connection between the title of “Messiah” being applied to Jesus and his commanding the disciples to keep quiet about it. The passages that are often lumped together in the category of the “messianic secret” involve instances that are connected loosely, if at all: Jesus’ instructions for people to remain silent after he had performed miracles (1:25, 34, 44; 3:12; 5:43; 7:36); Jesus’ private instructions for his disciples (4:11, 34; 7:17; 9:28, 31–50; 13:3–36); and his unsuccessful efforts at hiding from the public (6:31; 7:24; 9:30). The best explanation for this phenomenon is that Mark sought to redefine the term “Messiah” and other titles in the light of Jesus’ death and resurrection, and so he put off revealing Jesus’ true identity until his death (see 15:39) and his resurrection (see 9:9).
Son of Man
In the Old Testament the prophet Ezekiel is frequently addressed by God as “son of man” (ben adam in Hebrew) and told to prophesy (see 2:1, 3, 6, 8; 3:1, 3, etc.). In Daniel 7:13 a figure described as “one like a son of man” (bar enash in Aramaic) receives from the “Ancient of Days” dominion and glory and kingship. In 1 Enoch 48, the “Son of Man” is a preexistent heavenly being who passes judgment upon all human and angelic beings.
In Mark’s Gospel “Son of Man” is a prominent title for Jesus.
The most distinctive and theologically important uses of “Son of Man” (ho hyios tou anthropou) appear during Jesus’ passion, death, and resurrection. This title is part of the three passion predictions (8:31; 9:31; 10:33–34). It occurs two more times in the conversation about Jesus’ death and resurrection after the Transfiguration (9:9, 12). It also appears in the pivotal declaration of Jesus toward the end of the journey from Galilee to Jerusalem: “For the Son of Man came . . . to give his life as a ransom for many” (10:45).
A second category of “Son of Man” sayings in Mark is like the “son of man” in Ezekiel. In several places Jesus uses “Son of Man” to refer to himself and his authority to forgive sins (2:10) and in his role as Lord of the Sabbath (2:28). At the Last Supper Jesus remarks that “the Son of Man goes as it is written of him” (14:21), and at his arrest he observes that “the Son of Man is betrayed into the hands of sinners” (14:41). In all these cases one gets the sense that more is meant than “I.” There is a solemnity to these sayings and a suggestion that Jesus is a very significant “son of man/Adam.”
The third category of Mark’s “Son of Man” sayings is more in line with Daniel 7 and 1 Enoch 48. In 8:38 Jesus warns that the Son of Man will be ashamed of people who are ashamed of him and his words, “when he comes in the glory of his Father with the holy angels.” The apocalyptic scenario developed in Mark 13 reaches its climax in 13:26 with the vision of “the Son of Man coming in the clouds,” which is a clear allusion to Daniel 7:13. At the trial before the Sanhedrin, Jesus again alludes to Daniel 7:13 when he promises, “you will see the Son of Man seated at the right hand of the Power, and coming with the clouds of heaven” (14:62). In all three cases there can be little doubt that Mark identifies the glorious end-times Son of Man as Jesus.
In the Gospel of Mark, John the Baptist’s preaching about “one who is more powerful” (1:7) also functions as a title for Jesus. In 1:24 the demon being exorcised correctly identifies Jesus as “the Holy One of God.”
Mark does not do much with “prophet” as a title for Jesus, especially when compared to Luke-Acts. While Jesus explains his rejection at Nazareth as being due to his identity as a prophet (“prophets are not without honor” 6:4), elsewhere the title is reserved for Isaiah (1:2) and John the Baptist (11:32) or is cited as one of the popular but inadequate perceptions of Jesus (6:15; 8:28).
Likewise, “Lord” (Kyrios) is not as prominent a title for Jesus in Mark’s Gospel as it is in Matthew’s. The term is generally used as a title for God, the Father of Jesus (see 11:9; 12:11; 12:29–30; 12:36–37; 13:20) as it is used in the Greek Old Testament. In 5:19 and 11:3 Jesus uses Kyrios to refer to himself, and there it may not have much theological significance but may refer to Jesus’ role of teacher or “master.” In 1:3 (“Prepare the way of the Lord”), its occurrence in Isaiah 40:3 is assumed to refer to Jesus. In the debate about interpreting Psalm 110:1 (“The Lord said to my Lord”), the second “Lord” is taken to imply the superiority of this title to “Messiah/Christ” and “Son of David.”
The images and concepts of Jewish apocalyptic or end-times beliefs (“the last things”) permeate Mark’s Gospel—so much so that it has been aptly called an apocalyptic drama. The Evangelist’s summary of Jesus’ preaching appears in Mark 1:15: “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.” This summary situates Mark’s story of Jesus in the context of end times. The main topic is the kingdom of God—that moment when all creation will acknowledge the sovereignty of God and proceed according to God’s original plan. While the kingdom’s fullness is future, the teaching and healing activity of Jesus represent its present reality dramatically. Jesus’ proclamation of the future and present dimensions of God’s kingdom demands an appropriate response: conversion, and faith in the good news that Jesus brings.
The testing of Jesus by Satan (1:12–13) alerts the reader to Mark’s idea that Jesus’ ministry is a struggle against the cosmic forces of evil. Mark’s story assumes dual (but not equal) forces in the world, a concept found in the Dead Sea scrolls (the Prince of Light with the children of light versus the Prince of Darkness with the children of darkness; see the Qumran Rule of the Community 3—4). Jesus’ first public activities—his exorcisms, healings, and debates with hostile opponents—are decisive moments in the struggle against the forces of the Evil One. The debate with the scribes in 3:20–30 makes it clear that the origin of Jesus’ power as a teacher and healer is the Holy Spirit, and that he stands against the one who is called Satan/Beelzebul/Prince of Demons.
The parables in 4:1–34 impart some basic teachings about the kingdom of God. God brings about the kingdom; there is a contrast between its small beginnings in the present and its future fullness; something decisive is happening in Jesus’ ministry; and Jesus’ proclamation of God’s kingdom deserves an enthusiastic and fruitful response. The power of Jesus as the herald of God’s kingdom is illustrated by his deeds in 4:35—5:43. He shows himself to be the master of those forces that in Jewish and ancient Near Eastern traditions appear to be under the dominion of Satan: the storm at sea, the demons, sickness and the suffering it brings, and death.
Having placed Jesus’ ministry in the context of a cosmic struggle against the forces of evil, Mark (from chapter 6 onward) pits Jesus against misunderstanding and hostility from human opponents: the people of Nazareth, his own disciples, and the chief priests, elders, and scribes of Jerusalem. In the midst of this story we are given the Transfiguration account, which provides insight into, and an anticipation of, the true nature of Jesus as the glorious Son of Man. And in Jesus’ discussion of the end-times, he describes the climactic event: “Then they will see ‘the Son of Man coming in clouds’ with great power and glory” (13:26). Since these events are to take place in “this generation” (13:30)—though the precise time remains unknown (see 13:32)—the appropriate religious and ethical response is constant vigilance (13:33–37).
In Jewish theology of Jesus’ time, resurrection was understood to be an event that happened at the end of earthly time (see Daniel 12:1–3). In Mark 12:18–27 Jesus stands with the Pharisees against the Sadducees, and argues that resurrection is in the Torah (Exodus 3:6, 15–16) and within the power of God. In Mark’s narrative Jesus is the first case of resurrection. According to 16:6, the reason Jesus’ tomb was found empty was that “he has been raised.” In the resurrection of Jesus a decisive event of the end-times he predicted has already taken place in “this generation.”
Jesus and the Jews
Scholars often cite Mark’s comment about Jewish traditions regarding ritual purity in 7:3–4 as evidence that Mark wrote for a predominantly non-Jewish audience. This may be so. But if Mark expected his first readers to understand most of his story of Jesus, he had to assume that they knew a good deal about “things Jewish” and were interested in them. He tells the story of Jesus as a Jewish teacher and healer, who gathered Jewish disciples, worked in Galilee and Judea, and died with the words of Psalm 22:1 on his lips (“My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”). Jesus’ debates with various Jewish groups deal almost entirely with Jewish topics, and his positions on these matters are generally within the range of opinions represented by other first-century Jewish teachers.
While Mark’s Jesus is clearly Jewish, Mark also presents his hero as superior to other Jewish teachers and healers and as possessing significance for non-Jews as well (see 7:24—8:10). During his Galilean ministry Jesus engages fellow Jews in debate, and his initial success results in a plot against him by Pharisees and Herodians. During his ministry in Jerusalem, Jesus has more controversies with various Jewish groups and gains the envy and hostility of the chief priests, elders, and scribes there. While these Jewish officials take the initiative in having Jesus arrested and condemned to death, it is the Roman prefect Pontius Pilate who is ultimately responsible for Jesus’ execution.
From his entry into Jerusalem at the beginning of Mark 11, Jesus is critical of the Jerusalem temple and those who are responsible for it. His action in the temple complex is sandwiched between sections about the withered fig tree. Jesus’ temple action and his prophecy about the destruction of the temple are major issues in his later trial before the Sanhedrin and at his crucifixion. And those who plot Jesus’ arrest and execution (most obviously the chief priests) stand to lose the most if Jesus’ prophecies about the temple come to pass.
So Mark’s Jesus has conflicts with other Jews and Jewish groups. But these facts hardly set Jesus outside the boundaries of Judaism in the first century. As the Dead Sea scrolls have shown abundantly, Judaism in Jesus’ time was both diverse and contentious, and there was strong opposition to the Jerusalem temple and its officials from Jews other than Jesus.
A little-noticed feature in Mark’s narrative of Jesus is the presence of Jewish characters who do not belong to the Jesus movement and yet act in ways that are regarded as exemplary or praiseworthy. One such figure is the exorcist who casts out demons in Jesus’ name, but who does not follow Jesus as a disciple (Mark 9:38). When told of this, Jesus takes a tolerant attitude and says: “Whoever is not against us is for us” (9:40). The episode occurs while Jesus and his disciples are still in Galilee, and it appears that the Evangelist wants us to assume that the strange exorcist is a Jew. At least nothing suggests that he is a Gentile.
Later, a man confronts Jesus and asks him: “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” Jesus instructs him to keep the commandments and lists examples taken mainly from the Ten Commandments: “You shall not murder; You shall not commit adultery; . . .” We are then told that Jesus had great personal affection for the questioner: “Jesus, looking at him, loved him.” Jesus goes on to challenge the man to sell his possessions and to follow Jesus as his disciple. The man, who is rich, rejects the invitation and goes away “grieving.” His attachment to his material possessions then becomes the occasion for various teachings about possessions as an obstacle to entering the kingdom of God. What gets overlooked in Mark 10:17–22 is Jesus’ initial response to the effect that the rich man—surely a Jew in this context—can inherit eternal life by keeping the commandments in the Torah.
The debate about the “great commandment” in Mark 12:28–34 is not so much a controversy or conflict as it is a pleasant conversation between Jesus and a scribe. When the scribe asks, “Which commandment is the first of all?” Jesus responds by quoting Deuteronomy 6:4–5 (love God) and Leviticus 19:18 (love your neighbor). The scribe expresses enthusiastic agreement with Jesus (“You are right, Teacher”), and declares that observing the two love commandments is more important than all holocausts and sacrifices. Jesus in turn approves the wisdom of the scribe’s answer and states: “You are not far from the kingdom of God.” One gets the impression that in some contexts, such as this exchange and the one with the rich young man in Mark 10, the term “kingdom of God” is tied to Jesus and his movement but following Jesus does not exhaust the possibilities of inheriting eternal life. At any rate, in Mark 12, a Jewish scribe expresses enthusiastic approval of Jesus’ teaching (which is, of course, an affirmation of the Torah), and is given high praise in return.
The person responsible for the burial of Jesus, according to Mark 15:43–46, is Joseph of Arimathea, surely a Jew. In Mark’s narrative it is not clear that Joseph was a disciple of Jesus, even though Matthew 27:57 and John 19:38 clearly identify him as one. Indeed, according to Mark’s narrative, as a “respected member of the council,” Joseph seems to have been a member of the Jewish Sanhedrin that sentenced Jesus to death: “All of them condemned him as deserving death” (14:64). Also, it is unlikely that the Roman prefect Pontius Pilate would have entrusted Jesus’ corpse to someone known to be a member of his movement. The way in which Mark describes Joseph of Arimathea and his actions after Jesus’ death might be explained as coming from Joseph’s desire to give Jesus a decent burial before the Sabbath (in accord with Deuteronomy 21:22–23). What inspires Joseph is not so much his personal relationship to Jesus, whom he barely knows, but rather his devotion to fulfilling the biblical commandment to bury a fellow Jew on the day of his death. His action is reminiscent of Tobit’s zeal to bury his fellow Jews in the Diaspora (see Tobit 1:17–18; 2:3–4, 7–8). Mark may portray Joseph of Arimathea as simply a righteous Jew outside the circle of Jesus. Throughout Mark’s Gospel, Jesus relates with other Jews, both positively and negatively.
For Reflection and Discussion
What do you hope to gain as you begin your journey with Jesus according to Mark?
Which title of Jesus is most meaningful to you right now?
Is there suffering in your life now? Do you relate it to Jesus’ suffering?
Table of ContentsContents
A Year Dedicated to St. Mark: The Gospel of Suffering vii
Part One: Meeting St. Mark
1 The Evangelist and His Gospel 3
Part Two: Mark’s Story of Jesus
2 Jesus’ Authority Is Revealed in Galilee (Mark 1:1—3:6) 29
3 Jesus’ Authority Is Challenged in Galilee (Mark 3:7—6:6) 39
4 Jesus Is Misunderstood in Galilee and Beyond (Mark 6:6—8:21) 51
5 Jesus’ Instructions on the Way to Jerusalem (Mark 8:22—10:52) 63
6 Jesus’ Ministry in Jerusalem (Mark 11:1—13:37) 75
7 Jesus’ Death and Resurrection in Jerusalem (Mark 14:1—16:20) 83
Part Three: The Gospel of Suffering in Context
8 What and Why Did Jesus Suffer? 93
9 Biblical Perspectives on Suffering 107
Part Four: Mark’s Gospel in Christian Life
10 Biblical Variations on the Theme of Suffering 119
Readings from Mark’s Gospel for Sundays and
Feasts in the Year B 137
For Further Reading 139
About the Author 141