Guided by the Spirit, each Evangelist selected from the historical material available with distinct purposes in mind. Human intentions and circumstances combine to give us a true picture of Christ and his work. It is generally accepted that Mark depicts Christ chiefly as Servant and Redeemer. The shortest Gospel, it is often the first people read.
Like the other Gospels, the second bore no name at first but Mark’s soon began to appear on it. In the 4th Century Eusebius, quotes Papias (c AD 115) saying that Mark interpreted Peter, recording what he remembered, "yet not in order, the things which were either said or done by the Lord" and Clement of Alexandria (c AD 180) writing of how Mark was urged to record Peter’s preaching, Peter authorising the account to be read in churches. Other early church fathers agree. 2 Peter 1:15 possibly refers to this, I will be diligent that after my departure you may be able to call these things to mind. Another interesting pointer is the way Acts 10:34-43 follows the outline of Mark.
Younger than other New Testament writers, Mark was perhaps 20 years old when Christ died. He possibly witnessed Christ’s arrest. 14:51, 52 mentions a young man who followed Jesus and the disciples, wearing only a linen sheet. When the soldiers tried to seize him, he escaped naked. Not mentioned by others, it hardly adds to the narrative flow. It is likely that it was Mark, modestly refraining from identifying himself. Perhaps he observed the Lord’s final hours.
Bearing the names Yohanan (Jewish) and Marcus (Latin), John Mark was from a wealthy, Jerusalem family. Mary was his mother (Acts 12:12), Barnabas his cousin (Colossians 4:10). Perhaps he was converted after the events he records. Acts 12 reveals that the disciples were praying for Peter at Mary’s house. Perhaps it was a regular venue, as Peter went straight there. It is suggested that the Last Supper was held there. If so, Mark was well acquainted with early church leaders.
Later we read how Paul and Barnabas came from Antioch to Jerusalem (c 46 AD). On returning they took Mark. It must have been quite something to go to that great city. Later they were called to be missionaries (Acts 13:5) and Mark became their helper. Presumably they had recognised his potential when staying at Mary’s. Things seem to have gone well as far as Perga, where Mark left them (13:13). Nothing is spelled out as to why, but two years later, when preparing for a second journey (15:37-39), although Barnabas wanted to take Mark … Paul was not keen … because he had deserted them … They had such a sharp disagreement that they parted company. We learn that Barnabas took Mark to Cyprus.
We hear nothing of Mark until about 60 AD, when Paul’s prison epistles were probably written from Rome. Philemon 24 refers to him as a fellow-worker and Colossians 4:10 includes his greetings. Paul adds You have received instructions about him; if he comes to you, welcome him. He says (4:11) that Mark has proved a comfort to me. Whether or not he went to Colosse, he helped Paul and was a trusted worker. Later in 2 Timothy 4:11 Paul says Mark is helpful to me in my ministry.
Date and place of writing
Mark must have been written within a generation of the events recorded. In 15:21 Simon of Cyrene is said to be father of Alexander and Rufus. These two play no part in the story and are probably not mentioned elsewhere (see Romans 16:13). This must mean that Mark and his first readers knew them. This is clearly in the first generation after Simon. As noted, Peter probably provided the raw material, which puts the origin before the mid-sixties, perhaps as early as AD 45. Irenaeus disagrees with others in stating that it appeared after Peter’s death, possibly AD 65-68. It must have been written before 70 AD at the latest, with its substance in common circulation some time earlier, even if it had not appeared in its final form. The otherwise unexplained mention of Rufus, who was possibly connected with Rome, suggests that Mark may have written from Rome or for believers there. Tradition supports this view.
Concise and clear in style and language, appealing to practical Roman minds, interested in and impressed by power. While Jews would be interested in a Messiah’s background (hence Matthew’s genealogy) Romans would be more interested in his actions. The word euthus (straightaway, immediately) occurs 42 times, more than in all the rest of the New Testament. Mark is interested in deeds not speculation and commentary. Jesus is an action man, one who got things done.
Christ’s deity is revealed through miracles, culminating in the greatest of these – the resurrection. Much space is given to miracles.
Of 70 parables or similar items in the Gospels, Mark records only 18. Some say there are really only four parables. Matthew has 19, Luke 27.
Of 35 miracles in total, Mark has 18. Luke has 20 in 91 pages of Greek text, Mark 18 in only 53.
Matthew records six discourses, Mark just one (13). Matthew is 60% words of Jesus, Luke 51%, Mark only 42%.
Ignored in most modern translations, as it makes for poor English, Mark is fond of beginning sentences with And. Twelve of 16 chapters begin with it, giving a sense of momentum.
The frequent use of the present continuous tense (some 150 times) is similar.
Few references to Jewish laws and customs occur. When given, they are explained more fully than in the other Synoptics. Many Latin terms occur (bushel (4:21), tribute (12:14), executioner (6:27), etc). In most cases equivalent Greek expressions existed. Were Latin terms chosen with the first readers in mind?
Crowd reaction is emphasised. They were amazed (1:27), critical (2:7), afraid (4:41), puzzled (6:14), astonished (7:37). Around 23 reactions are recorded, indicating Christ’s impact on people, favourable and unfavourable.
Though brief, Mark often has unique details. When the man with the withered hand is healed, only Mark records how Jesus looked at the crowd with anger, grieved at their hardness of heart (3:5). In 5:41 he records the Aramaic words spoken to Jairus’s daughter Talitha cum, which means Little girl, I say to you arise. Such touches add great vividness.
Verse 1 states the subject, The beginning of the gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ, the Son of God. Perhaps it is an ancient heading added to the work. The abrupt opening is followed by Jesus’s first public appearance – at his baptism. The book is obviously not like modern biography. Christ’s ancestry, birth, parentage and early life are ignored. We have a succession of episodes from his life, probably in approximate chronological order. The Gospels emphasise Christ’s death and resurrection. Like the others, Mark gives more detail for the final week.
Jesus’s Person dominates the narrative. His miracles stand out, being performed for immediate human need not only to exhibit Christ to the crowds. There is steady progress toward the end purpose for which he came. Mark presents Christ as he was in daily life, living among men, the Servant come to serve. A key verse is 10:45. Jesus came not to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.
We can divide the book thus:
1-10 Serving: teaching and healing
11-16 Ransom being given: death and resurrection.
Mark is evangelistic, assuming little previous knowledge of God’s dealings with men. He sets the Saviour vividly before us as one able to save, one full of compassion for those coming to him in need. Over 90% of this Gospel duplicates material found in Matthew and Luke. Only three passages are unique
Parable, seed growing secretly 4:26-29
Healing, blind man at Bethsaida 8:22-26
Young man’s flight at Jesus’s arrest 14:43-52
Controversy surrounds 16:9-20. Did the earliest manuscripts end at 16:8? If so, was that where Mark (abruptly) finished or was the original ending lost? Are 16:9-20 genuine or an attempt to finish what seemed incomplete? Available Greek manuscripts offer three options
Long, including verses 9-20; short, ending one verse after verse 8; shortest, finishing at verse 8.
This is a textual question, not one imposed by liberals wanting to remove awkward verses. Evangelical scholars differ but reputable men, such as Hendriksen and Stonehouse, reject 16:9-20. Firm conclusions are difficult without the required expertise. Some question whether God would allow an erroneous addition to remain so long. The argument has force but raises unanswerable questions about the workings of providence in relation to Scripture preservation. Many evangelicals would say that it is best not to base a doctrine or practice solely on these verses, perhaps observing the excesses of snake-handling cults. Unless we consider such practices essential to Christian faith, that may well be the safest course.