Jesus in the Gospel of Mark
The Gospel of Mark, considered independently of the two other synoptic gospels, was viewed as carrying little significance from the time of the Church Fathers until the nineteenth century when the historic-critical method started to thrive in modern biblical scholarship. This neglect of the Markan account may have been due to the fact that many of the events recounted in it are already contained in the gospels of Matthew and Luke where they are couched in what, at first glance, seem to be more sophisticated theological themes. It may have also been due to the unpolished narrative of Mark with many of the gospel sections being joined by a plain “and” and “immediately.” Additionally, there are in Mark no infancy narratives, Beatitudes, the Sermon on the Mount, or the Lord’s Prayer, and there is a dearth of parables compared to Matthew or Luke. But in recent times, we have witnessed a growing interest in what the Gospel of Mark can offer in terms of Christology. Thus, in an effort to appreciate the theology contained in the Markan account, let us attempt—as far as possible—to construct a picture of Jesus relying solely on the text of the Gospel of Mark.
Before diving into the text, it is important to underscore the historical context in which this Gospel was written, for it provides clues as to what Mark was trying to convey to the first hearers of his Gospel. There is consensus among most scholars that Mark was written at around A.D. 69-73 in Rome during the persecution of Christians under Nero. Hence, the theme of suffering and conditions necessary for discipleship are central to Mark, because of the hardships that the Christian community were undergoing at that time.
Mark summarizes the theme and theology that will be at the center of his gospel in the first fifteen verses. In the opening verses, Mark gives clues to his reader that Jesus is not merely a prophet when he refers to him as “Lord” through the words of the prophet Isaiah (1:3), “one mighty” (1:7) and the One who is the giver of the Holy Spirit (1:8) through the words of John the Baptist. After Jesus is baptized, Mark recounts that the heavens were “torn open” and that the Spirit descended upon him (1:10). This imagery that Mark uses—heavens being “torn open” and a dove—take the reader back to the images in Genesis following the great flood that symbolize the birth of a new creation (8:7-12). The heavens in the Old Testament symbolize God’s dwelling (Deut 10:14; Pss. 11:4, 148:4) and from there He speaks, which confirms even further the intimate relationship between Jesus and God himself when the voice from heaven calls Jesus “my beloved Son” (1:11). In the Jewish Scriptures, the name “Son of God” is attributed to Israel (Ex 4:22) and to the king who is the head and representative of Israel (Pss. 2:7, 89:28; 2 Sam. 7:14; 2 Chron 22:10). However, the title “beloved” Son of God was rather unfamiliar to an audience familiar with the Old Testament Scriptures. Furthermore, in this scene, it seems as if the words of God are only heard by Jesus and not by the crowds, because of the use of “You are my beloved Son” instead of “This is my beloved Son” as written in the transfiguration account (9:7), which suggests that the latter message was directed to the disciples also. Thus, the real identity of Jesus at this point is not known by anyone else but Jesus himself and John the Baptist to whom it was revealed to some extent beforehand. Mark then proceeds to show how Jesus is immediately tried and tempted by Satan in the desert (1:12-13) and follows with the arrest of John the Baptist (1:14). Such contrast between glory (baptism) and suffering (temptation and arrest) becomes a distinctive feature in Mark that shapes his theology throughout the gospel. Following these events, Jesus begins his Galilean ministry by proclaiming that “the kingdom of God is at hand” (1:15) and calling for repentance and belief in the gospel. Hence, in the first fifteen verses, Mark has given his reader a glimpse of three major themes that will be central to his gospel. The first theme regards Jesus as the beginning of a new creation. The second theme portrays the life and the ministry of Jesus as characterized by suffering and recurring opposition. The third recurring theme—more prominent in the first half of the gospel—is the withholding of the real mission and identity of Jesus from the crowds.
After the prologue of the gospel, Jesus starts calling his first disciples to follow him and they do so without hesitation (1:16-21). In the next five chapters, Mark narrates Jesus’ ministry of teaching, healing and driving out of demons, but at the same time he encounters much opposition from the scribes and Pharisees (2:16, 18, 24; 3:2) and is misunderstood by his own family (3:21) and his own disciples (4:10, 41; 5:31). Jesus in Mark is characterized by constant action and movement from one city to another, which gives the impression that he is rushing about. He travels and moves repeatedly—to and from Capernaum, Nazareth, and Gentile territories—crossing the Sea of Galilee several times. During his ministry, only the unclean spirits were able to recognize Jesus as the “Holy One of God” (1:24) and the “Son of God” (3:11) and he requests them not to make him known yet (1:34; 3:12). It is important to note that in Mark the Pharisees and the Herodians plan to put Jesus to death by the third chapter (3:6), which happens sooner than in any of the other synoptic gospels and also demonstrates how Mark, just as Jesus, is also rushing to get somewhere. Although the parables in Mark are not as numerous as in the other synoptic gospels, we still get a concrete view of what Jesus means by the “kingdom of God.” Pope Benedict XVI in Jesus of Nazareth ties the meaning of Jesus’ parables of the kingdom of God (4:26-29; 4:30-34) back to the fifteenth verse in the gospel of Mark about the present time being “the time of fulfillment”—God entering human history through Jesus:
The new proximity of the Kingdom of which Jesus speaks—the distinguishing feature of his message—is to be found in Jesus himself. Through Jesus’ presence and action, God has here and now entered actively into history in a wholly new way […] now is in a unique sense the time of conversion and penance, as well as the time of joy, is that in Jesus it is God who draws near to us.
The turning point of the gospel of Mark is Peter’s confession about Jesus being the Messiah (8:29), because up until this point, Mark has given his reader some clues and hints that Jesus is a man mighty in word and deed, but the fullness of the mystery of who Jesus really is has not been revealed yet. Right after Peter’s confession, Jesus warns his disciples not to tell anyone about whom he really is, which is what scholars call the “Messianic Secret” found repeatedly in Mark’s account and outlined above as the third prominent theme in his gospel. Jesus then makes the first prediction of his Passion by telling his disciples that he “must suffer greatly and be rejected […] and be killed and rise after three days” (8:31). Peter reacts negatively to such claims and Jesus calls him Satan, for he is “thinking not as God does, but as human beings do” (8:33). At this point, the readers of Mark may find themselves puzzled, but the word “Satan” in the Old Testament meant “adversary” (1 Sam 29:4) or “accuser” (Ps 109:6, 7). The fact is that Peter had confessed Jesus to be the “Messiah” and the Jews of the time were expecting this Messiah to be a king: some sort of political leader who would perhaps liberate them from Roman rule. This is the reason why Peter could not grasp the idea that the long awaited Messiah would have to suffer and, thus, he was an “adversary” to God’s plan for Jesus who was to suffer, die, and rise on the third day. Mark wants the reader to understand very clearly that Jesus is not such a Messiah, which is why he follows the first prediction of the Passion with the conditions necessary to be his disciple: “Whoever wishes to come after me must deny himself, take up his cross, and follow me” (8:34) as a prelude to the mystery of the suffering on the cross. For Mark, it is of utmost importance to redefine the messianic figure—that Jesus as the “Messiah” cannot be separated from the cross. The mystery is revealed further to the disciples through the transfiguration (9:2-7), but the disciples still do not fully understand and are very much afraid (9:5-6). The following chapters are filled with healings done by Jesus (9:14-29; 10:46-52), his teachings (9:49-50; 10:1-31; 12:1-12) along with two other predictions of his Passion (9:30-32; 10:32-34), which his disciples still do not grasp in its fullness (9:32). After entering Jerusalem, Jesus cleanses the Temple (11:15-19) and shows his authority by not falling into the tricks that the Pharisees and Herodians had planned for him (11:27-12:44).
Mark follows with eschatological themes regarding the end of the world, the destruction of the temple and coming persecutions to those who preach the gospel (13:1-27). This leads into the Passion narrative, which seems to have been in the background of the whole gospel up until this point, but now Mark no longer holds back and unfolds the mystery in its fullness. Mark starts the Passion narrative with the betrayal by Judas (14:10-11), followed by the Last Supper (14:22-26) and the agony at the garden of Gethsemane (14:32-42). Jesus is abandoned by his disciples after being arrested (14:43-52), questioned before the Sanhedrin (14:53-65) and denied by Peter (14:66-72) who had proclaimed him previously as the Messiah. He is then tried by Pilate and sentenced to death by the crowds (15:1-15).
There is a reversal which occurs at the time of Jesus’ death that is worth spending some time on by studying the events prior to and following his death. When Jesus is on the cross, he is ridiculed by those who pass by over his previous prediction of the destruction of the temple (15:29) and then by the chief priests and scribes who doubt his saving power (15:31) and mockingly refer to him as the Messiah or King of Israel (15:32). Right after the death of Jesus, the veil of the sanctuary is torn apart (15:38), which reverses the first mockery about Jesus’ prediction of the destruction of the temple. Finally, the centurion—a Gentile who was not expecting a Messiah—recognizes Jesus as the “Son of God” (15:39), which reverses the mockery of the Jews about Jesus not being able to save others or himself. On the contrary, Jesus did in fact save the centurion, because out of all the people in the gospel of Mark—except the unclean spirits—he is the first one to understand the mystery of Jesus and the cross. Jesus is then buried (15:42-47) and raised from the dead after the Sabbath is over (16:6), which completes the paschal mystery in the gospel of Mark.
The paschal mystery is the climax to which Mark has rushed to get to all along and it is precisely when we have arrived at it that we can value his gospel in its entirety. The suffering on the cross followed by the resurrection of Jesus from the dead completes God’s self-disclosure and reconciliation with His creation. These events have a public character, which are direct reversals to the “Messianic Secret” that dominated most of the gospel. Mark no longer needs to keep the identity of Jesus a secret and he unfolds to us, in a beautiful way, the mystery of God’s ultimate gift of self for the salvation of humanity. Now the whole mystery has been revealed to all without exception and it is God’s statement that salvation is not only reserved for a group (the Jews) but given to all who, as the centurion, are able to recognize the Suffering Servant whom the “Lord laid upon the guilt of us all” (Is 53:4-12) on the cross as the “Son of God.”
The Jesus in the gospel of Mark is not a king according to worldly standards who stands far above us and cannot relate to us. On the contrary, we find a very human Jesus who healed and taught regardless of who his followers were or where they came from. Likewise, through Mark’s account we are able to find that very same Jesus today who heals us from our brokenness and takes us quickly to the end of the story, just as Mark does in his narrative, to remind us that joy (resurrection) cannot be separated from self-emptying (cross). It is exactly this relationship between suffering and hope—the ultimate Christian paradox—that Mark wanted the early Christians in Rome to grasp in its fullness and, two thousand years later, he continues to help us with our daily wrestling in living this mystery of our faith.