Who wrote it? When was it written and why?
These are some of the important questions to answer as you explore any book of the Bible. To aid you in your study of God’s Word we’re adapting and posting some of the detailed book introductions found in The Reformation Study Bible.
Today, please allow The Reformation Study Bible to introduce you to…
The Gospel According to Mark
All four Gospels are anonymous, and together they provide the church an authorized, collective witness of Jesus’ person and work through the apostles—a theme often emphasized in Mark (Mark 3:14; 4:10; 5:37; 8:32). There is nothing inconsistent about the apostles’ using fellow workers such as John Mark, whose name appears above this Gospel, to put this collective and individual witness into writing. For John Mark’s relations with the apostles, see Acts 12:12, 25; 13:5, 13; Col. 4:10; 2 Tim. 4:11; Phm. 1:24.
Early church fathers such as Papias (A.D. 140), Justin Martyr (A.D. 150), Irenaeus (A.D. 185), and Clement of Alexandria (A.D. 195) all affirm that Mark wrote the second Gospel.
Mark’s authorship is established by certain external considerations. Although the title, “According to Mark,” is not original, it appears in all the ancient canonical lists and many ancient manuscripts and is thought to have been added very early in the history of the text. Second, early church fathers such as Papias (A.D. 140), Justin Martyr (A.D. 150), Irenaeus (A.D. 185), and Clement of Alexandria (A.D. 195) all affirm that Mark wrote the second Gospel. Papias refers to Mark as Peter’s “interpreter.” Another reason to accept the authenticity of Marcan authorship is that in the second and third centuries of the church, books falsely claiming apostolic authorship usually claimed well-known apostles as their authors rather than secondary figures such as John Mark.
Within the text itself a veiled indication of Mark’s connection with this Gospel may be seen in an otherwise apparently irrelevant notice of a “young man” who fled when Jesus was arrested. Some interpreters have suggested that this is Mark’s way of referring to himself on that occasion (Mark 14:51). Possible evidence of Mark’s position as Peter’s “interpreter” (above) is the simplified chronological order of events in Mark that mirrors Peter’s rehearsal of those events in the Book of Acts (Acts 3:13, 14; 10:36-43).
If Mark was used by Matthew and Luke, it is the earliest of the Gospels and cannot be dated later than about A.D. 70. It is generally thought that Matthew and Luke were written about A.D. 80-90. However, if Luke and Acts were finished around A.D. 62, when the narrative of Acts ends, Mark would be even earlier. Beyond these considerations, an argument can be made that all the books of the New Testament were written before A.D. 70, the date of the destruction of the temple in Jerusalem, and so come from the first, apostolic generation.
The church fathers held that Mark was addressed to the church in Rome or in Italy generally.
The church fathers held that Mark was addressed to the church in Rome or in Italy generally. This is supported by Mark’s association with Peter, who in 1 Pet. 5:13 addresses Christians in “Babylon” (a probable reference to Rome), by the influence of Latin in the Greek text, and by the probable reference to members of the Roman church (Mark 15:21; cf. Rom. 16:13). The translation of Semitic terms (Mark 3:17; 5:41; 15:22) and careful explanation of Jewish customs (Mark 7:2-4; 15:42) suggests that a Gentile readership is anticipated, though not excluding Gentile converts to Judaism.
Mark’s prime purpose is to present in writing the witness of the apostles to the facts of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus.
1. The Purpose of the Gospel. Mark’s prime purpose is to present in writing the witness of the apostles to the facts of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. Mark does not intend to write a full biography or even a complete account of Jesus’ public ministry. The historical record is simplified, conforming to the basic structure of gospel proclamation: the beginning of Jesus’ ministry with John the Baptist; Jesus’ public ministry in Galilee and the surrounding regions; and His final journey to Jerusalem for the sacrifice of the cross. According to the Gospel of John, Jesus made at least five visits to Jerusalem. Matthew and Luke record more of Jesus’ teaching than Mark, but Mark’s goal is different. Using historical details, he presents an enlarged account of what the apostles preached about the cross of Christ (Acts 1:21, 22; 2:22–24; 1 Cor. 2:2).
2. Jesus as the True Israelite. Mark depicts Jesus as the true Israelite whose whole life demonstrates the necessity of submitting to the written Word of God (Mark 1:13; 12:35–37). In this, as more generally in service and in suffering (Mark 8:34–9:1), Jesus is presented and presents Himself as the model for His disciples.
3. Jesus as the Son of God. Mark presents the divinity of Jesus as Son of God and Son of Man (Mark 1:11; 2:10, 28; 3:11; 5:7; 9:7; 14:62; 15:39) shining through the ambiguous state of humiliation necessary for His earthly messianic calling. Mark also calls attention to the desire of Jesus to hide His true identity as Messiah and Son of God (the so-called “messianic secret”) from those who would inevitably misinterpret it (Mark 1:34, 44; 3:12; 5:43; 7:36, 37; 8:26, 30; 9:9).
4. The Gospel as the Power of God. Mark emphasizes the importance of the preaching and teaching of the gospel message, not just as theological truth but as the “power of God” (Mark 12:24; cf. Rom. 1:16) over evil and sickness (Mark 1:27; cf. 16:15–18).
5. The Mission to the Gentiles. Mark shows Jesus’ interest in the Gentiles and the validity of the church’s mission to the Gentiles. This emphasis appears in the basic outline of the book, the care taken to explain Jewish terms and customs, the declaration that the temple was a “house of prayer for all the nations” (Mark 11:17), and the final confession of Christ from the mouth of a Gentile (Mark 15:39).
The question of the literary type of the Gospel of Mark has occupied scholars continuously, especially in the last two hundred years. The question is important because it determines the context for interpreting individual elements of the Gospel. Some believe that the Gospels are a unique type of literature corresponding to the unique Christian message. Others think the Gospels should be compared to Greek and Roman biographies that combine in one literary work extraordinary deeds and memorable teachings. The Gospels differ from such biographies, most notably in the emphasis they place on the last days and death of Jesus, and their silence about most of His adult life. It has been well said that the Gospels are Passion narratives with long introductions.
It has been well said that the Gospels are Passion narratives with long introductions.
Mark himself situates the beginning of his Gospel in the Old Testament (Mark 1:1–4), and its basic point of reference is to be found there, especially in the Book of Exodus. Exodus is a covenant document whose focal point is the account of how the covenant was inaugurated under the leadership of Moses. This focus corresponds in the Gospels to the significance of the death of Jesus, in which He shed the blood of the new covenant (Mark 14:24). The rest of Exodus concerns the career of Moses, the covenant mediator; a record of the signs that God performed through him to establish the faith of God’s people in the midst of unbelieving Egypt; and a record of the covenant legislation. Jesus likewise has called forth a new people, demonstrating His authority through miracles and signs, and has given His teaching as the “new commandment” (John 13:34) of the new covenant. As a record of Jesus’ life and teachings, Mark takes its place in the history of redemption as a canonical document of the New Testament.
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Adapted from The Reformation Study Bible, © 2005 Ligonier Ministries.