This is the first in a series of posts discussing literary features of the Gospel of Mark. You can link to Part 2: A Sprint to the Finish
The Neglected Gospel
Consider the humble Gospel of Mark. Its language is not refined. Its stories are not filled with vivid detail. If a parallel account is found in Matthew or Luke, we almost always display a preference for those Gospels over Mark’s telling.1 For much of Christian history, Mark has been considered the least of the Gospels, even if no one admitted it in public. Matthew and Luke certainly have their strengths over Mark. The general consensus is that Mark was the first gospel written. Matthew and Luke then used Mark in addition to other sources to construct a more “complete” narrative of Jesus’s ministry. There is a sense in which Mark is a “first draft” of the gospel. However, there is an undercover genius to the Gospel of Mark available to the perceptive reader. The Gospel is a masterwork of narrative technique and organization. Mark’s narrative structure forms an ingenious skeleton that drives the reader to unavoidable conclusion that Jesus is indeed the Messiah, the Son of God. Unlocking that organization, the treasure that hides beneath the crude language and sparse details, brings the little-considered Gospel into a new light. Such a study reveals that it is no “lesser” Gospel. It is the product of a brilliant literary mind who uses technique and structure to reinforce the Gospel’s primary message.
The Framework of the Message
To begin to understand the Gospel of Mark’s narrative organization and mission, consider the first line of the piece, “The beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.” Mark signals to his reader at the outset that Jesus is the Messiah (“Christ” is the rough Greek equivalent of “anointed”), who is also the Son of God.2 From this beginning remark, Mark’s mission and purpose is to convince the reader that this first line speaks truth to the whole world. Mark accomplishes this by gradually unfolding the truth to an ever-expanding audience as the narrative progresses.
The reader should ask who knows the truth about Jesus after the first chapter of Mark? God certainly knows. He announces it to Jesus at his baptism; therefore, Jesus definitely knows. Contrary to Matthew and Luke, in Mark only Jesus hears the voice of God and sees the dove at his baptism. The demons also know. Most importantly for our purpose, the reader knows because the author-narrator has shared that information with them. This is a very limited circle of those that know the truth about Jesus. The crowds around Jesus are ignorant at this point.
Throughout the first seven chapters of Mark, people consistently misunderstand Jesus, his mission, and his status. However, the truth about Jesus does not remain hidden long. There is a turn in chapter 8 of Mark. He unfolds a portion of the canvas to reveal part of the picture. In Mark 8:22-26, Jesus heals a blind man. It is an interesting story because Jesus has to try twice to heal the man. At first, the man’s sight is partially restored. He can see people, but they look like trees. Jesus lays his hands on him again and the man sees clearly. What seems like a botched healing is a literary device explaining the progress of the narrative.3 Jesus has only been revealed in part up to this point in the narrative. The picture is starting to come together for some in the narrative. They can see something, but “people still look like trees.” Things are still confusing for the characters in the story. Mark 8:27-30 is a second laying on of hands as in the healing story. People start to see Jesus clearly.
In Mark 8:29, Peter gets it for the first time. Here is his famous confession, “You are the Christ.” Now Peter will later falter, but he is beginning to see the truth. The two phase healing in Mark 8:22-26 gives the confession context. Peter’s vision was cloudy, but it is now coming into clear focus. This is reinforced in Mark 9:2-8. Jesus is transfigured before Peter, James, and John. They hear the voice of God declaring Jesus to be his son. What was announced to Jesus at his baptism is now announced to his closest followers. The knowledge of Jesus is growing. The blind are beginning to see. The circle of understanding is getting bigger.
The Gospel’s narrative barrels forward to the Passion of Jesus. At the climax of his trial before the counsel, the high priest angrily asks of Jesus, “Are you the Christ, the Son of the Blessed?”4 Jesus here finally proclaims publicly the truth of his Sonship. He responds, “I am, and you will see the Son of Man seated at the right hand of power and coming on the clouds of heaven.” That was enough to convict Jesus in the Temple court. It is also the public proclamation to the Jewish world of Jesus’s status and position. The circle of understanding grows wider. It has grown from God to Jesus; from Jesus to his closest followers; and now it has expanded to his followers’ Jewish religious milieu.
Mark’s story is coming to a close, but there is one final expansion of the knowledge of Jesus at his crucifixion. Jesus is crucified by Roman authorities in Mark 15. He is mocked and disgraced by the Roman soldiers. However, they are the ones who will be amazed at his death. When Jesus dies, the curtain of the Temple is torn in two. The presence of God is spilled out into the world. A Roman centurion is in awe of what he sees as Jesus dies. In wonder he exclaims, “Truly, this man was the Son of God.” We have come around again to the beginning. Jesus is the Son of God. Except now, the claim is on the lips of a Gentile. Mark’s central message, that Jesus is the Messiah and Son of God, has come to the whole world. What began in chapter one as a small circle of understanding has now expanded its circumference to reach the globe.
This expanding message should teach the reader of Mark about the universality of the claim that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God. There was probably a mixture of both Jews and Gentiles in Mark’s original audience. To the Jews in that audience, his framing of the narrative from a limited circle to the Gentile world should reinforce that the gospel of Jesus is not limited to Judaism. Similarly, to the Gentiles the structure demonstrates that the message of this small Jewish sect is a message to them as well. The modern reader should learn the very same lesson. The Christian gospel is a message to be shared with any who will lend an ear regardless of ethnicity or status. Mark does not teach us about this universality with mere words. He uses the very structure of his Gospel to teach in subtle and yet powerful ways.
1 Matthew, Mark, and Luke are called the Synoptic Gospels (Greek for “seen together”). Almost all scholars believe that the Gospels are related in some literary way. Most believe that Matthew and Luke used Mark as a source for their Gospels. A distinct minority believe that Matthew was written first. Any decent New Testament Introduction will give you a good explanation of source theory and the Gospels.
2 Those who have access to a good study Bible or a critical Greek New Testament will notice that some ancient manuscripts lack “Son of God.” The evidence is somewhat divided among the ancient codices as Siniaticus omits the title whereas Vaticanus includes it. I do not believe the inclusion or omission of the title matters greatly for our discussion because it is followed closely by God’s announcement of Jesus’s sonship at his baptism.
3 I first encountered this idea in Bart D. Ehrman, The New Testament: A Historical Introduction to the Early Christian Writings, 2nd ed (New York: Oxford, 2000), 67-68.
4 “Blessed” here is obviously a synonym for God. The high priest may have avoided naming God directly. “Blessed” would be a way of obliquely referring to the divine.