The Genius of the Gospel of Mark: Context and Authority

This is the third post in a series discussing literary features of the Gospel of Mark. You might first look at the Introduction and Part 2.

What if I came up to you and pointed out a cloud in the sky? What if I claimed the cloud is a cumulus cloud? If you do not remember the different cloud types from high school science, would you believe me? Would you have any reason to believe me? Maybe. It depends on my authority to make the claim. If I am a complete stranger, then you should have considerable skepticism. Who knows if I have any credibility when making the claim? If I am a friend and you consider me to be generally knowledgable, then you might reasonably trust me. If you know that I am a meteorologist, you should regard the claim as true.

Within the Gospel of Mark, Jesus makes many claims. His ultimate claim is that he is the Messiah, the Son of God, the savior of the world. On what authority does he make that claim? Jesus’s authority is in question from the beginning of the Gospel. In Mark 1:21-22 Jesus is teaching in the synagogue in Capernaum. The people there are “astonished at his teaching, for he was teaching them as one who has authority and not like the scribes.” The obvious question concerns the source of this authority. The Gospel of Mark seeks to answer this question through narrative structure. Mark generally moves from miracles to teaching. The interplay between these two aspects of Jesus’s ministry forms a foundation upon which Jesus can claim to be the messiah with authority at the climax of the Gospel.

Any reader of Mark will notice from the beginning of the Gospel an emphasis on the miracles and healings of Jesus. The Gospel of Mark simply does not record any extended teachings of Jesus that compare to those found in Matthew, Luke, or John. He definitely does not include them in his first few chapters. Mark concentrates more on Jesus’s miraculous deeds. This itinerant preacher casts out demons. He heals the sick. He raises those who are apparently dead. He even controls the weather. He calms the waves of the sea.

Think about that last one for a minute. Ancient cultures almost invariably saw great and uncontrollable power in the sea. They feared and respected it. As an example, many of us are familiar with Greek stories like The Odyssey that illustrate a sea-faring culture’s relationship with the sea. They appealed to their gods for favor and good luck on the ocean. They hoped that those gods could control the fickle nature of the sea. In Mark 4:35-41, Jesus calms a fierce storm with a simple command as he and his followers are taking a boat across the Sea of Galilee. He displays a power associated with gods. There were other healers and teachers in the area, but this man controls the uncontrollable with a word.

Would you be interested in hearing what this man has to say? It only makes sense. Actions and experience lend credibility to a speaker. Would you rather hear about the conditions of a war zone from a combat veteran or your uncle Bernie who works in sales? If you want to understand what it takes to become a successful pitcher in baseball, would you consult the advice of someone who made it to the Major League or a weekend-warrior, star of the coed softball league? In his healings, exorcisms, and miracles Jesus has shown his considerable power over our world. These actions buy him a justified audience.

Mark slightly shifts his emphasis in chapters 6-10. There are still plenty of miracles, but Mark starts to include more teaching moments within those miracle accounts. Through his acts of power, Jesus has established the authority to speak and be heard. He can control the sea, we should hear what he has to say. Mark reinforces this through structure by focusing on Jesus’s teaching only after he has set up his authority through acts of power and other miracles.

Now consider the primary claim made in Mark’s Gospel. In Mark 14:61-62 the High Priest demands a confession of Jesus. “Are you the Christ, the Son of the Blessed?” Jesus answers him, “I am, and you will see the Son of Man sitting at the right hand of power and coming on the clouds of heaven.” This is an astonishing claim. The claim could be interpreted as Jesus claiming divinity for himself. He answers the question with the Greek γ εμι, which are the same words God uses to name himself in Exodus 3:14 in the Greek Old Testament (the Septuagint). That Jesus is claiming divinity here is debatable. After all, γ εμι is translated “I am”, which is very common language. Whether or not you believe that Jesus is claiming actual divinity, he is clearly claiming an intimate relationship with God, and that relationship gives him authority on earth. This is Jesus’s most public proclamation that he is the messiah in the Gospel and it has a context.

Would you believe Jesus if you have not read Mark 1-13 first? If his claim in Mark 14 is without context, it could be easily dismissed as the ravings of a lunatic. However, the reader knows that Jesus has exorcised demons. He has taught with authority. He has fed thousands. He has controlled the weather. He has raised the dead. All of these things lead into the claim that Jesus is the actual Son of God, who has come and will return in power.

Claims need context. I would win few converts if I simply walked up to strangers saying, “Jesus is Lord.” Most people would want evidence that backs up my assertion (which is entirely rational). Mark uses organization and structure to give the reader that evidence before putting the claim in the mouth of Jesus. His works of power buy an audience for his teachings. His teachings (along with his miracles) cohere with and expound upon his climatic claim to be the Messiah. Mark has brilliantly built a foundation for his principal argument. By the end of the Gospel, if the reader accepts all found within, the most reasonable conclusion is that Jesus truly is Lord.

One Comment Add yours

  1. ljhooge says:

    This is good. Mark is certainly interested in establishing Jesus’ authority, and he likes to do it ‘first and early’. I like to think the first half of Mark is meant to establish Jesus’ authority before he enters the difficult second half, where Jesus dies. The first half conclusions (Jesus is the Messiah and Son of God) help to make the second half (Jesus dies an ignoble death) easier to accept. See 1 Cor 1:23.

    You can also see how Mark stresses Jesus’ authority first and early in his prologue (1:1-13). The prologue is rich in authority enhancing detail (v.1, ‘Jesus as the Christ and Son of God’; Jesus and John the Baptist as fulfillment of scripture; JtB as Elijah; God’s declaration at Jesus’ baptism: “You are My Beloved Son”, etc.).

    After that, comes 1:21-29, which you mention above.

    A short while later you have a five part chiasmus (a b c b’ a’) of five controversies (2:1-3:6; see Joanna Dewey), where the initial matches are the healing of a paralytic and the healing of a man with a withered hand (a/a’). I would suggest that Mark begins with the healing matches because he wants to establish Jesus’ authority, once again, first and early, in the gospel and the chiasmus.

    Anyway, I’m totally on board with your post. I like.



Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s