The Gospel of Mark

*This is not a definitive answer on the topic but I hope it is useful food for thought.

The Gospel of Mark

The full question:

Assess the claim that ‘Mark’s Gospel is a passion narrative with a long introduction’.

Synopsis

The piquant dictum, ‘a passion narrative with a long introduction’ is used quite often to refer to Mark’s Gospel. This phrase is helpful in a number of ways yet it is essentially flawed. The second Gospel has been valued differently throughout history. Today it is generally looked on with a more positive light than the early Church Fathers. This Gospel also contains many themes that can be seen throughout the text. Comprehending Mark’s account is the key to assessing this adage. The greatest strength of this phrase is its emphasis on the passion narrative and its weakness is a belittling of the rest of Mark’s narrative.

Introduction

This paper will assess the claim of the popular phrase ‘Mark’s Gospel is a passion narrative with a long introduction’. This statement was first made by Martin Kӓhler in The so-Called Historical Jesus and the Historic Biblical Christ.[1] It seems as though this quote is one of the most famous aphorisms by modern authors on the Gospel of Mark.[2] Due to the popularity of this dictum it is necessary to assess the statement and decide how worthwhile such an adage is in assisting a correct understanding of Mark’s Gospel account.

To accomplish this task the paper will seek to briefly assess Mark’s narrative. This will be accomplished by considering the historical understanding of this book as well as seeking to discover the major themes in the Gospel of Mark. Upon understanding this account to a greater level it will then be possible to assess, with a greater awareness, the strengths and weaknesses of this illustrious claim.

The Gospel of Mark

Through this brief overview of the Second Gospel this paper desires to show that Mark’s Gospel is valuable in its sophisticated literary style and sharp theological points. Furthermore, it will emphasise the importance of a true understanding of Mark and allow for further reflection on Kӓhler’s statement to discover its strengths and weaknesses.

Historical Understanding

In history Mark has not always been seen as significant, especially in comparison to the other Gospel accounts. Augustine presumed that Mark followed Matthew and was nothing more than his assistant and summariser.[3] A traditional view is that Mark’s work is ‘unsophisticated and untheological’.[4] This is evident when one considers that ‘none of the major Fathers of the Church wrote a commentary on Mark.’[5]

Yet it seems this rather small view of Mark’s account could not be further from the truth. In 1863 Holtzmann endorsed a view by Weisse, the Markan hypothesis, that Mark was the first Gospel to be written consequently making it the source for Matthew and Luke.[6] Due to this mind shift there has been a greater emphasis on Mark’s Gospel and many observe its priority in the Gospel accounts.[7]

Some still still see it as a ‘loosely arranged’ account.[8] Yet through literary criticism it is possible to see ‘a well-crafted piece of historical writing.’[9] Recently Mark’s narrative has displayed ‘Mark as a skillful writer’[10] through the observation that the Gospel is ‘a comprehensive, structured whole’.[11] Mark’s Gospel demonstrates a refined literary ability when considering such things as the sandwich technique and use of irony.[12] Examples in the text of the sandwich technique can be found in Mark 5:21-43[13] along with the ‘symbolic judgment against the temple and its sacrificial system’ (11:12-25), ‘models of true discipleship’ (6:7-30), ‘the Beelzebub controversy and Jesus rejected by his “own”’ (3:20-35) and ‘the importance of faith’ (5:21-43).[14] An example of irony can be found in how Jesus commends a Gentile’s faith (Mark 7:29) while the religious leaders are in contention with Jesus.[15] There are other examples of Mark’s literary ability but these two are sufficient to demonstrate this truth.

As for the criticism that Mark is untheological it is necessary to avoid the temptation of comparing it with Matthew and Luke, when we consider Markan priority. Furthermore, it is important to remember that the action-packed pace of Mark does not take away from a desire of Mark that his reader is to be guided by Christ’s teaching.[16] In fact, Mark’s gospel is so designed to reach its point quickly so that what Jesus said or did stands out and is focused upon all the more clearly.[17] Based on these two concepts it seems as though Mark is theologically minded when he recounts the good news of Jesus Christ thereby allowing for the conclusion that Mark’s narrative is both sophisticated and theological.

Themes

We will now consider many of the themes found in the Gospel of Mark. The first verse serves as the title of the whole gospel[18] and there is general agreeance that it is divided into two halves with the turning point in chapter eight and verse twenty-nine.[19] The climax of the narrative is seen to be the passion narrative (14:1-15:47).[20] With this in mind the question Mark appears to answer the clearest and loudest is the identity of Jesus Christ.[21] This is further exemplified when considering 4:41 and 8:27 when the question asked is ‘who is Jesus?’, along with Mark 2:1-12 where Jesus acts with all the authority of God himself.[22] There are many other key texts that refer to Jesus’ identity, particularly Jesus as the Son of God (1:1, 11, 27; 3:11; 5:7; 9:7; 15:39). Yet not only is Jesus the authoritative (1:21-28; 2:10, 27-28; 3:27; 4:35-41; 6:45-52; 11:27-33) Son of God but the surprise comes when Mark stipulates what the Son of God is to do, he is to be a suffering servant (2:20; 8:31; 9:31; 10:33-34, 38; 10:45; 12:1-12; 14:8, 24, 36).[23] Other key themes found in this narrative are the kingdom of God (1:15, 4:11, 26, 30; 9:47; 10:14-15, 23-25; 11:10; 12:34; 14:25; 15:43)[24] and discipleship. The discipleship theme is seen in the calling of the disciples (1:16-20; 2:14; 3:13-19), the sending of the disciples (6:7-13), the teachings on discipleship (8:34-38; 9:33-37; 10:35-45), Mark’s emphasis on the failure of the disciples (4:13, 40; 8:14-21, 32-33; 9:14-29, 33-34; 10:35-40; 13:16-17, 51; 14:29-31, 50-52, 66-72; 16:8) and finally the role models of discipleship that are presented (2:1-12; 5:21-43; 7:24-30; 9:14-27; 10:46-52; 12:41-44).[25] This is not an exhaustive list but it is clear that discipleship is a major theme in Mark’s mind. [26] Other minor motifs that play a role in Mark’s Gospel according to Edwards are Gentiles, commands for silence, insiders and outsiders and the journey.[27] These motifs are made clear by the material in Mark. A few key references for Gentiles are the Phoenician woman whose faith is seen (7:24-30) and the Roman soldier that declares Jesus is the Son of God (15:39), the nine commands Jesus gives for silence about who he is and what he has done (1:25, 34; 1:44; 3:12; 5:43; 7:36; 8:26, 30; 9:9), insiders and outsiders is seen clearly in the purpose of the telling of parables (4:11) and the division they cause, as well as the frequent reference to people who would be classed as outsiders such as Gentiles, women and those ‘unclean’. Finally Edwards notes the importance of ‘the way’ found throughout the text (1:2-3; 8:27, 31; 9:31, 33-34; 10:17, 32, 33-34, 52; 11:8). One final motif that appears in Mark is eschatology, ‘every essential element in New Testament eschatology is found in brief form in Mark’.[28] Particularly the Kingdom of God (4:11, 26, 30; 9:1, 47; 10:15, 23-27, 37; 12:34; 14:25).[29] All of these appear to be motifs found in this Gospel.

Now that Mark’s drama is more fully understood let us turn our focus to assessing the strengths and weaknesses of Kӓhler’s claim about this gospel.

Strengths

The greatest strength of Kӓhler’s statement that Mark’s Gospel in particular is a passion narrative with an extended introduction is the emphasis on the passion narrative itself. This correctly portrays Mark’s intention which can be seen through the time dedicated to the passion narrative, the thread that runs throughout the Gospel and the themes that culminate in the passion narrative.

The Passion Time

It is clear that a significant amount of time is dedicated to the passion narrative. From literary criticism the amount of time dedicated to a topic is a neon sign flashing towards what the author considers important. Mark slows down time ‘considerably as one approaches the death of Jesus’.[30] Jesus’ ‘passion week’ is described in chapters 11-15 and his final hours in chapters 14-15.[31] Two whole chapters are dedicated to this event not to mention the six chapters that deal with the journey towards the cross.[32] The amount of time Mark spends on this event indicates his desire to emphasise the importance of it.

The Passion Thread

There is also clear evidence of a thread weaving throughout the Gospel that is pointing the reader towards the culmination of the cross. As early as chapter two and verse twenty Mark records Jesus alluding to the passion story. Furthermore in chapter three verse six the religious authorities are already seeking to destroy Jesus after the ‘first collection of controversy debates’[33] which continues through Jesus’ disputes (11:18; 12:12). This thread carries on as Mark records Jesus predicting his death (8:31; 9:31; 10:33-34). As Ralph Martin states, ‘the shadow of the cross falls across the Markan story’.[34] The thread that runs through this Gospel account points to the significance of the cross in Mark’s mind.

The Passion Themes

Finally, many of the themes found in Mark’s account are culminated in the passion narrative. In the very first verse it begins with the statement that Jesus is the Son of God.[35] By the end Mark’s Christological theme is displayed at the cross when a pagan centurion ‘becomes the only human being in the gospel to acclaim Jesus’ divine identity as God’s Son’.[36] Additionally the passion narrative is the key to fully comprehending not only Christ’s divinity but his ultimate act as the suffering servant (10:45).[37] Another theme that is more fully explained in the passion narrative is the discipleship theme and in particular the emphasis of the failure of the disciples. It is their fleeing and denying of Christ that pushes the reader to see that his sacrifice is not for the worthy ‘but precisely for the unworthy – even cowardly and unfaithful followers’.[38] The final example of a theme demonstrated in the passion narrative is the eschatological theme of the Kingdom of God. In the Last Supper where Christ states, ‘I will not drink again of the fruit of the vine until that day when I drink it new in the kingdom of God’ (14:25), this is a clear reference to the eschatological theme in Mark included in the passion narrative.

It is the passion narrative that truly defines a Christian. It is the ‘attitude towards Christ’s death and resurrection’ that makes the most significant difference.[39] Therefore, the greatest strength of Kӓhler’s statement is the clarity it provides in the prominence of the passion narrative seen clearly through the timing, the thread and the themes of Mark’s Gospel.

Weaknesses

Despite the strength of this quote there are a number of areas where it fails causing Evans to state that it is ‘highly suggestive while remaining basically false’.[40] It appears as though the failure of this statement causes a belittling of the importance of the so-called ‘extended introduction’, an unnecessary dismissal of crucial events and an incorrect understanding of Mark’s compiling.

Whittling at the Intro

Although the statement’s emphasis upon the passion narrative is understandable and commendable, it fails ‘to account for the need of a “rather long introduction”’.[41] It is quite clear from an understanding of narrative that there requires much more than merely an introduction before the ‘climactic scene’.[42] It is disappointing that the phrase ‘extended introduction’ is unable to cater for an explanation of why five-sixths of Mark’s Gospel contains ‘preliminary or merely introductory matters’.[43] In this sense the ‘extended introduction’ statement must be whittled away at unless it whittles away the importance of what comes before the passion narrative.

Writing-off the Rest

Following on from the above point one could ascertain that the rest of Mark’s account apart from the passion narrative could essentially be written off as inconsequential.[44] The ‘moral teachings, wisdom sayings, interpretations of the Law, appeals to scripture, parables, enigmatic sayings, apocalyptic pronouncements, miracle stories, instructions to the disciples’ and the brief account of John the Baptist’s death can be overlooked if we take this statement at face value.[45] Mark ends up including ‘more miracles than the other Gospels’.[46] Essentially this statement writes-off the purpose of ‘why Mark found it needful to utilize collections of miracle-stories and controversy-narratives…as the main body of preparatory material’.[47] The de-emphasising of the rest of Mark’s narrative is a significant weakness of this catchphrase.

Working Backwards is Backwards

Finally, some have concluded from this statement first presented by Kӓhler that ‘Mark thus prefixes the passion narrative with the tradition of Jesus’.[48] This is essentially what one could derive from Kӓhler’s dictum. Evans states it well when he says:

The effect of frequent predictions of the passion and resurrection advanced into the body of the narrative (8.31ff; 9.31; 10.34ff), together with the glimpse of future glory in the Transfiguration and in the discourse of Chapter 13, is to place the reader well before the passion begins in a position to understand who Jesus is. The view that the gospels were, so to speak, written from the passion narrative backwards fails to do justice to the traditions of the acts and the teaching of Jesus in their own right, and seeks to arrive too easily at a unity both of the gospels in themselves, and of the gospels with the rest of the New Testament, by bringing them within a Pauline formula.[49]

It seems as though another weakness of the popular adage is that it incites an incorrect understanding of how Mark wrote his Gospel account.

Conclusion

It is this paper’s opinion that although the dictum that Mark is ‘a passion narrative with an extended introduction’ correctly points to the significance of the climactic scene it fails to do justice to the rest of Mark’s account. To some degree Kӓhler understood this by prefacing his statement with the word ‘provocatively’.[50] In accordance with this view it would be wise to either refrain from asserting this claim or carefully define what is meant by the use of this phrase.

  1. Martin Kähler, The so-Called Historical Jesus and the Historic Biblical Christ (trans. by Carl E. Braaten; Fortress Texts in Modern Theology; Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1988). There are a plethora of opinions on this book. The main thesis presented is that it does not matter what critical historiography says about Christ because that is not the point of the gospels. The gospels seek to present a testimony of the Christ that is to be accepted by faith not historic reliability ‘and intended to awaken faith in Christ as Saviour’. Ralph P. Martin, Mark, Evangelist and Theologian (Exeter: Paternoster Press, 1972), 40. Kähler goes so far to suggest that there is serious doubt of the reliability of the gospel recollections in a historic sense. Sean P. Kealy, Mark’s Gospel, a History of Its Interpretation: From the Beginning Until 1979 (New York: Paulist Press, 1982). This book supports the idea that any ‘scientific attempt to shake out the facts from the faith-filled memories of Jesus as the Christ will never get us any closer to the real Jesus’. Michael Root and James Joseph Buckley (eds.), Who Do You Say That I Am?: Proclaiming and Following Jesus Today (The Pro Ecclesia Series 3; Eugene, Oregon: Cascade Books, 2014), 2. Karl Barth praises Kähler by recognising that the historic Christ some were suggesting in the first wave of seeking the historical Christ is not correct if it contradicts the Christ of the New Testament. Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics: The Doctrine of the Word of God (trans. by G. T. Thomson and Harold Knight; Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 1961). The fatal flaw in Kähler’s book is failing to distinguish that it is not the historical method that is flawed but ‘its use and with the pre-conceptions of those who use it. Jesus is alive today to the believers, but it is Jesus of Nazareth who is alive’. Kealy, A History of Its Interpretation, 88.

  2. This statement is based on the amount of commentaries and surveys that contain this quote and the many authors who explicitly state its fame. Craig Blomberg, Jesus and the Gospels: An Introduction and Survey (Nashville, Tenn.: B & H Academic, 2009); D. A. Carson and Douglas J. Moo, An Introduction to the New Testament (2. ed ed.; Leicester: Apollos, 2005); George Eldon Ladd, A Theology of the New Testament (Rev. ed.; Grand Rapids, Mich: Eerdmans, 1993); Joel Marcus (ed.), Mark 8-16: A New Translation with Introduction and Commentary (The Anchor Yale Bible 27a; New Haven: Yale University Press, 2009); Kealy, A History of Its Interpretation.

  3. Augustine, ‘CHURCH FATHERS: Harmony of the Gospels, Book I, Chapter 2’, The Harmony of the Gospels, Book 1 in New Advent, 1888, http://www.newadvent.org/fathers/1602102.htm, (accessed April 8, 2016).

  4. William R. Telford, ‘Introduction’, in The Interpretation of Mark (2nd ed.; Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1995), 1.

  5. Kealy, A History of Its Interpretation, 1.

  6. Martin, Mark, Evangelist and Theologian.

  7. Andreas J. Köstenberger, L. Scott Kellum, and Charles L. Quarles, The Cradle, the Cross, and the Crown: An Introduction to the New Testament (Nashville, Tenn: B & H Academic, 2009).

  8. Robert H. Gundry, A Survey of the New Testament (5th ed.; Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2012), 181.

  9. Blomberg, Jesus and the Gospels, 117.

  10. Köstenberger, Kellum, and Quarles, The CCC, 230.

  11. Marcus, Mark 8-16, 62.

  12. James R Edwards, The Gospel According to Mark (Grand Rapids, Mich; Leicester, England: Eerdmans ; Apollos, 2002).

  13. Edwards, G A to Mark.

  14. Mark L. Strauss, Four Portraits, One Jesus: An Introduction to Jesus and the Gospels (Grand Rapids, Mich: Zondervan, 2007), 176.

  15. Edwards, G A to Mark.

  16. Ladd, A Theology of the New Testament. This action-packed pace is observed through the constant use of the word euthys, often translated “immediately”. Strauss, One Jesus.

  17. C. F. Evans, The Beginning of the Gospel (London: S.P.C.K. Holy Trinity Church, 1968).

  18. Strauss, One Jesus.

  19. Gary M. Burge, Gene L. Green, and Lynn H. Cohick, The New Testament in Antiquity (Grand Rapids, Mich: Zondervan, 2009).

  20. David Noel Freedman, The Anchor Bible Dictionary (New York: Doubleday, 1992); Joel B. Green, Scot McKnight, and I. Howard Marshall (eds.), Dictionary of Jesus and the Gospels (Downers Grove, Ill: InterVarsity Press, 1992); Strauss, One Jesus.

  21. Köstenberger, Kellum, and Quarles, The CCC; Strauss, One Jesus.

  22. Strauss, One Jesus.

  23. Edwards, G A to Mark.

  24. Köstenberger, Kellum, and Quarles, The CCC.

  25. Felix Just, ‘Gospel of Mark: Discipleship’, January 22, 2012, http://catholic-resources.org/Bible/Mark-Discipleship.htm, (accessed April 15, 2016).

  26. A journal article that deals well with this concept is Marvin W Meyer. ‘Taking up the Cross and Following Jesus: Discipleship in the Gospel of Mark’, Calvin Theol. J. 37/2 (November 2002), 230–238.

  27. Edwards, G A to Mark.

  28. Ray Summers, ‘Exegetical Approach to the Eschatology of Mark’, Southwest. J. Theol. 1/1 (October 1958): 51.

  29. Summers, “Exegetical Approach to the Eschatology of Mark.”

  30. Blomberg, Jesus and the Gospels, 116.

  31. William F. Cook, ‘The Passion of the Christ According to the Gospel of Mark’, The Southern Baptist Journal of Theology 8/3 (Fall 2004): 86.

  32. Peter Bolt, The Cross from a Distance: Atonement in Mark’s Gospel (New Studies in Biblical Theology 18; Illinois: InterVarsity Press, 2004).

  33. Karl Kertelge, ‘The Epiphany of Jesus in the Gospel’, in The Interpretation of Mark (ed. William R. Telford; 2nd ed.; Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1995), 114.

  34. Martin, Mark, Evangelist and Theologian, 141.

  35. This statement is absent from some of the original texts and it is not clear if Mark included this yet it is clear that Mark intended this. Especially considering that just moments later a voice from heaven says, ‘You are my beloved Son’ (1:11). Meyer, “Taking up the Cross and Following Jesus.”

  36. Freedman, The Anchor Bible Dictionary, 5:173.

  37. Freedman, The Anchor Bible Dictionary.

  38. Edwards, G A to Mark, 422.

  39. Evans, The Beginning, 63.

  40. Evans, The Beginning, 63.

  41. Martin, Mark, Evangelist and Theologian, 141.

  42. Bolt, The Cross from a Distance, 17.

  43. Howard C. Kee, Community of the New Age (Chatham: W & J Mackay Limited, 1977), 31.

  44. Kee, Community of the New Age.

  45. Kee, Community of the New Age, 10.

  46. Strauss, One Jesus, 179.

  47. Martin, Mark, Evangelist and Theologian, 142.

  48. Willi Marxsen, Mark the Evangelist (Tennessee: Parthenon Press, 1956), 31.

  49. Evans, The Beginning, 64.

  50. Kähler, The so-Called Historical Jesus and the Historic Biblical Christ, 81.

 

 

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