A Brief Commentary on the Gospel of Mark
(A not-so-brief rationale)
(a) Why my own? What have I to say about Mark that hasn’t been said by others and probably said better? I’m not sure; I can only say that I have some strong views about how Mark should be read and understood, and although I have profited from what I have heard and read from others, I feel that I need to voice those views in my own not-very-scientific manner. I don’t claim to be a Marcan scholar, and although I have read a fair amount of Marcan scholarship, I shall indicate only a few of the authors and resources that have had the greatest impact upon my own perspective
(b) My perspective: First let me say that my fascination with Mark’s gospel does not lower the other gospels in my estimation: I sometimes feel about the gospels as I do about the Greek tragedians: I like best the one which I happen to be reading at the moment; moreover I think that each of the canonical gospels has unique features lacking in the others that make it indispensable and that amply justify its status in the canon; so also each gospel has features which raise serious questions, a factor that help explain why this gospel needs to be complemented and supplemented by the others (but that’s a matter I am not prepared to discuss here and now). Now, how do I love Mark’s gospel? Let me count the ways:
- It is permeated with a sense of apocalyptic urgency (like so much of what we find in the unquestionably authentic Pauline letters): the challenge of Jesus to the reader/listener/would-be Christian seems to me much more intense than in the other gospels. Its futuristic orientation toward a pressing, imminent apocalyptic showdown and its predilection (markedly greater than in the other gospels, although found in them also) for narrating the events in the present tense has a way of setting vividly before the mind’s eye the dramatic sequence currently being acted out;- this contrasts with what seems to me in Matthew and Luke to be a backwards-looking biographical and historical retrospect upon Jesus’ career as the pivotal and paradigmatic era in human history; it contrasts also with what in John seems to me a perspective on the Christ-event from outside of time and space, sub specie aeternitatis. (Be advised that these judgments of mine are all generalizations that are arguable or only partially valid.)
- Its Greek style appears on the surface at times grotesque. Opinions may differ on this matter; there was a time when I was fond of saying that the author of this gospel wouldn’t have passed a first-year Greek composition course. Some careful reflection following upon some comments by Edward Hobbs a few years ago brought me to the view I now hold on this matter: (i) I think it very likely that Mark’s gospel is the earliest of the genre and that it depends heavily upon oral tradition; but (ii) I suspect that the “solecisms” in GMk derive fundamentally from those pericopes or oral traditions not created by the author but altered only enough to fit into his redactional framework, and I suspect also that most of the questionable Greek derives from inadequate conversion of Aramaic phrasing into Greek; (iii) In passages that seem most likely the author’s own redactional compositions, the Greek is really quite good. Obviously it is a matter of judgment where the seams lie between traditional and redactional elements and/or compositions. At any rate, it seems to me that the author/redactor of GMk did nothing akin to the wholsesale stylistic recasting of phrasing of traditional elements seen in Luke and in Matthew with a view to making the narrative smoother and more readable (but that again is based upon an assumption of Marcan priority, which many find questionable).
- I find its literary technique sophisticated to the point of being awesome. I shall point in course of the commentary to what is a commonly-recognized “triptych” (my name) technique whereby the narrator encloses one narrative within another in a way that permits the motifs of each to impact the interpretation of the other. Such a scheme displays the family of Jesus, who think he’s insane, trying to fetch him home from Capernaum at the very moment when he is engaging the scribes and Pharisees on the question whether his mission is divinely or demonically inspired (chapter 3). The entire controversy sequence of 2:1-3:6 is a masterpiece, as I shall try to show, that allows interpenetration of themes of forgiveness and healing, invitation to the eschatological bridal feast (“call”) and the question of who should be invited, who are the bridegroom and who the groomsmen, the validity of Mosaic law and who is its legitimate interpreter, the question of life-redeeming versus death-dealing Sabbath activity, which brings the sequence to its powerful dénouement making clear by 3:6 the death-destiny awaiting Jesus. I find fascinating the parallelism between the traps in which Herod Antipas and Pilate find themselves, imagining that they have control over their own actions while each discovers, to his chagrin, that circumstances make it too embarrassing not to execute John the Baptist and Jesus respectively. The construction of the triple sequence of passion-prediction, discipleship failure, and teaching about messianic mission and true discipleship in chapters 8-10 was first pointed out by Norman Perrin several years ago, but it doesn’t cease to be awesome. The recurrent “bread” motifs in chapters 6-8 are fascinating-breaking of loaves, collection of crumbs, loaves in the boat, leaven of Pharisees & Herodians, eating loaves without washing one’s hands, letting Gentile dogs get the crumbs of the children from under the table. The overall composition of the Parable Sequence in Chapter 4 is permeated with a distinctive Marcan irony that raises questions about who is really understanding what Jesus is teaching, disciples who are “given to know the mysteries ” or the outsiders, for whom “everything is in riddles” (ἐν παραβολαῖς).
- While the nature of Jesus’ Messianic identity and of authentic discipleship are dealt with repeatedly throughout the New Testament, I don’t think the white-hot focus is ever more intense on these themes than in Mark. Certainly it is a Pauline theme that is underscored in its sharpest formulation in Mk 10:45, but its distinctive Marcan twist is best adumbrated in the title of Mary Renault’s brilliant novel of the Theseus myth, The King Must Die-beautifully conveyed in Mark’s telling of the anointment at Bethany in chapter 14. On the other hand, the challenge of discipleship is driven home repeatedly, partly by the repeated negative example of the behavior of Peter and the others, then all the more thoroughly in the lessons presented by Jesus in chapters 8-10 following their most spectacular demonstrations of obtuseness to everything he’s previously said about what it means to be a disciple.
That is not an exhaustive list, but rather “a few of my favorite things.” Regardless of any judgment regarding the historicity of some of the particular episodes recounted in Mark’s gospel, I think that Mark’s portrayal of events has rendered the Gesamtgestalt — the artistic representation as a whole — a very powerful and endlessly valuable interpretation of the meaning of the Christ-event as history.
(c) Caveats: Aims and limitations of my treatment: (1) I shall present my own idiomatic translation of the Greek text of Nestle-Aland’s 27th edition, not because I think my own translation is better than any other but rather because I want to highlight items in the text that seem to me of salient interest and importance in what this gospel is challenging the reader/listener to understand, and I want to present Mark in current idiomatic American English corresponding, as best I can judge, to the Koiné Greek of the evangelist; (2) I shall not try to be exhaustive but shall leave much unsaid that could be said about numerous issues in the text and interpretation; rather I shall, in my numbered notes appended to specific points in my translation, call attention or focus a spotlight, as it were, upon elements in the narrative that seem to me indicative of the evangelist’s own emphases and methods of storytelling; (3) While I hold some views on the probabilities of Marcan authorship and historical context and relationship of this to the other Synoptic gospels and make no apologies for adopting a historical-critical view of the text, I have no intention of demonstrating or defending any particular critical judgment on these issues in my commentary; I may note how Mark’s narration of a particular story may differ in one or more details, particularly phrasing, from Matthew’s narrative or Luke’s, but I am not trying to prove or disprove Marcan priority so much as I am seeking to highlight what is distinctive in Mark’s presentation of Jesus and different from the perspective of the other evangelists. I think it is of major significance that this gospel presents no narrative of Jesus’ birth and begins his story with Jesus’ baptism by John, and quite significant too that there is no account of an epiphany of the risen Christ following upon a clear announcement of Jesus’ resurrection. While some take that as evidence for Marcan priority, it may be the case that Mark reformulated the narratives of Matthew and Luke to tell the story his own way: I think that is less likely, but even if it is true, I think that this evangelist did intend to formulate a distinct and challenging presentation of Jesus: if he knew of other traditions regarding the birth and resurrection epiphanies of Jesus, he deliberately shunned bringing them into his own narrative. Why? The answer, I think, lies in the artistry of this gospel as a literary creation. More than the other Synoptic gospels, this author expects the reader to read between the lines of what is said and done in the narrative and to ponder the ironic and jarring signposts set down repeatedly in the narrative. My commentary is intended, then, not to explicate every detail of gospel of Mark, but rather to comment upon what I fear might be overlooked in too cursory a reading of this gospel in too conventional a translation. (4) Finally, it should be noted-indeed it should be obvious-that this is a work in progress that may never be completed but that will take shape in what may be sporadic increments as I am able to work on it. Nor is anything set in stone: while the main lines of my understanding of Mark’s gospel were developed roughly twenty years ago, I have changed my views on some matters and am open to further change as new facts and factors may require a fresh evaluation.
(d) Resources: Probably the most influential works in shaping my own views on Mark have been those of Norman Perrin and Frank Kermode (The Genesis of Secrecy). I have read quite a bit in books that are no longer part of the very selective library I have kept with me in retirement and I am not even sure to whom I may be indebted for which of the views I hold on Mark. A little book on (relatively) recent criticism of Mark that I have found generally very useful is: Janice Capel Anderson & Stephen D. Moore, Mark and Method: New Approaches in Biblical Studies, Fortress Press, 1992. In conclusion, let me simply note some of the key internet sites that I consider most useful for the serious student of Mark’s gospel-a list that could easily be supplemented by any simple internet search. These include: (a) Mark Goodacre’s very judicious annotated list of resources for Synoptic studies ; (b) Stephen Carlson’s monumental overview of the Synoptic Problem, pros and cons of attempted solutions, and a remarkable Greek synopsis of Matthew, Mark and Luke; (c) Professor Rodney Decker’s course page on Exegesis of Mark; and the home page and archives of the GMark internet discussion list.