Scripture Deep Dive: The Gospel of St. Mark
The Gospel of Mark is one of the four priceless accounts of the life of Jesus Christ. While all four gospels share many things in common, they also differ in approach, style, and details of the events covered. The best way to learn about to the Gospel of Mark is to read it!
Most articles on the gospels begin with background information, notes on the author, and other details. For this article, I want to do the reverse. First, an overview of the gospel itself—the most important part—and the other information later.
Beginning of Jesus’ Ministry
This gospel is the shortest of the four and moves at the quickest pace. One of the characteristics of Mark’s gospel is his attention to the humanity of Jesus; yet the very first verse leaves no ambiguity on the identity of Jesus. “The beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God” (1:1). The Navarre Bible commentary emphasizes the importance of this verse: it “is a summary of everything he plans to tell us in his book; and also it provides the reader with a key to understand everything he is going to find there” (pg. 62).
Chapters 1-6 concern Jesus’ ministry in Galilee. It begins with a quick introduction of St. John the Baptist and the baptism of Jesus before whisking along to miracles and the call of the disciples. Mark spends almost a full chapter on parables of the kingdom of God, similar to Matthew (see ch. 13); both of which go into more detail than Luke.
As the gospel progresses in this first section, so does the manifestation of Jesus’ power. Our Lord heals Simon Peter’s mother-in-law (1:29-31), a leper (1:40-45), the paralytic lowered through the roof (2:1-12), and the man with a withered hand (3:1-6). Right in the middle of all of this, Jesus says to the Pharisees and scribes, “The sabbath was made for humankind, and not humankind for the sabbath; so the Son of Man is lord even of the sabbath” (2:23-28). As it was God Himself who established the sabbath, this was a hefty claim on Jesus’ part; not to mention a very jarring thing for the Pharisees and scribes to hear.
As the gospel progresses, Jesus backs up His identity with continued miracles. At the end of chapter 4, Jesus rebuked the storm at sea (4:31-41). “Rebuked is the same word used to describe his casting out of unclean spirits (1:25; 3:12);” perhaps the sudden storm had diabolic origins. This stunned the apostles; the translation reads “they were filled with great awe” but the literal Greek says “they feared a great fear” (Healy, The Gospel of Mark, pg. 96). I think their question, “who then is this, that even the wind and the sea obey him?” (4:41) should be accompanied with an image of the apostles’ mouths hanging wide open.
Jesus established his power and authority over disease and then nature; next in Mark’s gospel, Jesus faces off against the Gerasene demoniac (5:1-13). Also of note: Jesus ventures into Gentile territory for the first time in Mark’s gospel. Much like the wind and the waves, the description of the possessed man echoes a similar storm of evil inside the man’s soul.
The magnitude of the miracles does not stop with disease, nature, or the supernatural. Jesus then raises Jairus’ daughter from the dead (5:21-43). In the cases of the storm at sea, the Gerasene demoniac, and Jairus’ daughter, Mark shows Jesus at the height of His power—at least for the moment. Not even the strongest storm nor the man with a legion of demons, nor death itself was a match for the Son of God.
Getting More In Depth
In chapter 6, Our Lord’s mission shifts. First, Jesus gets rejected by his hometown of Nazareth (6:1-6), which foreshadows His rejection by the people of Israel. Next, the Twelve go out two by two on mission: leaving Jesus for the first time to preach, teach, and heal in His name. Then in chapter 7, the shift is in Jesus’ teaching as He goes toe to toe with the Pharisees and scribes from Jerusalem (7:1-23). He challenges them—and all of us—to look deeper into the laws of God. The goal is interior transformation, not only righteous action. Even though Mark does not explicitly say it, Jesus’ ministry to the Gentiles then expands after that rejection. Just as Jesus fed the 5,000 in Jewish territory, He later fed 4,000 in Gentile territory (8:1-10).
Jesus engages directly with the Pharisees and scribes about tradition (7:1-23). Interestingly, even with Mark knowing Peter so well, Peter’s confession of Jesus as the Messiah does not include the handing over of the keys of the kingdom (8:27-30) as it is recorded in Matthew (16:13-20). Eusebius addresses this: since Mark was writing while Peter himself was still alive, and Peter “omitted from his preaching anything which might appear to be self-praise,” he let other accounts fill in those details (Navarre, pg. 124).
And Our Lord did not stop challenging the religious leaders. He preaches strongly against divorce (10:1-12). Whenever the Catholic Church upholds the dignity of marriage as between one man and one woman, the Church also stands with an unequivocal anthropology. That is, what is man? What is woman? For any that go along with the destructive, cultural tidal wave of transgenderism, Jesus here states unequivocally: “from the beginning of creation, ‘God made them male and female’” (10:6).
For the Gospel to be only 16 chapters, Mark devotes a significant chunk to the Passion: five chapters, with ch. 16 being the resurrection. The Passion comes up earlier, too. Jesus foretells His Passion both before the Transfiguration (8:31-38) and after (9:30-32). He tells of it again in 10:32-34, ironically just before James and John ask for positions of glory in the kingdom (10:35-45).
Jesus enters Jerusalem in triumph at Palm Sunday, and cleanses the Temple, but now refuses to dialogue with the Pharisees (ch. 11). Modern readers may scoff, but at that point, what else could Jesus have possibly done to convince them? To hammer home the evidence of their hardness of heart, Jesus tells the parable of the wicked tenants to the Pharisees (12:1-12). After not understanding the parables in the past, the Pharisees get this one loud and clear: “they wanted to arrest him, but they feared the crowd” (12:12).
From one calm topic to the next: Jesus then prophesies about the destruction of Jerusalem (12:1-23) and the Second Coming (12:24-26). This chapter is aptly summed up by the final section, the need for watchfulness (12:32-37). It is a lesson spoken to every age, and to every person! “About the day or the hour, no one knows…beware, keep alert; for you do not know when the time will come” (12:32-33).
Mark includes a brief account of the Last Supper (14:12-25) and includes the Eucharistic institution narrative: “this is My body… this is my blood” (14:22-23). At Gethsemane, Mark includes an odd little detail: “A certain young man was following him, wearing nothing but a linen cloth. They caught hold of him, but he left the linen cloth and ran off naked” (14:51-52). Many scripture scholars theorize that this young man was actually Mark himself.
Chapter 15 covers Jesus coming before Pilate, and then finally Our Lord’s crucifixion, death, and burial.
The full manuscripts of New Testament books are somewhat few and far between. Ancient manuscripts actually differ in how Mark’s gospel ends. The shorter ending stops with 16:8, and the longer ending includes 16:9-20. Scripture scholars generally agree that the longer ending came later; or perhaps the original ending was lost. Either way, the Council of Trent affirmed that the longer ending was canonical.
St. Mark, the Author
St. Mark himself gets mentioned multiple times in the New Testament by the name Mark (Acts 15:39; Colossians 4:10; 2 Timothy 4:11; Philemon 24; 1 Peter 5:13), John (Acts 13:5), or John Mark (Acts 12:12, 25; 15:37). We have other evidence of St. Mark’s work in the writings of the early Church Fathers. Papias (60-140 A.D.), Clement of Alexandria (150-215 A.D.), note Mark as the interpreter of St. Peter. That is, Peter the Apostle was Mark’s primary source of information about Jesus. The closeness of that relationship can be seen in Acts of the Apostles. When St. Peter was miraculously set free from jail by an angel (Acts 12:6-11), the apostle went directly to the house of Mary, the mother of Mark (12:12). Mark served Peter in Rome until the latter’s death (1 Peter 5:13), then travelled to Alexandria and founded the church there. Eusebius noted that in his Church History Book II, chapter 16, as well as St. Jerome’s On Illustrious Men, chapter 8 (cited in Navarre, pg. 57).
Besides working with Peter, Mark had ties with Paul and Barnabas as well. Acts 12:25 mentions Saul and Barnabas taking Mark with them on their journey. For a reason that never made it into the history books, Mark abandoned the missionary journey (Acts 13:13). This bothered Paul so much that he refused to take Mark on a later expedition (Acts 15:36-40). Given Paul’s comments about Mark in Colossians 4:10, 2 Timothy 4:11, Philemon 24, they must have reconciled at some point.
According to legend, the priests in Alexandria worried that St. Mark’s relics might be destroyed by conquering Saracens; two Venetian merchants transported the remains of St. Mark back to Venice. The incredible mosaics of St. Mark’s Cathedral in Venice tell the story of the journey.
Further Reading & Listening
I would like to offer one word of caution regarding Scripture commentaries. Unless one is interested in a more academic pursuit, I encourage Catholics to first get their scriptural information from orthodox commentaries.Good examples are the Ignatius Study Bible, The Navarre Bible, Fr. John Bartunek’s The Better Part, and the Catholic Commentary on Sacred Scripture series. Here is a helpful interview on the topic with Scott Hahn.
Matthew, Mark, and Luke are called the synoptic gospels because they share so many of the same stories. Biblical scholars have been debating it for centuries. For a detailed review of the synoptic problem, check out this article by the very detailed Jimmy Akin.
For a deeper dive into the Gospel of Mark, check out this free audio study from the St. Paul Center for Biblical Theology.