Characteristics of Mark's Gospel
The word 'gospel' comes from an Old English word 'godspel' which literally means 'Good News'. It is used to translate the Greek word 'evangelion' from which we get the English word 'evangelist' (literally means 'one who brings good news). Mark is sometimes referred to as one of the four evangelists.
Each author has his or her own style of writing and the author of Mark's gospel is no exception. The following points are worth remembering when reading the text:
- Mark's Gospel was written in 'koine' Greek, that is, in the language of common speech, the kind spoken by the lower classes in Rome, or possibly the imperfect Greek spoken by a Jew whose first language was Aramaic. Mark's use of the historic present is typical of 'koine' Greek.
- Mark's Greek because of its informality conveys some graphic information. This may be explained by the fact that he is drawing on the first hand accounts of eyewitnesses. For example, his description of the Feeding of the Five Thousand - they sat 'in ranks' on the 'green grass' (Mark 6:48), or his account of the blind man whose recovery of sight was gradual and who first declared that he saw men who looked 'like trees' walking about (Mark 8:24).
- Contrary to the opinion of Papias, Mark, has a definite order. Jesus' ministry starts in Galilee and finishes in Jerusalem. The pivotal point of the Gospel is Peter's declaration of faith where he says that Jesus is the Christ. From there on Jesus sets his eyes towards Jerusalem where he is to suffer and die.
- Mark was writing, not for the needs of a Church of the distant future but rather a Church which believed that the Second Coming was imminent. Mark was writing to meet the current needs of a martyr Church. Many of the problems of the Church in Rome in Mark's day were those faced by Jesus during his ministry. Mark selected out of the large body of oral tradition those incidents in the life of Jesus which gave answers to these problems, such as the attitude to the Jewish Law, the food regulations, social contact with pagans, civil obedience, the payment of taxes and Sabbath observance.
- The story of the Passion of Jesus takes up almost one third of the Gospel. There is evidence that by the time Mark wrote this was an established tradition, an orderly sequence of the events of the last week in the life of Jesus which we now call the Passion Narrative. Paul himself refers to the tradition which he had received about the death and resurrection of Jesus, and which he had handed on (I Corinthians 15: 1-18). It is noticeable that Matthew and Luke, though they do not hesitate to alter and correct the earlier chapters of Mark, show great respect for his order of the Passion. The events were too firmly established for any serious changes to be made by later authors.
- Mark's Gospel is traditionally associated with Peter. It is noticeable that his picture of Peter is very frank. He is hardly mentioned as an individual except as an occasion for a rebuke, for example after his inspired confession at Caesarea he earns first approval and then rebuke, 'Away with you, Satan' (Mark 8:33). On the night of the betrayal he is singled out as the disciple who boasted of his loyalty, but who would, in the event, deny his Lord in the hour of need. Two explanations may be offered:
- Who but Peter himself would report events which were so little to his own credit?
- The Gospel was written after Peter's martyrdom, at a time when, by his death he had redeemed his past failures. Peter had learned to take up the Cross, and the effect of the stories would be to encourage those Roman Christians who, in perilous times, might well be called upon to witness to their faith in the same way, and to accept martyrdom. Those conscious of their own weakness should be strengthened by the example of Peter.
- Mark takes a special interest in exorcism (casting out evil spirits). Faith is a prerequisite before a miracle can take place. The reply of Jesus to the father of the epileptic boy is typical, 'Everything is possible to one who has faith' (Mark 9:23).
- Mark lays great emphasis on the Messiahship of Jesus. At his Baptism he is called the beloved Son of God; at Caesarea Philippi he approves Peter's insight that he is the Messiah, the Son of God (Mark 8:29); at his trial his reply to the High Priest's question 'Are you the Messiah?' is the firm 'I am.' (Mark 14:62).
- Ultimately the Gospel is addressed to a martyr Church threatened with extinction by persecution. The shadow of the cross lies even over the early pages. The way of discipleship is the way of the Cross. 'Anyone who wishes to be a follower of mine, must leave self behind: he must take up his cross and come with me' (Mark 8:34).