Mark as Gospel: Introduction

From the February 2010 issue header, Greg: I’ve been itching to write an evangelistic study guide for Mark for some time. With everything else going on, my monthly newsletter article offers an two-birds-with-one- stone opportunity that I can’t pass up. Composition will be slow and steady for many months. I hope you benefit from the study. 

My wife, who provides for me the sensitivity to academic tediousness that I lost somewhere along the way, said that this introduction is like lots of others: “You just have to get through it.” I take that gentle criticism seriously, though I have found no other way to talk about these introductory issues. To those who will simply skip this part: I understand. To those who will, after graciously reading it, wonder whether this is a sign of things to come: I assure you it is not. The study itself will be totally geared for the uninitiated. Think of it this way: The introduction is for you, the evangelist. It is not, however, something I would introduce into the study itself. The body of the study, while also intended to be preparation material for you (behind the scenes in a sense), is written in such a way as to indicate how to present Mark. 

The gospel and the Gospels 

Although it may be surprising to many readers, it is no small leap to use one of the four canonical Gospels in the endeavor to announce the gospel. There might seem to be an obvious connection, but for reasons I will briefly explain, it is necessary to justify, in a sense, the evangelistic use of the text. Doing so is not something that I find in any way tangential or unimportant, because misuse of the biblical text is so commonplace that any demand to legitimize our handling of Mark must be appreciated and honored. So what is the is- sue? Simply put, the consensus among scholars is that Mark was written to Christians, not unbelievers. The book’s intended purpose, therefore, places a question mark over the assumption that it may function “evangelistically” before the unbelieving reader. To what extent can we stretch and bend Mark for our own purposes, and in so doing, what damage do we cause the intended sense of the story? These are fair questions, to my mind. 

In order to answer them, I believe we must first ask two others: What is the gospel? and In what sense does Mark deserve to be described categorically as a “Gospel?” That is, the church’s decision to label Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John as “Gospels” is a strong statement about what the gospel is and what it means to be a proclaimer of that gospel. To be clear, the English derivatives of “gospel” (Greek: euangelion) are “evangelist” (from euangelistes, a term apparently invented by early Christians) and “evangelism” (a term without a biblical cognate). Early usage of “gospel” was straightforward, refer- ring to the “good news” that was the message. Early usage of “evangelist” seems to signify simply “messenger” or “pro- claimer of the good news.” The labeling of written works as “Gospels” came later, and the natural corollary was to call the authors of such works “Evangelists.” 

Thus, there is a disparity of terminology, a face-value difference in meaning between the gospel and the Gospels, between the activity of any given evangelist and that of the Evangelists. The language evolved. A great deal hangs, then, on the church’s accuracy in calling these stories Gospels. Returning to the first question (What is the gospel?) the church’s accuracy turns upon the foundational theological shift that defined Christianity--the broadening from the gospel of Jesus to the gospel about Jesus. For, fascinatingly, Mark (with no self-consciousness about the point we are examining) understands the “good news” both in terms of the whole story about Jesus (1:1) and in terms of Jesus’ own particular message about the kingdom of God (1:14-15). The stunning realization that unfolded in the course of Jesus’ life and came into plain view after his resurrection was that he was the embodiment and fulfillment of his own message. There was, thereafter, no way to proclaim Jesus’ message without proclaiming Jesus himself. Yet, his exaltation did not sideline his own message; instead, it confirmed it and revealed its full meaning. It is therefore with the soundest logic that the church recognized stories about Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection to be recitations of the gospel and rightly called them Gospels. And we can be thankful for this turn of events, because identifying the Christian message of good news with the whole story of Jesus calls to account every shrinking, flattening, or minimalist adulteration of the gospel. 

All of this causes me to believe that we are right to understand the Gospel According to Mark as essentially the message we must preach. Jesus is the message. Yet, there lingers a suspicion that Mark’s particular concerns, which shaped his storytelling, might not align with our concerns. This suspicion cuts two ways. In the interest of exegesis—of properly understanding Mark’s communicative aim—we must not ignore his context. In the interest of our own communication, we must not ignore our context. In other words, Mark, though universal in the sense that all Scripture is universal, is not situationally universal. It cannot merely be spoken into any situation with the expectation that it communicates what Mark intended or that what Mark intended is what our situation requires. At this point words like “application” begin to buzz around our heads, and we must ask again how far we can stretch Mark before it ceases to be Mark. This question is terribly important given our propensity to make Scripture say what we mean and even more so given the pressure to say what needs saying in the process of contextualization. 

Three points are vital for my treatment of Mark in light of these concerns. First, scholars have recently begun advocating a more general original audience for the Gospels, over against the community-specific theories that have held sway (Bauckham, 1998). While this does not overcome the difference between writing to Christians and writing to unbelievers, it does mean that Mark is intended to function as a call to discipleship in a broad sense. Second, there is, I contend, very little difference between the fundamental call to discipleship made to the unbeliever and the ongoing call to discipleship made to the believer. From the “new evangelization” initiative of the Roman Catholic Church to the “continuing con- version of the church” conceptualized by Missional Church leader Darrell Guder, there is every indication in the current discourse that what Christians need is, in an elemental sense, to be evangelized. That is precisely the purpose that Mark’s Gospel served for the believers who first laid hands on it. Third, the narrative functions in the same way for every reader. Rather than presenting itself for interpretation, abstraction, and application, it calls every reader to enter into the story and walk alongside the disciples, behind Jesus; to take up the narrative’s concerns rather that press it into the service of ours; to discover Jesus on his own terms. 

My point is not to abandon contextualization but to recognize what contextualization must be for those who dare to enter Jesus’ story--because he will redefine our world, and we will find that our priorities and passions have been trans- formed along the way. I believe that I will never produce as powerful an experience with my own words. Jesus is the gospel, and his story is the call. Recognizing this is what it means to learn evangelism from an Evangelist. 

Reading Mark: Be Careful How You Hear 

The way in which we approach Mark as readers is of utmost importance. I say this not merely out of my own preferences or prejudices but out of loyalty to Jesus’ own plea. At this point we must get ahead of ourselves, at the risk of some redundancy when we deal with chapter four. Mark’s premier parable section, which comprises most of chapter four, has an impressive thematic unity. It’s all about hearing. The climactic exhortation is found in 4:24: “Pay attention to what you hear!” This is a literal translation, but it is grammatically possible to understand the “what” adverbially, as “how.” That option is strongly supported by Luke’s version of the say- ing, which changes the “what” to the fully adverbial word for “how” (and is probably a revision of Mark’s text in order to clarify the sense of the saying):“Pay attention to how you hear” (Lk 8:18). For us, how we read is how we hear; how we read matters a great deal. 

I suggest that there are four angles from which we should read: Mark as History, Mark as Testimony, Mark as Theology, and Mark as Story. In their nexus--the place where they overlap--they compose a kaleidoscopic view that allows us as readers to hear well. This is the peculiar place from which we in the twenty-first century can listen. 

Mark as History. Suggesting that we should read Mark as “his- tory” is a problem for many reasons. I would like to sidestep those as deftly as possible (a) by virtue of the other angles, which naturally compensate for a purely historical reading and (b) by virtue of nuancing my meaning. By reference to history, I do not intend here to wade into the many layers of the “quest for the historical Jesus,” though that is far from a non-issue for anyone who would actually heed the costly call of the Messiah. Nor do I intend to advocate the Enlightenment worldview that so beleaguers many of today’s believers and would-be believers. Mark is not merely the object of scientific inquiry, to be dissected in terms of “facts,” “data,” “proof,” or other modernist norms of knowledge and accept- ability. Though, the “science of interpretation” is, as far as I’m concerned, one of God’s gifts to the church today, so far removed in time and culture from the story’s origin. 

Reading Mark as history is an act of recognition that the story is unintelligible outside of its worldview. The assumptions, values, concerns, and so many other things embedded in Mark comprise the reality into which the Messiah came and out of which the author made sense of the story. This means that even the most simplified study--intended for the totally uninitiated, those disinterested in history, or even the profoundly uneducated--must have historically informed explanations ready to hand. The story into which we are called is a historically particular one. To stand outside of that and make it say what it “means to me” apart from its context is an abuse--not to mention a false path. 

My intention in this study guide is to offer a necessary mini- mum of historical backgrounds in an accessible format. My own experience teaching Mark is largely among undereducated people with little or no tolerance for historical minutia when it comes to their spiritual concerns. I have found that while there are a number of historical-critical observations that can shed light on a passage, they may in some instances obscure rather than enlighten. One of my primary aims is not to get bogged down in the extraneous while dealing with the necessary. 

Mark as Testimony. As for concerns of historicity regarding Jesus and Mark’s claims about him, testimony seems the most fruitful vantage. This category has been recently advocated by Richard Bauckham: 

Testimony offers us, I wish to suggest, both a reputable historiographic category for reading the Gospels as history, and also a theological model for understanding the Gospels as the entirely appropriate means of access to the historical reality of Jesus. Theologically speaking, the category of testimony en- ables us to read the Gospels as precisely the kind of text we need in order to recognize the disclosure of God in the his- tory of Jesus. Understanding the Gospels as testimony, we can recognize this theological meaning of the history not as an arbitrary imposition on the objective facts, but as the way the witnesses perceived the history, in an inextricable coinherence of observable event and perceptible meaning. Testimony is the category that enables us to read the Gospels in a properly historical way and a properly theological way. It is where history and theology meet (Bauckham, 2006, 5-6). 

In Mark we encounter neither naked fact nor unbridled bias. Testimony renders irrelevant the artificially constructed dichotomy of objectivity and subjectivity. We have in Mark re- cords of eyewitness testimony, intended to be valid in those terms, and the witnesses are candidly committed in their presentation. In order to hear well, Mark’s story must come to our ears from the mouths of witnesses, whose perceptions we choose to give a fair hearing. Their testimony is what makes Jesus really and authentically accessible in Mark’s pages. And that is very much the point. 

Mark as Theology. Testimony, as Bauckham describes, intends to bridge the gap between history and theology. But this deals especially with theology as the witnesses’ perceptions. There are also (a) Mark’s perceptions as a theologian and (b) our perceptions as theologians to consider. 

Mark shapes the story in order to highlight certain theological claims. Quite apart from the question about what Jesus said or meant, we must appreciate the fact that Mark’s aim was clearly not to provide readers a neutral,“historical” ac- count of “what happened.” Rather, he presents the testimony available to him about what happened in a particular way, in order to make “his points.” Because I take Mark as an exemplary theologian, I believe his points are faithful representations of Jesus’ message, not to be set over against what Jesus “actually meant.” This is an important caveat, because I will often draw from the recognition that he is making a point, and the question of his theology’s relation to Jesus’ intentions will naturally arise for the thoughtful reader. 

To speak of theology in terms of our perceptions is to say that the story in its canonical shape presents implications that the reader must draw out. In this sense, to “do theology” with Mark in hand is to draw out and make sense of the story’s implicit meaning. This is especially so for Mark’s story, for his inductive style is such that the disciples, and we alongside them, must struggle to hear what Jesus himself will never say blatantly or propositionally--a real challenge for those of us conditioned to think about, write about, and explain God in precisely those ways. 

Reading Mark as theology, we can also deal more appropriately with contextualization. Doing theology as a reader within a specific context often entails two things. One, it en- tails hearing a legitimate implication of the story that a read- er in a different context would not have heard. The evangelist striving to contextualize the study must endeavor to understand the hearer’s context well enough to guide her in drawing out implications that are important for her situation. Two, it similarly entails hearing certain aspects of the story (be they implicit or explicit) more emphatically than others. For example, Mark revolves around the themes of power and authority. But these realities, which shape all human life, play out with radical variation from culture to culture and from social class to social class. In order for the claims of Mark’s good news to take hold in the lives of people, it is our theological responsibility to hear with them certain aspects of the story as more emphatic than others, depending on their con- text or situation. 

Mark as Story. Reading the little book entitled Mark as Story was what originally sparked the idea for this study guide. It has been influential in demonstrating the point that reading Mark from a literary point of view--as narrative literature-- brings the Gospel to life in a powerful way. The point that I generalized from it was that reading Mark as something (i.e., using a particular reading strategy) profoundly affects how we hear the words. It is precisely as a story that Mark draws us into Jesus’ and the disciples’ journey. And it is that jour- ney--beginning, middle, and end--that we must take along- side would-be disciples. The coherence and structure of the whole, which is built upon Mark’s masterful literary craft, is far more powerful than any single part. For this reason, I suggest that those preparing to use this evangelistic study read all of Mark in one sitting (preferably more than once). Read it as a story, without bogging down in the details and curiosities, to get a feel for the whole. This exercise it both enlightening and, it may surprise many readers, fairly quick. 

A few observations and suggestions may aid us in experiencing the dramatic impact of the narrative. These regard characteristics that are more evident in the original language and would have been experienced more readily in congregational reading, meaning heard rather than read. Alas, something is inevitably lost in translation, but reading Mark out loud--and with theatricality, if you dare--may well help us understand the story. 

  • The story advances at a breathtaking pace. John the Baptist and Jesus successively burst onto the scene at full throttle. Mark is the shortest of the Gospels, and he moves from scene to scene quickly, fueling the progress with frequent use of “immediately” and a peculiar taste for beginning sentence after sentence with “And” (an effect obscured by English translations, to many readers’ relief). By chapter three his rivals are ready to kill him. By chapter four he’s ready for the disciples to get it. • Those who witness Jesus are constantly full of awe, astonishment, wonder, and amazement. It is right that we should be as well. If the story has a lazy familiarity to you, make an extra effort to empathize with the characters. Imagination is vital. 
  • Mark likes “sandwiches.” This is the term that refers to his way of sticking one story in the middle of another. It has the familiar effect of a movie with multiple plot lines, panning away from a scene only to return to it later. Relish (no pun intended) the suspense of it. 
  • Certain themes and repetitions naturally accentuate facets of the story. Mark has dramatic topography; do not take the journey expecting flatlands. The peaks are important vistas for seeing the whole. 
  • Mark is no stranger to literary devices. The story has a climax and an intentional lack of resolution. There are characters, there are conflicts, there are moods (to men- tion only a few). The Messiah is, from time to time, ironic. Do not fail to see (or enjoy) the impact of such craft--the mere words do not communicate without it. 
  • From word one, the story is fraught with expectation, hope, and longing. The claim that the kingdom of God is at hand is enough to put us on the edge of our seats, because it is a truth-claim that affects us all. But we must try to read from within the long centuries of desperate waiting that give the claim of fulfillment its real punch. It is a moment of culmination, of promises kept, when God does what he said he would do. We must feel that in order to understand Mark. 

Beyond history, testimony, and theology, it is where we en- counter Jesus’ story that our imaginations begin to do the real work of evangelism. For Jesus’ kingdom message is about a reality that is not yet. His life, death, and resurrection occasion its in-breaking, his Spirit its continual advance. But hope for an unseen future is undeniably the imagination’s work, and the story invites us to take the first steps down the terrifying, glory-filled road of realization. Realization of who Jesus is. Realization of what will be because of him. Realization of our own place in the unfolding drama. The purpose of Mark, and therefore the goal of an evangelistic study utilizing it, is to challenge hearers to the audacity of imagining and then realizing that this is truly our story too. 

Holding these four angles on Mark in tension is the best means I have found to read well--to read Mark as gospel. There is another, even more important aspect to being careful how we hear, but we will get to that in Mark’s fourth chapter. For now, I simply want to extend the challenge to those who use this study guide: Read carefully! Not only for the risk of mishearing through the muffling substance of our assumptions and preferences but much more so for the sake of the promise that awaits us when we truly come to hear Jesus. 

Hearing the Question: “Who is Jesus?” 

I begin every study with this statement: The whole book of Mark is governed by a single question, which each of us must answer. Who is Jesus? Everything depends on the answer to that question. 

The narrative is structured around that question, and it continually calls the disciples--and the reader--to answer. From the perspective of evangelization, there is no more important question. Neither “How do I become a Christian?” nor How do I join the church?” nor “What must I do to attain eternal life?” nor any other very fine, well-intentioned question. For history is full of people who managed to find answers to those questions without ever hearing Jesus’ own question: “Who do you say that I am?” And, in fact, the ultimate answer to every one of those other questions is: Recognize who Jesus is! Everything else follows--including us.
But it is important to point out that this question is not about mere cognitive assent to a concept of his identity. The point is not to know about Jesus but to know Jesus, in a real and personal way. The bold claim that this is possible through the words of Mark’s story is proper to the church’s expectations of both Scripture and the Spirit. As we ask others to confront this most important of all questions in the reading of Mark, and as we ourselves are continually called to answer, let us not underestimate who is at work and what is at stake. We may watch with joy and wonder as our friends actually encounter God in Jesus and, on that basis, give answer. 

The basic shape of Mark is fairly simple. The first half establishes his identity and culminates with Jesus’ first and only call for an answer. Peter’s famous confession that Jesus is “the Christ” is the hinge upon which the two halves of the story pivot. The second half presses on to redefine who “the Christ” is and what that clarified definition implies for those who would follow him. 

  • 1:1-8:26
    • Hinge: 8:27-30 
  • 8:31-16:20 

There are a variety of opinions on the structure’s subsec- tions, and we may, in any event, do damage to the narra- tive’s integrity when we break it into self-contained units. My purpose in dividing Mark into subsections is to provide manageable study units, of which there are seventeen. I am conscious of scholarly technical analysis, but my own feel for the story’s progression is as influential, if not more, on my choices. Lastly, it is perhaps best to say again that the book’s traditional chapter breaks as well as the standard transla- tions’ divisions and subtitles are often as problematic as they are helpful. I will generally disregard them. 

  1. 1:1-1:20 
  2. 1:21-2:12 
  3. 2:13-3:6 
  4. 3:7-3:35 
  5. 4:1-34 
  6. 4:35-6:6 
  7. 6:7-6:56 
  8. 7:1-8:26 
  9. 8:27-9:29 
  10. 9:30-10:16 
  11. 10:17-10:52 
  12. 11:1-12:12 
  13. 12:13-12:44 
  14. 13:1-13:37 
  15. 14:1-14:42 
  16. 14:43-15:32 
  17. 15:33-16:20 

Before diving into the study itself, I offer one final piece of practical advise. The variety of English language translations is a blessing, but some are, to put it bluntly, better than others. There are a number of ways to make that judgement, of course, but the nature of this study makes it easier to decide. Because this is an evangelistic study, a modern English translation is a given. Do not make antiquated language yet another barrier between the reader and understanding. Because we will pay close attention to Mark’s word choices, a more literal translation is necessary (unless you want to be constantly qualifying the reading with, “What the original actually says is…”). I prefer the NRSV, but best practice is always to compare trusted translations in preparation for the study. The NIV (or TNIV), the NASB, and the ESV are three others worth referencing. Unless noted otherwise, the translation of Mark used throughout will be my own. 

Works Cited 

Richard Bauckham, ed. The Gospel for All Christians: Rethinking the Gospel Audiences. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1998. 

Richard Bauckham. Jesus and the Eyewitnesses:The Gospels as Eyewitness Testimony. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2006.