Most of us have a pretty good grasp of the story of Jesus as told in the Gospels. We know that he was born in Bethlehem, brought up in Nazareth, was baptised by John in the River Jordan, healed taught … and eventually was tried and crucified in Jerusalem and to be raised three days later.
But why do we have four accounts of this?
As we look at the different accounts each is distinctive, drawing out different aspects of Jesus life and ministry, coming from different perspectives and aiming their message at different groups of people.
But we tend to be familiar with a narrative that blends all four together.
That is a shame, it is as though we took your favourite meal and put it into a food blender and then gave you a bowl of pureed mush. Great for babies, not good for adults.
Over the past few years I have taken a particular interest in Mark’s Gospel, it is probably the earliest to be written (between AD 60 and 70 according to most commentators) and the shortest. It is the easiest to overlook because, being the first, Matthew and Luke repeated and tweaked a lot of Mark’s material. But Mark is very distinctive, he has a unique style and a vital message that is all too easily missed if we concentrate on the other gospels or a processed blend of all four.
I usually take a couple of hours to read the whole of Mark but some folk say you can read it in an hour and may study courses encourage us to do just that. The problem is that we come knowing the blended version and so, even sitting down with Mark, it is hard to pick out Mark’s particular emphasise. So, in these notes, I just want to point out how Mark does highlight passages and themes and how we can identify his particular narrative plot.
1: The shape of Mark’s narrative
A single story
The story starts with John the Baptist and Jesus’ Baptism, moves to ministry in and around Galilee with lots of crisscrossing the Sea of Galilee. Then moves, via Jericho, for Jesus final visit to Jerusalem lasting less than a week.
(Matthew and Luke also only have one visit to Jerusalem during Jesus’ ministry, probably because they are using Mark, but John has three visits)
There are no natural sections in the story, one part blends into the next.
It’s a downhill storyline
The story starts with Jesus’ success but opposition grows, the disciples don’t understand, and support declines and then Jesus is finally alone on the cross.
So, who are the exceptions who seem to get it right – some may surprise you – and why?
Mark seems to have themes that recur, e.g. John the Baptist, bread (including crumbs), the sea and storms.
How do they develop, how are similar stories subtlety different and why?
2: How does Mark grab our attention?
Mark’s account seems to go a quite a pace, but we can suddenly change speed and a lot more dramatic details is added.
For example; having had a rush of activity in chapter one with very little detail, chapter two starts with a more vivid scene in a house, the scene is set, we can imagine noises on the roof and chunks of the roof beginning to fall and then a body lowered down. It is here that we see the first conflict. What is it about?
Sometimes the language is strong, e.g. blasphemy agains the Holy Spirt and unforgivable sins (3:29). At other times Mark keeps the actual Aramaic words e.g. Abba for father (14:36)
Events that are out of time or place
Sometimes the scene shifts dramatically or events seem out of time, e.g.
• The execution of John is written as a flash back (6:14-29), so why is it here? (Notice how Matthew (14:1-12), using Mark starts with the flashback but seems to forget that it was a flashback as the previous narrative re-starts in verse 13).
• The transfiguration (9:2-8) seems almost like a resurrection appearance, why here?
• A woman anoints Jesus for his burial before he has even died (14:1-9). Why here (you may like to look at the last verse Mark wrote (16:8)
Sometimes stories are repeated but with subtle changes, e.g.
• there are two calling of fishermen (1:16-20), what is the difference?
• two feeding of crowds (6:30-44, 8:1-13, see also 8:14-21). Does this have any connection with crumbs in 7:24-30 or breaking bread in 14:22?
• what other pairs (or even triples) do you notice? How is Mark using them?
Mark sometimes sandwiches one story inside another e.g. the healing of a woman with continuous bleeding inside the story of the raising of Jairus’ daughter (5:21-43). How do the two stories relate?
Which other sandwiches do you notice as you read through?
Sometimes Mark combines this with repetition e.g. with the two stories of restoring sight (8:22-26 and 10:46-52). What light does this shed on the stories sandwiched between the two and what comes after the second event?
Do other repetitions function in a similar way?
(Sandwiching like these is sometimes referred to as intercalation)
3: Understanding Mark
The stories that Mark uses to in his narrative seem to rub against one another so that the overall effect is much richer than telling the individual stories. This is called intertextuality, one text engaging with another. We could go further and look at how these texts relate to the Old Testament, sometimes this is fairly obvious but not always. Part of Mark’s skill is that if you do catch these allusions they enrich the story even further, but it still works even if (as many of Mark’s first readers would have been) 1st Century gentiles who knew nothing of what we call the Old Testament.
Mark’s first readers (and hearers) would have been Christian disciples who were being persecuted or at the very least feared that they would be persecuted. Their own stories would echo aspects of Mark. This would be another layer of intertextuality. How would they understand their own persecution in the light of Jesus death; their own fear in the light of the disciples fear, perhaps especially Peter.
Which begs the question how do our own stories of discipleship, our fears and failures, find echoes in this story? Does this story help us to understand our own situations and lives better?
I don’t think Mark is trying to teach us doctrine, systematic theology or creeds, so much as helping us to see God’s work, love and forgiveness in our own lives.
4: Reading Mark
OK so how do we go about reading Mark?
Set aside enough time
To get the sweep of Mark our basic reading has to try to take it all in. I reckon it takes me a couple of hours to read the whole of Mark. I usually break up (perhaps a couple of hour sessions) so that I can keep my concentration but keeping the sessions close enough together to keep the continuity. Perhaps an hour before and after a meal? We are all different so you will need to work out your own way of doing things, but do try to keep the continuity.
Keep a piece of paper and pencil handy
It is very easy to get struck by something that feels really important and want to stay with it. The problem is that this could interrupt the flow of the Mark’s narrative. If you have a paper and pencil handy you can just make a note and carry on, but do comeback later.
A note from personal experience – make fuller notes that you might at first think necessary. I have quite a collection of cryptic notes and I really did not understand a day or two later!
Be aware of the questions
Don’t forget about the food processor. We are trying to hear Mark’s distinctive message to us and coming with questions can help that – they can turn reading into a deeper, more rewarding study.
Keep a record of your reading
It is amazingly easy to forget wonderful insights. Do keep some record of your thoughts, they can be a rich and rewarding read in months and years to come. You will probably surprise yourself!
Mark is a brilliant story teller and his story bears reading and re-reading. I first developed a particular interest in Mark in 2009, yesterday I did another read through and still ended up with a page full of notes. Wonderful!