The first thing I ever did on the internet was write Bible Studies on the Gospel of Mark. I got have finished. They’ve been on a Geocities site for years. I’m going to move them here to a new home at JSS.
These are unedited, with plenty of errors of various kinds. I’ll be spending some time editing them, but forgive anything of a grammatical or punctual nature. Hope you enjoy them.
Step into the study, pour yourself a cup of coffee, get comfortable and let’s enjoy the Gospel of Mark.
Out of all the books in the world, why read this one? With a hundred other activities and interests to pursue, why devote your mind to some religious text out of the Bible? How is it going to help you?
Obviously the reasons to study Mark are many, but let me suggest what persuades me. Hopefully it will persuade you as well.
The most influential person in history is also the most misunderstood and misrepresented. Two thousand years later, Jesus of Nazereth is still a mystery to most people. When your name is common enough to be both a curse-word and a word of worship, then its safe to say many people who talk about you are missing what you were all about. Whether you admire Jesus, worship Jesus, despise him or simply don’t know about him, you can’t deny that no single person has more continuing influence on our world than Jesus. But is there any way to get beyond the misunderstanding to a true understanding?
The Gospels claim to be records of the life and words of Jesus. The Gospels themselves are tremendously misunderstood. After hundreds of years of intense study, they puzzle the experts. Neither biographies nor news reports; neither mythologies nor scientific explanations, the Gospels are records of what the first Christians believed was significant about Jesus and what must be preserved and communicated into the future. They are both records of Jesus’ life and words and records of the response of those who experienced him.
The author of Mark was probably not the first person to write about Jesus, but he was the first to produce what we now call a Gospel. WIth only one major exception, all the scholars of the past 20 years accept Mark as prior to Matthew, Luke and John. The current dating of Mark in the late 60’s means Paul was writing before Mark. It seems possible that some arrangement of the last week of Jesus life may have also preceded Mark. But it was the writer of this Gospel who first put the words, works and last week of Jesus life into a coherent whole. One commentator said that it is Mark who gives us Jesus as a character, as a whole person that we can understand as a person and not just as an object of belief. We study Mark to take in this portrait of Jesus at the source, to get as close to Jesus as the New Testament can take us.
Every world religion has something to say about Jesus. To Islam he is a prophet. To Buddhism he is another enlightened one. To Judaism he is a good man but a false messiah. To Hinduism he is an avatar. To the new Age he is an example of Christ consciousness. Every political movement, cultural movement and effort to improve self or society borrows and reinvents Jesus. Even the hardened atheist must compare Jesus to Manson or Martin Luther King, Jr. to come to terms with him. How can we really come to terms with the question of truth if we haven’t made an effort to hear and understand Jesus for ourselves? How can we read and hear what others say about him if we haven’t sought him out in the pages of the first Gospel? The person who tires of hearing Christians go on and on about Jesus has no better response than to check out the primary sources and see just how the Jesus of modern Christianity harmonizes with the Christ of the first century.
The author of Mark certainly had purposes within the original historical setting. But his purpose was to introduce Jesus to a world that did not know him and already misunderstood him. That purpose still works for anyone who invests the time. There is a timelessness to the Gospels that works for every reader. But the reader must take Mark on his own terms. You need not read it as inspired scripture to hear what this short Gospel has to say. It still communicates with clarity and vivid reality.
I suggest to my students five readings of the Gospel, at least three in a familiar translation and the other two from something fresher and daring. (I will use the NIV text, with occasional resorts to RSV and NASB. I recommend Phillips and The Message as alternatives.) Multiple readings allow for increasing familiarity. Different translations have the opportunity to surprise us with meanings. As you read, listen for the character and voice of Jesus as Mark presents him. At the same time, listen for the purposes and voice of Mark. He is inviting you into his story and you must be willing to go inside of the Gospel and not simply stand outside. This is a story of conflict and intense feelings. You have to choose sides and you will be carried along to the ending. Cool objectivity is impossible when it comes to Jesus. He inspires intensity across the years and through the pages.
1. How has our culture tried to reinvent Jesus in its own image?
2. How would you respond to someone who said the Gospels are written by believers so they can’t be trusted?
3. What do we mean when we say Mark created the character of Jesus?
4. Are the Gospels more like photographs or painted portraits? What is the difference?
5. On what basis could a Christian and an unbeliever read and study the Gospel of Mark together?
RECOMMENDED RESOURCE: Four Gospels-One Jesus by Richard Burridge, Eerdmans.