|Mark’s Vivid Portrayal of Jesus’ Ministry
The Watchtower, November 1, 1963, pp. 664-7
Copyright © 1961 Watchtower Bible and Tract Society of New York, Inc.
WHO was the Mark that wrote a Gospel named after him? How was he able to write such a vivid account? What are the characteristics of his Gospel, and in what ways is it unique?
Mark was not one of the twelve apostles, nor does he even appear to have been one of the seventy evangelists. Then who was he? It is quite likely that he is the “certain young man” who the account says began to follow Jesus nearby, and whom those arresting Jesus tried to seize, but who “left his linen garment behind and got away naked.” (Mark 14:51, 52) Without doubt he is the John Mark repeatedly mentioned in the book of Acts. At Acts 12:12 we learn that his mother lived in Jerusalem and that the early Christian congregation used her home as a congregational meeting place. Later, at verse 25 of the same chapter, we read that Barnabas and Saul (the apostle Paul), after fully carrying out the relief ministration in Jerusalem, “returned and took along with them John, the one surnamed Mark.”
As Paul and Barnabas traveled and preached, John Mark served as an attendant, waiting on them for their physical needs, no doubt. However, after Paul and Barnabas arrived in Pamphylia “John withdrew from them and returned to Jerusalem,” going back home to mother. Because of this evidence of a lack of maturity the apostle Paul did not want to take him along on his second missionary tour. This caused a break between Paul and Barnabas, as a result of which Paul took along Silas as his attendant and Barnabas, John Mark.—Acts 13:13.
But John Mark did not remain immature. He progressed so that we next read of Paul’s speaking favorably of him at Colossians 4:10: “Mark the cousin of Barnabas, (concerning whom you received commands to welcome him if ever he comes to you).” Still later we learn of Paul’s requesting Timothy to “take Mark and bring him with you, for he is useful to me for ministering.” Yes, by then Mark had proved himself and Paul had forgiven him.—2 Tim. 4:11.
Of particular interest, as far as his Gospel is concerned, however, is the apostle Peter’s reference to him: “She who is in Babylon, a chosen one like you, sends you her greetings, and so does Mark my son.” (1 Pet. 5:13) Why is this mention of Mark by Peter particularly pertinent to Mark’s Gospel? Because it undoubtedly was from the apostle Peter that John Mark obtained his information. This is the unequivocal testimony of the early church historians:
“Mark having become Peter’s interpreter, wrote accurately all that Peter mentioned.” (Papias) “After the decease of Peter and Paul, Mark, the disciple and interpreter of Peter, himself also handed down to us in writing the things which were preached by Peter.” (Irenaeus) “Mark made his Gospel as Peter guided him.” (Origen) “The Gospel of Mark is maintained to be Peter’s, whose interpreter he was, . . . for it is possible that that which scholars publish should be regarded as their master’s work.”—Tertullian.
Supporting the position that the apostle Peter supplied John Mark with the information for his Gospel are its characteristics. Its style is so vivid that it must have been obtained firsthand from an eyewitness. Peter was such an eyewitness. More than that, we find that this Gospel moves rapidly, impulsively, as it were. Peter was impulsive in both speech and action. Further, in this Gospel we find many fine points that indicate an observant personality. Peter, as a fisherman, had occasion to cultivate the powers of keen observation, watching the sky, the sea, the fish and his nets. Nor to be overlooked is the fact that Peter was an eyewitness of practically all that Mark recorded.
Matthew, by the time Mark wrote his Gospel, had portrayed Jesus as the promised Messiah and the king of the Jews; Luke had showed Jesus to be the compassionate Savior of all mankind; John was yet to write of him: “In the beginning the Word was, and the Word was with God, and the Word was a god,” stressing throughout his Gospel Jesus’ prehuman existence. And Mark? Mark presents Jesus as the miracle-working Son of God. So while his Gospel is evenly divided between conversation and action, the whole effect is to stress the activities of Jesus. Thus we find that he recorded ever so many of Jesus’ miracles but comparatively few of Jesus’ sermons and illustrations.—John 1:1.
Even as Matthew wrote primarily for the Jews, and Luke for all nations, so it is obvious that Mark wrote primarily for the Romans; Rome, in fact, being the most likely scene of his labors. This is apparent in various ways, such as his singular use of certain Latin expressions transliterated into the Greek. Among such are speculator, rendered “body guardsman”; praetorium, rendered “governor’s palace”; and kenturion, rendered “army officer” or “centurion.”—Mark 6:27; 15:16, 39.
He does not take for granted that his readers are familiar with the geography or plant life of Palestine, and so we find that he alone thought it necessary to mention that there were wild beasts in the wilderness where Jesus spent forty days and that the Jordan is a river. Also, he observes, in connection with the cursing of the fig tree, that Jesus “found nothing but leaves, for it was not the season of figs.” Thus also he alone notes that Jesus and his disciples sat upon the Mount of Olives “with the temple in view.”—Mark 1:5, 13; 11:13; 13:3.
In the same way Mark feels called upon to give explanatory notes before recording discussions between Jesus and his opposers: “Now John’s disciples and the Pharisees practiced fasting.” “For the Pharisees and all the Jews do not eat unless they wash their hands up to the elbow, holding fast the tradition of the men of former times, and, when back from market, they do not eat unless they cleanse themselves by sprinkling,” and so forth.—Mark 2:18; 7:3, 4.
Mark’s very style gives us a sense of action in his record. Thus repeatedly we find the expression “immediately,” he using it twice as often as the other Gospel writers combined: “And immediately on coming up out of the water”; “And immediately the spirit impelled him to go into the wilderness”; “And immediately they went out of the synagogue”; to which must be added such expressions as, “At once they abandoned their nets,” and, “No sooner was it the sabbath.”—Mark 1:10, 12, 29, 18, 21.
To mention just one more characteristic of Mark, he is the only Gospel writer to use Aramaic terms and then to translate them: Boanerges, “Sons of Thunder”; Talitha cumi, “Maiden, I say to you, Get up!”; corban, “a gift dedicated to God”; Ephphatha, “Be opened,” and Abba, “Father.”—Mark 3:17; 5:41; 7:11, 34; 14:36.
DETAILS VIVID AND UNIQUE
Among the things that make Mark’s portrayal of Jesus’ ministry so vivid are the details regarding how Jesus felt and reacted to certain situations. Thus only Mark tells us that, in regard to the issue of healing on the sabbath, Jesus looked “around upon them with indignation, being thoroughly grieved at the insensibility of their hearts.” Mark alone tells us how Jesus felt about the reception he received from his home-town people: “Indeed, he wondered at their lack of faith.” Only Mark tells how Jesus’ heart went out to the rich young ruler: “Jesus looked upon him and felt love for him.” And likewise only Mark recorded that Jesus would “not let anyone carry a utensil through the temple,” at the time he drove out the money-changers and other merchandisers. Incidentally, in all these details we also see reflected Peter’s powers of observation.—Mark 3:5; 6:6; 10:21; 11:16.
Among other details peculiar or unique to Mark that might be mentioned is the fact that James and John left their father behind ‘together with the hired help,’ indicating that while they were fishermen they were also people of means. Only Mark records that Jesus said that ‘man was not made for the sabbath.’ He puts the onus for the imprisonment of John the Baptist squarely on the shoulders of Herodias, for he tells that her husband, King Herod Antipas, enjoyed listening to John. In the first and great commandment Mark lists four “wholes”—heart, soul, mind and strength—whereas both Moses and Matthew list only three.—Mark 1:20; 2:27; 6:19, 20; 12:30.
Unique also with Mark are these incidents at the end of Jesus’ ministry: that the false witnesses at Jesus’ trial ‘were not in agreement’; that Simon, who was impressed to carry Jesus’ torture stake, was the father of Rufus and Alexander; and that Pilate first made certain that Jesus was actually dead before granting the request of Joseph of Arimathea for the body of Jesus.—Mark 14:59; 15:21, 44.
Brief and condensed as Mark’s account is, we find that even as regards Jesus’ parables and miracles he has his unique features. Although he recorded only four of Jesus’ many illustrations, one of these—how “of its own self the ground bears fruit gradually, first the grass blade, then the stalk head, finally the full grain in the head”—is unique with Mark. And among the many miracles that Jesus performed Mark mentions two that are not mentioned by others: Jesus’ cure of a man who was deaf and had a speech impediment and the gradual cure of a blind man who at first saw men only indistinctly—”what seem to be trees, but they are walking about.”—Mark 4:26-29; 7:31-37; 8:22-26.
A WITNESS IN HIS OWN RIGHT
Thus we find that, although superficially Mark seems to have repeated to a large extent what Matthew wrote, as though he merely made a condensed version of Matthew’s Gospel—a theory held for many years—all these distinct characteristics and unique features of his Gospel stamp it as a separate witness and not merely an epitome. As Westcott so well expresses it in his Introduction to the Study of the Gospels:
“In substance and style and treatment the Gospel of St. Mark is essentially a transcript from life. The course and the issue of facts are imaged in it with the clearest outline. If all other arguments against the mythic origin of the Evangelic narratives were wanting, this vivid and simple record, stamped with the most distinct impress of independence and originality, . . . would be sufficient to refute [such] a theory. . . . The historic worth of the Gospels was then most recklessly assailed when St. Mark was regarded as a mere epitomater of the other Synoptists,” that is, of Matthew and Luke.
Further, if Mark’s Gospel, which is but 7 percent unique in its contents, is thus shown to be an independent witness, a witness in its own right, then certainly the same must be true of Matthew’s Gospel, which has 42 percent peculiar to it; Luke’s Gospel, which has 59 percent unique with it, and John’s Gospel, which has 92 percent unique with it.
Then how can we account for the similarity of so much that appears in Matthew and Luke with what appears in the Gospel of Mark? Luke admits having access to many sources, and since Mark was a traveling companion of Paul, who later also had Luke as a missionary companion, it was quite possible for Paul to pass on to Luke any notes he obtained from Mark. In this way Luke may have obtained as much as one third of his information from Mark even before Mark wrote his Gospel. This would easily account for whatever parts of Luke’s Gospel were the same as that of Mark.
As for Matthew, who is said to have used 600 out of Mark’s 661 verses, there is also a reasonable explanation for this. Matthew having written his Gospel about A.D. 41 or at least before A.D. 50, it certainly would have been in the possession of the other apostles, such as Peter, long before Mark wrote his Gospel. Thus, according to the book Matthew, Mark and Luke, by one Dom Chapman: “Mark is Matthew conversationally retold by an eye-witness and ear-witness of what Matthew had set down, omitting all parts of Matthew where Peter was not present, and the long discourse which he would not remember with exactitude. . . . Mark appears to be Peter’s reading aloud of Matthew, taken down in shorthand by Mark.” This would explain both why Mark so resembles Matthew as well as account for the many fine points in Mark’s Gospel that are found in none of the others, they being things that Peter remembered and added. It would certainly account for Mark’s vividness, for Peter, being a very emotional man, would have such events vividly impressed upon his mind and retell them with the same vividness. This explanation satisfies the Bible lover, for it allows for inspiration, for the correctness of all early postapostolic testimony to the effect that Matthew wrote his Gospel first, as well as for the similarities and the differences between Matthew’s Gospel and Mark’s.
It has been said that to understand our neighbor better is to love him more, and while that may not be always true, it certainly is true regarding Mark and his Gospel.
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