By Christine Mortlock
Last November 29, on the heels of eating too much turkey and pecan pie, we began the season of Advent, the start of the new church year. This year almost all our gospel readings are from lectionary year B, the Gospel of Mark. In other years we read from lectionary year A, the Gospel of Matthew, or lectionary year C, the Gospel of Luke. Stories from the Gospel of John, a mystical outlier amongst our gospels, are peppered throughout the three years, and Luke rears its oxen head each Christmas. We cycle through the three years repeatedly.
On that last Sunday in November, Eric preached a great sermon about Mark’s apocalyptic vision, weaving in lyrics from the band REM: “It’s the end of the world as we know it.” For the next year we are going to be hearing a lot more from the Gospel of Mark. So, let’s now take a step back and cast a wide eye on this gospel.
Mark is the shortest of our four Gospels. It’s also said to be the most action-packed. The Greek word for “immediately” (euthys) is used forty-two times. Go ahead and count! (I didn’t; I left the counting to the Greek scholars.) The gospel is anonymous. Early on, the church attributed the gospel to Mark, a companion of the disciple Peter in Rome. Some have attributed it to John Mark, cousin of Barnabas referred to in Acts. Scholars think the author, whether named Mark or John Mark, was likely a Gentile Christian because he does not seem intimately familiar with Jewish practice.
Most scholars agree the author of Mark likely wrote the gospel around 70 CE, before our other three gospels. How do they know? They find the text reveals an unstable Judea, one where the Temple in Jerusalem had just been destroyed or was being destroyed and the destruction of the temple has been dated in contemporary historical accounts. Mark is considered by many to be the source for the later gospels of Matthew and Luke, which also drew on a cryptic-sounding lost “Q” source. (Q actually has rather dull origins. It just stands for quelle, the word for “source” in German.)
The language used in Mark is the spoken Greek of ordinary people, and not literary Greek. Again, let’s trust the Greek scholars on this. Because of this, scholars say that Mark was writing for a community of lower socioeconomic status. The audience, some scholars think, was a Jewish-Christian community in Rome. Other scholars think it could have been an audience in Galilee or southern Syria.
Now knowing some of the who, when, where basics of this Gospel to get you situated, I encourage you this year to really dig in to the what and why — dig into the gospel’s stories. Take some time to read and study it for the first time or for the fifteenth time. Listen intently to the sermons our clergy will preach in the year to come; have interesting discussions with fellow parishioners and clergy about what you read and hear; talk to your children about the stories they will hear from it in Children’s Chapel. You’ll find or rediscover much within this gospel: healing after healing, Jesus calling his disciples, parables of the mustard seed and the tenants. Some things won’t make sense to our modern sensibilities. Some things will strike a chord. Some things will require further study, reflection, and discussion.
As it says in the Whirl Story Bible, the Bible our older children and youth at St. John’s use, “This Gospel tells us that no place is beyond the reach of God’s saving love.” That comes out in countless stories within this gospel. It’s in the stories of Jesus healing the paralyzed, the leper, the blind beggar and many more. It’s in the moment Jesus eats with the tax collectors and the religious outcasts. It’s in the compassion Jesus shows the hungering crowd of 5000 and it is in heart of a poor widow who gives of her two small copper coins. This is Gospel worth reading. Gospel worth hearing. Gospel worth sharing.
Looking to Learn More, and Sources…
Perkins, Pheme. “The Gospel of Mark: Introduction, in The New Interpreter’s Bible, edited by Leander E. Keck, et al., 509-523. Nashville, Abingdon Press, 1995.
This authoritative collection can be found in our church’s library. Please come visit the St. John’s Church Library on the fourth floor and check out these volumes and all other books available to you for further study and reflection.
Powell, Mark. Introducing the New Testament, Second Edition. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2018.
Donahue, John R. “Mark.” In Harper’s Bible Commentary, ed. James L. Mays, 983-1009. New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 1988.
Metzger, Bruce M. and Murphy, Roland E., eds. The New Oxford Annotated NRSV Bible. New York: Oxford University Press, 2001.