Biblical Studies/New Testament Commentaries/The Gospel of Mark
This is an accessible chapter-by-chapter commentary on the Gospel According to Mark. It attempts to reflect a broad and even-handed presentation of scholarly opinion (ancient and contemporary) about the book. And it attempts to do so with the clarity necessary to make it fully intelligible to non-specialists in biblical studies.
Three major sections may be expected within the commentary on each chapter:
a. Background Information: i. Historical Context: What do contemporary readers need to know that author assumed his first readers probably took for granted? ii. Literary Context: How may the constituent parts of a given chapter be better appreciated by information about the structure of the book as a whole?
b. Explanation: i. Analysis: What does a verse-by-verse examination of the constituent words and phrases suggest about the meaning of the chapter? Consideration will be given to their use in the Old Testament and other nearly contemporary literature. ii. Paraphrase: In light of these considerations an expansive, highly interpretive paraphrase of each chapter will be offered. The paraphrase attempts to avoid technical, theological jargon so as to allow contemporary secular English readers to understand the point of the chapter.
c. Implications: i. Reception: How has this chapter been received and understood by readers across the centuries since its origin? ii. Influence: What are the apparent theological and practical implications of this chapter within the entire Christian canon of Scripture? What has this chapter contributed to the views of contemporary Christianity?
Contents Overview | Introduction | Chapter 1 | Chapter 2 | Chapter 3 | Chapter 4 | Chapter 5 | Chapter 6 | Chapter 7 | Chapter 8 | Chapter 9 | Chapter 10 | Chapter 11 | Chapter 12 | Chapter 13 | Chapter 14 | Chapter 15 | Chapter 16
An overview of the Gospel of Mark
With excerpts from the text and two commentaries for exegesis
Mark’s gospel begins with Jesus’ baptism by John, (there is no birth narrative; like John, Paul, and Jesus himself, Mark is silent on the subject) and chronicles a meandering journey through Galilee and environs, preaching the immanent kingdom of God, performing miracles, and building a following from עם הארץ(‘aM Ha`aReTs), which in modern Hebrew means ignoramus, but back in the day referred to unobservant Jews, the working class, and peasants, despised by the establishment - analogous to the Greeks’ δήμοις (demois), country rustics (the people of the άργος (argos)), as distinct from the people of the άστυ (asty) [all this raises tantalizing possibilities for exploration if one has an amateur’s familiarity with the subjects; for instance, Jerusalem as city-state - to teeter on the black hole of digression.]) to whom he appealed directly, by-passing the powers and principalities. Jesus enters Jerusalem in triumph, speaks truth to power, and gets swatted like a fly. There are no resurrection appearances in Mark (nor in any of the New Testament writings outside the Gospels), just an empty tomb.
Matthew has the birth narrative and presents a patrilineal genealogy. The story begins in Bethlehem, not Nazareth; Nazareth is resorted to after the escape to Egypt because it is safer than Judea. If one subscribed to an accretion theory of the synoptics, Mark would be first, then Luke, and Matthew last, all the while keeping in mind that the letters, by in large, preceded the Gospels.
Why did those who followed Jesus follow him? Why did those who did not, not follow him? It’s easy enough to understand why the religious establishment declined to step aside, and why Rome would murder a pretender to the throne, but what were the people thinking? What was Jesus thinking?
Who were the establishment?
“The Pharisees were perhaps the successors of those חסידים [HaSiYDiYM] who in the second century B.C. resisted the tendency to adopt pagan culture. . . The Pharisees opposed the despotism and Sadducean tendencies of John Hyrcanus, Aristabulus, and Alexander Jannaeus, and passively resisted Herod and the Romans when religious issues were at stake. The first-century revolutionists were principally from the Pharisaic party, though most Pharisees were pacifists . . .” The Interpreters Bible (TIB) VII 1955 pp. 264 and 265
“The Pharisees were the most considerable sect among the Jews [;]… they had … the scribes and all the learned men of the law … [and] the bulk of the people … Josephus … speaks of them as existing about 144 [B.C.E]. They were probably… the most holy people … having separated themselves from the natural corruption with a design to restore and practice the pure worship of the Most High … they believed … in the resurrection.” Adam Clarke (A.C.) 1831 V, p. 150
“Sadducees ... were … political conservatives, many … [were] wealthy landowners who lived in Jerusalem and were friendly to the Roman government. Most of the first century high priests and their friends were Sadducees ….” TIB VII pp. 264 and 265
“The Sadducees had their origin and name from one Sadoc, a disciple of Antigonus of Socho, president of the Sanhedrin, and teacher of the law in Jerusalem about 264 [BCE] … [They believed that] they should serve God [,] … not through expectation of reward but through love and filial reverence only, [there is] … no resurrection[,] [because (“Sadducees were … biblical literalists[;] ... they did not find that it is explicitly taught in the O.T. Dan 12:2-3 does indeed teach the doctrine, but we do not know what they thought about this passage, if they took note of it.” TIB VII p. 520)] “[they] … received [only the Torah].” A.C. V, p. 150
“The Sadducees … must have been Jesus’ most dangerous enemies … The high priest and his friends, who denounced him to Pilate, belonged to this party.” TIB VII p. 520 “… it is this group, more than any other Jewish group, that instigated the crucifixion of Jesus. TIB VII p. 265
“A third sect … Herodians … held Herod to be the Messiah.” A.C. V pp. 150-151
The Scribes: TIB describes the Pharisees as “ardent lay followers” of the scribes.
What were the people expecting?
“. . . Rabbi Aha (ca. A.D. 320): ‘If the Israelites would repent for one day, the Messiah Son of David would come immediately.’” TIB VII p. 274
“In Judaism, ‘Messiah’ always meant the glorious future king of Israel.” TIB VII p. 767
“Archelaus had been deposed in A.D. 6, and there were doubtless many who hoped for revival of the kingship, as indeed is clear from the appointment of Agrippa I in A.D. 41, and from the great prestige of Agrippa II and his influence in Jerusalem in the latter part of the century.” TIB VII p. 842
Excerpts from the text
Mark 1:14-15 “After they had arrested John [the Baptist YOHaNaN; literally, “Compassionate God”] Jesus came to Galilee and preached the tidings of God, in his saying, (15) ‘Fulfilled is the time, and drawn near the kingdom of God. Return in thought" ["repent", “reconsider”] and believe these tidings!”
- In re: the time referred to in verse 15 “… the time appointed for sending the Messiah; and particularly the time specified by Daniel, Chap. IX. 24-27.” A.C. V p.270
- “It is no unfit or unprofitable question . . . whence it came to pass, that there was so great a conflux of men to John the Baptist, and so ready a reception of his baptism . . . The reason is because the manifestation of the Messias was then expected, the weeks of Daniel now being expired to the last four years … And now the people were stirred up to prepare for his appearing.” (Adam Clarke quoting Dr. Lightfoot’s Horæ Hebraicæ in Matt. iii & xxviii (1812))
- “. . . John was at first perfectly convinced that Jesus was the Christ, yet, entertaining some hopes that he would erect a secular kingdom in Judea, wished to know whether this was likely to speedily take place. It is very probable that John . . . began to entertain doubts relative to this kingdom which perplexed and harassed his mind…” A.C. V, p. iii
Mark 9:11 -13 “They asked him ‘Why do the Scribes say that Elijah must come first?’ (12) [He] replied to them, Elijah truly comes first and restores everything. And how is it written of the Son of man that he will bear much, and they betray him? (13) But I say to you, that truly Elijahy came, and they did as they pleased with him, as is written of him.”
- “The problem which this section solved was the relation of John the Baptist with the expected Elijah, and this solution … in turn solved a problem still raised in the second century: How can Jesus be the Messiah, since Elijah has not yet appeared. The answer is: Elijah has appeared – in John, not in Jesus, as some people at the time had thought (8:28), but he was put to death; hence his restoration of all things has been deferred by human opposition, just as the glorification of the Son of man … will be deferred by his rejection and death; but only deferred, for both the restoration and the glorification are still sure to come to pass. The only alternative to this interpretation … is to bracket the clause 'and restoreth all things' as a later gloss inspired by Mal. 4:6” TIB VII p. 779
- “Mark’s striking phrase – which Matthew omits – ‘Blessed be the coming kingdom of our father David’, indicates that the crowd turned a festival pilgrimage into a messianic demonstration. Burkitt believed that this incident occurred, not at the time of Passover, but of Rededication [Khanuka] … and that Jesus, after his triumphal entry, cleansed the temple and ‘dedicated’ it. Branscombe prefers Tabernacles [sukôt], and points out that the half-shekel dues, which made the money changers necessary, had to be collected nearly two weeks before Passover … if Jesus entered the city only a week before Passover, the money changers would already have finished their work.” TIB VII, pp. 502 – 503
- “Though he claimed the leadership of Israel, he did disclaim a kingship which was concerned with political power … the ... all-inclusive duty … to render to God the things which are God’s … for a citizen of a free republic, it involves intelligent and conscientious participation in politics, so that God’s will may be done as fully as possible.” TIB VII p. 520
- “The Romans [are] … about to fall upon the Jewish state – nothing can prevent this but their conversion to God through Christ.” A.C. V p. 205
- “There are many who think that, had they lived in the time of our Lord, they would not have acted toward him as the Jews did.” A.C. V p. 203
- “The Parousia or return of Christ was expected at the time of the Jewish War. But this had been a mistake, for there must first come a period of apostasy ... followed by a mission to all nations; only then can the end come.” [in re: Matthew 24] TIB VII p. 541
- “… under the reign of Nero, while Felix was procurator of Judea, imposters … were so frequent that some were taken and killed almost every day …” A.C. V p. 207
Jesus, in the parables of the wicked vineyard husbandmen and the rejected invitation (Matthew 21: 33-46 and 22:1-14 respectively) asserts nothing less that that he is the successor to the throne of David. The signs and wonders attract attention, fulfill prophecy, and persuade the masses, but the establishment has no stake in the new age. Matthew appears to be at pains to demonstrate that Jesus failed not, by substituting the doctrine of atonement for the restoration of the throne of David, deferring fulfillment of prophecy to later, and eventually, into the doctrine of the Second Coming. Mark, being earlier, and perceiving the death and resurrection as the immediate precursor to the fulfillment of prophecy, writes, as did the author of Daniel, in the midst of the revolution, exhorting the faithful.
- “Could these disciples have viewed the kingdom of Christ in any other light than that of a temporal one?” A.C. V, p. 163
What was the gospel proclaimed by the twelve before the death and resurrection of Jesus?
- “And teach them to observe all that I commanded you,” said Jesus at Matthew 28:20.
- “Each who does the will of God; he is my brother, and my sister, and my mother.” Mark 3:35.
- “The kingdom of God does not come in revelation. Nor will they say ‘Behold, it is here’ or ‘Behold, she [it] is there’, for behold, the kingdom of God, she [it] is within you.” Luke 17:20-21. [There is no “it” in Hebrew or Aramaic; there is only “he” or “she”, depending on the gender of the subject. The value of reading the Gospels in Hebrew is the possibility that one is closer to the actual words of Jesus than one would be in Greek, assuming a Hebrew or even Aramaic oral or possibly written tradition behind the Greek.]
- “If by the spirit of God I cast out the demons, then thus has arrived unto you the kingdom of God.” Matthew 12:28.
- “Jesus . . . would have men aspire, not to what is socially expedient, but to that righteousness which will be perfectly manifest in the Kingdom of God. His disciples are, so far as possible, to live in their age as though they were already living in the age to come.” TIB VII, p. 294
- “Matthew 6:10 equates the kingdom with the doing of God’s will on earth as it is in heaven.” TIB VII, p. 275.
Did Jesus transcend Judaism?
- Mark 2:27-28 “[He] continued and said to them: ‘The Sabbath was made for the sake of the man, and not the man for the sake of the Sabbath (28) Therefore, the Son of man is also lord of Sabbath.” “This principle, enunciated by Jesus, was later adopted by second century rabbis; in our Lord’s time it was probably something new …” TIB VII p. 679
- Mark 12:28-31 “One [of] the Scribes drew near, and heard them discussing. At his seeing that Jesus replied to them better, [he] asked him, ‘Which is the commandment that [is] the first of all?’ Jesus answered, ‘Hear Israel, YHVH [is] our gods (God), YHVH is one. (30) And love YHVH your gods [God] with all your heart, and with all your life [or soul], and with al your mind, and with all your might.’ (31) ‘And the second, she is: “And love your neighbor like yourself”. There is no other commandment greater than these.’” “Later Rabbis insisted that there are ‘no greater and lesser commandments’, but Hillel (ca. 20 B.C.) ‘What you would not have done to yourself do not do to your neighbor: that is the whole Torah, and all the rest is commentary.’ … it is probably Jesus who first combined the two ‘great commandments’ of Deut. 6:4 and Lev 19:18b in a summary of the law, though Philo came close.” TIB VII pp. 846-847
- “Montefiore and Lowe give examples of the rabbinical doctrine that the death of the righteous atones for others.” TIB VII p. 497
- “. . . those who deny the resurrection, those who deny that the law is from God, and ‘Epicureans’, will have no share in the world to come.” From the Mishnah, Sanhedrin 10:1 – TIB VII, pp. 399-400
- “The problem was to keep unity and coherence in a community which contained Jews who were loyal to the O.T. and also an increasing number of Gentiles. The author of Luke-Acts believed that the most satisfactory basis of union was the ‘apostolic decree’ which required Gentiles to observe certain food laws (Acts 15: 23-29)… Matthew, instead of declaring that Jesus had absolutely abolished the distinction of clean and unclean (as did Mark in 7:19), records his conviction that Peter had the power to make decisions on such matters.” TIB VII, p. 467
- In re: Matthew 23:2-3 (“…The Scribes and the Pharisees sit upon the seat of Moses. Therefore, all that they say to you, do and keep, but as their deeds do not do, for they say and they do not do.”) “…This saying may have circulated among Jewish Christians in Jerusalem who were very zealous for the O.T. law (Acts 15:5; Gal. 2:4, 12 - 14).” TIB VII p. 528-529
- “There are ten portions of hypocrisy in the world, and nine of them are in Jerusalem.” A second century Rabbi. TIB VII p. 306
- “…as often as a poor man presents himself at thy door, the holy blessed God stands at his right hand.” Vaiyika Rabba, A. C. V p. 223
- “R. Judah Hakkodesh…’after three days the soul of the Messiah shall return to its body, and he shall go out of that stone in which he shall be buried …’” A.C. V p. 262
What was Jesus thinking?
Mark 10:18 “Jesus said to him ‘Why do you call to me “Good” (תוב) There is no one good but one, and He is the gods (God, האלוהים).”
- “This question shows the primitive character of the story; later theology found it a problem, which Matthew solved by changing to ‘Why do you ask about what is good?’… Jesus had the natural attitude toward God of every pious and devout Jew.” TIB VII p. 801
Mark 9:1 “[He] continued and said to them, “Believe [אםן (amen)], I say to you, that there are of those standing here that will not taste death until they see the kingdom of the gods [God] come in her glory.”
- “This expectation was universal in the early days of Christianity, and must go back to Jesus himself; it begins to weaken only in the second century (c.f. John 21:23, II Pet. 2:4, and the Alexandrines, especially Origen, with their substitution of a ‘spiritual’ otherworldly eschatology.)” TIB VII p. 774
Mark 13:30 “… I say to you, this generation will not pass away until all these are.”
- “Moses uses the word" [generation] "to count out a term of 38 years (DEUT. i. 35 and ii.1), which was precisely the number in the present case; for Jerusalem was destroyed about 38 years after our Lord delivered this prediction …” A.C. V. p. 312
Mark 12:14 “And when you see the abomination of the desolation stand in [a] place that is not his place – unto the reader to understand – then those found in Judea should flee to the hills.”
- “…originally the shiqquç shomēm [ השקוץ השומם] of Dan. 9:51, the desecration of the altar in the Temple by Antiochus Epiphanes in 168 B.C. But the phrase was repeatedly reinterpreted, and here it seems to refer to Caligula’s order that his statue should be set up in the Temple … Luke thinks of the siege of Jerusalem, Mark of the antichrist at the end of the world…” TIB VII p. 854
- An army marches on its stomach. I think the repeated feeding stories were told to demonstrate that Jesus was able to assemble thousands of followers, and handle the logistics related to their tracking him all over Galilee (except on water), even to Jerusalem. Jesus’ popularity with the crowds was such that when he provokes the authorities in the Temple, they dared not molest him. His decision not to incite riot led to his betrayal, and enabled his enemies to do away with him.
Mark 10:29-31 “Jesus said, “Believe (amen), I say to you, there is no man who left house or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or fields for my sake and for the sake of the tidings (gospel) (30) that will not receive now, in this time, 100 fold, houses and brothers and sisters and mothers and sons and fields.”
- “Or wife is found only in later MSS; it has intruded from the parallel in Luke. [and] … Luke’s for the sake of the kingdom of God (18:29b) is probably in the direction of the original form of the saying (so Bultman) …Both Mathew and Luke omit the vivid repetition of temporal benefits – houses and brothers, a little picture of the religious fellowship of the apostolic church.” TIB VII p. 808 [Trading the private life for the communal life?]
Mark 10:44-45 “And he that desires to be first among you will be slave to all. (45) For even the Son of man came not in order that they serve him, rather in order to serve, to give his life [in] ransom for many.”
- “… one of the few theological statements in Mark … the verse states the ultimate object of the Son of man’s earthly life of service and his death as a ‘ransom for many’, somewhat as the Jewish martyrs died for the redemption of their people (II Macc. 7:37-38; Macc. 17:22) … So primitive, so Jewish, so scriptural (c.f. Ia. 53), so non- (if not pre-) Pauline a phrase is likely to be pre-Markan as well … Jesus is aware of his impending destiny. A divine necessity confronts him ... and he is prepared to accept it… This saying does not formulate a theology of the atonement, but it one of the data upon which any theology of the atonement must inevitably rest.” TIB VII pp. 818-819
- The messianic secret may have been Jesus’ concession to God’s timetable. Jesus was waiting and prepared for God to fulfill the scriptures, specifically the prophecy of Daniel, and to assume his role as the anointed one. But he would not anticipate God. When, at Jerusalem, the heavens did not open and the angelic army did not descend, Jesus accepted the fact that this would not be the occasion, and the consequences, to wit: his enemies would prevail, temporarily.
- “In Judaism ‘Messiah’ always meant the glorious future king of Israel, … but Jesus is not the Messiah – an earthly king however glorious – he is the heavenly Son of man in disguise … and indeed, in Mark’s preferred terminology, the son of God… It is the Christian reinterpretation of the term ‘Messiah’ – Christ – that justifies its application to Jesus.” TIB VII p. 767
I::n Mark, the kingdom of God is not taken from Jews and given to Gentiles; it is taken from one group of Jews (the Jewish religious leaders who reject Jesus) and given to another group of Jews (those who followed Jesus).
- Before the Sanhedrin: “Our Lord appears to refer to Dan. VII 13 ‘one like the son of man came with the clouds of heaven’” A.C. V p. 241
- “Jesus did not willingly choose the title ‘Messiah’ because it immediately suggested armed revolt… The Son of man saying could conceivably mean, ‘I am the Messiah, but the Son of man is yet to come.’ The evangelists carefully preserved this ambiguity because there was no tradition that Jesus clearly identified himself with the heavenly Son of man.” TIB VII p. 588
- At Gethsemane, was Jesus’ dread over the uncertainties of offering the people a choice between himself and the alternatives (the Pharisees, Sadducees, and Zealots)?
“::…these strong feelings were evoked, not merely [!] by the prospect of torture and death, but by the realization that his own people had rejected him. By all human standards his mission had failed.” TIB VII p. 579 [But what of his expectation of resurrection and continuing to Galilee?]
- Had Judas sought to precipitate events by putting Jesus before the Sanhedrin? Had Jesus told him to do so? No to the latter; maybe to the former.
Mark 13:34-37 “At the third hour, Jesus shouted in loud voice ‘’eLaHiY, ‘eLaHiY , why have you forsaken me’ [in Aramaic] the translation of which is ‘My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?’”
- On the cross, some people think he calls Elijah (אליהו ‘eLiYaHU) which means, literally, ‘My God Yahoo’ (Jehovah) rather than ‘My God’ (אלי ‘eLiY)) “The Jews believed that Elijah was the rescuer of the pious in their time of need.” TIB VII p. 608 “Elijah was daily expected to appear as the forerunner of the Messiah; whose arrival, under the character of a mighty prince, was generally supposed to be at hand throughout the East. See Mal. iii. 23, Matt. ii. 2-4, xvii. 10-12.” A.C. V p. 257
- “Josephus found three of his friends who had been crucified, several days after the fall of Jerusalem, and rescued them, but two of the three died in the physician’s hands … Twelve hours seems to have been average … one thing is clear, [in] Christ’s intense mental and physical suffering … we have here … an expression … of loneliness and perplexity over the betrayal, the desertion, and the Cross.” TIB VII p. 906
In Mark “the whole evidence for the resurrection of Jesus goes back to the ‘wrought up imagination of a group of hysterical women’ … Mark does not present any account of a resurrection appearance – and it is even possible … to think that he referred (in verse 7) …to the final Parousia.” TIB VII p. 911
Mark 16:8 “They exited and ran from the tomb, for trembling and shock grabbed them, and [did] not tell a word to [any] man [לאיש (anyone)] because they panicked.”
- “And they said nothing … helps us to account for the absence of any reference to the empty tomb in the earliest surviving literature in the N.T, e.g., in Paul, or indeed anywhere in the N.T. except in the Gospels” TIB VII p. 915
- [Note that this is not relevant to the resurrection - Paul bet his life on that - only to the story of the empty tomb.]
- Jesus’ victory at the time was establishing the principle that the kingdom of God is available anywhere and anytime one elects to become a citizen of that kingdom. At the apocalypse, when the kingdom of God is manifest even to those who do not elect it, those who have elected it will already been in it. In Mark the doctrine of atonement does not exist; Jesus’ death is that of a martyr for a righteous cause that lives forever and is destined to prevail.
Both Matthew and Mark reinforce my bias and prejudice that Daniel explains more about the expectations and actions of those living in Israel in the first century than any other book in the Bible. The apocalypse is predicted, and all the precursor events have occurred, all that remains is the fulfillment of the promise that if the people will but turn to God, God will restore the throne of David once and for all (which the Hasemoneans almost accomplished), and relieve the Israelites of the cycle of victory and defeat they have suffered repeatedly since they first became His chosen people (the end of time).
A more entertaining use of my values-laden selectivity in proof-texting may be these tasty morsels I turned up in the commentaries:
In re: Matthew 19:12 (“There are eunuchs that were born such from the belly of their mother, there are eunuchs that were made eunuchs, by the hands of men, there are eunuchs that made themselves eunuchs, for the sake of the kingdom of heaven. Whoever has in their ability to receive, let him receive.”): “The great Origen, understanding the latter clause of this verse … literally, O human weakness! fulfilled it on himself.” A.C. V. p. 172
A neat rationale to the apparent inequity of the master in the parable of the workers hired to work in the vineyard (Matthew 20): “The employer is thinking of the workers’ needs. If they go home with wages for only a single hour, their families cannot be fed.” TIB VII p.491
In re: the parable on the basis of the last judgment at Matthew 25:31-46: “The most striking note of the parable is that on judgment Day some men will discover that, although they have not know it, they have been on God’s side all the time.” TIB VII p. 562