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FOUNDATIONS - 2. Taking on Mark

Posted on: March 20, 2017

Series 1 Study Guide
2: Taking on Mark
Mark is almost unanimously accepted as the earliest of the four gospels in the Christian Bible.
The reason for this is simple: Mark is the worst written of the four Christian gospel and
obviously Matthew and Luke made attempts to improve upon it. If Matthew and Luke took their
pens to improve upon Mark, then Mark already existed.
In a short 16 chapter gospel, Mark uses the word immediately (GK. euthus) an amazing 42 times.
If you work that out, 6% of this gospel is the word immediately. There are 678 verses in the
gospel of Mark, and 410 of these verses begin with the word “and” (kai in Greek). If you work
that out, 60% of the verses in this gospel begin with the same word.
From a literary point of view, it’s strange that Mark cannot find more creative ways to stress
urgency or find alternative ways to employ a coordinating conjunction.
Language is not the only thing in Mark that Matthew and Luke seek to improve. They also seek
to improve the portrayal of the disciples. In Mark the disciples are basically dimwits. They never
understand Jesus. Jesus consistently tells the disciples that he must suffer, but the disciples
invariable argue about who is the greatest, invariably relate Jesus to triumph, and invariable deny
that Jesus should suffer (GK. pathos) at all.
1. The disciples lose track of Jesus at Mark 1:36 and have to hunt for him. Luke changes
this to read “people” lose track of Jesus; Matthew deletes it.
2. At Mark 4:13 and 4:40 the disciples fail to understand Jesus and lack faith. Both Matthew
and Luke delete these references.
3. At Mark 6:52 the disciples do not understand because their hearts are hardened; neither
Matthew nor Luke likes this comment, so they both delete it.
4. At Mark 8:18-19 the disciples are excoriated for not seeing or hearing, but again Matthew
and Luke avoid this scene by deletion.
The shocking thing about the Gospel of Mark is that the very disciples the church historically
praised (Peter, James, and John) are explicitly condemned. In the letter’s of Paul, these disciples
are called the “pillars” of the Church (Galatians 2:9). In Mark they are like demons to be
This highly expressive criticism found in Mark characterizes the theology of this gospel, which
can be highlighted as follows:
1. To follow Jesus means to follow the one who was humiliated; thus, to Mark true disciples
are those who give up the world and seek solidarity with the marginalized and poor.
2. In Mark the only disciples who understands Jesus is the nameless woman at 14:3-9, who
anoints his body for burial. As a final touch of irony, the other disciples rebuke her.
3. Mark clearly relates the Jesus movement to suffering and the recognition of the “Christ”
(the Anointed) to the crucifixion - Roman humiliation and capital punishment. Mark
refuses any form of religion that would promote itself in glorious terms.
4. Mark is admirable in the way the Gospel dissociates itself from any form of religion used
to promote power and success. Yet, an unfortunate side-effect of Mark is that later
Christianity started to surmise that God likes people to suffer. We often witness in
Christianity the glorification of suffering as the will of God.
Notes for Discussion
1. The Gospel of Mark is powerful evidence again understanding Christianity according to a
success formula. In this Gospel, even the closest disciples to Jesus fail the “success” test.
There are many examples in our culture where religion is understood according to the
success formula. Discuss some of these examples and imagine the critique of Mark.
2. Christianity was born in the Roman Empire and, for its first three hundred years, weilded
little or no power in this context. Yet, Christianity is often describe as a revolutionary
movement that moved upward from the bottom of the social order. If it is true that at base
Christianity is (or was) a revolution, what happened? Where in society today can we still
witness the seeds of revolution? How to such movements compare with the theology
Mark seem to advocate?
3. Sometimes the focus on suffering in Mark makes it seem that the point of the Gospel is to
celebrate suffering in almost masochistic style. Thus it seems that Mark can support
theologies where the love of poverty prevents work to liberate the poor. Mother Teresa
was sometimes criticized in this way: she worked among the poor, promoted charity,
loved poverty, but did not advocate for social change to solve poverty. In what ways can
a religious focus on poverty prevent a radical redress of poverty? In what ways can the
focus on suffering induce psychological guilt for suffering?
It is sometimes difficult to accept, but important to understand, that every Gospel in the Christian
Bible is a theological presentation. This means that people interested in theology, Christianity, or
religion generally can and ought to feel comfortable questioning the theological presentations
found in the Gospels. Mark is no exception. The theology in this Gospel can be debated.
The Gospel of Mark presents a theology that relates suffering and poverty to Jesus and that shuns
any attempt to associate religious practice with success. On the other hand, the Gospel of Mark
can be accused of overemphasizing suffering and of promoting a theology of self-harm by
relating God (or God’s reality or will) to suffering.
Suffering is a universal experience among all forms of life. Discuss a “theology of suffering” and
what point Mark might be trying to make. Did this Gospel writer have a good point? Or, in what
ways, if any, did this Gospel writer miss the point or even hold a misguided theology? Try to
enter an open discussion with this Gospel writer.

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