St Marks Gospel - Speaker Notes, Session 1, 29th November 2017

St Marks Gospel - Speaker Notes, Session 1, 29/11/2017



1 Princess Elizabeth way, Cheltenham GL51 7RA

Professor Hazel Bryan and Professor Philip Esler
(The University of Gloucestershire)

7.00 pm on Wednesday 29th November and 6th, 13th and 20th December 2017.



The Prologue (Mark 1:1-13) As the Way Into Mark’s Gospel.

Mark 1:1-13:

[1] Beginning (Archê) of the good news (euangelion) of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.

[2] Just as it is written in Isaiah the prophet, ‘Behold, I send my messenger before your face, who shall prepare your way (hodos);
[3] the voice of one crying in the wilderness:
Prepare the way (hodos) of the Lord,
make his paths straight – ’

[4] John the baptizer appeared in the wilderness, preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.
[5] And there went out to him all the country of Judea, and all the people of Jerusalem; and they were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins.
[6] Now John was clothed with camel's hair, and had a leather girdle around his waist, and ate locusts and wild honey.
[7] And he preached, saying, ‘After me comes he who is mightier than I, the thong of whose sandals I am not worthy to stoop down and untie.
[8] I have baptized you with water; but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.’

[9] In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan.
[10] And when he came up out of the water, immediately he saw the heavens opened and the Spirit descending upon him like a dove;
[11] and a voice came from heaven, ‘You are my beloved Son; with you I am well pleased.’
[12] The Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness.
[13] And he was in the wilderness forty days, tempted by Satan; and he was with the wild beasts; and the angels ministered to him.

Then look at what comes next:

[14] Now after John was arrested, Jesus came into Galilee, preaching the gospel of God,
[15] and saying, "The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent, and believe in the gospel."

Let us consider a number of preliminary issues that arise from Mark 1:1-13. First we should note that this Prologue provides readers with insider information about Jesus that none of the characters in the Gospel (except Jesus) possess.

Verse 1 probably contains the author’s title for his work. It is ‘the good news (euangelion) of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.’ In Old English the Greek word euangelion was translated as God’s spell (‘story’) or ‘Gospel.’ So here euangelion
refers to the nature of the message it will contain—as ‘the good news of Jesus Christ the Son of God.’ In the second century AD euangelion came also to refer to the type and genre of the work: it is a Gospel, like those of Matthew, Luke and John and the authors of a number of apocryphal gospels.

It is the good news of Jesus Christ in two senses: it is good news he proclaimed (the subjective sense) and the good news is about him (the objective sense). Some ancient manuscripts omit ‘Son of God’ but the preferable view is that they are part of the author’s original title.

This passage is contextualized within Israelite religious tradition. The very first word, ‘Beginning’ (archê), reminds readers of the first words in Genesis, ‘In the beginning…’, or En tê archê. Other resonances of Israelite writing come later in the passage.

Verse 2 and following. This is a text that immediately throws us—as readers or listeners—into a story. What it has to say about Jesus, it will say in narrative form. You may wonder what is so significant about this. The answer is that not only is Mark’s the first and oldest Gospel (probably written about 70 AD), but it is the first and oldest writing of the Christ-movement that has survived to us that was not written in the form of a letter (such as the letters of Paul which always contain theological messages). Mark had a powerful theological vision to convey too, but he chose to do so via a narrative. There was no writing quite like this anyway in the ancient Mediterranean world. It represents a revolution in religious textual composition, a work of theological and literary genius.

By the way, like many New Testament critics, some of us no longer use the words ‘Christian’ or ‘Christianity’ for the first century AD, since they carry too many anachronistic associations from the later history of the church. Rather, we prefer ‘Christ-follower’ or ‘Christ-believer’ and the ‘Christ-movement.’ Using terms like these helps us look at the textual data in a fresh way.

It is apparent from the outset that there is a divine plan at work and two levels of reality in play. The most obvious sign of a supernatural dimension comes in the appearance of the Holy Spirit as a character in the story (vv. 10 and 12), and in the future of the movement (v. 8) and in the voice of the Father from heaven in v. 11, but also in the appearance of Satan and the angels (v. 13). But we also have the apparently off-stage voice in vv. 2-3, to which we now turn.

Verse 2. Let us start with the scriptural quotation. Although the whole quote is said to come from Isaiah, in v. 2 the material comes from the Septuagintal version of Exod 23:20, with bits from Mal 3:1. The Septuagint was a Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible done in about 300-200 BC. Septuagint (= 70 in Greek) because there were thought to be 70 translators.

Exod 23:20 (LXX): ‘And, behold, I send my angel before thy face, that he may keep thee in the way, that he may bring thee into the land which I have prepared for thee.’

Mal 3:1 (LXX): ‘Behold, I send forth my messenger, and he shall survey the way before me: and the Lord, whom ye seek, shall suddenly come into his
temple, even the angel of the covenant, whom ye take pleasure in: behold, he is coming, saith the Lord Almighty.’

Only with v. 3 do we get to Isaiah 40:3 (LXX): ‘The voice of one crying in the wilderness, Prepare ye the way of the Lord, make straight the paths of our God.’

So Mark creates this combination of three scriptural elements, attributed to Isaiah, who, like all prophets, is a spokesperson (prophêtes) for God. But note that here the narrator is quoting scripture; this is the only time that he does so, although characters cite scripture another 30 or so times.

The critical thing is that the voice from off-stage, God, is speaking to Jesus Christ, telling him that he is sending a messenger, who must be John the Baptist (note the repetition of ‘wilderness’) to prepare his way. In other words, John is the agent in a careful plan prepared by God. But we are not told when, where or how this divine statement was uttered. It is mysterious and magnificent.

Verse 3. The ‘way’ is an important word in Mark, occurring sixteen times, fourteen of those instances having a theological meaning. Jesus worked on his way, through suffering and death to resurrection, and his way must also be our way: ‘And he called to him the multitude with his disciples, and said to them, “If any man would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me”’ (8:34). Mark’s Jesus invites us to follow him, becoming with him an actor in the drama of redemption.

The wilderness was a dangerous place, but also the place through which Israel had wandered for forty years in dependence on God. It is a fitting setting for the start of the Gospel. The Australian poet A. D. Hope once wrote ‘from the deserts the prophets come’ (in his poem ‘Australia’).

Verse 5. It is all Judea and Jerusalem that come out to John. This sets up the beginning of what will be a contrast in the Gospel between Judea in the south and Galilee in the north.

Verse 6. John’s clothing is meant to evoke that of Elijah: see 2 Kings 1:8: 'He wore a garment of haircloth, with a girdle of leather about his loins." And he said, "It is Elijah the Tishbite." John was to be forerunner like Elijah was to be (see Mark 9:11-13). There appears to be no specific prophetic connection with locusts and honey. These just seem to be what you might find in the wilderness. It was permissible to eat

locusts (Lev 11:20-23) and honey could be found among the rocks (Deut 32:13) or in trees (1 Sam 14:25-26).

Verses 7-8 rely upon Israelite expectation of a coming Messiah figure. The most complete expression of Messianic expectation in one text before the time of Jesus is
found in Psalm of Solomon 17, lines 21-46, which, in spite of the pseudonymous attribution to Solomon, was written about 50 BC (The text was provided to the participants in the session). In line 37 of this text it is actually said: ‘God made him powerful in the Holy Spirit.’

The fact that John goes out of his way to say that he is inferior to Jesus probably relates to the fact that later in the first century there were people who said that John had been the Messiah and the fact that Jesus was baptized by him showed that John recognized his inferiority to John (see John 1:8: ‘He was not the light’; Matt 3:14: ‘I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?’; and the followers of John the Baptist in Acts 19).

Mark never actually describes a scene in which Jesus baptizes in the Holy Spirit. It is uncertain whether this is just a way of saying what Jesus does in the Gospel or whether it alludes to something like what is describes in Acts, with the various outpourings of the Holy Spirit. The latter is far more likely. The Holy Spirit has no role in relation to believers in the Gospel, except for one occasion when Jesus is referring to the future, post-Easter period: Mark 13:10-11:

[10] ‘And the gospel must first be preached to all nations.
[11] And when they bring you to trial and deliver you up, do not be anxious beforehand what you are to say; but say whatever is given you in that hour, for it is not you who speak, but the Holy Spirit.’ Also see Acts 2:16-21 where the author quotes Joel to the effect that God will pour out his Spirit in the last days.

With Verse 9 Jesus enters the scene, coming from Galilee and unique in that respect. This firmly sets up the Galilee/Judea and Jerusalem dichotomy in the Gospel.

Virtually all scholars consider it historically certain that Jesus was baptized by John. It was very embarrassing embarrassing but too well known to be denied.

The picture of Jesus receiving the Spirit after baptism may actually be modelled on post-Easter Christ-movement experience where this is what seems to have happened.

Verse 10. We should note that only Jesus and the reader in this Gospel see the dove descending and hear the voice from heaven. This is part of the Messianic secret theme in Mark. Thus the author gives the reader this important knowledge. We have a privileged role, even superior in this instance to that of John the Baptist who did not see or hear what happened: first baptism in water and then reception of charismatic gifts.

Psalm 2:7 is alluded to in what the voice says, ‘You are my beloved son, today I have begotten you.’ Also alluded to is Isaiah 42:1: ‘Behold my servant, whom I uphold, my chosen one, in whom my soul delights; I have put my Spirit upon him.’

What is said about Jesus being the divine son by heavenly voice corresponds to what the author said in his title for the book (v. 1), thus showing that we have a reliable narrator.

In relation to Verse 12, it is interesting that the Spirit immediately (a very Markan word, used repeatedly in this ‘breathless’ narrative) ‘drove him’ out (ekballei) into the wilderness (which, of course, he is already in: v. 4). Elsewhere in the Gospel the word ekballei is used in relation to driving out evil spirits and has elements of coercion (5:40; 9:47; 11:5; 12:8). Was Jesus unwilling to go? Or this just a way of underlining that this was all happening in line with a divine plan. Note that Jesus says nothing in Mark at this point and is the passive recipient of water and Spirit baptism. The stress is very much on this being all part of God’s plan.

In relation to Verse 13, note that Mark does not have the three temptations put to Jesus by Satan in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke. They got these from a separate collection of sayings of Jesus which has not survived but which we call Q (from German, Quelle, source). Mark may see this encounter between Jesus and Satan as contest of forces in opposition. But here we encounter for the first of many times in the Gospel the dark side of the transcendental dimension of experience. Elsewhere Satan is active: 4:15 (Satan takes the seed); 8:33; ‘Get behind me Satan.’

That he was tempted for forty days evokes the forty years that the Israelites were in the desert. But it probably also alludes to the forty days for which Moses fasted in Deut 9:28.

Does ‘and he was with the wild beasts’ evoke a cycle of stories about Jesus and animals with which Mark’s original audience were familiar but which have now been forgotten? One of the participants in the class made the interesting suggestion that perhaps this meant that Jesus was being understood as having a relationship with animals like Adam and Eve in their prelapsarian state in the garden of Eden.

The Date and Place of Composition of Mark’s Gospel

Most scholars are of the view that Mark’s Gospel was written around the time of the tumultuous events that constituted the Judean/Jewish rebellion against Rome that broke out in 66, with the Romans capturing Jerusalem and burning the Temple in 70 AD, and capturing the last centres of the revolt in 73 AD. Mark 13 (Jesus’s predictions of the future) seems to be aware of these terrible events. So sometime shortly before or after 70 AD is a likely date, but this issue is not of great importance in actually seeing what Mark is up to.

Mark was probably written for a local community of Christ-followers, even if the author would have been perfectly happy for this work to travel to other Christ-groups; as indeed happened, since Mark reached Matthew and Luke and was used by them in writing their own Gospels. But they greatly added to it, improved its style and changed parts!

But where was Mark’s Christ-group located? Here are some of the evidence that is used (see commentators such as Eugene Boring, John Donahue/Daniel Harrington and Morna Hooker):

1. He writes in Greek and translates Aramaic bits of tradition. He explains Judean customs but does not always get things right.

2. The limitation of coinage to small denomination types, the prominence of poor people, the abundant agrarian imagery all suggest he was writing for a group at a low socio-economic level, possibly in a village or small town.

3. Although there is a tradition that the author got his information from Peter (who was associated with Rome), it is unlikely that Mark was written in Rome. There is no sign that Mark was familiar with Paul’s long and important letter to the Romans that reached the city in the early 60s. In Rom 1:4 Paul writes that Jesus was ‘designated Son of God in power according to the Spirit of holiness by his resurrection from the dead.’ But Mark 1:11 says that he was designated as son at his baptism by John. Also, there is no sign of Mark having had any influence on the early works composed by Christ-followers in that city.

4. Mark 13 suggests that his readers were affected by the Jewish Revolt against Rome of 66-73 AD. This could suggest a Palestinian or a Syrian provenance. But he seems to have a rather imprecise knowledge of Galilean geography. Maybe Syria is more likely. The first sign of use of the Gospel is its use by Matthew in writing his Gospel and Matthew’s connection with Syria is secured by his being used by Ignatius of Antioch around 110 AD. The early Christian document, the Didache (‘Teaching’), which also came from Syria, breathes an atmosphere rather similar to that of Mark.

5. There are some Latinisms in the Gospel, but these would have occurred across the Roman empire.

A Gentile Gospel?

The fact that Mark knows a lot about Israelite traditions but does not quite understand them may suggest he is writing for non-Judeans who have had some association with Judeans or for a mixed group of Judean and non-Judean Christ-followers, but he himself is not a Judean.

The Meaning of Gospel

What type of text is the Gospel of Mark (and the other Gospels, of Matthew, Luke and John, which were written later? An increasing number of scholars take the view that although it is not a biography in the modern sense of the word, it is rather like the ancient Greek bioi, ‘lives’, of famous people. Important here is the What Are the Gospels: A Comparison with Graeco-Roman Biography (1992) by Richard A. Burridge, an Anglican scholar at Kings College London who has been honoured by the Pope for his work.

One of these bioi is the Life of Apollonius of Tyana, written by Philostratus about 230 AD. Apollonius was a wandering philosopher and preacher of whom it was said that before he was born a supernatural being told his mother he would be god. He gathered disciples around him and allegedly worked many miracles.

Yet M. Eugene Boring (in Mark: A Commentary, 2006, pp. 7-8) has correctly identified five Christological factors that set Mark’s Gospel apart from ancient bioi:

1. The narrative juxtaposes a Jesus who is truly human with one who is truly divine (including by use of the motif of the ‘messianic secret’ that we will consider later in the series).

2. The Gospel situates itself in an expanse of time that assumes the creation and stretches to the end of the world (the ‘eschaton’). Jesus Christ as Son of Man will appear at the end of history as its goal and judge (Mark 14:62).

3. Jesus is not just a figure from history; he is understood as speaking to believers in the present. At Mark 13:37 the fact that we have here a two level drama emerges when Jesus says, ‘And what I say to you, I say to all, ‘“Watch.”’

4. The narrative is episodic but not anecdotal. The aspects covered are fundamental to the meaning not just an arbitrary compilation.

5. Just as Jesus speaks in parables to describe the inexpressible reality of the kingdom of God that call for participation and decision by the reader, so too does the whole Gospel.

Finally, as Boring has noted (p. 8):

*‘The Gospel of Mark is narrative Christology: Mark has devised a new literary form to express a new content …

*Mark writes to show who God is, not to reveal the character or greatness of the protagonist.

*The Gospel is a kerygmatic (‘proclamatory’) genre, expressed in narrative, a not a wisdom genre expressed in sayings.’ (such as the Gospel of Thomas, a collection of sayings attributed to Jesus).’

*‘It is the genre appropriate to the Christian message as good news, not good advice or good principles and insights.’

How and Why was Mark’s Gospel Composed?

There seems little doubt that Mark was able to utilize a variety of existing materials about Jesus. Some of this may have comprised oral tradition and some written sources. Was the Passion Narrative originally written? But the pattern is that we have numerous passages, parables, miracles and controversies etc and framing language that links them all together in narrative form. This language tends to have its own style that is different from that in the individual units. Presumably lots of the units were known to his audience but the crafting of a narrative to embrace them was the startlingly original work of Mark.

Mark’s Gospel is a narrative proclamation of the Christ event. It aimed to engage its readers in the story of Jesus of Nazareth so that they too might be caught up in its message:

[14] Now after John was arrested, Jesus came into Galilee, preaching the gospel of God,
[15] and saying, "The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent, and believe in the gospel."

The challenge is to believe that the evil powers cannot triumph over Jesus or over them.


1. We are part of a divine plan.

2. The message is good news: joy is the appropriate reaction.

3. Reality exists on two levels and Jesus marks the point of intersection between them. In him the forces of evil have met their match.

4. We are on a way, that will be explored in terms of discipleship as the Gospel advances.

5. But our hope must be realistic; the way will be rocky and the forces of evil are powerful and entrenched, forward enough to take on even the Son of God. Being baptized does not spare us trials and testing any more than it spared Jesus.

6. Hope is not just about looking forward to some future utopia (as argued by Ernst Block in his book The Principle of Hope). More theologically speaking, we have Juergen Moltmann’s Theology of Hope (London: SCM, 1964). This fixes upon eschatology, denying it just a role at the end of the theology textbooks under the title ‘Last Things’, to making it very central to all Christian theology. ‘…eschatology means the doctrine of Christian hope… Christianity is eschatology, is hope, forward looking and forward moving, and therefore also revolutionizing and transforming the present.’ (p. 16):

Christian eschatology does not speak of the future as such. It sets out from a definite reality in history and announces the future of that reality, its future possibilities and its power over the future. Christian eschatology speaks of Jesus Christ and his future. It recognizes the reality of the raising of Jesus and proclaims the future of the risen Lord. Hence the question whether all statements about the future are grounded in the person and history of Jesus Christ provides it with the touchstone by which to distinguish the spirit of eschatology from that of utopia. (p. 17)


M. Eugene Boring, Mark: A Commentary . The New Testament Library. Louisville and
London: Westminster John Knox Press, 2006
Richard A. Burridge, What Are the Gospels: A Comparison with Graeco-Roman
Biography. Cambridge: Cambridge University Presss, 1992.
John R. Donahue S.J. and Daniel J. Harrington S.J. The Gospel of Mark. Sacra
Pagina Series, Volume 2. Collegeville, MN: The Liturgical Press, 2002.
Morna Hooker, The Gospel According to St. Mark. Black’s New Testament
Commentaries. London: Bloomsbury Publishing, 2001.

Juergen Moltmann, Theology of Hope: On the Ground and the
Implications of a Christian Theology. London: SCM Press Ltd, 1967.

Finally, after the class someone noted that it was really interesting to read the Gospels in their original contexts. For a magnificent coverage of the world of Jesus, see K. C. Hanson and Douglas E. Oakman, Palestine in the Time of Jesus: Social Structures and Social Contexts. Second edition. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2008. The perfect Christmas present?