Gospel of Mark and What Says about St. Mark and Jesus and His Message

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Mark in the Four Gospels manuscript (1495)

Marilyn Mellowes wrote: “The gospel of Mark is the second to appear in the New Testament, but most scholars now agree that it was composed first. While the work is attributed to "Mark," we will probably never know the author's true identity, for it was common practice in the ancient world to enhance the importance of written works by attributing them to famous people. Whoever he was, Mark's gospel was the first to attempt to tell the story of the life and the death of Jesus. He probably drew on written collections of miracle stories, on parables, and perhaps on a written account of Jesus' death. Mark combined these disparate elements with other traditions passed on by word-of-mouth to create a new narrative that began the gospel tradition.” [Source: Marilyn Mellowes, Frontline, PBS, April 1998 ]

Charlotte Allen wrote: Mark is the shortest of the four canonical Gospels. It contains few references to Jesus' divine status and none to the virgin birth. In its earliest version it apparently mentioned none of Jesus' post-resurrection appearances, merely relating a brief story of the empty tomb. Mark is essentially a collection of reports of events: accounts of Jesus' early ministry and of many of his miracles and parables, and a passion narrative. The various authors of the famous nineteenth-century "liberal lives" of Jesus tended to follow Mark's outline, but eliminated (or rationalized) the miracles in order to present Jesus as a preacher of moral and social progress who met a tragic end at the hands of people who did not understand him. [Source: Charlotte Allen, The Atlantic, December 1996]

Professor L. Michael White told PBS: ““Mark's is the first of the written gospels. It's really the one that establishes... the life of Jesus as a story form. It develops a narrative from his early career, through ...the main points of his life and culminat[es] in his death. And, as such, it sets the pattern for all the later gospel traditions. We know that both Matthew and Luke used Mark, as a source in their composition and it's also probable that even John knew something of Mark in tradition. So, Mark is really the one that sets the stage for all the later Christian gospel writings. [Source: L. Michael White, Professor of Classics and Director of the Religious Studies Program University of Texas at Austin, Frontline, PBS, April 1998 ]

“Mark's gospel is a brilliant piece of dramatic composition because it allows this motif of secrecy and misunderstanding to be the occasion for bringing together a number of the key symbolic moments in the story of Jesus. So, while the disciples, his closest friends and followers, failed to understand his true identity, ... failed to understand that he will die as part of his Messianic identity, there are a number of marginal characters in this story who seem to understand him more correctly and more properly, without prompting and without instruction. In one sense, it's the marginal characters who provide the kind of dramatic foil for the Markan story. One of the best example is the story of the woman who just at the Last Supper of Jesus comes and anoints his feet and the disciples criticize her for for anointing him. Jesus says, "she's already anointed me for my burial and her action will be remembered." So, she sees something that the disciples themselves fail to see, and it's the women, the marginal characters, the demons, those on the periphery of the story who often carry the important realizations of Jesus' true identity. It's it's really quite a marvelous dramatic presentation....

Websites and Resources: Early Christianity: PBS Frontline, From Jesus to Christ, The First Christians pbs.org ; Elaine Pagels website elaine-pagels.com ; Sacred Texts website sacred-texts.com ; Gnostic Society Library gnosis.org ; Guide to Early Church Documents iclnet.org; Early Christian Writing earlychristianwritings.com ; Internet Ancient History Sourcebook: Christian Origins sourcebooks.fordham.edu ; Christianity BBC on Christianity bbc.co.uk/religion/religions/christianity ; Candida Moss at the Daily Beast Daily Beast Christian Answers christiananswers.net ; Christian Classics Ethereal Library www.ccel.org ; Bible: Bible Gateway and the New International Version (NIV) of The Bible biblegateway.com ; King James Version of the Bible gutenberg.org/ebooks; Bible History Online bible-history.com ; Biblical Archaeology Society biblicalarchaeology.org


Baptism of Saint Mark

Professor L. Michael White told PBS: “According to tradition, the author, Mark is not an apostle himself. Not one of the original disciples, but rather the follower of one of them. Traditionally, he's supposed to be the disciple of Peter .... We don't know exactly where this Mark was or where he actually wrote. However, tradition places him at Rome, but one more tradition also has him located at Alexandria, and it may be the case that the story that we call Mark's gospel, which supposedly derived from Peter, is also an example of this passing on of an oral tradition. It owes its history to Mark, whether Mark is the person who actually wrote it down or not. [Source: L. Michael White, Professor of Classics and Director of the Religious Studies Program University of Texas at Austin, Frontline, PBS, April 1998]

Marilyn Mellowes wrote: “Whether Mark himself was a gentile or a Jew remains a subject of scholarly debate. So, too, does the place of his composition; some scholars think that he wrote his work in Rome, others that he wrote in Alexandria, still others suggest Syria. The way Mark tells the story suggests that his audience lived outside the homeland, spoke Greek rather than Aramaic, and was not familiar with Jewish customs. While there is disagreement about where Mark wrote, there is a consensus about when he wrote: he probably composed his work in or about the year 70 CE, after the failure of the First Jewish Revolt and the destruction of the Jerusalem Temple at the hands of the Romans. That destruction shapes how Mark tells his story.” [Source: Marilyn Mellowes, Frontline, PBS, April 1998]

“What message did Mark intend to send to his audience? Scholars do not agree. Some argue that Mark deliberately constructs a bleak and frightening picture because that was the experience of the people for whom Mark composed his work. Elaine Pagels offers a different interpretation: "And the last words of the original gospel are 'and they were terrified.' It would be very bad news if it weren't that underneath this rather dark story is an enormous hope . . . that this very promising story and its terrible anguished ending is nevertheless not the ending. That there's a mystery in it, a divine mystery of God's revelation that will happen yet. And I think it's that sense of hope that is deeply appealing."

Mark the Evangelist

Saint Mark the Evangelist is the traditionally ascribed author of the Gospel of Mark. Mark is said to have founded the Church of Alexandria, one of the most important episcopal sees of Early Christianity. He was born in Cyrene, Libya in A.D. 68.

Saint Mark the Evangelist

Andrew Todhunter wrote in National Geographic: “Mark the Evangelist too spread the word, bringing Christ's message to Egypt and founding the Coptic faith. But for some Catholics, Mark represents most emphatically the saint as political symbol, powerfully linked with the identity of Venice. Although a figure from the ancient past, he retains a stronger grip on the consciousness of modern-day Venetians than Washington or Lincoln holds on most Americans. [Source: Andrew Todhunter, National Geographic, March 2012]

“Mark the Evangelist is indelibly associated with pride in place: No historical figure is more clearly linked with Venice than her patron saint. His square is the heart of Venice, his basilica the center of its ancient faith. Mark's symbol—the winged lion, its paw upon the open Gospel—is as ubiquitous in Venice as the gondola. For the Venetians of the ninth century and after, "Viva San Marco!" was the battle cry, and legends of St. Mark are entwined with the earliest roots of the Venetian Republic. And yet, tradition tells us, Mark died a martyr in Alexandria, Egypt. How did he gain such importance in a Western city-state?

In the delicate balance of political one-upmanship in ninth-century Italy, a young power bound for greatness required theistic no less than military legitimacy. As its patron, the city needed not the third-string dragon slayer it had, St. Theodore, but a titan among saints. And so was born a masterstroke of shadow politics unrivaled in medieval history: In 828, presumably on the orders of the doge, two Venetian merchants named Bono da Malamocco and Rustico da Torcello stole the remains of St. Mark from his tomb in Alexandria or, some say, conned it from the possession of local priests. Returning to their ship, the conspirators put the saint's remains in a basket, covering them with pork to discourage official entanglements. When Muslim port authorities stopped the thieves and peered into the basket, they recoiled in disgust, crying "Kanzir! Kanzir!"—"pig" in Arabic—and commanded the Venetians to hurry along. On the voyage home, legend tells us, a tempest blew up off the Greek coast. St. Mark, his remains lashed to the mast, quieted the storm, saving the vessel. However embroidered by legend, this brazen theft of the Evangelist's relics gave the fledgling republic a spiritual cachet matched in all of Latin Christendom only by that of St. Peter's Rome. This extraordinary coup set in motion brilliant successes that brought forth a Venetian superpower. |~|

“ From the earliest days of the Republic, "St. Mark was the flag of Venice," Gherardo Ortalli, a medievalist at the University of Venice and a leading expert on St. Mark, told me. "I don't think there are other examples of saints who were so important politically. Wherever Venice left her imprint, you find Mark's lion—in Greece, Crete, Cyprus, Alexandria. On the old Venetian gold coin, the ducato, St. Mark offers the flag of Venice to the doge." |~|

“ And what of the saint's relics? Are the remains entombed in the sarcophagus in St. Mark's Basilica in Venice really his? What of the skull in Alexandria that the Coptic Church claims belongs to the saint? What of the relic, possibly a bone fragment, said to be Mark's, given to Egypt by the Vatican in 1968, in effect as an apology for the ninth-century theft? Are any of these relics, including that tiny piece of bone in the church in Kerala attributed to Thomas, genuine? "It's not important if they have the real bones or not," Ortalli said, "because in the Middle Ages they had a very different mentality. You could have 50 fingers of a saint. It wasn't a problem." |~|

Saint Mark having scriptures dictated to him by Saint Peter

“ For scientists, nonbelievers, many believers, and perhaps for the forensic Thomas, 50 fingers of the same saint is a problem. Even the Catholic Church calls in pathologists to examine, date, and preserve relics in the church's possession. Based in Genoa, Ezio Fulcheri is a devout Catholic and trained pathologist who has worked on church relics for decades. He has studied and preserved the remains of many saints, including John of the Cross and Clare of Assisi, a friend of St. Francis's. "Whenever we can find a relic that is clearly not authentic," Fulcheri said, "we acknowledge that. The church does not want false relics to be venerated." But what of those relics, like St. Mark's, that have yet to be tested? Scholars, scientists, and even clerics within the Catholic Church have called, without success, for scientific testing of the remains in Mark's sarcophagus. Clearly the church has little to gain, and quite a bit to lose, by testing bones of such critical importance. In the case of St. Mark, perhaps it's safer not to know—at least for now. |~|

“ Not all scientists are eager to press too hard on holy relics. Giorgio Filippi, an archaeologist employed by the Vatican, told me he had opposed the recent analysis and dating of Paul's relics in Rome, announced by the pope in 2009. "Curiosity does not justify the research. If the sarcophagus was empty or if you found two men or a woman, what would you hypothesize? Why do you want to open St. Paul's tomb? I didn't want to be present in this operation." The subsequent investigation, through a finger-size hole drilled in the sarcophagus, produced a bone fragment the size of a lentil, grains of red incense, a piece of purple linen with gold sequins, and threads of blue fabric. Independent laboratory analysis, the church claimed, revealed that they dated to the first or second century. Not conclusive, but better news for the faithful than if they had hailed from the fourth century. The first-century date would mean the bones could be those of St. Paul. Until science advances to the point that testing can reveal fine details such as that the person was short, bald, and from Tarsus—Paul's presumed birthplace on the Turkish coast—we're not likely to get much closer to the truth. |~|

“ Mark's bones aside, I asked Ortalli if the pious of Venice pray to their patron saint. "It's better to pray to the Virgin or to Christ," he said. "St. Mark is more complicated. Apart from the basilica, it is difficult to find a place to light a candle to St. Mark. He is many things, but you don't go to St. Mark with a candle." In Catholic and Orthodox churches believers often light candles to accompany prayers to the saints, mounting them before favored icons or statues. "St. Mark is part of [a Venetian's] identity," Ortalli continued. "It's something in your bones—you have two feet, and you have St. Mark. When older people are drunk on the street late at night, they often sing, 'Viva Venezia, viva San Marco, viva le glorie del nostro leon.' Venice was constructed with a soul in which St. Mark is the center." |~|

When the Venetian Republic was finally dissolved under Napoleon, the cry of mourning and defiance on the streets was not "Viva la libertà" or "Viva la repubblica" but "Viva San Marco."

Mark’s Take on Jesus

Professor L. Michael White told PBS: “Mark retells the story of Jesus. He starts by taking a number of elements of earlier oral tradition. Mark seems to have a knowledge of at least one and maybe two or three different collections of miracle stories as a source. He weaves these together with other stories about Jesus, about teachings, about travels, about other things and makes those a part of his understanding of how Jesus' life worked and what it was intended to do. But, in the final analysis, Mark's gospel is really about the death of Jesus. It's a passion narrative with an extended introduction, some people would say. Mark tells the story by thinking about the death and letting all the events that lead up to that death move toward it and through it. So, it's the death of Jesus that's the guiding principle to Mark's gospel, not the life.... [Source: L. Michael White, Professor of Classics and Director of the Religious Studies Program University of Texas at Austin, Frontline, PBS, April 1998 ]

The Transfiguration Mark 9:2-8

“For Mark, Jesus is a somewhat enigmatic figure and that's very important to his way of telling the story. Jesus is mysterious. Jesus intentionally keeps people from understanding who he really is, at times. At times, Jesus actually silences the demons who would announce his true identity. When he performs a miracle, he tells people, don't say anything to anyone about what I have done. He even takes the disciples away, off into a corner, and teaches them privately so that others won't hear and understand the message. He seems to be a very secretive kind of figure in Mark's gospel.

“Now, why does Mark tell the story this way? It seems to be the case that he uses this motif of secrecy and misunderstanding as a way of reconceptualizing the image of Jesus. There's something about the the previous understandings of Jesus, even within the Christian community, that Mark feels compelled now to correct and to give a new meaning for, and it probably has something to do with the post-war experience. Why had it all happened? What had gone wrong? Why was Jerusalem destroyed? Mark tells the story in such a way to make sense out of that, in the light of the death of Jesus.

Mark 8.27-30 reads: 27And Jesus went on with his disciples, to the villages of Caesare'a Philip'pi; and on the way he asked his disciples, "Who do men say that I am?" 28And they told him, "John the Baptist; and others say, Eli'jah; and others one of the prophets." 29And he asked them, "But who do you say that I am?" Peter answered him, "You are the Christ." 30And he charged them to tell no one about him.”

Marks Take on Jesus' Image and Identity

Professor Helmut Koester told PBS: “When Mark writes his gospel, he is already aware of very different images of Jesus or beliefs [about] who Jesus was.... One is the belief that Jesus is the Messiah because of the great miracles that he has done, and because of his powerful teaching, his healing, his walking on the sea. And Mark picks up that tradition, but he picks it up in a critical fashion. He does not deny that Jesus did these miracles, but he sums up Jesus' miracle activity in the question in the middle of the gospel of the famous confession of Peter at Caesarea Philippi in Chapter 8, [where] Jesus asks the disciples, "Who do you think I am?" And Peter knows exactly who the one is who has done all these miracles. And says, "You are the Christ. You are the Messiah." And from then on comes a sharp turning point in the Gospel of Mark that tells the reader that to believe that Jesus was the Messiah because he did miracles is not a real understanding of who Jesus was. Because immediately after the confession of Peter, Jesus says, "the Son of Man has to suffer and to die." And Peter says, "This should not happen to you," and Jesus rebukes him as Satan.” [Source: Helmut Koester, John H. Morison Professor of New Testament Studies and Winn Professor of Ecclesiastical History Harvard Divinity School, Frontline, PBS, April 1998]

The high priest rents his cloths Mark 14:63

Marilyn Mellowes wrote: images include Jesus as a miracle worker. In keeping with the tradition that he inherited, Mark depicts Jesus as performing an impressive array of healing miracles: the man with the unclean spirit, the leper, the paralytic, the man with a withered hand, the woman with an issue of blood, and the daughter of Jairus. He seems to rush from one miracle to another; in Mark, the word "immediately" occurs 39 times.

Although the author of Mark seems to be saying that Jesus is more than a just a miracle worker, his real identity remains something of a mystery. Only demons, women and other socially marginal characters seem to understand who he really is, and Jesus warns them to remains silent. Jesus himself reveals and conceals his identity. Mark depicts Jesus as speaking in parables, yet his insights are offered only to a select few. Addressing his disciples, Jesus says: "To you has been given the secret of the kingdom of God, but for those outside, everything comes in parables, in order that 'they may indeed look, but not perceive, and may indeed listen, but not understand . . . " (MK 4:11-12) [Source: Marilyn Mellowes, Frontline, PBS, April 1998]

The disciples appear as Jesus' inner circle, but even they do not fully understand who he is. On the road to Caesarea Philippi, Jesus asks his disciples "Who do people say that I am?" And they answer, "John the Baptist" or "Elijah." Turning to Peter, he repeats the question. To which Peter responds, 'You are the Messiah." But when Jesus predicts his own passion, Peter rebukes him, prompting Jesus to call him "Satan." When Jesus is arrested, Peter denies knowing him, and all the apostles desert him.

Messianic Secret and Mark's Post-Revolt Audience

Marilyn Mellowes wrote: “The clue to Jesus' identity is what scholars call the "Messianic secret." Jesus is the Messiah, and he alone fully understands what he must do: he must suffer and he must die. Indeed, the gospel of Mark is really about the death of Jesus and the hope of his return when God brings an end to the present evil age. As Jesus moves toward his final fate, he is questioned by the High Priest, who asks: "are you the Christ, the son of the Blessed?" Jesus answers: "I am and you will see the Son of Man seated at the right hand of power and coming with the clouds of heaven." In Mark's story, the High Priest dispatches Jesus to Pilate, who sentences him to death. And it is only his death that reveals his true identity. With deliberate irony, the figure who recognizes that identity is a Roman soldier, who exclaims: "Truly, this man was God's son." (MK 15:39) [Source: Marilyn Mellowes, Frontline, PBS, April 1998]

Jewish Macabee's revolt, a hundred years or so before Jesus

Professor Helmut Koester told PBS: “The Gospel of Mark has for many years been discussed under the question of "the messianic secret." And there are a host of scholarly opinions, over a 100 years now of scholarship, about "what is the messianic secret?" It seems to me that the messianic secret is, indeed, that the true messiahship of Jesus cannot be recognized in his miracles. The disciples as they witness the miracles don't understand. They don't know what is going on. They are taught to understand from the prediction of the passion onwards who Jesus is. And that the messianic secret of Jesus is that he is the son of man who has come to suffer and not the Messiah who is going to do great miracles. And that will become clear only at the very end of the story of Jesus. And it is only the story of the suffering and the death of Jesus reveals that the secret of Jesus, and reveals who Jesus really is. [Source: Helmut Koester, John H. Morison Professor of New Testament Studies and Winn Professor of Ecclesiastical History Harvard Divinity School, Frontline, PBS, April 1998]

Mellowes wrote: “Many Christians thought that the Revolt would inaugurate the eschatological event that would establish the new Kingdom on earth and herald the triumphant return of the Messiah. Jesus himself was remembered for proclaiming that the Kingdom would come, maybe within their lifetimes: "Some of you standing here will not taste death until you see the Kingdom come with power." (MK 9:1.20). But these expectations were not fulfilled. And the author of Mark seems to want to recast traditional images of Jesus to make sense of the events that occurred, or did not occur, after he died.

Professor L. Michael White told PBS: “What gives us the insight into the situation of the writing of Mark's gospel are some internal pieces of evidence about the way he tells the story, about the audience that he's trying to address. One of the best of these comes in Mark 13, what is sometimes called the Little Apocalypse, because in it, Jesus has just come out of the Temple and his disciples turn and point to the magnificent structure and say, "isn't it all beautiful? What do you think, Jesus?" Jesus proceeds then to tell them about the destruction of the Temple. So, here is a story of Jesus, some 40 years before the Temple is destroyed, already predicting the destruction. But, as this story unfolds, it becomes clear that the audience for whom it is written has seen the destruction of the Temple, that whatever Jesus' predictions are supposed to suggest, that they themselves know it first hand. [Source: L. Michael White, Professor of Classics and Director of the Religious Studies Program University of Texas at Austin, Frontline, PBS, April 1998]

“The key comes, when Jesus is made to refer to the desolating sacrilege, which is set up where it ought not to be and then it says, "let the reader understand." Jesus never wrote anything. Who would be reading this in his day? It's as if we've had a soliloquy where the author, Mark, steps out from behind the character, Jesus, and addresses his audience, first hand, from their own experiences, from their own immediate past history. This is where we see the situation of the revolt and its aftermath really being a very important stimulus to the writing of these gospels.

Mark’s Jesus: A Spiritual Leader Destined to Die

Christ in the Tombs Mark 5:5

Professor L. Michael White told PBS: “The fact that Mark takes these early oral sources of Jesus miracle stories suggests that, in fact, one of the earliest ways of understanding Jesus is as a miracle worker. But miracle workers are a dime a dozen in the ancient world. We hear about all sorts of people who can perform miracles, so that doesn't really seem to set him apart. There's nothing unique about that in antiquity. We hear of Jewish miracle workers, pagan miracle workers, good miracle workers, bad miracle workers. It seems to be one of the points of Mark's gospel to say, "he's not just a miracle worker; he's more." Mark actually has Jesus unable to perform miracles at certain times, or unwilling to perform them. In one case, he even has to perform a miracle twice in order to get it right. In another case, he heals a boy to death and has to bring him back to life later. So, Jesus is a peculiar kind of miracle worker, in the way he's described in Mark's gospel and it seems to be that that's one of Mark's concerns. [Source: L. Michael White, Professor of Classics and Director of the Religious Studies Program University of Texas at Austin, Frontline, PBS, April 1998]

“One of the main issues in Mark's way of presenting Jesus is what it means for Jesus to be the Messiah. Now, it's true that within the gospel, many different people understand that he is the Messiah. At one point, he asks the disciples, "who do you think I am?" and they clearly say, "you're the Messiah." And yet, one of the most important dramatic elements in Mark's gospel is that even when they confess that he is the Messiah, they clearly do not understand the significance of his Messianic identity. Mark's gospel is playing with that issue, is forcing that issue to the front for his audience and saying this is the key point. It's what the disciples failed to understand that you must understand, and the whole point of Jesus' Messianic identity in Mark's gospel is that he had to die....

“It's not always clear that he really thinks of himself as the Messiah all the way throughout his career and even when the disciples confess that he's the Messiah, even when they come to understand him as the Messiah, they don't really realize that he must die, that that's part of his Messianic identity. So, Mark is really telling us that to be the Messiah, [means] more than just being a miracle worker or just teaching wonderful teachings. There's something else at stake here.

Story of Jairus' Daughter

Raising the Daughter of Jarius

A Girl Restored to Life and a Woman Healed: Mark 5.21-4: 21And when Jesus had crossed again in the boat to the other side, a great crowd gathered about him; and he was beside the sea. 22Then came one of the rulers of the synagogue, Ja'irus by name; and seeing him, he fell at his feet, 23and besought him, saying, "My little daughter is at the point of death. Come and lay your hands on her, so that she may be made well, and live." 24And he went with him.

And a great crowd followed him and thronged about him. 25And there was a woman who had had a flow of blood for twelve years, 26and who had suffered much under many physicians, and had spent all that she had, and was no better but rather grew worse. 27She had heard the reports about Jesus, and came up behind him in the crowd and touched his garment. 28For she said, "If I touch even his garments, I shall be made well." 29And immediately the hemorrhage ceased; and she felt in her body that she was healed of her disease. 30And Jesus, perceiving in himself that power had gone forth from him, immediately turned about in the crowd, and said, "Who touched my garments?" 31And his disciples said to him, "You see the crowd pressing around you, and yet you say, 'Who touched me?'" 32And he looked around to see who had done it. 33But the woman, knowing what had been done to her, came in fear and trembling and fell down before him, and told him the whole truth. 34And he said to her, "Daughter, your faith has made you well; go in peace, and be healed of your disease."

35While he was still speaking, there came from the ruler's house some who said, "Your daughter is dead. Why trouble the Teacher any further?" 36But ignoring what they said, Jesus said to the ruler of the synagogue, "Do not fear, only believe." 37And he allowed no one to follow him except Peter and James and John the brother of James. 38When they came to the house of the ruler of the synagogue, he saw a tumult, and people weeping and wailing loudly. 39And when he had entered, he said to them, "Why do you make a tumult and weep? The child is not dead but sleeping." 40And they laughed at him. But he put them all outside, and took the child's father and mother and those who were with him, and went in where the child was. 41Taking her by the hand he said to her, "Tal'itha cu'mi"; which means, "Little girl, I say to you, arise." 42And immediately the girl got up and walked (she was twelve years of age), and they were immediately overcome with amazement. 43And he strictly charged them that no one should know this, and told them to give her something to eat.

Jairus's Daughter: an Example of Mark’s Literary Skill

Professor L. Michael White told PBS: “One of the best examples of Mark's literary craft is the way he weaves stories together. A good example is the double miracle of the raising of Jairus daughter and the healing of the woman with the hemorrhage or menstrual disorder. Now originally, these must have been two completely distinct and independent miracle stories. Mark puts them together by actually weaving the story of the little girl who dies, around the story of the older woman who is healed, and we can see that Mark is telling the story in such a way, as to make the stories read together, to make elementsfrom one miracle flow into the other. For example, the little girl is 12 years old.... [Source: L. Michael White, Professor of Classics and Director of the Religious Studies Program University of Texas at Austin, Frontline, PBS, April 1998]

Raising of Jairus's Daughter by William Blake

“The way Mark tells the story, it goes like this. Jesus is on his way one day, and is asked to come heal the young daughter, age 12, of a prominent synagogue official. His name is Jairus. While Jesus is on the way to heal this little girl, he's going through the crowds and all of a sudden he's touched by a woman with a menstrual disorder. This interrupts the story momentarily and it's at this point that we actually see Mark inserting into the story of Jairus' daughter this separate miracle about the woman. Now, in the encounter between Jesus and the woman we have a very interesting play of symbols. ... The woman has a menstrual disorder. She's had it for 12 years, the same length of time that the little girl has been alive. So, the two elements in the story are starting to play together. The fact that the woman touches Jesus, though, because of purity regulations, means that she would have in fact, made Jesus impure. He shouldn't now be going to deal with a synagogue official, after having been contaminated by her impurity. So, there are plays of purity and impurity, of age, of her womanly status and the virginal status of the little girl and so on. There are a number of these kinds of dramatic elements that play through the story. So, each story is being set up to play off of the other.

“What's significant is the woman is the one who recognizes Jesus, and reaches out and touches him and at that very moment is immediately healed. He doesn't do a thing. He feels the power rush from him and only then turns to encounter her and comment on her faith. In the process, while delaying to deal with her, the little girl dies and now when he proceeds on to the next stage of the story, he has to not only heal her but raise her from the dead....The dramatic conclusion to the story is when Jairus greets Jesus at the door and says never mind, she's already dead. Jairus, the synagogue official, doesn't understand who Jesus really is, what he can really do. He doesn't know what the woman did and yet, she's the last kind of person you would have expected to have that kind of religious knowledge in the first century. She's a marginal character and yet she brings a great deal of insight to Jesus' true identity.

“Then Jesus proceeds to raise the little girl from the dead, thereby proving what his powers are really all about, after all, and in some ways, it's a kind of a symbolic moment because it's all foreshadowing his own resurrection from the dead....

Parables in Mark

Mark narrates several parables and explains their purpose in Mark 4.11-34: The Purpose of the Parables: 11And he said to them, "To you has been given the secret of the kingdom of God, but for those outside everything is in parables; 12so that they may indeed see but not perceive, and may indeed hear but not understand; lest they should turn again, and be forgiven." 13And he said to them, "Do you not understand this parable? How then will you understand all the parables? 14The sower sows the word. 15And these are the ones along the path, where the word is sown; when they hear, Satan immediately comes and takes away the word which is sown in them. 16And these in like manner are the ones sown upon rocky ground, who, when they hear the word, immediately receive it with joy; 17and they have no root in themselves, but endure for a while; then, when tribulation or persecution arises on account of the word, immediately they fall away. 18And others are the ones sown among thorns; they are those who hear the word, 19but the cares of the world, and the delight in riches, and the desire for other things, enter in and choke the word, and it proves unfruitful. 20But those that were sown upon the good soil are the ones who hear the word and accept it and bear fruit, thirtyfold and sixtyfold and a hundredfold...: 33With many such parables he spoke the word to them, as they were able to hear it; 34he did not speak to them without a parable, but privately to his own disciples he explained everything.

A Lamp Under a Bushel Basket: 21And he said to them, "Is a lamp brought in to be put under a bushel, or under a bed, and not on a stand? 22For there is nothing hid, except to be made manifest; nor is anything secret, except to come to light. 23If any man has ears to hear, let him hear." 24And he said to them, "Take heed what you hear; the measure you give will be the measure you get, and still more will be given you. 25For to him who has will more be given; and from him who has not, even what he has will be taken away."

Parable of the Growing Seed

The Parable of the Growing Seed: 26And he said, "The kingdom of God is as if a man should scatter seed upon the ground, 27and should sleep and rise night and day, and the seed should sprout and grow, he knows not how. 28The earth produces of itself, first the blade, then the ear, then the full grain in the ear. 29But when the grain is ripe, at once he puts in the sickle, because the harvest has come."

The Parable of the Mustard Seed: 30And he said, "With what can we compare the kingdom of God, or what parable shall we use for it? 31It is like a grain of mustard seed, which, when sown upon the ground, is the smallest of all the seeds on earth; 32yet when it is sown it grows up and becomes the greatest of all shrubs, and puts forth large branches, so that the birds of the air can make nests in its shade."

The Lesson of the Fig Tree: Mark 13: 28 "From the fig tree learn its lesson: as soon as its branch becomes tender and puts forth its leaves, you know that summer is near. 29So also, when you see these things taking place, you know that he is near, at the very gates. 30Truly, I say to you, this generation will not pass away before all these things take place. 31Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away.

The Necessity for Watchfulness: Mark 13: 32 "But of that day or that hour no one knows, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father. 33Take heed, watch; for you do not know when the time will come. 34It is like a man going on a journey, when he leaves home and puts his servants in charge, each with his work, and commands the doorkeeper to be on the watch. 35Watch therefore — for you do not know when the master of the house will come, in the evening, or at midnight, or at cockcrow, or in the morning — 36lest he come suddenly and find you asleep. 37And what I say to you I say to all: Watch."

Parables Conceal True Message

Professor L. Michael White told PBS: “One of the peculiar features of Mark's gospel in its presentation of Jesus is that, when Jesus teaches he often actually conceals the significance of his own words from the the popular audiences, and directs it only to his own disciples. Everyone will recognize that Jesus teaches in parables. But, in Mark's gospel, when Jesus teaches in parables, it says explicitly that he does so in order to keep people from understanding his messages. He teaches in these metaphors and in these word pictures so that people will not understand. It's a very different understanding of Jesus than what we might have assumed, traditionally, I think.... [Source: L. Michael White, Professor of Classics and Director of the Religious Studies Program University of Texas at Austin, Frontline, PBS, April 1998 ]

Parable of the Fig Tree

“This motif of Jesus concealing things and the fact that the disciples characteristically misunderstand is part of Mark's way of re-interpreting the story of Jesus for the post-war audience. They're the ones who are supposed to understand. Mark is really taking a stock of traditional stories about Jesus that have been passed on now, through oral tradition. And, is assembling those in such a way as to provide a new interpretation, a new experience of Jesus, for his audience....

“The fact that Mark is clearly reflecting on the destruction of the Temple as part of his understanding of the significance of the life and death of Jesus is a crucial interconnection in this gospel. By interweaving stories, Mark also makes the death of Jesus and the rejection of Jesus central to the story that results in the destruction of the Temple. Thus, the story of the cleansing of the Temple in Mark's gospel is really Jesus' way, according to Mark, of showing that the Temple is not bearing its proper fruit. Jesus also then curses a fig tree and the two stories are woven together, in Mark, in such a way that the symbolism carries over from one to the next. Jesus is standing against the Temple, in Mark's gospel and Mark wants us to understand that that's significant to why he must die and why Jerusalem will be destroyed.

Death of Jesus in Mark

Marilyn Mellowes wrote: “In Mark's story, Jesus is buried in a tomb. Mark's original ending of the gospel does not contain an account of the resurrection; that ending, now contained in the gospel of the New Testament, was added by a later author. Mark ended his work on a stark note. Two women enter the tomb, and they see a young man dressed in white. He explains that Jesus has been raised, and he instructs the women to tell Peter and the other disciples. The women flee in terror. [Source: Marilyn Mellowes, Frontline, PBS, April 1998]

Professor L. Michael White told PBS: “Mark's gospel is also the first one that really tells us the passion narrative in as much detail. And the way Mark tells the tells the story of the death of Jesus... is to see him as a lonely figure who goes to his death abandoned by all of his followers and supporters and even abandoned by his God. Jesus from the cross says ..., "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me"? The Jesus of Mark's gospel is a lonely figure, at times, waiting for the vindication of God. [Source: L. Michael White, Professor of Classics and Director of the Religious Studies Program University of Texas at Austin, Frontline, PBS, April 1998]

Empty Tomb by Fra Angelico

On the Anointing at Bethany: Mark 14.3 - 9: reads: “3And while he was at Bethany in the house of Simon the leper, as he sat at table, a woman came with an alabaster flask of ointment of pure nard, very costly, and she broke the flask and poured it over his head. 4But there were some who said to themselves indignantly, "Why was the ointment thus wasted? 5For this ointment might have been sold for more than three hundred denarii, and given to the poor." And they reproached her. 6But Jesus said, "Let her alone; why do you trouble her? She has done a beautiful thing to me. 7For you always have the poor with you, and whenever you will, you can do good to them; but you will not always have me. 8She has done what she could; she has anointed my body beforehand for burying. 9And truly, I say to you, wherever the gospel is preached in the whole world, what she has done will be told in memory of her."

The Empty Tomb: Mark 16.1-8: “1And when the sabbath was past, Mary Mag'dalene, and Mary the mother of James, and Salo'me, bought spices, so that they might go and anoint him. 2And very early on the first day of the week they went to the tomb when the sun had risen. 3And they were saying to one another, "Who will roll away the stone for us from the door of the tomb?" 4And looking up, they saw that the stone was rolled back; — it was very large. 5And entering the tomb, they saw a young man sitting on the right side, dressed in a white robe; and they were amazed. 6And he said to them, "Do not be amazed; you seek Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified. He has risen, he is not here; see the place where they laid him. 7But go, tell his disciples and Peter that he is going before you to Galilee; there you will see him, as he told you." 8And they went out and fled from the tomb; for trembling and astonishment had come upon them; and they said nothing to any one, for they were afraid.

Mark on Jesus’ Prophecies

The Destruction of the Temple Foretold: Mark 13: 1And as he came out of the temple, one of his disciples said to him, "Look, Teacher, what wonderful stones and what wonderful buildings!" 2And Jesus said to him, "Do you see these great buildings? There will not be left here one stone upon another, that will not be thrown down."

3And as he sat on the Mount of Olives opposite the temple, Peter and James and John and Andrew asked him privately, 4"Tell us, when will this be, and what will be the sign when these things are all to be accomplished?" 5And Jesus began to say to them, "Take heed that no one leads you astray. 6Many will come in my name, saying, 'I am he!' and they will lead many astray. 7And when you hear of wars and rumors of wars, do not be alarmed; this must take place, but the end is not yet. 8For nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom; there will be earthquakes in various places, there will be famines; this is but the beginning of the birth-pangs.

Persecution Foretold: 9"But take heed to yourselves; for they will deliver you up to councils; and you will be beaten in synagogues; and you will stand before governors and kings for my sake, to bear testimony before them. 10And the gospel must first be preached to all nations. 11And 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. 12And brother will deliver up brother to death, and the father his child, and children will rise against parents and have them put to death; 13and you will be hated by all for my name's sake. But he who endures to the end will be saved.

The Desolating Sacrilege: 14"But when you see the desolating sacrilege set up where it ought not to be (let the reader understand), then let those who are in Judea flee to the mountains; 15let him who is on the housetop not go down, nor enter his house, to take anything away; 16and let him who is in the field not turn back to take his mantle. 17And alas for those who are with child and for those who give suck in those days! 18Pray that it may not happen in winter. 19For in those days there will be such tribulation as has not been from the beginning of the creation which God created until now, and never will be. 20And if the Lord had not shortened the days, no human being would be saved; but for the sake of the elect, whom he chose, he shortened the days. 21And then if any one says to you, 'Look, here is the Christ!' or 'Look, there he is!' do not believe it. 22False Christs and false prophets will arise and show signs and wonders, to lead astray, if possible, the elect. 23But take heed; I have told you all things beforehand.

Destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem

The Coming Son of Man: 24"But in those days, after that tribulation, the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light, 25and the stars will be falling from heaven, and the powers in the heavens will be shaken. 26And then they will see the Son of man coming in clouds with great power and glory. 27And then he will send out the angels, and gather his elect from the four winds, from the ends of the earth to the ends of heaven.

Codex Bobiensis Describes Jesus Praying to a Greek God and Leaves Out the Lord’s Prayer

In an important ancient copy of Mark, the oldest surviving Latin gospel Jesus, there is an interesting take on the crucifixion. Instead of crying out to the Christian god, “My God, My God why have you forsaken me?”, Jesus seems to call out to the Greek sun-god Helios instead. The book in question is the Codex Bobiensis, currently housed at the Turin National Library.

Candida Moss wrote in Daily Beast: Though some manuscripts are ornate or difficult to read, Bobiensis is refreshingly clear; the letters are even and, in as much as it is easy for anyone to read ancient manuscripts, it is comparably straightforward to follow. This late fourth or early fifth century book (or ‘codex’ as scholars call it) had come to Italy from North Africa by mistake, when Irish monks mistakenly associated it with the missionary St. Columba and placed it in a monastery in Bobbio. Though the book itself is incomplete and preserves only portions of Matthew and Mark, there’s enough material in it that scholars can draw some conclusions about its age and contents. Some date the version of the gospels in the book as early as the third century and connect it to the Bible used by Cyprian, a famous mid-third century Carthaginian bishop and martyr. Given that there are no first century manuscripts of the New Testament and there are only a few fragments that have survived from the second, it’s a very important text and earlier than the majority of Greek manuscripts. [Source: Candida Moss, Daily Beast, March 29, 2020]

Despite its ties to what someone who might figuratively be called an early Christian celebrity, most people and even most New Testament scholars don’t know much about this early Christian text. This is in part because it’s in Latin rather than Greek, but also because Bobiensis has some very peculiar, even shocking, features. In the portions of the gospels that have been preserved, sections of the story are missing. In some places the manuscript uses non-standard abbreviations for the sacred names of ‘God,’ ‘Lord,’ and ‘Jesus.’ Where Christian manuscripts would normally have IHS (derived from the Greek for Jesus) this manuscript has it spelled differently. There is even a mistake in the Lord’s Prayer (more on that later). But the most striking and, you might say, theologically troubling places are those instances in the life of Jesus where the copyist has substituted the name of pagan deities “Helion” (god of the sun) and Jove (Zeus) instead of the words for “Eloi” (the Aramaic for “my God”) and “sheep.” Many scribes make mistakes when transcribing and copying texts — our best guess for professional copyists is about one per page — but these kinds of errors are difficult to explain.

Explanations for Why the Codex Bobiensis Is the Way It Is

Candida Moss wrote in Daily Beast: What kind of Christian doesn’t know the Lord’s Prayer? A non-Christian, or at least that’s the conclusion to which many scholars have come in the past. No Christian or Christian-employed slave copyist would have erratically omitted parts of the Jesus story. The book must have come from a different kind of source, most likely a late fourth-century North African bookshop. But book manufacturing, like any kind of luxury goods industry, was an expensive business. Parchment was costly and literary slaves were expensive. It’s easy to imagine how a pragmatic bookseller, who was painfully aware of his bottom line, instructed his copyist, who was clearly no Christian either, to leave certain portions out. The less parchment that was used in the production of this book, the greater the bookseller’s margins and potential profit would be. [Source: Candida Moss, Daily Beast, March 29, 2020]

But now scholar Matthew Larsen, of Princeton University and the author of Gospels Before the Book, has another explanation for Bobiensis’ peculiarity. Larsen told the Daily Beast that in a fourth or fifth century North African context, Jesus’ address to Helios isn’t as strange as it at first seems. During a visit to a late fourth century baptistery last October, Larsen “saw that in the very place where people would have stood while being baptized, there was not a quotation from scripture but a clear allusion to Virgilian poetry.” You can imagine, argues Larsen, “a community [like this one] using this type of gospel, with its strange readings about Helios and Jove.”

As early as the second century, added Larsen “we have evidence of Christians thinking about Jesus’ death and resurrection in association with the setting and rising of the sun, and in the third and fourth century we see a blending of imagery of Christ and Sol Invictus.” The person who made Bobiensis would not have been alone in incorporating sun-god imagery into Christianity, he would just be the first to integrate that idea into scripture itself. Of course, for modern Christians, the idea that Jesus (or any early Christians) believed in and spoke to Helios is deeply problematic. It’s one thing to say that Christians utilized pagan iconography in their artistic depictions of Jesus (which they did), but the idea that Jesus called out to Helios in his dying breath is considerably more challenging. Did Jesus believe in Helios? Almost certainly not, but it might be the case that some ancient Christians did and transposed their beliefs onto him.

Brent Nongbri, a professor at the Norwegian School of Theology, said that some differences in Bobiensis are just accidents, “But in other cases, it's pretty certain that either the copyist of Bobiensis or one of its ancestor manuscripts intentionally changed the text to clarify its meaning.” For instance, later in the Lord's Prayer (Matthew 6:13), the copyist of Bobiensis writes “Don't allow us to be led into temptation" rather than the standard “Lead us not into temptation.” Interestingly, this is the same kind of clarification about the origins of temptation that Pope Francis tried to implement last year. Nongbri told me, “Maybe someone was thinking along the same lines as Pope Francis and absolving God of the act of leading humans into temptation.”

Larsen pointed out that while diverging versions of the Lord’s Prayer seem almost blasphemous to us today, there were at least three other versions of the Lord’s Prayer used in the ancient world, so perhaps this version is not so strange. This manuscript is evidence of the diversity of thought and practice among early Christians. Larsen likened it to modern sports rituals: “Maybe the state of the Lord’s Prayer in Late Antiquity was a bit more like when my football team used to say the Lord’s Prayer together before a game and at two or three lines of the prayer the team would break unison and diverge into different versions of the prayer practiced by the communities we had all come from.” If that’s the case, then Pope Francis should be delighted to have an important early manuscript on his side.

Image Sources: Wikimedia, Commons

Text Sources: Internet Ancient History Sourcebook: Christian Origins sourcebooks.fordham.edu “World Religions” edited by Geoffrey Parrinder (Facts on File); “ Encyclopedia of the World’s Religions” edited by R.C. Zaehner (Barnes & Noble Books, 1959); King James Version of the Bible, gutenberg.org; New International Version (NIV) of The Bible, biblegateway.com; Christian Classics Ethereal Library (CCEL) ccel.org , Frontline, PBS, Wikipedia, BBC, National Geographic, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Live Science, Encyclopedia.com, Archaeology magazine, Reuters, Associated Press, Business Insider, AFP, Library of Congress, Lonely Planet Guides, Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.

Last updated March 2024

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