On The Gospel of Mark

On The Gospel of Mark August 17, 2021

In the closing stages of writing my latest book, The Resurrection: A Critical Examination of the Easter Story [UK] (please grab yourself a copy!), I had a few test readers. One was David Austin, down in Australia, who has provided a few guest articles for your delectation. Here is another one from David – thanks muchly to him (as I am insanely busy researching the hell out of the Pentateuch):

The Gospel of Mark

As with the other gospels, the Gospel of Mark is anonymous. There is nothing in the text to identify the author. The name “Mark” was appended to this gospel, probably in the 2nd Century, and it was thought to be so named because of a character called “John Mark” who was, supposedly, a companion of Peter.

Initially, Mark was thought to be just a “condensed” version of Matthew’s gospel, but on closer inspection, it was realised that, in fact, Mark pre-dates Matthew, since Matthew corrects errors in Mark (One would hardly deliberately introduce errors if you were just copying and condensing somebody’s earlier work).

It is generally considered that Mark was written sometime after 70 CE, since he makes references to the destruction of the Jerusalem temple which occurred at that date. It is also thought that Mark was probably a Gentile Christian, living outside Judea as he makes errors in Jewish customs and Palestinian geography (see below).

It is also generally agreed that Matthew and Luke used Mark’s gospel as a source for their gospels, which is why Mark, Matthew and Luke’s gospels are called the “Synoptic” gospels (meaning “seen together”). John’s gospel also seems to use Mark’s gospel as a “template” for his gospel, but his content differs significantly from the Synoptics.

Mark’s gospel is the shortest of all the gospels, amounting to just 16 Chapters, but is famous (or maybe infamous) for not having any post-mortem appearances of Jesus, just an “Empty Tomb”. The final chapter of Mark reads:-

 “When the sabbath was over, Mary Magdalene, and Mary the mother of James, and Salome bought spices, so that they might go and anoint him. And very early on the first day of the week, when the sun had risen, they went to the tomb. They had been saying to one another, ‘Who will roll away the stone for us from the entrance to the tomb?’ When they looked up, they saw that the stone, which was very large, had already been rolled back. As they entered the tomb, they saw a young man, dressed in a white robe, sitting on the right side; and they were alarmed. But he said to them, ‘Do not be alarmed; you are looking for Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified. He has been raised; he is not here. Look, there is the place they laid him. But go, tell his disciples and Peter that he is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him, just as he told you.’ So they went out and fled from the tomb, for terror and amazement had seized them; and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.

It is curious that no explanation is given for how or why the stone was rolled away, why they were coming to “anoint” the body, and how they would be able to buy spices during a Passover festival. (Matthew tries to explain the moving stone with mention of an earthquake, and John has Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus treating the body with spices, with women looking on, so they would know that no “anointing” would have been necessary. There would certainly be no reason to “anoint” a body after interment). Also, there is no explanation as to why the women would be afraid. After all, they had only encountered a man (not a ghost, a zombie, or similar) at the tomb. If Jesus had actually been resurrected, they should be joyful, not afraid (Matthew 28:8 “So they left the tomb quickly with fear and great joy, and ran to tell his disciples”).

One hypothesis as to why Mark ended his gospel this way, is that Mark was the first writer to introduce the concept of an “Empty Tomb” (ie to verify a missing body), which was a way of emphasising that Jesus’s resurrection was “physical” not “spiritual”. Obviously, if Jesus had been buried in some mass grave or communal criminal mausoleum (as would normally follow a crucifixion for sedition), it would have been impossible to confirm a missing body. Mark then used the idea of the women “said nothing to anyone” so as to explain why nobody had heard of the “Empty Tomb” before.

In a YouTube video, Dr Mark Goodacre (a renowned New Testament researcher) speculates that Mark’s gospel might have been written as a prologue or prequel to Paul’s “appearance” narrative in 1 Corinthians 15:5-8 “he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve. Then he appeared to more than five hundred brothers and sisters[c] at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have died.[d]Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles. Last of all, as to someone untimely born, he appeared also to me.”. Thus, in this scenario, the writer of Mark may have assumed that his readers would have been familiar with Paul’s writings, and, therefore, he wouldn’t have needed to elaborate on the post-resurrection sightings.

Whatever the reason, early Christians were unhappy with the ending of Mark. It seems plausible that without the resurrection appearance, opponents of Christianity could claim that the disciples just stole the body, and then announced a resurrection. The “man” at the tomb could easily have been a grave robber, or an apostle of Jesus, unknown to the women, who just announces that Jesus was “raised”, but in fact had assisted with moving the body of Jesus. This was obviously an uncomfortable situation for early Christians, so several additional verses were added to later manuscripts, to include “appearances” to the women and disciples.

Mark, unlike Matthew and Luke, has no nativity narrative. The gospel starts with Jesus as an adult being baptised by John the Baptist. This baptism is a bit of an embarrassment for later gospel writers, since baptism was supposedly for the remission of sin, and yet Jesus was supposedly “sinless”. Later gospels downplayed this baptism for that reason. There is also a suggestion of “Adoptionism” in Mark’s account where a dove, symbolising the “Holy Spirit”, descends on Jesus, and then a voice from heaven (presumably God’s voice) addressing Jesus directly saying  You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”. Adoptionism was an early Christology (ie the nature of Jesus), where Jesus was presumed to be a fully human sinless person “adopted” by God as his “son” to perform wondrous deeds (eg miracles, exorcisms and healings), but the Holy Spirit had to leave Jesus at his crucifixion (gods cannot die), hence Jesus’s cry of dereliction “My God, My God why have you forsaken me”. Later, this Christology was declared heretical, which may explain why Matthew and Luke have Nativity narratives to proclaim that Jesus was divine from conception with Mary being made pregnant by the “Holy Spirit”. John’s gospel goes even further, and proclaims Jesus to be divine at “Creation”.

Mark has Jesus starting his ministry and calling his disciples after John the Baptist was arrested, but John’s gospel has John the Baptist still performing baptisms even during the time Jesus had disciples and was conducting his ministry (ie before John the Baptist’s arrest).

Mark introduces many miracles (about 20 in total), most of which are repeated by later gospel writers. There seem to be only two that are unique to Mark, the healing of a deaf and dumb man (Mark 7:31-37 – by putting his fingers in the man’s ears and spitting and touching the man’s tongue) and healing a blind man at Bethsaida (Mark 8:22-26 – by putting saliva on the man’s eyes, and later by touching the man’s eyes – Note took two tries to cure the man’s blindness). It is curious that Mark (also Matthew and Luke) make no mention of one of the most impressive miracles, the “Raising of Lazarus” who had been dead for four days, and was “stinking”. This is only found in the gospel of John, and apparently was the trigger for the Chief Priests to plot Jesus’s death. According to Mark (also Matthew and Luke) the trigger was Jesus’s “Cleansing of the Temple” (This event is related in John at the start of Jesus’s ministry, not the end).

As mentioned before, Mark seems unfamiliar with the geography of Judea and Jewish customs:-

As an example of geographic confusion, in Mark 7:31 he has Jesus travelling from Tyre to the Sea of Galilee via Sidon, but the Sea of Galilee is southeast of Tyre, and Sidon is north of Tyre (ie heading towards Sidon would be completely in the opposite direction). Also, in the demoniac incident, Jesus apparently crosses the Sea of Galilee and arrives at Gerasa (supposedly close to the Sea of Galilee), and when the demons enter the pigs they go over a cliff into the sea and drown. Unfortunately, Gerasa is more than 50km from any body of water.

An additional geographical error occurs in Mark’s “Jesus walks on water” episode. In Mark, this event happens immediately after the “Feeding of the 5,000” which Luke claims happened near Bethsaida. Mark has Jesus telling the disciples to “get into the boat and go ahead of him to Bethsaida”. However, since they were already near Bethsaida, why would they need to get into a boat and cross the Sea of Galilee to get there? They do eventually arrive at Gennesaret, which is across the Sea of Galilee, but John’s gospel said they arrived at Capernaum, not Gennesaret; so which was it?.

[Side Note – Mentioning the “Feeding of the 5,000” where Jesus feeds 5,000 people with 5 loaves and 2 fish, brings up a later incident in Mark, namely the “Feeding of the 4,000”. In this narrative, the disciples show themselves to be extremely dense when they ask Jesus “How can one feed these people with bread here in the desert?”. Hadn’t they just witnessed Jesus feeding 5,000 people with 5 loaves and 2 fish? Feeding 4,000 should be so easy? This time it took 7 loaves and a few fish.]

As for Customs, Mark 10:11-12 implies that women can divorce their husbands, but by Jewish Law, women had no right to divorce (Roman Law did allow this).

Another error in Mark is found in Chapter 6:14-29 recounting the execution of John the Baptist. Mark throughout this chapter refers to “King Herod”, whereas, in fact, Herod Antipas (the Herod referred to in this passage) was never a “King”, he was actually a “Tetrarch” (ie one controlling one-quarter of a territory). King Herod is the term normally applied the Herod Antipas’s father – Herod the Great.

(Side Note – Matthew tries to correct this error, and changes “King” to “Tetrarch” at the beginning of this narrative, but due to “Editorial fatigue”, forgets to correct the use of “King” later in the passage. See here for further information.)

There is another anomaly concerning the execution of John the Baptist. Mark states that Herod Antipas imprisoned John the Baptist, because he criticised Herod for divorcing his first wife and then marrying his brother’s wife (Herodias). Later, Mark describes a birthday party for Herod Antipas, presumably at his palace in Tiberias on the Western shore of the Sea of Galilee. At the party, the daughter of Herodias, after dancing for Herod Antipas, requests the head of John the Baptist. Now, John the Baptist was imprisoned at Herod Antipas’s prison, Machaerus (near the Dead Sea). The distance between Tiberias and Machaerus is over 100 miles, so a round trip of at least 200 miles. There is no way someone could travel that distance, behead John the Baptist, and return with his head, before the birthday party had finished. It would take several days to travel that distance. The whole story is a fiction, especially since Josephus claims that John the Baptist was executed by Herod Antipas, because he feared that John would foment a rebellion against his rule, and had nothing to do with Herod’s divorce and remarriage.

In summary, Mark’s gospel shows all the signs of being composed by human hand, with all its errors and inconsistencies, with no indication of divine inspiration.

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