The Jesus Secret: A Commentary on the Gospel of Mark


The Gospel of Mark shows us that secrecy and fear are inextricably linked. After all, it was under the cloak of darkness, that the scribes and chief priests sent men to arrest Jesus.


We read that when Judas betrayed Jesus with a kiss, a group of armed men seized him. At which point, “Jesus said to them, ‘Have you come out as against a robber with swords and clubs, to capture me? Day after day I was with you in the temple teaching, and you did not seize me. But let the scriptures be fulfilled.”[1]


In this passage, Jesus is asking them rhetorically why they would choose to capture him in the middle of the night, in secret, when they had every opportunity to do it in the light of day. The answer to this question is obvious: it is because they feared him. This theme of secrecy and fear is at the forefront of Mark’s Gospel, and it serves a very important role in helping us to understand, not only the life and teachings of Jesus, but also the historical backdrop in which the Gospel is set.


After Jesus’s arrest, the Gospel of Mark tells us that all of those who were with Jesus fled. Well, all except for one. As we continue on, we read that “A young man followed him with nothing but a linen cloth about his body; and [the group of men who captured Jesus] seized him, but he left the linen cloth and ran away naked.”[2]


The two obvious questions that this passage raises are who is this brave “young man” that followed Jesus even when his closest followers did not, and what is his significance in the Gospel? To discover the answer to these questions, one has to fully understand the theme, content, and purpose of the Gospel of Mark.



A “When - Who - What - Why”

Overview of Mark’s Gospel


When?


The Gospel of Mark is considered by most modern scholars to be the first Gospel written. It is typically dated sometime between 64 and 70 AD, between the crucifixion of Peter and the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem.[3] The majority of biblical scholars believe that Mark’s Gospel was one of the main sources for the Gospels of Matthew and Luke, which explains all of the stories in Matthew and Luke that are written near verbatim to those in Mark. [I, on the other hand, am in alignment with the Griesbach Hypothesis and believe that the Gospel of Mark was actually written third, and that the overlap that the three Gospels share comes from Mark compiling and harmonizing the Gospels of Matthew and Luke into one work (I delve into this in much greater detail in my essay on the Synoptic Problem)]


Despite, my belief that Mark was written third chronologically, it does not change the fact that I am actually in agreement with most scholars about the date of Mark. This is due to the fact that I subscribe to the Gospel dating proposed by scholar John A.T. Robinson in his extensively researched work, Redating the Gospels. So where most scholars see Mark as the first Gospel written in 64-70 AD, I see it as the third Gospel written at nearly the same time (with Matthew and Luke both written in the 50's as opposed to the 70s and 80s like most scholars contend).


All that being said, the point is, the Gospel of Mark was written within three to four decades of the death of Jesus, and because of its temporal proximity to the events, many scholars (especially those that subscribe to Markan priority) view the Gospel of Mark as the most historically reliable gospel. This conclusion, however, is not without its problems. I will explore those problems in greater detail later in this post. For now, what is important to know is the time in which the Gospel of Mark was written (64-70 AD) and the real life events that were taking place in and around Jerusalem at the time (e.g. violence against Christians, the siege of Jerusalem and the destruction of the Temple).


Who?


There is much debate among scholars, whether or not Mark is the actual author of the Gospel that bears his name. Challenging the burgeoning majority, I believe that Mark did in fact write the Gospel of Mark. The first reason, is the proverbial elephant in the room of this discussion: Mark’s obscure position in the early church. That is, the question must be asked of those who deny that Mark is the author: if one were going to apply a fictional name to a Gospel as a way to give it more credibility and authority, then why not pick someone who was definitively closer to Jesus — the name of one of the twelve apostles for instance. Of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, only two of them are among the twelve apostles, and thus “verified” eyewitnesses to the ministry of Jesus. Mark, on the other hand is a figure that many lay Christians know very little about, and because of his obfuscation, he is therefore not seen as the definitively authoritative voice that some of these skeptical scholars insist that he is.


What I find of particular interest in this debate of Gospel authorship is that scholars will vehemently deny that Matthew or John wrote their respective Gospels, yet Luke’s authorship is not really challenged at all. I believe that this is because Matthew and John were eyewitnesses to Jesus and Luke admittedly was not. Therefore, Luke's authorship is accepted because it is of no real threat to atheistic/agnostic scholars who want to keep the life of Jesus at arm’s length, so to speak.


What is more, it is for this same reason that I believe that scholars seem to be split on the legitimacy of Mark’s authorship. It is possible that he may have witnessed Jesus, so that question of whether or not he did, keeps his authorship suspended in the same question of whether or not he did. (See how it works?)


The truth is Mark is a much more allusive figure than most scholars are comfortable with. They often have a lot of difficulty pinning him down. There are two schools of skeptical thought in regards to Mark. I have already alluded to the first school; it is those that see Mark as such an important figure in the early church — just on the periphery of Christ — that someone in the early church simply used Mark’s name and all its cachet to add authenticity to the Gospel. To this point, I have already argued: if the goal was simply to apply a name of an important person around Jesus as a way to to give the Gospel authority, why not choose someone who was without a doubt a witness to Christ such as one of the twelve apostles. What is ironic, is that the second school of skeptical thought about Mark actually proves this first point for me. This second group of skeptical scholars often have no problem accepting Mark’s authorship, because they contend that the significance of Mark in scripture is exaggerated, and thus to use him as some kind of authority is meaningless anyway. Let me further explain this point.


You probably did not know this, but Mark is mentioned in the New Testament, (outside of the Gospel of Mark) [at least] seven times in five different books. Those who question Mark’s significance in the early church, oftentimes attempt to challenge the belief that all of these invocations of Mark are referring to the same person. In fact, the second/third century Christian historian, Hippolytus of Rome, denies that all of the references to “Mark” are referring to the same man.[4] And, what is more, within the church calendar there are separate feast days for the different “Marks.” Thus, it would appear that even the church supports this multi-Mark belief as well. However, that is not exactly true, for within the church itself there are many (if not the majority) that believe that all mentions of Mark are in fact referencing the same man.


In Biblical scholarship, there are a lot of contentions that I do not necessarily agree with, but I can usually at least understand the other side of the argument. In studying scripture you have to sometimes just make your case the best you can, and then let the argument go, knowing that you cannot necessarily “prove” your side of the debate. For instance, I can accept people challenging the authorship of Mark’s Gospel, and truth be told, neither side can effectively “prove” the truth of this point one way or another. They can simply gather the evidence they have, in order to draw likely conclusions. But all of that being said, this argument that not all of the mentions of Mark are referring to the same person — Mark the Evangelist — is such a poorly thought out argument, that in this particular case of Biblical scholarship I believe that I can in fact prove beyond a reasonable doubt that it is the same person referred to all seven times.


At this point, you may be thinking: even if I can prove that all New Testament mentions of Mark are referring to the same person, I already admitted that I cannot definitively prove that the Gospel of Mark was authored by him, so what is the point of all of this? The point is, once you understand who Mark truly is, using scripture to uncover his character, the likelihood of you believing that he also wrote the Gospel that bears his name increases exponentially.


First, let us look at the New Testament mentions of Mark, in order to construct a timeline and character study of this man, and the events that surround him. Fortunately, the first mention of Mark in the New Testament (not including his own Gospel) is also in chronological order. That is, in the twelfth chapter of the Book of Acts, we read of how King Herod began to deal with leaders of the church violently. First he killed James the brother of John, and then he imprisoned Peter. However, before Herod could present Peter as a prize to the people, in order to please them with his capture. We read that an angel appeared and helped break Peter out of prison. After Peter had escaped he decided to seek refuge in the home of a trusted friend. It is written, Peter “went to the house of Mary, the mother of John whose other name was Mark.”[5] When Peter came knocking on their door, they were in disbelief and thought that he was merely an angel. “But motioning with his hand to be silent, he described to them how the Lord had brought him out of the prison. And he said, ‘Tell this to James and the brethren.’”[6]


We can see in this passage that when Peter was in desperate need of help, he turned to “John whose other name was Mark.” And if going to his home in his hour of need was not enough to reveal the close bond between Peter and Mark, the fact that Peter told him the story of the angel, and asked him to relay the tale to James, shows us that his trust in Mark is absolute. Furthermore, this apparent love that Peter had for Mark seems to be confirmed at the end of the First Letter of Peter, when he refers to him as “my son Mark.”[7]


The fourth century Christian historian Eusebius, confirms this unbreakable bond between Peter and Mark. Eusebius writes that, “Peter’s hearers, not satisfied with a single hearing or with unwritten teaching of the divine message, pleaded with Mark, whose Gospel we have, to leave them a written summary of the teaching given them verbally, since he was a follower of Peter. Nor did they cease until they persuaded him, and so caused the writing of what is called the Gospel according to Mark.”[8] In other words, the early followers of Christ, saw Mark in the same way that Peter saw him, which is to say, he was seen as the ideal person to relay Peter’s miraculous stories of the Lord to others.


It is clear that Eusebius believes that Mark was the author of the Gospel of Mark, and he has even given us a reason to believe it. Let us continue looking at the rest of the mentions of Mark in the New Testament in order to confirm or deny this theory.