Theology of Mark

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A growing consensus has emerged in recent years that the sacred evangelists were both historians and theologians. They produced accurate histories of the life of Christ and at the same time preached its implications for life in the church. Further, each evangelist had a distinctive message, seen in the way he selected and omitted certain scenes and details. It is therefore accurate to speak of a "theology of Mark." His major themes will here be traced and an attempt made to delineate the way in which each is seen throughout his Gospel.

Christology

The book itself declares that it is "the gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God." There is a great difference of opinion as to the central emphasis in this regard. Many have thought that Christ/Messiah is predominant and expresses Mark's portrayal of Jesus as the antitype of the suffering servant of Yahweh. This is then linked to a royal stress in King of Israel (15:32), i.e., in Mark the servant becomes messianic King. While this is no doubt true, it is not the major stress; in fact, Jesus is seen as demanding that this fact be kept secret. Here we find the primary critical problem of the Gospel. Every group with which Jesus is involved is forced to silence: the demons (1:23-25, 34; 3:11-12), those healed (1:40-44; 5:43; 7:36; 8:26), the disciples (8:30; 9:9). In addition, the leaders are kept from the truth (3:22; 4:10-12; 8:11-12), and Jesus withdraws from the crowds (4:10; 7:17; 9:28) and hides from them (7:24; 9:30). Many have thought that Mark created the theme in order to explain why Jesus was never recognized during his life (Wrede) or to oppose the disciples themselves, whom Mark believed were proclaiming a false gospel (Weeden). However, neither explanation is necessary. The crowds were not allowed to hear such teaching because they considered Jesus to be only a "wonder worker," and the disciples could not proclaim it due to their own misunderstanding regarding the meaning of his office, i.e., they interpreted it in light of the Jewish expectation of a conquering king rather than a suffering servant. The demons were silenced as part of the "binding of Satan" theme (cf. 3:27 and further below), and the leaders were kept from understanding as sign of God's rejection of them. On the whole, Mark stresses that Jesus' messiaship is essentially incognito, hidden from all except those with spiritual insight. In short, while Jesus is indeed a wonder worker, Mark wishes to clarify the implications carefully.

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In this regard we must note "Son of God," the title which begins the Gospel (1:1) and occurs at the climax in the centurion's cry (15:39). The stress on sonship occurs at the baptism (1:11) and transfiguration (9:7) and is a key element in Jesus' control over the demonic realm (3:11). Further, Jesus is seen as omniscient (2:8; 5:32, 39; 6:48; 8:17; 9:4, 33; 11:2, 14; 12:9; 13:12) and omnipotent over demons, illness, death, and the natural elements. Yet at the same time Mark stressed his humanity: his compassion (1:41; 6:34; 8:2), indignation (3:5; 9:19; 10:14), and his distress and sorrow (14:33-36). Jesus "sighs" (7:34; 8:12) and shows anger (1:43; 3:5); he becomes weary (4:38) and admits limitations regarding miracles (6:5-6) and knowledge (13:32). The balance between these is important and demonstrates that Mark is probably trying to present a balanced picture in order to correct an overly enthusiastic stress on the supernatural aspects.

Mark's favorite designation is "Son of man," a term which undoubtedly was Jesus' own self-designation but which also went beyond to picture the heavenly figure of Dan. 7:13. In Mark it speaks of his humanity (2:10, 27-28); his betrayal, suffering, and death (the passion predictions of 9:12; 14:21, 41); and his exaltation and future reign (13:26). It is obvious that here we have the correction of misunderstandings regarding his purpose and personhood, especially since it occurs primarily in the second half of the Gospel, where Jesus begins to correct the disciples' views. It seems definite that Mark wishes to combine a theologia crucis with a theologia gloria. Therefore the so-called messianic secret centers upon the fact that the cross is the path to glory and that Jesus' live exaltation can be understood only by comprehending the significance of his suffering.

The final aspect of Mark's emphases is Jesus as teacher. In the past this designation was usually attributed only to Matthew, but recently it has been more and more recognized that Mark gives Jesus' teaching office prime place in his work. The one who performs such great and mighty deeds is demonstrated as the one who teaches; in fact, the first is subordinate to the second, for it is in his activity as teacher (4:38; 5:35; 9:17, 38; 10:51; 11:21) that both the disciples and the opponents are confronted with the reality of the Christ event. It is in his teaching that true authority is manifest (1:22), and therefore this may well be the major stress.

Cosmic Conflict

In Mark, Christ is presented as the one who "binds" Satan (3:27). Where Matthew centers upon healing miracles, Mark stresses exorcism. This is nowhere seen better than by comparing Mark and Matthew with respect to the healing of the demon-possessed/ epileptic child. Matthew mentions the demon only at the point of the miracle (17:14-18), while Mark relates an amazingly detailed narrative with four separate descriptions of the effects of the possession (9:18, 20, 22, 26). Jesus is pictured as one who violently assaults sin and the cosmic forces of evil. Moreover, he passes on this eschatological ministry to the disciples, who participate with him in his victory (3:15; 6:7, 13; for the problem of 9:18 see below). Implicit in 3:27 also is the idea of "plundering" Satan's realm. This is certainly the thrust of the exorcism miracles (1:23-26; 3:11-12; 5:6-13; 9:14-27). When the demons utter Jesus' name, they are not unwittingly acting as his "PR" agents, but rather are trying to gain control of him. In the ancient world (as in many tribal areas today) one would gain power over a spirit-creature by learning his "hidden name." When Jesus forced silence upon them (1:25, 34; 3:12) or made them reveal their own names (5:9) this signified his mastery over the satanic forces. The authority and other blessings given Jesus' followers are the spoil from that victory.

Eschatology

Many have stated that Mark is primarily a proponent of a futuristic eschatology, perhaps even calling the church to the imminent parousia in Galilee (Marxsen). Yet the Markan emphasis goes beyond this. According to 1:15, the kingdom has already come, and the time of fulfillment is here. Jesus' deeds and words demonstrate the presence of the kingdom within history, and Jesus will continue to mediate this end-time power until the final consummation of the divine plan (8:38; 13:24-27; 14:62). Therefore the disciple exists in present hope, and Mark's eschatology is "inaugurated" rather than final, i.e., it recognizes the "beginning" of the "end" and the fact that the believer lives in a state of tension between the two.

At the same time we must acknowledge the stress on the future parousia in Mark. The three passages mentioned above (8:33; 13:26; 14:62) show that the suffering of Christ could be understood properly only in light of his coming glory at both the resurrection/exaltation and parousia. One event that illustrates the connection between the resurrection and the eschaton is the transfiguration (9:2-8); when one realizes that it is surrounded by passages on suffering, the point made here becomes clear. the same is true of the Olivet discourse (ch. 13), which demonstrates once more that suffering and persecution lead to glory. Yet even here we are not free of the strong realized stress, for it is seen in the great accent on watchfulness (13:5, 9, 23, 33, 35, 37) which permeates the chapter. The true disciple will be characterized by an expectant alertness in light of the imminent inbreaking of the final kingdom.

The Miracles and Soteriology

One cannot ignore the centrality of the miracle stories, for they form one fifth of the Gospel and 47 percent of the first ten chapters. The basic word, as in all the Synoptics, is "power" (dynamis), which points to the power of God operative in his Son. Mark, however, is careful to stress that the miracles do not form apologetic proof that Jesus is the Christ. The central theme in Mark is that they can be known only by faith; they cannot produce faith. The disciples misunderstand them (4:40; 6:52; 8:17-18), and their effect is diminished by the apparent humanity of Jesus himself (6:1-3; cf. 3:19-21). With the presence of many miracle workers, many of them false prophets (13:22), the common people could draw only erroneous conclusions. Therefore, they needed his teaching and his person to understand properly (1:37-38; 2:5; 4:40; 5:34). Mark was stressing the hiddenness of God in Jesus and wished to demonstrate that even his miracles were only glimmers of the true reality and as such comprehensible only by faith. Further, they are symbols of God's forgiveness; as the miracle is performed, the spiritual need is met (4:35-41; 6:45-52; 7:31-37; 8:22-26).

The connection of the miracles with faith and forgiveness leads to the further point: when faith is present, the miracles point to the salvific power of God in Christ. By actualizing the power and authority of God in the situation, they make the reader cognizant of the radical demands of God. It has often been said that Mark has no true soteriology. Yet that is to deny the implication of such key passages as 10:45, which presents Christ as the one who gave his life "as a ransom for many." Mark seeks to drive men to decision, which he accomplishes by setting two scenes in contrast, thereby highlighting the issues and demanding encounter with God (e.g., 3:7-12, where the demons acknowledge him, and 3:20-35, where Jesus is called Beelzebub; or 11:12-21, which shows that the cleansing of the temple prefigured the "curse" of God upon Israel). Mark constantly shows men, common people, leaders, and disciples, in the conflict of decision.

Discipleship

The final emphasis in Mark, and in some ways the major emphasis along with Christology, is the discipleship motif. Again there is certainly controversy here, as some have argued that Mark has a negative thrust intended to show the error of the disciples (Weeden). However, this is hardly true of the Gospel as a whole. Mark does wish to stress the radical nature of the call and the difficulties of achieving the goal. However, the reader is expected to identify with the disciples in this dilemma, and it indeed forms the heart of the Gospel.

At the beginning of Mark's Gospel, Jesus fulfills his own message of repentance (1:15) by calling the disciples to be "fishers of men" (cf. Matt. 4:18-22 and Luke 5:1-11, where it comes much later). Then after the conflict narratives (2:1-3:6) Jesus cements his "withdrawal" (3:7) by turning to the disciples and commissioning them (3:13-19), in a scene filled with election terminology and centering upon their authority and responsibility. Finally, the first segment of the Gospel concludes with a missions scene in which Jesus "sends" his disciples, again with authority and in complete dependence upon God (6:7-13). From here, however, the relationship seems to deteriorate, and the central section of Mark (6:7-8:30) has two themes, the withdrawal of Jesus from the crowds combined with his time with the twelve, and the failure of the disciples to comprehend his teaching. They are amazingly obtuse with respect to all aspects of his teaching and are both uncomprehending (6:52; 7:18; 8:17-18) and even "hardened" (6:52; 8:17), a startling term in light of its theological connotations and its presence after the two feeding miracles.

However, once more this failure is not the final point, although it is certainly stressed at the very end, especially if Mark ends at 16:8. Yet in the last section of the Gospel before the passion (8:31-10:52), the solution is seen in the presence of Jesus the teacher, who patiently and lovingly instructs them. Note that in 8:31 Jesus "began to teach" them, an act clearly linked to their failure to understand (8:32-33), which is countered by his instruction (8:34-38). This in itself follows the important healing of the blind man (8:22-26), a two-stage miracle which may have been intended to prefigure a two-stage overcoming of the disciples' blindness (cf. 8:17-21) via first Peter's confession (partial sight, as seen in 8:31-33) and then by the transfiguration, which solidified the revelation of God to the disciples. The passion predictions are followed by very serious failures on their part, and at the healing of the demonpossessed child this comes to a crisis when the disciples are unable to perform that which previously had been a significant sign of their authority (cf. 9:18 with 6:13). The solution is seen in awakened faith (9:24) and its response, prayer (9:29). Steps of this growing awakening are seen in the passion narrative, and there the core of the problem becomes even more evident: discipleship is a call to the cross, and it cannot be understood until the cross. The triumphal entry is an incognito message regarding Jesus' true mission, and it is followed by the judgment on the temple (ch. 11). In three major scenes Jesus begins to lift further the veil, and the disciples are called to understanding, the anointing at Bethany (14:3-9), the eucharistic words at the Last Supper (14:22-25), and Gethsemane (14: 32ff.). Finally, at the resurrection failure is still seen (16:8, with most scholars realizing that the women are to be identified with the disciples), but it is obviated by the promise of Jesus' presence (16:7). As the reader identifies first with the problem of discipleship and then with Jesus (the solution), victory becomes an act of faith.

G R Osborne
(Elwell Evangelical Dictionary)

Bibliography
P. Achtemeier, Mark and "'He Taught Them Many Things': Reflections on Marcan Christology," CBQ 42:465-81; G. R. Beasley-Murray, "Eschatology in the Gospel of Mark," SwJT 21:37-53, and "The Parousia in Mark," SwJT 21:565-81; E. Best,"The Miracles in Mark," RE 75:539-54, and Following Jesus: Discipleship in the Gospel of Mark; J. L. Blevins, "The Christology of Mark," RE 75:505-17; W. D. Carroll, "The Jesus of Mark's Gospel," BT 103:2105-12; R. T. France, "Mark and the Teaching of Jesus," in Gospel Perspectives, I, ed. R. T. France and D. Wenham; J. J. Kilgallen, "The Messianic Secret and Mark's Purpose," BTB 7:62-65; R. Martin, Mark: Evangelist and Theologian; W. Marxsen, Mark the Evangelist; R. P. Meye, Jesus and the Twelve; N. P. Petersen, ed., Perspectives on Mark's Gospel; P. S. Pudussery, "The Meaning of Discipleship in the Gospel of Mark," Jeev 10:93-110; Q. Quesnell, The Mind of Mark; D. Rhoads and D. Michie, Mark as Story; J. Rohde, Rediscovering the Teaching of the Evangelists; D. Senior, "The Gospel of Mark," BT 103:2094-2104; R. C. Tannehill, "The Disciples in Mark: The Function of a Narrative Role," JR 57:386-405; T. J. Weeden, Mark, Traditions in Conflict; W. Wrede, The Messianic Secret.


Also, see:
Theology of Matthew
Theology of Luke
Theology of John
New Testament Theology


The individual articles presented here were generally first published in the early 1980s. This subject presentation was first placed on the Internet in December 1997.

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