Lesson 6 of 6
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Bible in the Word – Mark

The Underappreciated Gospel

Throughout the first 18 centuries of its existence, Mark was an underappreciated Gospel. Augustine of Hippo, writing in the fourth century, expressed the opinion that Mark had summarized Matthew in order to produce a shorter Gospel for evangelism and this is one of the reasons that Matthew comes before Mark in most New Testaments. Augustine’s opinions had great influence in the western church and so Mark’s Gospel did not receive the same attention as the other three Gospels in the early church or the medieval period. As one example of the lack of attention, in a series of sermons that Gregory the Great preached on the Gospels, he devoted 11 to Matthew, 17 to Luke, 10 to John, and only 2 to Mark. Mark’s role as “little brother” to Matthew continued into the Reformation. Martin Luther did not lecture on Mark and does not reference the Gospel in his 1546 Preface to the New Testament. John Calvin, however, did include Mark in his commentary on the Gospels, but again with less emphasis than on Matthew and Luke. The historic lectionary used in the western church, which repeated itself every year, contributed to the lack of interest. Mark only appeared four times as the Sunday Gospel which has led to fewer sermons and preaching materials devoted to it.

Markan Primacy

In the 19th century, when the Bible began to be studied as an academic discipline, opinions of Mark began to change. For much of its history, Mark had been considered a summary of Matthew (see The Underappreciated Gospel) and so people had dedicated their time to the longer Gospels. However, readers of Matthew, Mark, and Luke had always noticed that the three Gospels shared many of the same stories, but in the 19th century, interpreters began to compare the Gospels more comprehensively, an approach known as Synoptic Studies (“synoptic” comes from the Greek “syn” + “optic” and means to “see things together”). The primary question that interested these interpreters was which Gospel came first, but they also concentrated on comparing the overall plot of the three Gospels and the differences in their tellings of the same stories. In the course of their investigations, interpreters began to suspect that Mark was actually the first Gospel to be written and that Matthew and Luke had used Mark as a source in writing their own Gospels. The insight that Mark came first led to a renewed appreciation of Mark’s Gospel and the realization that Mark deserved attention in its own right. Mark transformed from a summary to the foundation of Christian witness about Jesus and this led to a host of theological insights in the 20th century including Mark as a Creative Narrator, Performance Studies of Mark, Christus Victor Theology, Postcolonialism, and Theologies of Crisis

Christus Victor

In the early 20th century, renewed interest in Mark as a source for theological insight influenced theologies of the atonement. The medieval church had concentrated on penal substitution, the idea that on the cross, Christ paid the penalty that humanity deserved for sin. In response to penal substitution, 19th century theological interpretation had emphasized the exemplary nature of Jesus and the ways in which he provided a model for Christians to live. Lutheran theologians, beginning with Swedish bishop Gustaf Aulén, rediscovered another atonement theology, which they called Christus Victor theology, Latin for “Christ the Conqueror.” The primary passage that inspired Christus Victor was the Parable of the Strong Man in Mark 3:27, but they drew further inspiration from the whole narrative of Mark, especially the way in which Mark describes Jesus’s conflict with demons and unclean spirits. In this theology, Jesus came to rescue humanity from Satan’s clutches and Jesus himself was the strong man who plundered Satan’s house as his power over chaotic forces including storms (4:41) demonstrated. For Christus Victor theology, the crucifixion did not represent a payment to an angry God, but rather Jesus’ combat with humanity’s oldest enemy, Death. In the resurrection, Jesus returned triumphant. Though it received greater attention in the 20th century, depicting Jesus’ crucifixion as combat stretches back into earlier Christian songs and artwork. The Gregorian chant Victimae Paschali Laudes [Christians, to the Paschal Victim], which is one of the prescribed chants for Easter Sunday, contains the lines “Death and life have contended/In that combat stupendous/The Prince of Life, who died, reigns immortal” and it ends by addressing Jesus as “Victor Rex,” Latin for “Conquering King.” Eastern Orthodox icons that depict the Resurrection often feature Christ breaking the doors of hell with Satan bound at his feet.

Mark as Creative Narrator

One result of the belief that Mark had summarized Matthew’s Gospel was that Mark’s own creativity was diminished. With the realization that Mark actually may be the foundation that Matthew and Luke built upon, renewed attention was given to his narrative, i.e., the way in which Mark relates the story of Jesus to us. Mark’s narrative begins with a clear claim; he states that his book is “good news” (lit. gospel) and that it is about not just any person, but “Jesus Christ, the Son of God” (1:1). In its earliest form, the narrative ends on a cliffhanger: “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” (16:8). Interpreters interested in Mark’s narrative have helped us to see that Mark did not just randomly repeat material about Jesus, but wove it together carefully and creatively. Mark frames his narrative with two long parables, the Parable of the Sower (4:1-20) and Parable of the Wicked Tenants (12:1-12). The two parables serve as guideposts; the first invites the audience to consider what it means to be a follower of Jesus and the second reveals the fate of Jesus himself. In the middle of these parables, Mark ties both together with Jesus’ command for his followers to take up their cross (Mark 8:34-35). Mark crafts his narrative to lead his audience into a deeper understanding of who Jesus is and what it means to follow him, both of which are revealed in the mystery of the cross.


At the end of the 20th century and stretching into the 21st, interpreters of Mark became interested in the relationship of his Gospel to the Roman Empire and its colonial system. Earlier interpretations, focusing especially on the centurion at the foot of the cross (15:39), saw Mark as a supporter of the Romans. Some interpreters reacted against this and claimed that Mark was an anti-colonial document. They often based their readings on Jesus’ exorcism of the Gerasene demoniac (5:1-20). The demon who Jesus confronts gives his name as “Legion” which is the Latin word for a Roman army unit. The reference to the Roman army inspired interpreters to claim that Mark saw Jesus as an anti-Roman figure; they also pointed to Jesus’ death by crucifixion, a characteristically Roman punishment. More recently, drawing on the experience of colonized people in Africa and South Asia, interpreters have begun to adopt a postcolonial reading of Mark. A postcolonial reading realizes that the situation of colonialism is complicated and messy. In terms of Mark, they have explored the ambiguities in the Gospel, showing that Mark does not take a pro- or anti-Roman stance. Sometimes Mark sides with the Judeans against Rome and other times, especially in his critique of the high priests and the Temple, Mark sides with the Romans against the Judeans. The postcolonial reading has led to rereadings of key texts. For example, the centurion at the foot of the cross can be re-read as an ironic figure: he mocks Jesus as a crucified criminal, but in his mockery, he unwittingly speaks the truth about him. This kind of irony is characteristic of the postcolonial interpretation.

Apocalypticism and Crisis Theology

In comparing Mark to Matthew and Luke, one of the differences that emerges is in their strategies for building community. Matthew calls his audience to a community focusing on forgiveness and obedience to the Torah as interpreted by Jesus. Luke seeks to ground his community in God’s salvation history. Mark, like the apostle Paul, calls his audience to prepare for the imminent return of Jesus. Drawing on the Son of Man imagery from the book of Daniel, Mark paints a picture of a world in crisis, in which demonic powers reign. In this world, Mark calls his audience to take up their cross and follow Jesus, knowing that they will be vindicated in his second coming. Interpreters of Mark have placed this picture of his community within a movement in Second Temple Judaism known as apocalypticism, from the Greek word apokalypto which means “to reveal.” Apocalypticism experienced a revival of sorts in the aftermath of World War I. Interpreters trying to make sense of the devastation, including Karl Barth, Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Rudolf Bultmann, turned to Mark’s apocalyptic worldview as inspiration for their “crisis theology,” in which they called Christians to reject a Christianity that failed to see the demonic work active in the destruction around them. The events of World War II strengthened their call and led to interest in crisis theology in the United States. Though crisis theology is not as widespread as it was in the middle of the 20th century, it remains important for the influence that it exerted on the liberation theologies of the late 20th century, which often arose in direct opposition to it and challenged many of its interpretations of Mark.

Mark as Performance

Understanding Mark as a Creative Narrator led interpreters to reconsider how Mark’s original audience would have experienced his Gospel. Knowing that the vast majority of people in the ancient world could not read, interpreters began to focus on Mark as an oral performance. The Gospel of Mark is short enough to be read aloud in two to three hours. Just as in narrative readings of Mark, the knowledge that Mark may have been experienced in one sitting by listeners inspired interpreters to ask how Mark’s repetitions and variations influence the audience’s understanding. By concentrating on what people hear instead of what they read, interpreters also realized the importance of the performer (i.e., whoever reads the Gospel) on the meaning of the text. The way in which a performer emphasized words or changed their tone could have a profound impact on whether the audience understood a particular phrase as comforting or judgmental, ironic or sincere. On the one hand, this insight cautions modern readers from focusing too much on “what the author meant.” There is a layer of meaning that the performer exerts which causes the words of the Gospel to come alive. On the other hand, for preachers and teachers, it helps to highlight that modern interpreters are also performers of Mark’s Gospel and should consider how the way that they read it aloud influences the understanding of their audiences. 

Son of Man in South Africa

While it draws on material from all three of the Gospels, the 2006 South African film Son of Man emphasizes the postcolonial nature of the narrative in Mark. Set in the fictional state of Judea in southern Africa, the film reclaims the story of Jesus as an “African fable” for modern times. Just as Mark’s Gospel emphasizes and criticizes the demonic forces that people suffer under, Son of Man unflinchingly portrays the effects of violence, corruption, and poverty on a people. The modern setting of the film highlights the power and humanity that Jesus and his preaching bring into a broken world. Continuing the postcolonial theme, the film shows the complicated negotiations that oppressed, colonized people must undergo to survive, including the way in which individual Africans must oppress and betray each other in order to please their colonial overlords. The most heart-wrenching moments of the film capture a moment in Mark’s Gospel that is often overlooked: Jesus’ trial before the chief priests takes place at night (14:53). Mirroring this, Son of Man sets up Jesus’ trial as a modern day “being disappeared” at the hands of the secret police with the trial scenes lit only by flashlights and lanterns.