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The Structure of Mark's Gospel

The Structure of Mark's Gospel

Jesus Christ
Oral and written tradition
The Gospel of Matthew
The Gospel of Mark
The Gospel of Luke
The Gospel of John
The meaning for today

From ‘Notes on the Formation of the Gospels’, by John Wijngaards;
published in Background to the Gospels (Bangalore & Ann Arbor 1981)
and Together in My Name (London 1991).

Greek and Roman authors, like authors today, would freely re-write their source material in their own way. The author of Mark's Gospel did no such thing. He knew that his sources were precious traditions, carefully passed on in memorised form or in written notes. He respected their contents and even, whenever possible, their formulation.

All he did was to arrange the material, putting things together, linking them in sequence. He has been compared to an artist fitting existing pieces into a mosaic or to a composer who blends existing popular melodies into a new symphony. He was not writing his own book, but presenting the community’s Gospel.1

The author fitted the traditions into a simple geographical structure.

Mark 1,1-13 introduction, Jesus’ baptism
Mark 1,14 - 6,6a ministry in Galilee
Mark 6,6b - 9,50 apostolic journeys
Mark 10,1 - 52 journey to Jerusalem
Mark 11,1 - 16,20 ministry and passion in Jerusalem.

However, he bound this material together by an ever sharper focus on the mystery of Jesus’ personality. From Jesus’ call at his baptism and throughout all his teachings and healings we wonder ‘Who is this man?’ Jesus heightens the tension by telling demons, disciples and converts not to reveal his identity. Peter’s profession‘You are the Christ!’ is a turning point in the story. It prepares us for Jesus’ declaration before the High Priest: ‘You will see the Son of Man (=Jesus) sitting at the right hand of Power (=God)’ and the centurion’s admission: ‘Truly, this man was the Son of God!’.

Read: E.BEST,‘Mark’s preservation of the tradition’ in The Interpretation of Mark, ed.W.TELFORD, Philadelphia 1985, pp.119-133; R.PESCH, Das Markusevangelium, vol. 1, Freiburg 1976, pp. 15-32.

Geographical structure of Mark’s Gospel

Everything in the Gospel points to the fact that the author adhered as closely as possible to the oral catechesis, i.e. the sequences of sayings and events in the oral tradition. He does not have clear divisions in his Gospel edition, and commentators disagree as to how the author himself wants us to group the material. Anyway, all are agreed on the fact that Mark arranged the material on a geographic basis according to the regions in which Jesus worked.

The following is the most probable division of the Gospel:

  • Introduction Mark 1:1-13

    Preaching of John the Baptist. Jesus is baptized and tempted.

  • Jesus’ ministry in Galilee --- Mark 1:14 - 6:6a

    • calling of the Apostles;
    • first miracles;
    • first opposition of the Pharisees;
    • first teaching;
    • rejection in Nazareth.
  • Jesus’ apostolic jourrneys --- Mark 6:6b - 10:52

    • (i) sending the Twelve --- 6:6b-6:29
    • ( ii ) journeys through Galilee --- 6:31-7:23
    • (iii) third journey --- 7:24-8:12
    • (iv) fourth journey --- 8:13-9:50
    • (v) journey to Jerusalem --- 10:1-52
  • Jesus’ ministry in Jerusalem --- Mark 11:1 - 15:47
    • preaching in Jerusalem --- Mark 11:1-13:37
    • the passion 14:1- 15:47
  • Jesus’ Resurrection --- Mark 16:1-8

    Appendix: Jesus’ Apparitions and last words

Characteristic are the phrases by which the beginnings of the journeys are indicated:

“After John had been put in prison, Jesus went toGalilee...”Mark 1:14

“Then Jesus went to all the villages around there.” (Mark 6:6b)

“He said to them: ’Let us go off to some place where we will be alone’...” (Mark 6:31)

“Then Jesus left and went away to the territory near the city of Tyre..”(Mark 7:24)

“With this he left them, got back into the boat, and started across to the other side of the lake...”(Mark 8:13)

“Then Jesus left that place, went to the region ot Judea and crossed the Jordan river...” (Mark 10:1)

Structure in Mark’s Gospel by the stages of Jesus’ self-revelation

It would seem that Christ is introduced to us in two distinct phases in Mark’s Gospel: the phase of ‘surprise’ and the phase of ‘the Son of Man’.

The phase of Surprise

During the first phase we are made to follow Christ as he is performing his miracles and preaching his wonderful message. This is the phase of surprise: we are amazed at Jesus’ greatness, but we do not understand what or who he is. During this phase Jesus does not reveal himself as the Messiah; on the contrary, he avoids all popular propaganda by those who wish to proclaim him Messiah.

People’s surprise is a frequent theme in the Gospel.

“The people who heard him were amazed at the way he taught”. --- Mark 1:22

"The people were all so amazed that they started saying to each other: ’What is this? ... This man has authority to give orders to the evil spirits and they obey him’!" --- Mark 1:27

"They were all completely amazed and praised God saying: ’We have never seen anything like this’!" --- Mark 2:12

“They began to say: ‘Who is this man? even the wind and the waves obey him’!” --- Mark 4:41

“All who heard it were filled with wonder” --- Mark 5:20

“When this happened they were so amazed that they almost went out of their minds!” --- Mark 5:42

“And all who heard it were completely amazed. ’How well he does everything’, they exclaimed!” --- Mark 7:37

During this first phase Christ’s messiahship is still a secret. Scholars disagree on the precise meaning of this theme of secrecy in Mark’s Gospel. Some ascribe it to esoteric or eschatological concerns of the evangelist.

The theme of secrecy may well reflect a historical aspect in Jesus’ own ministry. Jesus did not want his preaching to be misunderstood for a political movement. He knew that the Jews were expecting a political Messiah, who could liberate them from subjection to the Romans. So he first wanted everyone to grasp his spiritual message and his interest in spiritual salvation. Only then would he reveal his true nature.

“Whenever the people who had evil spirits in them saw him, they would fall down before him and scream: ’You are the Son of God!’ Jesus gave a stern command to the evil spirits not to tell who he was.” --- Mark 3:11-12

“Then Jesus ordered them all not to speak of it (the miracle) to any one, but the more he ordered them, the more they told it.”--- Mark 7:36

“Jesus sent him (the blind man) home with the order: ’Don’t go back into the village’!”--- Mark 8:26

“Listen”, Jesus said (to the cured leper), “Don’t tell this to anyone .” --- Mark 1:44

The turning point.

The turning point in Jesus’ mode of action comes with a frank discussion Jesus has with his disciples (Mark 8:27-30). In this discussion he makes them think about his own person and he draws from them the first acknowledgement of who he really is:

“Then Jesus and his disciples went away to the villages in Caesarea Philippi.

On the way he asked them: "Tell me, who do people say I am?”

“Some say that you are John the Baptist", they answered. "Others say that you are Elijah, while still others say that you are one of the prophets."

"What about you", he asked them! "Who do you say I am?”

Peter answered,“You are the Messiah”.

Then Jesus ordered them, “Do not tell anyone about me”.

We may imagine the tremendous impact this conversation had on Peter and the other disciples. Now Jesus had finally told them that he was the Messiah! Now he had admitted that he was the promised redeemer who would save his people. They understood that Jesus did not have any political ambitions. They realised that Jesus was going to be a Messiah of a different type than the one expected by the people. But what precisely was his Salvation going to be?

The phase of the ‘Son of Man’

The second and final phase of Jesus’ self-revelation may be called the phase of the “Son of Man”. For in explaining the true nature of his Messianic mission Jesus chose this particular term, rather than any other.

The term “Son of man”(bar enosh in Aramaic) is derived from the prophecy of Daniel in which the glorious Messiah is called Son of Man (Daniel 7:13). But the picture of thc Son of Man that Jesus applied to himself embodies features taken from the prophecies of Deutero-Isaiah in which it had been foretold that the Messiah was to be a suffering ’servant’ (Is 42-53).

Thus, as used by Jesus in the Gospel, the term includes both the glorious dignity of the Messiah (Daniel) and his sacrificial task (Isaiah).

Jesus always uses this term, “SON OF MAN”, about himself. “Behold, the Son of Man will come... etc”. means: “Behold, I will come...”.

Observe the following passages in which Jesus explains his mission as the“Son of Man”

“The Son of Man must suffer much, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests and the teachers of the Law. He will be put to death, and after three days he will be raised to life.”--- Mark 8:31.

“If a man is ashamed of me and my teaching...then the Son of Man will be ashamed of him when he comes in the glory of the Father with the holy angels.”--- Mark 8:38

“Don’t the Scripture say that the Son of Man will suffer much and will be rejected?” --- Mark 8:12

“The Son of Man will be handed over to people who will kill him; three days later, however, he will be raised to life.” --- Mark 9:31

“Look, we are going up to Jerusalem, where the Son of Man will be handed over...They will condemn him to death. . .”--- Mark 10:33

“The Son of Man did not come to be served; he came to serve and to give his life to redeem many people” --- Mark 10:45; Is 53:10ff.

“Then the Son of Man will appear, coming in the clouds with great power and majesty”. --- Mark 13:26; Dan 7:13

“The hour has come. Look, the Son of Man is now handed over to the power of sinful people!” --- Mark 14:41

“Are you the Messiah, the Son of the Blessed God?” - “I am”, answered Jesus, “and you will all see the Son of Man seated at the right side of the Almighty, and coming with the clouds of heaven!” --- Mark 14:61-62

Thus Mark introduces Jesus gradually, following the pattern of Jesus’ own self-revelation. In the beginning he shows us Jesus’ marvellous deeds, to which we respond with amazement and with the desire to know more about him (first phase). In the second half of the Gospel he makes us understand Jesus’ true mission as the “Son of Man” (second phase).

The turning point in the Gospel is Peter’s confession. This should not surprise us. For, to some extent, the Gospel is presented as a reflection of Peter’s own experience of Jesus. Peter first got to know Jesus through his marvellous deeds (surprise phase). Only then did he understand that Jesus was Messiah (turning point). After this he gradually learned to appreciate Jesus’ true mission (phase of reflection on the ‘Son of Man’).

This would confirm the traditional claim that Peter’s testimony has moulded Mark’s presentation of the Gospel.

John Wijngaards

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