From Advent Sunday 2014 the church starts a new gospel, Mark. Mark appears in Year B in the 3 year cycle of the Revised Common Lectionary. About two thirds of Mark’s material is used to provide the main gospel reading on just over half the Sundays in the coming New Year. In Advent and Lent the gospel contributes in a more selective way according to the needs and themes of the church’s calendar; at Christmas and Easter through to Trinity readings come from other gospels, mostly from John. Mark is my favourite gospel writer; his gospel is like an honest and interesting friend, offering clarity, challenge and support. Yet it is not a shallow acquaintance, no single threaded yarn, but it is put together with great depth and subtlety. The gospel is direct and straightforward in style, with energy and vigour in the writing, the pace quite breathless at times
The Gospel was traditionally thought to be a summary of Matthew, which accounts for its place as the second gospel in the bible, but most contemporary scholars now regard it as the earliest of the gospels. Most modern scholars reject the tradition which ascribes it to Mark the Evangelist, the companion of Peter, and regard it as the work of an unknown author working with various sources including the collections of miracle stories, controversy stories, parables, and a passion narrative.
There is broad agreement that the 1st 8 chapters – the numerous miracle stories, Jesus preaching to the crowds – takes place in Galilee, the action in the remaining 8 chapters shifts from Galilee to gentile areas or hostile Judea, where Jesus teaches the disciples. Peter’s confession at Mark 8:27–30 forms the watershed to the whole gospel.
Mark tells of the ministry of Jesus from his baptism by John the Baptist to his death and burial and the discovery of the empty tomb – there is no genealogy or birth narrative, nor, in the original ending at chapter 16, any post-resurrection appearances. It portrays Jesus as a heroic man of action, an exorcist, healer and miracle worker. Jesus is also the son of God, adopted by God at his baptism, but he keeps his identity secret concealing it in parables so that even the disciples fail to understand who he is. All this is in keeping with prophecy, which foretold the fate of the Messiah as the Suffering Servant. The gospel ends, in its original version, with the discovery of the empty tomb, a promise to meet again in Galilee, and an unheeded instruction to spread the good news of the resurrection.
Mark wrote the gospel in Greek for a gentile audience, probably in Rome some 60+ years after the resurrection, and like all the gospels it was written for an audience already Christian – their purpose was to strengthen the faith of those who already believed, not to convert unbelievers. The evangelists often wrote on two levels, one the “historical” presentation of the story of Jesus, the other dealing with the concerns of the author’s own day.