From a historical point of view, Mark, being the oldest of the Gospels, is the most reliable, the reason for which is not merely that it is closer in point of time to the events that it records but that less interpretation concerns the meaning of these events than in the other Gospels. The author of Mark was a Christian named John Mark, a relatively obscure person so far as New Testament records indicate. Believed to have been a relative of Barnabas, who was one of the leaders of the church in Antioch, Mark accompanied Paul and Barnabas on one of their missionary journeys and was a companion of Peter during the time when that disciple spent his last years in the city of Rome.
The Gospel of Mark records with as much accuracy as possible the main events of the life and teachings of Jesus. A record of this kind furnished evidence to support the belief that Jesus was the true Messiah; by believing in Jesus, people could obtain salvation. That this gospel has been preserved in the form in which we have it today testifies to the importance attached to it from its beginning. A relatively short gospel, most of the material contained in it is reproduced in the Gospels that were written later. The authors of both Matthew and Luke appear to have included in each of their gospels all that was necessary to be remembered from Mark, in which case the oldest of the Gospels would be replaced by later and more complete accounts. That Mark survived these attempts to replace it is probably due to the fact that its origin was regarded as more authentic than the others and that it was highly prized by the church at Rome, which was destined to become one of the leading churches in the entire Christian movement.
Although the Gospel of Mark became one of the main sources for the writings of Matthew and Luke, it, too, was based on older source materials. One of these, according to a well authenticated tradition, was an oral source. Papias, an early church father writing about 140 A.D., tells us that Mark obtained much of the material for his gospel from stories related to him by Peter, one of Jesus' disciples. This statement by Papias has been accepted as reliable by most New Testament scholars, for it very reasonably explains the contents found in the first half of Mark. This portion of the gospel consists of a series of relatively independent stories assembled without reference to the particular time and place of each occurrence or the chronological order of the events. The particular sequence in which the stories are recorded is evidently due to Mark's arrangement of them. The second half of this gospel contains a fairly detailed account of the day-to-day happenings that occurred in or near the city of Jerusalem during the brief period that preceded the arrest, trial, and crucifixion of Jesus.
The Gospel of Mark begins with a brief account of the work of John the Baptist, who is referred to as the forerunner of the coming Messiah. During these days, Jesus came from Nazareth in Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan River. Following Jesus' baptism, the Spirit of God rested upon Jesus, and from that time forward Jesus dedicated his life to the work of preparing people for the coming of God's kingdom. His public ministry was preceded by a period of temptation in the wilderness. Soon after the arrest of John the Baptist, Jesus appeared in Galilee, preaching the gospel and saying "The kingdom of God is near. Repent and believe the good news!" After choosing his disciples, he began a vigorous program of evangelism by preaching to the people and healing the sick who were brought to him.
Mark was apparently more impressed by the mighty works that Jesus performed than by the content of Jesus' teaching. More than half of Mark's gospel is devoted to giving an account of the remarkable deeds that Jesus performed. Many of these deeds dealt with healing the sick. For example, Mark tells of the healing of Simon's mother-in-law, who was afflicted with a severe fever. A paralytic who was lowered through a hole in the roof was healed and made to walk again. A man with a withered hand was made whole when he encountered Jesus in a synagogue. Unclean spirits were driven out of the Gerasene demoniacs. Jairus' daughter, who was at the point of death, was made well again. A woman suffering from a hemorrhage was healed, and a boy who was possessed by an unclean spirit since early childhood was restored to health in the presence of his father. In addition to these miracles of healing, Mark reports such incidents as the stilling of the storm on the Sea of Galilee, the feeding of the five thousand, the cursing of the fig tree, and other significant events. Most of the miracle stories furnish the occasion for discourses on various themes. For example, the parable of the sower is related together with the interpretation that Jesus made concerning it. Although Jesus made considerable use of parables in his teaching, Mark does not relate very many of them.
As Jesus continued his work in the cities and villages of Galilee, many of the common people gladly heard him. But Jesus' plain-spoken messages aroused opposition on the part of Jewish elders and rulers, some of whom took issue with what Jesus was saying and sought to entrap him with clever arguments. Mark reports several of these clashes between Jesus and members of the Pharisee and Sadducee sects. In connection with these encounters, Jesus expressed some of his most important teachings. Following the opposition to his work that developed in the region of Galilee, he journeyed with his disciples into the northwest sections of the country, where Tyre and Sidon were located. Returning to Galilee, they passed through Caesarea Philippi, where the disciples raised the question of Jesus' Messiahship. Jesus revealed to them that he was the Messiah but told them to say nothing concerning this revelation. After a brief return to his home country, he announced to his disciples that he was going to carry his mission to the Jewish headquarters in the city of Jerusalem. When he told them what would likely happen to him at the hands of the chief priests and rulers of the nation, the disciples were shocked, for they did not believe that such violent harm could possibly happen to the Messiah. They were still hopeful that the time was at hand when Jesus and his followers would enter the promised kingdom.
In close connection with the journey to Jerusalem, Mark reports a number of Jesus' discourses, including Jesus' interview with a rich, young ruler, his reply to James and John when they asked for a prominent place in the new kingdom, the discourse given when the money-changers were driven from the Temple, the discussion about paying taxes to the Roman government, Jesus' foretelling of the coming destruction of Jerusalem, and his instruction to the disciples when he ate the Passover meal with them.
Jesus' entrance into the city of Jerusalem was a joyous occasion for those who believed that Jesus was about to establish a new kingdom. But this joy was of short duration, for the priests and rulers decided that Jesus was an enemy of their cause and determined to get rid of him. Mark reports the experience in the Garden of Gethsemane, the betrayal by Judas, Peter's three denials, the trial before Pilate, and the story of the crucifixion. The Gospel of Mark concludes with a brief account of the women who went to the tomb where Jesus' body was placed and discovered that Jesus had risen from the dead.
The Gospel of Mark has several unique characteristics. It reports nothing concerning Jesus' birth, his childhood, or his activities prior to the time when he was baptized by John. This absence is remarkable in view of the beliefs that many early Christians held concerning the manner of Jesus' birth and the way in which his birth was announced in advance. If these beliefs were fairly common among Christians at the time when Mark wrote, he evidently did not think of them as having sufficient importance to be included in his gospel. For him, the real significance of Jesus' career began at the time of Jesus' baptism and his decision to devote his life to the work of God's kingdom. Throughout the gospel, Mark particularly emphasizes Jesus' humanity. For example, when Jesus becomes weary from his many activities, some people question whether he is behaving in a normal manner. At one point during the early ministry in Galilee, his friends are greatly disturbed because of the way he attracts attention, and even the members of his own family suspect that he is ill. However, Jesus never claims any greatness for himself over that of other people. When an ardent admirer calls him "Good teacher," Jesus promptly rebukes him, saying that no one should call him good since that quality belongs only to God.
Jesus never claimed to have any special power that was not available to others. The miracles that he performed were not meant to display any power of his own but rather to show how the power of God could be used in and through human lives. Jesus instructed his disciples that the works that he performed they would do also. He even told them they would perform greater works than he had done. Further evidence that his miraculous works were not done in order to attract attention to himself can be seen in the fact that after he healed someone, he would caution that person to say nothing about the healing. For example, a leper once came to Jesus pleading for help. Jesus, after healing the leper, said to him, "See that you don't tell this to anyone. But go, show yourself to the priest," according to the Law of Moses. In the synagogue at Capernaum, Jesus healed a man with an unclean spirit. When the man cried out that Jesus was the "Holy One of God," Jesus told the man to keep silent.
In the Gospel of Mark, Jesus does not reveal his Messiahship to his disciples until they reach Caesarea Philippi. This event was shortly before they began the journey to Jerusalem, and even then he cautioned them not to say anything about it. Whether Jesus was conscious of his Messiahship from the beginning of his ministry or it was revealed gradually in his own mind is not made entirely clear. Mark undoubtedly wrote with as much objectivity as possible, but viewing the events of Jesus' life from the perspective of what the Christians of thirty or forty years after Jesus' death believed about Jesus, Mark could not refrain from reporting some events in such a manner that they would agree with these later beliefs. An example of this kind can be seen in the explanation that Jesus gives for the failure of so many people to be convinced by the message he preached and the deeds he performed. To account for these disbelievers' attitude, Jesus refers to a statement used by the prophet Isaiah when the prophet attributed the Israelite people's failure to listen to the words of Yahweh to the fact that their eyes had been so darkened that they could not see the light and their ears had been made so dull that they could not understand. To Mark, nothing less than blindness and deafness could have caused people to reject Jesus' mission, which was so obviously in harmony with the divine will. But again, it was quite impossible for Mark to refrain from interpreting many of Jesus' sayings in view of what had occurred since Jesus' death, burial, and resurrection.
Mark gives a rather full account of Jesus' teachings and activities during the days preceding Jesus' trial and crucifixion. He tells about the women's visit to the tomb and their surprise at finding Jesus risen from the dead. We do not know what else Mark may have said concerning the appearances of Jesus after the resurrection, for the original ending of his gospel has been lost. The last twelve verses of the gospel as it now appears in the New Testament were not part of the earliest manuscripts. Even in later manuscripts, these verses are not the same. Evidently, they were added by an editor who recognized that something was lacking in the manuscript copy and therefore attempted to complete it. That the original ending of Mark's gospel has been lost is a serious handicap to readers of the New Testament, for when we omit the verses that were added, the account of the resurrection breaks off in the middle of the story. In fact, it breaks off in the middle of a sentence. Having the remainder of the story would furnish valuable information since it would be the oldest gospel account of this most important event, but we do not know what happened to the original ending of the manuscript.