No one knows who wrote the gospel of Mark. Church tradition attributes it to John Mark, who is mentioned in Acts 12:12 and 15:37, but there is no historical evidence that this conclusion. The gospel of Mark is the shortest of the four New Testament gospels. In the earliest Greek manuscripts the gospel ends at 16:8. In some later manuscripts an additional eight verses have been attached to the end of chapter 16, and these verses include resurrection appearances to Mary of Magdala and the disciples. This is why some translations of the Christian Bible have what is known as the "longer ending" of the gospel of Mark.
If you have time, read the gospel of Mark all the way through before reading this commentary. The story moves along quickly. It almost seems as if the author is in a hurry to come to the end. I suggest shorter readings in the exegesis that follows, but there is nothing like reading a whole gospel to experience the impact of its story. You may even want to read the gospel aloud, for this is the way it was read in the early church. Each gospel is a dramatic presentation of the good news in Christ.
The letters of Paul, which were written before any of the New Testament gospels, argue that Jewish law is not necessary for salvation. Only faith is required in response to God's act of love in Jesus Christ. That, too, is the message of this gospel story. Jesus begins his ministry among Jews, but reaches out to Gentiles and is identified at his death by a Gentile as God's son. The gospel of Mark proclaims, as do Paul's letters, that Jesus has come to save both Jews and Gentiles through faith.
Healing and teaching are the marks of the ministry of Jesus. The crowds may come primarily for healing and miracles, but the disciples are taught not only to heal but also to teach. We do not hear in the gospel of Mark about the ecstatic gifts that Paul at times found disturbing. Instead, like Paul, the gospel emphasizes the importance of teaching. The disciples, however, do not seem in this gospel to understand the parables and teaching of Jesus. So, we may be left wondering if we do.
Faith and Law
The gospel affirms that Jewish moral law may be summed up as love for one's neighbor. The text claims that the scribes, Pharisees, Herodians, chief priests, and elders fail to keep the law of Moses even though they claim to abide by it, because they enforce the details of the law without love for the people. Their actions speak louder than their words and reveal that they do not understand the law and do not love God.
The law of the Torah is not wrong, the gospel says, but must be properly interpreted. The Jewish authorities are wrong, because they focus only on the letter of the law instead of its spirit. They are more interested in judging those who violate the law than with loving and serving their neighbors.
In his conflict with the leaders of the church in Jerusalem, Paul argues that Jesus Christ, not the law, is the key to salvation. This proclamation is acted out in the gospel story of Mark. It is by following Jesus that one comes to the kingdom of God. Jesus does not teach the ancient scriptures of Israel. His life and ministry is a new way of living. In his death and resurrection he completes the work of Moses, Elijah, and the other prophets. In this gospel, Jesus is the fulfillment of God's revelation to the Israelites, and thus the Messiah they are awaiting.
In the gospel of Mark, Jesus is not another prophet. He does not speak the words of God to call the people to a new understanding of the law of Moses. We encounter not only the Jesus of Nazareth, who called the disciples to follow him, but also the Jesus known to Paul as the risen Christ. The Jesus of this and the other New Testament gospels is inseparable from the witness of the church to the risen Christ. The Jesus of all the gospels is the Jesus known by those with faith in Christ.
The abrupt ending of the gospel of Mark may be shocking, but serves the purposes of the author. The empty tomb verifies that resurrection involves the body as well as the spirit or soul of a person. This was Paul's view and the author of the gospel of Mark agrees, but other early Christians had differing views. In addition, the gospel of Mark leaves us wondering what is to come next in the story. The ending does not encourage us to expect much from the disciples and the women, who have run away. We will, therefore, have to look to someone else for leadership in spreading the good news.
The Gospel and Paul
The gospel of Mark leaves us with a question, and Paul is the answer. Paul's letters and ministry throughout the Roman Empire provide the sequel to the gospel account of the church that began in Galilee and Jerusalem. This is further evidence that the gospel of Luke and the Acts of the Apostles were not written before the gospel of Mark. We know today that Acts tells the story of the church after the death and resurrection of Jesus, but it does so from the perspective of the author of Luke and Acts. The gospel of Mark, in the way it tells the story of Jesus, also describes the early missionary movement led by Paul.
As the author of the gospel of Mark wrote in Greek, he may have known the story of Socrates, who was accused in Athens of corrupting the young by the authorities he challenged. Socrates, too, went willingly to his death, believing that accepting even an unjust judgment was the divine will and best for his people. The author of the gospel of Mark probably also knew of the legendary last king of Athens, Codrus, who was directed by a divine oracle to give himself to the enemy disguised as a slave. His death was said to have saved his people. The author of the gospel of Mark may even have known the Greek account of the Persian ritual of dressing a prisoner up like a king and mocking him, before putting him to death. All these themes appear in the passion account of the gospel of Mark.