The gospel of Mark opens with the statement: "The beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ the Son of God." The gospel is neither a biography nor an historical account of the events leading to the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus. It is a proclamation of the gospel of Jesus Christ. True, it is a narrative proclamation, rather than an essay containing arguments. But it defends a certain way of understanding the gospel and, therefore, resists other interpretations.
The gospel account immediately relates the story of John the Baptist. It may be hard for Christians today to image a gospel without a birth story, but that is what the author of the gospel of Mark gives us. The wonderful tales of the wise men following a star and the shepherds in the fields are in the gospels of Matthew and Luke. Very likely the author of the gospel of Mark did not ignore these stories, but had never heard of them.
The gospel of Mark affirms that John the Baptist was fulfilling the prophecy of Isaiah by preparing "the way for the Lord." This passage reminds us of Paul's claim that key passages in scripture referring to "the Lord" (meaning God) actually refer to Jesus Christ. To prepare the way for the Lord, the gospel of Mark tells us, John was "proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins." John says to the people who come to him by the Jordan River, "I have baptized you with water" but the one to come "will baptize you with the Holy Spirit." After Jesus is baptized, he sees "the heavens break open and the Spirit descend on him, like a dove." And Jesus hears a voice saying: "You are my beloved Son; in you I take delight." The Spirit then drives Jesus into the wilderness, where for forty days he is tempted by Satan and cared for by angels.
In all four New Testament gospels Jesus goes to John to be baptized. Because this seems to mean that he humbled himself before John the Baptist, confessing his sins and repenting along with the others that came for baptism, it is remarkable that the story appears in each of these gospel accounts. The relationship of Jesus to John the Baptist must have been a tradition so deeply embedded in the story of Jesus that it could not be ignored by any of the gospel writers.
After being baptized by John in the Jordan and tempted in the wilderness, Jesus comes into Galilee proclaiming: "The time has arrived, and the kingdom of God is upon you. Repent, and have faith in the gospel." Then he calls four fishermen to follow him and takes them with him to the synagogue in Capernaum, where he preaches. The gospel tells us that the Jews of Capernaum "were astounded at his teaching, for he taught them as one having authority, and not as the scribes." In the synagogue, when Jesus encounters a man with an unclean spirit who identifies him as "the Holy One of God," he silences the spirit and orders it out of the man.
It becomes apparent very early in the gospel of Mark that the Jesus of this gospel is a teacher whose deeds do most of the talking. His authority is confirmed by accounts of healing and casting out demons. The story moves rapidly forward. As soon as Jesus and his disciples leave the synagogue, Jesus enters the home of Andrew and Simon and heals Simon's mother-in-law. (Simon is the name of the man generally known to us in the Greek New Testament as Peter or Simon Peter, although he is also referred to as Cephas, which is the Aramaic word for "rock.") That evening, we are told, Jesus "cured many who were sick with various diseases, and cast out many demons; and he would not permit the demons to speak, because they knew him."
The next morning Jesus rises to pray before dawn and then sets off to visit the synagogues of the surrounding towns to proclaim his message and to cast out demons. The only report given of this journey, however, is the healing of a leper. Even as Jesus has silenced the demons, he tells the leper to keep silent, but to go to the priest and offer the sacrifice required by the law of Moses for his healing. Presumably the demons obeyed the order to be silent, but the leper does not, and soon Jesus no longer needs to travel because people are coming to him.
The pattern of healing, commanding the healed person to be silent, and then having his miracle reported despite his command will be repeated several times in the gospel of Mark. The pattern suggests this is a literary structure rather than a recitation of historical facts. How could those who were healed defy the "Holy One of God" who had such power?
Yet, why would the author of the gospel have Jesus ask those he had healed to be silent? Miracles could not be hidden. A leper returning to his community, because he was healed, could not hide that fact and would be expected to explain. The "secrecy" motif in the gospel of Mark has puzzled all those who have noticed it.
In the second chapter of the gospel, friends of a paralyzed man remove part of a roof in order to lower their friend to where Jesus is teaching. The gospel reports that when "he saw their faith, Jesus said to the man, 'My son, your sins are forgiven.'" For the first time in the story scribes now challenge Jesus and accuse him of blasphemy: "Who but God can forgive sins?" Jesus replies by asking if it is easier to forgive sins or to heal a paralyzed man. Then he says: "'But to convince you that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins' — he turned to the paralyzed man — 'I say to you, stand up, take your bed, and go home.'"
Jesus continues teaching, calls a tax collector to follow him, and then eats with other tax collectors and “ inners." This means he is eating with persons who have not kept the law of Moses. As we know from the letters of Paul, Jewish law includes not only moral prohibitions but also restrictions on eating and rituals for purification. We cannot assume that those who were invited to eat with Jesus were necessarily unscrupulous or evil. They may simply have ignored some of the Jewish dietary restrictions. When scribes who are also Pharisees criticize him for eating with sinners, Jesus simply says: "It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick; I did not come to call the virtuous, but sinners."
Arguments with Pharisees
Quickly the gospel relates another argument between Jesus and the Pharisees. When Jesus is asked why his disciples do not fast like the Pharisees and the followers of John the Baptist, Jesus answers that the wedding guests cannot fast while the bridegroom is with them. He follows this enigmatic comment by saying that no one "sews a piece of unshrunk cloth on an old cloak" or "puts new wine into old wineskins." As if to demonstrate what Jesus means, the author of the gospel then tells a story of Jesus and his disciples picking corn on the sabbath. When confronted by Pharisees who accuse him of violating Jewish law, Jesus reminds them that King David did as they are doing when he was hungry. "The sabbath," Jesus says, "was made for man, not man for the sabbath." And he adds, "so the Son of Man is lord even of the sabbath."
This is the second time in the gospel that Jesus has referred to himself as the Son of Man. We will find in the gospel of Mark that this is the most common title Jesus uses for himself. It may refer to a passage from the prophecy of Daniel, which Jesus quotes at the end of the gospel account. Although the author of the gospel of Mark has already identified Jesus as the Son of God, the gospel does not tell us that Jesus used this title. Nor in the gospel does Jesus ever refer to himself as the Messiah ("Christ" in Greek).
The third chapter of the gospel of Mark begins with another confrontation on the sabbath, when Jesus heals a man with a withered hand in the synagogue. This time it seems he is being set up, for the gospel says the people in the synagogue "were watching to see whether Jesus would heal him on the sabbath, so that they could bring a charge against him." As in earlier instances, Jesus not only heals but also uses the confrontation to teach the people. "Is it lawful to do good or to do harm on the sabbath," he asks them, "to save life or to kill?" He answers by healing the man's withered hand. Then, the gospel author tells us, "the Pharisees, on leaving the synagogue, at once began plotting with the men of Herod's party to bring about the death of Jesus."
The beginning of the gospel of Mark sets the stage for the rest of the story. Jesus is identified with the movement led by John the Baptist urging repentance. The Holy Spirit descends on Jesus during his baptism, and he is commissioned by a voice from heaven saying he is God's "beloved Son." The Spirit leads him into the wilderness, where he is tempted by Satan, and then he returns to Galilee to proclaim the arrival of the kingdom of God and to call people to repentance and faith. His authority is verified by the way he calls disciples, heals, casts out demons, and confronts Jewish authorities.
As we begin the third chapter, there is already a plot to kill him. Scribes, who are experts in Jewish law, have questioned his authority to forgive sins, believing that only God can do that. Jesus responds that "the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins" and heals a paralyzed man to prove his point. Scribes, who were also Pharisees, have challenged him for eating with tax collectors and sinners, who do not obey Jewish law as strictly as the Pharisees claim all Jews should. Jesus replies that he has not come "to call the virtuous, but sinners."
The gospel has related that twice Jesus has been accused of breaking Jewish laws concerning the sabbath. In the first instance he and his disciples picked corn to eat, and on another occasion he healed a man with a withered hand. Jesus has defended his actions by quoting a precedent from the Jewish scriptures and by arguing that it is permitted to do good on the sabbath. In addition, he has claimed that "the Son of Man is lord even of the sabbath."
His teaching, healing, casting out demons, and debates with Jewish authorities have made him popular in Galilee for crowds from all around have come to see him. The plot of the story is now clear: Jesus is challenging Jewish authorities because they seem more concerned with the details of Jewish law than with the welfare of the Jewish people. Jesus proclaims the kingdom of God for all those who in faith repent of their sin. That appears to be a threat to some Jewish leaders, who benefit from the reign of King Herod under the authority of the Roman Empire, and so certain scribes, Pharisees and Herodians conspire to kill Jesus.
So far the conflict in this gospel is among Jews. Jesus, a Jew, who is baptized by John, a Jew, is healing and preaching in Galilee among Jews. The scribes, Pharisees and Herodians opposing Jesus are also Jews. The conflict among these Jews concerns the reign of God, the interpretation of Jewish law, and the question of authority. Who is to decide about God's will? Those educated in Jewish law? A self-proclaimed Jewish prophet, like John the Baptist? Or a wandering Jewish teacher and healer, like Jesus of Nazareth?