A Major Theme in Mark’s Gospel

By Julie M. Smith

When the Gospels are read as separate texts, it becomes apparent that each writer emphasized certain themes.  Matthew’s Gospel strongly emphasizes Jesus’s role as the one who fulfilled scripture.  (By way of contrast, Mark virtually never mentions this.)  In Matthew, Jesus is the “new Moses” who brings to fruition all that had been prophesied.  In Luke, there is a definite emphasis on marginalized people:  widows, orphans, the poor, the ill, and women take center stage as Jesus interacts with them.  While there is some of this material in Mark’s Gospel, it is much more subtle.  John’s Gospel is very cosmic and philosophical, and the distance between it and Mark’s Gospel is quite great here.  By contrast, the spotlight is almost always on the idea of discipleship in Mark; there is general agreement among scholars that discipleship is a key theme in this text.

The way that each Gospel begins showcases how each writer shapes his distinct themes.  Matthew’s Gospel launches with a genealogical list that ties Jesus to the time of the Old Testament, and the story includes multiple explicit references to the idea that the events surrounding Jesus’s birth fulfilled scriptural prophecies (Matthew 1:22, 2:5, 2:15, and 2:17.) Luke’s Gospel begins with the private struggles of an older, infertile woman (Luke 1:7) and a young woman (Luke 1:27).  John’s Gospel, by starting with “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God,” makes its philosophical and cosmic dimensions clear.  By way of contrast, Mark begins his Gospel not with an exploration of Jesus’s link to the Old Testament or a focus on marginalized people or a philosophical exploration, but a disciple:  John the Baptist, who prepares people to be disciples of Jesus Christ.

Mark’s exploration of discipleship continues throughout the entire Gospel.  If the author is the same person who is mentioned in Acts 15, then discipleship was a particularly tender topic for him:  Paul was planning a missionary journey, Barnabas wanted to take John Mark with them, but Paul refused because John Mark had abandoned a previous missionary voyage (see Acts 15:38).  If John Mark wrote this Gospel, then we know that he has had serious challenges in his own experience of discipleship (although we do not know the circumstances around his absconding from that assignment).  If the immediate setting for Mark’s Gospel is either the persecution that followed the fire in Rome or the Jewish War, then the audience might have been particularly concerned about what it meant to be a true disciple in a time of intense trial, as well as what might happen to those who experience setbacks and personal failures as disciples. We find that not just discipleship, but failed discipleship, is a core theme in Mark’s Gospel.

Mark shows Jesus’s disciples making significant mistakes:  they don’t understand the parables (Mark 4:13; this material is not found in the other Gospels), they don’t understand what Jesus teaches (Mark 8:14-21), Peter rebukes Jesus for his teachings (Mark 8:32-33), they fail when they try to perform miracles (Mark 9:14-29), they argue about who is best (Mark 9:33-34), they ask for positions of honor (Mark 10:35-40), Judas turns Jesus in to the authorities (Mark 14:10-11, 18-21, and 41-46), the disciples fall asleep when Jesus asked them to watch (Mark 34-41), Peter denies that he knows Jesus (Mark 14:29-21 and 66-72), the disciples all flee when Jesus is arrested (Mark 14:50-52), and the women leave the tomb in silence (Mark 16:8).  In the Gospel of Mark, Jesus’s disciples are far from flawless; instead, they are learners who repeatedly stumble.  This may or may not relate to Mark’s own experiences, but it does serve an important role in the narrative:  the obtuseness of the disciples provides ample teaching opportunities for Jesus (which then become opportunities for the audience to learn) and also allows for Jesus to showcase his patience and faith in their eventual success. Joanna Dewey writes, “The very fact that Mark’s story is being told suggests that Mark views failure as part of continuing disciple­ship.”[1] The failures of the disciples—and Jesus’s patience in continuing to teach them—become a subtle testimony of the power of the atonement to bridge the gap between human inadequacy and the demands of discipleship. It may also highlight the importance of Pentecost:  the role of the Holy Ghost is emphasized as we see how poorly the disciples function without it.[2]

An unexpected twist to the discipleship theme is that, in contrast to the twelve disciples who were chosen by Jesus, minor characters who choose to follow Jesus are much better disciples. This group includes the paralytic whose sins are forgiven (Mark 2:1-12), the woman with the flow of blood (Mark 5:21-43), the Syrophenician woman (Mark 7:24-30), Bartimaeus (Mark 10:46-52), the widow donating to the temple (Mark 12:41-44), and the woman who anoints Jesus (Mark 14:3-9). In Mark’s Gospel, the people that Jesus chooses to be disciples tend to do very poorly, while those who choose to follow Jesus seem to have a much better understanding of what it means to be a disciple.  Perhaps the principle that the first shall be last and the last shall be first (see Mark 10:31) applies to coming to an understanding of what it means to be a disciple of Jesus Christ.

Jesus’s teachings on discipleship also feature prominently in this Gospel.  In Mark 8:34, Jesus says, “Whosoever will come after me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow me.”  Note how Jesus is emphasizing the costs—not the benefits—of discipleship here.  Jesus does not encourage people to follow him because they will find happiness or wealth or community, but he explains to them that being a disciple means self-sacrifice and persecution.  Similarly, in Mark 9:35, Jesus says, “If any man desire to be first, the same shall be last of all, and servant of all.”  This word for “servant” finds its root in the idea of performing simple, menial, physical acts of service.  Jesus is not promising them status or power—he’s asking them to wait tables and tend to other physical needs.  Even the highest-status males are expected to do the kind of work that was typically the sole domain of low-status females; as Joanna Dewey describes it, “The Twelve are called to do women’s work.”[3] Similarly, women in this Gospel are invited to join in work normally restricted to men:  theological discussions (see Mark 7:24-30), the ritual of anointing (see Mark 14:3-9), and following a teacher (see Mark 15:40).[4]

Throughout the text, Mark carefully structures the message on discipleship:  the twelve are shown to fail again and again.  Jesus does not break faith with them, but rather continues to patiently teach them.  At the end of the Gospel, the reference to Peter in Mark 16:7 continues this pattern:  despite three outright denials that Peter even knew Jesus, it is assumed that Peter’s discipleship will continue. This would have been a very comforting message to Mark’s early audience, and perhaps to Mark himself. Jesus is patient with disciples, even when they make mistakes.  And not minor mistakes—even when they fundamentally misunderstand his mission, betray him, deny him, and are afraid at the news of the Resurrection, he does not abandon them.  They are continually invited to continue following him.

[1] Joanna Dewey, “Women in the Gospel of Mark,” Word & World  26.1 (2006): 29

[2] Robert H. Stein, Mark  (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2008), 31.

[3] Joanna Dewey, “Women in the Gospel of Mark,” Word & World 26.1 (2006): 25.

[4] Note that women are still expected to engage in traditional acts of service; see Mark 1:31.