Introducing the New Testament, 2nd Edition

A Historical, Literary, and Theological Survey

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7. Mark


This chapter should enable the student to

  • summarize what modern scholarship has to say about the historical circumstances underlying Mark’s Gospel, including what can be known of the book’s author, audience, sources, and date of composition.
  • identify distinctive literary features and theological perspectives that characterize Mark’s Gospel as different from the other New Testament Gospels.
  • describe Mark’s portrait of Jesus, with appreciation for this Gospel’s emphasis on the humanity of Christ and the centrality of the cross.
  • explain what scholars mean when they talk about a “messianic secret” theme in Mark’s Gospel, with awareness of how that theme has been understood in academic studies.
  • explicate Mark’s understanding of “the kingdom of God” as a present and future phenomenon.
  • describe Mark’s portrait of the disciples and offer viable explanations for why this Gospel seems to focus so relentlessly on the failures of those disciples.

Pedagogical Suggestions

1. Examining Key Passages: Mark’s Literary Style

a. Urgency. Have students read chapters 1–3 aloud in small groups and identify the phrases that convey a specific sense of time. Next, have the same groups (or whole class) read chapters 15–16 aloud and again note the phrases that convey a specific sense of time. As a class, compare and contrast the use of time in the beginning of the Gospel (to propel the story toward the cross) and the deliberate slowing of time at the end of the Gospel (to focus the reader on the center of the story: Jesus’s suffering on the cross). How does the reader experience the narrative in each of these changes of pace? According to Mark, where should readers focus their attention? If the cross is the climax of Mark, what does this tell us about who Jesus is in this Gospel?

b. Intercalation. This is interpreting one event by weaving it into another event. There are a few examples of intercalation in Mark. Most prominent among them is the fig tree set on either side of the cursing of the temple scene in 11:12–25. (Other instances of intercalation include 11:27–12:17 where Jesus is rejected and “wicked tenants” are punished and 6:1–29 regarding prophets.)

Have students look at one example as a class or in small groups. Each group might look at a different example, discuss independently, and then report back to the whole class. Group discussion: how does the intercalation focus the reader/hearer on the central story (the temple sandwiched between the fig tree), and how the two stories mutually illumine one another?

c. Irony. The irony in Mark’s Gospel doesn’t quite rise to the level of satire but does function to keep the disciples and the hearers guessing as to what they really know about Jesus. Have students look at the ironic juxtaposition of the disciples’ denied request in 10:35–45 with the healing of the blind man that follows in 10:46–52. The irony in Mark functions in at least two ways: to keep the hearer pointed toward the climax of the cross—through which one must move in the narrative to understand Jesus’s ministry—and to affirm a community in its own crisis and confusion about what it means to follow Jesus. This exercise thus can help students to think theologically about how the text portrays Jesus and also to think historically about how the text addressed the needs of Christians (in Rome) around the time of the Jewish war (64–70) or the persecution of Christians under Nero in Rome (63–64).


A careful look at specific passages can give students a concrete example of: (1) Mark’s literary style (urgency, intercalation, irony), (2) themes in the Gospel (secrecy, the humanity of Jesus, the cross and suffering), and (3) development of written traditions about Jesus (a possible apocalyptic source in Mark 13, the multiple endings). In addition, college and seminary students are still learning how to read analytically. Observation and analysis of repetition, creation of a scene, exploration of character development, the alternation of action and teaching, all help students build their analytical reading skills.

2. In a Nutshell

Have students read Mark 3:20–27 aloud. They should identify the characters and people involved, describe the scenery, and then outline or diagram the logic of Jesus’s parable. This passage offers a direct window into four key issues of the Gospel of Mark.

  • Ancient perceptions of the power of demons and spirits, as well as Jesus’s relationship to a family and his “home” (3:19).
  • The puzzling nature of Jesus’s identity in this Gospel; neither the teachers, nor Jesus’s family understand who he is.
  • The key to this passage is how Jesus characterizes what he is doing. He is “binding” the power of Satan by healing people and casting out demons. This passage illumines the meaning of the Kingdom of God discussed in the textbook.
  • The Gospel presents Jesus as a traveling miracle worker in chapters 1–8:29. Only after he has “bound” the presence of evil does he go on to complete his “plundering of Satan’s house” through suffering on the cross and death (in ch. 16) and rising from the dead (hinted at by the empty tomb and the young man’s words to the women in 16:5–8).


Often there are discreet passages or events within a narrative that encapsulate the main point of the whole. Mark 3:20–27, often referred to as “the binding of the strong man” is one such passage. Given limited time to get to the heart of the Gospel of Mark, this short passage offers one way in.

3. Character Sketch: “Who Is Mark’s Jesus?”

Another way into the Gospel of Mark is to show students how a character sketch can reveal the thesis of the book. Have the students count off to sixteen. Each student then begins reading Mark at the chapter number they’ve been given. If they complete that chapter, they can continue consecutively through the book until all students have read and analyzed one full chapter (this keeps all students engaged, while accounting for different reading speeds). Students are to skim their chapter looking for two things: who calls Jesus and by what title. Write the results on the board. They should look like this: demons and God identify Jesus as “Son of God/Most High”; Jesus’s disciples identify Jesus as “Rabbi”; scribes and Pharisees ask “who is this man?”; Jesus’s family thinks he’s crazy; and the crowds wonder who Jesus “might be.” Jesus refers to himself as “Son of Man.” The one exception is Peter’s pivotal confession in 8:29–30. The entire narrative hinges literally on this inconsistent confession—a pivot—and the plot shifts from Jesus’s activity of healing to a primary mode of teaching (particularly the three predictions of suffering: 8:31; 9:30; 10:32 that are equidistant apart). But Peter only half understands who Jesus is after eight chapters and Jesus spends another eight chapters telling Peter how to interpret how Jesus is “Messiah.” When Jesus’s “titles” are mapped on the board in this way, students can see that the characters in the narrative function less as historical figures then they do as representative figures. Furthermore, “the outsiders” (demons and God) know who Jesus is, while “the insiders” (the disciples and the readers) are left puzzled and guessing. This is the ironic reversal in Mark: the insiders feel like outsiders, and the outsiders show themselves to be insiders.


There are two key points to Mark’s Gospel. First, one cannot know who Jesus is apart from the cross. Second, even the disciples struggled to know who Jesus really was. Both of these points function to teach the original hearers something about who Jesus is, and something about who they were—as disciples. For today’s readers, the two key points function to distinguish Mark from the other three canonical Gospels and to reconstruct a profile of Mark’s first-century audience. Mark teaches his first audience that although their circumstances are confusing (war, persecution, destruction of the temple), and they are unsure of what to believe, if they remain faithful through suffering, then they are true disciples of Jesus.

Discussion Prompts

1. Outlining Discussion

One way to understand a Gospel is to examine its structure. A short outline can orient students quickly.

I. Mark (and God) introduce Jesus: “You are my Son” (1:1–1:13)

II. Healing ministry: healing people and casting out demons (1:14–8:26)

III. Peter’s confession: “You are the Messiah” (8:27–30)

IV. Teaching ministry: suffering and dying

  1. Prediction 1 (8:31–33)
  2. Prediction 2 (9:30–32)
  3. Prediction 3 (10:33–34)

V. The Passion: suffering and dying (chs. 11–16)

Another way to use this structural outline is to solicit student observations toward the creation of the outline on the board. To begin, have the students read the entire Gospel for homework and list Jesus’s actions. This list serves as the basis for soliciting student observations. It should contain phrases such as “casting out demons” and “heals a little girl” or “teaches through parables.” Do the students see patterns in their list of Jesus’s actions (more healing at the beginning of the Gospel, more teaching in the second half)? Does he begin doing one kind of activity and then shift to another kind? Where does the shift occur (around ch. 8)? What else is going on in chapter 8 that is new? What kind of a person is Jesus, given the things he does? How do people respond to Jesus’s teaching? Is there a point in the Gospel when people get more (or less) angry at Jesus, or more (or less) frustrated? If a student notices that the Pharisees want to kill Jesus, ask how early in the narrative certain groups conspire against Jesus (3:6).

Rationale. Such group discussion of the entire Gospel, focusing on the narrative structure and building inductively from the students’ own observations, shows students how to move from their observations to an outline of the plot or themes. Another tip to point out to students is that they began with one prompt: list Jesus’ actions. By focusing on one key element in a Gospel (or any text), they can unravel the structure and argument that the author has constructed.

2. Comparing Jewish Law

Mark 7:1–23 offers a window into first-century Jewish arguments over the applications of Torah and the observance of Jewish laws. Using the textbook descriptions of the various groups of Jews in Jerusalem in the first century (pp. 40–47) or, alternatively, showing a clip from Monty Python’s Life of Brian to illustrate the first century (although satirical, Life of Brian is quite accurate!), have students discuss the similarities and differences between Jesus’s teachings and the teaching of the Pharisees. How did Jesus’s followers observe purity? How did the Pharisees understand purity?

Explore Readings

These readings provide a chance for your students to explore the New Testament in more depth. The boxes from the text are included here, as well as bibliographies and outlines for the books of the New Testament.

All the Explore readings can also be downloaded as PDFs here.