Summary of the Gospel of Mark

According to Mark, Christ was baptized by John the Baptist in the Jordan. (There is no mention of a virgin birth. This notion was first introduced by Matthew and then greatly expanded upon by Luke.) After John was arrested Christ began his ministry. He gathered his twelve disciples and then began to preach in the synagogues of Capernaum. (In other words, his ministry began in Gentile territory, and this brings Mark into conflict with one school of thought in Matthew, those who insisted that Christ was sent only to the ‘lost sheep of Israel'.) He began doing healings and became notorious in Galilee. At this point Mark begins to allude to the radical school of the Jewish prophets, a point he makes explicit in Chapter 7 where he charges the Pharisees and scribes with 'nullifying the prophets for the sake of their human traditions.' These human traditions were found in the first five books of the Bible, and the prophets being 'nullified' included Jeremiah.

"Thus says YAHWEH of hosts, the God of Israel, "Add your burnt offerings to your sacrifices and eat the flesh yourselves. For I did not speak to your fathers, or command them in the day that I brought them out of the land of Egypt, concerning burnt offerings and sacrifices....Now my people do not know the requirements of God. How can you say, 'we are wise, for we have the laws of God', when, behold, the lying pen of the scribes has worked falsely." (Jeremiah Chapter 7 verse 21, Chapter 8 verse 7)

It is this radical outlook that will inform Mark's gospel from this point on, and in order to properly understand the parables that compose the book, you must be aware that this radical tradition existed. The scribes and Pharisees were reactionaries and in Mark's gospel, Christ was a radical and a rebel. Soon enough Christ came into conflict with the religious authorities for freely forgiving people of their sins. (Keep in mind, that in traditional Judaism, getting sins forgiven required the payment of money in the temple and the sacrifice of animals, and the growing animosity this practice of ‘forgiving sins' generated can be understood). He began associating with ‘prostitutes, tax collectors, and sinners' and once again this practice angered the religious authorities of his day. (You should recall that the ancient Jewish religion advocated the stoning of sinners and also encapsulated a notion of ‘uncleanness', a kind of contamination one could expect to take on in any encounter with ‘unclean people'.) He did not keep the fasts, and once again was attacked for the practice by the priests, and he justified the practice by saying ‘no one puts new wine into old wine skins', a rejection of orthodoxy that wasn't likely to go over well with those in power in the temple.

Immediately after committing all these offences, and getting himself into hot water each time, Christ and his disciples went picking corn on the Sabbath. (Levitical Law at that time proclaimed that those who violated the Sabbath were to be stoned to death, and as the law clearly spelled out, this included those who did such things as pick up a few sticks for a fire, so certainly corn picking on the Sabbath was out.) Christ responded with a polemic condemning religious rules (David ate the sacred bread that was only for priests...the Sabbath was made for people, and people were not created for the Sabbath). Christ then promptly proceeded to break the Sabbath again, causing great anger and consternation among the priests, who adamantly insisted that he should do his work some other day. At this time, the priests were so enraged that they began plotting with Herod to kill Christ.

Christ gave authority to his disciples. When his family heard about how he was behaving they decided he had gone insane and came to seize him. (This brings Mark into conflict with Luke and John, who both insist that Mary was in on the whole business right from the start.) Mark also introduces the concept of the rejection of Joshua's family, and Mary, his mother. 'Who is my mother or my family - those who do the will of God?' It is implied by the context, following his families attempt to have him put in what passed for a 'mental ward' in those days, that his family and his mother did not do the will of God. Later Mark will insist that even after Christ raised the dead, his family had such powerful unbelief that they literally drained his healing powers and left him impotent, and this counts as particularly strong attack in Mark's gospel, where every point is made by carefully juxtaposing parables-in this case the raising of the dead parable placed immediately beside the parable of the unbelief of Christ's family. In short, Christ's family gets ‘short shrift’ in the Gospel of Mark. The priests insisted that Christ was filled with the devil. This is followed by a parable of sowing seeds, a parable concerning not hiding a light under a basket (which would be stupid), and as Mark insists, he never preached anything without using parables (which brings Mark's account into conflict with John, where he speaks like a Greek philosopher.) After the healing of a maniac the people of the area wanted nothing more than to get rid of Christ, so he left the area in a boat. This is followed by a few more tales of healing, at which time the people began to say ‘who does he think he is?' Christ organized his disciples and dispatched them to different towns in an attempt to spread his message further and more quickly than could be done by a single man. This got the attention of Herod, and at this point the narrative is interrupted to relate the story of the beheading of John the Baptist.

Mark relates a few more healing stories, and then conflict once again breaks out between Christ and the priests over the observance of ceremonial and ritual law. Mark alludes to the sermons the prophets delivered condemning the Torah, and then Christ explicitly condemns the food laws and the ‘clean unclean' regulations, chastising his disciples for being so ‘dim witted' that they had not figured this out for themselves. (Paul was familiar with this tradition, referring to it in the 14th chapter of Romans the 14th verse, and as other epistles testify, it was the subject of hot controversy in the early church). In response to Christ's rule breaking and disrespect for tradition the religious leaders demand a sign (this is sarcasm on Mark's part, placed as it is next to a narrative describing many signs).

At this point Christ announced to his disciples that he would be killed by the religious authorities, and attests to his faith that God would justify him by raising him from the dead. Mark then introduces a polemical parable showing Christ 'transformed' before the disciples while standing in the presence of Moses and Elijah (Moses symbolizing the law and Elijah symbolizing the prophets, with the parable functioning as an 'endorsement' of Christ - that he would be endorsed by the Jewish prophets would come as no surprise, since he carried on the radical prophetic tradition, but that he would be endorsed by Moses is a different matter, and by presenting the two together, Mark is suggesting that he would be.)

Christ's disciples were unable to heal, and he rebuked them for lack of faith. The priests began to ask him hard questions about passages in the Bible. Christ and disciples then began the climactic trip to Jerusalem. Christ entered Jerusalem on a donkey, while some of his supporters greeted him waving palm branches. His first act in Jerusalem was to launch an attack on the temple. Mark sandwiches this attack within the story of a withered fig tree. The fig tree is cursed, the temple is cursed, and then the fig tree is shown withered. Mark includes within the temple story two symbols - money and pigeons. (It was required of women that they purchase a pigeon once a month to sacrifice in the temple to 'atone for the sin of menstruation’. When viewed in the context of the rest of Christ's rule breaking and radical acts that Mark portrays in his gospel, it is obvious that these symbols are intended to be understood as a cursing of the temple, and in particular a cursing of the pigeon sacrifice, a practice that would have been costly for the average person and the object of some resentment - in particular if a person had many daughters. This parable of the cursed pigeon sacrifice also alludes back to a former parable in the gospel where Christ is touched by a women who had been menstruating non stop for decades, and was an outcast and pariah under the religious system of Levitical regulations. The two parables are linked, an unclean menstruating woman breaks the clean unclean of Leviticus by touching Christ, and then Christ sacks the temple and curses the pigeon sacrifice.) This attack on the temple system so enraged the priesthood that they began looking for an opportunity to put Christ to death. 'By what authority do you think that you are doing these things,' they demanded to know. Christ responded to their challenge by telling the crowds parables on the subject of the overthrow of the priesthood, and this challenge led to the first attempt to arrest him.

More bickering over the interpretation of Bible passages follows, and Christ warned the people to beware of the teachings of the priesthood. This is followed by Mark's mini-apocalypse and predictions of persecution and hostility for followers of Christ. More conflict with the religious authorities follows and then Mark relates his version of the Judas tradition. This is followed by the narrative of the arrest and crucifixion (on a trumped up charge of blasphemy for he called God 'my father'. There are echoes here of the teachings of the prophet Hosea who taught that the day would come when people would address God in intimate terms instead of referring to God as 'Baal', which means 'my Lord and Master'. The appellation 'Lord' and 'Master' are favourite expressions in Matthew's gospel along with that of 'slave', which is one of the major differences found between Mark and Matthew.) "Calling them to Himself, Jesus said to them, You know that those who are recognized as rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them; and their great men exercise authority over them. But it is not to be that way among you." (Mark 10:42) It is interesting to note that Mark portrays this particular breach of tradition as reason for the crucifixion when Christ had already committed so many other religious offences. This doctrinal offence can be viewed as a kind of summation of everything that went before (a rejection of religious authority and the system of religious rules in favour of a relationship of trust and faith).

Mark's gospel ends abruptly with the women discovering an empty tomb and a young man in white linen. 'They were afraid and told no one.' (The passages which follow this section do not appear in the early manuscripts and were added later by the church. These passages include an expanded passion narrative and some foolish advice about handling snakes and drinking poison.)