The Reporters: Mark’s Story about Jesus
To start, Mark is alone among the gospels in being silent about the origin of Jesus. Although he wrote nothing about the Bethlehem story, Mark is considered the first of the four gospel writers to put together something of Jesus’ life as an itinerant preacher. Almost all scholars today believe that both Luke and Matthew borrowed heavily from Mark’s gospel in developing their narratives about Jesus’ teaching and travels.
The first question that comes to our minds is, why would Matthew and Luke lean so heavily on the writings of a person who was not one of Jesus’ disciples? Of course, neither was Luke a disciple nor was he Jewish. So, what connections did Mark have that made him a credible writer of a story about Jesus that is included in the book of sacred writings?
Our first contact with Mark is in the book of Acts, chapter 12. The Apostle Peter has been arrested and held in prison by King Herod, awaiting trial. During the night right before the trial, followers of Jesus were meeting at the home of Mary, mother of John Mark. Here is how it reads in Acts 12:
11Then Peter came to himself and said, “Now I know without a doubt that the Lord has sent his angel and rescued me from Herod’s clutches and from everything the Jewish people were hoping would happen.” 12 When this had dawned on him, he went to the house of Mary the mother of John, also called Mark, where many people had gathered and were praying. 13 Peter knocked at the outer entrance, and a servant named Rhoda came to answer the door. 14 When she recognized Peter’s voice, she was so overjoyed she ran back without opening it and exclaimed, “Peter is at the door!”
We are not told whether Mark was at this prayer meeting or not, but members of the Jerusalem church were at his mother’s home, interceding for one of their leaders who was to go on trial in the morning. His family had important connections in the church.
At a later time, Barnabas, another leader in the Jerusalem church, brought Saul (who became the Apostle Paul) to introduce him to the disciples of Jesus. Years after that, he and Paul went on a mission journey, taking Barnabas’s cousin with them, the young man Mark (see Acts 12:25). He was not adjusting well to the mission and left Barnabas and Paul, returning to Jerusalem (Acts 13:13).
When we come to Acts 15 (verses 37 – 39), Paul and Barnabas are preparing to leave on another missionary trip. Mark’s earlier defection from the team caused a rupture in the relationship between Paul and Barnabas. They split up, Paul traveling with Silas, and Barnabas, going to Cyprus with Mark.
After this break between the Apostle Paul and Barnabas, Barnabas is only mentioned again once in Scripture. Nevertheless, his contribution to spreading the gospel was enormous. When Saul (Paul) was converted, he shepherded him into the fellowship of the 12 apostles when at first they were skeptical of his discipleship. Barnabas also introduced Mark to Paul and Peter, and indirectly to Luke, the author of both Luke and Acts (see Philemon 24). Between those four individuals, you have the authors, under God, of most of the New Testament.
Somewhere down the line, Mark, Luke, Peter and Paul link up in ministry again. Paul, who had been critical of Mark earlier, writes very kind and endearing words about Mark, referring to him when he wrote to his closest associate, Timothy in II Timothy 4: 9 “Do your best to come to me quickly. . . . . 11 Only Luke is with me. Get Mark and bring him with you, because he is helpful to me in my ministry.”
Finally, and most importantly for our consideration, we come to the connection between the Apostle Peter and Mark. We have no written account as to how this team of writers got together, but we have Peter’s commendation of Mark in his general Epistle, I Peter 5: 13 “She who is in Babylon, chosen together with you, sends you her greetings, and so does my son Mark.”
In what we read from II Timothy 4:9-12, it seems that Mark came to Rome to minister with the Apostle Paul. We believe the Apostle Peter was also at Rome at this time (where he wrote I Peter).
Of course, the Roman Emperor Nero executed both Peter and Paul there in Rome.
So, while perhaps in his younger days, Mark had been kind of a rough stone on the outside, he later revealed that on the inside he had diamond qualities. His writing of the first account of Jesus’ ministry helped shape Christian faith for 2,000 years. Even so, our penetrating question still remains: Why no mention of the events in Bethlehem?
No Bethlehem Story In Mark’s Gospel
It might be easier to just pass over the gospel of Mark and not discuss the impact of omitting the birth of Jesus. The reasons the Bethlehem events are not included, however, add to the importance of the background of those events. As we go along, we’ll revisit some of the history we have already covered.
We must also remember that the content of all the gospels came from human authors, writing under the guidance of the Holy Spirit. Jesus said clearly to the disciples in John 14: 25 “All this I have spoken while still with you. 26 But the Advocate, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you all things and will remind you of everything I have said to you.”
This promise from Jesus to the disciples is what enabled Mark and the other New Testament writers to get the truth of events from those who were there.
Without suggesting specific dates for all the critical events, we can say Jesus was born around 4 B.C. Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection were about the year 30 A.D+. There is one date certain that we can use–the destruction of Jerusalem by the Roman armies in 70 A.D. If we can use those dates as guideposts, it will help us understand the composition of Mark’s gospel.
If we agree that Mark’s gospel was the first to be written and included in the New Testament, where did Mark get the information to put into his gospel? Luke, the Gentile doctor who traveled with the Apostle Paul, with the Apostle Peter and with Mark, may help us out on this question. Read what Luke writes in the first two verses of his gospel: Luke 1: 1 “Many have undertaken to draw up an account of the things that have been fulfilled among us, 2 just as they were handed down to us by those who from the first were eyewitnesses and servants of the word.”
Here are two “non-apostles” traveling around with Peter, a leader among Jesus’ disciples, and Paul, the great missionary of the first century. Luke, a Gentile, and Mark who had gotten off to a rocky start with Paul, are in Rome in the early 60’s. They are talking about writing down what others have told them about the life of Jesus, the Christ. That is what Luke says in the opening verses of the gospel he wrote.
Although we have no direct indication in Mark’s gospel that he was an eyewitness to what he wrote, as we mentioned Mark did have plenty of contact with people who traveled with Jesus. The Apostle Peter was probably the major resource since he and Mark spent time together in Rome, as well as Jerusalem. And what were the primary reasons Peter gave to support the truth of the gospel of Jesus? He tells us; there were two: The signs, miracles and wonders Jesus did and his resurrection from the grave. Here is how Peter reported it in Acts 2:
14 Then Peter stood up with the Eleven, raised his voice and addressed the crowd: “Fellow Jews and all of you who live in Jerusalem, let me explain this to you; listen carefully to what I say. 15 These people are not drunk, as you suppose. It’s only nine in the morning! 16 No, this is what was spoken by the prophet Joel:
17 “‘In the last days, God says, I will pour out my Spirit on all people. Your sons and daughters will prophesy, your young men will see visions, your old men will dream dreams. 18 Even on my servants, both men and women, I will pour out my Spirit in those days, and they will prophesy. 19 I will show wonders in the heavens above and signs on the earth below, blood and fire and billows of smoke. 20 The sun will be turned to darkness and the moon to blood before the coming of the great and glorious day of the Lord. 21 And everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved. 22 “Fellow Israelites, listen to this: Jesus of Nazareth was a man accredited by God to you by miracles, wonders and signs, which God did among you through him, as you yourselves know. 23 This man was handed over to you by God’s deliberate plan and foreknowledge; and you, with the help of wicked men, put him to death by nailing him to the cross. 24 But God raised him from the dead, freeing him from the agony of death, because it was impossible for death to keep its hold on him. (Acts 2:14-24).
Who was the Apostle Peter speaking to? His declaration was during the Feast of Weeks (now Pentecost) in Jerusalem. There were thousands of pilgrims in the city from all parts of the Empire. (Acts chapter 2 gives the full picture). Many of these people (if not most) had stayed over from the Passover celebrated 50 days earlier. While important in Christian theology, notice Peter did not mention the birth of Jesus on this occasion.
As the spokesperson for the emerging church, Peter proclaimed two facts that most in that audience had heard about. First, Jesus rose from the dead (50 days earlier and Jerusalem was still buzzing with that news); and that he, Jesus, was certified as the Son of God by numerous miracles, signs and wonders done with his hands. Standing in that crowd on that day were hundreds who had either witnessed these miracles or bore in their persons the fruit of Jesus’ touch of healing.
That is the point at which Mark begins his story about Jesus—Jesus exercising power over death (illness) and demons (satanic power). The Jesus we see here is an active Messiah who went about performing miracles and wonders. Yet, there is still another reason why Mark did not begin his gospel with the ancestry of the Messiah. Mark is writing his story about Jesus to reach a major group of people. He was writing in Rome that had an estimated population of about 1 million people. That number included a slave population of about half the total, plus common women who were not counted.
Even before Mark wrote his gospel, the Apostle Paul had written to the Corinthian church (see I Corinthians 1) that God’s call had not been received by “influential or people of noble birth”, but by the poor, the lowly and the despised. That was Mark’s target audience. They were members of the existing churches in that part of the Empire. Mark wanted them to understand that lack of pedigree or status didn’t matter in God’s Kingdom—all were welcome, particularly the down-and-outers!
To consider further how Jesus is portrayed in the picture Mark draws of him, there are numerous references in prophecy regarding the Messiah as servant. These are seen fulfilled in what Mark wrote about Jesus in his gospel. Here are some of those references: Mark 1:1—4, 9, 12, 13; Mark 2:1, 2 13; Mark 3:1 7, 20; Mark 4:1; Mark 5:1, 2; Mark 6:1-3; Isaiah 42:1-4; Isaiah 49:5-7; Isaiah 53:10-12.
We move now to Luke whose gospel account of the birth of Jesus is perhaps best known and most referred to at Christmas time.
Next: Luke’s Report