Introduction to the Gospel of Mark




How we got where we are

St Mark’s Gospel, the first to be written, is dark. It is a story of desertion, betrayal, and death. The fear of persecution and the threat of crucifixion stalk its pages. It is story which ends in fear and trembling (Mark 16:1-8). Mark is not Matthew. For Matthew’s pages speak to a church, to a body of Christians which seeks to conform its members to a coherent way of life, to regulate its passage through this world, and to outline its mission to all peoples and to the end of the age. Nor is mark Luke. For Luke’s pages unfold a tale of joy, of praise and prayer, of ne’er-do-wells transformed, of women exalted and men renewed, of lost daughters and lost sons found, of hearts burning and lives restored. Sit at the feet of Luke and he will a tale unfold which begins in prayer, in Jerusalem’s temple of prayer, and ends with a pile of people worshipping with great joy in that same city of prayer. There are babies born, heralded into our world with blessings divine, promises auspicious, and angelic choirs.

Mark is cut from rougher cloth, a suit of darker hue. By attending to the peculiar stance of each Gospel we come to appreciate the prism which gospel-makers and lectionary devisers place before preachers and proclaimers. In Matthew, Mark, and Luke, we have a crystal form of three faces which refracts clear and brilliant colours of different hue. We see in each an idiosyncratic portrait of Jesus, Messiah and Son of God. We see differing paths by which disciples must travel and faith lived. The extravagance of God’s love for our world is explored from different vantage points and to attempt to reduce the colour of each into a single drab gray is to turn gospel into conformity. It has been tried. Ammonius of Alexandria and Justin Martyr produced harmonies of the four Gospels. More famously, Tatian, a second-century eastern (Assyrian or, more likely, Syrian) Christian, blended the four Gospels into one so as to remove duplications, to reconcile contradictions, and to create a coherent narrative with a clear beginning, middle, and end. His efforts provided the important and influential Syrian church with its Gospel lectionary until it was replaced in the fifth century. But for nearly three hundred years Tatian’s Diatessaron (“through the Four”) prevented preachers and proclaimers alike from appreciating the individuality of each of the four Gospels which the Spirit has graced Christians everywhere. Down through the ages preachers have sought to do as Tatian did and the result is that many Christians carry in their heads a fifth Gospel, the Gospel made up of bits and pieces garnered from the four, a Gospel where Magi hobnob with shepherds, where Joseph is sidelined in favour of Mary, where Jesus dies in prayerful mediation rather than screaming agony, where a convenient Ascension diminishes a determined Emmanuel. Modern lectionaries go a long away toward fostering an appreciation of each Gospel although in this regard perfection has yet to be attained.


The Lectionary is a glorious fruit of the Second Vatican Council. Those familiar with the Roman Missal of Pope Pius V (1566–1572) which governed the celebration of Mass from the days of the Council of Trent in the sixteenth century until Vatican II issued the Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy in December, 1963 will be conscious of its serious deficiencies. The old Latin Missal contained a series of Gospel readings and a reading taken mainly from the letters or epistles of the New Testament. There were but a few readings from the Old Testament so that Christians whose sole contact with our sacred scriptures was at Mass were ignorant of most of what we hold to be the Word of God. The Council’s decree was the first of a flurry of documents, over thirty of them, which, between 1964 and 1974, shaped anew the celebration of the liturgy and the proclamation of the Word in the sacramental life of the Church. The Constitution on Divine Revelation (1966), the Apostolic Constitution on the Roman Missal (April, 1969), and the General Instruction on the Roman Missal (1970) profoundly affected how we understand what it is we are and what we do when we gather to proclaim the death of the Lord until he comes (First Corinthians 11:23-26). The Instruction on the Worship of the Eucharistic Mystery (Eucharisticum Mysterium), issued on 25 May, 1967, is of immense importance in reforming our understanding of the Word of God in the mystery of the Eucharist. Priests and people are instructed in the principal ways in which the Lord is present to his Church in liturgical celebrations:

[The Lord] is always present in a body of the faithful gathered in his name (Matthew 18:20). He is present, too, in his Word, for it is he who speaks when the Scriptures are read in the Church. In the sacrifice of the Eucharist he is present both in the person of the minister, “the same now offering through the ministry of the priest who formerly offered himself on the cross” ¹ and above all under the species of the Eucharist. For in the sacrament Christ is present in a unique way, whole and entire, God and man, substantially and permanently. This presence of Christ under the species [of bread and wine] is called ‘real’, not in an exclusive sense, as if the other kinds of presence were not real, but par excellence

We are instructed that the people gathered around the altar of God are not exclusively fed by partaking of the Body and Blood of the Lord.³ Contrary to previous instruction, pastors are admonished “carefully to teach the faithful to participate in the whole Mass, showing the close connection between the liturgy of the Word and the celebration of the Lord’s Supper, so that they can see clearly how the two constitute a single act of worship” ⁴ The paragraph concludes with two resounding sentences which may be taken as a summary of the purposes of all that has been sanctioned, all that has been done, and all that has been set in place since the Second Vatican Council first deliberated on the urgency of reforming the liturgy of our Church:

In this way the faithful will be nourished by the Word of God which they have received and in a spirit of thanksgiving will be led on to a fruitful participation in the mysteries of salvation. Thus the Church is nourished by the bread of life which she finds at the table both of the Word of God and of the Body of Christ.⁵

The arrival of the Lectionary in 1969, of the second and revised edition in 1981, and now of the new Lectionary in 2010, marks a watershed in the story of the Catholic Church’s attempts to listen to the word of God. Those whom God has preserved to old age and grey hairs (Psalm 71:18) will remember when reading the Bible was roundly condemned and regarded with deep suspicion. Now, thanks to the Second Vatican Council and the riches it has scattered so liberally throughout the Churches, the hungry sheep no longer look up in vain. At last we are nourished by the bread of lifeat the table both of the Word of God and the Body of Christ. At last, our hearts burn within us as the Scriptures are opened by us and to us, as we break the Word and Bread in one glorious moment of grace.


Jewish communities invented the lectionary.⁶ According to traditions recorded in the Talmud, from the days of Moses it was customary to read from the Torah, the Pentateuch (that is, from the five seminal books of Israel’s faith, Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy) every Monday, Thursday, and Saturday (Sabbath). Although such a custom cannot be verified historically, there can be little doubt that the practice whereby the first five books of the Bible were read continuously throughout the year in Jewish synagogues (when these came into being around two hundred years before the time of Jesus of Nazareth) is ancient. The reading of the Torah over a three year cycle is continuous; on the same day that the last sentence of the Book of Deuteronomy is proclaimed the first sentence of the Book of Genesis rings out. Such continuous reading is technically known as a lectio continua.

Readings from the Prophets, that is, from the Book of Joshua through to the Book of Malachi, began to be introduced as these writings were assimilated into Holy Writ and probably to oppose the Samaritan adherence exclusively to the Torah and to insist that the books of the prophets were holy and to be regarded as the word of God. Selections, in keeping with the Torah reading or appropriate for a festive occasion were added to the synagogue service. Such readings additional to the lectio continua from the Torah are called Haftarah, a word which means “conclusion” and is intended to provide an interpretative or illustrative conclusion to the Torah reading. It is from this practice that we inherit the phrase the Law and the Prophets, an idiom we find in the Second Book of the Maccabees 15:9 and in the Gospel of Luke 24:27. The community assembled in Nazareth famously invited Jesus to read the Haftarah from the scroll of Isaiah. In ancient times, the maftir, as the one called upon to read was named, chose the passage to be read from the Prophets and determined its length, an important consideration when wrestling with what Jesus is doing in Luke 4:16-27 and trying to grasp why all the good people of Nazareth were filled with rage and tried to throw their neighbour from the top of the hill.⁷

In time, the Haftarah were formalized and such selected extracts form a lectio electa, chosen readings, to harmonise with and to elucidate the Torah reading. Some time later readings from what, in Judaism, are called The Five Scrolls (Song of Songs, Ruth, Lamentations, Ecclesiastes, Esther) made their way into synagogue readings on particular feasts when such texts were deemed especially appropriate. It is interesting to note that the Song of Songs is read during the week of Passover. The Psalms have always been central to Jewish prayer. Indeed, many of them were composed for Temple liturgies and today they are widely used in Jewish worship. The remaining books from the Kethuvim, the Writings or what Christian Bibles call the Wisdom Books (such books as Job, Proverbs, Daniel, Ezra, Nehemiah, and the Books of the Chronicles) found their way into synagogue worship in A roundabout way.

The preaching of sermons was an integral part of most religious occasions, not only on special festival occasions, but regularly on the Sabbath and often during daily morning and evening prayer. As Avigdor Shinan points out, on nearly every occasion the preacher dealt with the subject of the Torah reading together with the haftarah, the reading from the Prophets.⁸ However, it became customary to open a sermon with verses from books that were usually not read in the synagogue and to weave a catena of quotations until one arrived at the opening verse of the Torah or haftarah reading and a peroration which reinforced the message of the readings. In this way the congregation in the synagogue (and those who pray the prayer books which nourish Jewish faith) is exposed to all of Scripture, even to those books which do not form part of the readings.


When viewed as a whole, the reading of Scripture in Jewish liturgy is selective. To be sure, the whole of the Torah is read in a lectio continua that covers three years. The Prophets and the rest of Scripture figure in a lectio electa, that is, readings selected to embellish or elucidate the Torah readings. The rest of Tanakh, the Hebrew name for the Jewish Bible, provides occasional readings and material for homilies. The same is true of Christian lectionaries. The Roman Lectionary provides what appears to be a lectio continua for the Sundays of Ordinary Time and in the weekday cycle for the Gospel reading. The Gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke are read on these Sundays over a three year cycle. However, it would be more accurate to say that the Sunday Gospel readings are not truly a continuous reading for there are gaps. The Gospel readings in Advent, Lent and Eastertide are, so it would seem, chosen randomly and there is no coherent theme binding them together. Both the Ordinary and Seasonal Gospels fail to do just to the Passion Narratives of each Gospel, omitted entirely except for the reading on Palm Sunday and Good Friday – hardly enough to do justice to the importance of these chapters in the theological (what part does God play), christological (who is the One crucified), and soteriological (by such a death we are saved) concerns of all the Gospels. And the Gospel of John does not have its own year. For the most part, some narrative sections of that Gospel are read in the seasons of Lent and Easter. Strangely, some but not all of chapter 6 of John takes up five Sundays of the Year of Mark, allegedly because of the shortness of the Gospel of Mark. Yet material is omitted from the following chapters of St Mark: chapters 1, 2, 3 (most of the chapter); chapter 4 (again, most of the chapter); chapter 5 (the Gerasene Demoniac); material from chapters 6, 7, 8, 9; all of 11, and much of 12 and 13. Mark’s Gospel is read on Palm Sunday in the Year of Mark. Were there are true lectio continua of Mark’s Gospel there would be no need to expose the Gospel of John to the indignity of being a filler. It is clear that the preacher and proclaimer of Mark’s Gospel must not be content to study what is offered of the evangelist’s text in the Lectionary in order to understand what he is about.


By attending to the use which the Lectionary makes of selections from Mark’s text, it is to be hoped that the whole of Mark’s Gospel will come to be understood. The Gospel is presented in weekly instalments. A piece of the picture is extracted from the whole and attention is paid to a detail that belongs to a wider canvas. It is difficult to see the wood when so much attention is called to the trees. Interpretation may be given to a part that ill fits a coherent understanding of the whole. We may praise Simon for being Peter and miss that he is also called Satan, a disciple who denies and runs away. The gospel of Jesus Messiah, Son of God, announced in Mark’s glorious opening sentence (1:1), may be skewed unless one follows the whole story to the astonishing ending of the women who flee from the tomb, seized by terror and amazement (Mark 16:8).

Secondly, the Lectionary omits sections of the text so that we are not given a reading of the whole Gospel according to Mark. Thus Mark’s coherent picture is liable to distortion and both preacher and proclaimer must be aware of the handicap under which they must perform their disparate tasks. They must understand Mark as a whole and not in the truncated text that the Lectionary inevitably presents. Moreover, occasionally the Markan text is edited with omissions and additions that,, if not noticed, can obstruct an appreciation of what is written on Mark’s page.

Furthermore, we approach Mark from our very different world, from very different time, even in a language other than the ancient Greek in which Mark’s Gospel was penned. Who now believes that the world will end quite soon, that demons cause illnesses, infirmities, and diseases? Who relishes a cosmology where heaven, the domain of the gods, is above, the earth a middle-earth, and the underworld below the realm of devils and demons? Who now believes that the glories of humanity lie in the past, that the graph of human progress has made a downward, irreversible turn? In a world where email displaces telephone, where telegraph replaces mirrors and smoke signals, it is difficult not to believe that things, if not people, get better and better. And who now fears the diktat and jackboot of Rome? And therefore preachers are called to the task of translation then to now, of making Mark’s words live in our time and our place. Mark’s preachers, his proclaimers and readers, must make his words sing a song for our times.


¹ Council of Trent, Session 22, #940: De relatione inter Missam et sacrificium crucis.

² Pope Paul VI, Encyclical Letter Mysterium Fidei, 1965.

³ Many generations of Catholic Christians (including mine) were brought up to believe that one did not “miss Mass” as long as one managed to get in for the Offertory. Thus missing the proclamation of the Word of God was of little or no consequence.

Instruction on the Worship of the Eucharistic Mystery, 1967, chapter I, §F.

Instruction, ch. 1, §F, referring to the Constitution on Divine Revelation, 1966, n.21.

⁶ For a potted history of the development of the Lectionary in Judaism, see Avigdor Shinan, “The Bible in the Synagogue” and Stefan C. Reif, “The Bible in the Liturgy”, essays in Adele Berlin and Marc Zvi Brettler (eds), the Jewish Study Bible, The Jewish Publication Society, New Yorkd: Oxford University Press, (1999), pp. 1929-1937 and pp. 1937- 1948. For a similar account of the development of the Lectionary in Christian tradition, see Eileen Schuller, “The Bible in Lectionary”, in Donald Senior and John J. Collins (eds), the Catholic Bible, New York: Oxford University Press, (2006), pp. 76-84. The reader, as I did, will finding in these essays, and the literature to which they refer, a rich resource.

⁷ These days there is a Catholic school on top of the hill.

⁸ “The Bible in the Synagogue”, p. 1935.