Mark's Picture of Jesus

by Darrel Cline

Chapter One


The Need for This Study

From early in the first centuries, after the formation of New Testament literature, there has been notable confusion regarding the Christology -- the portrait of Christ -- of the Gospel of Mark. For example, the Christologies of all of the Gospels have often been developed along the lines of the symbolism of the four living creatures of Revelation 4 -- the Lion, the Man, the Calf, and the Eagle. In respect to this trend and the confusion regarding Mark's Christ, Lightfoot writes

"Dr. Swete has shown that, although ancient writers, it is true, differ widely in their distribution of the symbols among the four evangelists, yet this diversity is seen at its greatest when they are dealing with St. Mark; in a list of four writers drawn up by Dr. Swete, to St. Mark and to St. Mark only among the four evangelists is assigned every one of the four symbols; thus to St. Irenaeus St. Mark represents the eagle, to St. Augustine the man, in a Synopsis wrongly ascribed to St. Athanasius he is the calf, and in the distribution favoured by St. Jerome he is the lion."1

At this point I have no wish to comment on the accuracy of the tradition. I do wish, however, to show that confusion has existed from ancient times regarding the portrait of Christ in the Gospel of Mark.

To what is this confusion to be attributed? Clearly, Mark would not have set out to make his work so ambiguous that his message was lost to his readers. Why write if there is no commitment to clarity of communication?

It is my contention that this confusion is attributable to a failure at two levels: first, there was an historically demonstrable failure in the domain of literal hermeneutics (this, however, is beyond the range of this study); and second, there was (and is) a failure in the domain of careful literary exegesis. Plummer, though probably in sharp disagreement with this contention, nevertheless writes,

"Critics are not agreed as to the analysis of this Gospel. Even their main divisions are not always the same. Yet certain broad features stand out clearly, although there is sometimes room for difference of opinion as to the exact point at which the dividing lines should be placed."2

This is like standing in the middle of a piece of property and saying, "Though we are not sure where the boundary lines are, at least here we are sure that we are on the property." That is safe, but it is not sufficiently accurate to sell. If the critics cannot even see the same fundamental divisions in the work, the mystery of the literary design of the Gospel must exist. However, this mystery may exist because men have been too quick to assign a faulty method of division to the work. Plummer himself claims that the order is chronological and geographical.3 Hendriksen claims that the broad divisions are the same in all of the Synoptics.4 Gould more accurately claims that,

"Mark has a way of his own of handling his material ... it is not brevity for the sake of brevity; it comes from a careful exclusion of everything not bearing directly on his purpose."5

Yet, he sees this "way" as being a presentation of Jesus in terms of early popularity, growing opposition, and final catastrophe.6 Lane comments on the fact that Mark's literary style has often been called "barbarous"7 and opts for a straightforward geographical structure. Cranfield thinks so little of the issue that he gives it just over one page of treatment.8 The striking similarity in all of these works is that none use the text significantly to argue for their understanding of the literary structure of the work.

Interestingly, it is hermeneutically impossible to accurately interpret a work apart from its literary design. Bilezikian says,

"...if the mystery which surrounds the form of the first written Gospel is to be pierced, we ought to seek in the literature of the first century a type susceptible to have been used by its author."9

This cannot be done without a firm grasp of the literary design because "types" must have a general similarity in design. Thus, Robert Tannehill says,

"Jesus is the central figure in the Gospel of Mark, and the author is centrally concerned to present ... Jesus to his readers so that his significance for their lives becomes clear. He does this in the form of a story. Since this is the case, we need to take seriously the narrative form of Mark in discussing this Gospel's presentation of Jesus Christ."10

These writers are raising a critical point, yet none of the above mentioned interpreters consider the literary design of sufficient import to spend any time working on that design from the text itself. This is a major error that adds to the theological confusion that presently exists.

This study is, therefore, necessary because literary exegesis has not been given a proper place in the process of developing the Christology of Mark's effort.

The Purpose of This Study

Because it has been standard procedure in the past to down play literary design, even the most modern commentaries on Mark do not do justice to the issue of whether words can even be interpreted apart from the structure of the work in which they are found.

For instance, Bilezikian observes that

"The Gospel of Mark especially, because of its probable chronological primacy, is considered as an artless and heterogeneous collection of bits of unconnected traditions."11

If this is a valid observation, it is obvious that much wrenching of the text has occurred because men have simply taken Mark's words and given them their own meaning out of their own personal and theological setting.

The purpose of this study is to set forth the indicators within the work that argue for a certain structure so that a conclusion can be drawn as to the specific Christology that was primary to Mark's thinking as he wrote. If this is done, a great deal of the mystery of the Christological contribution of Mark can be eliminated. If Mark had a certain picture of Christ in mind to communicate, and if he had a specific way of presenting it, it should go without saying that what he said will tend to give away the structure behind the words. This study will focus upon the specific parts of Mark's message that insist upon a certain structure.

If we are successful in discovering the structure, we should also easily see the particular picture of Jesus that Mark thought would be beneficial to us.

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Footnotes for Chapter One

1 R.H. Lightfoot, The Gospel Message of St. Mark, p. 4.

2 Alfred Plummer, The Gospel According to St. Mark, p. xxii.

3 Ibid., p. xxii.

4 William Hendriksen, The Gospel of Mark, p. 26.

5 Ezra P. Gould, The Gospel According to St. Mark, p. xiii.

6 Ibid., p. xiv.

7 William L. Lane, Commentary on the Gospel of Mark, p. 26.

8 C. E. B. Cranfield, The Gospel According to St. Mark, p. 13.

9 Gilbert G. Bilezikian, "The Gospel of Mark and Greek Tragedy", Gordon Review (June 1959): 80.

10 Robert C. Tannehill, "The Gospel of Mark as Narrative Christology", Semeia (1979):57.

11 Bilezikian, p. 80.

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