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Bible Commentaries

Dummelow's Commentary on the BibleDummelow on the Bible

- Mark

by John Dummelow


1. Life of St. Mark. Mark, i.e. Marcus, a common Roman praenomen, was the name by which the evangelist was usually known in Gentile and Christian circles. His original Jewish name was John (Acts 12:12). As St. Mark was the cousin of St. Barnabas, it is plausibly suggested that, like him, he was a Levite, settled in Cyprus (Colossians 4:10). An ancient tradition states that ’he ministered in the priesthood in Israel, being according to the flesh a Levite’; and that ’after his conversion, he amputated his finger that he might be rejected from the priesthood.’ Certainly in early times he bore the title of Koldbodactylus, i.e. ’maimed in the finger,’ but it is possible that the loss of his finger was due to accident or congenital malformation.

According to an unnamed ancient presbyter who lived in the apostolic age, St. Mark was not a follower of Jesus, but a convert of St. Peter. The presbyter’s account is confirmed by certain indications in the NT. It is clear from the Acts that the mother of St. Mark, whose name was Mary, was living in Jerusalem not long after the crucifixion (Mark 12:12), She was a woman of some wealth, occupying her own house, and employing several servants or slaves. St. Peter probably lodged with her (Mark 12:12); at any rate, her house was used as a church, and formed an important Christian centre. St. Peter, being thus an inmate of the same house with St. Mark, was enabled to convert him, and afterwards spoke of him as ’Mark my son,’ i.e. my convert (1 Peter 5:13): cp. 1 Corinthians 4:15.

At the time of the crucifixion St. Mark, though not a convert, was probably already an enquirer. In Mark 14:51 mention is made of a certain young man who was so much interested in the fate of Jesus, that when the arrest took place, he hastily rose at midnight and followed the procession. This picturesque but unimportant incident is recorded by no other evangelist, and since the name is suppressed, it is at least probable that the young man was St. Mark himself. If this is correct, it would appear that St. Mark, though not technically a ’hearer’ of Jesus, was at least a witness of some of the events of Holy Week.

It is probable that St. Mark, as a convert of St. Peter, sympathised more with the Jewish party led by that Apostle than with the Gentile party of St. Paul. This probably gives the true explanation of the distressing incident related in Acts 13:13. Barnabas and Paul had brought Mark from Jerusalem to Antioch (Acts 12:25), and had chosen him to act as their ’minister’ (i.e. ministerial assistant for such work as catechising and baptising converts, which was not ordinarily done by the Apostles in person, 1 Corinthians 1:14-17) on their first missionary journey (Acts 13:5). But after passing through Cyprus, Mark left them and returned to Jerusalem (Acts 13:13). The causes of this action were partly personal. St. Mark, it seems probable, resented the growing ascendency of St. Paul over his cousin St. Barnabas, but most of all he disliked St. Paul’s treatment of uncircumcised Gentiles as the equals of circumcised Jews. He therefore preferred to return to the thoroughly Hebrew Church of Jerusalem. The breach was not healed even by the Council of Jerusalem, which occurred some three or four years later. Soon after that event, when Barnabas proposed to Paul to take Mark on another missionary journey, St. Paul refused, and a warm dispute parted the two friends, St. Mark accompanying St. Barnabas to Cyprus (Acts 15:37). Ultimately, however, the breach between St. Mark and St. Paul was healed. St. Paul, writing from his prison in Rome (61 a.d.), speaks of him in affectionate terms as a companion and fellow-labourer (Philemon 1:24; Colossians 4:10). A few years later, writing shortly before his death (66 a.d.), he speaks of him as ’profitable to me for the ministry,’ or, rather, ’profitable to me for ministering,’ and bids Timothy bring him with him (2 Timothy 4:11).

But it is as the companion of St. Peter that St. Mark is best known to ecclesiastical tradition. According to the apostolic presbyter before referred to, St. Mark became the ’interpreter’ of St. Peter, probably after the release of St. Paul from his first imprisonment. St. Peter, in all probability, was not a very good Greek or Latin scholar. Preaching in Aramaic, he required the services of an interpreter to translate his sermons clause by clause into Greek or Latin, as the case might be, and also to conduct his correspondence. The relation of St. Mark to St. Peter as his ’interpreter’ is confirmed by 1 Peter, written from Rome, where St. Peter says, ’The church that is at Babylon (i.e. Rome), elected together with you, saluteth you; and so doth Marcus my son’ (1 Peter 5:13).

After the martyrdom of St. Peter (cirMark 67 a.d.) little is known of the life of St. Mark. Tradition makes him the founder and first bishop of the important Church of Alexandria. He is not spoken of as a martyr by any writer earlier than the 5th cent. He is commemorated by the Church on April 25th.

2. Authorship of St. Mark’s Gospel. The direct authorship of the second Gospel by St. Mark has never been disputed in the Church, and even modern negative criticism is disposed to regard him as the author of at least the nucleus of the present Gospel. In ancient times it was sometimes alluded to as the ’memoirs of Peter,’ or ’Peter’s Gospel,’ it being the common opinion that St. Mark did no more than reproduce the substance of St. Peter’s preaching. The most ancient witness, the apostolic presbyter whose sayings are recorded by Papias about 130 a.d., gives the following important testimony: ’Mark having become (or, having been) Peter’s interpreter, wrote all that he remembered (or all that Peter related); though he did not [record] in order that which was said or done by Christ. For he neither heard the Lord nor followed Him; but subsequently, as I said, [attached himself] to Peter, who used to frame his teaching to meet the [immediate] wants [of his hearers]; and not as making a connected narrative of the Lord’s discourses. So Mark committed no error, as he wrote down some particulars just as he recalled them to mind. For he took heed to one thing—to omit none of the facts that he heard, and to state nothing falsely in [his narrative of] them.’ From this it appears that the presbyter, while satisfied with St. Mark’s general care and accuracy, was for some reason or other dissatisfied with his ’order,’ preferring probably either that of St. Luke, who was specially careful to write ’in order,’ or that of St. John, who gives a distinct chronology. The presbyter’s statement that St. Mark’s Gospel depends on St. Peter is confirmed by internal evidence. It records three events—the raising of Jairus’ daughter, the Transfiguration, and the Agony—at which only Peter, James, and John were present. James was soon martyred (Acts 12:2). John wrote an independent Gospel. Peter alone remains as St. Mark’s authority for these events.

3. Its Literary History. St. Mark’s Gospel, having been used by St. Matthew and St. Luke, must be earlier than either. Its exact date depends upon the date assigned to the latter Gospel. If St. Luke’s Gospel was written, as many suppose, during St. Paul’s imprisonment in Rome about 61 a.d., St. Mark’s Gospel must be dated about 60 a.d., or earlier. But the date of the third Gospel is quite uncertain, hence many authorities date St. Mark as late as 66-70 a.d., relying mainly on Mark 13:14, on which see the notes. Ancient testimony is divided as to whether the Gospel was written before or after St. Peter’s martyrdom (64 or 67 a.d.). The oldest witness, Irenasus (177 a.d.), says, ’After the decease of [Peter and Paul] Mark, the disciple and interpreter of Peter, himself also delivered to us in writing the substance of Peter’s preaching.’ But a witness nearly as ancient, Clement of Alexandria, says, ’When Peter had preached the Word publicly in Rome, and by the Spirit had declared the gospel, his hearers, who were numerous, exhorted Mark, as one who had followed him a long time, and remembered what was said, to write down his words. Accordingly Mark composed the Gospel and circulated it among those who asked him to write it. When Peter heard of it he neither hindered nor encouraged the work.’ That the Gospel was published at Rome is attested by nearly all the ancient authorities, and is the general verdict of modern criticism. The only passage which seems to suggest a Palestinian origin is Mark 13:14. In this v. the evangelist shows his special affection and solicitude for the Churches of Jerusalem by inserting a special warning to them to watch for the sign of the desecration of the Temple, and immediately upon its occurrence to flee to a place of safety. But it does not follow that the evangelist, at the time of writing, was actually in Palestine. In distant Rome his thoughts would often turn to his old home at Jerusalem and his relations and friends in the neighbourhood, and nothing is more natural than that he should insert such an affectionate warning as this verse contains.

For the history of the Gospel after publication, the probable loss of its original ending, and the authorship of the present appendix, see on Mark 16:9-20.

St. Mark certainly wrote in Greek. The recent attempts to prove an Aramaic original have failed to carry conviction.

4. Contents and Character of the Gospel. The second Gospel is addressed to Gentile Christians, primarily those of Rome. This is shown by its careful explanations of Jewish customs, localities, etc., washings (Mark 7:3), Passover (Mark 14:12), Preparation (Mark 15:42); and especially of Aramaic words, ’Boanerges’ (Mark 3:17), ’Talitha cumi’ (Mark 5:41), ’Corban’ (Mark 7:11), ’Ephphatha’ (Mark 7:34), ’Bartimæus’ (Mark 10:46), ’Abba’ (Mark 14:36), ’Eloi,’ etc. (Mark 15:34): also by its numerous Latinisms, ’denarius’ (Mark 6:37), ’census’ (Mark 12:14), ’centurio’ (Mark 15:39), ’quadrans’ (Mark 12:42), ’legio’ (Mark 5:9), ’sextarius (Mark 7:4), ’speculator’ (Mark 6:27), ’satis facere’ (Mark 15:12). Significant also in this connexion is the fact that it contains no direct mention of ’the Law,’ and hardly a single quotation from the OT., except in reports of our Lord’s speeches. The Gospel has little, if any, theological or party tendency. It contains few of our Lord’s numerous discourses, probably because extensive collections of them already existed. Of the numerous parables it records only four: the Sower (Mark 4:3), the Seed growing secretly (Mark 4:26), the Mustard Seed (Mark 4:30), and the Wicked Husbandmen (Mark 12:1); of the great discourses only one, the prophecy of the fall of Jerusalem (Mark 13:5). Its aim is to present a graphic picture of the events of the ministry as St. Peter knew them, from the baptism to the resurrection. It deals almost entirely with the objective facts, especially the miracles of healing, which it describes with great fulness.

As compared with the parallel narratives of St. Matthew and St. Luke, St. Mark’s narrative is characterised by a vividness, fulness, and wealth of detail, which seem due to the testimony of an actual eye-witness. He notices our Lord’s looks and emotions, His compassion (Mark 1:41); His anger (Mark 3:5); His turning about in the throng (Mark 5:30); His sighing and looking up to heaven (Mark 7:34); His leading the blind man, spitting, and putting His hands on his eyes (Mark 8:23). His sitting down and calling the Twelve (Mark 9:35); His putting His hands on little children (Mark 10:16); His love of the young ruler (Mark 10:21). He mentions graphic details neglected by the other evangelists: the two thousand swine (Mark 5:13); the sitting down in ranks by hundreds and by fifties (Mark 6:40); the crucifixion at ’the third hour’ (Mark 15:25); the sitting in the sea (Mark 4:1); the sleeping on a pillow (Mark 4:38); the sitting over against the treasury (Mark 12:41). His accounts of the healing of demoniacs are particularly full. He evidently regarded these miracles as a special proof of Christ’s Messianic dignity.

5. Matter Peculiar to this Gospel. The second Gospel contains only about 30 vv. peculiar to itself. These include the parable of the seed growing secretly (Mark 4:26), the healing of the blind man at Bethsaida (Mark 8:22), and the story of the young man who fled from his pursuers (Mark 14:51).

6. Analysis of the Gospel

1.    The Forerunner of Jesus (Mark 1:1-8).

2.    The baptism and temptation (Mark 1:9-13).

3.    The ministry in and near Capernaum (Mark 1:14 to Mark 4:34).

4.    The ministry on both sides of the Sea of Galilee (Mark 4:35 to Mark 7:23).

5.    In the neighbourhood of Tyre and Sidon (Mark 7:24-30).

6.    On the eastern side of the lake (Mark 7:31 to Mark 8:21).

7.    At Bethsaida (Mark 8:22-26).

8.    Journey to Caesarea Philippi (Mark 8:27 to Mark 9:29).

9.    The last journey to Jerusalem (Mark 9:30 to Mark 10:52).

10.    Holy Week (Mark 11:1 to Mark 15:47).

11.    The Resurrection (Mark 16).

7. Relation to the other Synoptic Gospels.

Since St. Mark contains hardly any matter not also contained in St. Matthew and St. Luke, he has until recent times been comparatively neglected. By the ancients he was regarded as an abbreviator of St. Matthew, and a few modern authorities have held the same view. But at present the superior originality of St. Mark is conceded on all hands, and it is generally admitted that the first and third evangelists derived from him all those incidents which they record in common with him.

Some critics have argued from the admitted ’priority’ of St. Mark, that he alone is trustworthy, but this is a precarious inference. There is not the least evidence that the ’logia,’ or collections of discourses used by St. Matthew and St. Luke are either less trustworthy or less ancient than the Second Gospel. For further information on this subject the reader is referred to art. ’The Synoptic Problem.’

8. St Mark and the Miraculous Birth of Jesus. It is sometimes argued that, because St. Mark did not mention our Lord’s birth of a virgin, he disbelieved it. But his silence is sufficiently explained by his design of recording only those facts about our Lord’s life, of which St. Peter had personal experience. St. Peter’s knowledge of Jesus began at His baptism, so that St. Mark naturally began his narrative at this point. Some think that St. Mark wrote before the miracle of our Lord’s conception was generally known; others that he shows his knowledge of it in Mark 6:3.

9. The last Twelve Verses: see on Mark 16:9-20.

(The commentary on St. Mark in a work of this kind is necessarily a skeleton, because nearly the whole subject-matter has already been dealt with in the commentary on St. Matthew. By referring, as directed, to the parallel passages in St. Matthew [and occasionally in St. Luke], the student will be able to supply whatever is deficient in the commentary on St. Mark.)

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