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Bible Commentaries

Ellicott's Commentary for English ReadersEllicott's Commentary

- Mark

by Charles John Ellicott




Late Dean of Wells.


I. The Writer.—There is but one person of the name of Mark, or Marcus, mentioned in the New Testament, and, in the absence of any evidence, it may reasonably be assumed that the Gospel which bears his name is ascribed to him as being, directly or indirectly, its author. The facts of his life as they are gathered from the New Testament may be briefly put together. He bore also the Hebrew name of John, i.e., Joannes, or Jochanan (Acts 12:12; Acts 12:25; Acts 15:37). The fact that he took a Latin and not a Greek surname suggests the probability of some point of contact with Jews or others connected with Rome. As was natural, when he entered on his work among the Gentiles the new name practically superseded the old, and in the Epistles (Colossians 4:10; 2 Timothy 4:11; Philemon 1:24; 1 Peter 5:13) he is spoken of as “Mark” only. He was cousin to Barnabas, and was therefore, on his mother’s side probably, of the tribe of Levi (Colossians 4:10; Acts 4:36). His mother bore the name of Mary, or Miriam, and it may be inferred from the fact that her house served as a meeting-place for the disciples at Jerusalem (Acts 12:12), that she, like her brother, was one of the prominent and wealthy members of the Apostolic Church. St. Peter speaks of him as his “son” (1 Peter 5:13), and it is a natural inference from this that he was converted by that Apostle to the new faith, but whether this was during our Lord’s ministry on earth or after the day of Pentecost must remain matter for conjecture. When Paul and Barnabas return from Jerusalem to Antioch (Acts 12:25) he accompanies them, and this may be taken as evidence that his sympathies were at that time with the wider work which they were carrying on among the Gentiles. So, when they were sent forth on their first missionary journey, they chose him as their “minister,” or attendant (Acts 13:5). His function, as such, was probably to provide for their personal wants in travelling, and to assist in the baptism of new converts. For some unrecorded reason, possibly want of courage, or home-sickness, or over-anxious care about the mother whom he had left at Jerusalem, he drew back at Perga in Pamphylia from the work to which they were sent, and returned home (Acts 13:13). We find him, however, again at Antioch, after the council at Jerusalem, and he had so far regained his uncle’s confidence that he was willing to take him once more as a companion in his missionary labours (Acts 15:37-39). To that course, however, St. Paul would not agree, and the result was that the two friends who had so long been fellow-workers in the cause of Christ were divided after a sharp contention.

From this point onwards we get but few glimpses of the writer of the Gospel. He accompanied Barnabas (A.D. 52) in his work among the Jews and Gentiles of Cyprus (Acts 15:39). About eight years later he was with St. Peter in the city on the banks of the Euphrates which still bore the old name of Babylon, and there must have met Silvanus, or Silas, who had taken his place as the companion and minister of St. Paul (see Note on 1 Peter 5:12-13). It is possible that this may have led to a renewal of the old intimacy between him and the Apostle of the Gentiles, and about four years later (A.D. 64) we find him with St. Paul at Rome, during the Apostle’s first imprisonment (Colossians 4:10; Philemon 1:24), and there, it may be noted, he must have met his brother Evangelist, St. Luke (Colossians 4:14). He was then, however, on the point of returning to the Asiatic provinces, and contemplated a visit to Colossæ (Colossians 4:10). Two years later (A.D. 66), accordingly, we find him at Ephesus with Timotheus, and the last mention of his name shows that St. Paul had forgotten his former want of steadfastness in the recollection of his recent services, and wished for his presence once again as being “profitable for ministering”[9] (2 Timothy 4:11).

[9] This rather than “for the ministry” is the sense of the Greek.

To these facts, or legitimate inferences, we may now add the less certain traditions that have gathered round his name. Epiphanius (Contr. Hœr.) makes him one of the Seventy whose mission St. Luke narrates (Luke 10:1), and says that he was of those who turned back when they heard the hard saying of John 6:60; John 6:66. Eusebius (Hist. ii. 15; vi. 14) states, on the “authority of the ancient elders” and of Clement of Alexandria, that he was with St. Peter at Rome, acting as his “interpreter,” or secretary, and that he was sent on a mission from Rome to Egypt (Hist. ii. 16). There, according to Jerome (de Vir. illust. 8), he founded the Church of Alexandria, became bishop of that church, and suffered martyrdom at the hands of the people on the Feast of Serapis, in the fourteenth year of Nero, A.D. 68, about three years after the death of St. Peter and St. Paul. In A.D. 815 his body was said to have been taken to Venice, and the stately cathedral in the Piazza of St. Mark in that city was dedicated to his memory. Some recent commentators identify him conjecturally with “the young man with the linen cloth round his naked body” of Mark 14:51. (See Note on that passage.)

II. The Authorship of the Gospel.—St. Mark is named by Papias, Bishop of Hierapolis (circ. A.D. 169), on the authority of a certain “John the Presbyter,” as writing down exactly, in his character as Peter’s interpreter, “whatever things he remembered, but not in the order in which Christ spoke or did them, for he was neither a follower nor hearer of the Lord’s, but was afterwards a follower of Peter.” The statement is probable enough in itself (Euseb. Hist. iii. 39), and receives some additional weight from the fact that the city of which Papias was Bishop was in the same district as Colossæ, which Mark, as we have seen, meant to visit (Colossians 4:10). In another passage, above referred to, Eusebius (Hist. ii. 15; 5:8) speaks of him as having been asked to write by the hearers of St. Peter at Rome, and that the Apostle at first acquiesced in, and afterwards sanctioned his doing so. The same tradition appears (A.D. 160-225) in Tertullian (Cont. Marc. iv. 5). It receives some confirmation from the language of the second Epistle ascribed to St. Peter. The Apostle there promises that he will “endeavour” that those to whom he writes may have these things (i.e., the facts and truths of the gospel) in remembrance, that they might know that they had not “followed cunningly-devised fables,” but were trusting those who had been eye-witnesses, at the Transfiguration and elsewhere, of the majesty of Christ (2 Peter 1:15-16). Such a promise seems almost to pledge the Apostle to the composition of some kind of record. Mark, we have seen, was with him when he wrote his first Epistle, perhaps also when he wrote the second, and it would be natural that he should take down from his master’s lips, or write down afterwards from memory, what he had heard from him. It may be added that the comparatively subordinate position occupied by St. Mark in the New Testament records makes it improbable that his name should have been chosen as the author of a book which he did not really write. A pseudonymous writer would have been tempted to choose (let us say) Peter himself, not Peter’s attendant and interpreter.

The Gospel itself, we may add, supplies some internal evidence in favour of this hypothesis:—(1.) It differs from St. Matthew, with which to a great extent it runs parallel in the facts narrated, in giving at every turn graphic descriptive touches which suggest the thought that they must have come in the first instance from an eye-witness. These are noticed in detail in the Notes on the Gospel, and here it will be enough to mention a few of the more striking instances. Thus, e.g., we have (a) the “very early in the morning, while it was yet night,” of Mark 1:35, as compared with “when it was day” in Luke 4:42; (b) there being no room, “not so much as about the door,” in Mark 2:2; (c) the “taking off the roof and digging a hole in it” in Mark 2:4; (d) the “making a path by plucking the ears of corn” in Mark 2:23; (e) the “looking round with anger” in Mark 3:5; (f) the “taking Him, even as He was, into the ship,” and the “lying in the stern on the pillow” (Mark 4:36; Mark 4:38); (g) the account of the manner in which the Gadarene demoniac had “burst asunder” his chains and “worn away” his fetters (Mark 5:4), and how he was “in the mountains crying and cutting himself with stones” (Mark 5:5); (h) the “green grass,” and the “sitting in ranks and companies by hundreds and by fifties” (Mark 6:39-40); (i) the “exceeding white as snow so as no fuller on earth can whiten them” (Mark 9:3); (j) the “Jesus beholding him, loved him” of the young ruler (Mark 10:21); (k) the “young man with the linen cloth round his naked body” (Mark 14:51); and many others of a like character. (2) As pointing to the same direction, we may note the instances in which St. Mark, and he alone, reproduces the very syllables which our Lord uttered in Aramaic. Whether they were an exception to His usual mode of speech or not may be an open question, but as connected with His works of healing they had the character of words of power for those who heard them, and so fixed themselves in their memories. So we have the TALITHA CUMI of Mark 5:41, the EPHPHATHA of Mark 7:34, the RABBONI in the Greek of Mark 10:51, the BOANERGES of Mark 3:17, the ABBA of Mark 14:36, the COBBAN of Mark 7:11, and, though here in common with St. Matthew, the ELOI, ELOI, LAMA SABACHTHANI of Mark 15:34. (3.) So, too, in a few cases, St. Mark gives names where the other Gospels do not give them: Levi is the son of Alphæus (Mark 2:14); the ruler of the Synagogue, not named by St. Matthew, is Jairus (Mark 5:22); the blind beggar at Jericho is Bartimæus, the son of Timæus (Mark 10:46); the mother of James and John is Salome (Mark 15:40); Simon the Cyrenian is the father of Alexander and Rufus (Mark 15:21). (4.) Some have seen grounds for the inference thus suggested in St. Mark’s omission of the promise made to Peter in Matthew 16:17-19, and of his “weeping bitterly” after he had denied his Master, but the proof in this case I seems somewhat precarious.

III. The first readers of the Gospel.—The position which St. Mark occupied in relation both to St. Paul and St. Peter—his connection with the former being resumed, as we have seen, after a long interval—would make it probable that he would write with a special eye to Gentile rather than Jewish readers; and of this the Gospel itself supplies sufficient evidence in the full explanation of the customs of the Jews as to ablutions and the like in Mark 7:3-4, in the explanation of the word Corban in Mark 7:11, perhaps, also, in his description of “the river of Jordan” in Mark 1:5. A closer study suggests the thought, in full agreement with the tradition mentioned above, that he wrote with a special view to Christians of the Roman Church. He alone describes Simon the Cyrenian as the father of Alexander and Rufus (Mark 15:21), as though that fact had a special interest for his readers. There is but one Rufus mentioned elsewhere in the New Testament, and he meets us in Romans 16:13 as one who was prominent enough in the church of that city for St. Paul to send a special message of remembrance to him; and it may be inferred, with some likelihood, that the wife or widow of Simon of Cyrene (having previously met St. Paul at Corinth, for some personal knowledge is implied in the words “his mother and mine”) had settled with her two sons in the imperial city, and had naturally gained a position of some importance. The very name of Marcus indicates, as has been said, some Latin affinities; and it is noticeable, in this connection, that a larger number of words Latin in their origin appear in his Gospel than in any one of the others. Thus we have him giving the Latin centurio instead of the Greek έκατοντάρχης (hekatontarches) in Mark 15:39; Mark 15:44-45; the Latin speculator for “executioner” in Mark 6:27; grabatus for bed (this in common with John 5:8-10) in Mark 2:4; Mark 2:9; Mark 2:11-12; quadvans for “farthing” in Mark 12:42; a verb formed from the Latin flagellum for “scourging” (this in common with Matthew 27:26) in Mark 15:15; a noun formed from sextarius for “vessels” in Mark 7:4; Prætorium (this in common with Matthew 27:27 and John 18:28) in Mark 15:16; the denarius in Mark 6:37, Mark 12:15, Mark 14:5 (this, however, is common to all four Gospels); the legio (found also in Matthew 26:53, Luke 8:30) in Mark 5:9; census (found also in Matthew 17:25; Matthew 22:17; Matthew 22:19) in Mark 12:14.

IV. The characteristics of the Gospel.—The distinguishing features of St. Mark’s Gospel are, it will be seen, (1) vividness and fulness of detail in narrating the events of the history; (2) compression or omission in dealing with our Lord’s discourses. This may have been owing partly to the object which he had in view, writing, it may be, for the instruction of catechumens, for whom he judged this method the most fitting, and partly to the idiosyncrasies of his own character. What we have seen of his life and work would prepare us to accept the latter as, to a great extent, an adequate explanation. One who had been chiefly a “minister” or “attendant” (the latter word is the more accurate rendering of the Greek of Acts 13:5) on the two Apostles may well be supposed to have been chiefly distinguished for his activity in service, for the turn of mind which observes and notes particulars, rather than for that which belongs to the student, and delights to dwell on full and developed statements of the Truth. We may see in what he has left us accordingly, pre-eminently the Gospel of Service, that which presents our Lord to us as in the form of a servant, obedient even unto death (Philippians 2:7-8); and so far it forms the complement to that in which St. Matthew presents Him to us pre-eminently in His character as a King. Even the characteristic iteration of the ever-recurring “immediately,” “anon,” “presently,” “forthwith,” “by-and-by,” “straightway”—all representing the self-same Greek word, occurring not less than 41 times—may not unreasonably be connected with his personal experience. That had been, we may believe, a word constantly on his lips in daily life, the law and standard of his own service, and he could not think of his Lord’s work otherwise than as exhibiting the perfect fulfilment of that law, a work at once without haste and without pause. So, too, in another point in which he stands in singular contrast to St. Matthew, the almost entire absence of any reference, except in reporting what had been said by our Lord or others, to any prophecies of the Old Testament—there are but two such references in the whole Gospel (Mark 1:2-3; Mark 15:28), as rising out of his own reflection—may be explained in part, perhaps, by the fact that he was writing not for Jews, but for Gentiles, to whom those prophecies were not familiar, and also by the fact that his own life in its ceaseless round of humbler service led him to be less than others a student of those prophecies. Assuming the genuineness of the latter of the two passages just referred to (it is absent from nearly all the best MSS.), we may, perhaps, trace the connection of thought. Words from that 53rd chapter of Isaiah had been quoted by the Apostle to whom he ministered (1 Peter 2:22-23), at a time when he was with him, in special connection with the work of servants and the duty of obedience, and so his mind had been called to those words, but there does not appear to have been in him, as there was in St. Matthew, a deliberate purpose to trace the fulfilment of prophetic words in the circumstances of our Lord’s life and work. He was content to paint the scenes that passed before his mind clearly and vividly, and to leave the teaching which the facts embodied to do its work on the minds of his readers.

V. Relation to St. Matthew and St. Luke.—The Gospels of St. Mark and St. Matthew have so much in common, sometimes with each other only, sometimes with St. Luke also, that it is clear that they must have drawn more or less from a common source. Nothing, however, can be more against the whole tenor of internal evidence than the hypothesis that St. Mark epitomised from St. Matthew, or that St. Matthew expanded from St. Mark. The narrative of the second Gospel is in almost every instance fuller than that of the first, and its brevity is obtained only by the absence of the discourses and parables which occupy so large a portion of the other. On either of these assumptions the perplexing variations in the order of events (see Note on Matthew 8:1) are altogether inexplicable. What is, with our scanty data, the most probable explanation is, that the matter common to both represents the substance of the instruction given orally to disciples in the Church of Jerusalem and other Jewish-Christian communities coming, directly or indirectly, under the influence of St. Peter and St. James, as the Apostles of the Circumcision (Galatians 2:9). The miracles that had most impressed themselves on the minds of the disciples, the simplest or most striking parables, the narratives of the Passion and Resurrection, would naturally make up the main bulk of that instruction. St. Matthew, the publican Apostle, and therefore conversant, as has been said before, with clerkly culture, writing for his own people, closely connected with James the Bishop of Jerusalem (see Introduction to St. Matthew), would naturally be one exponent of that teaching. St. Mark, the disciple and “interpreter,” or secretary, of St. Peter, would as naturally be another. That they wrote independently of each other is seen, not only in the details above noted, the addition of new facts, the graphic touches of description, but from variations which would be inexplicable on any other assumption; such, e.g., as Mark’s “Dalmanutha” (Mark 8:10) for Matthew’s Magdala (Matthew 15:39), “Syro-Phœnician woman” (Mark 7:26) for Canaanite (Matthew 15:22), “Levi the son of Alphæus” (Mark 2:14) for Matthew (Matthew 9:9). Short as the Gospel is, too, there is one parable in it (Mark 4:26-29), and one miracle (Mark 7:31-37), which arc not found in St. Matthew. It is remarkable, moreover, that there are some incidents which St. Mark and St. Luke have in common, and which are not found in St. Matthew: that of the demoniac in Mark 1:23-27, Luke 4:33-37; the journey through Galilee (Mark 1:35-39, Luke 4:42-44); the pursuit of the disciples (Mark 1:36-37, Luke 4:42); the prayer of the demoniac (Mark 5:18, Luke 8:38); the complaint of John against one that cast out devils (Mark 9:38, Luke 9:49); the women bringing spices to the sepulchre (Mark 16:1, Luke 24:1). Of these phenomena we find a natural and adequate explanation in the fact that the two Evangelists were, at least at one period of their lives, brought into contact with each other (Colossians 4:10; Colossians 4:14, Philemon 1:24). It is probable, as has been said above, that neither wrote his Gospel in its present form until the two great Apostles whom they served had entered on their rest; but when they met each must have had the plan formed and the chief materials collected, and we may well think of them as comparing notes, and of the one, whose life had led to less culture, and whose temperament disposed him to record facts rather than parables or discourses, as profiting by his contact with the other, and while content to adhere to the scope and method which he had before marked out for himself, adding here and there what he learnt from his fellow-worker whose “praise was in the Gospel” (2 Corinthians 8:18). (See Introduction to St. Luke.)

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