I have a confession. I have a favorite book of the Bible. I know they’re all inspired by God, and they all have authority over my life, but I just can’t help it. Something about the Book of Mark just grabs me in a way no other book does. But if you’re like me, or any Christian for that matter, you probably need some help knowing how to read it. With that said, here are my five tips and pointers on how to read Mark.
Tip 1: Be 2,000 Year Old and Learn Greek
Not 2000 years old? That’s okay. The scriptures are incredibly important for us to read, but that doesn’t mean we are the readers that the biblical authors had in mind. Every time we pick up the Bible, we should remember these are OLD books, and the intended audience came from a completely different background. If you’re reading through a passage and you don’t have a clue what’s going on, just take a breath and remind yourself that you are reading something from a foreign culture, and that we’re lucky to be able to read these words in our own language.
So who did Mark have in mind? Most experts think that he wrote the book for non-Jewish people, the Greek speaking Romans who were occupying Israel at the time. In several parts of the book, Mark explains the Jewish traditions in Greek terms, and he sometimes translated Jewish names into Greek. When biblical scholars see these little translations, it shows them Mark was writing for an audience that wasn’t fluent in Jewish culture. In other words, Mark was trying to reach out to the people of the Roman empire and say “The Jesus movement isn’t just a Jewish thing!” This is why Mark wrote the book in the first place, to proclaim the good news to gentiles (non-Jewish people). Knowing this, we start to notice one of Mark’s biggest themes: radical inclusivity. Mark is full of stories about Jesus’ love for cripples, the demon-possessed, children, widows, and, of course, foreigners. All these groups of people were at the bottom of the social ladder in Jesus’ day, and Mark’s story completely flips that ladder upside-down.
Tip 2: Be a Drama Mama
Like all music and movies, each book of the bible belongs to a different genre of literature. Paul’s books are letters written for specific churches, Deuteronomy is written in the format of an ancient near-eastern peace treaty, and Revelation is apocalyptic, like the Jewish equivalent of a super spiritual zombie-dragon movie. The genre of the book tells us the best way to read it. Thankfully, Mark is one of the easiest genres for us to read, because we’re already familiar with it: it’s a play! More specifically, it is written like a Greek play. A lot has changed in the last 2,000 years, but one thing is still the same: people love drama.
Mark is a total drama king. Instead of opening with an origin story like Matthew and Luke, Mark opens with Jesus’ baptism. A fully mature Jesus steps onto an open stage, gets dunked by John the Baptist, and a disembodied voice from offstage says “You are my dearly loved Son, and you bring me great joy”(Mark 1:11 NLT). Talk about theatrics! Scholars believe that when the book of Mark was first given to church communities, they acted it out. As readers, we need to have the same approach when reading Mark, and that means reading it all the way through in one sitting. Many Christians spend their whole lives only reading passages one chapter at a time. There’s a lot to be gained from reading scripture in small portions, but when reading Mark it’s kind of like watching Star Wars in five minute segments: you won’t pick up on the major themes. So carve out an hour of your time, pour yourself a glass of wine, and read it beginning to end.
Tip 3: Notice the Way Jesus Describes Himself
Mark was a careful author. He believed that Jesus was actually God, the human embodiment of the ultimate ruler of the universe, but in Mark’s story Jesus does not reveal his divinity until the end of Chapter 14. Why would Jesus take so long to tell everyone who he really is? To answer that question we need to take a closer look at the way Mark unveils Jesus’ identity.
There’s a lot to be gained from reading scripture in small portions, but when reading Mark it’s kind of like watching Star Wars in five minute segments: you won’t pick up on the major themes.
Mark’s first words are, “This is the Good News about Jesus the Messiah, the Son of God” (NLT). So the audience knows, but so far nobody else knows. Later in the same chapter, Jesus rebukes a demon for identifying him as the Messiah. Mark 1:24-25 “‘Why are you interfering with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are—the Holy One of God!’ But Jesus reprimanded him. ‘Be quiet! Come out of the man,’ he ordered.” (NLT). A few verses later, Jesus heals a leper and warns him sternly “Don’t tell anyone about this’” (1:44). It isn’t until chapter 8 when Jesus tells his small group of disciples that he is in fact the Messiah, but even then he tells them not to spread that news around, and he still hasn’t told them that he is God!
Six chapters later, just before the climactic crucifixion of Jesus, our main hero finally makes his ultimate claim to cosmic power. Jesus is betrayed by Judas and brought before a council to decide his fate when they ask him ““Are you the Messiah, the Son of the Blessed One?” to which he responds “I am” (14:61-62). To you or me this may sound like a simple statement, but in the context of the first-century Jewish faith (again, the best way to read Mark is to be 2,000 years old), this is the biggest claim Jesus could’ve made. By saying “I am,” Jesus claimed that he himself is the God that these priests were worshipping their whole lives, the same God who said the words “I am that I am” to Moses through a burning bush in Exodus 3:14.
So why wait this long to admit his divinity? Think of what it would have been like if Jesus declared his identity from day one. He would have sounded like a political leader or a military commander campaigning for power. If he stormed around Israel broadcasting his name, he would be doing things the flawed, human way. That isn’t true power. It wasn’t until he was on trial for execution, completely emptied of all conventional human power, that he confessed that he was the cosmic ruler of the universe. Jesus, through Mark’s writing, wants us to know that true power doesn’t come from pride or fame, it comes in the midst of humility and trust in God. Even when common sense tells us that all is lost, Jesus is still in control. He is God.
Tip 4: Location Location Location!
Yes, the three rules of real estate apply to reading scripture. There are basically two parts of Mark’s gospel: Jesus’ time in northern Israel near the Sea of Galilee, and Jesus’ time in Jerusalem. The Sea of Galilee was appealing to Jesus for several reasons. One, it didn’t take long to get there from his hometown of Nazareth. Two, he could avoid large urban centers where he would be most conspicuous. And three, the Sea of Galilee was, to use a modern word, diverse. The locations and demographics of each city on the lake are difficult to follow, so I’ll over-simplify things for you. The north-west part of the lake was full of mostly-Jewish fishing communities like Capernaum and Bethsaida. The south-east side was largely non-Jewish, with lots of Greek influence and people from the Roman Empire. So why is this one of my five tips for reading Mark? Well, if you remember tip two, the whole reason why Mark wrote the book is to incorporate non-Jewish people into the Kingdom of God! If we follow Jesus’ travels in the first half of Mark, he zig-zags across the lake every chapter. Looking at it on a map, it looks like Jesus actually stitched the two sides together like apiece of cloth. Remember the Montagues and the Capulets from Romeo and Juliet? Well Jesus is like Romeo, whose love for a Capulet broke down the imagined barriers between the two groups. It almost begs the question, what artificial barriers are we living with that Jesus wants us to tear down?
As for the second half of Mark, it all revolves around Jerusalem. Spoiler alert: things do not go well in Jerusalem. A typical Jew would expect the Messiah to charge in with massive cosmic powers, kick out the Romans, and finally secure the safety of the Temple. After all, that does sound like something the heroes of the Old Testament would do. But Jesus doesn’t need violence, nor does he need the Temple. Instead, he finds himself betrayed by one of his closest followers and sentenced to death by the very people who expected the Messiah to liberate them! Jesus willingly entered Jerusalem knowing that he was going to be publicly humiliated. He knew he would be killed. Jesus’ time in Jerusalem ends with his crucifixion, which wasn’t just painful, it was horribly shameful. This play starts to look more and more like a tragedy. So much for the Son of God.
Tip 5: Be the Ending
Thank the Lord Almighty the story does not end at the cross. Chapter sixteen is the shortest chapter in the whole book, and far and away the most important. Mary Magdalene, Mary mother of James, and Salome went to Jesus’ tomb to anoint Jesus’ body when they were greeted by an angel. These are the last three verses of the book:
The women were shocked, but the angel said, “Don’t be alarmed. You are looking for Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified. He isn’t here! He is risen from the dead! Look, this is where they laid his body. Now go and tell his disciples, including Peter, that Jesus is going ahead of you to Galilee. You will see him there, just as he told you before he died.”
The women fled from the tomb, trembling and bewildered, and they said nothing to anyone because they were too frightened.
That’s it! After everything we just went through, we don’t even get to see Jesus! Nobody loved drama more than Mark. If you’re looking at your own Bible right now, you may be wondering your version has quite a few verses after verse eight. There’s a good reason for this. Over centuries, Christians had to copy the scriptures by hand to make copies for the Church, and sometimes the copier would get carried away and add in their own writing. As you can imagine, the edited copy got spread around and soon it can be hard to tell what the original material was. This is what most historians think happened at the end of Mark. When Mark was first translated into English, the only manuscripts available contained verses eight through twenty. But now that we have thousands more manuscripts to translate, we can see that the oldest and most accurate ones don’t contain these extra verses. Long story short, Mark didn’t write these words himself. He preferred the more dramatic ending.
But why leave the readers with such cliff-hanger? Because we are meant to end the book ourselves. Think about how this ending makes you feel. If you’re compelled by Mark’s story, and you actually believe that the God of the Universe saved of all reality, wouldn’t you want to tell people about it? By ending the book here, Mark essentially put the pen in the reader’s hands and said “you write the next chapter.” Jesus is alive. He is the Messiah. He has come to save all people. So what are we going to do about it?