Mark’s Gospel is second in canonical order, but New Testament scholars understand that was written before the other Gospels. Matthew’s Gospel uses some of Mark’s for writing his account of Jesus’ life; Luke’s Gospel uses Mark as well. There is also likely an even older tradition that Matthew, Mark, and Luke all were familiar with, not to mention various oral traditions. This theory best explains why there is so much overlap between these three Gospels while at the same time there are so many significant differences. Because these three Gospels overlap in wording and content as often as they do, they are called the “synoptic Gospels” (Greek, syn, together with; optic, seeing). John’s Gospel presents Jesus in a different way, and there is likely very little, if any, connection between John and the other three Gospels.
Mark’s Gospel is the briefest of the four canonical Gospels. Mark’s language is simple and straightforward, with a special focus on Jesus’ actions rather than just his teachings. Like Matthew, Mark is anonymous, but early church tradition assigned authorship to Mark, who received the traditions of Jesus from Peter. Mark may also be the one who initially accompanied Paul on his missionary journeys in the book of Acts (Acts 12:25).
Mark’s audience consisted primarily of Gentiles, perhaps specifically Gentiles in Rome. Two pieces of evidence pointing to this conclusion are that Mark finds himself needing to translate Aramaic words (Aramaic is a language closely related to Hebrew and was common at the time of Jesus) and explain Jewish customs. In terms of the Gospel’s date of composition, Mark’s special focus on suffering and persecution lead many scholars to believe it was written in the context of the Roman persecutions under Nero from AD 64-67.
There are several distinctive elements of Mark’s Gospel that are worth noting. It is only in Mark that Jesus warns others—even his disciples!—to keep his miracles a secret. In biblical scholarship, this has led scholars to focus on Mark’s Gospel as promoting the “messianic secret.” Mark also characteristically emphasizes Jesus’ role as a teacher (or, more likely, rabbi) and focuses on the significance of the cross, both politically and theologically.
Mark begins by referring to his account as “the beginning of the gospel.” The story of Jesus is only the beginning. The gospel continues in the preaching of the apostles after the resurrection and in the church.
Scholars are in nearly universal consensus that Mark’s Gospel originally ended at 16:8. The remaining passage, 16:9-20, which talks about Jesus’ post-resurrection appearances, was a later addition, probably written on the basis of church tradition to smooth out the abrupt ending at 16:8.
– Peter Enns