An American Commentary on the New Testament

Edited by Hovey, Alvah

Introduction to the Gospel of Mark



No one of the Gospels except the Fourth contains any internal evidence that helps directly in identifying the author. We are dependent, therefore, upon traditional sources of information; that is, upon information that has been preserved outside of the New Testament. The uniform testimony of Christian tradition is that this book is rightly called the Gospel of Mark, and that the Mark (or Marcus) whose name is associated with it is the Mark who appears in the apostolic history and Epistles. There appears to be no reason for calling this testimony in question.

Mark is first mentioned at Acts 12:12, a passage brief but extremely rich in information. We learn, first, that he bore the Hebrew name John ( Jochanan), and that a Latin surname — not a Greek — was added to it; from which we infer, though vaguely, some connection, by residence or by social ties, with some Latin-speaking place or people. We learn, further, that his mother was named Mary, and (by implication) that she was a widow. The common English version in Col. 4:10 makes her to have been the sister of Barnabas, the companion of Paul ("Marcus, sister's son to Barnabas"); but the word (anepsios) means, more broadly, a cousin — not a nephew — and does not closely define the relation. The connection with Barnabas, however, establishes a connection on some side with the tribe of Levi (Acts 4:36). Returning to Acts 12:12, we learn from it that the house of Mary was the house to which Peter betook himself when miraculously delivered from prison, and that many were gathered there when he arrived, and were praying; whence we infer that it was a favorite place of resort for the Christians in Jerusalem. It probably contained an " upper room " that was used for worship, possibly the " upper chamber " of Acts 1:13, already consecrated by the establishment of the Lord's Supper within its walls. The connection of the family with Barnabas is a fact full of suggestiveness. The house would naturally be his home when he visited Jerusalem. He was there, apparently, and Saul — not yet called Paul — was with him (Acts 11:29-30; 12:25), at the time of Peter's deliverance ; and they, as well as Mark, may have been present when Peter came from the prison. All the Christian leaders would be known at the house of the kinsfolk of Barnabas. The expression " Mark my son " used by Peter (1 Pet. 5:13) is commonly taken to show that Mark had been converted through the influence of Peter, probably in early life at his mother's home. The inference may be called probable, but cannot be regarded as certain, for the title might be merely a term of endearment and a testimony to the intimate relations that existed between the two men. It is a conjecture adopted by some that Mark was himself the .young man whom he mentions, without naming him, at ch. 14: 51, 52, who came forth from his bed to join Jesus and his company in the garden.

After the visit of Barnabas and Saul to Jerusalem, they returned to Antioch, and took Mark with them to serve as a companion in Christian labor. When they went out on their first missionary-journey Mark went with them (Acts 13:5) as their "attendant" (hypÍretÍs). His office must have been to make necessary arrangements for the journey, and doubtless to aid in the spiritual work, perhaps to baptize the converts. He went with them to Cyprus, and thence to Perga in Pamphylia, on the coast of Asia Minor, but there he departed from them, and returned to Jerusalem. His motives in returning are nowhere distinctly stated, but Paul long regarded him as worthy of blame in the matter. It is very certain that Mark " went not with them to the work " — a fact which Paul probably attributed to fickleness or timidity. On setting out upon the second journey Barnabas wished to take Mark again, but Paul was unwilling, for the reason just mentioned; and the disagreement caused the unhappy separation of the two apostles (Acts 15:36-40). Mark became the companion of Barnabas, who returned to Cyprus, his own country (Acts 4 :36), We see Mark no more until he appears in company with Peter, who is writing his First Epistle from Babylon. Undoubtedly, this is not Rome, as some have imagined, interpreting the name mystically, but the ancient Babylon of the East, where there was a considerable Jewish community, to which Peter may have been making a missionary-visit. Thus was renewed the relation that was begun probably in Mark's own home at Jerusalem. There is no reason to suspect that any alienation had come in between Peter and Mark, or that it was by the alienation between himself and Paul that Mark was driven back to Peter. He returned before long to Paul, and next appears in company with him at Rome during Paul's first imprisonment (Col. 4:10; Philem. 24). To the Colossians, Paul spoke of him with approval, as one of the few that were "of the circumcision" who had been "a comfort to him." At the same time he spoke of Mark as not unlikely to visit Colossse. Still later, when Paul was in his last imprisonment, Mark seems to have been with Timothy at Ephesus, for Paul wrote (2 Tim. 4:11), "Take Mark, and bring him with thee, for he is useful to me for ministering " — i. e. " he is such a companion and helper as I need."

This is the latest mention of Mark in the Scriptures. The traditions concerning him are inconsistent and uncertain. It is alleged that he was at Rome with Peter, serving as his secretary, but this may be merely an inference from the mystical interpretation of " Babylon " in 1 Pet. 5:13. It is also said that he founded the church in Alexandria, became the Bishop of it, and suffered martyrdom there in A. D. 68, a few years after the martyrdom of the two apostles with whom he had labored.


There has never been any reasonable doubt that we have in the existing book the Gospel that Christian antiquity attributed to Mark. The line of historical evidence is unbroken from very early times. Within the present century it has been questioned whether the orderly book that we possess is truly described by the language of Papias that is relied upon for the identification; but the question has not disturbed, and need not disturb, the confidence of the church in the genuineness of this Christian treasure. As to the genuineness of the last twelve verses of the book, however, there has long been doubt. the reasons on each side, and the conclusions that the present writer is compelled to adopt, will be given in the note on that passage.


Of the place, nothing definite is known. Tradition mentions Rome, and no important variation from this testimony exists; but the mention of Rome is so connected with the traditions concerning close superintendence from Peter as scarcely to amount to independent testimony. The place must be left in uncertainty.

As to the time of composition there are conflicting traditions. IrenÍus distinctly places it after the death of Peter and Paul, but the more general tradition is that the work was done with the knowledge of Peter, and under more or less close supervision from him. It has frequently been noticed that when Paul speaks of Mark to the Colossians (Col. 4:10), he introduces him as one who has been a comfort to himself, and as a kinsman of Barnabas; and it has been thought that he would not have confined himself to these particulars if Mark had then had the distinction of a biographer to the Lord Jesus, and especially if his work had represented the remembrances of so highly-honored an apostle as Peter. The argument can scarcely be called conclusive, but it is not without weight. The date of the Epistle to the Colossians, which this argument would make to precede the publication of Mark's Gospel, is, according to Conybeare and Howson, A. D. 62 — according to Farrar, 63. The Gospel was certainly published before the destruction of Jerusalem, A. D. 70.

Internal evidence is favorable to the belief in a comparatively early date. The Gospel of Mark contains the record of our Saviour's ministry in the simplest form. While we give no credence whatever to the theory of the gradual growth of the existing Gospels by accretion round a very small nucleus of genuine history — a growth to which reverence and imagination contributed more, perhaps, than memory — still, it appears natural that the simplest and briefest of the Gospels should be the product of the earliest gathering of facts. That each Gospel is independent of the others is certain. But this book reports merely the ministry of Jesus, omitting all that precedes it, and not following the narrative beyond his resurrection. Even within these limits, narrower than those of any other Gospel, it deals mainly with events rather than with teachings. The other Gospels — and most decidedly the latest of them — reveal a purpose in the selection and arrangement of materials — a purpose that corresponds with destination to a certain class of readers. Something of the same is apparent in the Gospel of Mark, but less than in any of the others. Mark betrays less than any other evangelist of any consciousness beyond that of a reporter of the facts. It is impossible to tell precisely at what date any Gospel of the four was sent forth among the Christians, or was written out; but we have little hesitation in speaking of Mark's as the earliest Gospel. Whether or not it is in its present form the earliest-written of the Gospels, it is inwardly the earliest, representing the earliest collation of facts about the life of Jesus.


There is no reason to doubt that the book was originally written in Greek. Suggestions of a Latin original have been made, mainly by Roman Catholic writers, but the idea is probably nothing more than a conjectural inference from the supposed connection of Mark with Rome, which is itself largely dependent for historic support upon the supposed relations of Peter with Rome. In view of the relations of the Latin language to the early churches, it is scarcely possible that an original Gospel in that tongue should have perished and left no trace of its existence.

That Mark designed his Gospel for Gentile readers is established beyond the possibility of doubt by internal evidence. The differences between this book and the Gospel of Matthew are exactly such as would exist between a book for Gentiles and a book for Jews. Mark omits the genealogy of Jesus, which Matthew traces back as far as to Abraham, the father of Israel. He omits the spiritual interpretation of the law, which Matthew preserves in the Sermon on the Mount. Mark never uses the word nomos, " law," or, nomikoa, "lawyer." Never, except in his opening sentence, docs he refer in his own person to the Old Testament. The entire structure of the First Gospel reveals a purpose that is wholly wanting in the Second— the purpose to appeal to the Jewish mind in the special conditions of the first Christian age. On the other hand. Murk inserts many words of explanation that would never be needed or thought of in writing for Jews. Notice especially the elaborate account of the customs of " the Pharisees and all the Jews " regarding ablutions, which is by itself sufficient to establish the fact that Mark was writing for Gentiles. Notice also "the river Jordan" (1:5), which would scarcely be written for Palestinian readers; the remark that at the time of the Passover "it was not the season of figs" (11:13); the mention of the fact that the Mount of Olives was "over against the temple" (13:3); the closer definition of the Praetorium (15:16); and the only clear definition of "the Preparation" (15:42). Notice also that while Mark delights to employ the very words, in the Aramaic tongue, that fell from the lips of Jesus, he uniformly translates them — a thing that he would not do for Jewish readers, a thing that Matthew never does, except in the case of the weighty utterance of Jesus on the cross. (See Mark 5:41; 7:11, 34.) The doctrine of the universality of the Gospel, or its destination to all men, is a less striking characteristic feature of Mark's book than of Luke's, but it is more prominent here than in Matthew. Mark, like Luke, had journeyed and labored widely among the Gentiles, and it is plain that for Gentile readers he designed his Gospel.

More closely than this it is impossible to define with certainty the readers for whom this book was prepared. Tradition does something toward connecting the name of Mark with the Christian community at Rome, though its testimony is not so definite and independent as to be unquestionable, and it has often been thought that the Latin- isms that Mark uses are confirmatory of the belief that he was writing for Roman Christians. Latinisms are somewhat more frequent in Mark than in the other evangelists, but the inference that he was writing for Romans is too precarious to be trusted. It has already been noticed that the surname of the writer, Marcus, was Latin, and not Greek, and that that fact vaguely suggests some association of his family with some Latin speaking people or place. Such a connection would account for all Mark's Latinisms. Yet so few are they, and so widely diffused was the Latin tongue, that they scarcely need to be accounted for. In view of the relations that the Greek-speaking countries sustained to the Roman government, there must have been Latinisms everywhere in the Greek of the people, and in writers who were themselves of the common people they would inevitably be found. As a matter of fact, the Gospel of Mark contains eleven words that are Latin words borrowed into Greek. Of these, four — namely, legeōn, kenturiōn, spekoulatōr, and praifōrion — are words that came in with the Roman army; two — dÍnarion and kodrantÍs — are names of Roman coins; one — phragelloun — is the verb that denotes a Roman military punishment; and one — kÍmos — is the name of the tribute paid to the Roman government. Thus eight of the eleven words had come into common speech by the presence of the Roman power. Of the remaining three, two are names of objects of daily use — krabbatos, "bed," and xesfÍs, "cup" — and the third, poiÍsai to hikanon, is a Greek equivalent for the Latin verb satisfacere. Of these eleven, moreover, only four are peculiar to Mark — namely, kenturiōn, spekōulator, xestÍs, and poiÍsai to hikanon. The other seven are found in the other Gospels. In the other Gospels these seven Latin words occur twenty-seven times; in Mark, they occur thirteen times. In such an array of Latinisms there is certainly nothing unusual: Mark merely uses a little more of the everywhere-present foreign phraseology than the others; and no inferences can be drawn from the fact. It may be true that he wrote for the Roman Christians, but it is not proved by his Latinisms.


Christian tradition attributes this book to Mark, and in the comparative obscurity of his name in the apostolic history there is a strong confirmation of its testimony. To a man who had played so subordinate a part in the history, and a part not entirely creditable, the composition of a Gospel would not be attributed without reason. But Christian tradition is equally uniform in asserting that the book was composed under some influence, less or greater, from the apostle Peter. This belief can be traced back to very early times. Eusebius, of the fourth century (Hist. Eccl., 3, 39), quotes from Papias, Bishop of Hierapolis in Phrygia, who wrote probably before the middle of the second century. He quotes, in turn, from a certain John, whom he calls " the presbyter," whom he cites as having been a disciple of the Lord, and whom he apparently intends to distinguish from John the apostle. Much discussion has arisen about this man, some doubting whether he is to be regarded as any other than the apostle himself. (See the various opinions in McClintock and Strong's Cyclopśdia, article " John the Presbyter.") The following is the passage from Papias, as translated by Westcott (Introduction to the Study of the Gospels, pp. 191, 192, American edition):" This also, then, was the statement of the elder" — i.e. of the presbyter: "Mark, having become Peter's interpreter, wrote accurately all that he (Peter) mentioned, though he did not [record) in order that which was either 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 teachings to meet the wants [of his hearers], but not as making a continued narrative of the Lord's discourses. So Mark committed no error, as he wrote down some particulars as he narrated them; for he took heed to one thing, to omit nothing of things he heard, and to make no false statement in [his account of] them."

Other early witnesses to the connection of Peter with this Gospel are Clement of Alexandria, Irenśus, Origen, and Tertullian. Justin Martyr is thought also to allude to this tradition. In Clement the story takes a different form from that which it bears in Papias. When Peter had preached the word in Rome, many hearers of his words requested Mark, as one who had long been with him and remembered what he said, to record what he had stated. Mark did so, and delivered the book to those who had asked for it, Peter neither hindering nor encouraging him in the work. Origen says that " Mark made his Gospel as Peter guided him;" and Tertullian, that " the Gospel of Mark is maintained to be Peter's, whose interpreter he was, . . . . for it is possible that that which scholars publish should be regarded as their master's work." The tradition naturally grew more definite as time passed, and Jerome said that the Gospel was composed, " Peter narrating and Mark writing." Irenśus, an early authority, having written late in the second century, departs from the general course of the tradition in representing that the book was written after the death of Peter and Paul.

Thus the ancient tradition is not constant or consistent in its representation of details, but it is quite constant in asserting the relation of Peter with this Gospel. The meaning of the word translated, "interpreter," in the passage from Papias, has been much discussed, but the means of obtaining a close definition of it are wanting. It seems most likely that Papias meant to say that Mark became by this writing the interpreter of Peter to the church, the reproducer of Peter's version of the Master's life and deeds. As for the growing definiteness of the tradition, and the gradual extension of the influence attributed to Peter, that would be the natural result of the desire to find apostolic authority for the sacred writings. On the whole, the testimony of Christian antiquity is sufficiently strong and clear to prepare us to find in the book itself the evidences of influence from Peter.

When we come to the internal evidence, we do not find the tradition confirmed in its later and more definite form. There is no sufficient evidence of dictation, or of anything that is virtually equivalent to direct authorship, on the part of Peter. It has been expected that the references to Peter in this Gospel would furnish evidence that his personal feeling had to do with the insertion or omission of matters that related to himself. But while some passages are found that seem favorable to this view, as the notes will show, still it cannot be claimed that in the references to Peter, considered as a whole, there is anything decisively peculiar or characteristic. The real evidence in support of the ancient tradition is found in the fact that the Gospel of Mark manifestly preserves the remembrances of an eye-witness, and of an eye-witness whose relations to Jesus were like those of Peter.

The evidence that this Gospel was enriched by the remembrances of an eye-witness will be presented in detail in the notes, and will be mentioned in general below in the paragraph on the characteristics of this Gospel. It consists in the many graphic details that could scarcely have been brought into the narrative at second-hand. These are often touches of description, especially of the acts, looks, and motions of our Lord himself. Again, they are citations of names and other details that others omit, and of the very words in the Aramaic tongue to which our Lord gave utterance. All these are signs that some one had given to Mark, who was not personally a follower of Jesus, the results of his own keen observation. The evidence of the presence of an eye-witness is found in the whole style of the book and on almost every page. It is almost equally plain that this eye-witness was some one whose relations with Jesus resembled those of Peter. He was a close companion of Jesus whose opportunities of observation were constant. One of the passages in which the characteristic style of an eye-witness is most apparent is the one that contains the description of the Transfiguration, at which there were present with Jesus only Peter, James, and John. Another is the narrative of the raising of the daughter of Jairus, where no disciples were present except the same three. Moreover, it is a very striking fact that the peculiarly graphic touches of description that are so abundant in the greater part of the Gospel are almost entirely wanting after the record of Peter's denial of his Master. That record stands at the end of the fourteenth chapter. The favorite word eutheōs does not occur after ch. 15:1. The materials of the story of the Passion, from that point, are much more exclusively than before the same that are used by Matthew, and the characteristic peculiarities, whether of substance or of style, are far less frequent than elsewhere. The proof of this statement may be found in the reading of the narrative in the Greek. Advancing to that part of the book from the preceding part, and reading it in comparison with the other Gospels, one can scarcely fail to be impressed that the keen eye-witness is no longer at his side — an impression that accords perfectly with the belief that the eye-witness was Peter, who was at that time separated in grief and shame from his Master.

Thus, although there is no demonstrative proof of the connection of Peter with the Gospel of Mark, there is a strong probable argument for it. The tradition of the church and the traits of the Gospel fit each other like the parts of a tally.


It has been maintained that the Gospel of Mark was the original source from which Matthew and Luke obtained much of the material for the compilation of their Gospels, and, on the other hand, that the Gospel of Mark is merely an epitome, made by condensation and recasting, of what they had written. But the facts do not correspond to either theory. Each Gospel contains abundant proofs of independence, Mark's not less than the others. It is beyond question, however — indeed, to say so is to utter a truism — that all the evangelists drew upon previously existing materials in compiling their narratives. These materials, ready to their hand, were the substance of the apostolic preaching. In the Gospels — i. e. in the Synoptical Gospels — we have " the story " as the Christian preachers were accustomed to tell it. It may already have been written out in part: that question has been warmly discussed — whether the immediate sources of our present Gospels were oral or written. But, in whatever form it may have existed, there was a mass of facts known about the life of Jesus that was common to all the evangelists and to many more. Of these facts, known to them all, forming what has been called a "common tradition," each evangelist evidently made use of such as his purpose required, and added to them such other facts, known perhaps to himself and not to all, as he felt himself justified in adding. It is plain that Mark, aided no doubt by the remembrance of Peter, possessed the facts of the "common tradition" in the most graphic forms, and recorded them more strikingly than the others; but he added to them less than any other evangelist. There are some indications, indeed, that he was careful not to add largely to them — a fact which, if established, would enhance the historical credit of what he did record. It has been suggested, with much reason, that this relation of Mark to the " common tradition " may have had to do with the abrupt ending of his Gospel, and explains the facts about the last twelve verses. (See note there.)

It is worthy of notice that the harmonists of the Gospels usually follow almost entirely the order of Mark, inverting the order of the other evangelists, and making his the basis of their arrangement. Hence in the exposition of this Gospel there is less discussion of questions of order than in treating of the others.


In the wisdom of God we are blessed with four portraitures of our Saviour, each with a character of its own. The Fourth Gospel, it is true, differs largely from the others in purpose and method, and even occupies a place by itself in the records of divine revelation; and yet perhaps the Second, the Gospel of Mark, is the one that bears its character most unmistakably upon the surface, and most readily impresses its conception of the Saviour on the reader's mind. Scarcely does a more thoroughly intelligible and self-interpreting piece of literature exist anywhere than the Gospel of Mark. Yet the clearness does not seem to result mainly from high skill in the author. This is not so much a triumph of art as a masterpiece of nature; that is to say, a genuine and natural utterance, under divine guidance, of what a man of clear sight and picturesque language knew about Jesus. It is a picture out of real life, so clear and recognizable because of its reality. As we read we do not need to be told how the writer got his vivid impressions: we know that they are the genuine impressions of actual experience.

The Gospel of Matthew portrays our Saviour in his relation to the Old Covenant, and especially to the new kingdom, long promised, that was now coming to take its place. This is the Gospel of the kingdom. The Gospel of Luke represents him in his wide and tender human relations as the blessing of mankind. The Gospel of John reveals him in his divine glory, coming forth to the world, doing battle, by self-revelation, with its sin and darkness, and spiritually glorified as the Son of God, though rejected and slain by men. The Gospel of Mark presents him to our sight in the midst of the intense activity of the life to which his divine mission brought him. The order of the four as they stand in our Bible is a happy thought of the church. First stands the Gospel of the Messiah, and of the kingdom that he brought into the world. Then comes the Gospel of the mighty Worker, exhibiting the abundant energy that made his life among men great and beneficent. Next follows the Gospel of the Son of man, overflowing with tenderness and love to the race unto which he came. Then, to crown the whole, comes the Gospel of the Son of God, bringing the revelation of One who is at once the ancient glory of the heavens and the sufficient hope and joy of the earth.

Coming to the Second Gospel, with which we are concerned, we may note the following as some of its characteristics: (1) It is the briefest of them all. It is so partly because it is the narrowest in its historical limits. It does not touch upon the birth or early life of Jesus, but meets him at his baptism. It follows him only through his ministry, and, strictly, only through his Galilean ministry, passing over, like the other Synoptists, the early ministry in Judaea. It breaks off abruptly just after the announcement of the resurrection. It confines itself exactly within the limits proposed by Peter in speaking of the choice of a new apostle, and observed by him in instructing the household of Cornelius (Acts 1: 22; 10:36-43). It has to do solely with the period of our Saviour's activity. (2) As between the words and deeds of Jesus, the division of matter is very different from that of the other Gospels. Mark records about as many miracles as Matthew or Luke: they have twenty each, and he, with his smaller space, has nineteen. But, while Matthew records fifteen parables and Luke twenty-three, Mark records only four, one of which has been preserved by him alone. He does not preserve the Sermon on the Mount, and alludes in other connections to but very few of the sayings that it contains. The address at the sending out of the apostles he greatly abbreviates. Of the great circle of parables delivered on the last journey to Jerusalem, recorded by Luke, he has nothing. Only in recounting the prophetic discourse on the Mount of Olives does he approach to the others in fulness; and even here he is the briefest of the three. His book is emphatically a book of deeds, not of words. It is the Gospel of action. It makes us feel that when God was manifested for us men and our salvation there was for him no rest. An appropriate motto for the Gospel has been said to be the saying of Peter to Cornelius:" Jesus of Nazareth, how that God anointed him with the Holy Ghost and with power; who went about doing good, and healing all that were oppressed of the devil ; for God was with him." But in deeper truth his own saying could be taken for the motto of this Gospel:" My meat is to do the will of him that sent me, and to accomplish his work." (3) Although Mark's record is the briefest, it is given with a fulness and richness of detail that imparts to it a peculiar value. He scarcely mentions any event without adding something to our knowledge of it. These additions are made partly by the particularity of his statements, and partly by the pictures queness and expressiveness of his language. The former fact bespeaks the presence of an eye-witness — the latter, the fact that the eye-witness had a genius for vivid description. We owe to Mark, on more than one occasion of intense interest, our knowledge of the very look and expression of our Saviour's face, of the very words that he uttered in the Aramaic tongue, and of the lifelike and instructive details in many a picture. It is impossible to tell which Gospel we could best spare. Many readers would say, perhaps, " The short Gospel of Mark; that contains so little matter that is not provided to us by the others." Happily, we are not called to choose; and if we were, we might well be extremely sorry to part with this fresh, living, pictorial Gospel, from which we have derived far more than we are aware of the distinctness of our conception of our Saviour. The bright, enlightening words that reveal our Master to our hearts will be pointed out in the notes as we come to them, and it seems scarcely necessary to enumerate any of them here.