Background and Setting

While Matthew was written to a Jewish audience, Mark seems to have targeted Roman believers, particularly Gentiles. When employing Aramaic terms, Mark translated them for his readers (3:17; 5:41; 7:11, 34; 10:46; 14:36; 15:22, 34). On the other hand, in some places he used Latin expressions instead of their Greek equivalents (5:9; 12:15, 42; 15:16, 39). He also reckoned time according to the Roman system (6:48; 13:35) and carefully explained Jewish customs (7:3–4; 14:12; 15:42). Mark omitted Jewish elements, such as the genealogies found in Matthew and Luke. This gospel also makes fewer references to the Old Testament and includes less material that would be of particular interest to Jewish readers, such as that which is critical of the Pharisees and Sadducees (Sadducees are mentioned only once, in 12:18). When mentioning Simon the Cyrene (15:21), Mark identifies him as the father of Rufus, a prominent member of the church at Rome (Romans 16:13). All of this supports the traditional view that Mark was written for a Gentile audience initially at Rome.

Historical and Theological Themes

Mark presents Jesus as the suffering Servant of the Lord (10:45). His focus is on the deeds of Jesus more than His teaching, particularly emphasizing service and sacrifice. Mark omits the lengthy discourses found in the other gospels, often relating only brief excerpts to give the gist of Jesus’ teaching. Mark also omits any account of Jesus’ ancestry and birth, beginning where Jesus’ public ministry began with His baptism by John in the wilderness.

Mark demonstrates the humanity of Christ more clearly than any of the other evangelists, emphasizing Christ’s human emotions (1:41; 3:5; 6:34; 8:12; 9:36), His human limitations (4:38; 11:12; 13:32), and other small details that highlight the human side of the Son of God (for example, 7:33–34; 8:12; 9:36; 10:13–16).

Interpretive Challenges

Three significant questions confront the interpreter of Mark:

1. What is the relationship of Mark to Luke and Matthew? (see below, “The Synoptic Problem”)

2. How should one interpret the eschatological passages? (see the notes on chapters 4 and 13)

3. Are the last 12 verses of chapter 16 originally part of Mark’s gospel? (see the note on 16:9–20).

The Synoptic Problem

Even a cursory reading of Matthew, Mark, and Luke reveals both striking similarities (2:3–12; Matthew 9:2–8; Luke 5:18–26) and significant differences, as each views the life, ministry, and teaching of Jesus. The question of how to explain those similarities and differences is known as the “Synoptic Problem” (syn means “together”; optic means “seeing”).

The modern solution—even among some evangelicals—has been to assume that some form or literary dependence exists among the synoptic gospels. The most commonly accepted theory to explain such an alleged literary dependence is known as the “Two-Source” theory. According to that hypothesis, Mark was the first gospel written, and Matthew and Luke then used Mark as a source in writing their gospels.

Proponents of this view imagine a non-existent second source, labeled Q (from the German word Quelle, “source”), and argue that this is the source of the material in Matthew and Luke that does not appear in Mark. They advance several lines of evidence to support their scenario.

First, most of Mark is paralleled in Matthew and Luke. Since it is much shorter than Matthew and Luke, the latter must be expansions of Mark.

Second, the three gospels follow the same general chronological outline; but when either Matthew or Luke departs from Mark’s chronology, the other agrees with Mark. Put another way, Matthew and Luke do not both depart from Mark’s chronology in the same places. That, it is argued, shows that Matthew and Luke used Mark for their historical framework.

Third, in passages common to all three gospels, Matthew’s and Luke’s   p 5  wording seldom agree when they differ from Mark’s. Proponents of the “Two-Source” theory see that as confirmation that Matthew and Luke used Mark’s gospel as a source.

Those arguments do not prove that Matthew and Luke used Mark’s gospel as a source, however. In fact, the weight of evidence is strongly against such a theory:

1. The nearly unanimous testimony of the church until the nineteenth century was that Matthew was the first gospel written. Such an impressive body of evidence cannot be ignored.

2. Why would Matthew, an apostle and eyewitness to the events of Christ’s life, depend on Mark (who was not an eyewitness)—even for the account of his own conversion?

3. A significant statistical analysis of the synoptic gospels has revealed that the parallels between them are far less extensive and the differences more significant than is commonly acknowledged. The differences, in particular, argue against literary dependence among the gospel writers.

4. Since the gospels record actual historical events, it would be surprising if they did not follow the same general historical sequence. For example, the fact that three books on American history all have the Revolutionary War, the Civil War, World War I, World War II, the Vietnam War, and the Gulf War in the same chronological order would not prove that the authors had read each others’ books. General agreement in content does not prove literary dependency.

5. The passages in which Matthew and Luke agree against Mark (see argument 3 in favor of the“Two-Source” theory) amount to about one-sixth of Matthew and one-sixth of Luke. If they used Mark’s gospel as a source, there is no satisfactory explanation for why Matthew and Luke would so often both change Mark’s wording in the same way.

6. The “Two-Source” theory cannot account for the important section in Mark’s gospel (6:45–8:26) that Luke omits. That omission suggests Luke had not seen Mark’s gospel when he wrote.

7. There is no historical or manuscript evidence that the Q document ever existed; it is purely a fabrication of modern skepticism and a way to possibly deny the verbal inspiration of the gospels.

8. Any theory of literary dependence between gospel writers overlooks the significance of their personal contacts with each other. Mark and Luke were both companions of Paul (Philemon 24); the early church (including Matthew) met for a time in the home of Mark’s mother (Acts 12:12); and   p 6  Luke could easily have met Matthew during Paul’s two-year imprisonment at Caesarea. Such contacts make theories of mutual literary dependence unnecessary.

The simplest solution to the Synoptic Problem is that no such problem exists! Because critics cannot prove literary dependence among the gospel writers, there is no need to explain it. The traditional view that the gospel writers were inspired by God and wrote independently of each other—except that all three were moved by the same Holy Spirit (2 Peter 1:20)—remains the only plausible view.

As the reader compares the various viewpoints in the gospels, it becomes clear how well they harmonize and lead to a more complete picture of the whole event or message. The accounts are not contradictory but complementary, revealing a fuller understanding when brought together.

 MacArthur, J. (2000). Mark: The Humanity of Christ (pp. 5–6). Nashville, TN: W Publishing Group.


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