St. Mark insists that Christ is the Son of God
In my commentary on St. Matthew’s gospel, I emphasize Mathew’s central theme of establishing, point by point, that Jesus Christ is the Messiah expected by the Jewish nation. In sharp contrast, St. Mark insists from the very first that Jesus is the Son of God. Thus Mark largely bypasses traditional Jewish expectations, moving directly to the one point that matters to the whole world.
I don’t mean that Matthew never acknowledges Christ as the Son of God. Sometimes Matthew even does this when recounting incidents in which Mark does not make the same point. For example, when Matthew recounts Christ’s walking on water, he reports the disciples as saying “Truly you are the son of God” (Mt 14:33), whereas Mark simply says “they were utterly astounded” (Mk 6:51-2). Similarly, when Christ asks the disciples who they think He is, Mark records only the first part of the answer, “You are the Christ” (Mk 8:29), but Matthew records “You are the Christ, the Son of the Living God” (Mt 16:16).
Obviously, the evangelists generally had access to the same details of Christ’s life, and shared the same faith in Him. In Matthew, the evidence that Our Lord is the Messiah controls the narrative, building, as it were, to a crescendo. But Mark immediately introduces his gospel with these words: “The beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God” (Mk 1:1).
The Divinity Theme
This Markan emphasis dominates from the beginning. Consider the extraordinary information in the following verses of Mark’s very first chapter:
- 1: Jesus Christ, son of God
- 2-3: Isaiah’s prophecy of preparing the way of the Lord
- 4-8: John the Baptist predicts the one who is to come.
- 9: Baptism of Jesus—“You are my beloved Son”
- 12-13: Christ driven into the desert by the Spirit, consoled by angels
- 14-15: John arrested, so Jesus proclaims: “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent, and believe in the gospel.”
- 16-20: Our Lord calls his first disciples..
- 21-28: Christ goes to the synagogue and casts out an evil spirit, and people remark on his new teaching and his authority
- 29-34: Jesus heals Simon’s mother-in-law and others, and forbids demons to speak.
- 35-39: He preaches, heals, casts out demons in Galilee.
- 40: He cleanses a leper, leading to instant fame.
In comparison, at the end of the first chapter in Matthew, we have just reached Christ’s birth, and are still awaiting the Magi. Moreover, what we might call Mark’s drumbeat of Divinity continues apace. In chapter 2, Jesus immediately heals a paralytic in order to prove He can forgive sins, and Mark records the reaction: “Who can forgive sins but God alone” (2:7). Then, in chapter 3, we learn that “whenever the unclean spirits saw him, they fell down and cried out, ‘You are the Son of God’” (3:11). By the end of Matthew’s third chapter, Christ has only just been baptized.
It is perhaps also noteworthy that where Matthew refers to the “kingdom of heaven”, Mark refers to the “kingdom of God”. In any case, Mark emphasizes Our Lord’s divinity not just sometimes but consistently throughout his narrative, and he is relatively uninterested in Matthew’s particular Jewish concern of proving Christ’s fulfillment of the Messianic prophecies. Paradoxically, however, it is Mark who emphasizes Our Lord’s warning to his disciples and to those he had healed not to tell anyone who he is. This is typically referred to as the “Messianic secret”, but it is actually the secret of the meaning of “Messianic”: It is the secret that Christ is God.
There is a debate among Scripture scholars as to whether St. Matthew’s Gospel or St. Mark’s Gospel has priority, in the sense of providing the initial account which determines the similarities in the other Synoptic Gospels (the gospels which give a synopsis, an immediate overview, of Christ’s life). Matthew is traditionally placed first in the New Testament, but the ordering is not necessarily chronological. Matthew is likely first primarily because his account lays the groundwork for the Jews.
Many scholars believe Mark was the first to write a gospel, Mark being an assistant to St. Peter who was anxious to record what Peter, as head of the Church, emphasized most in his preaching, especially after Peter was martyred in 64 AD. This is the position taken by the New Testament scholar Michael Pakaluk, for example, who has recently done a new translation of Mark’s gospel. Pakaluk was interviewed by Thomas V. Mirus in Episode 34 of The Catholic Culture Podcast last April; see The Memoirs of St. Peter.
In any case, it is instructive to compare Matthew and Mark in terms of their emphasis on two different sides of the same Divine mystery. Many of the details leading up to Christ’s passion and death are essentially the same in both accounts. Both evangelists state that Our Lord will be ashamed before His Father of all those who are ashamed of Him, but it is Mark who adds “when he comes in the glory of his Father with the holy angels” (8:39). In a very minor shift in emphasis, when the High Priest asks Jesus if he is the Christ, “the Son of the Blessed”, Matthew records the answer in the idiomatic “You have said so” while Mark records this more directly as “I am”.
A brief and pointed gospel
Mark’s account is by far the shortest of the gospels, and significantly shorter than Matthew’s. The reason is consistent with the points I have been making. Mark includes only three parables in his gospel, compared with at least thirteen in Matthew. And only one of Mark’s parables is Messianic, the parable of the wicked tenants in Chapter 12—whereas at least six of Matthew’s parables relate specifically to the Jews. The other two parables given by Mark, both in chapter 4, are the parable of the sower, which teaches that the Kingdom is open to all but that entry depends very much on each person’s “soil”; and the twin parable of the seeds and the mustard seed, which teaches that we must scatter seed without knowing how it will grow, but that both abundant growth and abundant harvest are characteristic of the Kingdom of God.
Having offered strong proofs to all the world that Christ is the Son of God, Mark is also very frank in dealing with lack of faith. When Christ appeared to the Eleven after His Resurrection, Mark says “he upbraided them for their unbelief and hardness of heart, because they had not believed those who saw him after he had risen” (16:14). Moreover, Mark records a stern aspect of Christ’s commissioning of the disciples to preach the gospel to the whole creation: “He who believes and is baptized will be saved,” Mark quotes Jesus as saying, “but he who does not believe will be condemned” (Mk 16:15-16).
Finally, and true to form, Mark concludes his narrative by proclaiming that “the Lord Jesus, after he had spoken to them, was taken up into heaven, and sat down at the right hand of God” (16;19).
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