Volume 47 - Issue 2

Mark as the Backstory to the Gospel: Mark 1:1 as a Key to Mark’s Gospel

By Peter Orr


This article argues that the first 3 words of the Gospel of Mark: ἀρχὴ τοῦ εὐαγγελίου [“the beginning of the Gospel”] are best understood as the title of the book. Mark identifies his work as a description of the origin or backstory of the preached gospel that his readers were familiar with. The article examines what this implies for the relationship of Mark to Peter and Paul. It then explores the implications of this understanding for reading Mark.

New Testament writers sometimes tell us why they have written. Luke composed “an orderly account” for Theophilus so that he might “have certainty concerning the things [he had] been taught” (Luke 1:3–4).1 Peter pens his first letter “exhorting and declaring that this is the true grace of God” and calling his readers to “stand firm in it” (1 Pet 5:12). These purpose statements help us read in line with the author’s intention. When they are absent (e.g., Paul’s letter to the Romans), it is more challenging to correctly orientate ourselves to the letter and not skew its purpose by pursuing our own agenda (e.g., reading Romans as if it something akin to a systematic theology rather than a letter to a church with multiple purposes).2

In this article I argue that Mark 1:1, while not a purpose statement for the book, is a title and similarly helps us to correctly orientate ourselves to the Gospel. There is a growing consensus in commentaries on Mark for this reading, and I will show why there are good reasons for adopting it. I also want to explore some of the implications of understanding 1:1 this way.

Many have observed that Mark 1:1 “plays an important role and acts as a key-verse—not only for chapter 1, but for the whole gospel.”3 However, scholars debate its precise function. The confusion is compounded by some of the complexities in the immediate context of the beginning of Mark. In fact, writing in 1942, Wikgen could speak of the “oblivion that has been visited upon [readers] by the Commentaries” in their discussion of the opening section of Mark.4

There are textual questions: were υἱοῦ θεοῦ at the end of verse 1 and and καί in verse 4 original? There are lexical questions: what do ἀρχή (beginning? norm? foundation?) and εὐαγγέλιον (the written Gospel of Mark? the preached gospel?) refer to? There are grammatical questions: Is Ἰησοῦ Χριστου an objective genitive (“the gospel about Jesus Christ”) or a subjective genitive (“the gospel [preached by] Jesus Christ”)?5 There are structural questions: How should we break up the first section, and how far does it extend (to verse 8? verse 13? verse 15). There are genre questions: How should we identify the first section? Is it a prologue, a preface, an overture, or an introduction?6

These questions are worth considering but they too often remain on the pages of commentaries and monographs as they seem too obscure or intractable to help readers and teachers of Mark. In this article, I want to focus on one issue about which we can be confident, and which significantly impacts our reading of the Gospel.

My thesis is that if we understand 1:1 as the title for the book, then we can read the work as the origin or backstory of the gospel as it was being preached when Mark was writing. A first century Christian who read Mark would have understood the “gospel” as a message to be heard, not as a book to be read. Mark uses εὐαγγέλιον this way throughout his book (1:14, 15; 8:35; 10:29; 13:10; 14:9)—that is, always as a message that is preached and heard. Only after Mark wrote and his book became known as a “Gospel” were there two related but distinct understandings of the word “gospel” (i.e., a written book about Jesus’s life or a preached message about him). However, as Mark writes, the “gospel” was only known as a preached message. If Mark titles his book “the beginning of the gospel,” he provides his readers with a detailed backstory to the gospel they had heard preached.

Thinking about Mark as the “backstory” to the gospel invites us to relate it to the two, for want of a better word, “leading” apostles in the New Testament: Peter and Paul. Having first defended this reading of 1:1, we will consider his relationship with these two apostles before in our final section considering the difference this makes to reading the Gospel.

1. The Beginning of the Gospel (Ἀρχὴ τοῦ εὐαγγελίου)

The relationship of ἀρχὴ τοῦ εὐαγγελίου to its context has been considered by Cranfield, who lists ten options,7 and Boring, who considers twelve.8 The main question is whether 1:1 functions as a title (or an incipit9) for the entire work or whether it introduces the book either on its own or part of a larger section (e.g., 1:1–8; 1:1–11; 1:1–13; 1:1–15). Below we examine some of the more common suggestions of how to understand 1:1 in its context.

1.1. The Beginning of the Book

If the phrase introduces the book, Mark could be doing something similar to the LXX of Hosea 1:2: “This is the beginning of the word of the Lord to Hosea” (ἀρχὴ λόγου κυρίου πρὸς Ωσηε).10 Mark would thus offer a “somewhat abrupt introduction” to what he has written.11 Read this way, the phrase means something like, “Here begins the gospel.” Mark would thus be identifying his book as a “gospel”—that is, the phrase “the beginning of the gospel” would mean “the beginning of this book.”12 Most, however, recognize that this literary use of the word εὐαγγέλιον did not arise until the middle of the second century.13 Further, as we have noted, every other use εὐαγγέλιον in Mark refers to the preached message.

1.2. The Beginning of the Gospel Was Prophesied in the Scriptures

This reading connects the first two verses together: “The beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God was just as it is written in Isaiah the prophet….”14 There is a strong grammatical argument for this reading, namely that 1:2 begins with a subordinating conjunction (καθώς) which introduces the quotation from Isaiah (and Mal 3:1 and Exod 23:20).15 This conjunction typically subordinates the following clause to a previous verbal clause. Further, every other example in the NT and LXX of the particular phrase “as it is written” (καθώς γέγραπται) functions to connect what has just been said to the Scripture reference that follows.16 This is certainly the way that it is used in Mark 9:13 (“Elijah has come, and they did to him whatever they pleased, as it is written of him”) and 14:21 (“the Son of Man goes as it is written of him”).

However, there are problems with taking 1:2 as subordinate to 1:1.17 First of all, 1:1 is not a clause and so a verb needs to be supplied–usually ἦν (or ἐστιν). It is certainly possible that Mark understood ἦν in the first verse, nevertheless context is usually required to determine an ellipsis and the first verse of Mark’s Gospel does not provide that context. Further, as Croy notes, it is hard to see verse 1 as the fulfillment of Isaiah’s prophecy since Mark 1:1 “does not predicate, let alone narrate, anything.”18 In what sense is verse 1 the fulfillment of verses 2–3?

We will return to the syntactical function of καθώς below. At this point we can observe that Matthew (3:3–4) and Luke (3:4–6) both insert material about John the Baptist before repeating the quotation of Mark 1:2–3. That is, they move their equivalent of Mark 1:4–8 to before their equivalent of Mark 1:2–3. While this is “a strong indication that Mark, as it stands, violated the expected order of ‘fulfillment—then prophecy,’”19 it is also a strong indication that Matthew, Luke, and John (who puts the quotation on the lips of John the Baptist himself in 1:23) understand the quotation to refer to the ministry of John the Baptist.20 The Isaiah quotation certainly lends itself to be read with the John the Baptist material.

This reading creates an abrupt syntactical transition to 1:4 with no conjunction introducing the description of John the Baptist. Where Matthew, Luke and John all understand the Isaiah quotation of 1:2–3 to refer to the ministry of John the Baptist, this reading connects the quotation to 1:1, and John the Baptist is given no introduction.

1.3. The Beginning of the Gospel Was the Ministry of John the Baptist

On this reading the Scripture quotation of 1:2–3 is a parenthesis, and the first four verses should be understood: “the beginning of the Gospel of Jesus Christ Son of God (as it is written in Isaiah …) was John baptizing in the desert.”21 Lane, for example, suggests that the “primary reference in Ch. 1:1 is to the ministry of John and the fulfillment of the hope in Israel.”22

This reading (as did the previous one) connects καθώς γέγραπται to 1:1 but also connects it to the ministry of John. There is no need for a conjunction at the beginning of verse 4 since ἀρχή is the subject of ἐγένετο and Ἰωάννης is the predicate nominative. This is not impossible; however, one would expect the subject to be marked with an article when the predicate is a proper noun.23 Further, as Filaninno observes, “in other cases where Mark interrupts a sentence to insert a parenthesis or a brief, explanatory, digression he always employs a textual element to recall the sentence interrupted.”24 It also renders the Scripture citation as somewhat parenthetical when by all accounts it is fundamental for Mark’s Christology and soteriology.25

Guelich rejects this reading on the grounds of content, noting that both “the quotation and the Baptist materials stress John’s role as the precursor of the promised, coming one.”26 It would seem “out of character” for Mark to not include as part of the “beginning” the one “who actually preached this gospel in 1:14–15.”27 As Filaninno notes, if taken “to the letter” this reading would imply that the beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ coincide “with the coming of John the Baptist and his preaching and baptism.”28 Particularly since ἀρχή can mean “foundation,” this reading seems to attribute an importance to John that exceeds his place in the rest of the narrative.

1.4. The Beginning of the Gospel of Jesus Christ the Son of God

The final reading to consider is that the phrase with which Mark starts his book which has no verb and no predicate most naturally functions as a title to the book as a whole.29 Mark titles his book “The Beginning of the Gospel about Jesus Christ, the Son of God.”30 There are several biblical precedents for using a phrase to serve as the title of a book, such as Proverbs 1:1 (παροιμίαι Σαλωμῶντος υἱοῦ Δαυιδ, “The proverbs of Solomon, son of David”) and Isaiah 1:1 (ὅρασις ἣν εἶδεν Ησαιας, “The vision which Isaiah saw”).31

However, we have already considered that elsewhere καθώς usually and καθώς γέγραπται always point backward, suggesting that verse 1 is syntactically connected to verse 2. On the former, it is rare but not unheard of for καθώς on its own to point forward (e.g., John 15:9; Acts 7:17; Gal 3:6; Phil 1:7).32 1 Timothy 1:3 serves as a helpful parallel. The first two verses of the letter are Paul’s introduction of himself and Timothy. The καθώς that begins verse 3 is used in a syntactically unusual way. Not only does it point forward, but it also seems to have no corresponding apodosis.33

Even if none of these examples of καθώς behaves in precisely the same way as the one found in Mark 1:2, they show that the conjunction can be employed in syntactically unusual or incomplete situations. If we take καθώς as pointing forward in 1:2, the correspondence for the quotation is found in John the Baptist’s ministry in 1:4–8: “Just as it is written in Isaiah … John appeared, baptizing….” This is an unusual but not impossible way for Mark to start his book.34

While it is true that καθώς γέγραπται elsewhere always points back, it is also true that each reading of 1:1–2 creates syntactical problems. Further, it may be that employing this phrase in an unusual way allows Mark to highlight the function of the following quotation. That is, by placing this phrase in the syntactically unusual position, Mark indicates that all the subsequent narrative corresponds at some level to the scriptural citation.35 As we noted, this quotation is fundamental for what Mark wants to say about Jesus and this unusual construction and its placement at the beginning of the book proper cohere with that.

Reading 1:1 as a title and so understanding the καθώς of 1:2 to point forward does create awkward syntax, but it seems that the “extraordinary function of the unit has interfered with normal syntax.”36 In fact, as we have seen, each of the options we have considered create syntactical problems.37

The meaning of ἀρχή ranges from “beginning” (BDAG definition 1) to “first cause” (BDAG definition 2) to “authority” (BDAG definition 6). Boring, in addition, suggests “foundation” or “norm.” The position of the word at the start of the book and its use elsewhere in Mark (10:6, “the beginning of creation”; 13:8, “the beginning of the birth pains”; 13:19, “from the beginning of the creation that God created until now”) suggest that a temporal meaning is best understood here. Mark is narrating how the preached gospel began. He is giving its origin story.

How does this internal title The Beginning of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God relate to the traditional title of the book The Gospel According to Mark? The consensus is that although the traditional title of Mark was attributed to it early, it is not original since it presupposes other Gospels—that is, you only need to identify it as “according to Mark” when other “gospels” are circulating.38 The later title implies the existence of other Gospels and relates Mark to them but does not perform the same function as 1:1.

Thinking about this book as the “backstory” to the gospel invites us to think about Mark in relationship to the two, for want of a better word, “leading” apostles in the New Testament: Peter and Paul. Put simply, Peter is the historical source of Mark’s writing while Paul is his theological conversation partner.

2. Peter: Mark’s Historical Source

Traditionally Mark has been associated with the apostle Peter, while Luke has been associated with Paul.39 In Eusebius’s Ecclesiastical History (3:39) he discusses “the extant five books of Papias” (a 2nd century bishop of Hierapolis). At one point he quotes what Papias says about Mark: “Mark, having become the interpreter of Peter, wrote down accurately, though not in order, whatsoever he remembered of the things said or done by Christ” (3:39:15).40 This quote is subject to considerable debate, but we need simply note the clear, early association made between Mark and Peter. A little later, Irenaeus, bishop of Lyons, also wrote about how the Gospels came to be written: “Mark, the disciple and interpreter of Peter, did also hand down to us in writing what had been preached by Peter. Luke also, the companion of Paul, recorded in a book the Gospel preached by him” (Against Heresies 3.1.1). Here again, we have Mark described as the “interpreter of Peter,” while Luke is associated with Paul.

There are also indications in Mark’s Gospel itself that point to Peter’s influence. There is an inclusio in the narrative that has Peter as the first (1:16) and last (16:7) named disciple.41 Richard Bauckham suggests that this may be an ancient literary device to indicate Peter as the eyewitness on whose testimony the narrative depends.42 There are other details that highlight Peter, such as the double reference to Simon Peter in 1:16 (Jesus saw “Simon and Andrew the brother of Simon”) and the highlighting of Peter in 16:7 (“go, tell his disciples and Peter”).43

Peter is certainly the most prominent disciple in the Gospel, mentioned by Mark more frequently (proportionally) than by Matthew or Luke. At points in the narrative Peter is the disciple who is the focus, perhaps most notably in his dialogue with Jesus in Mark 8:31–38 (cf. 9:5; 10:28; 11:21; 14:29, 37, 54–72).44 Further, while Mark frequently “narrates what different characters see and hear,” “the act of remembering is only attributed to Peter.”45 In 11:21 Peter remembers the fig tree Jesus cursed, and in 14:72 he remembers Jesus’s prediction of his denial. These and other features that highlight Peter’s perspective suggest that Mark is writing his Gospel primarily through the lens and perspective of Peter.46

One potential objection to this view is the fact that Mark often portrays Peter in a negative light. However, it is more accurate to say that the portrayal of Peter is complex and certainly not wholly negative. In any case, the first readers of Mark would know that Peter ultimately underwent a transformation, and the Gospel itself indicates that this would happen (e.g., 16:7).

None of these features provides incontrovertible proof of Petrine influence on Mark’s Gospel, but together with the testimony of Papias and Irenaeus they point to a likely link between Peter and Mark’s Gospel. Mark, it seems, has penned his Gospel from Peter’s perspective.

3. Paul: Mark’s Theological Partner

This close connection between Mark and Peter meant that any possible relationship between Mark and Paul was left largely unexplored until the 19th century with the publication of two monographs by the German scholar Gustav Volkmar.47 Volkmar argued that Mark’s Gospel was essentially an allegorical defense of Paul. He suggested that Jesus in Mark represents Paul; Jesus’s family stands for the Jerusalem church led by James; and the Pharisees correspond to Paul’s opponents.

Volkmar’s argument was largely refuted by Martin Werner in a 1923 monograph.48 As such, although the relationship between Paul and Mark was periodically touched on in scholarship, it was not until the publication of an article by Joel Marcus in 2000 that scholarly focus turned to the question.49 Marcus’s article has sparked a mini-revival in the study of Mark’s dependence on Paul, and if we can speak of a scholarly consensus, it seems that it is now held that Mark wrote under the theological influence of Paul.

One of the clearest connections between Paul and Mark is their use of the word “gospel” (εὐαγγέλιον). The word “gospel” occurs four times in Matthew (4:23, 9:35, 24:14, 26:13), twice in Acts (15:7, 20:14) and not at all in Luke or John.50 Its appearance 8 times in Mark makes it the NT book with the most occurrences outside of Paul (the only two other occurrences are in 1 Pet 4:17 and Rev 14:6). In the New Testament, this is a particularly Pauline and Markan word. Even the phrase with which Mark starts his work, “the beginning of the gospel,” is found in Paul’s writings when he reminds the Philippian church of their partnership with him “in the beginning of the gospel” (ἐν ἀρχῇ τοῦ εὐαγγελίου; Phil 4:15).51

As well as frequency of usage, the ways in which Mark and Paul employ the word “gospel” also have strong parallels. Paul tends to refer to “the gospel” without modifiers (e.g., Rom 1:16; 10:16; 1 Cor 4:15 etc.).52 Apart from 1:1 and 1:14 Mark writes the word without any modifiers, in contrast with Matthew who tends to use modifiers (e.g., “the gospel of the kingdom,” 4:23; 9:35; 24:14).

For Paul, the gospel can be an “episodic narrative”53 as seen most famously in 1 Corinthians 15:3–8: “[1] Christ died … [2] was buried … [3] was raised … [4] appeared,” but also more succinctly in 1 Thessalonians 4:14: “we believe that [1] Jesus died and [2] rose again.” It seems that part of Mark’s reason for writing is to “render the Pauline oral gospel episodic narrative for the first time into a written long-form episodic narrative.”54

Paul and Mark share a number of additional theological convictions. These include the inability for people to “naturally” understand the cross (cf. Mark 8:32; 1 Cor 1:18); the continuity and discontinuity of the law in the Christian life, as illustrated by the fact that they both expressly teach that the food laws do not remain in force (cf. Mark 7:19; Rom 14:20); the temporal priority of mission to Israel and then to the world (cf. Mark 7:27; Rom 1:16); and the relationship between the Christian and the state (cf. Mark 12:17 and Rom 13:1).55

For Joel Marcus, however, their shared understanding of the cross is their clearest point of similarity. For both Mark and Paul, the death of Jesus as well as bringing salvation, is an “apocalyptic event,” which reveals what could not otherwise be known.56 Paul speaks of the cross in apocalyptic terms in 1 Corinthians 1–2 (e.g., the cross is the “secret and hidden wisdom of God,” 2:7). As Mark narrates the crucifixion, he highlights the apocalyptic phenomena that occurred around Jesus’s death (particularly the darkness of 15:33 and the torn curtain of 15:38). His narrative climaxes with a moment of “apocalyptic revelation” when the centurion grasps his identity as the son of God—precisely at the moment of his death (15:39).57

These parallels between Mark and Paul are significant. As Marcus puts it, “The other Gospels do not concentrate on the cross as single-mindedly as Mark does. Nor do they share to the same extent the Markan emphasis that this apocalyptic demonstration of divine power took place in an arena of stark human weakness.”58 He notes that Mark is the only Gospel that narrates the first confession of Jesus’s sonship as occurring at the cross.59

There may be a particular connection between Mark’s Gospel and Paul’s letter to the Romans. There is (inevitably!) debate about the location from which Mark wrote his Gospel, but a good case can be made that he wrote from Rome.60 For example, it has been noted that ten of the eighteen “Latinisms” in the NT (Greek transliterations of Latin loan-words, such as δηνάριον [Mark 6:37; 12:15; 14:5]; and πραιτώριον [15:16]) are found in Mark’s Gospel. This is “a frequency which is higher than any other Greek literary text of the period.”61 The “most likely place for Latinisms to predominate is in the city of Rome, where the Latin and Greek languages were closely intermingled as nowhere else at the time.”62

If Mark did write from Rome (and we are only raising it as a possibility), it is interesting to note that the two descriptions of the “gospel” at the beginning of Romans (“the gospel of his Son” [1:9] and “the gospel of God” [1:1]) correspond to those at the beginning of Mark “the gospel of Jesus Christ, the son of God” [1:1] and “the gospel of God” [1:14]).

There are strong parallels in theological emphases between Mark and Paul, particularly his letter to the Romans.63 That is not to say that there aren’t parallels with other New Testament writers. However, the shared theological emphases between Mark and Paul suggest a closer affinity between the two writers. It is worth noting, for example, that Mark and Romans also both draw heavily on the book of Isaiah to explain Jesus’s person and work.64

4. Reading Mark with Peter and Paul: Mark as Backstory

Michael Bird has very helpfully shown that it is reductionistic to line Mark’s Gospel up with either Peter or Paul. In fact, the New Testament associates Mark with both Paul (e.g., Acts 12:25; Col 4:10; 2 Tim 4:11; Philem 1:24) and Peter (1 Pet 5:13). He suggests that the Gospel of Mark reflects the influence of both and is best thought of as “Petrine testimony shaped into an evangelical narrative conducive to Pauline proclamation.”65

How does this help us read Mark’s Gospel? In the first place it reminds us that Mark is writing both history and theology. He is writing a historical account of what Jesus said and did. Though not an eyewitness himself,66 Mark writes his account in conversation with one of the main eyewitnesses who was with Jesus for almost the entire duration of the events that are described. At the same time, Mark is not simply writing “pure history,” if such a thing even exists. Comparing Mark to the other Gospels shows that he has made choices concerning the order of his narrative and what he includes and omits. These choices are made for theological reasons. When, for example, we read of people’s repeated inability to grasp the truth about Jesus, Mark is showing us the theological point that without Jesus opening a person’s eyes (as he does so dramatically in 8:22–26), they cannot grasp the truth of who he is.

It is particularly the connection with Paul which will help us as we read the Gospel of Mark. It is important to remember that although the Gospels come first in our New Testament (because they describe the earliest events in the period), it is Paul’s letters (with 1 Thessalonians probably the first one written) that were the first widely circulated Christian writings.67 And so, while Mark and Paul both write about the gospel, they do so from different perspectives and employing different genres. Paul unfolds the significance of the gospel for the churches that he writes to, while Mark gives the beginning, the backstory of the gospel as it is found in the life and teaching of Jesus.

Mark is writing in the context of an already known, understood gospel, particularly in the form in which it was preached by Paul. And so, as much as we can and should read Mark on his own terms, by titling his work as “the beginning of the gospel,” he is deliberately inviting his work to be read in conversation with the already known and preached gospel. This is not an argument that Mark necessarily writes with a copy of Paul’s letter to the Romans in front of him (although this is not impossible), but that he is writing in conversation with (particularly) the form of Pauline Christianity that we see expressed in Paul’s letters.

There are a number of implications that flow from this relationship between Mark and Paul. First, we should not expect that every concept that Mark introduces will receive the fullest explanation. We see this even with his reference to the “gospel.” As I noted, εὐαγγέλιον is introduced in the very first verse and is referenced six other times in the book (1:14, 15; 8:35; 10:29; 13:10; 14:9), but it is nowhere defined. Mark assumes that his readers will have a basic understanding of the content of the gospel—the preached message about Jesus—and he offers a basic commentary on that gospel message. Twice Mark refers to the widespread proclamation of the gospel (13:10, “all nations”; 14:9, “the whole world”). Mark writes into a context where this has already begun to happen.

Second, Mark’s Gospel was written for Christians. This does not mean that a non-Christian could not read it and come to understand the gospel—not at all. There is obviously enough in Mark’s Gospel to bring a non-believer to faith (as no doubt has happened throughout history). However, this does not negate the fact that Mark wrote for Christians with an awareness of the basic gospel message. There is a parallel with Luke’s Gospel, which Luke tells us is written to give a Christian (whether Theophilus is a real or stylized person) “certainty concerning the things” that he had been taught (Luke 1:4).

Third, understanding Mark to be writing in self-conscious conversation with Paul will help us at different points of interpretation. One of the challenges in reading the narrative sections of the Bible is that sometimes it can be hard to know why a writer has included a particular account. What theological point are they making? Reading Mark in conversation with Paul (in particular) gives us a control, in that often the theological point being made will have a parallel in Paul.

Fourth, this reading of Mark helps us in the other direction as we read Paul’s letters. We can see the theological points that Paul makes grounded and narrated in the life of Jesus. This does not simply establish their truthfulness (showing that Paul is faithfully discharging his role as an apostle of Christ) but it also allows us to see them demonstrated and lived out. For instance, in 1 Corinthians 2:14 Paul writes that the “natural person does not accept the things of the Spirit of God, for they are folly to him, and he is not able to understand them because they are spiritually discerned.” We see this reality played out across the narrative of Mark’s Gospel as people consistently fail to grasp the truth about Jesus.

Thinking of Mark as the “backstory” to the gospel finds a partial parallel in the writings of C. S. Lewis. I say “partial” because analogies like this can easily take on a life of their own! However, it may help to think of the relationship between Mark and Romans (say) as somewhat similar to the relationship between The Magician’s Nephew and the more famous The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, which was written first in 1950. The Magician’s Nephew was written five years later (with three books in between) but narrates events that occurred before the story contained in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. The books each stand alone as wonderful works of fiction, but readers who have read both have a richer, fuller and more complete understanding of the overall story arc.68

Mark writes to narrate “the beginning of the Gospel.” He writes to give the backstory to the proclamation of the message about Jesus. The title also anticipates the end of the book. Famously, the book finishes with the women fleeing from the empty tomb in amazement and not saying anything to anyone “for they were afraid” (16:8).69 There is no appearance of the risen Christ, and it seems as if the Gospel ends in an anticlimactic way. However, the identity of this volume as “the beginning of the Gospel” fits with the abruptness of the ending. Mark writes in a context where the Gospel is known and where people have communicated the gospel, unlike the women who fled because of fear. He also writes with an implied encouragement that his readers will continue to be involved in the proclamation of the gospel. The abrupt ending reflects the fact that “Mark’s Gospel is just the beginning of the good news, because Jesus’s story has become ours, and we take it up where Mark leaves off.”70

It is right to approach Mark’s Gospel as a coherent and stand-alone account of Jesus’s life. It can be read wholly and meaningfully on its own terms. However, Mark’s Gospel, as the first Gospel to be written, invites us to read it in conversation with the rest of the NT (and, indeed, the OT), as it narrates for us the “beginning of the gospel.”

[1] All Scripture quotations follow the ESV unless otherwise indicated.

[2] See Will Timmins, “Why Paul Wrote Romans: Putting the Pieces Together,” Themelios 43 (2018): 387–404.

[3] Eve-Marie Becker, Der früheste Evangelist: Studien zum Markusevangelium, WUNT 380 (Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2017), 298.

[4] Allen P. Wikgren, “ΑPΧΗ ΤΟΥ ΕΥΑΓΓΕΛΙΟΥ,” JBL 61 (1942): 20.

[5] By far the dominant view in the commentaries is that it is an objective genitive though some like France suggest Mark could intend both; see R. T. France, The Gospel of Mark: A Commentary on the Greek Text, NIGTC (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2002), 53.

[6] See the discussion in Francesco Filannino, The Theological Programme of Mark, WUNT 2.551 (Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2021), 30–35

[7] C. E. B. Cranfield, The Gospel According to St. Mark, Cambridge Greek Testament Commentary (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1959), 34.

[8] M. Eugene Boring, “Mark 1:1–15 and the Beginning of the Gospel,” Semeia 22 (1991): 48–50. Boring does not enumerate them all. He also does not only consider the relationship of 1:1 to the context but how the other verses relate.

[9] Dennis E. Smith, “Narrative Beginnings in Ancient Literature and Theory,” Semeia 22 (1991): 4: “a brief phrase” used “to introduce a document or selection from a document.”

[10] My own translation.

[11] Morna D. Hooker, The Gospel according to Saint Mark, BNTC (London: Continuum, 1991), 33.

[12] Francis J. Moloney, The Gospel of Mark: A Commentary (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2002), 31.

[13] Filannino, Theological Programme of Mark, 51 n. 43.

[14] Filannino (Theological Programme of Mark, 15 n. 7) gives an extensive list of those who take this position inducing Robert A. Guelich, Mark 1–8:26, WBC 34A (Dallas: Word, 1989), 10; Robert Gundry, Mark: A Commentary on His Apology for the Cross (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1993), 30–31; Mary Ann Tolbert, Sowing the Gospel: Mark’s World in Literary-Historical Perspective (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1989), 239–48.

[15] See Christian Rose, Theologie als Erzählung im Markusevangelium: Eine narratologisch-rezeptionsästhetische Studie zu Mk 1,1–15, WUNT 2.236 (Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2007), 88, and Tolbert, Sowing the Gospel, 243.

[16] 2 Kings 14:6; 23:21; 2 Chron 23:18; 25:4; Matt 26:24; Mark 9:13; 14:21; Luke 2:23; Acts 7:42; 15:15; Rom 1:17; 2:24; 3:4, 10; 4:17; 8:36; 9:13, 33; 10:15; 11:8, 26; 15:3, 9, 21; 1 Cor 1:31; 2:9; 2 Cor 8:15; 9:9. See also, 1 Esdras. 3:9; Tobit 1:6; Daniel (Theodotion) 9:13. This list was generated by Bible Works and matches that of Filannino, Theological Programme, 15 n. 8.

[17] Clayton Croy (“Where the Gospel Text Begins: A Non-Theological Interpretation of Mark 1:1,” NovT 68 [2001]: 126) ends up suggesting that 1:1 is actually a “second century redactional gloss.”

[18] Croy, “Where the Gospel Text Begins,” 113.

[19] Croy, “Where the Gospel Text Begins,” 112.

[20] This partially answers Tolbert (Sowing the Gospel, 243), who suggests that it is much simpler “to recognize that Jesus Christ, Son of God (1:1), is the messenger sent by God to show the way we are to follow (1:2) and that the beginning of this good news is found in the prophecy of Isaiah, for God in Isaiah’s time foretold the sending of this special emissary into the world.”

[21] This is an adaptation of the translation provided by Filannino, Theological Programme, 17. His footnote 13 lists commentators who take this reading including William L. Lane, The Gospel According to Mark: The English Text with Introduction, Exposition, and Notes, NICNT (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1974), 42. See also Ezra Palmer Gould, A Critical and Exegetical Commentary on the Gospel according to St. Mark, ICC (New York: C. Scribner’s Sons, 1896), 2–3

[22] Lane, The Gospel According to Mark, 45.

[23] Daniel B. Wallace, Greek Grammar Beyond the Basics: An Exegetical Syntax of the New Testament (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1996), 43–44.

[24] See Filannino, Theological Programme, 18, and the examples he considers from Mark 3:16; 5:6; and 7:1–5.

[25] On its importance, see Rikk E. Watts, “Mark,” in Commentary on the New Testament Use of the Old Testament, ed. G. K. Beale and D. A. Carson (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2007), 113–20.

[26] Robert A. Guelich, “‘The Beginning of the Gospel’: Mark 1:1–15,” BR 27 (1982): 7.

[27] Guelich, “The Beginning of the Gospel,” 7.

[28] Filannino, Theological Programme, 18.

[29] As the first phrase in the book it thus differs from Hosea 1:2.

[30] There is some doubt concerning whether “son of God” in 1:1 is original since it is missing in some very significant early manuscripts. For succinct arguments for its originality, see Guelich, Mark 1–8:26, 6; Mark L. Strauss, Mark, ZECNT (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2014), 61.

[31] Filannino (Theological Programme, 20 n .17) lists the following additional examples: Eccl 1:1; Song 1:1; Jer 1:1; Hos 1:1; Joel 1:1; Amos 1:1; Obad 1:1; Mic 1:1; Nah 1:1; Hab 1:1; Zeph 1:1; Mal 1:1.

[32] Strauss (Mark, 62 n. 17) is incorrect when (following Guelich, Mark 1:1–8:26, 7) he states, “καθώς never begins a sentence in Mark or elsewhere in the NT (except in the unrelated καθώς/οὕτως combination).” He is correct, however, that in a formula with γέγραπται it elsewhere always refers to what precedes rather than to what follows.

[33] See the discussion in I. Howard Marshall, A Critical and Exegetical Commentary on the Pastoral Epistles, ICC (London: T&T Clark, 2004), 362.

[34] Further, as Boring, “Mark 1:1–15 and the Beginning of the Gospel,” 50, points out, “a document that ends with γάρ (“for”) can well begin with καθώς. Just as Mark brings his narrative to an end in mid-sentence, so that the reader must write the conclusion in her or his own life (see below), so Mark begins in media res, with the action of God long since underway and in fact coming to its fulfillment (1:14!).”

[35] M. Eugene Boring, Mark: A Commentary, NTL (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2006), 34.

[36] Boring, Mark, 34.

[37] Boring, Mark, 35.

[38] See Strauss, Mark, 28.

[39] The material from this point on is largely adapted from my book Mark: The Beginning of the Gospel (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, forthcoming), used by permission of Crossway.

[40] Eusebius, Ecclesiastical History, Books 1–5, trans. Kirsopp Lake, LCL 153 (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1926), 297.

[41] Richard Bauckham, Jesus and the Eyewitnesses: The Gospels as Eyewitness Testimony, 2nd ed. (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2017), 124–25.

[42] Bauckham, Jesus and the Eyewitnesses, 132–45.

[43] Michael Bird, “Mark: Interpreter of Peter and Disciple of Paul,” in Paul and the Gospels: Christologies, Conflicts and Convergences, ed. Michael F. Bird and Joel Willits, LNTS 411 (London: T&T Clark, 2011), 35.

[44] Bauckham, Jesus and the Eyewitnesses, 126.

[45] Finn Damgaard, “Persecution and Denial—Paradigmatic Apostolic Portrayals in Paul and Mark,” in Mark and Paul: Comparative Essays, Part II: For and against Pauline Influence on Mark, ed. Eve-Marie Becker, Troels Engberg-Pedersen, and Mogens Müller, BZNW 199 (Berlin: de Gruyter, 2014), 297.

[46] Bauckham, Jesus and the Eyewitnesses, 155–82.

[47] Gustav Volkmar, Die Religion Jesu (Leipzig: Brockhaus, 1857); and Die Evangelien oder Marcus und die Synopsis der kanonischen und ausserkanonischen Evangelien nach dem ältesten Text mit historisch-exegetischem Commentar (Leipzig: Fuess, 1870).

[48] Martin Werner, Der Einfluss paulinischer Theologie im Markusevangelium: eine Studie zur neutestamentlichen Theologie, BZNW 1 (Giessen: Töpelmann, 1923).

[49] Joel Marcus, “Mark–Interpreter of Paul,” NTS 46 (2000): 472–87.

[50] Although Luke frequently uses the verb εὐαγγελίζω.

[51] Paul here is referring to the beginning of the Philippians’ association with the gospel. So, G. Walter Hansen, The Letter to the Philippians, PNTC (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2009), 318.

[52] Willi Marxsen, Mark the Evangelist: Studies on the Redaction History of the Gospel, trans. James Boyce et al. (New York: Abingdon, 1969), 127.

[53] Margaret Mitchell, “Mark, the Long-Form Pauline εὐαγγέλιον,” in Modern and Ancient Literary Criticism of the Gospels: Continuing the Debate on Gospel Genre(s), ed. R. M. Calhoun, D. P. Moessner, and T. Nicklas, WUNT 451 (Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2020), 211.

[54] Mitchell, “Mark, the Long-Form Pauline εὐαγγέλιον,” 211.

[55] For more see Mar Pérez I Díaz, Mark, A Pauline Theologian, WUNT 2.521 (Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2020), 45–190.

[56] Marcus, “Mark–Interpreter of Paul,” 479.

[57] Marcus, “Mark–Interpreter of Paul,” 480.

[58] Marcus, “Mark–Interpreter of Paul,” 482.

[59] Marcus, “Mark–Interpreter of Paul,” 483. Cf. Matt 16:16; Luke 1:32, 34; John 1:49.

[60] For a more comprehensive defense of this position see Brian J. Incigneri, The Gospel to the Romans: The Setting and Rhetoric of Mark’s Gospel, BibInt 65 (Leiden: Brill, 2003).

[61] Michael P. Theophilus, “The Roman Connection: Paul and Mark,” in Paul and Mark: Comparative Essays, Part I: Two Authors at the Beginnings of Christianity, ed. Oda Wischmeyer, David C. Sim, and Ian J. Elmer, BZNW 198 (Berlin: de Gruyter, 2014), 50.

[62] Incigneri, The Gospel to the Romans, 102.

[63] Albert C. Outler “The Gospel According to St. Mark,” Perkins School of Theology Journal 33–34 (1980): 7 (cited in Theophilus, “The Roman Connection,” 45) went as far as to describe Romans as Mark’s ‘Q.’”

[64] For Mark see Rikk E. Watts, Isaiah’s New Exodus in Mark (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2000); for Romans see J. Ross Wagner, Heralds of the Good News: Isaiah and Paul “In Concert” in the Letter to the Romans, NovTSup 101 (Leiden: Brill, 2002).

[65] Bird, “Mark,” 32.

[66] The suggestion that the young man in 14:51 who flees naked is a reference to Mark is intriguing but unlikely.

[67] It may be that the Gospel writings themselves draw on early written sources, but these do not seem to have been widely circulated (such that they only survive in the form in which they are found in the Gospels).

[68] I refuse to enter into the highly charged debate about the “proper” reading order of the Narnia series!

[69] The Greek is even more abrupt with the last word being the word “for” (γάρ). Because of this abruptness, a number of longer endings can be found in some manuscripts, but it seems unlikely that any of these are original.

[70] Joel Marcus, Mark 8–16: A New Translation with Introduction and Commentary, AB 27A (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2009), 1096, emphasis original.

Peter Orr

Peter Orr is lecturer in New Testament at Moore Theological College in Sydney, Australia.

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