(In this year that we follow the Gospel of Saint Mark, Father Callam offers us a four-part series on the Evangelist and his perspective on the life of Christ.)
If I were to characterize the Gospel of Matthew in a phrase, I would say that it describes Jesus as the new Moses, replacing with his new law the earlier one. Luke’s portrait of Jesus reveals him as combining “intolerable severity and irresistible tenderness.” As for John, a single word will do: “mystical.” And Mark? “Mystery.” To establish this fact, consider the ending of the Gospel, chapter 16. No doubt your Bible will have a footnote at verse 9. Mine reads, “verses 9 – 20 cannot have been part of the original text of Mark. . . . They were appended to the Gospel by the middle of the second century.” If we then take verse 8 as the final verse of the Gospel, we are certainly in the realm of mystery: “They [the women] fled from the tomb, for trembling and astonishment had come upon them; and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.” Similar reactions are found throughout Mark, as when the miracles of Jesus astound and perplex people, including his own disciples. “Who is he?” they ask, when Jesus had calmed the storm at sea (4.35-41): “Who then is this, that even wind and sea obey him?” Their incomprehension continues, and Jesus rebukes them for it: “Do you not yet perceive or understand? Are your hearts hardened? Having eyes do you not see, and having ears do you not hear?” (8.17-18). The disciples and the crowds may have been mystified, but others, others who should have recognized and honoured Jesus went further by rejecting him. His relatives thought he was mad (3.21); his fellow townsmen refused to hear him (6.1-6); and the scribes were even worse: “He is possessed by Beelzebul, and by the prince of demons he casts out the demons” (3.22). This failure to comprehend who Jesus was reached a climax in the final chapters when Judas, one of the twelve, betrayed him to the religious authorities, and then, at the trial, the people, who earlier had gathered in great crowds to hear him, shouted for his death: “Crucify him!” (15.13).
On the other hand, Mark surprises us, because certain people do recognize who Jesus is—and always the least likely. Devils know who he is, crying out as he approaches a possessed person: “I know who you are, the holy one of God!” (1.24). Peter, surprisingly, given his general lack of comprehension, in an inspired moment identifies Jesus as the Christ (8.29). More unexpected is the question that the high priest posed when Jesus was being tried before the Sanhedrin: “Are you the Christ, the Son of the Blessed?” (14.16). Even Pilate, the Roman governor, repeatedly refers to Jesus as “the King of the Jews” (15.2, ff), a title the soldiers took up as they mocked him and that was the inscription attached to the cross.