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The New Testament




According to tradition, the Gospel of Matthew was written by the apostle Matthew, but the author tells us nothing directly about himself. He used the Gospel of Mark as a source. He also used other material, including a large number of sayings of Jesus that also appear in the Gospel of Luke. Many scholars think the similarities between Matthew and Luke can best be explained by their authors' use of a common source, a collection of sayings of Jesus that is now lost. They call this collection Q, from the German Quelle, meaning source. Most scholars agree that, in its present form, Matthew was written in the last quarter of the first century, perhaps in the 80s.

The relationship between Christianity and Judaism is an important theme of this Gospel. The author is thoroughly familiar with the Jewish tradition, and he often tries to show that events in the life of Jesus fulfill Old Testament prophecies. His point is that Jesus is the Messiah long expected by the Jews, and that the work of Jesus completes and perfects God's plan that had been at work in the days of Abraham, Moses, and David. Jesus announces the coming of the Kingdom of Heaven (called, in Mark and Luke, the Kingdom of God). But Matthew was written at a time when Christianity had become distinct from Judaism, and the community for which it was written probably included many Gentiles. Thus the author also emphasizes that when Jesus comes and announces the Kingdom he is rejected by many Jews and accepted by many Gentiles.


The Gospel begins with a genealogy tracing family descent from Abraham to David to "Joseph the husband of Mary, of whom was born Jesus, who is called Christ." The title Christ (Greek Christos, meaning anointed) is the equivalent of Messiah. The genealogy links Jesus to the Old Testament.

Before they have lived together, Joseph learns that Mary is pregnant. He thinks of divorcing her, but an angel tells him in a dream that the child to whom Mary will give birth is "of the Holy Ghost," and says the child should be named Jesus, "for he shall save his people from their sins." Jesus is a Greek form of the Hebrew Yehoshua, or Joshua, meaning Yahweh (God) is salvation or Yahweh saves. The Gospel says the birth of Jesus fulfilled an Old Testament prophecy (Isaiah 7:14): "Behold, a virgin shall be with child, and shall bring forth a son, and they shall call his name Immanuel, which being interpreted is, God with us" (1:23). In the Hebrew, the passage says a young woman would become pregnant, but Greek translations available when Matthew was written use a word meaning virgin.

The Gospel says that Mary was "with child of the Holy Ghost." In the Gospels, God's power is often called the Holy Ghost, Holy Spirit, or Spirit of God. What this passage means is that Jesus was conceived, not by the normal sexual union of man and woman, but by a miracle. Most Christians have accepted the virgin birth as literally true. Others, especially in recent times, have argued that it is a myth intended to emphasize the idea that Jesus has a uniquely important meaning in the relationship between God and the human race.

Jesus is born in Bethlehem in Judea, in the days of Herod the Great, who ruled Palestine under Roman overlordship from 37 B.C. to 4 B.C. The conventional date for the birth of Jesus, on which our calendar is based, wasn't calculated until the sixth century and is almost certainly a few years too late. Right after Jesus is born, wise men from the east come to Jerusalem asking to see the newborn King of the Jews. You're probably familiar with the wise men as the three kings, who play a big part in the folklore of the Christmas season. In fact, the Gospel does not describe them as kings, nor does it say how many they are. In any case, they are certainly Gentiles, and their visit implies recognition of Jesus by Gentiles from the very beginning.

Herod, however, having learned about Jesus from the wise men, is troubled, evidently fearing a Messiah will be a challenge to his political authority. He has all the children of Bethlehem who are two years old and younger put to death- the "massacre of the innocents." But Joseph, warned by an angel in a dream, flees with Jesus and Mary to Egypt. After Herod's death, Jesus and his family return to Palestine and settle in Nazareth in Galilee.


Years have passed, and Jesus is now grown. But before he reenters the story, John the Baptist is introduced. John preaches in the Judean desert. Crowds of people go to him, and he baptizes them in the Jordan River. John predicts that one who is greater than he will come after him, one who will baptize "with the Holy Ghost, and with fire"- the Messiah.

John the Baptist is a prophetic figure. His costume (3:4) recalls that of the Old Testament prophet Elijah (2 Kings 1:8). Scholars have pointed out similarities between John's beliefs and practices and those of the Jewish community at Qumran, which produced the Dead Sea Scrolls (discovered beginning in the late 1940s). Both John and that community were sternly moralistic and believed fervently in the coming of the Messiah. Both practiced rituals involving bathing in water. And Qumran was in the Judean desert not far from the area where John worked. John must have known about the Qumran community, but there's no evidence that he was a member of it.

Jesus comes to John and is baptized. When he comes up out of the water, the Spirit of God descends on him in the form of a dove and a voice from heaven- presumably the voice of God- says "This is my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased." After his baptism, Jesus is tempted by the devil in the wilderness. Notice that the devil tests the words of the heavenly voice saying "If thou be the son of God," and that Jesus resists the devil successfully without satisfying his curiosity. The three things Jesus is tempted to do all represent ways of using miraculous power for one's own benefit: to obtain food, to ward off danger, and to rule the earth. (The English poet John Milton [1608-1674] used the temptation story as the basis for his epic poem Paradise Regained.)

Then Jesus returns to Galilee and begins preaching "Repent: for the kingdom of heaven is at hand" (4:17). This prophetic message, which is the same as John the Baptist's (3:2), sounds like a warning. The emphasis here on repentance (turning away from sin) suggests that the coming of the Kingdom is to be feared because it will bring God's judgment. The Kingdom, however, is a many-sided theme. You'll see other aspects of it developed later in this Gospel.

Jesus calls his first followers, four fishermen who give up their former lives and follow him. He teaches in synagogues and heals the sick, and great crowds come to him.


Jesus goes "up into a mountain" and preaches. He begins the sermon with the Beatitudes:

Blessed are the poor in spirit: for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are they that mourn: for they shall be comforted. Blessed are the meek: for they shall inherit the earth. Blessed are they which do hunger and thirst after righteousness.... Blessed are the merciful.... Blessed are the pure in heart.... Blessed are the peacemakers.... Blessed are they which are persecuted for righteousness' sake.... Blessed are ye, when men shall revile you, and persecute you, and say all manner of evil against you falsely, for my sake.

Blessed means happy, fortunate, enviable. We don't normally think of people who are mourning, persecuted, and reviled as fortunate. But Jesus announces that the Kingdom belongs to the virtuous, especially those who are despised because their virtue is incompatible with worldly values.

At 5:17 Jesus begins to discuss the law of Moses, which is found in the first five books of the Old Testament. In the time of Jesus, the law was especially revered by the scribes (copyists and interpreters of the Jewish Scriptures) and the Pharisees (members of a party within Judaism that strictly observed, not only the written law, but also a body of traditional rules that had not yet been written down). Jesus declares "except your righteousness shall exceed the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees, ye shall in no case enter the kingdom of heaven."

How can righteousness exceed that of the scribes and Pharisees? Jesus explains what he means by contrasting the demands of the law with his own view of righteousness. Where the law forbids killing and adultery (Exodus 20:13-14; Deuteronomy 5:17-18), Jesus teaches that anger and lust are wrong, shifting the focus of morality from outward actions to inward motives. Where the law enjoins retribution and requires love of one's neighbor (Exodus 21:23-25; Leviticus 19:18), Jesus teaches that one should "resist not evil," and love even one's enemies. Finally, he says "Be ye therefore perfect, even as your Father which is in heaven is perfect" (5:48). Does Jesus really expect his listeners to attain perfection like God's?

Christians have interpreted this saying in different ways. Some have thought that all are required to conform to Jesus' demands. Others have held that only certain Christians are called to perfection. Still others have believed Jesus means that, since nobody is perfect, nobody can enter the Kingdom by his own efforts, for example by obeying the commandments of the Old Testament.

In the Old Testament (Exodus 19 and 20) God gave the law to Moses on a mountain top. Here, where Jesus contrasts the morality of the Kingdom of Heaven with the Mosaic commandments, the setting recalls that of the giving of the law. In fact, Chapters 1 to 7 present a series of parallels between the life of Jesus and the life of Moses and the ancient Israelites. The massacre of the innocents and the escape of Jesus parallels the story of the infancy of Moses (Exodus 1 and 2), in which the Pharaoh ordered all male Hebrew babies put to death, but Moses escaped. The quotation at 2:15 "Out of Egypt have I called my son" (Hosea 11:1) recalls the Exodus. And the temptation of Jesus in the wilderness, in which Jesus' answers to the devil are all quotations from Deuteronomy, parallels the testing of the Israelites in the desert. The author of Matthew sees Jesus' life as the recapitulation of the experience of Israel, and he sees the Sermon on the Mount as corresponding to the Mosaic law.

In Chapter 6, Jesus says religious acts such as prayer, giving to the poor, and fasting should be performed sincerely, rather than for the sake of looking good in other people's eyes. The section on prayer includes the Lord's Prayer (6:9-13), which is said by millions of Christians. Notice that Jesus teaches his followers to pray "Thy kingdom come." At 4:17 the announcement of the Kingdom sounds like a warning. Here, the coming of the Kingdom is seen as something to be prayed for, something very desirable.

Jesus ends the Sermon on the Mount by talking about the need for single-mindedness, teaching the Golden Rule (7:12), and describing the two ways- the way (of goodness) that leads to life and the way (of wickedness) that leads to destruction.


In this middle part of the Gospel, Jesus performs miracles, teaches about the Kingdom of Heaven, comes into conflict with some Jewish groups, and is recognized by his followers as the Christ. The action is set in Galilee and in neighboring areas, including Tyre and Sidon to the northwest and Caesarea Philippi to the northeast.

You'll find many miracle stories here and in other Gospels- mostly miracles of healing. Although Jesus refers to his miracles as signs that he is the Christ (11:4-6, 20-24), he doesn't seem to think that miracles are of central importance to his ministry. He doesn't go looking for sick people to cure. They come to him. And when he performs miracles, he often tries to avoid publicity. He heals a leper and says "tell no man" (8:4). He restores sight to two blind men and says "See that no man know it" (9:30). Two miracle stories develop the theme of Jesus' relationship to the Gentiles. Although his mission is to the Jews, he is deeply moved by the faith of two Gentiles: a centurion (a soldier in the Roman army) and a Canaanite woman. He predicts that many believing Gentiles will enter the Kingdom.

Jesus often presents his teaching about the Kingdom in the form of parables. A parable is a rhetorical device that teaches indirectly, through a story about ordinary life. Jesus uses familiar things to bring ideas to life in the minds of his listeners. At 13:3-8, he compares the preaching of the Kingdom to the sowing of seed by a farmer. Just as some of the seed is wasted by being eaten by birds or falling on bad ground, so some to whom the Kingdom is preached will fail to respond. But, as some seed falls on good ground and grows into a plentiful harvest, so some will take the preaching to heart and be transformed by it. You'll find parables scattered through the synoptic Gospels.

Some of Jesus' teaching about the Kingdom is more direct. When, for example, he says "the kingdom of God is come unto you" (12:28), he describes the Kingdom as a present reality. He says that his own coming already brings the Kingdom. Although this idea follows logically from the idea that Jesus is the Christ, it is revolutionary in its suggestion that the Kingdom doesn't necessarily involve any big, obvious change in the affairs of the world.

The activities of Jesus bring him into conflict with certain groups of devout Jews. Scribes criticize him for telling a man that his sins are forgiven. Followers of John the Baptist are perplexed because Jesus' followers don't practice fasting. Pharisees criticize Jesus for eating with publicans (men who collected taxes for the Roman government) and sinners. They accuse him of letting his followers violate the Sabbath and the laws of religious cleanliness. Some even suggest that he casts out devils by the power of the devil. Jesus responds vigorously to these criticisms, describing his opponents as hypocrites who honor God with their lips, but not in their hearts. As a result of these controversies, Pharisees begin to consider how they can destroy Jesus (12:14).

At 16:15 Jesus asks his followers "whom say ye that I am?" Simon replies, "Thou art the Christ, the Son of the living God." This recognition of Jesus as the Messiah is confirmed by Jesus as having been revealed by God. Then Jesus changes Simon's name (as Old Testament figures had changed their names; see Genesis 17:5): "thou art Peter [Petros, meaning rock], and upon this rock I will build my church" (16:18).

Roman Catholic teaching holds that in this passage, Jesus gives Peter authority to govern the Christian church- that with these words he establishes Peter as the first pope. Other Christians interpret the passage as a more general bestowal of authority on the apostles through Peter as their representative, or as a statement that faith in Jesus as the Christ, which Peter had just shown, is the "rock" on which the Christian church is to be built.

Jesus teaches his followers that he must go to Jerusalem, be put to death, and rise from the grave. When Peter objects, Jesus rebukes him severely: "Get thee behind me, Satan" (16:23). Do you get the feeling that there's a parallel here to the temptation of Jesus in chapter 4? Peter wants a Christ who doesn't have to suffer. Jesus tells him that such a way is not "of God," but "of men." But then Jesus predicts that after his suffering will come his Parousia, or Second Coming: "the Son of man shall come in the glory of his Father, with his angels" (16:27).

Six days later, Jesus takes Peter, James, and John to a mountain top. They see his face "shine as the sun" (17:2), and they see Moses and Elias (Elijah) with him. As at the baptism of Jesus, a heavenly voice is heard, saying "This is my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased; hear ye him" (17:5). This incident, known as the Transfiguration, has several significant aspects. The appearance of Jesus in glory seems to be an anticipation of his Second Coming. The appearance of Moses and Elias reflects the idea that Jesus is the culmination of the Old Testament. And the message of the heavenly voice extends to his followers the announcement that Jesus is the Son of God (which at his baptism was, arguably, revealed only to himself). The message is a confirmation of Peter's confession.


Jesus travels from Galilee to Jerusalem, teaching and healing as he goes. When Peter says "we have forsaken all, and followed thee; what shall we have therefore?" (19:27), Jesus promises great rewards: everyone who has given up family and property for Jesus' sake "shall receive a hundredfold, and shall inherit everlasting life" (19:29).

Does this seem to you to encourage a "what's in it for me?" attitude? In a swift change of mood, the author immediately follows this saying with the parable of the laborers in the vineyard (20:1- 16), which is found only in Matthew. Jesus tells the story of the owner of a vineyard who hires some workers early in the morning, some at the third hour (between 8 and 9 A.M.), some at the sixth (between 11 A.M. and noon), some at the ninth (between 2 and 3 P.M.), and some at the eleventh hour (between 4 and 5 P.M.). When the day is done, he pays the same wage to those who worked just for an hour as to those who worked all day. Is this unfair? The owner says "Is it not lawful for me to do what I will with mine own?" (20:15). Jesus says the Kingdom is like that. Here, then, in contrast to the talk of rewards that comes just before, Jesus emphasizes God's generosity to all who enter the Kingdom, and seems to downplay the idea of special rewards for those who have worked longer or harder.


Jesus rides into Jerusalem. He's hailed by crowds as "the prophet of Nazareth" and as "Son of David."

NOTE: According to Matthew, Jesus rides on an ass and a colt (21:2,7) in fulfillment of the Messianic prophecy "thy King cometh... riding upon an ass, and upon a colt the foal of an ass" (Zechariah 9:9). Of course, nobody can ride on two animals at once. In the other Gospels, there's just one animal (Mark 11:2,7; Luke 19:30,35; John 12:14). The author of Matthew has taken the Zechariah passage literally, when it's really a repetition of synonyms characteristic of Old Testament style. This provides an interesting insight into the author's attempt to as closely as possible conform his materials to Old Testament prophecy.

Jesus goes to the Temple, throws out the people who buy and sell there, and overthrows the tables of the money changers. He heals blind and lame people in the Temple, and is acclaimed there again as "Son of David" (21:15). The chief priests and scribes are displeased.

Pharisees and Sadducees ask Jesus some delicate theological and legal questions, but he shows himself a skillful debater. In the process, he engages in some important teaching, notably the identification of the two most important commandments of the law: "Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind" and "Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself" (22:37,39; citing Deuteronomy 6:5 and Leviticus 19:18). Chiefly, though, he denounces the scribes and Pharisees. He teaches that "The scribes and the Pharisees sit in Moses' seat: all therefore whatsoever they bid you observe, that observe and do; but do not ye after their works: for they say, and do not" (23:2-3).

NOTE: Are you surprised that Jesus tells his followers to observe the rules of the Pharisees? Some scholars believe that this saying goes against everything else we know about Jesus' attitude toward the Pharisaic interpretation of the law, and suggest that the sentiments must come from the author of Matthew or from his sources rather than from Jesus himself.

Jesus condemns the scribes and Pharisees as "hypocrites," saying they observe many trivial details while neglecting "judgment, mercy and faith," which are "the weightier matters of the law" (23:23).

In the so-called Little Apocalypse, Jesus predicts future events. This is the most extensive expression in Matthew of eschatological beliefs (beliefs concerning the end of the world). Jesus says there'll be "wars and rumors of wars.... famines, and pestilences, and earthquakes" (24:6-7). He says Christians will be persecuted and "the love of many shall wax cold" (24:12). He says "the abomination of desolation, spoken of by Daniel the prophet" will "stand in the holy place" (24:15).

NOTE: Some scholars think this idea may have been influenced by the plan of the Roman Emperor Caligula to set up a statue of himself in the Temple around A.D. 40. If Caligula had gone through with it, Jews and Christians would have regarded the statue as an "abomination of desolation," a desecration of the Temple (see Daniel 11:31 and 12:11, which probably refers to the government-imposed worship of the pagan god Zeus in the Temple around 167 B.C.).

Jesus says "there shall arise false Christs, and false prophets" (24:24). Finally, the Parousia- the Second Coming- will take place: "they shall see the Son of man coming in the clouds of heaven with power and great glory" (24:30).

Jesus illustrates the eschatological dimension of the Kingdom with the parable of the wise and foolish virgins, and the parable of the talents. The point of these is the importance of being prepared, "for ye know neither the day nor the hour wherein the Son of man cometh" (25:13). He concludes with a memorable description of the Last Judgment, which is found only in Matthew. Jesus says when the Son of Man comes, he'll divide the "sheep from the goats" (25:32). One group he will invite into the Kingdom, saying that he was hungry and they fed him, thirsty and they gave him drink, a stranger and they took him in, naked and they clothed him, sick and they visited him, in prison and they came to him. To the other group he says he was hungry and they gave him no food, and so forth. He consigns them to everlasting fire. Both groups ask when this happened. They haven't seen him hungry, naked, and sick! But he says "Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me" (25:40). This identification of Jesus with those who suffer is clearly a call to action. It also sets the tone for the next part of the Gospel, in which Jesus himself suffers.

THE PASSION (26:1-27:66)

The chief priests, scribes, and elders decide to kill Jesus, but they're afraid of the crowds who are gathered in Jerusalem for the Passover festival- the people who have been acclaiming Jesus. Judas Iscariot, one of the twelve apostles, offers to hand Jesus over to the chief priests for thirty pieces of silver.

Jesus and the apostles "eat the passover" (26:17), the festival meal celebrated by observant Jews in memory of their ancestors' deliverance from slavery in Egypt (Exodus 12:14-21, 42-47). The meal, which commemorates God's redemption, is transformed by Jesus when he takes bread and wine and says "this is my body," and "this is my blood" (26:26, 28), an act repeated to this day by Christians in the ceremony of the Eucharist, or the Lord's Supper. (The final meal of Jesus with his apostles, the Last Supper, has been a popular subject for artists. The most famous depiction is the mural by the Italian painter Leonardo da Vinci [1452-1519] in Milan.)

After the supper, Jesus and the apostles go to the Mount of Olives. On the way, Jesus tells the apostles that they will all fall away. Peter objects, but Jesus predicts that Peter will deny him three times before cockcrow. At Gethsemane, Jesus prays that he may avoid the suffering he foresees, but resigns himself to the will of God. At this moment of spiritual crisis Peter, James, and John fall asleep. Judas arrives with men from the chief priests. When he shows them who Jesus is by kissing him, they arrest Jesus. Presumably, the principal function of Judas is to reveal where Jesus can be captured outside the city, where the Passover crowds won't be able to interfere. In any case, Jesus puts up no resistance, and his followers flee.

Jesus is questioned by the high priest and the council. He's asked whether he is "the Christ, the Son of God" (26:63). He replies "Thou hast said," and adds that in the future the Son of man will be seen "sitting on the right hand of power, and coming in the clouds of heaven" (26:64). Matthew's "Thou hast said" is altered from Mark's simpler "I am" (Mark 14:62). Is it an affirmation, or is it equivocal? The high priest and the council take it as an affirmation, and judge that Jesus' claim to be the Christ is a blasphemy deserving death. Meanwhile, Peter has followed Jesus to the high priest's palace. When the servants accuse Peter of having been with Jesus, he denies it three times. When the cock crows, he remembers Jesus' prediction and weeps bitterly.

In the morning Jesus is sent to Pontius Pilate, procurator of Judea, the chief Roman official there. Pilate asks Jesus whether he is the King of the Jews, and he says "Thou sayest" (27:11). Warned by his wife, who has had a dream about Jesus, Pilate tries to avoid executing him, but he is pressed by the chief priests and elders and by a crowd under their influence. He orders Jesus to be crucified.

Although it seems that the high priest and Pilate question Jesus about totally different issues- is he the Christ? is he a king?- in fact, they are two sides of the same issue. In Jesus' time, the Messiah or Christ was seen by most people as one who would be sent by God for the political liberation of the Jewish people. The claim to be the Christ, therefore, would be understood by many as both a religious and a political claim. In accordance with their respective functions, the Jewish council considers the question of blasphemy (speech offensive to God) and Pilate considers the question of rebellion.

The Roman Empire, like some other powerful states, was a horribly brutal affair. Slaves who committed crimes and rebellious provincials were executed by crucifixion. After being severely beaten, the prisoner was fastened with nails or ropes to a wooden stake, which often had a crossbar. After hours, often days, he died of hunger, thirst, exhaustion, exposure, and the effects of the beating. Crucifixion is specifically a Roman method of execution. Jewish teaching did not regard crucifixion as a legitimate method of execution.

Jesus is crucified outside Jerusalem, at a place called Golgotha, which means place of a skull (27:33). In accordance with Roman custom, a placard is set up over his head, telling his offense: "This is Jesus the King of the Jews" (27:37). Although the apostles have deserted him, "many women... which followed Jesus from Galilee" watch from a distance (27:55-56). (The Crucifixion of Jesus has probably been represented in painting and sculpture, and in mass-produced art objects, more often than any other single theme. The great challenge is to depict the spiritual dignity of Jesus despite his terrible suffering. Among the greatest painters of the Crucifixion have been the German Matthias Grunewald [1480?-1528], whose Isenheim Altarpiece is now at Colmar in France, and the Spaniard Francisco de Zurbaran [1598-about 1664].)

Jesus dies in the afternoon, and in the evening Joseph of Arimathea, a wealthy follower of Jesus, buries him "in his own new tomb" (27:60). The tomb is sealed and guarded.


The account of Jesus' Resurrection is shorter and simpler in Matthew than in Luke or John. Mary Magdalene and another Mary go to the tomb at dawn on Sunday. An angel announces to them that Jesus is risen from the dead. On their way back to Jerusalem, Jesus meets them and says "go tell my brethren that they go into Galilee, and there shall they see me" (28:10).

The eleven remaining apostles go to Galilee and meet the risen Jesus, who tells them: "Go... and teach all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost" (28:19). The command to teach all nations signifies the opening of the mission to the Gentiles. The baptismal formula anticipates the later Trinitarian doctrine of three divine persons, Father, Son, and Holy Ghost.

[The New Testament Contents]



Although the Gospel of Mark appears second in order in the New Testament, almost all scholars today agree that is was the first of the four Gospels to be written.

The author is traditionally identified with the John Mark who was the nephew of Barnabas (Colossians 4:10) and a companion of Paul (Acts 12:25, 15:37-40; Philemon 24) and of Peter (1 Peter 5:13). In writing his Gospel, Mark is said to have used traditions received from Peter. Many modern scholars think this Gospel was probably written soon after the death of Peter in A.D. 64 or 65, so Peter's followers could preserve the things Peter had told them about Jesus. There is disagreement about whether it was written shortly before, or shortly after, the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem in 70.

The Gospel of Mark presents a brief, relatively straightforward account of the career of Jesus. It seems less influenced by interpretation than the other three Gospels, but don't forget that it was written a generation after the Crucifixion, so the Christian community had had plenty of time to think over the meaning of Jesus. This Gospel was written in colloquial Greek. It was apparently designed to instruct ordinary Christian readers or hearers, mostly of Gentile background, about Jesus.

Mark doesn't share Matthew's special interest in Jewish tradition, Luke's in historical writing, or John's in sophisticated theology. An important theme that runs through Mark is the failure of everyone- the crowds, the Jewish authorities, and even his family and his own followers- to comprehend that Jesus is the Christ. The so-called Messianic secret of Jesus' true identity is understood only after he dies (15:39).


The Gospel begins rather abruptly with the preaching of John the Baptist, a Jewish ascetic who calls for repentance (turning away from sin) and baptizes people in the Jordan River, apparently as a sign of repentance. When Jesus comes from Nazareth in Galilee and is baptized by John, Jesus sees the heavens open and hears a voice say "Thou art my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased" (1:11). Mark says nothing about the earlier life or religious activities of Jesus. Many readers think Jesus first becomes fully aware that he is the Son of God at the time of his baptism.


After John the Baptist is arrested, Jesus returns to Galilee and preaches "The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand: repent ye, and believe the gospel" (1:15). He calls his first followers, teaches, and performs miracles. He chooses twelve of his followers to accompany him, preach, and heal. This part of the Gospel is set in Galilee and nearby areas in and around northern Palestine.

Unlike other Gospel writers, the author of Mark focuses more on Jesus' deeds than on his words. Nevertheless, some teaching material is included. Chapter 4 includes the parables of the sower, the seed that grows by itself, and the mustard seed. The parable of the seed that grows by itself (4:26-29), found only in Mark, stresses the idea that the kingdom comes independent of human effort, when the time is ripe.

You'll probably be struck by the extent to which the Gospel of Mark emphasizes the role of Jesus as a miracle worker. In particular, this Gospel often depicts him as casting out demons. In the time of Jesus, it was widely believed that evil spirits could take control of a person. Someone considered possessed in the first century would today be regarded as suffering from mental illness or a nervous disorder.

Why does the author of Mark put so much stress on miracles? One explanation is, simply, that many of the stories circulating about Jesus were miracle stories, and that the Gospel author believed the stories were true. But it has often been suggested that the miracles have a deeper meaning. Some readers think the miracles are proofs that Jesus is the Christ, although in fact Jesus refuses to perform miracles when asked for a sign (8:11-12). The miracles have been explained as fulfillments of Old Testament prophecy (see Isaiah 35:4-6, 26:19). They have been interpreted as symbolic acts, for example the healing of the blind as symbolizing the overcoming of spiritual blindness, the raising of the dead as symbolizing the overcoming of spiritual death, the healing of Gentiles as showing that the mission of Jesus is to Gentiles as well as Jews. They have also been seen as acts by which the Kingdom of God is established in place of rule by demons, disease, and death. There's no reason why more than one of these ideas shouldn't have been in the author's mind.

A peculiar feature of the encounters between Jesus and the demons concerns the question of who Jesus is. The author of Mark begins by describing his book as "the gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God" (1:1). The heavenly voice confirms this at the baptism. But afterwards, it is the demons who know who Jesus is. Presumably, as spirits, they know more than human beings. They call Jesus "Holy One of God" (1:24), "Son of God" (3:11), and "Son of the most high God" (5:7)- but Jesus, in the first two instances, tells them to keep silent. Do you find this puzzling?

Although the author of the Gospel certainly regards Jesus as the Christ and the Son of God, he depicts Jesus as preferring to call himself "Son of man." A notable instance comes at 8:29-31. Jesus asks his followers "whom say ye that I am?" Peter answers "Thou art the Christ." Jesus says that they should "tell no man," and then teaches "that the Son of man must suffer many things... and be killed, and after three days rise again." He doesn't deny that he's the Christ, but he tries to turn his followers' attention in a different direction.

Christ, meaning anointed, is a Greek version of the Hebrew word Messiah. For the Jews of the time of Jesus, the title had political as well as religious implications. Many expected the Messiah to free the Jews from Roman rule and set up an earthly kingdom. Since Jesus doesn't intend to do this, he downplays the use of the title.

Son of God (and related expressions) is used in the Old Testament in a variety of senses. It can refer to angels (Genesis 6:2, Job 1:6, Daniel 3:25), or to Israel (Exodus 4:22, Jeremiah 31:9, Hosea 11:1). It can also refer to David the King, or to his royal descendants (2 Samuel 7:14, Psalm 2:7, Psalm 89:26-27). David and the other kings were anointed, and the Christ was expected to be a descendant of David. Therefore, Son of God can be a title of the Christ.

Son of man means literally man. In this sense, it is often used in Ezekiel. Daniel 7:13-14 records a vision in which "one like the Son of man came with the clouds of heaven, and came to the Ancient of days [God].... And there was given him... an everlasting dominion, which shall not pass away...." In Daniel, the Son of man represents "the saints of the most High" (Daniel 7:18) who suffer persecution (Daniel 7:25) before being vindicated by God.

Thus, Jesus can use the title Son of man to describe himself as a human being, as a future supernatural ruler who will be sent by God (at 8:38 he foretells a time when "the Son of man... cometh in the glory of his Father"), and as one who "must suffer many things" in the more immediate future.

During the Galilean ministry, Jesus becomes involved in a number of controversies. His claim to forgive sins offends scribes. His eating with publicans (tax collectors) and sinners offends scribes and Pharisees. The fact that he doesn't have his followers fast disturbs both Pharisees and followers of John the Baptist. His letting his followers pick grain on the Sabbath offends Pharisees. When Jesus breaks Sabbath regulations by healing a man on the Sabbath, Pharisees begin to consider (with Herodians- not a religious group, but apparently political supporters of the Herod dynasty) "how they might destroy him" (3:6). The controversies resume at 7:1-23, when Jesus denounces the Pharisees and accuses them of substituting the traditions of men for the commandments of God.

When Herod Antipas (son of Herod the Great and ruler of Galilee from 4 B.C. to A.D. 39) hears about Jesus, he thinks that Jesus is John the Baptist risen from the dead. This gives the author of Mark an opportunity to tell the story of John's death as a flashback (6:17-29). John had denounced Herod's incestuous marriage to his sister-in-law and niece Herodias, and had therefore been arrested. When the daughter of Herodias danced for Herod on his birthday, he promised to give her any gift she chose. At her mother's suggestion, the girl asked for the head of John the Baptist, and Herod reluctantly complied and had John beheaded. (The German composer Richard Strauss [1864-1949] based his opera Salome on this story.)


Jesus and his followers travel to Jerusalem. On the way, Jesus has an interesting encounter (10:17- 22) with a wealthy man who says "Good Master, what shall I do that I may inherit eternal life?" Jesus objects to the word good, saying "there is none good but one, that is, God." He reminds the man of the traditional commandments, and the man replies that he has always observed them. Then Jesus says, "One thing thou lackest: go thy way, sell whatsoever thou hast, and give to the poor..." The man goes away sad, because he is rich. This is a strange story. Jesus doesn't tell other people that they must give away everything they own. Perhaps the key to understanding the story is that the man asks "what shall I do?" He's looking for some particular good thing he must do. Jesus reminds him that only God is good. In his explanation to his followers (10:23-27), Jesus says, "It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle, than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God," but when they ask "Who then can be saved?" Jesus says "With men it is impossible, but... with God all things are possible." Do you think he means it is impossible for man to do anything in order to inherit eternal life, but that it is given as a gift by God?


Jesus rides into Jerusalem, while crowds acclaim him. His role as the Christ is no longer a secret. The first thing Jesus does is visit the Temple. The next day, he returns and overthrows the tables of the money changers and merchants in the Temple courtyard. Unlike a modern church or synagogue, a major function of the Temple was as a place of animal sacrifice. Animals were sold to be sacrificed. Because Temple dues were payable only in Tyrian coinage, money changers were there to change other kinds of coins into the required kind. Jesus is offended by the marketplace atmosphere.

Jesus engages in a good deal of teaching in Jerusalem. The parable of the wicked husbandmen (12:1- 9) is directed specifically against the religious authorities. A man (God) plants a vineyard (Israel) and lets it to husbandmen (Israel's leaders, in context probably the chief priests). He sends them a series of messengers (the prophets), who are killed. Finally the vineyard owner sends his son (Jesus), who is killed also. So the owner destroys the husbandmen and gives the vineyard to others (the Christians, or more precisely the people of the Kingdom proclaimed by Jesus).

Pharisees and Herodians try to make Jesus compromise himself by asking him whether it's lawful for Jews to pay taxes to the Roman government. He adroitly replies "Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar's, and to God the things that are God's" (12:17). Sadducees ask Jesus a question intended to suggest that the resurrection of the dead would create absurdities. Jesus disposes of their question quickly, and teaches that the relationship human beings have with God does not come to an end when they die. In a friendlier exchange (12:28-34), a scribe asks Jesus which commandment is the first (in importance). Jesus cites Deuteronomy 6:5, "thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind, and with all thy strength," as the greatest commandment, and Leviticus 19:18, "Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself," as the second. The scribe agrees, and Jesus says he is not far from the Kingdom.

Jesus discusses the question whether the Christ is Son of David. He suggests this is not so, arguing that David (Psalm 110:1) described the Christ as his lord, his superior. Jesus' repudiation of the title Son of David underlines his rejection of political intentions.

Then, in the Little Apocalypse, Jesus teaches about the end of the world. He predicts there will be false Christs, wars, earthquakes and famines, persecutions, and divisions within families. He predicts the mysterious "abomination of desolation" will be seen "standing where it ought not" (13:14). After these things, a cosmic catastrophe will take place, "And then shall they see the Son of man coming in the clouds with great power and glory. And then shall he send his angels, and shall gather together his elect...." (13:26-27). Jesus seems to expect all this will happen soon: "this generation shall not pass, till all these things be done" (13:30).

Does this eschatological teaching seem strange to you? Millions of Christians tend to regard it as a piece of first-century psychology, of little importance to their faith today. Millions, on the other hand, have been fascinated by the ideas of the end of the world, the appearance of the Antichrist (identified with the "abomination of desolation"), and the Second Coming. It's clear that eschatology was important to the author of the Gospel of Mark, and that he believed it was important to Jesus.

THE PASSION (14:1-15:47)

Judas Iscariot, one of the twelve, agrees to betray Jesus to the chief priests for money. Jesus eats the Passover meal- the Last Supper- with the twelve. He blesses bread and says "this is my body," and he gives thanks over the cup of wine and says "This is my blood" (14:22-24).

The final meal of Jesus with his followers has been reenacted ever since by Christian communities in the ceremony of the Eucharist, or Lord's Supper. In the Roman Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, Lutheran, and Anglican traditions, it is the central act of worship. Many Christian churches teach that the words of Jesus should be taken literally- that Jesus makes his own body and blood really present in, or under the appearance of, the bread and wine. Other Christians interpret the Eucharist as a symbol. In any case, the practice signifies the intimate relationship between Christians and Jesus, their dependence on him (as on food) for life. Don't forget that the Last Supper takes place at Passover, when Jews celebrate their redemption from slavery in Egypt. All devout Jews, sitting down to "eat the passover" (14:12), would have been prayerfully remembering God's great redemptive acts.

After the meal, Jesus and his followers go to the Mount of Olives, to Gethsemane. Jesus prays, "Abba, Father,... take away this cup from me: nevertheless, not what I will, but what thou wilt" (14:36). He is frightened by the prospect of his death, but is prepared to accept it as part of God's plan. Judas, arriving with armed men provided by the chief priests, points out Jesus with a kiss, and Jesus is arrested.

Jesus is tried by the high priest and his council. The high priest asks, "Art thou the Christ, the Son of the Blessed?" (14:61) and Jesus says, "I am: and ye shall see the Son of man sitting on the right hand of power, and coming in the clouds of heaven" (14:62). As at the time of Peter's confession, Jesus tries to redirect attention from the title of Christ to that of Son of man- but this time it is the eschatological coming of the Son of man that he predicts. He no longer needs to predict the suffering of the Son of man, for it has begun.

Jesus is then condemned by the council for blasphemy. The next morning they deliver him to Pontius Pilate, the Roman procurator of Judea. Pilate, interested in the political aspect of the case, asks Jesus whether he claims to be the King of the Jews (15:2). Pilate learns nothing, and orders Jesus to be scourged and then crucified. Jesus is nailed to the cross, with the accusation against him written on a placard: "The King of the Jews" (15:26). At the end, he feels forsaken by God. A Roman centurion, present at Jesus' death, says, "Truly this man was the Son of God" (15:39). Afterwards, Jesus is buried by Joseph of Arimathea, a prominent Jew, in a tomb cut out of rock, and a stone is rolled in front of its door.


Three of the women who have been followers of Jesus go to the tomb Sunday morning to anoint his body with spices. They find the stone rolled aside. An angel tells them Jesus is risen and that they should tell Peter and the others Jesus will appear to them in Galilee. In 16:9-20 there is a summary of appearances by the risen Jesus. He appears to Mary Magdalene, to two of his followers, and to the eleven- the twelve without Judas. He tells them to "preach the gospel to every creature" (16:15), and afterwards he is taken up into heaven.

There's a textual problem about the ending of Mark. Some ancient manuscripts and versions end with 16:8. Others include 16:9-20. One ancient version substitutes a short passage after 16:8, a passage translated in the notes to the Revised Standard Version: "But they reported briefly to Peter and those with him all that they had been told. And after this, Jesus himself sent out by means of them, from east to west, the sacred and imperishable proclamation of eternal salvation." Still other manuscripts and versions give this short passage followed by 16:9-20. Most scholars think the work of the original author of Mark ends at 16:8, either because he deliberately ended there or because his original ending is lost.



ECC [The New Testament Contents] []

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