Whew. Talk about a region rife with political conflict. Yeah, we're talking about today, but things were no less volatile in Mark's time, when this whole area was governed by Rome or Roman appointed rulers.
But let's get down to the nitty-gritty. As it turns out, geography in Mark has some special literary significance: Jesus rolls along three basic poles or axes. Check out this map, which will help you follow along with us.
• The first major geographical axis is supplied by Jesus's movement between Jewish and non-Jewish (or "Gentile") cities. In the first part of the story, Jewish villages close to the Sea of Galilee—like Capernaum and the surrounding countryside—provide a setting for much of Jesus's work of exorcizing, healing, and teaching (1:14-8:26). But Jesus does take a few jaunts into predominantly Gentile territory, including his trips to the region of the "Garesenes" (5:1 NRSV), Tyre (7:24), Sidon, and the Decapolis (7:31).
• The second major geographical axis is provided by Jesus's long road trip with his disciples. He starts in Caesarea-Philippi, then continues straight south through Galilee and onward to Jerusalem in Judea (8:27-10:52).
• The third major geographical axis is constituted by Jesus's time in Jerusalem, where he stays for one week until his crucifixion. Here, Jesus commutes between downtown Jerusalem (mostly the temple precinct) and the suburban village of Bethany (trace this in 11:1, 11-12, 15, 19, 27; 13:1; 14:3).
Jesus travels in and through all these places along with his human companions as well as other otherworldly beings, like Moses, Elijah (9:4), the young messenger (16:5), angels (1:13; 8:38), Satan (1:13), and other demons (1:23-26; 5:1-3; 9:14-26). Fancy that company.
The higher the better. That was kind of the motto back then, and that's why the temple precinct in Jerusalem (a.k.a. "the temple mount") is on a mountain. It was built there so it would be the holiest place for Jews at the time of Jesus—mountains bring you closer to the heavenly realm. But that also means some spooky things go down there:
• Signs are sent to mortals like us (1:10; 9:7; 13:24-25; 15:33)
• God's voice echoes forth (1:11; 9:7)
• The Spirit that endows Jesus with his superpowers descends from heaven (1:10)
Mark had his fair share of drama, too.
The emperor Nero was crucifying Christians in the year 64, and many Christians were also likely exposed to the ravages of the Jewish War in 66-70, when Jews living in Palestine revolted against their Roman imperial overlords. The war ended only when Roman legions led by the emperor's son Titus destroyed the Jewish Temple in Jerusalem in year 70.
Mark wrote right in the midst of all of this news. How do we know? Check out 13:2, where Mark clearly shows his awareness of the destruction of the Jewish Temple in 70.