Our first advice is that you read this gospel naked. That's right. Strip. Get nude. Then you'll be ready.
Hold on there. We're not talking about stripping off your clothes—just your expectations. Everything that comes to mind when anyone utters words like Jesus, Mary, Peter, Christianity, gospels, Christian—take it all off.
Only in the buff will we be ready to recognize how utterly different Mark's world was from ours. For starters, Christianity was not a major religion as it is today. Nope it was just a little group in a big Roman Empire.
Christianity was also a very weird religion, making an astoundingly ridiculous claim. We're supposed to believe that some guy named Jesus from a village of rednecks in the hick-state of Galilee is the Messiah who's going to repair the whole of this stupid, little, mean world. And get this…Jesus was executed by the Roman government for criminal activity. These would be among the dumbest things some Romans, Greeks, and Jews had ever heard.
So Mark's big challenge number one is to tell the story of Jesus in a way that convinces people that a crucified Messiah is worth something to them.
That's not all. Mark also lived in a world that was not always hospitable to Christians. These people had it rough in the early years of the movement, and Mark wrote right in the midst of all of this, right around the destruction of the Jewish Temple in 70. He was probably in Rome, Syria, or another region neighboring Judea—but that that's up for (heated) debate.
What does this all mean? Well, Mark's big challenge number two is to tell the story of Jesus in a way that would address the fact that life as his follower was pretty darn difficult. That life lacked the things most of us want and need to be happy—think safety and security or a bit of status and the respect of our friends, family, and compatriots.
Tradition, of course, gives us many different answers to questions of location, date, and purpose, and sometimes offers little gems of trustworthy information. But remember, we are buck-naked readers, totally nude. In our birthday suits, we'll keep ourselves in the loop about Mark and what he was all about.
This one's not your grandma's gospel. You love her dearly—and we're sure we would, too—but still she probably likes the other three New Testament gospels better.
Why, you ask? Let's just say that Mark is prickly. He'll make Grams ask questions that just don't have easy answers.
Only in Mark will you be forced to come to terms with disciples who are utter washouts, who fail to understand this strange God-man Jesus at every turn, who are scared of his uncanny powers, who abandon him, and who violently weep over their failures (14:72).
Want more? Well, we can do you one better: reading Luke or John won't put you face-to-face with a Jesus who accuses God of forsaking him on the cross (15:34). That's right—in Mark, Jesus calls God out. On the cross. Yowza.
With all the craziness doing down in the world these days, we're pretty sure religious people everywhere are asking, "my God, my God, why have you forsaken me?" (15:34). Replace "God" with "world," and it works for the non-religious, too.
It may help to think of this gospel as the independent film that appears at the Sundance Film Festival while the other three are the Hollywood blockbusters. And we have to admit, we love us some Sundance—the flicks there are different, a little peculiar, and allow us to think about our own unhinged (and unhinging) world.
Really, you should ask your grandma which of the gospels is her favorite. You never know. Many of us have exceedingly cool and savvy grandmas who will love to hear all about why Mark is such an oddball.
The Brick Testament
This is basically the Gospel According to Legos. Lego does everything else; why not the story of Jesus? Be careful, though. The Brick Testament conflates the gospel accounts into one "Life of Jesus," ignoring important differences between the gospels. Still, of interest for you lovers of Mark are the episodes "The Head of John the Baptist," "Jesus Curses a Tree," and the "Temple Tantrum."
Snake Handling According to Mark (16:18)
There are believers who take to heart Mark 16:18, which promises followers that they will lift up snakes and not be harmed. To those people we say, bring a first-aid kit!
Mark at Work
How do you imagine Mark at work composing his gospel? Here's one artist's take.
So-called "Archaic Mark" is actually not so archaic. This codex was created sometime between 1874 and the first decades of the twentieth century in order to look like a medieval manuscript. Okay, so it's a forgery, but that doesn't mean we can't appreciate the artistry.
Mark Lost in Thought
In the early 1600s, artist Gortzius Geldorp portrayed Mark lost in thought. What do you think: was Mark really this brand of pensive philosopher?
There are a bunch of Greek manuscripts that underlie the Greek editions on which our translations of Mark are based. On this site, you can explore in detail one of the most important manuscripts and get a flavor for what we're dealing with here. Check out 1:1, for example, where this manuscript originally lacks the words "Son of God," until a later scribe came along and added them. Curious.
The Miracle Maker
Here we have the story of Jesus in—drum roll, please—Claymation. Most movies depicting the life of Jesus take their cue not from one gospel, but from them all. The Miracle Maker is no exception. The trick is to test your knowledge as you watch and try to suss out what comes from Mark and what comes from Matthew, Luke, and John. Make it happen, Cap'n.
Rita Hayworth as Salome
Mark loved him some exotic dancing. His account of Salome's dance and the death of John the Baptist is the most detailed of all of the gospels. Mark relishes this story, while Matthew minimizes it and Luke deletes it entirely. But even Mark can't compete with Rita in love for bloody and erotic details….
Nero vs. the Christians
Life wasn't easy back in Mark's day. The Roman historian Tacitus reports that the emperor Nero executed Christians for starting a fire that destroyed much of Rome in the year 64. This event occurred about five years before Mark wrote his gospel: read it for yourself in book 15, section 44.
The Gospel in Every Language
This incredible site places at your fingertips thirty English translations and paraphrases of the Gospel of Mark as well numerous translations in languages ranging from German and Spanish to Chinese and Arabic—for those of you polylinguists out there. For non-Greek readers, comparing translations is one of the best ways to unlock questions of interpretation and provoke new insights into the meanings of the story. Get to it, Shmoopers.
The Jesus of History Meets the Jesus of Mark
Rikki Watts, Professor of New Testament at Regent College, addresses the issue of Mark's historical accuracy. What do you think of his claim that "modern science and Christianity have a lot in common"? Sounds juicy to us.
Mark Meets Luke; They Argue
Listen as Bart Ehrman, Professor of Religious Studies at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, points out the differences between Mark's account of the passion and Luke's. We told you Mark was unique.
He Who Has Ears to Hear Let Him Hear! (4:9, 23)
Tired of reading? Then listen. Here you'll find the whole of the second gospel in audio.
It's Greek To Me
Nourish your historical imaginations by listening to the Gospel of Mark read in Greek. Even if you don't know Greek, you'll be able to get at least a taste of the original flavor of Mark's language.