Mark: Audience and Purpose

Considering the environment and multifarious plights of various Christian groups throughout the mid-first century, it is safe to say that whatever community Mark wrote for was written for was familiar with some level of suffering. In attempting to hone in on the identity of this audience, one must consider the date of the writing in relation to the Jewish revolt and destruction of the Temple by the Roman General Titus in 70 AD. Joel Marcus makes the argument for a post-Revolt writing of Mark saying that “it seems likely that the prophecies of false messiahs, war, persecution, and betrayal in vv. 6-13 (cf. vv. 21-22) are part of the present experience of Mark’s community.”[1] However despite Marcus’ bold assertion that he has solidly proven the post-Revolt dating of Mark and that the “decks are cleared,”[2] the matter is hardly resolved, or in his favor. Hengel, in his excellent Studies in the Gospels of Mark, sets forth a decent case of his own for a Markan sitz im leben grounded firmly in pre-revolt Judea, convincingly citing Mark’s apparent familiarity with and proximity to events that were disrupted only after the Revolt,[3] something the later Gospel writers did not have to such a degree as Mark apparently did.

With many scholars recognizing the presence of some sort of suffering within the Markan community, the question of what sort of suffering are they enduring arises. It very well could be suffering at the hands of Nero in a mid-60s Rome, as dramatically relayed by Tacitus in 115 AD. It is also quite possible that the suffering of the Markan audience was due to the warring factions of Jews and Gentiles in the unrest following Nero’s granting Caesarea to Gentiles, which resulted in a slaughter of Jews and a subsequent reprisal against the Gentiles in the region surrounding Galilee. If this is the case, one might cite this as a reason for Mark’s Galilean focus and emphasis. It is also possible that the suffering was that which occurred in the events leading up to the Jewish revolt and destruction of the Temple, a suffering that also included fear and an uncertainty of the coming events of their time.  It has also been considered that the ‘suffering’ of the audience of Mark might be due to the presence of false prophets and false teachers spreading heresy among the early church, and thus is was of concern to Mark and the major impetus behind his writing (so Weeden[4]). And there are others (Marcus) who consider it a suffering that has occurred because of the Jewish revolt as these Christians are now living lives in exile, in a new world without Jerusalem and the Temple.

While it is my view that Mark was written before the Jewish revolt to a community that was experiencing some form of persecution and experiencing the tumultuous events that led up to the revolt in 66 AD, many points of a post-70 writing are worth considering. On salient one being that if Mark were writing to a post-70 audience, it would be to an audience who was bereaved of a temple and hopes of a Messianic savior figure. Mark’s gospel account, therefore, offered to the Jewish nation a new, different sort of Davidic Messiah that offered them a new, intangible kingdom – the “Kingdom of God” – in the stead of their old, earthly kingdom that had recently passed away. This lends a certain appeal to a post-temple dating, one that would offer hope to the reader despite present helpless and hopeless circumstances. In this case, then, Mark is certainly writing to a suffering community, and is offering them the hope of being part of a heavenly, eternal kingdom.

I believe that we do see that the Markan audience was a ‘suffering community,’ at least in some regard. With this, Mark addresses the plight of his audience quite well, constantly reminding them of the authority of Christ in every encounter and endeavor. At the beginning of his account, Mark reminded his audience that Christ was the one foretold of by the prophets (1:2) and then at the end, reminded his audience that the suffering of the Messiah was part of God’s eternal plan (14:49). Throughout Mark’s account, Christ showed His mastery over every event that caught the disciples by surprise (4:35-41, 6:47-51). He displayed His power and authority over sickness, demonic agents, disease, the laws of nature (6:36-44), nature itself (4:35-41), and even death, the greatest and most powerful of foes (5:35-43; 16:5-7). Christ repeatedly predicted His own death (8:31, 9:9, 9:31), showing mastery over the circumstances of even such an abysmal event as this. Shortly before His betrayal in the Garden of Gethsemane, Jesus confidently rose from prayer and roused His disciples to go out and meet His betrayer head on (14:42). Christ even told His disciples (and by proxy, Mark’s audience) of the sufferings that they, themselves, would endure before the end (chapter 13), preparing them for persecution and for the fall of Jerusalem.

Through such wonderful acts and exhibitions of power and authority, therefore, Jesus displays for Mark’s audience that there is nothing outside of His power and control, that there is nothing that has caught Him off guard, and that He is sufficient to meet their needs and to see them through their trials, as difficult as those trials may be. I believe this is a major theme of Mark, one that influenced his writing greatly to an audience that lived in a world that seemed to be falling apart at the seams. He wrote – and Jesus spoke – to give comfort to the afflicted and to let them know that there is nothing outside of God’s plan and purpose, and to the point that He would even forfeit His life for that same plan and purpose, while being in full command of the entire situation. This theme of God’s continual purpose and sovereignty is one that is pervasive throughout the work, and we will see this as we begin to work through Mark together.

 

 

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[1] Joel Marcus, “The Jewish War and the Sitz im Leben of Mark.” Journal of Biblical Literature, Vol. 111, No. 3 (Autumn, 1992): 441-462. 447.

[2] ibid, 446.

[3] Martin Hengel, Studies in the Gospel of Mark (Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock Publishers, 2003), 9-10.

[4] Theodore J. Weeden, “The Heresy That Necessitated Mark’s Gospel.” Zeitschrift die Neutestamentliche Wissenschaft und die Kunde der älteren Kirche, (Jan 1, 1968): 145-158.

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