Reconsider Jesus – A fresh look at Jesus from the Gospel of Mark
A devotional commentary by Michael Spencer
Compiled and Edited by: Michael Bell
Table of Contents
Introduction: Why Mark
Out of all the books in the world, why read this one? With a hundred other activities and interests to pursue, why devote your mind to some religious text out of the Bible? How is it going to help you?
Obviously the reasons to study Mark are many, but let me suggest what persuades me. Hopefully it will persuade you as well.
The most influential person in history is also the most misunderstood and misrepresented. Two thousand years later, Jesus of Nazareth is still a mystery to most people. When your name is common enough to be both a curse-word and a word of worship, then it’s safe to say many people who talk about you are missing what you were all about. Whether you admire Jesus, worship Jesus, despise him or simply don’t know about him, you can’t deny that no single person has more continuing influence on our world than Jesus. But is there any way to get beyond the misunderstanding to a true understanding?
You could turn on a religious television or radio channel. You could listen to Christian music where people talk about Jesus. You could listen to Christians that you know –– some of them talk about Jesus all the time, even in ways that seem a lot more real than the way I talk about Jesus. What you do have to do is make sure that the Jesus you know is the Jesus of the Gospels, because the only real Jesus is the Jesus of the Gospels. The only way to know the real Jesus is to meet him in the books that are there to bring him to us.
The Gospels claim to be records of the life and words of Jesus. The Gospels themselves are tremendously misunderstood. After hundreds of years of intense study, they puzzle the experts. Neither biographies nor news reports, neither mythologies nor scientific explanations, the Gospels are records of what the first Christians believed was significant about Jesus and what must be preserved and communicated into the future. They are both records of Jesus’ life and words and records of the response of those who experienced him.
What you will discover, when you undertake to know and appreciate Jesus in the Gospels, is that he is the most surprising person you’ve ever met! Jesus doesn’t do what normal religious people do. Jesus doesn’t act like normal religious people act.
You will also find that Jesus is the most attractive person you’ve ever met. Jesus is not somebody that you can meet in the pages of the Bible and find him to be dull. He’s not. When Jesus does the things he does, and when the character and the personality of Jesus begin to come out of the pages, you will, like everybody else, say, ‘That’s somebody that I wish I could be with.’ You’ll start to understand why crowds followed him, and why people dropped their jobs and went after him.
Yet, you’ll also find that he is the most disturbing person you’ve ever met. Jesus will say things that will distress you, and things that will haunt you. Jesus will say things that will shock you, and make you uncomfortable.
You’ll find that undertaking the study of Jesus in the gospel of Mark is like going on a trip that you never anticipated: a trip where every day the itinerary is new and there’s a whole new world to see. You will find that sometimes you’re awestruck, and sometimes you’re laughing, sometimes you’re weeping, and sometimes you will feel like hiding, but it’s never, ever dull, and it’s never small. This is part of the reason why we have four gospels in the Bible. God inspired the writing of these four by these particular people to begin to give us just an introduction to this incredible person from four different perspectives. One perspective would never suffice.
So of the four gospels, why look at Mark? Well, let me give you five quick reasons:
The author of Mark was probably not the first person to write about Jesus, but he was the first to produce what we now call a gospel. We owe a lot to those who decided to finally write down the story of Jesus so that we would have it. Most of the scholars of the past 30 years accept Mark as prior to Matthew, Luke and John. It seems possible that there was a collection of oral or written stories about Jesus that may have preceded Mark, but it was the writer of this Gospel who first put the words, works and last week of Jesus’ life into a coherent whole. Matthew uses almost every verse of Mark verbatim in his Gospel, and Luke uses more than half of Mark in his Gospel. But Mark is the first, and the other Gospel writers felt he was dependable.
Mark is the closest in time to Jesus himself. Jesus was crucified in the early thirties, and the current dating of Mark in the late sixties means that, of the New Testament writers, only Paul was writing before Mark. The early church believed, and there’s good evidence to support this, that the Gospel of Mark was written by a young man named John Mark, who was the companion of the apostle Peter. John Mark wrote down the remembrances of Peter that he heard in his preaching, as well as collecting other stories and sayings of Jesus. So what we have in the Gospel of Mark is the closest, humanly, we can get to standing and hearing the voice of Jesus.
The Gospel of Mark is the rawest of the gospels. It is the most unpolished, with a lot of rough edges. The emotions of Jesus, like anger and compassion, are still found within its pages. Jesus makes surprising and shocking statements that puzzle his listeners. The Gospel of Mark has not been polished and fancied up so that it is acceptable without any questions. It gives us the real deal. One commentator1 said that it is Mark who gives us Jesus as a character, as a whole person that we can understand as a person, and not just as an object of belief. We study Mark to take in this portrait of Jesus at the source, to get as close to Jesus as the New Testament can take us.
It is the most focused of the gospels. It is obvious that Mark wants to emphasize the crucifixion of Jesus. Everything he says in his gospel about Jesus is said in the shadow of the cross, as if Mark were standing in the Roman world saying: ‘Jesus Christ is the way, the truth, and the life, yet all the world knows about him is that he was a crucified criminal. How can that be? What does that mean?’ The Gospel of Mark is meant to show us how Jesus Christ is the Son of God, but he’s not the Son of God in the way the Roman world thought. He’s the Son of God that came to die for sinners.
Finally, Mark is the shortest gospel. It ends, I believe, in chapter sixteen verse eight. You may not think it’s the shortest when you finally get through this book, but it is much shorter than the others!
The difference that Christianity makes in your life depends entirely on how well you know Jesus. So this is why I have undertaken the biggest assignment of my life, because what I want for you, what I want for your family, what I want for our children, and for our churches, is for us to simply know Jesus. What I want for my own life, and my own faith, and my own service, is to know Jesus.
So I’m going to ask you to immerse yourself and invest yourself in something huge and wonderful that will absolutely change you. I want you to engage with me as you read this book, but I also want you to engage day by day, and week by week in reading this gospel and the other gospels so that you become personally and deeply acquainted with this person of Jesus Christ.
Here is my prayer for us as we begin this journey together:
Father, as we begin this journey, we begin in humility. There is so much in front of us that is wonderful, but also so much that is beyond what our human minds can comprehend. Give me the ability to communicate this book of Mark in a way that is interesting and real. My prayer is that we would come to know this person Jesus who makes everything different. This person Jesus, who came for every person, of every culture, of every time, in every place. This person Jesus who who came to save the world by living a perfect life, and dying a death for every one of us. Help us to believe this good news, to be deeply changed by it, and begin to live it out. In Jesus’ name we pray. Amen.
 Michael Spencer passed away on April 5, 2010. Some of his original sources are unfortunately lost to us. If not otherwise stated or footnoted, we use the rather anonymous term of “commentator” to indicate places where the source of the original thought could not be found.
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38 thoughts on “Reconsider Jesus – Introduction: Why Mark?”
Reading it back a few times I certainly get your point. I will do a bit of editing on it.
“What questions or thoughts come from your mind from what you have just read?”
The final prayer is obviously (I believe?) transcribed from spoken word. That’s not necessarily bad, but I don’t think it would hurt to tidy it up and make it sound more written.
I didn’t mean you should change anything to address my questions – simply venting a little 🙂
Sorry about laying on the guilt trip. I really don’t like it when others do that to me.
But I will be investing a lot of time and energy into this over the next four months and getting feedback is REALLY important to me.
I don’t think Michael’s statements are out of line. Perhaps adding the word “today” to the phrase ““The only way to know the real Jesus ” might alleviate some of your concern.
But like Jon, I would say, “I don’t know what other source we could go to with as much confidence…”
I have written this as a devotional commentary. I have had a few say to me that they have used the preliminary part that I sent them as part of their daily “quiet time”. There will be a few historical critical issues raised throughout, but I avoided digging too deep, because I do not have access, for example, to what sources Michael is refering to when he preaches a sermon. I will make note in the footnotes when he appears to be citing someone as I can’t determine who the citation is from. As far as the gospel authorship, Michael appears to be citing Papias, and I don’t have a particular problem with that evidence. I don’t see him as either late or particularly suspect. That being said, I don’t want to get into dueling higher criticism. I am just trying to faithfully reproduce the words and sermons of Michael Spencer in a way that is faithful to what he wrote and said.
He wanted the focus of this book to be on Jesus, and he and I have tried not to be too sidetracked on other issues. There will be opportunities however for us to talk about this later, as the book progresses.
A little bit of a contradiction in those two statements isn’t there? But I hear you on the second part and may make a small edit.
I think he was refering to Christian Radio stations where you get both the music and talking. Again, one of those rough edges that could be cleaned up with a small edit.
I will leave this one as it is for now. I already spliced out a lot of the introductory stuff that I thought would bog down the reader and didn’t fit with the flow of the other material.
I will try and clarify that a bit more in the forward. I have directed my editing so that the book is focused on non-Christians, or those who have been turned off Christianity, but haven’t really had the Jesus of the Gospels presented to them. Michael’s writing and speaking styles are very disparate, and there were a number of different ways that I could have gone with the editing. I think what you will find is that I have been very true to Michael’s heart, and who he was as a person.
The introduction is almost word for word from Michael Spencer, and so I kept his words in the introduction as my guide as I moved through the book.
I have really, really avoided adding my own commentary. Other than compiling sources, by work has been quite similar to that of an editor of any other book. There are places where internally I will disagree with Michael Spencer, but you would never know it by reading the book. I will try to clarify my role a little more in the foreword.
I think a lot of the evidence is summed up in this article: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Papias_of_Hierapolis
There you go. Like Episodes 4, 5, 6. 😀
Do you know a couple of pieces of that evidence off the top of your head. I understand if you don’t. A lot of times I’m not able to retrieve information that I know I’ve read or heard without having to dig out a book and look it up.
it’s like Mark was a scribe for St. Peter and wrote down what was said to write down very carefully and completely about what Christ did
Yes. Mark seems to put a lot of detail in to make his points. A good example is the storm in Mark 4. He spends time telling all Jesus had done for the last couple of days, how he barely found time to eat, just to set up 4:38 – Jesus (the man) is totally exhausted and asleep during a storm! Then comes the contrast as he calms the storm with a word, which BTW is an obvious reference to Ps. 107.
Yes. That is the argument evangelicals often make. However, I think the internal evidence suggests a date near, or just after, the start of the revolt – 66-68 AD.
The actual term is “In Media Res”, i.e. starting in the middle of the action.
That statement is very evangelicals and probably an overstatement. But I don’t know what other source we could go to with as much confidence and be able to say, “This is who Jesus is.”.
One thing I have come to enjoy more about Mark is that even though it is the shortest gospel, the stories are often more detailed than Matthew or Luke.
On the flip side, there may be some scholars who want to date Mark after A.D. 70 because they don’t believe Jesus could have made those predictions.
Thank you, Michael, for responding.
Just a suggestion: that if you can find some way to delineate ‘commentary’ (your words or the words of others) from Michael Spencer’s original words, it would also help those who wanted to see that clarification. Paraphrasing might be noted as such, but I’m sure you can find many ways to sort this out that work for your book. Best of luck with your project, Michael. Anything that honors Michael Spencer’s work is worth doing.
If you’re looking for critique, it might be helpful to know what the target audience of the book is. To me, reading this introduction, it sort of sounds like it’s targeting either non-Christians or “seekers” within a church context (e.g. something like an adult confirmation class). That is, the writing sort of assumes it’s speaking to someone who doesn’t really know Jesus personally, yet.
One observation about the book of Mark is that it cuts rights to chase. It does not give the backstory on the birth of Jesus for example. I hate use the term “action-packed” but in a way the Gospel of Mark does not include the “slow moments” as it were. I know this highly irregular, but I hope this conveys the layout of this book compared to say the Gospel of Luke.
I’m curious what was the “good evidence” he was referring to in:
Because at the time the Gospels were written down, the early Church was running on living memory becoming oral tradition and the on-again, off-again hostility from Imperial authorities would not encourage writing down what could be incriminating evidence of treason and “Noxious Cults”. So they had to run largely on oral history as a matter of survival.
If Michael Spencer could engage, I’d ask him about this:
“The only way to know the real Jesus is to meet him in the books that are there to bring him to us.”
1) Plenty of people – including not a few Muslims – have found that Jesus came to them in dreams or other ways, and because of that they found their way into Christianity.
2) What about the people who came to Christ before there was anything written down? What about those who weren’t able to hear or read Paul’s letters even after he wrote them, but heard the preaching of one of the other apostles (or other Christians) and came to Christ? What about all the people through the centuries who could not read, but whose faith was true? (Of course, hearing Scripture read in Christian worship would be a key element in their faith remaining true.)
These are some of the questions (by no means all of them) that propelled me from Evangelicalism into the Wilderness. I love Scripture and am convinced of its importance – and I couldn’t stay in a place where the book became more important than the Person it revealed. Even with all his own study and questions, Michael’s voice in this bit remains so much that of an Evangelical. That would be a good thing if this book appeals to Evangelicals, they read it, and pick up something of Michael’s discoveries from his own searching.
Sorry but not only do I have to read it, I have to think about it. A nasty habit, but after all these years what am I going to do?
Just how much are historical critical issues going to inform this work? If little, then no use getting bogged down in it. It is a bottomless pit. If it does then I’m going to push back on authorship. The consensus giveth and the consensus taketh away. It’s unlikely the gospel was written by John Mark, a secretary to Peter. That tradition is late and highly suspect.
Don’t be tempted to clean Michael’s text up overmuch. (Remember the gospels are full of loose ends.) I would rather get the flavor of his thinking in the rough than lose it in tidiness.
English teacher stuff:
If you’re going to iterate the “five reasons” be consistent. No “third” without a “first” or a second”.
“You could listen to Christian music where people talk about Jesus.” Did he mean “sing”? (Not saying you should change it.)
If I had Michael in front of me I would recommend to him that the very fine paragraph beginning “The most influential person in history… be the opening paragraph. Don’t give us a chance to ask why. Dive right in and tell us why. (Once again though not saying you should change it.)
One doesn’t necessarily have to critique. One can say “here is what I really liked about this.”
The footnotes and Notes from Michael Bell are mine.
Everything else is from Michael Spencer. I am however condensing over 800 pages of source material into something significantly less. I am also merging some wildly disparate styles. I can have as many as 11 different source documents for a single passage from Mark. So I have done editing to shorten, fix grammar, help with flow, and to improve awkward phrasing.
Other than that, it is completely the voice of Michael Spencer.
Michael, if you could clarify what is Michael Spencer’s writing and what is your writing, it might help. For example, is the ‘introduction’ in Michael Spencer’s words, and is your ‘editing’ where it says “Footnotes” and “Notes From Michael Bell”?
If that is the case, can you affirm that is what you are doing;
or is there some other way in which you are editing Michael Spencer’s writings that is not so clearly delineated?
Thanks for helping.
It’s just so good there’s not much to critique! As we see more I’m sure people will engage.
I must say that the lack of engagement is pretty discouraging. Both here and in email response.
Works for me!
I think you are probably correct there Greg, Michael could be saying, “Hey, it is not just the historical critical approaches that are saying this, but there is a consensus, even among evangelicals on this as well.”
Perhaps Michael was referencing evangelicals, who have often been leery of source critical approaches. Many evangelical scholars prefer a date in the early 60s for Mark, largely to safeguard keeping the predictions about the fall of Jerusalem as future.
You might consider throwing in the word “consensus,” since it is. Perhaps “The consensus among scholars is that Mark was written prior to Matthew, Luke, and John.”
Therein lies the problem of compiling/editing the work of a deceased writer. I have had to really restrain myself so that I didn’t change the essence of what Michael Spencer was saying.
I have provided some clarifications in footnotes, so that might be the place to note Richard and your comments.
Actually, this is the traditional view of the Orthodox Church as well, going back at least to the second century. The Copts, who are the body most intimately connected to the Evangelist, hold this view as well.
This view is far from “recent”. I think the idea that Matthew came first, or was originally written in Aramaic, is far more recent.
Good observation. Michael also initially wrote this portion over 20 years ago. I will to edit it to remove the time component. May use “modern scholars” or just “scholars” without the time frame.
“Most of the scholars of the past 30 years accept Mark as prior to Matthew, Luke and John.”
This is true, but odd. The consensus is far older than that. I don’t know for sure, but I suspect it goes back to the 19th century, when scholars first started analyzing the text of the Bible. Limiting the discussion to the past 30 years makes it sound like a recent conclusion.