The Synoptic Problem
Matthew, Mark, and Luke are called the "Synoptic Gospels" because their similarities allow them to be "read together." The stories are not just similar; in many instances they agree verbatim. This can only be explained if they share a literary source. The Gospels also, however, disagree, and scholars must account for this as well. The problem of how to explain the similarities and differences between these three Gospels is called the "Synoptic Problem."
The most accepted solution to the Synoptic Problem is the "Four Source Hypothesis." This theory posits four sources to account for the similarities and differences between these three Gospels. Mark was the first Gospel written and was used by Matthew and Luke (known as Markan priority). Matthew and Luke shared another source, no longer extant, that scholars label Q (for "quelle," meaning "source"). These two sources account for the similarities among these Gospels. In addition, Matthew had his own oral and/or written materials, labeled "M," and Luke had his own sources, labeled "L." "M" and "L" account for the differences among the Gospels. The four sources, then, are: Mark, Q, M, and L.
Mark, Our Earliest Gospel
Mark was written anonymously by a Greek-speaking Christian outside of Palestine. This Gospel is a compilation of oral traditions, and perhaps written ones, though none of these survive. Of the extant Gospels, Mark appears to have been written first and was used by Matthew and Luke.
The Beginning of the Gospel: Jesus the Messiah, the Son of God Who Fulfills Scripture
The Gospel of Mark was written from a Jewish perspective. At the very beginning of his biography, the author states that Jesus was the Christ (the Greek equivalent to the Hebrew term "messiah"), a title that was meaningful only to Jews. In the first century there were a variety of views of the messiah. Some Jews believed that the messiah would be a king; others believed that he would be a cosmic judge. All notions about the messiah (that we know of) presented him as powerful. The problem Mark confronted was the paradox of Jesus as a suffering messiah.
Mark's Gospel begins abruptly: it does not open with a birth narrative. Rather, the Gospel begins with John the Baptist's message of the coming messiah and Jesus' appearance as an adult. Jesus asks John to baptize him and, after his baptism, Jesus is thrust into the wilderness where Satan tempts him. He returns victorious and begins his public ministry preaching the coming kingdom of God. Mark introduces Jesus as the Son of God, a term, as we have seen, that would have been meaningful to Jews and Gentiles alike. Most readers/hearers of the Gospel would associate Jesus with other sons of God-teachers, prophets, miracle workers.
Jesus the Authoritative Son of God
Mark's Jesus is authoritative: he calls disciples and they follow him; people are amazed and listen attentively when he speaks; even unclean spirits obey his commands. Despite all of this, Jesus is misunderstood by all and is hated by the Jewish leaders.
Jesus the Opposed Son of God
According to Mark, the religious leadership opposed Jesus from the beginning, and this antagonism culminated with his execution. Despite this animosity, Jesus never opposed Judaism as a religion. Even though the religious leaders challenged (and were offended by) Jesus' interpretation of the Law, Mark continued to portray Jesus as the Jewish messiah.
Jesus the Misunderstood Son of God
In the first half of the Gospel, only five individuals or groups know Jesus' identity: God, Jesus, the evil spirits, the author, and the reader. Not even his closest disciples understand who he is. It is not, in fact, until the middle of the Gospel that his disciples begin to realize that Jesus is the Son of God.
Jesus the Acknowledged Son of God
When Jesus asked his disciples, "Who do people say that I am?" Peter responded, "You are the Christ." This is the first time in the Gospel of Mark that one of Jesus' followers identifies Jesus. It is not a full recognition, though, since Peter immediately chastises Jesus for prophesying his passion.
Jesus the Suffering Son of God
Jesus predicts his death three times in this Gospel, and the latter part of Mark's Gospel focuses exclusively on Jesus' passion. Mark explains that it is precisely because Jesus is the messiah that he must die: his death is a sacrifice that atones for humanity's sin.
Jesus the Crucified Son of God
Even at the end, Jesus' disciples do not understand his identity and mission. Judas betrays him, Peter denies him, and the others scatter to avoid arrest. Jesus is left to die alone, wondering if God also has abandoned him.
Mark uses two events at Jesus' death to illustrate the reality of Jesus' messiahship. First, when Jesus dies, the curtain around the Holy of Holies tears. Through this story, Mark implies that after Jesus' death, all people, not just the high priest, have full access to God. Second, and even more striking, is the pagan soldier at the cross who recognizes Jesus and confesses that he is God's Son. Throughout the Gospel, all of the Jews, including Jesus' closest followers, fail to recognize Jesus' messiahship. Ironically, it is a pagan who first confesses this truth.
Jesus the Vindicated Son of God
Mark ends his Gospel as abruptly as he begins it. The day after the Sabbath, Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, and Salome came to Jesus' tomb and found it empty. A young man told them that Jesus had been raised and instructed them to tell the disciples. Mark says that the women said nothing because they were afraid. The ending of this Gospel has often caused readers dismay; some scribes added an ending that described Jesus' appearance to his disciples after his resurrection. Modern scholars agree that these additional 12 verses are secondary.
Conclusion: Mark and his Readers
Mark's readers were probably converted pagans because he occasionally explains Aramaic words and Jewish customs to his readers-explanations that would not be necessary for a Jewish audience. Mark himself may also have been a Gentile since he misunderstands some of these Jewish traditions. The Jewishness of the Gospel may suggest that the oral traditions that stand behind the Gospel stem from Jesus' earliest Jewish followers. The anti-Jewish rhetoric in this Gospel, aimed at the Jewish leaders, probably reflects problems between the Mark's community and the local synagogue.