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  • Ed Lundberg

The Sitz im Leben of Mark's Gospel

Sitz im Leben is an interesting term used in the biblical criticism field. It’s a German term which means ‘setting in life’. Thus it refers to the social, ethnic, and cultural life setting of a particular era. So, as you look to examine the ‘life setting’ of the Gospel of Mark you would be trying to establish to whom was the gospel written and why.

As with most ancient writings there are various theories as to who the writings were directed. Naturally, you must realize that there is no substantive proof of the actually setting, as it is only speculative based on internal literary evidence or external historical evidence.

One of the earliest historical pieces of evidence concerning the Gospel of Mark come from Papias (early second century) who writes

‘Mark having become the interpreter of Peter, wrote down accurately whatsoever he remembered. It was not, however, in exact order that he related the sayings or deeds of Christ. For he neither heard the Lord nor accompanied Him. But afterwards, as I said, he accompanied Peter, who accommodated his instructions to the necessities [of his hearers], but with no intention of giving a regular narrative of the Lord’s sayings. Wherefore Mark made no mistake in thus writing some things as he remembered them. For of one thing he took especial care, not to omit anything he had heard, and not to put anything fictitious into the statements.'

Unfortunately these comments reflect Papias’ understanding of authorship and not the life setting. Therefore, one must turn inwards to the few literary clues that is provided within the text. One interesting observation is that the author of Mark writes with a Roman audience in mind as he explained Jewish customs and uses Latin terms. Some examples include these Latin terms include the word, census (Mark 12:14), centurion (15:39, 44, 45), denarius (a Roman coin, 12:15). Next, Simon of Cyrene (who carried Jesus’s cross) is identified as the father of Alexander and Rufus. Alexander and Rufus were known to the believers in Rome. Also, Mark’s gospel focuses on Peter who was rumored to have died in Rome. And finally, there is this unusual instance in the Garden of Gethsemane where a young man is caught as Jesus is arrested, only to escape the clutches of the Roman guard (Mark 14:51-52). Many have argued that this unknown man is in fact the author.

In fictional books liberty is taken where absolutes are not present. Therefore, the premise that this narrative will take is that the life setting for Mark is to a small subsection of a larger Roman church that has experienced persecution from the Roman authorities. As a means to help alleviate the fact that many members are falling away or questioning the reality of Jesus, the church has commissioned a leader from the Jerusalem church to compose a document from the many circulating traditions about Jesus. As such, the direction of the narrative will establish that the gospel was written by three main characters, a Jew, an educated young Greek, and a Roman scholar. This trio will travel throughout Judea, Samaria, and Galilee to locate various traditions and stories about Jesus. Upon their return to Rome they will meet together and formulate a writing directed to their Roman audience to explain Jesus’ life experiences in comparison to theirs. The argument will be that this small Roman church has misunderstood the mission of Jesus. While they look for a supernatural miracle to save them from the clutches of the Roman government or to answer their concerns that Jesus had abandonment them, the gospel will correctly argue that the church members just don’t understand the mission of Jesus. These authors will write a gospel that establishes Jesus came not as political warrior but rather has a humble suffering servant who was obedient to God’s will even to his death on the cross. Therefore, as a faithful follower of Jesus, one must realize that in this life, one must also accept the reality of suffering even if it leads them to their own cross.

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