Mark 1:1 stands alone, as most but not all editions of the Greek text and modern versions recognize. As a title, the Greek phrase has no verb. Whether by the evangelist himself (as is likely) or by a scribe who thereby may have become Mark’s earliest interpreter, this title belongs to the canonical text and correctly designates the content of the writing. The superscription “According to Mark,” on the other hand, was added in the second century.
The title alerts readers to the basic nature of what will follow: Good News! The word “gospel” here refers primarily to the message about Jesus, those words and events in which Christians saw and heard the good news of God’s salvation. However, the very use of the term in the title of this book was doubtless a major factor in the later use of “Gospel” to designate the specifically Christian literary genre of which Mark is probably the earliest example.
The title also names the central character of the Gospel: Jesus Christ. It attributes to him the christological designation “Son of God,” though the manuscript evidence for these words is divided. The fact that Jesus Christ is used here and nowhere else in Mark as a proper name, that “Son of God” is a doubtful reading, and that Mark clearly prefers the title “Son of man” allcaution against the familiar use of verse 1 as a key to the structure of Mark’s Gospel.
This warning, however, should not blind the interpreter to the fact that either the evangelist or a perceptive scribe chose precisely these titles to designate Jesus in the book’s heading. Both titles appear often throughout this Gospel: Christ—8:29; 9:41; 12:35; 13:21; 14:61 and 15:32; Son of God or its equivalent—1:11, 24; 3:11; 5:7; 9:7; 12:6; 13:32; 14:61 and 15:39. These numerous texts serve to shape, correct, and clarify the reader’s understanding of these basic christological titles (see Introduction, pp. 9–12).
In Mark the poor performance of the disciples is often linked to their erroneous or inadequate understanding of the person and work of Jesus (see Introduction, pp. 14–17). This relationship still holds true, and interpreters today may appropriately prepare a series of sermons or lessons on the Christology of Mark, using this first verse and adding the title “Son of man.” Paradoxically, in no Gospel is the humanity of Jesus more transparent, nor his divine authority more striking. Mark’s emphasis on the costly service, rejection, and death of the Son of man, vindicated only by his resurrection and coming in glory, serves as a healthy corrective to the doctrine of cheap grace that pervades many churches and individual Christian lives.
Additional help with the Christology of Mark may be found in Taylor, The Gospel According to St. Mark (pp. 117–24) and in Achtemeier, Mark (pp. 41–50).