In terms of historical attention, the gospel of Mark has been a bit of a little step brother to the longer gospels of Matthew, Luke and John. In fact, many in the ancient world considered Mark to serve the church as a sort of abstract, or a short outline version, of the Gospel of Matthew. Historically there has been much more preaching on John and Matthew. Even today, you will not find as many sermons preached from Mark's gospel as you will from the more theological gospel of John. In recent times much more scholarly focus has been given to this gospel due to its helpfulness in a solution to the Synoptic Problem (see above). The work is a mere sixteen chapters and is a fast paced accounting of the teaching and life of Jesus. It contains no birth narrative as do Matthew and Luke and is very concerned with presenting Jesus' Passion Week as the focus of the story. In fact, about half of the book is about the last week of Jesus life. This will be only a brief introduction to the background of the book and its teaching. For those who want more just follow the yellow brick road called the footnotes. I am convinced that Jesus just loves footnotes. At least I do.
Authorship of Mark
All of the gospels do not have the authors name as part of the text itself, but the four gospels have never really been anonymous in church history. The author's name which is associated with the book is that of a man named Mark. This person is mentioned several times in the New Testament and was commonly known as John Mark. The earliest church traditions all associate this gospel with Mark and his task to record the account of the apostle Peter in writing. The earliest sources we have are from the writings of Papias a church leader in Hierapolis and Irenaeus bishop in Lyon (modern day France). Papias' work survives in a text written by the prominent early church historian Eusebius. It reads as follows:
And the Elder said this also: "Mark, having become the interpreter of Peter, wrote down accurately whatever he remembered of the things said and done by the lord, but no however in order." For neither did he hear the Lord, nor did he follow him, but afterwards, as I said, Peter, who adapted his teachings to the needs of his hearers, but not as though he were drawing up a connected account of the Lord's oracles. So then Mark made no mistake in thus recording some things just as he remembered them. For he took forethought for one thing, not to omit any of the things that he had heard, nor to state any of them falsely. 
After their departure, Mark, the disciple and interpreter of Peter, did also hand down to us in writing what had been preached by Peter. Luke also, the companion of Paul, recorded in a book the Gospel preached by him.
The oldest traditions all hold that Mark was the other who arranged the teachings of Peter to give a written account of Jesus Christ to the church. In addition to the tradition there is good internal evidence in the book that Mark's gospel greatly reflects the preaching of Peter that we see in the book of Acts. New Testament scholar Daniel Wallace provides a great summary of the internal connection with Mark and Peter; I will quote him at length:
- John Mark had contact with Peter from no later than the mid-40s (Acts 12:12) and it appears that the church met at Mark's own residence.
- Both Peter and Mark were connected to the churches in Antioch and Jerusalem.
- Paul sent Mark from Rome to the Colossian church and to Philemon in 60-62. If Peter were in Rome at this time, Mark would have had contact with him there.
- 2 Timothy 4:11 we find Paul giving Timothy instructions to bring Mark with him from Ephesus to Rom (c. 64). It is possible that he had been outside of Rome since his departure in 62.
- Mark is with Peter in Rom in c. 65 (1 Peter 5:13) perhaps after his return at Paul's request. Peter also calls Mark his "son" in this passage indicating a more long-standing relationship.
- The book of Mark's outline follows the Petrine teaching recorded in Acts 10:36-41. (1) John the Baptist (2) Jesus Baptized by John (3) Jesus' miracles show he is from God (4) he went to Jerusalem (5) was crucified (6) he was raised on the third day. This shows that perhaps Mark even received a framework for the oracles of Jesus from Peter.
- The low view of Peter and the other apostles in Mark shows that the person writing was not trying to put them on a pedestal. A non-apostolic writer would have done this unless he was recording what he actually had received from Peter.
So we have good reasons, both external testimony from tradition and content of the book itself that John Mark arranged the instruction of Peter who gave eyewitness testimony to the life and teaching of Jesus Christ his Lord.
Who was John Mark
John Mark is mentioned several times in the New Testament as an associate in ministry of both Peter (1 Peter 5:13) and Paul (Acts 12:25, 15:37-39; 2 Timothy 4:11). In some ways he is one of the key players in the early church as he is a disciple and co-laborer of the two men who most shaped the Christian movement after the ascension of Jesus. In the early days in Jerusalem the church apparently met in his house (Acts 12:12), the same house in which the last supper was held. He exhibits great ability as a storyteller and takes us on a journey to the central focus of the gospel - the death, burial and resurrection of Jesus.
One of the things I appreciate most about John Mark is that he is a bit of a comeback kid. In his relationship with Paul we see him as one of the earliest missionaries taking the gospel out into the world. Then apparently he becomes a little freaked out in the field and abandons the mission. This of course had Paul a little miffed and Paul and Barnabas actually part ways. Paul simply doesn't trust him after Mark punked out on him. Yet Barnabas, whose name means son of encouragement, gives him a second chance and Mark was greatly used by God. He eventually becomes Peter's right hand man and what God does in his relationship with Paul is amazing. Paul's last comments about him are very endearing. Just before Paul's death, he asks Timothy to send for John Mark; apparently he wanted his friend at his side in his last days.
Dating of Mark
Many events factor into a dating of the gospel of Mark and knowing some important and confirmed/accepted times from the first century is always helpful. These dates will be brought into our discussion of a date for Mark's writing.
Fall of Jerusalem
Martyrdom of Paul and Peter
Epistles of Paul
Some Oral Tradition
Crucifixion of Jesus
In looking at Mark's date we find several important issues. First, if we accept the tradition that he recorded the teaching of Peter then we must place it somewhere in the locus of the life of the apostle. Second, if one finds the two source/Markan priority hypothesis as a good solution to the Synoptic Problem, then Mark must precede Matthew and Luke and this affects its dating. Third, we have testimony from the early church that Mark wrote either just before or just after the death of Peter which we date to the persecution under Nero after a great fire in 64 AD. With the theme of suffering so prominent in Mark and Peter's execution in the mid sixties, most prefer a date for the gospel between 60 and 70, usually right around 65.
Yet some who favor Markan priority place it in the mid 50s for the following reasons. If Mark was written first then the gospel of Luke must be dated after Mark. Dating Luke's gospel is not so difficult. We know from the text itself that the same author composed by Luke and Acts as a two part volume with Luke compiled first. A few dates help us position Luke-Acts. First, Acts has no mention of the fall of Jerusalem which we date conclusively to 70AD. This would be strange if this painful event had already occurred. This gives us confidence to place the writing of Acts to before 70. Additionally, Acts also ends with Paul living under house arrest in Rome. We estimate that Paul is martyred in between 64-68 so this would place Acts some time before his death. If Luke came before Acts we find that gospel coming on to the scene in the very early part of the 60s with some placing it around 62AD. So if one favors the thesis that Mark was written first, then a date preceding Luke, sometime in the late 50s seems to be preferred. However, if you hold to the tradition that Matthew was first, then Mark can be happy at around 65AD. With either consideration, Mark is one of the earliest gospels recorded to pass the teaching and story of Jesus on for generations to come.
Provenance of Mark
Here is our big word for the day...provenance. It simply means the origin of the writing or the place where it was written. The church has always held that the gospel was written from Italy, in the imperial capital of Rome. The use of technical Latin terminology, the use of Roman accounting of time (6:48; 13:35) all point towards Rome. Mark's use of the Greek version of the Old Testament, his explanation of Jewish customs and practices, his translation of Aramaic terms indicate he was writing with a Gentile audience in mind.  Finally, Mark's lack of inclusion of a Jewish genealogy for Jesus perhaps points to a Roman audience as well. We have no good reason to doubt that the gospel originated in the first century Christian community in Rome.
Context and Purpose of Mark
Ben Witherington's commentary on Mark calls to mind two very important cultural contexts which are in play in Mark's gospel. First, the culture of early first century Galilee/Judea in 20-30 AD and second, the mid first century culture of Rome in the 60s. It is an interesting fact that both contexts presented great difficulty for both the Jewish and early Christian communities. Galilee/Judea was under Roman occupation and rule where Jesus and his following appeared a religious-political threat to imperial power. Rome in the mid 60s presented an intense, though brief, time of suffering and persecution under the maniacal leadership of Nero. That story needs a brief explanation.
In the early days of Nero's reign Christians lived in relative peace in the empire. They were seen with some suspicion due to their rejection of pagan gods and festivals as well as their preaching of the gospel. Aggressive seeking of converts put them at odds with the established and ancient religions of the day. Though Peter and Paul were executed for their leadership in preaching the gospel, aggressive, wide spread persecution of Christians as a class of people was not yet the reality. This changed around 64 AD with a widespread fire in Rome. The cause of the fire is uncertain with some blaming the emperor as the source. Nero, however, found a different scapegoat to turn suspicion away from him. He blamed the Christians. This was significant for two reasons. First, he was the first emperor to treat the Christians as followers of a different religion than that of the Jews. This made them believers in a new religion, not an ancient and accepted faith. Second, he declared open season on Christians and set off unprecedented abuse of Christian people. After the time of Nero's persecutions, a brutal account was recorded by the ancient historian Tacitus. Oh, how our sisters and brothers suffered for the sake of the name of Christ. Here is the account of Tacitus:
But all human efforts, all the lavish gifts of the emperor, and the propitiations of the gods, did not banish the sinister belief that the conflagration was the result of an order. Consequently, to get rid of the report, Nero fastened the guilt and inflicted the most exquisite tortures on a class hated for their abominations, called Christians by the populace. Christus, from whom the name had its origin, suffered the extreme penalty during the reign of Tiberius at the hands of one of our procurators, Pontius Pilatus, and a most mischievous superstition, thus checked for the moment, again broke out not only in Judaea, the first source of the evil, but even in Rome, where all things hideous and shameful from every part of the world find their centre and become popular. Accordingly, an arrest was first made of all who pleaded guilty; then, upon their information, an immense multitude was convicted, not so much of the crime of firing the city, as of hatred against mankind. Mockery of every sort was added to their deaths. Covered with the skins of beasts, they were torn by dogs and perished, or were nailed to crosses, or were doomed to the flames and burnt, to serve as a nightly illumination, when daylight had expired. Nero offered his gardens for the spectacle, and was exhibiting a show in the circus, while he mingled with the people in the dress of a charioteer or stood aloft on a car. Hence, even for criminals who deserved extreme and exemplary punishment, there arose a feeling of compassion; for it was not, as it seemed, for the public good, but to glut one man's cruelty, that they were being destroyed.
Nero sounds like a pretty big jerk to me and just making an educated guess I imagine that he received a really, really warm reception in the afterlife. The themes in Mark reflect this context of suffering and persecution. In the gospel Jesus is presented as the suffering servant, wrongly and brutally punished by the hand of Rome. Christians in Rome under Nero's reign would have understood this message. Follow the example of Jesus in the midst of suffering.
Such is our own call - we are called to Jesus and to live together in his mission. Whether we live in times of open suffering or lulled to sleep by comfort and familiarity we must be shaken loose from our current views of life in order to follow Jesus in our world today. We need his life and story to constantly define our own. This is our invitation, to see Jesus as the founder and perfecter of our faith, the definer of life and the person whose story gives us signposts for ever turn of life ahead.
 This is not a scientific survey, but if you compare the two pages on SermonCloud.com and you will see the disparity. Mark - http://www.sermoncloud.com/sermons-on-Mark/ and John - http://www.sermoncloud.com/sermons-on-John/ Tacitus, The Annals (MIT Internet Classics Archive, accessed August 15 2007); available from