According to Mark

23 February 2018

Many contemporary biblical scholars believe that what we call Mark’s Gospel was composed around 70 CE but probably after the Roman destruction of Jerusalem and its temple in the year 70. (The prominent biblical scholar Raymond Brown (1928 – 1998) saw an unambiguous reference to the destruction of the temple in Mark 13:2, when Jesus says “You see these great buildings? Not a single stone will be left on another. Everything will be destroyed.”)

Mark’s Gospel was written for Gentile Christians in Rome, suffering Roman persecution but also discrimination from Judaeo-Christians, who felt superior to Gentile converts. Up until the nineteenth century, and in some circles even later, the general theological understanding was that the author of Mark’s Gospel was “John Mark” mentioned in Acts of Apostles. Contemporary scholars, however, reject that thesis and generally agree that the final author of Mark remains anonymous. Although it is the oldest of the four, Mark’s Gospel is also much shorter than the other gospels, with just 16 chapters compared to Matthew’s 28, Luke’s 24, and John’s 21.

It is interesting to note that of the Synoptic Gospels, only Mark’s starts with the Greek word εὐαγγέλιον (transliteration: euaggelion) the Greek word for “good news”: “The beginning of the good news of Jesus, the Son of God.” (Mark 1:1) As part of the vocabulary of early Christians, this word did not refer to a specific type of literature nor to a book. The term had a more dynamic meaning. It was a proclamation of an event of major importance. “Gospel” for the primitive Church designated God’s saving actions in and through the person of Jesus.

Mark’s Gospel narration begins with John the Baptizer. John was an itinerant preacher, “a voice crying in the wilderness,” (Mark 1:3) preparing the way for the Messiah. He had many followers and it appears, from Mark’s Gospel, that Jesus from Nazareth was one of them; but John says that Jesus is far greater than he: “I am not fit to kneel down and undo the strap of his sandals.” (Mark 1:8) When John baptizes Jesus in the Jordan, a voice from the heavens speaks to Jesus: “You are my son, the Beloved. My favor rests on you.” (Mark 1:11) Note, the Spirit is speaking directly to Jesus. It is his call to public ministry moving far beyond that of John the Baptizer.

Throughout his life, Jesus comes to a gradual realization of who he is as Human One (“Son of Man”) and Son of God. His disciples as well come to a gradual realization of who he is. Just like people today, who are called to grow in faith, wisdom, and understanding.

Mark’s Gospel has no account of Jesus’ virgin birth or his infancy. The focus is on the adult Jesus as Messiah. The gospel does mention that Jesus had brothers and sisters in Mark 6:3. (In the fourth century when Christian bishops established the doctrine of Mary’s perpetual virginity, this text became problematic. Church authorities then began to explain Jesus’ “brothers and sisters” as either children of Joseph from a previous marriage or actually “cousins” of Jesus. In the fourth century human sexuality became problematic. Enough about that for now.)

Mark’s Gospel also has a rather abrupt ending. Like the other three gospels, Mark does report the visit of Mary, the Magdalene, and her companions to the tomb of Jesus early Sunday morning. When they arrive at the tomb, however, they find the entrance stone removed and a young man (not an angel) tells them: “’Do not be alarmed. You seek Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified. He has risen; he is not here. See the place where they laid him. But go, tell his disciples and Peter that he is going before you to Galilee. There you will see him, just as he told you.’ And they went out and fled from the tomb, for trembling and astonishment had seized them, and they said nothing, because they were afraid.” (Mark 16:6-8). And there Mark’s Gospel simply ends!

Most scholars today really believe that the Gospel of Mark originally ended with Mark 16:8. Yet some scholars contend there was in fact a lost ending. Already in antiquity editors and copyists, uncomfortable with such an abrupt ending, provided three different endings for Mark to correct the abruptness of 16:8. The most favored of these added endings is Mark 16:9-19, called the Marcan Appendix, or the Longer Ending. It records three appearances of Jesus raised from the dead: to Mary, the Magdalene; to two disciples; and to the eleven. It mentions Jesus’ ascension into heaven and his sitting at God’s right hand.

Not everything about Mark’s Gospel can be summarized in my weekly blog reflection…….Re-reading Mark’s Gospel this past week, however, two thoughts struck me: (1) Jesus in Mark’s Gospel is a rejected and suffering Son of God, and (2) following Jesus is a discipleship of the cross. Life is not always easy. Many people still live, as did Mark’s congregation, in fearful and threatening times. (Parkland, Florida is but one example.) There are always people, focused just on themselves and their ignorance, who denigrate, take advantage of, and who use and abuse the young, the old, the impoverished, non-whites, and the “losers.”

Already at the end of Mark 8, we read that the person who wants to be Jesus’ disciple must pick up his or her cross and follow Jesus. People living in Nero’s Rome had a very good understanding of the way of the cross. Mark is clearly a gospel of the suffering Messiah and of suffering and fearful discipleship. It is a gospel for those who are suffering and need to find consolation, people who can relate to the fearful cry of those disciples in the sinking boat, in Mark 4. They were frightened by the storm. They wake-up the sleeping Jesus and ask him if he is just going to let them all drown. Jesus calms the storm, and then says to his disciples “Why are you so frightened? How is it that you have no faith?” Faith is a strong theme in Mark.

Early in Mark’s Gospel, Jesus is confronted with difficulties and rejection. Starting his ministry of healing and teaching, he had quite a popular following, but difficulties with his own family. In Mark 3, Jesus goes home to visit his family but they all think he needs to be taken care of because he has gone “out of his mind.” (Mark 3:21) Then scribes come down from Jerusalem and accuse him of having “Beelzebub the prince of the devils inside him.” In Mark 6, Jesus again visits his mother, brothers, and sisters in Nazareth. He starts teaching in the synagogue and his listeners reject him because they see him as just the carpenter and the son of a woman. Some negative sexism here as well. It is hard to see and appreciate people beyond the old stereotypes. Jesus says: “A prophet is only despised in his own country, among his own relatives, and in his own house.” He is amazed “at their lack of faith.” (Mark 6:4-6)

Later in Mark’s Gospel, following Peter’s confession that Jesus is the Messiah, Jesus changes his speaking style. He speaks with a new urgency. He starts to talk about his upcoming death. Peter tries to rebuke him, but Jesus says: “away from me Satan” (Mark 8:33). Jesus now sees his own painful death on the horizon and fears having to experience it. On the night he was betrayed, Jesus goes to the garden of Gethsemane to pray. A sudden fear comes over him and he is in great distress. Like a loving child he speaks to his father: “Abba everything is possible for you. Take this cup away from me….” (Mark 14:35-36).

Jesus’ own disciple, Judas, betrayed him. The other disciples abandoned him. People spit on Jesus. He is blindfolded and beaten. Even Peter rejects him three times. (Mark 14:53-65) The triumphal Palm Sunday refrain: “Hosanna! Blessings on him who comes in the name of the Lord” (Mark 11:9) is now like an old dream. The next day he appeared before Pilate and was again taken to be beaten, mocked, and ridiculed by the soldiers. They made fun of him as “King of the Judeans” and put a crown of thorns on his head. Even the chief priests and scribes mocked him.

Jesus was put on the cross and died in agony, crying out fearfully in a very human way: “My God, My God, why have you deserted me?” (Mark 15:1-37) But it does not end here.

The Roman centurion at the foot of the cross exclaims: “In truth this man was a son of God.” Three days later the young man at Jesus’ tomb proclaims: “He has risen. He is not here.”

These things happened two thousand years ago. They happen every day as well today. Mark’s Gospel is a narrative that was crafted and constructed to engage and encourage people to have faith in Jesus raised from the dead. Fear and uncertainty, if one allows them to take control, can disable, blind, and paralyze people; but Christianity is not a religion of fear. We are challenged to be alert and faithful to the Good News.

In Mark 8:18-21 Jesus reprimands his disciples: “Do you not yet understand? Have you no perception? Are your minds closed? Have you eyes that do not see, and ears that do not hear?”


First Came Peter, James, and Paul

February 16, 2018

First Peter, James, and Paul: Then Four Gospels

Most contemporary scholars agree that Jesus began his public ministry when he was about thirty years old; and they place the date of his death at Passover time around the year 30 CE. What did Jesus do before his public ministry? We don’t know. We can can only speculate. Some believe he was like a first century “blue collar” worker in the construction business outside Nazareth. Others that, after his father’s death he, as first-born son, took over the carpentry business to support his mother, brothers, and sisters. Still others theorize that Jesus was a monk and spent years in study and prayer, before entering his public ministerial life. Frankly, I have no pet theory. I am more interested in what Jesus said and did.

Earliest Christian scriptures: If we turn our attention to the New Testament books, the earliest “scriptures” we have are the letters written by Paul and composed in the decade of the 50s CE. Today we know as well that not all letters attributed to Paul were authored by him. There is general scholarly agreement that Romans, 1 and 2 Corinthians, Galatians, Philippians, 1 Thessalonians, and Philemon are genuinely Pauline. Other letters bearing Paul’s name are disputed among scholars, namely Ephesians, Colossians, 2 Thessalonians, 1 and 2 Timothy, and Titus. Most contemporary biblical scholars agree that Hebrews was certainly not written by the Paul. In fact, the emphasis on Melchizedek and priesthood in Hebrews seems out of sync with Pauline theology.

Early apostolic leadership: When we look at the history and biblical testimony about the post-Resurrection apostolic community of Christians in Jerusalem, clearly the leader was James, the “brother of the Lord.” Peter played a role in the Council of Jerusalem, around 50 CE; but James was in charge and James issued the definitive judgment that converts to Christianity did not have to be circumcised. Then, according to the epistle to the Galatians, Peter went to Antioch. There he tangled with Paul, who rebuked him for treating Gentile converts as inferior to Judaic Christians.

There is a tradition that Peter and Paul went to Rome and were put to death at the hands of Nero probably between 64 and 68 CE. According to an old legend, Peter was crucified upside down. Other folklore fills out the details of Peter’s life and death in Rome: his struggles with the magician Simon Magus, his miracles, his attempted escape from persecution in Rome, and a flight from which he was turned back by a vision of Christ, the “Quo Vadis” legend.

By the second and third centuries, we see stories about Peter springing from historical suppositions, legends, and much creative imagination by people like Irenaeus of Lyons (died 202 CE). Contrary to what some think, neither Peter nor Paul brought Christianity to Rome. Before Peter and Paul would have arrived, there were already Christian elders and house churches in Rome; but there was no central administrator. No bishop. At some point Peter may have been one of these elders. We really do not know for certain; but contemporary Catholic and Protestant historians would stress that Peter was never a bishop of Rome. Raymond Brown and John P. Meier were emphatic about this in their book Antioch and Rome: New Testament Cradles of Christianity, (Paulist Press 1983): “There is no serious proof that he (Peter) was the bishop, or local ecclesiastical officer, of the Roman church: a claim not made till the third century. Most likely he did not spend any major time at Rome before 58 CE when Paul wrote to the Romans, and so it may have been only in the 60s and relatively shortly before his martyrdom that Peter came to the capital.”

Peter “the first pope”: Thanks to Constantine (272 – 337 CE) and the influence of his relics-collecting mother Helena, Peter and legends about Peter were held in high regard in third and fourth century Rome. The first great acclamation of “Peter as a pope,” however, came from Pope Leo I, also known as Saint Leo the Great. Leo was pope from 440 CE until his death in 461 CE. Leo greatly contributed to the development of the doctrine of a papal Petrine succession based on his personal devotion to St. Peter.

Fine. I would agree that today one can understand the popes as successors of Peter in faith, witness, ministry, and leadership. Ahem. One can also understand today’s bishops, Catholic and Protestant, as sharing in that same tradition, as successors of the apostles. It is only with a bit of creative theological imagination, however, that one can really call Peter the first pope. Sometimes we need to adjust old understandings based on better historical research.

Four Gospels: After the deaths of James, Peter, and Paul, as well as others who had known Jesus face-to-face, it became essential for the survival of the way of Jesus that his words and deeds be recollected and written down. This led to the birth of the four Gospels.

Although some researchers disagree, the clear majority of contemporary biblical scholars believe that Mark was the first Gospel to be written, sometime around the year 70 CE. This scholarly consensus holds that the Gospel of Matthew and the Gospel of Luke were composed, independently of one another, sometime in the 80s or 90s. Both used a written form of the Gospel of Mark as source material for their own narratives. In addition, because both Matthew and Luke contain a large amount of material in common that is not found in Mark, most scholars hold that the authors of Matthew and Luke also drew from a collection of Jesus’ sayings that they incorporated into their works. These sayings of Jesus, known as “Q” were most likely assembled in the 40s or 50s. (The “Q” comes from the first letter of “Quelle” the German word for “source”.) This understanding of the origins of the “synoptic” Gospels of Mark, Matthew, and Luke explains why they are similar yet different in details, descriptions, and focus. The Gospel of John emerges from an independent literary tradition that is not directly connected to the Synoptic tradition. This explains the major differences between John and the Synoptics.

All four Gospels evolved from oral traditions, passed on from person to person and from place to place. More than one single person (i.e. Mark, Matthew, Luke, John) composed the final versions of the four Gospels as we have them today. Each time the narrators adapted their accounts to the needs, understanding, and cultural / religious backgrounds of their listeners. The Gospels were not written therefore to give us strict “history.”

The Gospels contain bits of history, parables, metaphor, symbol, re-interpreted passages from the Greek (Septuagint) Hebrew Scriptures, and imagined scenarios for key events in the life of Jesus. We see for instance, in Matthew and Luke, two quite different accounts about Jesus’ infancy. Their focus was not primarily to present an historical narrative, but to affirm and proclaim their theological belief about Jesus Christ. Anchored in Christian faith, the authors of the Gospels – using a variety of literary forms — wanted to pass on to future generations their understanding and belief in and about Jesus Christ. Their words inform, stimulate, and encourage us to grow in our own Christian faith.

During Lent 2018, I would like to share my own reflections on the Gospels, based on my lived experience, ongoing study, and Gospel-reading. I welcome your own reactions and reflections. I subscribe to an historical/critical understanding of Sacred Scripture, because I find it not only helpful but biblically correct and responsible. I am not a literal-interpretation fundamentalist. I am also keenly aware that correct translations of biblical texts are essential for a correct understanding of what the biblical authors were saying. One small example: the Greek word ecclesia or ekklesia (εκκλησία) is often translated as “church.” The original biblical meaning of the word however is an “assembly” or a “gathering of people.”

Thanks to the life, message, and witness of Jesus of Nazareth crucified and raised from the dead, we have faith, hope, and confidence to move forward today. Living that faith is our contemporary Christian challenge….

Next time some reflections about the Gospel According to Mark

– Jack


February 11, 2018

This year on Wednesday, February 14, we celebrate not only Valentine’s Day but the beginning of Lent. Perhaps this year it is a convenient calendar coincidence. There can be no Christianity without love.

Looking at Jesus in the Gospels, it is quite clear that love is much more than having nice feelings. Love is an action word. It builds relationships. It promotes values and principles that are lived realities. Love means acceptance, belonging, trust, forgiveness, honesty, openness, generosity, and faithfulness. This is the way of Jesus. The person, who puts her or his faith in Jesus, trusts that Jesus taught the right way to live and accepts Jesus as one’s master and spiritual guide. The Way of Jesus. And so, we read in the Gospel According to John: “I am the way, the truth, and the life.”

Over time, however, faith in Jesus, for many Christians and institutional Christian leaders, became less a way of life and much more a doctrinal statement to be accepted and taught. Accepting the word became more important than living the word. It became paramount to believe, for instance, that Jesus was divine, regardless how one lived one’s life. We see, for instance, throughout the history of medieval Europe that adulterers, thieves, and liars accepted the divinity of Christ and went about their ways. Some were even popes and great political leaders. People who questioned or challenged church teaching, however — regardless how they lived their lives — were denounced, tortured, and even burned at the stake.

And today?

Clearly the historical Jesus was not egotistical. He did not focus on himself. He was not ego-centered but other-centered. Through his lived spiritual values of courage, cooperation, fairness, forgiveness, and faithfulness, Jesus revealed divinity as well as authentic humanity.

People who are ego-centered become slaves to habitual behaviors that become addictions: selfishness, deceitfulness, callousness, and arrogance. Those addictive habits can provide momentary satisfaction, and even applauded “greatness;” but eventually they diminish life and destroy it.

Yes, the Gospels make it very clear that Jesus was not focused on himself. And yes, Jesus was abused, tortured, and murdered on a cross; but God brought him to the fullness of life “on the third day.”

And so, here we are today: followers of Jesus. This week end we prepare ourselves for forty days of reflection about the life of Jesus and our lives as his followers. I see Jesus as the great religious changemaker. We are invited to follow and live his example.

This Lent, in Another Voice, I would like to look at what contemporary theology is saying about Jesus and the Four Gospels. I hope I have something of value to share….

– Jack

God Thoughts

February 3, 2018

A reflection: God Thoughts

Historic Observations: Some days it seems so very long ago; but I clearly remember the event. Yuri Gagarin, who died 50 years ago on (my birthday) March 27, 1968, was a Soviet cosmonaut. He was the first human to journey into outer space, when his Vostok spacecraft completed an orbit of the Earth on April 12, 1961. Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev quickly announced to the Central Committee of the Soviet Union’s Communist Party that “Gagarin flew into space but didn’t see any god there.” Khrushchev had a big laugh about that.

It was also in 1961 that French Protestant theologian, Gabriel Vahanian’s historic book God is Dead: The Culture of our Post-Christian Era was published. Vahanian (1927-2012) argued that the “death of God” happened when God was turned into just a cultural artifact and modern culture had lost a sense of the sacred. He argued for a transformation of a post-Christian and a post-modern culture. Vahanian – contrary to what some said later — was a true believer.

In many ways, Vahanian was echoing what Dietrich Bonhoeffer (1906-1945) had expressed in his Letters and Papers from Prison. During his year and a half confinement in the Berlin Tegel military prison, Bonhoeffer questioned the role of Christianity and the church in a “world come of age,” where human beings had lost a sense of a metaphysical God. He pondered the meaning of a “religionless Christianity.” In a note dated November 21, 1943, He wrote “My fear and distrust of ‘religiosity’ have become greater than ever.” “Even those who honestly describe themselves as ‘religious’” he wrote “do not in the least act up to it and so they presumably mean something quite different by ‘religious.’” Bonhoeffer of course was reacting to all the “good Christians” who supported Adolf Hitler’s National Socialism agenda.

Sometimes, people learn from the past very slowly. Quite often today, I fear that God, for many people, has been turned into “just a cultural artifact.” Our political leaders love to say “God bless you”; but they say it the same way the check-out person at the supermarket says “Have a good day.” Is there really any belief behind it? Too many contemporary “believers” speak and behave in ungodly ways. I can understand why young people, and more and more older people, are “nones,” interested in spirituality but not religion. Like Bonhoeffer’s “religionless Christians”? They want nothing to do with institutionalized religion. They see, for instance, very little that is Christian in the words and behavior of Washington DC’s top political leader. They see his close advisors promoting a bizarre and distorted version of the Gospels. Was Jesus really very white, very racist, very xenophobic, and very sexist?

Yet, nevertheless, I believe God is still traveling with us on our journey. But I ask how do we best think of God today? What words? What imagery? Certainly, the old Hebrew and early Christian cosmology, with God enthroned in the heavens is past history. Khrushchev said Gagarin did not see God in space; but Nikita was blinded by his own Communist ideology.

How do we see today?

Earth and the Cosmos Today: On my desk, is a Christmas present from my son: a petrified sand dollar. Like his dad, he is fascinated by historic phenomena and objects. This one (not his dad) is one hundred and fifty million years old. When my little sand dollar was a living creature, crawling across the seabed, our earth was in its Jurassic period; and our earth’s supercontinent Pangaea began to break apart. That left two landmasses, a northern mass containing what we know as North America, Europe, and Asia and a southern mass containing South America, Africa, Australia, Antarctica, and India. During the early Jurassic, North America separated from Africa and South America and moved northward, but it was still connected to Europe. In the late Jurassic period, the North Atlantic began to appear between Europe and North America. Fascinating.

Rubbing my fingers over this old but now nicely polished fossil, the thought struck me: As it crawled around in a greatly changing earth, God was there with it. And when the continents separated and gave form to today’s earth configuration, the Spirit of God was there in and above the raging waters and shifting earth.

Our knowledge of the earth and the cosmos have grown considerably since the Book of Genesis was composed – a long process combining traditions dating from between the 10th and 5th centuries BCE. He have now learned that our earth is about 4.5 billion years old and that our solar system itself is only one among a vast number of others. In the bigger picture, our sun is just a star like many others. Our earth is like a speck in our Milky Way Galaxy that contains over 200 billion stars, and enough dust and gas to make billions more. And the expansion and evolution continue, and God is there at the heart of all of it. Fascinating. There are in the greater universe thousands of billions and billions of planets such as our earth. In the very beginning, God was there. God was here. God is still here. God is still there. Here and out there, and beyond…. How does one describe this God? Who is God in an immense and ever-evolving cosmos? Who is God for an ever-evolving humanity? I no longer understand God as “transcendent” because I experience God as right here with us – at the heart of Reality — not above us and out there.

The philosopher/theologian Paul Tillich (1886-1965), whom I greatly respected, stressed that God is best understood as “the ground of Being-Itself.” No part of Reality is alien to God; and, Tillich stressed that God is both personal and transpersonal. In faith experiences, Tillich stressed again, we encounter God. The central component of Tillich’s concept of faith was that faith is “ecstatic.” “The ecstatic character of faith” Tillich wrote “does not exclude its rational character although it is not identical with it, and it includes non-rational strivings without being identical with them. ‘Ecstasy’ means ‘standing outside of oneself’ – without ceasing to be oneself.” I liked Tillich and enjoyed being able to attend one of his lectures in my younger days. But enough about that.

Faith Experiences: Through meditation and contemplation we can stand outside ourselves without ceasing to be ourselves. Here, as I mentioned last week, art and music have an essential mediative role. People can and do experience the ground of Being-itself perhaps without being able to adequately express what they experience. I mean a kind of contemplative intimate experience leading to an inner stillness. In the old days we called this an experience of grace.

Perhaps we can only speak about these faith experiences with poetry and symbol. Just as we can only express our love for another person in poetic and symbolic language….And we contemporary people need trustworthy spiritual guides to protect us from religious charlatans. Jan Walgrave (1911-1986), one of my truly beloved old Louvain professors told me, shortly before he died, that if we had good courses in spirituality we would not have to have any courses in moral theology.

Yes, as some of my friends suggest, I think it might be possible to explain faith experiences in terms of brain states; but this explanation becomes inadequate, if one has had even a small faith experience. I am writing about contemplative experiences, where one feels and understands that all life makes sense in a way it didn’t before. The questions we wrestle with about life, death, suffering, evil, and God’s love. Those things begin to melt away…….We are not alone in the universe nor alone at home in our corner of the city. Even if we don’t know how to put it into words, the Reality is there.

Some of the problems and horror stories in the news will still be with us. We are strengthened, however, to be prophetic in words and actions. We will not just endure but can and will flourish because the God who watched over my sand dollar is very much alive and journeying with us today. One of my favorite Paul Tillich books is The Courage to Be (1952).

– Jack