Many contemporary biblical scholars believe that what we have called the Gospel According to Mark was composed around 70 CE but probably after the Roman destruction of Jerusalem and its temple in the year 70. The Catholic 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 is currently accepted as the oldest of the Gospels but Matthew was once considered older. Augustine of Hippo (354 – 430) wrote in the 5th century: “Now, those four evangelists whose names have gained the most remarkable circulation over the whole world, and whose number has been fixed as four, …are believed to have been written in the order which follows: first Matthew, then Mark, thirdly Luke, lastly John.” Augustine, with all due respect, was wrong.
Mark was written for Gentile Christians in Rome, suffering Roman persecution. What struck me as I was re-reading Mark is that fear is a recurring theme that weaves through the entire narrative. Mark’s audience of course lived in fear. The first localized persecution of Christians in Rome began under Emperor Nero (37 – 68 CE).
Up until the nineteenth century, and in some circles even later, the general theological understanding was that the author of Mark was “John Mark” mentioned in Acts of Apostles. Contemporary scholars, however, generally agree that the final author of Mark remains anonymous. Although it is the oldest of the four New Testament “Gospels” Mark is also much shorter than the others, with just 16 chapters compared to Matthew’s 28, Luke’s 24, and John’s 21.
It is interesting to note that of the Synoptics, only Mark’s starts with the word euaggelion, the Greek word for “good news” or “glad tidings.” The word has usually been translated in English as “Gospel” but that is not the best way to translate it. “Good News” is better. And so, we read with the better translation: “The beginning of the Good News of Jesus, the Son of God.” (Mark 1:1) As part of the vocabulary of early Christians, the “Good News of Jesus” 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. The “Good News” for the primitive Christian community designated God’s saving actions in and through the person of Jesus.
Mark’s narration begins with John the Baptizer. John was an itinerant Hebrew 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 text, 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 Jesus’ call to public ministry moving far beyond the ministry of John the Baptizer. It marked an important stage as well in Jesus’ growth in his own faith and self-understanding.
John the Baptizer (death c. CE 30) was active in the area of the Jordan River in the early 1st century. Most biblical scholars agree that John baptized Jesus and that some of Jesus’ early followers had previously been followers of John. John’s form of baptism had roots in Hebrew ceremonial washing and indicated that the baptized person was moving into a new stage of spiritual growth. John was sentenced to death and subsequently beheaded by Herod Antipas (c. 20 BCE – c. 39 CE) a 1st-century ruler of Galilee. He beheaded John because John had rebuked him for divorcing his wife Phasaelis and then unlawfully wedding Herodias, the wife of his brother.
In the Markan text we see Jesus coming to a gradual realization of who he is as a human (“Son of Humanity”) and divine (“Son of God”). His disciples as well came to a gradual realization about Jesus and his identity and meaning. Just like people today. We too are called to grow in faith, wisdom, and understanding. Fortunately, we also believe that Jesus travels with us.
Mark’s text has no account of Jesus’ virgin birth or his infancy. The focus in Mark is on the adult Jesus as Messiah. In Mark we do read: “What is this wisdom that has been given to him? What deeds of power are being done by his hands! Is not this the builder, the son of Mary and brother of James and Joses and Judas and Simon, and are not his sisters here with us?” (Mark 6:2-3)
A friend wrote me: “If Jesus’ mother was a virgin how could she have had more children?” Well, the virgin birth narrative appears only in the New Testament texts of Matthew 1:18–25 and Luke 1:26–38, texts written between 80 and 100 CE. The modern scholarly consensus is that Jesus’ virgin birth rests on very slender historical foundations and is more symbolic than historical. The ancient world had no understanding that male semen and female ovum were both needed to form a fetus.This cultural milieu was conducive to miraculous birth stories, and tales of virgin birth and the impregnation of mortal women by deities were well known in the 1st-century Greco-Roman world and Hebrew works. In the Good News texts of Matthew and Luke, the virgin birth narratives are a way to affirm Jesus’ divinity. Not his mother’s virginity.
In the fourth century, nevertheless, when Christian bishops established the doctrine of Mary’s perpetual virginity, the text in Mark affirming Jesus’ brothers and sisters 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, linked to “original sin” thanks to Augustin of Hippo became problematic.
Not everything about Mark’s Good News can be summarized in this week’s reflection. In my own re-reading of Mark this past week, three thoughts struck me: (1) an underlying theme of fear. (2) Jesus in Mark’s narration is a rejected and suffering Son of God. And (3) 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. (Ukraine is but one example.) 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 narration about the suffering Messiah and of suffering and fearful discipleship.
Later in Mark’s text, 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). Peter, as biblical historians inform us, could be self-centered, aggressive, and impetuous. Jesus is here telling Peter to focus on Jesus not Peter and to pay attention to what Jesus is going through. 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 son he speaks to his father: “Abba everything is possible for you. Take this cup away from me…” Mark 14:35-36. [The term “abba” is only found in the New Testament three times: in Mark 14:36, Romans 8:15 and Galatians 4:6. It is used only by Jesus and Paul. In each instance, “abba” means “father” in an intimate way.]
Jesus is deeply moved and fearful. His 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)
These things happened two thousand years ago. They happen every day as well today. Mark’s Good News 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 proclaimed by Jesus. In Mark 8:18-21, remember that Jesus reprimanded his disciples: “Do you not yet understand? Have you no perception? Are your minds closed? Do your eyes not see, and do your ears not hear?”
The Good News According to Mark also has a rather abrupt ending. Contemporary biblical scholars believe that it ended originally with the proclamation of the centurion in Mark 15:39 “Now when the centurion, who stood facing him, saw that in this way he breathed his last, he said, “Truly this man was God’s Son!”
Already in antiquity editors and copyists, uncomfortable with such an abrupt ending, provided three different endings for Mark. All scholars hold that chapter 16 is an addition and clearly the longer endings contain material drawn from Luke and John.
We should remember — Fear and uncertainty, if one allows them to take control, can disable, blind, and paralyze people. Authoritarian leaders take advantage of this. But Christianity is not a religion of fear. It is a religion of hope, confidence, and loving support. As Jesus reminds us: “Do you not yet understand? Have you no perception? Are your minds closed? Do your eyes do not see, and do your ears not hear?”
A good reminder. Perhaps especially for older historical theologians…
Next week we take a look at Jesus in Matthew’s Good News narration.