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?”