A Glance at the Gospel of Mark


thetextofthegospels.com

Around 70 CE, in a city somewhere in the Roman Empire outside of Palestine, a man composed a religious tract on a parchment scroll. He wrote in Greek, and was either a Jewish or Pagan convert to Christianity. He added no signature, but around 100 years later, he was called Mark, so let’s call him that, without clear evidence of his actual identity. He most likely belonged to an urban Christian community, and was possibly a preacher, since he evidently felt the need to collect stories about, and sayings attributed to, the Jesus of Nazareth in whom he believed. 

How would he have gone about this, since it was now around 40 years since Jesus had died, and there was then neither printing nor distribution of documents by worldwide mail, only laborious copying by hand? Nor was there an internet to facilitate communication, compare notes, research sources, and check accuracy, but there were lots of stories and sayings of Jesus, shared by word of mouth.

Being a Palestinian, Jesus would have spoken Aramaic, but Greek was the common language in the Roman Empire, so his words had to be translated, which is never a straightforward task. In addition, as stories are passed, over and again, from one person to another, inevitably there are additions, subtractions, and other modifications that reflect whatever captures the interest, need, or imagination of a particular preacher or audience. Stories and sayings to ‘answer’ a question, ‘clarify’ a difficulty, ‘prove’ a point, or ‘dictate a requirement’ for belief or practice, could be included with little or no check on their accuracy. Eye witnesses had been Aramaic speaking Palestinians, around 40 years in the past.

Mark didn’t produce a list of doings and sayings. He created a piece of literature, in the style of a ‘chronological’ narrative, with beginning, middle and end, dialogues and disputes, memorable one-liners, human interest stories, dramatic happenings, pivotal points and climaxes etc. It’s a piece of writing that’s captured attention down through the centuries, irrespective of readers’ views about its historicity. This means, for me, that Mark’s Gospel has to be valued and taken seriously. 

It doesn’t prove, however, that Jesus was the Jewish Messiah, Son of God and Saviour of the World. What it does prove is, that this is what Mark believed, and wanted his readers to believe. We must do our homework well, approach his work with minds as unprejudiced and open as possible, constantly question the judgements we make, be honest in our assessments, and always acknowledge that our views can only ever be beliefs and opinions, not definitive facts and truths.   

From a literary viewpoint, Mark constructs a ‘chronological’ framework that’s simple and concise, moving from Galilee towards a single, fateful, Passover visit to Jerusalem, within the space of less than a year. This doesn’t square with John’s Gospel, where Jesus pays 3 or 4 Passover visits to Jerusalem over a period of 2 or 3 years. This shows how each Gospel writer structures his work in whatever way best suits his own purposes. In John, Jesus spends much time delivering lengthy discourses, chiefly about himself. In Mark, Jesus says very little about himself, and comes across as a man in a big hurry. The word “immediately” is used 41 times. ‘Immediately’ Jesus does x, and then ‘instantly’ says y, and ‘at once’ goes to z. Keeping up with such a ‘superman’ becomes breathtaking, but then Mark’s emphasis is on the imminent arrival of God’s Kingdom (barely mentioned in John) – so there’s no time to waste.

Among many points of interest in Mark’s Gospel is Jesus’ attempt to keep his ‘Messiahship’ secret, although his ordering ‘demons’ not to reveal who he is, when they’re already screaming out his identity, brings stable doors and bolted horses to mind. Another is the abrupt ending to his Gospel. Three women find his tomb open, and “a young man wearing a white robe” tells them that Jesus has been raised from the dead, and they are to convey this news to “his disciples”, but Mark’s concluding sentence is, “They said nothing to anyone, because they were afraid”. Did the last bit of parchment fall off, or was this an unfortunate misjudgement on Mark’s part? Or was it a dramatic masterstroke, leaving his readers feeling, and thus understanding, the confusion, uncertainty and anxiety in the three women? 

If so, at a later time, two people spoiled the effect by adding their own ‘endings’ to Mark’s Gospel. I’m reminded of Puccini’s opera ‘Turandot’ which, due to his death, ended (before being ‘completed’ by Alfano) with the death of Liu, who sacrificed herself so that the man she loved could find happiness with someone else. The last deeply moving notes Puccini wrote were for a solo piccolo, dying away into a heartbreaking silence, which says far more than anything could ever add to it. At the first performance, at this point, Toscanini laid down his baton. Perhaps others, now and again, should do the same. I’m happy to leave Mark’s Gospel as it is.

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