Mark’s Gospel – Our Earliest Christian Writing?

By Michael Hell

“Jesus told us how it all began,” Peter speaking to Mark. “There was John telling people to change their ways and dunking them in the Jordan to give them a fresh start. Jesus went to hear him and was inspired to get dunked too. When he came out of the water, he had a vision of God telling him that there was a mission for him as well. He went off by himself for a long time to try and work out what that mission might be.

“When John was arrested, Jesus picked up the baton and started to proclaim his message. It was a bit different from John: he said that the kingdom was ‘at hand’. We thought that meant that we would soon be liberated from the Romans. Anyway, he came along the Sea of Galilee and caught up Andrew and me, promising to make us ‘fishers of men’, and a bit further on our friends James and John, the sons of Zebedee.

“Back in Capernaum, he preached on the next Sabbath and made a big impression, quite different from the scribes, though he could argue with the best of them. He relieved a man who was ‘possessed by an unclean spirit’. When we got home, he cured my mother-in-law of a fever. Many other people came with their illnesses, and he cured them. But when he cured a leper in the next village, curiously he told the man to keep it quiet.”

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Peter told a lot of other stories and what he could recollect of Jesus’ teachings. He recalled how Jesus chose another eight followers, so that there were a dozen in the inner circle. He nicknamed Simon Peter and James and John the “Sons of Thunder”: he didn’t say, but one suspects that Jesus thought Simon was a bit of a blockhead, and the Zebedee brothers headstrong. With all the argy-bargy with the scribes, his family were very upset: but he said that it is those who do God’s will who are his family. And so it went on. Not all the stories showed Peter in the best light.

When Jesus asked the disciples who they thought he was, Peter blurted out ‘The Messiah’. But Jesus warned them that it might not all turn out well and told Peter off when he said that surely couldn’t be. A bit later, he took three of them up a mountain, where they saw Jesus talking with Moses and Elijah: Peter babbled something about making tents for them, but the vision soon vanished. Peter found it all very puzzling. On the one hand, Jesus acted as though he was going to bring about the big change: on the other, he kept his head down and seemed apprehensive that he would end up like John. Which is, of course, what happened.

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The point I am trying to make is that, if you remove “the Son of God” from the opening verse (it’s not in all the manuscripts) and retell Mark in the sort of words and expressions we might use today, the gospel reads like a story of a man among men, warts and all. Moreover, it sounds like the recorded reminiscences of an eye-witness fairly soon after the events, before they had time to develop a theology. The idea that Jesus’ thought developed helps to deal with some of the passages we are reluctant to ascribe to the divine.

It is generally agreed that the gospel ends at 16:8. If the beginning and end have been “improved”, we have no means of knowing to what extent the same has happened to the rest of the text. At 14:59 we learn that the witnesses at Jesus’ trial didn’t all agree: I suspect that many were as bemused as Peter, so we shouldn’t be surprised either that there are discrepancies or that later copyists may have altered the text to fit later events and ideas. In the June issue of Sofia (the magazine of the Sea of Faith Network, No. 115, 12-14) Stephen Williams uses his experience as a probation officer to take a fresh look at the story of the death of Jesus.

We have printed texts, so we are induced to think that nothing changed from the first version. Some of us still write longhand. If we make too many changes, insertions and deletions, we may have to make a fair copy. I find it very difficult just to copy: new ideas or better expressions kept coming to mind. So I find it quite likely that changes were made as the gospel was copied: after all, it wasn’t given the status of Holy Writ till much later. Copyists are also prone to make mistakes in their tedious and repetitive labour. And the argument about Jesus’ status relative to God was argued violently for several centuries until the Roman Emperor sided with Athanasius rather than Arius.

Verse 14:47 is one that commentators often skip over, but it indicates that at least one of Jesus’ followers was armed. Probably more were as befitted ruffianly Galileans expecting to have a go at the Romans. This gives some credence to the suggestion of E P Sanders in “The Historical Figure of Jesus” that Jesus’ body disappeared because Pilate had it removed to avoid a cult developing. Sanders also suggests that he planted ‘the young man in white robes’ to get Jesus’ followers to go back to Galilee, where they would come under Herod Antipas’ jurisdiction.

My Father often said that it is difficult to imagine how the world looked before Michelangelo. With two millennia of developed theology, it is almost impossible to think of Jesus as a man. However many times we assert that Jesus was wholly man, we still think of him mainly as wholly God and are amazed that he was not recognised as such. This is not to say that he was ‘just a man’. He was indeed formed by his Jewish upbringing, as is shown by what he said, but he promulgated the spirit of the Law in the best prophetic tradition rather than the legalism of current religious practice. He extended this spirit with his emphasis on love (loving your enemies, the Good Samaritan, the Prodigal Son). Things simply didn’t turn out the way he hoped, as happened to many of the prophets before him.

Mark’s gospel is generally accepted as the first of the four in the New Testament. It is generally dated around 70 CE because some passages appear to predict the traumatic events of that time. On this reading, the original writing could be much earlier, about 40 CE, before the spread of Christianity around the Roman Empire, and before Paul developed his theology. The Gospel as we have it would already reflect the circumstances of the successive copyists.