Sunday, March 3, 2013

1) Final Thoughts:

Now that we have come to the end of the Gospel of Mark, it is time to consider the Gospel as a whole.  I have presented the Gospel as a dramatic narrative, a play divided into six acts, in which the drama moves inexorably to an ending that has been foreshadowed throughout the story yet still surprises as we come to its end. Instead of escaping his destiny, the Messiah transforms it into victory, not just for him but all humanity. It is a victory not over human enemies, but over the forces of evil, symbolized by unclean spirits who represent the forces of sin and death.  It is true that Mark presents human beings who array their forces against Jesus, such as Pilate and the soldiers under his command, the Herodians, and the Pharisees and Sadducees, as opposition, but Mark demonstrates that their opposition stems from missing the point of Jesus’ kingdom, the reign of God, which he proclaims from the beginning of his ministry. They see it either as a challenge to their political or religious authority, while Jesus desires it as the fulfillment of all human hopes not their destruction.

If the human foes of Jesus miss the point, it is no surprise, for even those closest to Jesus continue to misconstrue and misunderstand his words and actions. Those closest to him desire that Jesus destroy human enemies and empires and establish his kingdom by force. After each of his Passion Predictions, his apostles show that their minds are on human hopes and dreams and not divine fulfillment.  They desire might and power, but the kingdom will be established by the offering of Jesus himself to death in order to free all people from the chains of false utopias.

This kingdom is for all people. The mission to the gentiles has been subtly woven by Mark into his narrative, based upon the hopes of the prophets that when the twelve tribes were restored, so, too, would all the nations be welcomed into the covenant. The fact that Jesus’ desire transcends the hopes of both his own apostles and his opponents is one of the ways Mark has asked us to align ourselves with Jesus as we read the narrative. The other manner in which we have been asked to align ourselves with Jesus is his care for the outsiders, the marginalized and the weak: Jesus troubles the powerful, but heals the demonically possessed, the paralyzed, and the blind and presents children as model disciples. Weakness is the new power for it is open to God in all situations and dependent upon faith in God not the ability to impose, coerce or force its way.

Though the characters in the story cannot see his grand scheme for establishing the kingdom, even when it is explained openly or in parables, we have become privy to it as we share the knowledge of the narrator. The questions asked of the apostles and opponents, we are also being asked to answer along with them. This does not mean the questions are simple or their meaning transparent – “Do you not yet understand?”  is not a rhetorical question. Yet we know that while Jesus’ ways are not always clear, we are given enough demonstrations of his alliance with God through miraculous deeds and prophetic foreknowledge to know that the necessary response to Jesus is faith, even when complete understanding is lacking.

This lack of understanding Jesus’ mission and kingdom is what leads to Judas’ betrayal, his own apostles deserting him, and the powerful bringing him to his death.  While Jesus might not be the Messiah his followers and opponents expected, he is the one who fulfills human hopes by transcending and confounding them. He has power and might and glory, but chooses to go willingly to a  humiliating death in which he is “poured out for many.” He follows the desire of God the father in obedience to the cross in order to take on the sins of the world, create a new covenant with the world and to conquer death. Even when he rises from the dead, as he said he would – and where the Gospel of Mark ends, at 16:8, 16:8b, or 16:20 does not change this reality – those who were his apostles could not comprehend it initially, even after the women reported it to them.

That the apostles finally do comprehend Jesus’ resurrection and its meaning for them rests on the reality of the Gospel itself. The fact that Mark has written a Gospel indicates that the story was indeed passed on by his disciples, including the twelve and the women who ran from his tomb in fear. Faith ultimately did conquer them and their fear. It is the constant comparison throughout this Gospel: let faith conquer fear; trust in God, not in your ways, plans or power.

 The Gospel ends, therefore, as it began, with Mark’s simple presentation of the ministry and person of Jesus, including his resurrection.  Jesus has come to proclaim the kingdom of God and Mark has presented this account of Jesus in a manner that that asks us not just to follow Jesus and the disciples on their journey to Jerusalem, but to participate in that journey. We are asked to identify with Jesus not as disinterested observers, but as disciples. And if we are confused as to the why, as to the how, as to the when, if we are tempted to deny Jesus and walk away, Mark has demonstrated that none of this excludes us from being a disciple of Jesus, rather it makes us all potential disciples. The story of Jesus is not about what  eliminates us from consideration as disciples, but that in Jesus’ conquering of sin and death we have all been included in the story. In fact, it is now our story:  regardless of our human weakness, and regardless of our particular stations in life, we are able to participate in Jesus’ power and the glory simply through faith.

2) Technical Matters:

All the Gospels are technically anonymous in that the authors don't tell us who they are.  From within a few decades at most after they were written, however, the Gospels were associated with the figures whose names they now bear.  “Mark” is according to tradition named after John Mark (mentioned in 1 Peter 5:13 and a few other times in the NT). The ancient tradition regarding the Gospel of Mark is fairly straightforward. Mark was the “amanuensis” (scribe or secretary) for the Apostle Peter, who dictated the stories about Jesus life, death and resurrection to him. This tradition is found in an account by Papias, an ancient Bishop of Hierapolis (in Asia Minor, modern day Turkey), preserved in the writings of the Church historian Eusebius.

And the presbyter said this. Mark having become the interpreter of Peter, wrote down accurately whatsoever he remembered. It was not, however, in exact order that he related the sayings or deeds of Christ. For he neither heard the Lord nor accompanied Him. But afterwards, as I said, he accompanied Peter, who accommodated his instructions to the necessities [of his hearers], but with no intention of giving a regular narrative of the Lord's sayings. Wherefore Mark made no mistake in thus writing some things as he remembered them. For of one thing he took special care, not to omit anything he had heard, and not to put anything fictitious into the statements. [This is what is related by Papias regarding Mark (Eusebius, HE, III.39).

Papias states that Peter passed on to Mark all that Jesus said and did, but not in order, and that Mark wrote it down as best he could. This early Church tradition is discounted by many modern scholars, but I think it ranks as a high possibility, particularly because the Gospel of Mark has a strong oral dimension – the plot moves quickly, like an action story, from one event to another, rarely pausing to take a –figurative – breath, and using the words “and” and “immediately” to connect the dramatic narrative. The Gospel also was accepted quickly in the early Church, even though Mark was not an Apostle, and this indicates to me an Apostle lies behind the traditions. As well, Papias does not make outrageous claims on behalf of how Mark preserved these accounts (“wherefore Mark made no mistake in thus writing some things as he remembered them”; “it was not, however, in exact order that he related the sayings or deeds of Christ”). Papias’ claims strike me as believable.

It should be noted, too, that if Peter is the authority behind this Gospel then we must date the Gospel to the early to mid-60’s, as Peter was martyred by the Emperor Nero between 64-67 A.D. Interestingly, this is the date that scholars come to for this Gospel, even if they discount that Peter’s oral tradition lies behind it. On of the reasons for doing so with many modern scholars is that they do not believe Mark accurately narrates the destruction of Jerusalem predicted by Jesus in Mark 13. As a result, they say, Mark must have written before the actual destruction of Jerusalem by the Romans in 70 A.D. Nevertheless, the date for this Gospel is generally given as prior to 70 A.D. by whatever means scholars arrive there.

As to the location, ancient tradition and modern scholarship meet again: both claim that the Gospel emerges from Rome, either because of ancient traditions regarding Peter, or because of the “Roman” character of the Gospel, such as the Latin loanwords in the Gospel which are untranslated.

John W. Martens

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