Gospel of Mark
This Sunday is Advent I, the first Sunday of the new church year. We say goodbye to a year of Matthew and move into a year of Mark with snatches of John.
I’d like to use this first post of the new church year to take a bird’s eye view of the second canonical gospel. I believe each gospel writer gives us a specific “lens” on Jesus and the gospel. Mark has a unique perspective.
Mark does not, however, have many unique stories. Of the 660 verses in Mark’s gospel, 600 are copied into to Matthew or Luke. Matthew and Luke have their own points to make of course, and use the stories differently than Mark.
I like to date the canonical gospels like so. These are approximations, but they help me make sense of things:
Mark: 70 A.D.
Matthew: 80 A.D.
Luke: 90 A.D.
John: 120 A.D.
John might be a bit earlier, but I favor the later dating personally. A small group of curmudgeons still argue for the priority of John, but scholarly consensus places the vocabulary and theology of John firmly in the second century.
We have no originals, only copies. Our earliest complete copy of any gospel is dated 150 A.D. Or later. Ironically, the oldest fragment we have is of John. It is a scrap about 2.5 x 3.5 inches discovered in the Egyptian market in 1920. It has a few Greek words from John 18:31-33. The words can barely be made out. On this oldest copy of a gospel, hauntingly, Pilate asks, “What is truth?”
The Gospel of Mark is an anonymous document. From the standpoint of internal evidence, we must admit we do not really know who the author is. No copies of this gospel identify Mark as the author.
Externally though, there is plenty of support. Markan authorship was suggested beginning early in the 2nd century. The first person to suggest Mark was the author of this gospel was Papias in 130 A.D. Then it is mentioned by Irenaeus, Clement of Alexandria, Tertullian, Origen, and Jerome. Papias says that Mark is writing down Peter’s recollections, though he says they are not in chronological order. Justin says basically the same, that Mark is writing Peter’s memoirs. This tradition of Markan authorship is plausible. There would be no motive to assign authorship to Mark. If they were going to make it up, they would have ascribed it to Peter directly, or one of the other apostles. As it turns out, there actually is a gospel assigned to Peter. More on that in a moment.
Matthew is not mentioned until Justin in 150 A.D. Irenaeus is the first to know all four of our canonical gospels. Helmut Koester (a student of Rudolph Bultmann), in his book, “From Jesus to the Gospels: Interpreting the New Testament in it’s Context,” one of my favorite reads from this past year, reminds us that the sayings of Jesus from Ignatius (110 A.D.), Papias (130 A.D.), Polycarp and Marcion (140 A.D.), and Justin Martyr (150 A.D.) are technically older than the canonical gospel quotes we have.
And then the apocryphal gospels complicate things even more. Here are some of the other gospels:
Gospel of Peter
Gospel of Thomas
Infancy Gospel of Thomas
Gospel of the Egyptians
Gospel of the Hebrews (Mentioned by Clement of Alexandria)
Secret Gospel of Mark
Gospel of the Nazoreans
Gospel of the Ebionites (Irenaeus says the Ebionites used Matthew)
Gospel of Mary (disc 1896, pub 1955, 2nd C. Fragmentary)
Gospel of Truth (quotes Matt.)
There are more. All in all we have about two dozen gospels. These above are those mentioned or quoted in the second century.
Koester ups the ante, stretching us: In The Gospel of Thomas 17, Jesus says, “I shall give you what no eye has seen and what no ear has heard and what no hand has touched and what has never occurred to the human mind.” Paul quotes this in 1 Corinthians 2:9, indicating to his readers that it is scripture. What is Paul quoting? Does Paul have Thomas? Is he quoting Thomas? Does he have Q (a collection of Jesus’ sayings that we know existed but is now lost)? Are Thomas and Paul quoting from the same source (Q?)? Do they consider it Scripture with a capital “S”?
The Gospel of Thomas also has quotes strikingly familiar: “Come unto me, for my yoke is easy, and my lordship is mild, and you will find rest for yourselves.” (Gospel of Thomas 90) Since most scholars date Thomas before John, it appears John is either quoting Thomas’ gospel as authoritative, or more likely, they are both copying another source we no longer have.
A previously unknown gospel was discovered in 1935, Papyrus Egerton 2. It has sayings of Jesus that are similar to the canonical gospels but clearly not quoted from them. This gives us a window into the mysterious pre-canonical sources for Jesus’ sayings that Matthew, Luke and John seem also to be quoting. There may be more than one source. Koester calls them the “free sayings of Jesus.”
In my mind I have always thought of the gospel writers’ quoting Jesus as more authoritative than Paul’s quoting Jesus. Get this out of your head. Paul is temporally closer to the events than the gospel writers who are penning things decades later.
Matthew, Mark and Luke known by Polycarp and Papias in Asia minor and Greece. John is not mentioned until the end of the second century (Melito of Sardis). Irenaeus (also from Asia Minor) knows all 4 canonical gospels by the end of the second century. Justin knows and quotes the apocryphal gospels. Egypt knows John, Thomas, Egyptians, Hebrews, Secret Mark, Protevangelium Jacobi.
The Gospel of Thomas has been known to exist for centuries, because it was mentioned and quoted so often, but we had no copy until in 1945 some farmers discovered 13 Coptic books buried in an earthenware jar in Nag Hammadi, a town half way down the Nile in Egypt. Scholars cried to have the first (and still the only) complete copy of Thomas. After looking it over, scholars realized for the first time that we had fragments of Thomas all along. They were known as “Fragments of an unknown gospel.”
It will be fun to preach from Mark this year imagining that we are hearing Peter’s memoirs. If these are the recollections of the dying chief apostle, from where are they written? The popular view is Rome. Irenaeus says Mark is written in Rome, but some suggest this is guesswork on Irenaeus’ part, based on 1 Peter 5:13: “Your sister church in Babylon, chosen with you, sends you greetings, and so does my son Mark.”
If Rome, why Greek and not Latin? The gospel reflects Palestinian concerns. Some scholars prefer Antioch for provenance. The date of 70 A.D. is preferred because Mark mentions events in the siege of Jerusalem (66-70 A.D.), most notably in Mark’s “Little Apocalypse” in chapter 13, from which we read this Sunday.
Mark 13:24 points to the end of the world and the messianic return, which Mark says will happen a short time after this destruction (the Temple). Josephus says the Temple was on fire during the final assault. The messiah will come “on the clouds” in this interval between the destruction of the Temple and the end of the world. Mark’s community is living in this short interval time. How long will this short internal be? When will the end come? Soon, is Mark’s response. Just like you know summer is just about here when the fig tree bears leaves, so you can know that since Jerusalem has been destroyed, it’s time for the second coming.
Apparently the interval is not as short as Mark thought. Nevertheless, Mark gave himself a loophole: No one really knows, not the angels, and not even the Son. From this, by the way, I read a lower christology in Mark.
The little apocalypse probably is a key to understanding Mark (and Peter’s? and Jesus’?) theology. He reflects the early church’s consensus that the end was comin in their lifetime. Mark thought so. So did Paul, by the way. Recall that Paul said, when Christ returns, the dead in Christ would rise first, and then “we who are still alive” would be second, meeting them in their air.
Advent was at its heart, a season to keep alive the messianic expectation. Stories abound about absentee landlords, who go away and are likely to return any moment. They tease out how that landlord will respond upon finding them goofing off, misbehaving, burying talents and generally not being “alert.” Advent was not originally preparation for celebrating Christ’s birth. In fact, the startling thing in reading the Church Father’s Advent sermons is there is little to no mention of Christmas. It’s about being ready for the second coming.
Still, whether preparing for Christmas or the second coming, the theme of preparing is clear. The preacher might reflect on how we prepare to meet Christ. Let’s Draft our obituaries. Ponder what you might like the speaker to say at your funeral. How you live now, the choices your are making right this minute are shaping that eulogy. My son and I watched a show this week in which Stephen Hawking assured us that the sun wasn’t schedule to do the things Mark describes for a few more million years. Attending a funeral this week of someone who died too young, I was reminded that regardless of timing of the end of the world, we are, everyone one of us, only a short time from meeting our Maker. A few decades at the most. Probably less. Maybe today. You don’t know what hour, like a thief in the night. Are you ready?