Isaiah 64:1-9 – O that you would tear open the heavens and come down…

Psalm 80:1-7, 17-19 – Stir up your power O Lord and come to save us.

1 Corinthians 1:3-9 – God will strengthen you to the end, so that you may be blameless on the day of our Lord Jesus Christ.

Mark 13:24-37 – But about that day… no one knows, neither the angels… nor the Son…

The Gospel of Mark and the Little Apocalypse

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 a smattering of John.

Here’s bird’s eye view of the gospels for 2015:

Year B-at-a-Glance (2015, 2018, 2021)

A very rough outline of the lectionary year


January 8 – February 12 – Mark 1
(January 18-25 is the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity)
February 19 – Transfiguration (Mark 9:2-9)


February 25 – Ash Wednesday (Joel 2, Isaiah 58, Matthew 6)
February 26-March 25 – Five Sundays in Lent:
Baptism and Temptation of Jesus (Mark 1:9-15)
Peter’s Confession (Mark 8:31-38)
Cleansing of the Temple (John 2:13-22)
Just as Moses lifted up the serpent, so the Son of Man (John 3:14-31)
Greeks: We want to see Jesus (John 12:20-33)

Three Days

April 1 – Palm Passion Sunday (Mark 14 or 15)
April 5 – Maundy Thursday (John 13:1-17, 31b-35)
April 6 – Good Friday (John 18:1-19:42)
April 7 – Easter Vigil

Easter through Pentecost

April 8 – Easter Sunday (Mark 16:1-8)
April 15-May 20 – Easter Season texts from John and Luke
May 27 – Pentecost (John 15: Advocate will bear witness to the truth)

Time After Pentecost

June 3 – Trinity Sunday (John 3: Nicodemus)
June 7-July 15 – Mark 4-6 (4: Parables. 5-6 More Healings)
July 22-August 19 – John 6 “Bread” texts for five weeks
August 26-October 21 – Mark 7-10 (End of Galilee ministry and Journey to Jerusalem)
October 28 – Reformation Sunday (John 8)
November 4 – All Saints
November 11 and 18 – Mark 12 (widow’s coins) and 13 (the end is coming)
November 25 – Christ the King (John 18: My kingdom is not of this world.)

Marks gospel begins with an introduction, then we have Jesus’ ministry in Galilee, followed by his journey to Jerusalem, followed by his ministry in Jerusalem and then his passion and resurrection. This is the shortest gospel.

A Short Outline of Marks Gospel

  • Introduction (1:1-13)
  • Jesus’ Ministry in Galilee (1:16-8:26)
  • Journey to Jerusalem (8:27-10:52)
  • Jesus in Jerusalem (11:1-13:37)
  • Passion and Resurrection (14-16:18)

Mark does not have many unique stories (stories not recorded by the other gospel writers). 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 as follows. These are approximations, but they help me make sense of things:

  • Mark: A.D. 70
  • Matthew: A.D. 80
  • Luke: A.D. 90
  • John: A.D. 120

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 of any of the gospels. We only have copies. Our earliest complete copy of any gospel is dated A.D. 150 or later. Ironically, the oldest fragment we have is from John. It is a scrap about 2.5 x 3.5 inches discovered in an 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. We do not know the identity of the author of any of the Gospels, or, except for the undisputed Pauline letters, the identity of the author of any other book at least in the New Testament. 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 second 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 something up, they would have ascribed this gospel 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 A.D. 150 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 its Context,” one of my favorite reads, reminds us that the sayings of Jesus on the oldest manuscripts of Ignatius (A.D. 110), Papias (A.D. 130), Polycarp, Marcion (A.D. 140), and Justin Martyr (A.D. 150) are technically older than the quotes on manuscripts of the canonical gospels we have.

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 Nazarenes
  • Gospel of the Ebionites (Irenaeus says the Ebionites used Matthew)
  • Protevangelium Jacobi
  • Gospel of Mary (disc 1896, pub 1955, 2nd c. Fragmentary)
  • Gospel of Truth (quotes Matt.)

There are more. All in all, there are about two dozen gospels that we know of. These listed above are just the eleven that are 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 clearly quotes this in 1 Corinthians 2:9, indicating to his readers that it is scripture. What is Paul quoting? Does Paul have Thomas? Is Paul quoting Thomas? It is doubtful, since most scholars date The Gospel of Thomas much later than Paul. Does Paul have a copy of 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”? Or is Thomas quoting Paul? Or are they both writing down some oral tradition?

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.”

Since Paul actually spent a lot of time with the other apostles, where there is scant evidence that any of the other New Testament writers did, I have come to believe that Pauline quotes of Jesus are more authoritative that those of the four evangelists.

Matthew, Mark and Luke are 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 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 wept 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 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 perhaps hearing Peter’s memoirs. If these are the recollections of the dying chief apostle, from where were they written? The popular view is Rome. Irenaeus says Mark was 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 from Rome, why is the gospel written in Greek and not Latin? Additionally, the Gospel of Mark reflects Palestinian concerns. Some scholars prefer Antioch for provenance. The date of A.D. 70 is preferred because Mark mentions events of the siege of Jerusalem (A.D. 66-70), most notably in Mark’s “Little Apocalypse” in chapter 13, from which we read this coming Sunday.

Here is what to expect in this Advent season of expectation:

Advent B Summary

  • Advent 1B Mark 13:24-37: About that day or hour no one knows
  • Advent 2B Mark 1:1-8 The voice: Prepare the way of the lord
  • Advent 3B John 1:6-8, 19-28 John: The voice in the wilderness
  • Advent 4B Luke 1:26-38 The Annunciation

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 interval 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 the time, 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 coming within 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. Paul fully expects to be alive when Christ returns, at least early in his ministry.

Advent, at its heart, developed as a season to keep alive this 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 the time of preparation for celebrating Christ’s birthday. In fact, the startling thing in reading the Church Fathers’ Advent sermons is that there is little to no mention of Christmas in them. These early Advent sermons are about being ready for the second coming.

Whether preparing for Christmas or preparing for the second coming, the theme of “preparation” is clear. The preacher might reflect on how we prepare to meet Christ, whether at the end of the world or the end of your life. Let’s all draft our obituaries. Ponder what you might like the speaker to say at your funeral. How you live now, the choices you are making right this minute, will shape that eulogy. My son and I once watched a show in which Stephen Hawking assured us that the sun wasn’t scheduled to do the things Mark describes for a few more million years.  Not long after that program I attended a funeral of someone who died too young. I was reminded that, regardless of the timing of the end of the world, we are, everyone one of us, only a short time from meeting our Maker. Maybe today. You don’t know what hour, like a thief in the night. Are you ready?