Since the Gospel according to Mark is what we will be hearing from most this coming year I thought it would be good to give an overview of this Gospel.
The Gospel according to Mark is the shortest of the 4 Gospels. Historically it has been seen as having little significance as it was thought that Mark was a summary of Matthew. St Augustine’s famous statement was that Mark was a follower, lackey and digester of Matthew. Greater authority was given to the Gospels of Matthew and John as they were thought to be written by apostles. It is now thought, however, that Mark’s Gospel is in fact the earliest of the four Gospels and most scholars agree that none were written by eyewitnesses. The Gospel of Mark probably dates from c. AD 66–70, Matthew and Luke around AD 85–90, and John AD 90–110. Rather than being a summary of Matthew it is now understood that Matthew and Luke used Mark as well as other sources in writing their Gospels, so in effect, Matthew and Luke are the earliest commentaries of Mark’s Gospel. Let me know if you are interested in more information about the history and the timing of the Gospels.
One of the things you will notice if you open up to the beginning of the Gospel according to Mark is that it does not have a birth narrative. For this reason, this week and in the coming weeks the lectionary readings will be from other gospels.
Let us for a moment pretend the only Gospel we had was the Gospel of Mark. What does Mark tell us? What would we know and be able to deduce about the life of Jesus? We could deduce that Jesus was born to a Jewish family in a small town in Galilee (northern Israel). Probably in the town of Nazareth since in the Gospel according to Mark Jesus is clearly identified as Jesus of Nazareth (Mark 1:24, 10:47, 14:67, 16:6). This Gospel does not mention Jesus father at all only his (unnamed) mother (Mark 3:31). His mother (who was probably only 14 or 15 when he was born) had a number of other children after Jesus was born (Mark 3:31-35).
We can know other things about Jesus’ life from archaeological evidence and other historical works. These suggest that the family would have lived in a basic house made of stone or mud brick and wood typical of the time. Houses were also constructed by cutting back a limestone hillside leaving carefully smoothed freestanding rock walls, to which stone-built walls were added. The houses in Nazareth were probably single storey, simple and small. It may have been divided into two: one half for the family, the other half for their animals which would be brought in at night. There was a raised platform at one end, where they sat and slept on cushions and mats. Usually they ate your meals outside under an awning, but if it was too hot or was raining, they ate inside. The courtyard and the roof were important parts of the house, used for tasks that needed good light – such as spinning and weaving, and food preparation. The flat roof area might also be used for sleeping, or for drying food or textiles. Some house may have had guest rooms in Greek, ‘kataluma’ translated ‘inn’. Interestingly, the Arabic and Syriac versions of the New Testament, which reflect more of a Middle Eastern context, have never translated kataluma as meaning an inn, but instead as a guest room. There not being enough room in the inn therefore means there was not room in the guest room and they stayed either with the family in the main room or in the section reserved for the animals.
From other historical writings we know that Israel had been occupied by foreign forces for many centuries before Jesus was born. Israel had been occupied by the Greeks and then by the Romans. The common international language of the day was Greek (like English is for us today). Jesus likely would have understood Greek but his native language would have been Aramaic.
Roman occupation would have impacted on Jesus’ life. He would have encountered the soldiers of the Roman Empire. They were powerful and demanded respect and obedience. Some of his fellow Jews, the Zealots, were in opposition to demands of the Roman Empire and in obedience to the Torah, attempted to use force to overcome the Roman colonisers. Jesus, however, did not take up arms in an attempt to rid the land of the Romans. Jesus, instead proclaimed and demonstrated a different way.
When we read a book, we need to understand what genre it is. This is true of books of the bible as well. There are different genres in the bible. The Gospels and in particular Mark is a biography but not in the modern sense. It is an ancient biography, which is prose narration about a person’s life, presenting supposedly historical facts which are selected not for completeness but to reveal the character or essence of the person and often with the purpose of that affecting the behaviour of the reader.
One of the things you will notice if you open up to the beginning of the Gospel according to Mark is that it does not have a birth narrative. For this reason, this week and in the coming weeks the lectionary readings will be from other gospels. Despite this omission a feature of Mark is the vivid narrative details in the stories it does tell. Look for example at the story of the Gerasene demoniac (Mark 5:1-20 and Matthew 8:28-34). We can also see this in the Passion narratives (Mark 14-15, Matthew 26-27, Luke 22-23). Matthew omits details such as the description of the upper room (Mark 14:13), the young man at the arrest (Mark 14:51-52), the fuller description of Barabas (Mark 15:5) and the mocking of Jesus as a “royal figure” (Mark 15:20). Luke softens details of the Passion such as the scourging and mocking by Pilate’s soldiers (Mark 15:15-20) and Jesus’ cry from the cross “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”
Mark’s gospel has famously been described by Martin Kähler as a “passion narrative with an extended introduction”. The focus is on the Passion of Christ, the crucifixion. Mark tells the story of Jesus, a person who submitted to his death, at the hands of the Romans, without raising any weapons in defence. He tells the story of Jesus, the way of Jesus is the way of suffering obedience and faithful discipleship.
In this extended introduction, Jesus calls the disciples “Follow me and I will make you fish for people.” (Mark 1:17). This phrase “follow me” becomes an important refrain (Mark 1:17, 19; 2:14; 10:21). Throughout the Gospel there is an emphasis on faithful discipleship. The primary term for discipleship is learner or apprentice. When we think of learning today too often, we think of being able to regurgitate information. There has been a shift in teaching in recent years so now the focus of learning has changed from “knowing” of being told fact that are able to be recalled to becoming a “learner”, that is someone who can find and process information, someone who can “do”. This is more inline with our understanding of training someone through an apprenticeship and how we should read and understand disciple in this Gospel. To follow, to become a disciple is to adopt the pattern of life.
Mark issued a manifesto for radical discipleship. The Gospel today still invites people on this journey. The call to turn around (repent), to see clearly, to proclaim the good news and to heal, make whole and set people free (cast out demons), feed the hungry, cross over to the other side and to take up our cross and follow Jesus.
Mark does not water down the high cost of this following. In fact, one of the startling things about Mark is the negative portrayal of the disciples. They seem to move through a negative progression from lack of perception of Jesus through rejection of the way of suffering that he predicts to flight and outright denial of him. The structure of the work conveys the significance of Jesus and the necessity of faithful discipleship in the midst of suffering. Just as Jesus crossed over the margins of society, so must we. As Jesus suffered, so may we. The almost universal failure of those connected with Jesus continues the theme of the Old Testament, human failure in the face of God’s self-disclosure. The promise of the resurrection, however, is the continuation of God promising good things and being faithful in delivering those promises. It is a sign of grace and love.
The Gospel story is an invitation to follow Jesus along this pathway of suffering and through the journey be transformed. As we journey through the Gospel of Mark this coming year may we allow the transforming potential to intersect with our lives and the world in which we live that we may indeed be transformed, and that we may become more Christ like. This is my Hope.
Rev Tammy Hollands