Here’s one thing you may not know about me:
I love reading and studying scripture.
The simplistic Sunday school lessons I absorbed as a child were part of why I drifted away from religion as a teenager. Yet I later began my own independent study of the Bible, this time as an angry young atheist, hungry to reveal all of the Good Book’s mistakes and oddities. Eventually though, that practice of critical analysis managed to pull me back to a reverence for and re-connection with the scriptures that I had rejected. (Paging Alanis Morrisette: I got one for ya!)
Maybe I was just meant to be Jewish?
Judaism has a long and rich tradition of critical engagement with holy scripture. Picking apart meanings, arguing, wrestling—that process itself can be part of how God is revealed to his followers. Karen Armstrong has said that “God is a verb,” and as a dyed-in-wool academic nerd, this is a verb that I can fully get behind.
But…such a verb tends not to be applied in Christian circles, even academic ones. For instance, I recently watched a lecture from Yale’s Divinity School on the gospel of Mark, and I was disappointed by how superficial the analysis was. The lecturer mentioned that theologians find this gospel to be puzzling and mysterious. Yet, this scholar did not seem interested in really engaging with the story on its own terms, nor was he interested in understanding the work from a broader cultural context. It was just one Jesus story of several, with a few unexplained quirks.
Such casual incuriosity will not stand! The gospel of Mark is not just one of my favorite scriptures, it is arguably the most important of the Christian scriptures, certainly the most important gospel, historically speaking. Understanding the story it tells is truly eye-opening, truly revelatory.
Who wants to explore this mystery with me?
“He who has ears to hear, let him hear!”(…That’s from Mark, just so you know.)
In the rest of this intro chapter, I’m going to give a little background information on the Mark gospel. Then in later chapters, we can dig into the story itself, and try to understand where the author was coming from and what he was trying to convey.
Gospel Scholarship 101, Cliff’s Notes, Elevator Version
Okay, so the traditional understanding of the New Testament scriptures is that the gospels were independent eye witness accounts of the life and times of Jesus Christ according to four of his disciples: Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. Later on, accounts of his apostles following his ascension into heaven were recorded (Acts of the Apostles), and letters from the first Christian communities were distributed and shared (the “epistles”). Finally, there is the revelation of aJohn of Patmos, which describes the end times to come.
But here are some quick facts about the scriptures from a historical point of view:
The earliest Christian writings available are the letters of Paul, and the anonymous “Epistle to the Hebrews.” These were written before the destruction of Jerusalem by Roman forces in 70 CE., a major cataclysm that resulted in the destruction of the sacred Temple, the dispersion of Jews across the Roman Empire, and most hope for the political independence of Judea, despite a few later rebellions.
The earliest gospel available is the gospel of Mark. This was written in 70 CE or shortly afterward, as the story touches on the “coming” destruction of Jerusalem.
All the other gospels are dependent upon Mark in some way. We’ll get into how and why later.
The gospels were not written as independent eye witness accounts, but theological arguments from distinct communities with some conflicting concerns.
They are also all anonymous works. The disciple names were added a hundred or so years later, basically via guesswork (and yet I’m going to stick to those names for convenience).
In the early Christian letters, the picture we get of Jesus is as a heavenly being who will come to save his followers at the end of days. We don’t get details about the life and times of a teacher traveling the lands of Judea and facing political struggles for his revolutionary message. Those details come from the gospels; the first gospel written being Mark.
Why aren’t more people interested in understanding this puzzling oddity of a gospel?
It’s the first story focused on Jesus living in Judea, and as such is a fundamental component of early Christian tradition!
It’s true that on cursory reads, the gospel of Mark seems odd and even inadequate, especially when compared to the grandiosity of Matthew, the gorgeous prose of John, or the masterful storytelling in Luke.
Mark is easily dismissed as a simple and shabby first draft of a story that was later improved upon – but don’t let first appearances fool you.
Like the holy grail as depicted in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, what seems like a simple and shabby thing is in fact a sacred treasure gleaming with hidden holy light.
Next time, we will begin to take a look at this strange little gospel. Then later, we’ll dig into some of those hidden glitters. Or, if you will, some of the hidden music that the story reveals.
“He who has ears to hear, let him hear!”
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