Beginning Mark

 Now we transition to the Gospel of Mark.

This is generally considered the first gospel written. The standard date is somewhere in the 70s; it was written after the Romans crushed the revolt of Judea, destroyed the Temple, and sacked and basically leveled the city of Jerusalem. Incidentally, they also changed the name of the administrative unit and the form of the government. Prior to this, the territory had been called Judea, after the native usage, and it had been ruled through the local high priests under the guidance of a Roman government official. After the revolt, the name was changed to Palestine to eliminate the nationalist sentiment surrounding “Judea”, and the local puppet rulers were removed and it was ruled  directly as a Roman province.

In the period following the destruction of the Temple, there was a certain animosity towards things Judean in the minds of the ruling Romans. As such, the followers of Jesus had to be careful of the way Rome was portrayed in any writing. Overt hostility invited savage reprisals. The Romans, contrary to general opinion, were reasonably tolerant about a lot of things, such as local custom and local religion. Do your thing, but don’t get out of line was the general attitude. Those who got out of line, OTOH, were dealt with in brutal and merciless fashion. Crucifixion was a very common fate for any number of offenses, and the Romans often lacked patience. Obey, or suffer the consequences. But “obey” was largely political.

This accommodation with the Roman authorities is the root of some of the anti-Jewish sentiment expressed in the gospels. The blame for Jesus’ death was fixed on the Jewish authorities, and Pilate was allowed to wash his hands of most of the guilt. There is even a ‘Gospel of Pilate’, written in the second century CE, in which Pilate becomes an ardent Christian.  There is no factual basis for this, but it gives some indication of the lengths that Jesus’ followers would go to in order to remove blame from the Romans.

But, OTOH, the Jesus assemblies had to retain some of the links to the Jewish past. In the Classical world, especially among the Greeks and Romans, lengthy history provided justification, especially for religious beliefs. Innovations got no respect. So the followers of Jesus, to maintain any credibility among the pagans, had to show that they were tied to the very long history of Judaism. As a result, the followers of Jesus had to walk a fairly fine line between disparagement and acceptance of their Jewish roots.

One other major change took place after the destruction of the Temple. I have never seen direct investigation of this, but IMO, the source for potential converts to proto-Christianity (for want of a better term) was probably pagans rather than Jews. This is largely an inference drawn from the way the gospels–especially Mark and Luke, and also John–are written. And where they were written. Mark and Luke were written outside of Judea/Palestine, and for an audience that wasn’t of Jewish heritage. Mark, for example, always takes pains to translate his Aramaic words because he realized his audience would not understand them otherwise. Luke, in fact, addresses his gospel and acts to Theophilus.

One interesting aspect of this change in audience is the implication that Paul “won.” It was the peoples that he proselytized that became the Christians of the turn of the First Century. As such, it would seem that the gospel writers would have been eager to use Paul’s writings, but it doesn’t seem that they did to any large extent. By early in the Second Century, writers who can be called Christian make references to Paul’s works, but such references did not pop up much before that. The inference to be drawn is that the gospel writers did not know of Paul’s works. The writing that became incorporated into Christian Scripture were originally written for fairly specific and local audiences.  They gained wider acceptance as time went on; Matthew knew about Mark, and Luke probably knew about both, but, this dissemination took time.

The other thing to note is the reason the gospels were written. Paul’s writings resemble a lot of what St Augustine would produce: letters intended to meet a specific need at a specific time in a specific place. These were not ‘general’ works; the gospels were. Why?

Likely a couple of reasons. The first is that the message had become disseminated over a wider geographic span; the intimate knowledge of Judea was lost. But, also, time had passed. Two generations had come and gone since Jesus walked the earth. The audiences did not ‘remember’ him any longer. And this is one reason, I suspect, why the gospels took primacy in Christian thought. They ‘begin at the beginning’, as it were, where Paul’s letters drop us in mid-stream.

Finally, I should have made this clear at the beginning. Paul wrote some of the letters attributed to him. The Evangelists, OTOH, are a literary fiction akin to “Homer.” As such, their names should properly be presented in quotes, as in “Mark”, or should be called “the writer of Mark.” But this is cumbersome. I risk doing violence, or at least misleading, and perpetuating a literary fraud, but it’s too deeply ingrained now to change it.


About James, brother of Jesus

I have a BA from the University of Toronto in Greek and Roman History. For this, I had to learn classical Greek and Latin. In seminar-style classes, we discussed both the meaning of the text and the language. U of T has a great Classics Dept. One of the professors I took a Senior Seminar with is now at Harvard. I started reading the New Testament as a way to brush up on my Greek, and the process grew into this. I plan to comment on as much of the NT as possible, starting with some of Paul's letters. After that, I'll start in on the Gospels, starting with Mark.

Posted on November 22, 2012, in gospel commentary, gospels, mark's gospel and tagged , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 2 Comments.

  1. Though introductory, this blog entry opens a number of interesting topics before we ever look at Mark. Was the motivation of the author? With all of the apostles, and the pressure to answer questions which the apostle would not know, there must have been much conflicting information about Jesus, which a biography could settle. The time period separating Mark from Jesus’ life was similar to the time period separating the biographer Washington Irving from his subject George Washington, and the book may have filled a similar role, with a mix of truth and myth that satisfied his audience.
    Another motivation is to choose the theologically or politically “correct” versions of the stories in the biography, as Bishop Athanasius of Alexandria later demonstrated when he sent out his list of the authorized texts, which became the official list of the New Testament, and why we didn’t learn about a giant talking cross at the tomb of Jesus (Gospel of Peter) while growing up.
    You reference another factor which may have been motivation to write the book – connection to the historical past as an ancient religion. Growing up literate, we forget how magical the written word can be to someone who cannot read. Pointing at “The Book” gives authority over those who don’t have a book to reference, so the New Testament gave the Christians a way to compete with the Old Testament, in a way. As illogical as that may be, it plays to common human fallicies about the past’s connection to a golden age of wisdom when our ancestors were walking and talking with the gods. This idea finds a later form of expression with the idea in Islam of the “peoples of the book”, Jews, Christians, and Muslims.
    This leads to the problem that Paul had – how did he think his new idea could supercede the old ones? Similarly, how could the New Testament supercede the Old Testament, since age gave precedence? Even the Christians later acknowledged this when they explained why they had left certain books out of the New Testament, such as “The Shepherd of Hermes”, because they were new. As you explain, Paul does it in Galatians by showing how the Law and history was misunderstood.
    Lastly, the audience, as you mentioned, seems to be Gentile. As a student of Egyptology, I learned about Isis and Osiris in its original context, but when I first learned later about the spread of the cult of Isis in the Roman world, I was stunned how unrecognizable it seemed from how much it had been transformed from its original meanings when practiced outside of Egypt, because of different topics of interest in the complex themes of a religion. This probably parallels with Jesus and the Jerusalem gang, whose philosophy had different meanings outside the context of the Judean world and in the context of the Greek or Roman worlds.

  2. First, allow me to demur. This blog isn’t even up to ‘introductory’ standards. I think ‘exploratory’ would capture the mood more effectively. The only real advantage I have over a lot of people is that I can read (sort of) Greek.

    One thing that I should have stressed in this post is that the one thing the gospel writers were not doing was writing history. They were presenting what they saw as ‘Truth’, vs. a recording of events that may or may not have been factually or historically accurate. Whether what they wrote was factually accurate is probably not a question the gospel writers ever even thought about.

    And the motivation can only come from speculation based on inference from the writing itself. I think my penultimate paragraph (last but one) is probably the best one. But of course I do; it’s the one I believe. I think that the good news had spread in space and time for forty years (give or take) by the time ‘Mark’ wrote. I think the need was for a set of crib notes, as it were, that could be used to ensure consistency of belief. This was a problem already for Paul and the James Gang: belief had become inconsistent with the inclusion of pagans as well as Jews into the assemblies. The meeting of Paul and James described in Galatians, has been called “The Synod of Jerusalem”. While anachronistic, this title is not wholly inaccurate. It was an attempt to settle on an ‘orthodox’ (another anachronism) doctrine.

    That kind of addresses your second point. Yes, you are correct about the magic of a book in a non-literate society, but at this time and place in the ancient Mediterranean, books were not exactly novelties, either. So I’m going to stick with a ‘talking points’ analogy, sort of what I said in the previous paragraph. The writing was intended largely, I think, to ensure some consistency of message.

    As for Paul and how the new idea would supersede (lit = ‘sit on top of’) the old…I don’t honestly think he thought about it much. Like Augustine, he wasn’t a scholar in an ivory tower who had the leisure–or the temperament–to think ideas through. He was writing to meet an immediate need as he was up to his eyeballs in building and maintaining assemblies. I think he saw the natural progression and fulfillment of Judaism in the belief in the Christ. I also think he was one of those persons who think was is obvious to them should be obvious to everyone. So I don’t think he was much worried about how he might offend Jewish sensibilities; he was scarcely concerned with what the brother of the lord thought.

    As for how much of what became “Christianity” resembles what Jesus actually said, well, that’s kind of the point of this exercise. So far, what I’m finding is…hard to say. The problem is sifting through and discovering what Jesus actually said. The message and the ideas changed–radically–once they were taken over by former pagans versed in pagan philosophy. They invented–or deduced–much of what became “Christianity”, and they did it 2-300 years later. Doctrines of Grace, the Holy Spirit, the Trinity, none of these really existed until well into the second, or even third century. And what was written in 200 was often considered heretical by 300. So yes, massive change occurred. And the analogy with Isis/Osiris is a good one.

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