Telling the Story of the Gospel of Mark (Jul-Aug 2005)

By Matt Dabbs

by Keith Brenton
July – August, 2005

When you meet someone like Jesus, spend time with Him, listen to His stories, watch Him defy nature and orthodoxy and the expectations of a whole nation looking for their Messiah … how do you write about Him? How do you tell His Story?

If you’re John Mark, you stick to the facts. You write in short, dynamic, active sentences. You take just enough time to explain the peculiarities of your culture and religion that people outside of it wouldn’t otherwise understand. You recount His mysterious stories; you bullet-point His simple-yet-deep teaching. You report His supernatural mercies. You document the conflicts with those who will not accept Him. You build astonishment upon astonishment to an inevitable conclusion: this defiant young Rabbi must die. And He does.

Then you matter-of-factly interrupt the grieving your reader must feel for a Character one can’t help but love – by revealing that He still lives.

It’s a Story unlike any other. For years – about 50 years, in fact – Biblical scholars generally agreed that this Story required a wholly new and unique literary genre, the gospel. From the Greek to the Latin to the English transliteration of the term “god spell” it has meant “good news.”

Scholars have long credited Mark as the creator of the first written gospel, though whether he originated the form or the term in the very first verse (or whether it was added by a later copyist) we can’t know. He quotes Jesus as using the phrase “good news” at least four times in his text (8:35, 10:29, 13:10, and 14:19). Paul uses the term as well, though the plural isn’t found until the writings of Justin Martyr around AD 150.

Did the gospel writers really create a unique genre of literature to describe a unique Messiah? In the 1960s – at a time when the front page of TIME Magazine pondered “Is God Dead?” – some scholars dissented. They began comparing the gospels to other early literary forms: the Homeric epics, the Sumerian epic of Gilgamesh, the Graeco-Roman “bioi” or biographies, and others. Their essays, articles, theses and books note similarities, and many draw the conclusion that Mark (and other writers using his work as a source) merely copied the elements and styles of these earlier forms to paint his anti-Hero who willingly accepts death yet – like other heroes – conquers or transcends it.

Of course, most of them disagree with each other and insist that Mark only copies one particular source – and come off, in my opinion, a lot like the storied blind men arguing with each other about their perceptions of the elephant. That happens when critics take a perfectly good story, analyze the life out of it, and attempt to make it better by adding their own “knowledge” to the author’s intent.

If Mark’s gospel did nothing more than reflect previous forms of historic, legendary, and biographic literature … added wisdom teachings on theology, eschatology, ecclesiology … then culminated another entire form of Jewish literature – wouldn’t that be unique in itself?

To be sure, many other scholars have painted a more accurate picture by comparing the gospels with the works which naturally precede them: the Old Testament, especially the prophets. The Character described by the gospels lives a life that is a sequel to them all, point by point by point. Just as you can’t lift a verse of scripture from its context and expect to understand it fully, you can’t remove an entire work from its surround with the same expectation. The milieu of the gospels is century one, among a Greek- and Aramaic-speaking Jewish people in a land occupied by a foreign, Roman army. It was the time and place predicted for the “good news” they had been waiting 490 years and longer to hear: of deliverance, of Messiah, of reconciliation with God.

It just wasn’t the good news they expected to hear.

That’s the source of the conflict which makes the gospel Story so fascinating, and Mark’s fast-paced account so eminently readable.

It’s a story of betrayal – not just of Jesus by Judas, but of the people by their leaders.

It’s a mystery: Who is this Jesus? Everyone wants to know. Even Jesus wants to know who they think He is.

It surprises at every turn; hardly anything or anyone turns out to be what you would expect.

It’s prophetic in its own right, darkly foretelling future events of judgment, persecution and cataclysm, as well as promising gifts of inspiration and life without end.

It’s a love story of the highest form; of God loving His whole world so much that He would send His Son to die for what they deserved, and at their own hands.

It reads like fiction, but against all improbability, claims to be fact witnessed by hundreds – many of whom were willing to die in defense of its truth.

And therefore it is a Story which changes you, lives in you, will not leave you alone. The heroes of other epics may have drawn you into their stories by their courage, their cleverness, their charisma – but not one of them died in your place.

How do you tell such a Story?

Mark tells it with great economy of words, with fluid narrative pace, with clarity and purpose and utter faith. He describes the Passion dispassionately, without sharing his own emotional reactions. He writes like an old-school journalist. He writes as one inspired.

So do his fellow gospel-writers; each with his own style, his own focus, his own purpose. Yet the four tell of only One, with extraordinary consistency, at a time years after His physical presence among them when not-so-good-news “gospels” were already infiltrating the oral traditions by story-tellers who thought they could improve on it with their own “knowledge.”

Mark fastened the facts in history. Matthew and John added eyewitness confirmation, and unique points of view. Luke expanded the “prophecy-gospel” series to a trilogy, proclaiming that the Story continues through Jesus’ Holy Spirit in the lives of those who love Him.

Unique form of literature? Maybe. Maybe not.

Unique Story?

Absolutely.New Wineskins


Resource: A note on authorship of Mark and the Gospels

Tradition credits Mark as the writer of the first gospel. If he was, he started his own tradition by not signing it. In their own turns – perhaps using Mark as a source and adding and editing to suit their purposes – Matthew, Luke and John would follow suit, leaving their gospels anonymous. And if there was another source gospel for the other Synoptics (Matthew and Luke) – the “Q” proposed by some scholars – its author is unknown to us as well.

John leaves a clue, having referred to himself throughout his text modestly as “the disciple whom Jesus loved,” then admitting authorship with that phrase in his closing lines. Yet you would have to compare his text to others to confirm his name.

Luke doesn’t slip until the next-to-the-last chapter of his two-volume set, Luke and Acts of the Apostles. Having addressed his works to someone named “Theophilus,” he reveals to all who love God that he was among the party who sailed with Paul to Rome. His thorough knowledge of medicine and other arts supports tradition’s insistence that the author of these works was “Luke the doctor” that Paul mentioned in the closing of his letter to Colossae.

Only one of the gospel writers who consistently refers to “Matthew, the tax collector” rather than just “Levi,” perhaps admitting to his inglorious career and his unworthiness to be called by a priestly name, and tradition agrees that he was its author.

As for Mark’s authorship, there really is no strong internal evidence that supports it. We know John Mark’s mother had a home where Christians prayed for the release of Peter and John from prison, tended by a servant named Rhoda. We suspect from the way Peter closes his first epistle that he was close to the one he calls “my son Mark.” Barnabas parted company with Saul (Paul) after disagreeing about taking Mark with them further. Beyond that we know little that would identify Mark from within the work that bears his name.

One peculiar sentence – recorded only in this gospel – has made scholars wonder if the author was the anonymous young man who escaped arrest with Jesus in Gethsemane by shrugging off his robe and fleeing naked. (14:51-52)

I’ve wondered too if the rich young ruler (10:17ff) might also have been the author, who describes him only as “a man” – Matthew adds that he was “young” and Luke notes that he was a “ruler.” But only Mark’s gospel (10:21) says that “Jesus, looking at him, loved him.” Who could better see love in the eyes of the Lord than the one into whose eyes He looked?

Whether tradition, theory or internal clues have given us the correct identities of the authors isn’t really important. Each one of them realized that. The important thing to them was the identity of their main Character. -WKB

Keith BrentonNew Wineskins is very pleased to announce that Keith Brenton is joining us officially beginning July 1, 2005 as our webmaster/deputy managing editor. Keith is currently advancement consultant to the chancellor of University of Arkansas Little Rock, which he will continue to do while working with Wineskins part-time.

From 1998-2003, Keith managed thirty web sites for E.W. Scripps-owned media outlets and has worked in copywriting, graphic design, and editing roles since 1978. Keith has already developed a blog page that is growing in popularity at Wineskins.org and has developed code that allows bloggers and other news subscription users to receive auto updates about Wineskins content. He’s currently working on exciting new templates for the new look and feel of the Wineskins.org site.

And he’s a scholar and student of Scripture as well, evidenced by this offering in our ‘Gospel of Mark’ issue for July-Aug 2005.

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Profile photo of Matt DabbsThis author published 1577 posts in this site.
Matt is the preaching minister at the Auburn Church of Christ in Auburn, Alabama. He and Missy have been married 12 years and are raising two wonderful boys, Jonah and Elijah. Matt is passionate about reaching and discipling young adults, small groups, and teaching. Matt is currently the editor and co-owner of Wineskins.org.

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