We’ll get back to Moses next week. But the Chief Editor opted to spend last Sunday afternoon listening to Professor Bart Ehrman lecture on the Gospel of Mark. Yep … it’s come to this for how to spend Sunday afternoon. But the lecture itself was pretty good. And here are some key insights on Mark that the Chief Editor learned:
Who was the author of Mark? It was not until about 180 CE that the church elders labeled the author of this gospel as Mark. The author never identifies himself as Mark. And no one knows who he was. Only that he wrote the gospel in Greek, probably wrote it in Rome, and was not Jewish, but more likely a converted pagan.
Do we have an original manuscript? We do not have anything close to the original manuscript of Mark (or any of the books of the Bible). The oldest reasonably full manuscript is from around 200 CE, and the first truly complete manuscript is from 370 CE. That means there were several decades of re-copying and editing before getting to what we see today. Professor Ehrman emphasized that the copyists were not professional scribes, and had no idea they were creating something that was going to be considered a holy book for future generations. The typical copyist was more likely some retired guy who volunteered to help out by making a few copies for some of the other churches in the area.
The ending of Mark. Professor Ehrman discussed the original ending of Mark (shown in the panel below with the parchment background) vs the later addendum (also shown below). The short ending corresponds with the tone of the rest of Mark — people were afraid, and Jesus kept warning people not tell anyone about his miracles. But later on, the Christian elders wanted a narrative about a resurrection … plus some other things. So one of those scribes added the rest of the verses (scholars can tell they are different by the writing style). This is where we get the endorsements for snake handling and drinking poison. We wonder if those folks who practice these rituals today know that it was most likely some retired guy recruited as a scribe who inserted that sentence in the back of the gospel of Mark?
We will return again to Egypt, Joseph and more sheep shearing next week. This week let’s go back to the Gospels — specifically Mark, the first Gospel written. The following observations are based on the ideas of Bishop Shelby Spong. He argues that Mark did not intend for his Gospel to be a historically accurate account of Jesus’ life. Nor of his death.
Mark was written in the late 70s CE. This would have been after the destruction of the Temple by the Romans. Equally important, it was also written before the split between the Christian church and Judaism. (It was not called the Christian Church at the time, but Followers of the Way.) This split occurred around 88 CE, 58 years after the crucifixion of Jesus! The significance: Christianity arose out of the traditions of Judaism. It did not start as a separate religion all on its own.
40% of Mark deals with the last week in the life of Jesus. Mark’s account of the crucifixion in Chapters 14 and 15 are the first descriptions we have of the final hours of Jesus’ life. Paul wrote his letters 20+ years earlier. But he is very cryptic, saying only that “Jesus died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures.” Maybe that was all anyone really knew, since even Mark says that “they all fled” when Jesus was arrested. This would mean we have no eyewitness accounts. (Also, regarding the Resurrection, the original Mark is also very cryptic, saying in the last verse that there was an empty tomb … period. The last several verses were added later by someone else.)
Mark’s Intent? Probably what Mark is doing (and we were not there) is back-casting the story to fit the scriptures from Psalms and Isaiah. Mark never intended it to be a historically accurate account. Psalm 22 in particular (written 400 years prior to Mark) talks about mocking crowds, thirst, piercing of hands and feet, and soldiers casting lots for clothes. There are similar parallels in Isaiah.
So, there we go. If we picture Mark in his environment in the late 70s CE, the entire Gospel takes a different meaning. It does not mean the Christian faith is invalid (and Spong is still a bishop in the Episcopal church). But it points out that the Gospels were not meant to be read from a literal standpoint.
Fun Fact: Spong thinks the gospels provide several clues to indicate the crucifixion took place in the Fall, not the Spring.
The Romans destroyed Jerusalem, including the Temple in 70 CE. All of Paul’s epistles were written before the destruction. All the Gospels were written after — Mark and Matthew both within 20 years. Today let’s look at what the author of Mark might have been thinking as he penned his account.
The Chief Editor is not usually big on symbolism (or metaphysical interpretations). But sometimes we just gotta do it. And although our 3BT staff is talented, we certainly did not think these up on our own. Big thanks to the writings of Shelby Spong for these observations.
Symbols — Judas. We are not 100% sure Judas was a real person (Paul never mentions the name or the betrayal). But note that the name Judas is similar to Judah, land of the Jewish people. If we follow this thought, Mark’s narrative uses Jesus as a symbol for separation from the established Jewish system. In another part of Mark’s Gospel about Jesus’ transfiguration, he is saying the light of God has shifted away from the Temple and onto Jesus.
More symbols — John the Baptist. Mark also sets up John the Baptist as the symbolic (or maybe real) return of Elijah. This is significant because the Jewish texts said that Elijah was supposed to precede the Messiah. Both wore a camel hair shirt and a girdle (think leather apron like a blacksmith). And they both ate locusts and honey.
And more symbols — Jewish holidays. The Jews have a series of religious ceremonies and holidays they celebrate every year. Jesus’ followers, for around 40 years anyway, would have participated in all those observances. Over that 40-year period, the oral stories about Jesus kept getting more and more entwined with the history and festivals of the Jews. By the time Mark sets quill to parchment, he decides to arrange his entire account around these Jewish holidays. It culminates with the crucifixion taking place within the Passover. This is symbolic because of the slaughter of the lamb in Passover ceremonies.
If we follow the timeline here, it seems like the idea of Jesus being the Messiah may have evolved slowly over time. And when Mark wrote his Gospel soon after the destruction of the Temple, the time was right to solidify this idea in writing.
Mark was the first Gospel, written probably in the 70s CE by a 2nd generation Christian (i.e. someone who had never met Jesus). Mark was written in Greek, not Aramaic (Jesus’ language). In the original form (not that we have the original manuscript), it had no punctuation, no spaces spaces between words, no chapters, no sentences, no verses. That was the thing back then. Punctuation was added hundreds of years later.
With that intro, let’s do a quick comparison between Paul and Mark on the life and death of Jesus. Reminder, Paul’s letters were actually written first. And even though Paul never met Jesus, he did meet Jesus’ brother James. And Peter. They did not like each other very much.
Jesus’ death. Paul says, “He died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures.” That’s it. No last supper, no Garden of Gethsemane, no betrayal at midnight, etc. Mark provides all these details. On Jesus’ burial, Paul says, “He was buried.” No tomb, no Joseph of Arimathea, etc. Mark adds all these.
The Resurrection. Here Paul provides a little more substance. We would expect that because the Resurrection is Paul’s primary message. But even with that, Paul’s descriptions are sparse. Paul simply says, “He rose again on the third day in accordance with the scriptures.” Paul also talks about how Jesus “appeared” to Cepheus, the twelve (was Judas replaced?), James, and finally to Paul himself (six years later). But the Greek word “appeared” is open to a variety of meanings. Scholars such as Bishop Shelby Spong are not sure if Paul means it physically or spiritually. Nevertheless, there is no empty tomb, no angels, no visit of the women, and no angelic messenger in Paul. Mark adds all these.
Miracles. Paul says nothing about Jesus being a teacher or about any miracles. Mark starts both of these ideas.
Question of the week: In which of Paul’s letters do we get his real theology?
Last week we posited that it might be feasible (albeit a long shot) that the Gospel of Mark was written by a woman. Let’s look at this a little more.
Bumbling Disciples. Mark continually casts the 12 disciples as characters who do not understand the teachings of Jesus. All of them even flea at the end when Jesus is arrested, leaving three women to discover the empty tomb.
Righteous women. In contrast to the disciples, Mark has several stories where women are the prime exemplars of righteous behavior. Featuring women in a favorable light was very unusual for the time.
First, there’s the woman who is healed instantly by touching Jesus’ cloak.
Second, there’s the Gentile woman who challenges Jewish tradition (Jews and Gentiles did not usually speak) to ask Jesus to heal her daughter. Jesus readily grants the request and then goes into a parable about a dog and crumbs under the table (where does he get these things?).
Then there’s the well-known story about the poor woman who put everything she owned (two copper coins) into the treasury of the Temple. Jesus commends her for her actions, while in contrast the disciples exit the Temple talking about how nice the building is (Mark 13:1).
Did Mary Magdalene write Mark? Finally, and this is where the speculation gets interesting, there is the story about the woman who anoints Jesus with expensive oil shortly before his trial and crucifixion. This is clearly a symbolic story emphasizing the expectation of Jesus’ return as King. Archaeologist and Biblical scholar James Tabor (Jamestabor.com) argues that this last woman could be Mary Magdalene herself, making a cameo appearance in the gospel as its author — just like Alfred Hitchcock.