Thursday, May 28, 2015

The Mystery of Mark

There has been a recent discovery of a fragment of the gospel of Mark that has been dated about 90 AD. If this holds up to scrutiny, it will be the earliest extant manuscript of the New Testament. And it brings up certain questions regarding this gospel. Why is it so much like the other two gospels Matthew and Luke? Why is it so much shorter than they are, and why does it leave out what it leaves out? Yet it also appears to be the most vivid of the three, putting in little details, like the greenness of the grass.

People write differently in different times. Today it is considered vital to be original and different from other writers.  Back then it was considered important to hand down the story the way you received it. The Roman histories of the period closely follow the older ones in telling the story. Now it must be noted that the gospels are not word-for-word copies. But there did develop a standard way to tell the story of Jesus. The writers of the first three gospels followed this pattern, adding and subtracting things as it suited their purposes.

Now some think Mark was the original and the other gospels followed it. The more vivid language is seen as supporting this. But the earliest records claim that Mark wrote his gospel from the reminiscences of Peter, which would by itself explain its greater vividness. Now a conclusion that has been drawn from this is that Mark wrote everything he knew and the other writers followed suit. But there are events in Mark not found in the other gospels (Mark 7:31-37; 8:22-26; 14:51,52). There are events in Mark found only in Matthew (Mark 7:1-8:21 except 7:31-37, Matthew 15:1-16:12; Mark 10:1-12, Matthew 19:1-12; Mark 11:11-24, Matthew 21:18-22) or only in Luke (Mark 1:21-28; Luke 4:31-37; Mark 9:38-50, Luke 9:49-40; Mark 12:41-44, Luke 21:1-4). It is not surprising, since Mark is shorter, that it includes less unique material than the other two . But the impression is that each gospel writer chose what he wanted to include.

Now Mark seems to have left out much of the generalized moral teaching, and it emphasizes Jesus' personal mission and the events connected with it. And this is a problem if you consider that Jesus originally was a great moral teacher and the miracles were added later. The impression we get from Mark's gospel is that he saw Jesus as the Son of God, a great miracle-worker who conquered death. This has the advantage of agreeing with the rest of the New Testament (1 Corinthians 15:1-20; Romans 10:4-11; Acts 2:22-24). Now we would expect such an individual to give us some general moral instruction. But Mark shows what was considered to be the heart of the Christian story. And whether or not it was the first gospel (a question on which I have no strong opinion one way or the other), it calls into question the whole great moral teacher concept.

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