As I write this, we are preparing this year’s print edition of Perspective, which will focus on the Bible. In one capacity or another, I have been a student of Scripture since I was a teenager. It is a subject of which I never tire and about which I always have something new and important to learn. Lately, I have been focusing on the Gospel of Mark, which leads me to share a few thoughts about this wonderful and yet enigmatic Gospel.
I can say with some justification that biblical scholarship giveth, and biblical scholarship taketh away. It is a largely unintended but still inevitable consequence of modern study that some books of the Bible have been elevated and others diminished in prominence.
Perhaps no biblical text has received more from the hand of scholarship than the Gospel of Mark. Once regarded as a mere condensation, a Reader’s Digest version, of Matthew, Mark is now credited by most as being the first Gospel, duplicated in form and copied in substance by both Matthew and Luke. Indeed, the author of Mark is thought by many to have conceived the idea of gospel writing, which has various Jewish and Greco-Roman precedents but no true parallels. Not surprisingly, modern interest in the “historical Jesus” has led scholars to favor Mark above all for its value as historical evidence. It’s not the earliest written source containing information about Jesus – that honor goes to Paul’s letters – but it is the earliest narrative account of Jesus’ ministry.
This change in fortune reverses Mark’s historically bad press. As theology, the Gospel often was regarded as derivative, indistinct and unimpressive. It contains less of Jesus’ teaching than the other Gospels, which seemed to make it a comparatively unprofitable read. As literature, the Gospel of Mark was considered narratively crude and grammatically uncouth, its choppy Greek and awkward style evidencing to sophisticated readers its author’s lack of refinement.
Recent studies of Mark have altered such judgments dramatically, its author now regarded as a more subtle thinker and storyteller than earlier critics had supposed. Markan theology is remarkably lucid and powerful. Of particular note is Mark’s sensitivity to the meaning of the cross and to the implications of Jesus’ crucifixion for Christian discipleship. Likewise, Mark’s literary art is revealed as surprisingly complex. For instance, Mark occasionally splits a story in two, inserting a second piece of narrative to interpret the first (e.g., the cursing of the fig tree “sandwiches” the temple cleansing in 11:12-26 and the denial of Peter and the confession of Jesus in 14:53-72).
Mark thus has become a favorite of both historical and literary critics – no small distinction in the fragmented world of professional biblical studies. Nevertheless, for all the strides that interpreters have made in understanding this fascinating text, it is fair to assume that its mastery will always elude scholarship’s grasp. Even more, its high spiritual demands will exceed the reach of all but the truest of saints. So, in matters both interpretive and devotional, Mark challenges our best efforts and our fullest commitments.
Mark’s narrative centers on the question of Jesus’ identity and, with it, on the nature of true messiahship. Already in chapter one, verse one, Mark informs us that Jesus is the “Christ [messiah], the Son of God.” What we readers know from the first, others throughout the narrative will come to – or, more commonly, will fail to – understand. That 1:1 represents Jesus’ identity truthfully is verified in the verses that immediately follow. The biblical prophets understood that such a one would come (vv. 2-3), as did the contemporary prophet John the Baptist (vv. 7-8). Finally, and conclusively, God declares that Jesus is the beloved Son, the one “in whom I am well pleased” (v. 11). We are left with no excuse for participating in the incomprehension that will characterize the human response to Jesus in the narrative to follow, demonstrated forcefully – almost comically – in the example of the disciples.
It is worth noting that God’s declaration that Jesus is the “beloved Son in whom I am well pleased” echoes the kingship passage Psalm 2:7 as well as the servant passages Isaiah 42:1 and 44:1. This juxtaposition of kingship and servanthood is at the heart of the Markan “mystery” (4:11), the very thing that the disciples could not or were unwilling to grasp. Jesus is a king who is also a servant. It is fitting that the only official acknowledgment of Jesus’ identity is a sign that reads “The King of the Jews” (Mark 15:26), displayed at his crucifixion.
Jesus’ proclamation in v. 15 that “the time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near” would not have fallen on deaf ears. Anticipation that God would act to fulfill God’s promises to Israel was intense; hope that a messiah (literally, an “anointed one”) would come to redeem Israel from its misfortune was widespread (cf. Luke 24:21).
Jesus’ announcement of the impending reign of God therefore elicited a powerful and predictable response; however, despite all that he may have held in common with popular expectation, even in understanding himself as the agent through whom God’s purposes would be fulfilled, Jesus appears to have had very different ideas about the nature of God’s “reign” and the method by which it would be brought into existence. In Mark, Jesus goes to extreme lengths to avoid identifying himself with the anticipated conquering messiah.
He was not the anointed victor, but the Son of Humanity who serves and suffers on behalf of all. This is a messiahship not easily or widely foreseen, and it is an identity that even his closest followers fail – even more, decline – repeatedly to understand, lest by understanding they come under the hard requirement of Christ’s own example.
It is important to understand that religion in much of the ancient world was essentially a barter system by which one cut a deal with the universe to get what one wanted. Fertile crops? All it costs is the life of a sheep – or a child. Religion set the price of life’s benefits and then mediated the sale. The Jewish idea that one’s relationship with God is irreducibly moral was (and remains) highly unusual and inexpressibly important. The Jews made animal sacrifices, of course, but the temple cult provided a system of atonement, not of bribery (Psalm 40:6; 51:16-17). The notion that religion might require one to abandon – or at least to defer indefinitely – one’s own good is all the more counterintuitive to the popular mind, both then and now.
It may be that the threat of persecution revealed for the first time the costliness of the original readers’ discipleship. It must have seemed to many a bad bargain. Mark establishes that genuine discipleship mirrors the genuine but seemingly paradoxical messiahship of Jesus; like Jesus, greatness comes through service and gain through sacrifice.
It is this great reversal, this inversion of perspectives, that occupies so much of Mark’s attention. In God’s economy, the poor are rich, the least are great and the dishonored are celebrated. In truth, the gospel is an invitation to, not an inversion of, reality. It is the way things really are, perceived and received by faith.
To be a true disciple, Mark appears to be saying, we have to follow in the footsteps of the true messiah, which means living within the reality in which Jesus himself lived, the only reality in which his words make sense, in which the things that he requires seem reasonable.
Mark is a short but hardly an easy or comfortable read. Indeed, to read Mark carefully is, in a sense, to be read by it. Perhaps more than any other book in the New Testament, it exposes the shallowness of our discipleship and calls us to a deeper life, to a deeper experience of God. If we had only Mark to go on, the challenge would still be enough for a lifetime.